Nicole-Knothole replayed the footage a second time.
The image displayed a massive crater on the edge of the mare speculum (sea of mirrors), the largest dark band running across the northern hemisphere of Mobius' primary moon. A closer inspection revealed a large degree of blasted rubble and a spreading plume of slowly falling ejecta.
Helios had finally landed.
"These images were taken two hours ago," Nicole stated, her holographic projection lowering her eyes respectfully. "They were verified by echidna observatories thirty minutes ago. The Helios platform is effectively no more."
Around the table, the city and royal representatives muttered among themselves. Only a few remained silent: Sonic said nothing, and General Stryker (present as a guest) seemed to be lost in his own thoughts. Rotor was requesting that the Kingdom organize a retrieval or surveying mission, if only an automated probe, to investigate the wreckage and the new crater. The King, for once present in person, also remained silent and listened.
"What good is a space mission!?" Hamlin, who had managed to retain his position as speaker for the Knothole city nobles, slammed his fist on the table. "Maybe you haven't noticed, but half the city is in ruins! They're still fighting robot holdouts to the south!"
"I haven't forgotten," Rotor replied, less than pleased to have to argue with the spineless head of the city's nobility. "But there's valuable data up there, not to mention the Chaos Emeralds themselves! Plus, if there's anything left…"
Sonic frowned, arms tightly crossed.
Rotor changed his approach. "Intel believes GUN has an automated salvage mission in the works. They'll claim the whole crater at this rate."
"Let them!" Hamlin argued. "If they retrieve the Emeralds, then that just means they're doing our work for us!"
"Of all the short sighted -- "
"If you have the time to spend on dreaming up space missions we can't afford, then maybe you have the time to do something about all those hostile airships floating over our heads?"
"Miles' former fleet is not hostile," Nicole corrected him, but didn't otherwise get involved in any ongoing debate. "They are programmed to only return fire in self defense."
"Well, what do we do about that?" Another noble, sitting next to the King asked. "We can't just leave them there. They're a menace! People are frightened enough as it is."
Miles' pirated fleet of ships had, after the battle, gone into standby mode. This meant that most of them were lined up in parade formation south of the city, near the new Prower Crater (which was expected to eventually become Prower Lake). Most were badly damaged, and one had already fallen out of the air and crashed to the ground. Thankfully no one had been nearby. The other ships simply remained in place, returning fire at anyone who attacked them or tried to board them, but otherwise just floating there.
"Their reactor power is limited and many are damaged," Nicole clinically observed. "The last one should fall on its own around the middle of next month."
"So for a month we're going to have giant airships falling out of the sky?" Hamlin raged. "This is un-accept-able!"
King Max put an end to the argument.
"Enough. What is it you propose, Minister?" he asked, referring to Rotor.
"A joint mission with Echidnapolis."
A collective groan passed through many of those assembled. The echidna were even less popular than the humans. At least the humans had contributed to the end of the war (in fact, those who were honest about it admitted that they had carried much of the fighting, especially in the air) – the echidna, however, had sat things out entirely. No official aid had been forthcoming from Angel Island, either military or economic. The echidna had chosen to remain "above" the fighting on the mainland.
"I know," Rotor added, sympathizing with the feelings of many. "But they have the technology and the experience. They used to send Cosmonauts into low orbit and they've launched a few deep space probes. We don't have that, but we have some of the facilities, and the Lunar Fox. It's the only way we'll get something there within the year."
All eyes turned to the King for his opinion.
"It has some merits," Maximilian admitted. "We would like a show of our technological prowess. It would not do for other powers to believe themselves superior to us. This may also help to mend the rift between our peoples. I approve of it."
Rotor bowed his head. "Thank you, your Majesty."
"Now, on to important business," Max decreed. "What of our military situation, Menthe?"
The Minister of War stood and bowed.
"My Lord, the Ministry has finished tallying our losses, and we are pleased to report that with a local levée en masse we should be able to return our Eastern Divisions to full strength within three months. In the interim, if I may, I would suggest we divert some of our assets from the western provinces to help secure The Ring and the site of the former capitol."
"Can we afford that? I have heard some troubling reports from the west," another Minister interjected. "Brigands and peasant militias. Mercian mischief."
Minister Menthe nodded. "Yes. That is true. Many of the peasants in the west have refused to disarm with the end of the war. Many Freedom Fighter groups have also gone to seed and no longer respond to our orders. Mercia is known to harbor and abet at least some of these groups, though it is arguable how much actual control the Duchy has over its borders anymore."
Max tapped his fingers together in thought.
"Sarah," he said, referring to Princess Sally by her formal courtly name. "You were among the humans for a time. Particularly their Fleet Mistress. How vital is it to secure our eastern border with them?"
Sally, put on the spot, nonetheless organized a quick response.
"From what I could gather, many of the elements in their military are primarily concerned with the defense of their territory. I would not expect any major military incursions, especially since the recent battle mauled their fleet more than our own," she then added. "I would be watchful of attempts to destabilize the border or arm rebel groups. GUN has a very capable covert operations branch and they have never hesitated to use it."
"Trained Freedom Fighters are best suited to this sort of confrontation," she suggested, trying to sound like she wasn't aggrandizing herself or making a bid for power against the Army. "We can blend in with the population and keep a discrete eye on any unusual goings-on."
King Max slowly nodded; Sally's reasoning was impeccable.
"Very well, you shall have our dispensation to act accordingly," he magnanimously decided. "Do us proud."
Sally bowed her head in silence.
"Your Majesty, on that topic," the Minister of Foreign Affairs took the opportunity to speak up. "We have received a guest from one of the, ah, inorganic Underbosses."
"The Dominion?" Sally asked, anger in her tone of voice.
There were only two surviving organic Underbosses now that the Eggman Empire had completely disintegrated. The Iron Dominion was one. Rouge, apparently, had managed to set herself up as the other. Her authority codes out west had never been rescinded, thus technically leaving her in command of a small army near Cat Country.
"We have expected this, and would receive our guest here before her presentation to the court," Maximilian decreed. He gestured towards those in attendance, notably the seated and disinterested kitsune, Tempest, who was himself a leader among his people.
Nicole nodded, and she deactivated part of the security screen around the room. A door to the side opened, and two of Geoffrey St. John's elite secret service stepped out before presenting the representative from the Dominion. A female lynx entered; she had hair much the same as Nicole's avatar, but golden eyes and fur, save for black tips at the ears. She wore a simple violet colored vest, with darker colored gloves and boots.
The Foreign Minister presented her with a flourish.
"She is known as the 'Bride of the Conquering Storm,' My Lord."
"Mighty King." The lynx bowed her head gracefully. "The Iron King and Queen have sent me to extend their gratitude and good will. We are free of the Eggman Empire, by your efforts and grace, and my Masters have charged me with presenting your Highness a few humble gifts as tokens of our appreciation."
"Gifts?" Sally sounded suspicious.
The Bride spared the younger girl an unpleasant glance for interrupting.
"Our land is renowned for its fine silks and craftsmanship. Also… the Dominion had access to the Eggnet for some time, and our Queen had the confidence of the man you called 'Snively.' We are willing to offer some of our knowledge as a gift and a gesture of good will."
"Pretty quick turn around, from working with Robotnik to working with us," Sally observed. "All in less than a week? Tell me, did the Iron Queen send a delegation to GUN, too, to get a feel for the new political climate? Or was it Echidnapolis?"
The Bride's stare could have burned glass.
"Sarah, do not be rude to our guest," Max chided his oft-times undiplomatic daughter. "After all, they come in good faith, and you will show respect."
Sally huffed dismissively, but bowed her head in obedience.
"Our new holdings share a border with the Dominion," General Styker noted, speaking up finally. "We all have a vested interest in the stability of Mercia as well."
"This is true," the Bride of the Conquering Storm agreed, inclining her head in a respectful bow. "As… regional powers… we would be recognized as such by the court here. Our King and Queen wish only for us live and trade in peace, as friends."
"You guys are a bunch of thugs as far as I'm concerned!" Sonic grumbled, annoyed at the situation. "You mind telling us what happened to the Dragon Kingdom Freedom Fighters?"
"What a strange question," The Bride of the Storm answered with a chuckle. "I don't believe we've ever had any of these 'Freedom Fighters' operating in our territory. Are you sure they ever existed in the first place?"
Sonic fumed at the response.
"You know damn well what -- "
"Enough!" Max boomed and even Sonic bit back his words. At least for a moment. The blue hedgehog remained seated, but glowered at the Iron Dominion representative.
"We have no conflict with the Kingdom of Acorn, or our new neighbors in the Hegemony. The Iron Dominion merely wishes to be left to its own affairs so that we may all prosper…" The foreign lynx smiled and added, "The humans and echidna have already agreed to respect and recognize our sovereignty over the Dragon Kingdom."
"We will review your request and make our decision before the Court. You will be notified, and invited, should the response be positive," King Max announced, waving his hand dismissingly.
The Bride of the Conquering Storm bowed respectfully and took her leave.
Nicole blinked. "Privacy screen restored."
"Father," Sally immediately spoke up. "You aren't thinking of actually going along with this, are you? The Iron Dominion was an Eggman ally up until the last day and last hour of the war!"
"The merchants in Casino Night and elsewhere have been hoping to gain access to the market in the west," the Minister of Foreign Affairs reminded her. "The Iron Queen is also an overlander. We believe the GUN Remnant is courting her as an ally in the west."
"They are mayflies," Maximilian stated, as if it was the Source's truth itself. "But we will show them our munificence. The western borders are troublesome enough as they are without alienating the Dominion."
"The war's over for two days and we're already compromising our principles?" Sally asked, and gave up in disgust. "This isn't right."
"My dear, you have much to learn," her father replied. "See to your duty. You have much to learn in the realm of politics."
Sally brooded for much of the rest of the meeting, still disgusted by the announcement that the Kingdom – her Kingdom – would recognize and accept the Iron Dominion on their western border. There had been Freedom Fighters out there, unaffiliated perhaps, but they were comrades in spirit. Then there was Monkey Khan, too, who she knew would never accept the Iron Dominion's military regime. What would happen to him? What had happened to him?
"Ah, yes, the rebuilding, yes," Hamlin was speaking again, on behalf of the city of Knothole and the nobles who technically administered to it. "As most of the damage was confined to the southern sections of the city, we have had some difficulty raising funds for reconstruction. We are currently reviewing a proposal to purchase much of the land, as the local populace there is unable to afford the costs of resettlement."
Sally could see through the language to what was actually being proposed: all the people who had lost their homes and who were unable to pay to rebuild them would have to sell their land as a reduced cost. Almost certainly the buyers were a consortium of nobles. She frowned – not in her city they wouldn't!
"Father, may I suggest an alternative?" she quickly asked, not letting anyone interrupt. "Much of that land is sure to have historical significance in the years to come and will appreciate in value. There is also something to be said for maintaining the character of Knothole as a cosmopolitan city with a strong middle class. The Crown could purchase the land and then lease it out to local investors and businesses. We could turn a tidy profit in just a few years."
King Max thought it over. The idea of easy money ending up in the hands of the crown instead of lining the pockets of greedy nobles had appeal. Sally was also right about the special character of Knothole. While he did nothing about it, the King was aware of the… situation in some cities, like Chemical Plant.
"We will explore the possibility," Max announced, and there was no further debate. "Until then, the lands will remain in the hands of their current owners. We may wish to administer them ourselves."
Hamlin fumed, but sat down.
Sally resisted the urge to chuckle. It would easy enough to make sure those areas were redeveloped responsibility. In the end, her father wouldn't make as much money as he was likely to expect, but by then it would be a trifling matter.
"Lastly," another noble spoke. "There is the matter of the state funeral."
"Yes, that." King Max tapped his index finger against his knee as he thought about it. "Make it something grand. Something befitting the moment. We have won the war, after all, and we regret that Our Servant gave his life. Balloons perhaps? Or fireworks? The people love fireworks."
"We were planning to have the celebration next week? Would the royal family be in attendance?"
"Oh yes. It is Our Victory after all."
"As you say, My Lord. We have plans for -- "
"You guys are talking like you know he's dead," Sonic interrupted. "But you don't."
"Sonic," Sally began.
"What?" Sonic noticed the looks he was getting. "Oh, what? You think I don't know what I'm talking about?" he pointed at himself. "The last ten years of my live have been one insane stunt after another! You think just because my little bro crashed some city into the moon that he's dead?"
Sonic snorted in lieu of laughter.
"Seriously," he said. "Couple years ago, we all thought Robotnik was dead when Snively killed him, but he came back. Knuckles was dead – actually dead, corpse and all – and he came back because of some Chaos Force crazy Guardian thing. I mean, he was green, but he was alive, you know? And then, this one time, Mogul pulled this stunt where he…"
Sally rested a hand on his shoulder, asking without asking for him to stop.
"There was a clone and…" Sonic trailed off. "Tails was a clone and the real one was somewhere else. You don't know he's dead. You don't know it. Our lives – our lives ain't exactly normal..."
Sonic could see he wasn't getting through to them. Even Sally and Rotor, who should have known better, didn't really see what he was saying. He thought briefly about trying to convince them, but ultimately gave up. There was no point.
"You'll see," were his last words. "I've been doing this longer than anybody; I know what I'm talking about. You'll see."
T minus Zero Hours
Status: … Presume Mission Failure
Standing Orders: Return to Gold Seven and Begin Contingency Plan Rho
"Mystic Ruins, huh?"
Extrapolation: Surveillance Mode Enabled
Rouge opened her eyes, but knew she was dreaming.
The room was too quiet, too serene, too white and too ethereal to be anything but a dream. Light streamed in from the window, dappled from the outlines of the trees and branches outside. There were no medical charts or motivational posters on the walls either. That alone clinched it – this was definitely a dream.
"Cybernetics, huh?" a familiar voice asked, and she saw him sitting by the edge of her bed. Just like him, he was as interested in the technology as he was her. Still, he smiled, and Rouge found his smiles infectious on the rare occasion that they were honest and not just a way of deflecting attention.
"Top of the line," she replied, and playfully batted him on the arm. "Only the best for the evil Eggman Underboss: Rouge the Bat."
Miles nodded slowly, still smiling.
"So, what do you think?" she asked, pointing at her ears and the cybernetic replacement ear drums she'd had installed. "Can't even see them, can you?"
"Please, you call that top of the line?" he scoffed. "Yeah, you can't see them, but they don't shoot lasers or transform or anything! What's up with that?
"Not everything needs to transform, Miles."
He made a halfhearted grunt of acknowledgement.
"Rouge," he said, tone turning more serious. "I… I'm sorry you got hurt back there. I should've known better, given you something…"
She hit him in the arm again, this time for real.
"That ring you gave me saved my life, and don't you start acting like this wasn't my decision and my plan!" She scolded him. "We came up with it all together, so that means if I got hurt, I'm as much to blame as you are. Ok?"
He nodded, but didn't look convinced.
"How did the fight go, imaginary-boy?" she asked, knowing full well this was just a dream. It didn't hurt to ask though. "You kicked Shadow's ass before biting the bullet?"
"Biting the bullet?" he sighed. "Geez, what a rough woman… Couldn't you at least cry a little at the thought of my grizzly death?"
"Sorry," she said with a too-obvious exaggerated shrug. "You're in the wrong dream with the wrong girl."
"Oh, wait, what? This isn't Mina's dream?" he made as if to stand up. "Sorry, wrong room!"
"Sit your butt back down, mister!" she grabbed him by the arm and forced him back into his chair. He gave a weak struggle but sat back down.
"Mina, really? She asked.
"I'm sure I don't want to know," he leaned in a bit. "At least in Cream's dreams all we do is hold hands."
Rouge laughed, wiping away a tear.
"I knew I'd get you to cry over me sooner or later!" the two tailed fox leaned forward onto her hospital bed. "You did really great, Rouge. And, yeah, I kicked Shadow's ass for you, too."
Her smile and spirits dampened a bit.
"He was…" she stated to say, to try and describe.
"I know," he cut her off. "Believe me, I know."
Deciding this was her dream, and that she had no reason not to, Rouge lowered her hand and took his own. It felt good to hold his hand again, to feel some of the strength in there. Some of the purpose. It almost felt...
"This would be nicer if you were real," she said, squeezing his hand. "You still owe me big after all!"
He stared at her for a few seconds, as if wondering what to say.
"I'll pay you back," he finally replied.
"What, in dream money? Dream jewels? I can make those myself, thank-you-very-much."
"You are without a doubt the strangest female I've ever met."
"Wasn't your last girlfriend was a robot or something? And you call me strange?"
He huffed. "That's not exactly fair!"
He pulled his hand closer to her. "Get used to it! This is my dream, after all! Maybe I should show you how I beat up that precious princess Sally you love so much? Would you like that? We finally got to finish that fight from before."
"Oh yeah," he pretended to barely recall the incident in question. "That was just a catfight, from what I remember."
"It was not!"
"You were pulling each other's hair!"
"She has long hair! Is there some rule against pulling it?"
"Any amount of hair pulling and open palm action makes it a catfight. Those are the rules."
"What rules? Sonic's stupid rules?"
"Not all of them are stupid…"
He squeezed her hand back, and she leaned over to rest her head against his shoulder. He did almost feel real.
"They're stupid rules," she insisted. "I told you not to act like a hero, you know."
"Yeah," he whispered, the side of his cheek touching her ear.
It almost tickled.
Lara-Su stood over Rouge's sleeping form, lowering a faintly glowing hand. Gossamer shadows played across softly humming machinery and drawn curtains. The echidna girl stared down at the chiropteran, mixed feelings running through her mind. Flexing her fingers, the green glow dissipated entirely.
"Sorry about this," she said, and vanished with a pop.
Blaze wasn't sure what to make of "Merlin."
On one hand, he was the man (or thing) that had basically created Iblis, the terror that had destroyed her world and her life. On the other hand, he was also the one who sealed Iblis before, and if he was to be believed, he played a part in sealing her again. Blaze had the humility to know when she had been made a fool of, and Mephiles had certainly done a masterful job of player both her and Silver.
Or maybe they had just been too gullible, too willing to believe, too willing to admit that they weren't strong enough on their own. Blaze was determined not to repeat that mistake. Holding her necklace, and the Sol Emerald within, she vowed to keep her own morality and never allow herself to be used again. Not like that. Not by Merlin, either, and not by the supposed Master of the Sol Emeralds that Lara refused to elaborate on.
Sitting in a strange room, neither here nor there (if what she heard was to be believed), she and Silver drank tea and waited. It was an unusually cordial reception. Merlin entered the room, a friendly smile on his face. It had to be some kind of mask. It was just too weird for some kind of multi-thousand year old entity to just walk into a room, all smiles, like he was normal or something.
Lara followed close behind him, looking troubled.
"Hey!" Silver greeted her with a friendly wave. "How'd it go?"
The white hedgehog apparently found it much easier to adapt to strange circumstances. Either that or he had a damaged short term memory. Or – and Blaze wondered this with some suspicion – maybe he had a thing for their echidna rescuer. That would certainly explain why he was so eager to hang around. Blaze shook her head; that couldn't be it! He was just being a too-friendly too-trusting idiot as usual.
"Yet another weird job," Lara complained, sitting down on an intricate pillow chair. "Just one more in a long line of weird jobs I've done since I got this Emerald." She tapped the Emerald in her chest. "You're damn lucky I put up with all this!"
"What did you do anyway?" Silver asked, "Why was it so weird?"
Lara shuddered. "Do not want to talk about it."
"Well, you said you wanted to talk to us about something when you got back," Blaze stated, getting the conversation on track. "I assume this is about getting us back to the future?"
Lara sighed at the news she was about to share.
"Ok, um…" She tapped her cheek, thinking up how to put it. "You guys know about the Cosmic Interstate?"
The two shook their heads.
"Is that like the Highway to Hell?" Silver guessed.
"… Maybe. Actually probably not. Anyway," Lara started again. "The Cosmic Interstate it just this name for the area between alternate zones, but I guess I'm getting a bit ahead of myself. Thing is: when you came back and changed the past, your future became an alternate zone compared to this one. It would be pretty much totally different compared to what you know. Or knew. You can't just go back to the future like that. Not after changing things."
"So what do we do?" Blaze asked. "Are you saying we can use this Cosmic Interstate thing?"
"Yeah, that's another problem," Lara said. "The Cosmic Interstate's pretty much closed off. Years ago… though I guess it wasn't that long ago since we're in the past… but anyway, the guys who policed the Interstate between the zones were these Zone Cops or something. I guess they drove around giving people tickets or something. They got wiped out."
She snapped her fingers.
"Along with most of the zones, too. Something involving this guy named Mammoth Mogul and merging his alternate selves together, and then Miles had to do the same thing and they… I don't pretend to understand it all. The point is: they tore the place up. After things were over, the versions of Miles that were dominant in the fight formed this group to decide what to do."
Silver and Blaze seemed to be still processing that.
Lara tried to cut to the point. "Basically, they closed off all inter-zone travel. That means no dimension hopping. No going to Pokemon Mobius for the weekend, no going to Moebius for illegal fireworks, and no going to Groovy Mobius for some 'prescription pills' if you get my drift. Of course, that also means we won't get a visit from, like, Nazi Mobius or Zombie Mobius or Pirate Mobius. Athough Ninja Village Mobius could be cool…"
Merlin coughed, preventing further speculation and confusion.
"You can not go home, either by traveling further in time or via dimensional travel," he explained.
"See?" Blaze pointed at the old vulpine. "That's how you explain something to someone."
"You guys are no fun!" Lara huffed, making a petulant face.
"Well," Silver spoke up, resting his hands in his lap. "Maybe… maybe that's not a bad thing…"
Blaze turned on him. "What do you mean? What about our home?"
He looked at her a little timidly. "Well, we wanted to save the future, right? Plus, I don't… I don't know. Maybe this is what we're supposed to do?"
"We vowed to save our future! Not… not theirs!" she pointed at Lara and Merlin. "No offense, but… you know."
Merlin merely raised an amused eyebrow.
"None taken." Lara shrugged.
"There has to be something we can do," Blaze argued. "Its kind of galling to admit, but both of you are more powerful than the two of us put together. Isn't there some way to get back to where we came from?"
Merlin's ever present smile faded a bit.
"The Interstate is closed. Even for me, there is only one way…" He waited a moment to make sure he had everyone's attention. "When the Titan closed off all dimensional travel, he split his power into amalgams of the Chaos Emeralds that are intrinsic to most zones. I believe these are called 'Infinite Emeralds' and they exist within only seven entities across the multiverse. Only these seven have the ability to access and regulate travel over what used to be the Interstate."
Lara nodded, picking up the explanation, "One of 'em is right here, which is why this is one of the Primary Zones. If your zone survived the transition from future to alternate, then it's possible he could send you home."
"But that would not be possible for years," Merlin continued. "There is much to do in the interim."
"So, we just have to wait and we can go home?" Blaze asked.
Lara scratched her head. "Ah, yeah, basically."
"What do we do in the mean time?" Silver didn't seem to like the idea of just waiting around.
"When you are ready, I can place you in a sleep that will suspend your bodies and minds. You will emerge when the time is right." Merlin smirked. "Or you can, as they say, just 'hang around' until then."
"If it's any consolation, I'm going to be doing the same thing. Apparently jumping me forward in time again is too much trouble…"
"A gross oversimplification."
"I'm going to be getting the sleep treatment, too," Lara finished. "Planned out so I wake up right when I got sucked back into the past."
"It is the safest and most prudent course of action. You won't even age," Merlin stated.
"Look," Lara concluded, pointing specifically at Blaze. "I've got the same kind of Emerald you do, and if there's one thing having it has taught me, it's this: sometimes you just gotta suck it up, accept that the situation's a mess, and make the best of the situation. Not everything is going to work out perfectly. But maybe it'll be pretty good, even if it isn't what you expected."
Blaze and Silver gave each other a quick look.
"We'll – we'll need to think it over," the feline said. "This is kind of a big decision."
Silver grunted. "That's an understatement."
Merlin's smile faded until it was almost non existent.
Lara quickly cut in. "You guys take all the time you need. Just keep in mind that if you don't take the Long Nap, then I'll have to keep an eye on you or something to make sure the timeline doesn't get all grandpa-complexy. That won't be fun for any of us."
Merlin and Lara-Su eventually left, leaving Silver and Blaze alone. Contrary to what Blaze had said before, neither of them spoke at all for a long time. What they both knew, but couldn't say, was that whatever they decided, they would both have to go along with it. After all they had been through, they would see to the rest together.
Finally, Silver gave a long groan of defeat.
"Not much of a decision, is it?" he asked.
"No. It isn't." Blaze spared him a wan smile. "But maybe it'll work out anyway. If this is what's supposed to happen... we vowed to save the future, right? Not to be there to enjoy it."
Silver glanced down at his hands. "I suppose. As long as we stick together, we'll be fine, right?"
She smiled at him and rested one of her hands on his.
"You can count on it!"
They turned Tails' funeral into a parade.
A god damned parade.
Not that Sonic thought he was dead. No: guys like him, like them, always had a good chance of coming back. If he doubted that, secretly, then that was just him being stupid. Sonic knew, death or not, that he'd see his best friend again someday. He just hoped they were both old enough to race by then.
Still, that didn't mean he had any intention of joining in on the "grand victory parade" in the city. There had been about five minutes of some priest talking about death and sacrifice, and then the balloons and floats came out, and planes roared over the city trailing colorful lines, and everyone went off to have fun. Normally, Sonic would have been more than happy to join in. He did love a good party. But this felt…
Or maybe just lame.
Yeah: it was lame.
Tails was dead (at least for a while). Amy was dead, too, and Sonic… felt pretty bad that he hadn't been able to save her. It wasn't like Amy wasn't a pain in the ass most of the time, always chasing him around and being a general nuisance, but she was still a fixture in his life. She was still someone he cared about. For the first time, he'd really, seriously, completely failed to protect someone. Instead, he'd rushed in, head first, and for the first time it had nearly gotten him killed.
Amy was dead. He hadn't even realized it at first. After coming to, he'd just assumed that Tails had saved her at some point. He'd even joked about it, saying that she would be jumping him around the next corner… or the next, or the next. Except she never did. She never would. She wasn't like him, or like Knuckles, or Tails. She didn't have the funky 'comic book effect' (as he liked to think of it) keeping her alive against the odds.
Just like that: she was gone.
Sonic wasn't sure how he felt about that. Not really.
Eggman was gone, too. The big, fat, stupid, idiot. Maybe Tails had done what he said he would and kill the guy. Maybe he'd just gotten blown up when Helios malfunctioned. He hadn't shown up again and while the fat man was about as tenacious as a cockroach, Sonic didn't think he would be showing up either. This – all this – had an air of real finality to it.
Stupid, stupid Eggman.
Sonic wasn't sure why, but he really did feel a hole in his life where that dead idiot used to be. None of the other villains around had his… what was a good word, he wondered? Panache. Maybe that was it. Eggman would always bounce back, always come back, always keep trying. He didn't know how to give up, and he didn't believe in excess. If he was going to launch something, like some new weapon, not only would he make it big, but it would be huge. And it would have his big, goofy face on it, with those stupid moustache whiskers sticking out.
Stupid, stupid Eggman!
Sitting down and thinking about it – actually, honestly thinking about it – Sonic could admit, if only to himself, that maybe he even liked old Ro-butt-nik a bit. Any other villain would have given up, and then where would that have left the hero? He was a great bad guy, and that made the guy who kept beating him a great hero. In a way, Sonic thought, they even had the same kind of spirit. Just left to their own devices, with no one else around, he and Eggman could have probably gone round and round till one of them died of old age.
Fireworks cracked high in the sky, spraying sparkles of red and blue and green in every direction. Others whizzed around, forming fancy spirals and other shapes. People cheered. It was over. It was all over. Perched atop a building, alone and away from the crowds and fans, Sonic sighed.
It was over, wasn't it?
Abruptly, he wondered where Knuckles was.
"Hedgehog," a less familiar voice came from the ledge below Sonic's dangling feet. He leaned over and saw Tempest resting against the wall, the black tips of his twin tails waving in the breeze. He seemed about as interested in the celebration as Sonic was.
"What's up, blood for brains? Can't find anyone to kill? Or maybe you're looking for some girlfriends to steal?" he asked, hoping the little jab would get the kitsune to lose a bit of control. Stoics were so boring.
Tempest made a 'hrumph' sound.
Sonic grinned. "Come on, what's up?"
"Take care of the Princess," he demanded. "I believe she'll need someone by her side in the years to come."
"I've been doing that long before you showed up, man."
Tempest didn't reply.
"That it?" Sonic asked. "Take care of your girlfriend! That's all you wanted to say?"
Tempest looked up at him. "That's it."
Sonic rolled his eyes. "What is it with you guys and Sally anyway? You're like the third guy to show up and put the moves on her."
"You find it unusual?" Tempest asked, and quickly added. "And I did not 'put moves on her.' The sea can no more love the wind."
"What does that even mean?" Sonic waves his hands. "On second thought, forget I asked. Anyway, I'll take care of Sal. Just like always."
Tempest grunted and made as if to leave.
Before he could, Sonic spoke up. "Hey…"
The kitsune glanced over his shoulder.
"Do you think he's dead?" the hedgehog asked. "Tails?"
"Hmm… maybe. Maybe he is dead." Tempest craned his neck to look out to the horizon, out where Prower Crater dominated the new landscape. "The boy you knew by that name."
"What…?" Sonic narrowed his eyes. "What does that mean?"
"Merely that some see death as a form of transformation," Tempest replied. "It depends on your point of view."
Sonic stared at him for a few seconds.
"I… don't get that kind of stuff," he admitted, deadpan.
And, for the first time that Sonic could remember, Tempest laughed.
"Hey!" the blue hedgehog crossed his arms in mock vexation. "Whatever. You're heading out?"
The kitsune warrior paused before nodding and turning once more to jump.
"My mandate here has been fulfilled, even under these circumstances. I will stay long enough to determine if any sort of treaty between our peoples is possible… something I strongly doubt… and then I will leave."
Then, without another word, he jumped off and vanished into the city.
And Sonic let him.
He remained there all day, until the sky turned dark and the moon sat high above the horizon. By then the parades and speeches had ended, and Knothole – scars and all – was enjoying its first night free of fear. Friends and families got together and celebrated in their own, less ostentatious ways. How many of them had lost those they cared for, or the things they worked for? How many still looked forward to tomorrow?
Sonic slowly stood, watching the stars slowly move in the clear night sky.
Up above, a new crater in the moon seemed to wink at him.
He'll be back.