Scars of a Broken Mirror.

A/N: First off, standard warning – lawyers I own nothing so sue me, I dare you!

Well, here we are then, a point I never thought I'd made, the DFF (Double-Figure Fiction); starting this newest link in the chain of my series so far makes the total up to ten! A brief moment of celebration is in order, but only a brief one as, even before this fic begins, I'll just re-iterate the shadowed warning I left at the end of The Joys of Hearth and Home.

This fic will deal with matters that my other works haven't touched in any great detail; it will be a lot darker – for now I'm content to give it a T-rating but please be aware, even before you start reading, that some of the subjects and emotions resonating in this latest work are borderline M-rating. If this makes you nervous or offends, or if you think after reading I should increase the rating according, please let me know immediately.

Also, if you've just clicked into this fic on a whim, be aware that you're really launching yourself in off the high-dive right in with the sharks (and hedgehogs, which are worse); this is the tenth fiction in a series that began a long, long time ago. In full, the series now reads as follows: Angel of Darkness and Ice – The Best Medicine – A Bloodstone Rose – Iron Skin, Golden Heart – Lose Your Illusions – Psyche Out – Friends and Lovers – A Pair of Second Chances – The Joys of Hearth and Home and now this one, Scars of a Broken Mirror.

A big shout-out to my dedicate cadre of readers/reviewers, hope you still like what you're seeing, and to all the newcomers who've just joined up. So that's it, I've said my piece – strap yourselves in, it's going to be one agonising ride.

Every show has its act of tragedy…

Chapter 1 – A Christmas Tinged Crimson.

It was a week or so before Christmas Day itself, the magical time when everyone, even those who consider themselves old enough to know and act better, simply cannot resist themselves and let their hair down, when in one particular house in the suburbs of Echidnopolis, a deadly silence fell.

Silence in itself isn't that unusual; it's simply an absence of noise that, while getting rarer in the world, is still present if you search for it hard enough – no, what was unusual about this silence was the house it had descended upon. If anything, a single three-bedroom property holding so many Mobians at once, least of all ones who appeared to be in the middle of some fairly intensive and, in a couple of cases, reckless interior decoration was not a likely target for a deathly hush, but even above and beyond this to anyone who knew them even as moderate acquaintances would have been the first to admit without hesitation that the quartet of Mobians who actually owned the property itself were nothing like the type to take quiet as a regular guest into their premises.

But then again, those who actually knew the very recent history of the Chaotix and the events that had unfolded within the last week or so were probably not that surprised that, when the head of the former detective agency and the youngest representative of their current employers came eye to eye once more, there was more than a little tension in the air. As the teleporter in the basement finally finished crackling and the two latest arrivals appeared in the main hallway, and as the expression of the crocodile who had recently been working in that hallway suddenly set itself into stone as he glowered menacingly at one of the couple, everyone else silently set down with what they were doing and moved quickly and soundlessly to try and snag a ringside seat to the action that was certain to be unfolding any time now.

XXX

Now then; despite the very obvious fact that there was a six-foot-something escapee from Jurassic Park looking like he was getting ready to spit out some serious fireworks barely an arms-length away from her, Rouge found herself more wistfully annoyed than outright terrified as Vector growled, his furious eyes…the bat had to suddenly bite back a laugh; only you could get that into the spirit of things Vec. His eyes were actually not their normal colour at all, instead it looked like he was wearing skilfully painted contact lenses, because of which there were a pair of nice Christmas tarts laid out on a baking tray resting at the bottom of his pupils, diminishing his otherwise fearsome demeanour as he smiled wickedly, exposing his rows of serrated teeth,

"Well I've heard of being pie-eyed but that really takes the biscuit Vec", she remarked with a carefree grin, hefting the bag she'd brought with her as offering it to her, "go on then, even I can take a hint that obvious". He switched his attention to her at the comment, now appearing more quizzical than outright outraged,

"Huh?"

"In here", she flicked her foot up, tapping to bottom of the bag with her toes as she sensed Knuckles moving behind her; you better be thinking of a way to say sorry or believe me I will make your sorry hide sorrier than it's ever been in its whole sorry existence; even as her mind raced, however, the former spy was able to keep her expression open and honest, "managed to get a spot of baking done last time we were in Haven; don't worry though", raising her voice, Rouge looked past where Vector was now taking a cautious peek into the top of the bag itself to greet another of the remaining Chaotix and one of the other two guests who'd been roped into this decorating spree, "I made enough for all of us". There was a muffled snort of laughter as two semi-metallic arms folded over each other, Julie-Su nodding at her friend from the end of hallway even as she sought to hone the cutting edge of her tongue against Rouges',

"I'll believe that when I see it", she shook her head, dreadlocks swaying as all present heard Vector smack his lips, "when was the last time you saw him eat?" Oi; a little stung by this, the crocodile looked over his shoulder at where the ex-Dark Legionnaire stood just behind Charmy, resting a sprig of tinsel between the bee's antennae as he was folding his lips and screwing his face up at her comment, trying not to laugh,

"An' yer one talk are ya? Bust-the-moves", he gave a contemptuous toss of his head as Julie's eyes flashed at the mention of the work-out programme she used to keep fit, the colour of her irises as usual indeterminable, "more like Bust-ya-blood-vessels".

There was no hope at that one; the bee in front of her simply collapsed sniggering, turning even as he broke down with one hand outstretched, trying to ward off any aggression for Julie's direction with a spluttered,

"Sorry". The echidna glared at him, arms unfolded and, he knew from experience, a lot stronger than they appeared to be thanks to her technocratic former home's penchant for upgrading the biological template of its members. She's probably the strongest here out the lot of us, even including Vector; a sudden clammy sweat prickled at his back, humour evaporating to leave behind distinct unease as Julie tapped her fingers together, sizing him up as though trying to decide which limb to rip off first; what we really need to cope with her is Mighty, and right now she's in Scotland.

"Not yet you're not", she whispered under her breath, Charmy thanking his lucky stars he'd been able to get away with just a warning this time as the former Legionnaire raised her voice to answer the crocodile, more of a questioning note in her tone this time around,

"Keep that sort of talk up and you'll be wishing it was just blood-vessels I'm breaking, 'cause they'll be yours", Vector simply grinned and, knowing she was unable to stare him out without smiling in kind, despite repeated attempts at trying, she moved onto the meat of her issue, grateful a second later to hear another voice back her up in this, "and what's with the daggers at Knuckles?"

"Yeah", finally finished with hanging the last line of tinsel down the stairway, a task that super-speed really did not lend itself towards too kindly, Julie's flatmate suddenly appeared at the other end of the hallway, boxing Vector and the guardians in, "I knew from Tails something had gone down but he never said what, neither did Sonic too when I rang him, amazing as that might sound". Knuckles span around and stared agape as the ebon figure made himself comfortable on the bottom trio of stairs he'd recently been pounding with tinsel, holly and sticky-tape in arms,

"Sonic, keeping his mouth shut", as Shadow nodded the guardian chuckled, shucking off his coat and holding his hand out to accept his wife's as Rouge began to tug at a stuck zipper, "man, this really is the season of miracles then".

"And if you don't tell me, or in fact us", Julie cut in, indicating both herself and the hedgehog with whom she shared a flat in another district of the city, "what's been happening you'll be needing another of those miracles to get out of this house in one piece. I don't care who does the talking, just someone spill it".

Okay, this is going to be awkward; everyone who knew about that incident, and had indeed planned and executed it in one case and fallen for it in another, knew that this was going to have to come out and, even as his body once more gave a phantom moan of pain as it recalled just how much it had suffered at the hands of Mighty's misguided rage, somehow Vector just knew they were going to end up laughing at his expense. His hand crunched the top of the bag Rouge had brought with her, the crinkling of the paper helping to bring his mind back to reality with a start, and in a flash of inspiration the crocodile realised a potential way out of this sticky situation,

"Urr, right, le's get this over with. Everyone, kitchen, Charm get the kettle brewin'", recognising the unofficial head of the Chaotix using the tone of voice that made it clear any disputing of orders would probably be resolved by pistols at dawn as soon as the guests left, the bee wisely kept his mouth shut and shuffled past Julie into the kitchen; Vector heard the click of the kettle as he beckoned the three Mobians in front of him in,

"Right, everyone in and siddown; might as well have a bit of a brew 'fore we get the two big one tackled, we've already done better'an I thought we'd do. So, cuppa each, coupla these good-looking mince pies each", his tone was so complimentary Rouge couldn't help but smile and squirm in acute embarrassment even as the crocodile suddenly speared his glance over her shoulder at Knuckles, voice dropping through the floor as he did so, "an' a few death-glares between us, should set us up good'n proper". Some more than others; even as the thought crossed his mind he mentally clapped himself on the back for coming up with the brainstorm of having the contacts specially made and inked over for this time of year – he didn't have any problems with his vision of course, but by wearing them he'd made perfectly sure that no-one could even attempt to see through his eyes and glean any ideas about the multitude of revenge schemes boiling away at the back of his brain; the fact that it was all in the Christmas tradition also saved him from any bothersome questions that might have otherwise arisen about his latest fashion accessory. In fact he was so focussed on self-congratulation it was only when Shadow knocked his elbow he remembered the basic duties of hosting guests and stood to the side,

"Sorry dude, lost in thought fer'a sec".

"Not a problem", the former ultimate life-form assured him; he waited until the last vestige of Knuckles' tail had disappeared around the jamb of the kitchen door before continuing in a low whisper, "just my own suspicions of course, but I reckon this is something to do with Mighty – right or wrong?" The hedgehog's expectant smile suddenly turned upside-down and he scuttled back a few paces as Vector reared up; funny eye-ware or not, he was a threatening sight when he wanted to be,

"Lissen 'ere pal, I've gotta say this 'ole thing once an' I'm only sayin' it once, got me drift? O' course"; salvation; a dark, devious thought crossed his mind and he pounced on it, grinning craftily as he leaned down lower to Shadow's ear level, "I might give ya'bit o' a sneak-peak so long as I can play that famous tape o'yours over dinner". A pair of crimson eyes crossed for a second before bursting into flame along with the rest of Shadow's face; glowering malevolently, the hedgehog gritted his teeth; if you have I'll kill you – as far as I'm concerned no-one except you, me and Jules need know what I said in that bar that night, and the only reason I know is because she gave me the tape after raking me over the coals for the better part of a fortnight! I was drunk, how was I supposed to remember what I'd said!;

"I swear if you've made copies of that…"

"I 'aven't", Vector assured him, turning around to head towards the kitchen, "I'm no' that cruel – what 'appens next is between you an' her, an' since yer still flat-sharin' I assume nuthin's too far out o'joint". Muttering under his breath about the augmented echidna always attempting to put several things out of joint, his nose chiefly among them literally as well as figuratively, Shadow dogged the reptile's heels into the kitchen, the last of his blush thankfully just about fading before the echidna he'd come to both respect and, in some ways, admire became aware of it and used it to make his life miserable again. Though even if she did; the thought occurred to him as naturally as breathing; he and Julie were continually one-upping and point-scoring over each other with jokes, pranks, innuendoes and, very occasionally, surprise presents and treats – the continual challenge to get one-over on each other was one of the main reasons they got on together so well; there's always that time her gym shorts ripped while she was in the middle of those squat-thrusts…revenge is such a delicious dish, as long as you're not the one it's being served to.

XXX

"Knuckles?!" Shadow's voice was halfway between admonition and astonishment at the echidna's audacity as the guardian finally came clean about what he'd used to replace the surprise present Vector had planted in Mightys' travel bag just before she jetted off to see the rest of her family over the festive period with her boyfriend very happily in tow, "that's just…just…" He couldn't think of the word for what it was but apparently Julie had an idea, or she had once she'd finally managed to choke down her outright hysterics and regained the capacity for speech at least,

"That's gold, sorry Vec", the crocodile said nothing, merely glaring impassively as the mechanised echidna shook her head, light catching in her mechanical dreadlock and dazzling those present for a split-second as it swung in the light of the kitchen, "oh boy, and you told her where it was after all?"

"No", the reptile grated back at her, noticing Shadow still looking at his most hated friend dumbstruck with awe and calming his emotions with plotting about how good that revenge was going to feel when the time came, "I told 'er where the book we got'er was; 'ow was I s'posed to know Knucklehead over there 'ad switched 'em? So 'course, Might goes out an'as a shufti; next thing any of us know she's jus' missed turnin' Tails two-D wi'the kitchen door and pointin' at me like I'm next. Which I was", he added, cringing at the reminder of what had happened shortly afterwards when the enraged armadillo had turned her gargantuan strength on him, dragging him into the living room in order to sate her misguided revenge cravings, "she said she'd rip me tail off an' throttle me with it, an' she weren't too far wrong neither. The whole joint-lockin' kata, all of it", even now his body moaned at the abuse it had suffered and he grimaced, flexing pins-and-needles out of one of his wrists, just about managing to finish the sore tale for the sake of his less-than-sympathetic audience, "an' not a beat missed I'cun tell ya".

"Well what can I say, she had a good teacher", Knuckles cut in with a broad grin, though he reined it in under the wrathful eye of both his unofficial employee and his wife, speaking with more than a hint of abashment in his tone as he finished the story as only he could, "but yeah, she finished laying down the proverbial smack on TGG over there, then stomped back into the kitchen and Tails, being as smart as he is bless him, cottoned on quickly that she wanted to get a move on. So off they go while we sort of slope into the lounge to see what she'd left of Vec; the answer was nothing pretty…"

"Not that he was ever that to start with", Charmy chipped in, ducking behind Julie as Vector snarled and lunged at him; fortunately for the cheeky bee, the former Legionnaire was able to grab and grapple both his hands, holding them just about at bay as she gasped while grinning sorely with the effort,

"Sorry Vec, I want to hear the rest of this", still giving Charmy the evil eye, the head of the Chaotix gradually lessened the pressure and returned to his seat, though his bad mood was broken slightly by the wink the echidna sent his way, "you can beat him up later". Vector grinned as Charmy gulped and attempted to look belatedly innocent,

"Suits me dame; but anyway", he launched himself back into the story, Knuckles wisely falling quiet as he took up the slack, "yeah I'm there lyin' on me front 'til batgirl stamps down on me tail", he sent a scowl Rouge's way, though it softened after a second, his next words tinged with a sigh, "but I can't really blame 'er; far as anyone knew I'd jus' dropped an absolute clanger on Might's shell from a bloody great height an' was payin' fer it fair an' square. Bitta confusion after that, everyone thought I knew what'ad 'appened, though 'course I wuz in the dark – wasn't 'til frilly whispered in me ear what she'd found that we all figured it out, some more than others".

"Well I had to come clean in the end didn't I?"; even if I had a bit of a laugh stringing you along in the process; Knuckles thought secretly, masking a smile – sometimes he wished he had been able to snag his camera phone in time to take a snap of Vector's face when he'd finally admitted his secret after sticking up for the crocodile for so long in the face of everyone else's extreme disbelief, "but I said it was me, and why, so as far as I'm concerned we're even; you can't play jokes with the Master Emerald and expect to get away with it scaly, sorry but that's just the way it is".

"Even huh?" To the surprise of all Vector sighed, looking rather more contented than angry at Knuckles' assumption that the grudge between the two of them was finally settled, "well it's not me ya gotta worry 'bout really Knucks; it's 'er". At the reminder the guardian sighed, looking down into his mug of tea as though trying to see a way of avoiding that eventual, and probably for him very painful, eventuality,

"She knows already at least; gave her a text that she should have got when she landed, and phoned her later that night, just got through. Besides", he shot a mutinous glance out the corner of his eyes, Rouge simply avoiding it with a shrug and toss of her head, "I've already paid some of it off at least – she kicked me out for two nights and days, and it was ruddy cold at the shrine at the time, I didn't even get a blanket out of sympathy – some loving wife you are". Rouge folded her arms at him, hints of her fangs showing as she rose to his challenge,

"Hey, partner you might be but you mess with my friends that's a different kettle of fish; you deserved that, and a good deal more – Mighty was trying to push for a whole week but, in the end, I just couldn't stick it that long…hey", movement from the corner of her eye made the bat start; looking over she saw Charmy stand up and head towards the kitchen door, "where you off to?" The bee chuckled, lightly punching Vectors shoulder as he moved past the seated crocodile,

"Knew something was missing from this picture, scaly just reminded me what it was". Everyone swapped mystified glances, trying to work out what the bee was talking about until he allayed all suspicions; reaching the kitchen door, Charmy toed it open, stuck his head around it and called out,

"Hey Esp, tea's up; come get some before you freeze up there".

XXX

There was a succession of enlightened look and sudden realisations around the table as everyone heard the name, Shadow actually speaking out loud before he could control his tongue,

"Thought there was something missing from the picture". As Charmy returned to take his seat once more Rouge gave a sigh, looking at him long-sufferingly,

"Did you have to? There we were, all friends together, then you had to give the old wet-blanket an invitation to spoil it all".

"I don't know you know, he is getting a bit better, slowly", the bee conceded the last word grudgingly at the bat's expression of profound scepticism which wasn't, he admitted to himself, entirely lacking in merit; though come on, give him his due, he was really good to me when I was laid up with the 'flu; "he pretty much put himself at my beck and call when I was on my death-bed a few weeks back". At the mention, Vector brightened momentarily,

"True, 'e's not a complete frost-heart, 'though speakin' o'you bein' not at yer best", glancing at the door as he heard the characteristic thump of someone coming down the stairs, Vector went for it; beckoning all present into a bit of a huddle, the crocodile unearthed his suspicions in a hurried whisper, "don't tell Esp bu' I reckon sumthin's not right wi'him, been a bit off-colour recently, no pun intended". Unfortunately his slight slip had caused one or two of his audience to have to stifle smiles in a manner that, when the kitchen door swung open once more, the chameleon it revealed had every reason to suspect something less than complimentary was afoot. Speaking in a measured, level tone, Espio quickly decided it was probably not worth his effort trying to work out the cause of the mirth; much easier just to pay back those responsible later;

"By all means keep laughing, don't let me stop you", as he sloped towards the kitchen countertop and reached for a clean cup, Julie finally plucked up the courage to put into words the suspicion she'd had on first sight of the recalcitrant member of the original Chaotix trio,

"Umm, Esp?" The chameleon paused but didn't look over his shoulder as the augmented echidna finished her fledgling sentence, "are you wearing a jumper?"

In all honesty, Julie would freely admit later, it was a redundant question; it was immediately obvious to anyone with half an eye that yes, Espio did indeed have a thick pullover covering his normally bare scales – however, even if the question itself was redundant there was no denying that it was necessary to set up the question she really wanted answering, even if it did leave her open for retaliation from the misanthropic Mobian's acid-drenched sense of sarcasm,

"Indeed I am", everyone saw the frill at the back of his head rise slightly as he looked down at himself, "though before you ask your next question I'll let you know for free that this is in no way any kind of fashion statement".

"What is it then?" Only now did he glance at her, a slitting smile on his lips that made Julie instinctively bristle – just like he could with virtually everyone else she knew, Espio could wind her up royally,

"You really don't know much about reptiles do you Julie?" No, not right now; even this close to Christmas it seemed the chameleon couldn't let a chance to pick a fight slip – trying to work out a way to resolve the forthcoming disagreement without resorting to sarcasm, name-calling or first blood, Vector hit on a solution just a second too late to stop Julie launching the next cannonade at his team mate, her words backed up the unanimous nods and murmurs from everyone else, himself included,

"No I don't, and if you're anything to judge them by I'm really glad I know next to nothing about chameleons; crocodiles on the other hand", Vector raised an eyebrow he didn't actually have as the former Legionnaire looked him up and down before a wry smile touched her lips, "well, the jury's still out". Thinking quickly, Vector pounced on the ensuing second's silence to both get his point across and break up the mushrooming argument between arguably the two most determined and self-sufficient Mobians present in the room,

"Well luckily fer you, Esp's 'bout the only chameleon on Angel Island at the minute, so ya gotta bitta breathin' space on that count; second, the reason 'e's dredged old Aunties' woolly-pulley out the back of 'is closet it 'cause it's winter time. Me an' 'im both need heat to work right; we're only as 'ot as our surroundin's, tha's why we 'ave to 'ave the central up so 'igh or we'd both freeze our tails off". Julie gazed at the crocodile bemused before shifting her stare towards Shadow; as the black hedgehog held up his hands as though they could ward off her curious eyes, the echidna spoke in a calculating tone,

"Hmm, that so? Is it just my imagination or do I distinctly remember you telling me reptiles need sunlight to get their blood flowing?"

"Well they get most of their heat from the sun", Shadow explained, fighting his corner and given a helping hand in that regard by Vector nodding as Julie glanced over, "but as we all know, that's a pretty rare commodity these days".

"I suppose", she settled back, looking a little more mollified after his explanation before suddenly her eyebrows shot up; she turned to the crocodile again but before she could speak the other echidna present beat her to the proverbial punch,

"So how come you're not covered up?"

"Thicker skin", Vector grunted before brightening up a touch and leering forward over the table, "sumthin' yer'll need fer when Mighty cops 'old of yer'gain".

"Yes, please don't keep reminding me", Knuckles asked in his friendliest voice that still allowed a half-decent measure of threat in for the ride, "I'll cross that hurdle when I come to it, unpleasant as it may be when that time comes. Hey, no green tea?"

What?; even by Knuckles' standards that had been a pretty random comment; it was only when he heard the characteristic of a chair squeaking back into place under the table that Vector realised the guardian hadn't been addressing him,

"Yes, we have some but", glancing down for a second, Espio's expression fell into a troubled set that made the other two Chaotix swap a glance – admitting to discomfort at all, however pressing the source of it might have been, was a rare thing indeed for the self-styled ninja trainee, "I'm not in the mood for it at the moment".

"Why not? You usually can't get enough of the stuff"; though how is a bit beyond me; even the memory of a pale green liquid washing over her taste-buds like weak dishwater made Rouge grimace; even with sugar that stuff tastes like boiled grass. Wow; only her former professionalism at being able to think one thing and say another with her face and body kept Rouge from giving the game away at her surprise that she was going to get a second sentence out of the reptile sat before her – obviously he was in a talkative mood,

"I'm not sure; I feel, if anything, warmer than I should do; don't bother", he turned to snap lack-lustrely at where Charmy had slipped one hand into the other, ready to pull his glove off, "you won't feel anything through my scales; they're designed to keep heat in after all. Take my word for it, I'm not feeling quite at my best, though admittedly", he conceded with a shrug of his shoulders, "nowhere near as rough as you must have been". The bee nodded vigorously, shuddering at even his fevered, half-delusional memories of the fits of periodic insomnia and virtual catatonia he'd been forced to go through while the virus that had struck him down worked its deadly reproductive methods all over his body,

"Just as well, Vec's back is probably smoother than I was feeling", he admitted before clapping his hands together, his natural cheeriness immediately banishing the bad mood that had blown over the table since Espio had arrived; chugging back the remainder of his drink, the bee clinked his mug back onto the table and stood up, "still, probably be gone by Christmas. Anyway, rest of you shirkers drink up and back to work; just an hour or so more and we'll be done completely".

"Amen to that", Knuckles seconded, likewise coming to his feet, "right, just sort out the smaller bedroom we were working on and then we'll meet you two in the lounge, provided you can keep your hands off each other long enough that is".

"Hey", despite the stifled sniggers around the table Shadow's answering growl was a lot less warning than his flatmate's Look, "it's not my fault she makes me want to throttle her every time she opens her mouth".

"Yeah, and give him credit, he's got better", Julie seemed to back his acceptation up though somehow the black hedgehog couldn't help but wonder that there was a catch coming here, "I only feel the urge to rip his head off in two scenarios now; when he does something and when he says something". Like I didn't see that coming – brace yourself Jules – incoming; unfortunately before he could unleash his latest broadside a thick green knuckle rapped the tabletop sharply and Vector's voice addressed them both sternly,

"Well be that as it may, you two said you'd 'elp us get ready, so 'elp us ya will, got it? Fair's fair after all; we gave you 'and wi'yer decoratin'". The argument broken before she could really get any impetus behind it, Julie shrugged at an opportunity missed,

"I suppose you did, if you count reading a paper and bankrupting our supplies of coffee as help, you did. Still, from what Blackie over there tells me, this Christmas thing everyone on the world below celebrates should be something to look forwards to".

Though her comment sounded decidedly naive to anyone who hadn't lived on Angel Island all their life, the mood around the Chaotix's table was a good deal more forgiving for the simple reason that, up until now, Julie-Su had never a real Christmas. She, along with the rest of the population of Echidnopolis, had only relatively recently returned from a hidden limbo created by Knuckles' earliest ancestor, the first guardian Edmund, and his nemesis Dimitri, the original lord of the technocratic Dark Legion and thus were still learning about the world they had emerged into. The lands below, as the citizens of Angel Islands' now flourishing capital city Echidnopolis commonly referred to the other inhabited areas of the planet, were very much a mystery to the entire echidna civilisation and as such knowledge of their customs and religions was not very widespread, though word was spreading slowly. Fortunately Knuckles, due to his various adventures with the rest of his friends, and Julie due mostly to Shadow's influence, were slightly more experienced than most of their fellows, though Shadow had yet to stop smirking every time he mentioned the time in Station Square where his echidna flatmate had pulled up short and outright gawked at the spectacle of seeing a fox with only one tail – up until that point she simply hadn't realised that Miles Prower was the exception, rather than the general rule, in that regard. Still, that really didn't stop her taking to this idea of Christmas, even if she did have to blow a lot of her annual leave on it; glancing sidelong, Shadow completed his thought as he stood up from the table; mind you, I sat through that Eve of Reaffirmation or whatever it was with her, and my taste-buds have yet to regrow from whatever spices were in that stew she cooked up then. Shuddering at the memory of what must have been his mouths' most painful moment, the former ultimate life-form casually slapped his empty cup down on the draining board with everyone else's, stretched up for a minute and then, making a show of muttering under his breath threats that he didn't really mean or feel, grudgingly crossed over the floor to where Julie had already disappeared; come on, it won't be that bad – just get the lounge done and the job is, as they say, a good'un.

XXX

"I gotta say it batgirl", Rouge looked up as her workmate straightened up from where he'd been bent over a half-unpacked box of Christmas decorations, "one 'ell of a system you thought up 'ere".

"A matter of expediency more than anything else", she replied, giving her own smile as she watched Vector casually heft the heavy porcelain Santa Claus up to a vertical base with one hand and unscrew the top of a jar of brightly-wrapped sweets with the other, "last thing I needed was you and my other half working anywhere near each other – I reckon it'd be a bit much to ask for a second resurrection, even at Christmas". The crocodile chuckled, tipping the confectionary into the empty bag of presents that the effigy of Saint Nicolas had slung over one shoulder, filling it full to the brim before answering,

"Well, not only that"; mostly, but not all of it; once more he soothed his vengeance craving with predictions of what would be happening soon, "but I meant the 'ole she-bang; everyone chipped in, got the job done quick like, an' let us all plan what's 'appenin' come the twenty-fifth". Rouge pondered this for a second, one hand at her chin even as her wings let her rise off the floor for a moment, part of her mind occupied with his query at the same time the rest of it focussed on hanging a sprig of mistletoe above the hallway door,

"Hmm, well yes, I came up with the decorating bit, and I have to admit that was mostly for your benefit", try as she might the bat couldn't quite keep all the abashment off her face as she admitted that truth, though she was sure Vector was broadminded enough to let her rationalise it, "after all, compared to you guys the rest of us have got, what? One remote log cabin and a one-bedroom flat – hardly rocket science to get any of that spruced up, not compared to this place anyway, especially with Mighty gone AWOL". Vector held up a hand, shaking his head at the bat's assumption with a grin on his long, scaled jaws,

"Ah, ah, got it wrong there Red"; why did I teach him a little French, why?; once more Rouge found herself mentally kicking her own tail as she was subjected to hearing the English translation of her name – she just hadn't understood how well learning a different language was going to catch on, with Vector especially; and because of that I end up with a name that makes me sound like a lumberjack hick!; "she's not AWOL, she got permission fer goin', an' even if she 'adn't would you have wanted to say no?"

"Not unless I had a loudhailer and a good head start", the bat admitted before shaking her head and coming back down to earth, alighting on the carpet once more with a dainty tap, "but anyway, apart from that most of this was Lara's idea, and a good one it was too", for a second she glanced down, tone slightly more contrite as even after countless hours of rationalising her mother-in-law's perfectly reasonable suggestion for what to do on the big day itself she still felt a little guilty about her own desires, to be with friends rather than her in-laws for at least some of the holiday, "at least this way we can see both of them before the New Year, especially with Lara the way she is now".

Vector said nothing but nodded, a little moral support for the bat now as he realised this was going to be a big thing for both Rouge and the entirety of her husband's new-found family, restored to him when the rest of Angel Island had reappeared from its preservative exile. He, like the rest of the Chaotix, had been present when the guardians had finally tied the knot and he counted that memory as a privilege; however, as with all matters to do with love and the heart, the whole story wasn't quite as simple as that. Knuckles' mother Lara-Le, divorced from the guardian's father Locke after he had been forced to uphold the code of his ancestors and abandon their infant son to the mercies of the part of Angel Island that still existed in the real world, had since re-married and was now just starting the third trimester of her second pregnancy, she and her new husband Wynmacher waiting for the arrival of their new son Knecapeon. Knecapeon, or Kneecaps; even now after the formal dinner that had culminated in the revelation of the name of Knuckle's soon-to-be half-brother and, he remembered with a sniffle he only just managed to stifle in time, Tails' soon-to-be godson, the crocodile couldn't stop smiling at the irony; man Lara's a cruel parent. But she's not a cruel family member so you; he rolled his eyes down as where Rouge was still not quite back to her normal chirpiness; have gotta stop beating yourself up babe.

"Hey", Rouge almost took off again in shock as almost without her realising it one of Vector's thick, olive green fingers had curled up under her chin, gently raising it up until she was looking directly into the pie-tins that counted for his eyes now, the rest of his words a gentle growl as he sought to put the bat more at ease, "no time for that this time o' year. Yer've got it all planned, 'eard Knucks talkin' about it earlier an' I think it's a bitta genius – you both get Christmas dinner wi'the two of them, then ya haul tail over 'ere to get wi'the rest of us when we get the game out. Should be a cracker this year, seven of us playin'", the crocodile shivered in anticipation before a small spark of gentle malice pointed out that, with his fingers where they were, now would be an excellent time to make someone else shiver as well; Rouge never stood a chance as suddenly Vector's hand whipped from under her chin to the top of her head – her knees virtually buckled as his fingertips ghosted over the thin membranes of her ears for a split-second before he mercifully withdrew, grinning maddeningly as she pulled herself back together with a vicious look in his direction,

"The rate you're going you won't make Christmas", she said sourly, though almost immediately she regretted her harsh tone and instead moved forwards, punching as high up the reptile's arm as she could reach in rough affection; after all, he was only trying to cheer me up, and he succeeded; "thanks though. Anyway, speaking of which, are you sure you lot don't want…?"

"Perfectly", the crocodile assured her with a raised hand, realising the question even before she finished it, "believe it or no' we'cun cook pretty good an' after all, it's the first time fer years we've actually invited anyone t'dinner, first time we've been able t'afford it". Rouge chuckled and shook her head before looking around – from the looks of things she and the head of the Chaotix were about done,

"Yeah, Charm mentioned last year for you lot was a budgie-with-a-chest-expander job".

"And he weren't lying", the crocodile assured her, patting his gut with a free hand as, having noticed the same thing Rouge had, he began to bend down and scoop up the plastic bags now empty of decorations, "I coulda swallowed that bird 'ole if I'd felt like it. Still, reckon we're 'bout done 'ere dame, best get upstairs an' see if anyone else needs a few extra hands". Rouge nodded, the reptile leaning to the side as she moved past him, speaking as she did so,

"Suits me, see you up there, take your time though", she wagged a warning finger, a grin on her lips, "I'll need a second to make sure there's at least one piece of furniture between you and Knucklehead at all times". Vector groaned and slapped a meaty palm over his face, dragging it down his long jaw as he glared at the bat evilly,

"'Ow many times Red; I'm not gonna paste your man, temptin' as it might be"; having at last made his point, the team leader of the Chaotix set himself back to his appointed task before the sound of a sudden giggle made him look over his shoulder – Rouge was level with the door that led into the lounge, pointing into it with a shaking finger as she slapped her knee with the other hand, the laughter forcing her almost to curl up,

"An'", she started to gasp only to be defeated with another spasm of mirth; she recaptured her breath before trying again, "and you said you could keep your hands off each other?"

Before her eyes the picture the bat could see remained motionless; probably a good thing she later realised; even at that height Julie letting go could have done some serious damage to her flatmate's health,

"Believe me", turning her head slowly towards the source of the noise and praying that her blush wouldn't be all that visible, Julie answered the bat in a measured tone as, apparently unconcerned, the hedgehog she had hoisted into the air by his waist continued to hang the decorations he'd taken up with him from the ceiling, "if there was another way to do this I'd use it – this is not what I'd call a dignified view by any stretch of the imagination". Her words simply set Rouge off again for a few seconds; only when the ex-spy had regained control did she suck down some air and answer, nodding at where the back of the hedgehog's thighs hung at eye level to her echidna friend,

"Well they're not the worst I've ever seen", she said coyly; bingo; Julie looked down disgustedly so she couldn't be exactly sure but the bat was almost certain she'd seen the corner of a smile on the former Legionnaire's lips; you two remind me far too much of Knucks and I when we started out, though thankfully with fewer M.E. shards, homicidal robots and near-death experiences; "but can't you use a stepladder or something, be a lot easier?" Having finished hanging his last decoration, Shadow glanced down at where Rouge stood waiting for her answer and shrugged,

"Nah, stepladder feet would knacker the carpet up, and I agree with you Jules", the echidna's face fell as rapidly as Shadow would have done had her arms lost their composure as her face had –the black hedgehog agreeing with her was a rare, if pleasant, circumstance indeed, "if there was another way I'd take it. In fact if anything it'd be better if I was as strong as you, that way I'd be doing the lifting". Hello; Rouge's ears twitched – what was her one-time team mate up to this time?; only one way to find out;

"Why's that?" Come on now; Shadow heard his cautious side's pleas for clemency and told it in no uncertain terms to cram them; no physical pain, no verbal gain;

"Well I guess she'd be easier to lift than I am", Rouge saw his smile and winced on his behalf as Julie's expression suddenly clouded over, "they're called love-handles for a reason you know".

Having finally gathered up the bags they'd been using, Vector arrived level with Rouge just as an agonised gargle sounded from the lounge; ducking his head in as the bat cracked up in the background, he saw Julie standing up tall and glaring volcanically at where Shadow was prostrate on the deck, both hands clapped over his tail end, and quickly deduced what must have happened,

"Whoa, nice atomic drop Jules", he winked as she switched her gaze over to him for a second, "now go fer the pin; you wanna three or three-hundred count? Gone!" She exploded towards him a few paces and he raced off up the stairs, Rouge left behind and almost on her knees with laughing so hard; Julie snorted at her friend disdainfully before heading towards her prone flatmate, kicking him softly in the ribs as he tried to get up and cursing him quietly under her breath at the same time as mentally filing away the method he'd used to catch her out, ready to work out a defence for it later.

XXX

With all the extra hands even the house didn't take all that long, though the evening was beginning to draw in and shade the edges of the day as all bar two of the assembled workers finally ran out of work to do and congregated in the lounge. As Vector busied himself with something in the kitchen, Julie looked around from where she'd sat down on one of the armchairs and commented dryly,

"This must be a big thing on the world below then, I just didn't realise how much effort went into it". Knuckles looked over and she met his eye, grateful beyond words that her one-time lust for him, the main driving force behind her abandoning the Dark Legion and its ethos in the first place was now over, dead and buried forever as the other echidna spoke,

"Yeah, came as a shock to me as well first time; don't worry though, gets easier the more you do it. That said", his lilac gaze travelled to the door as it was pushed open, Vector walking inside with a heavy tray on his arms, seven cups, a full teapot and a plate piled high with the remaining mince pies accounting for the weight as the crocodile headed for the lounge's main table.

"Well then, 'ere we go", the tray landed with a thunk and clink of china tapping together, "get stuck in, those pies won't keep so we gotta get'em eaten now". Shadow chuckled,

"Trust me that's not a problem", he flicked his eyes sideways and smiled darkly before finishing, "for some of us at least". You are so dead you don't even know how dead you are; trying hard to think of happy things in the face of such outright provocation, Julie changed the subject quickly even as she swore to get revenge on her impudent flatmate before the day was out,

"Well after the lifting I've been doing I can afford a bit of a snack; all you had to do was stretch up and stick stuff to the roof, how many calories did that burn off Blackie? Not many I'll bet, but", even as Shadow's face hardened at the mention of the name he considered taboo the echidna marched on regardless, "I suppose this makes it all worthwhile".

"Too right", Charmy nodded sagely though his attempted expression of wisdom was undone somewhat by the mice-pie crumbs on his lips as he glanced around the now-transformed living room, "decorations up and sweet pots filled; all we need now is the almighty bang as Vector blows the fuses then we know it's well and truly Christmas".

After sniggering for a second at Charmy's quip, all seven Mobians looked around in appreciation of Julie's earlier words and realised that yes, to a greater or lesser degree she was absolutely correct in what she'd said. The lounge itself was liberally festooned with streamers of brightly-coloured paper and shiny tinsel while other, smaller ornaments adorned the shelves and small tables sprinkled around the room for guests to rest their cups and food on, and the rest of the house was similarly decorated and ready to rock and roll for the festive period. With three teams of six Mobians working together to put all the decorations up and Espio working alone, as much out of personal preference as the reason he gave that, if he was actually ill, he didn't want to pass the germs on to anyone else, it hadn't taken all that long to do and now, as they all supped from the fruits of their labours, all seven friends realised they could relax, cut back for a minute and, in one case, put into motion a plan they'd been working on for ages; with a sudden jolt, Vector snapped his fingers as though struck by a sudden idea,

"Ah, bingo, almos' forgot; cheers for the reminder". Julie looked as bemused as everyone else as the crocodile flashed his pearly whites her way before reaching down – no-one commented much when he unlaced and slipped off one of his shoes, but when he started to peel off the thick sock that lay beneath it there was no way everyone was going to keep quiet about that,

"Umm, Vec", it was actually Espio who broke the silence, hand around his cup of cold juice as he wrinkled his nose at the sight of the undergarment, "what are you doing?"

"'Anging me sock up 'course", the crocodile replied as if it were the most obvious thing in the world, "I know we ain't got a chimney, but this'll make sure Santa drops in an' delivers to us right?" Is he being serious? The thought was shared by almost the collective of the assembled Mobians as they all swapped looks and mutterings, though only after a second of horrified glancing at the limp sock Vector now held in one scaled paw did anyone act on such a thought,

"Vector", Charmy shook his head as he spoke, tone halfway between humour and outright horrification, "take it from me when I say that if there's one thing guaranteed to stop Santa dropping in it's going to be the thought of your sock waiting for him when he get here".

Thank you Charmy – phase one underway; even as he thought his customary two moves ahead the crocodile forced his face to stay politely neutral as he simply defended his point of view,

"Why though, you know he's gotta fill all our stockings wi' presents".

"Yes but that would be very difficult for him to accomplish when he's flat on his back with said stocking trying to eat his face off", the bee exaggerated, pointing at the limp black form in his older friend's hand as though it were a live nuclear device, "I've heard it from my Mighty, that thing is the Hannibal Lector of the underwear world; Santa will die an excruciating death if he get within three-hundred yards of that sock". It was working already, most of the others were already grinning broadly as they watched the war of words; by the time he'd be ready to strike they'd all be helpless,

"But 'ang on, if this is so dangerous", Vector ran his free hand over the toe end of his held sock as though fussing a favoured pet, "why are my feet still in one piece, never nibbled them it hasn't".

"I have no idea", once more in his element Charmy played his audience for laughs expertly, already hearing the rewards of a couple of snickers from somewhere behind him as he and Vec set their friends up for a fall into hysteria, "probably a case of not biting off the foot that feeds you, and besides that your feet are probably the only thing in the world those socks can't digest. And anyway, if not for Santa, think of it for us; how are we supposed to sleep at night knowing that thing's loose in the house?"

"It's alright, I was going to tape it up", Vector defended himself petulantly; Charmy simply slapped a hand over his eyes and dragged it down his face at the crocodile's purposeful stupidity,

"Vector, you could nail that thing to the wall and embalm it in cast iron afterwards and I still wouldn't be feeling safe in any way; that stench can probably melt its way through anything given a bit of time", as there was already a background of laughter from over his shoulder the bee moved in for the killing joke, "and I don't want to come downstairs on the twenty-fifth to see a dropped sack of presents, two black boots and that thing sleeping off its latest meal – I can see the headlines now", he moved his hands up as though framing something, expression star-struck, "'Stocking Fills Itself with Santa; don't you think we've had enough bad press over the years without having feeding the spirit of goodwill to all men and Mobians to a homicidal tube of wool and cotton to add to the scrap-book?"

At those words, his tone of voice and Vector's resultant expression, the dam broke utterly,

"Guys stop, stohohohop!" Almost keeled off her seat Julie had to plea for clemency; somehow the pair of Chaotix working together like this always managed to snap through her normal self-restraint and set her off giggling, "you're gonnahahaha kill us!"

"Nah we ain't", nodding at Charmy, who took the hint and fell quiet, Vector looked around at where everyone else was either laughing or focussing all their effort on trying to stop laughing; stooping down as though about to put his sock back on, the crocodile sidled up behind where his target was almost hugging the arm rest of the settee, trying to control his juddering stomach muscles; moving in for the kill Vector reached out, and grabbing the back of the couch as though staggering, "I'm just 'im I'm gonna kill".

Before anyone else could react to his words Vector had dived over the back of the settee; next second Knuckles was being hoisted upwards, eyes bulging and both hands flying to his neck as the crocodile twisted the ends of the sock he was now using to garrotte the echidna, glorying in the feeling of such sweet, sweet revenge before everyone else could recover and force him to desist,

"Sorry Knucks, well, actually no I'm not", he breathed in the echidna's ear before giving another tug to the fabric in either of his hands, raising his voice as he saw the rest of his friends about ready to come to the ailing guardians' aid, "well, if it'll save Santa later ya better chow down now; that's right baby…", he gave one final heave, jaws splitting into a huge grin as Knuckles was forced onto tip-toes, still able to draw something like a breath despite the crocodiles' dire threats as he crowed his victory,

"…Supper time!"

XXX

As one hand extended the other massaged his throat, a steely glint in the echidnas' eye at odds with the wry smile on his lips as he spoke slowly, voice a little hoarse after his recent strangulation,

"So, that's us even now?" Vector chuckled in kind, reaching forwards gingerly to shake his employer's hand, ready to forgive and forget now he'd had his chance to even the scores somewhat,

"Yeah, we're square", he dropped the handshake and tapped the door that lead down to the cellar open with the same movement, "just you-know-who for ya ta deal wi' now Knucks, an' that won't be 'til next year anyway". The echidna grimaced, looking just past the crocodile to were his wife was saying goodbye to the rest of the Chaotix, Shadow and Julie before joining him on the journey home,

"Just as well, I'll need that long to get ready for it. Ah, you ready?"

"Yep", moving away from where she'd been saying goodbye to her former team-mate Rouge took her coat from where her husband offered it to her and slipped it on in the same movement, "just finished saying see you; you on the early watch tomorrow Vec?" The crocodile nodded, leaning over and holding open the downward staircase door, the steps beyond the threshold leading down into the darkness and the teleporter back to the shrine of the Master Emerald,

"Yeah, I'll b'there", he assured her, nodding as she moved past with Knuckles in tow, "later Knucks, Red". Oh, okay; even in the darkness he was almost sure he saw the bat's wings quiver as she straightened up, a sure sign he'd touched a raw nerve; might be time to put that one to bed for a bit, at least until she calms down over it. Thankfully however she seemed disinclined to let his displeasure register in other, less pleasant methods and merely continued walking after a second's hitch – Vector stayed where he was until the zipping noise below him signified the teleporter charging up and being used, then he quietly let the door swing closed, hearing footsteps coming up behind him,

"So", it was Shadow speaking, "they're still in the dark as it were?" Turning around to see the smaller hedgehog leant against one of the hallway walls, Vector folded his muscular arms and nodded,

"Not a clue 'tween the pair of 'em", he assured, a crafty grin creeping over his face as he tried to picture the surprise the guardians had coming their way come the twenty-fifth, "so, you both okay wi'that; dinner 'ere 'bout seven-ish?"

"Suits us; if nothing else they'll be enough chocolate and biscuits at our place to keep even her quiet for a couple of hours", Shadow quipped, dropping his voice as Vector shook his head; sometimes I reckon you've got a death-wish when it comes to annoying her – if she wanted to she'd break you in half, glue you back together then snap you in twain again; "anyway, we'd best be going; Julie", turning his back on the head of the Chaotix for a second the hedgehog roared down the hallway, "get a move on before the streets freeze and I can't run anywhere. So, see you next week, not long now…"

"Don't", Vector held up a hand as the anticipation and excitement ripped up through him again – despite his usually adult demeanour in terms of both business and pleasure, the crocodile had simply never been able to cram his heart up his sleeve when the subject of Christmas arose and, of course, hearing about it only made the longing for the day to arrive a hundred times worse, "Charmy'll be buzzin' enough as it is, don't need anyone else lettin' me know 'ow close it is". A noir eyebrow rose in quizzically-gentle disbelief before Shadow was distracted by the arrival of his flatmate, Julie brushing her dreadlocks clear from her vision and speaking to the crocodile in the same motion,

"Right, just said 'bye to Charmy, and if Esp gets any rougher", her expression changed a little, folding up in consternation as she tapped her fingers together; man, must be serious; Vector couldn't conceal his surprise at the former Legionnaire's reaction to his team mate's ill-health; those two are usually daggers drawn; "well, just keep an eye out, there's some nasty ones going about through the EST, just bear it in mind. Apart from that, everything's done so Shadow, let's move".

"No, actually I move, you just lie there and let me get on with it…damn", not even his black fur could conceal his blush as Julie's eyes suddenly erupted in embarrassed fury at the same time Vector's very indiscreet laugh hammered home the message he'd just deduced after listening to himself, "I just realised how bad that actually sounded. Don't say a word you – that was in completely the wrong context".

"I, I should 'ope so", Vector managed to gasp back, pushing himself to his feet off his knees, "I promise, not a word to anyone. Well, see ya both on the big day if no' before".

"Looking forwards to it; you move it and keep your mouth shut this time", having speared Shadow with her finger Julie led the way to the front door, holding it open and the ebon hedgehog's caustic glare simultaneously as he walked through it; just before it swung shut Vector had a fleeting glimpse of Shadow sweeping the partially mechanised echidna off her feet and getting ready to run back to their shared flat. The hedgehog was probably gone in the blink of an eye, but just to be on the safe side the crocodile held his breath for the count of five before tottering towards the lounge, breaking down into hysterics as he went; the looks on their faces – twice in as many hours I'd have swapped my soul for a camera!

XXX

As soon as the paper-hat wearing Charmy swung the door open for them and sent a whistle-blower shooting out towards his wife, Knuckles realised they'd been well and truly done,

"You gits", the echidna bellowed down the hallway, a merry peal of laughter the only response his threat evoked from the Mobians he could hear, and smell even at this distance, celebrating very well indeed, a rowdy and ironic cheer his only answer, "why didn't you tell us, I wouldn't have eaten so much at mums otherwise".

"I'd believe that when I'd seen it", the guardian jumped as Rouge poked him in the ribs, smile a mile wide, "you were never one to turn down a full meal Knuckles, least of all when it was your step-dad's turn to cook". The echidna rounded on her, eyebrows up as he stood to the side to let Charmy pass; the bee knew both of them well enough to know they'd be joining everyone else as soon as this little ding-dong was settled with,

"Says you Miss Trifle-Fiend; the Lord helps those who helps themselves you said once – well you weren't half helping yourself to that little dish, I barely got a spoon in. How you're not tipsy is beyond me, it was a sherry trifle after all".

"Hollow legs", the bat assured him, kicking her shoes off as she did so; she then folded her arms as Knuckles smirked, bending at the waist and scrutinising her lower half as reached down to remove his own footwear, offering a comment a second later,

"Very slender and attractive hollow legs at that, and attached to an equally well proportioned top part it must be said". Rouge threw her coat at him, hoping the material would distract him long enough for her to force the gleeful smile off her face; somehow every compliment Knuckles sent her way, casual or otherwise, made heat rise up under her collar, and not in a bad way either,

"Creep; come on we're late"; despite her words she didn't move immediately as she had an inkling of what would happen if she tried to move past her husband in his present mood. Both Mobians remained stationary for a second before without saying a word Knuckles capitulated, leading her towards the kitchen even if his expression never changed until the very instant he placed a hand on the door handle, twisted and let himself in.

The roar of noise that pounded at both of them almost forced Rouge back a pace; plugging her ears with her hands as best she could, the bat staggered forwards a little, hoping the noise would abate slightly by the time she managed to follow in her husband's footsteps and take the seat that had doubtless been laid out for her at the table of those her in-laws employed in the loosest sense of the word. Umm; with her hearing out of commission she had to rely on other senses to inform her of the bigger picture, and from what her nose was telling her it was a picture to set her mouth watering despite the full meal she'd had not three or four hours ago; guess they were right, they really can cook when they've a mind to, even with Mighty missing. Shaking her head slightly to dispel the last of the residual buzzing in her ears, Rouge stepped over the threshold into the warm kitchen, fanning her face at the sudden heat as everyone else assembled waved and voiced their greeting to her and Knuckles, the echidna conscientiously pulling out the seat laid for her as he carefully picked his way through the packed chairs to his place, everyone else tucking in as best they could to ease his passing. Even before she was comfortably seated down the bat found herself having to reflexively duck as a shadow whipped over her head,

"Whoop, sorry dame, nearly lost me feet there", she brushed off Vector's apology without thinking about it, reaching up behind her to help steady one of the dishes he'd carried from the small oven that had obviously been putting in some serious overtime to get everything she could see on the table well prepared, "don' worry, we know yer both probably stuffed fuller'an the turkey, so I carved the portions small for yer".

"Thanks", Knuckles called over after casually wrapping an arm around Julie's shoulders as an informal, affectionate hello; despite her one-time infatuation with him, he both knew that such feelings in her were well and truly buried and as respected her enough as an ally and friend to know she wouldn't misread deeper meanings than he was putting into his gestures. Indeed, she simply responded by running her hand down his closest dreadlock before tucking her knife and fork up together and twisting them to three o'clock on her plate,

"And what you didn't carve up for them, put it there"; I know you're not going to keep your mouth shut, but that just tasted so good; Shadow was forever lampooning her dieting and fitness regime, usually due to the fact he was built so annoyingly lightly he'd never even needed to consider going through either of them and now, asking for seconds as she was, she knew wasn't going to able to resist taking a pot-shot at her breeching her weekly calorie count, "what d'you call that bird again?" To her amazement though, despite the black hedgehog sending an amused smile her way, the next voice she heard was not his mocking her losing her way in her diet,

"Turkey", Vector answered with his back to her, the electric knife in his hand whirring softly as he cleanly sliced new wafers of meat from the breast of the roasted bird, the other hand ready with the gravy, "tastes okay long as it don't cook itself dry; want gravy Knucks?"

"Yeah, just a splash", the echidna answered casually, turning his head at the tap on his shoulder and as a result nearly inhaling the cracker that was thrust towards his face, "oh, I get you". One hand on the end of the minor explosive, Charmy grinned,

"First time for everything, it usually goes sailing over your head. Come on, give us a pull – ah no chance", backing up violently the bee only just managed to avoid stinging Shadow's thigh by accident, the guardian's sudden movement towards his vulnerable knee making him simultaneously shoot backwards on his seat and extend his most dangerous weapon reflexively, both his hands whipping down to clamp around the echidna's wrist, "you do and you won't move again 'til New Year, got it?"

"No but I'm sure you'll give it to me eventually"; ouch – boy did I walk into that one; all the bee could do was take it as there was a general whistling from all sides in appreciation of Knuckles' uncharacteristic triumph in a verbal clash with arguably the fastest tongue in the Chaotix. After licking his finger and hissing, the echidna did, however, take hold of the other end of the bee's cracker, his action mirrored by his wife as she accepted a similar gift from Espio's glove-encased hand. There was a second of straining on both sides of the table before with a couple of bangs a split-second apart, the two crackers were sundered.

Once he'd rocked back to his normal sitting position Knuckle looked at his hand eagerly only for his smile to slip a little; well, I was never really lucky like that anyway. With a shrug he placed the now-redundant scrap of material next to his empty table mat, glancing over as Charmy quickly rifled through the long end of the tube to see the goodies he'd received,

"Ah, there we go, my second of the night you know. Anyway, you best put this on, we've all got our already"; suits me; no longer as staid and frightfully proper as he once had been Knuckles gladly accepted the folded up paper hat the bee offered him, smoothing it out and placing it on his own head to complete the collection of kings and queens seated around the table now, though he had to hold in a laugh at the sight of Rouge having her crown on lop-sided – it was simply too small to fit over both her ears, "and you best have this too; after the coffee we all get to read the jokes out, groansome as they might be".

"And they are", Shadow added his half-crest worth, his fingers flipping down a small rectangle of paper held under the end of his spoon, "if a little, how can I put this delicately, mature?"

"Mature", Rouge parroted from her end of the table, a half-embarrassed half mirthful note in her voice as she held up the gift she'd won from pulling her cracker with Espio, "that's one way of putting it; what you reckon Knucks, give this a try tonight?" At the sight of the garment, or what he assumed was a garment, hanging from her littlest finger, her husband simultaneously blushed and chortled,

"Be serious, I've seen cheese-wire thicker than that. You get a wardrobe malfunction with that on it'd split you down the middle, or up the middle as the case may be". Rouge shuddered even as most of the others sniggered, tucking the offending material back up in the end of her cracker,

"Point made and taken on board", she conceded before ducking down a little in her seat, twisting to see Espio square in her vision as the chameleon's larger reptilian counterpart reached over to place her meal before her, "what about you Esp, feeling any better?"

"Not really", he said, shaking his head and trying to burrow deeper into his thick overcoat; despite the overall mildness of the season, especially compared to this time last year, he was still feeling the chill in the air and the unsettled churning in his belly, or to be more accurate just below his belly, wasn't helping him cope with matters, "but it'll blow over soon, don't worry about it".

Glad to hear it; hoping her relief was masked by the general air of merry-making all around her Rouge heard an echo in her mind and now, only after hearing the words from the chameleon's own mouth, did she finally give it full credence; guess you were right Vec – he really does make an effort at Christmas. With that one minor sticking point finally ironed out, the bat turned back to her plate and swiftly picked up knife and fork, conveniently forgetting she'd already probably eaten too much not very long ago in the face of being forced to give up some of the delicious scents now curling up around her nose.

"Sure smells something else", quickly cutting off a chunk of the dry turkey as she couldn't usually stand the taste of stock-based gravy, the bat held it up to her eye before letting her vision focus beyond it, tipping a wink to where Vector was just taking Julie's plate to be restocked, "my compliments to our hosts and in particular our chef".

"My pleasure dame", despite his cool exterior she felt the crocodile virtually beam with self-pride as he walked past to the oven once more, the whisper only just reaching even her ears, "like I said, not often I get'a do this, gotta make it count when I can ain't I?"

XXX

A short while later, with the used crockery on the side to be disposed of later and every jaw and joke exhausted, Charmy realised the stage was set for his big moment and, hopping up into his seat, took the congregation by surprise with a sudden clap,

"Okay, now we've got through the easy bit, time to get your brains back into gear for a bit. As I think you all now know, every year it's my job to buy a game the Chaotix can play over the Christmas table, only this year there's a few more of us than normal. So with that in mind, this year I went a bit off the beaten track…"

"…An' so did we"; time to wrap this up before he gets into his stride; though he could see Charmy's irritated glance, the bee irked by someone taking the spotlight when it was by right his turn to shine, Vector knew he aught to get this into the open now, "nuthin' 'gainst you Charm bu' this year we 'ad to do things a bit differen' too. This year, three days ago in fact, you turned sixteen an' that makes you an adult now…"

"God help us", Espio growled from somewhere inside the overcoat he had around his body, though just this once there was malice in his eyes to back up his cutting humour, the comment was meant as an innocent joke and, taking it as such, Vector smoothly took up where he'd left off,

"…so ta mark the 'ccassion, we 'ad t'go all out. So Charm", reaching down and pulling out the drawer in the kitchen table, Shadow breathing in to let him pull it out far enough to insert one meaty hand in and pull out a last, square package, wrapped in shiny paper, "this is frum me, Esp and Mighty". Offering it over the table, the crocodile blinked away any tears that might have been threatening to well up in his eyes as he felt the bee take the parcel from his hand, Charmy looking similarly struck down by emotion as, maybe for the first time he realised the scale of the threshold he'd just crossed; an adult – man, how long was it since I told myself it'd be years before I finally grew up?;

"'Appy birthday mate".

Silence fell over the table but Charmy hardly noticed, just as he didn't even see even Espio have to turn his face away for a second to wipe one of his eyes on the collar of his jacket or anyone else have to glance away momentarily, overwhelmed almost just as he was by the culmination of this rite of passage. His throat was too tight to force any words through so instead he just placed the package on the table in front of him and with fumbling fingers strove to undo it; it took him longer than it normally would have done but as far as he was concerned the sight of the box hidden by the wrapping more than made up for any of his clumsiness. Eyes widening to the size of manhole covers, the bee simply gasped as he picked up his latest present,

"Wow; this is…", he had to look again, just to double-check, "this is…my first razor?"

"Yeah", Vector muttered after clearing his throat self-consciously; this was Charmy's big moment after all, "should stop ya nickin' Might's tweezers every time y'get a long 'un givin' ya jip". As he'd expected the shock had already worn off as like all insects Charmy was very hard to surprise for very long – he was now busily tearing at one end of the box to actually see his newest toy in the proverbial flesh,

"Too right, ooh this is going to be something else, but", suddenly he paused, looking a little bewildered and thoughtful all at once, "I don't know how to use it, and pointless looking at you pair, bald as snooker balls"; just because it's your birthday I'll let you off; despite his dire thoughts, in his heart of hearts Espio was having to exert more a struggle than normal not to smile at his younger compatriot's infectious humour, "Knuckles, can you…?" The echidna held up a hand, dreadlocks swaying as he shook his head,

"Sorry pal I moult; yeah, true", Julie backed him up nodding as the guardian explained in more detail, "my hair just doesn't get very long, except these of course", he added, brushing his distinctive hairstyle from his face before continuing, "but apart from that for the most part it falls out before it gets too much of a problem. Anything that does get a bit long I just have to tug on usually and it's gone, and she shaves with a blowtorch so sorry Charm, we're no help". As his one-time team mate glared across the table at her husband's discourteous comment Shadow summed things up with pursed lips and stood up, slapping one of his thighs as he made his mind up,

"Well looks like it's up to me then; Charmy", the bee looked over and grabbed his new razor eagerly as the ebon hedgehog pointed upwards in the direction of the stairs, "to the bathroom".

As the last hint of honey-blonde striped abdomen disappeared around the door jamb Rouge leant across to whisper to Espio, their normal animosity suspended for the day,

"Nice plan from the lot of you that was".

"Actually mostly Mightys, and then through expediency", the chameleon smiled as he elaborated, "reckon she must have been getting a bit sick of having to root through Charmy's room every time her eyebrow pluckers went walkabout. But anyway, she suggested it, Vector brought it and I…well, let's just say I'll add the finishing touch". Not sure I like the sound of that; faint alarm bells tinkled in the back of Rouge's mind at that comment, the din growing louder as she beheld the wicked smile on his face, before the Chaotix on the other side of her stood up, apparently struck by an idea,

"Gorra plan guys; while those two're getting' tha' new toy buzzin', let's 'ave a look at what the buzz-boy brought for us to 'ave a go at. If nuthin' else we might get some idea o'the rules 'fore they get back".

"Good idea, you know where it is?" Julie applauded and then questioned the crocodile's question; with a chuckle, Vector tapped the side of his long, pointed jaw,

"Oh yeah – he's a great kid, or actually a great young Mobian I'll 'ave to say frum now on"; boy is this going to take some getting used to; just as it had with Charmy moments earlier, the thought of his youngest team mate growing up and the consequences that was going to have for the team as a whole struck him but he put it on the back burner for now; but we'll thrash out a deal later – besides, worst come to worst he's still Charmy Bee, same as he always was; "but 'e's never been one fer 'avin' creative places to 'ide things. Bear wimme a sec". With that, the crocodile stood up and began a hut around the Chaotix's home, keeping an ear open at all times for any noises he might have been able to hear from upstairs.

XXX

"Okay Charm, first thing's first; have you ever seen a human razor, an electric one that is?"

"Umm", as he sidled into the bathroom behind his impromptu teacher the bee racked his brain for a moment, "I, uh, I think so, but not in any great detail".

"That's fine", Shadow assured him, trying to putt he bee at ease as he remembered how nervous he'd been as, following his release from hospital and amnesia after his tangle with Metal Sonic in Overlord mode, he'd had to relearn this essential young Mobians' grooming from skill from none other than Sonic; and didn't that bring a new meaning to the phrase 'cut-throat shaving'?; "well all you have to remember is that we don't shave like humans do – we'd look a bit weird with bare necks don't you think?" The bee nodded nervously, sliding out the plastic tray that held his new razor and the tools that went with it, marvelling as he saw them all for real for the first time; and I'm going to have to put blades that sharp against my neck?!;

"Yeah, it would be a bit strange. Still, at least we don't have to wax"; ouch; having had this procedure explained to him Shadow winced before continuing his explanation, albeit a little more shakily than before,

"Well yep, there is that because that really would sting. But anyway, these razors are different to human razors – they just trim long hair and leave the shorter stuff where it is. So, plug her in and switch on", extending to cord from the bottom end of the plastic casing Charmy did so, sliding the two-pronged plug into the appropriate socket at the edge of the bathroom mirror and, with just a hint of hesitation, pushed the on switch upwards.

The razor vibrated and, not expecting it, the bee nearly let it drop and jumped out of his skin in the same movement,

"Don't worry, it's meant to do that", Shadow assured him calmly before casting his eyes over the rest of the kit that had come out of the shaving box and plucking something up from the tray, "right, first thing you've got to do when shaving is make sure all the hair you're after stands on end, otherwise the razor can't grip it. So, run a bowl of lukewarm water, not too hot, and add a couple of drops of this", wordlessly Charmy followed the instructions he'd been set and took the small bottle of oil offered to him by the hedgehog, unscrewing and tipping it to let a few pale blue drips fall into the basin as Shadow looked on approvingly,

"Right, no problem; next step, you've gotta wet the razor – I find a cold blade doesn't work as well, so by dipping it in the bowl you'll warm it up a touch. See those two little lumps, on either side of the two tracks there?" Charmy inverted the razor and scanned along the tracks, his eyes taking in the two rows of what looked like very small and fine gears, obviously designed to rotate inwards and drag his unwanted body hair to be cut by the tiny sliver of metal he could see nesting between the pair of gear racks; ah, is that them?;

"You mean these?" He pinched his finger and thumb against two plastic protrusions, one at each end of the razor head itself,

"Yes, that's them, now push them in and pull carefully, that'll take the groomers off; oh, that's what those little gear lines are called", the hedgehog explained as Charmy glanced up quizzically, "and don't drop them. Take it from me those little buggers are a pain to find if you let go and they scatter all over the floor, it's usually a hoover job to rope them all back in". Charmy chuckled but said nothing, instead concentrating on very gently levering the groomer rows off the rest of the razor; by degrees as he pushed on the buttons Shadow had pointed out for him they were coming until, with an audible pop, both rows were pinched between his fingers, leaving the head of the razor bare. Charmy noticed idly that the actual blade of the razor was actually longer than he'd thought as the edges of the groomers hid the end centimetre or so in both directions, though as Shadow spoke again he barely gave his observation a second thought, unable to possibly know how important knowing such a tiny thing could be in the near future,

"Okay, baptise your new blade, get the groomers back on then dunk your face and you're about ready to go", the ebon hedgehog directed with a smile, watching on as Charmy hastily followed his instruction and picking up only a single flaw, "but don't forget to wash your neck as well; you'll have to shave there too or you'll never be able to wear any sort of shirt, the collar will drive you mad if your neck hair's too long".

"Right, thanks", the bee told him hurriedly before closing his mouth as he took some more water in his cupped hands, transferring it up to drench his still-dry neck fur; cor, that is a bit warm – still, as long as it stops me ripping out my windpipe I can't complain too much can I?; "okay, I reckon I'm ready".

"Well in that case, that's about as much as I can help you"; what!; his concern must have shown on his face as Shadow's expression softened, explanation in his voice as he continued, "Sonic told me once that shaving's a personal thing and in a way he was right; it's a different ritual for everyone, you really have to find your own way of doing it so it works for you. I will say this though", once more Charmy paid rapt attention as the hedgehog held up three fingers, ticking them off one by one as he made the relevant points, "don't press the razor actually against your skin or the groomers will pinch it and you'll get cut by the razor's blade itself; don't pull the razor along too fast or it won't have time to shave your fur, you'll just pull it out by the roots and that hurts, and last thing, once you're done just take off the racks again and give the whole thing a wash over, keep it clean that way. Nothing worse than having a razor gummed up with old fur and shaving oil".

"You speaking from experience there?"

"Get out", Shadow glowered gently, rubbing his hand through the bees' antennae with a reluctant smile tingeing his lips; should have seen that coming; "anyway I'll leave you to it – just take your time and you'll be okay, we'll wait for you. Have fun".

Yeah right; somehow Charmy managed to keep smiling as the midnight hedgehog departed – only when the door slammed shut did he let the awkward expression drop from his face as nerves gnawed at him once more. The tool in his hand suddenly felt heavy as a half-brick as the enormity of the task before him loomed up, threatening and ominous as he realised this time he had no-one else to help him. For a second he was tempted to go hurtling back out to Shadow and ask him to repeat what he'd just said because already he'd forgotten it, but such fear lasted only for a second; taking a deep breath, the bee closed his eyes before facing the mirror, opening them to see his reflection staring back at him steely-eyed. Right then you; snapping the groomers back into place and switching the razor on, steadier in his grip now he expected the vibrations, Charmy faced himself in the mirror; let's do this.

XXX

"Go okay?"

"Yeah, he'll be fine", Shadow remarked off-handedly, setting Vector at ease before looking over at the table itself, "what are you lot up to?"

"Trying to make head from tail of this lot", Knuckles replied, sitting back and scratching his head at the plastic figurine in his hand, "'it'll be easier when we've got it unpacked' – famous last words". Following the conversation through his crimson eyes Shadow leant against the doorframe, thin amusement on his face as his flatmate looked up from the book she'd had her nose buried in to reply to the guardian's backhanded insult,

"It's true, it actually doesn't seem all that complicated according to this", she tapped the rulebook she was reading before reaching into the box again, "the red ones are player figures, the other colours aren't – sort them out first and then we can work out what the cards do". Everyone leant in to lend a hand before a sudden yelp from upstairs made them all pause; Shadow simply tilted his head backwards to shout up the stairs,

"Don't pull it, just let it glide over your fur. Don't worry", he raised a hand at where the other two Chaotix were looking at him crookedly, trying to work out if he'd given their youngest member bad advice, "there's no such thing as beginners luck shaving; first time always hurts most". Before anyone else could reply there was another moan from the bathroom and, this time unable to conceal his smirk, the former ultimate life-form leant backwards again,

"And don't push down too hard", he called to his recent pupil before shaking his head, "he'll get it in the end; you only need a few times practise before the novelty wears off and it's just something you have to get on with, a bit a flatmate really". Julie snorted without looking up from the latest paragraph she was reading,

"Well take it from me you don't get any easier over time Shady – you're still a struggle to get on with even now". Think I might have come off worst in that one; despite their frequent disagreements Shadow had to concur with his first thought on this occasion – taking a seat at the table next to Espio, the hedgehog glanced at the cards the reptile was holding before, completely bamboozled by what they might have meant, the hedgehog peered into the box itself and, seeing that everyone else was busy sorting miniatures into red and other colours, took a handful to sort himself, all the while wondering what he'd let himself in for this time – what had Charmy brought for them all to enjoy over the festive period?

They were almost ready to go with all the figurines separated and cards in neatly-shuffled stacks when, from high above, they heard the sound of a door whooshing open and Charmy's voice, exultant with self-pride and new-found sense of respectability,

"Finished".

"Mine", Espio's growl stifled the breaths everyone else had drawn in to congratulate the bee with; without deigning to answer their quizzical looks the chameleon stood up, a slightly pained grimace on his face as such a movement strained his troubled area, and called back up the stairs, "no you haven't. Check the medicine cabinet". The bee didn't answer immediately as everyone else swapped quizzical glances – there was a second's pause before they heard him speak once more,

"All right, thanks Esp". And another plan concludes in success; the chameleon allowed himself a pat on the back for his cleverness before being forced to sit down again, the bubbling cauldron of his stomach threatening to spill over if he remained standing any longer. His auburn eyes were on the congregation as he sat back down; eh could virtually see the unspoken consensus being reached and was actually betting with himself on who would be the one to actually break the silence with the question he knew was coming…

"AhhhhHHHHHOOOOOWWWW! SON of Aaa-ahhh-wweeeeeEEEE, pain, PAI-AI-AINNN!" Despite his training in emotional concealment the chameleon had to almost bite his tongue off to stop himself laughing as the swapped glances of confusion quickly metamorphosed into glances of concern and outright fear at the bee's sudden screaming,

"Whaddya do to 'im?!" Hoping you'd ask; even feeling under the weather and with turmoil roiling in his guts, the chameleon could still pull off a perfect foreboding smile as he met Vector's bellow squarely in the face and spoke his sublime, single-word answer,

"After-shave".

XXX

Hours later, or at least what felt like hours later, the last of the stinging sensations had finally left Charmy's face and he was able to concentrate on the game he was now a big part of, though trying not to scratch at the small flecks of paper he'd dotted onto the few nicks his razor had given him was proving to be a struggle as the urge to pick at them was proving maddeningly alluring even when it was his turn. Trying to size up all the options he had now, the bee decided on a quick strategy, checked his character's card one last time and crossed his fingers for luck,

"Okay then, I'll move to here, got just enough to get there", everyone else around the table watched as he tapped his piece another few squares forwards, one other player looking on in particular consternation as Charmy's figure ended up adjacent to his own, "and I'll try to charm a bit of gold out the preachers' pocket; after all, he does suffer from acute gullibility".

"What gullibility?" Oops; even before he started checking off his character's card Knuckles realised it was too late and he'd walked right into it,

"That gullibility", Charmy informed him, everyone else at the table trying, or in some cases not trying, to conceal smirks at the guardian's slip; for his part Knuckles just grabbed his dice and glared at the player next to him,

"Birthday boy or not I'm not letting you have that one. How does a Charm attack work again, is it his Charm against my Wits?" Spurred into action, Vector started flicking through the rulebook he had close at hand, trying to reference the right page off the top of his head,

"Er, bear wimme, yep", he tapped the page he was on, "got it in one Knucks; okay, roll fer it".

"And I'm at plus-two; gotta love that rogue's silver tongue", Charmy informed all watching happily, though the expression faded away as both his and Knuckles' dice stopped spinning on the board, "which gives me a five overall, that could've gone better. But I win by one though…"

"No", Knuckles headed him off triumphantly, stabbing at part of his character card with a triumphant finger, "the Priest gets plus-one to resist all Charm attacks, either from monsters or other players, so that means we're even and I assume nothing happens?"

"An' yer right", Vector assured him after a second consultation with the rules, "anyway even if ya hadda lost Charm woulda 'ad ta beat ya by two ta get anythin'. So", disregarding the bee's disappointment, the crocodile nodded to the crested echidna at the table, "your go Knucks".

"Right, well tempting as it is to leather the little toe-rag in front of me", he favoured Charmy with a dirty glance, the bee merely looking away snootily until he desisted and looked back at the game board, "I'm supposed to be a man of the cloth and prone to charity, so I'll just move off. Two dice and I go…eleven", he raised his eyebrows at his high movement score and quickly totted up the routes he could take; don't have much at the minute, that last room I cleared really took it out of me, but still; he glanced down at the door he could reach and the remaining spell cards his character held; it's tempting to go for it even if I'm down a bit. Oh what the hell – if you can't take a few risks at Christmas when can you be a bit reckless? Mind made up, Knuckles reached over and hefted his playing piece by the long, crooked staff that was melded into the plastic,

"So then, one, two, three, 'scuse me Jules", the player on the other side of him raised her eyebrows as his piece hopped over hers, its controller counting out the rest of his movement save one square, coming to rest adjacent to an unopened dungeon door; don't you dare – I want to go in there!; "get to there and then I cast this – ESP".

"What's it do?" Picking up the blue-backed card, the echidna read from it before transferring it to the discard pile for spells,

"'You can use this spell when stood next to any unopened dungeon door. Look at the top Dungeon card in secret; do not show the other players. Place this card face-down on the room you are adjacent to without revealing what it is. Using this spell ends your turn'; basically it's a sneak-peak, so…", finished with the spell, he let the used card drift to rest with its fellow used spells before drawing the top card from the much larger stack of green-backed Dungeon cards. He read for a few seconds before raising his eyebrows and placing the card down on the room he was next to, speaking in a carefully-weighted neutral tone as he did so,

"Interesting"; you left that there as a lure didn't you?; Julie cursed the other echidna even as she scooped up her own dice, trying to plot her next move, "well, that ESP ends my turn so over to you Julie".

"Well I'm a fighter; button it you", catching movement from the corner of her eye she squelched Shadow's smirk with a threatening finger, rolling for her movement in the same motion, "so, yep that's enough; kick the door in, grab your sword and go in swinging".

"Yep, that just about sums you up quite nicely", the black hedgehog agreed with her statement as Julie's playing piece made it through the door Knuckles had been stood next to; though why's he wincing all of…oh, that's why;

"Oh no", as she flipped the card Knuckles had already seen Julie's face dropped at the sight of the coloured reptile snarling up at her, "a dragon!"

As everyone else around the table sucked in breaths of apprehension for the showdown Julie was now involved in there was a snort from the other side of her; Espio sat back with arms folded, nodding at the revealed monster,

"What you on about, dragon? That's Vec first thing in the morning that is".

"Zip it you", the insulted crocodile informed his team mate with a threatening look, plonking the appropriate figurine on the square at the same time as reading off its statistics, "okay, ya busted into its dorm, so it's gonna try bitin' yer 'ead off; ya can't Charm it 'cause it's immune…"

"Not that she could anyway"; wait, wait and…now; "she's a warrior after all, much better at hack and slash than spells and socialism". Keeping his face studiously neutral Shadow nevertheless gloried in his latest triumph at his flatmate's expense as, totally wrong-footed by his change of direction from reality to the fantasy of the game they were all playing, Julie was left with no recourse to snap back at him with. Instead she snatched up her dice again, ready to take her temper out on the big lizard she'd stirred into life as Vector finished running down her options,

"…so looks like it'll be a straight fight. You roll a D6 plus yer Fight ratin'", Julie nodded and internally braced herself – from what she'd seen of the dragon's card it was in a much stronger position, "and it rolls 3D6; Esp, you roll for it. Okay, round one, game on".

As the crocodile brought the edge of his hand down, both fighters tossed their dice into the ring, Julie crossing her fingers more than most; come on, it's got ten Health so I can't actually kill it even if I max my roll but at least I might be able to avoid some damage – oh yes; the sight of six dots on her dice made her feel a lot better, especially with her magical sword helping her out in combats like this,

"Okay, Fight 2 for being a warrior, plus one for my sword and a six; well, I get a nine then". Espio shook his head,

"Twelve; it beat you by three, so that means you lose three Health, drop a Treasure card and exit the room".

"Maybe", Julie corrected him, highlighting one of her other equipment cards, "but this armour means I can ignore two points of damage if I roll a three or more, which I…do, just", she counted her blessings as her solitary die came up with the required number, "so I lose a Health, big deal, I've got eight left, and get booted back into the corridor – ow! Right then scaly", she glared at the dragon that had bested her, "I'll get back to you".

"Not if I get there first you won't", Rouge smirked, holding up one of her spell cards teasingly, "got just the thing for dragons right here. You might need some healing though", the bat mentioned, noticing the battering the echidna's character had been taking recently. After seeing that out of a possible twenty her health was now below half, Julie nodded at her friend's assumption,

"You might be right; oh Knuckles"; I hate it when girls talk like that; the echidna sat next to the former Legionnaire folded his arms as she turned his way, eyelashes fluttering; it usually means they want something; "can't you help me?"

"Why would I want to do that exactly? Healing someone makes me miss my next go". Nothing's ever free; with a huff at the rising prices of everything, Julie slid one of her item cards over to her right,

"I'll trade you this for a full reboot"; after seeing the Spellbook card and reading what it could do, Knuckles' eyes widened,

"Done; stay where you are and I'll get you done next turn; I need some more spells, those bugbears or whatever you call them really took it out of me".

"Shame you don't get spells automatically isn't it Knuckles? You have to find a shrine and pray for them while I get a free one every turn if I don't move – ah the joys of being a sorcerer", Shadow's voice oozed out of the corner he was sat in, thick with smug satisfaction for a second before it became suddenly more brisk, "but anyway, enough of you two double-dealing with each other, it's Esp's turn". The chameleon blinked at the mention of his name before suddenly seeming to remember where he was; it looked like he'd been on the edge of a doze before Shadow had roused him, something his voice and generally sluggishness did nothing but support as one of his fingers quested forwards blindly,

"Urgh, so it is; don't worry my move's quick at least". With that, he reached forwards and knocked his playing piece over, the small plastic assassin character rocking forwards on its face as its owner stood up, dragging his numerous layers of clothing up with him.

He knew what they were going to ask and forestalled them with a raised hand, shaking his head as he was really not in the mood for questions of any sort,

"I can't play any more; sorry but I'm just not feeling up to it at all; Charm, it's a damn good game and I promise I'll play it again when I'm back up to speed, but for now I'm hitting the sack for the night".

"Sure thing"; Espio saying I did something right – it must be my birthday; the bee hid the mirth such a rogue thought sparked off in him before finishing his sentence with complete sincerity, "have a good night, and thanks for the smellies Esp; might strip off a couple of layers of skin like but hey, anything for fashion right?"

"Right", the chameleon answered him before waving around the room and departing for his bed, a comfortable place to rest despite the fact he didn't feel at all tired; he just wanted to get somewhere private to try and work out what was bothering him without having all these other people around, "night all, and Merry Christmas". There was a dull chorus of reverberated benedictions as he shuffled off slowly, one hand on his belly at all times as though his fingers could sink down past his scales, through his muscles and touch on the source of the discomfort itself even as he made it out of the dining room door and began to slowly, painfully alight the stairs that led up to his room.

With a low whistle Rouge watched the usually-myopic lizard depart, her normal antipathy towards him replaced by grudging concern and respect – after all, by his standards remaining so friendly to so many people all night was little short of a complete personality switch.

"Hope he's okay", she glanced across at the two remaining Mobians of the Chaotix, respect lacing her tone as she finished, "you two look after him okay?"

"No problem; he's been worse before and the winter looks to be a mild one this year", Charmy assuaged her concerns before pointing her out again, "anyway he'll be fine until morning; now you better have your go or we'll still be playing by the time he's up again". Rouge chuckled, won over by the bee's ability to find a constant bright side no matter the situation, picked up the dice by her side and, with a gleam in her eyes determined to assuage itself with glee and fun, threw them onto the table.

XXX

"I'll 'and it to ya now Charm", with all the guests finally left, all the food eaten and the fine drink drunk, the bee perked up with mug halfway to his lips as he heard Vector's voice float over from where he was sprawled in his favourite armchair, sharing a nightcap with his friend before they both turned in, "that was a corker you picked up this time 'round".

"Ah, the game don't matter, it's the people playing it you know that", the now-adult bee brushed off the praise with an affable shrug, "shame Tails couldn't stay though, I reckon a technical thing like that'd be right up his alley; maybe we could lend it to them in Station Square sometime?"

"Mebbe", Vector agreed before taking another draft of eggnog, recalling the scene from earlier in the morning; the foxboy had let himself in through their front door and declared that Santa Claus had arrived; though he did have some good stuff in the back of that Tornado of his, gotta hand that to him; "oh, I 'anded all the presents 'e left out before everyone went – hadda get back to Cream no doubt, 'specially today of all days". Charmy sniggered for a minute before trying to stick up for his mammalian friend,

"Don't be rotten – you heard as well as I did he's spending the holiday with his brother and Amy; Cream's away at the grandparents with her mum".

"I know, I's just teasin'. Anyway, drink up", taking his own advice, Vector downed the dregs and then stood up, "we gotta get the clearin' up done, and don't look at me like that", he warded off the bee's horror-struck expression with a stern glance, "same every year or all the grease'll be impossible ta shift come tomorrow". Damn crocodile logic; once more Charmy was left without a logical argument as he mumbled into his now empty cup; just like armadillo logic but it makes more sense. Right, let's get this over with; with a weary nod of his head the insect came groggily to his feet and nodded – without another word, Vector led him into the kitchen, starting to run a bowl of hot water as Charmy, yawning his way into the early hours of Boxing Day morning, started to laboriously gather up the condiments and sweep away any detritus still left at the table.

XXX

No, not a chance; with a bad-tempered growl Espio finally gave up and threw off the covers; not sleeping at all, but I can't go downstairs either. Shuffling around on his bed the chameleon pawed his eyes, about the only bit of him that actually felt tired at all; the rest of him was prickling with heat, restless and buzzing worse than Charmy in a flowerbed; gotta get out of here, it's too hot. And, unusually for a reptile, the bedroom he shared with Vector did seem unfeasibly warm; lurching upright, the chameleon tottered forwards a little before catching his balance and reaching forwards, groping for the door handle, something like a destination finally settling itself in his mind; yeah, make sense with my belly gurgling worse than our old washing machine.

A few minutes later, sat down on the refreshingly cool seat of the toilet he leant forwards, chin on his fist as he felt himself begin to zone out, the same way he did every time he needed to pass stool or water; it was strange now he thought about it. He sat down, stared forwards and that was it, didn't remember anything until he was washing his hands afterwards – normally he didn't give it a second thought but now, he realised as he shifted about uncomfortably on the plastic seat, it was amazing how much you missed a little something like that when it was gone. And I could use it right now; the chameleon closed his eyes as he felt something moving in his nether regions and it didn't feel comfortable in any way – in fact if anything it was akin to a hot, sticky wave of warm moving inexorably slowly forwards and down at the same time; no matter. He thrust the purely physical to the back of his mind, the results of his endless hours of meditation coming to his aid now he had need of them – focussing on his breathing, he closed his eyes and remembered the most basic of lessons in the face of the increasingly uncomfortable heat and cramping; the pain or suffering is in the end meaningless – as long as this process aids me in some way it will be worth it al-arrgh!

Just this once his training failed; the chameleon's eyes shot open, fists bunching so tight he felt his nails in his palms even through his scales as this process evidently climaxed itself; the wave suddenly broke and the heat was without, rather than within him. What, what was that?; reflexively he sent his hands to explore what his eyes could not, he couldn't move them down enough to see what had happened, every thought process in his head area was bent towards deducing the sensations that had just swept through him; never felt that before – what was… At that point, finally, his glove came back to his eye level.

And in the next second, as though galvanised by the sight of the redness on his bare scales, breaking through all the barriers he'd tried to set before it with all the might of his self-imposed ninjistu training, Espio Chameleon remembered, had no choice but to remember, that what he'd just felt was not an isolated incident.

It had happened once before and the power of that dread memory, striking the one flaw in his iron resolve, shattered it completely.

XXX

The system was working well; Vector was washing up and Charmy was keeping the draining board clear from him with the air of kitchen towels and drying up cloths, taking a second out every now and then to yawn and stave off sleep for just a few more minutes. It was slowly eating its way into the mountain of clearing up the two Mobians had set themselves up to tackle, with any luck, the crocodile guessed muggily, they'd be done, washed up and in bed before two o'clock.

However, that was before they heard the strangled screaming, coming from upstairs in a symphony of terrified agony.

One instant there were two Mobians in the kitchen, in the next they were side-by-side up the stairs, adrenaline flooding the sleepiness from their systems as they both homed in on the horrid noises clawing at their eardrums like skeletal fingers. They crested the stairwell with Charmy slightly ahead; pin-pointing the location of the screaming's source the bee hammered on the bathroom door, fear for a friend's sake lending power to his blows and strength to the voice he was sure had completely dried up a second ago,

"Esp!" There was another sob from behind the wood panel; thank God, he's in there; trying to still his pounding heart and inject some calmness into his tone the bee spoke through to his obviously traumatised friend, "Esp, it's all right mate, Vec and I are here", he tentatively tried the handle only to find the door locked from the inside and worse, his attempt to gain entry only resulted in another shriek from the chameleon,

"No, g'way! Go away, leave me alone!" What is this madness?; never before had he heard Espio so outright horrified and in denial of his friends, and certainly never had he seemed so frightened; bereft of other ideas the bee looked desperately to his left for hope, inspiration, anything!

"Vec"; he's the leader, he'll be able to sort it all out; a childish hope maybe but a hope wished with a pure heart nevertheless – Charmy honestly didn't care what it took, he just wanted Espio to stop his petrified, anguished crying and if it took Vector's interference to do such a thing then that would be a price worth paying, "Vec, get over here, wha'do we do?"

No; the smell had stopped his charge at the top of the stairs, Charmy had only carried on because he lacked a crocodile's nose for certain aromas, and one of those aromas was now reaching Vector's nostrils in great, overpowering waves; this isn't real – it's just a bad dream. He was so convinced of this reasoning that he even pinched the flesh of his arm to try and dispel the evil illusion, and not even the pain he felt at such an action convinced him he was wrong; it was only at Charmy's shout that he regained the use of his body once more,

"Vec, Vec get over here, wha'do we do?" For a second he was rooted to the spot still, unable to comprehend the magnitude of what he was seeing, hearing and scenting all at the same time – that paralysis only broke when he heard the chameleon holed up in the bathroom give another heart-reading lament and he stormed forwards, resolve in his mind and to hell with privacy,

"Out the way"; Charmy was sent sprawling as the crocodile roughly shoved him aside and made ready; as he threw himself to his feet, the bee gabbled frantically,

"What are you doing?"

"Kicking the door in"; what?!;

"Are you…?" Vector's eyes darted sideways for a split-second, no more than that and the bee fell completely silent, not daring to distract him any more – just the merest glimpse of those eyes had answered his unspoken query and convinced him that yes, in Vector's opinion what he was about to do next was absolutely necessary in delivering Espio from whatever was torturing him so cruelly.

XXX

The lock wouldn't hold, it never did; it was powerless, a useless thing against the force being levered against it again and again, unmerciful blows breaking down the pitiful defence, the only one that was ever in the way of such violent anger. Once more through the shattered windows of a broken spirit the chameleon watched on, aware of fingers scrabbling and feet kicking, the body a ruined, polluted soul inhabited trying to make itself as small as possible in the belief that if it did nothing would ever happen to it, there would always be protected and safe, a belief the now-separated mind had long ago discounted as untrue. Seeing but unseeing at the same time, unable even to cry any longer as at last the strength of the kicks made the lock ping and the door flew open, Espio looked up almost as though bored at the face of a monster.

XXX

The lock went, the bathroom door flew open and even before Vector had lowered his foot Charmy was in; he took in all he could of a scene, confused purple, white and red, ruby red all over the white floor…his chest hitched uncontrollably at the sight of the blood; clapping his hands over his mouth he turned around, almost falling forwards into the crocodile behind him as Vector too saw the grisly sight before him and was similarly struck dumb, the smell of the chameleon's vitae heavy in his nose as he swallowed, throat too thick to even speak through. He felt movement in his arms and loosened his grip without meaning to, allowing the insect he held to turn around, take a second look at the scene that had burned its way into his memory forever.

There was blood all over the floor and from where he couldn't tell; in fact at first he barely noticed it – all his attention was on Espio, the way he was huddled in a tight ball between the side of the toilet and the wall, legs and tail curled up protectively, face buried in his knees, unable or unwilling to confront those who had invaded his private sanctum. Even as the kaleidoscope of images forced their way into his mind and he tried to make sense of them his eyes, ever alert and watchful, saw first the tip, then the shaft and then finally the whole of the chameleon's horn emerge from the foetal ball he'd buried it in, the eyes underneath the sharpened natural spike all at once terrified, vulnerable and, even as he watched on, beginning to close out the world again, bury such a weakness beneath the mask everyone understood as being Espio Chameleon.

XXX

Spilt in two, the memory and the reality, Espio was a helpless passenger in the nightmare; any moment now he'd hear the speech, the herald of the coming wrathful storm, then it would end but always come back, it never truly ended. Cowering in a tiny niche, praying to a God that had surely turned his face away a long time ago, the chameleon whispered fractured prayers for help and deliverance, prayers that were never answered no matter how reverent the belief in them. Please let it end; the same plea every time – waiting for the worst was almost as terrible as being subjected to it; please, just make it go away, even just hurry up and then let me go. But still nothing happened and the wait was intolerable; with wet, streaming eyes Espio had no choice but to slowly, increment by increment, raise her gaze and see what punishment awaited this time.

Two?; doubt, for the first time a doubt rose in the solidarity of her nightmare; there was always only one, never more than that. And I know them; to teary vision the Mobians at the door were blobs of green and black/blonde but that didn't matter, nothing else did except the names that bubbled upwards, disturbed by the shift in thinking; I know these Mobians, they're called Vector, and there's Charmy as well, he's a bee – they're my friends – they're not going to hurt me. It was the rallying cry, the beginning of the fight back, what all the training had been for and now, now as the chameleon gritted teeth and exerted every muscle, sinew and ounce of mental strength, it was a fight back where retreat was not an option and surrender could not even be considered; they have seen too much already because of my weakness; the shameful revelation was a spur, a driving force to crush this serpent forever; and because of that all I can do is limit the damage now. Control it, master yourself; the chameleon repeated mantras that were inscribed in both heart and memory, all focussing on one single, vital goal; control!

XXX

He could almost see it happening; even as Vector watched on with his arms still around Charmy's shoulders, something seemed to radiate downwards from the tip of the chameleon's horn, soothing out the terror etched on Espio's face and body both, smoothing it out and replacing it with another force – colder, more concentrated than mere fear, it drove back the nightmare and replaced it with something else, something equally as powerful, and, as far as Vector could work out, equally as dangerous as far as he and Charmy were concerned.

Espio's eyes snapped open suddenly and he fell back several steps, almost dragging Charmy with him and still mute, unable to utter a sound. Silence fell in the bathroom, nothing moving or making a noise as slowly and deliberately the chameleon pulled himself to his feet, the toilet on one side and the bath on the other acting as his supports as her slowly stood erect again, gazing squarely at the mess on his legs and all around him before settling his determined stare on the Mobians who had invaded his sanctity, the auburn hues of his irises as focused as a laser beam,

"This", the word was growled harshly, almost spat out like a mouthful of poison as the chameleon indicated the wretched state of the bathroom, the gore congealing on the white lino and the condiments near the toilet scattered around the floor like leaves in autumn, "changes nothing. I am having a shower, then I am going to bed after I have cleared this up. We will discuss this later, do you understand?"

A hundred questions jumped into Vector's mind all together and he couldn't pick out a single one to ask, lips still clamped together as though snared as the chameleon, taking great care not to sully the soles of his boots with the blood on the floor, picked his way across the bathroom floor and then quickly slammed the door shut in the faces of his friends.

XXX

For how long after that he stood there staring at the blank wall of wood, even when he heard the shower start to hum and run down a rain of warm water, Vector would never know; somehow though he ended up downstairs, sat at the kitchen table with all thoughts of such mundane things such as washing up long gone from his head, as was the blissful amnesia sleep might have offered him – how could he sleep now? His mind was on fire with what had just happened; as though someone had turned a new page in the banks of his memory and begun writing again, he couldn't remember anything about what had happened earlier on in the night, not even the name of the game he and all his friends had finished not an hour or so ago. All he could see now, and how he wished more than anything else in the world that he could somehow unsee such an evil vision, was Espio in the bathroom with blood splashed everywhere, watered down with other fluids but still just red, red blood; how had this come about? What had gone on in that bathroom between him and Charmy hearing their team mate scream and actually seeing him? And, most urgently of all, what were they both supposed to do now, now they knew the one thing he could concretely say about…?

"Vec?"

It was a ghostly whisper; Charmy glanced up as though as afraid the crocodile would snap at his words but Vector knew he wouldn't – he was just too shocked to pick fights with anyone now. Blinking and turning his head towards the bee as an answer, he gave the youngest member of the Chaotix enough courage to finish the question he wanted to ask, even if he was as disbelieving of the answer as Charmy was himself,

"Vec", the bee said again, tears glistening in his eyes before he finally dredged up the courage he needed to say the next few, fatal words,

"Esp's a girl, isn't he?"

"Yeah", the crocodile breathed back dumbly; how such a thing could have come to pass was beyond him but he knew, about the only thing he knew, was that there was only one explanation as to the source of the blood on the bathroom floor,

"Yeah, I guess he must be".

A/N: A final time I repeat my warning – from here it just gets darker. To my long-term reviewers, one not so serious question; was the humour at the start good, and a serious question; did you, in any way, shape or form, see that twist coming?