Chapter 31 – Closer than Friends.
A/N: Okay, this is it, the big one – this chapter will bring to a close the longest story in my story arc so far. As always I'm grateful and much obliged to everyone who's taken an interest in any of my work and it's good to see so many new reviewers – if anyone's actually read the whole lot I'd be interested to hear about how you think the series is progressing; is the character introduction rate smooth enough? Is there anyone you'd like to hear more about etc? That aside, just got a recent reviewer to mention:
BC – Yeah, don't worry – lots of stories in this arc yet I can tell you! Thanks for all you reviews so far, and hope to see you again when I start the next in the series!
Only the realisation that he could no longer feel anything below his waist made him come back to reality, blink and look up from where he'd been following the slow, stately progress of the ARK, the miniature frigate catching the gentle night breeze in its sails and edging through the waters of the pond under its own steam as Shadow suddenly made to go after it, forcing his legs to work again despite the pins and needles threatening to set his thighs aflame as he sloshed his way through the water. Ahhh, wow – too cold, too bloody cold; it was true, he was shivering and soaked but despite that and the risk of hypothermia setting in Shadow felt strangely detached from his suffering; instead all that was left was relief as he carefully laid his hands around the ARK and carefully prized it from the water after arresting its forwards progress. Pond water cascaded down his arms from the bottom of the vessel, soaking those as well and making him grimace at the smell; and if that was bad I'm hardly going to come out of this smelling like roses am I?
Now that was a flaw in his plan; he was forced to do some thinking as he waded back to the shore of the pond, the chill around his middle suddenly increasing with the exposure to the atmosphere – how was he supposed to get back to Sonic's now, go to sleep and then have to explain the awful whiff in the morning? Oh forget it; a couple of second's brainwork made his shake his head as he very delicately set the ARK down on the ground, reaching for one of the towels he'd brought with him and left on the bank; I'll figure that out later – right now, this needs doing. And it was true; the varnish might have been enough to let the ship float on its own, but there was no guarantee it would protect against the possible onset of rot in the near future. With this in mind Shadow carefully took one of the towels and meticulously dried the bottom of his pride and joy, making sure every last drop of water had been soaked up by the material in his hand before working his way up both sides of the vessel separately; only when he was completely satisfied that the ARK was dry did he turn his attentions to himself. Just as well these were old towels; the hedgehog thought to himself as he finished with one of them and brought it up to eye level, regarding the mud it had taken off his feet with extreme distaste; no matter how may washes they went through I'm pretty sure I'd never want to use them again. Still, at the end of it all he was able to shrug, rubbing off all the pond water, weed and mud and then chafing the material against his legs to generate heat; slipping on his shoes, he ignited them gently and sighed as a little of the warmth crept in around his toes even through the insulation on the soles of his boots. With this accomplished, he was able to quickly parcel the ARK back up securely in its carry case, make sure the case was secured tightly, take one final look at the small lake he had emerged from and bow his head at the rippling, recently disturbed waters before finally turning his back and walking away from the park he'd spent so many pleasant days simply wandering within. Good memories I had here; with a pang he rubbed a couple of spots on his chest, phantom Akita paws slamming into him as one of the friends he'd made here echoed a bark up through his mnemonic pathways; and plenty more to come I'm sure; he was sure, putting a little more a spring in his step as a smile unfurled on his face; despite the adventuring tonight, there's still a lot of this world to see yet!
The key jangled suddenly in the lock and Shadow hissed under his breath; he'd come up the stairs as quiet as a church mouse, now was not the time to be generally incompetent in the field of moving silently. Slowly he let himself into what had once been his house and slipped inside, then turned around soundlessly in the darkness of the hallway to lock the door again until morning, a relieved sigh escaping his lips as he did so. Right, that's the easy bit done; a slight hint of melancholy wryness tugged at him as he realised such a thought was true and looked down at his legs, wracking his brains about what he was going to do in that respect; maybe I could…nah, the shower would be too noisy, unless I just washed them down with a flannel of hot water; that idea made a lot of sense and Shadow was just about to act on it, in fact he'd just taken his first step down the hallway towards both the bathroom and his bed when it suddenly occurred to him what was out of place with this whole picture. Mouth as dry as a desert and an unaccounted for tremor in his hands, the former ultimate life-form beheld the light streaming out from the cracks between the kitchen door and the doorframe and knew in that instant that there was no way such a light could have been left on accidentally.
Panic welled up within him but was just as quickly beaten down; so he hadn't been as quiet as he could have been and someone had heard him move off earlier – oh well, there was nothing he could do about it now; in fact it might have made his life easier, he could get a wash now without having to be quite as careful as he'd originally planned. I can always say sorry for waking them up, and they didn't really have to stay up anyway – I wouldn't have been that long, though I guess they weren't to know that; with a shrug, Shadow approached the kitchen quietly, taking into consideration the snoring he could still hear meant that at least one occupant of this flat was still merrily away in the land of Nod, and pushed down on the handle, poking his head around the door. Now somehow; it was almost with a resigned inevitability that his red eyes were met with green ones; I just knew it'd be you;
"Hey Shads", Sonic raised a hand in greeting despite the fatigue of his stay-up slurring his speech a little, "have a good night?"
"Yeah, got a lot of things done I needed to do", the black hedgehog replied in the same matter-of-fact tone, stepping into the kitchen and pulling out a chair for himself; he paused, however, as Sonic's next words reached him and showed a keenness of insight that caught him unawares,
"You been down to that park you used to visit? In the lake, if I'm any guess?" You've had a guess, that's true; Shadow's train of thought concluded, amazed; and a damn good one at that;
"How'd you guess that – you're right, by the way", he added belatedly, though for his part Sonic simply nodded at the case Shadow only now set down at the foot of the table,
"I had a suspicion you were up to something just after I saw the ARK you built; the figurehead stayed on all right didn't it?" At his friend's nod, the blue hedgehog gave a brief glance upwards in thankfulness and continued, "just the way you packed it up, you were miles away. And earlier, you hardly said two words all night; even I can join dots as obvious as that Shads, and when I heard the front door open about twenty minutes after we all bunked down", he shook his head, "I decided to wait up".
"Thanks", Shadow remarked from his now-seated position, chuckling as Sonic wrinkled his nose, "heh, sorry about that; somehow I don't think eau d'Lake Bottom will ever be a big seller".
"You went in?"
"It wasn't all that cold", the ebon hedgehog reassured him before glancing down at his ships' carry case, "but I had to; after all we did say that both of us would explore together – I couldn't just send her off on her own". Sonic cocked his head – Shadow had the distinct impression that despite a sterling effort on his part the blue hedgehog couldn't quite grasp the full implications behind his nightly sojourn but, thankfully, decided to leave the matter where it was rather than ask for awkward explanations,
"Fair enough, just as long as you two are sorted out. Or"; hello; Shadow raised his mental shields as a subtle thread of surreptitious humour wormed its way into his friends speech, "should I be saying you three now? Not every day you get an invite to a serious couple's do like this, and unless I seriously got this whole thing wrong it's not one of these things you take just anyone to". Shadow raised an eyebrow,
"I take it Tails got the same routine I'm getting now?"
"Oh yeah", Sonic joked with a snort of laughter before turning slightly more serious, "but you're not…"
"I never said I was", Shadow slid in smoothly, disrupting the incoming attack before launching a swift pre-emptive strike, "but it is just us two Sonic; remember what Amy said", he clarified his point as Sonic's eyes started to lose a little focus, the blue hedgehog trying to work out what he'd meant by his last line, "Maria's a memory now, a memory I can choose to see as and when I want to, and that's one of the best comfort blankets I've got and will probably ever have. But Julie"; ah, now we're getting somewhere; try as he might to keep his face impassive, Sonic knew he'd never be able to completely stuff his heart up his sleeve and a corner of his lip twitched upwards at the somewhat dreamy look on the other hedgehog's face, "she's flesh and blood, well, with a couple of chunks of metal thrown in just for good measure, so I'm just trying to play it by ear – not like I've got a lot of choice mind; even if I did have my memory bank fully online I'd bet I wouldn't have any experiences like this to work with". Sonic smiled before replying in a tone that suggested he knew exactly what his midnight counterpart was trying to say,
"Believe me pal it's the same for us all, even the girls; they're just better at fooling us guys into thinking they know what's going on".
"Speaking of going's on", a reminder of what had been said last time he'd been back to Station Square chimed neatly in Shadow mind and he leant slightly across the table to give the hint of a leer to the blue blur opposite him, "how are you and Amy sticking to that 'marriage, kids, the whole nine yards' plan you mentioned last time I was here?"
Cruel maybe; even as Sonic had to look down, not quite able to meet Shadow's gaze, the black hedgehog remonstrated with himself over his last comment; but I never said he had to answer. However, as he cleared his throat and glanced up again, tongue tip whipping over his suddenly dry lips, it appeared Sonic was going to answer, a little to Shadow's surprise,
"Ah, that, well, it's going okay".
"Just okay?" Shadow needled teasingly, not quite able to stop himself extracting the proverbial Michael as just this once he had one of his closest friends over a barrel, "sure there's not been any, you know, slip-ups in that great plan? Little hiccups in the design that might have, possibly, skipped straight from phase one, marriage, to phase two, ki…?"
"No", Sonic said heavily, hoping against hope that his blush wasn't too pronounced at the same time Shadow was cracking ribs not to laugh at the intensity of the blaze, "believe me we just haven't got the time between us".
At that comment there was just no hope of holding it in; Shadow slumped over the table, quivering at the effort of trying to stave off complete disintegration into utter mirth for fear of appearing rude and waking up the other two occupants of the apartment he was in as Sonic smouldered ominously from his end of the table,
"Thazz, that's brilliant", Shadow managed to choke as he hugged his protesting stomach, almost having to physically squeeze himself to chain his hysteria down, "you, you of all Mobians not being quick enough; let me guess, this is the other thing you really want to take your time over, get right and enjoy?"
"You know", Sonic managed to reply thickly a couple of seconds later, a chilling grimace fixed on his features that even Shadow as he was now couldn't help but react to, "I reckon you might be going back to that pond tonight if you keep this up, with a couple of bricks wrapped round your ankles; you see where I'm coming from?"
"I see , I see", the black hedgehog managed to sit upright and stop chortling at his friend's obvious discomfiture, though there was no way he was going to be able to wipe the massive grin of his face this side of midnight, "pressures of work and all that?"
"Amongst other things; she's at Uni all week, I'm at work all week and come the weekend we've both got other stuff that needs doing, and besides, I'm not going to run the risk of messing it up now, not when we've got it all ticking over nicely. What was it Knuckles said; yeah, remember when we all met Spectre and his crew for the first time?" Must have seen my start; Shadow rationalised quickly even as he tried to make sure he'd heard that right; what could…unless it was just after, or even just before Rouge went down on bended knee; "he said something that I didn't understand then, but I think I can now – what was it? Oh, yeah, that was it", Shadow craned his neck to listen in as his cobalt doppelganger recited the line, "'I love her too much to ask for something she might give me just because I asked for it'; that was just after he admitted he and Rouge had a double bed in Haven. I suppose I feel the same way about Amy; I guess I could, er…" Seeing his friend's discomfiture Shadow merely nodded,
"Yeah, I get the picture"; thanks pal; duly relieved, Sonic carried on,
"…but I don't need to, or want to really – good ol' irony sticks the boot in again", as Sonic began to chuckle a little himself Shadow leant forwards again, trying to see where the punch line was this time, "you go all through the raging hormones with everyone saying sex is the best, it's the be-all and end-all but when you really, finally manage it, when you find the one", he shrugged, sighing at one of the follies of his, or what Shadow assumed was his, youthful fantasies, "it just doesn't matter, it's not important any more".
Shadow sat back, contemplating this line of thinking with one half of his brain at the same time as trying to slam the anchors on the lurid plotting of the other half; think what Julie would do if she found out, apart from laugh - she'd, well she'd…she'd just laugh wouldn't she? Realising Sonic was waiting for a reply and he was being tardy in responding, the former ultimate life-form nodded and stretched, hoping against hope that his face was staying neutral this time,
"You might well be right mate; believe me"; reel him in, come on, right onto the punch line; he gave a chuckle at the same time as keep Sonic fixed in the corner of his eye, making his last line sound like a throwaway comment, "last time I woke up next to Julie sex was the very last thing on my mind".
"Just one of tho…", Shadow didn't bother to mask his smile as Sonic choked off mid-sentence; he fancied he could almost see the other hedgehog running those words back through his mind and wondering if he hadn't been hearing things for a second, "…hang on, you, you and her", Shadow gave a nod – Sonic's eyes swelled in their sockets as his voice ended in a hoarse whisper, his mouth working virtually silently, "you slept together?"
"Nothing happened", tempting as it was to string his friend along Shadow didn't have the energy or the inclination to be that cruel at this late hour, merely holding up a hand with a rueful smile, "happened the night I got Maria back, I don't remember what I was saying or doing exactly but Jules stayed with me all night. Good thing too", Shadow had reached that conclusion with the benefit of hindsight, though he couldn't let the echidna get away completely scot-free from giving him the shock of a lifetime upon his waking up the following morning, "even if I nearly had a heart attack first thing on Saturday; that was not a good start to the morning I can tell you".
"Tell me all you like but I'm not believing it", finally picking himself up after the stumbling block Shadow had thrown in front of him, Sonic was able to pick up the subtler threads in the story he'd just heard, "I knew there was something there between the two of you, but don't knock what she did then", he said suddenly, stern in his manner as Shadow felt quickly abashed, "took a lot of bottle, especially on her part, to try something like that; as far as she knew you were a danger to yourself and possibly her as well".
"I'd never hurt her Sonic". I was hoping you'd say that;
"Good; I guess that makes it official then", Shadow grimaced for a second as he realised too late the trap he'd just blundered into and Sonic gave a soft clap with his hands, "we have a new couple in our little group, and what a pretty couple you and Julie make I must say".
"I…", Shadow scrabbled for a comeback, only just able to reach one in time as Sonic was about to press forwards and stoke the fires of embarrassment on his cheeks to an inferno pitch, "I wouldn't say too much more if I were you Bluie, not unless you want your eyes to suddenly go my sort of colour". Suitably chastised, or at least Shadow could only hope he was suitably chastised, Sonic raised a hand to ward him off before standing up and stretching off,
"I get it, I get it; you two are still a great match though. Anyway", he blocked off the sight of his yawn with the back of a hand, blinking blearily before passing his still seated companion, "I'm hitting the hay for the night; see you in the morning Shads".
"The time you get up; not likely", the black hedgehog joked it turn, though as he felt a light pressure on his shoulder he took the time to slowly place his hand atop Sonic's grateful for the fact the blue hedgehog gave a damn for his memories and future plans, "I'll wash my legs down then I'm turning in as well".
"Right back at you Sonic. Thanks", as the blue hedgehog walked past, Shadow placed a hand atop his friends', gripping softly even if he didn't glance up as Sonic slowed his pace to listen to his last words, "for everything".
Now this I was looking forwards to; as Shadow returned the wave from a figure he could see at least four hundred yards from Tail's driveway, he realise how true that thought was – despite being so different they could have quite easily come from separate planets, there was no doubt that he had been looking forwards to seeing Big again. Picking up the pace slightly, though nowhere near enough to even come close to disturbing the ARK inside its padded case, the hedgehog quickly came into the shadow of the foxboy's home in time to bump his knuckles with the huge cat's pro-offered finger,
"Hey Big guy; how's thing's going?" After flicking one of his huge ears and taking his time to look Shadow up and down Big, as always, replied in his own time in his booming yet somehow gentle voice,
"Oh they're…", he paused for a second as though contradicting himself mentally but before Shadow could comment he'd smiled and held up a finger, correcting himself for a reason Shadow couldn't fathom, "…well I was going to say they're just the same as always but that's a load of tommy-rot; they're going an awful lot better than they ever did before".
"How so?", Shadow asked, interest definitely piqued by this, for Big, rapid about-face in his normal routine; the cat's smile grew even wider and he leaned backwards against the side of Tail's airplane hanger; man, is it holding him up or the other way around; Shadow had to sudden fake a coughing fit as that madcap thought skittered across his mind and the cat began his explanations,
"Well, it was actually a bit of luck, in fact it was a lot of luck, that got the ball rolling; you know Trenton's Frames and Arts by any chance?"
"Vaguely", Shadow drawled uncertainly after a minute of wracking his brains, "nothing specific like – you must know a lot more about it than I do I'm guessing?"
"I hope so, it's where I've done all my paintings so far but that's not really important now; I was there a couple of months ago and"; what's wrong?; Shadow took a step forwards with concern on his face as he saw the sadness flash across Big's eyes for a second, "Mr Trenton, the owner, he was the man who taught me how to paint and looked after me when I went through the, er, rougher patches at school. I saw his hands, his fingers, they looked swollen and sore; he tried to make out it was nothing but I knew, of course I knew", he half-spat in bitterness, Shadow wisely staying quiet as he recognised the cat cursing the downside of his perfect memory, its unique ability rendering him powerless to prevent the past he could see so clearly, "and I pressed him a bit about it; he's a stubborn old get when he digs his heels in I can tell you, but eventually…well, he told me it's arthritis, just starting to develop". The black hedgehog winced even if he didn't know the specifics of what that particular condition entailed; have to make a note to ask Lara next chance I get;
"So he can't, er, he can't work as an artist any more – that's, I don't know what to say that is". Big sighed and nodded,
"Neither did I, not at the time; I just gave him a pat on the shoulder and went home, thinking if there was anything I could do. I couldn't quite get it right, but Mighty helped me out", luckily Big never noticed Shadow's eyebrow rise as his face brightened and the hedgehog avoided some awkward questions about what was going through his mind at the time, "she worked it out; I could do it. Mr Trenton frames pictures mostly, not much of an artist by his own admission and I've never done that, but I reckon I could learn, or at least Mighty reckoned I could. So back I went and proposed my idea to the man behind the counter and now we're just waiting for confirmation of the apprenticeship to come through and make it all official; I've already started training like; as always, just waiting for the paperwork to catch up". Shadow snorted at the affront to his line of work and folded his arms,
"Now if you came to Angel Island I can guarantee that wouldn't be a problem; it's just the system down here's so inefficient. But anyway, no griping about this, way to go you", he swatted as high up Big's massive bicep as he could comfortably reach, "going to learn a trade from the master, not going to get much better than that". What did I say?; as Big raised and started to wag a finger, the hedgehog wasn't so much irritated by the sudden contradiction as perplexed as to where he could have gone wrong with that statement,
"Normally I'd agree with that but this time I'm afraid you're wrong", Big stated cunningly, pushing himself upright with an effort that Shadow swore sent a ripple through the sheet metal atop the Tornado's hanger roof, "it's going to be a lot better than that tonight; a good night out and food that'll only be bettered by the company; speaking of which, I'm looking forwards to finally meeting Julie-Su, Mighty's told me so much about her", he suddenly choked himself off and whipped his head down towards Shadow as if alarmed, his voice laced with imminent concern, "she is coming tonight isn't she?"
Believe me Big, wild horses and all the echidnas in the Legion combined wouldn't drag her away tonight – me either for that matter; nodding to assuage his friend's surge of panic Shadow tried to convey that conviction through his next well chosen words,
"Yeah, don't you worry about that", he said with a hearty chuckle, "we've both been looking forwards to this for weeks; Julie's as likely to miss this dinner as Lara is. Just out of interest though", he leaned forwards now, his turn to be curious about something, "do you actually know why Lara and Wyn are throwing this do; is it a celebration of some kind, something like that?" Big opened his mouth to reply before pausing for a second and then closing it, settling his weight onto his back foot and sinking his chin into his palm for a second, pondering backwards through his memory banks before being forced to declare himself bankrupt on that count,
"No, in fact now that I think about it, it never crossed my mind", with a shrug he looked down at Shadow again casually, "probably never asked Mighty, but if anyone actually knows I bet it'll be one of these two". Following the direction of the cat's extended arm, Shadow squinted against the horizon; for a second he could see nothing, but eventually he managed to discern a small blot heading there way combined with a keening noise on the air, so faint he almost never thought he could hear it, but it was strengthening as the blot came closer and he deduced simultaneously who was approaching and that, not for the first time, Big's words had proved to be true when he'd thought about them.
Not ten minutes later the Tornado's jeep mode pulled to a stop and Big extended a single brawny arm that Cream duly crashed into, the rabbit as always over the moon to see her former team mate and making such feelings emphatically known,
"Good to see you Big", she grated through the shoulder she'd buried her head in, the cat's thick winter coat muffling her speech as the purple cat's massive free hand patted her on the back as gently as a branch swaying in the breeze, "I haven't seen you for ages".
"I know, it's been a while too long; anyway", the cat rumbled, standing stock still for a minute before carefully prizing Cream off his arm, the rabbit helping to disentangle herself at the same time as her chauffeur exchanged a brief hello with Shadow, "let's get you back on your feet before I shed all over you and you crease your dress up something chronic".
"What, this?" Cream casually wafted both her hands down her front, dislodging most of the purple hairs that had caught on her skirt with a laugh, "this doesn't matter; it's certainly not what I'm wearing tonight if that's what you're worried about".
"I should hope not", a new voice cut in and both members of Team Rose looked around to see Tails pointing out his partner for the evening, "I invited you to this so the least you should do in gratitude is make a bit more of an effort than that". Nettled, Cream scowled at the impudent fox, not noticing Big and Shadow exchange a glance from over her shoulder,
"And if you hadn't invited me you'd have looked a bit of a drip turning up on your own in the middle of everyone else being paired up; if anything you should be grateful for me sparing your blushes and anyway", she folded her arms, giving the smile usually reserved for gamblers with four aces in their hand and at least another couple held in reserve up their sleeves, "I don't see you making any effort at all up to now, so don't stand there and lecture me thank you very much". Big gave a chuckle as he saw his smaller team mate nod in triumph and Tails shrank back slightly from the verbal lashing she'd just administered,
"Ow, harsh; that is what is known in the trade as getting your tail ripped off and handed to you"; getting in on the act, Shadow did a quick side-shimmy to get within range and give Tails a dig in the ribs,
"And in this instance, it's just your luck you had more to lose than the rest of us"; leave it at that, he doesn't need any more misery right now – although; Shadow had to recalculate his previous thought as out the corner of his eye he saw Tails recollect himself and, somehow, the fox was mirroring Cream's smile with, if anything, even more confidence than the rabbit; what's he got up his sleeve – must be…;
"Ah", the fox said superiorly before Shadow could finish his thought, "I'm not making an effort now, but at least I'll be able to when we're actually at Lara's", now it was Cream's turn to look more than a littler concerned as her training pilot leaned forwards and beamed smugly, "my suit's packed and ready to go; where's yours?"
Shadow flinched in sympathy at the sight of the blood draining from Cream's face, the voice that issued from her mouth suddenly as pallid and dead as her whitened cheeks as she was forced to answer,
"My dress", a shuddering breath rattled through her teeth just before the rest of her speech was extracted from her unwillingly, a dry, dreadful thing to have to say now, now of all times when her memory had failed her, "is currently draped over the left arm of the settee in the lounge and the necklace I was going to wear is in a little coin bag by the side of it; we're going to have to go back", as everyone present digested this bombshell news the rabbit exploded into life, tearing towards Tails and virtually bellowed in his face, "we've got to go back, I can't go up there in just this…"
"Cream…"; huh?; just for a second Tails could have sworn he hadn't been the only one to speak; it was only when he half-turned around and a heavy box was thrust into his arms that he realised he had been right. As he struggled under the sudden weight Shadow finished his sentence, placing one hand on the rabbits' shoulder to calm her as he quickly made up his mind to resolve this situation, "…leave it to me; I'll be there and back again before you can blink and we'll get underway when I'm back".
"Oh thank you", there were very nearly tears in Cream's eyes and Shadow felt his resolve harden accordingly, "mum should be in, she'll pass it to you. I'll ring her"; it was as her hand was diving into her pocket that Tails finally managed to catch up with events again and his hastened shout was all that prevented this sudden plan from taking off,
"Hold it! You don't need to go anywhere", he hollered, all three other Mobians snapped around to fix him in their hard gazes and glares, "your dress is packed along with mine; I put it in the boot when you were saying goodbye to your mum".
Thank heaven for that; crisis averted, Tails permitted himself a low sigh of relief as both Shadow and Cream seemed to collapse in on themselves, the manic energy that had possessed them a second ago dwindling away he'd prevented the need for it being actually called into play. Gasping as she recovered from the massive shock, Cream stared at the fox blankly; despite his words, she still had to seek reassurance to make sure this matter was irrefutably true at the same time the fox calmly offered the ARK's container to Shadow, the black hedgehog taking it after a second of stupefied blinking,
"So, so it's packed?"
"Yep, all ready to go".
"I didn't forget it?"
"Well, technically you did", Tails drawled slowly before he caught a look of Big's suddenly stern visage and swiftly changed his tune, "but the point is it's okay; I got your dress and necklace, oh and Vanilla gave me a little ring-bracelet thing too, said it matched the necklace; that's in the coin bag as well". At that Cream's knees virtually buckled; Big had his hand ready to support her before she managed to catch herself and stand up again, voice still a little faint but thankfully regaining strength as she spoke again,
"Right, so we're actually ready to set off; Tails you're a life-saver". Of course; knowing he was in the right Tails allowed his mind to indulge in a little mental preening; as if I'd be cruel enough to prolong your torment – well, not too much anyw-ouch! He stumbled back a pace, happy daydream shattered to pieces as one hand flew to his now throbbing cheek, eyes massive as shock rendered him speechless save for the most basic, child-like of questions,
"What was that for?" Cream stepped past him haughtily, speaking over her shoulder as she popped open one of the Tornado's doors and pulled the boot release,
"You might be a life-saver but you're also a git for scaring me like that".
"Can't really argue with that", Shadow slid in from the sidelines as he could just see the affronted fox trying to use all 300 points of his IQ to come up with a scathing rejoinder and knowing from long experience that doing so would just be more trouble than it was worth for all concerned, "oh come on, you didn't need to string her along; a quick 'it's in the back' would have been fine".
"Yeah, fine maybe, but you lot all make jokes like th…, ah, I suppose you're right", Tails monotoned with a resigned sigh as he realised the difference between the pranks he so often saw Amy and Sonic, to say nothing of the Chaotix, pull on each other and the one that had so nearly backfired back then, "so, you're ready to go then?" Cream's shoulders dipped as she pulled the boot up and saw, just as he'd promised, the dress she liked to call her 'grown-up' dress, the one reserved for the special, adult occasions such as this one, laid out neatly in the compacted space, still wrapped in the protective wrap from the last time she'd had it dry-cleaned. Slamming the boot down, the rabbit turned to the all, the sparkle definitely back in her eye as she gave a thumbs-up,
"Okay, let's get this show on the road; if we've timed this right, we'll be on Angel Island by about half-two, party or whatever you want to call it starts at seven, plenty of time to get ready, sound like good logic?"
"Sounds fine Cream", Big rumbled as he took a couple of paces forwards before stopping, a blank look on his face for a moment as he recalled something before speaking again, "but before we get going, I've got two, no sorry, I've got three things I need to ask. First off, this is to everyone by the way", he added almost as an afterthought; Shadow and Tails leaning in to take a closer interest as a sheepish grin crept over the cat's face as he indicate himself, "do you reckon anyone will mind if I show up, well, I don't have any good clothes, I can't keep them safe in a swamp, they'd get filthy within a week…" The cat was cut off by a laugh, not a malicious, snide chuckle but a wholesome, accepting giggle as Tails walked forwards a step and waved a hand at him,
"Big come on; when has anyone ever minded you as you are? I'm sure, in fact I know for a fact Mighty's told Lara all about you and anyway, you've already met Lara when at her son's wedding reception", the fox recalled with alacrity, his own memory coming to his aid and helping to set the cat's mind at ease, "did she say anything to you then?" Big already knew the answer almost before Tails had finished the question and shook his head,
"Well, no but I thought I'd just check".
"You'll be fine Big", Shadow said sincerely, backing up the fox's assessment, "you'll have Mighty with you, everyone's just there to have a good time; it might be in posher surroundings than any of us are used to but it's still us after all, and you know us", the hedgehog gave a laugh as he held up his own glove, the fabric not quite as white as it used to be after three days hard wearing, "good yeoman's stock through and through".
"I guess", Big replied a second later, a smile back on his face that was a lot more welcome than his previous doubting, worrying looks, "it's just that Mighty mentioned even Vector was getting dolled up for this and I realised wow, must be a big thing if he's making an effort to look presentable. But anyway, second thing, you two", he indicated the pair of pilots before jerking a thick thumb over at Shadow, "we were discussing this earlier; do either of you know what this whole thing is in aid of?"
Right you were Big guy; Shadow had to once more concede a lot of respect to both the cat's memory and his powers of deduction; if anyone'll know it's these two – come on guys, what have you got for us? To his surprise and disappointment, the answer appeared to be not an awful lot; after a long minute of pondering, Tails glanced over to his co-pilot and, noticing his scrutiny, she merely shrugged – taking this as answer, he merely held up his hands,
"Sorry, all I know is that they were planning to make a couple of announcements, I don't know any more than that".
"Really? Okay then, we'll have to find out when we get there", mollified with that eventuality, Big gestured towards the Tornado before giving a sudden start, "ah, just one last thing Tails; I know it's personal preference and all that, but I wouldn't recommend you wearing a dress to this function, I don't think you've got the figure for one". What?!;
"Big", the fox stammered, wondering what had possessed the cat into dreaming up that absurd idea and also uncomfortably aware of Shadow taking an unprecedented interest into the proceedings, "what are you on? I am not wearing a frock to this sort of function; where'd you…?" Okay, now!; his predatory instincts kicked in; just when his prey was at its most vulnerable, Big darted in for the kill,
"Oh really; I could have sworn you said you'd packed Cream's dress next to yours. Sorry but I did wonder"; you sod; cheeks a blazing crimson and acutely aware of Shadow's interest devolving into a sniggering fit, Tails looked back into the very recent past and saw that yes, he had said exactly those words; right, well time to put this one away for good; sliding his hand down his face, the fox glared up at the massive cat and did his level best to look imposing to someone who outweighed him by at least a factor of ten,
"You knew very well what I meant Big".
"I did", the cat assured him genially before winking over his shoulder, "but you mess with one of Team Rose you mess with all of us – don't forget that. I won't tell Amy though", he offered as a truce that Tails, much as he would have loved to do otherwise, had no choice but to accept. Throwing his hands up at all his passengers, the fox declared the matter over,
"Fine, fine; right, get your stuff packed then get on board – we're almost behind schedule as it is". Everyone scuttled back a little as the fox opened the driver's door of his machine and hit a button, scooting backwards as a second later the Tornado began to grind and groan, morphing itself into its plane mode with its boarding gear already down. As he'd instructed, everyone filed on board but, just as he followed Big up the ramp Shadow could have sworn that out of the very corner of his eye he just saw Cream reach up and give Tails' shoulder an affectionate and thankful rub as they both headed for the cockpit; before even he could snap his head around to get a look though, the two had taken off and he was left to rue an opportunity missed. Oh well; even as such regret crossed his mind, he shrugged and let a secret smile out to play over his face; the rate those two are going, plenty more where that one came from.
With a slight clink Shadow let himself into his own home and took a deep breath, grateful that once more he was home and he'd removed a very heavy weight from around his neck; moving into the lounge quickly, Shadow shucked off his backpack and dropped to one knee, deftly flicking the catches off the front of the ARK's carry-case as the front door banged shut behind him. Okay, now out you come; leaning the ship up against his thigh, the hedgehog kept one eye on it at the same time as begin to flip the case itself around, carefully folding sections of the wood and metal partitions around into a new configuration; and up you go. Just as he had the case half-disassembled however, as the platform the ship would rest on was just about half completed, a voice rang out that nearly made his jump up and overbalance the ARK,
"Shadow?" Whoa, cool it; swiftly he reasserted control of himself, one of his hands whipping down to steady the rocking boat – he would not have it damaged now after everything that had been done to make it this far, "is that you?"
"Julie, I thought you were out", he called back in answer, glancing over his shoulder and a little disorientated when he found the doorway empty, "where are you?"
"Bedroom". The hedgehog gaped; he of all people knew Julie had issues getting up every day but this was taking the biscuit surely?
"At this time of day?" There might have been a laugh before she answered, he couldn't be exactly sure,
"I keep telling you I'm not a morning person". This time it was his turn to laugh,
"Lucky morning", not wanting to give her the chance to launch a counterpunch, Shadow devoted a little more effort to his labours as he finished, "listen, just let me finish what I'm doing here and I'll come through".
"Good, I'm not going anywhere right now"; typical – how come I'm always running around after her all the time?; "it's too warm and comfortable to get up".
"I'll bet", Shadow muttered as he shook his head, silently marvelling at his flatmate's ability to defy the conventional social norms such as rising in the morning with such apparent ease at the same time as speed up constructing the final resting place of the ARK at his feet.
As she heard the door behind her open Julie did two things simultaneously; she whipped out a hand to snag the bookmark from the table nearby to mark her place in her novel and wiped all emotions from her face save a warm and welcoming smile, rolling over under her blanket to see Shadow gazing down at her, a quirky, faintly patronising snigger flitting across his lips as he took in the scene before him; what do I look like anyway? Oh well, at least I've been able to do something about the bedtime frizz;
"Have you only just woken up? You lazy little…?"
"In answer to your question", Julie overrode him swiftly, a finger emerging from beneath the blanket to cut him off with a wagging motion, "no, I have not only just woken up as you so indelicately put it; this is a deliberate ploy on my part to stave off the inevitable big night nerves".
"What, don't bother getting up until it's go-time?" At the echidna's nod Shadow steepled his fingers in front of his face and gently let his forehead drop, bouncing it off the tips of his fingers, "and there I was thinking it was just Mighty and Athair who went in for the elliptical thinking".
"Mighty and who?"
"Oh, just someone I know from my club", Shadow said breezily, making up his mind on the spot that though he'd have bet his life and everything that it entailed that Julie would never have told a soul about the existence of the Brotherhood of Guardians, he wasn't too sure she was ready to come face to face with Knuckles' at least half-insane great-grandfather, "nice enough, just not all the buttons going through the right holes if you know what I mean?"
"Oh I know all about that sort of thing; believe me", Julie glanced up with a slight chuckle as she levered her upper torso into a sitting position, "I probably know that better than you do, some of the motley crew I used to run with. Anyway", drawing her knees up the ex-Legionnaire nodded at the foot of the bed and, taking the pro-offered cue, Shadow sauntered over before taking a seat, a soft groan escaping his lips as he stretched out over the bottom of the bed, working out the kinks in his back muscles brought about by being prevented from running in his normal posture, the extra weight and delicacy of the ARK making such a movement in his jet skates at best uncomfortable, at worst acutely dangerous. Ah, that's better; as the hedgehog yawned and finished his mammoth stretch he suddenly flipped to the side as something poked him in the ribs; a half-playful growl slipping out as he saw Julie's toe quickly dive for cover under the blanket again – the echidna answered his pseudo-threat with a smile before finishing her previous sentence,
"What did you get up to last night? Anything much happen?" Shadow thought for a second before sitting up and spinning his legs onto the bed, facing Julie cross-legged as he considered his answer for a moment; it was just as Julie was about to give another prompt that he spoke again,
"Well, I'm not sure; bottom line is I did what had to be done with the ARK – sent it on its maiden voyage", he explained with a sad smile as Julie knitted her brows at that comment, "I promised her we'd go sailing and now we have; not exactly the ocean we had in mind but", he gave a shrug as Julie understood and inclined her head, not wanting him to see her have to choke down a lump in her throat that felt the size of a cricket ball, "I'm sure Maria's not the type to complain".
Too right she wasn't; Julie knew that without being told it was true – everything she'd ever heard about the slim, fragile girl with a core of steel that had saved the life of the Mobian before her just as he had saved hers over many years made that fact as plain as the daylight trickling through the curtains just over her bed. Not quite trusting herself to speak right now, the echidna rocked forwards enough to brush her hand against Shadow's closest forearm. He jerked up at the contact, seeing into her face and, after a second, reciprocating her wan but understanding smile; she would have said something had a more meaningful look not suddenly flashed in his eyes; before she could recoil Julie felt his grip suddenly wrap around one of her wrists and the next second she was face-first on top of the blanket as the hedgehog dragged her forwards, laughing as she squawked and flailed to try and maintain both balance and dignity,
"Come on Jules", Shadow crowed triumphantly as she finally managed to stop her forwards momentum at the cost of most of her pride; throwing herself backwards she was forced to pull the hedgehog with her, "up and at 'em. Ah", as he impacted on his flatmates' front he smiled up sweetly as she glared up at him murderously, "good to see you up and about at last".
"Damn it, and damn you just for good measure Shadow", pushing him backwards and knowing it would be fruitless to try and get comfortable again, she threw herself upright and smoothing down the front of her nightgown, quickly beginning to pace the floor around the bed, unknowing not quite as concerned as she once might have been that Shadow was where he was and observing her in the state of clothing she was currently in, "now I'm just going to worry like mad for a couple of hours before I start getting ready".
"Why?" Ah, in his ignorance the boy questions what he can't understand; though sorely tempted Julie couldn't quite go along with her typically sarcastic assessment of the situation as Shadow looked at her benignly from his now-recovered seating position, "you know what you're going to wear; heck, I know what you're going to wear because I was there when you brought it and I also know you're going to look fine when you've got it on, so why get so worried about it?"
"Because…just because", Julie said after trying to think about what it was that was actually making her so nervous in spite of her normally cool temper, "it's a woman thing; something big is going to happen and I just keep seeing it going quite horribly wrong – I know it probably won't", she announced quickly, seeing the tell-tale signs of consternation brewing on Shadow's brow and quashing them before they could take effect, "but that's not going to stop me thinking that it might and I'll make a complete idiot of myself. After all, I've never been to anything like this; at least you've got some experience in that respect".
Gotta give her that; Julie's astute statement chimed up true as deep within him as Shadow could think of at least two or three examples when Amy had been a bundle of nerves prior to a date with Sonic that had left the blue hedgehog totally unfazed; why is that? Well, I guess it doesn't matter really – what does matter is that she's concerned about it and I; quickly making up something like a solution to the current dilemma facing him, Shadow quickly decided against meeting this issue head on and instead went for a misdirection attack; have got just the thing to stop her worrying;
"Maybe I have, but look on the bright side", the echidna slowed but didn't quite stop her pacing as she looked over at the hedgehog and paid attention to his words, hungry for a crumb of good news in these barren circumstances, "no matter how nervy you're feeling, I know someone who's going to be feeling a heck of a lot worse than you are, and not just because the tailors in Station Square don't make clothes in his size". That got her; it was all Shadow could do to keep a cool expression on his face as he succeeded in his goal and the former Dark Legionnaire in front of him ground to a halt in her parade-ground drill,
"Someone you'll be meeting tonight", Shadow informed her brightly before giving a chuckle, "as long as Mighty can convince him to keep his bottle that is". Julie seemed stumped for a second and he was afraid he'd have to spell it out for her before her mouth fell open into a perfect circle and she was able to stammer an answer,
"Her, her boyfriend; what's his name?" She snapped her fingers desperately, the name to the very tip of her tongue but she was thwarted right at the very last, "B, B-something, Big, that's it; he'll be there?" Shadow nodded and stood up, stretching again before looking at her easily,
"Yep, he'll be there, but Cream very nearly wasn't bless her – that was a nasty trick Tails tried on her. Nearly worked too, amazing but true".
"What did? Okay, Shadow", I know where you're going with this; it was so obvious now she'd seen it – he was trying to calm her nerves by diverting her attention down other topics; damn fine strategy sir, bet it works, and grateful for the relief of her jangling nerves, Julie was only too happy to play along, "start making sense – I know it'll be hard for you but just try, for me". Her suddenly pleading look, while ridiculously over the top and completely at odds with the Julie-Su he was so familiar with; since when has her bottom lip ever quivered in all the time I've known her?; was nevertheless effective and Shadow felt himself sober up almost immediately. Standing up and straightening out the rumpled bed sheets, he spoke over his shoulder and therefore never saw the doom creeping up behind him,
"Fair enough; tell you what – you get the kettle on and let me unpahhhh…!!" As the hedgehog collapsed underneath her it was Julies' turn to cackle triumphantly, following the route of his fall and not relinquishing the pressure on the twin sensitive spots just under his ribs, hitting them with the tips of her fingers, each impact sending a judder through Shadow's slender frame and culminating in a bark of harsh, unwilling laughter at the sudden torment.
"You'll get your drink when I'm done with you", she broke off to administer some more well-deserved punishment, Shadow writhing beneath her torturing fingers, desperate to get away even as his face was contorted in reluctant laughter, "so help me I will teach you that dragging me out of bed, especially at the weekend, is one of the worst mistakes you can ever make!"
Hours later Shadow was still rubbing the spots Julie had attacked unmercifully earlier, wincing slightly as it seemed like the echidna had temporarily forgotten her vastly superior strength in her urge to 'educate' him; that'll be a fine pair of bruises there then – bloody echidnas are all alike; he broke off admiring where the ARK now sat proudly on the shelf over the television to direct a venomous glare through the lounge wall towards the bathroom, where he could still hear the shower running quite happily; all honour and pride on the outside but the second you turn your back on them – pow! Still, there was no denying he'd deserved it but at the same time he'd been so, so…relieved, was that the right word or was 'overjoyed' perhaps more suitable for how he'd felt at seeing Julie again? After a second's pondering he shrugged; it didn't matter really, he knew that had he the chance to relive that scene over he'd have done the exact same thing and he had a sneaking suspicion that, had she been able to do likewise, the echidna would probably expect something like that – it just wouldn't have been right not to take such an offered chance; had their positions been reversed he was sure he'd have expected a trick. His eyes darted from the ship prominently displayed on what counted as his flat's mantelpiece to the clock beside it, the timepiece overshadowed by the majesty of its more illustrious neighbour but its message still important; fifty minutes – man, at one time I'd have thought that was loads of time.
It was an empty thought now; every second was looking priceless now and they were all draining away with alarming regularity, each minute that passed eroding his chance of being completely ready by the time Tails had promised to be there and whisk both himself and his escort for the night away to the celebrations. Why was Julie taking so long? – half of him knew the logical reason was that she wanted to make sure she looked an absolute knock-out on this big night and wished her all the luck in the world that she was able to meet and even exceed the standard she'd set herself, but at the same time the other half of him just wished she'd hurry up and give him the time he needed to make his own preparations. Did I really laugh when I said it was a woman's thing to get nervous before the main event?; now as he sat in his chair nibbling his bottom lip in antagonised frustration Shadow knew how much of an illusion that unenlightened thought had truly been – truly Sonic must have had nerves of utter steel to always appear as cool as he had before he'd gone out to pick Amy up from when they'd been sharing a flat together. How did he do it – well, this is a fact; willing to do almost anything to stop the awful churning in his guts the black hedgehog quickly made that solemn promise; the second tonight's over I'm going to call him and demand he gives me that answer, tells me the secret to not feeling nerves this bad!
He was so tense and ready for it to happen that when it finally came about, when Julie actually did appear in the doorway he didn't even notice; it was only her slight cough that brought his attention snapping around onto her and, after a second of stupefaction that she thankfully didn't see, being too pre-occupied with looking down and smoothing out virtually-non-existent wrinkles in the material encasing her body, Shadow quickly realised his former nerves had vanished and from beneath them a cool, calm and untarnished core of certainty was rising to the surface, picking his words for him as effectively as if he were reading them from an autocue.
"Now this is a sight I could see over and over", Julie glanced up and gave a nervous giggle, nothing from her Dark Legion life preparing her for this sort of attention and test of will and therefore grateful for any source of succour, "Jules, you've really pulled out all the stops here"; oh spirits above, he's coming closer – I don't want him, I do, I need him, can he really come as close as that?; she wanted to take a pace back and a step forwards at the same time and therefore remained exactly where she was, shackled to the floor with boots of lead as Shadow approached slowly, barely half a step at a time. There was a thrill that ran right through her body as he placed both his hands on her shoulders, his palms warm even through his gloves and the straps that kept her dress on her shoulders and she raised her eyes gradually, aware of a strange prickling sensation on her face but certain she couldn't be blushing; all the blood in her body had drained away in a bundle of nerves. Somehow Shadow's face swam up before her and she swallowed, trying to say something but the words were stuck in her desiccated throat; his smile was the answer to all her prayers, the voice that tolled out next and the words it spoke for her as clear, crisp and welcome as the peal of Heaven's trumpet echoing from on high,
"You look great, in fact you look a lot, lot better than that – you've done yourself, and me I suppose, more than proud".
Thank the spirits for that!; the impact of the relief was so great it nearly buckled her knees; it was only his hands suddenly tightening their grip on her shoulders that brought back to Earth and made her pull herself back together. Slowly, taking several steadying breaths, Julie brought her hands up to cover his own for a second, seeing the effect of the contact almost painfully clearly in his eyes before gently peeling his palms aside and offering them back to him,
"Go on", her voice was no more than the faintest whisper; she cleared her throat and tried again, "go ahead; you need to get ready".
"I've got lots of time", Shadow assured her, not moving, "and I'm more than happy where I am, seeing what I'm seeing".
"Stop it, please", Julie moaned almost petulantly, the depth of his obvious affections almost as embarrassing as they were touching, "go on, if nothing else I need some peace and quiet to get ready for what's coming next; you I can just about handle, it's everyone else I'm worried about". Shadow nodded and she stepped aside, watching him from the corner of her eye as he stepped past, never taking his eyes off her until he was flush in the hallway; it was only when he had disappeared into the bedroom for a moment and she was able to think lucidly for a while that she was able to duck her head back into the hallway and call out,
"Oh, and Shadow", she had to wait a fraction before a very familiar ebony-spined head mirrored her own from the opposite end of the hallway, "you better be quick; before we head off, there's the 'you-know-what' to deal with first".
The what?; for a second the hedgehog was utterly perplexed; it was only when he saw a chameleonic eyebrow rise an inch that he finally twigged and, having ensured himself that all was as it should be in that department, allowed himself a sly grin,
"Oh yeah, that", he drawled dryly before tapping the side of his nose, "not a problem I can assure you; I hope you're as well prepared?" If only you knew…;
"You bet I am".
"Good", the hedgehog echoed her challenge-accepting smile and stepped out into the hallway with his suit ready and hung up for him to put on, "well babe, see you on the other side".
"I'll be waiting"; gotcha!;
"Now that's a pleasant change I can tell you…"
"Just get a move on!" The parade-ground snap in her voice jerked him back to reality with a violent jolt and he unhesitatingly obeyed; with a final,
"Gone", he was away into the bathroom and Julie was left with the peace she so desperately desired, for a second at least. Time enough; waiting until she heard the shower start up to make sure he wasn't shamming, the echidna moved quickly into the bedroom and headed straight for the wardrobe, carefully going into a press-up position to make sure she didn't get dirt on her dress at this late stage as she went fishing for the present she'd squirreled away so well; to get ready to give you the next shock in your life Shadow, and this time I promise it'll be a pleasant one.
Each eyed up the other like a boxer sat in his corner just before the first bell went; neither said anything for a second, not wanting to give up a potential advantage before their erstwhile opponent made such a slip for them to latch onto. Tension began to crackle around the pair of them, virtually sparking off against the metal in the room as Shadow took a step forwards, both hands behind his back a magnet for Julie's attention just as her similarly-clasped and hidden burden was the focus of his attention. Time stood still for a second before the peace was shattered with a tinkling crash; Shadow's face darted upwards, taking in the echidna's confident smirk and trying to deduce what it could possibly mean in the split-second before it was replaced by the movements of her speaking; I don't like her tone – either she's really outdone herself this time or even she's worked her bluffing skill on overtime recently;
"Well then", it was a purr silkier than the sheen glistening on her dress, the colour rippling over her body's contours with the barest movement, "you first". Only pausing for a second to wordlessly pray that his smile looked as confident as he felt nervous, Shadow slid forwards another pace and cocked his head insinuatingly,
"Ah, but surely as the lady, and try as you might to deny it you do look every inch the lady this evening"; gotta give him that – smooth as you like; Julie had to beat away the encroaching smile with everything she had, her resolve tested to the absolute limit as Shadow sensed his split-second advantage and pressed it as far as it could possibly go, "it is your place to go first". Not even she could completely control herself; the very corners of her lips floated upwards minutely and she fought for mastery of herself; she was so tempted, burning with the desire to whip her hands forwards with a flourish but she couldn't, not after all the hard work she'd done; I am not going to ruin this surprise now – you hear me soldier, you are going to stick to the plan to the letter, got that!;
"But equally surely, as the lady it is my prerogative to decide the order we reveal our gifts", she replied in a tone that matched his in suaveness and persuasive qualities, "and I'm asking you to go first Shadow; you wouldn't want to disappoint a lady like me now would you?" Her sudden question complete with the coy pose she adopted for its delivery caught him off-guard and there was no way he could come back from it; he tried mightily to stem the flow but little by little his mask slipped away, the fall gaining momentum until his head dropped, sniggering slightly in his painless defeat before stepping forwards, bringing his hand forwards, Julie's eyes widening as she beheld the small, thin box he presented to her,
"I'm sorry", he said with a small, shy smile as her trembling hand extended towards him, feathering a gentle touch on the box and slowly drawing it from him, the hedgehog finishing as she dared to flip the lid and draw out what lay within, "I couldn't stretch to make it a real piece, but…well, I thought it would go really nicely with your dress".
Julie didn't speak for a moment; she didn't dare herself to as she beheld the tiny, intricate links of the chain in her hand, the light overhead glinting and flashing from the small, stylised 'J' that winked at her from the bottom of the necklace. It was only when she glanced up and saw a very slight cloud of concern on her partner's brow that she quickly came back to herself and blinked, standing straight and holding the small piece of jewellery at half-arms length between them, admiring it again before looking over at Shadow, all pretences of faking surprise and excess affection gone and replaced with only heartfelt, homely words she instinctively knew he'd much rather hear from her.
"Shadow, this is beautiful; I've never had any jewellery before now and this…", she lowered the J of her pendent into the palm of her hand, scrutinising the soft sheen of the metal in her hand before caressing it softly with the tip of her finger; he said he was sorry he had to get it fake – so what? I don't care, this looks an absolute diamond and…; she suddenly made her mind up in a flash – Shadow almost jumped backwards as she snapped her fist closed and suddenly brandished it at him, the chain draping over the top of her hand as she offered her new piece back to him, a sparkle in her eye to match the glistening of the metal as she rethought her original words, "…this is waiting for you to do the honours".
Huh?; Shadow didn't understand, what was he supposed to do, what was she asking of him? He pondered for a second, trying desperately to see his way through this murk before movement to the front of him offered a blessed explanation; aha, now I get you. With a nod and smile, the hedgehog let the echidna drop the necklace he'd given her into his open palm before circling quickly around behind her, his fingers trying to gently prise the catch at the back of the chain open at the same time her now-unburdened hand joined its twin in both holding up her voluminous dreadlocks and cunningly concealing her still-unrevealed present beneath her recently washed hair. Come on you, now is not the time to be awkward; Shadow mentally thought the clasp open as the fiddly pieces of metal eluded his fumbling fingers for a moment – luckily his thumbnail was able to snag onto the miniscule protrusion of metal in the slightly larger of the two rings and slowly peel it apart, the chain sundered at one point as he finally managed to unbuckle it. Taking a breath, the hedgehog slowly extended both hands through the gaps in Julie's upraised arms, his unoccupied hand quickly taking hold of one end of the chain and then slowly retracting, drawing the small circle back to completion around her neck. A swift second of fingertip work later and he stepped back,
"Finished", and galvanised by his words Julie slowly revolved on her toes, trying to roll her eyes down and see the effect of the new necklace as Shadow admired his handiwork, the metal shining on her breastbone and giving a new lustre to her – he looked away quickly, that same lustre combining with her natural attractiveness to make continued viewing of his flatmate almost painful for him for a second. Thankfully he was quickly able to control himself, fighting down the sudden spike of ardour before pulling himself together and facing Julie again, the echidna's expression radiating contentment with the effect of her new trinket before a sudden reminder came to her, burning in her eyes as she let her hair fall again and slid her arms up in front of her – almost before he knew where he was Shadow found himself confronted with a box similar to his and gaped just like she had as he beheld the tiny gilded letters embossed in the matt black material; I know that name – how did she…?;
"Julie", a hoarse whisper was all he was able to conjure from his disbelief, "that's not…this isn't for me, surely?" The echidna heaved a sigh before pointedly looking over his shoulder,
"I don't see anyone else around", she returned her attention to him, jiggling the box at him, encouraging the hedgehog to reach out and take what she was offering; when he still appeared unable to move, mesmerised by what he could read and completely unable to compute how she'd managed to get hold of one of these at the threshold they'd set for each other, she knew it was time to come clean, "I know what you're thinking and you're right", his eyes erupted into flaming pits, the searing heat of betrayal almost scalded her off her track before she stuttered her way to the end of what she'd meant to say, "I, I didn't just use the ten we agreed on…"
"Why?" His demand was loud but not exactly angry; if anything he sounded a little contrite, perhaps guilty that he too should have broken the mould to get something more than he had – a point Julie was more than happy to set him straight on. The risk of creasing his suit seemed a fair one to take; she snickered and pushed his shoulder slightly, explaining in the sly tone she always adopted when pointing out in great detail how she'd managed to sneak a trick in under his radar,
"Because, my dear hedgehog, that beautiful ship over there", Shadow followed her finger to see the ARK sitting in pride of place where, if he had his way, it would remain as long as he possibly would, "was only forty crests; I still owed you forty"; oh I don't believe you; his indignancy only seemed to spur her on as she rounded off her thinking with a cheerful wink, "that combined with the ten, well let's just say that calls us quits". With a disgruntled, if still accepting, sigh, the hedgehog flipped the lid of his box and after only the barest hint of what lay within nodded his compliance at her deal,
"Okay, this", he carefully dragged the new watch up by its strap, taking in the face of the timepiece with an appraising glance, "sets the record straight between us; neither of us ever mentions that first week or so ever again, fair?"
"You bet"; good; as he unclipped his battered and work-scarred old timepiece from around his right wrist Shadow felt a moment of sweet relief flow through him; that's that over, and with a minimum of fuss – just as well I went first really, that way I knew to keep my mouth shut; swiftly drawing the watch strap tight but comfortable, the former ultimate life-form lowered his hand and gazed into the face of his new watch, the gilded numerals glowing back up at him from behind their glass screen as the lovingly-crafted hands ticked onwards with a gloriously soothing monotone rhythm, "now that really looks the business; what do you think?"
"Looks better than it ever did in the shops, but", Julie pointed out after a second of the hedgehog extending his arm to let her see the effect of her purchase on his skin, just as she had his, "it's also saying that we've got about five minutes left to go; reckon we can wait that out in the lobby?" Shadow nodded and jangled the keys in his pockets,
"Sounds like a plan; well then", he extended his arm once more as he took a step forwards, his crimson eyes softening in benevolence as they linger lovingly on her face, "shall we?"
"You bet we shall", Julie's grave voice was betrayed by her steadfast and graceful smile as she entwined her arm around his, linking them around the elbow and falling into step with him, their attention, for the next few timeless seconds, focussed solely on each other and nothing else. Even as they walked through the lounge door and Julie flicked the light off with her free hand, plunging the apartment into darkness, so perfect were their memories of the other that neither of them dropped their eyes.
They no longer needed sight to see the one they had chosen.
"Bloody, hell!" Huh; as she saw Julie's face suddenly fall, pupils shrinking to the size of pinpricks from where they'd previous been happily wandering over her mothers' old pearl bracelet, Cream looked puzzled for a second before she glanced over her shoulder to follow where the echidnas' attention was now fixed; oh wow – here we go then;
"Heya", excitement began pounding in her chest as two of the quintet approaching echoed her greeting; only the disbelieving grunt by the side of her reminded the rabbit that she actually had company for whom the sight of one of her closest friends would be something of a shock and leaned across to whisper our the corner of her mouth, "don't panic; I know, he takes some getting used to, but with Big", she looked around as Julie managed to blink and drag her gaze away from the mountain of purple grinding across the restaurant waiting area towards them all, the entirety of the Chaotix eclipsed by the cat's unintentionally looming presence, "what you see is definitely what you get". Julie gave a snort that could have meant anything from acceptance of her logic to still-further disbelief before shaking her head a second time, perhaps aware of the attentions of the other two Mobians present behind her creeping into the equation as she forced herself to smile and return Mighty's welcoming glance,
"Hmm, well he's something", the ex-Legionnaire managed to whisper back to the pilot in training before raising her voice to address the throng as a whole, aware that it would look too obvious if she tried to act subtle now, "so Mighty, this is the one?"
"Yep", stepping forwards proudly, the armadillo folded her arms as she lent softly against the flank of her former saviour, taking in a second of sweet pleasure as she felt one of his paws settle on her shoulder, the roughness of his pads still transmitting their caress through his gloves straight into her soul as they always could, "this is him. Big", she glanced up as she stepped forwards, clearly making some sort of introduction as Julie likewise came a little closer to the pair of them, "this is Julie-Su; Julie, Big".
"Hullo"; which idiot was it that said the camera never lies?; as she plucked up the courage to shake a couple of Big's pro-offered fingers, Julie dimly remembered back into the past to see once more the picture Mighty had shown her that she kept in her purse and the difference between reality and still-life hit her as powerfully as one of the armadillo's love-taps. Fortunately he didn't seem to be offended by her staring; damn, I am staring – stop it; she forced herself to look away from him and that was enough to break the spell; just as he released her comparatively tiny hand she was able to unknot her tied tongue and reciprocate his words,
"Hello Big", she looked back, the cat smiling at his name, "Mighty's told me a lot about you".
"Likewise; what she said was good wasn't it?" The cat questioned gently, peering forwards and purposefully ignoring his girlfriend's face as it grew a little darker, "like, she never mentioned the time she was walking through Mystic Ruins and it had been raining, so she…"
"She bumped into you", Mighty finished for him forcefully, Charmy just behind her trying visibly to suppress giggles and mouthing 'later' to Julie as soon as he was able to control himself properly, "and if you're sensible you'll leave it at that, got it?"
"Unquestionably", the cat slimed sycophantically as he lowered both his ears and his posture in deference to his better half's ire; Julie chuckled and nodded at the armadillo,
"That's the way to do it Mighty, get 'em trained early, save yourself the bother later". There was a snort from behind her, Shadow less than impressed with this latest line,
"And how would you know? What's your success rate in that regard exactly?" Her eyes flashed as she threw a look over her shoulder, the smile that matched it chilling in its promise,
"I'm working on it"; hmm, okay, reckon I might have come off worse there; still, he had enough wits about him to take the hit and move on as well as he knew how; folding his hands behind his head in a true Sonic pose, Shadow returned her silent oath with cheery blasé before moving his eyes past her and giving a start as he took in who had accompanied the pairing on this outing,
"Now this ladies and gentlemen, is a once in a lifetime event; get a good look now, it's for one night only I can assure you", with a flourish the hedgehog gestured expansively to one of the other Chaotix as though displaying a prized ornament, "Vector Crocodile, modelling a suit! And even shoes", the head of the former detective group glowered as the ebon hedgehog brought a palm to his forehead, stunned by the shock, "polished shoes, at that! Will wonders never cease tonight?" Unable to resist the urge to join in, Tails likewise stepped forwards, eyes cast upwards towards the heavens as though gazing for the word of the lord himself to be written large in the sky above him,
"Oh Lord, what awaits us next; floods, fire and the judgement of the end times – the crownless shall once more be king, the scruffiest shall appear as regal as lords, one of the signs is here, prepare thineselves for…"
"Shurrup!" Vector growled as he reached the limits of his already-strained tolerance; as if I didn't get enough of this from the other two – just this once Esp you being quiet was a bonus; "yeah, believe it or no' I actually scrub up pretty good…"
"Yeah, eventually", Charmy piped up from behind him; before the crocodile could twist and stop him the inventive bee had let loose his look of discomfort as he stretched an imaginary cramp out of his thumb, "you have no idea how many scouring pads we had to go through to get him ready for this". I'll deal with you later buzz-boy; swearing that promise silently and contenting the murderous part of his mind, already stoked to a fever-pitch of fury by the relentless teasing Charmy had harangued him with since he'd dredged his suit back up from the depths of his wardrobe, with visions of bloody and brutal insectile mutilation and gruesome death, the reptile took a calming breath before continuing,
"…when I've got a mind to, an' don't knock me togs", he said suddenly, shooting Shadow more than anyone else as reproachful glare at the same time as brush down his lapels fastidiously, guarded when it came to the topic of his one decent set of business attire, "it's done me proud this has; seen me through three funerals, a weddin' an' a duzen court cases". Cream gaped,
"A dozen; please tell me you were just a witness!"
"Well", the crocodile wheedled teasingly for a moment before grinning, "most o' the time". Cream snarled at his obfuscation but, true to form, she wasn't able to hold it and ended up chortling instead,
"Whatever, but I think you look great, we all do". Vector mimicked her slight giggle fit, not seeing someone else glaring daggers at the rabbit from just to the side of him,
"Thanks dame, but anyway", pleasure temporarily suspended, the crocodile's savvy business sense took over, "anyone know where the table's at; Knucks and the rest o' his crew shouldn' be too long now; prob'ly best if we're all seated and got a round in 'fore they get 'ere, whad'ya think?" There was a slight murmured discussion before Tails nodded and put into words what they were all thinking,
"Sounds like a plan, but please"; okay Shads, laugh at me for a slip of the tongue, I'll see that and raise you a slip on something a lot worse; with a grin, the fox jerked a thumb over his shoulder, "whatever you do, keep him on the alcohol-free stuff – we've all seen what happens and it's not pretty".
It was a short time later, when they'd managed to locate the table that had been booked in Lara's name and finally dissuade Shadow and Vector from sitting either side of Tails, no matter how much they both protested it was for perfectly amicable reasons, all in the name of friendship and in no way to do with testing the often-voiced and joked-about theory that the fox would probably make a fine wishbone if they managed to grab a tail each, that, alerted by a nudge from Espio, Charmy looked towards the entrance to the restaurant and his eyes widened. Taking just enough time out for a dirty glance towards the surly reptile, the chameleon still looking as though he was sucking on the lemon that had arrived in his ordered beverage, the bee half-stood to make his declaration to the table at large,
"Hello, over there", alerted by his shout, every Mobian present either gazed forwards or craned to see over the back of their seat to see the last four arrivals, "welcome one and all". Moving quickly under the table, one of Vector's feet pushed out a chair at the head of the table and, after a pause that all expected and gratefully gave one in her condition, Lara-Le settled down on it gratefully after shaking hands with Big as the cat span around in his seat, thanking the reptile with her eyes as her husband slipped into his seat next to her, only attending to his own comfort when he was sure both his wife and his soon-to-be son were settled. As the guardian's mother came to rest on her seat at the table head all eyes were on her, but one pair above all others scrutinised her with greater intensity; forgetting even to greet Rouge as the bat sat down next to her, Julie-Su observed the Mobian she'd heard so much about and, it still rankled but she had to accept it was true, she'd been part of the force that had both kidnapped and held captive; the one that the Mobian she had once been convinced was the only one for her and all who considered him a friend had been prepared to sacrifice everything for.
So this is her; at first there didn't appear to be much for the Legionnaire to notice; Lara's most distinguishing feature seemed to be the pregnancy bump protruding proudly from her otherwise-unremarkable figure – sure, you could tell just by looking at him that her husband was absolutely devoted to her and she was to be praised for that, but what else was there; nothing. But then, that's just it; the idea that dawned on her was almost so simple she nearly laughed out loud as it entered her mind; she's just a completely normal, loving wife and mother; she shifted her gaze a second to see Knuckles, sat as close to the head of the table as he could manage, reaching over to pour his mother a glass of the ice water provided by the waiter, as steadfast in his affection for her as Wynmacher was; and that's a lot more than a lot of people can claim to be. If part of her spitefully compared Knuckles' lot in life to her own, the way he'd been lucky enough to have a mother like Lara whilst her father had been only too quick to cast her hopes and dreams off in favour of a better deal she never acknowledged it as, finally noticing her scrutiny, Lara must have glimpsed her from the corner of her eye and tipped her a wink coupled with an understanding smile. So; as she returned such a gracious expression with a deferential nod, Julie had no problem in deciding that the Mobian who had organised this event was someone she could very easily get along with; that's Lara-Le;
"You bet it is"; what, how did she…?; the sudden panic in her eyes must have been as visible as a lighthouse beacon – Rouge quickly masked a smile before speaking again in the same quiet tone, "thinking out loud Jules; don't worry, we all do it, me more than most".
"Not in public though", the echidna complained, grateful only for Mighty occupying Shadow's attention so much he hadn't overheard her mental slip, "only me…"
"Not at all; I only get away with it because I can hear myself whisper", the bat assured her, reaching demurely for the wine list at the same time as flash her friend a smile, "but you were right; that is Lara-Le and I consider myself very lucky to have a mother-in-law like her".
"I don't blame you", the echidna told her quickly before Knuckles turned his attention towards her; the guardian grinned for a second and before Julie could either stop him or gather her thoughts he'd tapped his stepfather on the arm and announced pointedly,
"Hey Wyn, you too mum"; oh don't point me out – you git; the ex-Legionnaire felt her cheeks start to burn as one of the other echidna's pendulous hands extended in her direction, "this is Julie-Su believe it or not", embarrassed or not Julie had enough left in her to give a wry scowl in the guardian's direction for that comment before turning her attention back to the two who'd been kind enough to invite her to this function in the first place, "and the way Shadow's been telling it she's been looking forwards to meeting the pair of you for ages".
Oh is that right?; Julie whipped her head over her shoulder, attempting to carbonise the hedgehog sat next to her with her most fatal look before she was forced to disengage by another voice – glancing back she saw Wynmacher, the echidna she understood to be Lara's second husband, snort with laughter at his stepson's comment,
"Now why would someone like her want to meet a pair of old relics like us?" Lara's bottle-green eyes narrowed as she cut her partner off,
"Speak for yourself; I'm doing fine for my age"; he was tempted, Julie could see that even from where she was – Wyn was having to fold his lips inwards to stop blurting out a biting retort that would have doubtless had him in even deeper water as his wife left him in his place and turned her attention to her guest, smile back on her face, honest and open, "yes, Knuckles has told us a lot about you; I'm not going to go over what happened earlier, as far as I'm concerned what's past stays there".
"Thanks"; that's a lot off my plate; "in that case all I'll say is that a lot of us back then weren't keen on the idea when we heard about it but by then", she gave a shrug, toying with her glass idly, "what could we do about it – they say jump and we obey, over the hill and far away", she finished, the little Legion ditty coming back to her and sounding oddly comforting in the circumstances. Wyn gave a slight chuckle as he poured himself some water, topping up Lara's glass as it looked like she was going through a hot flush,
"Nice rhyme Jules; anyway, if anything I'm thankful for what happened – if it hadn't been for that I might never have screwed up the courage to propose, or I might have got the courage and then screwed it up, one of the two".
"Now that wouldn't surprise me", Mighty called out from further down the table, general chortling following that assertion, least of all from Wyn himself, the chef reaching for a menu at the same time as command the assembled at large,
"Alright missus, that's enough of that; people, start your ordering, the sooner we call the waiter the sooner we get full plates"; and the sooner we clean them; as heads went down, Wyn snuck a glance to the side of him, seeing Lara give the ghost of a reassuring smile before slipping her hand under the table to gently take one of his; the sooner we make amends, and make sure everyone knows how grateful we are.
Carefully blowing on her soup to prevent it scalding the inside of her mouth and her tongue, Julie carefully considered the spoonful in front of her before taking a small sip, ensuring it was the right temperature before letting the rest of it slide down into her stomach. The creamy texture and smooth, svelte taste of tomatoes, spiced to perfection with a kick of something the echidna couldn't quite identify, really hit the spot and Julie quickly helped herself to another spoonful, then a third before glancing to the side of her, seeing Shadow tucking into his prawn cocktail with equal relish. Yep, this sure beats sitting in front of the goggle-box for the night; now that thought she agreed with – not only was Shadow here, the others were great company too and some of the quotes they'd had even waiting for the starter to arrive beat any sketch-show hands down in the entertainment stakes. Closing her eyes for a slip second halfway through her soup, Julie was just thinking that this really was the life when someone tapped her arm; Rouge, what's up? Turning to her left the ex-Legionnaire echoed the bat's grin as the former spy slipped down in her seat a little, her wings providing a slight arrest to her downwards progress before she could go to far as they wrapped around the back of her seat,
"Now this is good soup, and I've eaten plenty in my time I can tell you", she took another sip of her own dish, Julie in no hurry to say anything in this relaxed atmosphere and therefore letting the bat take her time and finish what she was going to say, "that's a neat dress by the way; how'd you get it to match your fur like it does?"
"No idea, Shadow actually found it; yes, strange but true"; now that I wasn't expecting; Rouge looked past the echidna to the hedgehog on her other side before giving her attention back to Julie, "it was just on one of the racks, he picked it off and, after a bit of wrestling, I 'persuaded' it to fit me, something I guarantee you've never had a problem with". Rouge sniggered for a moment at the grinning echidna's inflection before deciding to shatter her illusions a little, shaking her head and rustling her wings a little as if to prove a point,
"And that guarantee would be null and void at the till I'm afraid, more's the pity", the ex-spy gave a not-entirely fake sigh as she gazed wistfully at the shoulder straps of Julie's garment, knowing that in all probability such a luxury was probably always going to be denied her, "I can wear dresses like that for about an hour but they absolutely kill my shoulders and wings; I'd never make it through a night like tonight in one, have to wear these wrap-around things". You know I never noticed that; now that she pointed it out Julie saw with some amazement that the ex-spy wasn't lying; the bat's dress was strapless and she was having to constantly rearrange it as she moved around on her seat; still, I bet not many women could get away with that sort of look;
"But they look good on you", Julie saw her comment strike home with a gratifying amount of thankfulness in the bat's eyes before, to her surprise, a little twinge of shamed regret whisked over her face and she glanced down, licking her lips for a second before answering,
"Well, as long as there aren't any lifts about that is; no, sorry", she held up a hand, hoping to forestall the inevitable before her friend's look could grow too questioning, "I'm not telling that one, not in public anyway; I still wake up in a cold sweat some nights wondering if someone in the government hasn't still got a copy of the security tapes stashed away somewhere. Anyway, while we're on the topic of what looks good on whom"; a roundabout way of getting there maybe but it works; she might have gone a little off-track but Rouge reckoned it would be worth it if she could confirm her original suspicions, "where'd you find that little sparkler round your neck; don't tell me that was Shadow too?"
She could still do it; even now after being out of the service for nearly two years Rouge had a knack for reading people like they were open books and the way Julie suddenly looked down was a dead giveaway, especially as Knuckles and all his family with the possible exception of Spectre did the exact same thing when confronted with a topic they found embarrassing. She didn't say anything though; sizing up the situation, Rouge decided to wait and see, only giving a prompt if Julie wasn't forthcoming with the gory details. Fortunately, as the ex-Legionnaire raised her head, the bat realised she wasn't going to have to wait long,
"Well, yeah, he brought it, not out of choice mind"; carefully does it; Rouge let herself raise an eyebrow, desperate not to put a foot wrong a this delicate stage and jump in before she could see the whole picture, "we had a little bet, well, not so much a bet as a challenge going and he brought this", Julie gently clasped the J at the bottom of her pendent and held it forwards for her friend's inspection; a single glance told Rouge all she needed to know,
"So"; what challenge would have got to this – I know he's on a bit more of a limited budget than he lets on; keeping her thinking off her face with a great deal of effort, Rouge took up her glass and toyed with it for a second, the maroon liquid within swirling hypnotically, "what challenge did you hook him up to this time? How'd you do it, and would it work on…" Julie's chest hitched as Rouge's voice dropped at the end, the backwards jerk of her head telling the echidna exactly who was in her thoughts and allowing her to form an answer around that part of the question,
"Nah, sorry but it's too late now; challenge was set for tonight".
"Aww, oh well, always next time", the bat commented breezily before turning slightly more serious, "so, what happened?"
"Well, we had a, ah, a bit of a fracas previously; ask Wyn about the element of risqué when I'm not about, he'll fill you in", Julie murmured with a dark glance before brightening, "and because of that we hatched this sort of bet; we had to get something for each other that we could wear tonight, it had to go with our outfits and it had to be less than ten crests. I got Shadow his new watch, I know", she had to explain as Rouge's face fell, knowing what was on the tip of her friend's tongue, "it wasn't ten but I already owed him some money anyway, so that was me out of debt and honour satisfied all in one day – pretty impressive hey?"
"Oh", Rouge blinked and came back to herself just in time to both hear the last bit of Julie's sentence and realise she'd be waiting for an answer, "oh yeah, nicely done"; thank heaven for that; the bat breathed again as the echidna's attention was taken off her by a query from Charmy about something or other – Rouge took a fortifying sip of wine in the lull, sizing up the situation by looking at Shadow from the corner of her eye; ten crests you say. Well I'll say nothing here; she knew she couldn't, it would probably ruin certainly Julies' and probably Shadow's night as well and she was prepared to do nothing of the sort to two of her close friends; instead she mentally complimented Shadow for his eye at the same time as mentally commiserated Julie for not being worldly-wise enough to see what was actually before her.
Sorry to burst your bubble girl but I know real white gold when I see it - there's no way that's fake; taking another mouthful from her glass, Rouge caught the flash of the silvery metal as it clinked from the lip of Julie's bowl, the echidna reaching to pass some pepper across the table to Mighty as the bat was hoping the echidna could heed her mental implorations. Keep hold of him Julie, especially if he's prepared to go to those lengths to pull the wool over your eyes and make you happy; she smiled indulgently, recalling from her own past all the times she'd surprised her husband and he'd caught her out in kind, reaching over and touching the red echidna's arm for a moment and reflecting his smile as she finished her thought, putting it into context with the tribulations she knew for certain both Mobians had gone through and those she wasn't too sure of and grinning all the wider because of it; there's no way he got that for anything under triple figures. He knows you're worth every penny and he's willing to give up everything to make sure you know and feel that, even if he never tells you it to your face.
"Do we start now?" Save for a spilt-second dart of his eyes, Wyn's face never twitched as he heard his wife's whisper and, knowing he couldn't keep it all bottled up inside him for much longer, he breathed back from the corner of his mouth,
"Not yet", he paused a second before risking another look, seeing Lara react slightly to the smile on his face, "just want to hear the end of this story; carry on Shadow", he raised his voice just in time, noticing the main voice speaking to the table at large beginning to falter as the ebon hedgehog noticed his preoccupation, "Lara and I were just discussing if we should go for coffee; I think it's a bit too early myself, everyone else?" General murmurs of assent drifted back to his lazily, Vector eventually electing himself spokesMobian as he slumped down in his seat with a groan,
"Too right", the crocodile groaned again as his hands quickly slackened the belt of his trousers off a little, "all that rich chow needs time t'go down an' caffeine ain't gonna help matters I can tell you".
"Fair enough", Lara conceded phoney defeat with excellent grace, nodding at where Shadow had easily left his tale of misadventure on pause in the lull, "now, what were you up to?"
"No good in the kitchen if I remember rightly", Tails chortled as Shadow directed a look blacker than his fur at the foxboy; I'm telling this story and it's embarrassing enough as it is, I don't need you sticking your oar in and making it worse – ah well, we're all having a laugh I suppose; the fact that it was true mollified the hedgehog somewhat. Following finishing the dessert, some hour and a half after tucking into their starters, a relaxed atmosphere had rolled over the table at large and encouraged by such relaxed surroundings stories were starting to be spawned, embarrassing tales coaxed forwards by the air of contentment around them. At present, having just sniggered their way through one of the Chaotix's misadventures and wondered how the former trio of inept detectives had ended up nearly getting carted off on a charge of kidnapping having inadvertently raided the house next to the one their target had been sheltering in, Shadow had eventually plucked up the courage to set the record straight on one particular incident that had dogged him since on of the earliest days of his Station Square life.
"Okay", having nodded at Lara with a smile, hoping the echidna was as certain as he was that absolutely no offence had been taken, Shadow picked up from where he'd left off, "so that was the deal, I had to get lunch sorted; now I'm first to admit I wasn't exactly a dab hand in the kitchen back then so I decided I'd keep it nice and simple and hooked down a can of soup from the cupboard. No problem, thought I; popped it in the saucepan and whacked the heat on full, grabbed the paper I had and kept my eye on the clock, should have taken ten minutes and everything would have been all hunky-dory. Thing is, and I know this sounds stupid now", as his face creased into a wistfully embarrassed smile he felt the levels of expectation steam up from the table at large, sure that the only reason Julie hadn't dropped a much less than complimentary remark on his culinary skills of the present day was that she was hanging on his words like everyone else, "but I didn't realise that when you wanted to cook canned food you had to take it out the can first".
There was a second's pause before, as he'd known there would be, a collective wince and moan of equal parts shock and horror rose from the throng around him, several of the party covering their eyes with their hands at the same time as chuckle; Shadow knew he should have carried on before anyone could get in a remark but held his tongue easily, ready and willing to accept what was to come was to come in this jovial, languid atmosphere,
"And, and that was the bomb Sonic was always on about", Tails managed to choke after panting for a breath of air after a couple of seconds, looking over to the hedgehog with weeping eyes, "it didn't actually blow up did it?"
"No, well, sort of; I was halfway through the letters page when I heard this horrendous crack; I looked over my shoulder in time to see the tin hopping around in the pan; I shut the heat off and had a look, saw the ends of the can had bowed outwards – well what was I supposed to think? I just assumed that meant it was done and reached for the tin-opener". A collective intake of breath followed the movement of his hand as he formed an unclenched fist,
"Psst", he clenched it a fraction before throwing both arms up in the air, almost throwing himself backwards to convey his point, "BOOM! Thank God it was only lukewarm – it went everywhere", he was forced to raise his voice as everyone with the possible exception of Espio fell about laughing, "I got covered, the stove was coated and I'm only grateful the floor wasn't carpeted, it would have been ruined. And of course, as I'm stood there looking at my absolute worst, dripping in cold soup with the tin-opener and attached can still in my hands, Sonic came in; need I say more? Just my luck it was mushroom soup as well", shaking his head Shadow made his face a mask of distaste, "I had to put up with the mushroom cloud jokes for ages".
"The, whahahaat?" Julie tried to compose herself a little better as Shadow sighed and looked around to where she was having to half-hold his former team mate up in her seat, Rouge long-gone into the midst of the giggles, "the what-jokes? Like what?"
"How do you tell if Shadow's making the soup course?" The hedgehog waited a second for an answer before shrugging, his expression almost bored as he wafted a hand around idly, "it's just something in the air". There was a fractional pause before Julie, along with most of the table for whom that joke was a novelty, saw the sting in the tail and collapsed once more in mirth, Rouge in particular having a hard time breathing before Lara managed to control herself properly and, giving Wyn a tap under the table with her toe, shared a glance with him and, both deciding it was time simultaneously, rose in unison to address all their guests at large,
"Well don't worry Shadow, that's far from the worst tale of culinary woe I've ever come across", the husband commentated breezily, the hedgehog turning to him with a hangdog expression that quickly brightened when he saw his friends' stepfather wasn't lying, "some of the sights I've seen in the trade, like this one time we took on a new starter and he was so nervous; he got the dish absolutely perfect, nothing wrong with it at all, but he forgot to turn the gas in the oven off – luckily no-one used it but it ignited due to another pilot light. You can still see the dent in the wall if you look hard enough, but anyway, that's beside the point", having injected a note of sobriety into the proceedings by indicating his wife, most of the assembled shook off their laughter in time to pay attention to what the expectant mother had to say. Taking in a breath, Lara took her time looking around the expectant table and smiled in the teeth of the expectancy, placing both hands on her bump and finally speaking, telling all of the decision she and her husband had reached mutually,
"Well, first of all the usual blather; Wyn and I are both glad you could make it, you're all looking well and I won't say any more because I know you're all desperate to know what all this", she indicated the demolished dishes in front of each Mobian present before continuing, "is in aid of. So I'll cut to the chase, come out and say it; after much discussion, argument and even the odd spot of outright bribery, we", she took hold of Wynmacher's arm, the chef looking down at both her and his future son with paternal pride and taking hold of his wife's hand, feeling the warmth and strength there for him, "have decided on what our little boy's name will be".
The words echoed in a void for a moment before with a noise like a steam engine whistle Knuckles sagged forwards, the picture of outright relief on his face reminiscent of the one time Vector had hidden the Master Emerald as a joke and only come clean about it when the guardian had been on the verge of taking off in the vague direction of Necronopolis to get it back,
"Praise the Lord for that; after all the times I had to nearly drag you pair apart", he glared at his mother and stepfather, though the gaze softened in benevolence as he understood what a milestone this announcement represented as the rest of the table muttered quietly amongst itself, coming up with some last-minute guesses at the same time as not interrupt the main speakers, "so you've finally made your minds up?" Wyn nodded, slipping his arm higher to hold Lara around the shoulder,
"Yeah, we reached a compromise", the chatter died away, every ear hanging on his next words as he cleared his throats, ready to address the room at large, "we were having some real problems coming up with a name, so in the end we decided that one name wasn't big enough for the both of us, so he's going to have two; firstly, Lara's choice, is Knecapeon and after that, the second barrel if you like, will be Mace, after my great-grandfather, a Mobian I loved when he was alive. So, Knuckles", the guardian looked around, interrupted as he was digesting both his meal and the implication of this new decision as Wyn ran a hand over his wife's midsection, "say hi to your little bro; Knecapeon Mace".
The silence generated by this declaration was both intense and brief; virtually everyone jumped in their seats as Vector suddenly let rip with a very audible snort, clapping both hands over his impressive jaws in a vain effort to stop himself giving in to complete hilarity. He's either going to burst out laughing or burst a blood vessel; Charmy, who was sat next to the great green lug he'd grown to love in his own unique way was torn in two of what to do next but before he could come to any cast-iron decision the crocodile managed to gather a modicum of control, his hands slowly falling loose from his face even if he could neither wipe the grin from his expression nor keep odd cheeps of laughter from his speech as he faced up to the expecting couple at the head of the table,
"Knecapeon?" Lara nodded; the reptile slumped for a second before managed to iron out that kink in the system and speak coherently again, "an' that was your choice? Man Lara"; somehow I thought it'd be him that figured it out; though she'd known this would be the eventual result she wasn't sorry – it had been a name that had grabbed her attention and the baby book promise of 'good fortune will follow in his footsteps' had only added to her adamant that this would be her future son's name even if Vector was able to quickly figure out the one flaw in that plan, "what is it w'you an' anatomy? Knuckles I can just about understand but Kneecap the echidna?"
"Why not?" That was all the nurse was able to say before the table erupted in tumultuous chaos, equal parts affirmation, denunciation and general merriment at her announcement; not like I wasn't expecting this though.
"Well babe, you sure know how to kick-start a party that I can't deny"; and I was definitely expecting that; glancing from the corner of her eye Lara attempted to scowl at her husband's wit but defeated as the aura of outright optimism surrounding her undermined the attempt at annoyance – she merely smiled as he pecked the side of her cheek before looking up at a hail from Charmy, one of the guests who's reaction to his team mate's announcement had been to let his natural humour blossom and come up with a natural retort,
"That sounds like something the Mafia would come up with", raising his voice above the press the bee adopted a stereotypical Italian accent, "heya Joe, dat boyz been givin' us da lip; go over dere and kneecap de 'chidna for us, kapisch?"
"We were hoping", Wyn answered over the renewed roars of laughter, fastidiously ignoring the spectacle of his stepson virtually keeling off his seat as his bright pink face betrayed how hard the laughter was hitting within him, "to get that amended to Mace, but anyway, Lara's made her mind up and I for one don't fancy my chances of getting her to change it this side of Doomsday. But anyway, you shouldn't laugh"; perfect timing; with a jolt Wynmacher had realised he had a chance to spring this last surprise he and his partner had easily reached between them; stir while the pudding's hot, then you won't get stuck; "after all, we're going to be relying on you, and the rest of you Chaotix", the remaining three of the quartet sobered up as they felt the chef single them out, vortexing the silliness from the air as he imparted his next words to them, "a lot in the very near future".
As both Lara and Wynmacher reached downwards to the glasses within reach, everyone reacted the same as they all felt the tide of the mood turn from joviality to a more serious frame of mind; wordlessly, the last few bottles of wine were passed around, everyone, even the two youngest Mobians present, ensuring they had a charged glass to match their neighbour as Lara, specifically the most important Mobian present, raised her glass in appreciation of four of her son's closest friends, each of the Chaotix lowering their eyes in turn at the benediction as her words, cool and crisp now, bathed in solemnity and seriousness, reached their ears and offered them a pact they each silently swore to without hesitation or regret,
"We'll need you, just like my son does, just to be there; some days I can guarantee we'll be complete ogres but we'll need you to be there for us to hammer at, even if you're in no way to blame for our mood. When we need to escape for a while it's people like you we'll turn to; people like you we know we can trust with our baby son, because we know Knuckles would put his life in your hands and he'd never doubt any of you for a second…" Unable to hear any more, not trusting himself to lest the upwelling tears overspill, Vector had to cut her off,
"Y'can rely on us Lara", his voice came thick and guttural, his tightening throat barely able to force out the words that stuck in even his cavernous jaws, "I swear it, y'can count on us". Unseen but felt by him the rest of his team nodded in agreement, a vow as devout as the one they had all unknowingly sworn in the instant when Charmy had spoken for them at the head of the table of the Brotherhood of Guardians; unable not to sense such emotion, Lara ended her speech there and merely inclined her chin graciously,
"Thank you", she raised her glass, the movement echoed across the table, the Chaotix humbled in the sight of their friends as the mother-to-be took a sip to seal their pact, "that means more than you know". There was a poignant silence for a second; better break this before it gets too serious, and mushy; thankfully Wyn was able to quickly put his idea to work as he glimpsed his stepson from the corner of his eye as he lowered his wine from his lips – a smirk flicked across his lips as he broke the mould of seriousness for a second,
"And as for you pair, we'll need you as well", thankfully some of the tension was eased away as Rouge responded to the chef's sauce with a pert smile of her own at the same time her husband rolled his eyes, "you've just got to be there and play your parts; you never know", his eyes lingered on Knuckles for a split-second, "you might learn something about the whole baby-business playing with your new brother".
"First time for everything"; thanks for that; though he couldn't accurately tell who had spoken, the guardian's mood was mellowed enough to grudgingly raise his glass in tandem with everyone else's as Wyn toasted him – the slightly smoky aftertaste of the wine was just clouding up at the back of his throat as he heard his mother speak once more.
"But there's someone else here", thanks darling; the echidna lady held her husband's gaze for just long enough to convey a heartfelt thank-you to her other half as she seized the opportunity he'd given her, "someone else who we both hope will play a big part in Kneecaps' life; ladies, gentlemen, please charge your glasses one last time, to the Mobian we both hope and pray will consent to become our baby's godfather", she raised her wine goblet and looked down the table one last time,
For a second normality endured; it ended as those words sunk in, silence descending like a ton of bricks as everyone heard that statement again and again in their mind, running it over and over again in their minds until a sudden thunk, as loud as the hammer of judgement in the current stillness, burst onto the scene; the sudden crimson stain soaking his shirt making it look for all the world like he'd just taken a snipers bullet to the chest, an image his deathly pale face and apparent lack of breath did nothing but support, Tails' fingers had lost their sureness – the wine stain spread out through both shirt and tablecloth as the fox slowly inverted one of his trembling hands and pointed at himself, his lips working,
"M…", he seemed unable to force the words out; he tried again after snatching down the very shallowest of breaths, "M…me?!"
"Yes, you", Wyn seemed to chuckle, but there was a deadly seriousness underpinning the humour in his eyes, "who else but you? After everything you've done for Lara and I, all the work you put in to send us to a world we'd never seen; you did that to look after us so…" He finished there for two reasons; firstly he could feel himself starting to choke up but beyond that, way beyond that in the grand scale of importance, was the sight of Tails trying to stand up, his chair scraping backwards as he fought to rise to his feet. It seemed that he would stumble, his bid would fail until Cream seized his arm and hauled upwards, supporting his movement as much as she was able to, lending him some of her moderate strength when he needed it more than ever before.
The fox stood up, his head drooping still and his stride more of a trudge as he inexorably came forwards, everyone still seated in his path shifting their chairs as far forwards as they could manage as he swayed with every step, each pace a mark of monumental determination, his relentless, bloody-minded refusal to give up especially this time, with something so pricelessly important on the line in front of him, driving him onwards. Everything else was still, still as could be; this was a battle Tails fought alone, one he would have no other way – eventually, eons after his journey began, his downcast eyes saw he corner of the table, a minute later there was Lara stood in front of him. His head felt as though someone had simultaneously stuffed it full of lead and replaced all the muscles in his neck with straw but he raised it anyway, forcing himself to look upwards; he gazed into the face of his own surrogate mother, the one who sheltered and nurtured him every moment he was on Angel Island and she reached out for him – he collapsed, forwards, falling softly into both her and her future son, his soon-to-be godson; the thought, the honour and all it represented for him, was too much.
In Lara's arms and with her husband's hand gently stroking the fur on his head acceptingly, in the midst of what sounded like concentrated gunfire, Tails the foxboy realised he was a boy no longer; he had always had someone to be there for him, look after him when he'd needed them and now, now as he felt he could hear a second heartbeat begin within the Mobian he was currently embracing as though she were life itself, he knew it was time to pass that gift onto someone else, someone who's life had yet to begin and someone who he could only pray he could have as positive an impact as his elder brother had bestowed upon him.
As he saw the fox fall forwards, chest heaving like it was being set upon by a pile-driver, Shadow didn't know what to think, had no clue about what to say and barely trusted himself to do more than continue observing the scene before him; Tails rolled his face out of Lara's dress, sobbing openly under the weight of the emotional impact but his eyes, his eyes were different. What is going on in there Tails?; Shadow for the first time wasn't sure what was going on behind the fox's sky-blue eyes; they were weeping copiously, that was for certain but at the same time they were hard, something behind them crystallising from half-formed dreams to solidified reality and giving him a strength Shadow had never seen, a sudden new clarity of purpose that somehow reminded the hedgehog of a handful of other occasions – of Amy, ready to give up everything to see through what she had decided was right, Sonic, when he learnt of this decision and raced away, heedless of any and all dangers to find her in the devastation. He's done the same; Shadow realised what was going on as Tails continued to rock from one side to the other, was Lara holding him or was it the other way around now? He couldn't be sure any more, not now he recognised the fox redirecting all his energy, all his focus on this new, vital goal in his life; he'd die for that child – Lara, Wyn; Shadow was forced to look down and blink, barely able to keep his eyes clear as such devotion awed and humbled him in equal measure; you made a damn good choice today, and you'll remember that for the rest of your lives.
Something like a thunderclap made him look upwards, the shock banishing the threat of his tears as he sought out the source of the sudden explosion; it came again, and again; Charmy was trying to stand up, tears trickling through the fur on his face but he wasn't deigning to spare them the effort of wiping them away, his hands occupied with clashing together over and over. What…?; dumbfounded, the former ultimate life-form looked down the table in time to see Big and Mighty share a look that spoke volumes and echo the insect's movement, standing up and joining the applause, the singular cannon shots becoming more a volley, more and more as others added their input – it was only when he looked down that Shadow recognised he was one of them, his palms colliding as frantically and with as much impact as he could possibly generate;…why…? Forget why; deep down Shadow knew he didn't care why he or any of the others were applauding exactly – the reason didn't matter, only the result did. Joy and exultation welled up within him as they did within all his friends, one in particular affected much more personally than any other; striding around the table end at the same time as brush his eyes clear with his forearm, Knuckles stood shoulder to shoulder with his stepfather for a moment, exchanging words the hedgehog couldn't hear over the din. Only when Tails finally stepped backwards, breaking away from Lara suddenly, feet catching in his shoes and only spared from tumbling backwards by a careful hand up from Espio, who was seated nearest; as the fox regathered himself, the impact finally beginning to sink in of what had been offered to him and how he had offered it, the guardian stepped in – for a second there was silence before; no, Knuckles' hands never tremble, never; the echidna offered forwards one hand. The impromptu round of applause died away as Tails didn't move as it settled onto his shoulder, looking up at his older friend with the same power Shadow had seen in his eyes now palpitating out from around his body,
"Welcome to the family kid", Knuckles managed to whisper into the stillness, the fox finally placing his smaller paw atop the guardian's and stepping in, breath shuddering from between his teeth as Knuckles embraced him like a brother, the guardian for once unable to hide anything to do with his emotions, "I was there when this all started Miles; I saw what you did to save my island, how you helped rip the Master out of Eggman's hands. You saved Station Square and without you Metal would have won, the Overlord would have been too strong if you hadn't figured out the weak points we all needed to attack, and then you helped make not only my wedding but my mother's as well a once-in-a-lifetime event. You are a hero Miles Prower, in every sense of the word"; and it's true; he was sure, Shadow knew he didn't need his memory book to corroborate what Knuckles was saying this time; every word of it; "and I've never been prouder, or more grateful, to call you my friend".
Unable to speak as he gazed at the scene before him, Shadow felt somehow huge and tiny at the same time; assailed by a feeling not entirely unlike vertigo, he groped out to the side of him; something gently came to rest against his side and he flicked his gaze sideways for a split-second before leaning his head on Julie's shoulder, the echidna likewise resting on him, both caught up with everyone else in the spectacle they'd been privileged enough to lay eyes upon and storing it away in their memories, their repositories of positive emotions recharged and their mutual feelings of friendship and deeper feelings hiding behind such a façade of friendship catalysed by such naked, unbridled and even fierce love between a tight-knit family and the Mobian who had brought them together for all time.
"What a night". Looking over from the chair he'd collapsed into Shadow saw Julie slump across the settee, massaging her eyes with her hand as he began to reach down to take off his shoes. Unable to think of anything to add to that blunt, unsubtle statement, the hedgehog only laughed,
"You said it; I mean Tails, a godfather", Julie raised her hand to meet his gaze for a second before he shook his head to refocus on his task, "I never, I couldn't have guessed that". The echidna laughed,
"Somehow I don't think he guessed it either – did you see his face?"
"Yeah, it was probably about the same state as mine", Shadow quipped, settling back in his chair and softly kicking his shoes off, "poor guy, well, I say that but – did you see his eyes, right when Lara was holding him, after he managed to walk to them?"
"No"; I was too busy with my eyes to take a note of anyone elses; "what did they look like?" Paying attention to Shadow's reaction to her question, the former Dark Legionnaire raised her eyebrows in surprise as he shivered before being able to answer,
"Hard, determined, like something you really wouldn't want to get in the way of", the hedgehog shivered again, "put it like this, if a godfather's supposed to be the one to protect the baby from evil influences, Kneecaps has got nothing to fear from Old Nick". Julie bit back a giggle,
"Kneecaps", she repeated, shaking her head, "boy that's a new one on me; still", with a grunt of effort Julie managed to heave herself into a sitting position on the settee, looking across directly at Shadow, "Lara looks like a woman who you don't argue with when she's made her mind up".
"Gee I wonder who that reminds me of", the hedgehog remarked with a slightly sarcastic bent before snickering, "but nah, enough of that; I'm just glad you two hit it off well enough".
"When she said the past was past was a load off my mind", Julie confided before thinking for a second and adding, "just like it was when she said Tails would be staying over at theirs for the night, Cream as well; I don't think he'd have been in a fit state to fly after that". Now that I do agree with;
"Too right, least of all when Sonic got in on the act", for a second Shadow recalled that scene, froze it in time with his mind; Rouge had leant over to the fox as they had all been about to leave the restaurant, handing him her phone and letting him know who was on the other end of it; without fuss the fox had gone into the gentleman's room for a more private talk whilst the rest of the party had made themselves comfortable in the lounge area, waiting patiently for their friend to return. Tails eventually had rejoined them some half an hour later, full of apologies even if it was obvious that he'd spent some of that time crying even more; his words of recrimination had been easily waved away and all present had seen the fox, his co-pilot and his future godson's parents to the front door of Lara and Wyn's house before bidding each other a final goodnight and setting off for their respective abodes. Only now, when he was once more in his own house and his own space with his one and only flatmate, was the surreality of the whole scenario hitting home on Shadow; Tails, the godfather to Knuckles' half-brother – oh boy, that's…I don't know, it just is!
For some time, neither of them paying attention to how much, the pair sat alone in silence, contemplating the night and how it had gone overall; it was only when he felt tendrils of fatigue tugging at his mind and was forced to beat them back with a mighty yawn that Shadow slapped the armrests of his chair and made to heave himself upright,
"Right, I'm done for the night…"
"No you're not – stay where you are"; eh?; who was Julie to tell him what to do, but on the other hand, why had she said that and what was the reason behind her standing up? Those were just a few of the questions circulating in the hedgehog's mind at the sudden rebuttal from his flatmate; it was just as she was halfway out the lounge door that his befuddled brain managed to put them in some sort of order of priority and call,
"Where are you going?" Pausing but not turning around, the echidna said softly back,
"Wait there, you'll find out" before disappearing, leaving Shadow completely in the dark both figuratively and literally.
Okay you; reaching forwards after giving the matter undisturbed contemplation since she'd come in for the night, Julie unhooked one of the possessions she'd had for a long time now but just never, never really felt the time was right to use; but if tonight isn't the night, after everything that's happened to get us in the mood for celebration; bringing it forwards she smiled, she was right, she was certain that now was the time; I doubt there ever will be a time to crack this open. With a sudden roguish grin, the ex-Legionnaire clutched the centrepiece of her idea to her chest before moving on to the other lesser but equally as important items for this last act of the night.
His mind had been ablaze in her absence; Julie's last words, had they been a cryptic clue he should be able to guess her intentions from or a mere prelude designed to keep him guessing until she returned? Just one of the queries he was struggling to overturn in what felt like tortured eons of brain-wracking, soul-searching and borderline nail-biting; all sorts of ideas had sprung up from his imagination about what Julie's plan was now and a good deal of them were exploring avenues that were making him squirm uncomfortably in his seat; it was tempting, so very tempting to storm off after the echidna but at the same time he'd been told to wait where he was and the echidna's softly-voiced command had anchored him to the seat more completely than any length of chain was ever likely to. Fingers virtually gouging grooves in the armrests, Shadow sat forwards on his seat, breathing shallowly as sweat began to prickle through the gaps on his back quills, blood suddenly hot and sticky as it pounded in his temples, several of his previous ideas running through his mind in tandem and simultaneously increasing his confusion and clarifying his mind about what to do next; the only thing that was certain was that he was waiting here for Julie-Su – apart from that, everything else was in her hands. And all I can hope; a near-hysterical snigger broke the silence as his unvoiced concerns sought an escape route from being bottled up so long; is that she doesn't drop it. Or at least, not from too great a height!
In the space of such a few scant minutes he'd raced through so many ideas that when the door to the lounge finally swung open again Shadow was both relieved and disappointed that Julie's dress was still around her shoulders; fortunately before such ideas could show on his face he caught a glimpse of what was occupying her hands and, after peering forwards a little to make sure he was seeing things right, gave a nod,
"Ah, I thought that one was yours", he exclaimed, nodding at the bottle in the echidna's left had, not even attempting to protest that he'd had enough for the night; for a little more company a couple of swallows of wine is well worth it; "I didn't remember buying it – where'd you get it from?"
"Work", Julie answered shortly as she paced across the floor towards him, "they had a whip-round the day after Enerjak made his big-screen appearance, brought this for me, sort of a celebration kind of thing. I was hoping to crack it open that night but", she shrugged as Shadow looked away, the hedgehog knowing all too well what was going through her mind about those kind of memories, "well, like Lara said, what's past is past". Really!;
"Really?" Just for once Shadow's brain and body were on the same wavelength, "can I get that in writing?" It was only as Julie flipped the bottle up, catching it by the slimmer neck and beginning to pull back for a wind-up home run shot that the hedgehog reconsidered the haste of his words, "ah, forget it, if you haven't already".
"Forget what exactly – you acting the prat or me wanting to knock out all the teeth in that smart mouth of yours?" Shadow ummed and ahhed for a few seconds, just long enough to test Julie's temper a touch, before making his mind up,
"Both of them, if that's okay with you?"
"For now", the ex-Legionnaire huffed, though she wagged the butt end of her bottle warningly as she added, "unless you learn to put a stitch in that tongue of yours, or I'll do it for you. Anyway", carefully balancing the pair of wine glasses between her fingers so she could manipulate the corkscrew in the palm of that hand, Julie glanced insinuatingly at the chair Shadow currently occupied, "shift up BB, I want to sit down".
She glanced down, giving the impression that the bottle cork was troublesome to prize loose when in reality she was more concerned with keeping the look of smug satisfaction on her face out of Shadow's line of vision as she could virtually feel the intensity behind his latest lethal glare; oh, that got him going and no mistake;
"Rouge told you that I see; well", Julie turned slightly further around, almost having to bite her tongue to stop laughing as Shadow grated his next question, "did she tell you what happened last time she called me that?"
"N,no"; don't laugh – laugh and he might just snap and tempting as that is I've had too good a night to risk a punch-up now; "she, ah, she never got around to that bit". Sensibly deciding to keep it short and sweet, Julie cut her speech off then and devoted her attention to uncorking her wine; it was merely good fortune that prevented both glasses and bottle smashing into the floor as she felt something seize her waist and yank backwards – she had just enough time to hold in a shout of alarm before she felt her knees hit something, followed a second later by the rest of her impacting on a landing that was, if not comfortable, a good deal less painful that the floor would have been. What the…well hello; glancing around in a panic a very familiar face greeted her own at a very short range; from such data she was swiftly able to deduce where she was and, for that, come up with the comment the situation was simply begging for,
"Hmm, well I know she's got high standards", fastidiously observing the immediate area she now occupied Julie shrugged and leant backwards, feeling warmth at her back matched in twin bands around her middle, Shadow's arm encircling her stomach and trapping her in a place she had absolutely no desire to vacate, "but I can't see Rouge being too upset at ending up here". Shadow chuckled just behind her ear; she almost shivered in response,
"You know she made a comment very similar to that – had a good laugh about it if I remember rightly", the hedgehog gave a sigh, his hands flexing gently over the echidna's belly, making her skin flutter in response, "in fact she only stopped laughing when I flipped her over and started tanning her tail, and I only stopped when she swore on pain of death never to mention that name in my presence again – BB I only just let her get away with because, well, I'm such a nice guy". Now that is classic; even snorting as she was trying to picture such an image Julie had to compliment her housemate on such an impromptu scenario – it was only when she looked over her shoulder and caught a glimpse of Shadow's subtly threatening grin that she realised he wasn't telling tales this time. Blinking, she looked desperately for some form of denial in his face, some minute crack in his mask of impassiveness, the barest, tiniest hint of humour that would tell her he was making all this up; only when her eyes seemed to be failing her in this task did she dare let her mouth open to try and break down this bulkhead,
"Nope", the hedgehog favoured her with the sort of smile a shark might have flashed at a passing tuna, "one of the first memories I got back, first time I saw her; believe me she had to do some pretty fast talking when I blurted that one out in the middle of A and E; everyone was there, even Knuckles". Julie drew in a sharp breath, even her relatively slight experiences with the two guardians letting her see exactly what would have unfolded right there in the waiting room,
"And I bet he loved every second of watching her squirm, but Shadow", she half-span in his lap, her eyelashes fluttering enticingly, "Rouge I can just about understand, but surely you'd never raise your hands to me", he was cracking and she knew just how to break his poker face completely; bringing her finger to the point of her chin, Julie settled back as much as she was able to, trying to picture Cream at her cutest and force her rather more mature body to try and adopt such a posture at the same time as put on her sweetest, butter-would-melt tone of voice, "would you?"
Got him; she felt the laughter more than heard it as Shadow couldn't help himself; she grinned right into the face of her flatmate's helplessness and turned back around, refocusing her attention on the bottle she still held and listening to his answer with half an ear,
"As if, as if I would", Julie started to smile and relax and that was her undoing; there was a rustle of movement up her front and before she could react both his hands were parallel with her temples, gently gripping her face in a vice grip, "I'd do this though".
"N,no you cheat", as his thumbs began to softly trace the downy fur on her jaw-lines Julie was only able to mewl that pointless accusation; sleepiness was starting to extend its soft tendrils through her mind and she was helpless, both her hands full and unable to move hr head out the way – there was only one thing, one last-ditch defence that might help her here, "stop, I…I'll drop, the wine if you put me under". For a second longer she hovered on the border of dreams and wakefulness before suddenly the motion stopped; the inevitability of the night retreated from the moment and she was herself again, shaking her head to bring her body back on line,
"Hey, quit", a sudden call from behind her protested, "I'm getting a face-full here". Julie merely snorted as she turned to face him, expression deadly serious and matching Shadow's terse mindset,
"Try that trick to often you'll be getting a fistful as well buddy", both housemates glared for a second before, inevitably, both dropped their eyes and, smiling in wry benevolence, Shadow reached forwards and unhooked one of the glasses from Julie's hand, holding it upright and steady, allowing the echidna to fill his glass for him.
"Ah well, I guess it was inevitable that was going to slip out sooner or later", Julie cocked an eyebrow as Shadow spoke, holding her tongue as she filled her own glass, quietly confident enough to let the hedgehog dig his own hole, "why do all the women in my life love embarrassing me – I mean Cream wasn't too bad, she usually picks on Sonic when she can get away with it, but ever since I got up here it's been pretty much non-stop. So far I've got Rouge spreading around the name I abhorred and you giving my two best friends on the world below mental scars for life…"
"So I guess", Julie broke in suddenly, making sure she had a tight a grip on her wine glass as she cut across his mild ranting, "this would be a bad time to mention that she never actually told me what BB stood for?" Shadow gaped for a second before finally managing to get his brain back on line and stammer loudly,
"She, she what?!"
"She said she'd tell me if I filled her in on what I'd meant when I said about the table and things I'd shouted out about when she arrived, but I couldn't do that now could I?" Julie gave a shrug as she remembered the bat's whispered words perfectly, tempted by the offer even now but know she couldn't in all honesty take it upon herself to answer, "after what you did to me a couple of months back, I've got to make sure I keep you secret otherwise everyone'll be after you".
I don't…what am I thinking?; Shadow raised his free hand to his face, shaking with badly-suppressed mirth and feeling Julie doing the same through his thighs; of course I believe it, it is Julie after all. Look on the bright side – I never told her outright what it stood for myself; that was certainly true and, on a whim, he suddenly moved his hand forwards, clinking the rim of his wine glass to Julies and speaking as the echidna looked down at the sudden noise,
"And therein lies the lesson; always be grateful for small mercies, and if you're not a hundred percent sure about something, it always pays to keep your mouth shut".
"I'll drink to that", Julie answered chortling a few minutes later, toying with his words for a few seconds before finding herself in agreement with them; both Mobians took a sip of wine and sat back, considering the flavours stimulating their palettes before Julie spoke again, "umm, not a bad bottle that".
"Nah, got a pretty decent kick to it that one", Shadow concurred, carefully swirling the remaining liquid in his glass around before adding, "but aside from that, plenty more to drink to".
"Tell me about it – my turn now", Julie held up a finger as it seemed Shadow was about to speak again; when she was certain he was ready to let her speak, she tapped their glasses together this time before adding a toast of her own, "this one's for Lara, her husband and her children, both of them; I wish them every happiness in the world, they sure deserve it". Shadow nodded solemnly,
"They do", was all he said before taking a sip of his own goblet and then raising it once more, "as does one Miles Prower, bless him; I just hope that stain comes out of his shirt". Julie spluttered, nearly inhaling half her remaining wine up her nose before she could control herself, shaking her head at Shadow as the hedgehog leant back into the seat comfortably, attempting to look innocent as she half-gasped, half-giggled,
"You really think that's going to be bothering him right now – he's probably still off in Lala land; what's just happened probably won't catch up with him until about next week some time".
"Nah, it'll catch up with him tomorrow I can assure you", Shadow corrected her, looking smugly superior for a moment before smiling, "and I know that for a fact because tomorrow is when Sonic will catch up with him and there is going to be a party we'll probably hear from Angel Island".
"And he deserves it; to Miles", Shadow raised his glass in unison with the echidna still on his lap, "and everything he'll go through for his new family, especially…", not even her iron will, backed up by years of the finest drilling the Dark Legion could pound into her, could keep the grin off her face, "…Kneecaps". Shadow glanced away, virtually biting his cheek to stop himself laughing; if Lara ever gets them side by side Knuckles is never going to live it down, I can see it now – oh hello, yes this is my elder son Knuckles and his little brother Kneecaps – no-one would be able to keep a straight face, least of all any of us;
"No wonder Wyn wanted that changed to Mace – if he turned out anything like his role-model brother I'd understand it too".
"Especially after the last sports day we took part in", Julie snickered, recalling exactly how worried her housemate had gotten the guardian at once stage in the their play-fight; Knuckles must have been scared to death that he'd killed his friend – bloody sweet left hook that was; "how'd you explain your fat lip on Monday morning exactly?"
"Ah that was easy", Shadow leant forwards, the movement compressing his waist slightly; Julie felt new pressure on her side and part of her back, glanced down at it then back up at him, his next words purring through into her, the tone sloughing away any falseness he might have been previously harbouring, "I told them you were just a heavy kisser".
Julie's comeback was crisp, cutting, straight to the point and never actually physically spoken; as she glared at the hedgehog for his sudden revelation, the biting retort on the tip of her tongue, a spark jumped straight from his eyes to hers; the same instincts that had once reared up for them both before returned resurgent and both Mobians pressed forwards, almost slaves to them. Both paused just long enough to unseeingly dump their glasses on the side table next to them before almost tearing into each other, their lips slamming together, hungry as their hands raked around each other, squeezing tight, compressing their bodies together with no thought for anything else. Julie tried to twist around even as her hands gripped onto the back of Shadow's shirt and pulled him forwards and upwards, not caring that she might be hurting him as she was certain of what she was doing; his arms were so tight around her it ached around the bottom of her ribcage but she didn't care about the either. Aware of nothing beyond her own sudden cravings the echidna forced her body around almost brutally, one of her legs ramming across her body, gouging into the hedgehog's taut stomach as Julie hoped to come around to let her sit astride Shadow; it was in the middle of this movement that the hedgehog suddenly gave a convulsive thrust forwards. He pushed against her knee unknowingly and the force of him coming forwards pushed her back, she leaned as far as she could without breaking contact with his body and by the time she realised she was over the tipping point it was too late; one of her hands broke away from around the hedgehog's back, wind-milling furiously as she fought for balance before she slid out of his arms, a slight peep of a shriek slipping from her lips at the same time as her partner managed a despairing,
"Whooopppss!" The floor loomed up before her and she braced for impact; the pause seemed to stretch from here to eternity before she heard more than felt her landing, a low flat boom echoing though the floor, followed a second later by another impact from above her; what was…? Looking up again, the echidna saw the sight above her, Shadow hanging suspended in the air by her knee, his face torn between expressions of shock and pain, before his stomach muscles gave out and he flopped onto her like a boned fish – Julie was already gone into laughter, the mood of a few seconds ago slipping away completely, when the hedgehog's ghostly, pain-wracked moan floated up from around her diaphragm and set her off utterly and helplessly,
"Owww; I've been skewered".
In the end it was all she could do to lowered her still-raised knee; Shadow stayed atop her for a moment before rolling to the side, impacting on the carpet next to her with a low 'umph' as tried to suck down a breath at the same time Julie was busy expelling hers, hugging her own stomach as she couldn't stop herself laughing – his face, the way he'd been dangling just above her, if her knee had been just a fraction lower – it was one of those moments where she'd have been ready to sell her soul for a camera. How long she was convulsed with virtual hysteria she had no idea; she only started to come back to herself when there was a sudden impact on her shoulder and she heard Shadow's indignant voice,
"Shut up, it's not funny – bloody typical of you that is", Julie didn't answer, too busy trying to keep air inside her so she might have been able to answer later, "even when I'm trying to be affectionate you can't help but stick the boot in".
"In case you didn't notice Shadow", finally managing to convince her lungs of their main function in her life again, Julie turned on the floor to see Shadow from the corner of her eye, "that was my knee you landed on, and just as well too", his eyes glowered for a moment before she explained herself, "if it had been the other way around I'd have been run through by your bony legs".
"What are you on about; if it had been the other way around you'd be scraping me off the floor with a fish-slice", he retorted indignantly, just about able to block the back of Julie's fist as it descended upon him a split-second later,
"Cheeky sod; if my diet's been failing that badly how come you weren't worried about me breaking your legs when you dragged me back onto that chair with you?"
"You know what I meant", the hedgehog sighed, throwing her hand back to her before giving a sudden shout, "dammit! How is this even bloody possible?" Julie rolled onto her side, propping herself up on one elbow as she gazed down at him, perturbed by his outburst,
"How's what possible?"
"This", Shadow gestured explosively around the room, quite an achievement for someone prostrate on their back as he was, "this whole thing, and you", Julie was definitely about to question that statement but before she could get a word in edgeways Shadow had ploughed on, "you're rude to me constantly, insult and humiliate me in front of my closest friends as a matter of course, and not to mention the fact that you've viciously attacked me on more than one occasion. I've been through absolute hell and back because of you, twice now no less, so how on all of God's green earth, in the name of all possible sanity", he looked over at her, shuffling towards her on his back, as close as he could be before sighing, reaching over with his closest hand, toying with one of her dreadlocks carefully, "how did I end up falling for you?"
He was damned if he knew the answer and if she had any idea he'd have also been very surprised as well; still, the ball was in her court now – it was up to Julie if she could or even wanted to reply and as she'd said before so often, that was the lady's prerogative. As it was though, the former Legionnaire didn't respond immediately; instead her face softened and Shadow felt his hand gently immobilised from where it was trailing through her hair; Julie lowered her head, softly kissing his palm before pressing it to the side of her face, palm up as she spoke, her normally strident clarion-call of a voice reduced to a feminine purr as she rested her head on her arm, Shadow hand between them for support,
"I don't know Shadow"; that was her answer before she gave a cheep of laughter and smiled, "but if you ever do figure it out, let me know the answer okay?" The hedgehog nodded solemnly, rolling up next to her, his free arm hooking over Julie's shoulders to hold her closely, tightly again as he breathed in both her perfume and her, the Mobian he'd somehow developed feelings for that were more than just playful spats between close friends,
"Sure Jules, I can do that"; somehow I knew you would; this time it was the echidna's turn to move, hold her chosen against her, provide some reassurance that unlike everyone else in her life up to now Shadow was real, and he was not going to walk away from her, "when I get the answer, you'll be the first to know".
"Thank you". Nothing more was said; nothing more needed to be said.
Scant hours later, the dappled moonlight peered in through the lounge window of a first-storey flat in the city of Echidnopolis, scattering and reflecting through a twin pair of half-full, elegant glasses to illuminate a most curious and most enchanting scene. On the floor in almost the exact middle of the spacious room, beneath a single unzipped sleeping bag and with a pillow each, two Mobians lay together still-clothed in the finest garments they had; garments and finery that meant nothing compared to what lay beneath such robes and surface thoughts. In the darkness and beneath sleeps soft caress, as they had before in the roughest, most terrible times of their young lives so far, Julie-Su and Shadow Hedgehog both held onto their priceless second chance, something that, now they realised they had been blessed enough to have and to hold, they were each determined to never again relinquish, because second chances that arise in the teeth of adversity are the rarest and most precious gifts of all.
A/N: And with that last poignant but ever-so-true statement, this story in the arc comes to an end.
Well, that was a bit of a marathon; listen guys, everyone who reads this, I'd like to ask a bit of a favour of you. This is the longest thing I've ever written in my life period (750 Word pages) and I'd like it to rank up there with my other long work A Bloodstone Rose in terms of feedback; I'm on 96 reviews now, I'd like to get this story into triple figures – reckon you can help?
Aside from that ask, the next work is ready now, and it's time for another couple to come into the limelight; brace yourselves for a light-hearted romp – for a couple of Mobians, Christmas is coming early!