A/N Aaaand another shortish chapter... I've been waiting to post this forever. If anyone else has been having trouble uploading to the site, I've found a workaround- it's in my profile.
Thanks for all the reviews, people! :)
The boy appears oddly fascinated with the Chaos Emeralds. I suppose it's only natural, given his age, that he be attracted to objects so steeped in rumour and mythology in his culture. But then... honestly sometimes I feel the same way. Otherwise I wouldn't have been studying them in the first place, after all. Perhaps it is not something related to age and upbringing, then, but a hunger for discovery that we both happen to share.
Still, I cannot help but wonder if there is something more to this. It hardly seems like coincidence that he appeared that night on the Star Post hill after I recovered the blue Emerald... and then somehow negotiated the maze of caverns to find my laboratory.
Sonic is an excitable child and only ever seems to be still when watching the Emeralds. I am beginning to wonder if he is actually drawn to them somehow... he doesn't seem aware of it, but perhaps there is some form of Chaos sensitivity there that guided him to me... people with such abilities are not unknown, although it is rare. Maybe...
A week had passed since Sonic had taken off out of the market in pursuit of Lance. Johnny Lightfoot eyed his hedgehog friend, not quite sure whether to be concerned or pleased at the mood change that had come over him recently.
Sonic lounged in the grass, the light breeze of a typical sunny Emerald Hill day rustling through brown fur. In between swigs from a plastic cola bottle he was talking animatedly, as usual- trying to show Porker something or other on that old map he said he'd found at Motley's stall. The pig, who had been dragged out rather reluctantly by the hedgehog, was still trying his best to tinker with some broken device- a remote control for a video recorder by the look of it- but was either too polite or hadn't yet learned the art of ignoring hedgehog babble. Since Porker was prone to talking people's ears off when he got going himself, he wasn't getting anywhere with whatever he was working on, having to continually look up as Sonic tried to keep his attention- which often involved a sharp poke or two to the side whenever the pig did pull himself away after being drawn into conversation.
The grey rabbit shook his head, amused. Porker would learn eventually that you couldn't expect to get any work done when Sonic wanted to show something off. For now, though, he headed over towards the pair, intending to give Porker a break- and talk to Sonic, because there was obviously something going on that the hedgehog wasn't telling. That could be either good or very, very bad, in Sonic terms.
Sonic broke off as the taller Mobian dropped to sit next to the two of them in the grass.
"S'up, Johnny?" Sonic said, grinning easily as he wadded up the cloth map, and then shoved it back into his cuff pocket. He hadn't returned it to Kintobor- the human having assured him he could keep it as a reward for finding and returning the ammonite shell that he'd lost. Sonic had still protested that given what the map had cost it was too much of a reward for the return of a mere seashell- but Kintobor insisted that the shell might be important to his research and more valuable to him than Sonic thought, and besides, the hedgehog needed some sort of remuneration for the help he'd offered to provide around the lab.
Sonic hadn't protested too hard about this, since the map still had some of that allure that had made him want it so desperately in the first place- despite thinking privately that just being there was worth the simple errands Kintobor had him doing. Life wasn't dull anymore and he was getting to see (and prod, and break...) any number of interesting gadgets and inventions he could only guess the purpose of. And then there were the Emeralds. Every time he'd been in the lab, he found himself standing and staring at the five gems for minutes at a time, feeling that vague tug that made him wonder, sometimes, what would happen if that glass chamber were to open and put the gems within touching distance... then he'd shake his head, realise just how long he'd been standing there and move away to investigate something else, feeling unnerved and strangely excited at the same time.
For the first time he'd been right and now he really was part of something amazing. No wild imagination and eventual letdown this time- this was real, and it showed in his mood. Which only got him puzzled looks from his friends because, of course, he'd promised not to tell anyone about the hidden lab and the work going on there...
"That's what I was gonna ask you," Johnny said, shaking his head. At the rabbit's mystified expression, Sonic sighed. That was the one problem with all of this. He didn't like keeping things back from people, especially from his friends and especially when he had a story to tell. The best one he'd ever had, actually, and he was just dying to at least brag about it a little... he'd ignored the urge to begin with, but as the days passed and his friends looked at him ever more oddly it got harder and harder to resist. At the same time he didn't want to break Kintobor's trust, either.
It would be worth it in the end, he assured himself.
"Mngh. Not again, dude, I told you I'm fine..." Sonic smiled at him, but evasively- draining the last of the cola and glancing across at Porker in the hope that there'd be some distraction there. The pig, who had gone back to trying to unpick a stubborn screw without the right sized screwdriver, looked up and shrugged a shoulder.
"W...well... sorry, Sonic, but you have been acting kind of strangely lately..."
"Thanks, you're a great help." the irked hedgehog rolled his eyes. "Seriously though, there's nothing wrong... apart from you guys nagging me all the time."
Johnny shuffled in place to get himself more comfortable, drawing long legs up to his chest and resting his arms across his knees. "He's got a point, though. Ever since last market day, you've been kind of..." He trailed off with a vague wave of a hand, at a loss.
"What? Can't a guy be in a good mood?" Sonic's ears folded, the brown hedgehog almost squirming uncomfortably under Johnny's concerned blue stare. "C'mon, you were moaning that I was too grumpy last week, leave off!"
"That's not exactly it." A headshake, and hand ran back over long grey ears, which were slanted backwards a little with the rabbit's confusion. "Sonic, you vanished! I know, you're always wandering off somewhere, but this was just odd."
Johnny sighed. "You didn't even show up after we agreed to meet at the loop, and it's not like you to miss a chance at that... with Lance going around spreading rumours about you falling in the river, we had half the village out looking for you."
"Yeah, like it's ever worth listening to him..." The hedgehog snorted sharply.
"I mean it, we were worried. You could have been hurt somewhere." Sonic glanced at Johnny, who a decidedly stern look on his face. Porker was again no help whatsoever- he'd turned back to his gadget, little floppy pig ears flattened as much as they could- giving him the look of someone who sensed an argument brewing and wanted nothing to do with it. Sonic shot a glare at the back of his head, annoyed.
"And then you turn up the next morning, munching on a cucumber sandwich and acting like nothing happened. Except that you've done nothing but grin all week and I haven't heard a thing about that Star Post or anything else ever since... What's going on, Sonic?"
Johnny persisted, puzzled. Not even Lance and Brindle's goading about some race Sonic had apparently lost had seemed to faze the hedgehog much lately. He'd snapped back at the the greyhound and badger as per usual, of course, but most of the simmering, helpless fury was gone now- replaced with what seemed to be a genuine air of superiority. As if Sonic knew something they didn't and they weren't even worth the time to argue with anymore. In one sense that was a very good thing- since it meant there hadn't been any more fights and Sonic had actually walked away from one or two of the little altercations. Which was a welcome first.
On the other hand, though, Sonic wouldn't act like that without a reason. And although the hedgehog had always had an arrogant streak, Johnny wasn't sure he liked how it seemed to have got that much wider recently...
"It's like talking to a brick wall lately. Why won't you tell anyone what happened?"
"I did. I got lost in the caves again, remember?" the hedgehog resolutely looked away, fidgeting with the empty pop bottle. "Sheesh, Johnny... you're starting to sound like your dad..."
At that, the rabbit paused, silently shaking his head. Sonic may have thought he was off the hook when that silence went on for a good half minute- but when he looked across, his hopeful glance was met with a sceptical, raised eyebrow. For a few more seconds the two of them just looked at each other like that, Sonic appearing more and more uncomfortable under his friend's searching stare- before Johnny broke the stalemate by shoving lightly at the younger Mobian's side.
"Ow! Hey!" Sonic protested. And purposefully exaggerated his recoil from the little shove, knocking into Porker who yelped and promptly dropped the remote into the grass. "What was that for?"
"Sonic, you are an absolutely terrible liar." Johnny folded his arms, giving the hedgehog a look. "And you always have been. Tell us."
"M'not lying." Sonic muttered, ears completely flat against his head now. He wasn't lying... exactly! Just kind of leaving out a few things... at Johnny's continued stare, the hedgehog abruptly stood up, stepping over Porker's legs to put some distance between himself and that penetrating stare and give himself more room to pace and fidget like he suddenly wanted to.
Johnny didn't actually reply though. He just continued to watch Sonic. Patiently. The skinny hedgehog tried to avoid that gaze as long as he could, looking anywhere but at the steady blue eyes... but eventually the stare drilling into his back was too much and he whipped round, frustrated- not to mention more than a bit torn.
"-What? Stop looking at me like that!" his voice had practically risen to a whine, now. "I really did get lost, okay?"
"And...?" Johnny prompted. A look of defeat passed over Sonic's face, just briefly. It was enough to have Porker blinking at the rabbit appreciatively.
"...wow, you're good at that..."
"I have a lot of practice." Johnny smirked, before eyeing Sonic again. "Well?"
"C'mon... stop ganging up on me, huh?" the hedgehog pouted, a bottom lip sticking out just a bit. When Johnny's calm stare and Porker's curious one didn't relent at the kicked-puppy face, Sonic huffed and looked away. "Gah... look, I can't tell you yet, all right?"
He turned to gaze pensively at the countryside stretching into the distance, running a hand through his quills. The young hedgehog shook his head. Out of all the incredible things that had happened in the past few days, this was one part that he was finding hard to deal with.
"...But I'm gonna..." a pause, before he finally turned and met the questioning gazes of the other two teens. He continued in a voice that got gradually faster, building into the machine-gun rattle of a worked-up Sonic. "Promise. I'm onto something and it's big and awesome and you two are so not gonna believe it when I tell you. Heh, you know me, I'm I can't flipping wait to tell you everything. But right now I just can't." His deep brown eyes seemed to flash with that intense, eager look Johnny knew only too well, but this time there was something more sincere and certain to it than he had seen before. Whatever his big secret was, Sonic really believed in it this time. "I was right- finally right about something. Like you can't imagine. Just... trust me, okay?" He finished with a winning grin, completely honest this time.
"I knew it... you're plotting something again." Johnny replied with a wry smile, shaking his head and shifting back onto his elbows. His sigh was both long-suffering and rather resigned. "You have an Idea and I know what your Ideas are like, Sonic. They usually end in some sort of trouble and I have a feeling this is going to end the same way."
Sonic made a sulky face and his mouth opened, but the calm rabbit lifted a hand to silence him, the wry smile still in place but eyes serious.
"...I haven't finished. You're my friend, and I do trust you, so I'm going to accept that whatever it is you're up to, this time I'm not going to be able to stop you. I just don't want you getting hurt or arrested or-"
"Yes daaaad. Fiiiiine, if something screws up I'll let you know, promise, blah blah blah..." he rolled his eyes.
"Then that'll have to do, I suppose."
"….It is safe, right? Whatever you're doing?" Porker spoke up, looking dubious.
"...oh don't you start. Don't worry, I know exactly what I'm doing... nobody's gonna get hurt, nothing bad's gonna happen, everything will be fine."
Johnny's hand went to his face at that, the rabbit peering at Sonic through spread fingers as he gave a soft, dismayed groan.
"If I had a carrot for every time I heard that, I'd be a fat bunny..." he muttered under his breath, unable to shake a sense of foreboding at his friend's confident statement. Porker didn't look too convinced either, regarding Johnny with an almost pitying expression at what he had to put up with.
"You do sound like his dad or something..." he said in a near-whisper, giving a little sympathetic smile.
"Well you get used to- OW!"
He cut off with a yelp at the hollow bok of a thrown plastic bottle bouncing lightly off rabbit skull, before rebounding into Porker's lap and causing a second yelp.
"I can still hear you two, y'know..."
A while later, Sonic picked his way across a boulder-strewn hillside, alone. This was one of the rockier parts of the zone, not too far away from where he'd had his fateful race with Lance- but his worn-out trainers might as well have been spiked mountain boots going by the confidence with which he navigated the uneven terrain. He knew this particular spot pretty well, or so he'd thought; but as it turned out there was a lot more going on beneath his feet than he could have imagined...
Well, he knew now. Sonic smirked to himself, looking around until he spotted a familiar curve of stone, the remnants of another broken loop tumbled across the ground. The landmark marked a spot where the ground bulged up into a hump and overhung, creating a natural shadowed hollow underneath that was difficult to spot until you were right on top of it. The hedgehog scampered over and hopped down into the dip, which seemed pretty dull and featureless from the inside- just a little scoop out of the ground that was too shallow to be called a cave, containing little but a few clumps of foliage and a featureless wall of moss.
Sonic, though, seemed to know exactly what he was looking for. He reached for one of the bushy plants- which seemed to be a little too green for something that had grown in a shaded nook. That was because it hadn't. The plant hadn't grown anywhere. It was plastic, potted, and Sonic moved it aside easily to reveal what looked like a small monitor screen with a tiny number keypad attached to it. Both looked like they had seen better days; the screen showed only the black and white static that Sonic was all too familiar with from his own adventures with television sets, and the keypad was rusted around the edges. A bright green light glowed in the corner of it, though.
The hedgehog made a little tch sound under his breath, then frowned for a moment, thinking.
"What was the... oh, right."
A gloved finger repeatedly jabbed at the keypad, inputting a series of numbers. The monitor made an odd kind of whirring sound and Sonic glanced expectantly at the moss wall, ears swivelling forwards- but nothing seemed to happen after a moment and his frown deepened, the teenager cursing under his breath as he looked back down to see that little LED light had turned red.
"Oh, what. C'mon..."
Muttering under his breath, Sonic tried again- placing his fingers more carefully this time as he keyed in the passcode. The little pad was fiddly, the buttons smaller than he was used to- but then it was probably easier for Kintobor, who didn't seem to wear gloves habitually like many Mobians did.
"One, nine, six, five, zero, nine, one, seven... Work, stupid thing, I don't wanna kick you." The computer whirred again, the light switching to green again. "There!"
Sonic grinned, turning to watch as a mechanical whine heralded the opening of a concealed door in the little hollow, a large section of the mossy wall swinging inwards. Glancing around quickly to make sure that nobody was watching, he replaced the potted plant and walked through the revealed opening. It lead into a wide, dim stone corridor that sloped downwards- another ancient passageway, re-purposed for modern ends.
A few steps in, fluorescent bulbs flickered into life overhead and Sonic looked over his shoulder to see the entrance swing shut again with a laboured creak and thump, hiding the secret passage from the outside. He couldn't help but chuckle softly at that; even though he'd seen all this several times by now it was still impressive to the inexperienced hedgehog.
Sonic didn't stand and stare for long though. There were more interesting things below than yet another tunnel... he trotted down the gentle slope, reaching a set of double doors at the bottom which once again required him to type in a code to unlock. Once he'd passed this last barrier, Sonic found himself back in Dr. Kintobor's sprawling, cluttered lab.
He paused for a few moments before setting off to look for the professor, just looking. As usual- and in a manner much like his own house, if he was honest- the place was a mess; a sort of semi-organised chaos in which some piles of... stuff stood untouched and identical to the way they looked yesterday, while others looked like someone had taken to them with a steamroller. Some of the freestanding machines and giant computer towers were on castors and capable of being moved, which they seemingly did of their own accord; if the lab was a maze, then it was one that changed every day.
The young hedgehog was beginning to feel at home amidst the eccentric clutter. Some of Kintobor's work was boring, but there was usually some new distraction elsewhere in the lab to divert him. He found that once he was in the lab he didn't mind the furtive secret keeping so much... in fact he barely thought of it at all. Besides, Kintobor had said he'd reveal his work to the world when it was completed and the last Emerald had been recovered- and the hedgehog couldn't wait to see the looks on everyone's faces when they found out about the part that 'useless' little Sonic kid had played in it all.
It was going, he thought to himself, to be totally awesome.