Chapter 18 – Healing Heart, Body and Soul.

A/N: Last chapter now, but fear not; I'll be back at the old writing board soon to get on with the next fic (see end A/N for more info). For now though, excuse me if I take a little pride in my cliff-hanger working:

HHH – Yeah, I don't like killing characters, too final for me – you did well to remember that little detail. Good luck with the cast coming off!

Ri2 – Yeah, a perfect memory must be both a blessing and a curse; it's up to Mighty to make Big see the blessing it could be to him.

RGN – The bone, yeah that's a good point; I used to work in a butcher's shop and believe me you could tell if they were breaking a bone or not (shudders). Bloody horrible noise.

DH – You're half-right in your guessing; don't do yourself down, but I have to admit I never really thought about Espio holding a flame for Mighty; now that would have been good. A shame, but believe me I have plans for Espio, and Shadow as well now I think of it, in the future; just keep reading.

TH – Who, me? Kill Mighty – nah, we're going to need her to have any hope with the rest of this motley crew!

Now most couples, on an evening in, would be curled up together in front of a crackling fire with a couple of glasses of wine and a box of chocolates to share; Lara shook her head in annoyance and tapped some more keys on her calculator, again grateful that Tails had remembered her order to replace the one that had finally caved in after years of loyal service; if you're coupled with Wynmacher, however, you get to spend a wonderful time number-crunching as he is completely hopeless at anything mathematical. Even as she bemoaned the lack of romance in her kitchen, she had to suppress a smile; for Wyn, this system was a real leap in ingenuity.

The brown echidna was lovable, affable and knew how to make virtually anyone laugh, but when it came to facts and figures he just did not have a clue. Therefore, after cunningly setting her up with a stray bottle of bubbly and a nicely wrapped video, he'd innocuously asked for a bit of her help setting his monetary affairs in order. A couple of pointers here and there had eventually resulted in this, even by her standards, bizarre ritual; every month, when all his bills had come in along with his bank statement, Wyn would trip to her home and she'd help him get them all paid and set out next month's budget; he helped as much as he could, but there was no denying his main role in this endeavour was as tea-maker and biscuit provider due to his uncanny ability to turn even the most simple calculation into something Pythagoras would have had a hard time explaining. It was slow, practical and mind-numbingly dull work – glamorous it was not. There was only one oasis of rest in this desert of arithmetic gloom; at least it didn't take too long,

"There", she carried the last three and worked out how much he'd be saving this week before throwing her pen down in triumph, sighing as Wyn looked up hopefully, "done; according to this you're a bit better off this month, so I put the extra money in the bank; no spending it, get it?" She wagged a finger sternly, fighting not to smile at the brown echidna's hangdog pout,

"Aww, Lara you're such a spoil-sport", she was about to unload at his ingratitude before he suddenly stepped forwards and squeezed her shoulder, rubbing the muscles in her back as she made to stand up, "but I love you for that; where would I be without you?"

"Probably on the street with nothing but your chef's hat to keep out the cold" she smirked back, feeling him ruffle her dreadlocks playfully before turning to the fridge, "oi, you're on a diet!"

"You can talk Ms three-éclairs-at-lunchtime"; Lara felt herself redden as he caught her out effortlessly,

"That shop was running a special offer, a one-off".

"And you made the most of it if this fridge is anything to go by", she was about to turn around and argue her case when something cold was pressed to the back of her neck and she squeaked in shock, "but luckily, so did I – hope you like your wine chilled".

As she got the glasses, Lara just had to raise a point,

"How'd you sneak that one in?"

"I know you Lara; one look at the papers I had and you were away – you never even looked at my other hand".

"You were hiding it behind your back".

"True, and aren't you glad I did?" She shook her head as with a pop, Wyn finally eased the reluctant cork from the top of the bottle, smiling slightly as she couldn't deny it,

"Yeah", an inspiration, "and I bet you're glad that I did stock up on my supermarket trip now? Oh no, sorry, not for you; the diet is still in force".

"Oh come on!" Wyn was outraged by this; due to his work and the fact he liked to snack during his working hours, Lara had realised that, having lost his major fitness activities in the aftermath of his sky-ball injury, he was starting to suffer a little spread around the middle. As such, when they'd got together properly, she'd been forced to cut back on a lot of the sugary things he liked to eat and he had to grudgingly admit it had worked like a charm, but surely she could make an exception this time around?

"I'm not going anywhere; I saw you helping yourself to my caramel creams when you got the milk for the tea Wynmacher; you better have left me some or there'll be trouble".

"Why, you can just get your toy-boy to run a few more up here".

"Tails is not my toy-boy and he is not a cargo ship; he's a good friend of mine, especially as he helped me clear up after the Thunderhawk debacle of a stag night", that still brought her out in anguished squirming; how had four Mobians made such a mess in about six hours?

"Yeah, gotta admit I like the guy", Wyn hadn't really met the fox prior to a twirl on the dance floor at Knuckles' wedding reception, right before the fox had been shanghaied by the irate offended parties of his now-legendary photograph, but he was easy going enough for him to get along with; and those caramels are to die for; "but, please, just a handful more?"

"No, and that's the last word on the subject"; Lara turned away before his expression of wounded pleading bored right through to her funny bone, "I'm going to set the video up and if I hear the fridge door open, they'll be trouble, get it?" Not as badly as you're going to; Wyn hid his motive perfectly behind a scolded schoolboy look,

"Yes ma'am"; Lara didn't deign to look behind her at the sarcasm, and as a consequence, failed to see the brown echidna sneaking in her footsteps as she entered the lounge.

She managed to half-turn at the sound of rushed footsteps, already berating herself for not seeing the trap in his voice before suddenly she was caught; two arms encircled her and crushed her close to the other echidna's chest. Lara growled and struggled, fighting to break the hold with her arms pinned as Wyn whispered in her ear,

"Sure I can't have a few measly sweets Lara?"

"Perfectly", she had braced as much as possible; now she had to survive the onslaught at the same time as somehow get free, "they're mine!" She screwed her face up as she felt Wyn's hands dig into just below where her ribs met her stomach side, desperate not to giggle as she tried to squirm around in his arms, drop to the floor where she had an advantage; I can fight on the floor, but up here and this close I've had ihihihit.

"Just say yes Lara", Wyn tightened his grip, using one arm to hold her upright as the other tickled, probing her defence as he had to chuckle at her comically pinched features, "just say it and this'll all go away". Her lips moved minutely, the echidna lady not giving in without a damned hard fight even if his hold was iron,

"No". Right, time to try that move I practiced with the waitresses; his smile darkened just before he moved,

"Have it your way", like lightning he altered his grip, pushing her struggles one way, letting her do all the work for him before she could stop it; in a split-second she'd gone from side-on to facing away from him , with both his hands in position to nibble away and break her down, "you asked for it Lara-Le".

"I'll get…you Wyn!" She tried to hold his hands still, but always a finger could move and, as his hands inched slowly lower, right to near her navel she knew the end was in sight; he so much as stroked there and that was it, she'd be a wreck. Gotta, gotta think; she couldn't think, the torment was making her mind buzz just like him holding her this close was; she was running out of time and options when, unknowingly, someone else saved her bacon.

A hard rap at the door sundered his concentration, allowing her to break out from his arms and snatch a deep breath, her face a little flushed as she rubbed where he'd been tickling, scowling as she realised he'd used that unfair advantage again. For his part, Wyn just pointed with a single finger and shook his head,

"Saved". She walked past him, keeping her eyes on his face as if expecting him to strike again; he somehow resisted the urge until she was gone from the corner of his eye, then he jumped as something tweaked the tip of his tail. He span incredulous as Lara smiled with a twinkle in her eye,

"Saved", she leant forwards a little, her voice thickening seductively, "for later".

"Lara behave"; he raised an eyebrow as she giggled,

"I used to; you've been a bad influence".

"Would you have me any other way?"

"Nah; okay, coming", she shouted suddenly as the knocking came again; Wyn dogged her footsteps, ducking out into the hall as Lara opened the door.

XXX

Sonic; that was unexpected – in fact, seeing anyone at this time was fairly unexpected by Lara. She was about to ask what he was doing here when the blue hedgehog suddenly took charge,

"Good, you're here", he pointed to where her travelling shawl hung next to the door, "get your coat, you've got to come with me".

"What?" She opened the door a little more, really not understanding why the blue hedgehog was even here as he stepped in, pulling her coat off the hook for her and thrusting it towards her,

"No time to explain; this is life or death"; mine of Mighty was anything to go by; "Wyn, you better come too; in fact, I'll take you first". The blue hedgehog's hand shot to his pocket and in a second he'd hit a button, then a second later he'd hit another before facing both echidnas again, "Shadow'll be here in a second for you Lara; Wyn, here now".

Caught in circumstances he couldn't understand, not with the limited information Sonic had given him, the brown echidna looked up at Lara, asking for a little help, only to see her as mystified as him. Well, life or death; he went with his gut and suddenly nodded, expression hardening as he moved forwards into the hedgehog's arms.

"Right, what do I do?"

"Out here", hopping from foot to foot, the hedgehog led him into the road and then indicated how he should hold on; he was about to take off before he remembered Wyn hadn't done this before,

"Wyn?"

"Yeah?"

"Just hold tight, don't let go and keep your eyes shut, at least until you get used to it", he felt fingers tighten their grip before setting his gaze and suddenly sprinting forwards, fast as he dared with a new passenger on board; a streak of flame passed him on the outskirts of Echidnopolis and he gave a thumbs-up; if Shadow's got the other two we can make a quick getaway.

XXX

Knuckles wasn't troubled by the night; due to the season it was reasonably warm; what got to him more was the sudden turning up of Shadow on the doorstep; with nothing more than a few clipped words top get ready, the black hedgehog had simply grabbed Rouge and taken off, racing back to where he said the Tornado was waiting . No more than minutes later, he'd been getting the same treatment from his ebon friend as he tore up the ground, ending with him being left quickly on the ground, looking up at the parked plane as Rouge shook her head at him, utterly baffled; he'd turned to speak to Shadow, only to be met with a fading line of red as he was gone again, off on another errand.

"What the hell is going on?" He exclaimed out loud, raising his voice to shout at the cockpit of the Tornado, "Tails, what's all this about?"

"Ask him"; he followed to where Rouge had pointed and saw with a rush that Sonic was up here to, and on his shoulders was,

"Wyn?" The brown echidna lurched unsteadily to his feet, breathing as though it'd been him, not Sonic, who'd done the running from Echidnopolis to here. Rouge peeled her eyes from the sight of the gasping echidna and fixed them on Sonic,

"Sonic, what is going on here; Shadow's dragged us here and now Wyn's here? What are you doing?"

"I'll explain when Lara gets here; yes, Shadow's gone for her and yes, we need her too. Get on board, we'll explain at the top there when we're underway".

"Where…?"

"Later, it's not important – trust me on this"; he walked forwards, flapping his arms and herding the other three Mobians up the boarding ramp as, with another rush of flame, shadow arrived at the clearing edge, stopping steadily to allow Lara-Le to regain her feet, pointing to where the others were now ascending the transport,

"Up there; don't panic, we'll explain en route". Seeing her son and his bride duck inside gave her the confidence; without a backward look Lara headed up, Shadow on her heels as the three super-speed trips he'd done robbed him briefly of breath. Once he was inside, Sonic did a quick head count and, seeing they were all strapped in, shouted

"Clear", through the two-way Tornado radios; with a lurch they could all feel, the Tornado revved up and, after a minute of reorientation from such unexpected circumstances, the inevitable questions started, Rouge slightly the quickest off the mark,

"Right, what's all this about; we're just about to hit the sack for the night and next thing we know Shadow's trying to break the door down".

"Likewise with us", Lara backed up her daughter-in-law, indicating herself and Wyn, "without the sack bit of course; but what's so important…?" Sonic cut her off gently by raising a hand,

"Well for a start I can't tell you exactly because I'm not a hundred percent myself, neither is anyone else, but that's the reason for this trip – we're going to find out. Lemme explain", he elaborated in the face of such questioning, and in some cases malcontent, looks, "all I know is that Mighty was attacked while she was down in Station Square".

"Oh Christ, is she okay?" Rouge's protective instincts sprang to the fore; she's a good friend of mine now – who the hell did anything to her? To mounting concern, the blue hedgehog shook his head, teeth gritted,

"No, she's in Station Square general with a broken arm and a lot of cut wounds".

"Metal", Knuckles was vividly reminded of how Vector had described the aftermath of his brush with the assassin droid, "it was him wasn't it?"

"Yeah", Shadow wasn't going to deny that, but he was just fast enough to rise above the inevitable questions and demands for Mighty's health and Metal's soon-to-be detriment, "but listen, she's going to be all right, but this is the thing none of us get; when we saw her, she gave the hospital Sonic's contact details, she just wanted to see you four, said something about a mind on the line. Believe me she really wanted to see you, but none of us know why; that's why you're here".

"In that case, not a problem", Lara smoothed out her dress as she made herself more comfortable, nursing training making its usefulness known as she said carefully, "if seeing us makes her feel more secure and eases something on her mind, it'll help her recover faster".

"Then that's settled", Rouge announced, sitting back as Lara had, wanting to help her new friend any way she could, "we'll see what's up with her and set the record straight; no skin off our collective noses is it?" General assent met that summing up and the ride continued in silence, each Mobian aboard willing the pilot to coax just a little more speed from his vehicle as time ebbed away.

XXX

As one reunion came closer, all seven Mobians on board the Tornado were unaware that another one behind them was actually taking place; the aerial defences of Necronopolis had been triggered automatically by an unauthorised interloper in the airspace they'd been designed to safeguard, but had been manually overridden to stand down. Lord Enerjak himself had personally overridden them when visual confirmation of the intruder became apparent. Together with Kommissar, he was awaiting the arrival of the seemingly battered robot back in Necronopolis, together with the emotion technology it brought with it and his legion would therefore acquire, one way or the other.

"Target two hundred metres away, altitude constant" droned one of the honour guard, blast gun shouldered as he manipulated the viewer screen before them and droned on, "one eighty, one sixty, one forty, twenty, velocity increasing, the target shape is altering…" So it is; the lord of the Dark Legion watched in mild interest as the robotic hedgehog suddenly curled up, rotating like a saw blade aimed right for the roof of the building he currently occupied. Rapidly calculating the angle of descent and point of impact, Enerjak voxed,

"Clear the centre of the room"; not really necessary as everyone save one noticeable exception was clustered around the viewer screen, but still they edged away as the viewer operator droned,

"Impact" and there was suddenly a grating, tearing noise that set the teeth of those who listened to it on edge. It swelled, louder and louder until there was a sudden crash; daylight, the glow of a setting sun, filtered in from the roof of the main building as Mecha made his entrance, uncurling to land on his feet and glare at the assembled with his one operational eye.

"We've got doors in the facility you know?" Kommissar spoke scornfully as she looked at the hole the droid had drilled; Metal snarled,

"Well I can't exactly knock can I?" It was only at these words the female echidna looked at the robot proper and gasped; what the hell could have done that to him?

Metal was in a mess; the first thing she noticed was that he was perfectly right, there was no way, in his current condition, he could have even lifted a finger. One of his arms had been torn right off, some circuits visible and still occasionally sparking, his self-repair systems still trying ineffectively to seal off and neutralise the awful damage. His other arm was in no better state; even if it was still attached, someone had sheared straight through the vital hydraulics, and pretty much everything else just for good measure, that enabled the robotic limb to function at all; it dangled limp and useless at his side as he noticed her scrutiny, the single functioning LED eye glaring as he saw everyone there absorb his weakness. Something's gone through that like tin foil; Lien was incredulous as she saw the damage that had been wreaked on the impact-resistant plate she and her team had developed; but the pressures, the forces involved…what the hell did he do to get that bloodied up?

"I am…ready", he couldn't bring himself to admit he needed help and he certainly wasn't willing in this, "to make the trade with the Dark Legion; my emotional software for a total operation refit".

"What did that to you?" Lien couldn't control her mouth this time; she had to know, had to confront the challenge of designing something that could stand up to that, create the next generation of armour plating. Metal growled; still not in his good books yet;

"That is not your concern; the trade…"

"Can wait", a second synthesised voice answered, cutting him off as Dimitri finished processing the information his assayers had provided him with, "you have been in combat?"

"I miscalculated something", it was the closest Lien reckoned Mecha was ever going to come to admitting a mistake, "and I require assistance with repairing the consequences".

"Who were you in combat with?" Dimitri pressed, needing answers to allow him to plot the next moves, "for what reason did you fight?"

"That is not your concern", the hedgehog snarled back; even with only one arm and most of his protective systems in ribbons, he was still able to project a palpable field of menace and domination, "I am offering to impart my information in exchange for aid; is that acceptable or must I go elsewhere?"

"It is acceptable", Enerjak nodded slightly; Mecha was alert even now and noticed, even with his single optic circuits, that the cyborg echidna did not aim the gesture at him, but at a point behind him; he span to face this new threat, only to have a fleeting second of registering the increase in charge around his body increase to dangerous, even lethal levels; self-defence programmes automatically kicked in and he was plunged into the darkness once more, going offline once more to preserve his structural integrity.

Lien had shut her eyes as the generator in her twin's claw had discharged the red beam she had programmed it to charge up; the shot had been a one-off, she had been forced to ensure that by her great-grandfather, despite Kragok's assurances that he wouldn't tell if she 'forgot'. Typical Kragok; she'd thought at the time; never happy unless he's got the biggest gun or flashiest death ray; now as she examined the smoking results of the beam she realised she'd done well to follow her great-grandfather's orders. That beam wouldn't just kill someone, you'd be lucky to find the ashes; she gave a low whistle as she met her brother's eyes, organic and mechanical both, and nodded,

"Nice shot".

"Simple", he turned away, flexing his claw as the generator within it cooled down slightly, "he was facing away and unsuspecting, an infant could have made it". Her lip curled,

"Excuse me for making a compliment"; thankfully, she detected the faint whirring behind her of Enerjak's hovering form and both twins cut off their bickering in time to appear regal before the lord of the Dark Legion. Enerjak approached the still form of Metal Sonic and swept his own assayers over it,

"You are certain the emotional programming will be whole Kommissar?"

"Perfectly, I conducted a full examination of his circuitry while I had the chance", she smiled sharkily as the grandmaster beckoned some of his guard to remove the carcass to the research labs, where she'd perform the extraction later, "in the event of a electric current of such magnitude he can't cope with it, he automatically cuts out before his vital software, emotions included, would be affected, therefore preserving himself. I can now get cracking at extracting it the hard way".

"Then do so, and quickly", despite his monotone, she fancied she could almost see the excitement in his tone rising at the thought of possibly solving the greatest technical problem that had even been posed to his Legion, "the fate of millions could rely on your efforts".

"It will be done my lord"; she bowed before departing, not feeling Kragok's eyes on her back as she congratulated herself on earning a little praise from someone who was usually bending over backwards to clear up her catastrophes.

XXX

"Miss Armadillo?" Mighty looked up as the nurse mentioned her name, nodding as she irritably tapped the pot they'd wrapped her arm with again; she had an itch on her elbow and it was driving her up the wall as she couldn't reach it, "you have some visitors".

"Excellent; thanks a lot", she settled down in her covers, still planning how she'd handle this, "please, don't keep them waiting". The young lady nodded and excused herself; there were a few minutes before she felt the relief bubble through her as Shadow preceded all four of the Mobians she'd asked to see into her ward bay. Wynmacher, who she'd only ever met once or twice, grimaced, probably reminded of his own stay in hospital due his sky-ball accident, while Lara was more clinical, looking the armadillo over as though seeing if anything had been done wrong. Oh yeah; Mighty remembered after a few seconds; I forget she's a nurse – she's probably more at home here than anyone else;

"Mighty", Rouge looked at her face, the smile straining to cover the deep anger and worry the bat must have been feeling, "you're looking better than Sonic was making out".

"Yeah, the stitches go well with the dusky fur; watch, this look'll be all over the catwalk in a few months"; the bat managed to chuckle as Knuckles shook his head, his fists flexing as she imagined he was wishing Mecha was in front of him right now. The guardian looked up just as Mighty began,

"Listen, I want no questions about me, how it happened or anything else like that; that's not why I need you all here"; Wyn had to break in here,

"Well why was it; Sonic said something about a mind…?"

"Yes, and he was right; listen, this is about you four, why I brought you here", she beckoned them all closer, her voice dropping as she said the clinching words, "I've found the artist, he's here as well and he needs to see you all".

XXX

Though not as badly injured as the Mobian he'd come in with, once the doctors had compared notes, they had to admit that the armadillo seemed to be doing better, much better, than the cat. While she had apparently been chatting gamely to visitors the whole time, her partner in wounding had simply sat alone in his room, the only times he spoke were monosyllabic grunts to refuse food and water. Most of the time, he just wanted to be alone and, out of patient respect, the ward staff complied, keeping out the way of the cat as he brooded alone. Therefore, when four Mobians, all of them breathless with excitement and demanding entry, had declared themselves as visitors to the wards' newest patient, the desk nurse was unsurprisingly cautious,

"Well, I have to say he's not really up to seeing anyone; looks a bit down in the mouth if you ask me".

"If this hospital food is anything like we get at home I'm not surprised", the brown, dreadlocked Mobian said, nearly bouncing from some unapparent excitement as one of his partners carried on,

"Listen, we really need to see him; it's a, personal matter; just the room, please?" The nurse paused a fraction before shrugging; if they can lighten him up, they'll have saved us all a job, even if he goes home in a couple of days; checking the register, she quickly came to the relevant entry.

XXX

He had spent the time here dwelling on the past; what else was there for him to do? A thousand times Big heard the screams, the chill of fear touching his heart again and again as the sight of a blood-soaked armadillo was seared into his mind forever. Then it cam; the cat would shudder at this point, the haze of berserker wrath sweeping into him, only these times, with no danger present, it did not make safe his mind, hiding it within a comforting haze of red numbness, unable to see anything beyond his foe's obliteration. Now, as his flawless memory played again, Big was condemned to see it over and over, the mistakes he'd made, the rash decisions taken in the heat of battle, and, above all else, the unforgivable devolution into a near-mindless killer. Shivers ran through his body and he glanced down to see his hands, his hands stained with blood, new and old alike, glistening redly up at him with crimson malevolence. How many times he sat alone in this room, his body healing even as his mind wandered away, sickened by what it had been forced to do and repeated over and over by the prosecuting memory before the damning judge of his conscience, and ever was the verdict against him. This is it; Big flicked a claw out idly, toying with the idea for a split-second before shaking his head, the natural blade retracting as he couldn't contemplate the thought; no, that's not the way – I know there is, but I can only se the past, I can't look forwards, not now, not just after this. There was a sudden click that diverted his attention, the handle of his door swinging open, he was about to give his usual answer that he wanted nothing when the words stuck in his throat; for a split-second he regarded the wide, shocked eyes of the bat before, with a cry he couldn't place, between joy and self-recrimination, she threw herself forwards, landing squarely in his arms.

How the hell could I have been that blind?; Rouge hugged herself in closer to the one who had safe-guarded the past of her and her husband forever; how could I have forgotten what he did at Christmas? There was a link, tenuous but existing between the picture, the perfect picture of her wedding and the sketch of Team Rose he had blessed Amy and Cream with during the season of goodwill.

"You did it, it was you…"

"Umm", Big wasn't quite sure what to make of this, especially as he seemed to be holding the wife of the Mobian who had just stepped inside and was now looking at him wide-eyed, Lara-Le and Wynmacher just behind him, apparently fighting for a view. In a breathless whisper, Knuckles managed to gasp,

"You, your work", he shut his eyes, a visible tremor running through his body as some great truth, good or ill, shot right through him; Big was beginning to feel nervous at the centre of all this attention before the guardian pointed at him, the mystery made clear, "you painted it".

So, they know; the cat couldn't deny it, at the same time he realised where, or more precisely who, they must have heard off. He nodded, dropping his eyes as Rouge was still at his front before,

"Why are you looking down?" His head snapped back up as Wyn exclaimed, Lara next to him pulling the door shut to prevent a scene, "The End of the Hunt, don't you know how, how, phenomenal it is?"

"It", he tried to tried to deflect the praise as always, "it's not really much, I just…"

"No Big", Rouge's voice as muffled, but she looked up, meeting the cat's eyes; he was shocked to see something like wonder verging on fanaticism glowing there, engulfing him brightly, "it's not nothing, it's something, something huge and beautiful", she lowered her head again, beginning to choke as he could see the emotion, something akin to reverence in her voice as she carried on, "how many women can be a bride ever day of their lives; that's what I can be now – one look at that picture, it all comes back, the whole day, everything about it. Do you know what some people would give for that, to remember the day they were wed so perfectly?"

"Err…" Knuckles stepped forwards, placing his hand on the cat's muscled shoulder and squeezing softly, his voice the same reverential tone as his wife's,

"Even when I'm as old as my grandfathers, I'll still be able to see The End of the Hunt", his eyes misted up, the grip tightening though Big couldn't feel any pain; he was too lost in this new whirlwind of emotions, "it's all there now; everything that led up to that day – I can't believe I'd forgotten so much. You brought it all back, for both of us; the first night after we hung it on our wall, we spent half the night talking about it, what it meant and everything we felt on that day", he chuckled, no malice behind it as he finished, "the nerves, the hope, the relief, everything. And we owe it all to you, something we can never pay".

"But…"; his tongue failed him; the cat able to do no more than take in the scene; the two guardians were thanking him, outright thanking him, for doing something that had been all he could give them for a wedding present, while the two echidnas behind them were thanking him just as hard with their eyes; Wyn was gazing with outright awe in his manner, while Lara's look suddenly brought a pang of regret to his heart; it was the same look he could remember his mother giving him when he'd done something right. Mum; for the first time in a long time, Big recalled his family and how long it had been since he saw them last. The scene could have lasted minutes or years, but eventually the door was opened once more, the doctor who did so holding a whispered conversation with Lara-Le before departing quietly. After a second, the female echidna stood tall to address them,

"Okay everyone, visiting time's over; we can't stay here but they think, if the last batch of tests go okay, Mighty should be out by ten. From there we can all get home; Tails probably wouldn't mind doing a midnight run".

"Even if he did, I'm sure you could persuade him"; Knuckles received a clip around the ears as Wyn tried to hastily disguise his sniggers, Lara waving a warning finger at her son,

"That's enough of that my lad; we should be grateful he got us all here so fast; him getting us home is just the icing on the cake. Well", she turned to look at the cat sitting before her and gently embraced him, not caring, just as Rouge hadn't, that his fur was still speckled with blood and a few tiny streaks of silvery metal, "thank you for everything Big; your work will become a guardian heirloom, everyone who's seen it agrees. We have to go now, but remember you're always welcome on Angel Island anytime".

"Thank you"; the only words he could come up with in the face of such unexpected shock; he watched on in a kind of comfortable shock as, with a final whisper of goodbyes and further thanks, each of the Mobians who had come to visit him departed, awe still suffusing them and, as the door slid shut, Big as well.

XXX

That's unusual; as was his custom, the cat tried to explain what had just happened with his perfect hindsight, but this time it really wouldn't happen – it just wasn't the same second, third and fourth time around. He could see everyone move and hear every word they spoke, but somehow his memory wouldn't, or couldn't, convey the emotions in the same manner; it couldn't quite replicate the quiet clarity and promise in Knuckles voice, the matriarchal look of pride Lara had delivered didn't hit with quite the same force; it was all muted, hidden as though he were behind a veil, thin and transparent true, but a veil nonetheless, hiding all but, thankfully, his own reactions to the sudden, unforeseen praise. That warm glow suffused him again and again, and it felt glorious, something to usurp the dire, dreaded guilt and, more importantly, strangely addictive; somehow, Big wanted to feel that sense of satisfaction, that was probably the closest word he could find to match his sensations, over again, see their faces for the first time again. This is something I can aim at; with a sudden rush of energy, the cat stood and, taking the pen from the pot on the back of the room door and pulled a paper towel from the dispenser above the sink, smiling widely as he realised that, for the first time in too long, he had something worthwhile to go for; I want more of that, I want to see more people look like that, because I made them happy. With a burst of creativity, Big set his mind to work, quickly writing out a list of what he could possibly do to bring that feeling back.

He was just putting the finishing touches to his first plan when, with a rush, his door was opened again; glancing up, he snorted and put his pen down, matching the smile of his guest as he drawled,

"I've no doubt you were to blame for that".

XXX

"Guilty as charged"; as though she owned the place, Mighty stepped in, the door swinging shut behind her as she casually hopped onto the end of the bed, regarding the cat with hope fresh in her mind; it looked like her gamble had paid off. Big certainly looked happier, though his face fell a little as she saw his eyes flick to her cast; she sighed and tapped it again,

"Poxy thing; my forearm's driving me nuts; think I've got a crumb down there or something".

"itches huh?"

"Don't", even thinking about it made the discomfort a thousand times worse;' she changed to tack to assuage her suspicions at the same time as ease her mind from other matters, "so, you finally saw it?"

"I think so"; he was smart enough to guess what she was driving at and, despite the sneaky way she'd done it, he couldn't deny it had been effective, "how did you…?"

"You said it", the armadillo kicked her heels idly as she explained, "the first time you showed your art, something bad happened and, because you couldn't forget about it, you automatically thought that'd be what would happen every time. That's why you sent The End of the Hunt in secret; you didn't want to be there in case the deal went sour. But because oft hat, you missed…" she pointed at the door, indicating where the two guardians had departed before finishing, "…you just needed to see that not everyone's a raging moron".

"Thanks"; that's better, he looks a lot better when he's smiling; Mighty felt her conscience ease as she realised once and for all Big was sorted out, at least in this instance, "I never thought of that; just wanted to give them a wedding present and painting's one of the only things I'm good at; fish doesn't keep well when it's flying".

"I bet; Tails wouldn't be happy if the Tornado ended up stinking like the bottom of a lake", the armadillo grinned back before craning her head and trying to read upside down, "what you up to now?"

"Just some things I've got to do", Big sat back, thinking about the list he'd written and what order to do it in first, "I want to go and see everyone again; my sisters'll be turning sixteen come the start of October, so I think that'll be the best time to try and make up with my family".

"They'll understand Big", Mighty reached over and patted his paw with her good hand, screwing up her courage as she made to choke down her individualistic streak, "listen, I'm going in a minute".

"Leaving so soon?"

"You bet, the food's appalling", she joked before shaking her head, "nah, I'm being discharged; my arm should be fine, just nothing strenuous for a few days, let it start to heal up; should be off in a couple of weeks. But anyway, forget that", she slid to the floor, facing the cat squarely, "I came here 'cause there's something I have to say".

"Save it"; Big raised a hand, second-guessing her intention and not needed to hear any of it; this time though, he hadn't quite got it right and anyway, Mighty was not to be dissuaded, stubbornly not giving in,

"Not this time; this has to be said; Big, out there you put your life on the line for me, and you knew even if you one, you'd suffer just for doing it", she was creeping closer, the gap between them closing as she finished, "I have no idea how hard that must have been".

"You needed help; I was the only one there who could give it", the cat stated, not arguing, merely stating a fact, "I defy anyone just to sit there if they know someone they like's in trouble and there's something they can do about it".

"Be that as it may", she was close now, close enough for her breath to ruffle the hairs on his face, "I still need to say it; Big, thank you for saving my life".

With that, seeing his eyes widen, the armadillo felt something seize her and she didn't try to resist it; Mighty's normal way of greeting or bidding farewell to someone involved a kiss, but this was different – she pressed her lips against his. Hard, and then harder still as she felt, of their own volition, her arms wrap around him, pulling herself in closer as the kiss deepened. He reciprocated, more slowly, but still he did so, shyly and unsure as the embrace lasted. In the end, need of oxygen broke them apart; Mighty hugged herself into her cat's shoulder, gently stroking the fur there as she whispered,

"Don't be a stranger Big", her voice cut off as she felt his hands reach her shoulders, overlapping the nerveless expanse of her shell due to their length alone and firmly holding them as she finished, "there are people out there who'll love you if you let them; God knows I'm one of them". Ah, didn't quite mean to… - oh forget it, well I know you won't but, ah, you know what I meant; from the sudden tightening of his grip, she guessed with a stab of happiness he must have.

XXX

Far away from this joyous reunion, a door slid open, framing within it a female echidna with metallic spines covering part of her face and, to the two facing her's consternation, a troubled expression,

"What Lien?" Dimitri was immediately alert, the possibility that the software they needed had been damaged was high on his predictions and at the same time almost unendurable, "the emotions, they are…?"

"Here"; she held out a data chip, offering it to her great grandfather and her twin, though she had to add, "but it's not quite what we wanted; I broke them down, and he wasn't lying earlier".

"Explain"; a soldier to the core, Kragok didn't want to spend time bandying words.

"They are all strong emotions, but each of them is negative; fear, hatred, anger, rage, all of them powerfully destructive", she shook her head, regarding the lord of the Legion with a troubled glance, "we've only got half the picture here; I think with a bit of tinkering I can try to replicate the deleted technology but it'll take time, a lot of time".

"We have it"; so the day is set back, but it is still on the cards…what now?; seeing she still had more to say, the cyborg gestured for her to speak only she didn't, merely offering a second chip, her unsaid posture demanding him to read it. Inserting his wires, Dimitri did so; what he saw there made what little remained of his blood boil; seeing his anger, Lien headed it off,

"It's his most recent data; he tried to work around his restraints; you hear him. 'You don't have to kill someone to remove them as a threat'; that's thinking on the very highest level, but it's all negative from him. Everything he does is geared for destruction".

"Lien", finishing his reading, Enerjak growled, his eyes flashing redly, "install the NAP".

"Forgive me, but it's already done; he just needs some structural repair and then we can put him on ice".

"No"; the refusal shocked her and she looked at him beseechingly; for his part, the ghost of a voice spoke a lesson into him again, "no-one deserved imprisonment as he did; with the Non-Aggression Programme running, he can do no harm".

"No lord, he cannot", she saw something out the corner of her eye and, perturbed by her brother's dreamy smile, turned to him, "something wrong Kragok?"

"Huh?" Seeing eyes on him, the joint second-in-command of the legion dropped his thought, swallowing his mistake with practised ease, "I was merely thinking that we were wrong to believe this robot could ever be anything but a weapon; he was designed to kill, programmed to kill and ordered to kill; could he ever do anything else?"

"I don't know", Lien had to be truthful even as her next statement was laden with promise, "but I've made sure whatever happens, he'll never kill again".

XXX

Almost a week to the day after Big was allowed home, the wounds he'd suffered deemed watertight by the doctors, he received a package from Tails, the kit helping him carve his new fishing rod for a few minutes before being forced to head off; as he'd said, he was a busy man now. Having bid the fox farewell, Big slit the top of the envelope open and, after looking at it for a few minutes, slipped it back inside, smile widening as he realised he'd been putting off a trip into town for a while now.

That night, with Froggy sleeping happily in the fur of his chest, Big rested, content under the newest decoration to his home. Above where he made his bed, the small framed picture hung well; it wasn't one of his, there was no comparison that could be made between this and even the least of his sketches in his book, but then again to compare was to miss the point.

The sketch showed something resembling a larger than average cat, walking slowly, someone smaller held in their arms; the trudging stride he must have affected was probably due to injury, but there was determination, steel in both the characters as they carried on, not resting despite the exhaustion that seemed to steam up from both of them. The whole idea of toiling on, of one helping the other was encapsulated perfectly in the title of this work of art:

A Good Samaritan; A Perfect Friend.

That night the process truly began as, through her words, her actions and certainly her affections as well, Mighty's iron shell began to steal over Big's easily broken, but golden heart, helping to shield it, heal its bruises even as it began to beat within, softening her sharpened edges. In the future, it might have been possible for the fire of love to rise again; in which case iron and gold would melt together, tempered by the flames they each bore, entwining and becoming something else; a metal stronger than either component could possibly be alone.

A/N: I always liked these two characters, but they were never really dealt justice in either the games or the comics; Big was, as RGN rightly pointed out, scorned as an idiot while Mighty was muscle and nothing else really. This is just to balance the books; but, hang on; what's the deal with the Legion now? Are they all peaceful, all just wanting to go their own way, or is there still some remnants of fire within them, and if so, what will it consume to sate its appatite. Next fic will begin soon; Lose Your Illusions.