Iron Skin, Golden Heart.

Disclaimer and Author notes: I own none of these characters – right, that should save me from the insidious devices of lawyers desperate to pounce on innocent fanfiction writers.

Okay, this is the fourth in the sequence of Sonic fanfics I've written; in reading order, they are: Angel of Darkness and Ice, The Best Medicine, A Bloodstone Rose and now, Iron Skin, Golden Heart. I have to stress that, before you read this, you really should read A Bloodstone Rose; a lot of stuff won't make sense if you don't. For my old crowd of reviewers, hope you enjoy this new offering:

And the show goes on…

Prologue – Memories and Plans.

In the days following the first defeat of Dimitri and the shattering of his fell Bloodstone, Haven had been a very busy place in general. For a start, now the threat of the resurgent Dark Legion had been realised, especially if Amy's information about Dimitri's still unaccounted for family was true, it had been essential for someone to inform the ruling council of Echidnopolis of the danger its citizens could now face. As the eldest that task, as well as briefing the current head of the Echidnopolis Security Team on these developments, had fallen to Spectre.

"Are you sure this is a good idea seventh-father?" As he steadied his helmet and made to head for the lift of Haven, where Thunderhawk was waiting in the car to transport him to the heart of the city, Spectre glanced over his shoulder, red eyes narrowed curiously,

"What do you mean seventh-son?" The current guardian of the Master Emerald, Knuckles Echidna, placed his hands on his hips, looking faintly troubled as what Spectre was planning on doing didn't tally with on of the first things he'd ever been told about the folklore of his newly rediscovered species,

"Shouldn't I be doing this; I mean", he continued hastily as Spectre's eyebrows raised noncommittally, "there's only supposed to be one guardian a generation, and I've been seen in Echidnopolis; won't they get a bit suspicious if you show up as well?"

"Spoken like a true guardian Knuckles", the black robed echidna said appreciatively before raising a hand in an pacifying gesture, "but don't fret; the council members and the had of the EST are all aware of the Brotherhood, though they are all sworn to a vow of the utmost secrecy; if any of them were to break it, we would know".

"Isn't Constable Remington the head of the EST?"

"Yes, I believe so; ah good point that – he won't know I've succeeded Tobor, my own father, I'll have to make that clear" Spectre spoke mostly to himself as Knuckles scratched the side of his face, a little confused as he reran the first conversation he'd had with the copper-furred commander of the Echidnopolis Security Team over in his head,

"So, if he knew you guys were out here, why didn't he…?" at that point the younger echidna saw the truth as nodded, smiling again, "ah, of course, he doesn't know where Haven is, does he?"

"No-one does, save the Brotherhood and your friends now; we'll deal with that later", the older echidna spoke dismissively as he had his eye on the time, "now I must be off or I'll be late; oh, did you manage to organise that trip you had planned?"

At this reminder, Knuckles smiled more broadly and nodded, remembering the call he'd made to his mother not an hour ago and the plans they'd quickly drawn up.

"Yeah, she agreed like a shot, should be going through tomorrow; bit of a last treat before Cream has to leave. Her school starts in a few days and Vanilla must be getting anxious by now".

"I'll be sorry to see her go", Spectre said suddenly, eyes misting a little as his incredibly focussed mind heeded his command and he was immersed in memories of the young rabbit's politeness, "never met a more well-mannered child in my life". Knuckles grinned,

"Not even your own family?"

"Especially not my own family" Spectre replied, miming the grin on his seventh-son's face before shaking himself, "now I have really got to go". With that, he hurried along the corridor, turned a corner and was lost to Knuckle's sight.

XXX

When his most elderly relative was gone, Knuckles turned on his heel and moved off, striding through Haven, ancestral home of the Brotherhood of Guardians, as if born to them. He was inwardly very surprised; in the space of no more than a fortnight, his entire world had been violently shifted from one of isolated guardianship to protector of a race. It had begun with the Master Emerald going, in Tails' colourful jargon, a little haywire and sending out strange energy pulses; from these pulses, the rest of Angel Island, sealed away so long ago by the first guardian and his most deadly enemy, had reappeared, together with the city of Echidnopolis and his own family. Something else to really look forwards to; a smile touched his lips as his footfalls rang off the steel floor; I get to see mum again.

In all the strife that had so recently ended, it felt like years since that magical night when he had opened the door of the hotel room he had rented for himself and Rouge to find a nurse waiting on the doorstep; a nurse named Lara-Le, his mother. After a night of high emotions and family recollections, not all of them nice…Knuckles started, his train of thought totally derailed as something very cold touched the side of his neck and a frigid voice whispered in his ear,

"You're dead".

"Espio", the echidna snarled in mingled relief and annoyance as his heart rate spiralled down from somewhere around three hundred beats per minute and a semblance of calm reasserted itself, "quit doing that".

"Just training; turn around"; Knuckles did so as the chameleon revealed himself, his mottled skin fading back to his normal purple colour. The guardian flicked his eyes down to the weapon held in the ninja's hand and snorted,

"Let me guess; in the right hands that could wipe out an army?" Face not betraying any hint of emotion, Espio wiped the butter knife with his glove and answered,

"If it had been a real knife and you twitched, you could have slit your own jugular vein open and bled to death; be grateful I'm that considerate". His eyes closed for a second and, right before Knuckles' eyes, he began to vanish in plain sight,

"Any idea where anyone else is?" The chameleon shrugged,

"No idea, I haven't seen anyone except when I've been following and assassinating them", he kept his face blank as Knuckles put his hands on his hips, "they have their leisure activities, I have mine". Knuckles just couldn't help it,

"What do you do for fun exactly?" Just before his head vanished, Espio looked the echidna right in the eye,

"I use a real knife". Not able to tell if he was joking or not; Knuckles suppressed a visible shudder and stood stock still until he heard faint footsteps moving away from him. When he was sure Espio was gone, he continued on his way, a little thrown off track by the sometimes creepy reptile, but still sticking to his basic plan.

XXX

Though not completely comfortable in this sterile, flat environment, he still had a rudimentary map of where most things were and from that, with a little mental mapmaking, he could guess where everyone should be. If worst come to worst; he thought wryly as he headed to where he hoped the hospital area was; there's always the old fall back – wander around until someone comes looking for you. That had been fun; when the Brotherhood had introduced itself to him, Knuckles had admitted that a few people had seen the Master Emerald; not a massive deal in his eyes because most of them he knew as friends. However, it became very obvious very quickly that to his ancestors it meant a great deal, so with that in mind Spectre had decided the only thing to do was invite everyone who had seen the Master Emerald up to Haven. Fortunately due to the New Year holiday period, this had been a relatively smooth process and, after a little explaining, a few introductions and, Knuckles smiled once more, a couple of bucket-loads of confetti, Sonic, Tails, Amy, Cream, Shadow, and the Chaotix had joined Rouge as guests of the Brotherhood of Guardians. Spectre's aim had been, primarily, to test if they were all trustworthy with the knowledge of the location of the Master, a fact only he could confirm due to his unique talent as a mind reader.

As he'd often done when he'd had a spare minute, Knuckles wondered if the reactivation of the old glyphs of protection that had come about as part of the Master Emerald's sudden reawakening were a blessing or a curse; they would, Spectre assured him, ensure that no-one save those who had seen the Master itself before the glyphs had lit up would be able to approach the shrine, so would keep out most accidental guests or wanderers, essential due to sudden massive population increase. But at the same time, worst come to worst, they'd prevent Knuckles calling in back up in the form of the EST, and since the battle that had occurred in Haven as Dimitri had threatened to end his feud with the guardians, that had been playing more and more on the guardian's very keen sense of pessimism.

Dimitri; the name itself had become a blight to him, because what that timeless, malevolent monster had done was inexcusable, yet at the same time bafflingly blameless. The introduction had been convoluted to say the least, the memories still so fresh Knuckles could recall them instantly. First there had been rampant confusion; apparently, Amy had one night attacked Athair without motive and then somehow used a Chaos Control to leave Haven. When Cream had let slip the real name of the pink hedgehog, every one of his grandfathers had been instantly alerted and even fearful; with the help of their bloodline granted gift, Sonic and Sojourner had made full speed to try and save her, but had returned empty-handed and, in the case of the blue hedgehog, empty-hearted as well. From there, Spectre and his many generations of sons had told them all the awful truth; that the first guardian Edmund, guarded the Master Emerald; Knuckles clenched his teeth, hating the way his very distant family had torn itself apart much like his immediate one had; from his own younger brother.

The story of the Chaos Siphon and how it had created the Chaos Emeralds from the Master Emerald years ago in the past, was ingrained in his mind; he was a descendent of Edmund and therefore enemy of Dimitri, even more so when it emerged that it had been he, not Amy, who had attacked Athair; the shade of the ancient grandmaster of the Dark Legion was able to possess Amy as she slept and had seized his chance for freedom. He had escaped imprisonment from within his own greatest weapon, the counterpart to the Master Emerald he had forged from his own flesh, imbued with the stolen power of Chaos when the Chaos Siphon he had created with his brother exploded; the dread Bloodstone reformed the body of its creator. Dimitri had kidnapped Amy and then left the scene of his release, leaving Sonic and Sojourner alone with the bitter ashes of defeat.

XXX

He was getting closer, three more lefts and second right after that would put him there if his guess was right. Knuckles speeded up a little for two reasons; firstly he wanted to hear how much mobility Amy had regained, and secondly Sabre could answer his question as to Cream's current location within Haven. As he approached, he relaxed a little before looking around curiously and counting a few doors; he smiled a little at a little delayed irony; fantastic, I was shot a stone's throw from the hospital – just my luck! Taking a second for this to sink in and storing it away to relate to Rouge later, he carried on, memories of the great battle he had been a part of flickering in front of his lilac eyes.

Spectre had said Dimitri would strike at Haven, he knew its location through Amy's eyes; as in most things, Spectre had been uncannily accurate. Within no more than eight hours after the return of the failed rescue party, the onslaught had started; with flares of red power and a tell-tale 'whip-crack' noise, metallic beasts in the shapes of echidnas had been teleported right into the heart of the Brotherhood's home, guns blazing and crushing arms ready to tear, rend and destroy. They had been met by doomed but stubborn resistance; much to his chagrin, he himself had been the first put down – a hit at point blank range as he made to get Rouge out the way of danger had meant an instant lights out. He hadn't expected to survive when he made up his mind about what he was doing; it had come as a shock when he woke up several hours later with a pounding headache in a pitch-black room, restrained together with his friends.

Only when Dimitri himself had made an entrance had the plan been made clear; his entire credos was the destruction of death itself, noble perhaps, but the dream of an unhinged mind. Knuckles privately agreed with Spectre's idea that the explosion of the Chaos Siphon, the same accident that had transformed Edmund into the first guardian, had devolved Dimitri into a lunatic. His idea of cheating death by confining everyone to a life within a prosthetic, metal shell devoid of all emotions and sensations was that of a madman; however, as Espio found out, trying to tell him that wasn't a good idea. This fixation on preserving life, all life, had probably been all that had saved them; Knuckles was under no illusion that had Eggman been in the same situation, neither he nor any of his friends would be here now. Dimitri had explained that the Chaos Siphon could and would be rebuilt by his legion, and he would use it to steal the powers the guardians had inherited from birth, thus removing the last great obstacle in his path to control Angel Island and deliver its population into tortured immortality. But it wasn't to be; by the nature of the one he possessed were the seeds of his downfall sown; it was with this thought in mind that he pushed open the door to Haven's patient care, whispering his greeting as he did so.

XXX

"Hey Knuckles"; the echidna waved back at the cheerful voice, again marvelling at how much boundless energy and strength of spirit the hedgehog in the bed in front of him must have contained within her short frame. Crossing the room quickly and quietly, the echidna pulled up a stool and sat down,

"So, how'd it go?" Amy frowned a little, but as the other figure by her bedside noticed this, he answered for her,

"Much better than Sabre predicted", Sonic spoke with a heavy truth in his voice as he looked up at Amy, "still a bit sensitive on the soles, but there wasn't any real trace of any kind of lasting damage".

"But I'm not going to be running a marathon any time soon" Amy pouted, glaring down at her freshly bandaged feet as Knuckles shook his head, silently wondering how Amy could think of that tiny, trivial detail; in the light of all she had suffered at Dimitri's hands, how had she found the courage to face him again?

"Spectre came in before he left", Sonic's voice broke through his haze; Knuckles blinked and flicked a glance down at Amy,

"Really, I just saw him now; what did he say?"

"Much the same; he wanted to reassure me what happened wasn't my fault – he's been a real angel". Both male Mobians looked at each other and fought down deep smiles; yeah right, a hell's angel maybe. Amy must have seen this as she smiled sweetly and casually reached over to where her legendary Piko Piko hammer stood propped against her bedside table; this sobered Sonic and Knuckles up instantly, the blue hedgehog stopping her hand with his own, tone becoming more serious as he looked her right in the eye,

"Well, you know he's right; everyone knows there was nothing you could have done – hell, even Dimitri said it".

"I know", Amy let out a sigh of slight sadness, eyes misting over with regret as she too took a step backwards in time, "I don't know if this is right or not, but I still hope he's all right now". Sometimes Amy; Knuckles shook his head in disbelief as the two hedgehogs held each other's gazes; I can really see where Sonic comes from – you must be a girl in a million if not more.

He had spoken to Amy both one on one and as part of a group; Sabre and Athair both had said that, much as Knuckle's grandfather was giving her physical injuries the best possible treatment, the best way for her to recover from her emotional trauma was to tell everyone what had happened. This she had done, and as of yet no-one had found it within themselves to say that the events of the last week had been her fault; heck, Thunderhawk, the old warhorse of the Brotherhood with fists of steel and skin of rock, had all but broken down in the face of her story – it had taken Sabre and Sonic both to prise Amy free of his ferocious hug as he had shouted for the world to hear that she was a warrior that he could never be. And with that, once he had heard her story, Knuckles could do nothing but agree.

Dimitri had left her in her Station Square apartment, though she had been keen to stress that he had stayed with her, trying to make her see that she had had no control of her destiny ('he even held my hand, stopped me from falling right off the edge' – were her exact words), then he had left to pursue his goal of crushing the Brotherhood once and for all. She had spent time in her apartment, teetering on the brink of possibly terminal depression, before she had seen a picture Big had drawn for her at Christmas; as she had tried to explain, it was as though someone had lit a massive fire inside her. She had run from Station Square to Big's home in the Mystic Ruins and from there obtained the Chaos Emerald she had used to teleport back to Angel Island; she had known she could now use the power of these mighty stones because she Dimitri had tricked her into using one to escape from Haven in the first place. She had Chaos Controlled right into the heart of the Dark Legion's base alpha and faced Dimitri once more, with Angel Island's fate on the line.

Knuckles doubted he would ever truly forget the dance the pair had performed in front of a quite literally captive audience; every clash of blade on hammer was present and accounted for, every blast of Chaos energy, whether it was from Amy's emeralds, or Dimitri's fell Bloodstone, was etched clearly in his mind. He could still feel the elation when she had landed her first telling strike, the nausea and stomach-churning worry when Dimitri had slashed her down with his deadly sword and the sheer sense of wonderment when Amy, against all the odds, had finally managed to outwit the grandmaster and, by using the gift he himself had been forced to grant her to attain his freedom, to touch the Bloodstone and tap into its power to transcend mortality and reach her hyper state. In desperation, Dimitri had called on all the powers of his Bloodstone and the two demi-gods had warred; when the smoke cleared, Amy had been the one triumphant, though the manner of her victory was, as Rouge had put it, that of a true scarlet woman.

On this cusp of victory, she had Dimitri in the palm of her hand, his back broken by a swing of her hammer, and let him go; it wasn't within her to kill someone who's motives were good even if their methods left something to be desired. She had let him take enough power from his Bloodstone to flee before setting the remainder of her friends free – it was then that she had outlined her duty, no matter how much it hurt or the fact that she had been forced to knock Sonic out to make sure she could do it, it had been done. The Bloodstone had been shattered, blown to dust; the Dark Legion denied its ultimate weapon for all time.

XXX

Now she was healing from her battle, and making progress even Sabre, well-qualified surgeon of the Brotherhood, had been flummoxed by; how was she healing so fast? Knuckles was first to admit he wasn't a doctor, but he was almost sure it was something to do with the fact Sonic had finally opened his eyes; when he had recovered from the knock out blow she had landed when he got in her way of destroying the Bloodstone, they had been taken far away by the unique translocation power of his fifth-father Sojourner. They had all seen the detonation of the great red ruby; Sonic had taken off, fire in his eyes that death and nothing less would have quenched, Shadow on his heels as he raced into the devastation to find Amy. Knuckles, along with the others, had waited with hearts in mouths until there had been the characteristic glow of a Chaos Control; Shadow had managed to break through his amnesia to a tiny degree to save the lives of his friends. Sonic had thrown himself on top of Amy to shield her from the collapsing ceiling of the crumbling subterranean base alpha; had it not been for the black hedgehog, they would both have been killed in the cave in. He hadn't moved from her bedside during her day and night of unconsciousness and, from the second he had appeared in the doorway, Knuckles had known, just known, what had happened in the night.

Amy and Sonic had been together a lot as she recovered under the ministrations of Knuckles' own grandfather; not obsessively, stiflingly close by a much more pleasant, touching sort of togetherness; Sonic often ate in the hospital wing, just talking with her to ensure she didn't feel lonely, swapping small talk in the free hours. Much like Rouge and I did, and still do come to that; as he watched two of his closest friends begin to finally understand and explore what love could mean for them, the guardian took a little time out to examine his own relationship. It was, and ever since the activities and confessions of early autumn, had always been an everlasting bond – before he could contemplate it too much though, there was a slight bang as a door was roughly opened and the man he really needed to see hove into view, arms full with bottles of unidentifiable chemicals as a monocle dangled at the end of a fine gold chain, evading the efforts of its owner to return it to the proper position over his eye.

XXX

Sabre took in the scene with clinical accuracy; he had fully expected Sonic to be present and if Amy had gone missing he'd have definitely known something was up – the presence of his own grandson came as something of a surprise. And a pleasant surprise come to that; Sabre thanked the current guardian with his eyes as Knuckles quickly moved forwards and took some of his burden out of his arms, freeing up a hand that was then able to readjust his monocle. When his practice was once more in sharp focus, the surgeon, placed the medicines he'd been carrying in a carefully ordered pattern on the side as he simultaneously spoke to his patient,

"How do you feel Amy? No lingering pain?"

"No", she shook her head, wriggling her toes through the thick bandages he'd wrapped around them, "soon be ready for that foot massage you mentioned".

"Maybe a bit later, but for now you should rest up; we'll try another walk tomorrow after your injuries have had time to harden up a bit". Amy nodded before looking at him seriously,

"How long do you think it'll be?"

"Normally I'd say at least a fortnight", Sabre admitted casually; it was only when here face started to fall that he allowed himself to smile, "but given your progress, I'd say at most a week and a half". Amy gave a victory pose of a second before she froze and let out a groan,

"Oh no, I'm supposed to be at work next week; Sonic could you…?"

"Way ahead of you Ames", the blue hedgehog reassured her with his trademark smile, holding up his phone for her inspection, "I gave Mr Cadbury a ring when I went for a run this morning; told him you slipped and broke your ankle. I said you'd let him know when you could be in again and he said take your time and don't rush your recovery".

"Thanks Sonic", Amy gave his hand a gentle squeeze as Knuckles gave an approving nod from the sidelines; it was then she looked up a little reproachful, "but a broken ankle; makes me sound like a klutz". The blue hedgehog gasped incredulously,

"Well I couldn't tell him the truth could I; for a start there's not enough credit on my phone, for another I can't remember half of it and lastly if I tried Spectre shoot me". Sabre felt compelled to speak up in his fifth-father's defence here,

"No he wouldn't; as current guardian that duty would fall to Knuckles". He was a second too slow; sonic piped him to the quip,

"Well I'm safe then; if his snowballs are anything to go by the safest place would be right in front of the gun barrel". Knuckles shot him with a venomous glare before returning to his original plan,

"Sorry to bother you Sabre, but I need a favour", the third-father looked around enquiringly as he continued, "I need to find Cream, could you have a quick look for me?"

"No bother grandson"; without further ado, Sabre tapped into the common gift granted to him by his genetic link to the first guardian and the Master Emerald to scan Haven for the rabbit girl.

One day; Knuckles though with a hint of envy as he watched his grandfather's still form as the common gift activated; I'll be able to do that as well. The gifts granted to the guardians were fully revealed at maturity; in history, when Angel Island had still been sundered and sealed away, the true period of guardianship began when the father took over to allow his son to journey to the lost city of Echidnopolis and find a partner for life. The reappearance of the lost area of Knuckles' home due to the reawakening of Dimitri and the interactions between Bloodstone and Master Emerald had somewhat bucked this trend, but eventually Knuckles was hopeful something could be worked out. He kept his thoughts off his face as Sabre blinked his eyes open and regarded him once more; Knuckles had a brief second to wonder why he was looking so sorrowful before Sabre delivered the news,

"She's in Athair's training room, along with Athair".

Oh wonderful – off to the loony bin for a while then; Knuckles sighed before thanking his grandfather and making to set off, only to be stopped by Amy's voice,

"Knuckles, could you let Cream know it's gone well and I'll be on my feet tomorrow night?" The echidna chuckled a little and nodded,

"No problem Ames; I'll send her your way when I've told her she's got a trip tomorrow".

"You got hold of your mum?" Sonic looked up with interest evident in his face, "Is she coming here?"

"Nah, we're meeting her in town; Spectre, ah, persuaded Sojourner to drop us off on the outskirts", the echidna answered delicately, trying hard not to think of the particulars of what that persuasion must have entailed; though he'd known his fifth-father less than two weeks, Knuckles had quickly come to realise that Sojourner was a bitter Mobian and misanthropic to the nth degree, "but don't sweat it; like I said, I'll make sure you meet her before you all leave. I'm ninety nine percent certain she's dying to meet you all".

"Excellent, well loath as I am to disrupt this gathering", Sabre began, stepping forwards as he made peace with his unique talent of healing, "I'd like to move on with your feet Amy". The pink hedgehog screwed up her face as though bracing for a torture session; Sonic laughed and gently swatted her shoulder,

"You big baby, it's not that bad".

"You're not the one having to sit through thirty minutes of pins and needles", she retorted sharply before Sonic laughed again and leant down to deliver a small hug; when that was over and they whispered goodbye, both Sonic and Knuckles exited the surgery, the faint green glow behind them the only mark of the remarkable power being called into play by the healer of the Brotherhood of Guardians.

Outside the door, Sonic whistled and shook his head,

"Well, I've got thirty minutes to kill; I'm off to hang with Vector – he was right, the sauna really does do you the world of good. You?"

"Gotta chat with Cream, after that I'll need thirty minutes to get over Athair again", Knuckles shuddered at the though of meeting his insane great-grandfather again, however fleetingly. Sonic sympathised,

"Rather you than me bud; anyway, later". With that he was gone, nowhere near as fast as he could go due to Haven's many twists and turns and the risk of collision, but quick enough to send him out of the guardians' sight in seconds. Well, it finally happened; Knuckles shook his head and grinned slyly as he headed the way he needed to go; took a near-death experience and the possible enslavement of Angel Island to do it, but Sonic's finally grown up and said it. Not like I can talk though; his grin widened as he made up his mind of what to do when he'd found Cream.

XXX

"Okay, try it again little Cream"; her instructor hovered over the mat as she readied herself to make it through the obstacle course he'd set up. She calmed her breathing and set her mind on the route, everything else was secondary to this concentration and the need to complete the task he'd set her.

"Go!" At the shout she was off; her ears beating ninety to the dozen as she sped into the air – she needed to get her momentum up because she couldn't beat her propellers through the first ring, it was too tight a fit. She reached her maximum velocity and at the last possible second tucked her arms and ears tight into herself as she streamlined her body, passing the through the brightly coloured hoop with barely an inch to spare. I did it; but there was no time to celebrate, the next move was possibly harder still. Face lined with concentration, Cream tilted her whole body to the left and stretched out her left ear, the sudden drag slewing her round to the left like a racing car around a hairpin bend, the turning circle virtually a sixpence. Course corrected she moved back into full throttle, moving like a ballistic missile and cutting through the second bright blue ring like a speeding beige bullet; she thought she'd made it and began to pull up, kill her forward momentum to begin the near-vertical flight upwards to the third part of the course, but she'd overestimated her speed.

As she rose upwards, the tip of her heel clipped the back of the hoop and she felt the same pang of disappointment; that was the fourth time she'd made that mistake and for that she'd failed the course again. Oh well; she looked down with a reluctant smile as the cloud of failure had a silver lining – with no warning and no apparent concern at a height of at least twenty-five feet in the air Cream suddenly stopped her ears moving and, as gravity took hold, plummeted to the floor.

"This is for a nine" she shouted as she twisted and performed three full somersaults in the air before impact; when the soft trampoline-like floor of this unique training area reacted and catapulted her back into the air, she did another one and a half. As she finally came to rest, she lay on her back for a second, just enjoying the thrill of the fun for a second.

"Sorry little Cream, have to dock you to an eight", Athair mourned as he ghosted over his customary six inches off the floor; she hefted herself back to her feet and regarded the flying echidna woundedly,

"But you said five was a definite nine".

"And so it is", Athair agreed, nodding until the bright bangles decorating his spines jingled together musically, "but that was only four and a half". The rabbit furrowed her brow for a second before shaking her head,

"Sorry Mr Athair; must have lost count". The echidna laughed and rose up a little higher into the air, his unique gift bearing him aloft without him seemingly controlling it,

"Not a problem little Cream, but let's call it a day there; your ears are as red as my great-grandson". The rabbit touched her right ear and sure enough it was burning up, she smiled at the echidna again,

"Okay, it's a day; thank you very much for letting me use your training room". Athair beamed down at her,

"Not at all; I just wish the rest of my family all trained as hard as you did", he lowered himself down and beckon conspiratorially; Cream leant forward and he whispered, "most of them can only glide if they fall, how bad is that?" It was at that precise second that the door opened as someone knocked on it; the first sight Knuckles had was of Cream and his third-father with their heads together; the way they suddenly sprang apart and tried to act innocent only reinforced his suspicions of them being up to no good,

"And what are you two whispering about?" Seeing the slight smile on his face, Cream played along and went into 'cute' mode and replied in a voice that made sure butter wouldn't melt in her mouth,

"Nothing Mr Knuckles"; looked up with her brown eyes heart-melting and Athair nodding in the background; Knuckles merely raised an enigmatic eyebrow,

"Well, if that was nothing, I suppose me talking to my mother about your little trip tomorrow was nothing as well". Gotcha; he allowed himself a satisfied smirk as Cream dropped her façade and ran up to him, suddenly breathless,

"What did she say? Are we going – tell me, tell me please!" Knuckles gave a haughty sniff and turned his back,

"Like I said, it was nothing"; Cream cracked as he made to exit the room,

"Okay, we were just saying that the guardians need to learn how to fly; they're not training hard enough".

"Oh is that so?" Engaged as he was with the small rabbit, Knuckles made the fatal mistake of ignoring Athair; he hadn't noticed his insane relative fly over behind him; then only warning he had was when a pair of hands gripped onto his shoulders and he was hoisted into the air.

"You knows she's right third-son", Athair scolded as Knuckles watched the floor fall away alarmingly, "I mean look at you; I bet you couldn't even get through the first loop of this course". Knuckles had a split-second look at the hoop before Athair let go; by instinct he straightened himself out and began to glide towards the target – he was too close to change his course even as he knew what the outcome of this doomed exercise was going to be…

XXX

I swear I'm getting a nervous tic from him; Knuckles thought furiously as he stalked away to his room within Haven, still red in the face as he remembered the sheer toe-curling indignity of being stuck by the waist in a hoop suspended twenty-five feet in the air with one panicked grandfather completely losing his head and shrieking for help and one rabbit girl rolling around on the floor in helpless hysterics. Fortunately, he had managed to free himself after seeing the buckle for the ring and dropped down, stopped bouncing on the trampoline floor, picked up his tattered shreds of dignity and let Cream know that she was to be ready for ten o'clock the following morning. After that he had run out of the training room before Athair could do anything else to mess up his day. He was nearly home and for that he was grateful; if he knew his manic great-grandfather, and to his great regret he unfortunately did far too well, that story would be all over Haven in a couple of hours at most; he needed time to try and recoup his self-respect and temper before he faced everyone again. To start the process, he thought about tomorrow and meeting his mother again; he felt a little guilty he'd neglected to mention Wynmacher would probably be there as well in case his father got to hear about it, but maybe that for the best – he wasn't sure about Locke's feelings for Lara's new flame but he was pretty sure they weren't present.

His pace slowed as he turned these thoughts over and over in his head; despite everything he'd been through in his life; he had no idea how to deal with his now fractured family. On paper it was a simple scenario; his father had married his mother without telling her that, due to the code of the guardians, he would have to take their son into the wilderness of Angel Island to allow his to grow and mature into a guardian; he had done this and abandoned Knuckles when he had been five and this craven betrayal had driven an inseparable wedge between Lara-Le and Locke; they had separated as a consequence. Simple really, until the emotions were added to the mix; he knew his mother hadn't forgiven Locke for that monumental act of cowardice, but she had said she understood the logic behind the abandoning now, while Locke had broken his heart and soul to bring himself to sign the divorce papers. He loved her dearly, and he maybe still does; Knuckles shook his head, confused by this as it made him unsure of his own feelings – Thunderhawk had said he was afraid Locke would die whilst alive due to the loss much like his own son Sojourner had at his daughter's death. It was as these thoughts were swirling in his head that he reached his room and soundlessly pushed the door open. He ducked his head in…

…and paused.

Suddenly all the confusing thoughts about his mother and father were lost for a second; a little imp of mischief must have taken over as he saw Rouge lying on her front on the bed they shared, facing away from him and seemingly reading a book. A grin settled on the echidna's face as he sidled quietly into the bedroom, aiming at the tempting target of the back of the bat's legs, taking each step slowly and carefully as so to not alert her by his movements. She'll scream like a little girl if this goes off; Knuckles bit his tongue not to laugh as sudden mental pictures of Rouge in throes of hysterics nibbled the fringes of his consciousness pleasantly. He was within arms length and slowly, as gradually as a glacier moving downhill, stretched forwards, his breath quickening as the target was almost at his fingertips,

"Try and die dreadhead". Knuckles remained motionless for a minute, face twisted in disappointment as Rouge rolled over, smiling sweetly and chuckling at his expression. Her laughter broke his immobility and he dropped his arms, huffing as he sat down next to her,

"So close; how'd you know it was me?"

"I told you a long time ago, you'd never make a spy; you've got club feet", the bat patted him consolingly on the shoulder as her tone became a little more condescending, "but never fret, you've got me to do the sneaking around so you can concentrate on the bull-in-a-china-shop routine". The guardian scowled, shooting off a retort,

"Well I'm so glad about that; one of us needs to be able to take the lead and go marching in rather than lurking on the outskirts", the bat put them back on level pegging before Knuckles offered the good news, tone lightening, "anyway, tomorrow's a go – mum's not at work and Wyn might be able to join us later, so that's…", he tailed off as he saw something like a faraway look in her eye; slightly concerned by this, Knuckles reached over and lightly took her hand, "what's up batgirl?" She shook herself at the touch, giving her partner an awkward smile as she tried to cover her slip up,

"Sorry, I've, er, just finished talking with Shadow, you know".

"Say no more", Knuckles reassured her, knowing the bat took a lot of interest in the black hedgehog's continuing battle with his amnesia due to the friendship they'd had before that last fight with the Metal Overlord, "how's it going – after the Chaos Control he should have got something back right?"

"Not much", she admitted sadly, facing the echidna directly, "he knows he's used the technique before, but he wasn't sure when or where; he also can't remember much about the happiness promise he made, just that he actually made it".

"No Maria?"

"No", Rouge shook her head; they'd been so close, but still the name meant nothing to Shadow and he couldn't see the lines back to his past; both treasure hunters were silent for a moment before she tried to concentrate on a happier topic, "so, we're all set for tomorrow then?"

"Yeah, I'm almost certain mum'll love Cream". Rouge gave a loud laugh at this, causing her boyfriend to cock his head questioningly,

"Of course she will; come on, if I can make a good impression on her Cream certainly can – I've never met a more good-natured kid".

"You weren't there when she blew up at Sonic" Knuckles reminded her, shivering as he recalled that screaming match from the rabbit with crystal clarity; he had been convinced something horrid had possessed her as it was so far removed from what he'd expected he couldn't take it in. Rouge patted his muscled arm and smiled,

"Well, hopefully Tails have fixed the loose fuse by now, don't tell him I said that, and she'll get on fine with Lara; Wyn'll have a field day with her". Knuckles nodded, convinced by the bat's silver tongue as he stood up and stretched, bad mood and embarrassment forgotten due to the time with her,

"Well, I'm off to the gym; Thunderhawk's in the city with Spectre so he'll never know. Coming?"

"In a minute or two", Rouge answered, pointing at the book she'd been reading, "just get to the end of the chapter and I'll join you then".

"Okay, take your time; good read".

"not bad; now go get the mat ready". The echidna gave an ironic bow, smirking once more,

"As you command oh mighty majesty". He sped out the door as Rouge brought her arm back and took aim with her publication.

XXX

She waited until the door slammed before letting her sigh escape her; the book hadn't been holding her attention at all as she was simultaneously anticipating and dreading tomorrow. Rouge had a plan, but then again she'd never had a plan where everything had gone completely right; suppose Knuckles realised faster than she anticipated, or the trip didn't last long enough? With a scowl and a concentrated effort, she purged her mind of these niggling details and forced herself to imagine it all going exactly right; tomorrow, I'll get what I want from this place and to hell with the consequences.

A/N: That's the overview of how things are so far; if you want more detail, you'll have to read A Bloodstone Rose. Next chapter the story kicks off properly!