Yep, this story's still here and happening. I'm not exactly sure why I haven't updated in over a month now, but regardless, it's here now. I quite like how this chapter ultimately turned out. Hopefully you do too. :3

Briana: Thank you! Heh, sorry this isn't exactly 'soon.' Glad you're liking it so far!

Chapter 4: Security

As Sonic had promised, Tails quickly agreed to help Knuckles with a security system for the Master Emerald, even saying he was happy Knuckles wanted to hang out with them more now. Knuckles smartly didn't respond to that. He did want to hang out with his friends more now – things truly had gotten lonely at Angel Island after so long, even though he was supposedly used to it – but he didn't want anyone to get too excited about it this soon. Still, it was heartwarming seeing Sonic and Tails so happy to be in his presence. Maybe they had missed him, too.

Considering the positives, Knuckles noted that the security system would be a benefit either way. Even if he still spent most of his time at the island, it wouldn't be rendered unnecessary – it would be a great backup, and a way to get confirmed warning when there were things going wrong. He told Sonic so, and the hedgehog gave him a thumbs-up.

"There ya go, Knuckles. But remember, we're trying to get you to come off the island now and then too."

"Yeah." He knew he had to compromise that much. They were helping him, and in return, he would try his best to make the efforts worth it for them, too. It was only fair.

"Anyway, let's get outta here for a bit. Tails doesn't want us bugging him while he's working, anyway."

"I'm right here," the fox said, smiling.

"Well, am I wrong?"

A shrug. "I guess not. If you get food, will you bring me back something as well?"

"Sure thing, my friend." Sonic gave out another cheery thumbs-up and then took hold of Knuckles's wrist. "Come on! How 'bout we get some real food in ya, hm?"

As he was dragged out of Tails's garage – albeit willingly – Knuckles couldn't help but roll his eyes. "It's not like I've never eaten outside of Angel Island, Sonic. And for the love of Chaos you better not be taking me for chili dogs."

"Oh, get the stick out of your ass." Sonic grinned. "For what it's worth I was actually thinking we'd go get some dessert somewhere. You know, some kind of thing with all that fruit you like so much. Buuut, if you don't want to…"

"How are we supposed to pay for it anyway?"

"One a' the ice cream places in Central City lets me eat free. I try not to too much because I'd feel bad, but…" Sonic shrugged. "Well, I helped the owners find their kid once. It was coincidental, I was in the area and they didn't know where he was. Anyway, we're gonna have to eat at some point anyway so I was thinking maybe there."

"Yeah, whatever."

"Don't let me forget to grab Tails something too, right?"

"Do you guys just eat junk food all the time? It's astounding how horribly people eat…"

"Nah, not all the time. Tails stocks up on healthy stuff a lot." Sonic didn't elaborate further, so Knuckles figured it was time to stop nitpicking at everything and just let it be.

They jogged to Central City, Sonic wordlessly letting Knuckles set the pace while still taking the lead in order to direct them. It was a busy place. There was so much noise that it all blended together in the background, and neon signs were alight on the downtown streets. The ice cream parlor, a local hot spot that attracted a lot of traffic, was simply called 'Ice Cream,' as it stood on its own and was not franchised. It was one of those places that had a window to order at and seats outside. Knuckles decided to order a banana split, then proceeded to watch Sonic get some kind of giant chocolate peanut butter thing.

"Your body doesn't make sense," Knuckles commented once they were sitting down. "The way you eat, how are you even…?"

"None of our bodies make sense," Sonic remarked. "We have hands as big as our torsos."

"You know what I mean."

Sonic shrugged nonchalantly. "Big deal. One huge sundae isn't going to make me break a scale or something. 'Sides, I'm gonna go for a run after this."

Knuckles couldn't stop looking at the dense gobs of ice cream in Sonic's cup. The banana split was delicious, but he figured almost anyone would openly stare at what Sonic was eating. "…Can I try that?"

"Knock yourself out."

Ignoring the veiled humor in that response, Knuckles took a bite with his spoon. "Yeah, good as it looks."

"Oh!" The blue blur hopped up suddenly. "Tails. Kid's gotta eat. Be right back."

Knuckles watched Sonic walk quickly back up to the window. It wasn't often that Sonic merely walked, but since the distance was close, it was unnecessary to do much more than that. He liked when Sonic walked. It looked awkward, like he was uncomfortable doing it, but that made it funny and appealing in some strange way. He wondered why Sonic didn't walk more. You didn't have to spend your life rushing through everything.

He decided to stop thinking so much and just eat some more of Sonic's ice cream.

The hedgehog got back a minute later but didn't sit down. Tails's ice cream had a plastic lid on. "Heya Knuckles, would you do me a favor?"

"Sure, I can take the ice cream back to Tails."

"Knew I could count on ya, buddy." Sonic slapped his shoulder and almost took off before looking like he remembered something. "You sticking around?" he asked. "Or going back for the night?"

"Guess I might as well just say I'm sticking around right from the get-go at this point," Knuckles said. "But I'm leaving in the morning."

"Right then, you can have the sofa. Tails is already cool with it. I'll probably be on the roof or whatever. Was just wondering, though. The evening's still young, y' know?"

"Yeah, uh… While you're running I'm going to go find somewhere quiet. I'm not a fan of big cities."

"Sure thing, Knuckles." Sonic nodded his head sideways. "How 'bout the lake? Should be pretty calm this time of day."

"That sounds good," Knuckles said, and it did. He had a low tolerance for so many people in one place. "I'll need to take a dip anyway. Rinse all the dirt off from being in the woods earlier."

"There's these things called showers," Sonic said. "You should try one sometime."

"I don't need such a thing."

"Uh. Everybody needs showers."

"Everybody needs to wash," Knuckles corrected. "I do so just fine on my island. There is plenty of water there and there are plenty of natural plants and saps that are good for cleansing."

"Yyyeah, uh, none of that here," said the younger male. "Do I need to ask Tails to let you use his shower, too?"

Knuckles sighed and grumbled. "Fine. But I'm still going to go the lake in the meantime. I don't feel like sitting under a roof."

"I know what you mean there," Sonic agreed. "Right then, I'll meet ya over there in a bit."

x

It was a green, moist area. A few feet away where water reached, soaked grass clung to its land. It was a nice little area, but not the kind of area most people went when approaching a shoreline. Most people went on the sand. But Knuckles did not want to be around most people right now. Coming here would give him solitude.

Still, he was in close view of the beach area so that Sonic would be able to find him. Nobody occupying it could see him as far as he could tell – not that there were many people there anyway since it was getting dark – but he could see them. They were silhouetted against the lights of the city in the background. Two such silhouettes were standing very close to each other, and he was certain they were kissing. He crossed his arms and looked away, mildly disgusted.

Sometimes it was easier to be disgusted with things you couldn't have.

He remembered his conversation with Sonic about relationships this morning. It seemed like a week ago rather than part of a day. For some reason this day had been really long. He couldn't tell if it was in a good way or a bad way. On one hand it could have been his stress regarding the Master Emerald. On the other it could have been because he had done so much more in this day than he usually did on a normal day.

Knuckles had never really had a day like this before. His days were either consistent in their isolation and predictability on Angel Island, or chaotic and frustrating with the onset of another 'adventure.' There really had never been an in-between.

This day had stimulated his mind. Gotten him on the track to consider possibilities he had never dared to think about before. For some reason, he had the impression it had stimulated Sonic's, too. What had begun as a brief conversation had turned into two days of being around each other almost constantly. He had never seen Sonic in such a good light before. He really wasn't so bad.

Knuckles wondered what Sonic thought of him. Him, the duty-driven, hardheaded island dweller. The guardian was proud of his duty and his backstage but important role in this world… but at the particular moment, he did not see himself as anything fantastic. He was looking at himself through the lens of Sonic.

Why did Sonic want to help him, anyway? He had seen Sonic help so many others before, whether it be saving their lives or saying encouraging words. It was weird to be on the receiving end of that, after merely witnessing it all these years.

There wasn't even anything about him that should appeal to that hedgehog. In spite of their similarities, they were opposites in so many ways. Why did Sonic even bother?

Why did he even bother?

What was he even doing here?

He was standing at the edge of a lake, literally doing nothing, while the Master Emerald sat unattended atop Angel Island. He was confused, alone and anxious. At least at the island he could eliminate the former and the latter. What was he doing here?

As if in response to his questions, Sonic came out of nowhere right then, plowing into him like a truck and landing them both in the water at the shore. Knuckles cried out in surprise.

Oh yeah. That's what he was doing here.

He couldn't decide whether he felt irate or fond as he got up to the sound of Sonic's chuckling.

"What in the world was that for?"

Sonic was already back on the grass, and struggling through a fit of laughter. "Had to get you back from when you knocked me out of the forest earlier," he managed to say. "At least neither of us were carrying anything this time."

Maybe not, the guardian thought to himself, but his thoughts had scattered just like the fruit he had carried this morning. Again, he didn't know if it was a good thing or a bad thing. Somewhere in that mess of thought, he had been working up to saying something to that hedgehog…

"You would have freaked if I pushed you at the water like that," the guardian said instead, rubbing water out of his eyes.

"But ya didn't." Sonic swished a hand. "What ifs don't exist."

Knuckles ignored that – Sonic still appeared smug from being able to sneak up on the guardian at all – and instead changed the subject entirely. "Didn't expect you here so soon. That was fast."

"Really."

"It seemed like you were only gone for a few minutes," Knuckles said.

"That so? Were you keeping yourself busy, then?"

He shrugged. "Not particularly. It's very nice here, though."

Neither of them noticed the sun had set until they glanced out over the lake again. They could see the brightness radiating from where it had been, quite a ways off to the left from the center of the lake. It too helped highlight the city so that they could see all the silhouettes. It was an effect that felt like viewing the world from the outside: being invisible, yet seeing everything. All the objects and individuals looked black, and the most colorful part of the world about them was the deep azure sky.

It was bittersweet for Knuckles, seeing a part of the world much broader than the one he was stuck with.

"Why are you doing this to me?" he heard himself say.

"What?" Sonic asked quietly, truly confused. "What'd I do, buddy?"

I'm not your buddy. A voice resonated in his mind; his response of years past. He didn't say it out loud because he wouldn't have meant it. He never really had. "You stayed with me today," he said softly. The softest the guardian's voice got, anyway. "We had fun. You gave me a normal day to have." He stared off at the sky, body rigid like a pillar. "Reminded me – or maybe even showed me for the first time – what that's like."

"And that's… a bad thing?"

"You really don't get it, do you?" Knuckles turned his gaze on the blue hedgehog, taking in those confused emerald eyes. They practically glowed in the starlight. "You gave me something I can't keep. Something I never knew I needed so much. Imagine if you were never able to run fast. You wouldn't know what it's like, so you wouldn't care. Just like most others don't care about running like you do." He clenched his fists. "But then when you get introduced to it in a way you never have been before, and you know it, then you need it… more than you've ever needed it."

Knuckles stopped talking, realizing that he was not only talking about exploration and freedom.

"But Knuckles," Sonic began, smiling as always. "You can keep it! We can make things work for ya, buddy."

"No," he said simply. "We can't. Because at the end of the day, I'll always go back to that place. That beautiful, lonely… dreadful place. Just like you'll always be around to save the world, or fight Eggman."

"Yeah, I will," Sonic said, "Yet I don't let that stop me from anything, do I? I know you'll always have to go back, you'll always have your duty… but that doesn't mean it's gotta be the only thing! You have to believe me!"

"I'm not you, Sonic." Knuckles felt so insufficient, so clueless. He didn't appreciate the world like Sonic did. He didn't know how.

Then again, Sonic didn't appreciate stillness, homeliness, or devotion the way Knuckles did. In some ways, Sonic was the one missing out.

They were both missing out on everything the other one had… and both experiencing what the other didn't have.

"Maybe things aren't perfect, Knux," Sonic said softly, "but we can make them a little closer. Even if you can't be as free as you want, even if you're bound by boring responsibilities and such…" He grinned, but met Knuckles's eyes with sincerity, "You can always be free with me."

Knuckles locked onto the eye contact. "You never answered my question," he said thickly, but there was a smile betrayed at the corner of his mouth. "Why are you doing this to me?"

"I guess… after Eggman went quiet for a year, I got a little bored too."

"So I'm a fix?" It wasn't an accusation, but an honest question.

Sonic shrugged. "Well, that's not how I saw it. I hadn't seen you in a while, and I wanted to catch up. I guess that time gap left us with a lot to say, huh?"

"I think when life leaves you alone long enough for you to reflect on what you've done with it, you start to see things a bit differently," Knuckles said. "I used to not mind what I did. But now that nothing is happening, it feels as though I've just wasted months and months sitting in front of… a rock. Yet at the same time, I needed to." Again, he stopped talking. He was doing too much of it lately, and his lack of social skills left him sounding disorganized.

"No one's asking you to stop, Knuckles. Get that through your hard head." Sonic knocked on the echidna's head for emphasis. "Heck, I wouldn't want you to, for my own sake! I got a life to live here too!"

Knuckles grasped Sonic's hand before he could withdraw it. He wasn't entirely sure why and hadn't really thought about it. After a few seconds of awkward quiet, he followed up. "You haven't even left me with a choice," he said. "I can't keep sitting there on a shrine every day and never do anything until someone like Eggman shows up. Not after this." He gripped the hand tighter. "And if you're bored, we'll take care of that, too. Because you're not backing out after all the stuff you've managed to talk me into lately. And Sonic…" he moved closer.

"…Yeah?" Sonic held his ground, eyes gentle and unafraid.

Knuckles continued quietly. "If the Master Emerald is not there when I get back, it is all your fault."

"I can live with that risk," Sonic murmured. "And I think you can, too."

Tease.

Xxx

Thanks for reading! 'Til next chapter, which will likely be much sooner than this one was. In the meantime, please let me know whatcha thought!