The light and the pain vanished abruptly and the three of them landed hard on the metallic floor of Robotnik's fortress.
Sonic was the first back to his feet, closely followed by a staggering Knuckles. Robotnik, being somewhat heavier had hit the ground rather harder, and was--there was no other word for it--wallowing.
Sonic smirked. "Bad landing, doc?"
"For some of us," Robotnik grunted from his prone position. "Badniks! Attack! Intruders!"
Sonic was leaping towards the bots before the shout was even finished, he'd taken out three before the first weapon was raised. The tally had risen to six before Robotnik shouted again a moment later.
"Hold! Standby! Shutdown!"
The badniks froze instantly, some in mid attack tumbled from the air or collided with one another. Sonic struck two more before he managed to brake, and turn around.
Knuckles was crouched beside Robotnik, one knee on his shoulder and one clawed fist at his throat.
"Tell them to let us pass." Knuckles said. "Tell them there is to be no countermand. Tell them to deactivate until we are outside the perimeter." He nudged his claws a little closer, and his voice dropped to a hiss which made Sonic's fur stand on end. "I wanted to kill a human today. I wanted it to be Whitman. I do not need a reason to make it you instead. All I need is for you to give me an excuse. Now tell them!"
Robotnik paled. "You heard!" he croaked. "The intruders are to be allowed to leave. Shutdown all offence. Nothing to be reactivated until they are outside the fortress."
Sonic moved to where Knuckles still crouched.
"You believe that?" he asked.
"No," Knuckles said with a contemptuous glance down at Robotnik. "I believe he'll order our deaths the moment I let go."
"Then we need to move fast."
Knuckles raised his eyebrows. "I was under the impression that was your preferred option, hedgehog."
Sonic grinned. "Naturally." He reached out a hand. "Coming?"
Knuckles grabbed the proffered hand, and rose in one fluid motion to sling an arm around Sonic shoulder in the slightly awkward not-quite-piggy-back they'd worked out in the desert.
"Go," he said.
As they burst through the exterior doors an explosive projectile shattered the doorway behind them.
Sonic leapt aside to dodge the falling rubble.
"Predictable, even if not truthful," he commented without slowing.
Knuckles hung on grimly and didn't reply.
Sonic skidded to a stop in front of the perimeter wall and threw a glance back over his shoulder at the advancing bots, then another at the sheer surface of the wall.
"Swap." Knuckles said, and dropped back to his feet. Sonic readily switched places and hung on himself as Knuckles climbed.
As they scrambled over the top Sonic let out a whoop and pointed.
The Tornado swooped towards them waggling its wing as it came.
"Keep hold," Knuckles said, then pitched forward off the wall into a glide.
Tails landed at almost the same moment and they clambered aboard.
"Good timing," Sonic said, grinning broadly. "How'd you know we were coming, squirt?"
Tails didn't answer until they were safely airborne and out of range of the perimeter defences.
"Robotnik's machine was on a timer," he explained. "It was broken, I fixed it. It said it would take a few hours to restart, so I figured it was worth coming back then."
"I'm impressed." Sonic said, still grinning.
"Thank you, Tails." Knuckles said, simply.
"Hey, no problem. So where first?"
"The Floating Island." For once Knuckles was quicker to open his mouth than Sonic.
Tails glanced at Sonic, who shrugged. "Sure, whatever."
Tails banked into a turn and opened the throttle a little more as he climbed.
"We got a report a few days ago that it was over Hilltop."
Knuckles closed his eyes. "No." He pointed. "That way."
Sonic shot him a look. "Thought you said you couldn't do that."
"I said I couldn't do that on Earth." Knuckles' voice slowed and he sank slighter deeper into his seat, tension visibly ebbing away. "Here, I know where I need to be."
Sonic shrugged again. "That way it is."
The Tornado touched down, rocking slightly as it rolled along the springy turf.
Knuckles barely waited for it to stop before scrambling out in such a hurry he landed on his hands and knees.
The grass reached past his wrists and the smell of it seemed as though it dissolved a knot inside of him. The pain and the anger and the exhaustion of the past few weeks was not gone entirely of course, but itfelt as though the noose had slackened.
He could feel the Master Emerald's presence, like a throbbing through the ground everywhere he touched the Island, and even in the breeze blowing over it.
It was safe and he was home and for this moment it felt so good that nothing else mattered.
He gathered himself and stood up as Sonic climbed down from the aircraft.
"Thought you were about to kiss the ground there for a minute, Knux."
The second the words left his mouth Sonic looked abashed. "Sorry." He grimaced, then held out the Chaos Emerald he still carried. "Here."
In spite of his relief at being back, Knuckles was galvanised into instant suspicion.
"You're leaving that here?" he asked, "You're sure you don't need it as a bargaining chip for my cooperation the next time you need a foot soldier for your pet crusade?"
He expected a hot answer, but Sonic spoke quietly.
"I figure I cashed in all my bargaining chips in on go on this trip."
Knuckles looked at him warily. "Yes," he agreed. "You did."
He reached out and took the proffered Emerald.
He held it a moment and felt the knot, the noose, loosen all the way.
"Sonic," he said, as the hedgehog started to turn away. Sonic stopped and looked back.
Knuckles let himself smile slightly. "You earned some new ones too."
Sonic raised his eyes to meet Knuckles' scrutinised him for a moment as if waiting for a knock back, then gave that sudden bright grin of his.
"Well I know where to find you!" He flipped Knuckles a jaunty wave, and jumped back up into the Tornado in one bound.
Knuckles watched as the Tornado gathered speed and finally disappeared over the edge of the Island.
"I'll be here."
Whee! Done. The longest thing I think I've written in any fandom.
Cheers to everyone who's read this far and especially those who've reviewed.
If you've enjoyed, please feel free to click the profile link and read my others.