Isaac Rowland

Chapter 18 – Vindication.

It had been a quiet night; there was nothing around for the desk sergeant to deal with at all. Blowing the steam from his black coffee he took a hefty swig, grimacing as the bitter liquid forced its way down his throat; he hated the taste but it was the only way he'd ever survive the night shift awake. The fear of what his superiors would do if they caught him asleep at the desk drove him to it…he'd heard the stories of what had happened to poor Kacobsson when he'd tried to sneak in a quick forty winks and shuddered at the memory. Not for nothing was the chief known as a tough old bird; that Mobian matriarch had probably been in the force longer than he'd been alive but, instead of getting older from the pressure of work, the crane seemed to simply get harder, like an aged oak resisting the advent of time. He'd had a few conversations with her; mostly one way when he was being grilled in her office, but he had managed to prove she had a large family to support and, as she had confided to him, once you've had chicks, criminals are nothing. Well, he didn't know about the chicks part, but his own daughter had just hit the terrible twos, so he guessed he could sympathise. As he reached for his coffee again, the doors of the station front blew open, something large crashed down away from the desk and his tranquil night was promptly broken beyond repair.

As other officers began to appear from the nooks and crannies of the station, the desk sergeant approached the fallen, groaning missile; it was certainly alive, but he couldn't tell if it was a threat from here. A whisper passed around to get the boss herself as the man got to within touching distance; it was a human he was certain, albeit a particularly large and fat one, but it had a sack of some kind over its head. Summoning his courage and knowledge of procedures that had been drilled into him during his training periods, the sergeant reached forwards and pulled the sack off just as a commanding voice rang out.

"If there isn't a very good reason for dragging me out here at this time of night, it won't just be heads rolling", shouldering her way to through the crowd, Chief Inspector R J Crane came face to back with the desk sergeant for the evening; in her traditional authoritarian voice she demanded,

"What have you got there sergeant?"

"It appears someone decided to give us an early present chief", before she could reprimand him for time-wasting the human moved aside, allowing the whole station to see the face of an unconscious Dr Eggman revealed. Crane herself was as shocked as the rest of them, but was one of the first to recover.

"Any idea who, who brought him here?"

"No chief", a voice from the back spoke up bravely, "he was just thrown in from outside".

"Hang on, there's a note". The sergeant hefted himself upright, offering the scrap of paper to his superior; Crane analysed it and quickly saw that whoever had delivered the madman to them wanted to remain unknown:

Add five counts of kidnap and six counts of murder to his resume. We'll give evidence later through the post. Give the reward to charity – it's blood money to us.

"What next chief?"

"What do you think", the crane scrunched up the paper and threw it effortlessly into the nearest bin, "get him down to the most secure cell we've got and call the papers; we'll make an announcement tomorrow. Oh, and unless anyone wants latrine duty for the next month, there was no note, right?"

"Sure thing chief", dozens of voices, both human and Mobian, announced in unison; coming from Chief Crane, that wasn't a threat, it was a promise.

"Damn, that felt good".

"Just wish I could have done it Chalkie". The fox-cat smiled down at the mouse as the pair of them hurried to the stationary form of the Tornado; the driver was listening intently to the radio as the two approached and leant over as he heard doors being opened.

"Drop him off okay?"

"Never better; how are the others?"

"Just heard Rouge and Shadow dropped the truck off and they and the rest are waiting in the lobby of your apartment. From what Razzy told me", Tails' face lit into a smile, "he's worried about Nack; apparently there's a pretty receptionist and he hasn't made a move yet. Don't suppose you'd care to comment on that?" Old memories burned through both the fox's passengers as he started his car up.

"Yeah, he usually has women falling at his feet, lucky sod", Chalkie gave a wistful sigh, "I was never's lucky with the ladies as 'im". Jess raised an eyebrow between providing Tails with directions,

"Present company excluded I hope?"

"Uh, oh yeah, you were okay". Tails' imagination may have overacted a little here as Jess caught the look that flashed across his face and swiftly purged him of improper thoughts.

"Not like that you filthy-minded urchin", the mouse chided with a smile on her face, "Chalkie and I did most of our guild missions together; he was the brawn and I was the speed and, in a pinch, the brains as well".

"You'll have to tell me more, you all will", Tails gave a sideways glance, "talking will help you all get over this".

"You'll hear it kid, we owe you'n your friends that much", Chalkie's voice infiltrated through the car, "and you miss, I could do more'an just act tough".

"Really, I never saw it". Jess smirked at her former partner as she instructed Tails the way to go; or at least she did until she felt a paw on top of her head.

"Guess you don't remember this then?" Chalkie gently began to scratch the mouse's ears with his large fingers, causing Jess to collapse bonelessly in her seat.

"You ch,cheat", she managed to gasp with her last effort before her body overrode her mind; it decided it absolutely loved its ears being fondled like this and it wasn't about to let her mind stop the pleasure to prove a ridiculous point, "ahh, don't stop, a little lower". Tails watched the mouse squirm and nodded at the fox-cat,

"Er, hate to break this up, but I kinda need to know the way and…"

"Oh all right, but I won that one". Chalkie stopped scratching and, after a second or two, Jess recovered her marbles and spoke quickly,

"Next right, third on the left and it's the fourth complex on the left after that", she fumbled for her keys as she sighed, "better get ready to let you lot in; I just hope I've got enough food for everyone".

When all three entered the lobby, it was Rouge who saw them first.

"Hey, did it go alright?"

"Perfect, not a hitch".

"Great, now could you please let us in; I'm dying for something to drink". Jess gave a tinkling laugh as she twirled her key ring round her finger.

"You'll need these then", she raised her voice, "right guys, follow me". The mouse led the way up the stairs, reaching her apartment as she scanned her barcode into, she noticed, the newly repaired scanner keypad. Nack saw the edge of her lips curl up and cleared his throat a little, fingering the shape he'd managed to outline beneath the leather of his jacket.

"Ah, yeah, sorry about that; that was me", he explained as the mouse rolled her eyes, "well, I was a bit suspicious and had to take a look; it was the fact I did that I did that started this whole ball rolling. Now hurry up", the weasel did his best to act a desperation he didn't really feel, "I'm breaking my neck for a slash". Jess shook her head and opened the door, allowing the weasel to streak past like purple lightning.

"I know where it is thanks". There was a slam as the others looked on, stupefied by the weasel's uncharacteristic speed. Jess stepped inside and gestured, her voice a little uncertain as she opened the door fully.

"Ah, come on in".

As soon as the door to the bathroom slammed shut behind him, Nack let the tension drop from his shoulders like an uncomfortable cloak; he was alone at last in a private place. He'd need to be as well; he thought he recognised the outline that was beneath his jacket and he wanted to find out if he was correct in peace. Swiftly crossing the room, the weasel sat carefully on the throne and hesitantly examined the inside of his suspicious jacket; yes, he was right. There was a slit cut in the lining of the leather and, as he slid his fingers inside the cut, felt the crinkling of paper under his grip. I thought so; what did you leave me this time? As he carefully extracted the mystery paper, he realised it wasn't a sheet of paper at all, it was an envelope. The weasel smiled sadly as he recognised the neat hand on the front: Nack t Weasel. Read this in private. Slitting the top of the envelope and pulling free the piece of paper, a letter, Nack began to read Seraph's final words to him.

Tails knew it was coming and there was going to be nothing he could do to stop it; he could only delay it for a little while longer. He helped Jess and Amy plate up whatever savouries the mouse had handy and then toddled back into the main living room, where Knuckles and Chalkie were rearranging furniture under the eye of Razzy, the rooster quickly analysing and calculating the arrangement that would give maximum floor space. As everyone settled down and waited for the weasel to reappear, Tails passed his plate of paprika crisps over to Shadow and spoke in as calm a voice as he could manage.

"Right, I just want to be sure", I'll gonna explode, "is there any sort of business that might occur now?" Say no, for the love of God say no! There was a swapping of glances as everyone tried to make sense of this odd request, and the fact that the foxboy's face seemed to be imploding.

"Umm, no, not that I can think of", Rouge looked at the kit squarely, "are you feeling okay Tails?" I will be in a second – hold it in – I can't; head for the hills folks, the dam's about to break!

"Yeah", oh no oh no oh no, stop speaking now, "you've been acting weird since we hit Seraph's base; what gives?" I do!

"Just, just needed to be sure, we're all friends here now". Sonic raised an eyebrow quizzically; that was it.

Tails suddenly erupted, going from vertical to horizontal in seconds at the force of the laughter he had bottled up for so long screamed out of him in a torrent. The fox was scarlet in the face; looking up through teary eyes he saw the others were equally confused and concerned but he didn't care; he had to let this out of him or he'd simply have spontaneously exploded. Tails pounded the carpeted floor, heaving with silent laughter as he ran out of air, shaking violently as Amy shouted at him in concern.

"What's wrong?" He couldn't answer, there was still too much laughter flowing out of him to allow a coherent response. He laughed when he had the breath to and gasped for air when he hadn't, but he just let it all course through and out of him.

"Should we call the hospital?" Amy asked in a bit of a panic, knowing how unlike Tails this was, but she was waved down by Rouge and Razzy.

"No, I think he's just hysterical", the bat answered, smiling as a tributary of molten laughter glanced her, "I just want to hear what the joke was".

"You, you were right", Tails managed to choke out, pointing a single finger at Sonic as he writhed on the floor, trying to get to his hands and knees; before his elder brother could ask he gasped again, "w,worse than Miles". He shattered into laughter again as Sonic's face suddenly dropped straight through the floor and panic drained the strength from his limbs as he understood what Tails was laughing at.

"No, no you can't…", he crawled from where he had been laid on the floor to try and reach the ailing kit; he couldn't let him speak, he'd die from shame, "don't you dare…" It was the worst thing he could have said; realising he was being stalked, Tails took the deepest breath he could manage and sat upright, pointing a deadly digit at Sonic and smiling mischievously as he cried in triumph.

"MAURICE!"

The scream that shook the building, raced around the Earth and echoed throughout the space-time continuum was Sonic's own scream; he'd had his heart ripped out by his own family. The blue hedgehog sank onto his knees, gripping his face as though he wanted to rip it off and assume a new identity. That's it, I'm ruined; if there is a God, let him strike me down now; of course, there was no answer and Sonic's torment was only just begun.

"Sonic…Maurice…Hedgehog", it was Knuckles who was speaking; through his fingers Sonic saw the echidna looking like all his birthdays had come at once, "that's, different".

"Yeah, it, it could have been worse" Shadow had a strange smile on his face; it was either that or join Tails on the floor in pieces. Rouge joined in on the act, trying desperately to keep her face straight as she avoided looking at the cringing Sonic.

"Yes, I can think of worse, like, like, oh forget it!" She looked at Knuckles; their eyes met and reflected the internal laughter back to each other and they both cracked up; their screams of laughter broke down Shadow and Tails again and soon everyone was in bits; Knuckles fell off the chair he was sitting on and pointed at the blue wonder,

"And, and to think yohohohohou made fun of meheeheeheee; oh that's priceless, Tails I love you foreveahahahaha". In the centre of this maelstrom Sonic hid his face and beautifully red cheeks, whispering dire prophesies to himself,

"That's it; I'm over and finished; goodbye and goodnight; I'm going under for the third time; I regret nothing; I…" he paused at a hand on his shoulder and found himself looking up at Amy – the pink hedgehog was smiling down at him and Sonic took refuge in that beatific smile from the storm of mockery that battered him. Leaning down, though it wasn't really necessary, it was doubtful you'd have been able to hear a gunshot in that room at the minute, she whispered in his ear.

"I think it's a beautiful name". For the first, but, as things turned out, not the only time in his life, Sonic found himself smiling back at her; a worried and drawn smile it was true, but a smile nonetheless.

"It, it's not so bad Sonic", Razzy appeared to be one of the first to get over the bout of hysterics, "how do you think I dealt with the name of Erasmus; let them laugh, but remember they'll get over it eventually".

"Yeah, they will but I won't", the hedgehog moaned, "I can't believe it; Tails, you are a dead fox", he shook his fist at the gaping fox as he tried to recapture his breath, "how'd you find out?"

"It was on Seraph's computer", the explanation was gasped and drowned in the laughter that was all around but Sonic grasped it as though it had been shouted right in his ear, I saw in on his copy of your passport; heehee, Maurice". Bodies all over the place, howling and screaming all around and an aura of general carnage; it was into this scene of bedlam that Nack rejoined the proceedings.

The weasel had been sure he'd had nothing left in him, the actions of the previous eight or so hours had left him completely drained of all emotion, but reading the letter, then re-reading it several times, had put him right through the emotional wringer. He'd felt first vindication for his actions, then shame, then confusion, then disbelief and finally pity, both for the son of Seraph and, to a lesser extent, for himself. Now he wasn't sure exactly what to think, but though his emotions were in a muddle, his mind was completely crystal clear; he was not going to be a prat for a second time and try and hide this. As he unbolted the bathroom door and prepared himself for what he had planned the weasel was almost blown backwards by the overpowering sense of happiness and hysterics that swept down the small hall to greet him. Despite the seriousness of his next task Nack felt a smile tug at his lips; with that much good-nature flowing around it was impossible not to react to it. It seemed to be coming from the living room he'd entered what felt like a lifetime ago; even from here Nack could see pandemonium reigned. Entering the room, Nack had to rub his eyes to make sure what he was seeing was real – all logic had been turned on its head. Sonic, Amy and Razzy were off in one corner, the blue hedgehog apparently leaning on the other two for support while everyone else was howling with laughter, even Knuckles and Shadow and those two had seemed to Nack to be as serious as cancer. Manoeuvring through the organic debris, the weasel helped Jess upright from where she was partially propped up against one side of her sofa.

"Someone start without me; never knew Old Moby was as strong as that". The mouse fell forwards against him, still in tears of laughter as she tried to communicate with her friend.

"S,sorry Nack, but ihehehet's so funny", she took a deep breath and tried again, "Sonic's so cool, but heheheis middle name's Mahahahahahaha…" The weasel rolled his eyes with a dramatic sigh, smiling broadly now as his friend infected him with the beginnings of a bad case of hysterics.

"Come on Jess, you nearly had it, Ma-what?"

"Muh, Muh, Maurice!" The mouse held his gaze for a second before setting herself off again, Nack letting her slide from his arms as he gaped open-mouthed.

"No way", he guessed she tried to nod at him and he winced, "ouch!" It was funny, but in the present climate it couldn't destroy Nack like it had the others. Realising it was useless to try and say anything to the lot of them now he decided to make the most of it. Picking his way to the vacated couch, he sat back and lifted some crisps from a bowl to the side of him. Giving a sniff, a smile broke out on his rugged face; umm, paprika, my favourite.

It took time, several failed attempts and the threat of the Piko Piko hammer, but eventually everyone managed to get themselves under control and Sonic stopped blushing.

"Ohhh, my sides hurt", Knuckles heaved himself into one of the twin comfy chairs Jess had in her front room and flopped into it, taking deep, slow breaths as his body tried to re-oxygenate itself, "oh boy, it was worth all this just to hear that; Tails, you are a genius".

"A genius with a sore jaw", the kit let his eyes rove around and noted Sonic sighing at the lot of them, "I'm really, really sorry Sonic, but I couldn't keep it in – I tried, I really did". His older brother set his face to stone and glared at him,

"You think you're sorry now; just wait 'til I get you home", having made his promise, the hedgehog gave a resigned shake of his head, "oh well, it wasn't going to stay secret forever, but please, I beg of all of you, don't tell anyone about this. I really hate that name".

"Not a chance; I've waited years for something like this and I'm not giving it up, but", the echidna offered a compromise; "I'll keep it down, for now" he finished ominously.

"'When you've got friends and neighbours you're the richest man in town'", Sonic ran a hand down his face as he sat on the sofa, "yeah right, but I suppose there's some good in all of this", he favoured his little brother with a basilisk glance, "I can now empathise fully with you". The fox rolled his eyes as Jess dusted herself off and headed for the fridge, calling out behind her,

"Chalkie, check the cabinet behind you for glasses, that wine should be just about ready by now". Nack stiffened; this was his chance to make amends for all time; he took several fortifying breaths as his friend reappeared with a bottle of red in her hand and a corkscrew held in her tail. She was just about to start opening the best bottle of wine she owned, when the weasel's voice stopped her.

"Jess, hang fire", all eyes turned to Nack as he stood up and faced them all, his face clear of all emotion as he fingered the note in his hands, "I got somethin' to say first".

He had a silent audience in front of him and was aware of the first prickling of stage fright as cold sweat trickled down his back. His breathing was quick and light and he was beginning to regret even bringing this up; no, he gritted his teeth – he'd kept a secret once and it had come out in the end and nearly destroyed him. He wouldn't let himself make that mistake again; he owed it both to himself and the one he had slandered to make amends now.

"I've got somethin' here that Seraph left me, or at least, his son did", he brought the slip of paper forwards and let the envelope it had been encased in flutter to the floor, "he left it in a slit in me jacket lining – he wanted me to be able to read it in private an' I just did, but", he flicked a glance to Knuckles, drawing on the echidna's earlier action as a source of strength, "I think you should all hear it". He began to recite, in his mind's eye imagining a leather gloved hand scribing the thick black letters before him:

Nack.

You may keep this note private or you may share it with the others, I leave you that choice. If all has gone according to plan, I have settled my grudge with Dr Julian Ivo Robotnik and have been vindicated in the eyes of the guild. This is an explanation of things you were not aware of and I did not have time to explain earlier.

Primarily Nack, you did not kill my father – you put out of its misery a puppet made flesh. Robotnik's machine reduced him to little more than a weapon that could, and did, kill on its master's command. You took a dangerous weapon out of the hands of a madman and for that, you should be congratulated. I was there that night and saw the shot; I knocked you out and escaped with my father's body. I ripped out the mind unit and cremated his remains as our tradition dictates. I have adopted his mask and name because I have forgotten my own.

You asked how I survived and I told you the truth, I did not – the bullet that ended my father's suffering also ended mine. As Sonic and possibly Knuckles unintentionally estimated, I am already dead. I feel nothing; I understand what emotions are as concepts and as distant memories, but have not felt them since seven years ago. Like my father, I have become a desensitised 'machine' but unlike him, I take orders from no-one but the past.

In the seven years I was hiding and training, I accumulated a large number of grudges and debts; now I am able to, I must pay them off, one by one. The actions of the last month have settled my primary grudge against the man responsible for my father's demise; Robotnik used his mind control technology and manipulations of the guild to destroy my father, I used the same technology to manipulate the guild and destroy Robotnik and pay the grudge off in full. I have no other purpose save the goal of paying off the past.

I bear no grudge against you Nack; live your life how you choose for I shall take no further part in it – what you did took great courage and, unlike myself, you had a conscience to plague you afterwards.

Farewell, from both of us.

Seraph.

P.S. Tell Amy Rose blood is considered a delicacy, but must be correctly prepared to prevent the spread of perenatal diseases.

Nack finished reading and let his arms fall to his sides, waiting for a reaction similar to the one he had suffered. It hadn't sunk in straight away, he hadn't expected it to, but eventually Chalkie spoke up, the fox-cat bowing his head as he intoned solemnly,

"So it ends then; the guild has finished its business forever".

"Yeah, yeah it has", Nack removed his hat and gestured at Jess; silently, the mouse filled and passed around beakers of wine until every hand held a glass full of the red liquid; when he was ready, the weasel spoke again, "ladies and gentlemen, a toast; to Seraph, for making the ultimate sacrifice to protect his child, and to Seraph for settin' the record straight with all of us". Nack raised his glass upwards, the movement echoed by nine others as the toast was made and then sealed by a sip of the red wine. It really was the best red of the decade; a fine, fruity vintage that slipped down the throat rather than being swallowed, but to the ten drinking it, it could have been wine or water – all that mattered was the meaning behind it. In the secluded shelter of that one apartment, ten Mobians raised glasses to commemorate what had gone before, and the good reasons behind the actions. As the silent vigil ended, Amy daintily wiped her lips and just asked quietly.

"Can someone fill me in here; what's a perenatal disease?"

"A disease transmitted through blood-to-blood contact", Tails piped up, "something like Hepatitis". The pink hedgehog grimaced and quickly put her glass down, wrinkling her nose as the red wine suddenly became a second, even redder liquid in her mind.

"Yeesh, I didn't really want to know that; I'll never drink red again". Knuckles toyed idly with his glass before nodding slowly,

"I know what you mean, it's not exactly the most pleasant image I can imagine", when the echidna realised he had an interested and curious audience, he expanded his theory, "we managed to figure out what species Seraph was, or is". Nack pricked his ears,

"Really, what was it; we had a bit of a bet on this", he indicated the others of the guild as they all leaned in, "well, out with it; what was he, and how did you figure it out?"

"I put it together after Tails saw he had wings; he's a bat".

"A bat", Chalkie scratched the side of his face, frowning, "don' think any of us bet fer that". The others groaned and sighed in agreement before Amy carried on.

"Not just a bat, he's a vampire bat; they've got different wings to Rouge, and from what that letter says different tastes as well". There was a resounding thunk as several glasses of wine hit the tops of tables and Jess sighed,

"The best red of the decade and we can't drink it due to that mental image", she began to gather up the glasses and walked back into the kitchen, searching for a funnel to drain the wine back into the bottle before re-corking it. As she did so, Chalkie took hold of the back of Knuckle's seat and gently lent it backwards until the echidna and he were at eye level. Knuckles squinted up at him,

"You want something?"

"Yeah, if ya don' mind", the fox-cat replaced the chair to its previous position and moved to the front of the seating, dragging one of the smaller tables with him, "was wonderin' if you'd be up fer a little sport?" Knuckles cracked his namesakes and then his neck, having an idea of what Chalkie wanted and liking the sound of it.

"Sure thing", he put his left arm on the table and grinned up at the challenger, "I could use a little exercise". Chalkie grinned like a demon as he locked palms with the echidna and Rouge spoke before the contest started,

"Didn't know you were left-handed Knucks?" He flicked his eyes upwards at her,

"Ambidextrous" he replied before focussing solely on his opponent, measuring the crossbreed up in terms of stamina and strength. Razzy spoke up, acting as sort of a master of ceremonies as his voice hushed all other conversation, including a few impromptu bets.

"Okay, keep it clean and good luck to you both. On the count, one, two and…three!"

For a second it looked like neither had moved but then slow grins of unresolved tension slowly began to creep over the faces of both participants, ropes of muscles bulging out in the biceps and forearms of the arm-wrestlers. The arms themselves didn't move beyond a quiver and Chalkie spoke through gritted teeth,

"You're good". The echidna snorted hard; the fox-cat was strong but maybe he could wear him down a little.

"So're you". Knuckles put on a little extra pressure and felt a slight reward as Chalkie's arm moved marginally towards the table-top, the echidna forcing the issue. Chalkie snarled, his other hand gripping the table hard as he fought to stop Knuckles' advance; bringing more of his strength and power to the fore he managed to stop, and then begin to reverse the trend. Beads of sweat were beginning to form on brows as Chalkie pressed even harder, feeling the echidna's awesome resistance as he strove to get an advantage.

"Wow, Knucks is going all out" Amy whispered to Sonic, watching as Knuckles bared his teeth at his opponent, who echoed the gesture. Sonic observed for a second before replying,

"Yeah, but so's Chalkie", there was still no conclusive movement and he gave a low whistle, "this one's going right to the wire". Jess suddenly appeared at his elbow, the mouse regarding proceedings with awe in her eyes,

"He's not won yet; Chalkie's never had an arm-wrestle go on this long".

"He hadn't met Knuckles before now", Rouge whispered, "ol' Knucklehead's too pig-headed to lose at anything". Despite his best efforts, however, the echidna was slowly losing ground to the fox-cat's strength; fighting every step of the way, arm white hot with cramp and fatigue, the back of the echidna's hand eventually grazed the top of the table and Razzy's keen eyes spotted it.

"Stop, that's it", both competitors relinquished their holds simultaneously, both gasping with exertion and mutual respect.

"No-one pushed me that hard in a long time" Chalkie offered his hand to the panting Knuckles, "put 'er there". Extending his other, unworked hand, the guardian shook before wincing and turning to Jess.

"Got something cold I can put on this", he pointed to his reddened arm, "it's gonna start cramping in a second" he explained as the mouse pointed down the hall.

"Bathroom on the left; put a cold flannel on it". Pushing himself upright, left arm hanging limp by his side, the echidna hugging it to try and keep the blood flowing as, unseen behind him, Rouge's quick mind worked out a solution to a knotty little problem and she sidled off after the guardian, the victorious Chalkie helping to take the attention off her disappearance.

Knuckles was having fun trying to control tap and flannel one handed when he heard the bathroom door open and then close behind him. Darting a glance over his shoulder, he felt a sudden jolt of panic and expectation as he saw Rouge stood right behind him.

"Do you mind?"

"Not at all", she quickly countered his arguments as she took the still dry flannel from his right hand and put it under the flow from the cold tap, "so, you feel okay?"

"Yeah, that was a good match".

"I didn't mean that", she began to wring the excess water out of the appliance, "I meant about earlier; you know, in the back of the truck?" Knuckles silently waited for it; he'd been expecting this and now had to see his way through the storm.

"What about it?"

"Was it true?" Knuckles put his responsive hand on his hip,

"Are you calling me a liar?" Rouge echoed his movements, ignoring the wetness of the flannel on the hip of her jumpsuit.

"You know what I meant", she tried a different tack and, possibly for the first time since she'd met him, she dropped her act of sarcasm and aloofness and asked frankly, "did all those things really happen?" The guardian blinked for a second at this uncharacteristic question before shrugging and smiling ironically.

"Yeah, it all happened; didn't you ever wonder how Sonic and I first met?"

"Plenty of times; I thought it had something to do with Eggman, but I didn't think about anything on that sort of scale", she gently laid the flannel on his arm, sponging it down as he closed his eyes, "why'd you say it?"

"If I'm honest, I can't really remember", she looked at the guardian agog and he chuckled a little, "I just heard Nack saying he deserved to be left behind and realised how hard this must have been for him to take. So I thought about it on the climb and realised that was the best way to try and lessen the blow for him", he opened his eyes and looked seriously at her, "don't start with the old 'it's an attack of the dreaded compassion' line; I had enough of that from Sonic in the car".

"That was a very noble thing to do", huh; some of his confusion must have shown on his face as she returned his serious look, "I know you Knuckles; you have to guard the M. E. 24/7 and have to be prepared to deal with anything and everything. You never admit to weakness because it undermines your role as guardian – what use is a guardian with weaknesses?"

"But…?"

"I'm just the same; as a spy it's my job to be infallible, but anyway", she took hold of his arm and began to use the same massage she had used on Angel Island after the first fight with Seraph, "you revealed something that undermined you to help someone else, someone in a really bad way; do you know what that means?"

"I'm never going to hear the end of it?"

"Apart from that", she returned the smart talk, just as he had known she would, "it means I owe you some thanks; if you hadn't let Nack and the others in on that little secret this business could have ended a lot worse than it has; I came in here to say this Knuckles", she extended her hand, looking him dead in the eye and speaking sincerely "thank you for everything you did, for me and the guild". Knuckles gripped her hand gently in his massive paw as he grinned,

"Don't mention, hey!" He'd been caught off-guard as she suddenly tugged him forwards; he stumbled right into her and she wrapped her arms and wings around him.

"What are you doing?" He hissed urgently in her ear, face burning up as he writhed to try and escape the unforeseen hold.

"Just evening the score; you held me once so I'm repaying the favour. Besides, you have no idea how much fun it is watching someone with red fur blush". Knuckles, gritting his teeth as he realised he was indeed blushing furiously, gingerly reciprocated the hug, gently stroking her back just as she stroked his dreadlocks.

"You're nuts batgirl, but, I guess that's why I like you". Did I just say that?

Did he just say that? Rouge felt her own cheeks heat up as Knuckles' words hit her like none of his punches ever had.

"You're not so bad yourself Knucklehead – you helped me up when I was freaking out over Amy and put me back on my feet", she began to start to loosen her hold as did he, though inside she was singing, "you're a barbarian and a complete hypocrite, but I guess that's part of the charm". He regarded her askew as they parted, a smile on his lips as old and now more comfortable patterns began to reassert themselves.

"Hypocrite?"

"Yeah; you say I'm nuts but I'm not the one sat up in the sky guarding a massive emerald". She shot and scored a point; she left herself open for the three-point retaliation.

"No, but you're the one obsessing about owning said emerald and going to nearly any lengths to get hold of it". Ooooh, I left myself open for that; back-up, back-up now!

"No", she smirked as she gave a victory pose, "I'm the one who will own said emerald – you just don't know it yet".

"As I said earlier, you're welcome to try batgirl".

"And I will Knucklehead", she shoved him in the arm before wincing at his sudden sharp intake of breath, "oh, sorry, I forgot that was your bad arm". He gave a pained grin and jerked a thumb at the door.

"I believe you;come on, they'll be missing us by now". As the pair exited the small room and slunk back to the gathering they kept a respectable distance, but of all those present that night, two hearts sang harder than most as more barriers were slowly and inexorably broken down, not by fists and feet, but by understanding and companionship.

"Professor Erasmus?"

"Yes, I'm a university lecturer in the field of Electronics and Systems Design", the rooster clucked at the gawping expressions he was receiving and winked, "though my students think I don't know they call me Razzy behind my back – I wish they'd say it to my face more often though". The rooster looked at Nack,

"And what about you Nack; what have you been up to?" The weasel smiled to highlight his single fang,

"Me, I'm just an odd-job man and jack of all trades – I've done everything from paint fences to hunt for mysterious treasures in some God-forsaken crypt", Knuckles suddenly felt extremely relieved that he'd declined to inform the weasel of the Master Emerald, "I never could settle down to a day job, it just got too boring, so I lived on the road all my life". Sonic decided he could empathise with that sort of life when there was a little pressure in his shoulder. Observing the source, he masked a smile as he realised that Amy had simply nodded off due to the very late hour.

"Shadow", he whispered to try and get the black hedgehog's attention, "Shads; Blackie", he rolled his eyes as Shadow whipped around with red eyes steaming; Sonic pointed at Amy's snoozing form to try and calm the ultimate life-form down, "sorry man; ask Jess if there's somewhere for her to kip". The black hedgehog nodded and left his seat to whisper in the mouse's ear.

"Follow me", she mimed with a paw, speaking slowly to let the hedgehog read her lips; Sonic carefully stood up in a manner that didn't disturb Amy and then slowly slid his arms under her, supporting her head and body as he drew himself upright. Turning cumbersomely round, Sonic followed the mouse into a large bedroom where, from the looks of things, Tails was already dead to the world on the king sized bed.

"Set her down there; they'll sleep until morning".

"If not afternoon", all this talk of time forced Sonic to stifle a yawn as suddenly exertion and tiredness yanked at his body and mind; he gently laid the pink hedgehog onto the soft blanket next to his slumbering brother. As he stood up, he noticed how peaceful she looked, innocent and sweet as she slept in bliss; acting on impulse, he brushed a few of her short spines from her forehead. Aww, so cute – shut it you; I'm just making sure she won't get bed hair – yeah right, coughlaircough – I'm not listening, lalalala… Shaking his head Sonic stood up and exited the bedroom, closing the door as slowly and reverently as a groom would remove the veil from his bride's face.

As the celebrations/commemorations began to wind down, the final event of the evening was resolved away from the warm atmosphere of Jessie Wheatear's apartment. Having ditched the Eggmobile and walked into town in the darkness, Seraph quickly entered his own rented apartment. Having swiftly utilised the material he had lifted from Eggman to ensure his needs would be met in the future, the vampire bat crossed the spartan quarters to a small desk with a small, locked drawer and slipped a very fine chain from under the armour around his neck. This chain clinked as a pair of small keys slipped into Seraph's hand; he used the larger one first to unlock the drawer, and thus avoid the paralysing electric shock that would had been released if the lock had been forced. Pulling it open slowly he extracted the sole item contained within; a small book, bound in dark brown leather and sealed with a stainless steel lock on the front. If people had thought this was extreme security for a diary they would have been mistaken; this book was pure dynamite. With great reverence, Seraph inserted the second, much smaller key into the clasp on the front of the book and clicked it open.

As the book fell neatly open its writer examined the pages, remembering precisely where each article recorded in its musty pages was scribed. Primarily, there was a debt gained; leafing through to an unsullied page of parchment, Seraph took hold of the pen that dangled from the book's side and began to write the newest instalment:

Knuckles Echidna: Location Angel Island.

Debt owed for – Unlawful trespass, property damage and theft.

Once his newest task had been recorded the vampire bat turned back through the increasingly fingered pages, right to the very beginning of the book. To him it was simply a mission completed as he read the passage he had scribed, so long ago:

Dr Julian Ivo Robotnik: Location Unknown.

Grudge earned – Destroying Seraph, manipulation of innocents, orchestration of murder.

It was under this that Seraph wrote six new words:

Grudge settled. Rest in peace Seraph.

17