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Natarra: Thanks! Glad you liked! :D (especially since you had to wait the whole *winter* for this...XD)

SonadowLuver: That is...original, I think. O.o I hope this new chapter eliminates the need for Teddy Bears/ninjas/snowglobes...?^^°

Kit Bikyuu: Hah, clever plan! Unfortunately, my Sonic/ Doctor Who crossover is on my *other* account. ;p But thanks for the review!

Guest: Thanks! Hope you like this one as well!

Moon over Rainbo: Oh dear, you're right! XD Shall have to fix this. Thank you! Damn similar-sounding weekday and echidna names...:p

SonicGirlGamer: I just can't resist the brotherly fluff either. XD JudasFm's fanfic has forever spoilt me. :p Thanks for the comment!

KirbyChan: Believe me, me too. -.- It's amazing how filler creeps up on you. Skyblaze has already trimmed the chapter, btw. Imagine what you'd have to trudge through without her.

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tennrox: Thanks! New chapter for a new smile!^^

Silver Sonic: I aim to please :D

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Azailia Auburn: Woah, long review! Thanks! :p Glad you liked the characterisation of Sonic, I take most of my cues from the way JudasFm wrote him and he's a pretty steadfast pacifist there, the way I like my heroes.^^ Fanart would be absolutely *brilliant*, btw, I love getting those! :D
Thanks for commenting!

A very happy rdr: Please don't, it's so prettily decorated with Christmas lights right now.^^° New chapter here instead? :p

Indigo Rainbow: And a merry (belated) Christmas to you, too! ;)

Anoynmous: Thanks! I do my very best, characterisation is simply practice, practice, practice!

Zoey klinkman: Updated! It just takes a while, usually. ;)

Chapter 52: When A World Lies Dying (War Begins)

"Are you happy now?"

The question was asked in a familiar dry tone, and prompted Sonic to smile at the black hedgehog who had asked it.

"Very," he replied. "Thanks."

"No no no, don't hold back. Anyone else you'd like to visit and improve their life before we go home? Because I 've taken such a fancy to this place I'd simply love to-" Shadow started, but was interrupted when Sonic gave him a playful shove and stuck his tongue out.

"So sorry to have been wasting your time with my saving-people-thing, Master," the blue hedgehog apologized with a sincerity that rivaled that of the Joker asking for Batman's autograph, "Of course," he added, "it's not like without me making friends with Silver we'd be dead at the gallows or anything, or without me busting out Knuckles from the castle the echidnas wouldn't be giving us free food and shelter at the moment, or without me talking to Sa-"

"Point. Taken," Shadow cut him off in a dead-pan, and at the same time wished that the cocksure grin Sonic gave at his exasperation wouldn't also simply make that damned whirlwind hedgehog simply even more attractive.

And he *knows* it, I'm sure.

"C'mon, Shads. You know it feels good to help," Sonic said with a warm expression in his eyes, even if Shadow only gave a non-committal grunt in return. The pair of dimension travellers was on their way back to the campfire where Knuckles and the rest of his family sat, and once again, Sonic's good mood was almost infectious, until-

"And the runaway pet returns. Have been retrieved by your owner, then?" a female voice asked with a bit of a sneer, and Sonic's expression turned into a non-impressed dead-pan at this greeting when they had finally reached the group by the fire. The collared hero came to a halt, both hands sinking onto his hips as blue spikes bristled, though it was still short of real anger.

"You know what?" Sonic asked instead, "Screw you guys. I can do what I want whenever I want and visit any place I chose to, and if that's not freedom, I don't know what is," he said, before adding. "And on top of that, I bet with all your tribe laws in place, that's actually more freedom than you could ever dream to have," he said, directing that last remark squarely at Shade who had stopped sneering now and returned Sonic's last phrase only with a glower. The blue hedgehog seemed to take that as a victory, and, giving a small satisfied grin again, finished with:

"And just in case any of you still think staying with him isn't completely my own decision..." The collared hero flashed another bright grin at them, then swiftly turned around, facing Shadow and putting both his hands on the other's cheeks, right before planting a kiss on surprised tan lips that was just as sweet as the first one they had shared and, despite their audience, not less intimate.

When it had finished, Sonic turned around to the momentarily stunned echidnas again, grinning like a rogue that had stolen the loot. "So I'd love to hear what you'd have to say to that."

The answer, turned out, was just a little bit unexpected when Lara-Su, the first to recover her poise, answered Sonic's grin actually with just a small, cheeky smile of her own and said, "Well, honey-hog, congratulating you on your proposal springs to mind."

Shadow, who had been on wobbly legs ever since Sonic had decided to spring that kiss on him without any warning, chose that moment to simply drop down where he stood with as much grace as he could muster.

xxx

Knuckles the Echidna stood at the edge of Angel Island, and his eyes were closed. Few people knew because few had thought about it, but steering a land mass that had once been large enough to hold an entire civilization was not an easy task, nor one that only cost a slight amount of energy. Knuckles' forehead was creased in a frown as he could feel his mind being stretched, his mental connection with the Master Emerald opened much wider than it was usually necessary.

The Guardian gave a light groan and swayed slightly, but then steadied himself as the initial inertia was over. He was now the island, could feel its mountains and craggy cliffs, its grasses clinging to its edges and its trees standing strong against the breeze. He could move, slowly, and sedate, as landmasses often do, but also with an inevitability to his course that would not be deterred by wind, rain or thunderstorms. Violet eyes opened abruptly, now suffused with a deep emerald gleam, and with a course set for a small house just before the jungle of the Mystic Ruins, Angel Island moved.

xxx

"A wedding proposal." The words were uttered in much the same vein as someone might ask for clarification after learning that their front teeth needed to be pulled, and the person in question was a mammoth.

"Pretty much," Knuckles stated. "Neither of you is married, you are of age and he kissed you in front of several tribe members on the eve of a battle – that's a definite asking for your hand."

"You. Sit. Down. Before you get us into any more trouble," Shadow muttered the last phrase at the floor after issuing his command, to which Sonic at least complied without making a fuss this time, settling himself easily between Shadow's legs and resting his upper body against the other's abdomen. Shadow hadn't moved from the log he had sunk on yet, and Sonic himself was now smiling a bit nervously, but apparently not minding to sit on the floor as long as it meant he could use Shadow as a back rest.

"Well?" Lara-Su leaned forward at them, grinning like a red-furred shark. "Are you gonna accept, my Prince?"

"He's of lower status, so technically that's the correct procedure," Knuckles added in a way that meant Shadow wasn't quite sure whether the echidna was trying to be helpful or just enjoying this situation a little bit more than was decent. "He had to dare to ask for something. You can choose to give it to him."

"Er..." Shadow looked at Sonic a bit helplessly. Sonic blinked back at him, apparently also at a loss for words, green eyes showing a curious mixture of bemusement and the same befuddled surprise as Shadow's at his own unwitting daring, but if you looked closer, there was actually something deeper, a sort of something more warm, and even...a hidden hope?

Shadow broke the eye contact a little quicker than he had planned and cleared his throat before trying to regain his composure and casting again a glance at the round of warriors (where everyone now seemed to listen with great interest).

"But...no matter what I say, you can't be seriously suggesting a marriage ceremony now of all times."

"It could be fun. This being the echidna tribe there'd probably be fire and goat sacrifices and stuff. Ow!" Sonic yelped after having muttered the first sentence quietly enough so only the black hedgehog had been able to pick it up and promptly dug his fingers into the back of Sonic's neck for it.

"Hush. Your filterless nonsense has brought us enough chaos in one day," Shadow muttered back, before turning to the echidnas again. "...right?"

Lara-Le shook her head slightly. "I know you're probably thinking of the marriage celebrations in your castle and their splendour, but this is our tribe and asking for a hand on the eve of battle means a war marriage, whose ceremony is a quick affair, but not less important, or less sincere," the shaman said, before smiling, even if there seemed to be something bittersweet to her expression. "A marriage in those circumstances..." she paused, perhaps taking a moment to choose her words. "It's about not knowing whether you will ever have another night with your loved one. It's about not knowing whether there will ever be a child, of blood or of choice. And about what happens if the answer should be no, so if either one of you will fall on the battle field tomorrow, the gods may know to unite your souls in the warriors' realm," she said eventually, kindly, but solemn. Then she looked at them both. "But the question still stands, my Prince. Will you accept him to fight at your side?"

Shadow didn't reply immediately, his eyes wandering back to catch Sonic's stare, the blue hedgehog still sitting half-turned in front of him, gazing up now with an expression where most of the overly silly humour seemed gone now, only a small spark in his emerald eyes remaining, the rest of his body very still, almost in expectant silence for once. The situation seemed surreal for just a moment, the light of the flames dancing over them both, neither able to say anything for a moment until Sonic finally broke the silence for them both.

"Your choice," he whispered, and then smiled. "I'll love you either way." Then he paused for a moment and added with a slight shrug. "Mind you, I'm sorry I couldn't propose with the Chaos Emerald embedded in a giant engagement ring. Then again, I'm fairly sure Knuckles would have had to say something about damaging any of his magic rocks for jeweller- "

"Sonic?"

"Yes?"

"Shut it. Answer's 'yes'."

And with that, the blue hero could suddenly a finger slipping underneath his collar in an already wonderfully familiar fashion, forcing him to lift his head and tilt it back willingly as tan lips descended softly on his own...

and even as Lara-Le spoke, and the cheers of the assembled warriors couldn't quite drown out her words of 'I hereby bless this marriage in times of strife. May your bond last until peace returns and longer, or honourable death entwines your spirits in the realm of warriors for eternity', neither of the hedgehogs could help but feel that while this development may have been entirely unbidden, it was definitely not unwelcome.

xxx

Miles 'Tails' Prower stood in front of his workshop, glancing at the sky. It had an unhealthy glow to it, yellowish, a bit like before a storm, but somehow more worrying. Strange winds had started to pick up when the sun rise had come, tugging at his bangs in erratic ways that seemed to have nothing to do with natural breezes. Something in Tails' head whispered that this was maybe the very air itself trying to escape from a planet that was doomed, but his inner scientist did his best to crush that nonsensical thought immediately. Shaking his head, and ignoring the fur standing on end on the back of his neck, the small two-tail turned around resolutely and vanished back inside his house, only steeling himself briefly on top of the stairs that would lead down to the cellar. Taking a deep breath he opened the door leading inside.

"And our captor has returned. Tell me, just how long are you planning on keeping us imprisoned in your fortress, before I shall lay waste to it?"

And here we go again, Tails thought. The darker one of the two hedgehogs in the laboratory was glaring balefully at him through the Chaos-shielding forcefield Tails had created as a makeshift containment tank for the pair, careful to include also the small bathroom of the lab in it as well, but no dangerous machinery the two would have been able to damage.

"If you want to 'lay waste' to anything, you should probably hurry up," the fox kit muttered, trying to ignore the burning death glare in his back. Shadow was standing at the very edge of the bluish flickering membrane, arms crossed over his chest, while Sonic was sitting in a corner, looking anxious and small, a depressingly familiar sight.

"What was that, knave?"

"Nothing," Tails sighed defeatedly, before powering up his machines and trying to actually concentrate on the task at hand. If Sonic and Shadow wouldn't finally snap out of it, this was actually their final shot. The fox kit got out a screwdriver and some electrodes, preparing to get to work. For a few moments, everything was thankfully quiet, only for some sort of strange grumbling noise that he only registered vaguely, and which had probably been only Shadow glaring not daggers, but broadswords at his back anway.

"...fox kid."

Tails, bent over a workshop table, froze for a moment. The black hedgehog had spoken, but...it hadn't actually sounded downright hostile. And he also wasn't used to being called anything but derogatives by the black hedgehog, either. Tails turned around.

"Yeah?"he asked, noting that now the posture had subtly changed, not quite as bristling as before. The black hedgehog licked his lips before he spoke, obviously a bit struggling to get the words out.

"...my pet is hungry. Don't you feed your captives in your strange country?"

"Ah! I'm sorry, I totally forgot!" Tails cried out, before briefly glancing back at the opened console before him, now biting his lip. "But I'm almost finished with this and it's really urgent and if you could wait only twenty more minutes-"

"Please."

The screwdriver Tails had been holding now fell out of his hand at last. In all the days since Shadow had lost his mind (and technically, not even before that) the fox kit had had never, every heard him say 'please'.

"Master, please, I – this slave will be fine, do not trouble yourself for m-"Sonic in his corner had raised his head and there was a pleading expression on his face now, as well as a flicker of slight panic in his gaze. A sharp turn of the dark hedgehog's head let him immediately flinch and bite his own lip, though.

"You're in my care, my pet. As such, any decisions regarding your health are mine to make," the striped Sapient said, his tone a warning as effective as a whip if judged by the hastiness with which the cowering hedgehog dropped his gaze. But he wasn't yet quite silenced.

"But...you mustn't...this slave can't be spoiled, or – pleading for food is not anything that Master should..."

There was an intake of breath from Shadow and Sonic immediately cringed even more, instinctively bowing his head deeper where he sat kneeling, eyes squeezed shut and fists crossed defenselessly at the wrists behind his back. For a moment, Tails was about to panic, not knowing whether the darker hedgehog would now actually try to hit his big brother and what he was possibly supposed to do in this situation as the world was falling to pieces around his ears already, but then, as unexpected as the politeness before had been, Tails almost wasn't able to believe what happened next. With a few quick strides, Shadow had passed over to Sonic and raised his hand, but instead of hurting the other, his touch was actually gentle, a smooth stroking over the head that immediately let the other relax, before the black hedgehog's hand settled more firmly on the kneeling hedgehog's neck. He turned back to Tails.

"I don't know what you think of me otherwise, vulpine, but I am first and foremost a ruler. I care about what is mine. And..." and here he briefly closed his eyes. "...and if there's anything I have to do to protect it from harm, I will."

The two-tail for a moment couldn't think of anything to reply. For the first time, Shadow had actually shown something that could have been construed as normal behaviour. Even if far from normal for *him*, Tails thought. But even that smallest of demonstrations of not complete hostility, and, perhaps even more important, even that small willingness of Sonic to speak up again for once...

Tails finally nodded. "I'll bring something. Be right back."

xxx

"So..." another Sonic, who was quite happily fed, asked eventually, "How's that battle going to look like, tomorrow? Who's everyone that's going to be fighting?"

The fire was still burning brightly after their brief marriage ceremony had been completed; there had been no rings or similar exchanged, but Lara-Lee assured them that wouldn't be necessary. Mere jewellery could be stolen, mere tokens of love lost in a battle, but in the face of a war their promise was enough in the eyes of the gods, she'd said. Now the evening seemed to be drawing to close, though, and Sonic and Shadow were just trying to get the last necessary information for tomorrow's grand debut.

Shade only raised an eye ridge at Sonic's question that communicated what she probably thought of anyone going to war without even properly informed about who was actually participating, but Lara-Su fortunately had decided to be more helpful.

"Well," she said, "It's mostly going to be Black Doom's troops fighting against several smaller groups. The strongest of them being our tribe, of course," she added with a grin bordering on the cocky, "though the largest in numbers might be Queen Aleena's army. She's been fighting for nearly two years."

"Two years!" Sonic blurted out before he could stop himself, only recovering and trying to gain back his composure by adding, "I mean...that...that's a really long time..."

"She lost her only son," Lara-Le said quietly, but with a tone that was an explanation in itself. "No one really knows what happened to him, but most of the rumours say he is in Black Doom's realm, kept imprisoned somewhere, much like Knuckles was. And if I know anything, then it's that a mother will never stop searching."

"Yeah, you wouldn't know anything about that, would you?" Lara-Su asked, curiously. "I mean, some say he was abducted, some say he ran away, some say he's already dead...some rumours even said that not even your father knew the whereabouts of that Prince and was looking for him himself, to use as a hostage and leverage, but no one could ever find a trace. Weird, huh?" the echidna girl said, fortunately not paying too much attention to Sonic edging just ever so slightly into the shadows at this topic. Shadow spoke instead.

"I can't say I've ever heard anything substantial regarding her son," he stated, "and like I said, I tried to avoid concerning myself with my father's affairs, so unfortunately I know no more than you do," he answered glibly. "What is even known about this...prince?"

"Nothing much, really," Knuckles shrugged. "Only that he's a hedgehog, and has some sort of unnatural fur colour like his mother, purple or blue or turquoise or something. Could be anyone, really."

"Yeah!" Sonic replied with just *slightly* more enthusiasm than neceessary, "Anyone, right?."

"But you said there's more factions fighting?" Shadow interrupted the current topic of conversation quickly, having no idea what would happen if people found out that the missing prince was currently sitting in their midst. Probably start playing '20 questions' again, he thought and they were neither in the mood nor in a position to answer any of them. Luckily, no one seemed to mind the topic change.

"Well, now that negotiations have been broken off, King Maximillian of Acorn is going to be the third party fighting against Black Doom, although he might not have mobilized all his troops yet," Shade replied off-handedly, only for Lara-Su to butt in with:

"And then, there might be Queen Blaze joining our side, too," the youngest echidna added excitedly, "I mean, at first there were discussions about her actually becoming an ally of Black Doom, but then there was talk that you rejected her daughter Amy's hand in marriage..." she said, giving Shadow a curious look to confirm or deny, while Sonic next to him was already tellingly cringing at the memory of Amy of all people keeping him on the hated leash.

Shadow briefly cleared his throat.

"Yes, I suppose I might have done that. The princess and I were not entirely...compatible."

"Well, seeing as you just recently married a male, I can see how that happened," Shade replied dryly, before briefly running her fingers along the edge of her blade as if to test it. "Still, it's not sure whether it will be a good or a bad thing if the cat queen enters the war."

"Why not?" Sonic asked, genuinely curious. After all, Blaze had never been the friendliest of people he knew, but her heart was in the right place, surely...?

Lara-Su bit her lip, even her giddiness at this topic seeming a bit subdued. "Well..." she started hesitantly, "It's only a legend, but..." she licked her lips. "They say when Queen Blaze goes to war, the world burns."

"Oh," Sonic mouthed.

...yeeeah. I guess that's what actually *would* happen if you took her anywhere that wasn't either the ocean or some post-apocalyptic world that's burned out anyway and then went on to piss her off...

"I'm glad she's not mad at us in our world," he whispered to his former owner, receiving a snort in return. Aloud, he said:

"Well, with or without her, that sounds like pretty good odds to me. Three against one."

"Perhaps," Knuckles said calmly while poking the logs in the still burning fire, "But Black Doom's army is vast and large and desperate, more afraid what happens to them if they should lose this war than dying in it. And then there's this strange secret weapon he seems to have acquired..."

"We will take care of that bit," Shadow said firmly, prompting a few raised eye ridges, but didn't let that perturb him. "Sonic and me excel in speed first and foremost. We will strike first before anyone else and put his army in as much disarray as possible before your tribe gets there, by which time we hopefully already have wrested that weapon from his hands."

"And then what?" Shade asked, suspiciously. "What are you going to do with that thing once you have it? And what kind of weapon is it, anyway?"

"A gem stone able to focus energy," Shadow replied, "I don't know how Black Doom intends to use it, though," he said, and partially even meant it. He could imagine a few things, yes, but had little to no idea what was going through the medieval King's head.

"It'll be fine," Sonic said, re-assuringly. "Now that we know what to watch out for from tall, dark and harmsome, we'll be able to take him down in no time. Don't worry, it's not the first time we're in a battle." This was accompanied by a confident stretch in the light and a smile before the blue hedgehog made to reach for another meat skewer stuck close to the flames. As muscles underneath the blue and peach fur had strained, Shadow noticed the lines and ridges in the fur again that he had felt at night before, but now the dancing shadows of the fire made them noticeable even to the naked eye, and a glance at the echidnas some of which had raised their eye ridges made clear that they had seen it, too – and recognized them for what they were, as any warrior would, knowing exactly what would be beneath Sonic's pelt if one cared to look.

"I believe your words. There...are scars all over your body," Lara-Le finally said, her tone carefully not betraying any emotion, but her eyes looked slightly sad.

"What?" Sonic blinked at the unexpected reply, briefly halting in his move for the skewer and glancing down at himself. "Oh. Yeah. I guess there are," he said, seeing the irregular lines crisscrossing his abdomen in his view. Although of course he knew they were there, usually they weren't that noticeable, but when you hadn't been able to properly brush your fur or use any shampoo to smoothe down irregularities, the collared hedgehog supposed he shouldn't be surprised that they stood out. The newest and still broadest were of course the cuts from Erazor's twin swords, and a slash King Arthur's phantom had dealt him. Some of these Sonic was mostly glad not to have to see every day, knowing how close to death the wounds that had caused them had brought him. Especially the ones Robotnik had caused in his dungeon...

Sonic forced himself not to return to that memory.

"I travel a lot. Sometimes things happen," he instead replied curtly, taking a drink from a clay pot next to the fire, the echidnas fortunately not acting so surprised anymore as they finally seemed to have managed to wrap their heads around the idea that just because Sonic seemed to be marked as Shadow's, he did not spend the majority of his time crawling around his feet.

"You on the other hand don't seem to have many scars at all, my Prince," Shade pointed out with a tone that sounded just a bit like a challenge, her head cocked in question. "Not much for fighting, your grace?"

Shadow shrugged, not bothering to react to the barbs entangled in her words. "I don't scar easily."

"Except for on your shoulder, apparently," Lara-Su pointed at the ridge of black fur winding all around where Shadow's right arm met his torso. "Judging by that scar, that cut must have been nasty."

"Well, it was a little bit more than a cut," the black hedgehog replied with some dry amusement in his tone. Lara-Su did not seem to be inclined to inquire further, which suited the black hedgehog. It was an old wound and he did not appreciate others leaving marks on his body; people noticing them even less. The black hedgehog brushed over the cut in his cheek with slight annoyance, the three fine red lines having taken a long time to stop bleeding and were faintly burning still. The Ultimate Lifeform wondered with some irritation whether the sorry state his body had been in during the last few days would mean that this one wouldn't heal properly, either, leaving him with a clear mark of the feline guard commander's loving caress after their first failed attempt to escape their execution.

Well. If there was any hope for his system to return to functioning properly, there was only one thing for it.

"Thank you again for your hospitality," Shadow said aloud, nodding to their hosts. "But before the battle starts tomorrow both of us need some more rest, so if you don't mind, we'd take our leave now."

"Sure, go ahead," Knuckles nodded. "We probably should do the same. I'll get you some blankets to camp out," he said, at the same time getting up to walk to his tent.

"...ah. Yes. Thank you," Shadow said, trying to recover and not to let his initial reaction of 'you mean we don't get to sleep in a tent?!' show on his face.

Apparently, it hadn't worked too well.

"D'aww, is someone being an indoor-hog?" Sonic asked, giving him a slight nudge with his elbow into the side together with an in the Ultimate Lifeform's opinion indecently sly grin. Shadow tried not to grace it with a reaction. "Come on, sleeping underneath the stars, it'll be great!" Sonic said, giving Knuckles a nod of thanks as the echidna returned with some woollen blankets that he dumped into the blue hedgehog's arms.

"Aboard the ARK I slept among the stars. I still had a proper bed and a roof over my head," Shadow grumbled, but Sonic already wasn't listening anymore, instead wishing the others now extinguishing the fire a good night and thanking them for the food.

"Well, it's better than a dungeon floor," Sonic quipped with a wink and then actually surprised the black hedgehog by simply snatched his wrist and proceeded to pull him towards the edge of the forest and the edge of the camp.

xxx

"Are you trying to poison him, cleft-tailed fox demon?"

Tails heaved a long-suffering sigh. Things seemed to be back to normal again, but at least his experiment was going quite well so far, so he found he could cope with it much better. Knuckles met Shadow's glare for him with a dead-pan stare instead.

"It's frozen pizza, hedgehog. That blue nuisance usually lives on that stuff. And while I personally think it tastes like cardboard, I yet have to see anybody die of it."

"Frozen what?" Shadow asked back, suspicion not yet quite vanished from his gaze. Knuckles was personally glad that at least the two hedgehogs seemed to get along now, Sonic still uncharacteristically quiet, but at least seemingly contentedly munching on a slice of margarita in a corner.

"Frozen pizza," Knuckles repeated. "Cheap Italian fast food?" he tried, and when that didn't produce any signs of understanding, said: "Things pretending to be tomatoes and cheese baked on something that looks almost like bread." Shadow briefly looked a bit grossed out and the echidna booked that as a triumph. It had been about twenty minutes since he'd arrived with Angel Island over Tails' house, and the fox' domicile was now bathed in the permanent shadow of a landmass of hundreds of thousands of tonnes floating above their heads. It could have been mildly unnerving if the end of the world wouldn't have been a greater concern. For a moment, Knuckles glanced at the last rays of sun filtering through the window. T minus eight hours, his internal clock supplied. The world would end sometime next morning on a Monday, and a sarcastic part of the echidna's brain pointed out it was at least nice that it could potentially save a lot of people the commute into the office.

"How's it going?" he asked Tails, now stepping over to the kit wearing dark goggles over his eyes, not unlike Robotnik and joined him at the workbench next to the console. For the first time, Tails' voice sounded steady and hopeful again.

"Well," he said, "actually pretty good. Now we're just waiting for Rouge to get back with the gem stone I asked for. And then, with the Master Emerald straight above our heads, and the available levels of energy through the roof," he pointed toward several maxed-out dials on a screen that looked far more complicated than any the echidna ever had had to deal with,"if the mountain won't come to the prophet," Tails continued, "that is, if we can't find the Emerald that we're missing," he said, and for a moment his eyes were aglow with what couldn't have just been the light reflected by the computer screens, and Knuckles thought he could almost see Sonic standing behind him now instead of cowering in the corner, tall and proud and with a grin on his face, as Tails straightened up, surrounded by his tools and blue eyes blazing like his hero's, declared:

"We're gonna make our own Emerald!"

xxx

"Say...do think the Tails of this dimension is as clever as my kid bro at home?"

Not quite knowing why that question had popped into his mind just now, the hedgehog had asked it in a quiet voice, and after there had already been some time of silence as the last of the fire had died down. They had made their makeshift beds not too far from the tents and the camp fire they had sat at previously, their vision of the night sky above only partially obscured by some branches swaying gently above them. Shadow grudgingly had to admit it was a bit nicer than he had imagined, the summer night warm enough that they could use the thicker blanket as a mattress, the thinner one covering both their bodies lying side by side. After a few minutes of not saying anything and just getting comfortable, Sonic settling just a little bit lower and resting his head on Shadow's shoulder, the collared hedgehog had now spoken up without a prompt, letting Shadow look briefly down at him, before raising his eyes at the sky again when he answered.

"Almost definitely. I wouldn't worry about that."

"Oh yeah?" Sonic asked, a bit of surprise in his tone at the confidence of the black hedgehog's words. "How do you know?" he asked, interest sparking up in his voice as he raised his gaze to give Shadow a questioning glance.

"Well..." Shadow paused briefly, seeming to think about how to phrase what he wanted to say. "I was designed and raised by Professor Gerald Robotnik and grew up with his granddaughter," the black hedgehog began, "And I can tell you that while my creator nearly always wore dark glasses – a custom his grandson also seems fond of – I've also seen him take them off a couple of times and I knew Maria's eyes better than anyone else, I think."

Shadow's gaze was now just slightly drifting off into the distance as he told about his past, and Sonic wondered whether he had ever seen the dark-furred hedgehog like this before. "They were inventors," he said, and now he gave the slightest of smiles that Sonic knew he reserved for old memories, "...and when you looked into their eyes, you could see the universe spinning in their heads."

There was a moment of silence that Sonic let pass, Shadow's words floating away on the breeze while the hero of Mobius knew that his partner's mind was drifting among stars just now, and he himself was unsure what to reply. It was when the black hedgehog turned his head and his gaze connected with Sonic's once more that he spoke again.

"I've glanced at the fox kid. There's stars in his eyes, same as the one you've got at home." Shadow's lips twitched. "When you told him about your adventures it looked like a meteor shower going off in his head. Now that no one is going to beat him for opening his mouth any more and he's going to have a chance to learn to read, he's probably going to be responsible for the dawn of technology in this world before anyone knows what's hit them."

There was a slight movement against his chest fur and Shadow knew that it was the lips of the blue hero, now drawing into a smile. When their eyes met again, the Ultimate Lifeform could see all of the pride of a big brother shining in the other's gaze, the blue whirlwind for once as content as he could imagine him being.

"Thanks, Shads. Then let's make sure tomorrow's battle isn't going to change that future."

"No worries. Let's try and not force any gods to chase after either of our souls. Catching yours in particular would be too much of a hassle," the black hedgehog replied, talking into the fur on Sonic's head, sounding half-amused and half tired.

"Heh, yeah, the echidna wedding vows," Sonic replied with a bit of chuckle before quieting down again, Shadow already thinking that the blue whirlwind might have slipped off into sleep already, but then he spoke again, and his tone was much more sombre.

"Shadow...I want to end this day tomorrow with nobody dying."

It had sounded soft, almost insecure, and in response, the black hedgehog instinctively wrapped an arm somewhat tighter around a blue flank.

"We'll do what we can. We will strike fast and we will strike first, end the battle before it starts. That's what we're best at."

"Mmh," Sonic agreed half-heartedly, but shifting and relaxing some more into the black hedgehog's grip. Then there was a little bit of a pause before he spoke up again, his tone suspiciously innocent.

"...you know, I think there's some more things we're good at."

Shadow took a moment to process this, then moved his head so he could look into his pet's face and quirked an eye ridge.

"Are you seriously...?"

Sonic gave a wicked grin, but then chuckled a bit ruefully, and then shook his head a little.

"Actually, no. I'm a little bit..." he turned his head away to look at the sky again, and Shadow wondered for a moment whether he had either imagined the faint tinge of red on his cheeks or perhaps the slight infliction of annoyance in his voice...

"...indisposed."

And the Ultimate Lifeform's quirked eye ridge was quickly replaced by a smirk.

"'Sore', you meant to say?"

"Shut it."

"You're the one complaining? After all, this is supposed to be our wedding night," Shadow said, just a touch of light sarcasm in his tone which was probably meant for all the splendour of their two blankets on a the dirt floor, "and you're telling me you're not 'putting out'?"

"Spare me the street slang, you're either too young or waaay too old for it," Sonic retorted with a slight nose nudge, again settling against Shadow's shoulder as the dark hedgehog snorted.

"Fine. You couldn't spell 'sophisticated' if you just had the vowels to fill in. I'm leaving the urban dictionary nonsense to you."

"Whatever," the collared hedgehog replied, stretching lazily against Shadow and apparently finally settling in to sleep.

"As for anything else, however..."

Shadow's voice trailed off, just as his fingers trailed lower, their bare tips dancing down Sonic's spine and in between quills, letting the blue hero satisfyingly shiver against Shadow, and then black-furred hands dipped even deeper...

There was a slight intake of breath from Sonic as Shadow's hands had crept path his tail and settled just lightly on a part of himself that he would have preferred remain untouched for just a while.

"Oy..."

It was a sleepy protest, one that couldn't quite decide whether there was anything to object to, and to Sonic's dismay, the dancing fingers appeared to pay it no heed. Instead, fingers spread wide, they grabbed more firmly and squeezed, just enough that there was a slight smarting, enough to evoke the memory of what had been inside him, that hot, painful pleasure that had driven him over the edge yesterday and Sonic's breath hitched once more, suddenly powerless to protest again.

Shadow could see his face with his eyes squeezed shut from above, blue body straining weakly in his grasp. He let his fingers flex and bite into blue fur again, this time also spreading Sonic just slightly and could not help a little smile at the way his supposed slave squirmed into him at the touch, air sucked through small pointy teeth a sign that Sonic was probably in as much pleasure as discomfort right now...the dark hedgehog's eyes gleamed just a little. It was fun seeing the cocky hero like this, just a little bit helpless, just a little bit on the edge what Shadow would do to him...

The black hedgehog kissed the edge of Sonic's lips, his foremost finger at the same time venturing forth ever so little, and the resulting jerk, shudder and then almost complete and instinctive clinging to Shadow let tan lips stretch into a small smile. His usually so headstrong pet was enduring any claiming of him willingly, making no move to escape, just accepting...like his whole body was simply saying I'm yours.

Shadow permitted himself a small snort and let his hands wander back to Sonic's sides again, the blue hedgehog relaxing simultaneously in his grasp.

Heh. If only.

Shadow tightened his hug just slightly and laid his head next to Sonic's pointy ear.

"Don't get killed tomorrow. Night," he whispered.

"Mh. I won't if you don't sleep-deprive me with your groping. Perv," Sonic slurred back, but he was already too dozy to be sure he'd even gotten that sentence right, and Shadow had already nodded off anyway. When the collared hero dimly realized that there was probably no answer forthcoming, he also let himself relax and shifted his weight so he was still laying with his head on top of Shadow, but now also could see the unfamiliar stars above his head. It was his first night spent outside, his first night spent in freedom after his time as a slave of the castle and he was damned if he didn't enjoy every single wonderful thing of the great outdoors he had missed so much. Above him, the lights in the sky twinkled, and Sonic faintly wondered where the echidna warriors imagined their dead to go, whether they thought their ancestors were maybe gazing down at them as they would charge into battle at the next sunrise...

Yeah. If I want to catch even a single wink tonight, I probably *shouldn't* think about how tomorrow there's gonna be a war and the fate of this entire world hangs in the balance.

Sonic sighed very audibly.

Then again, changing his track of mind fortunately wasn't such a hard task for the blue speedster whose moods could not have been more mercurial if he'd had a quicksilver sandwich for breakfast. The hero of Mobius' thoughts began to drift again, bits and fragments of the conversation at the fireplace floating to the surface which he hadn't wanted to consider yet. So Aleena's son had gone missing more than two years ago...

...and somehow he ended up as a slave in the Palace of Black Doom. I wonder how that happened.

Again, thinking of his other self brought with it an odd mixture of righteous anger at how people had dared treat him, a painful sting of pity at what he possibly had to endure before Sonic showed up to take his place (and, in turn, had showed several other people in the castle their place quite clearly) and lastly...a definite, uncomfortable strain of embarrassment that someone who was supposed to be him had let himself be captured and collared and kept captive apparently quite so easily. Sonic could feel the tips of his ears heating up even as he told himself that even if everyone else appeared much the same in character, there was a way this Sonic here wasn't really...there had to be an explanation why he...

Seems like a total pansy,some part of his brain supplied before the collared hero could crush the thought ruthlessly.

No, Sonic thought, forehead drawing into a frown as he tried to concentrate, even while sleep was already trying to take him. Everyone else seemed similar, yes...but did that also mean they lived similar lives?

The Chaotix are secret agents, check, Sonic counted off in his head, Knux is growing up in some sort of indian warrior culture, semi-check, Jet is an underhanded thief, *definitely* check, Rouge is living the High Life collecting pretty things, check...and their Sonic was born a prince and had a family to grow up with, a voice in his head interjected. Check?

Green eyes blinked into the sky.

If you had a mother that loved you enough that she would ride at the head of an army to save you, would you ever have left home, never to return?

The only reason Sonic had the skills and abilities he prided himself on was, after all, that he had turned into a drifter and gone on adventures, even before he eventually become wrapped up in his own private guerilla war with a certain egg-shaped scientist which had led him to become Sonic the Hedgehog, a living legend...

But all that happened because I was an orphan. I left Green Hill Zone because I had nothing to keep me there. I didn't even have an actual place to go home to until three years ago when Tails said he'd kind of like to have a workshop to build stuff in...

Tails. That was another point, Sonic realized. He had picked up both of the fox kits at some point, the Tails on his world having been a bullied, cast out and starved orphan in the thoroughly screwed-up world of Emerald Hill Zone initially. Sonic hadn't meant to take him along, but if there was anything a four year old Tails could be, it was stubborn, and he had followed Sonic and talked and pleaded and looked at the blue hedgehog as if he was the world until finally the older Mobian had had to admit that perhaps a flying master-mechanic wasn't the worst companion to have along when you went up against a genius gone mad.

I bet the other Sonic never had a little brother he adopted while he was struggling just to feed himself, a part of his mind suggested, unbidden. No one to care for. No one to stand up for.

No one that would make you keep fighting every battle because you knew you just couldn't let them down.

Sonic swallowed.

I guess it must have been...really different for him, growing up...

He thought about Shadow's life in the castle, how minutely regimented it had seemed and how many different annoying obligations each day had kept coming up. Shadow really hadn't been able to go outside any more than Sonic, and a day trip to the city and two walks in the park would have been nowhere near sufficient to get all the movement exercise that Sonic's lifestyle required. If that had been similar for his doppelganger...

If only I had grown up differently I might have ended up like him, one day. If Robotnik had gone evil even without me and then enslaved the planet, maybe...

Again, a shiver ran through Sonic's form that had nothing to do with cool night air. His sense of self had always been one of his primary pillars of confidence. Knowing that whatever anyone could throw at him, there was a core of him that they wouldn't be able to reach, or to break. Rationally, he knew that this was still true, but it was just a bit unsettling to know that if the cards of life had been dealt just a little bit differently, if he had been born just one atom-thin fraction of a dimension away, all this could have been taken from him in a heartbeat.

Again, Sonic sighed. This nightly train of thought had left him with a feeling of unease, which had not been the intended end. How was he ever going to go to sleep now?

Then, a metaphorical light bulb (that, had it been real, probably would have caused a minor witch hunt for Sonic among people who hadn't even discovered electricity) went off over his head. The blue hedgehog smiled and had soon turned over, his belly peach arms encircling Shadow's torso like a big, particularly spiky teddy bear and the blue hero could already feel the worry leaving his system. Sleep finally seemed attainable. Because even if the Hero of Mobius had never needed anyone to hold on to, it was definitely nice that Shadow was there anyway.

Sonic slept, dreaming of familiar images of Tails bent over a console, working frantically on something that glowed like green fire, of Knuckles piloting Angel Island, and of Rouge comparing shining jewels in her hand. Nothing of it made sense to Sonic in the world of unconsciousness, but the familiar faces meant he slept peacefully, and when the first call to battle cut through the air at sunrise, he had forgotten all about it, knowing that this day focus was the most important thing of all now that the heroes of Mobius would go to war.

To be continued...


*keels over* Done. Finished. Nothing in the way of the big finale now. And all while I'm trying to finish my bachelor's degree. ^^° Unfortunately, deviantart has been refusing to work for me recently, so if anyone has drawn/found/seen any fanart that I haven't yet listed on my profile, wanna drop me a note about it? :3 Hope you liked, are looking forward to the battle and if you read, please review? :p