Chapter 18 – The Joys of Living.

A/N: Right, I'm not dead (though I'm betting some of my regulars would do something about that if they knew where I lived), but work is slowing down to a crawl at the minute for the following reason. Basically I'm working in an office using a computer, studying using a computer, talking to my family using a computer so when I finally get a sniff of free-time, the last thing I want to do is sit down in front of another computer screen and re-ignite my eye-strain. Still, this chapter will start to wind this story up I hope; thanks to the following for sticking with me this long:

.Nts – Wow, I like long reviews; they bring up lots of points for me to look at! Firstly, a strong reaction but I think it's justified; as far as he can see Knuckles has found a way of tying up a lot of loose ends and everything else just shuts down around him; it's happened to me before, you have an idea and you have to follow it up, regardless of everything else. Second point, Athair; I like to think of him as a Mobian fire alarm – most of the time when he goes off it's just a pain, but occasionally something really big hits the fan and Spectre's learnt through bitter experience that it's better to be safe than sorry! Last question – where did those Western novels come from (Sheriff Rawshire was mentioned before in one of my other stories – which one was it?)

DJ Striker – Thanks for the longest fic comment, but if this is the longest you've ever read I know you haven't got the full story – you haven't read A Pair of Second Chances. Don't worry I'm continuing; not very fast, but I am continuing.

Right then, on with the fic...

XXX

Compared to what I was readying myself for; as he touched down outside his home and shook himself down after a brief glide, Knuckles drew in a deep breath and exhaled slowly, half-closing his lilac eyes as he felt the tension seep away from his boot soles; that went surprisingly well.

It had been a few hours since the guardian, hit with the mental equivalent of a meteor strike, had been sent hurtling straight through the streets of Echidnopolis to impact with brutal honesty on the shield of pain and disbelief another Mobian friend of his had tried to build around herself and sunder it utterly; he had offered Espio; or Esprana; the guardian consciously blinked to remind himself of the chameleons' name change before snorting, almost disbelieving as the conversation he'd had not two hours played over again in his head; new name, new gender – boy is this ever going to take some getting used to. Either way, regardless of the number of surprises that he had encountered at the Chaotix's abode as he spelt out his decision, he had come before her with a stark choice; either finally give up on her insular, pessimistic personality for good or risk losing something that in truth she had never truly had for sure; the chance of belonging, however indirectly, to a loving family for the first time in her life. As he'd expected she'd made the choice towards the light and he'd watched on silently, almost biting his tongue off in an effort to stop the approval showing on his face, though there were strings attached to his offer, strings that hopefully would keep her on the straight and narrow for long enough that behaving normally; or at least, as normally as any of us are likely to ever act at any rate; would become second-nature to her.

Only when this task was achieved and he was able to relax in solitude in the shrine once Charmy, who had been filled in on what had happened and as a result had flashed to the shrine in a heartbeat and proceeded to embrace the life from the guardian in a gratuitous display of gratitude, had been chidingly shooed back to his home, did the irritating little voice in the back of his mind suddenly decide to crank up the volume and bellow right into his ear that, brilliant though his plan of making Esprana a remembrance to his soon-to-be little brother might have been, he might have wanted to make sure this new state of affairs was clear with his mother before setting his mind at ease completely.

Even now the memory of that realisation made the skin on the back of the guardians' neck crawl; Knuckles would have sworn blind, in fact he'd even have gone so far as to wager the Master Emerald itself that never had the walk from the shrine to his mothers' small property had never seemed quite so long as it had scant hours before; certainly it had never seemed so torturous to the echidnas' guilty, penitent conscience. After all, he had just handed out one of the most important titles a friend of his family could ever to hope to be blessed with to a Mobian neither of Kneecaps' parents knew very well, and completely without their consent. Phantom expectations of both his mother and step-father black-eyed and breathing fire at his tremulous explanations had plagued every step of his penitent pilgrimage, silent screams of rage and disbelief at his outrageous actions sounding in his ears as he bent his head, gritted his teeth and ploughed on; he almost bottled it at the front door, hand quavering as he drew it back to knock but still it fell, each blow sounding like a funeral gong at it echoed throughout the house, summoning the executioners to witness his doom.

Of course; as always with a potential near-death experience, survival painted the scene in a rosy hue for the retelling; it was a stupid way to think – once I had them both sat down and explained a few things it all went like clockwork. That was a bit of an over-simplification in truth, though in essence it was correct; the most hair-raising part of the whole experience had been trying to escape his mothers' crushing grasp as Lara-Le had sprung the second his toe had crossed the front door threshold, torn halfway between crying at her son for making her worry at his running off and hitting him in anger for the same reason – what self-respecting Mobian suddenly upped sticks and left, leaving his friends, his family and worst of all his mother in the lurch? Once he'd managed to pry the pregnant echidna off of him and calm her similarly flustered husband down as well, Knuckles had managed to explain the situation to the pair of them; he'd left nothing out this time, telling them all about what had happened since Christmas and beyond as it was their son his actions would be affecting.

They'd taken the news about as well as he'd expected; though a touch reproachful that the decision had been made without their consent, both Wynmacher and Lara-Le were sensible enough to understand the situation and see why the guardian had acted in the manner he had. Both had given their blessing and, having confirmed where Sonic and Amy had gone and the hedgehog duos' plans for the next few hours, he'd quickly bidden the couple farewell and headed back out into the wilderness to catch up with his wife and help prepare for the evening, though not before Wynmacher had collared him one last time and told him in no uncertain terms that he and his wife expected a progress report on the situation as soon as possible after he received them himself. That was fair enough as far as Knuckles could make out; if nothing else, it would be something for the two of them to talk about in the wee hours of the morning when Kneecaps woke up and started raising hell.

From there it had come to this; the most potentially damaging bridge had been crossed without incident and he was quietly confident that, despite his usually brash exterior, Sonic would know or at least guess enough about him and what he considered to be his business to gloss over the whole thing; and if he can't Amy should be on hand to keep him in line. All that was left to sort out, as he pushed his front door in and stepped inside, pausing enough to give a smile at the frozen form of his wife, stood over the table with a bitter-root in one hand and a peeler in the other, was how Rouge was going to react to the whole thing,

"Hey". He raised a hand half-heartedly in greeting only to lower it suddenly in tandem with its twin in time to catch the leaping figure of the bat, clamping around her back as she hugged herself tight into his shoulder,

"You...", her voice was muffled slightly as she was speaking into his shoulder; yeah, me, for better or worse – oi, that's sore!; he swayed slightly to the side, pushing his ribcage out of range of Rouge's short sucker-punches, "...you clown! I have never been so bloody embarrassed in all my life, and that includes forgetting I could fly that time and had to rely on you to haul my tail out the fire! Where the hell have you been and what the hell possessed you to run off?" Hoping she would equate the grin on his lips with the impact of her punches Knuckles eased himself out of her hold and shrugged,

"They always say it's like mother like daughter – guess that counts for daughters-in-law as well". Unfortunately Rouge didn't seem to see the joke, brandishing her peeler with a warlike expression as her quest for answers would not be dissuaded,

"Don't try to box clever with me Knuckles; what the hell were you up to earlier and before you say anything I know it wasn't to do with the M.E., someone would have let both of us know". Holding up his hands placatingly, the guardian brought himself a little breathing space to prepare his answer,

"Okay, okay, keep your shirt on, well...", one look at her expression killed his idea of trying to use humour to diffuse the tension, "you're right Rouge, nothing to do with the emerald, but something to do with the Chaotix", that got the reaction he was hoping for as the bats' expression changed from fierce to slightly forlorn in an eye-blink, her makeshift weapon hanging loose in her hand as the name itself seemed to depress the atmosphere in the guardians' shared home, "no joking here babe it's to do with Espio, or as you found out, Esprana".

There was a long pause at this, the word seeming to echo around the room like a scream down a dry well until, finally, Rouge managed to retrieve her tongue from where it had been lying limp in the bottom of her jaw and the put it back to its proper use again,

"She, how did you get her to admit...okay", shaking her head as though mosquitoes were buzzing around it the former government operative looked back up at the echidna with a harder, more business-like edge in her manner, steel reinforcing the softness that coated her usual manner, "start at the start Knucks, we'll finish this later on; Spiky and his better half aren't due here until at least five, probably later if they do drop in at Shadows' when he finishes work".

"Going to surprise him are they?" The echidna sniggered for a minute before moving past Rouge and settling down at the table, pulling out a chair for each of them and motioning for the bat to sit down, "Fair enough, that should give us more than enough time and I'm pretty sure even Sonic knows when to keep his mouth shut".

"Are you sure we're talking about the same hedgehog here?" Rouge smirked as she sat down, hands in her lap as the humour sloughed away to leave the atmosphere completely business, "Yeah I know what you mean; alright then, much as I might regret this let's hear it". Without further ado, Knuckles nodded and began to recite virtually the same story he'd told not an hour ago to his mother and step-father.

Rouge listened in total silence as her husband talked and for his part Knuckles told nothing more or less than the truth; he added no, or at the most very few embellishments and kept the reactions to his words as close to reality as he could remember them being. He explained everything that had happened up until he arrived back, that Lara and Wyn were aware of the situation and cautiously optimistic as to his actions and reasoning, coming to an end with the simple statement that, after letting his mother know what was going on, he'd simply come back home with an eye to explain what had gone on to her in person; well, that's the truth – let's see what she does with...oh. He'd been so deeply engrossed in trying to second-guess his wife's' reaction to the news he actually missed it when it occurred; somehow without him realising it the bat was in his lap, both arms snaked around her shoulders in a soft embrace, her voice in his ear almost choking as she realised what he'd done,

"Sometimes Knuckles", she managed to speak before her voice broke slightly and forced her to try again, "just sometimes you can really pull it out the bag. She'll have to change now, she just has to – even if she's got no idea what being a woman's all about the fact there's a kid involved will bring her out her shell".

"Really? I thought being a remembrancer would be..." Knuckles never finished that sentence as Rouge wrestled her way out of his embrace and twisted around to look him dead in the eye, total seriousness ingrained in every line of her face,

"There is nothing tiny or trivial about something like that Knuckles, not for a woman anyway; it's like being a godmother or something right, well that means Esprana is now responsible, in part at least, for Kneecaps", at this Knuckles nodded, though in truth it was something he hadn't really considered – taking the nod as understanding the bat ploughed on relentlessly, "don't you get it, that responsibility, the mother's instinct if you want to call it that, is one of the most important if not the most important drive any woman can have. Didn't you ever wonder why most girls go ga-ga over babies; it's the mother instincts taking over – I'll bet you a crest to a carrot that the first time she sees him Esp-er", stumbling over the unusual name Rouge looked to her husband for help, nodding as he mouthed the word 'Esprana', "Esprana will be all over him like nappy-rash and Espio will be a distant memory".

"And good riddance to bad rubbish", Knuckles snorted as he set the bat back on her feet, coming to a vertical base with a groan as his practised eye swept over the amount of preparation still to be done, "still, let's get all this cleared up and go from there – oh, just out of interest what happened at home after I left?"

"Sonic", the bat stated simply, shrugging her slim shoulders as Knuckles looked over with a quirked eyebrow, "he just took over somehow, started going on about how you and him first started butting heads and it all just went from there. Credit where it's due he's a damn good storyteller, had me almost forgetting you for a minute until Amy pointed out the time; she and Cream, well, Cream mostly, are running on a tight schedule and there's a lot of shopping to do in four or so hours. You're sure he'll..."

"Yes I'm sure"; like a dog with a juicy bone, however, Rouge just couldn't let it go,

"Positive? It wouldn't be the first time you know".

"I know it wouldn't, but I also know that Sonic does have the ability to open his mouth without putting his foot in it; look", Knuckles sighed, hands on his hips as he stared down his partners' disbelieving gaze, hoping to disguise the cogs suddenly turning in his head, "if you're really that sure he'll bring my disappearance up, how about a bet for it?" Rouge sized him up for a long, long minute before slowly nodding her head; okay then darling, let's hear this one;

"Alright then", she nodded slowly, half a smile on her lips as she considered her options – win or lose bets with her husbands were always interesting, "if you really want to trust that reckless rodent I'm not going to stop you hoisting yourself with your own petard. What's the stakes?" Knuckles said nothing but his grin spread to truly evil proportions as he stepped closer to his wife, Rouge bending an ear as he leant in to whisper; as he stepped back afterwards he had to bite his tongue to stop himself from laughing at the shocked expression on her face, the blush on her cheeks just the icing on the cake as far as he was concerned,

"Are you serious?" The echidna nodded,

"Lethally".

"If you lose this happens to you too you know?"

"I know but I trust my friend"; Sonic if you let me down now I will make sure you never hit top speed in your life without wincing again; "so, you in?" It took the bat a minute to weigh up the pros and cons but in the end, her daredevil spirit just about prevailed over her self-preservation and she nodded, a cold ball of dread in her stomach as she gingerly shook the echidna's hand to seal the deal,

"Okay then, it's your funeral; remember", she smiled wickedly as her fingers flexed, "I know all your best spots Knucks, it'll be absolute hell for you when I win".

"Like you'll be any better off", the guardian riposted, scooping up a fistful of green vegetables and dunking them in a nearby bucket of cold water in preparation for a salad, "I might not know where makes you laugh the loudest yet, but it'll be fun finding out".

"Nothing below the ankles?"

"Nothing too much; it's too easy"; that took a weight off the bat's mind, though as she prepared for the rest of the night with her friends, swapping barbs and innuendo with her husband all night along with promises of the torments they'd inflict on each other once Sonic had fulfilled his end of the bet, she could never quite quell the nagging doubt in the back of her mind that just this once she'd made a deal with the devil and was going to get her fingers burnt.

And unfortunately for the bat, from the minute their guests arrived in the manner she'd come to expect from slightly more restrained Sonic ever since he'd finally got his act together and seen Amy's pursuit as a labour of genuine love rather than fan-girlish stalking to the minute they'd finally bidden their hosts goodnight, that feeling of déjà-vu just got heavier and ever-more oppressive in the back of her mind. Not even she, who had waged an all-out war with the blue hedgehog since virtually their first meeting, had anticipated how well both Sonic and, to her even greater surprise Amy as well, were able to understand what constituted acceptable conversation material and what didn't in the guardians' household; even when Knuckles had left to clear up the dishes from the first course of butter-sweet soup (a dish her husband complained long-sufferingly Sonic viewed second only to chilli-dogs in his hierarchy of favourites and would never forgive him if he left it out during every visit; even more depressingly from his point of view, Amy seemed to be showing the first signs of addiction as well) and she genteelly tried to veer the conversation towards a route that would let her wriggle out of the binds Knuckles would otherwise clamp on her, both hedgehogs seemed to second-guess her with a prescience that verged on clairvoyance.

Her discomfort aside however, the hot topic on the lands below at the minute appeared to be, apart from Amy's continuing studies reaping continued dividends and Sonic appearing to climb the ranks of the novel energy company he worked for at a slow but steady rate, that Tails was apparently becoming something of a star in his own right, and not before time as Knuckles pointed out bluntly, indicating all the behind the scenes work the fox had put in tirelessly in their earlier days crusading against the near-unstoppable Robotnik juggernaught. The engine that he'd developed and test-run on the Tornado utilising nanocombustion of scrap metal was apparently catching a fair few more eyes than the foxboy genius had considered despite the fact that at the moment it was still technically a prototype, though with the help of a mysterious new pen-pal partner, work was continuing apace,

"It's quite strange really", Amy commented, topping up her glass and reaching over to refill Rouges', brow creased in thought, "he's always been a member of that magazine he reads, grew up on it from what Sonic tells me, but since he sent in the design blueprints", she shrugged, chuckling slightly as she summoned a suitable metaphor from her imagination, "it's like someone threw a hand grenade into a wasps' nest; they've been up in arms about it with their own theories, ideas and just plain gobbledegook that flies right over my head".

"That serious eh?"

"New field of science apparently", Sonic chipped in, doing his best to stop himself looking too pleased with his little brothers' progress in life; you sure beat me this time Tails – you might have been a bit too young to get the full deal as a hero but you're going to be a damn fine Mobian in your own right without my help; "all sorts of rumours going everywhere; I reckon he'll be in line for a Nobel prize if this carries on and he gets it mass-produced". Knuckles swallowed a larger mouthful of soup than he'd intended at that point, choking for a minute before he could force air out over the liquid coming the other way, though his voice was noticeably more reedy than usual,

"A, awards? Tails could be in line for something like that?" Amy glanced up sharply,

"Of course", she retorted, seemingly affronted that the echidna would doubt her friends' ability, "well, him and his partner of course, whoever that actually is"; seeing the guardians swap confused looks, Sonic took over,

"One guy Tails writes to, they seemed to work together over that Physics Today magazine or whatever it's called; what happened was that when Tails got the engine published first time, someone wrote back with a bit more than the usual 'this is freaking awesome' schtick – his words, not mine – pointing out flaws, improvements, things like that. Tails seems to be taking it on board, made the modifications he suggested and a few others and republished the engine plan. Turns out the other guy's just as competitive as the foxboy; they've got a rivalry of sorts going on now – they take it in turns to publish one design a month, the other guy spends that month shooting holes in the latest effort and tweaking his own design", Sonic considered the scenario and smiled fondly before sending a pointed glance over the table, "remind you of anyone you know?" Unable to hold the blue hedgehog's gaze directly, Knuckles let his dreadlocks sway over his face and rubbed the back of his head subconsciously,

"Well, if it's any consolation it won't happen again".

"Really?" Sonic looked at the guardian for a long, long minute before abruptly breaking eye-contact and chortling, "Shame, I was getting used to having a friendly rival but then, ah then", he sighed deeply and shot Rouge a baleful glare, "you just had to go and get married didn't you – you've just not been the same since then".

"And you mean exactly what by that Spiky?"

"Whatever you want me to mean by that batgirl", he replied lackadaisically, smirking as his unusual reply wrong-footed his long-term sparring partner, "if being with Amy's taught me one thing it's that there's never a right answer, so you'll just have to answer yourself; if one way can leave you angry-slash-upset, I meant the other one. Score". It'll take me a few to get back on level terms after that one; seconds of her being unable to answer had allowed Sonic to deliver that coup-de-grace, Rouge wincing mentally as he held up a finger in triumph and Amy watched on with embarrassment and pride ambivalently warring on her face; ouch!

Oddly enough that same word was echoing in the bat's mind a few hours later as she watched a familiar spiky back disappear into the distance, a pair of feet and a head draped at about waist level as Sonic left with a very slightly tipsy Amy in his arms; as usual, the blue hedgehog had forsaken the sauce in order to avoid the potential for a high-speed accident on the journey to the hotel room they had booked in Echidnopolis. As the duo were lost to sight Rouge closed her eyes and swallowed; her danger sense had let her down this once and, as a pair of thick arms snaked around her waist and she felt warm breath on her cheek, making her shiver slightly, it was time to pay the piper,

"Well, well batgirl", she shuddered again; Knuckles was kissing the back of her neck lightly, something guaranteed to make her go weak at the knees, "what can I say; when you've got friends like mine..."

"Okay Lothario", she'd meant it as a snappy retort but the echidnas' attention to her neck combined with the fact he was basically right drained the venom from the bats' potential counter-punch, "you got me good this time, happy? I advise you to make the most of it", she forced herself to keep a straight face as Knuckles ran his fingers lightly over her stomach, refusing to give in at this early stage, "it's not going to happen very often, if ever again after tonight". She let out a silent breath as the irritation stopped, only to suck the same breath back in as a sharp shock made the world spin around her; before she could regather her bearings she was locked face-to-face with her partner in a loose hug, the expression of faux-shock on his face making her unsure of whether she should sigh or cringe,

"As if it would; it's not often you get it as badly wrong as you did this time", the words might have been conciliatory but the tone was anything but; Knuckles was all but radiating smugness at this point, "now, why don't you go inside and have a nice lie-down", the emphasis on the last two words left her in no doubt as to where she was meant to be laying, "while I go and get a few things; fair's fair as well, you did most of the prep work so I'll clear up in the morning; hope you wait up for me". With that Knuckles let go, still grinning all over his face, and departed with a cheerful wave; the last Rouge heard of him before she trudged slowly back inside made her curse her super-sensitive hearing – knowing her future predicament, the last thing she needed to hear was a recital of household supplies such as dusting-leaves and fluff-grass; least of all when I'm going to be the only thing he'll be working on tonight!

Still, overall the bat couldn't deny a certain feeling of irony as she slipped into the bedroom she shared with her husband and shut the door behind her, eyeing the bed and its four posts with an ever-increasing mixture of trepidation and anticipation; her relationship with Knuckles had begun in this room over what might have been considered a deranged sort of bet that he'd lost on that occasion, surely it was karma that meant this time the boot was on the other foot and it was her turn to be reduced to helpless giggles while unable to do anything to alleviate the torture. At least this time; as always even the darkest of clouds held a silver lining, one that caused the bat to give the first of many, many chuckles she was sure Knuckles would hear from her after he got back; he said I could keep my shoes on. It was something she could only hope he would hold to, but hope was better than nothing she reasoned as she unclipped her jumpsuit and stepped out of it, kicking off her boots as it fell to the floor around her and belly-flopping onto the bed in her socks and underwear. Rolling onto her back she examined the ceiling for a minute after realising she was going to be seeing a lot of it tonight, though possibly a little blurrily though tears of laughter, before she smiled slightly; well, if nothing else it'll be an experience – they said from my notes I was supposed to have the highest mental resilience in my graduating class, one of the things that made me a spy – time to see if I've still got it.

The thought of her old employment gave her a little strength as she stretched on the blankets, lifting her head to get used to the view from the position she was fairly certain her husband was going to make sure she stayed in for the foreseeable future. She sighed again; like most things it was both better and worse than she'd feared, though upon hearing the front door open and swing shut again she sat up and stretched off a little, not wanting to run the risk of cramp during the night of delirious torment she'd signed up to at Knuckles' hands; after all; her oft-ignored and belittled sense of fair play raised its voice to chime in at this point; he never really ruins my fun when I pull one over on him, guess it's only fair I do the same. Despite such noble intentions however, it was all she could do to stop herself curling into a ball as she saw her husband framed in the doorway and, even more alarmingly, the number of soft, feathery things he'd accumulated in such a short space of time; nothing below the ankles Knuckles. God if you're listening...; making a silent plea to any deity that might have been remotely interested, the bat felt her heart start to race a little at the sight of the guardian's shark-like smile; ...let him at least remember that much.

"Sure you're ready for this Rouge?" It was a tease, a line she knew she had no choice but to bite on regardless of the barb she could see it was containing; almost before she realised it she was lying back down on the bed and kicking the covers off completely before fully stretching out all six of her limbs, inviting the punishment like the sucker she must have been at heart. Keeping up appearances however, the bat smiled as though she'd thought the whole thing through to get precisely this result with a confidence she certainly didn't feel, especially not as she saw Knuckles wind something thin and sinuous around his arm and realising that in a few minutes it was going to be wrapped around her own limbs,

"Oh you bet I am", despite her fears, the smile never left her lips as Knuckles moved over to her with what she could now see were a quartet of recently-cut vines in his hands; she kept her gaze straight ahead, almost zoning out as her vision fixed on a single knothole in the ceiling to avoid thinking about what was going on to the rest of her as the echidna went pacing around the bed, occasionally pausing to fiddle with something out of her eyeshot. She almost shivered as she felt something soft brush against the naked skin on her left hand but her iron will dispelled the tremor that ran through her; no matter how much her stomach was churning with nerves and worry, the bat made sure her limbs were straight as rods as Knuckles continued his work methodically, making her feel soft touches on each of her ankles and wrists successively.

Despite herself she had to grudgingly admit that he did a reasonable job for an amateur; if it weren't for a little twinge of pain when he accidently pulled the creeper too tight around her right ankle and the obvious fact that once Knuckles stood up and nodded at his handiwork she found moving her arms and legs impossible she'd never have known she was being restrained at all. Struggle as she might, Rouge realised she wasn't going anywhere and fought down the resultant spike in adrenaline as she realised what that meant by trying to focus on something positive; though he didn't tie my wings down at least – big help that is; the thought gave her some comfort until she reminded herself of her predicament and snorted; what use was being able to fly when you were flat on your back? Knuckles, who had just taken a seat on the edge of the bed, heard the muffled laughter and misinterpreting that as a signal that she was ready and resigned to her fate for the night; good, I've been waiting to get even with you for this almost since the day we got together batgirl; he didn't even bother to mask his thoughts as he looked down at the implements he'd brought back with him before shifting his gaze downwards to the helpless, gorgeous form of his wife, scowling lightly as, mustering the last of her nerves, she stuck her tongue out at him teasingly. He could see, however, she was nervous, as was he if he were honest with himself; this was the first time in his life he'd ever beheld Rouge as anything other than his equal, or even slight superior though he'd deny that fact to the death; the fact she was now by her own consent all but reliant on nothing more than his whims and graces for release and survival both excited and terrified him in equal measure.

Breathing in he realised this was doing neither of them any good; yes he'd wanted to get a little payback on his wife for what he still considered to be a cheap shot since before they'd even been partners never mind married, but them both being scared like this was going to do more harm than good regardless of what he did next. He was still for a moment, hearing the bat breathing heavily by the side of him and closed his eyes; no smart quip, she really is nervous about this whole thing. He had to do something to reassure both of them and there was only one thing that sprang immediately to mind; removing his gloves, he reached over and placed his fingertips in the palm of his wife's closest hand. Her whole body bucked at the unexpected contact as though a static shock had run through her; Knuckles kept his hand where it was, however, the contact, similar to the simple gesture of holding hands that had launched their relationship properly, seemed to earth the tension out of the pair of them. The guardian felt his heart rate steady and his confidence return as a new sensation flooded up his arm; Rouge had closed her fingers around his own and, feeling her squeeze his hand, he suddenly knew everything was going to be all right, regardless of how much hell he put her through before the morning dawned.

The echidna kept his hand where it was for a moment before gently easing it out of his wife's' grip and trailing it lightly down her body, caressing the bats' skin softly and seeing every tremor, every twitch that raced over her flesh as his fingers continued their journey down her arm, across her side, dipping inwards over her stomach and hips before finishing its travels by flying over her thigh, knee and ending halfway down her shin. Savouring the sensation of his wife's lithe form under his hand for a second, Knuckles shook himself down and smiled, half to himself and half to Rouge, before slowly picking out a few of his previously stocked supplies to break the ice with, just enough to nibble at and worry down the bat's defences before he really got serious. Seeing his attention shift from the corner of her eye the bat tried a last-ditch gamble to gain a few more precious seconds' breathing room, conveniently ignoring the fact that it wouldn't help the second Knuckles started teasing her properly,

"Aww, I liked that Knucks", she gave as much of a playful wiggle as she was able to in her circumstances, "could you do it again, pwease?" He glanced back over his shoulder and she thought she'd got away with it, only for the guardian to crush that fledgling hope before it could really get off the ground,

"Oh don't worry batgirl, I will", he held a dusting-leaf up to his eye-level, not bothering to hide his grin as he saw the bat shudder, "though maybe next time I won't just use my hand". I tried the cuteness trick last time and got away with it, just – no chance I'm letting you try the same thing before I'm done. Payback's a nightmare Rouge, and this is coming at you; he locked gazes with his wife for a second and smiled, inwardly cackling like a madman when he saw that despite her outwards composure there was a hint of fear in her beautiful eyes – it was a good fear though, a fear of the known rather than the unexpected he'd seen earlier as now it was all real to her that she wasn't going to be able to stop what he was going to do to her just as he had been similarly helpless the previous year following her trickery and sleight of hand; full bore and with interest!

Rouge could only internally cringe, her eyes tracing every move as the echidna began flicking a blade of fluff-grass just in her eye sight under her nose – she tried to zone out again just as she had when the echidna had first bound her down what seemed like hours but was at most moments ago but such attempts were defeated when the grass bud kept darting in and caressing her skin, minor tickling to throw her off-balance; this is it then – I was always afraid Knuckles would kill me, but I didn't think I'd die laughing! At the sheer absurdity of such a thought occurring to her now of all times some devil of mischief pricked the bat enough to seize hold of her tongue for an instant and get the last word in, sealing her punishment once and for all,

"I beat you at this last time Knuxie", the hypnotic movement of the white-budded grass stem stopped, Rouge looking past it to smile right in her husbands' eye, "I suppose it's only fair I get a handicap in the rematch". Oh did you just ask for it; irked by the reminderKnuckles merely quirked an eyebrow before deciding he couldn't wait any longer; without another word he lowered the strand of grass down to its first major target, the taut skin of Rouge's stomach fluttering as he rotated the soft head of the grass in her navel,

"Oh is that so batgirl", he asked conversationally, watching on in glee as the bat's face scrunched up and her grin stretched ever wider in a bid to quell her laughter as the speed of the rotations increased, the sensation became ever more unbearable, "well then, wouldn't it be just churlish of me to spurn your accommodating nature?"

"Eeee...", the dam was at breaking point with one strand working on her belly; when the second fluff-grass stalk she hadn't seen swiped down her ribcage like someone playing a xylophone it was breached hopelessly, "...hehehehe!"

"You know", his tone was still conversational but there was no denying the grin on Knuckles' lips as he tossed aside one of the pieces of grass he was holding, massaging the bat's soft skin with his fingers to pile the pressure on her already fractured reserves, making the former spy laugh out loud and squirm helplessly the same way he had once before, "that's just what I was thinking; anything else you'd like to add?" He stopped, just enough for Rouge to gasp back enough breath and desire to glare up at him, fire in her eyes, and make a declaration, heedless of the risk,

"Do your worst!"

It was an invitation Knuckles made sure she never got a second chance to make for the rest of the night, through one means or another.

XXX

Waking up in the morning was a surreal experience for someone as usually alert and, if she was honest, downright paranoid as everyone believed her to be.

Sliding back her eyelids, Esprana could have almost sworn she was still asleep; the walls of her bedroom were slowly pulsing towards and away from her in time with her breathing, she was still warm and comfortable despite seeing from the frost on the windowsill that the night had been unusually bitter and cold, but the weirdest thing of all was that regardless of her physical circumstances, her mind was for once as serene and at ease as the scene around her. Flickering her gaze around the room itself to try and put a few more pieces of the puzzle into place, the chameleon sifted through her mind to try and work out why she was feeling this way only for her chest to suddenly contract painfully, squeezing her heart and forcing the breath from her lungs as she remembered the very one-way conversation she'd had with one half of her employer team the previous afternoon.

I never knew; that admission rankled somewhat – the chameleon had always prided herself on having at least some idea of what was going on the minds of everyone she knew and met on a regular basis but Knuckles' declaration earlier had simply torpedoed her right out the water; he was planning that, and Rouge had a hand in it too I suppose – nothing Knuckles does gets done easily without his wife finding out. Strangely, rather than scoffing at the notion of dependence on another as she usually would have done Esprana instead gave a small, slight smile at the mental image of the pair of guardians working together to overcome their problems rather than toiling on alone, though the image did raise the question or exactly how much Rouge knew of her circumstances – how much of what his bloodline had told him had Knuckles shared with the bat? Did she know of the ninjas' previous masochistic tendencies or was she unaware of them, thinking only that Knuckles had decided to nominate her for the position of responsibility for his little brother? Something I'll have to find out later I guess; filing it to the back of her mind the chameleon stretched an arm out over the covers and threw them back, aiming to get out of bed and start the day, though what she was quite going to do with it she wasn't quite sure.

As always the first order of the morning was actually getting up, swiftly followed by getting dressed; though she didn't like to admit it and still preferred to walk around as nature intended her to when it wasn't her time, in cold weather like the chill she was emerging into Esprana wasn't above admitting the fact that clothes did have their advantages in keeping in precious heat. Pulling up her gloves after resolutely refusing to back eye contact with the back of her hands, the chameleon stretched up, yawned and headed downstairs, rubbing her eyes as she opened her bedroom door only to have to stifle a sudden snort of laughter; obvious not everyone was awake just yet if the thunderous snores emanating from the shared bedroom were anything to go by. One thing I didn't miss about moving rooms; though for some strange reason the actual act of vacating the room she had shared with Vector had made her chest ache and force her to fight back sudden tears as she made the trip back and forth between the two bedrooms, there were a few advantages to having the privacy of her own living space again; the fact it feels like I'm not sleeping in the middle of an artillery barrage any more being one of them I guess. I wonder how Charmy's putting up with it. The question occurred to her and, after pondering it while brushing her teeth, she decided to file it away until she caught up with the bee again. Towelling her face down the chameleon stared ahead only to freeze momentarily, staring forwards at a face she knew, but no longer recognised any more.

It looks like me; the idea made her smile slightly, though the expression was slightly forlorn as she did so, moving closer to the bathroom mirror and peering deeper, scrutinising her reflection as her right hand moved up to touch her own face; but why does it feel like it's not any more? Can I really flip around that much, that quickly – I didn't think it was possible, hell up until Vec and the others went all voodoo on me and made that freaky blood-pact thing I didn't want to change. Now this; the chameleon on the mirror sighed, Esprana feeling the same heaviness on her mind as she tried, like she had so many times before, to make sense of it all; I don't recognise me any more, at least not all of me. There's still some of him left; and it was true, old fragments of the mask she had hidden behind for almost half her life still clung to her face, body and personality like a persistent parasite, Espio refusing to completely give up his grip and flake away into the past where she was sure he now belonged; but there won't be much longer – there's someone else involved in this damn mess now so I can't have him messing it up, not any more.

That much at least was true; despite her grudging admittance of Espios' strengths, and there were several of them regardless of his misogynistic outlook on life, in a situation like this she could see her former personality would be violently, hopelessly out of his depth. He'd never cared for anyone other than the Chaotix in his life, and even then if their goals clashed too badly with his, he would have been certain to pick himself every time, so how he would have reacted to a young baby being thrust into his life she didn't want to image. With a shuddering sigh she broke her gaze away from the mirror, shaking herself down as she stepped out of the bathroom and headed for the steps; Espio wouldn't have any idea, but the point is neither do I – not yet, anyway; she just hoped it was something you picked up as you went along as she knew she would be able to learn fast, especially, she realised as her ears picked up a faint droning noise emanating from the kitchen, as she had others to fall back on now,

"Hey", as she poked her head around the door a honey-striped abdomen zipped backwards, Charmy glancing across to the kitchen door before his eyes brightened and he waved at the chameleon with the cereal box he'd liberated from the cupboard,

"Oh, hey Esp, sleep okay?"

"Better than average", was her non-committal reply as she moved from the doorway to the table, flopping down in a seat and casting her eye back towards the younger member of the Chaotix, "you?"

"Heh, out like a light as always", the bee chortled as he flew over, bowl and spoon in one hand and cereal box in the other as he hooked a chair out with his feet, "just as well with the earth-shaker next to me; honestly, what's he got stuffed up those nostrils of his, bazookas?"

"It really wouldn't surprise me", Esprana commented dryly before seeing Charmy start; before she could ask what the matter was he'd set down his condiments and taken to the air again, addressing her from above this time,

"Sorry Esp, rude of me not to ask – you want anything before I sit down, and don't say you'll get it yourself"; heard that one too many times before; the bee held up a hand and his breath simultaneously as he saw the chameleon look to stand up again, letting the latter out slowly as he saw her relax again, "I know what you're capable of but right now I'm up and about, you've just got comfortable and it just makes sense for things to be done that way. You want some of that cereal you always eat?" Shredded cardboard; he added quietly in the back of his mind, inwardly retching at the vile taste of the foul gloop the chameleon seemed to enjoy every morning and holding in a shudder as she nodded her head,

"Yeah, thanks Charmy, I could do with some breakfast", she admitted, settling herself back down with a gentle snort as the bee buzzed away from her, "I've got a morning to kill before I get to work, might as well get some housework done before our resident mess-machine gets his act into gear".

"True enough, though that was a good thing you did last night Esp"; it wasn't that great; the chameleon tried to put an apathetic look on her face but, if you looked hard enough, it wouldn't be impossible to see a glimmer of pride in her face as the bee carried on, "Might's not had any time off for a while now, nice of you to take her shift like that".

"Nice of Tails to take her down", Espio riposted lackadaisically before a small smile slipped over her face, "he only came here to drop off a pack of batteries, ended up leaving with one armadillo and a very-quickly packed travel-bag in tow. Though let's be honest she deserves some time off; I know she's not seen Big at least since Christmas and, let's face it", much as she didn't like to rub her own face in her past conceited selfishness, there was no denying that what she said now was in any way untrue, at least in her own mind, "I certainly owe her a few". Wish it wasn't true like, but there it is; the armadillo, like the others, had stepped in and helped her while she'd been hors de combat so it was only right now that she help return the favour. Taking up an extra shift to make sure that Mighty would have a free weekend with her boyfriend on the world below was not a big deal as far as she could see, it was no skin off her nose, but...her reverie was interrupted by a pair of sudden bangs. Looking up startled, she found herself regarding Charmy's stern visage, the bee folding his arms as he fluttered back to the floor following his delivering breakfast for the two of them,

"Be that as it may Esp good is still good; don't do yourself down", lecture over, the insect let his face brighten as he eagerly grabbed the box of his favourite cereal, gave it a good-luck shake and began tipping a healthy measure into his bowl, "still, apart from that, plans for the morning?" She shrugged,

"Not much – get some housework done before Vec rolls out of bed like I mentioned, maybe watch some TV; anything you know good on?" As she'd expected, the bee smirked at the question,

"Yep, Saturday morning is cartoon morning, even up in this neck of the woods", he grinned happily, still perfectly able to appreciate a half-hour of fantasy entertainment despite his recent maturity into adulthood, "nothing too bad on, though most of the shows up here come in series; miss one and you're left a bit out of the loop so to speak, but it's nothing you'll be too bothered about". Knowing the chameleon didn't watch much in the way of television Charmy wasn't surprised to hear no follow up to his question; what did surprise him, however, was the sudden pressure he felt from the cereal box just before he put it down. Looking across in alarm, his mouth all but fell open as he saw Esprana idly slip the top of the box open and upend it gradually over her own dish, the rustle and tinkle of sugar-imbued flakes rattling loud in the bees' ears as he watched his team mate prepare her breakfast,

"What?" The voice was stern but not altogether unkind – realising he was staring Charmy just about managed to blink himself to the present as Esprana smiled sharkily, "I just felt like a change".

"Uhh..." it was a mark of how out of the bathtub this behaviour was that it took the bee several seconds for his tongue to catch up with his mind, "...I, er, I guess so, but don't make too much of one", he mentioned with a smirk, "if you're not used to it that stuff'll send you bouncing off the walls worse than me after a friendly start-up punt from Vector. Go half-and-half, believe me it'll be too sweet for you otherwise" .

The chameleon seemed to consider this for a minute before nodding, scooping some of the cereal back into the packet with short movements before reaching out again and topping the bowl up with her usual order. Satisfied, she accepted the milk Charmy had finished with and saturated her cereal with it before digging in; the two ate in companionable silence though, as always, Charmy finished first; though Vector was indisputably the dustbin of the four-Mobian team, there was no denying that the bee could always run him close in how quickly he could polish off a meal, if not how much he could actually put away. Pushing his chair back with a happy sigh, the bee rolled to his feet and headed for the sink, quickly rinsing his bowl under the tap and getting ready to make hasty exit to work,

"Well Esp, have a good morning and I'll see you later; let me know if you need a hand to lever him out of bed later". Despite herself the chameleon smirked at the joke,

"I'm sure it'll go fine once he gets going under his own power; anyway", Charmy couldn't quite duck fast enough as the ninjas' hand whipped out and messed up his stylishly-coiffed antenna; damn it, it took me ages to get them to curl that way!; "good luck on your shift, anything out the ordinary, you know where we are".

"As if I could forget", the bee muttered mutinously under his breath as his hands attempted to salvage something even vaguely presentable from the ruins his team mate had left on top of his head; nope, not going to get any better than that. Darkly irritated by Espranas' ill-timed pang of humour, the bee took a gamble and darted in quickly, flicking the side of her horn with a finger before jumping away, smirking in vindication as he saw her eyes track him movements with an irked scowl on her lips,

"Don't look at me like that; as they say in the comics, vengeance is mine"; and more to the point I got away with it without getting my arm ripped off in the process; "have a good morning Esp, see you later on". Still fingering her horn with irritation, the martial artist threw her companion a scathing glance before sighing,

"Get out of here buzz-boy; if I don't see you before the afternoon it'll be too soon". Hearing no malice in her tone the bee merely smirked, amused that he'd gotten under her skin with such ease; with Espio it would have been impossible to tempt such a normal, healthy reaction to a joke to the surface – he'd have buried the so-called 'insult' beneath the surface and taken his vengeance later at a more opportune time. Charmy took his leave, smiling under his hand as he did so and grateful that Esp appeared not to be stewing too much on his quick revenge trip and deducing that he should be pretty safe from reprisals.

That wouldn't stop him checking his pillows and under his bed before he went to sleep though, just in case.

XXX

"You do of course realise", as the slightly hoarse but still richly threatening voice floated across to him Knuckles couldn't help but turn his head away from the hot water he was washing the pans in and smirk back across the living room, "that the payback for last night is going to be legendary, in fact no scratch that, it's going to be Biblical?"

"I'm counting on it", the echidna replied, watching as his wife leant against the doorframe trying to look disproving through slightly bloodshot eyes despite the small, almost inexistent smile that flitted around her lips, "though judging by the state of you I'd say I've got some breathing room before your nefarious little mind swings into gear". The bat snorted, pushing herself off the doorframe to stand upright and glare with her hands on her hips, the dressing gown she'd swung over her body swaying a little until she pulled it down tighter,

"Breathing room; that's more than I got last night Knuxie – I think I almost passed out screaming a couple of times..."

"Oh for, if all spies as whinging as you are how the hell does the government keep any secrets", even with soap suds staining his unloved hands Knuckles managed to look supremely disproving as he shot down Rouge's fledgling complaints, "it was just tickling batgirl, and anyway", even while condescending he managed to look at least partially pleased with himself, "if you did pass out I doubt it was while you were screaming, or at least, screaming with laughter". The bats' cheeked pinkened at the reminder that the previous evening, while mostly a continuous cycle of tortures and mocking words in her ear as she was helpless to block them out, had had occasional peaks of pleasure to even out the pain; even as her face heated up however, at the same time her tongue was sharpened ready to begin clawing back the advantage she'd squealed away over the past few hours,

"Be that as it may you are for the high jump later Knuckles, believe that if you believe nothing else I say", the bat promised viciously, pointing at him with an accusing finger, "and no matter what you say or do to me I am never calling you 'champ' in this lifetime – a promise made under duress is not something I'm being bound to".

At the reminder Knuckles smirked and chuckled a little himself; the idea itself had come completely out of the blue and he could only guess it had occurred to him when he was remembering the craziness Rouge had forced onto him the previous year. It had been a long, slow but ultimately satisfying process to finally grind the bat down until, exhausted and bathed in perspiration, Rouge had finally admitted the truth as he saw it in exchange for the promise of a two-minute break. The memory of her snarling face crumbling into another fit of strained, slightly exhausted laughter as he ran a dusting leaf and a couple of fingers along the back of one of her knees after cavorting around the bedroom wringing his hands in triumph at her admission was one that would remain with him, he was sure, for the rest of his days,

"Oh and why would that be Woogekins? You said it yourself; I am the better martial artist out the two of us, though there's no reason why I couldn't drag you up my level if you're willing to put the effort in". The bat folded her arms, pride pricked painfully at his reminder; why did I even say that – no matter what he did to me there was no way I should have snapped and given him that much of a rod for my back;

"I'd rather drag you down to the level I was at last night, and if it were up to me I'd make sure you never got back up Knuckles; you tickled me for hours, I was never that cruel".

"Hours?" The guardian snorted again; obviously his wife was still delirious and a full nights' sleep hadn't quite solved the problem of her faulty memory, "It was one and a half hours at most, one-fifteen more likely and even then I let you off easy – you got more breaks than I could have even dreamed about". The bats' arms dropped at the same time her mouth did; how dare he make light of her suffering like that?

"You, you...", there wasn't an insult in the world damning enough to impart even a fraction of her ire to her spouse, "...how can you say something like that with a straight face? I was, that was utter hell for most of the night, if I could snatch a breath half the time I was lucky and...", her finger extended towards him, a lethal spear of female indignation as her damning words proclaimed her judgement and found him most unworthy, "...you broke your promise!"

XXX

That made Knuckles smile inside, though he was very careful to keep his face neutral as he relived the memories immediately living up to those moments; though Rouge either didn't remember it or was actively blocking it from her memory to spite him, the echidna was perfectly certain that though he had indeed breached their agreement, he'd done so only after asking for and obtaining her permission for such an act. He and the bat had actually discussed a few things the previous evening both while and after she had been unable to do much but talk back to him, though admittedly he'd had a bit of an advantage in the first section of the negotiations insofar as if Rouge disagreed with something he could and did use a little 'persuasion' to ease her round to his way of thinking. It had been during one of these talking points, while he'd been absent-mindedly swirling a finger around the nearest side of her ribcage just to keep her smiling while he spoke and to put a bit of a giggle into her voice when she tried to reply, that he'd asked if having her feet touched was really that bad for her. Her expression had made him stop tickling for the moment, instead leaning over to kiss her gently on the lips for a minute and apologise; he hadn't meant to startle her like that and he wasn't about to exploit that phobia, only for him to sit back up and glower, rearing both hands back to plunge straight into her vulnerable stomach; there he was taking an active interest in her welfare and all she was doing was laughing at him for it?

Well so be it, he decided; if she wanted to laugh he'd oblige her – only her panicked shout stilled his vengeance just long enough to be heard out. As it was, once they discussed things a little further, the bat had confided in him that it wasn't a phobia, or an irrational hatred, it was just that no-one had really tickled her before and she wasn't sure if she could handle it. Of course, that doubt just existed to be erased and the two of them, as they had ever since their relationship had begun, had tested and pushed their boundaries again; though it had driven her to tears and pleading Rouge was able to tolerate a little tickling on her feet, though Knuckles was always careful never to drive her to a virtual seizure as he had once before – it had almost shattered his mind that he'd done it once before and he would be damned to any kind of hell before he pushed her that hard again. It was all part of the learning process, and after he was finished and gently untied her, the way the bat had sprung into his arms and nearly devoured his face with a ferocious, unbridled kiss was enough to let him know that he'd made a good decision and now knew a way that was guaranteed to drive his wife wild.

"Maybe but, if I remember rightly and I'm sure I do, you gave me the nod to do it, and you didn't mind it all that much".

"Minded it – oh believe me I minded it a lot", the bat shot back before at least some of her ire seemed to drain away and she leant against the doorframe, voice dropping a little as something like a confession was dragged grudgingly from her lips, "what came afterwards, perhaps not so much; but either way", just like that she was back on the front foot, finger thrust forwards with Knuckles reeling slightly, "if you think I'm going to let this go Knuxie, believe me..."

Unfortunately what she expected her husband to believe was taken out of her hands by a sudden, loud crashing from the front door that made both guardians jump. Pausing for a second to ensure Rouge had enough time to retreat into the bedroom, Knuckles moved towards the door and, when he was sure the bedroom door was securely fastened, he pulled the front door open and leapt backwards just in time to avoid having his chest caved in by an inadvertent punch from the one echidna on Angel Island more intimidating than himself,

"Sixth-father", addressed by his title Thunderhawk nodded as he let himself in by moving through the space Knuckles had vacated in his desire to avoid a fist-induced heart attack this early in the morning, "to what do we owe the pleasure?"

"That depends", the older guardian stated gruffly, looking around and immediately drawing a line between the sink of hot water and the soap bubbles on his distant descendants' hands, though mercifully he kept any thoughts of 'woman's' work' away from his lips, "I'm here on behalf of the others, something's come up and Haven and we were wondering if you and Rouge would be able to help us out a little".

"Ah", once more Knuckles' eyes shot the bedroom door, further cementing the ideas in his sixth-fathers head as he tried to come up with a plausible excuse for one of them not being ready, "well I am, unfortunately Rouge hasn't had such a good morning; Sonic and Amy were over last night and I think we all might have overdone the wine a touch". Thunderhawk sighed, shaking his head,

"Such a shame, no tolerance for fine liquor in the young these days", he lamented before seeming to start; before Knuckles could question him though he'd already spoken, "Amy; the child of thorns returned again?"

"Please don't call her that; as far as she's concerned, and the rest of us are too for that matter, she's Amy Rose, always has been and always will be – that whole Dimitri fiasco is buried in the past where it belongs. Besides, I heard Sabre mention it last time I bumped into him in town, the Legion's apparently been a real boon to his profession; the understanding of prosthetic limbs has gone through the roof since they showed back up".

"True, but we're keeping an eye on them just in case", Thunderhawk warned, though he looked somewhat mollified by the guardians' explanation, "still, she's still with that blue hedgehog, Sonic wasn't it?"

"Unfortunately" a voice echoed through the bedroom door, forcing Knuckles to mask a smile while his sixth-father didn't bother trying,

"I take it he doesn't meet with your approval Rouge?"

"Not since last night"; oh no; for a brief second Knuckles was rooted to the spot with the fear that Rouge was going to reveal all about just what Sonic had forced her into last night; I'd never be able to look any of them in the eye again; "it's his fault I'm feeling like hell now".

"Fair enough, but don't blame him for your mistakes batgirl"; phew; the current guardian let out a silent breath of relief as it seemed Thunderhawk had leapt to the wrong conclusion following the bats' intentionally misleading words, "he wasn't pouring the bottle down your neck; you can always say no"; not to me she couldn't though; Knuckles just about managed to wipe the smug look off his face before Thunderhawk turned back to him suddenly and spoke again,

"Still, seeing as she's out the picture, looks like this will be a truly family affair then Knuckles – are you feeling up for a quick game of look-for-the-lunatic?"

It took a few seconds for the guardian to actually process what his ancestor had asked in this case but, when the light bulb did ignite behind his eyes, it was accompanied with a gasp that was equal parts amusement and incredulity,

"He got out again?" Despite himself, Thunderhawk chuckled,

"Oh he went one better than that this time; he left us a note", he exclaimed, withdrawing a thin roll of paper from inside his left glove and handing it over to his sixth-son. Knuckles casually unrolled it and, surreptitiously raising his voice so Rouge could listen in, recited the written words of his at least half-insane great-grandfather,

Dear other-oldies,

Just nipped out for a breath of fresh air; it's too stuffy down here and there's not enough air for us all to share flying space in. If you need anything just call me.

Bee (buzzzz! Hmm, I wonder if I can get my fur to go the same colour as little Charmer's – it'd look so much better than this boring brown) Back Soon

Athair

"Umm, right", Knuckles chose his words carefully, rolling the parchment back up as though the crazy it contained was potentially infectious, "any idea...?"

"None whatsoever", Thunderhawk cut the question off with a weary sigh, "standard clause Spectre insists on; he gets three strikes before we track down and seal off the hole he's been crawling out of, unless he really does something that puts dad on peptic ulcer alert. The last time he managed that we were lucky the EST weren't hauling us over the coals for his indecent exposure in the Silver Sea; it's the closest I've ever seen the quack-boy come to loading up his tranq gun". Going on past history, Knuckles was willing to take a guess at the rest,

"Athair really wanted to stay out then?"

"No, Spectre really wanted to kill him and that was about the only thing we had that would have calmed him down", the purple echidna replied in a perfect deadpan, "how he calmed himself down I don't know but I wouldn't have stopped him, in fact I'd have probably lent him a hand". Struggle as he might to agree outright, some scrap of loyalty to the almost non-existent inner child Knuckles still possessed and that Athair magnified in anyone unfortunate to be in close proximity to him forced him to act as devil's advocate and stick up for the flying member of the Brotherhood,

"He's not been too bad so far though; he came back on his own last time didn't he?" True, though I'm almost certain that's one of the reasons dad wants him back so quickly this time – he must be leading up to something big; scrupulously keeping such worrisome musings off his face, Thunderhawk contented himself with a dismissive shrug,

"That he did, though why we've got no idea. Still", he clapped his hands to bring the attention back to the matter in hand, "as you know what Athair does today will probably be forgotten by this time yesterday as he'd say; don't look at me like that, it's one of his quotes, I've heard him use it; so we'll have to get out there and try to track him down".

"Hang on", a muffled shout from the bedroom brought both echidnas up short, "why don't you just call him; he said that in his letter". Should have known that was coming; Thunderhawk thought wryly to himself as he rolled his eyes and answered,

"He doesn't have a communication disc".

"Then how...in fact, don't answer that", the bat remembered the subject of the conversation and wisely fell silent, though unfortunately she'd already left herself open for arguably the two worst wind-up merchants in the guardian family to have a pop,

"Sixth-son", Thunderhawk's tone was heavy with gravitas even if his face and expression, both mirrored by his descendent apart from the difference in fur colour, belied the implied seriousness, "remind me again why you married that one? We guardians are strong, healthy and dangerous, but it'll be a sad day for our lineage when the next guardian relies on his father for brains".

"Grandfather, how can you ask something like that; believe it or not Rouge does have a brain, and a very astute one at that, she just doesn't exercise it much", Knuckles asked in mock-horror, already smirking as he fancied he could hear Rouge's teeth grinding even through the door between them, " and as for why I married her, I thought that would have been obvious to any man that looked at her", he left a fractional pause, just long enough to let both his audience think he was sticking up for the ex-spy before dropping the final nail in that coffin,

"Great body and fantastic in bed".

A split-second later both echidnas rocketed out of the front door of the guardians' home, their heels being snapped at by all the curses and swear-words only someone with a career in government agencies could muster together, let alone deliver effectively, most of them aimed at the subject of the next guardian and how Rouge would be taking several, mostly painful, steps to jeopardise her husband's ability to expand the Brotherhood of Guardians further. As they ran further into the wilds of the island and began their hunt to return their missing relative to the fold, Knuckles smirked evilly as Thunderhawk, still chortling as the brass neck he'd stuck out in making that declaration, slung an arm around his shoulders and squeezed lightly,

"That's my boy!"

"Yeah", the guardian nodded, some of his wife's words belatedly coming back to haunt him and making him suppress a wince of phantom agony, "though something tells me this is going to be more than a bouquet and box of chocolates job. Any chance of a bed for the night in Haven, just in case?"

XXX

O...kay...; seeing the natural disaster stalking towards him like a tank out of control Charmy managed to slap an indifferent look over the frantic storm that had been whipped up in his mind; ...mouth shut, eyes forward and don't say anything stupid and you should walk out of this alive...maybe;

"Hey Rouge", his tentative greeting was brushed aside, just as he was a few seconds later, scooting over to the side as the bat stomped up the steps to the Master Emerald, hopping up the last step and twisting in the air to take a seat on the greatest treasure known to man or Mobian. Seeing the signs before him and trying to fit the pieces together, Charmy did some rapid mental maths; right, she's upset over something, probably Knuckles as she's sat on the M.E. rather than the steps – it's not a I-wish-you'd-just-drop-dead expression, kind of similar but a bit worse than a you-really-put-your-foot-in-it-this-time-and-I'll-need-some-pampering-before-you're-back-in-my-good-books-again look – hmm, not as bad as it could have been all things considered. Realising that the longer the bat was left to stew in her own juices the more likely he was to get scalded when he was forced to nudge the kettle of her emotional state, the bee decided to cross his fingers and put forth into the water another tentative toe,

"Hey bat-girl", her eyes tracked towards him like a ballista on a gazelle; before the deadly bolt could be shot the bee continued quickly, "what brings you here?" The bat kept her cold, flinty eyes on him long enough to force sweat on the back of his neck and a cheesy grin onto his lips before, finally, a sly smile broke out on her face like a rainbow across a storm cloud,

"Well I was going to say I'd come to have a righteous sulk, but now I'm on a recruitment drive"; okay, I'm afraid – couldn't you just go back to the sulking and leave me out of this?; of course, there was no such luck for the bee as Rouge continued along the single track of her thought with all the determination of a steam-train, "Knuckles has annoyed me for the last time and he's going to pay for it Charm – you are now my assistant in making sure he gets his, understand?"

"There's no...didn't think there was", the expression she'd flashed his way was answer enough for that doomed question, "so, what's on your mind?"

"Not sure yet but believe me it'll be something big", the bat confirmed confidently, a normal smile back on her face as myriad plots and plans to get Knuckles back under her thumb where he belonged flashed through her mind. However her musings were cut short when her newly-appointed minion appeared to get ahead of himself by asking a question,

"Any chance I get to know what he's done?"

"He...", Rouge paused for a minute as she considered the question; in the end she decided to settle on a half-truth as there was no way she wanted the bee to know the whole story of what had occurred the previous night, "...he said something very rude about me in front of Thunderhawk – I think 'fantastic body and great in bed' were his exact words. Of course", she sighed as she saw Charmy fighting desperately to keep a grin off his face at her words, "you can imagine how well that went down with my sixth-father-in-law, he likes a joke as much as I do".

"True, though I have to say that the first part of what he said was actually true", the bee commented, Rouge glaring at the back-handed compliment before Charmy was able to mollify her with the second comment, "though I agree with you, the latter part was a low blow, and coming from me that's saying something".

"Very true; if you were any shorter your hair would smell like feet", the former spy quipped, shrugging off the bees' attempted death-glare before trying to focus both their minds on another topic, "saying that though at least you've actually got hair; how's it going for the lizards you bunk with these days?"

She'd been looking for a distraction and she'd struck gold; as Charmy launched himself into a rhapsodic retelling of how much Esprana had been improving and how they had finally managed to prise Vector out of the kitchen cupboard after he'd taken to virtually living in there following the recent dip in temperatures across Angel Island. Listening with half a mind as the other, more analytical side of her personality sifted through the information the bee was feeding her, Rouge determined the situation was improving, certainly as far as the chameleon was concerned; so now, to see if we can help her take the next step forwards – Wyn's idea was a good one but it might be a leap too far into the dark at the minute for her, I'll have to see if there's a way to get her to open up a touch before either of us suggest it; deciding to wait for the time being, Rouge tuned back in to the one-sided conversation in time to raise an eyebrow at what, she presumed, was the correct time,

"...but when he tried to shift a blanket down there Mighty put her foot down, literally, on top of his; it took hours before he could walk without limping again", the bee told her with a wicked smirk on his lips, "apart from that though, Esp really is coming on in leaps and bounds. Today she even tried some different cereal, doesn't sound like much I know", he explained hastily seeing the sceptical look in the bat's eyes, "but for someone who's spent as long as I've known them eating shredded wood for breakfast it's a real improvement".

So it would appear", Rouge said delicately, determined to see if there was a way she could gently lever this problem into the open without arousing too much suspicion, "but how's it going elsewhere – she's still at that club she'd started right?" Charmy's brow furrowed for a minute before the questioned germinated in his mind and the answer bloomed in his mind,

"Oh that, yeah she's still going, making quite a good go of it from what I heard though she still hates her nose-clip".

"Nose-clip?"

"Yeah, she has to wear it over her horn in case she gouges someone", the bee explained to answer the bat's half-sardonic, half-disbelieving question, "there's a lot of grappling involved in what she does according to her and she doesn't want to cripple someone accidentally by gouging them".

"Makes sense I suppose", Rouge commented, fishing for some more information as half an idea began to coalesce in her mind, "what other training does she do, aside from the odd job we round you all up for?"

The question seemed to stump Charmy somewhat; for the first time since Rouge had entered the shrine the bee sat forwards, elbows on the inside of his knees and a finger on his lips, thinking hard. The bat left him bee for a minute, doing some brain-work of her own and trying to work out how she could use any information he was able to give her to slip in the knowledge of what was coming in about a month's time, aside from the virtually-immanent birth of her half-brother-in-law,

"Umm, not much as far as I can see; she certainly doesn't play with knives as much as she used to, give thanks for small mercies", the bee winced, almost subconsciously rubbing his shoulder as he did so – the scar on it, while small and completely hidden by the bristles that covered his body, would never be removed, "but she still does her stretching, her exercises, dangling from the ceiling and pulling up from there, you know?" Rouge nodded; she did indeed know of the chameleon's unusual exercise sets as she'd walked in on her practice in the shrine itself, both as Espio and Esprana, "Aside from that, just a couple of other things, reading, oh, her pressure-points and all that; I swear one day I'll find something that makes her fall apart like I do when she get my knee; she found her nunchuka again though, fell back in love with them when we were cleaning the attic and it's been dangerous to barge into her room ever since – a large lump of wood to the cranium usually causes offence and a fair amount of pain".

The chuckle that had been on the bee's lips at the last lame quip withered into nothing he looked up at where Rouge was sitting; though nothing had changed per se, Charmy still couldn't for the life of him find any way of putting a positive spin on the almost predatory look she was favouring him with.

XXX

Obviously, as far as she was concerned, last night hadn't been quite such a bust as she'd believed.

It took a special kind of mind to combine her misfortunes with what sounded like a fairly relaxed training schedule as far as Esprana was concerned; whether possessing such a mind was a good or a bad thing Rouge couldn't quite decided, but she hastily shoved that issue onto the back burner as her latest plan began to whirl around in her mind. Her interest had been piqued at Charmy's mention of the pressure points Esprana was trying to deaden and had simply spiralled from there. Almost without realising it the bat found herself grinning – this would be perfect; now all she had to do was package her idea and slap on a label attractive enough for Charmy to avoid passing up. She made rapid progress on that front but before the finishing touches could be applied, the project was interrupted by someone snapping their fingers in close proximity to the front of her face,

"Rouge", his earlier nerves dissipating as the bat started and lost her glazed look at his interruption, Charmy decided to go with humour and, if that didn't work, run like hell and not look back, "you're starting to scare me, more than usual anyway; what's on your mind, assuming it's safe for a minor to know?"

"The only 'minor' you've ever been is an annoyance", the bat snapped with a irked scowl before her expression broke into a graceful smile and she leant forwards on her seat, "but leaving that aside, I just remembered something; you know echidnas don't have holidays like we do on the world below, they base them around the seasons?"

"Oh you mean the spring equinox festival, the, uh, oh what was it, the New-Life celebration, was that it?" That had Rouge blinking for a second before she recomposed herself, masking a hiss of triumph; this was going better than she'd ever dreamt possible, "Yeah it was in Vec's paper, we told Tails about it, said he'd see what he could do to get time off but he wasn't hopeful – I guess lots of echidnas would want holidays then right?"

"It'd make sense", Rouge commented off-handedly, just about keeping the lid on the excitement bubbling away just under the surface of her calm exterior, "so, the Chaotix got any plans for it?"

"Ah, we'll probably scrape something together; if nothing else one of us should attend?" At this moment the faint tingling of danger that had been scraping at the back of Charmy's neck made him turn to Rouge and look the bat dead in the face, "what's got you interested all of a sudden? Surely your other half's not driven you into TGG's arms already?"

That did made Rouge snigger slightly; love the crocodile as she most certainly did, she knew for a fact that have a relationship with him, whatever happened to Knuckles, was something that just was not going to happen; it was like trying to imagine Big hitting on her – a funny image but completely beyond the bounds of possibility, especially as, far as she knew, the huge purple feline was still head-over-heels for the Charmy's team mate. Well, he certainly was if the look on Mighty's face was anything to go by last time we got on the topic between us – then again it was a long time since Christmas – absence makes the heart grow fonder and all that;

"I'd like to say not but the mood I'm in at the minute it'd probably be better if he didn't tempt me..."

"Knuckles or Vector?"

"Neither, and both", Rouge allowed herself to feel an instants' satisfaction at wrong-footing the bee before getting back on track, "but them aside, there's going to be a big street-party and market-like thing for it from what I read. Should be big if nothing else – do you reckon you could get Esp to come out for it?"

This was the crunch of the issue and either way she had a plan ready for it; in some weird way she was actually hoping the bee said no and, as a weary kind of regret flitted over her friends' face it looked like that wish would be granted,

"Well, I'd love to say yes but, I doubt it; don't get me wrong, she's come on so much I barely recognise her these days, but", the bee instinctively defended his absent friend before acting more rationally, "we haven't asked directly, not yet, but I'd put a good bet that she'd say no – it's just too big for her all at once; she not sure how to be around so many people, especially in a place that's probably going to be the equivalent of a city-wide funfair".

"True, very true, but fear not", despite himself Charmy scooted backwards from where he was sat as the bat suddenly sat up straight and brandished a finger straight into the air; in his experience that was a gesture that never boded anything good, "I, the great and wonderful Rouge, have a solution to this particular problem; come forth and heed the words of this great and sage oracle, free of charge I might add".

Oh this is a horrible, horrible mistake; despite his misgivings however, the bee felt his body rebel under the effect of his natural insectile curiosity and, despite his better judgement and with a look of implacable dread on his face, sidled slowly up to where the bat was sitting and, as she beckond him forwards, bent an ear to listen as she lifted up the flap of his flying helmet to whisper softly.

XXX

It was, Rouge thought to herself a second after finishing her explanation and watching as Charmy slowly drew his ear away from her lips, an interesting experience to see the bee's face morph through so many emotions at such a rapid pace that she couldn't catalogue them all in time. Shock, ambivalence and outright denial were in there she was sure, but considering what she'd suggested and how far it was out the standard bathtub it was, she was reasonable confident she could make it appealing enough for the bee to give it a go; well, as long as I choose my words carefully that is;

"No", Charmy was shaking his head slowly though oddly enough his eyes never left her face, "no, no you didn't..."

"Yes", not bothering to hide her smiling she nodded as the same slow speed he was shaking his head, "yes, yes I did..."

"You're mad; you are completely cuckoo, gone fishing, well and truly over the rainbow and following the yellow-brick road", the bee declared; Rouge merely grinned all the wider, smirking in triumph as he brought his hands up to face, squeezing his fists shut around his eyes as the last few words were dragged from him unwillingly, "and if you're crazy and going along with this than that must make me crazy too".

"Yeah, but believe me once you admit to the madness it makes life so much easier", the bat agreed before slipping off the Master Emerald and slipping an arm around his shoulders, "you reckon you'll need a hand with this?" He shook his head, antenna bobbing over his flying goggles as he did so,

"Nah, mad as you've made me I might as well spread it around; more people for Esp to kill if this goes horribly wrong; should just be a Chaotix job, the others should be well in on it".

"Fair one; now I assume I've got your help when I need to get even with that beloved husband of mine?" The bat couldn't help but laugh as the bee suddenly sprang to attention and snapped up a smart salute,

"At your service my lady; just tell me the time and place and I'll be there – rapier or duelling pistol more appropriate for defending your honour?" Rouge shook with laughter again before her hand shot forwards to ruffle his hairstyle up again, just as Esprana had a few hours ago,

"Hopefully that won't be necessary; make you a deal", Charmy nodded to show his interest and the bat continued, "you make sure that between the lot of you Esprana's ready to go for that equinox festival – I think it would be good for her but, like you said, she needs to be used to it rather than thrown right in at the deep end", despite herself the bat found herself laughing somewhat; something she thought she'd had enough of over the past twenty-four hours, "I never thought I'd say it but fun's like a poison for her; she needs to get used to it in small doses before leading up to the big stuff".

"You know batgirl", Charmy said after a minute of mulling it over in his mind, "that's probably the best description of this whole thing I've ever heard".

"But of course; I was and still am the best of the best don't forget", the bat preened herself precociously before making a shooing gesture with her closest hand, "now, vanish for a bit; I'm overdue a sulk and nothing is going to stop me enjoying it now". She made to turn and hop back onto her former seat, only for a hand to snag the back of her jumpsuit and drag her backwards; looking over her shoulder she was greeted by Charmy's straining face as the puffing bee tried to haul her towards the shrine entrance,

"Not on my watch you're not; I'm not having you lower the tone of this place so you'll just have to take that adorable pout of yours elsewhere. Go into town or something; you said Knuckles was with Thunderhawk didn't you?"

"He is", Rouge confirmed before her face darkened and she ground a fist into her palm, "and if he knows what's good for him it'll stay that way for a long time".

"Fair one, but I'm guessing he left early right?" Where are you going with this?; curiosity piqued, the bat nodded slowly,

"Right".

"Early enough to forget a few things? Like his phone", seeing the bat still nod he could see she was a hairs-breadth from figuring it out but, just in case, he decided to give that last little push, "and his wallet...?"

It was a sentence he never finished; before he realised it entirely the shrine was spinning around him as Rouge clasped him to her chest and shook him like a new plushie; aside from the sudden shock and onset of nausea, it was quite a pleasant experience for the young insect. All too soon however he found himself on his feet again, trying to find his balance and keep his breakfast below his oesophagus before Rouge leant down and pecked him lightly on the cheek, the gesture enough to bring all the bee's bodily process save erupting into a furious blush to a grinding halt,

"Thank you, thank you Charm", already visions of what she could do with a couple of hours and a virtually blank check in the streets of Echidnopolis were blurring through Rouge's mind, though truth be told at the top of the list was something for her in-laws; I know they don't like admitting it but money's a bit tighter than they'd like it to be – oh well, what kind of femme fatale would I be if I didn't show a bit of a heart once in a while?; "oh this is going to be sweet; Charm I owe you one for this..."

"Then I'm calling it in now", the bee interrupted her rant with a shooing gesture aimed at the door, "get out of here and leave me in peace for a bit; with that insanity you've just planted in my head I've got some serious thinking to do if I want to do this, and even more if I want to survive what Esp does to me afterwards. Why are you still here?" The sudden question made Rouge jump as the bee addressed her, waving her towards the exit with more vigour this time, "Go, go, vamoose, begone, shoo..."

"Alright I get it, and I'm going to get it", the bat smirked as she headed out of the shrine, hands rubbing together and a sing-song tone in her voice, "here money, money, money – come to momma; don't wait up buzz-boy, Echidnopolis isn't going to know what hit it". Chuckling as the bat left, Charmy returned to his post and commenced thinking, the odd snicker escaping his lips as he recalled Rouge's suggestion and now directed his brainpower to making it a reality.

So engrossed was he in his task that it was lucky, at least indirectly, that he'd sent Rouge away; even distracted, the supersonic hearing of the nocturnal species would have been able to catch out the soft snapping noise that originated from the roof of the shrine, a sound not unlike a small twig breaking, or a small, hard impact of flesh meeting flesh as speed.

A/N: Forgive me, forgive me once more but it's done – ah, I need eyedrops and a long lie-down, too...many...screens...