A/N: Okay, damn. It's not finished, but I was really tired of making you guys wait. The rest will be posted ASAP, I promise


Broken Ring

Knuckles sat on the top step of the altar, the Master Emerald glowing brightly in the night behind him, thinking to himself. He couldn't believe what had happened that day…

Sonic and Amy had actually gotten married… Everyone had been there, Knuckles recalled. Well, everyone but a certain bat. But none of them had seen Rouge since nearly a month before Tails had taken off…

It had been years since he had even heard about her. He supposed she could have died. Or maybe one of her jewel heists had gone wrong, and she had finally been caught. He shook his head, trying to banish thoughts of her. That was the problem with being alone on a floating island day after day… A person had a whole lot of time to just think…and think…and do some more thinking…

He jumped up to his feet, sighing. He would drown his thoughts in sweat, he thought. Then snarled to himself. Stop thinking! …God damn it…

"Great… Friggin' great… Now I'm talkin' to myself…" He stared at the sky, shaking his head, draining his mind of all thoughts, before running off a ways to shatter some boulders. Even though Eggman was gone, thieves still came up to the island. He needed to keep in shape.

Meanwhile…

She reached for the mat, flipped it up. Her hands trembled, her breath caught, when she saw the old key. She picked it up with trembling fingers and jabbed it into the lock. She swallowed and opened the door.

"I'm home," she murmured. "I can't believe I actually made it home…"

The bags she carried slipped from her sweaty grip, hit the floor with twin thuds. She staggered up the stairs, tears flowing, unnoticed, down her cheeks. She started shaking wildly when she went to her closet, yanked it open. Her clothes were still there, all of them… She stared around the bedroom. A queen size bed with deep purple satin sheets, plump black pillows rested at the headboard. Her dresser, perfume bottles, extra make-up, disguise wigs, everything was still there.

She walked to the dresser and sat down in front of it, studying her reflection in the mirror. Her pretty aquamarine eyes, fatigued and wet, stared back at her. The lips curved when she picked up a pair of scissors, snipped off a lock of white hair that she'd had to grow out.

She was laughing as the white tresses hit the floor behind her, laughing even as tears flowed down her cheeks. She was alive! A survivor of her toughest job. Her eyes danced with triumph. The junkies and rapists, the prostitutes and drug dealers, the alley stalkers and the murderers, hadn't beaten her. She'd finished the job, one that had killed sixteen agents before her, and had come out whole.

She swept up the hair, walked towards her fireplace, lit it and tossed the locks into the flames. She looked down at the clothes she wore, dirty, ripped jeans, a ratty black halter, and tugged them off to toss them in the fire as well.

She was herself again! No more filth. She was no longer a nameless street girl, she was once again Rouge the Bat. Not a beggar, but a treasure hunter, a famed treasure hunter! She went to the adjoined bathroom to wash the street filth off of her face, to shower and wash the filth from the rest of her body.

She walked out, grinning madly, spinning gleefully. No one who had known her before the street job would have recognized her, but she knew who she was. She stretched her arms high. For the first time in years she knew who she was and could relish in the fact.

She went to her dresser, searched for a silky nightgown, giggling. Oh, she was so exhausted, yet so euphoric! She knew she had to sleep, though, and tugged the red silk over her head, relishing the feeling of silk against her body after so long.

The bed was so big after years of sleeping on cots or in alleys. With a girly squeal, she pounced on it, hugged a pillow to her. She grabbed a remote from her bedside table, exactly where she had left it. Her breath caught on a sigh. Everything was where she'd left it. The cleaning crew she had hired and paid in advance had done their job. They had cleaned, dusted, swept, mopped, and vacuumed everything in her home without moving anything.

The tears started again and she flipped on the plasma screen television. She flipped through the guide, just reading the titles, some unfamiliar that she earmarked to record on her DVR. The familiar ones she marked as well, sobbing now.

There was so much she did not know about her world, she realized. She had no idea where world's most current valuables were at. She would have to find out, she decided. Flipping off the TV, she settled back and snuggled against the pillow. She had so much to do the next day...

I should go see what Knucklehead's up to… With that thought in her head, she drifted off into a deep, blissfully dreamless sleep.

The Next Day…

Cream grinned at Amy as they walked, barely able to see over the bulging bags she carried. "This was a very good idea."

Amy laughed, shifting her own bags. "Shopping is always a good idea."

The two giggled, trying to hold onto their bags. Cream glanced at a large house as they passed it, her giggles fading. "I wonder if Rouge'll ever come back…"

Amy shrugged, also looking at the old Victorian. "I dunno… You'd think she'd've come back by now. Or she should've contacted us."

"Maybe something happened to her." She sighed. "I wish we knew." A sudden movement in an upstairs window caught her eye. "Amy, did you see that?"

She had started walking again and had not been paying attention. "What?" She turned her head to study the house again.

"Someone's in there!"

"There's no way, Cream. You're just getting excited because we were just talking about Rouge coming back."

She frowned, shaking her head. "No, I don't think so." She eyed the window intently, waiting for another movement.

The pink hedgehog sighed and shifted her bags again, scanning the house. "If you're sure, let's go inside and check."

The bunny's eyes widened a bit. "But Amy," she whispered, flicking her ears up to hear if anyone was near enough to hear, "that would be breaking and entering! It's against the law!"

"Only if we're caught," she reasoned. With a smile, she bounded up the walkway and up the stairs. She set her bags down on an outdoor table and pulled out her hammer.

Cream set her bags next to Amy's, looking around nervously. "Someone'll see you break down the door, Amy. Maybe we should knock first."

"But no one's in there!"

"Amy, please?" Her brown eyes were big and pleading. She was positive someone was in there and maybe, just maybe, it was Rouge.

Amy sighed, relenting. "Okay, okay." She lifted a fist after putting away the Piko-Piko Hammer, but before she could knock, a voice sounded from above them.

"I wouldn't bother knocking if I were you."

Amy froze, blinked. She knew that voice. It was very feminine, hinting at a mysterious slyness. A grin started to form on her face that only widened when she heard Cream gasp and squeal with delight.

She tilted her head back and saw a bat sitting on a balcony railing. A smile from her reflected the voice. "Hello, Rouge!" Cream called. "When did you get back?"

"Just last night."

"Oh wow. Welcome home, Rouge." Amy chuckled and lifted her bags. "Can we come in?"

One slim brow rose. They had both changed, she noted. Under the bulging bags Cream held was a bulging belly. She was either pregnant or had gained weight. The former was much more like the Cream Rouge remembered. Amy's quills were longer and when she pushed some of them back, a glint of gold caught Rouge's eyes. A wedding band? she wondered.

"The door should be unlocked," she finally said and glided into the house.

Amy gave Cream a look, turning the doorknob. "Rouge never used to leave her doors unlocked."

The bunny's eyes rolled as she walked past her friend. "Sonic used to run from you."

"'Used to?' So I'm guessing that ring on your finger really is a wedding band."

Amy looked at her left hand, her eyes softening. "Yes…"

Cream shifted her bags. "Can I set these down somewhere?"

"Yes. Follow me." Amy lifted her bags, following Rouge and Cream into the kitchen. Gratefully, Amy and Cream dumped their things onto the counter. "So what is this? Your third kid?" Rouge patted Cream's belly, ignoring the bite of envy.

Cream's eyes went bright. "No, it's only my first. Tails only got back a few months ago, after all."

"Got back?" Her brows drew together in confusion. "From…?"

"Oh! I forgot that you left before Tails did!" Cream looked around. "Is there somewhere we can sit down? Amy and I have to tell you everything."

Rouge led them to her living room, Cream already beginning the tale. She told Rouge all about Tails' deception and his running away and getting mixed up with three vile bears. She left out Tails' having to become a hit-man in some organization. After all, that was something even Sonic did not know of.

They were all sitting as Cream regaled all about how she had found Tails' number in Sonic's address book.

"Wait," Rouge interrupted. "If Tails ran off and had no communication with any of you for years, how did his phone number fall into Sonic's hands?"

"Oh, that's easy," Amy said. "Sonic was just running around one day and stopped in a seedy area. Just before he started off again, a fox caught his eye. Sonic followed Tails to where he was staying and, even though the number was unlisted, managed to get it."

"A few days later he asked me to look up something for him and I saw it," Cream added. "I guess Sonic was too nervous to call Tails himself after everything that had happened.

"So anyway…"

Cream continued telling Rouge about calling Tails and meeting him at his workshop. Only a few days later, those bears did something that made him choose to come back for good.

Not long after he had returned to the workshop, those bears, along with Eggman, showed up. The bears were intent on killing Tails and had somehow met up with old Eggman. None of them would ever know why because they were all dead.

"What?! Even Eggman?" Rouge stared at the two girls, incredulous. "I never expected Sonic to permanently get rid of that bastard."

"If he hadn't let Tails fire that missile, Knuckles would probably be dead. Besides, Sonic had already revived me, so he was already furious."

Knuckles nearly died? Rouge's eyes darkened. What in the world? "What do you mean, Sonic had revived you?"

Amy explained, taking over for Cream, that a machine Eggman had built shot electricity into her body. And each time it had, a new layer of protection had formed around Eggman's machine. All of the voltage pumped into Amy's body had killed her just before Sonic had gotten in, courtesy of Tails' missiles.

"Luckily, he managed to get me breathing again. And after nearly a month of being unconscious, I woke up to find that sleep was virtually unneeded and I'm able to run just as fast as Sonic. Or nearly so…"

"I see. But you said Knuckles was nearly killed. How?"

"Oh, that. Well, metal arms came out of Eggman's machine and were really tough to break off. At one point, Knuckles stumbled and fell. One of the arms crashed onto him, sinking into the ground."

Cream nodded. "Tails needed Eggman dead so he could take control of the machine and save him. Sonic hesitated at first, but he came around. Knuckles only had a few cracked ribs and a broken wrist, thankfully. He was up a full week before Amy, determined to get back to Angel Island."

"Sonic helped the doctors make him stay until he was fully healed, though," Amy added.

"Hmph. Good. The idiot nearly suffocates and the first thing he wants to do is guard that stupid Master Emerald…" Rouge sat back in her chair with a huff.

"So I want to see those engagement rings," she said after a moment.

Cream held out her hand, beaming. "I know it's a simple design, but-"

"It's perfect," Rouge murmured. The diamond was brilliantly cut and worth at least 175 rings. And the band itself had to be 24 karat gold, which would be another 100. "Classy," she decided.

She turned to Amy next. "I'm expecting something flamboyant from the Blue Blur," she announced. When Amy held out her hand, Rouge got just that.

"It's a rose," Amy blurted. She had had it for nearly a month and it still wowed her. "He had it made the same day he proposed."

"At mine and Tails' engagement party, no less."

"Always up for grand gestures, that one." It was a gorgeous ring, bold where Cream's was classic. The ruby petals had been delicately carved, the diamond in the center expertly cut. A freshly bloomed red rose, dewy in the middle. "Innocent freedom."

Amy studied the ring herself, beaming. "Yes, it is."

"So how long have you been married?" Rouge asked Cream.

"After Tails found out I was pregnant he didn't want to wait at all, so we married the day after the engagement party." Cream stood, rubbing her belly. "Sorry, but I have to pee."

"Right down that hall, third door on the right."

"Thank you!"

When she dashed off, Rouge looked back at Amy. "So how far along is she?"

Amy grinned. "Her due date was yesterday."

"So you and Sonic tied the knot…?"

She giggled. "Yesterday." At the amused look, Amy giggled again. "I wanted a big, splashy wedding and I got it."

"I'm sure Sonic was thrilled…"

Her eyes filled. "He was so impatient throughout all of the planning, but he told me if it made me happy, it was worth it."

"Well, well. Points for him then." Rouge's smile was sly. "So if you married him yesterday, what are you doing out of bed?"

A blush tinted her cheeks bright red. "Well, he's… um… asleep."

"Is he?"

Her nod was rapid, punctuated by giggles. "I told you I don't need much sleep. Well, he does and we didn't get any last night."

Their shared laugh ended when a squeal sounded from the bathroom. After so many years on the streets, Rouge's first instinct was to fear the worst. She was at the doorway a split second before Amy.

A puddle of clear liquid covered the floor, Cream standing wide-eyed in the center of it. "I'm so sorry! I just… I swear I didn't pee on your floor!"

The hard, cold look in Rouge's eyes faded instantly. "Of course not. I'm damn sure your water just broke."

"My…" She doubled over as a wave of pain hit her. When it passed, Rouge had a cool cloth pressed against her forehead.

"Come on, Cream. The next one will hit soon enough. We should get you into my car and to the hospital."

"But Tails-"

"Amy's calling him." She was actually calling Sonic, but what did it matter? Tails would find out quick enough. "He'll be there long before this kid pops out."

"He'd better be!"

Meanwhile…

Knuckles almost didn't have time to slide the picture under the Master Emerald before Sonic and Shadow came to a halt in front of him. Sonic's eyes were bright with excitement and Shadow was actually smiling. It was a small smile, barely noticeable. But still. Shadow? Smiling? That meant big news! "What's going on?"

"Cream went into labor at Rouge's house," Sonic blurted. "Amy called me so I got Shadow and now you." His grin widened. "I didn't think either of you wanted to miss Tails's reaction."

Rouge's house? Why would they have been there? Is she back? Knuckles scrambled to his feet. "Let's go!"

Soon…

The trio found the fox under the hood of a car he was planning to turn into a flying car, the sound of an electric drill whirring softly over the classical music pouring loudly from his outdated radio.

He's always had a weird taste in music, Sonic thought offhandedly and quickly turned the unidentifiable – to him – crap off. As far as the Blue Blur was concerned, the only music worthy of blaring that loudly was rock.

Abruptly, the drill switched off and Tails straightened. He'd been enjoying Chopin, so who had shut it off and why? Pushing goggles atop his head, the fox studied the intruding trio. Sonic's eyes were bright with excitement, Shadow was actually smiling, and Knuckles's grin was blinding. So, obviously, Sonic had been the one to turn the music off. But the why was going to be a bit harder.

"Uh… What's going on?" he asked warily.

Sonic strolled over, biting the inside of his cheek to stop from smiling. Taking the goggles from his pal, he tossed them onto a work bench, and pried the drill from Tails's wary hands. Slinging a companionable arm around the fox's shoulders, Sonic began leading him out of the workshop. "Let's go, Dad."

"Dad?" he echoed, confused. Knuckles snickered and Shadow's smile brightened a bit more. As his brain put two and two together, it slowly lost all function. "Cream's in labor?" he whispered.

"So I hear," Sonic told him. Tails's pupils contracted in shock just before he shot off, tails spinning madly. With a laugh, Sonic followed, Shadow and Knuckles in tow.

Soon…

Rouge paced the waiting room of the pediatrics ward, annoyed. "What's taking them so damn long?"

Amy laughed from her seat on the couch. "Sonic had to have gotten Shadow and Knuckles as well." She noticed Rouge's pause at Knuckles's name, but chose not to comment. It was easier to avoid a confrontation that way.

The door slammed open and both girls looked up. Tails barreled in and went directly to Amy. "Where is she?"

"Room 132A."

"132A… 132A… All right, thanks." He barreled to the door. "Hi, Rouge," he called back, a hand lifted in brief acknowledgement.

"Hello," she murmured, but her eyes were all for Knuckles.

And his were for her, had been since he had stepped into the doorway. The first thing – the only thing – he had been able to see was her. Questions reeled in his mind. What is she doing back? When did she get back? Where has she been for so long? And Why does she still look so beautiful?

Sonic shoved Knuckles to the side, breaking the echidna's focus. "Move, will ya?" He went straight to Amy. "Did you already call Vanilla?"

"Oh!" She jumped to her feet. "I completely forgot! She'll be ecstatic at the news. I need to find a phone…" She glanced around. "Do you have yours?"

"Calm down, will you?" Taking her shoulders, grinning, Sonic shoved her back onto the couch. "I already took care of it."

"Oh, good! What did she say?"

Rouge watched, fascinated when Sonic sat next to Amy, his arm looped around her waist. When she'd left Sonic had never sat, let alone next to Amy Rose. The gold band on his ring finger glinted in the fluorescent lights, a perfect match for Amy's own ring. "She flipped out," he said.

Amy giggled, shifting to lean comfortably against him. "Did she really?"

His grin flashed. "Her scream nearly made my ear bleed."

"You've been gone for quite a while, Rouge." Tired of paying attention to the newlyweds, Shadow had walked up to the bat.

Her entire body tensed automatically, a reaction brought upon years of street life, a reaction brought on by a sudden – male – presence, and something else entirely. At Shadow's raised brow, she forced herself to relax. "I'm flattered that you would notice, Shadow," she replied, putting as much of her old sassy charm into it as possible.

"Hmph." Eyes narrowed, he caught her chin in his hand and carefully studied her. Under the carefully applied makeup were the obvious signs of exhaustion and possibly a bit of illness. "When did you return from your assignment?"

"And how would you know if it was an assignment or not?" she shot back.

Against his hand he could feel her fighting trembles and wondered. "A jewel theft may have taken up to a month. Not years."

"Interesting." She turned away, her rhythm broken momentarily when she caught sight of Knuckles once more. It was a brief lapse, but Shadow narrowed his eyes. He had always known that Rouge and Knuckles had shared obvious chemistry, but this was full-blown sexual tension. His eye began to twitch slightly. He had already dealt with two weddings, and was hoping these two would have the sense to elope.

"Where are you going, bat girl?" Rouge had tried sliding past him to leave the room, but Knuckles had found himself wrapping his hand around her arm.

Her gaze slid slowly upwards until their eyes met. "To check on Cream, of course. Are you afraid I'm going to take off again?"

His grip tightened and his eyes flashed. As a memory broke through, Rouge winced, an audible gasp of panic bursting from her. Knuckles dropped his hand immediately. "Just what sort of assignment were you on?" he murmured. Never had he seen such terror in her eyes, especially not directed towards him.

Appalled by her own reaction, she stepped away. "It's none of your business, Knucklehead!" Quicker than dignity allowed, Rouge was out the door, leaving Knuckles studying her retreating back with a mixture of speculation and worry. Rouge had returned, all right, but she carried some serious mental scars with her.

Uncaring and unaware of his thoughts, Rouge went down the hallway to a restroom. After checking every stall to be sure they were empty, she sank to the floor, drew her knees up to her chest.

"Oh, God…" She blew out a shuddering breath. It had been only a few months since that weasel… Just remembering those golden brown eyes that sent shivers down her spine even now. But when they had flashed hot… When Smear had…

"No!" Rouge squeezed her eyes tightly shut.

I can beat this… I already beat this… Why did I react that way to Knuckles? He's as strong as Smear, but that was where the similarities ended. Knuckles would never–

"Rouge?" She nearly jumped out of her skin at the quiet voice, the gentle hand on her back. "Knuckles said something was wrong with you, but I wasn't expecting something this bad."

Rouge took another steadying breath before looking at up into jade eyes. She had promised herself that what had happened on the assignment had happened to the fictional "Gem" Rouge had invented for the streets. It had nothing to do with Rouge now. She had to take another careful breath to let the thoughts sink in. "It's nothing, Amy."

The hedgehog shook her head, unconvinced. "You're crying."

"Am I?" She stood, surprised to find her legs wobbly. A glance in the mirror told her that she was indeed crying and ruining her make-up. Tugging a few paper towels from the roller, she unceremoniously wiped off all of it.

As Rouge was reapplying it all, careful to use the exact same colors, another image formed in the mirror as Amy stepped up to stand beside her. "It was a terrible assignment."

It wasn't a question, but Rouge answered anyway. "Yes, it was." With a snap, her compact was closed and was dropped down her top. "And I'm not going to talk about it."

"Then what are you going to do?"

"I'm going to check on Cream and forget it. It was my last assignment as a government agent for quite a while, and it's behind me now."

Hips swinging, Rouge sauntered out with Amy frowning after her.

Meanwhile…

"I thought you didn't like her," Sonic teased. "And now you're suddenly worried because she flinched?"

"This is Rouge," Shadow reminded him. "She doesn't jump or back down very easily." And she'd trembled just because he'd touched her. That wasn't the Rouge he remembered, the one he'd – though he'd never admit it – had missed the past few years.

Knuckles crossed his arms. That was Rouge, all right. But why had she looked so afraid? And of him, for crying out loud.

He frowned and leaned against the wall next to the window. Not for the first time, he wondered what the hell her assignment had been. What had she done? Where had she gone?

He didn't sigh, but he took his time expelling a breath. He wanted the answers to come from her, but doubted they ever would.

Later…

Tails sat on the bed next to Cream, holding her hand even as she squeezed his painfully. He thought it was noble of him not to react to this ache while she was experiencing a contraction.

But Rouge could see his masked pain. "Is she breaking your hand?"

"No, I'm fine." It was said through gritted teeth.

As the contraction passed, Cream's grip loosened. "I'm sorry, Tails."

He brought her hand to his lips to gently kiss the palm. "Most women would be cursing me now, not apologizing."

"Most women are nothing like Cream." Amy sat on the rabbit's other side, caressing her swollen belly. The contractions were occurring closer and closer together. Nearly eight hours earlier, Amy and Rouge had come in to check on her. They had yet to leave.

The doctor stood, an aging cat who had given birth to seven children herself, with a smile. "It shouldn't be much longer now, ma'am. You're almost fully dilated, so after your next contraction, you'll feel the urge to start pushing."

Tails couldn't hold back the wince when Cream suddenly tightened her grip on his hand.

Amy smiled at his expression. It was so obvious that he would do anything for his wife. "So it shouldn't be much longer?" she asked the doctor.

"Well it depends if the second baby wants to take its time or not."

"Second baby?"

The doctor glanced at Rouge. "Yes. Cream's carrying twins." She studied the shocked looks from everyone in the room. "None of you knew?"

Numb, Tails shook his head. "How do you?"

"I've been doing this for more years than you've been alive, dear. I know."

"But you're not completely sure?"

Cream panted, grateful that the contraction was easing. She looked between Tails and the doctor to take her mind off of it. Was he upset about a second baby? She admitted that it was a surprise, but was he upset?

When she asked him, he laid his free hand atop her belly. "Of course not, Cream. Never."

She tried a smile, but something was telling her to push. The doctor recognized the signs and sat back down. "Not yet, miss. They're not quite ready to come out."

Cream could not take much more of this. "I'm ready for them to come out!"

Amy was grinning when she stood. "Come on, Rouge. We're no longer needed."

Rouge studied the rabbit. Her usually compassionate, serene eyes were now snapping with determined annoyance. Rouge couldn't help but grin. "We certainly aren't."

She slid out after Amy. "Do you think the three guys are still here after all this time?"

She giggled. "Of course. Cream's about to have a baby!"

"Two of them," Rouge reminded her.

"Yes, but they boys don't know that."

"Don't know what?"

Amy's smile widened even as Rouge's faded. "It's fantastic news, Knuckles! Cream's having twins!"

The eyes that had been carefully surveying Rouge snapped to Amy, wide in surprise. "As in two kids?!"

"Yes!" she laughed. "Oh! I have to tell Sonic!" Amy shot off fast enough to nearly knock a shocked Rouge off of her feet. How had Amy gotten so fast?

A steadying hand went around her arm and she looked up at Knuckles. His violet eyes were narrowed, piercing her with a speculative stare that she was unaccustomed to getting from him. It kept her in place and unusually quiet.

Her make-up was different. Sure, it was the same color, but it wasn't the same. Knuckles might have believed that she had just freshened it if it had looked fresher. Had she cried earlier? And why wasn't she pulling out of his grip?

"Something about that job of yours screwed you up, didn't it?"

Rouge jerked away from his hold. "I crumbled a drug and prostitute ring that's ruled over the same city for nearly a century. It was hellish! If I'm 'screwed up', it's due to years of–" She trailed off, clamping her lips shut. "Damn it," she whispered, and shoved past him.

Knuckles watched her stride away. "Years of what, Rouge?" he murmured. "Years of what?"

Thirty minutes later…

Sonic was on his feet, snapping his fingers and pacing. Spending nine hours in the same room was really starting to get to him. He'd been about to go for a nice long run when Amy had burst into the room and nearly knocked him over, babbling about twins.

He had never really gotten around to showing her how to stop properly. Heh. Well, he had, but he always got…distracted.

Thinking about those distractions had him grinning, slanting his eyes towards his wife. She never minded when he got sidetracked and more often than not, she would do whatever she could to worsen the distraction. His grin widened. The woman was insatiable.

"You're looking at Amy as if you'd like to take a bite out of her."

Sonic spared Shadow a glance. "Yeah, so what? I'm allowed to look at her. I married her." He looked at the band on his finger. It was a small thing, a symbol that used to represent a cage. But now… He looked back at Amy, a smile on his face. Now it meant something completely different. "So what about you?"

Ruby eyes narrowed to slits. "What about me?"

Sonic's emerald orbs rolled to the ceiling as if asking for patience. "When are you gonna get a girl? Holdin' out for Rouge?" Without letting on to it, Sonic saw Knuckles's head snap up, eyes furious.

Shadow only scoffed, his back to the angry echidna. Still, he'd seen the flash of amusement in Sonic's eyes that had been directed towards Knuckles. "Hardly," he said, wiling to be used – momentarily – to bring the bat and echidna closer together. Only because it would make Knuckles feel like a fool, of course. "She's not a woman I think about that way."

Now Sonic noted that Knuckles lowered his head as his anger turned on himself. He's ticked 'cause he was jealous… Heh. "Hey, Knuckles." He waited for the echidna to look up before continuing. "You sure you don't know where Rouge went?" She'd been gone for the past half-hour and he'd been the last one to talk to her.

Arms folded, Knuckles leaned back in the uncomfortable chair he sat on. "If I knew, I would have told you the first three times you asked me."

"Why the sudden worry for her?" Shadow wondered.

Sonic shrugged. "Eh, it's nothin'." He wandered over to Amy. When she had first come in, not only had she announced the number of kids Cream was having, she had also very quietly told Sonic that when she had first left she had found Rouge crying in the bathroom without even knowing she was doing so. Sonic figured that something Knuckles had said or done had triggered some sort of memory of Rouge's. He wasn't completely sure, but it had to have been something that happened on the assignment she'd been on.

No use worrying about that now, he decided, sliding an arm around his wife's waist. She'd been staring out the window for a good twenty minutes. "Have you found it yet?"

She looked over, confused. "Found what?"

"Whatever you're lookin' for out there."

"Oh…" Resting her hand on the glass, she peered outside again. "I'm partly looking for Rouge, but I also…"

"You want to get out of here and run," he finished.

Her smile was faintly embarrassed. "Yes, but I can't leave with Cream this close to giving birth."

"I know what you mean, Ames." His best friend was about to become a father, after all. It still amazed him how easily the two of them had slid back into the easy rhythm of an old friendship after Tails had been gone for so long.

A movement caught her attention. "Oh, there she is!" Amy stepped away. "I'll be back!" she announced, and bolted out.

Sonic scowled when he saw Amy stop just in front of Rouge. It was a short run, but at least she had gotten one…

Before the thought had even been completed, Amy was back, dropping a duffel bag on a chair. "Rouge went and packed an overnight bag for Cream." When Knuckles stood and moved to the door she said, "She said she'd be up in a minute."

The look he slid over his did not quite mask the fact that he was about to lie. "I'm not going to get her."

Shadow scoffed. "Good. Each time you speak to her, she leaves."

With a soft grunt, Knuckles turned away. "I've noticed…" He walked out quickly to avoid more talk. After a few seconds of self-debate, he went downstairs. He'd been stewing in guilt for the past nine hours and was tired of it. Somehow he'd made her cry and felt the need to apologize. He didn't even know what he'd done!

Meanwhile…

Rouge stared into the sky. A lot of thoughts were swirling in her mind and the thirty minutes she'd taken to go pack Cream an overnight bag hadn't been enough to resolve all of them. That outburst at Knuckles was currently dominating. She had very nearly told him everything, and that would have been horrible.

Well, in her opinion anyway. The psychiatrist she had seen everyday for almost a year would have been thrilled. But she didn't know much about Rouge's "relationship" with the hot-headed guardian. She probably wouldn't have understood how Rouge had been by turns attracted to and infuriated by the knucklehead. Rouge didn't even understand it.

She closed her eyes briefly. Strange, how the attraction seemed as strong and as potent as ever. Stranger still that she was afraid of that attraction. When it came to men, Rouge was always confident. There wasn't a man alive that she couldn't handle.

Or so she had thought until Smear had entered her life…

Eighteen months of Hell had been endured until, with the damned weasel's help, Rouge had gotten close enough to The Ring's leaders to tear the entire system apart. And that wasn't even counting the years she'd fought before even coming in contact with Smear.

Now they were all – bar one fox they hadn't been able to locate – in jail, waiting for the trials Rouge and several other agents would testify at. Rouge shuddered. Smear would testify as well to gain immunity for murder, rape, abuse, and a slew of other charges.

She drew the coat she had grabbed from home tighter around her, knowing that it wouldn't help ease the chill she felt.

Sighing, she turned, stifling a scream when she saw a familiar raccoon leaning against the building.

Taking his time, he flicked his cigarette to the ground, crushing it with the heel of his boot. Slowly, he straightened from the wall, tugged his hat low and flicked up the collar of his leather trench coat.

"A month out of the game and you're already losing your edge?" His voice was low, gruff from years of nicotine abuse. "That's pretty sad."

She tilted her head, cocked out a hip. "I don't expect agents to be following me after a month out of the game." Both of them were too focused on where their conversation was going to notice the figure step out of the hospital and into the shadows to eavesdrop.

"I suppose not, but get used to seeing me."

Rouge's eyes narrowed to dangerous slits. "Excuse me? I don't need anyone watching me, Nocturnal N. Raccoon."

"Maybe, but you're not who I've been assigned to watch."

"If it's Sonic, I can-"

"It's not him," Nocturnal – Noc – interrupted.

Rouge ignored the voice in her head that told her exactly the raccoon was assigned to watch, praying it was wrong. "Shadow, then."

"Nope."

Panic surged through her, replaced her blood to speed up her pulse. "Knuckles or Tails?"

The panic was cleverly disguised as mild curiosity, but years of interrogating professional con masters allowed Noc to see it. Besides, he knew Rouge very well. Had trained under her.

Pity rang clearly in his eyes when he walked up to the bat. He had to tell her this friend-to-friend rather than agent-to-agent. He took hold of her hands, looked into her eyes. "Smear was transferred a block away from your house by the WPP."

Now the panic was replaced by a hysteria that was not nearly so cleverly concealed. Noc could only silently curse the government. No one had fought harder than he to keep Smear away from her, but the assignment went first. It was actually the first lesson Rouge had taught him. Her most recent lesson being that even the strongest of agents had their breaking point and it was not good to see them pushed passed it. It hadn't been good to see her pushed passed it.

Rouge was shaking, fighting the urge to pull away from Noc and fly away, far and fast. She knew from Amy's quick visit that they could see her from up there and she did not want to abandon them while Cream was giving birth.

Besides that, she didn't want to leave. She had forgotten just how much she liked them all. Cream's shy sweetness. Tails's sharp brain. Amy's fiery passions. Sonic's drive for freedom. Shadow's quiet determination. And Knuckles… Well, he may have annoyed her, but he had always kept her mind and reflexes sharp.

No, she did not want to leave again. It would be embarrassingly cowardly. Rouge tugged her hands free. "Thanks for telling me, Noc. I'll keep an eye out for him." She turned away to go inside.

"Rouge." He waited until she flicked a slick glance over her shoulder. "He knows your name and where you live. You're listed."

The cocky look faded into one of blank shock. "No, I'm not. I've never been listed."

"I know. You've told me that before. It's to protect you from stuff just like this." She turned back to face him and the hands he had shoved into his pockets fisted. Pure terror, unmasked, made her seem entirely too fragile. "A few months ago they had to redo the phonebook. The service you hired to keep your place clean gave them your name because you weren't around to say you wanted to remain unlisted. You need to find someplace to stay until I can get the WPP to transfer him out of here. I can't watch him 24/7 and neither can Melody."

"Melody?! Now they've got her working with you? And you left her alone with him?!" The slim tan cat was about as feminine as they came. If Rouge hadn't seen for herself just how accurate she was with the .20 mm Melody carried in her designer purse, Rouge would never believe she was agent material.

Noc's growl was low and threatening. "Smear doesn't know he's being watched."

"Yes, he does." Her laugh was dry and humorless. "Idiot was an important part of The Ring. A guy like that knows when he's being trailed."

"We've taken every precaution-"

"So did I."

There wasn't anything he could say to that, so he only looked at her.

She came back towards him, put a hand on his shoulder. "You may have been welcomed to sit at the Adult Table, but you're still a rookie at heart. I have your number, Noc. I'll tag you when I've got the address."

"Just don't make it a hotel room. He's the type who keeps in touch with his contacts." He turned but had only taken a few steps before looking back. "In some ways I am still a rookie, but I earned that spot with the Adults. Melody's disguised as a male at all times until I can replace her." And with that, he was gone.

Rouge blew out a breath. "Damn it all… Where am I going to stay?" She would normally have asked Amy, but she was not about to invade newlywed territory. Cream was out due to the new arrivals. Shadow would probably let her stay with him, but they would both be a bit uncomfortable with that. And Knuckles would just laugh in her face. So it was either Shadow or she would have to rent an apartment.

Rouge rubbed her hands over her face. How was she going to explain either of those moves to everyone without revealing…anything?

She sighed. No reason to worry about it right now, she decided, turning.

For the second time she had to stifle a scream. The violet eyes that locked on hers were snapping with fury, but this was something she could meet head on. Smear's had always been ice cold or flashed. His eyes had never snapped.

Rouge tossed her head. "How long have you been there?" she demanded.

"Long enough," he growled. "Plenty long enough. That bastard raped you and the government isn't doing jack-shit about it. WPP. What is that? Witness Protection Program? He was part of that drug thing you mentioned earlier, I bet. Now he thinks he can get back at you, doesn't he?"

Sneering, Rouge went past him. "It doesn't matter."

His hand went around her arm, halting her. "You need a place to stay." Ignoring her attempts to pull away, he listed off the reasons why she couldn't stay with the others. They were the same ones she had already figured out. All but one. "You're staying with me."

"What?"

"Is that asshole gonna think to look for you on Angel Island? Heck no." Taking her other arm, he turned her to face him. "You're staying where I can keep an eye on you, got it?"

"Why you egotistical, chauvinistic, fool of a-"

Both her and Knuckles's heads whirled when someone cleared their throat. Vanilla was smiling even as she received dirty looks from them both. "I apologize for the interruption, but could either of you tell me where Cream's room is?"

The young crocodile beside her was bouncing foot to foot, already bored. He would have been much happier with his father and the other two Chaotix members, but all four of them, including his mother, insisted that he was still too young to join in with murder investigations. And that's just what the Chaotix were currently involved in.

But his curiosity was piked. Who was this bat and why were she and Knuckles arguing? Well, he was sure Knuckles was right about whatever it was. But the bat looked vaguely familiar… Who was she? Oh, well. It didn't matter.

"C'mon, Mom. It's cold out here."

"Oh, Vipe, just wait right inside then."

"No, I'll take you up." Rouge jerked away from Knuckles. "I was about to go anyway."

"Thank you, dear." As they walked, Vanilla chatted happily, listening to her son to make sure he said no curse words as he spoke with Knuckles. Before they walked into the waiting room, Vanilla lightly tapped a finger on Rouge's shoulder to halt her.

"I'd like to tell you that I'm very glad you've returned and you're all right. I was so very worried, especially when Tails came home before you." The pat on Rouge's cheek was not condescending, but motherly. "Thank you for relieving me of that worry, dear.

"Now which room is Cream in?"

Rouge smiled. This was something that had kept her going the past few years: The knowledge that there were people as generous and kind as Vanilla in the world. "She's in 132A."

"I thank you again. Vipe, please behave."

"Yeah, Mom. Okay." On a yawn, he shoved open the door to the waiting room and walked in, prepared to spent a boring few hours.

When Vanilla walked off, Knuckles cast a glance at Rouge. "Temporary truce?"

"Fine." Head held high, she sailed passed him.

Soon…

Vanilla bustled into the room, eyes bright. Amy was the first to notice her. "Well?"

"They're beautiful little girls!"

"Sounds like I made it just in time."

Vanilla spun around. "Vector, I told you to just go directly home."

Leaning against the doorjamb, Espio spoke up. "Why would he miss this?"

"Espio, what are you doing here?"

He shrugged. "Charmy and I didn't want to miss this either."

"Nope!" Charmy buzzed around Vector and waved at everyone in the waiting room. "Hey, everybody!" It was his usual hyper greeting, but a little less zestful than normal. A nineteen-hour day wore on even him.

And Vanilla knew just how long they had been working. Her eyes were full of worry. "You must all be so tired."

Vector waved a hand, dismissing that. "It doesn't matter."

"But–"

A groan interrupted her. "Can we just hear about the babies already, so we can go home?"

Sonic chuckled at Vipe's impatience. He could certainly empathize with the kid. A figure materialized in the doorway, making Sonic grin. "Hey, Tails, is that one of them?"

Energy sizzled around the fox and his cheeks hurt from a grin he just could not get rid of. In his arms was a fuzz ball with his color fur wrapped in a soft pink blanket. One long rabbit ear had escaped its confines and appeared to be as long as the baby.

"She really had twins!" Tails exclaimed.

"Two for the price of one," Knuckles mused, smiling.

"Can you believe it?!"

Amy walked up to him. "Congratulations, Tails." Her own grin was the goofy one adults suddenly donned around babies. Her arms just itched to hold the wide-eyed bundle. "So what are their names?"

"Mix 'n' Match." His own grin went foolish and self-indulgent. "This one's Match."

"Does Cream have Mix?" Rouge wondered. She had come up to stand next to Amy. The baby girl had the blue eyes they were all born with, but one of them, the right one, was a darker shade than the other. "She's going to have two different eye colors."

"You think so? Oh, yeah! Cream wanted me to come get you guys."

"Why?"

"To scold you for still being here." He propelled himself back with his tails and then shot off for Cream's room, his laughter trailing behind.

Rouge sauntered off after him with Amy at her side. "They chose such cute names!" the hedgehog gushed.

"Yes." But her mind wasn't on that. It was on the fact that they would be leaving soon. She hadn't managed to talk to Shadow privately to ask him about staying over and it was much too late to go apartment hunting. A hotel it was, but only for tonight. If she was lucky, Knuckles would have completely forgotten about her staying with him.

Soon…

"Now, Daddy, you should definitely be at home right now. You're dead on your feet."

Vector only grinned. "Somehow you're not the most authoritative figure at the moment, Cream."

Her giggle was soft as she shifted the tan-furred Mix into a more comfortable position. This baby had ears that were shaped like a foxes, but longer than normal. One of them was flopped forward as if it was an impossible feat to uphold them both at once. Poking out of the blanket were twin fox tails that the baby would flick almost impatiently every now and again.

"I'm not trying to be. I just think none of you should've waited so long."

"You would've been upset if any of us had left," Shadow pointed out.

"Hmm…" She looked down at Mix who gurgled as if agreeing with him. Cream looked up at the hedgehog, beaming. "Goodbye, Shadow."

The relieved sigh was barely audible. It's about damn time, he thought and, with a single nod, was gone.

"Sonic, I know you would rather have been running for ten hours instead of waiting that long. You and Amy can go now." At Amy's protest, Cream smiled. "You can hold them tomorrow."

"Oh, all right." Smiling, she took Sonic's hand and lead him out.

"See you tomorrow, Tails!" he called and the two of them bolted.

Now Cream turned her attention to Knuckles. "Thank you for leaving the Master Emerald alone for so long."

He shrugged. "I left Chaos in charge, so it wasn't a problem." He turned away. "See you."

Rouge blew out the breath she had been holding. Apparently Lady Luck was being kind. Knuckles seemed to have forgotten.

"Thank you for staying with me your first day back, Rouge."

"What else was I going to do?" She sent out a half salute and started to leave, stopping at the door to look back. "For someone with little authority, you sure can dispel a crowd."

The new mother laughed, delighted. "You can hold them, too."

"You bet I will. Bye."

"Oh, thanks for the bag!"

Smiling, she raised a hand in acknowledgement. And had to grit her teeth when she saw Knuckles waiting by the elevators for her. With a huff, she turned to the stairs, ignoring the idiot echidna when he followed.

Once they were outside, she turned. "Just what do you think you're doing?!"

"I already told you that you're staying with me."

"You can't just say something and expect me to go along with it," she snapped.

"Well, I did and I do." He rocked back on his heels, thinking quickly. "What else are you going to do? Go home, alone, and pack for a night at the hotel?"

She hadn't thought of that, but it didn't faze her...visibly. "And? What's wrong with that, Knucklehead?"

His eyes narrowed. "Let's go, bat girl." She stood where she was, arms stubbornly crossed, when he walked past her. "I'll see you at your house."

"You don't even know where I live!" He started whistling as he walked, angering her even more.

But then…

"…transferred a block away," Noc had said. But which block?

Cursing under her breath she caught up to Knuckles, but didn't say a word to him. When they were a block a way, he shifted closer to her. It was a subtle move, but it put her at ease.

When he tensed a few seconds later, she found herself doing the same until she recognized the cloaked figure as Noc. She nudged Knuckles' side. "Keep walking," she murmured.

As Rouge was going passed Noc, she stumbled. The raccoon took her arm to keep her from falling. "Angel Island," she murmured, placing a hand on his chest as if apologizing.

Noc doffed his cap as if to say, "It's all right." In reality he said, "Understood."

He walked off and Knuckles and Rouge continued. "What was that?"

"A polite mishap between two strangers. Or that's what any nosy neighbor would believe."

"No one'll be awake this late," he reasoned.

Her brow lifted. "We are. Who's to say there's no insomniac on this street who just happens to glance out of his window?"

He could only shrug, unable to come up with a suitable retort. They walked the rest of the way in silence.

Knuckles absorbed everything as he went. He had had no clue where Rouge lived until she turned down a walkway. His face colored when she pulled a key ring from her top. Then she unlocked the front door and stepped in. He immediately felt dwarfed by the size of the place. Second thoughts began to plague him. His humble cabin on Angel Island would fit into this place twice-over…More.

But they faded the second he realized that she was scanning every room she went past carefully before turning on the light. And then Rouge would scan the room again before moving along with the light still burning.

Behind her his sigh was easily audible. "If you're so impatient, you may as well go. I know where Angel Island is."

"You would just go to a hotel."

She looked over her shoulder before opening her bedroom door. "No, I wouldn't."

Eyes narrowed, he shifted his weight to lean against the wall. Years of gullibility had to end sometime and he was trying to put an end to his own. The easiest way that he had found was to not believe anyone whom he didn't completely trust. Rouge was a notorious liar and a jewel thief. So.

"Just pack for tonight. We'll come back tomorrow when it's light."

'We?' Annoyed, she slapped on the light. Is he trying to piss me off? Rouge thought, and then froze. Was he really trying to anger her? She had forgotten to check the room before going into it and had, for a moment, forgotten all about Smear.

"You're trying to piss me off," she accused.

He only shrugged. "Just hurry up." Knuckles had been trying to get a rise out of her, to help her forget, but now he had the uncomfortable feeling that they were being watched…

Meanwhile…

Golden eyes shimmered like ice from the shadows of the hallway. So Gem has famous friends… His smile was slow and vile. He knew her name was Rouge, but preferred referring to her as "Gem." His memories of Gem were much fonder than the ones of Rouge, after all.

He was looking forward to creating memories with Rouge, though. But he was smart enough not to try anything at the moment. His eyes flashed with heat once before he sank back into the shadows and left the house.

Later…

It could have fit into her own home twice over, but it was well-built and bordering on quaint. And it was not at all what Rouge had been expecting. When he had said "cabin" her mind had instantly gone to "shack."

Knuckles rolled his eyes. The weight of the two large suitcases he carried suggested that she had packed for a week rather than a night, but when he had said that she had called him an idiot. "Are you going inside or are you planning on staring at the place all night?" he demanded.

Her own eyes rolled. "Idiot," she muttered, and walked in, her cosmetic bag slapping against her hip with each swinging step.

When Knuckles caught himself checking out her ass, he scowled and followed, keeping his eyes trained over her head.

It was actually furnished. It was the first thing she noticed upon walking in. The ugly striped couch may have screamed, "A man bought me!" and the two chairs may have clashed with it, but it was furnished. A table sat in the center of the living room and, to her surprise, a television was on a sturdy-looking stand underneath a window. Through that window, the Master Emerald could be seen sitting at the top of the altar.

And there were books everywhere. One rested on the table and she made a bee-line for it. Fascinated, she turned it over to find a well-worn copy of Yeats. She looked over her shoulder at him. "You actually read this?"

He looked away to hide the blush coloring his cheeks. "What else am I going to do up here?" Not wanting to answer any more questions and tired of carrying her bags, he trailed off to the bedroom to dump them.

Rouge studied the shelves and shelves of books, occasionally pulling one out to see if it had actually been read. A copy of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet looked old, but she didn't believe he'd really read it until she opened it to see annotations in the margins. The print was small so as not to disturb the true text or the play's flow.

Soon she found herself going through the pages, searching for each comment, each question he had scrawled upon the pages.

She didn't look up when she heard his footsteps. "I never would have pegged you for a Shakespeare reader."

"Yeah, well…" He trailed off, shrugged. When he saw which play she held, he blushed. Before he had found that one, Macbeth had been his favorite; but since he had read this one he had riddled the pages with his thoughts, feelings. And if she was reading any of that…

"Did you build the table?"

That snapped him out of his thoughts. "What?" She glanced over, sliding Romeo and Juliet back in its slot with the intention of pulling it right back out at the first opportunity, and repeated the question. "Oh… Yeah, I did. I made just about everything in the house."

"And the couch?"

Something in her tone had his eyes narrowing. "What's wrong with it?"

"It's hideous."

"Oh…" Turning his attention on it, he shrugged. "I guess so…" He shifted uncomfortably. Jesus, this it was awkward… Sexual tension was usually something he could handle, but in this case he was pretty sure it was one-sided. His-sided.

But that was also something he had been able to handle. But if Smear had raped her – she hadn't denied nor confirmed his earlier accusation – he wasn't about to make any sort of move on that tension. Besides, he'd dealt with it long before she'd even left on her assignment. Just because it seemed stronger now…Just because he could very clearly picture himself dragging her to that ugly couch and drowning in her…

"I'll, uh, see you tomorrow."

She expelled a long breath. Tension was on her side as well, but it wasn't just sexual. She'd been so worried that he would ask questions about Smear. But… She turned away, tapped a finger lightly on a binding of The Grapes of Wrath. "Aren't you going to ask me anything about him?"

Knuckles paused, his hand on the doorknob. "What color are his eyes?"

It was the last thing she had expected. "I… Gold. They're gold."

"Okay." He didn't look back as he stepped outside. "Get some sleep, Rouge." The door closed behind him with a quiet click.

Later…

Rouge knew it was a dream, but it didn't stop fear from clogging her throat, nor did it stop her from whimpering in her sleep…

The room was small and dark, smelling of stale sex and vomit. The mattress against her back was hard and had no bed frame. The wall the mattress laid against was paper thin, allowing her to hear everything behind it.

There was humming, soft and at peace, that became whimpering the moment the door slammed open. Heavy male footsteps moved closer to the person whimpering. Something made the whimpers turn to begging, and then horrible, piercing screams. When one was cut-off, Rouge could hear a male chuckling.

The sickeningly delighted sound was somehow worse than the screams and had Rouge curling into the fetal position, hands covering her ears.

Suddenly she felt a hand at her back, and her throat closed, not letting the scream that burned her lungs loose. And the chuckling would not go away. It was as if that cruel laugh was inside of her head and would not leave no matter how violently she shook it.

The hand gripped her skin and Rouge cried out in the dream as well as in real life. It hurts! Stop it!

She was yanked through the wall and punched in the hip hard enough to bruise. When her eyes flew open they locked on the source of the humming, the whimpers, the begging, and the screams. It was a girl, a little rabbit girl who could not have reached her twelfth birthday yet. Blood oozed from clean slices in her neck and wrists, poured from the gouges in her chest and stomach.

The scent of her blood mixed with that of sex and vomit. Rouge turned to go back to the other room. As horrible as it had been, this was worse.

But Rouge found herself standing in a cage, unable to go anywhere but in circles. The chuckling still had not gone away.

Let me out! She shouted. Please let me out!

Hang on, Rouge!

Knuckles? Rouge shook her head, looking around. The voice had been so faint, but she recognized it. Knuckles!

The light that had been framing the dead girl's body flickered and vanished, leaving Rouge in complete darkness. Help me! She screamed, tearing at the bars until her fingers bled. Let me out!

The soft tinkling of keys had her stopping her panicked escape attempts. Who's there?

Hang on, Rouge…

She tried taking a step back, but the bars prevented it. This voice did not belong to Knuckles. A light flicked on and, lying next to the rabbit, was the echidna, eyes open and unseeing as blood gushed from gashes all along his body.

Knuckles! She screamed. The lock turned and a door opened. Golden eyes, cold enough to freeze lava, suddenly filled her vision. Once more the scream was stuck in her throat. A second later the cage was gone and she could feel a knife, slick with blood, pressed against it.

I want my alibi and my immunity… Do what I tell you and you'll live…

She did not want to! As his hands went to bruise her breasts and thighs, she moved into the knife.

Rouge sat straight up in bed, a hand at her throat. She could still feel the cold blade pricking her skin. As she panted, tears streaming from her eyes, she looked around to get her bearings.

Knuckles's house, she remembered. Knuckles's bedroom. I'm safe on Angel Island and Smear doesn't know I'm here.

Gingerly, she threw back the covers and stepped into her violet slippers. She knew from past experience that there would be no more sleep on this night. After putting on a silk robe that matched the slippers, she went into the bathroom to splash cold water on her face.

Satisfied that she felt calmer, Rouge belted the robe and walked out of the house. She wasn't foolish enough to think that Knuckles was dead, but she needed to check. She just really needed to.

Meanwhile…

He was on his back, legs hanging over the edge of the Master Emerald, counting stars. He could have named every constellation and pointed out each planet and their moons. He could even tell who found and named them all, were he inclined to do so.

But he was not, so he did not. Instead he was attempting the impossible by counting those softly twinkling lights. He was exhausted but his mind just wouldn't rest.

Through bubbles and gurgles that only he and Tikal understood, Chaos had expressed his annoyance that Rouge was staying on the island for an indefinite amount of time.

Tikal, in her compassionate way, had soothed the creature's worries while berating Knuckles for not asking permission. She had made him feel like a child, but had accepted and understood why he had made the decision to bring Rouge here.

The sound of a twig snapping had only his eyes moving. It had come from the cabin, so he figured it had to be Rouge. Glancing at the moon's position he judged it to be about 2:00 A.M. What could she be doing up?

Only an hour before he had gone to check on her and she had been sound asleep, curled up in the center of his bed. Now, as she stepped out of the weeds, he got two impressions of her. The first was that she looked impossibly beautiful. The second was that she seemed troubled by something. A nightmare seemed to be the likely cause, judging the time.

Without bothering with the altar steps, she flew up and sat in front of the Master Emerald, drawing her knees up. He was alive just as common sense had informed her, but she wanted to stay close anyway. She doubted Smear would come near here tonight. She also doubted she would sleep.

Bothered by the metaphorical cloud of despair that surrounded her, Knuckles slid off the Master Emerald and sat next to her. "Do you, uh, want to talk about it?"

Even as she shook her head "no" she spoke. "It's been a week since I've had a nightmare about it. I thought I was cured…"

To the surprise of them both, Knuckles shifted closer and slid an arm around her. "I'm not going to let him get you, Rouge."

His voice was rough and he was looking straight ahead rather than at her, but Rouge leaned against him. "That's a nice enough thought."

They sat like that a few moments, none of the usual tension they felt when close appearing at all. "You don't push," Rouge murmured, more than a little surprised.

"Why should I? I already know that this guy is really dangerous if he got to you and I hate him for touching you." He sighed, looking down at her. "Besides that, I don't want to ask anything that could hurt you."

With a sweetness neither knew she possessed, she kissed his cheek. "Thank you, Knuckles."

"Um…" There was no way for him to suppress the blush. "Sure… It–it's nothing." He cleared his throat and she just smiled, surprised to find herself feeling tired. She had never fallen asleep after a nightmare, but with Knuckles close she felt safer than she had in years. Her eyes slid closed despite efforts to keep them open, and moments later she was asleep.

Knuckles blew out a haggard breath as her breathing went deep and even. Now he had even more to think about… Damn…

Later…

Her eyes opened slowly. No dreams, bad or otherwise, had plagued her. She drew the blanket tighter around her and was in the middle of a yawn before realizing there was indeed a blanket around her and her back was still against the Master Emerald. She sighed, silently thanking Knuckles. Her ears perked when she heard a grunt and a muffled curse.

Quickly, she scrambled up and saw Knuckles twist someone's wrist until a object fell from his hand. With a kick the object was away as the two of them grappled.

Rouge's breath caught when she saw the blade of a knife glinting dully in the moonlight. Her earlier nightmare rushed up, tightening her gut, stealing her breath.

"Idiot kid," she heard. She looked up to see the stranger running off and Knuckles shaking his head. "Now where did that damn knife go?"

"It's there," she managed, pointing.

He looked up then followed her gesture until he saw the blade. "Yeah, thanks." Knuckles stepped on the blade's end sharp enough to have the knife flinging into the air. Snagging it at the handle, he went over to a large boulder and shoved it out of the way to reveal a hole in the ground full of enough knives and guns to supply a small army.

After tossing this new knife in, he shoved the boulder back in place, grumbling under his breath. He had almost been asleep when that kid had shown up. As gently as possible he had moved Rouge to the opposite side of the Master Emerald, hoping he wouldn't wake her. Obviously, that hadn't worked.

He started up the stairs, still annoyed. "Sorry I woke you."

She shook her head, no signs of her earlier near-panic showing. "It's all right. You look exhausted, though."

Yawning, he slid on top of the Master Emerald. "I haven't slept since a couple hours before Sonic showed up and told me about Cream. So don't go thinking that kid wore me out."

She smiled slyly and looked very much like the Rouge he remembered. "If you say so."

He closed one eye, hoping it would help him not see how tempting she looked. Her robe had unbelted and went unnoticed by the wearer. It revealed a column of black silk that ended mid-thigh and clung to every luscious curve. And if she was wearing a bra he'd eat his own foot.

As his other eye drooped, she shook her head. "Go to sleep, Knucklehead. I'll let you know if another idiot kid shows up."

"Yeah?"

Rouge slid a hand over his eyes, closing them. "Yeah."

"Thanks… Hey, Rouge?"

"Hmm?" His words were starting to slur together. She didn't really expect him to get out a full sentence.

"You're really beautiful…"

Her lips parted in surprise. That had been the last thing she had expected, but when she would have responded, he was already sleeping. When she rested a hand on her hip she noticed her robe was open. Though it was pointless, she tied it together. Knuckles hadn't even told her, the pervert.

Half-heartedly, she considered waking him up to berate him for not saying anything, but sat on the top step in front of the Master Emerald instead. If she were honest with herself, she knew she wasn't upset with Knuckles at all. She knew very well that "upset" was the last emotion she felt when it came to him.

The Next Day…

When Knuckles's eyes finally opened the sun was high in the sky. He sat straight up quickly, eyes on the sun's position. One o'clock?! I never sleep this long!

"I knew I had good timing."

He looked down, eyes narrowed. "Why didn't you wake me up?"

Rouge rolled her eyes, once again opting to use her wings rather than the stairs. "You were tired, so I didn't bother. Besides, if you weren't awake when I got back I was going to get you up. Here."

He stared blankly at the plate in his hand and the sandwich on it. "I didn't know I had any bread…"

Her brow lifted. "How do you not know what's in your own kitchen?"

"Amy brings stuff up here all the time. I usually don't pay attention to what she's got with her." It amused him that she had cut the sandwich in half for him. It amused him even more when she swiped the half he didn't take.

All amusement died with her next statement. "I'm dragging you to the store later."

As there was food in his mouth he didn't groan, but his eyes rolled skyward as if asking, "Why me?" When he swallowed, he asked, "Why do I have to go?" and then instantly regretted it when her eyes shadowed. "I'm sorry, Rouge."

"Mmm…" She took a thoughtful bite, thinking over a change of subject. "Last night you called me beautiful." Her eyes flicked up to meet his. "Did you mean that?"

When his cheeks blended in with his fur she had her answer. With a smile she tugged the plate from his limp hand and glided down. "Amy expects us at Cream and Tails's home in an hour. Do you think we can get to my place and back in that time?"

He nodded numbly. He'd thought he'd been dreaming when he'd complimented her.

Frowning, he stood. "Yeah, if you don't take forever to pack."

Thirty Minutes Later…

He was sputtering, staring at the mountain of suitcases. "What did you do? Pack everything you own?"

"No, of course not. Now hurry up. We only have half an hour."

"It'll take at least six hours to get all this crap up to Angel Island!"

"It's not crap!" Rouge argued, slinging a single bag over her shoulder. It was all she intended to carry. "Come on, Knucklehead."

He had no idea how he did it, but the last suitcase was in the bedroom with minutes to spare. "Did you have bricks in some of these things?" When she didn't reply, he flicked a case open at random. Inside were – God help him – bricks. As her laugh flitted through the air, his eye twitched.

"If you tell anyone about this, I swear I'll…"

"You'll what?"

He glared at her. "It'll be a surprise. Now let's go."

"We still have another hour before we have to be there, so what's the rush?"

"Another… What?!"

His closet was rapidly being filled with her clothes. "I just wanted to see if you could do it."

If the slightest of breeze had come along, it would have knocked Knuckles to the ground. Then he started to laugh. "You're out of your mind."

She twirled around, feigning insult. "I most certainly am not!"

"Ha!" He walked up to her. "Yeah, you are." Completely unaware of his actions, he took a hold of her hips, pressed her close and kissed her.

A bomb went off in her head. The hands that had come up to his chest in reflex curled into his fur as the bones in her legs dissolved from the knee down. His lips were warm and softer than she had been expecting. His hands were light at her waist so that she could have stepped back. She leaned forward, nipping his bottom lip.

He slid a hand up her back, bringing her closer. Finally… The word rang through his head like a bell as his tongue slid over hers. He had wondered, perhaps too often, what kissing her would be like. This was almost too much to take without guiding her to the bed or dragging her to the floor. As her hands slid up to grip his shoulders, he remembered Smear and changed the angle of the kiss, deepening it carefully as he gentled his hold.

She felt the change, was staggered by it. A moment before he had taken everything she had and now he was giving everything he had. Tears sprang into her closed eyes as she tasted the comfort and the promise. She had been sure that he was going to take her to bed without a thought, but there was patience here that she hadn't thought she'd needed.

His name escaped her lips when his mouth deserted hers to trail over her face, brush her eyelids. When his brow rested against hers, she opened her eyes. "I wasn't going to kiss you," he murmured. "And now I'd like nothing more than to do it again."


Review if you want

I'm done with making you guys review just so I'll post

That was a retarded and, ultimately, selfish idea on my part