Disclaimer: Injuriously not mine.
A/N: Written for LeDiz as second prize in the Scrib!Fic Fanart Contest 2009. She asked for Sonic fic in the universe of my choice, friendship, and these three characters. I went for SatAM since I'm still a fan of it after all these years. Hope this suffices, Lee!
The Final Drop
© Scribbler, May 2009.
We cannot tell the exact moment a friendship is formed; as in filling a vessel drop by drop, there is at last a drop which makes it run over; so in a series of kindnesses, there is at last one that makes the heart run over. – James Boswell.
"Don't move him too fast."
Sonic glared up at Knuckles. He was built for speed from the tips of his spikes to the soles of his sneakers, but even he knew this was a time for caution over hustle. He bristled at the suggestion he didn't.
Knuckles grunted. Sonic bit down on the insult that immediately sprang up. It was a remarkable show of restraint, and one that demonstrated just how much he realised was at stake here: not quite everything, but near enough it made no difference.
Put simply? They were deep in enemy territory, injured, unable to contact the others to get help from Knothole … in a word: royally screwed.
Wait, that was two words, wasn't it? Aw, damn it –
"Are you going to help me or not?" Knuckles gritted, hooking his wide hands around Tails to lift him.
"Hey, you're helping me, Knucklehead. Get it right."
Between them they eased Tails onto the pallet Knuckles had made from tough yucca leaves, vines and other things. Sonic took a moment to arrange Tails's limbs so they wouldn't trail and get caught on things. At first he crossed them over the little guy's chest, but that looked way too much like a corpse laid out for viewing. Eventually he settled for wedging them as tightly as he could against Tails's sides.
Tails gave a whimper of pain at the movement. It was involuntary, since he was unconscious, and had been ever since Knuckles sent Sonic out to fetch the leaves and vines. Sonic's hands jerked back. They felt like lumps of wet clay – useless, clumsy and heavy on the ends of his arms. It only made it worse that Knuckles, whose gloves didn't even have fingers, had been able to bind Tails's injuries with the precision of sewing stitches in gossamer without tearing it.
Sonic may have been Knothole's hero, but Knuckles had survival skills out the wazoo. He'd hated sleeping in a hut the one night he'd spent in the village. Put Knuckles in any uncharted piece of the Great Forest and he'd be fine. Better than fine, even. Not that Sonic was completely inadequate in the wilderness – he had, after all, taken on Tails's Freedom Fighter training, which implied he had enough skills not to die of exposure five minutes after sundown – but there were definite differences in their skill levels.
Sonic's most proficient kind of survivalism mainly involved getting in and out of Robotropolis without dying. Anyone who'd tried it could tell you it was no picnic. Many had tried to be Freedom Fighters and failed – either returning to normal life in the village, possible traumatised, or not returning to Knothole at all.
As the Guardian of the Chaos Emerald, Knuckles had spent most of his life eschewing technology and eking out an existence alone on Angel Island. He had learned how to take care of himself using his surroundings and nothing else, while to Sonic 'living rough' meant having a stale bread bun and no chilli to put on the hotdog he was cooking over the campfire.
Let's just see him take out a SWATbot while doing eighty through trash-filled streets, though.
Sonic had met Knuckles several times in the past ten years, though the echidna hated leaving his island for any length of time. Angel Island's secrecy and magical cloaking from all technology was the only reason Robotnik hadn't already ransacked it, but Knuckles took his duties seriously. His family had always been the island's protectors, and practically nothing could sidetrack them from that task – not the Human-Mobian war, not the attractive level of peace that followed, not Robotnik's coup, nothing that didn't directly involve echidnas in some way.
Of course, since echidnas had practically died out, that was increasingly unlikely. Maybe that was why, despite his father's dying wishes that he not consort with the 'heathen landbounds' on the planet below, Knuckles had broken ranks and made contact with Sally when they were still kids and she accidentally piloted an Iron Carriage into the island's airspace during a dare with Sonic. That one risk had led to a tenuous friendship between them that Sally had called on several times in the years following Robotnik's coup. She knew Knuckles was reluctant to get involved in what he saw as 'their' war, but on several occasions he'd helped them anyway.
Each time he'd met Knuckles, Sonic's hackles had stood on end almost the entire time, forcing Sally to get between them before they actually came to blows. Sonic had ranted loud and long that he could clean that stuck-up know-it-all's clock in a nanosecond, but all that ever got him is fresh grief and one of Sally's longsuffering sighs. Like he was the whole problem when they were shoved together like a blueberry and a tomato in a peapod?
The problem was they were both too competent and wilful to have anyone else telling them what to do. Knuckles was used to governing himself, and Sonic just plain objected to the condescending way Knuckles treated him, as if he couldn't believe Sonic was Mobius's hope for a better future. To say it wasn't a good combination would be an understatement on par with 'Robotnik is rather an unkind chap'. Sally had her work cut out for her, mediating them while also dealing with the regular day-to-day stuff that went on around Knothole. It was no surprise Bunnie had rearranged the seating plan at dinner, plunking herself between Sonic and Knuckles and giving Sally her seat on the far side of the table where she could get some peace.
All that was now forgotten, however. The smell of blood and sour taste of fear were great levellers.
This was supposed to have been a simple recon mission to the Eastern Shore after NICOLE picked up a signal from a supposedly uninhabited area, which called for the 'Emerald Guardian' to go there at once. The message had ended with the words, "We're the last. Echidnas must stick together, brother. We mustn't let the bloodline die out. We can't let -" and then it had gone dead. NICOLE said it had been broadcast far and wide on a frequency unique to Freedom Fighters across Mobius.
Angel Island had floated over the area of the signal's origin several times, but never known anything was special about the place – save for the destruction that always accompanied Robotnik's reach as it extended. His influence had changed the landscape from the old maps Sally had rescued from the palace archives, rendering them next to useless. Despite this, she had asked Sonic to go with Knuckles as back-up.
"He won't ignore this. He can't. If there's a chance other echidnas still exist somewhere on Mobius, he'll take it. You know he will."
"Why else do you think I call him 'Knucklehead'?"
"Robotnik doesn't know about the Chaos Emerald or Angel Island beyond what's mentioned in the old legends, and you know how he always dismissed those as fairy stories. Still, that doesn't mean this isn't his doing, or that it couldn't be something else bad. I don't want Knuckles to go alone. The margin for things to go wrong is too wide."
"You think he's really gonna want my butt along for the trip?" Sonic had scoffed. "Get real, Sal. He won't go for it."
"Please, Sonic. I don't want to take any chances. I … don't want to lose anyone else."
The fact she'd asked instead of ordered had forced his hand when he would rather have stuck his mouth over a sewer pipe and drunk deep. The things a guy did for the special girl in his life.
He had compromised by taking Tails along too, citing the promise the little guy showed in his training. Tails had the mind of a strategist even though he was so young. Sonic actually listened to what he had to say, and acted on it. Plus, as he admitted to no-one, Sonic just didn't want to be alone with Knuckles. Sally would string him up by his ears if they fought in the field, and Tails offered someone else to talk to instead of trying to engage the reticent echidna.
Except that nothing had turned out the way it should. The signal turned out to be a hoax after all, but not by Robotnik. A band of Mobian survivors from a commune out there, who'd escaped Robotnik's forces in the original coup but been losing people ever since, had been broadcasting relentlessly for weeks to try and attract Knuckles's attention. One member of the commune had worked in the palace around the time Sally first crashed on Angel Island, and put two and two together to make five. Surrounded by death and the prospect of becoming living robots, putting his faith in guesswork and old legends didn't seem the most preposterous thing in the world.
The survivors had been at the end of their tether. Their charismatic but unbalanced leader had come up with the idea of using the Chaos Emerald as a bargaining chip to make Robotnik leave them in peace. Since nobody could find or get onto Angel Island unless the Guardian used chaos magic to make it perceptible to them, the survivors had lured Knuckles with the intent of holding him captive and drugging him to do whatever they wanted. They had almost succeeded, too.
Thanks to Tails's quick thinking and ability to fly, he, Sonic and Knuckles had escaped. However, he'd been injured when he rescued Knuckles from where the survivors had strapped him down to inject the drug. A lot had been injected into Tails by accident, leaving him so woozy he fell from the sky like a stone when they got outside, lacerating himself on branches and breaking several bones upon impact with the ground. Sonic had heard them grinding as he zipped his little buddy out of that godforsaken place and into a part of the Great Forest nobeast from Mobotropolis had ever ventured into before.
They'd escaped with their lives, but just barely. Now Tails was injured, they had no means of communicating with Knothole, the survivors were probably coming after them to finish what they'd started, and carrying Tails for a speed-run would only aggravate his injuries. Knuckles had ground up some roots and leaves into a pulpy salve he assured Sonic would do more good than harm. Now it was a case of getting Tails back home as quickly as they could without alerting their pursuers of their path through the forest. Sonic had never thought he'd be running from Mobians like they were Robotnik.
He blinked, suddenly registering what he was seeing. "What are you doing?"
Knuckles already had one strap over his shoulder. Without looking at Sonic he looped the other over himself as well. "Hang-gliding."
He grunted. "So don't ask stupid questions."
"Give me those. I'll drag the pallet."
Knuckles just gave him a customary look of scorn.
The back of Sonic's neck and shoulders prickled as his fur started to rise. "He's my buddy. I'm gonna get him home safe."
"I'm stronger than you."
"Don't give me th-"
"It's not a competition, it's a fact. I have more upper body strength, and I have more stamina. You're built for incredible speed in short bursts. You can't maintain a single pace for a long period. You definitely can't sustain a single steady pace, dragging a heavy load, for a long time through forest. One bit of twitchiness from you, one moment of going too fast, and it could jolt him loose and cause irreparable damage. You want to accidentally pierce his lung with that broken rib? It makes more sense for me to take charge of the pallet."
Sonic seethed. "Now listen here, you stupid -"
"Just like it makes more sense for you to guard us. I won't be able to defend myself, or him, if we get attacked. Not if I'm strapped to the pallet with these vines, and they're the only way for me not to bump him about too much while walking." A muscle in Knuckles's cheek jumped. "I'm going to have to rely on you to make sure we're safe." His jaw clenched. "Or at least that I have enough warning about potential threats to unstrap myself so I can take care of them." He couldn't help adding this last part. The admission that he needed Sonic, and that he couldn't take care of things all by himself this time, obviously galled him. Knuckles was proud, even if he masked it with diffidence.
Sonic still glared at him. Knuckles just invited glares as a default expression.
"I owe him my life," Knuckles said quietly. "I'm not going to let anything else happen to him. I promise."
Sally's voice came back to Sonic from several years earlier, when he and Knuckles had tangled over something so stupid he couldn't even remember what it was anymore. Sonic had come away with a black eye. She'd tended it with her typical mix of tenderness and asperity.
"Knuckles has lived alone on that island for most of his life. His social skills are stunted, but he has a good heart. He's a good guy underneath it all – if only you wouldn't aggravate him so much."
"Yes, you. You did grow up around others, so you should know better. Knuckles has never really had any friends before. He doesn't know how to act around us when there are no actual enemies to focus on. Meet him halfway, Sonic."
"Why do I have to meet him halfway? He should be meeting me halfway."
"Oh, I give up." Sally had thrown the towel of ice cubes at him, scattering them over the floor of his hut. "You're so pigheaded it's untrue."
Sonic's glare lost some of its fire. He glanced at Tails's pinched face. Now was not the time to be playing their usual macho games. The most important person in the world right now was Tails, and Sonic couldn't let himself forget that.
Neither, it seemed, could Knuckles. He stuck out a hand. "Truce?"
Sonic didn't hesitate before taking it. "But just until we get back to Knothole. Then I'm kicking your butt for getting us into this mess in the first place."
"I seem to recall it was your computer that picked up that phoney message."
"And you who decided it could possibly be a phoney." He muttered under his breath, "Moron."
"This is a truce?"
"I didn't punch you, did I? C'mon." Sonic set out, pricking his ears and using the soles of his feet, sensitive even through his special hardwearing sneakers, to feel for the vibrations of approaching enemies. "Let's blow this popsicle stand. I have had e-freaking-nough of the Eastern Shore."
Now there was a first.