Part 2.

A/N – this chapter gets a bit angst-filled towards the end but I still think it's K+; review and tell me if I'm wrong or not please. Just a few words of thanks:

Ri2 – Thanks for viewing this and my previous fanfic – hope you enjoyed them both.

Obelisk – Glad you enjoyed chapter 1; I hope you'll take time out to read Angel of Darkness and Ice as well. Cheers for the review!

Not seconds earlier, Knuckles could have swore he had been completely exhausted; he hadn't eaten all day, he'd just done a full training session and then Rouge had subjected him to a torture that he hadn't been sure he could survive. However, once that single, simple thought germinated in his abused mind it rapidly raced all through his psyche; all other thoughts of running or hiding from his tormentor evaporated from his head and his tiredness vanished. A manic, almost scary grin appeared on his normally passive or scowling face as his entire body buzzed like a hive of wasps, lending him the energy he needed. Visions of the batgirl screaming for mercy and howling like he had swam enticingly through his imagination as he took up a perfect position to ambush her. She won't see me behind the door; it opens towards the bed; Knuckles rapidly stalked behind the solid wooden portal, eyes slanting and a few low, dark chuckles rumbling in his mind as he envisioned how he'd carry out his attack. Spring as she steps through the door – she'll be carrying a jar of water and won't be able to attack me back. Tackle her to the floor and then… Knuckles took a calming breath, though he wasn't able to wipe the grin off his face as he heard the characteristic tapping noise of Rouge's shoes as she stepped back inside the wooden floor of his building.

"What do you reckon caused it?" Tails had a smile on his face as all five Mobians took advantage of Rouge's absence, and by extension the silence, to hold a conversation on just what was going on.

"I have no idea", Amy spoke up as she glanced back towards the building itself, "barring some kind of deranged dare or two isolated cases of temporary insanity, I can't think of a single thing". Shadow had held his peace long enough; shifting position to be closer to the shade of the bush, the black hedgehog voiced a private theory and the evidence he had that could back it up.

"I think that Knucks and Rouge have finally snapped",

"I could have told you that", Sonic piped up but his flat mate shook his head and carried on,

"Not what I meant; those two actually feel for each other; I won't say the L-word because I'm not sure if it is but it could be that they're just playing together".

"You think Ms. Rouge and Mr. Knuckles are in love?" Cream spoke into the vacuum Shadow's words had left; the other three were too shocked to even think about replying – Knuckles and Rouge? Together?

"Maybe", Shadow managed to answer before the predicted flurry of amazement and disbelief arrived to take his attention.

"Those two; Shads man, you've got a few wires crossed in your head".

"I agree. They usually can't be in the same room together without arguing". Tails and Sonic were in vehement denial but Amy wasn't quite the same; it sounded far-fetched, but, the harder she thought about it, the more sense it seemed to make. Shadow's expressions weren't easy to read but, as he coolly remained silent while Sonic and Tails raged around him with explanations of why he had to be wrong, she thought she could see his reasons.

"You know, hey guys", she spoke quietly to calm down the talk of the other four, "I hate to say it, but I reckon Shads has got something here".

"Oh Amy", Sonic looked at her wounded, "not you too".

"No, let's hear Mr. Shadow out", Cream spoke up in defence of her team mate, "maybe he's right". The other two still looked disbelieving but looked up at the black hedgehog anyway as he quietly cleared his throat and started his explanations.

"I think those two care because of what happened during Seraph's hunt here".

At the name the temperature cooled off by ten degrees and Cream squeaked and shuffled closer to Tails; though she hadn't been present during those sleepless, terrifying days she'd been told about them and the circumstances behind the capture of Dr Eggman. The descriptions of the vampire bat, his soulless voice and complete disregard for others had conjured up a fearsome picture in the rabbit's mind – she had imagined him as a cross between Metal Sonic and the mythical monster in the closet who was always hunting and always hungry, a scary and dangerous monster. Before the pause could lengthen too much Shadow continued,

"Remember Knucks let Rouge and Nack stay here; now I know that doesn't mean much but what happened when we first arrived?"

"Seraph attacked us", Sonic filled in slowly, recollecting the blitzkrieg that had occurred when the Tornado had landed, "he went for Nack and stole his gun".

"Yes, but what happened after that", Shadow pressed; this was when he had first had suspicions, "he ran straight at Knuckles and…"

"And Rouge jumped in the way" Amy finished for him, the picture of Seraph making his escape as vivid now as it had been then. Sonic nodded as he remembered the attack as well; the bat had definitely thrown herself in the way of someone armed with a knife who was headed straight at Knuckles.

"Okay, she did that", Sonic conceded before fast-forwarding in his mind to a little later in the proceedings, "and, yeah that's right; Knuckles gave me the red emerald – said he wanted me to look after Rouge". The blue hedgehog chuckled good-naturedly as he remembered being woken up and, after a little teasing, had agreed that Seraph wouldn't lay a finger on Rouge until he'd gone through Sonic. The fact that had been exactly the way things had panned out didn't matter now – the echidna and bat had made sacrifices, and not small sacrifices at that, to look out for each other. Tails weighed it all up in his logical, scientific mind and, though he was tempted to believe it and actually hoped it was true, decided that the evidence wasn't compelling enough.

"Okay, I accept that's what happened, but that was a one-off and they were under a lot of duress; I don't think it's quite enough to believe outright". He's right as well; Sonic and Amy don't agree with me fully either, so I may as well spill; Shadow took a deep breath before giving his final piece of evidence to the jury of friends.

"When we were together on the Island, I managed to speak to them both, in private", the black hedgehog began, recalling the conversations he'd had with each in perfect clarity, "I spoke to Rouge when we were first on guard duty together and asked her a few questions", there was a slight smile as he remembered the struggle he'd had to get her to admit it, "and the long and short of it was that she confessed that she had feelings for Knuckles, but she didn't say what the feelings were" he finished quickly. Sonic chuckled and snapped his fingers after thinking about this statement.

"You talked to Knuckles after I left you to get the towels; I thought you weren't discussing the merits of ants over termites", the other three Mobians looked at each other as if to say 'we'll ask later' as the blue hedgehog continued, "well come on, out with it; what did rad red say?"

"He's the same as her; he's afraid to ask in case she says no". Amy thought hard for a second,

"In that case, this could be good for them". She would have gone on but Cream reported in from the observation post,

"I can hear Ms. Rouge; she's walking in and speaking to Mr. Knuckles". Everyone rushed to their positions as there was a sudden loud crash and a scream of sudden panic.

The bat hadn't stood a chance; carrying a full jar of water, still not fully decided on her course of action and completely unsuspecting of the echidna's escapee act; she had pretty much broadcast her arrival by banging her shoes out on the doorstep, being careful not to spill any of the water she had carried with her. Oh yes, she's back; soon she'll pay for this insult; from his concealed post behind the door Knuckles waited with baited breath, excited at the prospect of revenge as the bat spoke.

"Hey Knucklehead, got the water you wanted; hope you're ready to pay for it". Knuckles realised she was waiting for a reply and, being careful to disguise the glee in his voice, tried to sound apprehensive and nervous.

"Oh goody, can't wait".

"I didn't think so", Rouge let a smile blossom on her face; typical Knuckles, he must have recovered enough to allow his smart-aleck attitude to resurface. No matter what I do to him, I'll never beat him really – he never admits defeat…just like me. It was as that thought struck her that she walked through the bedroom door.

Now! As soon as a hint of black glove had become visible Knuckles had moved; he lashed out and grabbed the bat by the hand. Before Rouge could consciously react to the pressure Knuckles had capitalised; spinning around and pulling on her arm he executed a traditional judo throw, rolling Rouge over his hip and onto the floor. The water jug, made of plastic, fell from her hand and fell bottom first to the floor, impacting with a heavy smash as Rouge at last found her voice, screaming with shock as the ground rushed up to meet her, instincts straightening her body out as she tried to break her fall properly. The landing stunned her and by that time Knuckles had fully recovered position; with a grateful snarl he pounced onto her back, pinning her to the floor with his body-weight before she could start struggling properly. Gotcha Rouge; now it's your turn to rue today; glancing around the echidna gave a silent prayer of amazement as he realised that he really could have his cake and, in this case, drink it. Leaning back, he managed to reach the miraculously un-spilt jug of water as Rouge finally caught up with what must have happened.

"Wha, how did you get free?" Knuckles didn't answer immediately; he was too busy quenching his thirst from the cool water. Finishing his drink the echidna smacked his lips and leaned in close to the spy's ears, careful not to overbalance and give her the opportunity to buck him off. He whispered to her, every word dripping with the same mischief her recent taunts had,

"Stretchy ropes and knuckle spurs tend not to mix batgirl", Rouge shivered as she imagined what must have been foremost in the guardian's mind and realised it didn't bode well for her at all, "you know what they say?" The spy struggled for a second before giving up with a snarl,

"What are they saying this time", I'm in trouble already, why not? "Hell hath no fury; have you been hiding something?"

"Keep on digging batgirl", the echidna replied; he realised just what Rouge had meant when she said that negotiations were best when you were the stronger party, "I was actually thinking of 'he who laughs last laughs loudest", he saw the bat tuck her arms into her sides as she realised what he meant, "but I've done enough laughing today; now it's your turn!"

Though they had originally been concerned by the source of the crash, as the conversation filtered through the wooden walls, Tails was the first to make a conclusion.

"Sounds like Knuckles managed to get free".

"And I really wouldn't want to be in Rouge's boots right about now", Amy admitted, trying to peer through the walls at the same time as catch the faint noises from the cabin, "Knuckles sounds ready to make her pay in full, and then some". Sonic leaned further forwards and a devilish grin emerged as he started to move towards the cabin itself.

"What are you doing?" Shadow demanded.

"I've gotta get closer; this is too perfect", he saw the arguments coming and quickly headed them off, "we're listening already – it doesn't matter if its fifty yards or five, we're all eavesdropping. Besides, that roof is providing shade and the grass is a bit greener over there". There was a slight pause before Shadow shrugged and pushed himself to his feet.

"He's right as well; in for a penny in for a pound; as long as we're quiet, we won't get caught", the black hedgehog jerked his thumb towards the cabin, where Knuckles was, apparently still crowing about his victory to Rouge, a prologue to the torment, "besides, we might be able to hear if they really care – then they'll never be able to deny it again".

"That's a good idea", Cream saw the logic behind Shadow's seemingly twisted reasoning, "if they know we've all heard them they'll have to admit they like each other; it would be the only way they could explain what's happening". The three stood and began to creep forwards, keeping their steps quiet as Amy and Tails wrestled with both the arguments and their own consciences before simultaneously deciding to go for it. A few seconds later, all five Mobians were in the shade of the log cabin; they arrived just in time for the start of Knuckles' revenge.

The echidna had savoured making the bat nervous and now he was going for it. His open hands lanced into Rouge's sides, burrowing between the skin of her waist and her arms as she began to squirm harder under the gentle pressure. Knuckles felt her arms press against his hands, trying to trap them and stop them moving; no way batgirl – acting quickly, he withdrew and whispered tauntingly,

"You can't catch me Rouge; face it, you're helpless". Twisting until she could see him in peripheral vision, the bat gave a scowl.

"Yeah, well I'll last longer than you ever could".

"Oh really", Knuckles was loving every second of this delicious revenge and moved his hands toward his next avenue of attack, "well see if you can last this!" Using both hands he peeled the arm away from her left side and concentrated on it whole-heartedly, not even registering the impacts on his back as Rouge kicked her legs up in response, hitting him with the soles of her boots as she clamped her lips together. She wasn't especially ticklish on her upper body but as Knuckles continued his attack she began to wilt. The echidna grinned as he heard a few choked splutters; he only regretted he couldn't see her face as she resisted him for the moment.

I'm a goner – he's not going to stop until I crack like he did; Rouge fought down the sensations in her brain as the echidna stopped tickling for the moment. In the second's grace she had, the spy felt a sudden stab of panic; he hadn't hit her worst spot yet and, as far as she could tell, hadn't even considered it as existing. I've got to keep that secret; if he finds out he'll kill meehehe – shush, no laughing! It was her right side this time and, she smiled in triumph, she could take it; due to her arms she could avoid the full brunt of his attack. Emboldened by this revelation she spoke gratingly,

"Give up Knucklehead; I'm not ticklish". She's lying, she's only getting away lightly because of her arms; the echidna gritted his teeth in frustration as Rouge used what he considered an unfair advantage; I gotta stop that somehow – hmm… Knuckles' eyes fell on the partially full water jug and he grinned slyly.

Okay, keep it together, just stay cool and, eek! Something cold and wet splashed down on the bat's ears; droplets of water from the jug she'd brought back. Instinctively, she reached up to wipe them off before they could trickle down and irritate her; too late she realised that had been just what Knuckles had wanted. Like striking cobras his two hands launched into her sides again; without her hands he had a full target and this time a breach appeared in her previously resilient defences.

"Heeheehee", no, hold the line, hold it, "argh, no"; she'd averted the crisis for a moment but that had been close as she sent her arms back to reinforce the targeted area.

"Not ticklish batgirl; sure sounded like it" Knuckles proposed as he evaded her grasping hands; he realised he was being as childish as she had but, he admitted with a devious smile, it felt good and was about to get better. Her ears were wet now and he drew a deep breath before blowing across at them gently.

"Ah, quit it", Rouge demanded, flicking her ears as the cold wind irritated her sensory organs and she realised what he was doing, "that's not fair". The echidna's jaw dropped at this – of all the nerve; I was completely immobilised!

"All's fair in love, war and vengeance batgirl", he declared, repeating the trick and drawing snarls of protest as Rouge was caught in a quandary; the cold wind on her damp ears was itching but if she tried to scratch them he'd strike. She moved her wings up to try and prevent his breath reaching her but quickly regretted that action as Knuckles made a spilt-second decision that, in his eyes, turned out dividends. The bat felt a couple of fingers gently stroke the skin where her wings joined her shoulders and nearly broke down due to sheer disbelief. She snapped her wings closed but it was too late; he was under them and they weren't strong enough to pin his hands in place; he had a foothold in the breach and was beginning to carry it.

"Knuckles, wahahait", Rouge held her head in her hands, muffling her voice as she tried to drown out the nerve stings from the skin he was stimulating, "ehehehe, stoppit!"

From outside, the sound much clearer now, there was a game of Chinese whispers going on as Cream, one ear almost pressed to the wall itself, passed information to Tails, who said his interpretations to the others. It was a good system, if a trifle unreliable; when Tails said urgently that Knuckles had confessed he loved Rouge forevermore he nearly started a mini-riot before Cream corrected her mistake.

"Sorry, he said all's fair in love and war" the rabbit whispered as Sonic swiped the air with his fist; just for a fleeting instant he though he'd had it – the one thing that would have given him bragging rights on the echidna for all time. His disappointment was quickly forgotten, however, as the sound of giggling became clear through the walls, audible to all listening. Shadow sat back a bit, quietly remarking,

"Looks like he's making progress".

Laugh batgirl; Knuckles was overcome with a fierce joy as he realised he was breaking through; you reduced me to pleading, now it's your turn – be careful; don't get careless with it. He turned up the speed of his wriggling fingers, though he couldn't go too fast because of his spurs; the skin of Rouge's wings was exceptionally thin and it would be very easy to pierce it with his sharp barbs. He decided to withdraw and gently drew his hands away – he was grinning! He stayed stock-still as that sank in; he was actually enjoying this but why? Yes, he was getting even with the bat but then again, he had seen her smiling when their roles had been reversed – was that was because she had enjoyed it as much as he appeared to be now? He sat back (eliciting a sudden groan of protest and comment about his weight that he ignored with ease of long practice) and swiftly analysed what he was feeling. Getting even gave him a pleasant buzz, similar to the one he felt when he had realised he was in the stronger position and Rouge was at his mercy, but even combined they weren't enough to fully explain this feeling of, of, contentment – was that it? He thought until even Rouge became a little nervous,

"What are you planning Knucklehead; I can assure you it won't work". It was a shame Rouge couldn't have seen all the way over her shoulder; the look of revelation as it dawned over Knuckles' face was simply breathtaking. It was Rouge!

I'm close to her, that's what it is – I knew I had feelings but, but this proves it! Ah, I knew that already; does she feel…ow! Knuckles was startled out of his reverie by a size seven boot in his back; his prolonged silence was really starting to get the spy worried; she wasn't sure what was worse – being kept in the dark about his next scheme or being subjected to it. The echidna snarled – feelings or none, those kicks were really starting to irritate him.

"Right that's it; those boots are coming off".

"No!" Knuckles paused for just a second before his eyes started to shine and Rouge put a hand over her horror-struck mouth – oh no, what a giveaway; I'm dead meat!

Outside there was a sudden surge of interest at the exclamation; it seemed that Knuckles had cottoned onto something big and there was a definite buzz in the air as every ear strained to catch the next snatches of conversation.

"Why's that Rouge?" Knuckles realised she'd just provided him with the key he needed to unlock the fortress gates, "trying to hide something for little ol' me? You wouldn't be that devious now, would you?" The bat didn't answer immediately; her mind was racing backwards into her past, the first time she'd booked in for a pedicure and had to turn it down because she hadn't been able to hold her feet still; the brush had tickled too much. It was only when Rouge felt the pressure on her back ease very slightly and start to slide lower down, towards her legs, that she jerked back to the present and gabbled desperately.

"No Knuckles, please, I beg of you; don't touch my feet, I'll die, I can't take that", the weight was still moving south; the echidna was now just above her knees and she realised with a thrill of horror she was nearly out of time.

"You know, not so long ago, I said words very similar to those to a bat who looked a bit like you and", he paused for a few seconds before giving a regretful shake of his head, "no, she didn't take any notice". Oh no; I can't let him…I can't think about it, someone help me! Rouge was still for a few seconds before she exploded into action; clawing at the ground she tried to crawl forwards, out from under the echidna's body and she very nearly succeeded. Caught off balance, Knuckles had to stop his advance fully and grip onto the back of her lower thighs to stop the escape attempt, pinning her down as she tried to kick free, almost frantic with worry as she tried to get away.

"Scurry, scurry little batgirl", Knuckles sang as she realised she'd failed and sank back down, "or should that be little ratgirl; you certainly move like one". It was that comment that let Rouge think again; drowning out the fear she felt in anger she twisted until she could see him and snarled,

"How dare you call me a rat; you're the one who lives in a burrow and digs to get anywhere". Knuckles winced as the words informed him that she was back to her old self. It works for Sonic apparently; might work here; the echidna smirked at her fuming face as he spoke next,

"You need to take some of your own advice Rouge".

"Really?" she snorted; the bat was still too angry to think properly; in this case this proved to be a problem as Knuckles grinned again.

"Yeah, all that stuff about good will. Here's my interpretation; it's a good bet that you will laugh at this". And with that, he scrabbled his fingertips across the back of Rouge's knees.

She didn't laugh – she screamed with laughter; resistance was futile, if it had ever existed at all. Hit the jackpot; Knuckles hissed with triumph as Rouge fought for even a scrap of self-control.

"Knuhuhuhuhuckles, nohohohohoho", she took a deep breath and buried her head in her arms, muffling her shrieks as the echidna changed his frenzied scrabbling to a gentler, controlled motion; he didn't want her to become exhausted too early, "sthahahahahapp; I'm dying, wahahahahahahaha". Knuckles suddenly quit; he couldn't be sure but he thought there had been a trace of a sob in her voice and the last thing he wanted was to make Rouge cry; she'd leave, I can't take that.

"You okay?" Weakness; go for sympathy; Rouge let her shoulders shake and didn't look up – if Knuckles moved she was going to make like a blacksmith and make a bolt for the door. I hope I haven't hurt her, I didn't mean to, but…wait; Knuckles narrowed his eyes as he recalled their paintball duel – Rouge had tricked him into thinking he'd shot her in the face; he abandoned his hiding place only to receive a chest load of whitewash. He decided to give her a little test first,

"I don't believe you!" No way,

"What!" Rouge whipped round, only to see Knuckles cross his arms and raise both eyebrows – she felt her mouth drop open as she realised she'd shot herself in the foot again; uh oh.

"I reckon Rouge is for the high jump now" Tails commented as the bat's sympathy act disintegrated and the laughter started again.

"Good for Mr. Knuckles" Cream said suddenly, "Ms. Rouge was trying to trick him and he saw through it, good for him". Shadow rubbed the rabbit's ears as he listened to the frenzied laughter of the spy echoing through the walls.

"Good for him maybe but by the sounds of things Ms. Rouge would probably disagree with that".

"I can't believe it", Sonic was nearly laughing himself as the actions of the previous seconds made him realise something, "Knuckles actually saw through a trick; he must be ill".

"Or learning, at long last" Tails added before all five tuned in again as an interesting act was reached.

"No, nohohohoho, please Knuxie", Knuckles nearly let her go out of sheer shock; he couldn't have heard that right.

"What did you call me?" Rouge felt herself blush as she remembered just what had passed her lips; she had wanted to call him that before but she'd never exactly found the right moment to say it.

"Well, it's better than Knucklehead isn't it?" she offered weakly, smiling faintly as the echidna felt his heart rejoice, though he was careful to keep his face neutral.

"I guess so", the echidna got over his disbelief and edged on a wicked grin as he suddenly moved again; before she was fully aware of it, Knuckles was off her but both her legs were crushed to his chest, feet upwards and bent at the knees, "but I'm still gonna get your worst spot".

"No, you can't, I'll never survive!"

"Yeah you will – I did". It wasn't exactly encouraging but as the echidna grappled with the buckles that held her boots in place, it was all she had.

Sonic kept his hands over his mouth until he was quite sure he wasn't going to laugh out loud; that would have ruined everything. The others were in similar states; with the suddenness of Rouge's admission it was a small miracle none of them had given the game away.

"Knuxie", Amy fought hard to keep her voice low, "that's a new one on me".

"She is not living that one down – aren't you glad you came here now?"

"Yes Shadow", all four agreed in an instant, "it was worth everything just to be here today and here that" Tails added at the end, listening in again as the bat's slip of the tongue wore off and they returned to the fun of listening in.

As her last boot slid free Rouge was struck with an idea that must surely have been sent from above; before Knuckles could destroy her utterly she turned and shouted,

"I spared you". The echidna snorted with scorn,

"Really, I don't remember it".

"I did", he can't deny this one, "I was going to bleach your hair, but I didn't. You owe me one for that". Rouge rejoiced as she watched Knuckles' face fall flat – she had him there, she could save herself. No, I've come all this way; there's gotta be a way out of this; if there was he couldn't see it. Gritting his teeth, the echidna asked,

"And what do you want in payment?" Rouge breathed a heavy sigh of relief as her gamble paid off.

"Keep your grubby meat-hooks off my feet". Oh yes, you are mine girl! Knuckles literally had to think of the worst things he could to keep a straight face; he couldn't let her know he had her. For her part, Rouge knew Knuckles had a strong sense of honour and would keep to his word, however hard it must have been for him. Now, I've got to get the rest of me sa… She gave a great, shuddering gasp as something light was draw across the susceptible soles of her exposed toes; she didn't laugh, she was in too much shock. Whipping back round, she screamed,

"You said you…!" The words died in her throat at the sight in front of her; Knuckles was beaming beatifically at her as he used his free hand to drag one of the dreadlocks she'd so recently threatened across her worst spot. Oh nooooooo!

"She wasn't lying", Amy winced at the screams coming from inside, "she really meant it when she said she'd die if he touched her feet; sounds like she's being strangled".

"Or fed through a blender" Sonic commented before Cream got in on the act; the rabbit was actively holding her ears shut to spare her acute hearing.

"Or being eaten by hungry piranhas".

"Or being forced to eat glass" Shadow chipped in; all eyes turned to Tails as he tried to use all 300 points of his IQ to come up with something to top the lot of those horrible fates.

"Or…or", his eyes sparkled, "or being forced to watch a marathon of Barney the dinosaur. Widescreen" he finished as everyone around him winced,

"Man, that truly is deranged and twisted", Sonic shuddered as though even the thought of the purple monstrosity was a torment, "remind me to never get on your bad side bro".

Rouge was lost, hopelessly and completely adrift as she shrieked and squealed at the torment Knuckles was forcing on her; his dreads were possibly even worse than his hands as they were softer and tickled more. She was far beyond incoherent; she could barely make any sounds at all as Knuckles finally relented after what to her felt like a lifetime.

"Hey Rouge", the echidna spoke while she was catching her breath, "let's make a deal". The bat dimly remembered she'd done something similar to him and, yes, he'd resisted for a long time before he'd finally cracked. I've got to try and give him a decent run for his money or I'll never be able to look him in the eye again. The spy sucked down a gulp of air and spoke breathlessly,

"What deal?"

"I'll stop, if…" She thought hers was bad – she's not going to believe this.

"If?" She actually was genuinely curious as to what her opponent had managed to think up, so the answer of,

"If you say I'm the better martial artist", caught her cold; that hadn't even entered her mind. The fact that it wasn't true just made it even easier for her to say no.

"Never; go ahead, have a field day" she challenged, bracing herself as much as was possible for the torture that would surely begin soon. Knuckles grinned, offered a silent gesture of thanks and then, it began.

Rouge splintered within the first five seconds; the dreadlocked hair was just too much for her to bear. She cracked up into hopeless hysteria, tears flooding from her eyes as she pounded the floor with her hands and buried her head into her elbows; anything, anything to take her mind off the awful lightning dancing across her soles.

"Wahahahahahaha, Knuxehehehehehe", she screamed aloud, begging for a minute's rest, a second's pause, but none arrive, "no, no mohohohohohohohore".

"Hey, be grateful", the reply came as Knuckles wrinkled his nose and moved his dreadlocks down to attack the arches of her left foot, "I have to deal with the smell".

"You, yohohohohu slime! You're gonna pahahahahahay".

"Make me", a thought occurred to the echidna and he paused for a second, "aren't spies supposed to be resistant to torture? Hey, you should thank me – I'm exposing a weakness for you to deal with…Rouge?" The spy couldn't reply; her air had run out a while ago and she suddenly seized up, her entire body going rigid as a board for want of breath. This reaction triggered of a single memory in the guardian – from that single memory an entire future flashed up in front of Knuckles; he froze in light of its certainty and felt part of him roll over and expire.

Knuckles immediately stopped everything he was doing, happiness evaporating, cold anguish and dread flooding him as he realised he'd gone too far; he'd given into temptation and pushed her beyond the safe limit; it was as if he'd applied one of his wrestling locks too hard and damaged one of her limbs. The echidna recognised the seizure; he'd had one like it before when he'd been training himself to dive for long periods of time and accidentally gone too deep; a lack of oxygen had resulted in painful cramps lasting nearly a week, and now that might happen to Rouge. He should have had more self-control than that, no matter what the circumstances were – that lapse could cost him something almost as important as the power source of his island. He lowered his head as the full folly of what he had done, and what it would mean in the future, crashed down on him; Rouge would hate him for exploiting her weakness like that, and she would leave him alone again.

The bat relaxed slowly – that had almost been too much for her and she realised she couldn't take another attack like that.

"Knuckles, please don't do that again". Rouge's tone was soft and designed not to be dismissed, even by a heart as tough as the echidnas'.

"Okay Rouge; I won't". She slowly turned as much as was possible to look at him as he let her rest; he even looked ashamed of himself as he waited for her to recover. He won't do that again; he cares too much to put me…wait, he cares! He cares! He has to; if he didn't he wouldn't even have considered stopping! For a second the bat saw the plain truth; even before Seraph had started his campaign of revenge, she had thought about him – that mad bats' scheming had forced them closer and now they were visiting each other almost as friends. It could be more; it should be more – the echidna's magnanimity had been the catalyst Rouge had needed to finally admit the truth held deep within her heart to the person who had been least able to see it – herself. She almost cried as the conflicting emotions threatened to spill over but she held herself in check; Knuckles hadn't seen it and…was he okay?

I nearly hurt her; that one thought pounded mercilessly at Knuckles' mind as he still held the bat captive – the only reason he hadn't let go was because the turmoil he was in had left him incapable of movement. The one person I care deepest about, the one person I love and I nearly hurt her. Yes, I said love; I love Rouge and this is how I show it – by nearly choking her out of air! She deserves someone better, someone who'll treat her like the star she is. The echidna felt truly wretched; at that moment someone could have taken the Master Emerald and crushed it to powder in front of his eyes and he doubted he'd have batted an eyelid. A tear dripped from his right eye as Knuckles felt the pull of the pit, his own personal hell of isolation and loneliness, tug at him again; there was no way Rouge would ever want to return to see him again, not after he'd nearly hurt her like that.

"Knuckles?" Oh no; the guardian raised his head and blinked back tears; he couldn't let her see him now, she'd think it was her fault and she'd feel even worse.

"Yes?" I knew it; there's something wrong – Rouge was filled with concern as she saw through the echidna's façade of innocence, and confirmed it when with a tiny effort she pulled her legs free from his previously unshakeable grip. She pushed herself up into a kneeling position facing him, keeping her face neutral as she asked quietly,

"What's wrong?"

From outside, it sounded like it had suddenly gone quiet and then that question had come like a bolt from the blue. Shadow suddenly became completely alert; waving down the hushed questions of the others he quickly whispered orders,

"No-one say anything; just listen and shut up – this could be crucial and we mustn't disturb them". All five Mobians held a collective breath, each with their fingers crossed as each asked, in their own way, for the right things to happen.

"I nearly hurt you". The reply was pained and, as he looked up, not daring to hold her gaze, Rouge was shocked to see tears glistening in Knuckles' deep purple eyes. What, he's crying because he thought he hurt me?

"Knuckles, you, look at me", she commanded; with great reluctance the guardian complied, shying away from her as though afraid she'd strike him, "I'm fine; I've got a bit of a stitch if that – you of all people should know I'm not exactly fragile".

"Doesn't matter", don't make excuses for me; it's my fault, I should know better, "I recognised the seize-up", the guardian sniffed as the spy tried to make sense of what he was saying, "lack of oxygen, you could have cramped up, or worse".

"But I didn't; you didn't do anything wrong".

"I could have". Rouge shook her head at this, to her, puzzling line of thought,

"And the sky might fall down tomorrow; I'm not hurt and…" Knuckles couldn't hold it back anymore; the same strength that allowed him to destroy those that would threaten anything close to him was unleashed against the most recent perpetrator; himself.

"That's not the point!" Outside, five Mobians scrambled backwards at the raw pain in the echidna's shout; from within Rouge could see Knuckles was crying openly now; the guardian was being ripped apart by something and roaring in pain, "the point is I didn't see what I could have done until it was too late; I put you in danger because I didn't see it in time. I nearly hurt you, like I've hurt and failed everything else", Rouge covered her mouth as Knuckles went on, she literally could not believe what the echidna was saying as he continued raving at himself, at his past, "I couldn't protect the Master Emerald from Eggman, I couldn't stop Perfect Chaos because I wasn't able to protect the Chaos emeralds and I damn near delivered you to Seraph; you could have died and I let it happen…" Rouge lost it; quick as a striking snake her hand lashed out, catching the guardian full on the cheek as the bat whispered in a voice laden with rage and disbelief,

"How dare you".

The emotion battled clear of Rouge as she realised just what was happening to the one Mobian who had finally managed to break through to her – behind the mask of steel and skin of iron lurked a heart of glass. It was his isolation; Knuckles had always been alone and drew on that a source of strength. It's a poisoned chalice; I drank from it once before and only the guild saved me from myself; Rouge was nearly as distraught as the weeping guardian before her as the truth finally revealed itself in all its twisted glory – Knuckles couldn't bear to have things that were precious to him harmed or despoiled; they were all he had to cling to. Any threat to them was dealt with swiftly and without mercy, for by threatening them an enemy threatened Knuckles himself. The mere thought that he had harmed her, and because of it she would hate him, had crushed him like no damage to his body ever could.

That was why he kept himself alone, away from Sonic and the rest; by not making many bonds he kept his heart shielded and himself safe from pain; in his mind, that made him stronger because potential enemies couldn't hurt him. But at the same time, there was always the threat of one of the few attachments he had made being used against him and that gnawed at him continuously. It was a no-win situation; he was constantly alone with the fear of one of his bonds being under threat and protected them with all his might, but when his might was found lacking he raved and blamed himself, the ghost of his own mortal failings haunting him like a malevolent spirit. He hovered on the edge of a dark abyss Rouge knew all too well; she had teetered on the brink during the years after her mother's death, when she had been reluctant to connect to anyone, for fear of being hurt again if they left her. It all made sense now and…a sudden fear froze the bat's blood – too much damage and Knuckles would fall forever into a depression he might never escape from. He's bonded to me and by that he blames himself if I'm in danger; as one part of Rouge finally exploded with happiness as she realised that Knuckles cared for her, another steeled itself for what she would have to do next.

Oh God, this is it – whatever she does I deserve it, and more; Knuckles made to drop his eyes but Rouge gripped his face and forced him to meet her determined, driving gaze.

"How dare you think of yourself as hurting people; how dare you even think of considering yourself a failure", what; before he could argue she had carried on, "after everything you've done, all the times you've fought back from the brink and won. You made mistakes in the past Knuckles; you admitted them to help me and the rest of the guild get over Seraph's story. You said Nack wasn't the only one to make a mistake – well nor are you Knuckles Echidna", Rouge felt her own eyes start to leak as she strove to make the echidna understand, "you made them because you're mortal, but you made up for them. You say you couldn't protect the emerald from Eggman; you got it back. Perfect Chaos was defeated and you had a hand in that, a big hand. When I was taken, Sonic told me that you literally threw yourself down that mine shaft to come after me. Jesus Knuckles, I wouldn't even be here if it hadn't been for you at the ARK".

The guardian buried his head in his hands, howling like his glass heart was being crushed in a fist – his reservoir of strength had turned against him; he had threatened her and he flew at himself with all the ferocity he would have released on anyone else. He hammered at his own mind, doubt, fear and loneliness assailing him and slashing his heart with cruel claws. Knuckles wished for all the world that he was somewhere, anywhere other than here, undergoing anything but the pain from his own tortured psyche. He was aware of a voice as Rouge pressed on; no matter how much it hurt both of them, if she couldn't make Knuckles see this now, she doubted the ever-present spectre of failure would ever leave him.

"You saved countless lives because of your actions and the world owes you a debt. You're afraid of connecting with anything in case it hurts you, well life hurts Knuckles. I felt the pain when my mother died and", the perfect example, "and do you know what will happen if you don't break this cycle of isolation and pain? If you take too much of it and you break?" She was nearly screaming now, forcing the guardian to hear her over his own agony.

"You'll become something like Seraph. Yeah, him; he said in that letter he had felt too much pain and snapped, becoming whatever he is now. Is that what you want Knuckles – you want to become an emotionless robot? Well I won't let you", he glanced up, the single glance that reflected his greatest hope and fear; this time Rouge saw it and understood perfectly, "I am not going to let you do this to yourself; I love you, Knucklehead!" She reached forwards and pulled him into her as she had not four months ago at Jessie Wheatear's, wrapping her arms and wings around him, her tears soaking his shoulder again as he howled pure, undiluted misery out of himself.

His were not the only tears being shed; outside Knuckles' friends, those who had thought themselves close to the guardian, were rocked to the core by these revelations, none more so than Sonic. The blue hedgehog had been flattened by the echidna's confession; and I called myself his friend – some friend I am if I couldn't see something like that. Tails was wiping tear tracks from the fur of his cheeks as Cream held onto him; the rabbit was confused as to how something so fun could suddenly turn so serious and was saddened because of it.

"Don't go", all eyes turned to Amy as she dried her eyes on the shoulder of her dress, "we, we gotta see this through, and say it as well, at the end; Knuckles needs to know we're here for him". Sonic nodded thickly, still disbelieving that Knuckles, the one constant serious influence in his life, had suddenly revealed his inner demons and proved himself mortal after all. To all listening it felt like they aged ten years before finally, finally, the tormented crying began to quieten.

Rouge held the slumped guardian upright as Knuckles simply let go of it all; the fear, the guilt, the darkness that clutched at his soul every time he felt one of his friends in trouble or one of his duties unfulfilled. He had looked at going it alone, never putting anyone but himself at risk, as a source of strength; it had lent him grim determination and power whenever he had need of it but now it approached to break his heart forever; in his mind the strength morphed into a dread wraith – a black figure emerged, a soulless and silent executioner as close to the walking dead as it was possible to be. Seraph, no, I can't be like that, I can't live while dead inside; Knuckles clutched at the one he was being held by, drawing from her, and her words, a new fount of strength and inner resolve, one that might not need the sacrifice of his soul before it empowered him – one that was given free as long as he let it flow to him. He sobbed until he felt faint, the room he had built with his bare hands swaying unsteadily as slowly he came back from the brink, pushing himself away from the pit of nightmares and nothingness, towards a brighter future, a future he had never before allowed himself to consider.

"Let it go Knuckles", he heard the soft voice in his ear, a pair of hands stroking his dreadlocks as he finally expelled all he could, "it's all over". He didn't answer, he simply clung on, holding onto Rouge like a drowning man would hold a life jacket.

"I understand", she said as he gradually began to loosen his hold, settling back down onto his haunches, "I've felt the same pain, the same fear of people getting close and then leaving, all the way through the orphanage; it was the guild that saved me". The guardian finally found his tongue again though his voice was a froggy croak,

"They helped you?"

"Yeah, all of them; I could talk to them and eventually trusted them all. I was lucky to have that", Rouge favoured Knuckles with a shared, secret smile, "I know you were alone all the way through, even after the Death Egg. You couldn't say anything, it just bottled up inside and eventually, pop!"

"I can't…"

"You already have Knuckles", Rouge guessed his sentence and answered it for him, "with everything you've done already – from ARK to Seraph and since then". I did it; he's through; Rouge saw the changes in his face that had once happened to her and smiled at him calmly. She doesn't hate me and, and she said that, she…

"You, you said you, loved me?" Knuckles wasn't sure those had been her exact words, but he remembered them dimly, as though they were spoken through a solid steel door. Rouge put a hand on his shoulder and nodded, just once; the new strength flowed to Knuckles in a torrent and this time he embraced it fully, revelling in the light, not the darkness. Rouge felt herself drawn forwards and didn't resist, in fact she encouraged it; both Mobians embraced each other, not because of tragedy and strife, or for the purpose of one embarrassing the other as they had in the past, but because it was right, it felt right and neither of them questioned that it wasn't right.

"Go for it Knuckles". It took all the self-control Amy had left to keep her voice down as the others around her punched the air and grinned in silent celebration even before they could quit their own crying; Knuckles was going to be alright now and that was all that mattered. As they celebrated quietly outside, a pair of voices were heard from inside,

"Remember what I said earlier Knuckles?"

"No. Which bit?" Sonic felt the tension ease from his body as he realised that was Knuckles, the more confident Knuckles, back again as he answered the bat.

"When I said, you need to laugh more!"

"Cheheheheat", there was a sudden series of thumps and soft crashes, "feel my fury!"

"Nohohoho!"

"Mr. Knuckles is all right now, isn't he?" Cream said, her brown eyes radiating the joy she now felt coming from the room in front of her. Shadow put a hand on the young rabbit's shoulder as he realised that his intuition had been proven right.

"Yeah kid; he and Rouge are all right now".

"Speaking of which", Tails stood up and inclined his head towards the door as the struggles went on for minutes, "shall we make a quiet entrance?"

Knuckles sank down onto his bedroom floor, body alive with a feeling that went way beyond happy and left euphoria in the dust. It felt like, for the first time ever, he was truly alive and had something to be alive for. Speaking of which, the guardian extended one of his arms and Rouge gratefully sank down onto it, the cushion of flesh much more welcome than the harder floor. The echidna looked over and smiled, overcome with this new, previously unknown emotion.

"Rouge, what did we just do?" The bat laughed at this question; in all honesty she was barely sure herself,

"We acted like kids, tickled each other silly and then I finally admitted the truth", the bat glanced over to the prone form of the guardian, "I wasn't faking this time Knuckles, I really do love you".

"The feeling is far more than mutual".

"That's why you were always stronger than me", the echidna gave a curious glance, causing Rouge to roll her eyes and explain, "you admitted to yourself how you felt and dealt with it in your own way; I never even admitted it to myself until now", she shook her head and patted the hand that currently rested near her left ear, "you're a stronger Mobian that I was Knucks".

"Can I get that in writing?"

"You're awful" the bat declared, though inside she saw this as a sign that Knuckles, the Knuckles she knew and had fallen for, was back and never going away, never returning to the cold, hard Mobian she had glimpsed in the past. She had never felt more certain of anything, and never had she been gladder of being certain.

I am alive; Knuckles felt the flow of warmth, of companionship, and revelled in it to the full; now that he knew what love felt like he was shocked that he had survived for as long as he had without it. There was a sudden itch on his chest and he lazily rolled his eyes downwards, to see one of Rouge's fingers slowly tracing the mark on his fur.

"What are you doing?"

"Just wondered", the bat didn't stop her movement and Knuckles made no move to dissuade her, "how did you get that crest; were you born with it or do you have to dye it constantly?"

"It's natural – you can stop now" he said chidingly, causing Rouge to stick her tongue out at him playfully and challenge,

"Don't deny it; you're enjoying this". The guardian decided on the best course of action and smiled back at her,

"About as much as you'll enjoy this". Slowly, he brought up the hand that was behind her head and, using a single finger, gently stroked one of the bat's massive ears. Rouge gave a long, shuddering sigh as the echidna repeated the movement, eyes half closed in an ecstasy of pleasure.

"I won't, s,stop if you don't".

"Fair enough".

Rouge luxuriated in the comfort she found herself in; she was close to the one she cared for, fully aware of how he felt and, as a final cherry on top, he was stroking her ears. In the bat species, these large appendages were considered both blessing and curse; if they were pulled or caught they caused an awful lot of pain – bats with pierced ears were almost unheard of, but at the same time, if gently massaged, they were supersensitive and highly receptive. Life just couldn't get better than this; Rouge felt everything – the movement of his finger, the rough feel of his…wait a minute, now was as good a time as any to ask.

"Knuckles?"

"Hmm?"

"Why do you wear those gloves of yours?"

"Because my hands are ugly". The response was so frank and open that Rouge nearly laughed out loud; she imagined trying to ask that question half an hour ago and shuddered at the potential response she would have received. Still, she was curious; she had some suspicions but she wanted a little proof.

"May I see them?"

"Sure, but I warned you". Slowly, Knuckles brought his other glove to his mouth and bit into in, drawing forth the hand it encased. The fur was thin and a little ragged, but it was the spurs that really drew her attention. They were just naked bone, splitting out the skin at the top of his hand and jutting aggressively into the air as though impaling it. Though dangerous and potentially lethal weapons, Rouge was a little unimpressed – if he thought those were bad he had another thing coming. She mimicked his gesture, biting off the glove of her free hand and exposing it to the light of day.

Knuckles was a little shocked by this; he'd never even considered, not for a single second, that Rouge wore her gloves for any other reason than fashion or usefulness; however, he quickly realised he had been wrong. The hand was startlingly small; the glove must have been well padded, and the fingers were long and spindly. However, it was the fur, or rather, the lack of it, that marked out the bat's hand. Her skin was bright, shockingly pink and looked surprisingly like a baby's. All but the nails, they were a jet black that clashed with the surrounding skin terribly. She flexed them and smiled ruefully,

"See, you're not the only one with bad hands", she extended her naked appendage towards his, and he reciprocated; slowly and carefully, their fingers entwined, the bat's hand dwarfed by the seemingly monstrous paw of the echidna.

"So we're not so different after all", Knuckles said slowly, realising this was another aspect they shared, another peg slotted home, "would you stay here Rouge?"

Five Mobians, just outside the door, froze and held their breath.

"What?"

"I asked if you'd stay here. On Angel Island. With me", the guardian gave his own rueful smile, "if it's a tad forward I apologise, but I've wanted to ask for a long time and, well, never had the guts to go through with it before". Rouge didn't answer immediately, she was reeling from this; never, in her wildest imagination, did she ever even consort the possibility that the echidna would ever make the offer he had just made. Her head span; it was only when Knuckles spoke again that she came back down to earth.

"Don't answer now, you've probably got too much going on down below to think about it and…"

"Knuckles", she cut him off quietly and without malice, "do you have any idea what my life down below is like?"

"Not a clue, though I imagine it's hectic and always busy".

"Right on both counts; I spend most of my day at work, sat in front of a computer screen filling out forms, sending e-mail and playing Solitaire", the echidna chuckled, imagining the impact this dreary routine must have had on the vivacious bat next to him, "I spend about five percent of my life in the field and haven't been out since Eggman was put away. I'm beginning to hate my job". Knuckles felt hope stir in his heart as he asked,

"Your club?"

"Club Rouge?" the bat gave a heartfelt laugh as she realised Knuckles hadn't heard, "Knuckles, I haven't owned that thing for six months; I signed over to a new, and much better, proprietor".

"Who?"

"Omega".

"Omega!" the echidna exclaimed, "so that's where he's been hiding out; I wondered where he'd gone".

"Keep it under your hat – the government's still keeping an eye out for him. But anyway, in answer to your question, this island is a god-send; I'm always active, I'm close to the M.E and", she nuzzled up close to him and whispered, "I'm close to the man I love; I'd be honoured to stay here".

Five breaths were simultaneously released and five victory poses struck as five friends rejoiced in the answer and what it meant for Knuckles and Rouge. In that small room, two lips locked and two soul-mates hugged as though they'd never let each other go.

The pair eventually parted, settling back fulfilled as Knuckles was struck by a thought and giggled,

"Rouge, we are the original odd couple", the echidna looked amazed until she calmed down slightly, "how are we going to let the others know about this; they all think we'd rip each other apart given half a chance".

"Good point, we'll ring round", the bat hooked her bag off the end of the bed with her foot, "lucky I put your phone in here".

"I wondered where that had gone". Knuckles took his mobile and triggered the on switch, listening to the familiar tone as it switched itself on. Just before he could press any buttons though, it rang and vibrated in his hand as he received a call. Talk about ironic.

"Hey Sonic, how are you?"

"Fine", his blue hedgehog replied, "Knuckles, just a quick question; asked Rouge out yet?" Normally that would have had the echidna cutting him off but somehow Sonic knew that wouldn't happen this time.

"I swear you get more random every day; is this some kind of crank call?"

"Nah, but it's a bit of a stitch up, Mr Best Martial Artist". Knuckles felt an uncomfortable tingle in his mind as he glanced at Rouge, the bat also looked a little worried at the hedgehog's amazing perception.

"Umm, Sonic, what are you saying?"

"Oh sorry, I forgot", not two seconds away the blue hedgehog gave a thumbs-up to his sniggering companions, "Rouge never actually admitted that did she?" He heard a concerned voice through the phone,

"What, how did you…?"

"Check your calendar Knuxie. See you in a sec". The line went dead and Knuckles finally remembered what day it was.

"Oh no", the echidna covered his face with his hands, dragging them down it in horror as he repeated himself, "oh no! It's Mushroom day and I completely forgot".

"In English?"

"I invited Sonic, Shadow, Amy, Cream and Tails up here to get the island ready for winter; I forgot they were coming today, and", sound filtered through to the echidna's ears and he went as red as he could get, "they're currently stood outside my bedroom door – listen, you can hear them". Rouge shut her eyes in embarrassment as muffled laugher filtered through the closed door.

"Oh boy; why do I get the feeling they won't let us forget this?"

"Because we're not going to" came Shadow's voice as Knuckles heaved himself upright, offering his hand and pulling the blushing bat to her feet.

"Well, come on in then", he shouted through the door, offering a better-now-than-later look that Rouge nodded at. All five Mobians trooped into the small bedroom, all grinning and offering unsaid congratulations to the pair as they stood, holding each other's hand and blushing brilliantly. In the end, Sonic strode forwards and clapped his echidna friend on the shoulder,

"Well done Knucks; you two deserve nothing less that each other but", his green eyes flashed dangerously, "if you are ever, ever, so stupid as to hide something like that from me, from all of us, again I will hunt you down and beat you to death with the Master Emerald". The echidna's eyes widened for a second,

"You heard…?"

"Enough, but it doesn't matter now", Cream replied, smiling up at the pair joyfully, "you and Ms. Rouge are together now, it's all okay".

"You said it floppy", Cream mock-scowled at this affectionate nickname, acquired from the size of her ears and the way they swung as she walked, "we're together now". Sounds like a dream, and what the hell, maybe it did come true. The echidna stretched and headed for the door.

"Well, come on; those 'shrooms aren't going to trim themselves", there was a dangerous silence from behind him and he turned to see every eye reflecting gentle maliciousness at him, "What?" Rouge, smirking and grateful for the help, spoke next,

"Go for the ribs". Knuckles had enough time for one shout of protest, just one, before all his friends and his new girlfriend piled into him and buried him beneath a mountain of happiness. He prayed he would remain entombed within it forever.

A/N – So what did you think? Knuckles was a bit full of angst but that's just how I imagine him to be – I reckon if his friends are threatened he's the kind of guy who would blame himself and feel terrible because of it. PLEASE R&R THIS FIC AND LET ME KNOW IF I CAN DO ANGST PROPERLY. If you get a moment, read my other fic as well; if I hear good things I'll be able to start the next in the series – A Bloodstone Rose (yes, it will have SonAmy in it, but not the way you might think…).