The Best Medicine.

Legal Disclaimer and Random stuff – All the characters in this fiction are owned by Sega; right that's me protected from a lawsuit I can't afford. Just to add I think I've changed Cream's age and personality from the games a little – if Tails is supposed to be twelve, Cream is about eleven (give Eggman some credit – even he could design a machine to beat a six-year old!) She's also not quite as sugar-sweet as she's supposed to be in game – as I see it she's been hanging with Sonic and the crew for a while now and has changed a little because of it.

This fic is a continuation from my first work – Angel of Darkness and Ice. I strongly suggest you read that before reading this, though I don't think it's essential. Hopefully AODAI was the start of a major story arc – the dark angel Seraph will return!

That's the standard notices – now on with the show!

Part 1.

Today's the day Knucklehead, the familiar shadow of Rouge the bat swooped down to land on the pristine grass of Angel Island, the attractive Mobian swinging the small bag from around her waist and checking the contents. She'd been planning this for the past week and had set off very early in the morning to ensure she could get the jump on her erstwhile quarry. A devilish smile broke across her face as she asserted all her equipment was present and correct; pretty soon she'd have Knuckles at her mercy. Grinning at the thought, Rouge ran her tongue along her teeth as she envisioned the scene in a couple of hours, revelling in every tiny detail as her mind allowed her to picture the scene faultlessly. She'd teach that smarmy echidna that if a woman scorned is dangerous, a woman embarrassed could be Lucifer incarnate. Still, it wasn't ready yet; she still needed to find Knuckles then trick him into going under. Well, at least part one's easy…without a second glance she spread her wings and arrowed off into the sky, pin-pointing her destination with ease of long familiarity.

The morning was slightly murky and overcast, but it was still tolerably warm; however, there was no denying that the air was beginning to gain the sharp bite of winter. Due to its higher altitude, Angel Island was always one of the first places to feel the cold snap of the long, dark months and thus its guardian had to ensure his territory was able to resist the grip of the winter's teeth. Knuckles had already done what he could; he'd made sure the emerald shrine was fully bulwarked against the infiltration of frost and freeze-thaw and had just started to trim the highest mushrooms on his island; if one of them toppled the damage could be severe as, despite the lightweight look of the oversized fungi, the damn things probably weighed in the region of a couple of tonnes each. Mushroom trimming; a job from Hell's own wanted column – Knuckles groaned as he realised that was what his day was going to entail. It was hard, gruelling work and the spores kept getting lodged deep in his red fur; no matter how often he stood beneath one of the many waterfalls that trickled down his island, he could grantee there'd still be one of the little grey dust-bunnies in there somewhere. As the guardian stood and stretched, he brightened as he realised he wouldn't be alone in this unpleasant endeavour. Thanks to events in the recent past, he'd have help against these living monoliths of the mushroom world.

It had been three months since the very public trial of Doctor Eggman which Knuckles had been requested and obliged to attend to give evidence. He'd had his turn in the witness box, coolly returning the hateful, slightly demented gaze of Eggman himself as he verified just some of the many crimes the fallen megalomaniac stood accused of. He hadn't been alone in this; Sonic, Shadow, Amy Rose, the Chaotix with the exception of Charmy and Rouge had also taken a stand against their enemy. Tails and Cream had also offered to give evidence but had been deemed too young to take a stand and, as the others had managed to convince them, it wasn't really needed anyway. Their word and the general slating Eggman had received from the press had been more than enough to ensure he was going down for a long time. Knuckles had kept his eyes on the human as the foreman of the jury had read out the verdict guilty to all crimes and had forced himself to repress a shudder; Eggman hadn't reacted, he'd just sat there as though none of this mattered. It may have been shock but somehow the guardian didn't think so; there was something malevolent about the obese human's cold, level stare as he was led away that defied classification and chilled the echidna to the bone. Still, it doesn't matter now; a life-long sentence in a max security unit should give him long enough to think about what he's done. Privately, Knuckles agreed with the judge's closing words – it was a shame the death penalty had been abolished for cases such as this.

As the trial had ended they'd all travelled back to Tails' workshop in the Mystic Ruins where Sonic had simply gone completely ballistic; as he had explained to the others, the day he'd fought tooth-and-nail for had finally arrived; Eggman was gone for good and wouldn't be coming back. The celebrations had lasted all day, most of the night and had continued into the day after that; Knuckles had been rapturously applauded as he'd been presented with a special present from Tails to commemorate the occasion. He now wore it in a small holster on his left thigh; it was a mobile phone that the fox had developed specially to be resistant to the echidna's physical lifestyle. It was shockproof, waterproof, heat resistant and as far as Knuckles could make out, indestructible. Though he hadn't admitted it, he was extremely grateful for this gift as it allowed him to contact the rest of his friends if he needed to. It was that contact that had allowed the guardian to make this job easier; he'd been randomly speaking to Amy when he'd let slip that the island needed some seasonal redecorating. Before he'd known exactly what had happened, the busy pink hedgehog had arranged people, places and transport and Knuckles had found himself with a relief force ready to arrive and lend a hand. He'd set the date for today and all he had to do now was wait for the Tornado to touch down. First though, as always, was the routine patrol of his territory, just on the off-chance someone had found their way here unduly. Flipping to his feet, Knuckles tested the wind, jumped up and began to glide towards his first and most important port of call, the Master Emerald Shrine.

"Is he still in bed?" Amy queried Shadow as the black hedgehog let her into the apartment he shared with her crush.

"Nah, he's just in the shower", he flicked the kettle on as he sat down, his unnatural crimson eyes regarding Amy as he asked, "tea or coffee?"

"Coffee please; white with two sugars", Amy set herself down at the small table and stretched luxuriously, shrugging off her rucksack and straightening her spines as she recounted the order of the day, "so we're waiting for Cream here, then going to the Mystic Ruins and Tails is getting us there in the Tornado".

"Sounds about right", Shadow sorted out a pair of cups from the side and poured milk into one of them, "Knucks said it'd probably take a couple of days to trim the mushies, then there's a section of lava reef he's not too comfortable with, so we'll be about five days; hope you brought enough to eat" he finished light-heartedly, eyes on the pink hedgehog's mighty rucksack. She grinned as she followed his glance,

"There's enough in there to last a three month famine, and enough spare clothes to last if anything goes wrong. Hope you two packed enough?"

"Just food, towels and toothbrushes".

"You don't know how lucky you are". She was interrupted as a door squeaked open and Sonic suddenly appeared in the kitchen door, rubbing the last of spines down with a towel.

"Hey Shads; hi Amy, glad you could make it", the blue hedgehog finished with the towel and threw it absent-mindedly towards the washing machine, "just Cream left to come then?"

"That's about the long and short of it – fancy a tea?"

"Nah, not right now", his eyes fell on Amy's provisions, "Amy, you know this is a helping trip not a mercy mission; Knuckles isn't starving up there". The pink hedgehog stuck her tongue out at him, fighting to stop a smile edging across her face.

"Yes, but unlike you I plan for emergencies; what would happen if we were stranded up there for a few weeks, hmm?"

"Why, I'd rely on your sweet nature and kind heart to provide me with food", Sonic hammed it up gleefully; it was a contest to see who'd smile first between him and Amy, "I know you're far too nice to let anyone suffer".

"And I know you're a shameless flatterer when you want something…rats", Amy lost as she smiled and chortled at Sonic's mortified expression; the blue blur gave a victory pose, grinning as he basked in the warm light of victory. Unseen by the pair of them, Shadow lifted the kettle and bit his lip, desperate not to give the game away by laughing – I need to get a Dictaphone; the bribery would be priceless.

Knuckles dropped to the ground and narrowed his eyes; there was something wrong here, he could feel it in his bones. Creeping closer to the shrine entrance, the echidna stealthily moved forwards, waiting for any hidden aggressors to reveal themselves or any traps they had lain to become plain to his trained eyes. No, it was safe and he carried on, scanning the area with every sense as he waited for danger. The guardian's senses were keener than a knife edge and he rapidly spotted the thing that was amiss; there was a small piece of paper stuck hastily up on the side of the ancient structure and even from here he could give an accurate guess as to what was happening. Only one person he knew would have the audacity to enter the heart of Angel Island and leave a polite notice of the fact.

Once she'd have given her two front teeth to be in this position, but now, now it was different; she didn't want the massive emerald she was currently running her hand over the top of, she had business with the guardian. He was coming; Rouge smiled as she reclined on the steps in front of the great jewel that was the Master Emerald, the light shed from the green gem giving a pleasant ambiance to the chamber, except where the green light was clashing with the bale red of the crimson Chaos emerald that stood on a small plinth off to her left. Though the bat wasn't completely sure, she thought that the Master Emerald somehow held the energy from the smaller Chaos emeralds in check, though quite how that worked was beyond her. She could hear the current guardian was coming down the passageway to meet her and her advanced hearing let her predict the precise second he'd arrive. She ran over the lines in her head one last time and settled down; she had to make this look realistic.

Of all the nerve…Knuckles was not a happy Mobian as he stalked down the passageway, his path lit by the radiance of the jewel he would have sacrificed his life to protect. The note was in a scrunched up ball in his left fist; he'd recognised the handwriting as belonging to Rouge and the message was typically her style: Hey Knucklehead, just admiring the jewel I'll soon own. Come in and chat. Rouge XXX. Though he put on a definite front of anger, and it was at least partially a true reflection on his feelings, he was a little relieved to see her. It had been about a week and a half since they'd last seen each other and even then it was just for minutes as she'd had to dash off almost as soon as she'd arrived. The guardian gave an ironic smile; things just hadn't been the same between them since the events of four months ago and the actions of a vampire bat called Seraph. However, there was a line Rouge should know how to toe and unless she had an impeccable explanation, she'd just crossed it. Advancing into the glow of the central shrine, Knuckles saw her and folded his arms,

"What are you doing here batgirl?"

Perfect, now just remember the plan and go for it. Rouge brought her knees up and waved at the guardian, apparently unconcerned that he was looking like thunder.

"Just admiring my baby", she reached forwards to the Master Emerald, just enough to rile the echidna up.

"Touch that and…"

"Psyche", she turned back to Knuckles and smirked, "every time Knucklehead; I know not to touch the emerald when you're around or you'll throw a hissy fit; give me some credit at least. Anyway, I'm not here for the emerald", Rouge's face suddenly fell and she looked at the floor, voice soft and sincere, "I swear on my mother's name". The echidna nodded and slowly walked towards her.

"I believe you". This was one of the things that had changed as a result of Seraph's intervention, culminating in the dethroning of Eggman and his subsequent imprisonment.

Though it had been four months since the celebrations from that little escapade had died down, the results of them were still echoing throughout the lives of several Mobians. For a start, Knuckles and Rouge had been driven closer together as it had emerged the bat was being hunted by Seraph for some unknown plot and had sought refuge on Angel Island. Despite the best efforts of Knuckles and his friends she'd been taken and, following a frenetic chase that resulted in Eggman's capture and Seraph being cleared of crimes he'd been accused of, the spy had been rescued. Following the trial of Eggman, Knuckles had been receiving her more often as a visitor and, though at first he'd been reluctant to accept she wasn't after the Master Emerald, he had gradually been able to trust her more. For two months things had been fairly formal until one night after Rouge had arrived in a helicopter, thrown the guardian a gun and challenged Knuckles to a paintball duel. The two had spent the better part of five hours hunting each other through the foliage of Angel Island before heading to a nearby stream to clean up. At that point, Knuckles had remembered what to him had seemed a trivial detail from the past:



"Remember when you and Nack were explaining things about the guild; you said you were only twelve when you joined up. How come you were so young?" Looking over from the side of the stream, where he was trying to get white paint out of his fur he saw the bat's body language suddenly slump. Concerned, he moved over to her,

"Something wrong?" She'd turned to face him and the pain he could see made Knuckles realise this was not a joke.

"Sorry, I shouldn't have asked…"

"No, it's not your fault", she had smiled sadly, "Knuckles, can you keep a secret; I know about the Nack example, but this really is private – if I tell you, you have to swear not to tell the others". He had made his decision in an instant.

"Whatever you say next will never be repeated by me – I swear by my oath to the Master". That had been enough; for the next hour she had recited that, at the age of eight, her mother had been killed in a road accident and as she had never known her father, she had been forced into an orphanage. She had hated every second of it, so had decided to leave,

"When I was eleven, I ran away; I couldn't take it any more but, as you can imagine, money was tight. So I did my break in job and the guild found me", she smiled as the guardian sat in stunned silence, "you were right earlier, you know". Knuckles had realised what she meant and smiled back,

"If you hadn't met the guild right?"

"You got it", she had reached over and held his large hand, "thanks Knucks, just for being here and listening – I know you had a tough time as a kid as well".

"Compared to what you went through, I'd say I had it easy", he took strength from her example and spoke about his own past, or what he remembered of it; he had been alone for as long as he could remember. Somehow, sharing the past made it feel less painful.

Knuckles remembered that night well and from it he realised the sincerity behind that promise – he knew Rouge had thought very highly of her mother and wouldn't despoil her memory by going back on that promise. The echidna walked over casually and sat down next to her, looked more exasperated than angry now.

"Okay, you're not after the emerald, so why did you set up camp here?" The bat sighed as though explaining something to a dull-witted pupil.

"Because, my dear guardian, it is very early in the morning and I realised you had not yet woken up. I also knew the first thing you'd do when you did wake up was come here, so I waited for up to turn up". She is not getting away with that!

"Yeah, it is early isn't it", the guardian was mildly curious and itching for revenge for the spy's patronising tone, "you're not normally a morning person; you that desperate to see me?" She looked incredulous as he mentally put them back on level pegging.

"Don't flatter yourself; this is part of my job training", she stood up and suddenly gave an 'official' aura, "a spy should be ready to move out and respond to any situation at any time – I'm working on the early start problem". That should stick – he won't be suspicious.

"Fair enough", that sounded reasonable enough to the guardian, though Knuckles was still trying to make certain things add up in his mind, "but why come here?" To his surprise, Rouge gave a short laugh and offered her hand down to him,

"Part two of my master plan; a spy should be ready to defend themselves at any time and under any circumstances. The gym at the office is not up to requirement any more so I want to train with you".

Wow, she came all this way to do that – something doesn't add up but, she did swear…hmm; Knuckles' mind was in overdrive as he though about what to say next, though he accepted the bat's help in pulling him to his feet. However, training with her would be useful for them both; it was a two way street and could help him in the future, and he'd get to spend time with her, if only for a little while.

"Okay, let's get outside of here first", he decided to give a little barb first and smiled cruelly, "I didn't think you'd go for the emerald now though, remembering the last time…" he tailed off, giving his own smirk as she glared up at him, mouth the thinnest of thin lines.

"Shut…up"; she didn't need reminding of that – it had been a fortnight ago she'd snuck onto the island and even got into the shrine itself before the guardian had arrived to spoil the party like he always did. They'd fought for a bit, though there wasn't any real venom behind the blows as, deep down, neither wanted to hurt the other, before Rouge had decided to call it a day and retreat. She'd run like hell into Mushroom Grove, Knuckles on her tail the whole time, until there'd been a sudden twang and the world had turned upside-down with Knuckles laughing in the background. The echidna had caught her in a damn snare trap and she was being suspended from a tall mushroom by her foot. Knuckles had had a field day; he'd started the snare spinning, taken a photo on his phone and mocked her mercilessly for falling into the obvious trap. The worst bit, however, had been setting her free; the guardian had vanished for a few minutes, leaving Rouge to rave and fume impotently until she heard him come back with a strange sloshing sound. Slowly revolving to face him, she felt her heart stop as she saw the barrels of water he was rolling her way.

"Don't even think about it" she threatened, waving a fist while trying to keep his square in her vision; the echidna had acted hurt even though she could see the evil glint in his eye.

"Why Rouge, I'm offended", she had been confused by this, especially when he had kicked one of the barrels over and the water had seeped into the ground, "all I'm doing is letting you go". She had watched as he had begun to climb the trunk of second fungus; why was he letting her go now? It hadn't been until she had glanced down that she had realised and by then it was too late; ignoring her last plea of 'don't you dare', Knuckles had pushed off and glided towards the rope holding her upwards, slicing it clean through with his knuckle barbs. Rouge had tumbled down and landed with a squelch; the water from the barrel had mixed the dirt path to mud and he'd dropped her right in the middle of it. As she pushed herself up from the mud-angel she'd made, she fixed her eyes on Knuckles' form with murderous intent.

"Give me one good reason…"

"Because I brought two barrels". As she snarled and began to clean up, he had disappeared with a final, unbearable insult,

"You should thank me; I heard mud-packs are all the rage these days". Before she could get to him he had vanished from sight, leaving her steaming and unable to do anything about it. Until now – I'll teach you the sacrifices women make for fashion, Knuckles Echidna.

She's up to something; she'll probably want revenge after the snare trick, so keep your guard up. Knuckles was ahead of Rouge so was able to smile secretly; that had been a bit rotten of him, but hell, she wanted to steal his emerald she lived with the consequences. At the shrine entrance he turned around and began doing a series of stretching exercises designed to warm the muscles up and prevent injury from strain. Rouge did her own exercises for a couple of minutes, loosening off her lethal legs before her opponent finished, turned, grinned and put his guard up.

"Okay, that'll do".

"Umm, Knuckles", she pointed at his phone pouch, "shouldn't you take that off first?" He glanced down and did a double-take as he realised she was right.

"Oh, yeah; I keep forgetting about that". Here it comes…

"Well, I guess the whole technology thing's new to you; just a few years ago you probably thought bashing rocks together was a good idea". …Right on cue; the echidna growled as he casually unbuckled the phone holder and threw it to one side, the action mirrored as Rouge unbuckled the belt bag she wore and put it carefully aside, peeking in when he wasn't looking to make sure all was as it should be.

"I hope you're ready to eat those words".

"I seem to remember your apatite for boot leather; let's do this". With a cry that rattled off the trees, both the treasure hunters charged.

In a fight, to those of you who have never found yourselves in the unfortunate position of being involved in one, it's mostly a matter of instinct. There isn't time for the brain to actively deduce what each limb is doing, calculate the correct move to do next and concentrate on the opponents attacks at the same time. It's all down to speed, reflexes and gut intuition; training just helps to hone these qualities. Both Rouge and her opponent were extremely well trained, so in their battles another factor came into play – luck. A single slip, a second's lapse of concentration due to some outside force, could have settled the match. Rouge exposed her fangs as the bout wore on; Knuckles knew what he was doing both from long experience and personal knowledge of her fighting style and she couldn't help but credit him for that. A smart fighter could learn from their opponents and adjust their style accordingly; when fighting with her Knuckles kept his guard a little lower than he would normally; it was hard for her to reach his head with a kick, so most of her blows went to the body. Her kicks came thick and fast but the echidna could soak up an ungodly amount of punishment and it would only take one of his counterpunches to connect solidly for this to end. For her part, she kept on her toes; the punches Knuckles was famous for throwing took longer to deliver than her snapping kicks, so she had a little longer to dodge the powerful attacks. They also had less reach; by keeping back from him, she forced him to come to her and weather a blizzard of strikes before getting into position to counterattack. Both were beginning to breathe more heavily when Knuckles suddenly slipped, going down on one knee; just the bit of luck she needed.

Without consciously thinking about what she was doing Rouge lashed out, her foot aiming to hit solidly with the side of her opponents head and send him sprawling. What she didn't expect was for him to twist his entire body round, avoiding the kick and at the same time using his own leg as a weapon. Rouge felt an impact on her standing leg and it buckled under her, dropping her into an unbalanced crouch. Before she could right herself Knuckles was onto her; springing forwards from his own crouch he barrelled into her, sending them both to the dirt where due to his greater strength and endurance, he held a crucial advantage. Once down, Rouge couldn't kick and the bout was as good as over; Knuckles grabbed one of her legs and applied a figure four lock to it, increasing the pressure on the ankle painfully but not dangerously – too strong and he'd break the joint. Rouge resisted for as long as was safe and then tapped out, her free hand sounding the submission. As etiquette demanded, the echidna released the hold and stepped back and away from her, letting her come to her feet in her own time. Grateful for the rest, despite the fact it had come from her defeat, Rouge pushed herself up slowly, breathing in slowly to hyperventilate her blood for round two.

"When did you learn to sweep?" she asked crossly, surprised at the unusual tactic from the guardian – as far as she could remember he'd never used his legs in any of their battles. That didn't give her an excuse not to expect it though. Knuckles let a small smile emerge on his fighting face.

"I don't think you'd believe me if I told you?"

"What kind of answer is that?"

"The truth". He honestly didn't think the bat would be able to guess in a month of Sundays. Rouge dusted herself off and put hands on hips,

"Go on then; shock me".


Gotta give him that one – never entered my mind; Rouge stared wide-eyed as Knuckles nodded at her disbelief, mind wandering back as he remembered the circumstances under which the sweep technique had been demonstrated to him in a most painful manner.

"Happened in the first fight; I overbalanced and he swept me", Knuckles explained as Rouge mulled the story over in her mind; Knuckles wasn't known to lie and even if he did, she betted she'd have been able to see through it, "followed it up too".

"Let me guess; axe?"

"Got it in one", Knuckles rubbed his stomach at the memory, "that's how he winded me; caught me low in the gut".

"You were lucky it wasn't the solar plexus", Rouge commented, picturing the attack in her mind, "that might have put you under".

"Yeah, but I slipped then and thought I'd try and surprise you".

"You got lucky", she assured him, taking up her fighting stance with a determined look, "it won't happen again".

"I believe that", Knuckles brought up his guard again, meeting eyes with the bat as he tried to gauge her tactics, "now!" Round two started.

As the training fight on Angel Island began to wind down in tempo, back in Station Square Sonic pricked his ears and said simply,

"Car". Stopping his conversation with the other two hedgehogs on the topic of whether track was better than field t5he blue hedgehog headed for the front door. He opened it and stepped back with a friendly smile on his face as something squeaked and fluttered towards him.

"Cheese, Chocola, come back", Sonic looked up as the chao, hearing their names mentioned, stopped and turned in midair and headed back to the small rabbit that had spoken. Cream plucked her pets out of the air and smiled up at the blue hedgehog, her soft brown eyes radiating the joy and happiness that only a child could truly believe. Sonic caught himself for a second; it was the same fire that burned within his younger brother.

"Hello Mr Sonic". Started by the rabbit's voice the hedgehog looked down at her with an expression of tolerant amusement.

"Cream…" She closed her eyes and put a paw on her face,

"Sorry, Sonic". The hedgehog laughed, moving forwards to help Vanilla with the young rabbit's bag as Amy and Shadow appeared in the doorway, Amy waving at her team-mate.

"Hey Vanilla, let me take that".

"Thanks Sonic", the elder rabbit took a breath as she let the heavy bag slide into the hedgehog's arms, "how have you been?"

"Walking on air since Eggy went down for good". The orange rabbit echoed the hero's smile, glancing at her daughter as she hugged Shadow.

"Tell me about it; Cream was bouncing all over the place when Amy told her and I don't even want to think about what happened with Cheese and Chocola".


"Ever seen a pair of wrecking balls go haywire?" Sonic winced as Vanilla grimaced, remembering the devastation that had resulted when Cream and her two chao had gotten the ecstatic news; she didn't mention she had been as excited as her daughter but then again Sonic didn't really need to know that.

"So how long are you going to be gone?"

"About five days", the blue hedgehog understood Vanilla's concerns; the first she'd heard about the Metal Overlord saga was when Cream's face had appeared on national television and understandably, it had come as a bit of a shock to learn that her little girl was now a hero, "We'll all look after her; nothing's going to happen and even if it does, I've got your number".

"Is it that obvious?"

"Cream's lucky she's got a mum who cares. I can see it because I've got Tails remember?"

"Ah yes, I keep forgetting you two are family, which reminds me", bearing in mind rabbits aren't carnivorous it was remarkable how fierce Vanilla could look when she wanted to, "Cream's been telling me some very compelling stories about you lot teasing Tails – care to comment?" Sonic gave a cheesy grin as his eyes flicked for an exit point,

"Kids these days, you know how active their imagination can be?"

"Don't I just", she's seen through that like a bullet through tissue paper; the rabbit gave a piercing glare before spinning to her child, "Cream, come give me a hug before I go". The young rabbit flew down the path into her mother's arms, planting a kiss on Vanilla's cheek as the pair of chao circled in the air above.

"I'll miss you mum".

"And I'll miss you too", Vanilla stood upright as Cream called her two pets, giving each a squeeze before Vanilla swept them both from the sky; Cream had decided not to take them on this trip just in case they got lost or in the way of work – after the events of the Metal Overlord she couldn't bear to have lost even one of them again. The rabbit made to get into her car, calling to the others,

"Take good care all of you; see you in a few days Cream". Vanilla buckled herself in and started the car up, waving out of the window as Cheese and Chocola appeared at the car window and squeaked. Cream waved back, smiling winningly as her mother pulled away, the two chao still waving their podgy arms from the back window. When the car was out of sight, Cream addressed the three hedgehogs,

"Okay, let's go to the ruins". Amy hefted the carry bag Vanilla had left with them and rubbed the rabbit's long ears.

"Wait a second Cream we all need to get ready first; there loads of time, no need to rush". Shadow leaned forwards, speaking in a very loud whisper to Sonic,

"She just wants to see Tails you know?"

"Yeah, those two are like peas in a pod". Cream straightened and charged at the pair, her ears streaming out behind her as she scolded,

"Don't say things like that", she smiled evilly as Sonic didn't try to stop her and she crashed into him, bending down and going for his legs, "I know your weakness!"

"Not the knees!" Sonic shrieked as he felt a pair of small hands go for his worst spot; he bent down and lifted Cream into the air by her arms; the rabbit had a frightened look on her face as Sonic pretended to be angry.

"Right, that's it", he shifted his hold until he had hold of her by a single hand with the other supporting her bodyweight. The rabbit squealed,

"No Sonic, don't do it!"

"For the crime of attempting to torture me…"

"I'm sorry!"

"…and calling me Mr Sonic…"

"Save me! Save me!"

"…there's only one punishment – Sonic slam!" The blue hedgehog lifted her high into the air and slowly lowered her to the floor at a ninety degree angle, the rabbit screaming all the way down. She felt the ground gently bump her back and faked being mortally injured by the impact as Sonic stood triumphant. He would have given a victory speech had he not been jumped from behind by Shadow, the black hedgehog shouting,

"Cream, I'll hold him, you punch". The orange ball of cuteness leapt to her feet and leapt into the melee feet first, almost winding Sonic as she landed squarely on his belly. He fought to stand up as Shadow grappled him and Cream gently tapped the side of his face, giving the count as he rocked from the impacts as though hit with torpedoes,

"One, two, three, four…" Amy watched the three of them wrestle and her shoulders shook as she tried not to laugh; the two hedgehogs were giving a theatrical performance and Cream was joining in with a will; she jumped at Shadow and tried to tackle him to the floor as he reached down for her.

"You're all kids" the rose hedgehog declared before leaving them to it; she went inside and prepared the drinks for when the play-fight concluded.

"Time". Knuckles hopped back out of range of Rouge's kicks, landing with hands on knees and breathing heavily. The bat went to one knee, looking at her sparring partner with respect; neither of them held back when sparring and it was only due to their respective skills in martial arts that neither had been seriously hurt.

"That was, fun", Rouge heaved in oxygen as she mentally ran a checklist of what she needed to do next; by wearing him down in training maybe his mind wouldn't be quite so sharp, "we should do that again some time". She dropped her head, missing the impact her words had on the echidna; he flashed a glance, a single glance, which held within it his innermost desire and his innermost fear at the Mobian at the centre of both. He shook his head as he returned to re-oxygenating his body, moving slowly into a secondary routine of stretches that would prevent his body cramping up painfully. Rouge did likewise, though her routine was a little more flamboyant than the echidnas', culminating in a full stretch horizontal split. It was towards the end of this that a low growl pervaded the air and Knuckles winced a little; he hadn't yet had breakfast.

"Have you eaten yet?" He asked his sparring partner; while his back was turned Rouge moved towards her bag and crossed her fingers, calling silently on fortune to help her plan succeed.

"Yeah, I ate before I came", facing him, she casually held a water bottle in her hand and acted like she'd taken a swig from it, "fancy a drink?"

"Yeah, thanks". Knuckles extended his hand as he stretched the side of his body close to her; she smirked as she threw the bottle towards his lent over form and he caught it effortlessly one handed,

"Show-off"; keep him talking, just a mouthful and you're mine boy! Knuckles gawped at her as he popped the top off the bottle.

"You can talk about showing off", he raised the bottle and took a squirt of the water it contained; Rouge was barely able to conceal her delight as he choked it down, grimacing at the bitter lemon aftertaste, "what is this, lemon juice?"

"Not quite"; there was a sudden edge in Rouge's voice that sent alarm bells ringing; he spun to face her, bottle dropping from his hand as he moved into battle readiness, or would have if the scenery would stop moving.

"What did you do, to, me" his words were slurred but the anger behind them was unmistakeable; he'd been betrayed by her, again. His arms felt like tree trunks but he lifted them anyway, stumbling towards his enemy as she wiggled her fingers at him. Her mocking face and the words,

"Night, night Knucklehead" were the last things he remembered hearing.

The sleeping powder she'd put into the water had done its job well; it went in and knocked you out for about an hour, then stopped with a minimum if side effects. Knuckles was swaying like a drunk after a heavy night on the tiles as he advanced; by the time he collapsed into her he was already snoring away merrily. Rouge set him down as she recovered her fallen bag and, as an afterthought, Knuckles' phone, though she switched it off before adding it to her possessions. Phase one was complete, the rest should be easy if she moved fast; he hadn't taken much of the drug so it would wear off fairly soon and she wanted him secure by then. As she gathered the fallen guardian in her arms and remembered the direction she needed to go, the thought of looks like Seraph taught both of us something made the spy laugh out loud.

Sonic took a last slurp of the orange juice Amy had provided to the playmates as they finished their wrestling match, Cream having been crowned the victor. Sonic and Shadow had been fighting each other so hard they'd almost forgotten the rabbit until she'd caught them both with a double crab and forced them to tap out. As a reward Cream had been given ice in her juice, something both hedgehogs were looking mutinous about.

"We should get ice too", Shadow whined, looking at his nearly gone drink as though wishing for ice to magically appear, "we fought hard; it's not my fault the faker distracted me".

"Yeah, what he said" the blue hedgehog added, glaring at his black counterpart as Shadow looked at Amy with pleading eyes. Unfortunately the pink hedgehog remained resolute; wagging a finger at the pair of them she began,

"No way; Cream won that one so she gets ice. Besides there's none left now". As she spoke she wasn't aware of movement behind her, or the fact the two hedgehogs were distracting her, until it was too late. Grinning, Cream pulled the back of her dress collar and yelled,

"Bombs away", dropping the dripping ice cube down the back of Amy's red dress.

"Yeeeeccckkk"; Amy went from 0-60 in seconds, leaping out of her chair and prancing about like a lunatic until the ice cube fell loose. Cream and the others watched as she continued her mad dance, offering casual criticism,

"What style do you think it is; break dance?"

"I think it's river dancing". Cream herself giggled as she offered her own advice,

"Well it's certainly not ballet, but", she finished as the rose hedgehog stopped hopping like a frog on a hot plate and advanced in her direction, "this performance is over". Cream took to the air, leaping back out the way just before Amy could reach her.

"You little traitor", Amy pulled out her hammer and brandished it fearsomely, "come down here and let me show you my war dance". Her squad mate simply flew up higher, away from the source of danger as she stuck her tongue out,

"Na, I think I'm safe up here and I was only being nice", Cream hovered overhead, just out of range of Amy's swings, "you gave me some ice so I returned the favour". Sonic and Shadow chuckled while Amy steamed and thrust the hammer away, scowling.

"Just you wait until I get hold of you", she turned around and faced the other two hedgehogs; both immediately stopped their sniggering under her stern eye, "right you two, lock up and pack up; we've got to get to her boyfriend's place".

"That was cheap Ames", Cream looked a little aggrieved as she touched back down; she never even suspected what was going on as Amy span and pounced,

"True, but it got you where I want you", the rabbit squealed as Amy knocked her off her feet, "be with you in a sec guys; I'm gonna tie your ears in a knot you little trickster".

"Help", Cream tried to fight off the hedgehog she'd come to think of as an older sister, smiling all the while as she knew Amy would never even entertain the possibility of doing anything she threatened, "mercy; it was Sonic and Shadow, they tricked me, stop!"

"You little liar; those two would never do anything like that; they're not that dumb".

"Ain't that the truth", Shadow whispered to Sonic, "reckon we should stop this?" The blue hedgehog grinned ghoulishly as Amy pinned Cream and forced the rabbit to start apologising.

"Nah, just pack up and get ready".

"You coward".

"Better to live a coward than die a fool".


A few minutes later the two super speed hedgehogs held a rucksack over each shoulder and decided the best way to approach things was for them to run the luggage to Tails, then run back and grab the girls.

"Nice plan".

"One of my best" Shadow admitted as Sonic snorted and turned away, not wanting to spoil his glory by revealing he'd actually come up with the basic idea and Shadow had simply refined it. Tightening his bags the blue hedgehog nodded and took his mark.

"See you there slowpoke"

"Get ready to eat my dust faker".

"Go", Cream shouted, putting her hands over her eyes as the duo sped away, throwing up a mighty cloud of dust as they disappeared down the road in a super speed race. When the grit and debris had settled she turned to Amy; the pink hedgehog straightened her dress before sitting down on the grass.

"No point getting comfortable, they'll be back any minute".

"No they won't, they'll be about ten minutes", as the rabbit looked at Amy askew, she explained her theory, "two minutes each way due to traffic, plus five minutes boasting and daring at each end combined; we've got some time". Cream totted the total up in her head before shrugging and looking at her watch as she sat next to her friend.

"Bet you a window seat on the Tornado you're a minute out either way".

"You're on"; the Mobians shook on the bet and kept a close eye on the rabbit's watch, waiting intently for the as the time ticked away.

Another person with her eye on the time was Rouge; she was flying over Angel Island with Knuckles still asleep in her arms. She was beginning to pant for air as the fight exhausted her; she had carried Shadow and Omega before now, but not like this; because Knuckles was asleep he couldn't grip her arms so she was having to cradle the echidna to prevent him slipping from her grasp. Holding a weight as heavy as that in an uncomfortable position like this was murder on her arms and shoulders, never mind her poor wings, but she was close now; she recognised the landmarks as correct and put on a burst of speed, drowning out the ache in her body with the knowledge that she was nearly done and soon Knuckles would regret ever putting that snare in Mushroom Grove.

"NOOOO", Cream hid her face with her hands as the two returned hedgehogs pulled up next to the front door; as always it had been a dead heat, "only fifteen seconds left on the ticker".

"Oh dear, looks like I'll be the one with the view then", Amy posed victoriously and answered the pair before they'd even asked, "we had a bet you'd be gone ten minutes – ten forty-five was good enough for me".

"Right", the male Mobians swapped a probably-safer-not-to-ask look before Shadow continued, "well, hop on and we'll ditch this joint". Cream slid onto black hedgehog's back in a piggy-back with a gleeful shout of joy; she loved running with either Shadow or Sonic because of the way the wind whipped her ears backwards; it made it look like a pair of banners had been attached to her head but felt like she was travelling in a racing car with the roof removed. That, of course, was not true – the car hadn't yet been made that could match either of the hedgehogs for speed. At Amy's shout, both took off and the rabbit shut her eyes against the G-force, hugging herself in tight to Shadow's back to lessen wind resistance; she knew the black hedgehog took his races with Sonic very seriously indeed and she had to do everything in her power to help him win.

Tails revved the Tornado in its jeep mode, the fox expertly working the controls to pull out of the garage of his workshop, the vehicle he had built with his own two hands growling like a tame tiger as it responded to his deft steering. When he was clear, he hit a button on the dashboard that locked the garage door behind him and, after double-checking he had enough room for safety, he took a deep breath and hit a second button, this one green and marked with a small, black airplane design. The reaction was instantaneous; the jeep began to ripple and morph under him, the movements and assorted sounds from under the foxboy genius's seat as familiar as the back of his hand. Slowly the Tornado re-emerged into its plane mode and Tails popped open the cockpit, expertly scrambling down the side of the aircraft as he headed for the ground, his twin tails providing an emergency parachute should he slip. Just load the bags on and get ready; they should be here soon; the kit hefted the twin black and steel blue bags he recognised as belonging to his brother and his flat mate and headed up the narrow boarding ramp, the pair of rucksacks hindering his progress a little but not stopping it outright. Quickly securing the two smaller bags in one of the seats, Tails descended again and seized the pink bag that must have belonged to Amy; the designs of a pair of roses on the bag flap a definite giveaway. Tails tugged on the bag and gave a slight yip at the sudden pain in his shoulders; that must have weighed a tonne. Think I'll leave that one; he turned to the last bag and timidly prodded it; ah good, this one didn't seem to be super-glued to the deck. As he slipped it over his shoulders Tails gave a slight smile – this was Cream's bag and had been packed by Vanilla; he could smell the mingled scents of both rabbits with his keen nose. Just as he disappeared into the passenger area of the jet mode, twin plumes of dust were seen on the horizon as the most recent race between Sonic and Shadow approached a conclusion.

"I won".

"Yeah, if you thought we were running a slow race", Shadow grinned at Sonic as Cream hopped down to the floor, "face it faker; you got beat".

"Only in the denial stakes; you just can't bear to admit I'm fastest".

"That's because I can't lie with a straight face".

"Yes you can, you just said you won". Amy decided to end this repetitive argument before it could truly get off the ground; something they wouldn't do if the two hedgehogs didn't stop quibbling about who was the fasting thing alive.

"It was neck-and-neck, a complete tie, wasn't it Cream?" Though tempted to say Shadow was the victor, the rabbit was smart enough to realise this could go on all day if they didn't nip it in the bud.

"Oh yes; a dead heat all the way". Shadow looked at her wounded as though he'd been counting on her support to finally chalk up a win on his friend and rival; she kept her face neutral and innocent through ease of long practice until the black hedgehog shook his head and sighed,

"Okay, no-one won then, but just wait until we're on Angel Island; I'll show you the meaning of speed Sonic". Luckily Tails appeared in the frame of the Tornado's passenger compartment and waved, stopping Sonic from launching a witty comeback and starting the whole cycle again.

"Hey guys, climb aboard", the pilot descended the plane stairs to greet his future passengers, "I've packed everything bar your rucksack Amy, sorry but I couldn't lift it" he admitted sheepishly, rubbing the back of his neck in an embarrassed fashion as the pink hedgehog casually swung her luggage up and over one shoulder.

"Don't worry Tails, I must have over-packed it last night; Sonic said it was heavy as well", she headed towards the Tornado and smiled over her shoulder at Cream, "I'll just relax by my window seat and enjoy the view".

"That's a coincidence, so will I", the rabbit replied; she's going to hate me in a minute, oh well. Amy put her hands on her hips,

"No way Cream, you lost the bet so you face the consequences".

"I fully intend to", the rabbit played her ace, "I'm bound not to sit in a window seat in the passenger compartment; but I never said I'd be travelling in the passenger compartment did I?" Amy felt her mouth fall open – of all the low down tricks…

"So where are you going to be sitting then, the roof?"

"No silly", Cream turned to Sonic as she missed Tails' look of horror and resignation, answering the hedgehog as though it was the most obvious thing in the world, "I'm in the cockpit; I'm the co-pilot".

They are never going to let me live this down; Tails felt the skin of his muzzle begin to heat up as three curious glances flicked his way, each containing a hefty dose of mild indignation and cheek.

"Oh really", Shadow set the ball rolling, "I didn't know you'd been giving her flying lessons Tails". The fox tried to squirm clear, knowing it was probably a wasted effort but going for it just on the off-chance.

"Well, it makes sense; what happens if I suddenly keel over at the flight stick?"

"Cream could give you mouth-to-mouth?"

"No!" Tails felt his face flame at this suggestion from Sonic, cursing himself for getting caught out like that, "she can take over the controls and steer you to safety". I hate you all; I'm installing elevator music in the passenger seating – that and hundred other dire thoughts swirled round Tails' head as he watched the three hedgehogs stifle laughter at his predicament. He knew Sonic had yet to forgive him fully after publicly ridiculing him by revealing his middle name but this was a cheap way of getting revenge.

"Just get aboard you 'orrible shower", the fox ordered the three, trying to sound official and imposing, "strap yourselves in and get ready to go, I've just got to lock up". The fox secured his property as the three hedgehogs complied with his orders, Sonic especially having trouble not sniggering. Cream shook her head at Tails' odd behaviour; she and the others made fun of Sonic and Amy's 'relationship'; this was just the three older teens having a joke about nothing, wasn't it? Still, that was a low shot by Sonic and she had just the thing to cheer the down-in-the-dumps fox up.

"Pay no attention to them Tails".

"I would if I could; Sonic's only trying to get even after the Maurice incident". Cream masked a smile and then grinned,

"Well, don't worry; you know what they say; he who laughs last laughs loudest", she leaned forwards conspiringly, "let's show them how much I've learned". Tails licked his lips, then nodded and returned the rabbit's mischievous grin.

Made it; Rouge saw the familiar squat shape of Knuckles' cabin in the distance, the blocky wooden construction providing a welcome sight for her tired and aching body. Her predicament wasn't helped by the fact that Knuckles was unconsciously moving in his sleep, threatening to fall out her arms onto the hard ground below. This increased risk of slipping forced the bat to fly slower and lower to the ground, a fact her arms and wings were giving her severe grief about as she struggled home. As she landed at the back of the cabin she let out a low groan of relief, tucking her pounding wings away and setting the comatose guardian down to stretch her cramping arms. This pause was only momentary, however, as Rouge was aware that Knuckles was beginning to show signs of throwing the effects of the drug off, kicking and moaning more violently as he began to recover consciousness. Swiftly throwing him over one shoulder, Rouge sprinted into the building itself, reaching into her bag for the things she needed next, a wicked smile on her lips as she realised soon she'd make the guardian rue the day he'd set traps for her.

"Hello, this is your captain speaking", the small voice spoke through the Tornado's intercom, "I'd like to remind all passengers to buckle up and hold tight, just in case". All three passengers looked up in mingled shock and alarm before Shadow asked the awkward question that just begged to be asked.

"Err, Cream, isn't Tails supposed to be flying?"

"Nah, he said I've pretty much got the basics covered so this is going to be my first real flight. Wish me luck". The Tornado's engine powered up and all three hedgehogs rapidly buckled in, fear and apprehension etched in every face.

"Tails, are you sure this is a good idea?" There was a second before the fox answered through the system,

"Oh yeah, trust me, she's a natural; no, pull the stick back to take off!"

"Sorry, I forgot; down to go to the ground". The transforming vehicle began to leave the ground with three hedgehogs praying that Cream's first flight wouldn't prove to be their last.

There was something soft underneath him and he couldn't feel any hint of a breeze; where was he? He was probably indoors, but he hadn't slept in his cabin last night; he never did unless it looked like it would rain during the night. Knuckles blinked his eyes open as he tried to rub an itch on his nose only to find he couldn't move his arms, they were being held in place. Leaning his head upwards, the echidna realised there was a very good reason why he couldn't move his arms, or his legs for that matter; all his limbs had been tied to one of his bedposts with thick, soft cord. He'd been…Rouge! The echidna snarled as fury stoked the furnace of his heart; all this time, all that talk and she'd just turned around and plunged a dagger in his back. He threw himself against his restraints, trying to free himself as his imagination pictured the spy making off with the Master Emerald, his slip causing the island to start plunging into the ocean, if it wasn't already there. Reining his anger in, the echidna breathed steadily for a few minutes, trying to use his innate connection to the emerald to see if it had been touched since he'd been under. The relief that poured out of him as he realised the power at the centre of Angel Island stood there still and was safe, for the moment at least, was very nearly tangible; he hadn't been punished for his mistake, at least not yet.

Quickly testing his bonds, the guardian snarled as he realised he wasn't going anywhere fast; Rouge had done a professional job on this. Settling down for a second, the logical, ration part of Knuckles' mind was already pointing out something wasn't right here. As far as he could remember, they'd been sparring outside the shrine itself, he'd taken a sip of the drink she'd offered, then he must have gone under; the lemony taste of the water must have been some kind of sleeping draught. Right, that explained how he'd been tricked but, if the spy had been after the Master, why bring him here? It was a fair step from the shrine to his home, even in the air; surely she would have tied him at the shrine and left him there. She also promised she wasn't after it as well, she wouldn't go back on a swear like that; though he'd be the first to say the bat wasn't honest, the echidna couldn't believe Rouge would go back on her word like that. What was…as he heard a creak by the foot of his bed and looked up, he realised he'd soon get answers if he wanted them or not.

Please Lord, let me survive this trip and I'll never ask for anything again as long as I live. To say Sonic Hedgehog was a little nervous would be the world's greatest understatement; they'd been in the air less than ten minutes and already they'd hit turbulence that should have belonged in a hurricane, Cream accidentally cutting off power to the engines and sending them into a downwards spin and a running commentary from the front seats that sounded like Tails was having to perform a modern-day miracle just to keep them in the air.

"Okay Cream, that's it", the fox sounded at least slightly calmer now, breathing as though he'd just run a marathon, "we're now on course for Angel Island; just keep the plane on the straight and narrow and we'll be there in about thirty minutes".

"Thank you", Sonic heard a voice say quietly; it took him a few minutes to realise it was his own, and even longer to prise his grip off the armrest on his seat. Glancing along the blue hedgehog felt slightly mollified as he realised he wasn't the only one going through this nerve-jangling hell. Shadow, who was sat opposite and slightly to the side of him, was slumped in his seat, breathing rhythmically with his eyes tightly shut and Amy was gripping onto her seat belt as though trying to throttle it. Swallowing nervously, the blue hedgehog dared to query,

"Do you think that's the worst of it?"

Not by a long shot buster; Tails grinned as he planned the next move, his hands on the controls of his machine as Cream sat in the co-pilot seat, shaking with laughter as she realised how big an effect this was having on the hedgehogs in the back. Tails noticed the look on the rabbit's face and breathed out the corner of his mouth,

"Don't laugh; you'll give the game away". Cream clapped her hands over her mouth as she fought the giggles down; this plan was going perfectly and then some. Tails suddenly straightened in his seat and from the look on his face she could see he was onto something big. Turning to her, the fox mouthed three words that sent a thrill up her spine; she grinned and gave a thumbs-up as the two younger Mobians prepared their nastiest surprise yet.

Just as Shadow began to relax and feel the tension ease from his whipcord taut body, a sudden burst of noise from the front filled him with dread.

"Hey Tails, look what I can do".

"What, no Cream, no tricks", Shadow gripped onto the armrests hard enough to leave an indent in the plastic as the Tornado began to pull up alarmingly. Shouts of alarm from the passengers filled the interior of the Tornado as the machine completed a full loop in the air were answered with an ecstatic cry of,

"Wahey, loop-de-loop!" That was enough for the black hedgehog and his shattered nerves.

"Tails make her stop; for the love of God, take over the controls now". He was backed up voraciously by shouts from his friends; if the fox didn't take over soon they'd all go grey and fall over dead from heart attacks. He expected compliance, he expected a sincere apology and offers of reparations; what he didn't expect was a sudden outburst of laughter from the front seats.

"Gotcha", a pair of victorious voices chimed in through the radios, "that'll teach you to tease us". Amy sprang up as she saw in her mind what the devious pair had been doing; the urge to hammer down the door that adjoined the passenger seating and cockpit was almost irresistible.

"Are you saying you planned all this?"

"Yep", Tails sounded unbearably smug as he spelt out what had happened, "you're all safe; I've been flying the whole time". At first it failed to sink in; Tails and Cream would never, ever play a trick as evil, as cruel, as that, never in a million ears, right? Wrong!

"So all that talk about this being your first flight was nonsense?"

"Yep, though I have been taking lessons", the rabbit admitted; perhaps it was for the best that the pilot and co-pilot couldn't see their friend's faces darken and hands clench as though gripping weapons, "though I'll have to tell Mum the acting classes are working wonders; you were all hoodwinked good".

"Oh yeah you got us all", Shadow admitted softly, shrugging his shoulders at the other two as he realised maybe they had been a little harsh in teasing the younger Mobians, "make you a deal; no more flying stunts and we'll stop saying you two are in luurrrvvveee!"


"Starting now".

"Okay, you got a deal". Tails concentrated on the task of flying as Cream straightened her ears out again; though tricks like loop-de-loops were fun, they always made her ears fall out of place and it was a pain to sort them out again.

"Guess we got them good huh?"

"Yep, that'll teach 'em", Cream offered her hand to the pilot, "put her there". Tails shook with his free hand, smiling all the while,

"Pleasure acting with you Cream".

"And likewise Tails". There was a second of silence before Sonic's voice boomed over the speaker.

"Hey, no canoodling in the front seats". The two dropped their hands and shared a joint shrug; Cream put her hands on her head and Tails wrenched the control stick hard to the right, listening to the sudden shrieks from behind them.

"Barrel roll!"

He's nervous but hiding it well; probably trying to think what my plan is, well I'm not going to tell you; Rouge smiled pleasantly as Knuckles growled up at her with bared teeth from his prone position. He had left her to stew in worry and doubt not so long ago in the Mushroom Grove, now she was going to repay the favour and, she admitted privately, enjoy herself at his expense as an added bonus.

"Morning Knucklehead, sleep well?"

"What did you do to me?" Rouge laughed as he tried to shift position to keep her square in his vision at all times.

"Just a mild sleeping tablet, enough to knock you out for about thirty minutes, nothing serious". He put on a sarcastic face and looked upwards as though asking for patience,

"I would argue otherwise", he said caustically, trying to move his immobilised arms as if to underline his point, "what do you want Rouge; you're not after the Master Emerald are you?" It was the tone that made the difference; rather than the angry accusation, this was a more considered question, as though to confirm some private line of thought, something the bat was all too happy to do.

"No, I'm not", she sat down on the bed next to him, smiling wickedly as he regarded her with narrowed eyes, "this is a more, personal matter". That doesn't sound good – okay, I'm worried; Knuckles tried to make sense of the bat's words but before he could ask she had carried on talking,

"This is about revenge; when I'm through with you, you'll wish you'd left me hanging around in Mushroom Grove!"

Uh oh; Knuckles tried to compile a mental list of what that revenge could entail and barely suppressed a shudder – it really didn't bear thinking about. He was pretty much helpless now and from the wicked gleam in the bat's eyes he reckoned he was officially 'in trouble'. He moved onto delaying tactics,

"Nice move", he commented as though bored, "how long did it take you to think it up?" Rouge raised an eyebrow; she had an idea of what the echidna was up to but decided to play along for now.

"Not too long, though I had to get up really early this morning to make sure I could pull this off", she smiled at her helpless quarry, "you should feel honoured".

"I'm humbled, now let me up, I've got…"

"Not a chance", Rouge hissed, itching to get on with her ultimate plan of delicious, sweet revenge, "I've got all sorts of things planned for you and speaking of which, I reckon we should get started". Okay, brace for impact; Knuckle was smart enough to know he'd not talk her out of this so decided on option two.

"Well come on then, spill; what is this great plot of yours then?" Rouge clapped her hands like a child, basking in the warm glow of superiority for as long as possible and drawing out the echidna's torment as much as she could.

"Oh, you're going to love it; in fact you gave me the idea", when he looked suitably confused she carried on, "well when you were kind enough to treat me to a free mud-pack I realised how lucky I was to have a friend like you. Now it'd be churlish of me not to repay the favour so I decided to go for it in full. I reckon you'll look good with bleached dreads".

Knuckles' face fell into a look of pure horror as he imagined…no, that was inhumane; he made to argue only to see a camera flash in front of him.

"No, Rouge, that's cruel"; the image of him gliding with long blond dreadlocks flowing past his head – he shuddered, unwilling to contemplate the idea. The bat replaced the camera and smirked; he was in the palm of her hand and she was going to make him squirm and plead through every minute of this.

"Well, let's get going; we don't have a second to lose".

"Rouge, please no", Knuckles had decided logical argument wasn't going to help him and sacrificed his pride on the altar of hope, however forlorn it may have been, "I beg of you, don't do it, not my dreadlocks".

"Oh don't be such a wimp", Rouge reached for the small bag she'd brought with her and the bottle of peroxide it contained, "you'll love it when I'm done". She'd hung the bag on the other side of the bed to where she was sat; she leant one hand on Knuckles' gut to stretch for it, barely registering the contact. It was only when her hand slipped that she paused in her attempt.

Oh man, oh man, oh man, I'm doomed Knuckles thought in a panic, trying to think of something, anything that might just help him in his current predicament at the same time as ignore the small hand resting on his stomach, reasoning won't work; she's steamed I caught her in that trap, oh why didn't I just …hey, cut that out!

Rouge stopped suddenly as her hand moved minutely and the skin it was resting on fluttered in response, her mind weighing something up in a second. Acting like she'd failed to reach her bag, she tried again, this time keeping one eye on the echidna's reaction as she 'slipped' again. Oh boy, this is getting better and better; Knuckles squirmed away from the touch and the merest ghost of a smile tugged the corners of his mouth. The bat pushed off of him, a truly evil grin now flourishing on her pretty face as she decided on a different course of revenge.

"Well, well, there's something I never suspected". Knuckles tried to cover up but deep in his lilac eyes, Rouge saw he had an inkling of her discovery and was afraid of it.

"And what would that be batgirl? You had a secret desire to be a hairdresser all along?" The guardian gave a snort of contemptuous laughter; that sealed it for Rouge and the bat drew her arms back as she shouted,

"No, this!" She plunged her hands forwards, tickling the guardian's stomach furiously. Knuckles seized up, writhing at the infuriating touch as a few strangled snorts escaped his lips; he was desperate not to show weakness as he knew once she had a taste for blood there was no hope for him at all. Rouge kept her eyes on the guardian's scrunched up face and the way he was trying desperately to get away from her. This is childish, but then again so was he; payback's hell Knucklehead. She carried on the attack, scurrying her fingers across his belly as he threw his face to the side, not wanting her to see just how hard he was having to fight not to crack under the strain.

"You know what they say Knucklehead; hell hath no fury". The echidna couldn't answer back for fear of breaking down into helpless hysterics; Rouge had found a secret about him even he hadn't been fully aware of and, typical batgirl, was exploiting it to the max. Just as Knuckles felt his lungs were about to explode inside him she relented, stopping the torture before he burst a blood vessel and allowing him to take a deep breath, mind temporarily scrambled by the unforeseen torture as he tried to restock the situation. In the few second's grace he had, he managed to deduce only one simple statement; Maybe the dyed dreads wouldn't have been so bad.

Rouge had to literally force herself not to strike too soon and potentially ruin everything – she wanted Knuckles to just start to recover, that was when he'd be weakest. Now; just as the guardian's breathing began to mellow out slightly she resumed the tickling attack, pushing slightly harder and grinning broadly as this time Knuckles couldn't hold it back; the echidna laughed wildly and jerked around like he'd been hooked up to the mains.

"No Rohohohouge", Knuckles was at a complete loss; all he could think of was that he couldn't take this anymore, "please, stohohohop!"

"Not a chance", the spy had to hold in some giggles of her own; the sight of the one Mobian who could usually battle her to a standstill in a completely ridiculous state of hysterics was somehow incredibly funny, "laughing is supposed to be great exercise; you should thank me". Knuckles tried to glare at her but couldn't hold it for longer than a millisecond,

"You're dead" he managed to promise before she changed targets, going for the ribs instead; Knuckles simply collapsed – he'd been hit like this before but only ever in play, with Sonic and the others as they all mock-fought together. He had no idea he was this ticklish, and he also hadn't had the faintest inkling that it could be such an effective method of reprisal. As it wore on his breathing became more ragged and his normally razor-sharp mind became increasingly tunnelled until all he could think of were two equally demanding and co-joined thoughts; I need to get away from here and I need her to stop this now! Though understandable, the sudden lack of memory meant that Knuckle had completely forgotten about the five Mobians currently inbound to his island.

Rouge nearly had to wrench her hands away to allow Knuckles time to breathe; part of her wanted to carry on tickling him, hear him laugh more but she eventually fought it down, realising that he was now even redder in the face than normal and becoming exhausted from the torment she was putting him through. He needed a little rest, but then only a little; no more than a few…

"Why, are you, doing this?" Rouge looked around surprised; apparently Knuckles had managed to recapture his breath faster than even she had predicted and was now glaring up at her reproachfully. She replied with a sugar-sweet smile,

"You know my problem; I've got too big a heart". The echidna shook his head a little, great, just what I need, she's making even less sense than usual.

"And just what's that supposed to mean?"

"Isn't it obvious", next target identified – keep him talking; Rouge rolled her eyes as she slowly stood up from the bed and stretched, Knuckles tracing her every movement with nervous eyes, "after your heartfelt plea, I couldn't bear to have touched those long, girly locks of yours", she faced him again and he quailed at the sparkle of sheer mischief in her eyes, "so I decided this was a better way to get my own back". Knuckles couldn't believe it; she'd gone mad, that was the only explanation – there was no way the Rouge he knew could ever act this, this, childish? Was that even the right word for this insanity?

"You've gone nuts", he tried to voice his belief and would have continued if she hadn't pounced and driven in under his arms, dissolving him into a shrieking mess again. As she tickled, Rouge grinned and leant in close to the echidna's wagging head, whispering into his ear.

"Rule number one of negotiations Knucklehead; when you're helpless and relying on goodwill to survive, it pays not to hack the other party off". The echidna turned suddenly and did the only thing he could to strike back at his harasser; it was infantile and would probably get him into more trouble but he did it anyway. Forcing his face as close to hers as possible, Knuckles blew a raspberry at the smirking, torturing bat, grinning evilly as she leapt away from him. He chortled as she slowly wiped the side of her face and even managed a spur of the moment punch-line.

"Helpless am I Rouge; still got you going though didn't I?" What the hell am I doing; I'm supposed to be a responsible adult.

Rouge slowly and deliberately stroked the few stray flecks of saliva out of the fur of her cheek, mind having planned revenge on the impudent echidna down to the finest detail. She stepped forwards and wiggled her fingers at her smirking nemesis as she bared her fangs.

"Bet you think you're really smart don't you?"

"I don't think; I know I'm really smart, smarter than you at least". Keep on digging; Rouge gave a saucy smile as she moved out of range of his lethal tongue, remembering her previous attacks and where she had received the best reactions out of him.

"Well guess what; when I'm through with you you'll be screaming for mercy". Knuckles weighed up his options before thinking I'm damned if I do and I'm damned if I don't so what the hey.

"Nah, I'll be screaming to drown out your girly voice". I can't believe he just said that – he's gonna pay! That insult let Rouge break out the little imp in her; with a playful roar she let rip with her most devastating attack yet; Knuckles didn't stand a chance.

"Gaahahahahaha, stoooop", pleading was next to useless but the guardian was out of ideas, "please, no mohohohore; you'll kill mehehehehe!"

"No way smart guy", Rouge was grinning almost as much as Knuckles as she piled on the pressure, completely giving in to her inner child as she realised she hadn't had so much fun since she couldn't remember when, "you're so clever; think your way out of this". She moved back to his stomach, expertly remembering the best spots as Knuckles ran out of air to laugh with; he quivered and heaved with dry laughter for seconds before Rouge took a little pity on him and backed off, allowing him to gulp down atmosphere again.

"ETA five minutes people"; as that declaration echoed around the interior of the Tornado it was all Sonic could do not to fall to his knees and offer thanks that the nightmare would soon be over. Having made his declaration through the speaker to his younger brother and thus voided Shadow's bargain he, Amy and Shadow had been subjected to barrel rolls, a second loop-de-loop and an entire minute of doing nothing but flying upside-down. He and the other two sufferers had only survived by quietly whispering what they'd do to the pair of pilots when they landed in revenge. Personally Sonic had thought no-one would be able to trump his hanging them up by their flight appendages from a nearby tree idea but Amy was so far in the lead with a true deadly, degenerative revenge scheme. The pink hedgehog had told them about Knuckles telling her that the mushroom trimming meant a lot of spores were dislodged and, according to him, they burrowed deep into fur and were a real pain to dislodge. Collecting a bucketful then dumping the pair of them into it sounded like such a tempting prospect that Sonic was almost desperate to get at those mushrooms right now.

"Soon be time, right?"

"Oh yeah", Sonic found himself sharing Shadow's diabolical smile, "soon they'll wish they'd never agreed to this trip dudes".

"Do you reckon Knuckles will help? He'd be a real asset in getting these spores for us and all". Good idea in theory Amy, but I doubt it; Sonic had known the echidna for too long to even entertain the notion that he'd be up for any kind of prank or joke; even on the few occasions when he did deign to join in their games he usually had to be dragged in kicking and screaming.

"I don't think so Ames; he's a great guy but Knucks is a real stick-in-the-mud. I reckon we'll have to do this one alone". The rose hedgehog shrugged as she settled back in her seat, eating up the distance to the now visible Angel Island with her eyes as though she could almost feel the ground beneath her feet.

"Oh well, at least if we all work together we'll pull this off right?" Shadow nodded, his red eyes glinting with inner fire as he put his hand forwards,

"Together we stand" he intoned as Amy and then Sonic put their paws atop his and informally shook on it; Tails and Cream were going to cop it full on before the day ended.

"You are so dead when I get free". Knuckles panted as he regained a small measure of composure, bracing up his shattered mental barriers to try and withstand another assault for at least a few seconds. Not that it's any help right now…what is she doing now? Rouge had her back to him and that made him nervous. He started when she jumped up, rubbing her hands gleefully as she turned to face him again.

"I know", uh oh, "I'm going to make you a deal Knucklehead". The echidna rolled his eyes and shifted a bit on the bed, waiting for her to ask for the one thing he could never give her.

"I'll stop, if…" he's never going to believe this; I hope he says no – I'll get to torture him for a bit longer. Knuckles bit back a sigh as he realised she was waiting for him to ask the dreaded question.

"If?" He prompted, secretly dreading the answer and praying he had enough inner will and resolve to survive anything she threw at him.

"…if you admit I'm a better treasure hunter than you!" Knuckles nearly let his jaw drop open as the question reached his ears and Rouge smirked at his gormless expression. For a second the echidna was about to say it, but then his spirit, the strength that drove him to carry on and never give up, rose to the surface and drowned out all his fears and concerns. A grim, defiant smile crept onto his face as he looked her dead in the eye,

"No, way". Rouge folded her arms and smiled right back at him, rejoicing inwardly as she mentally planned how she could attack him this time.

"You're a glutton for punishment aren't you?" Knuckles stuck his tongue out at her and said defiantly,

"Do your worst". Rouge thrust out her hands and spread the fingers wide as she declared,

"No mercy" and sprang.

Knuckles held out for a few seconds longer than he had planned but no more, giving way into helpless laughter as Rouge carried on tickling; this was a planned strategy from the spy and this stage, at least, was a little more controlled than her other attacks, testing his resistance. Though still suffering, Knuckles was able to keep a modicum of control and even talk for seconds at a time. As the torture dragged into minutes she made an observation,

"You need to laugh more", she burrowed into his ribs as she said it as if to emphasis the point, "all that scowling you do makes you look old". Rouge slowed up a touch to let her prisoner snatch a breath and reply,

"Well I guess you'd be the expert there". Rouge felt a faint flush on her cheeks and snarled,

"You cheeky…right that's it!" She suddenly turned on the gas and left Knuckles gasping for air to fill his aching lungs.

"Apologise for that right now!"

"Okay, sorreehehehehe"; Knuckles had nothing to lose by saying that and even he knew enough about women in general to know that joking about their age was usually painful, "ahhhaha, stoooop!"

"No way", Rouge added a little word play to confuse and weaken the guardian, "you're enjoying it too much". Knuckles sat up as much as was possible to try and see her, confusion written on his face as she lunged for his underarms, causing him to collapse onto the soft bed again in a chortling heap.

"Whahahaahat; you're nuts!"

"No; you're laughing so you must like this".


"Stop laughing and I will".

"I can't".

"Because you like it". Knuckles saw through the trick at last and realised he couldn't argue his way out; Rouge had the conversation stitched up like a kipper. The guardian snarled; this was a matter of pride now and he'd never lost a battle for that before.

"I'll get yohohohohohou!" Rouge gave a playful scowl and upped the tempo of her tickling attack, rendering Knuckles nearly completely incoherent as tears started to form in his eyes and his poor, tired jaw began to ache. In the tiny part of his mind that hadn't been reduced to babbling mush the echidna realised he still had a chance, but it was far too slim to take now, he had to resist for a little while longer before he could use it fully.

"Thank you for flying Skyfox airlines". As the Tornado landed on the rough landing strip of Angel Island Tails and Cream had their strategy for escaping punishment worked out in advance and then some; the radios the fox had installed were more powerful than the hedgehogs had realised and, though missing specifics, both younger Mobians had got a general gist that getting caught could be fairly unpleasant. As soon as the momentum of the plane had died and the passenger ramp was deployed, Tails popped the top of the cockpit and threw off his safety harness, struggling to rise to his feet as soon as was possible. Quickly now; Sonic'll be here any second, gotta get safe before then; the kit stood on his seat and the twisted his tails to grab some sky, flying vertically upwards with Cream alongside him, both rapidly gaining altitude and starting to head for a nearby tree just as twin blue and black blurs raced up the side of the cockpit.

"Rats, they're getting away". Shadow pointed the direction the duo were flying in to Amy, who watched on as they touched down in the branches of a tall tree. She snickered as she was joined by the unsuccessful pair of Sonic and Shadow; the first part of the plan to bush-whack the pilot and co-pilot as they landed having gone belly-up.

"You two look like you're building a nest". From his vantage point Tails saw Sonic's trademark smile edge into view and grimaced; three, two, one and…

"Yeah, a love nest at that". Cream, sitting on a low bough and smoothing out her dress, was stung by that shot and shouted back,

"Listen 'Mr. Sonic'", that shut the blue hedgehog up, "it's that kind of comment that made us try that trick out. You want some more of the same; we've got to fly you back remember". Sonic swallowed his pre-formed retort and thought hard, gesturing for Amy and Shadow to come closer into a huddle.

"What do you think they're up to?"

"Reckon it's a plan; stay sharp" Tails warned the rabbit, concentrating on what his friends on the ground were doing and trying to put himself in their position; you've just been fooled into thinking your lives were in danger when they weren't – what plan would you do to get revenge? Tails sank his fist onto his chin as he knitted his brows, there was a lot of options for the scheming threesome and none that he could think of catered for the possibility of Cream or himself enjoying it much. He was thinking so much that Cream's hushed whisper of,

"They're back" nearly caused him to tumble to the ground in surprise. Glancing down, the fox realised the huddle had broken and it appeared Shadow had been elected as spokes-Mobian. The black hedgehog walked a little closer to the tree-hugging pair and looked up at them.

"You guys, listen up", the former ultimate life-form spelt out what the three had decided, "we all just decided that we're not going to try anything on you", before they could register the inklings of disbelief the black hedgehog had pressed on, "we may have been a bit harsh in teasing you two, so you did what you had to do to get a bit of revenge".

"Yeah we did, and it was sweet as" Cream told him, carefully observing the reactions of the three as she said it – doesn't look like they're angry, this might be the truth. Sonic spoke up next as she mulled over what could happen next,

"Yeah, but anyway, here's what we'll do; we'll call it quits at this – draw a line under the lot of it and pretend it didn't happen. Sound okay?" The fox and rabbit held a brief conversation before Tails answered his elder brother,

"So far, keep talking". Sonic nodded and carried on,

"Right, what we want from you is a promise – you're not going to try any of that stuff on the way back. For our part, we'll lay off the snide remarks and jokes…"

"Like you did last time?" Cream was vividly reminded of Sonic's voice in the Tornado causing Tails to lead off into a barrel roll.

"…and I mean it this time" the hedgehog finished, looking up and waiting for an answer as the two Mobians up in the tree reconvened and took stock of the situation.

"What do you think?" Cream scratched one of her ears as she puzzled over it; Sonic had sounded sincere and it wasn't like any of her friends to lie, but then again that had been a major stunt they'd just pulled. The rabbit made her mind up slowly as she licked her eyes to the hedgehogs one last time,

"I say we make them promise on it, and we will as well. If they do, we go down to them. Sound good?"

"Fair enough", Tails agreed before shouting down, "okay, but you lot have to promise, and keep your fingers where we can see them". Been caught out by that once too often Sonic. To his surprise all thirty fingers were swiftly exposed and the promise repeated swiftly; the hedgehogs had realised that if they didn't swear on this Tails would make the trip here look like a fly-past on the way back.

"Okay, we promise" three voices chorused before Amy piped up,

"Now it's your turn". The two young Mobians repeated the promise before gliding gently to the ground, still wary of any reprisal movements. One collective thought echoed unknown through all five as the pair merged with the trio – whew, glad that's over. It was as the five began unloading their equipment that Sonic suddenly noticed something strange.

"There's something missing here", the blue hedgehog was kicking himself mentally for not realising it earlier; now he'd seen it he couldn't believe he'd missed it for so long. Amy set her bag down and looked at him questioningly,

"What's that?"

"Give you a clue", Sonic smiled as the others took an interest, looking up from their bags, "it's a bit taller than me, red and white all over and it's had its sense of humour surgically removed". Tails glanced about as he cottoned on – this was definitely a strange turn of events.

"Good point; where's Knuckles?" The aura of confusion that had been present suddenly dissipated to be replaced with an equally powerful emotion of concern; as Shadow pointed out, Knuckles was usually nothing if not punctual.

"I hope Mr. Knuckles is alright" Cream said aloud; she hadn't talked to the guardian as much as she had the others, but he'd been polite to her when they had met and she didn't wish harm on anyone, except maybe Eggman. Noticing the rabbit's face fall Amy stooped and lifted her chin with one hand, smiling at her as she worked out the most likely reason behind the guardian's mysterious absence.

"Don't worry Cream; Knuckles is probably just starting without us. He always likes to start the job early", when she saw the rabbit brighten, she looked up at Sonic and Shadow, "why don't you two go look for him?"

"Sure thing, could do with a run – you check the shrine, I'll go to his place, it's not too far from here". Cream looked up as Shadow spoke,

"Can I come, Mr Shadow? Please?" The black hedgehog gave a thumbs-up and squatted down, allowing her to grip onto his back.

"Be back in a second folks". Before Sonic could start heir usual pre-run smart talking Shadow had fired up his jet skates and taken off, Cream's lingering yell of delight the only sound to mark his passage. Sonic shrugged and decided to follow his lead – deep down, he was a little rattled by rad red's no show and the sooner he could find him the sooner he'd be able to start, and finish, the task at hand. As he ran, Sonic mentally ran a checklist to try and deduce what could have been keeping the echidna; the thought of Rouge did enter his mind but he dismissed it in an instant – even if it was her, he'd show up soon enough and, together with the guardian, offer some gentle convincing to get her to leave the island in peace.

Oh my God; I think I've killed him; Rouge became a little more concerned as, during a few seconds pause Knuckles simply slumped backwards, breathing shallowly with his eyes closed. His red fur was damp with sweat and the dreadlocks she had so recently threatened to bleach were nearly stuck to his cheeks, thrown there as he'd whipped his head from side to side during her most recent tickling.

"Knuckles?" No response – the bat crept a little closer to the echidna's face, entertaining the possibility he'd actually fainted due to a lack of oxygen to the brain. She smiled as she quickly swept his errant hair back to its usual position, the thick cords of red fur tucking in behind his ears. He looks different when he's not actually guarding the Master Emerald; he's kinda cute; Rouge sniggered a little herself as she realised that something she'd said earlier was actually true Knuckles was often far too serious for his own good; the permanent scowl that seemed glued onto his features had left deep, premature crow's feet around the corners of his mouth. Such a shame really; at times the bat had to consciously remind herself that he was actually younger than her, though not by much more than a year. Eighteen going on eighty – poor guy; Knuckles, and her main feeling towards him, was an enigma to the spy – did she envy Knuckles for having the Master Emerald and his own floating island, or pity him for being imprisoned by them? She started back to the present; she was in the ascendancy now and she wasn't about to let him losing consciousness spoil her fun.

"Knuckles? Knuckles wake up" she commanded, leaning in a bit closer and walking right into a second trap.

She's touching me again; my dreadlocks, she's just moving them out of the way. Knuckles faked the act of falling on the borders of unconsciousness well; he didn't twitch or jerk away as his tormentor stroked the side of his face, just lying their relaxed, aching body grateful for the rest. She was still for a while longer, maybe thirty seconds before she moved again; shifting her bodyweight so she was closer to him.

"Knuckles? Knuckles wake up". As soon as he felt the heat of her breath on his face he sprang his trap; regardless of how much she was going to make him pay in the future, he took his opportunity with both hands and decided to get one over on her.

She saw him smile and realised she'd been had; Rouge tried to move backwards in time but didn't have a chance. Knuckles reared up as much as was possible for him and the spy felt something wet and hot strike the side of her face as she clawed her way backwards, the echidna's mockery ringing in her ears as she realised what had happened – Knuckles had hit her with his lethal tongue for a second time! She was unsure of whether to be impressed, furious or disgusted but above all there was the urgent need for revenge, especially as Knuckles was aptly demonstrating he'd recovered the ability to laugh.

"And you call me gullible", the echidna snorted as Rouge glowered at him, "at least I didn't get caught out twice by the same trick". Real smooth slick; she's gonna make you pay for that – shut up; I enjoyed it – look out, she's getting ready. Taking a deep, calming breath, Rouge stood up slowly, arching her wings and casting the prone echidna into shadow; before he could get ready she had begun her final assault; this time she wouldn't stop until Knuckles had admitted the truth as she saw it.

Oh nooooooo! Knuckles realised there was no way he could stand up to this for long; Rouge was going all out on his very worst spots; not his ribs directly, but the gaps between his ribs. The echidna howled with renewed ferocity he hadn't even known he'd had left in him. She wasn't giving him any breaks; this was a pure, relentless assault that would only end one way – the guardian felt ten fingers scrap against his ribs again, hitting with the exact amount of force necessary for him to arch his back and shriek out loud.

"Shadow, stop!" The sudden shout from his passenger almost sent the black hedgehog sprawling but he managed to recover and pull up, albeit in an ungainly fashion. Twisting to look over his shoulder, Shadow asked,

"What?" Cream put a finger to her lips,

"Listen"; Shadow stood still, dimming the flames on his jet shoes as he stood still as stone and…yes, there was something there – it was faint but he could hear it. It sounded like someone screaming, and more importantly it was coming from the direction he wanted to go in. Hardening his eyes, the black hedgehog whispered,

"Cream, hop off". The rabbit did as she was told, nervous as Shadow moved forwards slowly, ears straining as he sought out the reason behind the noise, unaware that he was being followed by the small rabbit. Stealthily creeping forwards, Shadow followed the noise until he was hidden behind the shrubbery behind the back of Knuckles cabin. The sounds were coming from inside and Shadow definitely recognised the guardian's voice; Knuckles was in trouble. He was about to charge in and help when a sudden small touch on his arm nearly sent him leaping out of his skin.

"Cream", the black hedgehog gripped his heart as it sought to hammer its way out of his chest, "didn't I tell you to stay back?"

"No, but listen", due to her larger ears the rabbit had been able to tell what was going on, "I think it's Mr. Knuckles, but he's laughing". Laughing? Hey wait a sec, Shadow strained his ears, trying to put the rabbit's words into his mind, yeah, it does sound like hysterics. Now that the crisis appeared over the black hedgehog was overtaken with curiosity; what could cause Knuckles, as serious as they came, to break down like this? Only one way to find out,

"Cream, take a seat", Shadow crossed his legs and sat down behind the bush, peeking out to see the back of the log building, "we'll just wait here and see what Mr. Knuckles is up to, okay?" A child's imagination sparked and she whispered excitedly,

"Kind of like spies would?"

"Yeah, just like spies"; no, never; I've gotta be wrong here; a can of worms popped open in Shadow's mind as Cream's last sentence echoed in his head. He was so wrapped up in it that he nearly missed the crucial words from within the building itself.

Rouge pushed away, giving him a second's rest; she decided to make her grand finale a special event as Knuckles widened his eyes in sheer terror.

"This is it Knucklehead – any last words?"

"No Rouge, wait, don't…" the spy moved; she thundered straight into the echidna's vulnerable ribcage with minute precision and he was splintered into smithereens, "stohohohohop, plehehehehehehehease!"

"Don't stop please?" the bat felt her grin widen as she turned the echidna's words against him, "well since you asked so nicely; okay I won't". She pressed on as Knuckles tried to curse at her but simply didn't have the breath to spare to do so.

I don't believe it; Shadow was simply stunned – the voice was muffled through the walls and drowned by the echidna's frenzied laughter but it had definitely been Rouge's. Okay, from what I can tell, Knuckles is being reduced to hysterics by Rouge – the others aren't going to believe, Shadow sat bolt upright, the others! He turned to Cream and spoke quickly,

"Cream, I'm entrusting you with an important duty", he put on an official voice, "you're duty is to stay here and man this post; observe the building and all enemy movements, record the conversations that take place and above all, do not let yourself be seen. I'm going for back-up". The rabbit gave a salute and a smile,

"Yes sir; get the others here at the double". Shadow took off, running as hard as he ever had back the way he had come, still not fully believing what must have been going on in that little cabin. A smile crept along his face; maybe, just maybe, that pair have finally twigged to each other!

Shadow raced on, covering the ground back to the Tornado in less than a minute – to his relief, he realised that, despite the greater distance involved, the black hedgehog's delay to recover information had let Sonic beat him back. Just this once, however, he was grateful that the blue hedgehog had got back first; it'd save him time in tracking his flat mate down. He slowed his approach speed down just as Amy noticed him,

"Hey Shadow, any luck?" He didn't answer, there wasn't enough time in his mind; instead, he simply grabbed the pink hedgehog and swung her over one shoulder like a sack of potatoes, ignoring her sudden squawk of protest.

"Shadow, what are you doing?" Sonic was edgy as the black hedgehog span to him and shot from the lip,

"Sonic, get Tails and follow me; don't argue, just do it – you'll thank me when we get there. Amy, hold still; I won't hurt or drop you but we need to get there now". It was an agonising five second delay before Sonic had gathered his younger brother up and nodded; without a second glance Shadow span on his heel and took off, trying to imagine their reactions to what he'd discovered at the same time as pick out the route he needed to take with an expert eye.

Cream leaned forwards from her camouflaged position; the laughter coming from inside was starting to abate slightly and she could hear snatches of conversation from inside.

"No, please no more…"

"Admit it", the rabbit gasped; she couldn't be sure but she thought that voice was Ms Rouge. Cream had only ever met her once or twice but, she strained to remember the exact tone and accent the bat had spoken with, it was very similar to the one she remembered. The next voice was weak and strained and pity surfaced in the young Mobian's heart – poor Mr Knuckles sounded exhausted as he answered the other person,

"Alright, alright, just, let me breathe", there was a few seconds of silence; Cream imagined Mr Knuckles was catching his breath, "Rouge, you are…

"Yes?" That must be Ms Rouge then; Mr Knuckles said so.

"You, are, so gullible it's untrue!" The rabbit hid a smile as the female voice simply replied with,

"And you are going to say it, even if it takes all day". As the echidna started laughing again the rabbit put a paw over her mouth to try and mask a smile; she realised what Ms Rouge must be doing to Mr Knuckles; it was the same thing Mum did to her when she'd been cheeky or a little bit naughty. There was a noise behind her and she glanced over her shoulder, waving as she saw the rest of her friends approach quietly, smile threatening to spread out under her hand as she saw the looks on their faces.

"Is that Knuckles?"

"Sure sounds like him doesn't it?" Shadow said good-naturedly as Sonic simply boggled at the news,

"But, but Knuckles!" No way; this can not be happening – nothing, and I mean nothing, makes him laugh like that, except maybe when he heard my middle name. Amy and Tails crept closer to Cream, the fox in particular taking a keen interest as he had heard the importance of the rabbit's 'mission'.

"What's the status corporal?" he enquired, giving her a rank on the spot as she beamed at him and replied to both her listening friends,

"No movement, but I think I've heard enough to make a conclusion", Cream lowered her voice conspiratorially, "I think Mr Knuckles is being held prisoner by Ms Rouge, and she's making him laugh".

Tails blinked; somehow that just hadn't sunk in right – Knuckles and Rouge, laughing with each other. No, that just wouldn't happen, but at the same time he couldn't doubt the evidence of his own ears; the laughing voice was definitely his echidna friend and he was usually serious as snakebite.

"I don't believe it", neither do I; Tails felt his jaw drop as, along with Amy, he heard irrefutable evidence that the person behind the echidna's misery was none other than the spy herself,

"Come on Knucklehead", the voice was obviously shouting to make itself heard, "just say it and you'll be free".

"Never", that was definitely Knuckles, though he sounded sore and short of breath, "never, never, nevahahahaha!"

"Your funeral". The tortured shrieking of a tormented echidna started again as all five Mobians swapped glances; four of them simply screamed this is priceless; this is solid gold pressed with platinum, while the last was full of concern.

"Shouldn't we help Mr Knuckles?" Cream looked a little confused; he was their friend and he was in trouble, why weren't the others doing anything to help him? Sonic, face folding up as the implications of what this situation could translate into sprang up gloriously in his mind, squatted next to her and put a hand on her shoulder.

"No Cream; this is something Mr Knuckles will have to work out on his own; it's for the best, trust me". Especially if I can get there with a camera when they find out we've heard this. As the rabbit thought about the hedgehog's words Sonic signalled to the others and whispered,

"If it turns nasty we'll help out, until then we sit tight and just listen", he suddenly remembered what Tails had said earlier and glanced at Cream sternly but not unkindly, "don't you have a post to be at soldier?"

"Yes sir", the rabbit gave a second salute and moved back to her previous position, listening and watching the back of the cabin as her friends silently offered thanks that they'd been able to catch this monumental event.

I gotta hold out – no, this is it, no more – hold it in – there's nothing left to hold; it was a good fight lads but that's it, the white flag's going up;

"Okay, okay, okay", Knuckles finally gave up the ghost; tired, sore and completely out of breath the echidna gave a last few giggles as Rouge, suspecting a second attempt at tricking her, regarded him with a very piercing eye. No, he's not faking not this time, she could see in his watering eyes that she'd done it, she'd broken through, oh revenge is so sweet; now this is going to last.

"All right then", the bat slowly pushed herself upright off his body, tickling him a little more as she dictated the terms of surrender, "say it nice and slow, and loud as well; I want to hear this and remember it for all time". The echidna glared up poisonously but as she threatened with a wave of her hand over his stomach he slowly saw the light; thickly and with great reluctance Knuckles spoke the words that would have shattered his pride for all time had the near future turned out differently.

"All right; Rouge, you are a better treasure hunter than me". Ooh I hate you; he almost fancied he could see the bat's head swell up as she tasted those words like a fine wine. She took a deep, satisfying breath before opening her eyes again and smiling down at the echidna,

"Typical Knucklehead", to his surprise she didn't attack him again; she simply moved his dreadlocks out of his line of vision again, giving him a full view of her victorious smile, "never knows when to quit; you could have said it earlier and saved yourself a lot of trouble".

"Where's the fun in that?" He shot the remark back before he'd even thought about it; the words shocked both of them but Knuckles recovered first, "forget I said that".

"Why, did you like that?" Rouge smiled as she realised he'd just delivered a second opportunity to her on a silver platter, "does the little Knucklehead want some more?"

"Maybe", that confused the bat even more, just like Knuckles had hoped it would; he knew he had one shot at what he had planned and it all depended on his acting, "but listen Rouge, before you do anything else, I need a favour".

"I'm listening", Rouge gave a luxurious, cat-like stretch as Knuckles shook his head and sighed, slowly feeling a little strength returning as he waited for the bat to finish preening herself before continuing,

"I need a drink; I'm parched and haven't had one since this morning. Please could you get me one?" Rouge glanced around quickly before sadly shaking her head,

"Sorry no; looks like you forgot to install plumbing in this shack".

"Everyone's a comedian", the guardian gave a caustic glance tinged with a reluctant smile, "there's a stream not too far from here; that's where I get my water from. There's a jug on the table next door, go get a jugful for me, please?" Summoning all his acting talent Knuckles attempted to look pleading and cute; he had to stop himself hissing in triumph when Rouge nodded and headed for the door.

"Okay, I suppose I owe you that; after all, can't be easy laughing that long after what, fifteen years complete seriousness? I was surprised your face didn't crack". Knuckles stuck his tongue out at her retreating back before returning to the matter at hand.

"All that just to hear him say that?" Tails put his head in his hands, though there was a smile on his face as he did so, "I knew those two were mental but that's bad even for them".

"I think it's cute". Amy spoke up as the little group of friends realised that, with Rouge out of the picture for a little while, they had about a five minute recess to try and explain a few things.

"Cute maybe, funny certainly", Sonic cut in, perhaps the only one present who could fully comprehend the ludicrousness of the situation; Knuckles, one of the most formidable people he'd ever met, reduced to begging and pleading by his sometime-enemy by simple tickling? It was so stupid it actually made sense, "I am never going to let him live this down, not after the song and dance he made over the M-word".

"So I take it a rescue mission wasn't on your mind?" Shadow asked sardonically; it hadn't been on his either but not for that reason.

"No way, besides Rouge might catch us and I don't fancy facing her when Knuckles can't fight well". Amy grimaced and shook her head,

"That is possibly the weakest excuse I've ever heard – unless it was the Tails special of embarrassing you".

"What was that?" Cream was now extremely curious as she hadn't heard this one; the perpetrator himself grinned over to her as Sonic sniffed sneeringly as though it was beneath him, though not so long ago this had been a sure way to send him up the wall.

"I always wanted Maur-ice in my drinks" the fox sniggered; still got it – he realised as Sonic turned a very light shade of rose.

As soon as he had been sure Rouge had gone, Knuckles had been in action; he remembered the bat's words that these ropes, rather than snapping, stretched as they were pulled on. It was this fact and this fact alone that the guardian was relying on; the struggling he'd done recently must have exerted a heck of a strain on his bonds, but had it been enough? One way to find out; pulling himself up as much as possible to give his arms a little leeway the guardian tried his plan out. His right hand twisted around, trying to wrap the rope around it and, he grinned painfully as the cord pressed onto the meat of his hand even through his glove, it was coming. The stretched cord twisted slowly, agonisingly slowly as in his mind he saw Rouge returning at any minute, but soon it was in place, close to the sharp edges of his knuckle spurs. Now for the hard bit; the echidna slowly slid the rope back and forwards against his natural armaments, gradually fraying the rope and weakening it, lessening the resistance to his great strength.

Luckily for the echidna Rouge made her way to the stream slowly; her mind was in a bit of a fix as she replayed the events of about he last forty-five minutes over and over in her head. What happened; I behaved like a kid and, yeah, so did he – we're never like this normally, what gives? The spy mulled her emotions over as she reached the stream and kneeled down; as the jug slowly filled with crystal clear water she sighed. During that regression to childhood she'd had more fun than he'd had in a long time, but why was that? Was it because Knuckles was there, or was it because she felt she was getting the better of him for once? Had Knuckles felt the same power rush when he had caught her in Mushroom Grove, or had that been intended as punishment for her trespass? She knitted her brows as she came to her feet, the full jug now in her hands as she headed back to the cabin – she was unsure how to proceed. She wanted to keep the echidna at her mercy for as long as possible but the longer that was the more chance she had of driving a wedge between them; the last thing she wanted was to force them apart – she enjoyed his company and had a suspicion he reciprocated that feeling though she couldn't prove it. Rouge smiled and decided she'd make a decision when she saw him again but one thing was for certain; she was going to make sure he never forgot about this.

With an almost musical twang the rope suddenly snapped at a tug from the guardian; for a second he didn't react as though not believing it could have happened. The reality kicked in again and he quickly reached his now free hand over to his other arm, using the keen edge of his spurs to slice the rope cleanly. He hastily did the same to his feet and swung off the bed that had been his prison for far too long. As he massaged his wrists and ankles his mind raced on ahead; right, I'm free – now, get somewhere safe and rest up for a bit, then we can come back and – NO! Suddenly that train of thought hit a brick wall of certainty; Knuckles looked up from his sitting position and his lilac eyes crackled with one thought and one thought only – REVENGE!