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All That Rises Must Fall

Chapter Text

He is lying on the ground. Sand. He knows sand. He doesn’t know he got there – perhaps the power of the phantom ruby, perhaps he got tossed there, perhaps he is simply imagining the sand because it is what he knows – but he does know that it doesn’t matter.

What really matters is the aching in the middle of his chest where the phantom ruby was and isn’t anymore. What really matters is that he can’t get up.

 


 

 

 

“You are my creation,” a screen tells Infinite seconds after his organic body has been removed from its stasis chamber, long before he has become Infinite.

He has a number.

Twenty six.

“Congratulations! You will be the start of a new era! After an extensive training process, of course. Do well, and you will get to thrive in my new world! Good luck, recruit.”

The person on the screen waves at him before it turns black.

He learns to hate that face.

His number is twenty six. There are seventeen other jackals there.

The walls are grey and dull, all their instructions are the same, day after day, shown on screens, pre-recorded. The robots show them where to go and bring them their food. His first months are spent fighting poorly designed dummies, worn from years of use, in bright primary colours and sloppily painted faces.

During his first week, Infinite breaks the head of one of them, and it dangles uselessly from the blue body.

Nobody fixes it.

 

The first day, the other jackals take his food. The next day, he is hungry, and wolfs it down before they can take it from him. The third day, he isn’t fast enough, and goes with half a meal. The fourth day, they try again.

He gets nothing to eat that day, but the others never do it again.

 

“Hello again, recruit!” The face on the screen smiles at him. It’s a painful dash of colour in a world of concrete walls and black jackals with golden eyes. From the same world as the dummies. Red, yellow, blue. Infinite narrows his eyes at the face speaking to him. It’s not from his world, it doesn’t belong here.

“You have done well, so you’re ready for real combat now. Good luck, and, don’t hold anything back!”

The screen turns off. A robot leads him through a door, where he meets another jackal. He recognizes them. All the jackals sleep in the same room, eat together. They are not from the group that tried to take his food.

The jackal lowers their body, ready to strike. Infinite does the same.

 

Infinite leaves the room with blood on his gloves and an aching head. Behind him, his foe receives a piece of jerky that they swiftly devour, and the robots lead them each their way.

They see each other again at dinnertime. The other jackal doesn’t even look at him.

Infinite breaks another training dummy.

A few days pass before he is pitted against another jackal. She was part of the group that took his food, but Infinite doesn’t remember this.

She leaves the room limping, and Infinite gets the jerky this time.

 

 

One jackal is always a little slow, limps a little, his face is bruised, and Infinite towers over him, looking at his lunch tray. The other jackal hands his food over with a pained expression. When Infinite hands the tray back to him, his eyes are wide, confused. More than half of his food is still there.

Infinite leaves without a word.

The frail jackal eats his meals at Infinite’s side, wordlessly handing the stronger jackal the best pieces of meat, and Infinite takes them, and the other gets to eat the rest in peace.

 

Infinite fights the frail jackal sometimes. It’s almost too easy. He tries, but he’s a bit too clumsy and doesn’t hit very hard, and Infinite barely has to do anything to get the piece of jerky. Infinite sees him come back from other fights with a swollen face and barely hidden pain, until one day, Infinite sees him being carried from a fight by a robot, walking through the facility and through a door Infinite has never seen open before. The robot comes back with no jackal.

 

Infinite goes two days with no more food than what he gets, and quickly notices the difference.

He demands the closest jackal give him their food, and when they put up a fight, he throws them into a table. The other jackals flinch. The robots are as still as ever.

Infinite takes the food.

The next meal, the other jackal hands their meal over with an evil look and a harsh remark. Infinite leaves half the food on the tray, and the look gets no less toxic, but is painted with slight confusion.

He goes for another person the next day. She might have been able to take him, but still lets him take what he wants. He leaves her a little more than he usually would.

One jackal comes with his tray and willingly offers it to Infinite, who picks himself a piece of meat. This happens two more times before three of the other jackals approach and tries to take the rest of the other guy’s food. Infinite stops them.

Slowly, people stop stealing food.

Infinite gets to eat as much as he wants.

 

One of Infinite’s first clear memories, one he can recall, one where he knows who did what, is when jackal number twenty seven joins the group. The group of food raiders isn’t slow to pick a new victim, and the newcomer complains loudly, kicking and thrashing, while one jackal holds their arms and another one walks away with the food tray.

Infinite stands up from his place on the bench, puts his food down, and walks over to them.

The thief takes one step back and holds their loot away from Infinite. “Keep out of this! Don’t you have enough?”

“I think you’re forgetting which one of us is the boss around here,” Infinite says.

“Yeah, well it’s not you! Just because you’ve got a group of underdogs feeding you, you think you get to decide everything? Well, you don’t! So just go back to your group of losers and leave us alon-”

Infinite punches them. The stolen food scatters on the floor. The thief grabs the tray and lashes out after Infinite, who jumps back, and the thief attacks again and again and Infinite’s foot ends up on something slippery that fell off the tray, just enough that his dodge isn’t perfect, the corner of the tray is sharp and metal and rips a wound from the top of Infinite’s scalp down to his eye.

He yowls. His opponent says something that would be the beginning of a scornful comment of victory, and Infinite grabs the tray from their hands and beats them with it again and again and again until they fall to the floor. He discards the tray, grabs them by the throat and pulls them up.

“Do you understand who is the strongest?” Infinite asks.

“Yes, geesh, I’m sorry, please, just, come on, I’m sorry, I won’t – you can have my food too, I don’t -”

Infinite throws them to the ground. “You don’t have to tell me that. I am the one who decides around here.”

“Yes, yes, of course, please, please …”

Infinite turns his back to the jackal on the floor. He scans the room and spots the thief’s own food tray. He takes what he wants and then brings it to the frightened newcomer. Jackal number twenty seven. The jackal who would later be called Wayward. The thief’s two allies – one day they would be Hook and Shiv – back away with frightened eyes. Infinite ignores them.

The thief picks themself up and stands leaning against the wall, watches with rage and pain. They’re injured, bleeding from cuts on their back. In a few days, they will be picked for a fight, wounds not yet healed, not at all fit for combat. After the fight, they can’t stand.

They never got to get a name.

 

 

 

Infinite is jackal number twenty six. Following him is Wayward, Howl, jackal number twenty nine, and jackal number thirty. After that, no more joins them.

Infinite is the strongest of them, Infinite is the boss.

There are things that still tell him what to do. A screen. And robots. After fighting jackal number thirty, who doesn’t know how to give up, Infinite watches the robots carry off his opponent, who is still struggling and yelling even though he can’t get up. Infinite receives his jerky and looks at it. He looks at the robot that is going to guide him out of the room and back to the dining hall and he realizes that he doesn’t need this piece of jerky and he doesn’t need to follow someone else’s rules for who to fight.

Nobody notices. The robot is never repaired. Infinite realizes that the screen has lied to him all this time. Nobody is going to be the frontier of any new era. Whoever recorded those messages has long forgotten about them.

 

There are eighteen jackals in the facility by the time they revolt. Robots and ankles are shattered, doors are broken down, war cries and improvised weapons sing in the air.

There are five jackals in the facility. All of them are dead.

The survivors left long ago.

Nobody is around to bury the bodies.

 


 

 

He can’t get up.

He tried, more than once. He got on his feet, took a few steps, before the pain became too much and his legs collapsed under him.

His last attempt had him on hands and knees for a full minute while he fought the pain in his chest, trying to convince his legs to try again, and then everything went white and he found himself flat on the ground.

He’s been lying there for a while, enough that the pain has retreated back to his chest as a beating constant that makes him feel like he is dying every time he inhales.

And then, “Oh! There you are!”

His eye shoots open, he jerks away, the pain shoots out to all his limbs and he yelps.

He hears footsteps coming closer and forces his arm to support his body, but he still can’t get up. The ground reclaims him. He can’t get up, he just can’t.

“What a disaster. Well at least you’re still alive.”

Infinite looks up at reds and pinks too bright and saturated.

“So,” he rasps. “The famous blue hedgehog won’t finish what he started. Did he really send you to finish me off?”

“You silly goose, Sonic doesn’t know you’re here.” Amy kneels down next to him. “And we’re gonna keep it that way. You are very unpopular, and for good reason!” she points an accusing finger at Infinite’s nose.

Infinite spits. “Please. Don’t tell me you’ve decided to take pity on me.”

“Oh, absolutely not.” Amy gets up. “Don’t for a moment think I don’t know you’re a little shit.” She sends him a strict look. “But the world isn’t going to rebuild itself, and it is only fair that you give a hand in it!”

Infinite stares at her with his face twisted in contempt. She lifts an eyebrow. She’s not impressed.

“Can you stand?” she asks.

There’s a pause. Then, slowly, Infinite pushes himself to his elbows. Folds one leg, gets up on one knee. Pauses there, breathing hard. He ignores the hand offered to him and pushes himself up to be kneeling, and with all his last strength, he gets on his feet.

It’s first now that he registers the mask is gone. He brings his hand up to the ruined half of his face. At least one of the cuts is new. His legs are shaking.

He flinches when Amy touches his arm, and the movement is almost enough to make him fall over, but Amy catches him.

He’s on his feet, but he’s too weak to do anything but go where Amy leads him. He can’t stand on his own and now he is being carried away and he almost collapses completely but Amy doesn’t let him.

“Come on, quit hanging on me like that.” Amy jostles him. “If you can destroy our entire civilization then you can manage the walk home too.”

Chapter Text

Amy deposits Infinite on the couch.

“You stay here now. I’m going to make sure you have a place where people won’t try to kill you, but in the meantime you have to stay here and be quiet. Don’t answer the door! I might be gone for a few hours – No, actually, let’s wait with that. Do you want tea?”

Infinite blinks a few times, looking at Amy like he’s trying to decode another language.

“I’m gonna make you tea,” she decides.

 

She is about to ask Infinite what kind of tea he wants, but then stops in the kitchen with a box of chamomile in her hand and has the sudden revelation that this is very bizarre and might have been a bad idea. This guy is the reason Sonic was trapped for months on a space station, tortured, which still makes her stomach churn to just think about. He has killed people and shown no remorse. Is she really going to make him tea?

“Come on, Amy Rose,” she mumbles quietly to herself, “it’s too late to chicken out now. What are you going to do? Attack the guy in your own living room? Tattle to Shadow and have him kick his head in? Hurting him won’t change anything.” She lets out a huff of breath and straightens her back. “We need to rebuild. And he’s going to help.

Amy picks the healthiest and most bitter tea she has.

 

“Careful, it’s hot.” Amy puts the tea down in front of Infinite.

He has murdered people and ruined lives, and Amy almost feels bad about her sympathy, but Infinite looks very confused and unthreatening and feeble as he sits there on her pink couch and stares at the cup of tea like it’s a creature only known of in myths. It’s kind of infuriating, really, that he has the nerve to look this helpless after everything he has done.

They sit in awkward silence for a while. Finally, Amy stands up.

“I’m going to get you a blanket. Drink your tea.”

 

Amy leaves to sort through all of her blankets and takes her time picking one that she doesn’t mind lending to a murderer who is also very dirty. She settles for a light blue quilt and brings it to the living room, where she’s pleased to find that Infinite is holding his cup, carefully, with both hands, one on the handle and another on the side.

“Here you go,” she says and puts the blanket over the back of the couch.

Infinite follows her with a golden eye while sipping his tea.

“So,” Amy says, trying to come to terms with the consequences of her actions, “when you’re done with your tea, you should rest, and I’m going to talk to my friend, and you can stay at his place while I get everything sorted out.”

Infinite says nothing. He downs the rest of his tea and puts the cup back on the table. Amy notices his hands shake.

She hands him the blanket, and he takes it and wraps it around himself while she props up some sofa cushions. He looks like a scared animal as he lays down, still watching Amy with one frightened eye.

“There you go.” She takes the cup. “Now just stay there. I will be right back.”

She brings the cup to the kitchen, washes it up, puts it on the drying rack. She goes through the living room, still being watched by the jackal on the couch, and even though he can’t see her in the hallway, she feels like the golden eye is still following her.

She puts on her coat and double-checks for her keys. “I’ll be right back,” she says one more time.

She hesitates for another second before she finally leaves.

 

The door closes with a gentle click, and Infinite hears the lock. It takes him another few minutes before he accepts that Amy did actually leave and dares to look away from the hallway.

His heart is beating heavily in his chest, his pulse feels too fast and too strong. He hasn’t thought about his heartbeat since he was fused with the phantom ruby, and he’s pretty sure Eggman shuffled some of his organs around in the process. His heart feels further down than he is used to.

The pain left by the phantom ruby has dulled down to a constant aching. It allows Infinite to feel other things. His face is stinging, his head hurts, and he thinks his tail might be broken. With a pained sigh, he turns a bit to get comfortable on the cushions. It’s the softest surface he’s lied on in a long time.

Even if Amy had lied to him, there isn’t much he can do. He can’t run and he can’t fight. If she’s going to finish him, or get someone else to do it, it’s going to happen and he can’t stop it.

He might as well sleep.

 

 

“- someone else comes. Oh, he’s still asleep, that’s good.”

“Should we whisper?” The voice is deep and kept low.

“We’ll just go to the kitchen. Come on.”

Infinite opens his eye to a crack and sees a figure that seems way too big for the small living room. His heart freezes, and he forgets that he was pretending to still be asleep. They make eye contact.

“Oh! Sorry! We didn’t mean to wake you up. You can keep napping.”

Infinite pushes himself up and pulls to the other side of the couch, as far away from the stranger as he can. They’re a giant, even bigger than the robot from the resistance, and this is a creature of flesh and blood and they are a person and they talk and Amy is clearly on good terms with them and Infinite doesn’t like it.

“Don’t worry, I won’t hurt you.”

“Ah!” Amy feels bad for having her guest be greeted like this, but at least Infinite’s stare isn’t fixed on her anymore. “Well, since you’re awake, then -” she slips into the role of the host without even thinking about it. “Infinite, this is my friend Big. Big, this is Infinite.”

“And this is Froggy!” Big points to a small creature perched on his head.

“Yes, of course, Froggy, this is Infinite, Infinite, this is Froggy. Infinite, you’re going to live with Big while I sort things through with the others.”

“Why are people mad at you again?” Big pushes the sofa table out of the way and sits down on the other side of the couch. Infinite pulls even further away.

Amy takes the armchair. “Well, he … kinda sorta destroyed the world while you were gone.”

Big’s expression shifts to a gentle but disapproving frown. “That doesn’t sound very nice.”

Infinite feels very small.

“Well, no, it wasn’t,” Amy says. “But we can’t just leave him wherever and we need all the help we can with rebuilding, which is why he’s here. He can’t do it again by the way, don’t worry.”

“You shouldn’t,” Big says. “That’s cruel.”

Infinite doesn’t dare to say anything.

Amy sighs. “Well, yes. He can be … a bit of a mouthful. But someone has to do it, and I – I don’t know how the others would react. I’ll come and look after him, I promise, I just … need somewhere where the others don’t find him. Just while they calm down a bit.”

Big nods. He does this by bobbing his head up and down gently so he won’t disturb the frog on his head.

“As long as you are nice to the frogs,” Big reprimands.

Infinite’s claws dig into the couch.

“Yes,” he says, and manages to keep his voice from shaking.

Amy lets out a small, relieved sigh. “So. Would you like to eat dinner here, or would you rather go now?”

Big shrugs. “I got plenty of fish at home, but I wouldn’t mind. Froggy?”

“Rribbit.”

“Then we’ll stay.”

Amy claps her hands together. “Great! I’ll cook something up.”

“Do you need help?” Big asks.

“No no, it’s fine –“ Amy says, and then remembers that the standard host etiquette might not apply when there’s a very uncomfortable personage positioned in the room, so she adds, “but you can help chop the vegetables if you want to.”

“Oki-doki.” Big gets up and follows Amy to the kitchen.

 

Amy distracts herself by being busy at the stove and chatting away. Big seems completely at ease, which makes sense, she guesses, he wasn’t there, he hasn’t seen what Infinite has done, but it is still both a relief, and a really weird feeling.

“Listen,” Amy says as Big passes her a cutting board full of neatly chopped carrots. “If he is any trouble at all, tell me. I’ll … I can find some other way. I don’t want him to affect more people negatively.”

“Don’t worry, Amy.” Big pats her head with a gentle paw. “I’m sure everything will turn out just fine.”

She sighs. “I’m sorry I had to ask you this. He’s …” she dumps the carrots in the pot and puts the cutting board down, then stands there for a second. “He’s just not the nicest person, Big.”

“You worry too much,” he tells her.

Amy can’t help but smile.

 

 

Infinite sits on the couch with his knees against his chest. His heart is still galloping. They can’t truly be keeping him alive just to aid with rebuilding … he is nothing right now. No phantom ruby, no squad, he can’t even stand properly. Any random street rat would be better help, so what do they want? Revenge is the obvious choice, but that doesn’t explain the blankets and the tea. Maybe Amy is trying to prove herself by bringing back Infinite, but a broken down and trembling one won’t impress … what is she going to do to him afterwards? Is she going to use him as a weapon? Is she taking revenge for something by bringing Sonic’s enemy home? Is he simply not worth the effort to finish off?

Maybe she thinks Eggman still cares about him and is going to use Infinite as blackmail. Then she is going to be disappointed.

And what about the other guy. Big. Where has he been if he somehow doesn’t know about Infinite, how did he not notice the world crumbling around him? There’s no way. They have to be lying to Infinite, but why?

The uncertainty is worse than any of the fates he can think of. If he just knew what they wanted with him. He might not be able to fight back, but at least he could prepare himself for it. Come to terms with it, maybe.

He wants to know if he should be pleading for his life.

He doesn’t want to die.

Chapter Text

There are thirteen jackals, collected in a small, tight group, wandering through the desert sand. The sun is bright and digs into their eyes, the wind sends their fur into their faces, and walking through the dunes is so different from the short walks from room to room on concrete floors. They make their way away slowly.

They are thirteen jackals who could probably fight a small army, and they are not prepared for the world outside.

Thirteen weak, dehydrated jackals learn when to find shade and how to keep warm in the cold desert nights. Infinite learns hunger, real hunger, every jackal learns to hunt. Infinite learns that you do not demand food from a desperate jackal. You might win, but it will not be worth it.

Then they learn to steal.

It’s simple, really, when they work together. People come through the desert sometimes, and they are no match for thirteen jackals. They split the loot evenly, find blankets and fire and food, and build a camp out of things they have no other use for, boxes and tarpaulins and things they don’t know what are called. They are back to being more than just barely alive.

They begin getting and giving each other names. It’s slow at first, but then everyone wants one, and when fights break out over who gets to call themselves Slayer, Infinite steps in and pulls them apart. Tells them whoever brings home the biggest prey can get to be Slayer.

They’re orderly enough to recognize a leader again, and it is Infinite. He is no longer jackal number twenty six. He is the Boss.

One day, a group of people approach the jackals’ camp. The jackals immediately get ready to attack, improvised weaponry in their hands made from wood and stone and scraps of metal.

The people call out to them. Infinite yells back. His gang makes ready to charge, but then his eyes widen, and he puts out a hand. They stop, puzzled.

That’s their first hired deal. Three wagons, through the desert, and if they guard it on the three-day travel, they will be rewarded. Infinite warns them that if they don’t uphold their end of the deal, they will regret it.

The people do uphold their part of the deal. Before they part ways, Infinite says that his squad would be willing to do it again, for a price.

Those travellers don’t come back to the jackals, but others do. Some pay them to let their caravan go, others for the jackals to follow them through the desert. And one day, someone comes, alone, one figure, wrapped in robes. He tells them if they stop the group of people currently wandering through the desert, carrying heavy loads, he will supply them with weaponry, and they can keep the loot.

Infinite asks which kind of weaponry we are talking, feeling like there might be more to this task than what meets the eye. He is presented with a ruby red saber, gleaming in the light, painful blue details in the handle. He laughs. The stranger seems offended, but Infinite takes the blade and holds it up.

“How fitting that such dreadful colours would be my weapon of destruction. We’ll take your job. Make sure you have twelve pieces of weaponry when we are done. I want nobody in my squad to go unarmed.”

And that is a deal.

Then they find out that the things they thought were useless or could only be used as shade can be sold to strange travellers. Infinite sees Wayward and Howl talk and babble to the strangers, sees how their posture becomes friendlier, how they let more money go. He assigns the two to go sell the things they have no use for at the edge of the desert, going with them the first few times, and then sending Hook and Snap and Dart to protect them in case anything goes wrong.

Then the monsoon comes.

The desert floods. Their camp is almost washed away. Shiv has to save Shreds from drowning, and she only manages because she is crafty and good at using rope. None of them can swim. Their food is waterlogged, their fur is drenched, the nights are cold like the steel of a knife and everyone has to pile under the same tarpaulin to just stay relatively warm. The jackals get rowdy, Infinite can’t keep them in line.

They have to move everything they own and find a place where the rain is just a little more bearable. Just as they had gotten used to walking in the soft sand, the ground turns to soppy mud that suck their feet down. First they fight over who gets to use the sad remains of their camp to cover their heads when they walk, but they all end up drenched to the skin sooner or later, fur hanging in sad clumps and tails dragging in the porridge-thick sand.

 

They lose Spike.

Dart is good at saving food. They are small and don’t eat much. Spike doesn’t take well to this.

“Why don’t you have to share?” Spike says as he holds up the side of a broken box while Snap tries to get it to stand.

“I have shared,” Dart says and takes another bite. “Got just as much as you done. Just don’t gobble up it all immediately, is all.”

“That’s no fair!” Spike complains. “We’re all starving and there you are munching happily just because you’re small and weak.

Dart sends Spike an arrogant look. “Ain’t my problem you don’t know how to ration. Shouldave thought of that before.”

“You little shit!” Spike almost forgets he’s holding the box for Snap, and she has to step back to not hit her face on it.

“Hey!” she snaps, true to her name. “Watch it!”

“Maybe I’ll let you taste when you learn to do a thing properly,” Dart says as they side-eye Spike, who’s trying to get the box upright again.

Spike lets go of the box and tackles Dart, who skips away with a yelp. Snap slips and ends up on her knees trying to keep the box from falling on her while Spike lashes out after Dart, who slides in the wet sand and then Spike has them and punches their face, Dart uses their wet fur to their advantage and slips out of Spike’s grasp, but the other jackal lashes out and throws himself against Dart, hitting them, they fall over, so does Spike, Dart hits their snout on the side of the box, cuts their face and yelps in pain and Snap finally loses her balance and only just manages to get out of the way before the box pushes her into the wet, slippery sand, but her leg gets stuck under box and fighting jackals and then Infinite has his hand around the scruff of Dart and Spike’s necks and lifts them both up.

Both of them hang still in his grasp. Dart is bleeding from a cut just over their nose. Spike is breathing hard, anger making his cheeks flush.

“Spike. Dart. Snap.” Infinite says, eyes narrow, teeth bared.

“He attacked me!” Dart whines.

Snap gets out from under the box. “What is you two’s problem? I’m trying to build shelter here!”

Infinite’s eyes land on Spike.

“They - they were flaunting their food in my face!” Spike says. “How come they get so much food they can go for days when they don’t even eat it, they get way more than I do, I’m hungry and they’re just sitting there munchi- OOF!”

Infinite lets go of Dart and throws Spike on the ground.

“Do you have any complaints about how I ration our food?” Infinite says, looming over Spike.

“Come on, Boss!” Spike tries to get up, but is immediately pushed down again. “They don’t need it! We need it! I’m hungry! And you just let that guy hoard it all to themself?”

Infinite grabs Spike by the throat and lifts him. Spike gasps and claw at Infinite’s arms, but Infinite doesn’t let go.

“My rules are not up to debate,” Infinite says, “and you are to follow them, whether you like it or not. And if you ever attack one of my jackals again - ” Infinite puts his face centimeters away from Spike’s “- I’ll make sure you never get to stand up again.”

Infinite tightens his grip around Spike’s throat and watches him thrash. Then he lets go.

Spike falls to the ground, gasping. He scrambles to his feet and backs away.

“Fine!” he yells, “FINE! I don’t care! Keep your, your stupid rules and your stupid food, I don’t NEED YOU!”

Then Spike turns and runs. Infinite watches him become nothing more than a dark grey silhouette in the rain. Infinite’s expression doesn’t change, and he doesn’t say a word. Then he turns his back and walks over to Hook and Howl and orders them to keep working, ignoring their wide eyes and startled looks, acting as if nothing happened.

They never see Spike again.

 


 

He jumps when the door to the kitchen opens, and pain jolts out from his chest. He can’t quite choke a whimper.

“Here comes the food!” Big announces cheerfully.

Infinite almost jumps again when there’s suddenly a frog on the table. Froggy lets a coaster drop from his mouth and then jumps off the table again. Big puts the pot down, and Amy follows behind with plates and cutlery.

Amy nervously rattles off polite formalities, Big answers honestly while watching her with gentle concern, and Infinite is back to the corner of the couch furthest away from Big, hiding as much as he can under the blanket, an useless shield against an imaginary enemy. Amy fills a plate and asks Big if he wants soda. Big thanks no, and Amy slides the full plate and a set of cutlery to Infinite and goes to get some water.

“You just start eating, I’ll be right back!”

Big pours himself a portion. The fork looks ridiculously small in his hand.

“Did you say something mean to Amy?” he asks.

Infinite presses himself against the back of the couch. “I - wh - ...”

“She seems upset.” Big sends Infinite a gentle look that could make a rock feel bad for making Amy sad.

Infinite ignores his dried-out throat and forces himself to speak.

“I … may have … back when we fought. But it is probably about the things I have done.” He looks down at the food in front of him, the blanket, himself. “I am surprised at how well she hides her loathing.”

Big hums, thoughtful. Froggy jumps to his shoulder.

“R-r-r-wOmp,” he says.

“I didn’t know we were staying for dinner,” Big replies.

“Rrrribb.”

“We’ll get you something good when we get home.” Big piles as much food on his fork as he can. “It won’t be long.”

Froggy folds his legs up with a small ‘wamp’.

Infinite looks at the plate for a long time before he slips a hand out from under the blanket and takes his fork. He almost drops it when Amy comes back.

Amy passes glasses around and pours water before she finally sits down. She tries to fill the room with a bit of nervous chatter, and Big encourages her with a small word here and there while Infinite gathers his nerves enough to start on his food.

It hurts to eat. Swallowing is followed by a hard, dull pain around the phantom ruby’s spot in his chest. It’s also probably the best food he’s ever tasted and he shovels it into his mouth and then cringes when he has to swallow.

Amy is about to say something about his appetite, but stops herself. She instead looks away and asks Big about the other frogs at home, was everything all right?

Big tells that everyone seem okay, some of them are a little spooked, but that could also have been because of a wild animal coming close, you never know. He keeps sending looks to the jackal next to him while talking. Amy reads his concern and reluctantly holds her next question back.

Big watches Infinite chew like his life depends on it and then grimace when he swallows.

“Are you okay?” Big asks.

Infinite looks up, startled, like a wild animal.

“You can take it easy. There’s no rush.”

“Wamp!” Froggy protests.

“Oh, shush.”

Infinite hesitates, body tense.

“… sorry,” he tries.

“Don’t worry.”

Big reaches over to pat Infinite’s head, and Infinite freezes in place, eye wide and startled. Big stops, then pulls his hand away.

“Whoops. Sorry.”

Infinite stays frozen, breathing hard. Big puts his head on the side.

“I think it’s better if we leave him be,” Amy says gently.

Big looks at Infinite for a few seconds before he nods.  “Okay then.”

Big and Amy keep the conversation going, a bit more distracted, both of them keeping half an eye on Infinite. Both of them are relieved when Infinite finally begins eating again, slower this time.

 

“You want some more?” Big asks when Infinite has emptied his plate.

Infinite looks up. His eye darts from Big to Amy like he’s afraid of springing a trap.

“There’s plenty,” Amy says.

Infinite opens his mouth, but doesn’t know what the correct response is. His grip on the fork is so strong his claws curl around and dig into his palm, he can feel it through his glove.

Amy and Big has a wordless exchange of glances, Amy nods to him, and Big slides the pot over to Infinite with a gentle smile before turning back to Amy and starting their conversation back up.

Infinite hesitates. He looks at the pot, then at Big and Amy.

His hand shakes ever so slightly as he pours himself another portion.

 

 

“Thanks for the meal.” Big puts his fork down on the plate. “Do you need help with the dishes?”

“Wamp!” Froggy complains.

“Hush now. Don’t be rude.”

A careful smile tugs at the corner of Amy’s mouth. “Don’t worry, I’ll handle it. Let’s not keep Froggy from his meal.”

“Ribbit,” Froggy agrees.

“All right.” Big stands up and turns to Infinite. “We’ll get going.”

Infinite looks up at Big. He furrows his brow and clenches his teeth, puts his feet on the floor and a hand on the couch, and gets himself to stand.

Big encourages him with a smile. Infinite just stands there, holding onto the couch.

“Are you going to need anything?” Amy asks from the kitchen. “Pillows? Extra food?”

“Nah, we’re good. You coming?”

Infinite lets go of the couch and takes one step towards the hallway, and then another. His legs threaten to give way under him.

“Oh boy,” Big says. “Here, come on.”

Infinite reels away from Big and staggers, there’s nothing nearby to hold onto and then Big’s hand is holding him up by the elbow.

“You’re really hurt, huh?”

Big leans down, and Infinite makes a small startled sound as he’s lifted from the ground. He clings to a clump of Big’s fur, trembling slightly.

”There you go.” Big shuffles Infinite into a secure spot against his chest. “I’ll carry you home.”

Infinite feels like he should do something about this situation, but he’s also very painfully aware that he can’t – even without his injuries, he feels like Big would have no trouble keeping him in line – so he concentrates on getting his breathing under control instead.

Amy looks at Big and Infinite with her head on the side and a small frown. “We better cover him up. Just to make sure nobody recognizes him.”

She takes the quilt from the couch, and Big kneels down, Infinite sits still as a frightened hare and Amy wraps the blanket around the injured side of his face, hides his hair and drapes the rest over his body.

She puts her hands on her hips. “There we go.”

“Bye-bye then,” Big says, and then looks down at Infinite. “Remember to say thanks for the help to Amy.”

There’s quiet in the living room. Amy shuffles and wonders how to best break the awkward silence and brush it off.

“… Thank you,” Infinite then rasps.

Amy makes a tense sweeping gesture with her hand. “Let’s not talk more about that now. I’ll, uh, see you, sometime tomorrow?”

Big nods. “Bye-bye, Amy!”

“R-r-ribbt,” Froggy says.

She waves at them as they leave. Then she closes the door behind her and lets out a deep sigh.

“This … might have been a terrible idea,” she says to the empty hallway.

Chapter Text

The streets are empty around Amy’s home. The world is painted in black and the orange glow of the street lamps. It must be late.

There’s more proof of the war closer to the center of the city. There are also more people. Infinite’s heart is racing, breathing hectic. Big seems unfazed.

They walk right past a group of three people who are chatting away while working on repairing the façade of a shop. A bat, a cat, and a fox. Nocturnal workers. The fox is wearing the symbol of the resistance proudly on the strap of their bag. Infinite retreats so only his eye is visible under the blanket.

The trains are up and running, miraculously enough. A couple volunteers stand around the entrance to the station, giving out information about which lines are going, how far, and what to do if your route is interrupted.

Big tells a friendly boar where he’s going, and she tells him that they’re in luck, the train to the mystic ruins is running and will be there in less than an hour.

“Though, for injuries, I would very much recommend going to the community center.” She sends a soft look to the eye visible under the blanket. “They have emergency crew and nurses working twenty-four seven at the moment.”

“Uh, no thanks,” Big says, “I think it’s better if I take him home.”

She nods with a small smile. “I understand. The more of us that have homes to return to, the better.” Her voice shifts slightly as she goes back in service mode. “The train will arrive in around thirty minutes, we’ll announce it over the speakers. It pauses at the station for twenty minutes before departure.”

Big nods and thanks.

He sits down in the waiting hall near a wall and gently pulls at the blanket so he can look Infinite in the eye.

“You okay?”

“I’m fine,” Infinite lies in a whisper.

Infinite’s eye darts around and he tries to make himself smaller than he is. Big puts the blanket back over his face.

 

People come and go. Most of them talk to the volunteers at the door for a while before they leave again, but a few stay and wait. A couple sits down closer to the entrance, ears and tails hanging, but their tired smiles are warm, their fingers interlocked. A bird is asleep in the corner, leaning against a backpack that looks like it’s about to break at the seams. Infinite doesn’t dare to look closer, but he’s pretty sure the blue mark on one of the bag’s straps is the revolution’s star.

Big sits with endless patience and doesn’t seem bothered by the situation at all. Froggy is pouting, but nobody but Big has enough knowledge on frog anatomy to know that.

The bird shuffles in their sleep. A tired construction worker talks to a volunteer for a long while before he aims for the waiting area. The couple looks up for a moment, then go back to their gentle chatting.

More people begin arriving as time passes, still just a small handful, but every one of them makes Infinite more tense. He wishes he had his mask instead of this feeble guard of fabric to conceal his face, but he also knows that the resistance knows him by that and not the features underneath.

“Train to mystic ruins arriving shortly,” a voice announces, echoing under the roof. “Departure in twenty minutes.”

People begin shifting and picking up their luggage, packing up whatever they had used to pass time, a newspaper is abandoned on a seat and a young fox fumbles for his bookmark. The bird wakes up and gets on their feet, blinking drowsily. Infinite is lifted, part of the blanket slips and he claws after it in desperation and pulls it back over his face.

The conductor isn’t checking tickets, he helps with boarding luggage and answers questions.

“No, there’s no interruptions on this line, all tracks are unharmed. Travel time is expected to be half an hour longer, we wait extra time at all stops.” He nods to the passenger, who thanks for his help. Then he spots Big, Froggy, and the weirdly shaped bundle in his arms. “Excuse me, sir? Is everything all right?”

Infinite holds his breath.

“Oh, yes,” Big says. “We’re just going home.”

“Oh! It’s a – my goodness. This war truly has taken too many tolls. Are they going to be okay? I can contact a medical expert if you need it.”

Big shakes his head. “He just needs rest.”

“I see. Well … I’m sorry. Safe travels.” The conductor steps aside.

Big enters the train. Infinite lets go of his breath, closing his eye in a moment of relief.

Big finds a seat and puts Infinite down in his lap so he only needs to hold Infinite up with one arm. As soon as they’re seated, Froggy begins complaining.

“Rr-r-r-ribbitt,” he says, not too loudly, but right into Big’s ear.

“I know, pal. I didn’t think of it.”

“Wamp!”

“Come on, it’s not that bad. Stop being so grumpy.”

Froggy does not stop being grumpy.

“You can’t expect Amy to have snacks for you. She’s been fighting. She didn’t have time for grocery shopping.”

Froggy makes a small, dissatisfied sound and shuffles into a little cranky ball on Big’s shoulder.

Infinite wants to ask what allows Big to communicate with the frog on his shoulder, and why, but a fox is sitting two seats over and he doesn’t want to draw attention to himself. He finds a speck of dirt on the floor of the train to focus on and tries to look as unsuspicious as he can. Someone is chatting gently somewhere to his left, he can’t make out what they’re saying but hears the response as a small but chipper laugh. Every voice he hears belongs to an enemy, and he can’t fight. In a twist of biting irony, his best bet for survival is to lie still.

Feet tap against the floor. Someone coughs. The door slides shut, and the carriage is quiet in the way a place is when people are existing in a small space, sitting on seats and waiting, and don’t know each other unless they travel together. A few moments pass, the doors open again, a new passenger steps in and finds a seat. Infinite watches their feet and mentally urges them on as they pass. They choose a seat across the carriage, Infinite can see their legs.

 

The doors are shut for another ten minutes. Infinite just wants the train to go. Then the doors slide open again, he cringes, another passenger enters. They walk past Big’s right side, but then stops just before their shoes exit Infinite’s field of vision. And then they turn around.

“Hey. Cute frog.”

Froggy makes a satisfied frog sound and looks very proud.

“Oh!” Big smiles. “He’s my friend!”

“He’s okay with public transport?”

“Froggy doesn’t mind trains. We take it every time we need to visit our friends in the city.”

“Aw, that’s so cool!”

And then the stranger sits down on the seat next to them.

“I love animal friends. They’re so good.” The strangers cross their legs.

“Wamp!” Froggy agrees.

“He’s my best bud.” Big offers his hand to Froggy, who jumps onto his glove. “Want to say hello?”

The stranger laughs and offers one finger, and Froggy puts his little frog hand on it and lets the stranger shake it.

“You have got to be the most polite frog I have ever met,” the stranger says with joy in their eyes.

“Rrribbt!” Froggy jumps back on Big’s shoulder and shuffles into a satisfied little frog ball.

“He likes you,” Big says.

The stranger laughs.

“I’m honored.” They lean back in the seat. “There’s nothing better than being accepted by animals. They never judge.”

“They only care if you’re nice,” Big agrees.

“Exactly.”

Outside, the announcer voice echoes in the train station. The stranger looks up, puts their head on the side.

“I’m so happy the train is still going. I’m gonna live with my family while my home is being rebuilt.” They sigh. “It’s been a long few months, huh?”

“I haven’t been home,” Big says, “but it looks like a lot of stuff has been going on.”

Big notices Infinite, who has been very stiff, is now breathing rapidly, and looks down. The stranger follows Big’s eyes, and Infinite feels his whole body fill with fear, cold as steel, when the stranger makes eye contact.

“Oh my god!” The stranger reels back. “Holy … sorry, I didn’t even notice you! Wow, what happened to you? Goodness, I’m sorry!”

Infinite’s entire body is wrapped up in fear, his throat closing like he’s being choked by a snake.

“Oh!” Big puts a hand on Infinite’s head just above his eye, shielding him. “He’s just, mostly, uhh, he can’t walk well.” Big looks down. “And he’s shy.”

“Aw, I’m sorry. Wow. I didn’t even see him.” They laugh, nervously. “I won’t force me on, then.”

“It’s okay.”

“My sister has social anxiety, I know how it is. It’s just good to see people who can get help with coping … ” They stand up. “You’re definitely going very unnoticed,” they say with a reassuring smile to the golden eye visible under the blanket. “It was nice meeting you. You all. Have a nice day, okay?”

“You too,” Big says and waves, the stranger smiles and walks down the carriage and finds another seat.

Infinite feels like his heart is trying to tear down his ribcage and run away. His entire body is moving with every breath he takes.

Big looks down at him, concerned, but doesn’t dare ask if Infinite is okay. He moves his hand away. He wants to pat Infinite’s head, but past experience tells him it’s not the best idea. Maybe Infinite just doesn’t like his head touched.

Big moves his arm a bit to hold Infinite more upright, and starts to purr gently, like he does when Amy needs a big hug or Cream has had a nightmare. The carriage fills with a sound like a more soothing version of a motorcycle revving up.

The gentle vibrations slowly push Infinite’s fear down and in, collecting in his chest, letting his body go. Infinite closes his eye and turns his head, hiding completely under the blanket. His breathing is still heavy, but less desperate, and Big feels him calm down, slowly, as the train starts moving.

 

Infinite dozes. Every stop and every unexpected sound jostles him from sleep, and he tells himself to stay awake, he can’t afford to not be alert … and then his thoughts run off track, into a loop, die down, his eyelid is heavy, and he slips into a light sleep that he doesn’t notice before he’s woken up again.

The world whistles past outside the windows, mostly visible as small, bright lights and pitch black silhouettes against a dark grey sky. Many of what would be distant dots of starry street lights are now flickering warm spots where the power hasn’t been repaired, fires keeping people warm and telling the world, we’re still alive, we’re still here.

Big watches it all with a gentle frown. He stopped purring when Infinite’s body went heavy with sleep the first time, now he’s sitting quietly and watching, as he does best. Froggy is napping on his shoulder.

Infinite shuffles every time they pull up at a new stop, pokes his nose out and watches the door for a few moments before Big feels him doze off again and pushes him back under the blanket. Only one other passenger enters the train during their journey, all the other stations has people getting off, or the train just stands there and waits in the yellow light over the tracks, in case anyone needs it. Then it drives on.

The train slowly empties. Big waves goodbye to the kind stranger as they get off, sees them be greeted by a group of four people, they dash forward and desperately try to hug them all at once, eager chatter filling the station before the automated doors slid closed and ends their connection to Big and Froggy and Infinite’s lives, their reunion still visible through the windows but no longer audible. The group leaves the station together, the stranger sandwiched between two relatives, arms around their shoulders. Big can see them laugh. The station empties, the train sets into movement, the platform slides away, slowly, then faster, as the world turns into thin stripes, and faraway hills move behind the foreground, like ancient beasts.

The last passenger to leave is the fox. When the train sets into movement again, Big gently pulls at the blanket. Infinite blinks sleep from his eye.

“You can come out now.”

“What ...” he grabs the end of the blanket to pull it back, but then stops and looks around. “No,” he says, “someone could still come.”

Big shrugs. “People never get on around here, but okay.”

Infinite retreats back into his cave. Sleep is still resting heavily in his head, and this time, he allows himself to willingly give in.

A few stations later, Big gently calls his name.

“Infinite?”

The jackal turns his head so he can look out at Big.

“Next stop is the last one. You can come out if you want.”

Infinite hesitates. Then he pushes his head out and shakes the blanket off, blinks at the thin white light in the train, brushes a tuft of fur away from his forehead. Slowly, he makes his way out of the covers, and Big helps him sit down on the seat next to him.

“You’re sure nobody is getting on at the next station?” Infinite feels awfully exposed and tries to hide his stripes under his arms.

“Not this late. The only people who go here are tourists, and they’ve gone home now. And sometimes Knuckles, when the master emerald has been stolen.”

“He’s … not gonna be there is he?” Infinite looks around, knowing it’s foolish but not able to stop himself.

“He’s busy in the city. And I think he likes to sit on top of the train?” Big pats Infinite’s head. “Don’t worry. I don’t think people who live here even know you.”

“Everyone knows me,” Infinite says.

“It’s nighttime. I’ll cover you when we get to the station.”

Infinite lets his head rest on the window behind him. “I can’t hide forever.”

“You don’t have to. Amy will sort everything out. She’s good at that kinda stuff.”

Infinite doesn’t answer, just turns his head away. He can see his own reflection in the window, darkened by the night behind it and doubled in the glass.

He’s a mess.

In total, he has got about two thirds of an ear left, nothing but a ragged scrap on his right, the left one is jagged like a broken bat’s wing and the tip is bent. His face is a crisscross of scrapes and scars, most of them months old, his right eye is nothing but a curled dark line across the skin where his fur won’t grow back. Closed in what looks like a permanent expression of pain, even when his face is at rest.

He turns away from the window.

“Don’t be scared,” Big says.

“I’m not -!” Infinite stops himself, his face clenched. He looks away.

Big puts a hand on his shoulder. Infinite wants to push it away, but he’s so tired and so, weak, and as long as Big is kept in the dark about exactly what Infinite has done, staying on Big’s good side is his best chance of survival.

So he lets the hand stay.

Chapter Text

“Oh! I can see the ocean! We’re almost there.”

Big picks up the blanket and hands it to Infinite.

Infinite takes it and pulls it over his head. Big reaches over and covers the last bit of Infinite’s tail.

A few minutes later, they pull up at the station. The train slows to a stop. Big picks Infinite up again, Froggy croaks sleepily as he’s shaken from his nap. They exit the white light of the train, and the doors close behind them.

The station is primitive and poorly lit, a few lanterns burn with flames instead of electricity. Big walks down the stairs and enters the night. A thin moon sends light through even thinner, transparent clouds, allowing Infinite to get a faint idea of his surroundings, but no more than that.

Big either has better night vision than Infinite, or he just knows his surroundings like the back of his hand, maybe both. He carries Infinite down a set of wooden stairs, and then mountain walls block out most of the light, and Infinite can only make out vague ideas of where there’s sky and where there’s stone.

The shapes blocking out the sky slowly change from mountain walls to softer, uneven shapes as they enter the jungle. Big walks along a small path that he has worn over many years. The night is full of activity. Something rustles in the bushes, a low cooing sound comes from above. The air smells like earth and rain, of a million things passing by, too many and too swiftly for any scent to be identified. Infinite can only see in the spots where the moonlight has made it through holes in the foliage above, small patches of light on the ground close to Big’s feet, that’s all.

Infinite watches the night as he’s carried deeper into the jungle. He can’t help but feel like he’s being brought to no man’s land to be left and forgotten. Just like he was found in no  man’s land earlier today. Discarded. Forgotten.

He isn’t even sure where exactly he was found. The walk to Amy’s house seemed endless, but most things do when you can barely stand on your own.

“Come on, Froggy. Wake up.” Big calls out, gently. “We’re almost home.”

“Rrrribb?”

The ground gets soggy. Big steps on the pieces of wood he’s put down to make the ground easier to walk on during wetter seasons. Froggy jumps off his shoulder and splashes into a puddle. A drop of water lands on Infinite’s nose, and he shakes his head and makes a face.

“Here we go!” Big says.

Big walks up a few steps of stairs and across what seems like an open space with a ceiling but no walls, the sound of Big’s feet against the ground tells Infinite that it must be made of something more solid than earth, maybe wood. Three more steps and there’s a wall, or that’s what it seems like. Big uses his shoulder to push something away and carries Infinite through.

Infinite can’t make out any details of the place, but there’s a ceiling above and what looks like walls around, rustling gently in the wind, giving him a feeling they might not be too solid either.

Big carefully puts him down next to the doorway.

“Hold on, I’ll get some light,” Big says.

Infinite stands on unsafe legs, trying and failing to make sense of his surroundings.

“It’s nice to have company,” Big says from somewhere in the dark. “I was going to invite people over for fish when I got home, but nobody had the time right now. Shadow only stopped by to drop me off, he didn’t even have time for tea.”

“Shadow?” Infinite looks up in the general direction of Big, who is searching around in the dark. “You know Shadow?”

“He’s my friend! I don’t see him that often, but he joins me on fishing trips sometimes. Usually when Rouge has guests.”

A small flame appears, lighting up the hut, and Big puts the match to the wick of a lamp and urges it on with gentle patience. Golden light reaches out from between the palm leaves, Infinite can make out a bed, a nightstand, a kitchen that is just a an old iron stove and a single counter with a cupboard underneath, the only things that looks like they were bought from a shop and not made from resources from the forest. Even if the stove does looks like something from the past.

“Do you know Shadow too?” Big asks.

“He,” Infinite says with quiet venom, “is the reason all of this happened to me.”

“Oh. You fought?”

“He eliminated my whole squad!”

Infinite’s eye is large and intense, he looks like a wild animal with the golden light flickering over his face.

“What? No, that can’t be right.” Big kneels down to reach under his bed. “Shadow’s not like that. He’s nice.”

“Every SINGLE one.” He’s breathing hard, teeth clenched. “He destroyed my face, he called me WEAK.”

Big pulls out a bed frame made of bamboo that he pushes across the floor.

“That doesn’t sound very nice,” he says and ducks back to search under the bed again.

“Would you STOP TALKING about what’s NICE?!” Infinite snaps.

Big pulls his head out and puts a finger to his lips. “Schhh!”

“WHAT?”

Big stands up and reaches towards Infinite with a shushing finger.

“It’s okay to be upset, but you’re gonna scare the frogs,” he says.

“I don’t CARE!” Infinite yells and backs away.

Big follows after Infinite, still shushing, and  Infinite backs through the doorway just to get away, he doesn’t see the stairsteps because of course that’s his blind spot because of his eye and he loses balance with a yelp, Big darts forwards to try and catch him but is too slow, Infinite tumbles down the stairs to the wet ground beneath and the pain flares up like a beast crashing through his body and he refuses to cry out like a weakling so he ROARS, hoarse and mad and desperate for any form of control.

Big’s hand wraps over his snout. “Schhh!”

Infinite thrashes and claws at the hand, his voice muffled, frustrations splitting and growing in his chest, Big needs nothing but one hand to hold him still, he doesn’t even NOTICE Infinite’s attempts to get free -

“Please, stop. You’re gonna hurt yourself.”

Infinite tries to scream and all he can make audible is a muffled whine.

“Please, I beg of ya. I’ll let you go if you stop yelling, all right? Please?”

Infinite hurts too much for him to keep struggling, all he can do is dig his claws into Big’s glove, and he can FEEL that he’s not even getting through the fur.

“Schhh … Come on,” Big tries. “I don’t wanna fight.”

Infinite makes a muffled sound in the back of his throat, and his desperate clawing fades until he’s just holding onto Big’s hand with a shaking, talonlike grasp.

“Rrrooobb?” it sounds to his left.

“No, it’s okay,” Big says to the darkness. “We have a guest, but he’s a bit upset right now. He’ll calm down.”

“Rribbt.”

“You can say hello later.”

Infinite’s grasp loosens, his hands fall, and he hangs like a ragdoll.

Big looks down at him.

“I’m going to let you go now, okay? Don’t yell.”

Big removes his hand.

Infinite falls to his knees, panting, the soppy ground wetting his fur and cooling his knees.

“Sorry I had to hold you like that.” Big pauses for a long time. “I’ll leave you alone for a little, but you have to come back inside, all right? I don’t want you to get sick, and sometimes there’s snakes.”

Infinite doesn’t answer, just sits with his face pointed towards the ground, both hands resting in the dirt. Big looks at him, hesitates, then he goes up the stairs and pushes the palm leaves aside.

Infinite hears his hushed voice from inside the hut.

Part of him just wants to collapse on the ground. He closes his eye. His chest is burning.

He sits there for several minutes while the cold seeps into his legs. Finally, he opens his eye and looks up.

Froggy is watching him from the porch. The golden glow from the hut outlines him. His eyes are yellow and so weirdly calm.

“Rrrrobbt,” he calls out.

Infinite looks at the frog.

He pushes himself up, groaning slightly, gets to his feet, and walks up the stairs with shaking legs. Big is sitting on his bed, he looks after Infinite as he walks past, but Infinite ignores him and just aims for where Big has put his blanket.

Big has filled the bed frame with dried palm leaves and draped the blue quilt over it. Infinite crawls under the blanket and pulls it up so only the tip of his left ear is visible.

Big looks at him with concern for a moment.

“Good night, Infinite,” Big says gently.

Infinite says nothing.

Froggy croaks gently before jumping to the jungle floor below.

Big turns the lamp off.

 

 

Infinite can’t fall asleep.

The night is alive right outside the palm leaves that make up the wall. Big is snoring gently. The jungle is full of unknown scents, so different from dry deserts where all you smell is your squad mates and the dry wind, unless there’s something nearby to hunt. Infinite thinks he hears something very large slip past outside.

He’s awake when Froggy comes back, hears the little amphibian hop across the floor. He presses the ruined side of his face into the palm leaves and concentrates on the simple, stinging pain. Distracts himself from the deep, beating, aching in his chest that he can’t stop or control.

The night out here is lonely and strange.

No squad to be alert. No Dart with their sharp ears, able to hear a scarab scuttle past and tell the sound from that of a lizard. And no powers to keep him safe from whatever lurks outside. His eye flickers, he can see nothing but faded shadows and darkness, pitch black, nothing has a red tint anymore, things are at the corner of his eye, his field of vision is too big to keep track of and way, way too small to feel safe with. Things could be everywhere. He can do nothing about them.

Big turns in his sleep and mumbles something about Froggy.

Infinite closes his eye. Something makes a tiny squeaking noise outside. His eye shoots open again, darts back and forth, he growls at himself and forces himself to close his eye and keep it shut. There’s nothing there.

The next sound he hears is a faint rustling. He doesn’t look, presses his eye closed, clenches his teeth. The trees whisper to each other in the wind. A gentle plopping sound, like something falling into water. Was that footsteps? No. Can’t have been.

Something tickles his face.

He gasps, his eye shoots open, he darts away, hits the edge of the bamboo frame, forces himself to stay quiet even when the pain flares up again, sits and gasps. His eye is used to the darkness now and he can just make out the shape of a palm leaf that has shifted. A palm leaf. He was scared of a palm leaf.

He throws himself back onto the bed with way more force than necessary and immediately regrets it when his chest flames up. He forces his eye shut, forces himself to lie still, pulls the blanket over his ears to block out any sounds and lies there, a small tense figure under the light blue quilt, still like a prey animal playing dead.

The jungle night scuttles on around him without a care.

First when grey light begins waking and the frogs start singing around them, he manages to fall asleep.

Chapter Text

 

Infinite is woken up by a familiar squeaky voice calling to Big from outside. Big trots past Infinite to greet Amy.

Infinite pushes the blanket away and sits up.

“Yeah, he’s still asleep - oh!” Big looks through the doorway. The palm fronds are held open by a vine, letting the daylight in. “Not any more. Good morning! Did you sleep well?”

Infinite crosses his arms and scoffs.

“You really don’t have any manners, huh,” Amy comments.

She puts her hammer to lean against the railing. Then she looks at Infinite.

“Goodness, your face,” she says. “Eggman really doesn’t know how to take care of his lackeys.”

“I will have you know that it was your Shadow that did this to me,” Infinite snarls.

“Yes, yes, I know, you were in a fight, he kicked your ass. That doesn’t -”

“Amy!” Big interrupts. “It’s almost tadpole season. No swearing.”

“I - sorry - I’m not talking about the injury, I’m talking about the condition it’s in. Your eye is clearly infected. Big, do you have a first aid kit?”

“It’s under the bed.”

“I don’t need your help!” Infinite protests.

“Yeah, yeah.” Amy disappears under Big’s bed for a moment and comes back out with a brown bag with a white cross hand-painted on it. She opens it, looks inside, then drags it over to Infinite and sits down on the floor next to it. “Now let’s do something about that.”

Infinite gets up and backs away, still with his arms crossed, glaring, canines bared.

Amy pours disinfectant on a cloth and then looks up at Infinite with one eyebrow lifted, unimpressed. She sighs.

“Big, I need you to hold him.”

“Uh … ” Big looks to Infinite, whose entire face is crinkled in a snarl. “I don’t wanna force him to anything.”

Amy stands up. “Well, it’s for his own good, and also, we wouldn’t have to force him to anything if he wasn’t acting like a big baby.”

What?” Infinite snaps.

“Please don’t start yelling again,” Big pleads.

Infinite glares at them, body tensed, and Big just keeps looking concerned and Amy is giving him the flattest, most unimpressed look any hedgehog can muster. Infinite scoffs and gives them both a venomous look. It changes nothing.

He goes back to the bed and sits down with his legs crossed, eye closed and nose lifted like Amy isn’t even worth looking at.

“There we go,” Amy says and can’t help but roll her eyes. “This might sting a bit. Big, can you heat up some water for me?”

She rubs his right eye with the disinfectant, and Infinite’s only reaction is his claws curling into the bed as the infection in his eye is attacked. Big comes with a bowl of warm water and Amy cleans the cloth and wipes the wound.

“There you go. At least your mask kept it relatively clean before you got your -” she remembers the tadpoles. “Before we defeated you. It should be nice and healed in a few weeks time.”

He reaches up to his face. She bats his hand away.

“Don’t touch it!” She gives a short, sharp sigh. “Now let’s look at your chest.”

Infinite can’t keep his aloof facade. He pulls back and covers the wound with a hand.

“Oh, no, no, no,” she says, “We are not done yet. You have done too much damage to die from gangrene before you can even start helping with rebuilding.”

Infinite makes a vicious face, but turns his head away, puts his hands in his lap and puffs out his chest.

“See?” she lectures. “It’s much easier when you don’t throw a fit. Now let’s see …”

She prods at the edge of the wound, and Infinite draws a sharp breath, his teeth bared in a grimace of pain. Amy looks at him and tries, more gently, to brush the fur away.

The phantom ruby has left a gaping hole.

“Hm. At least this seems to have been relatively well treated before the ruby was removed.“

Deep wounds, even and at an equal distance in the beginning before they become jagged closer to the opening, a clear testimony to how Eggman had to twist the stone to get it free. Amy can’t help but make a face.

“So did he just … ” She wets the cloth again and cleans some sand from a cut. Infinite cringes. “Find you at the tower and, take the ruby, and then toss you from there?” She removes the last rests of sand and cleans the cloth again. “I mean, not that you don’t deserve it, but … ” She applies disinfectant. “That’s kinda cold.”

Infinite can’t keep himself from whimpering this time. Big carefully pats his head.

“Hm,” Amy says, “Can’t really bandage it up. I guess we’ll just have to make sure no more dirt gets in it and then have you lie still.” She covers the hole with a wad of cloth and wraps some bandages around Infinite’s torso to keep it in place. “Any other injuries we need to take care of?”

Infinite pulls away from her, wraps his arms around his chest and huffs. “No.”

She sends him a look. “You’re lying, aren’t you.” It’s not a question.

“How dare you … ” he hisses.

Amy shrugs demonstratively. “I guess I will just have to check, then.”

Big sits ready to grab Infinite, almost afraid he’s is going to try and bite Amy.

Infinite makes a face and looks away.

“... I think my tail might be broken,” he confesses.

“Can you bend it?”

He shakes it. It folds down at an unnatural angle near the tip.

Amy’s mouth is thin. “We could really use a doctor.” Then, with more determination, “but, I don’t want to drag Cream into this mess, and anything else is too risky, so I will just have to do.”

“I can help,” Big offers.

“I’m probably going to need some even branches or something. To hold it in place.”

“I’ll find some. Infinite, don’t be mean.” He sends the jackal a stern look.

Infinite demonstratively looks away.

Amy shakes her head at him.

“Don’t worry, Big. I can handle him. He was a menace before, but right now his bark has gotta be worse than his bite.”

Infinite just sits still and emotionless, and stays like this while Amy does her best to get his bones back in their proper places, when Big comes back, and as his tail is fixed to the makeshift brace.

“And now for the ears.”

Amy cleans and disinfects what little ear Infinite has left, then gives a satisfied nod.

“There you go. Now lay down and rest. Not on that side of your face! You need to leave that in peace.”

Infinite doesn’t think he can take another moment of being bossed around by this dreadful hedgehog, but he obeys anyway and pulls the blanket over his shoulder, and resists the urge to turn his back to Amy, instead resting on the good side of his face.

Amy puts everything back in the first aid bag and puts it back in place under the bed.

Big is relieved to see that she seems much more at ease than she did yesterday and takes the opportunity to ask how things have been, now that she seems ready to talk outside just politeness and filling out awkward silences.

Infinite lies there, his eye open but not really watching. He’s trying to remember exactly what happened to him in between the fateful fight and him waking up in the sand.

He remembers his physical body being stretched to its limits, but it was no matter. He relied on the ruby. Why would he need his old body anyway, when the phantom ruby had made him such a formidable new one? But it hadn’t been enough, he could feel the power of the stone tremble in his chest, and then he lost control, the ruby abandoning its host in favor of staying whole, his body slipping and his conscious being thirteen places at once like the ruby was warping the world around him instead of to his will …

Then he’d been on the floor somewhere, tried to get up, and couldn’t. He tried and he couldn’t, needing all his energy to just keep his body in place, terrified what might happen if he let go, would his mind scatter, would he enter the world of the ruby, would he just disappear?

And then boots, a hated voice, so hated, so hated, telling him he was a useless failure. A pain so intense, as if his heart was bursting and shattering his torso, and then suddenly his mind wasn’t being torn apart anymore and his body was in one place, one place made of nothing but all-consuming pain -

Blacking out.

Sand.

He doesn’t know how he got where or what happened how. He just remembers feelings. He remembers being surprised he was even alive. His body being heavy as he fought against gravity. His chest being empty. Everything feeling so feeble and breakable.

Everything being feeble, and broken.

His eye slides shut.

“Do you want something to eat?” Big asks Amy.

Amy shakes her head. “I ate breakfast near the station. The train was delayed because someone had to transport supplies across the tracks. But people were really happy to whip up a sandwich even though their shops were ruined, now that they’re got access to fresh vegetables again.” She sighs. “I might need to get back. They need all the help they can in more or less every place, and I don’t want them to think I’m slacking off or begin asking what I’m doing.”

“Should I not come help too?”

Amy hesitates. Sends a glance at the murderer resting on a bed of palm leaves.

“It’s … probably for the best if we don’t leave him alone. At least this way he can’t do any more damage. Wash his eye in the evening, just with warm water. Make sure he doesn’t touch it.”

Big ruffles her quills. “I got it.”

She smiles and gives him a hug. “Thank you, Big. I knew I could count on you.”

Infinite opens his eye just a sliver as she leaves, but quickly lets it fall shut again.

Big uses the first half of the day on cleaning up his house now that he’s back, telling a flock of bats under the ceiling above the stove that this is really not the best place to roost, but he can build them a little shelter just outside if they want it, cleaning up after where a bird has napped, all while chatting with Froggy. He takes a round just near his house to greet the frogs there. Infinite lies quietly, resting on his left side. Big stops to look at him a few times, head tilted slightly, but leaves him be.

 

At noon, Big addresses Infinite.

“Are you hungry?”

Infinite is starving.

“No,” he says.

“Hm.” Big shrugs. “Well. I’m going to go fish for dinner. I’m right outside, okay? Stay here.”

“Mmh.”

“I’ll leave the door open. You can just yell if you need me.”

“Whatever.”

His short, dull answers don’t work as intended. Instead, Big kneels down and pats his head.

“Everything is gonna be all right,” he says.

Infinite just buries the intact part of his face in the palm leaves and says nothing.

 

His plan of acting like he needs nothing and is taking their help because they force him to gets sabotaged a few hours later when he’s fallen asleep, wakes up, and sees a vine on the floor a few metres away from him.

The vine looks back with large pale eyes.

Its tongue darts out, quickly, twice.

Infinite scrambles out of his covers and forces himself to stay calm. He’s killed snakes before. With weapons, granted, but this shouldn’t be a problem. Wouldn’t be a problem, if his body wasn’t loudly defying him because he stood up too quickly. He has to reach through the leaf walls and grasp the railing.

He stands and stares for a while as the snake goes about its business, but then it of course notes that there’s a nice warm spot where a jackal has been resting all day and decides to claim his bed as its own.

Infinite lets go of the railing and walks over, lifts his boot and puts it down on top of the snake’s head.

The snake twists and thrashes and Infinite puts more weight on it, but the palm leaves are soft and the snake swoops out from under his boot and Infinite achieves nothing but making it mad. It bites after his ankle, shooting out like a harpoon, and he dodges, but the movement is too sudden and he falls, trying to catch himself, but still lands on his butt.

The force of hitting the floor makes the pain in his chest flare up, for a second it feels like he is being impaled and then it fades to a sharp ache.

The snake lashes out with a warning charge and then sits there, agitated, mouth wide open, showing off its fangs.

Infinite swallows.

“Big!” He calls out.

“Yes?” Big’s voice is coming from somewhere outside.

“There’s a snake in my bed.”

Three seconds later and Big is in the doorway.

“Oh boy!” he says. He walks past Infinite and crouches down. “Hello there, handsome fellow.”

Infinite blinks, perplexed.

“... what?”

“I’m sorry, pal,” Big tells the snake, “but this is not a good place to be. I know I’ve been gone for a while, but it’s still my house, okay?”

The snake hisses and makes a fake jab in Big’s direction.

“Don’t be scared. I won’t hurt you.”

What?” Infinite repeats.

“Come on now.”

Big holds his hands at a safe distance and claps loudly. The snake reels back.

“There you go.”

He gestures and claps in the direction of the snake, urging it on, and it slowly moves away, still jabbing and tense, until it’s on the blanket. Big carefully walks around so he won’t get too close, takes one corner of the quilt at a time, and then with a swift movement, he has the snake bundled up, holding it away from his body and running outside while the blanket thrashes and struggles.

Infinite watches him with utter confusion. Big keeps speaking soothing words to the blanket until he gets to a bush where he lets it go and steps away. The snake twists out of the blue prison and falls down from the bush, then flees into the undergrowth.

Big picks the blanket up and goes back to Infinite with it.

“Here you go,” Big says and hands it to Infinite.

Infinite takes it, looks at it, at Big, at the spot where the snake disappeared.

Why?” he asks.

Big frowns, confused. “You'll get cold without your blanket?”

“Why did you … ” Infinite gestures to the jungle. “You spent that much time, almost got bitten, you’re a powerhouse. It would have taken you nothing but a second to crush it underfoot.”

“Infinite,” Big says, looking him in the eye with intensity. “That’s cruel.”

What? It – this is your home, on your territory, it - it attacked you!”

“He was scared.” Big gently pushes Infinite towards the bed. “It’s not his fault I haven’t been home in a while. He didn’t want the place to go unused when it could be a nice warm snake nest. You just startled each other. You can’t crush people just because you don’t speak snake.”

“Because you don’t speak - ” Infinite is at a loss for words. Then he looks up at Big with a disbelieving look, he wants to mock, he doesn’t want to care but he just has to ask: “And you speak frog?”

Big shrugs.

“Just simple things. Except for with Froggy, of course, ‘cause know each other.”

“W-w-w-wamp!” a damp voice sounds from somewhere right outside.

Infinite doesn’t know what to believe.

Chapter Text

Big catches three fish, one large and two smaller ones. He makes a small fire at a safe distance behind the hut, on a large flat rock placed on the wet, swampy ground. Boulders surround it, too regularly placed to have ended up there on their own. Infinite’s stomach had, after a while, more or less accepted that no food is coming, but it only lasts until he smells roasted fish. His stomach growls. He curses his own weakness.

He rolls over and hides his face in the blanket, but the smell of bonfire and food still reaches him. The smoke smells different here. Everything does.

Infinite tries to ignore his body for a while, head buried, brow furrowed, and doesn’t notice Froggy before he croaks.

“Ribbit!”

Infinite looks up. There’s a stick on the floor with a newly roasted fish on it.

“Ribbit,” Froggy says again and hops away.

Infinite sits up and takes the stick. The fish is hot, he almost burns his mouth. This doesn’t stop him from devouring it with quick and wild bites, though.

Big comes back to Infinite gnawing on the fish’s head, trying to get the last meat off.

“Oh boy,” Big says. “Here, you can have another one.”

He hands Infinite the other smaller fish, and Infinite lets the other stick fall to the floor and grabs it. It still hurts to eat and he doesn’t care.

“You’re hungry, huh?” Big takes the finished spear and puts it to rest against the railing on the porch. “I don’t have more fish, but I can find some fruit for you if you want it.”

Infinite shoots Big a glance without moving his head from his dinner. He doesn’t reply, just rips another mouthful from the spear.

Big sends him a big smile. “I’m happy you like it.”

Infinite averts his gaze and ignores Big.

Big sits down just outside the doorway with his legs dangling off the porch to eat his own dinner. Froggy jumps to the railing and sits and catches mosquitoes out of the air. Crickets chirp. Somewhere in the distance, a group of birds take off at the same time and rustle the foliage while calling out to each other.

Infinite finishes eating and lets the spear drop to the floor, wipes his mouth and hides under the blanket again.

Big finishes eating, picks up the discarded spear and leaves to put the fish skeletons a little way away for the scavengers.

“Come on, Froggy,” he calls.

Froggy jumps to his shoulder, and he goes out in the jungle evening.

 

 

“Infinite?”

Infinite makes a displeased sound and looks up.

“Don’t lie on that side of your face.”

Urgh. ” He rolls over.

“There’s fruit, if you’re still hungry.”

Infinite’s ear perks up. He pushes himself up to his elbows and sends the small orange fruits a slightly suspicious glance. Big takes one and chews happily.

Infinite tentatively reaches out for a fruit and sits up, examining it before biting into it. It’s sweet and feels weird to bite into, almost too soft when the skin is pierced. It’s not bad. Infinite eats a few while Big fetches something from his cupboard and walks outside with it.

He comes back again, carefully balancing a bowl. He puts it down next to Infinite.

“I warmed some water so we can clean your eye,” he says.

Infinite replies with a bitter sigh, but turns his head to give Big access to the right side of his face. Big rinses the eye with a care that would seem impossible for someone with paws his size.

“There you go.”

Infinite mumbles a reluctant ‘thanks’ without really being thankful and lies back down, on his back this time. He’s not looking forwards to another night full of strange sounds and possibly snakes.

There are two fruits left, and Big eats them while cleaning the cloth and washing the bowl. He scuttles around while Infinite stares at the ceiling. The evening light slips away. A firefly lands on the wall, its small glowing body like a distant star through the palm leaves. Infinite watches it walk in small circles, then it takes off and leaves a flickering blue light spot on his retina.

Big sits down on his bed and takes his shoes off.

“Good night, Infinite,” he says.

Infinite doesn’t answer at first, but then it feels weird, and he makes a noncommittal mumbling sound.

Soon, Big begins snoring gently. Froggy sits on the nightstand, fast asleep already. Infinite can see vague shapes in the dark and hear the night outside. It still feels nowhere safe, but maybe his body has just accepted that this is the place he’s gonna lie until he dies, because he feels way less ready to jump up and try to fight or run from whatever’s out there.

His heart is beating faster with every unexpected sound, but he just lies there, trying to breathe calmly. He stays still in the night, watching with one golden eye and seeing nothing but shadows and darkness shuffling around each other.

It takes him hours to finally fall asleep.

 

 

In his dreams, the world shifts and turns.

In his dreams, he turns his head, and the entire world shuffles and changes, buildings become rubble, hills become caves, walls disappear, float, shift.

In his dreams, cubes fall from his hands and morph and tumble, like they are being cut with an invisible knife, reappear, going, going, going.

In his dreams, his body is a mass of shapes, his tail disconnected from his body, he lifts his arm and his hand disappears, his torso is nothing but a cross section hanging in the air.

In his dreams, cubes fill the hole where the phantom ruby was, fill up and pour out, he can feel them building up and there’s too many, they press into his ribcage and claims his body as their own, his flesh is replaced by cubes slowly building up and he tries to claw them away but his hands are cubes and they fall apart in a stream of cubes into a world engulfed by cubes and he wants to scream and all that comes out of his mouth is a cascade of geometric shapes.

 

He feels like he’s going to choke.

He gasps for air, looks down at his hands and finds the outline of gloves, his body is flesh and blood and he’s on the floor of the hut, under the blue blanket, hearing the wind rustle outside. He sits up and presses his hand to his chest. Still just emptiness and pain. Just a big hollow. Nothing.

Big looks like a lumbering beast when he stands up. Infinite’s body supplies him with another wave of adrenalin.

Big walks over and crouches down next to Infinite.

“You okay?” he asks.

“It’s nothing.” Infinite’s voice is hoarse.

“You had a bad dream, didn’t you?” Big puts a hand on Infinite’s shoulder.

“It’s nothing, ” Infinite insists.

Big puts an arm around him.

“There, there,” he says, holding Infinite in a one-armed hug, trying to comfort him without making the jackal feel trapped.

Infinite would have hated everything about it, but the feeling of something very real holding him means that his brain can accept that he’s not actually going to turn into cubes and fall apart, at least not the places where he’s touching something and not immediately dissolving. He still hates it, still hates being so weak, hates not being able to even hide it, hates being scared, hates being scared of something his own brain made up, hates needing help, he hates it.

But not enough to move away from the comfort.

He just sits there. His hands dig into his own skin, one at the hip and another at the elbow, crossed over his body, like he's holding himself, holding so tightly it hurts, but he stays. Even as Big hugs him closer and gently pats his head, he sits there. He tells himself that he’s pathetic, that he’s a disgrace, why are you just sitting there, but he doesn’t do anything. He’s so mad at himself, furious at his own weakness and his lack of any sort of honor whatsoever, wants to tear himself limb from limb for daring to just act like he’s given up, for not even fighting, for not even trying.

He hates everything and he hates himself.

Big rocks him back and forth, gently.

 

Infinite sees squares on the inside of his eyelid when he closes his eye. Big lets go of him, and Infinite climbs back under his blanket without looking up at Big.

“You feeling better now?” Big asks.

“I’m fine,” Infinite mumbles.

Big gives him one last pat before he goes back to bed.

 

Fear has proven very effective at keeping him awake; turns out, self-loathing is mostly just exhausting. As much as Infinite is full of hate, his body is betraying him by just feeling warm and comfortable. He mentally scolds himself with hard, belittling words, but they’re hard to keep a hold on, and their sting lessens when he can barely concentrate on what he's telling himself. He can’t keep track of his own thoughts.

He drifts off to sleep again.

Chapter Text

Big gets up at dawn, before the sun has properly risen yet. Infinite blinks sleep from his eye and turns around.

“Good morning!” Big greets.

Infinite groans. He feels more pathetic than ever.

“Uhh. I don’t have a lot of food, but the fish bite a lot around sunrise if we go down the stream. You wanna come?”

The sunrays only touch the uppermost leaves of the forest, but it’s not chilly out at all. Infinite sits up. He doesn’t want to go anywhere, but he also doesn’t want to be alone in a jungle full of snakes.

“If that’s how it has to be,” he says, his shoulders moving down, “then I will come.”

“Okie-dokie.”

Big scoops Infinite up with one arm. Infinite manages to keep himself from yelping in surprise.

“Come on, Froggy,” Big calls.

“Wwamp!”

Froggy leaps and lands right between Big’s ears.

Big grabs his pole and a bucket, and takes Froggy and Infinite down to the stream close to his hut. The grass there has been worn into a path that Big follows until they come to a spot where the stream makes a turn. The change of direction has washed away more of the shore, and the stream widens out into a bigger pool before the water continues through the jungle. The pale sunlight travels through the foliage and makes the water sparkle like silver.

Big puts Infinite down on the ground and sits down next to him. Infinite is standing and barely reaches to Big’s shoulder.

“This is my favourite fishing spot,” Big says and throws out the line.

Infinite tentatively sits down next to him. Big gives him a smile and reaches over to pat his head. Infinite pulls his shoulders up and wrinkles his nose.

Big moves his hand away and puts his head on the side.

“Do you not like it when people touch your head?”

Infinite sends him a narrow look.

“I just don’t understand your need to act so … comforting, all the time.”

“Oh. I just thought you seemed upset.”

“I don’t need your pity,” Infinite says through clenched teeth.

“It’s not pity.” Big watches the float as it gently bops up and down in the water. “Everyone can need comforting, and you’re really hurt. I just hope you’re okay.”

Infinite huffs.

“Only because you don’t know me. Once Amy tells you what I did, you’ll wish you’d never been nice to me.”

“That’s not true.”

Infinite’s sends him an arrogant look. “You have no idea what I did.”

“But you’re not doing it anymore.”

Infinite stares at him, still with hard eyes, but a slight ghost of a frown betrays that he also doesn’t understand what Big is trying to say. Big continues.

“I’m not going to be mean if you’re not hurting anyone. If you’re cruel to my friends again, I won’t be nice to you. But they stopped you, so it’s okay now.”

Infinite laughs. “So. You just trust me to behave? You really have no idea who I am.”

Big turns around and prods Infinite’s nose, hard enough that Infinite pulls back and puts a paw over his snout.

“I’m not going to let you be mean to anyone.” Big stares at him with a strict frown. “And Amy won’t either.” He turns his attention back to the water. “So just be nice.”

“So you’re going to keep me in line.” Infinite looks into the distance. “Well, that shouldn’t be too hard in my current condition.”

“I don’t wanna hurt you.”

“But you will if you must.”

“Only so you’ll stop being cruel.”

Infinite sighs.

“Well, I suppose it is fortunate for both of us that I’m in the state I am.”

“Soo …” Big gently tugs at the fishing line, “do you not want me to pat your head?”

Infinite rolls his eye. “I honestly could not care less.”

“Oki.”

 

They sit in silence for a while. Froggy will occasionally look up when his sleepy eyes spot a bug, but he stays on Big’s head and only sends his tongue out if the insect is close enough that he can catch it without moving. Infinite watches the water with an unreadable expression. Birds sing around them. The sunlight sends dancing spots into the jungle, they shuffle around on the forest floor, splotches of gold in the dark green hues.

The float bops and disappears under the surface. Big’s ears perk up. He tugs the fishing pole sideways and reels in the catch. Infinite watches until the fish is so close that he can see its form struggle under the surface, and then Big pulls it out of the water and Infinite reels back because that was a lot more thrashing than he’d expected.

Big grabs the struggling fish and looks it over, nods, and snaps its neck with what looks like minimal effort.

“Breakfast,” he says, satisfied, and puts it in the bucket.

He throws the line out again.

Infinite looks at the fish with a slightly tense expression.

It slams its head against the side of the bucket. Infinite jerks. Then he huffs.

“Not dead yet, huh?”

The fish’s tail beats against the bottom of the bucket.

“No, it’s dead,” Big says.

Infinite lifts one eyebrow. “It’s moving.”

“They do that.”

Infinite looks from Big to the fish, trying to find out if he’s joking.

“It’s just nerves. It’ll stop,” Big reassures.

“That’s …” Infinite looks skeptical. “Are you sure?”

“Yup.”

“In my experience, things stop moving when you kill them.”

“Don’t worry. I know it’s weird, but it’s not in pain.” Big pats Infinite’s head. “That’s just how fish are.”

Infinite watches the fish with suspicion. It keeps twitching for a little while before it finally goes still.

“I should get some groceries,” Big muses.

Infinite crosses his arms.

“I think you may find that challenging.”

“Oh. Right. The world ended.” Big pulls the line free from a lilypad. “It’s okay. Fish are good too.”

Infinite pulls his knees up to his chest and rests his arms on them. His chest aches. He looks down at the bandages wrapped around his torso.

He didn’t look too close before, and it’s only because of morbid curiousity that he wants to know what it looks like. The wound had seemed the size of the phantom ruby, but only one third of the stone had been visible to the world. The rest was kept inside Infinite’s body.

The crevice in his chest must be big enough that he could fit a hand inside.

He makes a face at the thought.

Eggman must have moved his organs when he embedded the phantom ruby in Infinite’s chest. Infinite puts a hand on his side. Guessing where his lungs must be now and not really being able to figure it out.

The thought of how miraculous it is that he’s still alive is a weird one to hold.

He wonders if he would have found the strength to get up eventually if Amy had not found him, or if someone else would have come across him lying there and finished him off.

Big pulls another fish from the water, it flails for its life as Big holds it in his giant paw. Big looks it over, and then he gets a grip on the head, holding it still, and very carefully wedges the hook from its upper lip before tossing it back into the water.

Infinite watches the fish as a golden flicker under the water before it’s gone. Then looks up at Big.

“And why was that one different?” he asks.

“It was too small.”

“Too pathetic to finish off, huh,” Infinite mumbles to himself.

“There’s not enough meat on that one,” Big says and throws the line out again. “It needs a chance to grow big and strong and have fish babies.” He shifts his weight a little to sit more comfortably. “If you catch everything, even stuff you don’t need, the river will be empty.”

“Hm.”

Infinite looks at the spot where the fish disappeared and doesn’t say more.

 

Big prepares fish with herbs for breakfast.

“I like porridge for breakfast, but I don’t have any oats,” he tells Infinite.

Infinite has nothing to add to that. Right now, he would be willing to eat more or less anything that was put in front of him.

They’re in the middle of eating, Infinite sitting in his bed and Big with Froggy on the edge of the porch, when Amy arrives. Infinite looks at what he can see of Big through the open doorway while he finishes his meal and tries to hear the conversation, but most of it seems to be empty small talk about how they’ve been and what’s going on in the city and whatnot. Then Amy lowers her voice and Infinite knows she’s talking about him. It’s hard to make out exactly what she’s saying, but it sounds like she’s just questioning whether he’s behaved.

He pointedly ignores her when she walks in, keeping his nose pointed towards his food.

Big follows after her.

“Amy’s here!” he announces.

Infinite looks up for just one second before turning back to his meal. Amy shakes her head with a gentle eye roll.

“Well,” she says, “at least nothing has changed on that front. Big, can I get some warm water?”

“Yep!”

Infinite grimaces slightly, but continues to ignore Amy. She fetches cloth and disinfectant and orders him to turn his face. He complies with a sour expression, but without complaining. The disinfectant stings, and he bares his teeth, but sits still and says nothing. Big comes with warm water and Amy wipes Infinite’s eye, then takes care of the ears. She leaves his chest and tail to heal on their own.

“Well,” she sighs. “That’s that taken care of.” She stands up. “So … has everything been okay?”

“Yep!” Big takes bowl and cloth to clean it. “Infinite had a bad dream last night, but he’s okay now I think.”

Don’t,” Infinite hisses.

“Well, hopefully that means he feels a little bit bad about what he did.” She pauses for a moment. “Do you have everything you need out here? I know you can support yourself, but with one more person who, isn’t exactly of much use.” She shoots a glance at Infinite.

“Uhh. Some flour might be good,” Big says. “And oats. If you have any.”

She nods to herself. “Resources are a bit sparse after so long, but I’ll try.”

“I can catch some extra fish you can bring back if you need it,” Big offers.

Amy perks up. “That’s a great idea! I’m sure everyone will appreciate something that isn’t canned beans and granola bars.”

Infinite crawls back under his blanket and demonstratively turns his back to them. Amy is there immediately.

“Don’t lie on that side of your face!”

Infinite clenches his teeth and doesn’t react. Amy grabs her hammer from her back and prods Infinite with the handle. He moves his shoulder.

“Don’t you dare ignore me!” she says and prods him a little harder.

Infinite pulls away from her and sits up, snarling at her.

“Leave me be,” he hisses.

“I told you not to lie on that side of your face,” she repeats.

“Just leave me alone.

He turns to go back under the blanket and this time Amy jabs him so hard in the back that he can feel it in his chest and makes a half-choked sound of pain.

“Would you stop being such a big baby?”

Infinite stares at her with unmasked rage, he wants to charge at her, wants to pull that godawful hammer from her hands and snap it in half, wants to see her begging for mercy, wants to teach her never ever ever to boss him around like that again and then he’s on his feet throwing himself at her with fangs bared, Big makes a startled noise and leaps forwards to grab Infinite but he’s too far away and Amy swings the hammer and hits Infinite with a not very situation-appropriate squeaking sound and he flies through the air, hits the railing and falls to the floor like a ragdoll, letting out a whine like a beaten dog.

It takes Amy a few seconds to get her breathing under control and register what just happened. Big has a hand on her shoulder, looking at the pile of fur and pained noises that is Infinite with concern.

Amy collects herself.

“Now see what you’ve done,” she scolds, still breathing slightly faster than usual. “You’ll never heal at this rate, you fool.”

She hands Big her hammer and walks over to the whimpering jackal.

Infinite is trembling.

“Fucking edgelord, I swear to god,” she mutters under her breath as she picks Infinite up and carries him over to the bed.

Infinite’s only reaction to being thrown over Amy’s shoulder is to yelp in pain, then he just hangs there. Amy sits down and pushes Infinite off of her shoulder and onto the palm leaves.

“You did that to yourself,” she says.

Infinite clutches his chest. His breathing is raspy.

“Why did you do that?” Big says, a slight edge of disappointment in his voice.

Amy answers for him: “Because he’s a brat who can’t deal with not having everything his way.”

The phantom ruby’s spot is sending out beats of pain like a heart pumps blood, he’s afraid something in his body has been squished, his entire chest is nothing but a knot of pulsating pain and he can do nothing but lie curled up halfway into fetal position.

Amy is still looking at him with conflicting emotions showing on her face. Big puts a hand on her shoulder. She lets out a small huff of air. Then she turns away.

“At this rate, he’s never going to be any use,” she says, with that sharp edge in her voice that means she feels at a loss of control and doesn’t know how to deal with it.

Big pats her head. She sighs and leans against his arm, gently.

“Are you sure he hasn’t done anything like this while I was gone?” she asks.

She sounds tired.

“Uh … He yelled a bit the other day. But that’s all.”

“Mh. Well, that’s … something, at least.”

She rubs the top of her snout. Looks at the mass murderer who is curled up on a pile of palm leaves, staring straight ahead without looking at anything, pain shaping his pupils into tiny pinpricks.

She looks down and to the side, brow furrowed, mouth a thin line.

“Maybe this really was a bad idea,” she says, quietly. “Maybe I really am a fool for – and the others would have … I couldn’t just …”

She’s clutching her own arm, her grasp trembling slightly.

Big crouches down and looks her in the eyes.

“You were really kind,” he says.

Tears well up in her eyes. She puts her forehead against his chest fluff.

“I don’t want more people to get hurt,” she whispers.

Big puts an arm around her. “Now you go home,” he says, “and I’ll keep him here so you don’t have to think about it.”

“I can’t just leave you with my mess,” she says, pulling her shoulders up.

“I don’t mind.” He puts his head on the side. “That’s what friends are for, right?”

Amy throws herself into Big’s arms and hides her face in his fur, and he hugs her for a while. Then she pulls away and wipes her eyes.

“Right,” she says. “Right. Okay. I’ll … leave you my phone number. If there is anything … there’s a payphone in the village on the other side, right?”

She gestures vaguely in the direction of the settlement. Big nods.

“It will be okay,” he reassures.

“Okay. Yes. Take care of his face. Make sure he rests. If there’s anything … I’ll try and get some flour with me, at some point. Uh. I’ll … Here’s my – one second.” She fumbles for something to write on.

Big pulls a palm leaf from the wall and offers it to her. She looks at it for a second before she remembers how Big solves problems, then she takes it and goes over to the nightstand to scratch her phone number into it.

It’s not very neat, but it’s readable.

“That’s a five,” she clarifies at the torn bit.

“Yup.” He pats her head. “Do you want me to follow you to the station?”

Amy shakes her head. “You better keep an eye on him.”

She sends Infinite a glance. The jackal has closed his eye now, his expression creating downwards arrows on his forehead.

“Do you want Froggy to go with you?” Big offers.

“Wamp!” Froggy adds from a spot in the corner.

Amy can’t help but smile.

“I’ll be okay,” she says, and gives him a last quick hug. “Thank you.” She sniffles. “Thank you so much.”

 

 

Big follows Amy to where the ground stops being soppy, and they wave goodbye. He stands there and watches Amy leave, staying even after the last bit of pink has disappeared between the greenery.

Then he goes back.

“You made her really sad,” he says, looking at Infinite.

Infinite doesn’t react.

“Ribbit?”

Froggy jumps to the nightstand and puts his head on the side.

“I’m fine.” Big picks him up. “I just hope Amy is too.”

“Rrrrrooob.”

Big nods, solemnly. “That’s real good.” He smiles a bit. “She feels good in the city.”

Big puts Froggy on his head and walks outside again, leaving Infinite in the hut.

The pain has faded from an all-consuming, heavy beating to a constant aching, burning through his chest. Infinite lets his mouth fall open and pants, each gulp of air making the pain push back. His body has space for nothing but hate and pain. He wants it to stop; the pain, the enraging people around him, his own helplessness, he wants to get away he wants to be able to go he wants to be strong again he wants to be himself again he wants to be his own person again he wants to leave he wants the pain to stop.

He wants his face back. His squad back. His life back.

Chapter Text

Twelve jackals, twelve drenched, tired, hungry jackals with their last food being soggy and their bodies shaking from cold desert nights leave the sad remains of a camp behind and follow the trail where they know people go. Hook and Wayward lead the way, they know in which direction travellers come from. They guide their group until the oil plant becomes visible in the distance, then Infinite takes the lead again.

Twelve jackals, Infinite in front with his sword in one hand, enters the city that grew around the oil plant many years ago. Water pours through the streets and into the drains, the cars splashes the jackals as they drive past, the place wasn’t made for pedestrians, much less ones with their genetic roots in small, nimble desert dogs.

They find an alleyway, Infinite sneers in arrogance at the trash seeping in the streets.

“Hey! Heyheyhey! Over here!”

It’s Burrow. They’re waving frantically. Infinite makes a throw with his head, and the jackal squad follows Burrow’s voice.

A ramp leads up and inside a large, dull building. Infinite hates the colour of the concrete, but he hates the rain more, and all that’s blocking their way is a beam painted red and yellow that they can slip under with no trouble.

It’s an indoor parking space. Around one third of the spaces are occupied by cars, the rest are empty. The jackals crowd together in a corner, hidden away from the entrance, but not too far away, because the winding paths marked by white stripes and strange signs seem like a labyrinth they wouldn’t want to become lost in.

The mood rises immediately. The jackals let out relieved sighs, Snap walks away from the group and then shakes, water spraying from her fur. Wayward tries to follow her lead, but forgets the part where they move away from the rest of the pack, Stomp pushes them to the floor and tells them to watch it, you fool, but without malice.

Infinite brushes a tuft of soaking wet hair away from his forehead and looks around. He never thought concrete walls could be comforting, but hearing his squad back to their old selves is a good sign. He was afraid he was going to lose more of them. They had been fighting internally, especially over food, and the few times Infinite decided to step in and assert his dominance, the others have clearly objected. He even had to physically push Slayer away at one point. It was no big deal for him, except it was, because it was a waste of energy, and because she’s the first to go against him since they left the facility.

Wayward tries the shaking thing again, remembering to move away this time. A few drops of water hits Infinite. He turns his head and sends Wayward a look.

“Sorry, Boss!” They grin. “My aim is off. I was going for Howl.”

Infinite’s only change of expression is a light eye roll before he turns away again.

Wayward goes back to the group, where Howl immediately pushes them.

 “You sucker,” Howl says, playfully. Then he looks at Infinite’s turned back and gives Wayward a small frown. “But seriously, dude. Careful around Boss, okay? He’s been …” He sends Infinite’s turned back a glance. “A bit on the edge, lately.”

Wayward wrinkles their nose. “Yeah, yeah. I didn’t know he was standing there.”

“I’m just saying, Wayward, it’s not the best time to - ”

“I get it, okay!” Wayward snarls, voice hushed, through clenched teeth. “Don’t you think I’ve noticed? It was an accident!”

They cross their arms.

Howl huffs and looks down and to the side. Then he nods. “All right.”

Wayward mumbles something indignant and sits down next to two of their squad-mates.

 

The jackals dry off, sit and shake while heat slowly returns to their bodies, trying to wring water out of their tails and clothes. They huddle together to leech as much body heat from each other as they can. After ten minutes in the car park, Infinite is the only one who hasn’t become part of a very damp and messy jackal pile that reeks of wet dog.

“Everything is the worst and I hate rain,” Dart whines.

“Who doesn’t?” Stomp replies and pushes Ripper’s tail out of his face.

“I never want to go outside again,” Burrow sniffles.

Infinite’s fists are clenched. The monsoon has turned his efficient squad into whining lumps of wet fur. Just as everything was going right for once, just as everything was working out.

Someone sneezes.

“Ew! That’s disgusting!”

You’re disgusting,” is the clever retort.

“We’re all disgusting right now, just shut up.” Snap’s voice is muffled by Ripper’s chest fur, which she has buried her entire face into upon noticing that the curly fluff is so dense that what is probably the last piece of dry fur anywhere is hiding in there, and she never wants to move.

“You are all PATHETIC!” Infinite whips around and stares at them with sharp pupils and bared teeth.

“Gee, you really think so?” Shreds mumbles from somewhere in the pile.

Howl cringes and looks around to try and catch Shreds’ attention and communicate to him that don’t, but Howl is far away from the center of the group and Shreds has buried himself between as many squad mates as possible.

Infinite continues. “All it takes is a bit of water and you’re all reduced to whining messes acting like puppies calling for your mom?”

Shiv shakes her jacket and puts it back on. “A bit of water? With all due respect, Boss, it’s been raining for like, three weeks straight, and I don’t think I can remember what dry food tastes like.”

“We shouldave stayed in the facility,” Stomp says.

Howl immediately makes a sound like he’s watching someone get injured and has to keep himself from physically reeling back. Infinite’s expression is that of a wild animal.

What?” he snarls, a growling noise sneaking into his words.

“At least it was dry and there was food.” Stomp crosses his arms.

Infinite takes one step closer.

“You are all weak!” His fangs are bared to the point where his gums are visible under his lips. “If I hadn’t gotten us out of there, I would have vanquished ALL of you!  The only reason you feeble, pathetic little rags are even alive is because I had BETTER things to do than fight you.” He lifts his head in arrogance, moving like a cobra. “I truly shouldn’t have been surprised when you decided to show your true colours, useless little wastes of SPACE.”

Howl stands up and puts his hands forwards.

“Boss,” he says and stands his ground even when Infinite’s attention is suddenly turned to him. “Boss, we know, okay, just … give us like, a day, just to dry off and get back on our feet, I promise we’ll stop whining. Things have been kinda uphill lately and we know we haven’t been very … we just need a moment. We’ll pull ourselves together, everyone just needs a break.”

Infinite’s lip folds back over his teeth. “I hope you’re right, Howl,” he snarls. “I’m not going to let you hold me down, so you better make yourselves worth having around.”

He turns his back.

Howl lets out a silent sigh of relief and goes back to the pile where everyone is watching with different levels of interest, most of them too tired to really care.

“Now if I hear another person talk shit I’m gonna gut you in your sleep, I swear to god,” Howl hisses under his breath.

People mutter slightly, the jackal pile gives the impression of a collective shrug. Howl flops down on top of Wayward and lets out a small groan.

“This sucks,” he says, so quietly that nobody hears him.

 

They don’t get a day. They get a few hours, and then the workday is over and cars begin pulling in to park for the night and they’re immediately noticed  and an angry driver pulls up and says that hey, this is private property what on earth are you dirty  tramps doing here, get lost!

Infinite draws his sword.

“Why don’t we settle who gets the territory?” he growls.

“Are you threatening me?”

Infinite straightens his back, and his squad is immediately behind him, all of them staring with hateful eyes, weapons drawn, they are not leaving their shelter without a fight.

“Either you leave us be and vanish,” Infinite says, staring the stranger down, looking noble even with his hair frizzy from the rain and sandy mud stuck in his fur, “or you will have to fight us for the spot. The choice is yours.”

Infinite knows the stranger has to be all talk, otherwise he has no regard for his own life, he is one person, unarmed, protected by his vehicle and nothing more, and they are twelve jackals who have made their living off of attacking everything from old fashioned caravans to lone travellers to desert jeeps.

The stranger just looks at them with a mix of confusion, anger and a little bit of fear, but mostly just disbelief.

“I’m calling the police,” he says.

He rolls his window up and grabs his phone, the jackals can see him talk, and Infinite charges at the car. The strangers’ eyes grow wide, and he grabs the wheel and hits the speeder, the car whines and turns and disappears further into the car park.

Infinite huffs.

“Pathetic.”

 

 

All of the jackals turn their heads, on guard, when they hear the sirens. Infinite’s squad grows visibly scared as the noise comes closer. Infinite sends them an angry look.

The police car pulls into the car park, and two people step out.

“Hey, you! What are you doing here? You threatening people?”

Infinite snarls at the officer. “I’m taking what’s mine.”

“So, you live here?” The officer crosses their arms. Another policeman stands behind them with a hand on the gun. “No? Didn’t think so. This is private property and you’re makin’ the owners uncomfortable, so get outta here, kid, before I have to arrest you.”

The jackals behind Infinite can see the fur on his back raise, anger making it stand on end. “Kid?” he repeats.

The officer behind the first one steps forward. “Looks like gang kids. We can’t have them here. Take them to the station.”

The first officer sighs. “Fine. You’re all under arrest. Just follow along and nothing bad’s gonna happen, okay?”

“Jackal squad!” Infinite barks. “Charge!”

Infinite leaps at the first officer.

The gunshot is the loudest sound any of them has ever heard.

Ripper falls to her knees with a pained roar.

Infinite slashes at an arm, he gets hit to the ground, tumbles over, there’s blood on the floor. The policeman in the back is trying to shoot at three jackals at once before they get to him, but none of them stop, they’re quick and nimble. Hook throws a knife. The officer grunts in pain.

There’s a boot on Infinite’s chest. He’s being pressed into the ground and a gun is pointed at him.

“You’re attackin’ officers in action,” the officer barks, “that’s a serious offence! You’re gonna ruin your own life here!”

“I have just as much right to be here as you,” he snarls.

The officer yells and stumbles forwards, Shiv is on their back and digs her weapon into their shoulder.

“With all due respect I feel like we might want to retreat,” she says, panting.

What?!”  Infinite snarls at her.

He’s ready to hit her across the face for even suggesting it.

That’s before he notices she’s bleeding.

He looks around.

The other policeman has disarmed two jackals who have now taken to do their job with their teeth instead. Dart slips forwards, slashes after the officer’s ankles, then slip away again. Howl is hiding under the car, looking back and forth, his ear dangles from a strip of skin. Snap is dragging Ripper out of the crossfire, leaving a bloody trail over the concrete.

Infinite growls in frustration.

“Jackal squad! Retreat!”

Howl immediately darts out from under the car, Stomp lets go of the policeman’s arm, runs over to help Ripper onto Snap’s shoulder, and all three of them make a run for it.

Shiv charges at the other officer, but Infinite holds out an arm.

“ALL of you!” he commands.

Shiv hesitates for a fraction of a second. Then she’s gone too.

The police officer that she had stabbed in the shoulder fumbles at their belt, and Infinite leaps to the hood of the car and kicks the side of their head, hard, sending them across the floor. Then he charges at the other officer with a roar. The officer turns around and shoots after him. The remaining jackals see their chance to get away.

Infinite zigzags, and to his luck, the officer is used to shooting at things that aren’t four feet tall and mostly made of fur. His sword gets a good cut in the policeman’s leg.

The officer staggers.

Infinite thrusts his sword into their abdomen.

“Nobody messes with my squad,” he snarls.

He looks around. The other officer is nowhere to be seen, but he can hear them, speaking intensely, their hushed voice dancing between the concrete walls, requesting backup. Infinite shakes his head, slowly.

He’s not going to run away.

 

– can you hear me? Come in! -

Infinite picks up the walkie talkie and holds it up.

“I don’t believe any additional assistance will be needed here,” he says.

He tosses the device to the floor and walks away, leaving behind a row of bloody footprints.

 

He pauses at the exit for a moment. Sirens whine in the distance. He looks at one of the vehicles that he was banished in favor of, that his squad had been driven into the neverending cascade of rain to make space for.

He snarls at it, his teeth gleaming back at him in the reflection of the silver car.

Then he does a double take. Steps closer. Turns his head to make sure it’s not a trick of the light.

He’s never ever known that he had one blue eye before.

The left one is golden like a jackal eye should be, like every watchful eye he’s ever known.

But the other one is bright blue. Foreign. Blue like the stripes on the police car. The unnatural colour of a poorly constructed training dummy.

The sirens get closer.

He turns away from his reflection and runs after his squad.

 

He finds his squad miserable and hidden in a pile of trash. His expression is anything but approving. Most of them pull their heads down, look away.

“Pathetic,” he says.

“So … ” Dart slips out from under a plastic bag. “What do we do now, Boss?”

“Go.”

Infinite walks past Dart, past his squad, back towards the desert and the unrelenting rain. The jackals look at each other, trying to silently communicate.

Slowly, they pick themselves up, some of them leaning on each other. Shiv secures the bandage around Ripper’s leg and helps her onto Snap’s back. Howl makes a face at the blood on his hand where he’s touched his ear.

They follow after Infinite, leaving the city behind, sirens whining in the distance.

 

Infinite walks without saying a word, and keeps walking. In hushed voices, his squad talks about whether or not they should say anything to him, what now, no I’m not gonna – we better leave him alone – it’ll be fine he’ll be himself again – do you think it’s his blood?

But nobody talks to Infinite before after hours, and then everyone is surprised to have Snap be the one who does it.

“Boss,” she says, ignoring the glare from Ripper on her back. “We can’t go on like this.”

Infinite turns around, stares her down with his odd-coloured eyes. Snap doesn’t flinch.

“And what do you want to do about it?” His voice is colder than the desert night. “Lie down and die?”

“I mean us.” She gestures as well as she can to herself and Ripper on her back. “Ripper can’t walk.”

“Fuck you I can,” Ripper says, making no move to actually make an attempt.

“And that is my problem how?” Infinite’s nose is crinkled with disgust, his voice is calm, but his heaving chest tells them that he definitely isn’t. “Should I sit down in the dirt and die in sympathy?”

“Well I can’t keep following along so like.” Snap pushes Ripper up. “Could we maybe slow down a bit?”

Infinite stares her down, cold and silent. Ripper mumbles something that only Snap can hear.

Snap shrugs. “Aright then. Just asking.”

She treks on, slowly.

Infinite sends her and the injured jackal on her back a judgmental look.

“Throw off your dead weight, then,” he says, turns his back, and walks on.

Snap blinks, looks at his turned back, then at Ripper. They exchange glances.

“What the fuck, dude,” Snap whispers to her.

 

Infinite doesn’t slow down, and the squad ends up walking in a scattered line, some staying closer to Snap’s pace, others trying to be in the middle, Hook stays by Infinite and Shiv keeps close behind, but constantly looks back to the slower-moving jackals.

Snap and Ripper catches up an hour after Infinite has set camp.

The day after, Snap is even slower. Ripper talks to her, and it ends up in a heated argument while Snap treks through the wet sand.

“Hey Dart can you get the Boss real quick I need to talk to him,” Ripper calls out at one point.

“No you absolutely do not!” Snap says.

“Yeah like this is gonna work. Just let me-”

“No!”

“It’s not even your problem!”

“Is too! You can’t walk all the way back and they’re looking for us!” Snap takes another heavy step.

“How do you know that you don’t know that.”

“Of course they fucking know who we are Boss was covered in blood.”

“Is because it’s raining so it looks like there’s more blood.”

“He’s not even injured no matter what that was a LOT of blood.”

“Sooo …” Dart interrupts. “You want me to get Boss or …”

“Yes,” Ripper says, right when Snap says “NO!”

Dart crosses their arms. “Well I ain’t gonna do it when he’s like that if you don’t really want it.”

“I am fucking hungry, Snap, just let me live my life.”

“We can’t.

Ripper decides there must be an easier way to do this than to argue with Snap.

“Dart, sweetheart - ”

“Don’t call me that you’re ALWAYS about to make me do something stupid when you say that -”

“I’m the one who wants to talk to Boss, so Snap really shouldn’t decide what I get to do.”

The two women send each other burning glares. Dart looks from one to the other, and then they shrug and sprint up past the other jackals.

 

“If Ripper wants to talk to me,” Infinite says, quietly, his voice threatening like a knife, “she can do it herself.

The next second is a tense silence.

“Aright well I’ll tell her that.”

Dart makes a loose salute.

Infinite looks after them as they run back, his nose crinkled, his corner tooth visible under his lip.

 

Ripper doesn’t argue more, just waits until they’ve caught up with the others for the night, and when Snap says she’s going to go out and hunt some food then, geez, be right back, Ripper stands up and walks, slowly, to where Infinite is.

She sits down.

“So,” she says.

Infinite almost snarls at her.

Ripper leans back and gestures to her leg, to the bloody bandage where a bullet has dug into her knee.

“Yeah I’m not really suited to keep up anymore. I think I’m gonna get Snap to carry me back.”

Infinite’s expression is still full of anger, but a slight bit of confusion has sneaked in there and encourages Ripper to continue.

“Like. This is never gonna be good. Fucking hurts. Can’t hunt right now. I’m gonna drag you all down. So I was thinking it’s probably best if I leave. I can keep a low profile and I don’t know, dig around in the trash or something.”

“Are you trying to whine your way to my sympathy?” Infinite growls.

Ripper looks surprised.

“Just thought I’d tell you. Also since Snap is gonna carry me the other way and such.”

Infinite lifts his chin, staring her down.

“I really can’t be bothered with your pitiful fate,” he says. “Just don’t slow me down.”

Ripper claps her hands against her thighs. “Aright, then. Had a good run.”

She stands up, clearly struggling, and walks back to where she came from, impossibly slowly and grimacing the whole time. Infinite does nothing.

The next morning, Ripper and Snap are gone. Infinite observes how his squad is collected again, nobody lagging behind, nobody going in between and creating along, scattered line. He huffs. Then so be it.

 

Ten jackals make it back to the sad remains of their makeshift camp. The rain has stopped, then started again. Everyone is walking with hanging tails, except for Infinite, who is holding his unnaturally high out of sheer anger, to convince his own body that nothing is wrong, that nothing hurts, nothing is wrong.

Snap doesn’t come back.

“Oh,” Howl says when Infinite mentions it. “I thought they went … together. You know.”

“Because Ripper can’t walk.”

Infinite looks at the direction of the city.

“I … no, I think,” Howl pauses, biting his lip. “I don’t think Snap wanted to leave her alone out there. When she can’t walk.”

Infinite frowns gently at the horizon.

“She was weak,” he says, but sounding less angry, more like he’s questioning what the entire world is doing.

“I …” Howl hesitates. “Snap would probably have gone with her even if Ripper wasn’t, you know … disabled. If she’d left, for some other reason.”

Infinite looks at Howl, silently urging him to explain.

“Maybe she’s just, making her way home still,” Howl says with an apologetic shrug and a slightly nervous smile. “They were quite behind, or, she’s just setting Ripper up in the city, maybe? She could still come back.”

“Hrm,” Infinite huffs, and doesn’t say more, looking into the horizon, and Ripper was not a loss with the condition she was in, but Snap?

Well, if she decided to go back, she had been too weak of will for his squad.

Rather nine people who won’t hold him down.

 

Even when the rain stops and the starving jackals watch with disbelief as the desert comes alive with cactus fruit and lizards emerging from the ground and a hundred birds landing to get a drink, Snap and Ripper never return.

Chapter Text

“Infinite?”

Big kneels down in front of him.

Infinite reluctantly looks up.

Big pushes a mug towards him.

it’s a horribly bright thing, painted and shaped to look approximately like an idea of a crocodile (its origins from back when the Mystic Ruins had a souvenir shop, Big got to scavenge through their spare inventory in exchange for a bag of fish when they packed up shop. Apparently, seeing the famous ruins was not worth getting helplessly lost for enough tourists, and those dedicated enough are not interested in mugs shaped like awkward parrots. But Big liked the mugs, he got one of each, and a striped pinwheel that has broken by now)

“Here,” Big says. “This helps when it hurts.”

Infinite blinks at the cup before he spots the tea in it. He lets out a huff of breath, and then pushes himself up to one elbow.

Big reaches over to help him. Infinite is in too much pain to even be bothered by it. Big hands him the tea, and Infinite wraps his hands around the bright horror of a cup and stares at a leaf that has refused to sink to the bottom of the cup and is now swirling around aimlessly, pushed by the steam.

“Don’t attack people,” Big says.

“I’m not - !” Infinite tries to find words, but he can’t, because there’s really nothing to say. He stares into his tea. “I won’t,” he then says, his voice low and strained.

Big nods, sagely, before he stands up.

“That’s good.”

Infinite’s head sinks further down between his shoulders.

Big doesn’t pat his head this time.

 

Infinite drinks his tea slowly, staring straight ahead like he’s in a trance. After he’s done, he just sits with the cup in his hands, the pain feels the same, he highly doubts the tea had any effect, but it’s whatever, it’s all whatever.

“Do you want me to take it?” Big asks.

Infinite wordlessly hands Big the cup and stays there, sitting, his knees held to his chest, staring ahead. Big cleans the cup and puts it back in place.

“Here,” he tells Infinite, and helps him lie back down.

Infinite quietly complies, expressionless as Big pulls the blanket up around his shoulders.

Infinite lies there for the rest of the day, blinking, breathing, that’s all. He sits up when Big brings him food or water or more tea and then lets Big help him back down, eerily quiet the whole day through. Quiet as evening falls, quiet as he eats, quiet when Big wipes his injured eye.


 

It still hurts the day after. More than it did in the evening the day before. Infinite forces himself to set his weakness aside and sit up.

Big asks him if he wants tea.

“Mrrrnn …” is the only reply Infinite can get himself to give.

Big makes him tea.

“She’s trying to help you,” Big says as Infinite stares into his cup.

Infinite scowls.

“We can put your head in the other end of the bed if you wanna look the other way.”

Infinite forces his frustration down and sips his tea, silently.

Big crouches down beside him.

“Won’t you tell me what’s wrong?”

Infinite sends him a disbelieving glare.

“Pretty please?”

Infinite hides his face in the mug so he can snarl without looking like he's trying to threaten Big.

“I have lost and I’m weak and at the mercy of the enemy,” he says through clenched teeth, “what isn’t wrong at this point.”

Big sits down.

“It’s not too bad. You’re still alive. You’ll get better,” he reassures. “Just don’t attack my friends, okay?” his voice gets a little more somber.

“I was being stupid,” Infinite mumbles into his mug.

“You can be stupid. Just don’t attack my friends.”

“Like I’m in a state to attack anyone.”

He takes a mouthful of his tea a bit too quickly and his tongue stings.

“You promise?”

Infinite blinks and looks up.

Big’s eyes are sincere. Infinite stares up at this weird, gentle giant, who is requesting nothing but Infinite’s word, waiting patiently for Infinite to give it to him.

“… Yes,” Infinite says, then, and looks back at the pile of leaves swimming in the last bit of water. The tea has already dulled down the pain. “I … I promise.”

Chapter Text

The afternoon brings rain.

Infinite pushes himself up into sitting position, the pitter-patter on the leaves above him bringing back memories of soggy fur, wet food and cold nights.

Big is out. He’s fishing. Infinite has been alone with his thoughts for a while now. His chest still hurts, but he can almost ignore it when resting.

Despite the warning bursts of pain, he gets up, stumbles over to the doorway and holds onto a vine to keep himself upright.

Big has built the roof so the porch is shielded. Infinite walks over to the railing and leans against it, watching the rain fall. A drop collects on a palm leaf above him and drips down onto his snout. He pulls his head back and shakes it off.

The rain sounds different here. The rain he knows is a steady torrent, an everlasting white noise as water splatters on everything and turns the world to mud, the only thing keeping them sane is the thought of how teeming the desert will become in a few months, if they just tough it out, just wait, survive, just stay, it will stop eventually, just tough it out.

Here, every drop is its own sound. The leaves above stop the water in different places, and when a drop finally makes its way all the way through the foilage, it’s almost silent when it hits the ground below. Most of them get caught on leaves and collect into bigger drops, until they become too heavy and let go to fall to the ground with gentle plops, or tumble against the plants below a few times, rustling the leaves, before they slowly slip down and settle in the mud.

The rain doesn’t beat down in a neverending cascade. Here, it sings.

And the frogs sing back.

He looks around when hearing the first ‘rrRROb’-noise, thinking it must be Big’s frog, but this one is brown and unassuming, sitting on a rock, Infinite wouldn’t have seen it if it wasn’t for the bloated croaking sack.

“rrrRROOObb!”

“Ribbt, ribbt,” someone answers from under the porch.

“Wamp!”

“Rroob rroob rooiibbtt!”

This place is overflowing with life. Shelter. Resources. Hunting would be no problem. If he wasn’t injured, he could just make one leap, and grab that frog. Even after the monsoon, such abundance would be an event to be celebrated among his squad.

He turns around and goes back inside, lies down on the bed, pulls the blanket up over his face, tries to block out the sounds from outside. But the duet still reaches him through the cotton, frogs and rainfall singing to each other.

Chapter Text

Big comes home with a bucket full of fresh fish. He leaves the fishing pole, the leaf he’s used as an umbrella, and the bucket on the porch, and peeks inside.

Infinite is lying on his back, staring stiffly into the ceiling.

“Uhh …” Big puts his head on the side. “You okay?”

“I don’t even know why I bother anymore.” Infinite doesn’t move his gaze. “All is lost, and I am a fool for not facing it before.”

“Do you need a hug?”

Infinite gives Big a glare with an expression that almost borders on disgust.

“I shouldn’t have expected you to understand.” He turns his gaze back to the ceiling.

Big shrugs. “There’s lotsa things I don’t understand, but I can still give a hug.” His voice is gentle as ever.

“Nothing you can offer me will do me any good. Nothing will bring back who I was. I’m nothing but an empty shell now. Fated to go through the motions set for me. Forever and ever. My punishment for being weak. ” He clenches his fists.

Big looks at Froggy for reassurance, concern painted on his face. Froggy makes a gentle ‘rrrroob’ noise.

“Do you want some more tea?” Big tries.

Infinite sighs, and his fists uncurl.

“If it can make my continued, useless existence a little more painless, then … yes.”

“Okay then.”

Infinite continues to stare at the ceiling while Big pours water into the pot and throws wood in the stove.

Froggy watches the water while Big goes outside to prepare cleaning the fish. He croaks when the water boils, and Big comes in again and makes the tea.

Infinite sits up, slowly and with a groan, to receive the cup. He takes it with both hands.

For some reason, existing as a shell of yourself becomes a little bit easier when he has a cup of tea in his hands and he doesn’t know why. Maybe it’s the feeling of heat slowly seeping through his gloves and warming his palms, so strong that it almost feels prickling, but comforting instead of painful. It’s something very tangible and very real. Easy to handle, too. Wait until it has cooled down. Then drink it.

He scoffs into the steam swirling around his face. To think he has come to a point where he needs to focus on something so insubstantial and completely meaningless as tea to feel like … well, it’s not that he feels that different, really. The feeling is just easier to be in.

That doesn’t make it less pathetic.

It is not more than … how long has it been? Three days? It can’t have been more than four, since the phantom ruby was still in his chest, since he had the power to remodel his body to be twice as big as its physical limits, to summon a sun, to turn the entire world with him as its axis.

He’s gone from the top to rock bottom.

“I’m gonna clean the fish now,” Big says.

Infinite makes a tuneless humming noise in response.

“I’m right outside.”

Infinite glances over. Then nods. Big sends him a big smile. Infinite looks back into his tea, and Big walks out the door.

Infinite can hear Big walk across the porch and down the steps, chatting with Froggy. The frog responds with a croak, and Big replies like they’re having a real conversation. Infinite closes his eyes and shakes his head. He’s stuck in the middle of the jungle with a weirdo, and considering all circumstances, his situation could have been much, much worse.

He sips his tea.

Big is talking eagerly outside, and the frogs react to it by croaking even more intensely. Infinite thinks he registers Big gently reprimanding one of them for interrupting.

Infinite suddenly realizes that there is a very real chance that this pain-relieving tea that feels soothing to just sit with could very well be a way of drugging him. He looks into the cup with a displeased frown.

He has emptied several cups already. He should probably have thought of that before.

At least it hasn’t caused him to hallucinate so far.

He puts the cup down beside the bed.

 

Big takes his time with the fish. He makes a small fire to bake some of them, and gets out his drying rack to smoke the rest. He gently talks to the frogs at first, but then most of the conversation topics get emptied out because he and frogs only share so much lifestyle and there’s no point in talking about people-only or frog-only things with people who don’t really care, Big learned this long ago and frogs know from they are froglets. Then it’s just peaceful silence, Big hums a bit, the frogs sometimes croak a little to each other (not speaking simple words to make it easy for Big to follow along; just talking frog to frog, him minding his things and them minding theirs), Froggy sits on a rock and catches bugs, quitely enjoying his best friend’s company.

Big is smiling to himself as he works on preparing the fish. The world around him is peaceful and full of beauty, and he’s got all the time in the world. This is how Big likes life best.



“Oh!” Big looks at the cup on the floor. “You didn’t drink your tea?”

Infinite keeps pretending to be asleep. Big shrugs and picks up the cup. He empties it outside and then washes it and dries it and puts it back in the cupboard.

“Ribbit?” Froggy says.

“I’ll wake him up when the food’s ready,” Big says.

 

“Infinite?”

Infinite sighs, pushes the blanket away, sits up, looks at Big.

Big hands Infinite cutlery and a plate.

“Do you wanna sit outside with me and Froggy?”

“No thanks,” Infinite mumbles.

“Okay-dokie.”

Big goes outside to sit on the porch, and Infinite eats alone. Finishes, puts the cutlery onto the plate, places the plate on the floor next to the bed, and lies back down to stare into the ceiling.

Big comes back a little after, takes the plate, washes the dishes.  Froggy stays on the porch.

He comes over to Infinite’s bed.

“I think it’s best if I look at your - ”

Eye , yes, right, fine.” Infinite sits up, closes his eyes, waits.

“Um.” Big kneels down. “Can I see your chest too?”

Infinite opens his eye again. “Why?”

“To see if everything’s okay?”

Infinite sighs, but reaches down and searches for the end of the bandages.

“I’ll heat some more water,” Big says, cheerfully.

Infinite manages to find out where Amy secured the bandages. She’s fastened it properly, that’s for sure. Infinite unravels it, and then his movements become slower as he removes the piece of cloth and looks down at the phantom ruby’s empty nest.

His brain immediately reacts with a distress signal of ‘something is wrong here’ and he forces the unease down and just looks at his chest, forcing his brain to get used to it, just get used to it already.

He almost doesn’t notice it when Big comes back, and looks up with a start as the gentle titan kneels down next to him.

Infinite lifts his head and closes his eyes, mentally preparing himself for the pain he knows is going to come once Big touches the wounds.

Some of the cuts opened when Infinite and Amy’s hammer collided. As always, Big is impossibly gentle, cleaning all of them while Infinite sits with teeth clenched, still as a statue.

Then Big checks the rest of Infinite’s chest area.

“Tell me if anything hurts,” he says and gently prods the area around Infinite’s side where the hammer hit and where he collided with the railing.

Everything hurts, and Infinite is determined to not tell Big about any of it.

“I don’t think you broke anything,” Big says as he gently presses every single one of Infinite’s ribs. “That’s good.”

That’s a relief, at least.

“Um … I don’t have a new cloth.” Big takes the piece of fabric, which has a few bloody spots on it. “Can you sleep like that?”

Infinite huffs. “Yes.”

“I’m sure it’s fine if you’re careful.”

Big cleans Infinite’s injured eye. Infinite groans internally when Big insists on helping him lay down, but he doesn’t complain, just lets Big put him down on the palm leaves.

Big pulls the blanket up around Infinite’s shoulders.

“Sleep well,” he says.

Infinite makes a small, dissatisfied sound in reply. Big doesn’t seem to mind.

 

 

Infinite sleeps for a handful of hours, wakes up, lies in the dark. Big snores loudly, he sounds like a giant looming beast wandering through the great unknown in search of something.

It takes Infinite about an hour to fall asleep again.

 

 


 

 

“Good morning!”

Big’s voice and face is open and friendly as always. Infinite sighs.

“Morning,” he says, reluctantly.

Big kneels down with a bowl of water, and Infinite sits up and lets Big clean his eye.

There’s fruit for breakfast.

“Do you want tea?” Big asks while Infinite chews a persimmon.

Infinite’s chest both aches with a steady beating as well as a sharp, hissing pain around the wounds, and he makes a face.

“What’s even in that stuff?” he asks.

“Plants!”

Infinite looks up at Big, who seems completely serious.

“What kind of plants?” Infinite asks with a flat look.

Big frowns and counts on his fingers as he talks. “There’s the bushes behind the temple with the shiny leaves, and some seeds from the blue flowers that look like stars and then some leaves from the vines that grow the weird flowers that turn into - ”

“What does it do? ” Infinite interrupts, sharply.

“It helps with headaches, and nightmares! And other pains too.” Big looks proud.

Infinite still looks suspicious. “How did you find out?”

“Tikal told me. She knows all sorts of things about the jungle.”

“Tikal?”

“She’s lived here for a very long time.”

Infinite sighs.

“No thanks.”

Big looks slightly puzzled, but then shrugs it off.

 

Big washes the fabric for Infinite’s wound and hangs it to dry on the porch.

“Is it boring just lying there?” he asks.

Infinite looks up at Big with a flat look.

“And what is there to do about that?” he says, barely keeping himself from snarling.

“You can look outside if you want to!”

Infinite chokes a groan. “If I have to choose between boredom and crippling pain, I pick boredom, thank you very much.”

“Does looking at things hurt?” Big sounds genuinely concerned.

Moving outside does . ” Infinite can’t mask his impatience this time.

“Oh! But you don’t have to move!”

Big walks over and reaches up to under the ceiling, where he frees a handful of vines. He parts the palm leaves making up the walls into bundles, and tie them together, giving the impression of heavy curtains being held aside.

“There you go! Here, I’ll help you.”

Infinite manages nothing but a small, choked noise of complaint before Big has picked him up, blanket and all, and turned him around to lie with his head in the other end of the bed.

Big adjusts the blanket and notices Infinite’s pained expression.

“Are you sure you don’t want some more tea?”

Ugh. I –” Infinite makes a frustrated grimace, “all right, fine.

“I’ll go get some more water.”

“Whatever,” Infinite mumbles.

Big pats Infinite’s head, then stands up and gets the water pail.

Infinite looks out at the scenery, feeling slightly miffed about it, just because.

Most of what he can see is damp ground and rocks and boards that Big has laid out to make traversing easier. Everything is awfully green, and the birds outside are more than ready for the day and loudly announce so. Everything is so saturated and loud here, nothing’s ever quiet. Not even in the dead of night.

Big comes back with water. Infinite can hear him chat away with Froggy, but still can’t help but turn his head to look, his instincts telling him to make sure of whatever it is that approaches. Lying like this, he has to turn his head at an almost painful angle before he can see Big with his limited field of vision.

He sees something large and soft and purple, which is enough to satisfy his anxiety, and turns back.

Big carries the pail inside and boils water. He maneuvers the bucket, which Infinite would almost be able to sit in, with one hand and no strain at all, and doesn’t spill more than a few drops when he pours water in the pot. They run down the side of the pail and gather there before they drip to the floor.

He places the water pail next to the lone kitchen counter and puts a wooden lid on it.

Infinite sits up, slowly, while the water boils. He absentmindedly pulls at a stitch in the blanket that has torn itself loose.

Big finds the tin with healing tea, puts a spoonful in a mug, pours water over it.

“Here you go!”

Infinite accepts the tea without a word.

The horribly ugly mug is shaped like a parrot and stares at Infinite with poorly painted eyes. He stares back.

He still doesn’t trust the tea.

The steam curls up around his face. He forces himself to drink.

The soothing effect kicks in after half an hour, the pain dulls down and Infinite finds himself just sitting in the bed of palm leaves with his tail along his side (he would wrap it around himself, but the splint doesn’t allow it), watching the world while feeling utterly resigned.

Big is rummaging around, and Infinite really doesn’t care enough to find out what he’s doing.

A gentle ‘plap’-sound makes Infinite turn his head.

Froggy is sitting next to the bed, looking at him with golden, questioning eyes.

“Wamp?” he says.

“I don’t understand what you are saying,” Infinite says, flatly, and then feels ridiculous because he is talking to a frog.

Big turns around and looks at Infinite and Froggy.

“He wants to know if you’re okay,” he translates, his voice slightly careful.

“I’m fine,” Infinite says.

“Wrromp.”

Froggy ,” Big says with a stern frown.

Infinite looks from Big to Froggy, then back at Big again. He’s getting the feeling that he has hit the all-time low of being talked shit about by a frog.

Big walks over and picks Froggy up. Froggy comes with a displeased squeaking noise.

“If Infinite says he is okay, we should believe him,” Big tells Froggy.

“Rr-rr-rob.”

Infinite has never seen a frog look this aloof before.

“I,” Infinite says, slowly and sharply, “am in a completely miserable state, and I’m probably never going to be more “ okay ” than I am now for the rest of my life . Satisfied?

Big’s ears droop. He puts Froggy on his shoulder and kneels down next to Infinite.

“I don’t want your pity, ” Infinite says through clenched teeth.

Big puts a hand on Infinite’s shoulder. Infinite pulls his shoulder away, frustration turning his face into an animalistic grimace.

“It’s okay to be upset,” Big says.

Upset? ” Infinite repeats.

“But things will get better. We’ll help you!”

“There’s nothing you can do to help! Nobody can! My body is ruined!

Infinite feels rage bubble up inside and he can’t help but yell, can’t help but bare his teeth and breathe heavily.

“I’m sorry.” Big pats Infinite’s head.

“Why am I even alive?” Infinite’s voice is a breathy whisper.

“No, don’t say that,” Big says. “There’s still good things! I know you’re hurt, but you can still be happy. We’ll help you!”

Big tries to put an arm around Infinite, but the jackal tears himself free and scrambles away.

“I DON’T WANT YOUR PITY!” he screams. He can feel the rage well up inside him, the emotion trying to bring tears to his eye and he gets even angrier because he does not cry!

“I’m sorry.”  Big’s eyes are as warm as ever, concerned, his face showing nothing but worry. “Is there something else you want?”

“I want my LIFE BACK!” Infinite screams, so loudly that his voice can’t follow along and the yell turns hoarse and strained.

Big’s ears fold down, and he puts a hand over one of them.

“I’m sorry,” Big repeats. He stands up. “I wish I could help you,” he says, gently.

Infinite falls down to sit on the floorboards, breathing rapidly, his eye glistening and his shoulders trembling.

“Are you sure you don’t want a hug?” Big asks, carefully.

Infinite puts a hand to his head, his claws digging into his face.

Big takes Infinite’s wrist, and Infinite tries to pull away, but Big firmly moves Infinite’s hand just a little to the left, keeping his fingers away from the injured eye before letting go.

“Be careful,” Big says.

“Just let me be,” Infinite hisses, voice hoarse. “I don’t want to talk to you about my feelings or how I am, just let me be.

“Oh. Okay.” Big places a hand on Infinite’s head. “Thank you for telling me.”

Infinite looks at Big with an unreadable expression, then he turns away and shakes the hand off.

Infinite gets to his feet and staggers back to his bed, pulls the blanket up around himself, and collapses into the palm leaves.

 

Infinite spends the rest of the day under the blanket, sulking.

Chapter Text

Big comes back from fishing in the evening, prepares dinner, and gives Infinite a plate. Infinite says nothing, just sits up, and Big keeps looking at him with a gentle frown and droopy ears, but says nothing, and leaves Infinite be.

Big eats on the porch together with Froggy like he usually does. When he comes back in, Infinite has his back turned, mostly hidden under the blanket, an empty plate next to him on the floor.

The stove is still warm, and Big heats a bit of water, and then stands and looks at Infinite for a moment, thinking.

He walks over.

“Infinite?”

Infinite is silent.

“Do you wanna clean your eye yourself?” Big asks.

Infinite makes a low groaning sound and props himself up on one elbow. Big puts the bowl and cloth down next to Infinite on the floor.

Infinite stays quiet, but takes the cloth from the bowl and wrings it.

“Be careful, okay?” Big says.

Infinite wipes along the scar that once was his eye. His blue eye. The one that was something special. He remembers thinking that he was going to be the one to claim the bright world he had seen on a screen as his own, that he was the one to turn the blue world golden. All he has left now is one eye, golden like that of any other jackal.

He’s so weak now.

He lost.

Was he even special?

He looks at the cloth. A small bit of red has painted a faint streak on the fabric. Something yellowish and gooey has collected in a small lump.

Infinite makes a face.

“Ew.”

Big turns around to see what Infinite’s talking about.

“It’s looking much better,” Big reassures.

Infinite dips the cloth in the water and runs his eye over one more time. Watches the trail left by the blood.

“Um ...” Big says, carefully. “Don’t overdo it, please.”

Infinite sighs and wrings the cloth before letting it back into the water, where it slowly unfolds on the surface like a flower blooming.

Infinite crawls back under the blanket, and Big picks up the bowl.




The world is red.

The world is flickering.

The world is a mess of arms and limbs, of broken bodies, fire, blood, everything is upside down and inside out.

He looks around and behind him, trees reach into the abyss above, vines tangling up and to the side, everything is red and black. He doesn’t dare look down at himself.

He is seeing with both eyes.

His hand darts up to his face, but what he finds is not his face, not eye nor scar, it’s blood, thick and warm and flowing, and as he looks down to see it fall he sees his chest instead and there’s an endless void, large and gaping, instead of the triangular wound he’s used to, is it spreading?

Blood is running down his face now, coating the entire right side of his body, and when he looks at it, it is thick, wet sand, tumbling and splitting and falling like the merciless rain from the monsoon, and it takes his body with him. His arm is pouring like grains seeping through the fingers of a hand, his legs gone, he tries to cry out but can’t, there’s no air in his lungs, he can do nothing but watch himself pulverize and fall into the abyss and he wakes up with a start, gasping for air.

The night is talking, as always. He can hear bugs buzz outside the hut. Big is snoring

Something either screams or whines, low and far away, then goes quiet.

Infinite sits up and slowly, as if he’s afraid what he will find, brings his hand up to the right side of his face. He feels foolish when relief washes over him, because of course all he’s going to find is old scars mixed with new and an eye that will never see again, but he still keeps his hand there for a few more moments, there in the dark.

He lets his hand fall. Pulls his knees up to his chest.

Something bellows outside, deep and animalistic, he hears the sound of something splashing through the soggy ground close by.

He tries to follow the sound. It passes by, he hears rustling in the leaves.

Then there’s the sound of something tumbling and falling, a low thud, a thin whine whistles through the air and then stops, suddenly.

Infinite’s heart beats fast as he listens to the sudden silence. Something is moving through the foilage, slowly, like it has to fight the vegetation to get by. His hand jolts up to his face as he catches the scent of blood. His face is still intact. Of course it is. But that doesn’t stop his heart from pounding.

He’s never been this close to a hunting predator before. If a creature in the desert isn’t food, it’s competition, the jackal squad made sure to keep their territory free from anything that might steal their prey, or in a worst case scenario, might even become a threat. Anything bigger than what they could send flying with a kick would be chased and fought by more or less every jackal nearby, until the local predators knew to stay away.

Now there’s a hunter right outside. Something big.

Infinite doesn’t even attempt to go back to sleep again. He sits, stiffly, with his hands digging into the palm leaves, staring into the dark with one intense eye. His heart speeds up at every unexpected sound, the faint smell of fresh blood still lingering in his nose.



When the first light paints the darkness grey, Infinite finally pushes himself from his sitting position and lies back down. His head feels heavy, his eye wants to rest, he feels out of it from the few times where he had slipped into a half-sleeping state during the night, still sitting up, drifting off for a minute before yet another sound or the weight of his own body jolted him awake again.

He lies there for two minutes with his thoughts covered in cotton, then falls asleep.

Not much more than ten minutes later, Big’s eyes blink open, and he yawns and swings his legs over the edge of the bed and stretches.

Infinite lifts his head and squints.

“Good morning!” Big greets.

“Mmmrg ...”

Big gets up.

“Did you not sleep well?”

Infinite makes a more or less identical sound to before. Big remembers what he promised yesterday.

“Oh! Sorry. I’ll stop.”

Infinite mumbles something and rubs his good eye.

“Um. You’re lying on the wrong side of your - ”

“Dammit,” Infinite mumbles.

He pushes himself up again and chokes a yawn.

“Tea?” Big asks.

“Please.” Infinite wants nothing more right now.

 

“Do you wanna go fish with me and Froggy today?” Big asks as Infinite waits for his tea to cool down.

Infinite watches a leaf that refuses to sink to the bottom of the mug and instead moves in lazy circles along the surface. He sighs.

“Why not.” His voice is low, tired.

“I can show you my favourite berry spot!”

Infinite blows on the surface of the tea. “Sure.”

Big gets his berry picking bucket from the cupboard, Infinite watches with a tired eye and wonders how on earth Big can fit that much stuff into one cupboard and not have everything fall out all the time.

Infinite finishes his tea, Big hands him the bucket to carry. Froggy croaks, displeased, when Big talks to him.

“But we’re leaving now.”

“Woormp.” Froggy folds his little frog arms under his body, and they almost disappear from view.

“Then you’ll have to come later,” Big says to Froggy.

“Wwwromp.”

“All right. Come on, Infinite.”

 

Infinite scans the foilage while they walk down the path, trying to see if he can spot where something had to let go of life that night, but the jungle reveals nothing.

His tail is weighted down by the splint. He hooks a hand around one of the branches so the tip doesn’t drag through the dirt.

Big talks as they walk, and Infinite only halfway listens, most of his replies small, ambiguous sounds. Big doesn’t seem to mind.

Big stops to pick berries on the way. He tells about how Tikal taught him that these are edible, you have to be careful with berries, but these are good, and Infinite holds the bucket and mostly stares into the distance, occasionally kneeling down to pick a few and put in the bucket, just to seem like he’s participating.

When the bucket is one third full, Big is satisfied.

They sit down at the spot by the stream that Infinite has been to before. Big throws out the line, and Infinite carefully picks out a few berries to taste. They’re a little bitter, but mostly just watery with a pale hint of sweetness.

Infinite forces a yawn down. The jungle morning is cool, the humid air not yet feeling heavy with warmth, a few sunbeams drifting through the leaves.

They sit at the shore there, sharing the berries. Big has stopped chattering now and seems content with sitting in silence, and Infinite would have appreciated this, but right now, the quiet makes his sleepy mind even heavier.

His head droops, and he pulls it back up and shakes his head. Big looks over, but doesn’t say anything.

Big moves the berry bucket a little closer to Infinite, encouraging him to take the last few. Infinite does it and chews slowly, eye pointed at the water but not really seeing.

The air rests on Infinite’s shoulders like a weighted blanket. He lets his eye slide shut, just for a moment, to feel the warmth of the spots of sun that hits his fur. The water whispers quietly with the leaves above.



Infinite wakes up, leaning against something incredibly soft. He blinks a few times, too comfortable to really want to wake.

“Rrrriib.”

Infinite looks up and sees Froggy, who is perched on Big’s head, and Big, who smiles at him.

“Did you have a good nap?”

Turns out, the impossibly soft surface is the thick white fur on Big’s chest. Infinite pushes himself upright and shakes his head to clear the last bit of sleepiness from his head.

“Wha …?”

“You fell asleep. I needed my arm, so I moved you.”

“Ah.” Infinite frowns gently and rubs his forehead.

Well, that's embarrassing.

“You can sleep some more if you want to,” Big offers and tugs gently at the fishing pole.

Infinite grimaces slightly. “No thanks.”

He looks around, trying to find the most discreet way to slip away, but Big is reaching around him to hold the fishing pole, and Infinite is slightly trapped. Enough that he would have to ask Big to move, or literally climb over his arms. Infinite is trying to decide which option would be least awkward when Big lets go of the fishing pole with one hand, and Infinite only just manages to feel relieved before Big puts a hand on his shoulder and gently pushes Infinite back against his chest so he can maneuver the fishing pole better.

Infinite flails a bit. Big's automatic response is to pat Infinite's head. He doesn't even look away from the water. Infinite sits for a few seconds with his face halfway buried in soft, white fur, trying to find out if causing himself further indignities to get free would be worth it.

Big reaches back around Infinite to hold the fishing pole, and now Infinite is truly trapped.

Infinite pushes himself up a little, and tries to find a spot that will make the whole situation less hug-like. He has to press quite close against the thick fur on Big’s torso, but it's a start.

Less than a week ago, he had the entire world on its knees. Now, he’s trapped in a pseudo-hug by a giant fisherman cat who talks to frogs. He wants to groan, but it comes out more as a sigh.

His chest aches. His head is still full of sleep.

He deflates against Big's chest and just accepts it when Big gives his shoulder a little pat.

The mortal embarrassment over what his life has come to doesn't change that he still feels very tired and when all is said and done, it's an extremely comfortable spot. He lets his head rest against Big's fur. He feels very small and very pathetic, but … it's almost not a terrifying thought. It's still frustrating, but doesn't fill him with a feeling of all-consuming dread, of his life being about to end because of it.

Big is so much more powerful than Infinite, but right now, Big is also in between Infinite and the rest of the world. And Big has made it clear that he isn’t going to hurt Infinite, not at the moment, at least, not while he knows what he knows and nothing more.

Infinite turns his head to hide it in Big's fur. And once again, Big lets go of the fishing pole, this time to put his arm around Infinite and give him a little squeeze.

“Everything will be okay,” Big says, quietly.

Infinite doesn't believe that for a second. But at least right now, even in his miserable state, he feels safe.

He spends the rest of the fishing trip there, and Big hooks and reels in and throws the line out again without Infinite having to move. Infinite gets the feeling that Big is used to having people sitting here, which makes him feel just a little less mortally embarrassed about it. The loss of his dignity doesn’t even haunt him too much. After all, he has lost everything else; why would he expect to get to keep even that?

So he stays against Big’s chest like a lost puppy until Big stretches and says he’s feeling hungry, and Infinite finally gets a chance to escape.

Big talks about whether to make soup or stew or just roasted fish again, and asks Infinite if he has any preferences. Infinite mumbles something about really not minding.

Big hums, thoughtfully.

“I think I’ll make soup.”

Infinite sends Big a look. What a simple existence.

They go home. Big makes soup. They eat soup.

There’s something peaceful about a life this simple.

Chapter Text

“Do you wanna go for a walk?” Big asks.

Infinite shakes his head. “No thanks.”

“Okay. I’ll be back soon!”

Big picks Froggy up and waves. Infinite lifts his hand, slowly, as if he’s not sure he’s doing it right.

Big leaves the doorway open. Infinite lies down on his bed, staring at the jungle outside the hut. He drifts off to sleep again after a while.

 

Big is back when Infinite wakes up again. Infinite can’t be bothered to sit up, and about ten minutes pass before Big even notices that he’s awake.

“Oh! G’morning!”

Infinite frowns.

Morning?

“Uh. Well.” Big tilts his head, deep in thought. “I guess it’s evening. But you were asleep.”

Infinite huffs.

“For a moment I thought you were telling me I had been asleep for sixteen hours.”

“Oh, no, don’t worry! Just a few hours I think.”

“Hm.”

Infinite turns to lie on his back, folding his hands over his chest just under where the phantom ruby’s cave is. The pain from the spot is an annoying constant, but after so much rest, not more than that.

Big goes over to the kitchen counter and begins chopping some roots. Infinite listens to the rhythmic sounds for a while, chop-chop-chop-chop, pause, the knife scraping across the cutting board, chop-chop-chop-chop.

“I never heard the doctor talk about you,” Infinite says, then.

“Huh?”

“The doctor briefed me about many people. Several of them I never encountered. But I never heard your name or had your likeliness described.”

“What doctor?” Big asks.

Infinite turns his head. “Doctor Eggman. Leader of the Eggman Empire.”

Big is quiet for a long while, and there’s a pause in the chopping too. It makes Infinite’s beat a little faster and, perhaps as an effect of that, makes the pain in his chest increase.

“Eggman isn’t very nice,” Big finally says.

Behind the mild choice of words, Infinite clearly senses the strong disapproval.

“... that much is true,” Infinite agrees, thinking of mocking words about what a failure he is, thinking of boots kicking him over like he was too much of a waste to even touch, thinking of the all-consuming pain he had felt when the doctor, not even bothering to perform any kind of surgery, just grabbed the phantom ruby from his chest - how he had screamed, there - and pulled it from his weak hull of a body with raw force. Infinite’s gaze falls. “I suppose this is my own doing for choosing his side.”

“Good thing Amy found you.”

Big has resumed chopping. He sounds earnest.

Infinite stares straight ahead.

“It is more luck than I could ever have dared to hope for,” he says.

There’s a pause in the conversation. Big hums a little to himself. Then Infinite speaks again.

“So you know of the doctor, but he does not know you? Or was he aware you were absent?”

“Oh, he knows me. I think? He stole Froggy once. It was a real hassle to get him back, there was a giant water creature and Froggy kept running away and wouldn’t talk to me.”

Infinite frowns.

“What is with that frog?” he asks.

“Whaddya mean?”

“What is his importance? You say the doctor has been after him, and you – you keep … caring for this creature, and you gain nothing – surely it would be more use to just – you could crush it into a snack to sustain yourself with minimal effort, and instead you cherish him.” Infinite’s hand flicks in the air like a flamenco dancer’s fan to underline his words. “Why?”

“Silly Infinite, friends don’t eat friends.” Big sends Infinite a look from over his shoulder, the kind of look you might send a child who’s saying something particularly detached from reality. “I think Eggman needed something Froggy had swallowed, maybe.” Big shakes his head. “He needs to be more careful with what he eats.”

“You are saying there is nothing special about him?” Infinite turns his head and upper body to look at Big.

“Of course there is! Froggy’s curious, and he’s always excited, and he sings real pretty, and is good at remembering things. He’s my best pal in the whole world.”

“But he is just a frog, like any other?”

“Nobody’s like any other when you get to know them, Infinite.”

Infinite has a frown on his face as he tries to grasp what Big is telling him. He’s quiet for almost an entire minute before he speaks again.

“How … did it start? How did you, decide to get to know a frog?

“He kept me company when I moved here,” Big says. “He was curious about what was going on and kept hanging around. It was nice to have a pollywog pal around. So he tried to understand what I said and I made some sounds back at him and I learned to see if he was happy or sad or angry … then we became friends!”

Infinite gets the feeling Big would try to befriend anything. Which is his luck, he supposes. Still, the deep disapproval Infinite could feel behind Big’s words when he talked about Eggman makes him fear for what will happen if Big finds out exactly who Infinite is and what he has done.

“Wrroooomp!”

Big turns around with a huge smile on his face. “Froggy!”

“Wraamp wamp waamp,” Froggy responds and hops through the doorway.

“That’s real good!” Big grabs the water pail from the floor. “I think we’re gonna have a lot of tadpoles this year.” He lifts the lid. “Huh. We’re almost out of water. I should get some more.”

“Wamp.”

“You don’t have to.” Big picks up the pail. Then, as an afterthought, he turns to Infinite. “Do you wanna come along?”

Infinite hesitates for a moment. Then he pushes himself to his elbows and gets on his feet. He has to pause for a second to make sure his legs are on the same page as he is.

Big holds the palm leaves open for him.

“You’re getting better at walking,” Big notes as Infinite walks past, his ears lifted with something that could resemble pride.

Infinite looks up, then down at his feet.

“I … suppose so.”

He knows he will probably never recover to be as strong as he was before this whole calamity, but this is something, at least.

Big leads Infinite through the jungle, pail in his hand, and Infinite keeps right behind him. A small parrot swoops right over their heads, and Infinite starts from the unexpected movement. Big doesn’t even look up. Infinite lets out a huff of breath to calm his skipping heart, and then takes a few quick steps to catch up with Big.

“You never hunt?” Infinite asks.

“No, that’s too stressful.”

Big pushes a branch out of his way. Infinite doesn’t even have to duck, he can just walk under it.

“It seems like it would be easy around here,” Infinite says.

“Fishing’s easier. And nicer. I love fishing.”

“I guess you really can just choose how to live here,” Infinite says, quietly, as he watches a lizard scuttle over the path and disappear into the underbrush.

They make it to a small stream, no broader than Infinite’s shoe, and Big walks along it until they reach the cave wall. There’s a broad opening, like a wound in the stone, surrounded by thick moss, fresh, green vines, and blooming flowers. Water splashes over the rocks to create the small stream, like the smallest waterfall.

Big climbs onto a rock nestled right below the opening in the stone, and puts the water pail into the crack. The sound of water pattering over the rocks turns into the sound of water pouring into a wooden bucket. The small cascade that flows over the rocks turns into a small trickle, and then just drips, until the bucket is full and Big removes it again.

Infinite looks past him and into the opening.

Crystal-clear water is pouring from the walls, shining in the light like it is full of little pearls. Just looking at it makes Infinite feel thirsty. It also makes him feel a deep-rooted surge of envy that makes his chest tense up and his body hurt. What would he not have given for a source of clean water like this, unlimited and readily available, back in the desert? What impossible tasks would his squad not have taken on? Shiv had used to run dirty water through cloth time and time again to make it safe to drink, they would dig for hours to get to water when the desert was at its driest, and when water finally came, it was everlasting torrents that turned their life to hell.

The water splashes over the rocks and make a billion tiny sounds, clucking and dripping, gentle pitter-patters, irregular drips, quick rushing sounds, creating a cascade of mocking laughter. Here I was, all along, creating a waterfall of life, and why was there nothing like this in the desert where you were made, why, because the world is unfair, little jackal, that’s why.

Infinite’s hands turn into fists. He turns his back to the spring and starts to walk back the way they came.

“Oh! Wait a moment!” Big says.

Infinite turns his head, and he doesn’t mean to send Big a glare, but he’s too bitter, he can’t help it.

“I see a mango!” Big puts the water pail down and pushes through the greenery.

Infinite watches with a displeased squint. Big makes a ‘hup!’ sound as he makes a small jump and gets grasp on a branch further in between the trees, and he pulls it so the whole tree leans closer. He grabs one branch higher, pulls, then again, until he can wrap his hand around a ripe orange fruit and pull it free.

The tree makes a whipping sound, and the foliage dances wildly when Big lets go.

He pushes through the jungle back to where Infinite stands and hands him the mango. Infinite looks at the fruit with a frown. Big picks up the water pail and walks back along the trail.

Infinite follows along, holding the fruit in the palm of his hand, and a little away from his body, like he doesn’t entirely trust it.

The walk back is spent in silence.

Froggy croaks a greeting when they come back.

“Hello!” Big replies.

Big puts the pail down, and Froggy immediately jumps onto the lid and from there to Big’s head. Infinite stands in the middle of the hut with the mango in one hand, looking like he doesn’t know what to do with himself, but can’t get himself to ask.

Big mercifully frees him from the responsibility by taking the mango. Infinite takes cover by retreating to his bed.

Big continues with his cooking, and Infinite sits with his knees against his chest, the sound of a cascade of clear water still ringing in his ears.

Big cuts the mango into bite-sized pieces and puts half of them on a plate that he brings to Infinite.

Infinite looks from the fruit presented to him with a doubtful expression, his eyes flick to Big, then back again. He takes the plate and picks up one piece of fruit that he scrutinizes.

Hesitantly, he bites into it. He’s surprised at how tender and sweet it is, almost too tender, too sweet, but also too tender and sweet to not eat.

He eats slowly, and steadily makes it through the entire plate while trying to find out what to think. It’s strange and unfamiliar, but it’s not bad, he thinks. Everything that makes it strange and unfamiliar has an appeal to it, but he can’t shake the feeling off that that’s what it wants him to think.

And then he has eaten all of it.

His glove is sticky. He looks for something to wipe it in, and then he remembers that right, there’s water readily available here.

Infinite expects a reaction when he aims for the door, but Big doesn’t seem to mind that he goes outside at all.

There’s a small puddle right below the steps to the porch, and Infinite washes his fingertips, shakes the worst water off and then walks back inside with his hand held a little away from his body.

Big does not even ask Infinite about why he left. Infinite sends Big’s turned back a look.

His first thought is that like this, he could just walk away, but then he remembers that of course Big is not going to be worried about that. Infinite can barely walk, and even if he could, where would he go?

Infinite sits down on the bed again, and his knees end up folded in front of his chest without him really thinking about it. His eyes drift down to the wound.

It’s so big. So deep, too. It’s not like he had less of a phantom ruby shaped hole in his chest when the phantom ruby was in there, but he never thought about it back then. He should have. He had seen the stone, he knew its size, logical thinking should have told him that if one third is visible protruding from your chest, then the last two thirds must be inside your body. He just never worried about it.

His defeat and the loss of his squad had not exactly left him in a good place for making life-changing decisions.

The doctor had known that, hadn’t he? Of course he had. And he used it to his advantage. Infinite’s hands curl into fists. He really was never anything but a tool to the doctor, a weapon, a throwaway … thing. And the worst part is that Infinite knew. Infinite always knew. He had been convinced that with his power and the phantom ruby, he and the doctor would be equals, and he was the jackal to come out on top, but deep down, he always knew.

The doctor had looked different when Infinite met him than he did on the screens in the facility. Less dreadfully cheerful, more spiteful and relentless. Taller, maybe, or had required boots with thicker soles. Bushier moustache. And it quickly became clear that he had no idea who Infinite and the other jackals were. Not even as his creations, the ones supposed to be his soldiers, stood in front of him, hardened by fighting and revolts, the merciless desert, a world that hates them, not even then did he remember that he had made them, so many monsoons ago.

Infinite’s hand ghosts over the wound, traces the triangular shape of the edges without his fingertips touching it.

And after Shadow defeated him, Infinite had been forgotten again.

Anger and frustration gathers inside Infinite, collecting into a hard, cold pit.

He may have been the strongest of the jackals. The leader of the jackals. But the jackals were destined to be nothing. No more than an afterthought, a scrapped project, an annoying nuisance.

He had thought he could change that. But he couldn’t.

He is nothing.

He never was anything.

Slowly, he gets up from the bed, fighting to get to his feet. He stands, his gaze fixed on the floor, for a long moment. Then he walks over to where Big is cooking.

“Ribbt?” Frog says, leaning to the side so he can look at Infinite without Big’s ear blocking the view.

“Schh,” Big shushes him.

Infinite stands, holding himself, his expression sour, for another long moment. Then he shifts his weight to press against Big’s arm.

“Oh!” Big stops stirring. “What is it?”

Infinite’s frown gets a tad deeper.

Big lets the spoon rest in the pot.

“Do you need a hug?”

Infinite looks away, shoulders tense and posture closed.

Big kneels down and wraps both his arms around Infinite. The world becomes very soft and Infinite gets fur in his nose. He stays tense with his arms wrapped around himself, but does lean a little bit closer.

Big pets his hair.

“It’s okay,” Big reassures. “It’s gonna be okay.”

Infinite lets out a huff of air, his shoulders sinking. He pulls away, and Big lets him go.

“Sorry,” Infinite mumbles.

“Don’t say sorry.” Big gently ruffles Infinite’s hair.

Infinite turns around and goes back to his bed, where he pulls the blanket up over his shoulders to hide himself.

“Riib riib rieeb!” Froggy says, leaning down so he can look at Big upside down.

Big sends Froggy a broad smile. “Told ya,” he says, voice lowered. He picks the spoon back up. “We just need to give him space.”

Chapter Text

“Here’s another one!”

Big trots over to a small pool of water that has gathered between the strong roots of two large trees. Infinite pushes a branch out of the way and follows after.

“I still don’t know why we are doing this,” he says and sends a look to the gelatinous mass in the water.

“It’s fun to see the tadpoles grow up.” Big leans closer to get a look at the frog eggs. “I think these are gonna be toads.”

“Roooibb ribb,” Froggy says.

“You think? Say congratulations from me, please!”

“Woomp.”

Infinite isn’t sure why he had not expected exactly this when he said yes to ‘do you want to go look for frog eggs’. Big has shown endless kindness, tolerance, and patience, and Infinite is eternally grateful for that, but Infinite does sometimes forget just how weird Big is.

Still, Infinite could just go back, and he hasn’t, even after discovering that yes, frog egg cluster number seven does indeed look just like all the other frog egg clusters. Boredom can do strange things to a man. Besides, the pain in his chest is merciful today, and no matter how much the appeal of finding frog eggs eludes him, it is nice to get to stretch his legs without the danger of stepping on ground that looks solid and then standing ankle-deep in muddy, algae-filled water.

It had taken so long to dry his boots last time.

Big stands up again. He’s got a leaf in the fur on his chest that he doesn’t seem to have noticed.

Froggy jumps into the pool with a splash, and Infinite turns and covers his head so he doesn’t get water in his face. He’s learned better than to try and back away; getting splashed is better than losing his footing.

“Froggy!” Big says and sends his friend a stern look.

“Wwwaamp!” Froggy says.

Infinite shakes water out of his hair. Froggy swims a lap around the pond and then jumps out of the water again, landing on one of the roots lining the water.

“Wamp.”

“All right.” Big walks around the trees to get to where Froggy is, and Infinite follows after. “We should also check around the temple.”

“Rrromp.”

“Careful, Infinite! The ground is wet here.”

Infinite makes sure to follow right in Big’s footsteps. Luckily, that isn’t too hard. Big’s weight presses the ground down under his sandals and leaves a clear path.

Big makes sure to hold vines to the side and check if Infinite can keep up. Every time Big looks over his shoulder or pushes a branch aside, it’s a small, painful reminder to Infinite of how useless he is right now, but he says nothing, just lets Big clear the path and does his best to follow along.

Froggy, small and nimble, leads the way. He hops to every body of water they come across and surveys it, and lets Big know if he should come over. Apparently, they have a route. The paths they walk along are decidedly less dense than the rest of the jungle, and Big keeps talking to Froggy about this and that pond and how things usually are (“Doesn’t seem like much water has gathered here yet” “they usually lay their eggs late, don’t they?” “You should tell Flipper this spot is free this year”).

Infinite feels like he is trying to decode some sort of ancient code loosely based on his own language – he knows the meaning of what is being said, but he can’t get it to connect to any reality he knows about – and it doesn’t help that Big’s conversation partner is, in fact, a frog, and while Infinite is at this point pretty sure that the two are indeed communicating, it still all sounds like frog noises to him.

“Wammp!”

“Coming!”  Big says and diverts from the not-quite-a-path.

Apparently, that frog noise was different than the last three ones.

Infinite follows after Big.

Big is leaning over the small pool, or maybe it’s a puddle , Infinite is honestly seeing more different bodies of water on this walk than he did for the first years of his life and he is not sure how to place half of them and this seems to be kind of in between the two.

Big shakes his head.

“No, that’s not a good place. This is gonna dry out. Then what about the eggs?”

“Wrro-amp?”

“Froggy, can you find out who laid these?”

“Ribbit.”

“Hm.” Big watches the lump of frog eggs. “Okay, I’ll make sure they stay damp this year, but you have to tell them to find a better spot next time, okay? I can’t do that always.”

“Wrr-rr-rooamp.”

Infinite looks past Big without much enthusiasm, but he feels like he’s kind of obligated to at least have seen the frog eggs, and yes, there they are. A small cluster of semi-transparent, pale, gooey little things. One of the smaller clusters they’ve seen so far. Just as underwhelming as he expected.

At least he was kind of right about it not being a proper pond. Pool. Whatever.

Big stands up again, and Infinite realizes that he is going to have to move out of the way for Big to pass, and he can’t really do that here or he’ll get squished. He walks back the direction they came, following Big’s large footprints, until they’re back to where there’s maybe sort of a path and Infinite can step aside.

“The temple’s next! Come on, Infinite.”

Froggy leads the way through the jungle, Big merrily shuffles right behind, and Infinite follows in the space Big clears behind him, like a smaller, more reluctant and significantly more confused companion to the shadow Big casts.

A small bird swoops over their heads with a warning call. Infinite only pulls his head down a little as it passes.

 


 

 

 

Infinite watches Big pick out bone after bone after bone from the fish he’s cleaning, looking as calm and jolly as always. He’s using pliers, this is one thing his enormous hands can’t do on their own, no matter how gentle he is.

Infinite gets hold of another bone with his claws, pulls it free, puts it in the pile. There’s so many in this cursed fish. He knows it’s labor, it’s work, it has to be done, but one thing is boring work; seeing Big remove bones from his fish without even seeming to mind the tedious, repetitive task somehow makes the whole process much more frustrating.

One small bone keeps slipping out of Infinite’s claws. He tries to pry it free, lifts one end up, and then it slips before he can get a proper hold of it and then the bone is back in the flesh like it never left.

Infinite clenches his teeth, forces his anger down. The bone slips again. His claws dig into the fish around the bone and when he finally gets it free, it’s with a small tatter of meat attached to it.

He lets out a hard sigh and flicks the bone into the pile. The piece of fish sticks to his glove. He flicks it a few more times and manages to get it stuck to another finger instead.

He swipes his hand over the porch with a low, hard growl and finally gets it off.

The noise makes Big look up.

“Do you need a break?” he asks.

“I do not need a break,” Infinite says through clenched teeth.

“It’s okay. I can do it.”

“How can you be so unfazed by this?” Infinite asks.

“Huh?”

Infinite doesn’t even notice that his claws are digging into the wooden boards under him. ”How can you be so unbothered by such a tedious, endless task, there’s an unearthly amount of bones in these things!”

Big shrugs. “I think it’s kinda nice. You don’t have to think a bunch about it.” Big picks out another bone with the pliers. “And I’m used to it, too.”

Infinite stares at Big like he’s an alien.

“Even if I did this five hundred times I would never enjoy it.”

“You don’t have to do it if it makes you angry,” Big says.

Infinite lets out a deep sigh. He puts the fish down and pushes himself to his feet.

“I’m going to wash my hands,” he says.

“Don’t fall in this time!”

Infinite makes a face.

Infinite manages to scrub his gloves free of fish slime and blood without falling into the stream. He walks back.

He sits down on the porch and watches Big pull more bones from the fish. Big scrutinizes the fillet, finds a few more bones, removes them and puts the fish aside. He takes the one Infinite has been fighting with.  

“You got most of them,” Big remarks and catches a stray bone.

“It truly doesn’t frustrate you?” Infinite asks.

“It’s calming?” Big shrugs. “It’s a lot of work, but I don’t mind too much. We got plenty of time.”

“It’s slow and tedious and requires no skill. It’s not a challenge, it’s just annoying.

“I like things like that. You don’t have to think about it.”

Big picks the last bones out of the fillet Infinite has cleaned, grabs the last half fish and carefully pulls the spine away. He puts the skeleton in the pile and starts on picking stray ribs away.

Infinite shakes his head.

“Your patience is …” He sighs. “Admirable.”

“We all got something we’re good at. I don’t like stressful things.”

Infinite makes a slight grimace.

“You don’t have to humor me,” he says, an edge of sharpness to his voice even though he tries to keep it out.

“I mean it. I don’t like cities ‘cause they’re bright and noisy and I can’t keep up. But I’m good at other things. Like fishing!”

Infinite looks away and doesn’t respond.

Big keeps at his task, and Infinite sits on the stairsteps, leaning so he can fold his arms in his lap.

The jungle feels less dangerous than it did at first, less like a minefield where everything is ready to explode, more like the feeling of being forced to wait around in the living room of someone you don’t know that well. Like the forest knows who he is by now, even though it isn’t quite sure why he’s still there.

He sits there until Big is done cleaning the fish, just sits and looks at the greenery until Big says it's time to make dinner.

Chapter Text

Next morning, Infinite wakes up to the sound of pouring water. His chest is aching for no other reason than it deciding to, and Infinite has to take his time with sitting up.

He looks around. Big isn’t there.

Infinite has to give himself a minute before he embarks on the task of getting to his feet.

He walks to the porch and pushes the palm leaves aside, revealing a cascade of rain. Still more melodious than what he is used to, but way more like the monsoon. It looks like a curtain around the porch as it falls.

Big is wading around in the mud outside with a large leaf over his head. Infinite can’t tell what he’s doing.

Infinite goes over to the railing and slumps against it. Some of the rain reaches him even under the palm leaves, but it’s better than fighting gravity on his own right now.

He watches Big with a frown. Big walks around like he is searching for something, close to the ground, putting his hands on his knees and bending down so his nose is almost touching a rock and - Infinite has to restrain himself from rolling his eyes. Big is talking to frogs. He really should have guessed.

It quickly becomes clear that Big isn’t just talking to frogs, he is talking to frogs with urgent intensity. Infinite scans for Froggy, but he can’t spot him in the pouring rain.

He watches Big make his way from frog to frog slowly, a sliver of curiousity makes him try if he can pick up on what Big is saying, but the pouring rain makes it impossible to make out Big’s words. Infinite absentmindedly reaches up to rub the tip of the only ear that still actually resembles an ear and wishes his body worked properly.

Froggy propels himself out of a bush with a large “WAMP!”

Big turns around and calls out to him. Big says something, they talk back and forth for a moment, then Big turns to the hut and spots Infinite.

“Infinite!” he calls and wades through the mud, which is less like dirt and more like dirty water by now. “Can you get my bucket?”

Infinite squints.

“Sure?”

He pushes himself away from the railing and looks around. It’s not on the porch. He finds it right behind the doorway and picks it up, his chest complains and he ignores it.

He hands Big the bucket over the railing.

“Thank you!” Big says, and then he is gone, splashing through the puddles to behind the house.

Froggy makes a leap after Big and lands in water deep enough that he has to swim after. Infinite leans over to see what’s going on, but Big is on the other side of the house and out of sight already.

Infinite can hear him talk behind the house, and then the splashes indicate that Big is on his way back.

Infinite watches with quiet doubt as Big comes back, fur hanging and his lower body caked with mud, with a bucket that seems to be full of water. Just water.

Big steps onto the porch and puts the bucket down. He sits down and takes his sandals, which mostly look like sandal-shaped mudcakes right now.

“Oh boy,” he says and wipes mud off his glove.

“Do you … need anything?” Infinite asks while side-eyeing the bucket.

“Um. Could you get my towel? It’s under the bed.”

Everything is under your bed,” Infinite says.

He is not in shape for crawling around on all fours right now.

“Behind the night stand, in the stack. It’s the pink one.”

Infinite sighs and goes to find it.

At least Big keeps the stash under his bed relatively organized. Infinite finds the towel, tries to stand up and gets overwhelmed with a wave of pain. He has to take a few seconds before he can try again.

He staggers out and hands the towel to Big, and then he has to give in and sit down right where he is, next to Big on the porch. He barely manages to prioritize finding a dry, mud-free spot, and he actually has to close his eye for a second once he’s on the floor.

“I found her outside this morning,” Big says while trying to dry his feet off. “Nobody knows her, and it’s way early for the eggs to hatch down here.”

Infinite opens his eye a crack. He has no idea what Big is talking about.

“What?”

Big points at the bucket.

Infinite squints, then pushes himself across the boards and looks into the muddy water.

Small, dark eyes look back at him. The creature looks like a cross between a small fish and a lump. It wiggles its tail wildly in the water, like it is struggling to stay afloat.

“What’s that?” Infinite asks.

“A tadpole!” Big shakes mud off of the towel. “She must’ve washed down from somewhere … maybe from up in the mountain? There’s ponds up there.”

Froggy jumps onto the porch.

“Wooaamp!” he says.

“Huh.” Big stands up. “Well, okay. We’ll take care of her, then.”

“Of that thing?” Infinite asks.

“Until she’s big enough to get back to her family!”

Big picks the bucket up and carries it inside. Froggy is right in his heels, and Infinite gets up with a groan and follows after.

Big puts the bucket on the nightstand, and Infinite collapses on his bed.

“Can I get some tea?” Infinite asks.

He sounds slightly pathetic.

“Just a moment!” Big says.

Infinite rolls to his back and closes his eye. The pain feels like someone is trying to put the phantom ruby, or maybe more like an equally sized and shaped rock, that isn’t lightweight, back into his chest again.

Big pushes some stuff aside from under his bed, pulls out something covered in cloth and unwraps it. It’s a small tank, filled to the brim with stuff. He removes it all and puts it back under the bed, moves the bucket from the nightstand and replaces it with the tank.

He pours some water from the pail in a pot and sets it to boil, and pours the rest of the water into the tank. It fills about a third. Big makes a thoughtful humming sound.

He puts the pail back down and makes tea for Infinite.

“Infinite?”

Infinite lets out a pained sigh and opens his eye.

“What?”

“Tea’s ready!”

Infinite pushes himself up to a sitting position.

“Thank you,” he says and takes the mug.

“I gotta get some more water,” Big says.

“Sure.”

Infinite puts his whole face into the steam raising from the mug.

Big pours the content of the bucket, water and mud and tadpole and all, into the fish tank, and goes outside again.

Infinite blows on his tea to cool it down and sips it a bit too early, burning his tongue. He forces himself to be patient.

The tadpole bumps its nose against the glass and looks at him.

Infinite sits with his eye closed while warmth from the tea seeps into his hands. He forgets his surroundings for a moment, and first opens his eye again when Big comes back.

Big has small droplets clinging to his fur, but no mud on his feet. He kneels down in front of the tank and begins talking to the tadpole.

“Don’t worry, little buddy,” he says. “We’ll take care of you.” He puts his head on the side. “You’re almost grown, aren’t you? That’s good. Tumbling down from the mountains can’t be good when you’re just a baby. I bet you’re ready to go back home in a few weeks!”

Infinite sends Big a slightly narrow look.

“You have a name?” Big asks the tadpole.

Froggy leaps up to sit on the edge of the tank.

“Ribbt,” he says. “Roob roob, wamp.”

“Okay! I’ll get it!”

Big trots outside and comes back with the bucket a moment later, still without any mud in his fur.

“Are you … collecting rainwater?” Infinite asks.

“Yup!” Big says and pours water from the bucket into the tank.

Infinite shrugs to himself and gives drinking the tea another try.

It’s still a bit too hot to drink, but he sips it anyway.

Big goes outside again. Infinite looks at the doorway. Judging by the rustling sound and the pitter-patter of water against metal, Big is shaking water from the palm leaves over the porch. Infinite shakes his head a little and turns his attention back to his tea.

As soon as the tea is cool enough, he downs the entire mug. He puts it down, lets out a sigh, and then just sits and waits for the dulling effect to kick in.

Big keeps coming in to pour more water in the tank until it’s full. Infinite lies back down, pulls the blanket over himself and closes his eyes, listening to the sound of rain falling on the palm leaves above, and to Big making friendly conversation with a tadpole.

It feels like an eternity before the pain finally eases a little, and as soon as it happens, Infinite’s mind slips directly to focusing on the pain to focusing on nothing, and he drifts back asleep.

 

Infinite wakes up, feeling slightly disoriented and not sure for how long he’s been asleep. At least the pain is just a dull ache now. Hopefully it won’t get worse if he just stays in bed.

It’s still raining.

He spots a bowl of food next to the bed, and suddenly realizes that he hasn’t eaten anything today. He sits up as slowly as he can and reaches over to pick it up.

The food has gone cold, he can feel that it was warm once by the lingering heat at the bottom of the bowl, slightly warmer than the surroundings, but not much. He eats slowly and chews throughoutly to not upset his wounded chest further.

Big isn’t there. Froggy neither. It’s just Infinite and the rain.

A bit of movement flicks at the corner of his field of vision, and he turns his head and spots the tank.

Right. Him, the rain, and a tadpole.

What a weird creature it is. It looks like a malfunctioning eel. Forgot the middle part and ended up as just a head with a tail. How does it even get around? Just by wiggling its tail? That seems horribly inefficient. What a useless creature. No wonder he hasn’t seen any of them before, here’s no way they can be adept survivors.

He finishes eating. Puts the bowl down. He knows he should lie back down because he’s in pain but being in pain is boring in an unbearable way that he could never have imagined. So he stays sitting, and finds his eye drifting to the tadpole, because it’s the only thing that moves.

Such a strange being.

He stands up, takes a few steps, and sits down in front of the tank to get a closer look. The tadpole flicks around and looks at him, its tail moving in the water like a banner in the wind, but at three times the speed. It’s about the lenght of his palm, and has small, dark eyes. Speckled patterns run down its tail. Now that he looks closer, he can sort of see that nature had intended for a head and a body, but everything is so fat and round that it might as well just be a face.

It stares at him. Wiggles a little bit closer, almost bumping its nose against the glass. Then it hovers in front of him, moving in a small pattern with its gaze constantly fixed on Infinite’s.

Slowly, without really knowing why, Infinite lifts a hand and places the tip of his finger on the glass, just below the little creature’s nose. It flicks away, just a little, shifts its attention from Infinite’s face to the clawtip resting on the glass.

Way more slowly than the rapid tail movements would suggest, the tadpole moves over to investigate, nibbling at the glass seperating it and Infinite.

He hears a wamp behind him and turns his head, and there’s Froggy, and Big trots over the porch and Infinite pulls his hand away just as Big emerges in the doorway, but either he was too slow, or Froggy tattled, because Big’s face lights up.

“Oh boy! Looks like Squiggles has picked a new papa! That's a big responsibility, Infinite. I hope you're ready for it!”

“Wait what? ” Infinite says, voice hoarse, eye wide, his hands held to his chest. “No!”

“Don’t worry, we’ll help you!”

“I wasn’t - I’m not - I was just looking!”

Big kneels down next to him and pats his head. “You don’t have to be scared. This is good! It’s good to take care of someone.”

Infinite shies away.

“I’m not going to take care of that thing!”

Big puts his head on the side. “Why not? Squiggles likes you.”

Why not? ” Infinite repeats with disbelief. “Why n - because -!” He gestures in the air like he’s pointing out an obvious tangible reason right next to them.

“I’m sure you’ll be a good papa,” Big reassures, still not getting the point.

“- Because look at her! It’s such a useless - it’s not even - you’re the one who cares about, snakes and - talks to frogs. Not me!”

“But I’ll help you! And Froggy too. It’s not hard. You’ll have something to do, too. Here, I’ll find some tadpole food, then you can give it to her!”

Big stands up, and before Infinite can word another protest, he is off. Infinite stares after him, still trying to process what he just got reeled into.

He looks back at Squiggles. She swims near the glass, looking unbeliavbly smug and now he’s being ridiculous, it’s a tadpole, it can’t have much more brain power than a worm it doesn’t have the mental capacity for that kind of emotion, what is he talking about.

He can’t keep himself from sending the tadpole a stern glare.

He retreats back to his bed to contemplate what he’s just been roped into.

 

Big comes back with a small bundle of plants.

“Here you go!” He says.

Infinite sits up and eyes the greens with distaste.

“They need to be chopped up a bit so she can eat them,” Big says, “but not too much or she can’t find them.”

Infinite stares at the small tufts of green for a very, very long time. His eye flicks back up to look at Big. Big is just smiling at him, holding out the plants, clearly not taking the hint. Infinite’s jaw tenses up, and he pulls the plants from Big’s hand with a swoop.

Fine.

Infinite tries not to scowl while Big urges him over to the kitchen counter.

“And how am I supposed to know how much is ‘not too much?’” Infinite asks, not able to  hide the sharp edge to his voice.

“Just chop it so she gets some edges to nibble on.” Big hands him an herb knife. “She needs to have food always because she’s still growing. We can get her some good leaves and some algae. I think she’s big enough to get bugs too. Maybe we can find her a worm!“

Infinite makes a face.

“I am not chopping up any worms,” he says, disgust in his voice.

Big pats his head. “Then I’ll do it. Don’t worry!”

Infinite chokes a growl. He chops the plants with small, hard movements until Big is satisfied.

The moment Infinite puts the knife down, Big pulls him to the tank with barely contained enthusiasm.

“Now you have to show her that it’s food! Just hold some in the water until she comes over.”

Infinite sighs, sits down on his knees and picks out a piece with a bit of stem that he dips in the water.

Squiggles turns around and seems to contemplate the greenery. She swims a little closer, but then changes direction and instead decides that the bottom of the tank is a better place to be.

Infinite lets out a small growling noise and shakes the plant. The water splashes.

Squiggles looks up, then zooms to the other end of the tank.

Big puts a hand on Infinite’s arm. “Don’t get angry,” he says, gentle as always, but looking Infinite in the eye with an undeniable insistence. “Everything is new for her. She wants to look at everything, but it’s also a little scary for her.”

Infinite pulls his arm free from under Big’s hand.

“I told you I don’t want to do this,” he says.

“You’ll get it! Just do it calmly.“

Big’s eyes are shining with enthusiasm. Infinite is clearly not getting out of this.

Infinite takes a deep breath, tries to let go of his distaste for the situation and just get it over with. He takes a few seconds to tell himself that apparently, Big has decided he has to do this, so don’t argue, just do it.

He lets his arm rest on the edge of the tank.

“Hey,” he says, and then after a moment of hesitation and a quick glance at Big’s eager expression, he adds: “… Squiggles. There’s food up here.”

Big pats his head again. Infinite lets the plant rest in the water. Squiggles is still swimming around at the bottom of the tank, apparently very fascinated with a small pebble. Her tail movements are almost hypnotic, constantly waving even though she moves her head slowly. She pokes the pebble, and then loses interest. She swims in a small circle, and then finally seems to feel like the plant is worth investigating.

She stays a few centimeters away at first, swimming in an arch around the leaves, and then slowly closes in and nibbles at a leaf. Infinite can’t help but feel a little victorious. Squiggles decides that another leaf is better and switches to munching on that one.

“See?”  Big says, beaming with pride. “You can let go, she knows what it is now. Then put the rest in. But don’t spook her.”

Infinite lets go of the plant, and it slowly sinks to the bottom with Squiggles following right after.

Infinite picks up the bits of plant and puts them in one after another. Squiggles shies away from the first few and takes a few seconds to circle them, but then she decides that it’s not worth interrupting dinnertime for and goes back to nibbling the first plant.

“There you go!” Big says. “She needs food and fresh water every day, that’s all.”

Infinite doesn’t say anything to that and just gets up from his kneeling position. Big holds him by the elbow to help him up. Infinite gets to his feet, but doesn’t move. Big tilts his head, questioning.

“I can’t … carry that much water,” Infinite finally says, even though he hates to admit that even tadpole raising is going to be a challenge in this condition.

“You can get it from the stream!” Big urges him back towards the bed. “I’ll do it if it’s too much. It doesn’t have to be drinking water. She just shouldn’t sit in the same water for too long. I’ll put the bucket outside, then there’s rain water for tomorrow.”

Infinite sends Big a sharp look, but Big has already turned his attention to helping Infinite back in bed and doesn’t see it.

Fine, ” Infinite says, hard and short and frustrated and with an edge of resignation. Apparently, this is going to be what he’ll be doing with his life now.

Chapter Text

Infinite ends up watching Squiggles swim around in the tank, not because it’s that entertaining, but it’s not like he’s got anything better to do, not while he’s bedbound and trying to move as little as possible.

She’s just kind of swimming around, investigating the same pebble fifteen times, eating a leaf, then taking another lap around the tank to make sure nothing has changed since last time she checked.

The way her head stays still sometimes, even when her tail is working, making it look like she is just standing in the water, it reminds Infinite of the time where he wasn’t affected by gravity - when gravity was affected by him. Back when the earth wasn’t constantly dragging him down. It isn’t just the pain in his chest that makes it unbearable to have to get to his feet on his own every morning. He knows how much power he lost. Now gravity is reclaiming him twice as hard, an unfriendly reminder.

So much exhaustion. So much pain. So much struggle to complete even the simplest of tasks. When he was fused with the ruby, his body was perfect; he didn’t need to eat more than occasionally, he barely had to sleep, and when he did, it was a half-concious state, the grey behind his closed eyes replaced with red shapes and the world echoing around him, and if he needed to wake, he would open his eye and everything would be back, he would be hovering in the air like always, the ruby his stasis point and his body merely resting around it. He never really had to wake, for he didn’t really sleep.

For six months, he could bend the universe. Now the ground has reclaimed him with force.

His body is such a burden to carry.

So there he lies, claimed by gravity, watching a tadpole with one golden eye.

He had thought he was the strongest, but he was wrong; he underestimated the ruby. He forgot to keep it in line. This is his punishment, his punishment for being weak.

Big is outside on the porch right now, talking to Froggy with even more enthusiasm than normally. Infinite really can’t be bothered to listen to what he’s saying. It also turns out that eavesdropping is a lot harder when you’ve lost most of your ears.

At least he isn’t Dart. Smelling was always Infinite’s strong suit, not hearing.

Dart.

His breathing changes pattern, ever so slightly.

No wonder Shadow was able to destroy everyone. He just appears. How would Dart have known? No footsteps, snapping branches, breathing to warn them. All that had to happen was for Shadow to encroach from one side and then, when catching the jackal squad’s attention, disappear to reappear right behind them.

Infinite’s hands curl up.

Shadow had beaten him in less than three seconds. Him, the strongest of them all.

His underlings really had not stood a chance.

Big comes back inside with Froggy sitting on his head.

“I’m going out to fish,” he says.

Infinite turns his head ever so slightly.

“In this weather?”

“Yup! You wanna come along?”

Infinite’s nose crinkles ever so slightly.

“I can’t,” he says.

“Huh?”

“It hurts too much.” He sounds tired.

“I can carry you!” Big says.

Infinite is quiet for a moment. Weighting the indignity of being carried like a child against lying here, bored out of his mind.

“I … guess,” Infinite says, reluctantly.

Big kneels down and picks Infinite up with the utmost care, making sure he can rest safely on Big’s arm when Big needs to use his other hand.

“Wamp,” Froggy greets when Infinite is settled on Big’s arm.

Infinite watches the frog stare at him for a few seconds, before he decides that he’s not going to be that invested in this whole frog-raising business, and looks away.





They go fishing.

Infinite rests on Big’s lap, arms crossed and dignity in shambles, but the rock Big has found to sit on is too small for them both and the ground around them is muddy and gross and he is not sitting in that.

The rock is shielded under heavy foliage and most of the rain is kept away. Big fishes. Infinite sits with the leaf over his head, to shield himself from the drops that make it through, banding together on their journey towards the ground. They splash loudly when they hit the ground.

Big’s patience is once again testing Infinite’s. After twenty minutes of just sitting there, waiting for fish to bite, Infinite begins to feel antsy.

“Do you truly not tire of this?” he asks, voice low and jaw tense.

“Nope!” Big says, cheerfully.

“Just, sitting here, day out and day in, just waiting, while nothing happens?”

“I like it,” Big says. “It’s calm. And stuff does happen! Just little things. Listen.”

Infinite is quiet but can’t hear more than the jungle’s usual rustling. Raindrops fall from above and a bird squawks somewhere nearby.

“That’s a parakeet,” Big says.

“A what?”

“A parakeet! They’re the noisy little green birds.”

“I truly do not care,” Infinite says, his nose scrunched up.

“Sometimes when you sit still for a very long time, they come over and say hi! I had one land on my head one time.”

“You weren’t gone at all, were you?” Infinite’s voice has an edge of venom.

Big looks down at him.

“Huh?”

Infinite shows teeth when he talks.

“You know exactly what I did, don’t you? You’re keeping me out here in the middle of nowhere until I lose my MIND!”

Big’s eyes widen, and he blinks at the sudden outburst. Then he calmly puts the fishing pole down, and Infinite gasps when he’s picked up. Big puts a hand under each of Infinite’s arms , lifts him off his lap and puts him down on the ground next to him.

“Don’t yell at me,” Big says, calm but stern. “I don’t like it when people yell at me.”

They stare at each other for a few seconds. Infinite’s chest heaves up and down. Then Big makes a move to pick his fishing pole up again and Infinite feels a frustrated growl grow in his chest, his anger and his shame and his thousand regrets boil inside and he might be powerless but if it can be just the smallest sliver of revenge, then -

He lets out an ear-shattering roar.

The parakeet flies up with an agitated chattering, a fish that had been considering Big’s lure turns and flees so quickly that its tail causes a splash in the water, Froggy almost falls off of Big’s head, and then Infinite is cut off when an enormous hand wraps firmy around his snout.

“Infinite!” Big says, giving him a stern look.

Infinite tries to pull away and has the sudden realization that - he can’t. Big is too strong and has closed Infinite’s jaw completely and Infinite can’t pull himself free and he feels a surge of panic what have I done and then his face is released and he backs away while Big looks at him with a gentle frown and disappointment in his eyes.

There was no way Infinite could fight himself out of such a strong grasp. Big had let go of him. He had just let go of him.

Like he doesn’t even need to hold him back.

He’ll show him he’s not a foe to be dismissed.

Infinite forgets. He forgets the gaping hole in his chest and the pain that made him think he couldn’t walk, he forgets it all and only remembers his burning anger and he charges directly at Big. He makes one swing, sees Big’s eyes go wide, and then, he’s not sure exactly how it happens but one moment later and he’s tumbling into the river.

He flails around and gasps and tries to keep above water for a few seconds before Big hauls him out by the neck.

“Infinite,” Big says. “You promised.”

RrrrAAAAAAAAAAAAAGH!!

This time, Big doesn’t silence him. The roar rips through the jungle, filling the space between the trees, and then the foilage absorbs it and everything goes quiet.

Infinite hangs from Big’s grasp, panting. He’s drenched to the skin and feels like he might pass out. Everything hurts.

Big puts him down on the boulder.

“Will you please go somewhere else if you have to yell?” he says. “I know you’re upset, but I don’t like it. It hurts my ears.”

“What do you want with me?” Infinite rasps, “Just tell me what you want with me!

Big’s ears fall, and he looks genuinely guilty.

“Is it because of Squiggles?” he asks.

Infinite looks up, words catching in his throat. That throws him off. He’d forgotten about Squiggles.

“I don’t care about Squiggles,” he says, hoarse and out of breath, “I want to know why you’re keeping me here. Is this the punishment? Are you going to wait until I lose my mind? Do you genuinely think I’m worth anything in this state? Are you trying to get me to a false sense of security, what is going to happen to me?”

Big puts his head on the side. His expression is soft. He looks so open, so gentle, no malice, no contempt, nothing but sympathy, Infinite doesn’t understand .

“Are you really that scared of us?”

The denial is ready in his throat and he only barely stops himself from screaming it out he’s not scared he’s not weak but he holds it back.

“I just want to know, ” he says instead.

His gaze is intense, staring at Big.

Big has a hard time standing still, all he wants to do is hug it better. He tries to rake his brain for all the information he has.

“Well, Amy was gonna talk to everyone, and then she would bring you back to the city and I think they have a group that helps with fixing things, that she would bring you along with? And not a lot of people come into the jungle so she thought it would be a good place to hide you, in case someone is still mad and would hurt you.”

“Don’t you think I know that I can’t go anywhere outside this jungle?” Infinite’s gaze is fixed on some point in the distance, seeing things Big can’t. “Shadow would kill me the moment he saw me. The moment he knows I’m still alive.”

“Not if Amy tells him not to!”

Big desperately wants to reach out and comfort Infinite. Infinite’s head snaps up and he can’t keep his voice down.

“Then Amy’s either lying or a fool! ” he says. “He wants me dead, everyone wants me dead and I don’t understand why she’s pretending she doesn’t!

Big takes a small step closer and looks Infinite in the eye.

“Amy really wants to help you,” he says.

Why would she want that?” Infinite asks, rasping.

“She’s kind, and she sees the best in everyone. She thinks you can be good, if we show you the right path.”

“No she doesn’t.

“Shadow did some mean things too once. Silver throught he had to kill Sonic to save the future. Rouge tried to steal Knuckles’ emerald. But we’re all friends now! And you can be a friend too.”

Infinite’s mouth is open, he tries to form words but they just won’t come, he can’t understand anything. It can’t be. There’s no way, after all he has done to them that they would take him in, that they would not want to see him suffering and dying.

“Why … would you … ” Water is dripping from his hair, he still feels like he’s going to pass out, and cold is reaching through his skin and making him tremble. “You have no idea … all you know … she told you I ended the world. Why would you just believe that I can become a - a -” He can’t say it. It’s too detached from reality it’s too pathetic it’s such a foolish, childish wish.

“Because Amy thinks so.”

“And you believe that? Even after knowing nothing about me you just believe that.”

“She’s my friend. I trust her.”

Infinite stares at Big, his eye wide and fearful, trying to find words, and failing.

Big moves his weight from one foot to another.

“Do you want a hug?” He is almost desperate to soothe some of the pain, and he doesn’t know how else he could do it.

Infinite shakes his head, but it’s not a no, it’s more of a desperate denial of everything.

“Can we just … go back?” Infinite’s voice is very, very thin.

Big nods and walks over, picks the dirty leaf out of the mud, looks at it, shakes his head and puts it back on the ground. He picks Infinite up, ever so gently, and hands him the fishing pole.

Infinite clutches the fishing rod like a lifeline.

“Roo-oob?”

Froggy peeks out from behind Big’s ear. He looks … Infinite has to be honest, he has no idea what expression the frog is making, he has no idea how the frog is feeling.

“Sorry,” he says.

He has no idea why he’s apoligizing to a frog, but it feels like he should do it.

“Roob.”

“Let’s just go back,” Big says.

Chapter Text

The towel is soaked in mud and isn’t much help in drying Infinite off, Big throws wood on the stove and tries to help him dry off with a blanket instead. Infinite curls up as close to the fire as he can without getting burned, he looks like a lost street dog, his fur hanging and body trembling.

Big kneels down next to him.

“Can I please give you a hug?” he asks, carefully.

Infinite looks up. His expression looks just as closed and miserable as the rest of him. Big tries to put a hand on Infinite’s shoulder, to see if Infinite might answer him that way. Infinite turns his face down and away, his brow furrowed, but then he turns his head a little bit, lightly pressing against Big’s hand. Big takes that as encouragement and picks Infinite up and holds him in a hug.

“It’s gonna be all right,” Big tells him.

“Do you really think it’s not a ploy?” Infinite whispers.

He’s sitting motionless, doesn’t even bother to move his head away from the fur ticking his face.

“Amy’s not like that. She can get angry and hit things sometimes, but she wouldn’t hurt anyone just to be cruel.”

“I ...” Infinite’s throat is dry like the desert he grew up in. “I am scared,” he admits, and it might be the most terrifying thing he’s ever done.

“I know.” Big gently pats his head. “It’s okay.” Infinite is quiet for a while, and Big continues: “I’m glad you told me. And if yelling makes you feel better, you can do it too. Just please, go away a bit, okay?”

“I’ll …” he has to swallow to get his voice to cooperate. “I’ll try my best.”

It’s so soft in this hug. Even though it means he’s not as close to the stove as he’d like, the cold from his wet fur doesn’t even make him want to move. He’s so tired.

“I can try and call Amy if you want to ask about what she is thinking,” Big suggests.

“I … no, thanks. It’s fine.”

Big lets go a little bit so he can lean back and look at Infinite.

“Do you still want to look after Squiggles?”

Infinite turns his head and looks at the tank. Squiggles is swimming around without a care in the world.

“You don’t have to,” Big adds.

Infinite looks down.

“I can try.”

Big’s ears perk up a little.

“I can try and find some other things for you to do if you’re bored. I like peace and quiet, but I don’t think you do.”

Infinite pulls out of the hug - slightly reluctantly, and mostly just to get closer to the stove - and lets out a huff.

“Perhaps I will get used to it,” he says. He looks at himself, his feet, his bare hands, both his gloves and boots are drying off and he’s looking at palms and fur and claws. “Thank you, Big,” he says, then.

Big smiles. “Any time.” He puts a hand on Infinite’s shoulder. “Maybe it won’t be easy, but I’m sure you’ll learn.”

Infinite’s gaze falls on the hand.

If he really is waiting to be executed, he has been put on the most pleasant death row there is. And what can he do? Fight back? Run away? All he can do is appeciate where he’s been put.

And if Big truly doesn’t know about the extent of Infinite’s acts, maybe he even has someone who will defend him.



Infinite drinks tea in front of the stove while Big goes out to find food for them. When Infinite has dried off, he fights his way over to his bed, where he gathers the blanket and then stumbles back to the stove, wraps himself in the quilt and sits and absorbs the heat, eye closed.

When Big comes back an hour later, Infinite is curled up on the floor, fast asleep.

He twitches and flails in his sleep when Big tries to pick him up. Big pets his hair.

“It’s okay. It’s just me, Big.”

“Mmgh … ” Infinite turns his head away, lips pulling up to reveal teeth, still asleep, still dreaming.

“There, there.”

Big scoops him up and carries him back to his bed. He places Infinite on the palm leaves and makes sure he’s properly wrapped in the blanket. Then he gently rubs Infinite’s shoulder until the creases on Infinite’s forehead fade.

“Wrroooamp,” Froggy says.

Big stands up and walks over to the kitchen.

“He’s also really scared,” he says.

“Wamp!”

“It’s not too bad! He tries. And we have to help Amy.”

“Woomp wroomp wamp.”

Big smiles. “I’m fine! He’s doing way less good than I am, anyway. I’m more worried about him.”

“Wroob.”

“We will find him something to do.”

Big pulls out a cutting board and begins making dinner.



Infinite wakes up in a world that is warm and soft and smells of food. He lies still, he wants to go back to sleep, not because he’s tired, but because this calm has to be preserved for as long as possible.

In the desert, they would get up as soon as the sun began showing its face, using the few cool hours to work and hunt and track, until the heat forced them to seek cover and do as little as possible until the temperature became manageable again. Then they would keep going through the night for as long as they could, and when the cold became too much, they would huddle together for warmth and sleep another handful of hours.

Working for Eggman, they were woken up by angry yelling from loud speakers, kept up and about all day, and as soon as evening came they would collapse on their lousy mattresses and sleep like deactivated robots until they were forced up again.

When fused with the phantom ruby, Infinite had felt blessed by the lack of need to sleep, no fighting sleep from his eyes, no grogginess, no time where he felt less able, he simply did not become tired.

This is the first time he has gotten to choose to rest. And he never thought that he would have. But the jungle is calm and he is wrapped up tight in the blanket and he has nowhere he needs to be, nothing he has to do.

It’s strange.

Big and Froggy are chatting, Infinite is a small sliver in their normal life now, he just hears them talk.

“Roob.”

“Huh?”

“Roobt roob wriibbit ribbit.”

“In the big river?”

“Wamp!”

“That’s a good idea! We can do that when it stops raining again.”

Infinite toys with the thought that the rain is probably going to last less than a month. Everything shifts so often here.

He gets caught off guard by a yawn and doesn’t manage to keep it down. Big looks over. Infinite sees that Big has noticed, rolls to his back, and sighs.

“Morning!” Big greets.

Infinite wants to point out that it is in no way morning, but he lets it slide.

“Tea?” Big asks.

Infinite’s eye drifts to where Big is.

“Yes please,” he says, his voice thin and tired.

Infinite slowly makes his way into sitting position, gathers his blanket around himself, and yawns again.

Big boils water, then takes a small detour over to Infinite to pat his head. Infinite can only find the energy to be mildly annoyed about it.

The mug Big finds in his cupboard and makes tea in is shaped like something, for sure, and it’s not a parrot. Probably something like … a cat. Maybe. Infinite stares at the horribly bright orange thing he’s handed and concludes that he might never know.

At least it holds the tea just fine.

Infinite feels judged by the slightly wall-eyed stare the mug is giving him. He huffs at it.

“Looks like my life is nothing but sleeping and drinking tea,” he says into the air, maybe to let the mug know that he knows, he isn’t sure.

Big turns his head.

“Is that bad?” he asks.

“It’s pathetic,” Infinite says, but there’s no sting to his words, no edge.

He sips his tea.

“We can play checkers later if you want to?”  Big offers.

Infinite looks up from his mug.

“I have no idea what that means.”

“Oh! I can teach you after I’m done cooking!”

Infinite is quiet for a long moment, taking his time to consider whether he’s being reeled into another inane task a la tadpole raising or not.

“I … suppose. If I am not too tired.”

“Of course.” Big pours vegetables into the pot. “Checkers is fun!”

Infinite has failed to see any sort of point in most of the things Big finds fun so far, but he supposes … If he plays along with Big’s games for long enough, Big will begin considering him a friend. A friend worth defending, maybe. He highly doubts Big can protect him from Shadow -  Big’s raw strength is impressive, but Shadow’s power is above and beyond anything, perhaps save for what the phantom ruby could do - but perhaps, just maybe, with the disproportionately high value these people have on bonds …

At the very least, it might buy him some time.

The soup is slightly bland, made only on things Big has scavenged. Infinite decides to be grateful there’s food at all; after all, he was the one to interrupt Big’s fishing.

Big sits down on the floor with his bowl instead of finding his usual spot on the porch. He pulls out a wooden board from under the bed (how much space is under that bed, it seems endless ) and places it on the floor.

“Now where are the pieces?” Big muses and turns to rummage under the bed. “Oh! Here!”

Infinite eyes the squares on the board with suspicion.

Big pulls out a wooden box and sits down with his legs crossed. The box looks way too small in his hands. He lifts the lid ever so gently and pours the pieces onto the board.

Infinite watches warily as Big slides the pieces into position, pushing all the black ones towards Infinite’s side and gathering the white ones near himself.

“So,” Big says, and pauses to take a spoonful of his soup. “You move your pieces like this. They can move one square, and only towards the other person. They can’t go back. And then you jump over each other’s pieces!”

Infinite quietly eats his food while listening to Big explain how to take a piece and how to king a piece. Big moves the pieces while he explains, pausing to eat now and again, and then he puts all the pieces back in place, and moves one of them.

“Now it’s your turn,” he says.

Infinite finally tears his fixed gaze from the board to look at Big.

“We simply take turns?” he asks.

“Yup!” Big takes another spoonful of soup. “Don’t worry, I’ll help you with the rules.”

Infinite looks back at the game and frowns.

“I am not sure I understand what would be the best thing to do in this situation.”

Big moves his bowl to his hand. “I don’t really know in the beginning.”  He shrugs. “I’m not very good at checkers, I just think it’s fun.”

Infinite hesitantly reaches out and pushes one piece forwards.

“I suppose this would allow me to take one of yours … next turn?”

“Well, unless I move it. But then I can take that one back, and we’re even.”

Infinite nods slowly and watches carefully as Big makes his next move.

Big tells Infinite how his moves would be disadvantageous six or seven times, allowing him to change his mind, and Infinite still loses. The game seems so simple, yet there’s a lot more to keep track of than Infinite expected.

It probably also helps that Big takes his patient time and Infinite keeps rushing his pieces forwards.

“Wanna try again?”  Big asks, and Infinite answers by pushing the pieces back in place with ruthless efficiency.

“You can start this time,” Big offers. “I think some people say the white ones are supposed to start, but I don’t know why.”

Infinite doesn’t respond to that, but just pushes a piece forwards, and only briefly takes his eyes off the board so he can grab his bowl of soup.

“There has to be some advantageous starting move,” he mumbles, mostly to himself.

“I think that depends on what the other person does.  ” Big says and moves his piece. “Your turn!”

Froggy hops over and jumps onto the lid of the box, tucks his little legs in and says a soft ‘wamp’. Infinite gives the frog a quick glance, but then turns back to the board.

Infinite loses another game and feels like he has a little more of an idea of how this nonsense works. Mostly, anyway.

The rules are simple, it feels like one just has to get used to thinking in the right patterns. What really gets Infinite is the completely even playing field. Except for the possible advantage of one person starting, both parties have the same options, the same amount of pieces, the same position. One move per turn means there’s no need to be faster or stronger, and there’s no unlucky circumstances hindering you, apart from the ones you put yourself in. Nothing around it changes the game, unless maybe someone knocks the board over.

It’s an almost bizarre level of fairness.

At least it’s a way to pass time.

“That was fun,” Big says. “I better do the dishes now.”

Big collects the pieces, and Froggy hops off the box so Big can put them back. Infinite passes his empty bowl to Big before he lies back down.

“What do you usually do when you’re bored?” Big asks while cleaning the dishes.

Infinite lets out a rough sigh.

“Before,” he says, “I had a life to keep me busy.”

“What did you do? Before all the stuff with Eggman?”

“Mercenary,” Infinite mumbles.

“Oh boy.”

“I didn’t have a choice,” he says. Lies. He had never seen any reason not to. “I don’t miss that part,” he adds, and at least that’s the truth. Mostly.

“It doesn’t … sound like it was too great,” Big says, carefully.

Infinite presses a hand against his forehead.

“I miss being able to move properly,” he says, and lets his hand fall. “I don’t … care, what I have to do, I just hate being forced to lie here because my body is in shambles.”

“That makes sense,” Big says. The tone of his voice suggests that he’s very relieved to hear that Infinite isn’t dreaming of getting back to killing people for money. “But you’re getting better! You can walk. But … please try not to attack people.”

“I know,” he says, tension in his voice. “I didn’t … think.”  And then, because he needs to stay on Big’s good side. “I’m sorry.”

Big hums a bit.

“I know. I forgive you. Just try and find another way to get your anger out, okay?”

Infinite closes his eye.

“I will.”

He has to. He has to do this right. It’s the only slim chance he has at getting to live. He can’t throw that away.

Chapter Text

Infinite is jostled from sleep by Big’s voice calling his name and a hand gently shaking his shoulder. He presses his eyelids down with a frown to shake sleep from his mind before he opens his eye.

“Good morning!” Big greets.

Infinite looks around. The world is grey, the sun hasn’t risen yet. He looks at Big with a skeptical expression.

“I’m going down to fish,” Big says, “Do you want me to help you take care of Squiggles first?”

Infinite blinks a few times while his brain loads enough data that he can remember what on earth Big is talking about. Right. Squiggles.

He pushes the blanket away and sits up. The pain is keeping itself low and dull. That’s something.

He yawns.

“If you move her into the bucket, I’ll get her some new water,” Big says. “We’ll just get her a bit of breakfast, then you can sleep some more if you need to. And then I’ll help you find more stuff when I get back!”

Infinite makes a small, tired sound before he speaks, like he’s revving up to be able to talk.

“Sure,” he says.

Big extends a hand, and Infinite hesitates for a fraction of a second before he takes it, letting Big help him to his feet.

The world is weirdly still. A few birds call out to each other somewhere outside - were those the parakeets? - the wind is rustling the leaves, he thinks he can hear dripping against the roof, is it still raining?

Infinite walks over and kneels down next to the tank. It takes his eyes a few moment to adjust enough to the low light that he can find Squiggles.

She’s on the bottom of the tank, still, partially behind a stick and a pebble. Infinite gently taps the glass. She doesn’t react.

“Hey,” he calls out.

He keeps his voice low; it feels like there’s a sacred peace in the jungle dawn and he doesn’t want to be the one who breaks it.

He squints at the tadpole at the bottom of the tank.

“Is it dead?” he asks, cautiously.

“No, no! Don’t worry, she’s just sleeping. I’ll find her a nice leaf! Then she’ll wake up for sure. Froggy! Frooo-ooggy? Where are you? You wanna help me find a leaf for Squiggles?” Big pushes the palm leaves at the doorway away and scans the porch. “Oh, there you are! Come on, buddy.”

Infinite side-eyes Big, but doesn’t say anything.

He pulls his gloves off and reaches down for the tadpole.

That wakes her up. She looks up, then darts away from the unexpected shadow looming from above and hides as far away as possible.

Infinite sighs. Reaches for her again, and she somehow manages to aim right for his hand and slip through his fingers before he even fully registers what happened.

Now she’s aware of him, and the next few swoops he makes don’t even get close to her. He forgets, for a moment, to keep his cool, and ends up splashing water over the edge and up his arm. He makes a tiny growling noise and rests his elbow on the side of the tank while he watches Squiggles and tries not to scowl.

Big’s feet sound like a gentle drum across the porch.

“I found a good one!” he says, cheerfully.

Infinite pulls his hand out of the water and pushes his sour expression away. Big comes inside and trots over to Infinite to hand him the leaf, and Infinite takes it.

He dips the leaf into the water. He can feel Big watching him with that gentle eagerness that he seems to show every time Infinite is interacting with Squiggles. If Infinite’s going to charm his way to being someone Big will want to defend, this has to be the time.

“Hey Squiggles,” Infinite says. His voice is flat, it’s hard to say if he is bothered by talking to a tadpole, or if he’s just tired. “Breakfast.”

“Looks like she’s not a morning person either,” Big says, giggles, and pats Infinite’s head.

“Can you really call this ‘ morning ’,” Infinite says before he can stop himself.

Luckily, Big doesn’t seem to mind.

“It is very early,” he agrees. “You can sleep some more after I’m gone. I like getting up now, when everything else wakes up. And then later, I have a good long afternoon nap in the sun!”

Infinite feels like he has to respond somehow.

“I see,” is all he can thinks to say.

He turns his attention back to the water. Squiggles is completely disinterested in the leaf. She would much rather try to push the stalks from yesterday’s meal into a pile. Infinite shakes the leaf a bit, just to get her attention, and she turns around, looks at it, and then turns back to her project.

Cold is creeping into the hand Infinite had dumped in the tank. He pulls the leaf from the water, puts his hands on the edge of the nightstand, closes his eyes and takes a deep breath. He slowly lets it out, and then sits for a second or two. Don’t get frustrated. Show Big that you can be a friend.

When he opens his eye again, Squiggles is watching the hands before her on the table. Infinite blinks, and then lifts one finger and puts the tip of his claw to the glass. And just like before, Squiggles swims over. Tries to see if it is nibbleable. He slowly draws his finger upwards, and Squiggles follows up to the surface, where she tries to push out of the water to get to the claw.

Infinite scoops her up with his other hand. A victorious smile curls at the corner of his mouth.

Big claps in delight.

“Yay!!” he cheers. “Now put her in the bucket!”

Infinite puts his hand in the bucket of water, palm up, and Squiggles immediately swims away.

Infinite can’t help but feel immensely pleased with himself. Big seems to agree; he ruffles Infinite’s hair thoroughly before he begins moving things out of the tank. The stick, the pebbles, all of it is put in the bucket with Squiggles.

“We need to find her some things to hide under,” he chats away while picking up Squiggles’ furniture. “She’s a small little tadpole and she doesn’t like feeling too out in the open. And some algae! So she can grow big and strong.” Big picks the tank up. “I’ll change the water! You can rip the leaf a bit so she can eat her breakfast.”

Infinite picks up the leaf and tears it in half. Big goes outside. He’s humming. He seems more than satisfied with Infinite’s efforts. Happy, even.

Infinite pulls a corner off the leaf and drops it in the bucket.

“Here you go, you pathetic little worm,” he says.

Squiggles immediately swims up to investigate. Infinite shakes his head slightly, why can’t she find food appealing when he needs her to?

“I really do not understand why Big is putting so much care into something so useless,” he tells her.

Then he sends a glance to his own chest, the reddened skin and the hard scabs lining the gaping hole. The creases in his forehead push down and in, like he is half in thought and half in sorrow.

“I suppose that makes two of us, does it not?” he says.

The porch once again announces Big’s return. Big comes inside and puts the refilled tank down. Infinite rips the last bit of leaf to pieces before turning to Squiggles.

Squiggles immediately darts from the piece of leaf to the bottom of the bucket. Infinite can feel his jaw tighten.

“Do we really have to do this again?” he asks her.

The bucket isn’t even transparent. He can’t lure her up with a forbidden nibbleable object.

“You can just pour her out,” Big says.

“... Ah.“

Infinite feels a little bit foolish.

He picks the bucket up and tilts it. Squiggles falls out, and then the pebbles tumble after her and she has to dodge them.

“Careful!” Big says.

Infinite flinches.

He needs to do this right. Gently. Don’t be rash.

“Sorry,” he says, painfully aware that he made a mistake.

He puts the bucket down, picks up the stick and puts it back.

“There you go!” Big pats his head. “I’ll get the towel.”

Infinite gives Squiggles the rest of her leaf. Big hands him the pink towel so he can dry his hands.

“Your nails could use a clipping, huh?” Big says.

Infinite looks at his hands.

“No,” he says, trying not to sound too defensive, and slips his gloves back on.

“Isn’t it uncomfortable to have them that long?” Big asks.

“I need them ,” he says, trying not to snarl, he’s not letting go of any more parts of himself, he looks less like a jackal and more like something that belongs in the landfill as it is.

“Oh! I just thought trimming them a bit so they don’t get in the way. They’re some very fine claws,” Big reassures, and pats Infinite’s head.

Infinite ducks under the hand and aims for his blanket.

“I’m sorry,” Big says, “I didn’t mean to upset you.”

“I’m not upset ,” Infinite says, perhaps a little too quickly. “Just … ” his eyes dart to the side. “Tired.”

Big looks at Infinite with his head on the side.

“Okay,” he says, slightly hesitant. “Sleep tight, ok?”

“Mnn.” Then Infinite is quiet for a moment. “Enjoy your … fishing trip, I guess,” he says.

The polite friendliness feels stilted and awkward, wrong and fake, but he goes through with it anyway.

“Thank you!” Big says, regardless of how tense and mumbled it may have been. “I’ll be back with breakfast.”

Infinite pulls his blanket over his shoulders and sinks into the palm leaves.

It hadn’t been a lie, he really is tired, or at least sleepy enough that his body really begs to get to rest just a little more. He can hear raindrops against leaves and Big chatting with Froggy, it becomes white noise, and he slips away.

 

 

 

He wakes up with a feeling of urgency making his heart race, his breathing is rapid and he doesn’t know why. He feels like he should be scared and there’s nothing to be scared of.  The nightmare has faded from his memory already and left nothing but the feeling that he’s about to – die? Get hurt? He doesn’t even know.

He scans the hut without even thinking, instinctively looking for the promise of safety in a large, purple figure, but Big isn’t there.

He sits up. Wraps his arms around his knees. Gets his own nerves under control, calms his breathing, and mentally scolds himself for getting so riled up over something he can’t even remember. Then he pushes the blanket away, gets to his feet and goes outside to stand on the porch, because he can’t just stay there in the bed, not right now.

The rain is nothing but a light dust now, so faint that he can only feel it on his nose and on the scars of what used to be his right eye, it doesn’t reach through his fur.

He’s never experienced rain like this before.

He shakes his head at himself, of course he has, he’s been around the globe for half a year, it’s not like that time didn’t exist, he can’t keep comparing everything to the desert. This can’t be the only place where rain falls like this. There was rain, he’s sure of it.

Of course there was rain. It had gathered in the eyeglass of his mask.

He remembers laughing as the buildings below him fell and people were forced to scatter into the pouring rain, brave the elements, no longer protected by their precious walls, he knew the shaking cold that awaited them, the desperate search for shelter, the feeling of everything being soaked and how their food would be ruined by the merciless torrent, he knew how water can drive a man into the ground and how every droplet feels like a sting and a stone and a beating, and he laughed.

(and if anyone had had the time to turn around and watch, if they hadn’t had to run for their lives, or weren’t watching the people run as well, laughing as well, high on the feeling of victory, of something going right for once , one could have seen the rain gather on the glass of Infinite’s mask and spill over like the jackal was crying)

And that is all he thought of the rain. And it was all he thought of anything. Revenge. Revenge.

And he had been numb to anything else. He didn’t have to pay the rain any more mind; it was not a problem anymore. Not to him. He didn’t have to feel the cold. Didn’t have to feel the desperation. Didn’t have to feel anything.

And all he had felt was the surge of victory over the world itself when shattering everything in his path in another power trip. The ruby had allowed him to be distant, uncaring, numb to anything else but the feeling of being the ruler of the world, able to do with it as he pleased,  able to grind it into dust if he so desired. And he had been numb to anything but that. And it had been a blessing.

Now, just like gravity has reclaimed him with twice the force, forcing him to fight to even stand, now his emotions are catching up to him and forcing him to feel way more than he ever wanted to.

He closes his eye.

The rain caresses his half-healed scars.

Chapter Text

“Hi, Infinite!”

Infinite opens his eye and lifts his head to see Big waving at him. He pushes himself up from his leaning position and stretches his neck.

“Hello,” he greets back.

“Waamp!” Froggy says.

Big skips up the steps of the porch with an eagerness that makes Infinite feel worried about the planks, but the woodwork holds.

“I got lots of fish!” Big says and holds up a bucket that definitely holds  a lot of fish. Filled as much as it possibly can be without the fish falling out, in fact. “I’ll cook us something, and then we can go get some more stuff for Squiggles so she’ll be comfortable in her new home!”

“Sure.”

“You want some tea?” Big puts the bucket down on the porch.

Infinite shakes his head.

“My body seems to be merciful today.”

“I’ve got other kinds of tea.”

Infinite is caught off guard by the concept that he might want to drink tea for any other reason than soothing pain, and a few minutes later he’s sitting with a mug between his hands without really knowing why.

It’s chamomile, in a tea bag, and Infinite gently pulls the label and feels like this is somehow a completely different experience. Maybe it’s because Big made some for himself too, maybe it’s the different smell, maybe Infinite is just feeling weird in general right now.

When sitting here on the floor, watching a being with immense raw strength gently talk to a frog that croaks back at him, he feels like the ruby might actually have snapped his mind and pulled him into a weird fever dream. He knows illusions from reality, he used to be the master of said illusions, and everything here feels real and solid and well-rounded and there, except it just feels surreal. The peace. The priorities – talking to frogs, raising tadpoles. The fact that Infinite was beaten to the ground less than a week ago, a defeated enemy of the entire world, and now he’s sitting here, with a blue quilt around his body and a mug of tea between his hands.

He would think it was an illusion caused by shock, a way for his brain to distract him from mortal injuries, if it didn’t seem too weird to be made up. Not even if his head had been hit so hard that he should be dead could it cook up something this realistic yet bizarre. And it’s not the ruby’s doing, that’s for sure.

He has seen glimpses of the phantom ruby’s world; it looks mostly like his nightmares do. Pillars reaching into an abyss above. A reality where things do not have to touch to be connected. A place from where he pulled out the tools to rule the world, never thought to look up into the void above. He had seen it as an arsenal, not a place, but after feeling the ruby fight against his body and tearing at his mind, he’s not so sure.

With a brush of dread, he realizes that he could have fallen into that void.

He makes the mistake of looking into his mug, and the tea bag through the darkened water is way too reminiscent of a faint, otherworldly structure looming down below in a place where there’s no up or down. He has to look away.

He drinks his tea, which is slightly less bitter than what he’s used to but otherwise nothing special, without looking into the mug too much, and is relieved when there’s nothing left but a soggy tea bag.

He stands up and goes over to the kitchen. Froggy moves from his spot on the counter so Infinite can put his mug down.

“Thank you,” Big says and gives Infinite’s head a gentle pat.

Infinite barely even notices the gesture.

He goes back and sits down, wraps the blanket around his shoulders, and lets out a gentle sigh.

 

Big finishes cooking, and when he offers Infinite to join him and Froggy on the porch, Infinite hesitates for a moment, and then he says yes.

“We need to find Squiggles some algae,” Big says while they eat. “That’s good for growing big and strong. And then she needs some stuff to hide under, so she doesn’t get scared.”

“That should be easy enough,” Infinite says and scans the foliage all around him.

“It needs to be something that won’t make the water dirty,” Big says, and takes a mouthful of fish.

“Roob!” Froggy adds.

Big nods.

“And something she won’t try to eat, if it’s not good tadpole food.”

“Can she really not be trusted to not poison herself?” Infinite says, his voice dry.

“Riib!” Froggy says, indignantly.

Big doesn’t pick up on Infinite’s unimpressed tone.

“She comes from upstreams,” he explains, “and her parents probably made sure to lay their eggs in a place good for tadpoles, so there would be no dangerous food in the water. But the plants are different here. So she won’t know what stuff is. And she can’t ask us. She’s curious, she’ll try to find out.”

“Mh,” Infinite says, still not impressed. “Peculiar that a creature that needs to be shielded that much can last.”

“Tadpoles are fragile little ones.”

Infinite catches a glimpse of the chasm in his own chest and doesn’t say any more; Big’s care for feeble things really is his luck.

He can’t help but wonder why. He can understand why the weak cling together, terrified and unable to do anything on their own, he can even understand why the strong would keep weaker allies around for aid, but Big is powerful,yet he keeps looking out for the most useless things around, and with no apparent gain.

Infinite can’t help but worry that there’s a hidden agenda somewhere, can’t keep himself from trying to figure out where it is, even though he tells himself that even if it’s there, there’s nothing he can do about it anyway. Just act like a friend. Nothing has happened to him yet. Stop worrying about hidden enemies. It might be a test. Just concentrate on passing it.

 

 

After dinner, Infinite ends up spending half an hour making his way through dirt that makes a new attempt at eating his boots every five minutes, looking for a fitting piece of bark that a small, water-bound creature can hide under. Big keeps chatting eagerly about tadpoles. Infinite keeps his answers short and polite while weeding through the thirteenth patch of undergrowth, and doesn’t say anything about what he thinks of the ordeal.

He thinks quite a lot of thoughts about the ordeal. Absolutely none of them are approving.

He finally finds a piece of bark that isn’t too small or too rotten or comes from a tree that’s poisonous for tadpoles (he is almost convinced Big made that one up), and then he almost falls in the stream when he has to wash mud off of it.

Big, who was fishing out some good algae-filled leaves from the stream a little way away, makes use of his fishing pole reflexes and saves Infinite from getting soaked by hooking him by the scarf and reeling him away from the water.

Infinite watches the piece of bark gently bop down the stream and almost feels like he’s ready for Shadow to stop by and finish him off.

Big pries the fishing hook free from Infinite’s scarf and throws the line out again, and Infinite has no idea how on earth it’s possible to catch a piece of bark with a fishing hook, but he has never felt so relieved when Big shows that it is doable.

Big stays at the water to look for a good leaf, and Infinite makes his way back through the mud with the bark in his hand.

He pulls his boots off and leaves them on the porch; he’s too tired to deal with the cakes of mud right now, and goes inside to dump the result of his quest in the tank.

“I hope you appreciate this, you nasty little atrocity,” he says to Squiggles.

Then he has to take his glove off and pick it up from the bottom of the tank because it fell and made nothing reminiscent of a shelter. He gets it to rest against the glass, and then he can’t find the towel and has to go outside and shake his arm to get his hand even somewhat dried off.

He’s changed his mind; he much prefers to be bored to the edge of desperation over this .

He aims directly for his bed and hides under the blanket. He doesn’t even notice that Squiggles has taken her new hiding spot in use.



 

Big comes back about ten minutes later, and Infinite reluctantly gets out from under the covers as he hears Big’s voice call out from outside that he found a really good one!

Once again, Infinite is placed with his elbow resting on the edge of a fish tank, waving a leaf around in the water to attract the attention of a tadpole, except this time, the leaf is brown and withered and covered in slippery, green stuff.

Squiggles swims out of her new hiding spot and hovers around the leaf for a few moments, investigating this foreign object, and then she finally swims to the algae and digs in.

Big is cleaning fish outside, and Infinite keeps his spiteful comment to a non-committal grumbling sound, just in case. He adjusts his position so he can rest against the side of the nightstand and watches Squiggles through the glass as she shaves a corner of the leaf for green floof. Does she have teeth? How does she even eat. Infinite can't tell, all the evidence he has of her even being able to is the small corner of leaf that is algae-free now.

She works her way methodically along the leaf’s edge, and Infinite sort of forgets that he could probably let go now and just sits and watches her hypnotic little movements.

Marbled patterns run over her translucent tail, until they reach her body and become so dense that she might as well just be plain dark, so dark that her eyes are hard to make out. Her patterns are muddy and her eyes small and protruding and she’s honestly an ugly little thing, Infinite stares at her and wonders if there’s any benefits to being so slimy and inefficient and ugly. There has to be, since these things are still around.

Maybe nobody wants to eat them.

The wind rustles the walls, but the layer of leaves is thick enough that only the sound reaches inside the hut, that and the patterns of light that dance on the green. Infinite adjusts his arm to rest more comfortably along the edge of the tank, Squiggles makes a little skip and looks up, offended at this unacceptable disruption in the middle of her lunch, but she quickly goes back to eating.

Infinite sits with the leaf until Squiggles has decided that that’s enough algae for now, and swims down to check whether something new has happened to her favourite pebble. Infinite blinks, like he’s shaking himself from a light trance, and finally lets go of the leaf.

His right hand has dried off, and he picks up his glove, but then lingers for a moment. He runs his thumb over one long, curved claw, concemplates them.

Would it be better if he let Big clip them? If this is a test … Maybe he should follow Big’s suggestions. Or at least think before he turns them down.

The tip of one claw runs in small circles over his thumb while he weights his options. He doesn’t want his claws clipped off, he doesn’t want more of his body stripped away from him.

He also doesn’t want to be seen as uncooperative and unruly.

He regards his hand for a long time, deep in thought, before he slips his glove back on.

Chapter Text

Infinite is very quiet up until dinnertime, and Big watches Infinite’s slight frown and faraway gaze, and decides not to interrupt.

He talks with Froggy instead while preparing dinner. He does ask Infinite if he wants to join them on the porch, and is happily surprised when Infinite looks up, shrugs, and says that he supposes he might as well.

They eat more or less in silence, Big with his feet over the edge of the porch, Froggy hopping around in the mud outside looking for juicy bugs to eat, and Infinite chewing slowly while the thoughts in his head paint creases on his forehead.

He lets out a small, hard sigh, and then he looks up.

“Perhaps,” he says, a slight tension in his jaw, “I was a little too quick to dismiss clipping my claws.”

Big turns his head.

“Huh?”

Infinite’s hand curls up, fingertips seeking security in the palm.

“We can do it. If you ...” he makes a small gesture with his fork.

“Cut your nails?”

“Yes.” No backing out now.

“Oki!” Big says, sounding like it’s not a big deal, Big says everything like it’s not a big deal, with the exception of frogs and people who are upset. “I have a nail clipper inside. We can do it after eating, if you want.”

Infinite just nods and goes back to quietly finishing his meal.

 

After they’re done eating, Infinite ghosts after Big, quietly hands him plate and cutlery, and then he sits down on his bed, legs crossed, his fingertips dancing in tight little circles.

Big finds a small bag in the cupboard and rummages through it.

“Here you go!” He says, and hands Infinite a nail clipper, the kind fit for people with claws.

Infinite takes it, with movements like he’s afraid it might be hot, or sharp.

Big put the little bag on the bed, then goes to wash the dishes, leaving Infinite to his own devices. Infinite takes a moment of looking at the nail clipper and thinking about what’s happening. Then he resolutely pulls his gloves off.

Where does he start. Thumb first? That one seems to be the thickest and strongest, and he should probably start there and get it over with, but a part of him just isn’t ready. He glances to the claw on his pinkie. Start there and work his way up?

He settles the clipper around the claw. He’s not sure how much he should cut. They’ve always been too dull to serve as weapons, but he supposes he would seem less threatening without them …

He finds the middle of where the claw curves, and then a bit further in. One clipping away from becoming a blunt stump, and it’s probably better that way. He tenses his jaw, looking at his hands, and then his eyes become hard, stop the sentimentality, it’s just claws, are you really going to let that be the thing that stops you from being the friend Big wants you to be?

Pain warns him when he applies pressure, and he hesitates for a second, then huffs at himself for expecting this to be painless. That’s not what proving yourself is, now is it.

He sets his teeth, and he cuts.

The pain is quick and cold and piercing and more than he expected, he lets out a pained gasp, and the nail clipper falls to the floor. His claw is bleeding. He did not know claws could bleed.

“Oh boy!”

Big puts down the plate he was washing and rushes to Infinite’s side. He pulls his glove off and puts a thumb over the bleeding claw, stopping the flow. The nerves in Infinite’s finger are wailing over being cut, and he grinds his teeth together.

“Oh boy, oh boy,” Big says and puts his other hand on Infinite’s arm, “that’s not good.” He looks Infinite’s hand over. “It’s not easy to see where to clip when you have dark nails, either.”

Infinite is still recovering from the shock. He glances at Big’s hand pressing against the bleeding finger, feeling sharp stabs of pain run through his hand. His eyes fall on the nail clipper, and he instinctively recoils.

Big tilts his head a bit.

“Do you want me to do it?” he asks.

Infinite’s injured hand twitches. Then he tugs his hand away, away from the finger stopping the bloodflow, a swift and sharp movement and Big makes a small, surprised sound.

“I got it,” Infinite says, almost growls, grabs the clipper and places the claw of his thumb right between the blades, his face is tense but resolute, the face of a mercenary once again for just a second and then Big grabs both Infinite's hands and stops him.

“No, no, no, that's too much!” He says.

Infinite pauses in his quest to self-mutilate and looks up at Big with a squint, and Big uses the opportunity to take the clippers from Infinite.

“Here, let me do it,” he says.

Infinite tenses up, sets his teeth and closes his eye so hard that his whole face is a grimace. He doesn't resist, doesn't complain, just waits for it to happen.

Big looks at Infinite's face for a second.

"Um ... are you sure you're okay?"

"Just get it over with," Infinite says.

Big hesitates fo another moment. Infinite seems troubled, maybe even scared, and Big doesn't want to make it worse, but he also knows that when Infinite doesn't want to talk about why he is upset, Big shouldn't press the issue.

Maybe it's best to not make a fuss about it.

He lifts Infinite's hand up, slowly, and clips the very tip of a claw. Checks the cut. Clips another tiny bit, and then another, until a lighter colour is revealed inside the claw. Then he moves to the next once, clips, regards the cut, clips again.

Infinite slowly opens his eye, just a crack at first, because he hears the clipping sound and there’s still no pain, and then he just sort of watches as Big trims the very edge of his claws, watches with quiet bafflement as Big handles every little snip with the utmost care.

It doesn’t hurt. Not at all.

When Big reaches the thumb, he has enough of a feel for the length that it takes him just one cut to reveal the lighter colour.

“There you go,” Big says, and lets go of Infinite's hand.

Infinite shifts and offers his other hand to Big, slowly, but not reluctant, just wary. Big sends Infinite a broad, reassuring smile. His cheeks push his small, golden eyes up, Big almost always smiles with his entire face, like he is greeting the whole wide world and every frog in it.

Infinite never knows what to do when faced with such a smile. It’s too open and too bright. He turns his face away.

Big trims the claws on Infinite’s other hand.

“There you go!” he says, and lets go.

Infinite pulls away and looks at the result; slightly shorter, slightly duller claws.

He runs a thumb against the new, flat surfaces.

“Thank you,” he says, quietly, after a moment of hesitation.

“No problem! Is your finger ok?”

Infinite prods the unfortunate claw and gets reprimanded by a short burst of pain.

“It’s fine,” he says.

It’s almost nothing, honestly, as long as he doesn’t touch it. Nothing to trouble Big with.

“That’s good. Tell me if you need a band-aid, okay?”

“It’s fine,” Infinite repeats.

Big puts the nail clipper back in the bag and gives Infinite’s head a pat as he passes.

Infinite puts his gloves back on.

His hands do fit more comfortably now; his fingers aren’t forced to bend to make room for the claws anymore. Maybe they could even stand to be a little shorter, if his blood vessels would allow it. The only exception is the one he cut himself, the one that still complains faintly about the abuse it’s been subject to. The space fit for a claw in his glove is empty there.

His thumb keeps running along his fingertips for the rest of the day without him even noticing, unknowingly adjusting to the new, subtle change.

 

Infinite thinks he has it when he moves his piece, he really does, he has a plan and everything. Big looks at the board for around five seconds, and then he picks up his piece and takes two of Infinite’s with a move that, now that it has happened, seems obvious and Infinite just hadn’t thought of it.

“Hup, hup!” Big says as he jumps over Infinite’s pieces.

Big always says ‘hup’ when he gets to jump more than one piece.

Froggy catches the lost pieces with his tongue and drags them off the board, quick to fulfill the little task he’s set for himself.

Infinite can’t keep himself from frowning very, very deeply. He was sure he had it. He does keep himself from making any of the low growling sounds he’s wanting to make, though.

Maybe he should just go straight for the kill and try and get to the back of the board.

Two moves later and he lost the piece he was advancing, and now Big has one that is about to be kinged and Infinite can do nothing about it.

He kind of just wants to give up then and there.

He manages to get one kinged piece, but by that time, Big has three, and it’s quick to go downhill from there.

Infinite loses his last piece. He moves from his lurching position, straightening his back, regarding the board with a wry mouth.

“Wanna play again?” Big asks.

“Mrrh.” Infinite considers it, then shakes his head. “I’m too tired.”

“Okie-dokie!” Big helps Froggy gather up the checkers pieces. “Do you want me to feed Squiggles for you?”

Infinite lets out a slightly tense sigh.

“No. I can do that.”

Big helps Infinite find an appropriate leaf that he can chop up and put in Squiggles’ tank. He doesn’t want to linger this time, she can eat it or don’t, but he does cast an extra glance at the tank before he turns his back. Then he’s cleaning the cutting board, and when he’s done, he’s looking in that direction anyway and just maybe he looks a little closer, just enough that he can see Squiggles happily munching along.

He hands the cutting board to Big, who dries it off for him, and as Infinite walks back to his bed, he takes a look into the water, just a passing glance.

The little brown leaf is almost free of algae. A frown ghosts over Infinite’s forehead, because for a moment it feels like he actually cares.

He makes his way back to his bed, his body finding the spot his body has shaped in the palm leaves, and he pulls the blanket up around him, and then stares at the ceiling for a little.

The light is slowly falling. A cricket chirps somewhere outside. The sound makes Froggy perk up. He hops down and across the floor.

“Ribbit!” Froggy calls out.

Big looks over at his friend, who’s sitting in the doorway, eager to go hunt for an evening snack.

“See you later, buddy!” Big says, and waves.

“Wamp!”

Froggy turns around and leaps into the evening.

Infinite turns his head.

“Where’s he going?” he asks.

“Out to catch bugs. There’s a lot of them around when it’s evening. He’ll come back soon.”

“Hm.”

Infinite doesn’t have much to add to that. Honestly, he’s not sure what kind of answer he was expecting that he could add anything to. He doesn’t really know why he asked.

Big climbs into bed.

“Night night, Infinite,” he says.

Infinite lets his gaze fall, expression tense, but in a tired way. Like he doesn’t have the energy for being on guard.

“Good night,” he mumbles.

The early night wraps them in quiet calm. Infinite feels way more protected than he should by a pile of palm leaves and a piece of blue fabric, but it feels like he’s hidden away from the world in a little pocket, and the world around him is peaceful, quiet.

Then Big starts snoring.

Infinite makes a face and rolls his eyes, then he turns around to lie on the side so he can pull the blanket up over his ears.

It takes him a while to be able to tune out the sound of Big’s snoring (he sounds like one of Eggman’s scrapped robot projects gone haywire), but once he does, he falls into a merciful, dreamless sleep.

Chapter Text

Big gets up at dawn, as usual, and his gentle rummaging pulls Infinite from sleep. Infinite stays quiet with his eye closed, the sun has barely risen, he’s not ready to commit to being awake yet.

“Rooibb,” he hears Froggy say.

“Of course! Amy wanted us to catch something too.”

“Roooib roob wamp! Wamp.”

“We have to wait till Infinite wakes up.”

Infinite’s ear perks up when he hears his name (the left one, the only one intact enough to perk up at all).

“Wamp,” Froggy says.

“It’s a long walk, and I don’t wanna leave him all alone here. And we have to take care of Squiggles, too.”

Infinite lets out a low, creaky moaning noise, and rolls over.

“I’m awake,” he says, sounding like he wishes he wasn’t.

“Oh! Good morning!”

Infinite takes a moment to mentally complain about suddenly having a body that acts this pathetic just because he’s trying to wake up, then he slowly climbs into sitting position.

“Morning,” he grumbles, reluctantly.

Big reaches a bucket towards Infinite.

“Do you wanna fill this with water for Squiggles?”

Infinite lets out a sigh.

“Sure.”

 

The rain has finally subsided. The ground outside is still wet and thick and trying to steal Infinite’s shoes, but he knows where Big has put out wooden boards now, and stepping on them saves him from ending up barefoot and in mud to the ankles.

He goes down to the stream and finds a rock at the edge of the water where he can stand safely (the ground is more slippery than it seems, he’s learned this the hard way).

His chest complains lightly when he bends down to fill the bucket.

The morning light is thin, and the air feels fresh. Birds chatter above. He pulls the bucket out of the water and makes a face when his body punishes him for daring to lift something that actually weights a little.

He treks back with the bucket. Despite the warning pain, it feels good to just do something, something that isn’t just sitting around, or searching for bark when there’s bark everywhere and Big won’t just take some from a tree for some godforsaken reason.

He hauls the bucket up the steps and inside, where he places it on the floor next to the night stand. Big has already removed all of Sqiggles’ furniture. It has been carefully placed on the floor.

“I’ll find a leaf so we can get her up,” Big says. “One moment.”

“I believe that might not be necessary,” Infinite says and kneels down in front of the tank.

“Oh?”

Big trots over and watches from behind Infinite.

Infinite pulls his gloves off and gently taps on the glass. Squiggles turns around with a swoop and stares out at them, suspicious. Infinite puts a clawtip to the side of the tank, and Squiggles approaces, her head moving back and forth while she investigates.

Infinite drags his claw up to the surface, and Squiggles does a skip, and then immediately sets after it. She almost tries to jump out of the water when the claw is above water level.

Infinite scoops her up with his other hand. She flails her tail a bit. He lowers her into the bucket and graciously allows her to swim away.

“Yay!!” Big says, with uncontained excitement, and ruffles Infinite’s hair vigorously.

Infinite tries to dodge the sudden enthusiastic gesture of affection, and fails. He makes a face, but he’s trapped between a bucket with a tadpole on one side and Big on the other, and he’s a little bit too busy feeling satisfied with himself to really put an effort into escaping.

“You’re tangling my hair,” he mutters, restraining himself from protesting too much.

It works, though. Big pulls his hand away.

“Oh! Sorry.” His face is still glowing with enthusiasm. “You’re becoming friends now!” he says with a broad smile.

“She has taken a liking to my claws, at least,” Infinite says and stands up, and then he says “Ack!” as he’s pulled into a very unexpected hug.

“I knew you’d be a good papa!” Big says, lifting Infinite off the ground in his excitement.

Infinite’s insticts have him fighting with all his might for at least four seconds before he manages to remind himself that this is not an attack. Big doesn’t even notice it.

He puts Infinite down on the floor again and lets go. Infinite staggers a bit. Big has the biggest smile plastered all over his face.

“I’ll get her some fresh water!”

Big picks the tank up and trots off with it with a spring in his step.

“Goodness,” Infinite mumbles and brushes some of the fur on his shoulder back in place.

Squiggles looks up at him from the bucket, her little dark eyes poking out of the water.

“I still think you’re a waste of space,” he tells her, and adjusts his scarf.

She swims in a circle, her tail kicking up a few drops of water. Infinite shakes his head at her.

Big comes back with a tank full of fresh water and gets Infinite to dry the sides off before he puts it down. Infinite puts Squiggles’ stick and bark and pebbles back into the tank, and then pours her in.

“Now let’s get her some food!”

Infinite barely manages to put the bucket down before Big grabs his hand and pulls him outside.

Infinite is dragged along all the way down to the stream before his hand is released, and Big begins going on about the good tadpole plants. Infinite is holding his hand close to his chest and sending Big a side-eye, puzzled and a little put off. He keeps thinking he know how Big acts, and then Big does something that, once it has happened, is absolutely something Big would do, but just a little … more, than last time.

“Here! The one with the round leaves!”

Infinite looks at the plant in question, and then finds a patch of them that is a little further away from Big, making sure to stay about an arm’s lenght away, but Big’s enthusiams seems to have dwindled to a level where Infinite - hopefully - won’t be assaulted with more overly friendly gestures.

He can’t help but wonder if it is commonplace to not … mind other people being so close, or if it is just Big.

The rest of Infinite’s squad would lump together when they were cold - Infinite was there too, on very cold nights, along the side of one or two other jackals, always so he could move away, preferring to use fires and a blanket and his own tail to keep him warm, but some of the others didn’t seem to mind being close. Dart would flop on top of anyone who sat still for long enough - usually to demand their attention, but still. Snap often groomed Ripper’s hair. Howl and Wayward would shove each other. That was something Infinite had thought of as being a light display of dominance, but when he thinks back, maybe he was wrong.

He stops and stalls, there, half crouched down, with the newly snapped stem of a leaf between his fingers, as something creeps into his mind that he isn’t sure how … why it wasn’t there before, or why he didn’t notice it, or why he’s surprised by it, but it hits him in the way something might hit a matress, no hard impact, but his thoughts are still stopped right there and then and the momentum makes his mind stagger a bit because -

Not everyone gets along (Slayer tells Ripper she’s dreadful Ripper gets mad Snap gets mad as well?), and there’s skirmishes (Hook tells Howl to stay in his own lane Howl tells Hook then take the lane back then, they tumble across the ground in a flurry of fur and claws and the other jackals have to pull them apart, Hook gets a scar on his arm) and disagreements (“why do you always get the nice loot! I want that!”) and things Infinite never really understood but didn’t deem important (Hook and Ripper always glaring daggers, Hook suddenly yelling at Shiv who’s not above yelling back, Burrow just being gone sometimes and comes back and never tells where they’ve been or why they left) but -

They were fond of each other.

Big looks over. Sees Infinite standing still with his eyes fixed on a point, but his gaze distant.

“Is something wrong?” he asks.

Infinite blinks and looks up, is drawn back to a jungle world teeming with greens, drawn back to a pair of gentle, yellow eyes staring at him (they’re the same colour, he realizes, which seems completely absurd because nothing else about Big’s eyes and the eyes Infinite know are the same).

“No,” he says, after a second’s pause. He stands up. “Everything’s fine.”

His voice sounds weird to his own ears. Quieter, a raspy edge, like he is afraid of something, but none of the anger or the power that fear can bring.

Big reaches over and gently pats Infinite’s head - a gesture Infinite has grown to not mind, something less intrusive, less confrontational than a hug or a ruffle, Big’s way of saying, I’m right here, without invading Infinite’s space too much.

Infinite picks more leaves without saying a word. They walk back to the hut in silence, and when they get back to Big’s home, Big starts talking to Froggy, and leaves Infinite be.

Infinite quietly goes about feeding Squiggles, pulling the leaves apart with his fingers (it’s a little slower than chopping them, but it’s not like he has anything else to do, not like he needs to save time, more like the opposite, really) and dropping the pieces in her tank while he watches her, her tail and her movements, and he lets another ripped-up leaf fall into the water when he notices something near where her body becomes tail.

He leans closer and looks carefully. A little bump. He frowns. That … most definitely wasn’t there yesterday morning, he’s sure of it.

“Big,” Infinite calls out. “Something’s wrong with Squiggles.”

“Oh?” Big walks over and leans down to look into the tank. “What is it?”

Infinite points. “Look at that. That, thing at her tail.”

Big puts his head on the side, then leans closer to get a better look.

“Right there,” Infinite urges on, surely Big must be able to see it. “Near her ...” he has no idea how to describe anything on this tadpole. He tries to draw the shape of where her body meets the tail, making the gesture in the air, feeling slightly at loss, and also slightly stupid, this whole situation is stupid, honestly.

Big’s eyes suddenly grow wider. “Oh!” he says, and then he smiles, broadly, “Good found! That’s a leg bump! Don’t worry, that’s a good thing.”

Infinite sends Big a look. “What on earth is a ‘leg bump’?”

“It’s the bumps that are gonna be legs!”

“Be what now.”

“We should get her some more protein so she can grow into a big, strong frog.”

“Grow into a what now?

Big and Infinite look at each other for a few long seconds.

“Did you not know?” Big asks.

Infinite looks at Big for another moment. Then at Squiggles. Then at Big. Then at Froggy, who is sitting ont he kitchen counter and watching the spectacle. Then back at Big.

“Tadpoles are baby frogs,” Big says, helpfully, with a gentle edge in his voice that says, please don’t break when I tell you this.

Infinite blinks a few times, rapidly.

“Oh,” he says, and blinks again, and frowns and looks at Big again and says, “Wait. What?” and then he looks at Squiggles and then at Froggy and then back at Big and says, “ How?

“Well … uh.” Big says, and looks like he’s thinking hard about how to answer, “first they’re eggs. Then they hatch and are tadpoles. And then the tadpoles get bigger, and when they’re big enough, they grow legs. And then arms, and then they climb out of the water, and lose their tail, and then they’re frogs!”

Infinite blinks again. That does explain a few things - well, one thing, mostly, which is Big’s enthusiasm for the tadpole - and does the opposite of explain about a dozen more.

“We need to get her something to climb on,” Big says, “she can’t swim all the time when she gets legs.” Then he’s quiet for a moment. “Are you okay?” he asks, carefully.

Infinite looks up at Big. “Why wouldn’t I be?” he asks, and gets to his feet. “I’m not the one who’s going to, sprout more legs and ...”

He gestures vaguely to Squiggles, who is squiggling along without a care in the world.

“It’s okay,” Big reassures, quickly, “it’s not painful.”

Infinite shakes his head, at the world and its weirdness and its horrible creatures and at the fact that he’s in the middle of said weirdness right now and has to somehow care about tadpoles and tadpoles apparently turning into frogs.

He drops down on his bed, and immediately regrets it when bumping against the floor causes a spike of pain to shoot through his body. He grinds his teeth.

“Rooiiib,” Froggy says.

“Oh! Right!” Big turns to Infinite again. ”Me and Froggy talked about going fishing in the big river today. Do you wanna come along?”

Infinite lifts his head a bit.

“The big river?”

“Its deeper in the jungle,” Big says. “It’s bigger, so you can catch bigger fish! There’s a real nice spot for fishing there. Um … it’s kind of a walk away. That’s why I think it’s best if you come along. I don’t want you to be alone when I’m that far away.”

Infinite lets out a small sigh, but shrugs. “I suppose I will come.”

Big claps. “Yay!”

“Wamp!” Froggy says.

“And find some breakfast on the way,” Big says, which might be a reply to Froggy.

Infinite gets to his feet while Big gets his fishing pole, and then they go off, Froggy on Big’s head and Infinite walking behind them.

They cross the nearby stream. Big can, where there’s a narrow spot, step right across, and Infinite dangles from under one of Big’s arms, watching the water and grinding his teeth, because if he wasn’t disabled, it would be so easy to jump across, but he can’t.

Big feels Infinite’s frustration and puts him down before leading them deeper into the jungle.

There isn’t much of a path here, nature has gotten to grow wild. Big treks through most of the vegetation without paying it much mind, and Infinite can walk the cleared path with relative ease. He has to hook a hand under the splint and hold his tail off the ground that way, to avoid it getting tangled in the low-crawling brambles, but except for that, he only gets caught in a stray vine two times.

The terrain becomes steeper. Big knows where to walk, and Infinite follows after, ignoring the warning ache in his chest as he follows Big through the jungle.

At one point, they reach a slope. Roots from great trees have shaped the ground to be irregular, and the plants here grow close. Big grabs the trunk of a tree and steps onto a strong root that has made its way out of the ground, forming what looks like an archway. From there, he steps onto a rock further up, and makes it to where the ground is even enough to just be walked.

He looks back at Infinite.

“Do you need help?” he asks.

Infinite turns his gaze away and puts both hands on the root, pushes himself up with his legs and climbs onto the root. Big offers out a hand to him. He hesitates, but then takes it, and Big helps him onto the big rock.

Infinite can’t quite hide how much he’s panting. Big lets a hand rest lightly on Infinite’s shoulder.

“Are you okay?” he asks.

“I’m fine,” Infinite lies.

“I can carry you if you need it,” Big offers.

“I can walk on my own,” Infinite says, a hard edge in his voice, a bit of a sharp tooth showing as he speaks, but it’s not because of Big; it’s anger at himself.

He stands upright and walks on, up the hillside, ignoring his aching lungs and the deep, firm pain in his chest, and his legs that haven’t walked this far in what feels like forever.

Big looks after him, and then turns his head up just a little and looks at Froggy, who’s perching near Big’s ear. Froggy wamps. Big frowns, gently, and then sets after Infinite, who moves to the side so Big can walk in front and clear the path.

They walk for another ten minutes where Big keeps glancing back at Infinite, and then he can’t take the sight of Infinite with his bent back and hanging head and the ears pressed down against his skull, moving like he’s pulling a deadweight behind him, and not saying a word.

Big stops. Infinite looks up. His eyes are tired, pained, questioning.

”I think we should take a break,” Big says.

He looks at Infinite, slightly wary, waiting for a reaction.

Infinite stands there for a few seconds and tries to find the strength to disagree, the willpower to go on, tries to refind the jackal that would continue through sandstorms and scorching heat and neverending rainfalls, never stopping, determined to come out on top.

Then he lets himself drop to the ground.

Big sits down next to him.

Froggy immediately jumps off of Big’s head and explores the surroundings. Infinite stares at the ground, at his gloves, while his breath stings in his chest.

He’s not giving up. He just … needs a second.

“This was a nice spot,” Big says.

Infinite lifts his head just enough that he can send Big a questioning look. He can’t quite keep the hostility out of it.

“It’s a pretty view,” Big says and shuffles a bit to get comfortable in the moss.

Infinite turns his head to look in the some direction as Big.

The sun is golden now, light dancing like thin, silken curtains. From their elevated position, the jungle is layered green, first the dark moss they’re sitting on, then the fresh leaves and the saturated ferns around them, the foilage above looking golden where the sun shines through, deep green in the shadows in between the trees.

For a moment, Infinite forgets the stinging in his chest.

“Wamp!” Froggy calls from a nearby bush.

“What is it, buddy?”

“Riibb.”

Big gets to his feet.

“Coming!”

Infinite looks after Big.

He just wanted to catch his breath, but his legs are grateful for the break, and his aching chest even more so, and when Big disappears into the bushes, Infinite pushes himself up to sit in a more comfortable position, with his legs crossed and the splint out of the way, leaning against a small, moss-padded raise in the ground.

Big is talking to Froggy, Infinite can’t really make out the exact words because Big is also making his way through some quite stubborn brambles and the rustling makes it hard to hear what he’s saying. Infinite assumes it’s none of his business anyway.

A little lizard scuttles past Infinite’s shoe and disappears into the greenery.

“Look what Froggy found!” Big announces as he comes stomping back.

He walks over, sits down next to Infinite, and presents a handful of small, orange fruits.

Froggy immediately jumps to Big’s wrist.

“Roob,” he says, sounding very pleased with himself.

“Here! Take one!” Big says.

Infinite picks one out, keeping half an eye on the frog, because he has a feeling Froggy doesn’t quite approve of him, but Froggy seems unbothered and Infinite gets to take a fruit.

“Thank you,” Infinite says.

They sit there and share the fruit in silence. Infinite chews slowly and thoroughly, but swallowing still causes a hard, dull pain every time. Just going through this morning’s activities has been stretching himself too far.

He's never going to be whole again, is he?

Infinite isn't full, but he can't get himself to start on another fruit and have to endure the pain every time he swallows, so he lies, says he isn't hungry anymore, Big can have the last few.

“Thank you,” Big says and ruffles Infinite's hair.

Infinite lets it slide.

They sit there for a little longer while Big finishes his share of the fruit.

“Are you ready to walk a little more?” Big asks.

Infinite sets his teeth and pushes himself to his feet. His chest protests. He stands for a few seconds while he makes sure his legs won’t give in, and then he nods.

“Yes,” he says.

“Tell me if you need another break, okay?” Big says.

Infinite nods again, a little more stiffly this time.

They walk for a while. The break does wonders the first five minutes, and then Infinite feels his body slowly draining of energy. He’s so sick of being like this. Of having to drag Big down.

He keeps walking.

All his focus is on his chest, the stabs from the wound that dig into his body, and on moving one leg and then the other, and he slowly stops looking at where he’s walking in favor of walking at all.

His foot hits a small raise in the ground, and he stumbles, his legs are trembling and he almost falls, he claws at the foilage to his left and gets a hold of a hanging branch that he can clutch while he regains his balance. He lets out a shaky breath and stands with his eye closed while he tries to get his knees to stay still.

Big stops and looks at Infinite with pity and with warmth, his ears hanging. He watches Infinite swallow, straighten himself, and let go of the branch, experimentally, to see if his legs will hold. Big looks to the path, and then back at Infinite. Infinite takes one step, a shaky step, and immediately looks like he wants to collapse again, and Big can’t let Infinite do this.

Infinite’s next step almost makes him collide with Big.

An arm wraps around his back, and then he’s picked up, Big puts the other arm behind Infinite’s knees and holds him against his shoulder, like one might carry a toddler.

“I’m gonna carry you the rest of the way,” Big says, “is that okay?”

He really hopes Infinite won’t say no.

Infinite is too exhausted to complain. His entire body immediately gives in, and he hangs like a ragdoll. Big waits for a moment before he decides that this has to mean that Infinite doesn’t mind, he can’t let Infinite stumble on like that for no reason.

He adjusts his grip a bit so the splint isn’t dragging Infinite’s tail down to trail through the dirt, and then he walks.

Infinite is silent, completely silent, for a few minutes. Then he talks. His voice is worn and tired, and his words might have been hard to make out if he wasn’t so close to Big’s ear.

“What … is it, that makes you so compelled to care for everything feeble and … weak? ” he asks.

“Huh?” Big says. “Whaddya mean?”

“Your frog, Squiggles … ” His face contorts into something of disgust and frustration and the sorrow that comes from losing who you thought you were, and he finishes: “me.”

“I’m just helping you out,” Big says, and steps over a thick, moss-covered root.

“Why?”

“Cause I like you! And you need help.”

“You’re not … gaining anything from this.” Infinite’s voice is still thin and without any power, his hand has found a tiny tuft of Big’s chest fur that he’s twirling between his fingertips, absentmindedly, not thinking, not even really noticing. “It’s just a waste of energy.”

“No, no! Don’t worry. You’re not heavy.”

Infinite lets out a sigh, just as dulled and powerless as the rest of him.

“That’s not the point.”

“Oh,” Big says, but Infinite doesn’t follow up. “Sorry. I’m not very good at understanding things sometimes,” Big adds, after it’s been clear that Infinite has given up on explaining.

Infinite’s words are muffled by Big’s fur. “Don’t apologize.”

Big makes an awkward attempt at patting Infinite’s shoulder. It stays as mostly a gesture and less like an actual pat because Big is also holding Infinite in place and has his fishing pole in one hand and is being very careful to keep the hook away from Infinite (every fisherman knows that their lure will always try to tangle itself in anything, especially if it has the even the slightest resemblance to seaweed, and getting a fishing hook out of Infinite’s hair would be a nightmare for everyone involved.)

Infinite understands the sentiment.

Chapter Text

The big river is bigger than Infinite had expected, three meters across, maybe more. The surface seems calm, but the water curling around rocks and fallen tree trunks and sending leaves swirling betrays that the water might not be as innocent as it seems.

Big puts Infinite down, and Infinite holds onto Big’s arm while he tries to find out if he can stand. It takes him approximately one second to conclude that it won’t be worth it. He lowers himself to the grass.

Big pats Infinite’s head a single time and walks a few metres away to find a good spot at the shore where he can sit down. He throws the line out. Froggy jumps down from Big’s head and hops off to invesigate a nearby bush.

Big turns his head and looks at Infinite, who’s sitting in the grass with his face towards the ground.

“Are you okay?” he asks, gently.

Infinite stays quiet. He can’t deny that he’s not.

“I’ll bring some tea for you next time,” Big says.

Infinite shoots Big a glance.

“Is making a fire out here just for tea not a bit over the top?” he asks.

“I have a thermos.”

“A what?”

“A thermos.”

That still doesn’t clear anything up for Infinite.

He lets out a deep breath and straightens himself.

“I’ll be fine,” he says.

“You can sleep on me if you want to,” Big offers.

Infinite does a very good job at not being rude; he makes a displeased face and a low ‘mrrghn’-noise, which is a very mild expression of how he feels about that idea.

“I’ll pass,” he says, which is the most diplomatic response he can muster.

“Tell me if ya’ change your mind,” Big says goes back to fishing.

 

Infinite ends up flopping over and lying on his back in the grass. He dozes a bit. The pain is too intense and distracting for him to actully fall asleep, so he just lies there, in the sun. The river’s broad span gives space between the trees, and Infinite has found a patch of sunlight that he almost fits in. The hurt in his chest is an intense constant, but his body is warm and the jungle is calm; if it wasn’t for the pain, it would have been quite pleasant to lie here.

Infinite is surprised at how long it lasts before Big reels anything in. Usually, he hauls fish in by the bucket. The first fish he catches is the size of a hand, and he throws it back into the river again. The second time, he pulls out a large cluster of green, dripping vegetation.

“Riib riib!” Froggy says.

“That’s okay.” Big gets the weeds free and throws them back into the water. “We’ve got all day.”

Infinite rolls over at the splash, just to see what’s going on, and squints against the sunlight. He kind of hopes they don’t have to be there all day, mainly because he’s already beginning to feel hungry again, and he really doesn’t want to tell Big.

Big throws the line out again.

Infinite slowly sits up, then gets to his feet, walks the few meters over to Big, and lowers himself down next to him.

“No luck yet?” he asks, and surprises himself with how tired he sounds.

“The big fish are more picky. They’ll bite at some point.”

Infinite pulls his tail over to lie next to him. He’s almost getting used to dragging the splint around.

He sits and watches the water, watches a fallen leaf swirl past, watches the current and how it warps the surface. Then he flops to lean against Big’s arm.

“Are you okay?” Big asks.

“It hurts, ” Infinite mumbles.

“I’m sorry.” He lets go of the fishing pole with one hand to pet Infinite’s head. “You shouldn’t have walked this far on your own.”

“I know,” Infinite says through clenched teeth. “I’m just sick of needing help all the time.”

“I don’t mind helping you, though.”

“That’s not it.” The frustration is clearly visible on Infinite’s face; his jaw is tense and his teeth keep peeking out from between his lips. “I … I can’t do anything anymore.”

Big looks at Infinite with soft, warm eyes. “I’m sorry, buddy.”

Infinite blinks rapidly, his ear perks up. He looks up at Big out of the corner of his eye, looking like he’s trying to find out if he heard right, looking like he doesn’t dare to let Big know he heard anything, looking like he just overheard part of a conversation that he was never meant to be part of and now he’s got questions but he can’t ask because none of it was meant for his ears in the first place.

Big notices Infinite staring and looks down at him.

“Did I say something wrong?” he asks.

Infinite quickly looks away. “No.” He fixes his eye on the river.  “Not at all.”

Silence falls between them. Big turns his attention back to the river. Slowly, a bit hesitant, Infinite leans back against Big’s arm.

He stays there until something yanks at the fishing pole. Then he immediately moves away to give Big more elbow room. He watches as Big puts the rod on the side and hooks, and then he turns his attention to the water, but he can’t see the catch yet.

Froggy croaks and climbs further down to sit on Big’s forehead so he can see what’s going on.

Infinite turns to look at Big. The fishing pole stands in an arch, and Big pulls it up and away from the river, and then quickly reels in until the tip of the fishing pole almost touches the water. The line is so tense it trembles. Big has to put a hand under the fishing pole to support it when he pulls it upwards again.

“Ribbit, ribbit!!” Froggy cheers.

“Is it stuck?” Infinite asks, and the response is three quick yanks at the line.

“Nope!” Big says.

He looks eager, but focused. Infinite watches with a slight squint.

“Riib, riib!” Froggy shuffles his feet.

After around five minutes of Big doing more or less the same motions, Infinite is beginning to suspect that the hook is stuck on some stubborn reeds and Big is just too excited about fishing to want to face it. Or maybe it’s a rock. Infinite doesn’t know how a rock would get stuck on a fishing hook, but with how much Big is struggling with reeling it in, it has to be something very heavy. But something does seem to be moving under the surface - he’s not sure if it’s the current, or the light, but it looks very alive, and very large.

Big still fights calmly, and the catch fights back, slowly, ever so slowly being dragged closer, and Infinite does not take his eyes off the thing in the water for the duration of the entire battle. It lasts something like ten minutes before Big leans down, plunges a hand into the water, and drags a veritable monster out of the river by the jaw.

It’s dark grey with smooth skin, slimy like it is covered in oil, and the first thing Infinite is reminded of are the distorted illusions he had made of himself in what feels like forever ago, back during the war, except it is also unlike anything Infinite has ever seen or could have imagined.

It is longer than Infinite is tall.

He takes a step back.

Froggy lets out a victorious “ wamp! ”, and does a little hop.

“It’s a catfish!” Big says, as if that explains anything.

Infinite is regretting every single life choice that has led up to this moment. This was not what he expected when Big had said that he “sometimes caught bigger fish” in this river.

“It’s a monstrosity ,” is what Infinite manages to say once he has gathered himself enough to speak.

“It’s good that we caught it,” Big says and drags the fish away from the shore. “They’re not good for the river.”

Infinite involuntarily takes a few steps back. Big picks up the fish, Infinite can see its gills work. It stops flailing its tail and just sits there on Big’s arm, flicking its fins a little with its mouth wide open. It seems weirdly calm for something that was just dragged out of its home against its will.

Big gets a good grip on the head, and Infinite has to take a step back and close his eye, he’s mostly used to Big doing this with regular size fish by now, but this thing is about the same size as Infinite is and he visibly cringes when the neck snaps.

Infinite has to take a few seconds to collect himself before he looks up again.

“This is good,” Big says and holds the dead fish, which is still twitching, by the gills. “I can trade this for some stuff in town. They probably need food!”

“Ribbit ribbit wamp!”

Infinite looks the aquatic abomination up and down.

“Is that thing really safe to eat?”

“Of course! Catfish are good.”

“You’re sure it’s a … normal fish, and not, magically enchanted or, a result of some experiment gone wrong?”

Normally he’d trust Big’s expertise, but Big is also very optimistic, especially regarding fish, and this thing looks like something you should burn to ashes and never speak of again.

Big looks the fish over an extra time, holding it up by the gills and checking under it.

“Nope! It’s fine.”

“They are just like that,” Infinite says, in the hope that Big will tell him no, this is a horribly twisted specimen and there’s nothing like it still down there in the water.

“Yup!” Big says. “Come on, let’s take it back! Will you take my fishing pole please?”

“… sure.”

Infinite picks up the fishing rod. Big trots off with his catch in his hands.

“Horrible,” Infinite says with a side-eye to the river before he follows.

They make it home slowly, and Infinite walks the whole way himself, because he doesn’t care that the beast is dead he is not going to get close to that horror of an animal. Instead, they walk at a very slow pace and take lots of breaks, breaks where Infinite is keeping his safe distance to the fish.

Infinite doubts it would be able to swallow him, but he wouldn’t say he’s sure it couldn’t. Its mouth is enormous.

“This is great,” Big says when they finally make it home with the fish. “I can probably get all sorts of neat stuff in the village for this … and call and tell Amy how we’ve been! I can show you my favourite cafe … ”

Infinite takes his eyes off of the hideous monstrosity of a fish to send Big a look.

“I’m a war criminal,” Infinite reminds him.

“Oh. Right.” Big frowns. “I guess you can’t go, then.”

“I defnintely cannot,” Infinite says and sits down on his bed.

“That’s a shame … ” Big looks thoughtful. “Will you be okay on your own?”

“I’m not a toddler, ” Infinite says. “I’ll be fine.”

“It’s gonna take all day,” Big says.

“All I do is sleep anyway,” Infinite says, a little bit more fang visible than usually.

“But you gotta eat.”

Infinite lets out a sigh and drops down into the palm leaves.

“Well, I can’t go with you, so then I guess we just have to … ” he shoots the gigantic fish a look and stops himself from saying ‘eat that horror on our own’ because he really doesn’t want to eat any of that thing, and if Big takes him seriously, it’s going to be on the menu for weeks. “I don’t know,” he ends instead.

“We can’t really eat it all ourselves,” Big muses. “And what if the people in the town need fish? Maybe if I find some fruit for you ...”

“I’ll just eat well in the morning,” Infinite says.

He’s gone without food for days in the desert before.

“Hm … ” Big hums. “If I make food, and we will take care of Squiggles, and then I will be back as fast as I can, is that okay?”

“I’ll be fine,” Infinite repeats.

“We can eat catfish for dinner tonight!” Big says.

Infinite tries very hard not to make a face.

“Do you really think people will want to buy something half-eaten?” he asks.

He knows very well that if people are hungry enough to want to eat that fish, they’re not going to care much about how appealing it looks, but it’s worth a try to deter Big.

“It’s okay. We gotta taste our catfish!”

Big looks at the fish with pride. Infinite hides his face in the palm leaves and tries not to groan.

“I’ll clean it,” Big says, “and then I will find some fruit for tomorrow!”

“Mnnngh,” Infinite says and climbs under his blanket.

Big takes the fish outside, and Infinite lets out a huff of relief. He isn’t sure he's ever going to be the same now that he knows things like that are just swimming around in nearby rivers and Big catches and cooks and eats them like it’s no big deal.

As soon as the fish is out of sight, his attention is forcibly being dragged to the hard, stabbing pain in his chest. He never wants to move again. Ever.

He wishes he could just fall asleep and preferably stay that way until past dinnertime so he won’t have to eat catfish, but the pain is keeping him awake and he can do nothing but lie still and be miserable. He tells himself to think of something else, but it turns out, that simply isn’t possible. He tries to move his weight to give his chest some relief. It helps a little, but not much, everything still stabs and pierces and burns and cuts. He ends up curled almost into fetal position, one arm covering his face. There's nothing else to think about but pain, pain, pain.

He closes his eye and focuses on his breathing. It doesn’t help much; every time he inhales, the pain spreads, and when he exhales, his chest stabs.

He stays like that for ten minutes, ten minutes that feel like hours. He almost wants to wail, just to let the world know how it feels, how much it hurts. Why did he do this? How did whatever tiny sliver of pride he thought he had left seem important enough to endure this?

Big comes back inside, and Infinite peeks out from under his arm, trying to find out how to tell Big to please, make some tea, I’m begging you, without sounding too pathetic. Then he has to take a moment to come to terms with the fact that in his current state, that might be impossible, because he is pathetic.

He still can’t get himself to beg, so instead he makes a very thin, mournful whine, and hopes Big picks up on it.

Big does.

“Are you okay?” he asks.

Infinite groans again. It actually helps, just a little, to get to express the pain somehow.

Big kneels down next to him.

“Do you need anything?”

Infinite moves his head enough to be able to look at Big.

“Tea, please.” It comes out as way more of a whine than Infinite would have liked.

“One moment!”

Big stands up, and Infinite lets his eye slide shut again while Big scuttles around. He lies motionless until Big kneels down again and puts a cup down next to him.

Infinite struggles to sit upright. Big gently grabs him under the armpits and helps him up before passing him the tea.

Big has to put his hand over the mug to stop Infinite from trying to drink it right away.

“It’s really hot,” he warns.

Infinite can’t help but whine again, a thin and miserable sound. He knows he’s acting like a pathetic, useless puppy, but he can’t find the strenght to stop, it hurts too much.

Big strokes his forehead, comforting him like one might comfort a small child struck with illness.

“There, there. I’m sorry I made you walk that far.”

Infinite doesn’t respond, just leans his head into Big’s hand, into a feeling that isn’t his body punishing him for daring to try and live his life. Big keeps stroking his head, and Infinite just slumps into it, grateful for another feeling than just the pain.

A voice in the back of his head tells him what a disgrace he is, tells him how much power he lost, you were the king of the world and look at you now, but Infinite just can't get himself to care. All that really matters right now is the distraction of Big doing something small and, frankly, useless, only to try and make Infinite feel better, and the voice is nothing but static before it finally fades away.

Froggy jumps across the floor.

“Roob?” he asks.

“Infinite just needs a little break and some tea,” Big says.

He moves his hand away from the top of the mug to allow Infinite to drink, instead places the hand gently on top of Infinite’s, the one holding the handle of the mug, to keep Infinite from downing the tea too quickly.

Infinite sends the frog a glance over the edge of the mug, little and green and just staring at him with eyes Infinite can’t read.

Even when Big stops stroking Infinite’s head so Infinite can drink his tea, his presence alone is calming. Infinite manages to sip his tea at a reasonable pace. Froggy jumps over and croaks, and Big extends a hand.

“C’mere, buddy,” he says.

Froggy jumps onto Big’s hand and climbs up his arm to sit on his shoulder.

“Wamp,” he says, satisfied.

Big stays at Infinite’s side, even after he lets go of the mug, trusting Infinite not to try and down the hot liquid all at once. He just sits there.

Infinite stops drinking for a moment, holding the cup between his hands (he’s got no idea what this one is supposed to be shaped like, his first thought was a frog, but it’s the wrong colour and has a tail for the handle, he is beginning to feel like the people who made these might have given up and just made whatever they thought was vaguely animal-shaped).

“I apologize,” he says, quietly.

He can’t look at Big, he’s too ashamed.

“For what?” Big asks, looking down at Infinite’s bent head.

“For being so … ” Infinite lets out a hard, frustrated sigh, “so needy and … weak.”

Saying the word stings, but it’s a good sting, a sting that feels justified, deserved, a sting that he can handle and control, as opposed to the beating cluster of pain in his chest.

“No, no, don’t be sorry! You’re in pain. It’s not your fault.” Big pats Infinite’s head.

“I could have swallowed my pride and let you carry me instead of … ” He lets go of the mug to flick his fingers in a non-specific, frustrated gesture.

“It’s not good. But you don’t have to say sorry. You’re the one who’s in pain.”

Infinite stares into his tea.

“Now you’re forced to look after me while I’m like this.”

Big puts his head on the side and looks at Infinite with a soft, slightly puzzled expression, like he can’t quite decode Infinite’s line of thinking. “No? What do you mean with forced?”

“You promised Amy you’d take care of me,” Infinite says, so quietly that it’s almost blocked out completely by his mane of hair and the mug and his face being pointed towards the ground.

Big puts a hand on Infinite’s shoulder. “You’re my friend, Infinite.”

Infinite almost physically starts. He looks up with a face painted by lack of understanding, with what looks like complete disbelief.

“I’m not doing anything for you,” he says. His voice sounds slightly like Froggy’s.

Big’s gaze is soft, compassionate, he has finally stitched the last gap in Infinite’s history together in his head.

“Have you never had a friend before?” he asks, gently, and he feels like he might already know the answer.

Infinite’s gaze flicks away.

“We had to look out for ourselves. We couldn’t afford … ” and he trails off, because when he looks back, back at his squad, back at what he saw, he was the only one who thought he couldn’t afford it. And really, was what why he shunned friendship? Fear? He knows that wasn’t why.

He yelps and almost drops the tea when something hits his head, the tea stays in the mug only because Big quickly grabs it to support it.

“Wamp!”

Froggy is way heavier than Infinite had expected, and loud when he’s perched right between your ears.

Big laughs. “Oh, Froggy.” He puts an arm around Infinite and squeezes him. “But it’s true! We’re your friends now. And Squiggles!”

Now it’s Infinite’s turn to laugh, a small, hoarse chuckle, because he can’t think of anything more stupid than this: Having friendship declared by a frog and his giant friend, and also by something that might become another frog one day, if Big is right about that part, and the most stupid thing is that it comforts him. That the approval of Big, and of Froggy, feels like it means something. He shakes his head at himself - he can feel Froggy move his feet in response to the movement - and lets out a huff of air.

Big ruffles Infinite’s shoulder before he lets go. Infinite takes another sip of his tea, and Froggy patiently waits until Infinite is done before he hops off of Infinite’s head again.

“The catfish intimidates me,” Infinite says, then, apropos of nothing, because if it’s going to get out there, it has to be now or he won’t be able to say it.

“That’s okay. They do get very large. I understand they’re scary when you’re tiny.”

Infinite shoots a glance at the giant at his side.

“I’m usually considered relatively tall, you know.”

“At least we caught it before it got even bigger,” Big says. “They also eat too many of the other fish.”

Infinite stops in the middle of downing the rest of the tea.

“Are you telling me that thing isn’t fully grown?”

“Uhh …” Big shrugs, looking slightly apologetic. “They just keep growing.”

“You have got to be kidding me.” Infinite lets one hand press against his forehead and stares into his mug.

“Do you want to eat something else for dinner?” Big asks, carefully.

When Infinite huffs, it almost has an amused edge to it.

“I’ll get over it,” he says, and empties his mug.

“You sure?”

“It’s just a fish,” he says, trying to reassure that he’s fine with it, he looks up, and when Big still seems to have his concerns, Infinite tries to give him a faint smile.

Big pats his head.

“You okay now?”

Infinite nods. He hands Big the mug, and Big puts it on the counter. Infinite crawls back under his blanket, and Big goes back outside to handle the catfish.

“Sleep well, buddy,” he says from the doorway.

Infinite lets out a deep breath.

“Thank you.”

The pain is still there, still intense and constant, but there’s something else in his chest, a little bit of warmth. He hadn’t expected the tea to have an effect so quickly. It’s an unfamiliar feeling, and doesn’t change anything, really, but the pain does feel more manageable, somehow.

As soon as the tea has dulled the aching down just a little, Infinite drifts off to sleep.

Chapter Text

Infnite wakes up because Big is walking around the hut, and he tries to force himself to go back to sleep because his body still hurts and he doesn’t want to be awake, but he can’t, not with the activity around him.

Froggy is very talkative right now. He’s making small, gentle noises, melodious like running water. After a little, Big starts humming. His voice is a deep bass making a simple tune, he’s shifting between something like five notes, but it’s cheerful and keeps the rhythm and now it’s almost like a little song between the two.

Infinite lies with his eye closed and listens. It’s a nice distraction, something else to think of. He catches a sound in his throat before it escapes, almost as if for a moment he was going to hum along. He doesn’t, of course. He stays quiet under the blanket, acting like he’s still asleep, and just listens.

Soon, the smell of food begins spreading in the hut.

Infinite stays still and quiet until Big gently touches his shoulder to tell him that dinner’s ready.

“Do you wanna sit outside?” he asks.

Infinite fights to sit up, Big has to hold him by the elbow to help him. Infinite pants for a few seconds, clenching his teeth while he fights the wave of pain.

“I have to stay,” he says. His voice is slightly weak, slightly hoarse.

“More tea?”

Infinite nods.

Big puts two sets of plates and cutlery on the floor. While Big rummages for the tea, Infinite pokes the fillet on the plate and tries to come to terms with the fact that this is the beast Big hauled in from the river earlier.

Infinite cuts a piece and then hesitates a little more, but he said he was okay with it so he has to be okay with it, and he stuffs it in his mouth.

It tastes fine. Not of much. Mostly like the herbs Big has prepared it with. He chews slowly to minimize the pain of swallowing.

Big puts a mug of tea down in front of Infinite, and then one more next to himself, this one with the label of a bag of chamomile tea dangling over the edge, right between the poorly painted eyes of the striped mug, making it look like the animal is cross-eyedly staring at the string.

Infinite looks at Big, and then he scans the hut. He squints.

“Where’s Froggy?” he asks.

“Catching bugs! You wanna play checkers?”

Infinite thinks about it for a moment before he shakes his head.

“I don’t have the energy.”

“Th’ths ok’hey,” Big says with his mouth full of food.

Infinite takes another bite. His face warps slightly as he chews, and he looks down at the plate and pokes the fillet, but it looks mostly the same.

Big swallows before he speaks again.

“Do you like it?” he asks. Infinite pauses, and then he forces himself to swallow. Big reads his expression. “It’s okay if you don’t.”

Infinite pokes the piece of fish and runs his tongue over the roof of his mouth.

“Why does some of it taste like … dirt?” he asks.

“Oh! Did you get a bad piece?” Infinite turns his head with a start when Big says that, and Big quickly reassures: “There’s nothing wrong with it, just tastes weird sometimes. It’s better when you fry it, but I didn’t have time.” He pushes his plate closer to Infinite. “We can trade if you want to?”

Infinite looks from one plate to the other, and then scritinizes his piece again. “It’s only some of it,” he mumbles. He doesn’t want to seem ungrateful.

“The light parts are best,” Big says and eats another piece.

Infinite tries another piece, which only tastes slightly like dirt. He sends Big a discreet look, Big is eating away happily, but Infinite still doesn’t trust that just because it’s safe for Big to eat means that Infinite won’t get sick. He knows that water that tastes like this is going to at best leave you feeling ill, at worst make you throw up your hard-earned lunch.

He puts his cutlery down and turns his head away.

“I can’t,” he mumbles.

“Do you wanna trade?” Big asks.

Infinite shakes his head, and then he turns his back to the meal and climbs under his blanket.

“Not even a little bit?” Big asks.

Infinite is quiet.

“It’s okay if you don’t like it,” Big says, “I’m just worried about tomorrow.” Another pause. “You need food.”

Infinite hides his entire face in the palm leaves.

Big pulls Infinite’s plate over towards himself. “It’s okay!” he says again, “I will find you something else!”

Infinite grimaces into the palm leaves.

Big eats the rest of his food, and then he looks at Infinite’s plate for a little.

“Do you mind if I eat some of yours?” Big says. “I don’t like wasting food.”

“Go ahead.” Infinite’s voice is almost completely obscured by the palm leaves.

Big eats half of Infinite’s meal. He drops the rest outside for the scavengers.

“I’ll find some food for you, buddy!” he calls out before he goes out to look for fruit

Infinite mumbles a response that Big can definitely not hear.

The sound of footsteps getting fainter tells Infinite that Big has left.

 

Infinite is hungry.

It’s a familiar feeling. It pulls him back to the time before he was Infinite, from before masks and rubies and resistances and wars. Back to the feeling of lying a few feet away from the rest of his squad and staring into the flames of the fire, while anger and frustration over the day’s poor hunt keeps him awake, back to times where jobs were few and far between and Burrow would be gone for days and Howl and Wayward’s trips to the city drew out and Infinite knows Wayward’s digging for trash and Howl is way too -- that Howl doesn’t tell them not to.

He wraps his arms around himself, clutches them by the elbows.

It brings back the hatred, too. He hates the world and he wants nothing more than to burn it all to the ground .

This is the desire he falls asleep with, and it’s the desire he brings with him into his dreams.

 

People scream. They scream and wail in fear and in terror, listen to them. Weaklings, crying and running, HE never cried and HE never ran, they’re weak and they deserve it.

The ruby pounds in his chest. Beats like a new heart. A stronger heart.

The jackal that runs past is one of his, was, WAS one of his, but he doesn’t need them, he has the ruby now, doesn’t need to rely on weaklings, and the powers of the ruby reaches out to rid him of this nuisance and the jackal falls dead traits of each one of them flicker and appear and disappear a faded ribbon a green headband a knife a sword a jacket they cry in their death and the strong don’t whine, the strong don’t wail, the strong survives those who can’t take the pain de s e r   v e s i t

Those wh o    w h i n e those who

Cry

Deserve    t o

The ruby is sending bursts of pain of power through his body coursing through his body making him curl up rise higher makes him laugh makes him wail makes him it hurts more powerful than anything weaker than he’s ever been better than he would be dead without these insects this trash it hurts it hurts he has to cry out he’s crying, he’s crying, he’s crying.

Those who he can’t take the pain deserves it, the ones who are we a k he deser v e  s t o  d i e  

He’s crying, he’s crying, he’s crying.

.

.

.

And then the sun crashes down from above and everything burns and he laughs at their horrified screams and he’s nothing but raw power and he’s perfect he’s a god he is the s t r o n g e s t

The sun burns him up and he screams and it hurts



He wakes up with a start. Chokes the cry that had settled in his throat, wanting to get out. The hut feels weird, he has to take a second to remember why he’s here and where exactly ‘here’ is.

Big is talking quietly outside. To Froggy, Infinite guesses, after a few seconds of  listening to his voice.

Infinite sits up, pushes the blanket aside, lets a hand run over his face and releases a deep, pained huff of air. His fingers linger at his ruined eye, brushes over what used to be stinging wounds and is now a large expanse of hard, gnarled scabs.

He can only imagine how he must look.

He hides his face in his hands.

The light is low, sunlight deep and orange like gentle beacons of fire, he can hear the sounds of the night slowly replacing those of the day. He used to think the jungle was loud, just loud, now he knows the different sounds that light and weather brings. Nighttime has low thin calls and the sound of bats rushing past in the air, crickets chirping, the parrots going quiet and the birds that wake are undefined, deep in the night and home in the dark, just like their calls. Infinite has never even caught a glimpse of them.

He doesn’t like being outside in the dark. You can’t tell the smells apart, here. You can’t tell if something is approaching, because it is, it always is, and who knows if it’s friend or foe or just something that doesn’t care about him.

Big probably does. Big knows the jungle.

Infinite doesn’t.

Infinite doesn’t know anything anymore.

Big pushes the palm leaves aside and comes in, bringing with him Froggy, a basket of fruit, and a confused bug that flutters free from his fur and takes a lap around the hut before it finds a spot on the wall where it sits down, flicking its transparent, green wings.

Froggy makes a mighty leap and sends his tongue out, catches the bug and reels it into his mouth in the span of less than a second. He lands on the floor with a sound like someone dropped a bag full of soaking wet socks, and swallows, satisfied.

“I found you some fruit!” Big says and puts the basket down. “I hope its enough. I’ll hurry back tomorrow with something really good.”

Infinite picks out a familiar small orange fruit and takes a bite. He looks at it, then huffs gently and lowers his gaze.

“I just couldn’t, ” he mutters.

He sounds frustrated. Big puts the basket down, kneels so he can see Infinite’s face, and looks at him.

Infinite makes a face.

“It tasted too much like bad food,” he says, and takes another mouthful so he can feel like he’s doing something other than just avoiding Big’s gaze.

“It’s okay!” Big reassures. He puts a hand on Infinite’s shoulder. “I’m just worried about you. It’s okay that you don’t like catfish.”

Infinite sends the hand on his shoulder a glance, then lets his gaze fall while he chews his bite of fruit.

Big pats Infinite’s shoulder before he stands up. He leaves the basket on the floor.

“Eat as much as you want to,” he says.

“Thank you,” Infinite says, still not looking up, feeling like an ungrateful parasite. It’s his luck that Big doesn’t consider him so; the image of Big crushing Infinite underfoot is a little too realistic for Infinite to be comfortable with -- the only thing keeping him safe is the fact that Big doesn’t want to.

“I’m gonna sleep now,” Big says and pulls his sandals off. “Wake me up if you need anything, okay?”

Infinite lifts his head from his persimmon to send Big a slightly squinting look.

“... Sure,” he says, puzzled and not at all sure, because having to wake up seems like an awfully annoying this to go through, especially for someone who has dismissed your dinner and forced you to go find an entire other meal.

“Good night, Infinite,” Big says and climbs into bed.

Infinite looks at Big for a second.

“Good night,” he says, quietly, before he continues eating his fruit.

He finishes it, and looks at the basket. He wants to let the rest be - he’s no longer starving, that should be good enough - but after a long moment, he picks out another fruit to eat, because honestly, he didn’t know if the fish would make him sick, Big is something like eight times bigger than Infinite, even if he wouldn’t poison Infinite on purpose, there’s a chance he can eat things that Infinite can’t, and also that catfish was horrifying it did not look like something you should eat.

He manages to reason himself through two more small fruits this way. Then he crawls into bed as well.

Chapter Text

Big is up before the sun is. Despite his attempts to be quiet, it wakes Infinite up, and Infinite spends the next while slipping back and forth between sleep and the waking world in a weird limbo where small tatters of his dreams keep tearing loose, mixing with his experience of the real world.

Big spends the next while doing a healthy amount of rummaging, walking in and out, and Infinite is just about to be used enough to it that he can fall back asleep when Big kneels down next to him.

“Infinite?” he says, a gentle hand touching Infinite’s shoulder.

“Mrrhhg.”

Being awake seems entirely unnecessary right now.

“Me and Froggy are going now,” Big says. “I made you some tea, if you need it. It’s in the thermos.”

Infinite pries his eye open. Big has placed a red flask of some sort and an empty mug next to the basket with fruit.

“I’ve gotten food and water for Squiggles too,” Big continues. “I hope that’s all right.”

“Mhh. Sure.” Infinite’s brain has to load for a second before he remembers which words are relevant right now. “Thanks.”

Big pats his head, very gently, as if he can feel the film of sleep wrapped around Infinite’s mind and is trying not to break it.

“See you soon, okay?”

Infinite nods. Big gets up, waves, and then goes outside to find Froggy.

When Big’s footsteps get fainter, Infinite is left with the thought that now he really is alone, for the first time in a long time, but it’s too early and he’s too tired to dwell on it for long. After a second or two, sleep reclaims him, and he lets it.



The sound of a screeching parakeet wakes Infinite up again. The day has started and light is falling through the green walls of the hut, Infinite blinks sleep from his eye, he gets half through scanning the hut for Big before he remembers. With a sigh and the ghost of a grimace, he sits up, pulls his tail to his side and into his lap, and absentmindedly taps his fingers against part of the splint while he tries to remember what being awake involves again.

When he decides he’s ready to exist, he grabs another fruit from the basket and chews it while eyeing the thermos with suspicion. His chest hurts a moderate amount. Less than he would have expected after yesterday. Still very painful, though. Like something is persistently gnawing on his ribcage.

It takes him a minute to figure out how to get the thermos up and pour some tea, and then he sits for a long while with the mug between his hands, staring into thin air.

After he’s done with his tea, he’s about to just lie down again - it DOES feel like all he’s been doing lately is sleep, but now that he truly is alone, all other activities, no matter how small, are out of the question - but then he spots a glimpse of movement near Big’s bed and looks over.

Squiggles is squiggling around near the bottom of her tank. Infinite gets to his feet, staggers over, and lowers himself down next to the tank, leaning against the side of Big’s bed.

Squiggles abandons the leaf she was eating and swims all the way up to the glass to greet him, or perhaps to find out if he has brought a second round of breakfast.

“They really are legs, huh,” Infinite says.

The lumps are no longer just lumps, they’re real legs, with joints, and each their foot, and tiny, delicate toes, her skin has gotten darker, less transparent, but Infinite can still glimpse the little bones through the pigment.

Squiggles swims up to the surface of the tank and bops her head over the surface, as if she’s telling him to get her out of there so she can show off her legs already. Infinite watches her try and force her way out of the water, and then he slips his glove off and lowers his fingers into the water, palm up, making a little ramp.

Squiggles immediately sezies the challenge. She gets her head onto his fingers, and  the she lies there, and wiggles, while she flails her new little legs, looking like she is very much sure she is winning even though all that actually happens is that she tumbles around in Infinite’s palm a bit.

Infinite watches it for a second. Then he laughs. He slips his hand away from under Squiggles and shakes his head.

“No, you can’t walk yet,” he concludes. Squiggles tries to propel herself out of the water by force alone; the result is her head bobbing a little more furiously than before. Infinite huffs, amused, and shakes his hand free of water, then lets his arm rest loosely over the edge of Big’s bed to dry his fingers. “One day, though,” he says and leans his head on the edge of the bed.

Squiggles puts her entire body vertically against the glass and flails her legs wildly, determined to prove that she definitely has legs that are real and for walking with.

“If Big wasn’t so picky with what goes in your tank, I would find you a stick and amuse myself with your feeble attempts to climb it,” Infinite tells her.

Squiggles’ feet paddle uselessly against the glass.

“You’re adamant, I’ll give you that.” Infinite moves more of his weight to the edge of Big’s bed while he watches Squiggles’ persistent yet completly futile attempts at climbing out of the tank. “I would say to a fault, but … ” He hesitates, the next breath he lets out a little heavier than it might otherwise have been. “I guess fighting against overwhelming odds … sometimes leads to victory.”

Squiggles goes back to trying and propel herself out of the water. Infinite can’t help but snort.

“Maybe not in this case, though,” he says with a small, wry grin.

Squiggles gives it a few more tries before she turns and swims back to the bottom of the tank and her pile of leaves. Infinite is looking without really seeing now, his eye going distant, lost in thought.

He dozes off against the edge of Big’s bed while Squiggles happily munches on her meal, unfazed by her lack of success with walking.



Infinite wakes up from his light sleep, blinks, looks around, slowly pulls his arm back from where it’s been resting. It is complaining with pins and needles. He makes a face.

He throws a glance to the tank. Squiggles is hiding. He looks at the spot where he can see her tail potrude.

“Talking to frogs suddenly doesn’t seem so strange,” he says, mostly to himself.

Existence feels so very quiet when there’s nobody around, nobody at all.

Then he gets up and walks to the porch. He sits down at the top of the stairsteps, his hands dumping into his lap, and stares out at the greenery.

A large dragonfly dances around the nearby bushes. Its metallic wings catching the light now and then, blinks like a tiny dying star. Infinite looks up, squints against the sun, trying to tell what time it is.

It’s been … half a day? He can’t tell as well as he could in the desert, but that’s his guess.

A parakeet flies across the clearing with a chipper call, dives into the leaves of a tree, and then reappears, making the foilage bounce. It calls out again, and a moment after, another parakeet swoops after it, and then another. They land on the same branch, making it rock like a boat in stormy weather, but the birds cling on, one of them extending a wing to keep its balance, and chatter to each other like the swinging branch is no bother.

He watches them argue and squabble over who gets to sit where on the branch while they completey ignore all the other branches one could sit on. After it seems like they’ve finally settled down, they let out a small cascade of chirping and take off almost at once, disappearing into the forest.

Infinite looks around, but can’t see anything that might have caused them to flee.

He sits there for another moment, and then he gets up and goes back inside again. He eats the last piece of fruit, and then he climbs back into bed.

 

He lies there for a while without being able to sleep, and then he hears footsteps outside. He looks up, wonders if he should call out. He gets on his feet instead and pushes the palm leaves away from the doorway.

It’s not Big, it’s an animal, large and dark and round, an animal that lifts its head when it catches movement, and for a fraction of a second, it stares at Infinite with small, black eyes, then it turns around and gallops into the jungle, and all Infinite manages to register was a weird, elongated snout, and then stocky legs and a solid pair of hindquarters as it disappears and then it’s gone.

Infinite stands an stares after it because that has to be the weirdest creature he has ever seen. The catfish was disturbing, but it was still just a fish, very large and gross and horrifying, but it still made sense, somewhat, had the general shape of a fish. What even was that?

Infinite is getting more and more certain that there’s something going on in this forest, something that warps animals to unholy sizes and causes things like that to exist.

He stands there for a while, feeling at a loss for what to do. He feels like he can’t just go back inside after seeing something like that, but there isn’t much else to do.

He shakes himself from his stupor and goes back inside the hut.

He opens his mouth to say something, and then he stops, just before he says something to Squiggles about it. He shakes his head at himself, aggressively, like he’s trying to shake the words away.

He lies down and decides that he’s not going to get up before he’s sure Big has returned.



“Hello?” Big calls out, sounding slightly worried, and is visibly relieved when he peeks into the hut and sees Infinite get up on one elbow and blink sleepily. “Hi! Did you have a good day?”

Infinite makes a small groaning sound and answers with another question.

“Why is there so many bizarre things in this jungle?”

Big puts his basket down on his bed. Froggy jumps from Big’s head to the nightstand and examines the tank.

“What did you see?” he asks.

“I have no idea,” Infinite says, flatly. “Did people want the fish?” he asks, then.

“Oh, yes! They were very happy. I got flour and oats and some yeast, so we can bake bread!”

Infinite is quiet for a second, then two, before he responds.

“Sounds nice,” he says, quietly, as if thinking of something else.

“I’m gonna make some porridge! You must be hungry.”

“Thank you.”

Infinite looks over at Froggy. Squiggles has noticed him and is excitedly, once again, trying to get out of the tank to show off her new legs.

“Wamp,” Froggy says.

Big looks over.

“Oh, Squiggles,” he says, fondness in his voice and his ears perked up.

“She’s been trying all day,” Infinite says with a small headshake.

“We need to find her something to climb on soon, before she gets arms.”

Infinite looks over.

“How long is that going to be?”

“A few days, I think,” Big says while he piles wood on the stove.

Infinite lifts his eyebrows.

“So soon?”

“Yep!”

Infinite observes Squiggles as she paddles against the glass. She’s trying to climb up at the corner now, which is probably more feasible than everything else, but it still appears to be a lost cause.

“It’s probably for the best,” Infinite says, with what might be a smirk tugging at his mouth. “She’s definitely impatient.”

“She’s an eager little one,” Big agrees while pouring a small amount of water into the pot. “Do you want tea?”

Infinite considers it for a while. Then he shrugs.

“Maybe just … that other kind you have.”

“Chamomile?”

“Sure.” Infinite is pretty sure that’s the one.

So Infinite gets tea and porridge while Big makes dough and tells about his day, and Infinite comes with small responses, polite and quite quiet, because it’s strange to hear how life out there seems to have returned to what it was, only tougher and with ragged edges, just like Infinite’s stay in the jungle often feels so untouched by anything that happened out there.

Maybe he’s forgettable enough that after a while … He doesn’t really dare hope, but he’s been forgotten so many times before. Maybe the world’s hatred for him will dull over time. Maybe one day, he can leave this jungle again.

Maybe.

Chapter Text

They go on a small expedition before evening arrives for real, and Big helps Infinite pick out a handful of good sticks. Later, when Infinite is arranging them across the top of the tank, Squiggles bravely tries to best the sticks that has been put in the water for her to climb on, and Infinite can’t help but snort, because it is absolutely as futile as it was before and she just keeps bumping her fat little body into the sticks and pushing with her legs and falling back into the water.

“I think it’s safe to say that patience is not your strongest suit,” he says, and pokes her.

She tumbles into the water again, looks at him, offended, and then decides to show him what for by chomping on the offending finger. Her mouth can almost get a hold, but not quite. She mouths at his glove while Infinite stares at her with almost disbelieving amusement. Foolish, yet courageous. To a ridiculous degree. Something’s gonna eat her someday if she keeps going like that.

“Ferocious,” he ironizes, and pulls his hand away from her.

She follows him and paddles against the glass for a few more moments, determined to fight him, and then gives up and retreats to the bottom of the tank to hang out with her favourite pebble. Infinite huffs and rolls his eyes, unable to hide his amusement.

 

They eat freshly baked bread for dinner, and Big promises to find stuff to put on it for tomorrow, but Infinite is in no rush to change anything about the meal - the bread is still warm, the crust not too tough, and the crumb is soft, something entirely else than the dry loaves they sometimes found among stolen goods in the desert.

They play a game of checkers where Infinite almost wins, and then another where Big gets the upper hand almost immediately and Infinite loses very soon after..

Big cleans up, and then he says good night. Infinite isn’t tired, so he lies awake for a long while, an hour, maybe two, and Big’s snoring is a little grating, but except for that, he doesn’t mind too much. He’s warm and full, and nothing is threatening him, not here, in the hut, with Big in the same room.

Big’s snoring fades to background noise. By instinct and without noticing, Infinite pulls his tail closer. The splint prevents it from getting further than to rest against the back of his leg, and instead of toying with the soft fur his hands expect to find, he tangles his fingers up in the blanket and tugs the loose bit under one arm, holding it against his chest. His thoughts are hard to keep a hold of, and he lets go of them, lets himself fall asleep.

He dreams of a weird, bumbling creature that disappears among giant checkers pieces scattered through desert sand, and in the dream, he stands and watches with something resembling awe, because even though in the moment he doesn’t exactly realize that he’s sleeping, he has just rediscovered that dreams that aren’t screams and warped landscapes do still exist.

 

He’s woken up by a gentle plapping sound. It’s still dark around him, but he can see enough to identify the silhuette and golden eyes.

“Where are you going?” he says, sleepy and not awake enough to stop himself from talking to frogs.

Froggy stares at Infinite for a long while.

“Wamp,” he says.

Infinite shrugs, rolls over, and ends up with the splint uncomfortably stuck under him. He mumbles a gentle curse.

“Wamp,” Froggy says, with a slightly different inflection.

Infinite looks over his shoulder.

“I don’t know what you want,” he says, gets his tail maneuvred out of the way and lies back down.

Froggy hops across the floor and through doorway. Infinite vagulely registers the small, wet sound when Froggy jumps into the softest spot of mud he can find outside, and then Infinite is back asleep.



Big wakes up first, as usual, and Infinite’s conciousness stirs.

“Huh?” Big says, and gets up. “Froggy?” he calls out, gently.

Infinite’s ear twitches. Big walks past, and Infinite’s eye blinks open. He takes in the low light and the sound of raindrops beating against the leaves above.

“Froooo-ggy?” Big calls out, poking his head out the doorway, keeping his voice down.

Infinite lifts his head just enough that he can talk without getting a mouthful of palm leaves.

“Is he not back yet?” he says. His voice is still thick with sleep.

“Huh?” Big pulls his head back inside again. “Good morning! Do you know where Froggy went?”

Infinite shuffles a bit, sinking further into the bed. “He went out tonight. Don’t know when.” He sighs, then yawns.

“Be careful with your eye, okay?” Big says before he puts his head outside again.

“Hm?” Infinite lifts his head a bit again, first then realizing he’s been resting on the wrong side of his face.

He pushes himself upright and carefully feels the scars. His face feels just a little sore.

He wrestles with another yawn for a few seconds, and wins, before he talks.

“I haven’t cleaned it in forever,” he says.

Big is out on the porch now, or most of him is, his tail is poking through the doorway, Infinite doesn’t think Big heard him. Infinite raises his voice slightly.

“Big, can I use your first aid kit?”

Big turns around so he can look through the doorway.

“Of course! Are you hurt?”

Infinite shakes his head while getting to his feet. “Just haven’t cleaned my eye in a while.”

“Oh! That’s right, I also got you something. One moment!”

Infinite walks over to the bed while keeping an eye on Big, who walks over to dig through the basket. Infinite kneels down in front of the bed and drags the brown bag out from under it.

“Here it is!” Big says triumphantly.

Infinite peeks up, slightly worried about what shenanigans Big has decided that he should be part of this time. But it’s just a hairbrush, that like most other things looks ridiculously small in Big’s hand.

“You said you didn’t want your hair to get tangled, so I got you this,” Big says.

Infinite stares for a second, and then he puts his head on the side, just a bit.

“I did say that, didn’t I,” he says and takes the brush. “Thank you.”

“No problem! I’m gonna go look for Froggy now.”

“Good luck.”

Infinite puts the hairbrush down on the floor beside him so he can dig into the first aid bag.

The disinfectant almost doesn’t sting, only around what was a tearduct once and in a few spots in the areas that he can’t really hold still and let rest, near his eyebrow and the cut closest to his mouth. He touches the wounds and feels a terrible urge to dig his claws into the scabs, try and peel them off, as if that would somehow remove the injury underneath as well. But he doesn’t. He just puts everything back in the bag, pushes it back in place, grabs the hairbrush and moves over to his bed.

He doesn’t mean to tear it through his hair the way he does, it wasn’t his intention, but he does, from the top of his head and down, and when the brush gets stuck he just pulls, until it hurts, until his hair gives up and the whole tangle just snaps and a handful of hair gets torn free and gets stuck in the brush. He takes care of his hair, usually, and when Big handed him the brush, Infinite had felt something akin to - hope, maybe, that things could get just a little bit back on track, maybe a different track, or at least that he could be getting to his feet so he can follow behind whatever agenda he is tied to right now, instead of being dragged after it at the tail through the dirt - but what he feels now is nothing but a dull urge to tear something apart, and if it isn’t going to be his face (there really is no need to make that mess any worse) and he isn’t going to do something that would cause Big to look at him with that expression that is a mix of pity and warmth and disappointment over that Infinite can’t be trusted to not break and destroy his surroundings and whatever is present in said surroundings, even after all this patience and all this kindness and all this time -

Then his hair will just have to pay the price.

He tears and tugs and pulls, brute forces through his mane, until there’s no resistance anymore. First then does he calm down and his movements become normal.

He lets the brush run through the locks, absentmindedly, as if he’s lost in thought, but there are no thoughts right now. Just quiet, abstract emotions, just as impossible to make sense of as the phantom ruby’s warped world, the world that haunts his dreams now.

His hair is neat now, with broken and tattered edges, but they’re neat tattered edges. He lets a lock run through his fingers, watches how soft the beating has made it.

After a moment, he unties his scarf and, this time slowly and only using gentle force, brushes the fur around his neck and shoulders.

He never cared much for material goods and let the other jackals take everything that wasn’t a necessity. Two exceptions. His scarf, the first proper piece of clothing they found, from one of their first raids, taken from someone they had let run after ripping everything they owned from them (Hook still has the shoes. Or did, at least, in all the time Infinite knew him). The first thing that wasn’t dirty, or dusty, or made from coarse and thick material. The fabric is strong enough to hold and light enough that it doesn’t trap the desert heat, and Infinite is the boss, so he claimed it.

Some of their later finds might have been just as good, if not better quality, but the scarf was meant as a statement more than anything, and he didn’t need to state any more. An added bonus turned out to be that unlike when someone grabs him by the neck fur, if they get a hold of the scarf, he can twist around and get free. He let the others squabble over new finds without minding it, telling himself he doesn’t need to rely on accessories, but he does find himself growing oddly fond of the scarf.

The other thing he kept to himself was a comb, small and simple, but well-made. When he had a moment to himself, he would sit down and take care of himself, of his appearance. Make sure his hair and tail was knot-free. He used to tell himself, or at least try to believe, that it was to make him stand out and appear as in control, but he just liked it, liked looking his best and liked the quiet moments and the simple task.

He had lost the comb in the fight with Eggman. A few days after the jackals started working for the doctor, Infinite had looked for it and found it gone. He searched around outside Eggman’s lair, but the sand had already claimed it. He knows how quickly and how well the desert swallows secrets, and that comb is gone, gone for good.

His neck fur is even worse off than his hair, and he has to fight with several tangles, some of them on the edge of being matted. He steadily forces the fur to let go and behave. It’s a steady, simple task, and he almost feels disappointed when he begins feeling the brush run smoothly through the fur.

He brushes until the tangles are gone, and then some more, until the fur is downy soft, and  then he lets out a sigh and finally puts the brush down. Puts his scarf back on. Sits for a while. Then he gets up and fights his way over to Squiggles’ tank.

It takes him a moment to find her; she may not have been able to climb out of the tank, but she has made use of the new sticks anyway, hiding between two of them and behind one of her pebbles.

“No more legs yet, I see,” he says and kneels down next to the tank.

Squiggles twitches a bit and lifts her head, then moves a few centimeters to the left and keeps pretending nobody can see her.

Infinite shakes his head and stands up again.

His stomach grumbles.

Infinite goes outside and scans for Big, and spots him between some trees quite far away. Far  enough that he has to raise his voice to a yell for Big to hear him.

“Big?” he asks.

Big looks up.

“I can’t find Froggy!” he says.

He turns to look under a rock, and then he trots over to the next rock, and it doesn’t seem like he’s going to stop until he has found what he is looking for.

Infinite looks at him for a moment. Then he walks down from the porch and over to where Big is.

“Doesn’t he run off all the time?” he asks when he’s close enough that he doesn’t have to yell.

“But he’s been away for a while now.” Big rummages through a bush. “He could be in trouble … Froggy! Frooo-ooooggy?”

Infinite really wishes this could wait until after breakfast. But of course frogs are Big’s main priority.

Infinite looks at him for a second.

“And what about Squiggles, then?” Infinite says. “She must be hungry.”

Big perks up.

“Oh! Right. I’ll go look for Froggy over at the river over here. Come on!”

Infinite ends up looking for tadpole food while Big is not the slightest diverted from his task. The stream rushes past, the rain makes the ground slippery and causes the water to splash up and hit Infinite’s legs. Infinite picks a small handful of plants, and then looks at Big, who has his whole arm under a tree. The dirt around the roots are loose and has made holes and caves in the dirt, and Big is trying to search them, one by one.

Infinite picks another plant.

“Is it possible I could get something to eat before you’re going out to turn the whole jungle upside down?” Infinite says, his voice flat, and then he makes a very undignified squawking sound when something creaks loudly and the foilage dances wildly above him, shaking a cascade of raindrops from the leaves and onto the ground, a healthy amount of them hitting Infinite.

He had meant the upturning to be metaphorical, but Big is standing with the whole tree in his arms, torn from the dirt, the roots dangling and wet dirt slowly being pulled down by gravity, like lazy slugs. A very distresssed tarantula is trying to fight its way out of Big’s chest fur and not doing particularly well.

The part of Infinite’s brain that is capable of processing thought is telling him to maybe say you know what nevermind and let Big do his thing because sometimes the soft demeanor and all the kindness makes Infinite forget how much he doesn’t want to be on Big’s bad side but he really really doesn’t want to be on Big’s bad side.

Every other part of Infinite is completely stunned, and he ends up just standing there, looking very distraught.

Big turns his head so he can look at Infinite from behind the trunk of the massive jungle tree he just uprooted with his bare hands in order to look for a frog.

“Oh! Yes! One moment.”

He lifts the tree up and looks under it.

“Froggy?”

Froggy is not under the tree. Big puts it back into the hole in the ground and kicks some loose dirt back around the roots. He picks the tarantula up and places it on the tree trunk, where it runs as fast as it can, up and away to hide somewhere very very far away from Big.

Infinite kind of understands the appeal of that plan.

Infinite hesitantly follows Big back to the hut, staying an arm’s lenght behind Big’s tail.

Chapter Text

The first thing Big does when they come inside again is to call out for Froggy and check the entire hut one more time. He grabs some bread in passing and hands it to Infinite. Infinite sits down and eats it while he watches Big search the hut methodically with his piece of bread dangling from his mouth.

Infinite has to move so Big can turn all the palm leaves over. He restrains the urge to roll his eyes. Instead, he goes over to sit next to Squiggles’ tank to feed her.

Big finishes upturning the entire hut and almost storms out the door. Infinite can hear him stomp across the porch and loudly call for Froggy.

“What is all the fuss about?” Infinite mumbles and tears a small piece of leaf off to drop into Squiggles’ tank. She lashes at it like a tiny, harmless version of a vicious cobra snake. “He’s a frog. He wanders off all the time. One should really expect to lose sight of him now and then.”

Squiggles defeats another tattered piece of leaf.

Now that she’s out of her hiding spot, Infinite can see that she does have a little bump on each side of her body, closer to what is now more or less recognizable as an actual head, instead of just a part of the lump her body is now. She’s slightly more frog-shaped, but not my much, not by enough that Infinite can really see how she’s going to be a real frog one day. Maybe she’s just meant to be rounder than Froggy. Rounder and more of a lump with legs.

Infinite finishes feeding Squiggles and sits and watches her for a while. He can faintly hear Big call for Froggy, he must be quite far away by now.

He helps himself to the last bit of bread and chews it slowly. He’s bored and Big is gone once again, and Infinite doesn’t have anything to do.

He flops over and lies in his bed for another while, looking at the ceiling. He had sort of hoped maybe Big would go fishing and he could come along today. Just to get a change of scenery. But there’s no way he can keep up with Big’s frantic search, and just looking at Big turn over everything in the hut was making Infinite feel slightly stressed.

Infinite sits up again, looks at the hairbrush and then at his tail. Then he feels a spark of defiance, born from boredom and frustration.

He finds the ends of the bandages that hold the splint in place, untangles first one, then the other. If Big is going to be turning the whole jungle upside down, it will be no problem to have the splint back on before he comes back.

He pulls his tail into his lap and grabs the hairbrush. The first stroke causes a jolt of pain nar the tip of his tail, and he stares at it like he considers it a traitor. He sneers and huffs at his own weakness, but picks up the tail with one hand and tries to brush more softly, ignoring the little warning prods of pain, brushes until the white tuft is as soft as the fur around his neck, and then he lets his tail rest in his lap again and brushes the rest of it, the black fur, and he keeps brushing until he looks almost fragile in how neat he is, brushes until there’s no hint of resistance anywhere.

His tail complains when he tries to secure the splint again. He tries his best to treat the tip gently and not wrap the bandages too tightly around the hurting bit.

He goes outside, pulls every last hair out of the hairbrush and dumps it on the ground. Big is nowhere to be seen. Infinite flicks a stray hair away from his arm.

He climbs back into bed and lies there for an excruciatingly long time. He’s become less worried about this whole jungle exile being a plot to drive him neck-deep into desperation from pure boredom, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t going to happen anyway , and he’s beginning to feel like it might be sooner than later.

The rain has slowed down, a heavy droplet falls on the hut’s roof now and then, drumming on the palm leaves. Infinite lets out a harsh sigh. Then, after a moment, he takes a deep breath, presses his eye closed, and lets his frustrations out with a roar.

“RrrrrrrRRAAAGH!”

It makes him feel better for a little.

He tries to close his eye and sleep, but he isn’t tired. He’s just so bored it almost hurts. The pain in his chest is very gentle today, but when he has nothing else to think of, it becomes way too easy to focus on.

When he finally hears Big’s urgent calling again, he gets up and steps outside on the porch. Big crashes through the foilage, tearing a cascade of leaves free that dance around him.

“Has he come back?” he asks Infinite.

He’s panting and looking around himself, crouching a bit so he can look between the stairsteps of the porch. Definitely still in searching mode.

“No.” Infinite leans his crossed arms on the railing.

Big shakes his head so vigorious his ears flop around his head.

“That’s not good! None of the frogs have seen him since yesterday. I can’t ask Tikal, Angel Island isn’t where it used to be right now … Where could he have gone?”

“He runs off all the time,” Infinite says, a sharp edge to his voice.

“But not for this long. And not without telling me! Then it’s always because he’s in trouble … I need to check near the station, maybe someone has seen -”

Seriously? ” Infinite interrupts.

Big lifts an ear, looking clueless. “Of course. He could need help!”

Infinite sinks down to hang over the railing and sneers. “It’s a frog. For how long are you going to keep running around the jungle, it’s like looking for a needle in a haystack, he could be anywhere.”

“I gotta keep looking until I find him,” Big says.

“You might never find him,” Infinite says, hanging on the railing like a grouchy washcloth.

Big blinks a few times, and his ears fall down to almost touch his shoulders.

“No ...” he says, “I can’t give up on him. I have to keep trying!”

“Forever?” Infinite bites. “Maybe he left. Maybe he got eaten by a crocodile . There has to be a billion things in this jungle that eats frogs.”

Big almost gasps.

“I’m just saying ,” Infinite says, and finally makes the effort to look up, and then he blinks and almost reels back physically, caught completely off guard by the tears forming in Big’s eyes.

Froggy!! ” Big calls, his voice loud and booming enough that Infinite flinches, and then he storms back into the jungle and is gone and Infinite stares after him with an expression painted by shock, confusion, and something that’s impossible to place.



“I was just saying, ” Infinite tells Squiggles, who is paying attention to her pebbles and definitely not to him. “Is that not the risk of living in a jungle? And befriending something that feeble?”

Squiggles pushes her favourite pebble closer to the middle of the tank, and puts her entire body on it, trying to position her feet to be under her, and then looks like she definitely thinks she is perching and has won everything.

“Things eat each other all the time,” Infinite says and picks at a loose thread in Big’s blanket.

Squiggles lets one foot rest on the bottom of the tank because the pebble is half the size of her body and trying to perch on it would be more or less impossible, even if she had the limbs necessary for it. She still looks very proud and like she is the king of the entire world.

“He’s a frog, ” Infinite underlines. “There are things out here that could eat me.

And then, “I was just saying.

Squiggles decides she’s done sitting on the rock and swims over to eat some more leaves.



Infinite doesn’t move away from the spot near the tank where he can lean on Big’s bed. He sits there with his chin resting on the mattress, face sinking slightly into it, and sulks.

He’s sitting with the thought that Big might expect Infinite to fill in in the friend department, if Froggy really is gone, which Infinite really can’t do, he can barely figure out how to act enough like a friend to not be sent outside to sleep in the dirt. Infinite doesn’t know how to comfort people. Especially not someone like Big, who’s always so soft, and it really can’t be Infinite’s fault that Big is sentimental like that anyway.

Infinite’s face is almost halfway obscured by the mattress now.

It shouldn’t be his problem either. Why should he care that Big is crying over frogs?

Infinite makes a face at the thought of Big’s glistening eyes and immediately tries to divert his thoughts, because he has tried to get the memory to spark the feeling of disgust and superiority that signs of weakness used to wake in him, but it simply won’t work, all he feels is a sinking feeling to his guts every time. It makes him feel sick, but it really is him that feels sick. Not disgusted with someone else, not in a way that he wants to turn away from and sneer at. He just feels awful.

He pointedly ignores the sound of something hitting the muddy ground outside until he hears a familiar sound and realizes it wasn’t something fallingl.

“Ribbit?”

Infinite shoots up, looks to the doorway, then almost runs to the porch.

Froggy hops up the stairs, puts his head on the side, and croaks again.

“Riibbt?”

“Where,” Infinite says, “have you been? Big has been worried sick -- we have to find him, come on.”

Infinite swoops over and picks Froggy up - Froggy responds with a slightly cross ‘wamp!!’, but tolerates it - and then he’s down the stairs and walking as briskly as he can through the mud with Froggy between his hands.

“Big?” he calls out, “I found him! He’s right here! He’s okay, he’s fine! Big?” He groans. “ Great. Now we have to turn the whole jungle upside down to find him - where are you going?

Froggy jumps from Infinite’s hands and skillfully dodges Infinite’s attempts at catching him mid-air. Infinite stumbles and manages to right himself just enough that he only ends up with one knee in the mud.

He swears.

“Riiib riib roiiibbb?” Froggy says.

“Wromp wroooob.”

Infinite stops in his attempts to catch Froggy and looks at the small rock that turns out to not be a small rock, but a frog.

“Wamp,” Froggy says and hops off.

“Wamp,” the not-a-rock says back.

Infinite blinks a few times. He pushes himself out of the dirt and follows after Froggy, who is asking another frog for directions.

Froggy looks over his shoulder to see if Infinite is following before he hops down the path. Infinite tries to wipe the mud off his knee, fails, and then runs after. Froggy is surprisingly fast, but Infinite can mostly keep up because Froggy regularly stops to converse with another frog.

Infinite is led down the narrow path where he’s been tagging along to look for frog eggs. The ground is wet and treacherous and he has to grab onto the vegetation a few times to avoid falling, but every time Froggy stops to look back and check if Infinite can keep up, Infinite speeds up, and Froggy has to keep his regular pace if he wants to keep leading the way.

They make it all the way to the outskirts of the old temple. The structure towers over Infinite’s head, ominous and looming under the grey skies. Roots make their way over ancient stone walls and Infinite knows there’s a lot of pools of water currently full of frog eggs hiding in the ruins, though he doesn’t remember exactly where they were again.

Froggy climbs up the nearest tree, Infinite watches him disappear into the foliage and then emerge again up on a tall branch.

“WA-AMP!” he calls out.

The croak echoes and disappears. Infinite stands, looking up at Froggy, looking like he’s more than a little worried.

“Froggy?”

The voice comes from far away, but Infinite perks up, and Froggy comes with another ‘WAMP’ and jumps from branch to branch and then to Infinite’s head (infinite flinches, but accepts Froggy’s use of him as a stepping stone) and finally to the ground where he aims right for the temple.

Big’s footsteps are loud against the stones. “Froggy!” he calls again.

He’s up on the side of the temple. He scans the area, frantically, and when Froggy gets to the stairs leading to the temple so Big can see him, Big storms down the stairs so quickly that Infinite is scared he might fall. Froggy meets him halfway up and jumps directly into Big’s outstretched hands.

“Oh, Froggy! Where have you been? Are you okay? Why’d you run off like that?”

“Roob roob ribbt, wamp, womp,” Froggy replies.

“Oh, Froggy … I was so worried!” Big sniffles. He holds Froggy in one hand and wipes his eyes with the other.

Infinite watches the reunion from under the tree without doing anything to make his presence known. Looks at the way Big’s ears are lifted, how he’s holding his frog friend with more care than Infinite knew even existed in this world, the way Big is smiling and yet he still has to wipe his eyes and sniffle every few seconds. And then Infinite turns around and walks back into the jungle from where he came, slowly and with his newly groomed tail hanging low enough that the white tuft drags through the mud, and he makes no effort to try and lift it at all.

 

Froggy leads the way down from the temple with Big right after. He leads Big to the tree where he left Infinite, and then stops. He hops all the way around the tree trunk and then looks up.

“Riib?” he says.

“Huh?” Big says, and follows Froggy around the tree. “Infinite?”

“Roooib?” Froggy calls.

“Are you sure this is where he was?”

“Ribbt!” Froggy climbs the tree, and then comes back down. “Roo-amp.”

“That’s odd .. We need to go find him!”

“Waaaaamp. Womp.”

Big picks Froggy up. “But I found you, and you found me! We’ll find Infinite too. I’m sure he didn’t go far.”

 

Finding Infinite is not a problem. He’s sitting on the porch, legs against his chest, tail curled around him, staring into the greenery. His face is painted with gloom.

“There he is!” Big says. “Hi, Infinite! I found him! I found Froggy!”

Big waves.

Infinite looks up. As soon as he sees Big, his expression shifts, brow pushing down and mouth tense, as if disgusted, or in pain, and he looks away.

“He told me you helped him find me,” Big continues. “That’s good! Sometimes we walk around and I’m looking for him and he’s at home waiting for me to come back and it takes the whole day before I find out. Thank you!”

Infinite’s face is turned away. He makes a low mumbling sound in response, and that’s all.

Big steps up the stairs, stands on the porch, and looks at Infinite and his closed posture.

“Are you okay?” he asks.

Infinite’s head lifts just a little bit, but he still doesn’t turn his head.

“If I am okay?”

Big blinks.

“Yes?”

Me? ” Infinite underlines, and makes a small, hard, sweeping gesture with his hand.

Big frowns, trying to decode the meaning of what Infinite is saying. He looks down at Froggy, who looks back up.

“Froggy’s fine,” Big tries. “He wanted to climb up the mountain, to see if anyone knew Squiggles. But then it started raining and it was too slippery to climb down again.”

Infinite doesn’t respond, he just curls even closer around himself.

Big looks at him for a moment, awkwardly.

“Do you wanna come inside?” he asks.

“No,” Infinite says.

Big looks at Infinite, clearly at a loss for what to do. Then he looks down at Froggy who’s resting in his hands.

“Rooib,” Froggy says, quietly.

“Um,” Big says and takes a step back, “You can just come in when you’re ready, okay?”

Infinite’s response is approximately “Mrrrrghh”.

Big goes back inside while looking at Infinite over his shoulder, very obviously lingering in the doorway, but Infinite stays turned away and curled up around himself. Froggy makes another gentle noise, and Big tears himself from the porch and finally goes inside.

Infinite sits there, feeling a new kind of bad that is, he thinks, more bearable, but he is still feeling very bad, and it won’t let him go, and he would distract himself by doing something else until it goes away but it feels like that would be wrong somehow, like not sitting here and feeling it would be a great mistake and cause something bad to happen to him, he isn’t sure what but something.

He lets a hand fall to the planks next to him and digs his gloved claws into the still-damp wood, following the grain, making gentle marks in the surface that the rain has painted brown-green. Cold is creeping through his fur and chilling his skin. He’s frowning, not enough to make creases in his forehead, just enough to push his eyebrows down, as if he was just presented with a world-changing concept that he’s trying to come to terms with, like he  has to squint a little bit, just so he doesn’t get distracted by too much visual input while he grapples with whatever question is tumbling around in his mind.

Big peeks through the doorway. He doesn’t push the palm leaves away, one of them stays draped over his head, pushing his ear down. He looks slightly apologetic and a little bit begging.

“Are you sure you don’t want to come in?”

His voice is very gentle, as if he thinks Infinite might break.

“I shouldn’t have said that.”

Infinite’s voice is quiet, his head turned away, saying the words and letting them move into the world where Big can hear them, letting them go and then sitting there, not moving beyond the claw that draws deeper in the woodgrain, letting whatever will happen happen.

What happens is that Big puts his head on the side, looks at Infinite for a moment, and when no clarification comes, he says:

“Huh?”

“I shouldn’t-” Infinite breaks it off, there’s a little more power in his voice now, not just letting go of the words, he wants to say something with them now, a low voice like a dull knife that he’s turning in his hands, not sure what to do with it, “- I just didn’t, think,- I --” his eyes are intense now, staring at a point on the planks, his fingers curling up and digging a deep line in the algae-green surface. And then, “I’m sorry.”

The words fall like two small, heavy weights.

Big is quiet for a while, feeling the aftershock of whatever it was that had built up inside Infinite, feeling the significance, seeing how Infinite’s closed position seems more fitting somehow, less like he’s trying to hide in his own fur, more like a person sitting on a porch. Big just isn’t sure exactly what it means.

“It’s okay,” he tries. “You can come in now.” There’s a questioning edge to his voice.

Infinite finally looks up,  he can’t get himself to look directly at Big, not at first at least, he has to catch a small glance at Big’s face to make sure the world won’t end if he makes eye contact, and then he finally pulls himself together and looks up, and he realizes that Big doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

He lets out a sound, might be a huff, might be a weird version of a laugh, mostly sounding like he got the air beat out of him by something soft that caught him off guard. Then he climbs to his feet, walks over to where Big is, and when Big steps aside to let Infinite in, Infinite instead throws himself face-first into Big’s chest fur, awkwardly claiming a hug.

“Oh!” Big says, and then gently pats Infinite’s head. “It’s okay. We found him! We all found each other again.”

Infinite’s voice is muffled from his entire snout being buried in fur that is deep enough for a small creature to get lost in.

“Yeah,” he says, his voice gravelly. “I’m glad.”

Chapter Text

Big wakes Infinite up next morning, crouching down and gently tapping his shoulder until Infinite uncurls and gets his face extracted from his own hair. He looks up and blinks owlishly.

“Mmmnh?” He says.

“I've got a secret for you,” Big says, his voice low and eager and his eyes shining with joy.

“Mnn .. H?”

That's the closest Infinite can get to real words right now. He pushes himself upright and gives Big a slightly squinting look. Not bothered, not suspicious beyond what-shenanigans-have-you-prepared-this-time-suspicion, vaguely sceptical at worst.

“Come on,” Big urges him, still talking like it's a super secret that nobody else can hear about.

He helps Infinite up. Infinite takes a moment to make sure he's got his balance, and then he sends Big another look.

“So?” He asks, his voice grainy from sleep.

“Close your eyes,” Big says.

Infinite stands and blinks for about three entire seconds. He very much doesn't want to do that. His eyes flicker slightly as if looking for hidden enemies, but Big is beaming and looks like he's just barely containing an urge to bounce on the spot, Infinite can’t not play along.

Infinite slowly lets his eyelid close, trying not to look too tense. Big leads him with a steady hand on Infinite's shoulder, Infinite's steps are small and stiff and he tries his best to feel his way and lead with his toes before he puts any weight on his foot.

Big leads him about three metres, and then stops. A bit of Infinite's tension leaves him, he almost looks a bit amused; Big can, at furthest, have led him to the kitchen counter.

“Hold your hands out!” Big’s eagerness and his attempts at being quiet means it's almost an excited whisper.

Infinite becomes wary again. He slowly puts his hands together, palms up, and tries not to turn his face away from whatever it is Big is going to stuff into his arms.

He feels, something, on his glove, not too heavy, impossible to make out. He's about to try and feel it with his other hand, But Big grabs his wrist and stops him.

“You can look now,” he says.

Infinite opens his eye and looks down at his hands.

Squiggles is sitting right in the middle of his left palm, small, beady eyes looking up at him, her legs tucked away under her body, four of them.

He looks at her. Is quiet, for a long moment, just looks at the froglet in his hand.

She opens her mouth and lets out a sound similar to the air being let out of a very small balloon.

Infinite blinks.

“What was that?” He asks her.

Big laughs, a hearty chuckle, and his secretive demeanor leaves him immediately. “She hasn't quite gotten the hang of croaking yet. Froggy woke me up, and she had went to a branch! She climbed all the way up of the tank, all on her own!” Big gently takes Squiggles from Infinite's hands -- she lets out a sound like an indignated bike pump -- and puts her back on the crisscross of sticks over the top of the tank.

Squiggles jumps, or at least tries to jump but mostly just tumbles, back into the water and swims a lap near the surface.

“She can walk now!” Big cheers.

“She … certainly can.” Infinite's voice is hard to read, his entire demeanor is still blurred by sleep that he hasn't shaken off yet, but there's a sense of intense consideration in the way he looks at Squiggles, almost akin to wonder.

She makes her way up one of the sticks, clumsily, she's about to fall off and hangs by her new arms for a moment, flailing her little legs, and then she's back up. She pushes herself all the way up to the sticks resting over the tank.

Infinite doesn't really think when he presents his hand. Squiggles, true to tradition, starts with trying to see if she can eat Infinite's finger -- he rolls his eye at her and almost, almost huffs a laugh -- and then she climbs onto his palm and tries to continue up his arm. She has trouble with getting over the rim of his glove, and Infinite sees her foot slip for a second and tries to hold her over the nightstand, but there isn’t enough space.

He tries to grab her instead to put her somewhere safer, but ends up with the opposite result; Squiggles is determined to climb and actually hops to get away and Infinite makes a small, strangled sound when it seems like she’s gonna fall, but she doesn’t fall.

Infinite grabs the nightstand instead and kneels down as quickly as he can, sitting down on the floor so she at least won’t fall as far, because it doesn’t seem like there’s any hope of stopping her. She travels swiftly up his arm.

“Squiggles,” Infinite says, because he’s not sure what her plan is, but whatever it is it doesn’t seem safe. “S- Squiggles-”

Big turns his head to see what’s going on. “What is she doing?”

Infinite looks away from the froglet for a fraction of a second to acknowledge Big and that’s the exact moment Squiggles falls. He grasps for her but isn’t quick enough to stop her, and she hits the floor with a low, wet sound.

Infinite stiffens up. He stares at Squiggles,  looking genuinly distressed.

She flails her legs and pushes herself upright, and then collects her limbs under her body and takes a look at this new land that she has claimed.

Infinite lets out a sigh of relief.

Squiggles squeaks indignantly when she is picked up.

“Why are you like this ,” he mumbles too himself, and then tells her, “no, that’s enough for now. Go back in - back in the tank - let go of my glove.”

Big looks to Froggy, who makes a small “Roob”-noise. Infinite manages to get Squiggles back into her home, where she immediately climbs back up the branches and squeaks at him.

“No,” he says.

“Iiip!” she retorts.

No.

She looks dissatisfied for a moment, then she tries to jump to another branch about two inches away, fails and falls into the water. Infinite watches her for a moment. She just swims back to the first branch, climbs up and tries again, with more or less the exact same result.

He shakes his head and presses his fingers to his forehed for a second. Then he goes back to his bed and sits down.

He watches her from there instead; there’s something satisfying about seeing her repeating the same failure over and over again.

And then she makes it.

She celebrates by trying to hop to another branch and immediately falling off of that one.

Infinite snorts.

Big pours oats and water in a pot and puts it on the stove.

“She can come out and look for her own bugs now,” Big says while he gathers a few pieces of wood from the stack next to the stove. “Froggy wants to help. We can be right outside when she practices.”

Infinite is quiet for a second.

“Sure,” he says, unable to come up with a better response. He feels like he should add something, something polite, something … nice, he guesses, but he can’t think of anything.

Big heats up the stove, cooks porridge and pours it in two bowls, while Infinite absentmindedly watches Squiggles and her attempts to learn.

“Come on,” Big says with a throw of his head, holding a bowl in each hand. “Bring Squiggles along!”

Infinite looks surprised for a moment. Then he gets to his feet and goes over to Squiggles’ tank.

“Guess you’re getting out of the tank anyway,” he tells her.

She falls off of another stick. Infinite shakes his head and scoops her up. She immediately tries to climb his arm again, and he has to perform some very advanced manuvers to make sure she doesn’t get too far, all while hurrying to get to the porch.

“Are you sure it’s a good idea to unleash her out here?” he asks while trying to keep her away from his elbow.

“Don’t worry!” Big sits down on the porch and puts the bowls down.  “We’ll keep an eye on her. The house is safe for frogs.”

“Wroamp!” Froggy says and jumps down from his spot on the railing.

“Iiip!” Squiggles says back and, to Infinite’s horror, jumps right off his arm.

Big catches her in his palm.

“Careful, Squiggles,” he says. “Caaareful. Okay? Be careful.”

“Rrb!”

“You need to be careful so you don’t get hurt,” Big says.

He lowers his hand to be a few inches over the porch, and Squiggles jumps down. Froggy immediately hops over to her and begins croaking.

Infinite sits down, still watching his froglet with suspicion, because he really does not trust her sense of self-preservation to last her more than two minutes outside the tank.

Big pushes the bowl of porridge towards Infinite, and then reaches over to pat his head when he sees Infinite’s concerned gaze.

“It’s okay! We’re here, and Froggy will keep an eye on her. She’ll be fine.”

Infinite picks up his bowl, still looking sceptical, and starts eating, still watching Squiggles, who is trying to get the hang of walking on a horizontal surface and does not seem to be paying attention to Froggy.

Squiggles aims for the stairsteps, and Froggy lifts an arm and plaps his hand onto her back.

“Roob!” he says.

“Iiip!”

“Squiggles, you have to listen to Froggy,” Big says.

Squiggles turns her head and squeaks again.

“But you have to listen to him, okay?” Big is speaking slowly and with a gentle intensity while making eye contact with Squiggles. “He’s going to keep you safe. We don’t want you to get hurt. You have to be careful, and you have to listen to Froggy. Okay? Listen to Froggy.”

Squiggles is quiet for a moment. Then she squeaks, with a slightly different inflection, and tugs her little legs under her body.

“Wamp,” Froggy says, and then he hops down the first step of the stairs, and Squiggles follows after, landing a little clumsily.

The two frogs make it down the stairs, and Infinite allows himself to calm down a little when Squiggles seems to accept that she’s going to have to stay in the mud near the porch.

She’s still very round and lumpy, but -- maybe Infinite’s just getting used to the idea, but -- she does seem more frog-shaped now.

The air smells earthy from yesterday’s rainfall, and the air isn’t heavy yet, just warm. Infinite has to pause eating to stare with mistrust every time Squiggles gets distracted by something, which is basically all the time, but she doesn’t run off, she stays near Froggy.

“Roob,” Froggy says, and Squiggles turns her head and waddles closer, as well as she can on her new untrained legs.

Infinite looks at the frogs, listens to their noses, then he looks up at Big.

“To how large a degree do you actually understand each other?” he asks.

“Huh?” Big says, looking down at Infinite, with a very gentle frown that lasts for about three seconds until his face lights up in understanding. “Oh! You mean me and Froggy?”

“The frogs in general,” Infinite says and scoops up another spoonful of porridge. “She actually seems to listen to you.”

“Me and Froggy know each other real good, so that’s easy. Squiggles is still very small, she talks baby speak. Uh … It’s not just the sounds they make, though. Sometimes it’s also how they sit or move and how they look. And which kind of frog they are! The frogs around here - around my house, they know how to talk to me, other frogs can be harder. Somtimes it’s just like, if I really want them to understand something, they just do … Or they try to tell me something and it just happens in my head? In real people words, sometimes. Just poof!”

Big makes a small gesture with his free hand, holding it next to his ear and spreading his fingers as if mimicing a tiny explosion.

“That’s … weird,” Infinite says, squinting slightly into his porridge.

“I should teach you some frog sounds sometime,” Big says.

“Um.” Infinite says. “Okay?”

“So if Squiggles needs something, you can understand her! It’s not too difficult, with the simple things.”

Infinite lets out a small huff of air. “I suppose it can’t hurt.”

Big ruffles Infinite’s hair. Infinite ducks as well as he can until it’s over, and then he resumes eating, still while keeping half an eye on Squiggles.

They finish eating. Big takes the bowls and stands up.

“Just call if you need me,” he says and goes inside the hut to wash the dishes.

Infinit stays on the porch, at the top of the stairs, leaning against the side of the railing. He watches Froggy croak and hop as he tries to get Squiggles to pay attention, but she is distracted by all and every thing and is not looking at him.

“What happened to listening to Froggy?” Infinite says, still slumped against the railing.

Squiggles looks up. Then she spots something else that catches her attention and hops towards it and Froggy has to call her back. But at least she does come back, albeit still while looking over her shoulder. Or whatever it’s called on a frog, it doesn’t feel appropriate to assign body parts to the little lump other than legs, head, tail.

Big comes back and sits down next to Infinite. He’s big enough that he can sit down and still have his arms rest on top of the railing and comfortably put his chin on top.

Froggy is trying to show Squiggles a little beetle on a rock, and Squiggles is hopping awkwardly after a giant darner that is four feet in the air, the lenght of her body and with movement patterns consisting almost solely of hairpin turns. She’s so entranced by its glittering wings that Big has to call out to her and tell her not to go too far!

She comes hopping back and is immediately distracted by a butterfly.

“This might take a while, huh,” Infinite says with a glance towards Big.

“That’s okay,” Big says, his ears held high and his face relaxed. “she doesn’t have to catch anything, she’s just supposed to practice.”

Infinite is quiet for a moment.

“Are we going to have to catch bugs if she can’t?” he asks.

“Froggy wants to help!” Big says. “Small little frogs usually eat bugs that have fallen into the water until they get big enough to catch things, but there’s just not so much inside the hut. It won’t be too hard.”

Infinite squints, trying to make sense of Big’s words. He doesn’t manage.

“Is that a yes?” he asks.

“Oh! Sorry. Um, you don’t have to worry about it. Maybe I will go find something, but maybe also her and Froggy - ” Big takes a second to get his words in the right order - “they might do okay, we might not need to help.”

“I … see.”

 

Squiggles keeps being distracted, Froggy ever so patiently follows her around and sometimes catches a bug in the air, and Infinite and Big sit on the porch and watch them in silence. They spend an hour like that, Infinite almost dozes off at one point, Squiggles catches two leaves and Big has to tell her very sternly that those are not good tadpole leaves, your tummy’s gonna hurt if you eat that, and only then does she reluctantly let go of her prey.

Infinite looks down, a bit of movement catching his eye. There’s a small brown spider climbing on the railing, moving in short, quick bursts with pauses inbetween.

He lifts his hand, is still for a second, then lashes out with a hunter’s precision and crushes it between his fingertips.

“Here you go,” he says and flicks the spider in Squiggles’ direction.

She excitedly charges at it, and misses, planting her entire face in the dirt. Infinite snickers. Squiggles mouths the ground and probably gets more mud than spider, but she finds it eventually and swallows, looking proud, like it was absolutely her who caught that.

Big ruffles Infinite’s hair and sends him a bright smile. Infinite huffs, he still feels inadequate when faced with that sort of warmth, but he tries, tries not to shy away, manages to send back a pale smile. It’s a quick gesture, hesitant and awkward-feeling, and then he turns his attention back to the frogs, his brow furrowed, face tense.

Squiggles catches a pebble and spits it out again.

Infinite’s expression softens just a little bit.

They sit there, quietly, for a little longer. Then Big straightens himself.

“Squiggles!” he calls. “It’s time to go back home now.”

“Iiip!”

Big sends Infinite a look and a knowing smile.

“She doesn’t wanna,” he tells Infinite.

Infinite lets out a sigh.

“Squiggles,” he says, a sharp edge in his voice.

He gets so surprised by Big shushing him that he reels back, mostly because Big puts a finger on his nose, and he has to restrain himself from attacking the hand.

“Schh,” Big says, softly yet solemnly. “Please, be gentle. It’s good that she’s curious. She is very small.”

Infinite makes a small, dismissive huff and looks away, pulling his shoulders up a little and not saying any more.

Big stands up and walks down to where Squiggles is, and talks to her in the same tone of voice, tells her he knows she’s having fun, but Big needs to find dinner now, and you can’t be out here on your own, Squiggles, don’t run off, if you run off we can’t let you out here, come on, you’ll get to hop around more soon okay?

Froggy jumps onto the porch, up next to where Infinite is, and croaks to call Squiggles over. Squiggles looks at him, and then hops in another direction while letting out a small shriek.

It takes Big about ten minutes to get her to comply, and Infinite sits on the porch and tries to look disinterested while his ears are catching every single gentle word, while his head sinks just a little at the everlasting patience Big shows, and if Infinite can’t do it right why did Big make him do the tadpole raising in the first place? He didn’t want this.

“Come on, Infinite,” Big calls when he has finally gotten Squiggles to comply.

Infinite doesn’t answer, just gets up, stiffly, and follows Big inside. Watches, with his face halfway turned away, how Big gently urges Squiggles back into the tank.

Froggy hops inside, past Infinite and onto the nightstand, with one of the large, sparkly darners sticking out of his mouth. He drops it with a “ribbit!”

Big picks it up.

“Infinite? Do you want to cut this into pieces she can eat maybe?”

Infinite still doesn’t say anything, but he gets up and receives the shiny insect. He regards it for a moment, everything is so colourful here. Then he breaks the long tail apart with his fingers and sits down next to the tank to drop the bits in front of Squiggles.

She’s way better at aiming in the water, actually; seeing her navigate on land makes her  movements while swimming almost elegant in comparison.

She still looks like a mutated potato in stature, though.

Infinite can’t resist the urge to dangle one of the wings over the water, to see her try and fail to jump up and get it. He laughs at her, quietly, and shakes it, tauntingly.

“Iip!” se complains and swims in a small circle under the wing.

“What?” he says, leaning on the edge of the nightstand. “Giving up?”

“Iiep.”

“Well,” he says and removes the wing. “I guess I will keep it, then.”

Squiggles charges against the glass and uselessly paddles against the inside of the tank, and shrieks again. Infinite regards her for a moment with a coy expression, but then he flicks the wing into the tank.

“Here you go.”

It turns out that getting it to fit in her mouth is perhaps even more of a challenge than  catching it was. Infinite watches her with quiet amusement as she tries to reposition it so she can swallow.

“Do you wanna go fishing today, Infinite?” Big asks.

Infinite looks up.

“Sure. Sounds nice.”

Chapter Text

Squiggles catches her first very own bug that evening, a small, unassuming little beetle, and Big cheers enthusiastically, but Squiggles jumps up to Infinite and looks up at him with her small, dark eyes gleaming, and he stares at her for a while, then extends his hand, and she hops onto it.

“Well done,” he says.

She makes a satisfied froglet noise, and then she jumps off his hand and ends up tumbling down two of the stairsteps and Infinite makes a strangled sound, and then lets out a pained sigh and presses his fingers against his forehead. Squiggles tumbles around in the mud to get on her feet, as unfazed as always.



Squiggles grows rapidly in the next couple of days. She becomes bigger, and decidedly more frog-shaped - still rounder than Froggy, and not quite as big as him, but still bigger, still a frog - and even though her tactic is still to throw herself directly at whatever she’s trying to catch and hope for the best, she gets better at it, better at aiming, better at making sure her prey doesn’t notice her, better at calculating distance.

She also learn to croak. And she is loud. And, as Big points out, still small and new to everything and curious and excited, which means she is definitely not interested in stopping her monologue even though it is nighttime and every other reasonable being in the hut is trying to sleep.

Infinite presses the good side of his face deeper into the palm leaves and covers his right ear with a hand.

“Squiggles, go to sleep, ” he says.

Squiggles’ voice is nowhere near blocked out by Infinite’s hand.

“WRooOOORmp!”

Big gets up on one elbow.

“That means - ”

“That she doesn’t want to, I know.

Big has decided that since Squiggles can talk now, it’s time for Infinite to learn as much frog as possible, and Infinite has that specific sound on lockdown; all their conversations amount to “I don’t want to” and “you have to”

Infinite continues, snarling into the palm leaves, “But I want to sleep, so be quiet.

“Don’t be mean,” Big cautions, “she is just a baby.”

I know, ” Infinite growls and pulls his blanket over his ears.

“Riiib riib riib!!” Squiggles says.

“Wamp,” Froggy responds, sounding slightly cranky.

“Wrooooomp!”

“Wamp!” Froggy insists.

“WroooOOooooOomp!! Wompp womp wamp roooob-”

“Squiggles, shut up, ” Infinite barks.

“Oh no! Please, don’t yell.”

Infinite pushes himself up on one elbow, still with his back turned, only barely keeping his anger under lid.

“I’m tired, my chest hurts, and I’ve been listening to her screaming all goddamn day, I just want to SLEEP.”

Big gets out of bed and rushes to Infinite’s side, where he kneels down. Squiggles croaks again.

“Schhhh!” Big says. “You can’t yell at her!”

“I can’t sleep! ” Infinite bites and sends Big a burning look.

Big then reaches over, closes Infinite’s mouth with one hand and picks him up with the other - his arm wrapped around both Infinite’s arms and torso, holding him firmly - and carries him outside, through the door and across the porch, while Infinite struggles to get free and the only thing he can do is kick his legs, the rest of his body is locked up completely, he can’t even move his head.

Big carries Infinite a few steps into the night before he lets go. Infinite tears himself away with a fiery growl.

What?! ” he exclaims, staring wildly, he’s tired and angry and in pain and Big just picked him up against his will for the first time in forever, which not only is infuriating -- the reminder that Big can incapacitate him at any moment, knowing that was nothing but a firm grip , that Big wasn’t even fighting, that if he was, Infinite would not stand even a second’s chance -- it is also worrying, because it seemed like Big wasn’t considering Infinite an enemy and hadn’t done in so long, and Infinite might have messed that up and he isn’t even completely sure why. He wasn’t being that loud!

Big kneels down and tries to put his hands on Infinite’s shoulders, but Infinite jerks away. It’s dark out; he almost falls on one of the wooden boards they use as stepping stones on rainy days. Big catches him, and then immediately lets go, and Infinite stands still, clutching his own elbow, staring at Big with intense eyes, but he doesn’t back away any further this time.

“Infinite,” Big says. His yellow eyes are the only thing Infinite can clearly make out in the dark. “It’s okay that you’re tired and annoyed, but you can’t take it out on Squiggles -”

“Because she’s tiny and a baby and doesn’t know things and is curious, I get it, I don’t care.

“But you gotta care, you have to.”

“Why? Because her right to scream loudly in the middle of the night is more important than us getting to sleep?”

“She won’t feel safe if you yell at her. And we’re the only ones she got in the whole wide world. When you’re the one that’s supposed to take care of someone, and you don’t make them safe, then they’ll never have anywhere to be safe at all.”

Infinite is still heaving as he breathes, still staring, but he’s listening, he doesn’t look like he wants to walk away or punch something or scream at Big.

“If she learns that we are scary sometimes, she’s going to think everything will be scary sometimes,” Big tells. “Then she’ll be scared of everything. All the time.”

Infinite is quiet for a long, long while. Then he looks away.

“I’m tired, ” he says again, but his frustration has less direction, he isn’t aiming it at anyone, just letting it out there, letting it hang in the air.

“I know, buddy. It’s no good that she’s yelling. But we still gotta be good to her.”

Infinite lets out a huff of air. He reaches up and rubs his temples as he speaks.

“I’ve been hoping she would calm down with the croaking all day and she hasn’t, and I think I’m getting a headache which is really the last thing I need, my chest already hurts,” he says, sounding slightly tense, but that’s all.

“Come on,” Big says, “let’s go back, and then you can say sorry so she knows you didn’t want to be mean, and then I will talk to her so she will be quiet.”

Infinite grimaces slightly.

“Can’t you get her to be quiet first? ” he asks.

“She needs to know you’re trying to be good to her,” Big says. “Come on,” he continues when he sees Infinite’s expression. “Tell her how you’re feelin’. That you really need to sleep, and your head hurts, and you didn’t want to be mean but you just really need some quiet. She doesn’t want you to be upset! She likes you.”

Infinite rubs his forehead.

“You do know she doesn’t understand me, right?”

“She’ll understand.”

“She’s a frog. And I don’t speak frog.”

“She’ll understand,” Big insists, and Infinite lets out a sigh, and then gives in.

“Fine. Fine! Whatever.” He closes his eye for a moment and takes a deep breath to calm himself down. “I’ll do it.”

Big gives his shoulder a small pat. Then he stands up, and Infinite follows him back to the hut.

Squiggles is down in the water when they come back, but she immediately pokes her head out when they return, lets out a small shriek, climbs up some branches and croaks loudly.

Infinite sighs again and goes over to her. He sits down next to the tank.

“I’m sorry I yelled at you,” he says, trying to not sound too stiff. He has to take a moment before he can convince himself to actually give the explanation to a frog, but he does it, slowly speaking every word. “I am tired, and your constant croaking is giving me a headache, and I got angry because you’re being very - ”

“No, wait, don’t say that,” Big says and puts his hand out.

Infinite squints and turns his head to look at Big. “What do you --” he begins, and then he’s interrupted by Squiggles hopping from the edge of the tank to his head, and she’s not nearly as heavy as Froggy but she’s still heavy and immediately clings to Infinite’s hair. “Squiggles!” Infinite exclaims, then immediately reels his anger in, wrestling with it, trying to keep it all down and inside, “Squiggles, please --

“Riiiiiiippp,” she says, a more whining version of her usual but-I-don’t-want-to-do-that voice.

Infinite’s hand curls up into the beginning of a fist, he can feel her hands close tightly around his hair and he knows that it would take force to get her out, and he simply doesn’t have the patient, everlastingly patient touch that Big has.

Squiggles screams again, right next to his ear. “RrrrrrIIiiiiiibb.”

Infinite’s entire face contorts and his nails dig into his palm.

“Big, please, ” he says, voice edged by something that might be desperation.

Big is there immediately, grabs Squiggles and lifts her up. She has a good clump of Infinite’s hair trapped in each foot and shrieks again, a long and pathetic sound.

“Schhh!” Big says. “Don’t make warning sounds when you are not in trouble. People get scared. Squiggles. You have to let Infinite be now. He is very tired, and he is trying to be nice, but it’s hard when his head is not being nice to him. You gotta let go of his hair now, okay? Let go of Infinite’s hair. Let go.”

“Riiibb ...” Squiggles says and slowly loosens her grip.

Infinite slowly pulls away. As soon as he can feel that he’s free, he pushes himself away and lets out a sharp sigh.

“RiiiIIIIb,” Squiggles says again.

“Infinite is very tired,” Big says. “And me. And Froggy. It’s good that you are happy, but you gotta be quiet now, okay? We do want to play with you, but not when we are very, very tired.”

“Riiibb … ”

“That’s okay, but you need to sleep now.” Big turns his hands a bit so Squiggles can see Infinite. “Look how tired he is. He needs quiet time now. Okay?”

“Iiiip!”

“No,” Big shakes his head. “That’s not what he needs. He needs quiet. He needs you to be quiet. Okay? Wait ‘till tomorrow. He will be way more happier when you tell him tomorrow.”

There’s something intense and soothing about the way Big talks to Squiggles. Infinite looks up, blinking with heavy eyelids.

Big lowers Squiggles down and loosens his grasp, and she climbs back into the tank.

“Good night, Squiggles,” Big whispers. “We’ll play with you tomorrow, I promise!”

Squiggles does not respond to that. Squiggles is quiet. Infinite lets out a sigh of relief.

“Thank you,” he says, quietly.

He crawls back under his blanket. Big goes back to bed as well. Infinite hopes and prays that he will be able to fall asleep before Big starts snoring, but once it happens, he is so exhausted that he doesn’t even have the energy to be bothered by it.

Chapter Text

Infinite wakes up next morning to the sound of Squiggles croaking, and immediately feels exhausted. He stays with his eye closed and face pressed into the palm leaves, choking the urge to scream back.

“Shooosh,” Big says, “Infinite is still sleeping.”

“Wamp!” That’s Froggy’s voice.

“Riiibb.”

Squiggles’ next croak is slightly less intense.

Infinite tosses the sheets aside and sits up, immediately regretting the powerful movements when the phantom ruby’s former resting place sends out erratic spikes of pain. He folds an arm over his chest and has to take a second to sit with his eye closed before he speaks.

“I’m awake,” he says through clenched teeth.

“Waaamp!!” Squiggles exclaims and makes a leap of faith - she was resting in Big’s hands, and now she is flying towards the floor, and Big has to lounge forwards to catch her.

The moment she lands securely in Big’s hand, she is off again, using him as a stepping stone, and hops over to where Infinite is.

“Wamp!!” she repeats.

Infinite looks at her for a long moment.

“What,” he finally says, managing to not sound overtly hostile.

Squiggles jumps to where he sits and climbs onto his leg. She’s cold and damp and Infinite is feeling his will to be awake slowly diminish second for second.

“Rbbbit,” Squiggles says, collects her feet close to her body and looks up at him with her little dark eyes.

“That’s a happy sound!”  Big says. “She’s saying good morning.”

Infinite just barely keeps himself from groaning.

“Can I have some tea?” he asks and picks Squiggles up from his leg, because judging by the wet spot on his knee, it has not been many moments since she left the tank.

Squiggles immediately climbs up Infinite’s arm, grabs his hair before he can catch her again, and makes her way up through the locks. Infinite tries to get her back down for a few seconds, then he gives up.

“Of course,” Big says. “I’ll make breakfast!”

Squiggles wails as she gets stuck in a lock of hair. Infinite takes a moment to come to terms with his fate, and then he puts a hand under where he can feel the unusual weight dragging his hair down and pushes the entire part, hair and frog and all, upwards, so Squiggles can free herself. She does so by kicking wildly at Infinite’s head. Finally, she untangles herself and finds a spot right on top of Infinite’s face where she wants to perch, and sits down.

Infinite pushes one of her little hands away from his eye.

“Riib riib!” Froggy says.

Big puts a pot on the stove.

“What is it, buddy?” he asks while pouring water.

“Wroor-rromp, wamp, roob rooob.”

“Oh! You don't want to go fishing today?”

Froggy shuffles around on his feet a bit and almost looks a little guilty, if a frog can look guilty, maybe Infinite is just imagining things because he is now a person who talks to frogs he might as well be attributing people emotions onto them, soon he's probably gonna be writing love letters to them and defending them from tigers or whatever.

“Wamp,” Froggy says, a little more quietly.

“It's okay, buddy. You go hang out with Norton. Maybe I will go to the beach! Infinite? Do you wanna go fishing at the beach?”

Infinite looks up.

“Are you sure that's … Safe, for me?”

“Whaddya mean?”

“Beaches have people on them,” Infinite says quietly and picks at a piece of the bandages around the splint.

“We can go south down the rocks, nobody comes there.”

Infinite is quiet for a moment, considering it. It sounds pleasant. And he’s not in the mood to be alone with Squiggles -- there’s no way he can keep her under control without Big’s help.

“If you're certain it's safe,” Infinite says.

There's been no people near the jungle in all the time he's been there, after all. Amy made an effective choice in hiding him here.

“Yay!” Big cheers. “Let's go to the sea!”

“Rooob?” Froggy says and shuffles so he's facing Squiggles, then looks over his shoulder at Big.

“Hmm …” Big finds a mug in the cupboard and puts it on the counter. “Do you think you and Norton could be here? So she won't be all alone.”

Froggy puts his head on the side and is quiet for a second, and then he says “Rrrrroob … Ribbit! Riiibbit!”

Big nods with enthusiasm. “That's great! Thank you!”

Big makes tea and pours oats for porridge, and then goes over to free Infinite of the frog on his head.

“C’mere, Squiggles,” Big says.

“Wamp!” Squiggles says and jumps into Big’s hands.

Infinite rubs the spot where she's been sitting. It feels weirdly tingly, almost numb. Big puts Squiggles back in the tank and pours tea for Infinite.

Infinite receives the mug and holds it between two hands, closing his eye and feeling the heat through his gloves while Big cooks porridge.

He sips his tea, then looks up.

“How far away is the beach?” he asks, because his chest is still complaining, a soft, dull ache.

“It’s not too far. I can carry you if you want,” Big says.

Infinite makes a small, thoughtful sound.

“We’ll see,” he says.

Big pours porridge.

“Do you wanna sit outside with me and Froggy?” he asks.

Infinite lets out a gentle sigh.

“I might just … stay in here for a bit,” he says.

Big hands Infinite his bowl, and pats his head in passing, before he goes to the porch, bringing Froggy with him.

“Roooob?” Squiggles asks.

She's perched on her sticks, sitting on the edge of the tank and looking at him.

“At least you calmed down a little with your incessant screaming,” he says and takes a spoonful of porridge.

“Roob roob roob roob roob rooob.”

“I spoke too soon.”

“Wamp!”

Infinite rubs the spot where she was sitting earlier. It still feels weird. He pokes the area with a gentle claw, and then somewhere else, and yes, it definitely feels different.

“What did you do to my face?” He says and shoots her a look.

“Wamp!”

Infinite grimaces ever so slightly and turns his attention back to his food.

“I am talking to a frog,” he says to himself with quiet defeat.

“Wamp,” Squiggles says, sounding satisfied with herself.

 

When Big comes inside again, he is followed by Froggy and another frog, smaller than Froggy, but bigger than most of the other frogs Infinite has seen so far.

“That's Infinite!” Big says. “Infinite, this is Norton.”

“Ribbit,” the other frog says.

“Norton is Froggy’s friend. They'll look after Squiggles today while we're gone.”

“Riiiiib?” Squiggles says. “Ribbitt.”

“You can't come with us today. I'm sorry. It's too hot out for frogs, and you can't cool down in the ocean. It's too salty.”

Norton hops across the floor and onto the nightstand, and then he climbs up the side of the glass while Infinite stares, and praises his luck that Squiggles at least can't do that.

“Ribbit,” Norton greets.

“Rrrribbit ribbt wamp! Wamp roob roob roob, wamp.”

Norton wamps back. Big laughs and claps his hands.

“Have fun, you two! Squiggles, be good, okay?” Big kneels down in front of Froggy and holds his hands out, and Froggy jumps into Big’s palms. Big holds Froggy up, and Froggy boops his head against Big’s nose. “See you soon, buddy,” Big says and puts Froggy down again. “Take care! Come on, Infinite, let's go fishing!”

Big kneels down next to Infinite. It takes Infinite a second to realize that he’s being encouraged to climb aboard on his own, which is a relief. It does cause him a few jabs of pain to climb up, but it’s better than being hauled around like an unruly kitten. Big waits until Infinite has settled as well as he can, then gathers his things, calls one last goodbye to Froggy and Norton, and then he leaves with Infinite sitting on his arm.

Big hums gently as he walks, and Infinite tries to sit somewhat properly, but he has to give up and cling to Big’s chest fur, because keeping his balance on his own puts too much of a toll on his chest.

The parakeets are active above their heads, swooping back and forth with loud chatters. Something loud calls out from far away, a triumphant shriek. Infinite squints against the sunlight.

Infinite immediately feels more exposed when the trees thin out. This is the first time he’s been able to see the train station and the surroundings, the place they came from that night when Big brought him here, and it seems so large and open now that he can see more of the landscape than just towering walls that block out the sky.

Big aims for the ocean, and Infinite keeps an eye on the train station up above them.

“Are you sure nobody’s going to come here?” Infinite says, subconsciously curling closer to himself to seem, or feel, smaller.

“We’ll go down to the sea and behind the cliffs,” Big says. “That’s a good place. And peaceful! Don’t worry.”

Infinite tries not to, but he does feel very exposed as they walk across the large open area between the mountain walls. He casts a glance up at the structure to their left, follows it all the way up and spots a building.

“What’s that?” he ask, warily.

Big follows Infinite’s gaze.

“That’s Tails’ old workshop! He doesn’t use it much anymore … only for test flights. Huh?”

Big squints and takes a side-step to get a better view.

Infinite’s eye gets significantly wider when Big takes a few steps towards the stairs leading up to the workshop. He grabs a handful of Big’s fur.

“Please don’t go up there, everyone will be able to see us from there.”

“But … why is all his stuff scattered outside? Was someone here?”

“It probably happened during the war. Or maybe someone is living there now, in which case, we should really get moving.” Infinite’s gloves almost squeak from how tightly he is grasping the tuft of fur on Big’s chest.

Big sends the workshop one last look, the workshop and the piles of scrap metal and old plane parts, half-finished rotor blades and landing wheels, piled up like someone’s top priority had been to empty the workshop of anything Tails might have been working on, and then deciding that actually, Tails could have it all back if he wanted.

Infinite is relieved when Big starts walking again.

Big goes all the way to the edge of the plateau, and then to the right, where there’s a small path following the mountain wall, going down to the beach, a small sliver of sand and large, ocean-smoothed rocks where the path ends. Infinite stares at the sea. He’s never seen it without his mask on before, and the lack of red glass means it looks completely different. Lighter, for a start, shades of blue and green and white dancing together, some patches almost a midnight blue, some reflecting the sky above, and it goes on forever, stretching to the horizon, like the child of a burning desert and a warped abyss.

A seagull swoops by, screeches loudly, causing Infinite to flinch and glare.

Big steps onto the sand below and kneels down. Infinite lowers himself to the ground and looks down at his shoes, feeling how the sand greets him by holding his feet like the desert did.

“Thanks,” he says to Big.

Big gently ruffles his hair.

Infinite looks up, up to where they came from, at the railway and the station high above. They’re only shielded from behind, but the ocean acts as a fence in and of itself - who would see him from there? And from the plateau, they can’t be more than just dots, small figures, impossible to make out.

He doesn’t feel safe, but he feels safer.

Big takes off his sandals and wades into the water. Infinite follows to where the sandals lie and climbs onto a large rock, where he sits down. The seagull screams again, and there’s another one now, they soar high above.

Big throws his line out. Infinite stares at the water, at the way light plays on the surface, at how ít seems completely colourless up close and yet the entire expanse is a gleaming blue.

The gentle whisper of the waves is both unfamiliar and soothing.

“This is great!” Big says, turning to face Infinite with one of those great big smiles of his. “It’s too dry for Froggy out here on sunny days. We go here when it’s raining, but it’s so nice when the sun’s out. Now he can spend time with Norton, and we can go fishing, and nobody has to be alone!”

“Too dry?” Infinite squints against the light that reflects off the waves. “There’s water everywhere.”

“Oh, the ocean is too salty for frogs.”

“Salty?”

Infinite is wearing the expression of one big confused question.

“The ocean is salt water!” Big reels his lure in and throws it out again. “That’s why it tastes bad. But it’s good for different kinda fish. Like sharks and flounders! There’s also jellies, and clams, and crustaceans ...”

While Big talks, Infinite edges along the rock, and then pushes himself to the next one, a bit further out. He has to get up on one knee and climb to the one that’s all the way out in the water, and his chest protests, but it’s nothing he can’t handle. He stares at the water; it looks normal, fresh, clear.

“... and stingrays. Whales also live in salt water … I think eels can do both? Maybe? I think I --”

He’s interrupted by Infinite spitting and coughing.

“How can anyone drink this stuff?” he says with a grimace and shakes the glove he had scooped water up with.

Big shakes his head. “No, no, you don’t drink ocean water! It’s not good, it just makes you more thirsty.”

Infinite looks at Big, and then he squints and moves his gaze to the seemingly endless ocean around them.

“What kind of sick joke is it to have this much water and not be able to drink any of it?” he says, and it is unclear if the disgust in his voice comes from this newfound knowledge, or the lingering taste of salt water in his mouth.

“Um,” Big says, because that isn’t really a question he has an answer to, but then something tugs at the line and he has to reel in and gets distracted from giving a response.

Infinite sends a displeased look at the ocean, and then looks at the rocks he came from. The one behind him is higher up than where he’s perced right now. He’s going to have to risk getting his shoes soaked if he wants to climb back, and the rock he’s on now is completely comfortable to sit on. Maybe he’ll just stay for now and -- his face twitches ever so slightly -- ask Big for help when he needs to get back.

Big reels in a flatfish, wades back to the beach and puts it in the bucket.

The sun is heavy on Infinite’s black fur, but at least there’s an ocean breeze out here, playing with his hair and cooling him off just a little. His eye catches a bit of movement, and he realizes the rock is surrounded by tiny fish the same colour as the sand, almost invisible until the moment they move.

Big has waded all the way out to where the tip of his tail is in the water. He doesn’t seem to have noticed, or maybe he just doesn’t mind. His lure is bobbing up and down in the waves further out, Infinite has a hard time keeping an eye on it.

His gaze fixes on the horizon, and for a long, long time, he sits and stares, lost in thought. Big reels in another fish, and Infinite barely turns his head to watch. First when a wave reaches up and touches the tip of his tail does he get out of his trance. He lifts it, then flinches and draws a sharp breath when a jolt of pain stabs through his bones. He has to grab the splint with his hands and move his tail that way.

A little crab on the ocean floor gets startled from the movement and skitters sideways all the way along the rock and then tucks itself into a small indent, pulls its legs close to its body and pretends it doesn’t exist, but with lifted claws, in case someone doesn’t buy the disguise and wants to pick a fight.

Infinite looks at it. He had no idea those old robots Eggman had in his base were based on anything real.

No wonder he had to discontinue the old models. That creature does not look threatening at all. It is smaller than a hand and trying to make itself invisible in the sand instead of fighting.

Infinite reaches down into the water, but the crab is too far down, he’d have to remove his gloves if he doesn’t want to fill it with water. He pulls his hand back up. There really was no need to pick it up in the first place, he’s not sure where the urge even came from.

The crab is slowly piling sand onto itself.

Big reels in another fish, and on his way back to dry land, he catches a look at Infinite, who doesn’t look as comfortable as he did at first.

“Are you okay, buddy?” he asks and shoves the fish into the bucket.

Infinite looks up, his left ear twitching. He lifts his hair up from his neck, brushes it away from his body as much as possible, tries to shoo out the heat his mane traps.

“I’m fine,” he says.

“Okay. Tell me if you need something, okay?”

Infinite nods. His eyes find the horizon again.

After another handful of minutes, Infinite looks down at the water again. Salt. You can’t drink it. But Big is doing fine in water to the knees.

Maybe he should ask first, though, just in case.

“Is it … safe?” he asks. He has to squint against the sun.

Big turns his head. “Huh?”

“The water. Any …” Infinite waves his hand around, he feels so stupid, so ignorant, he wishes he didn’t have to be bumbling around and finding out by trial and error that the simplest things in this place are so much different to what he’s used to. “Currents, or … something.”

“Oh! No no, this is a nice beach. Just don’t go out too far.”

Infinite slips his shoes off. “I wasn’t planning on going anywhere,” he says and dips a toe in the water. It’s warmer than he expected, but still pleasantly cool. He lets both feet rest in the water, allowing his body to get rid of some excess heat.

His discomfort slowly leaves him, and he goes back to staring into the water, at the creatures that dart around below his feet. Tiny fish, another crab further away, a shrimp gets a little too close to his toes and he kicks to scare it away.

Chapter Text

Big fills the bucket with fresh fish over the course of a few hours, and then he sets his pole to rest in the sand next to the bucket and wades back into the ocean.

“Do you wanna go in the water?” he asks.

Infinite looks up, blinks, and looks thoughtful. Then he picks up his boots with one hand and carefully lets himself slide off the rock. The sand greets his feet, it feels weird when it’s underwater, so different.

He wades back to the shore to put his shoes next to Big’s sandals, and then he walks into the sea, slowly, keeping an eye on where he’s stepping, the ground feels slightly treacherous, the way the sand moves makes him feel like it might slip away and leave him with nothing to stand on.

Big, who’s in water to the hip, lets himself fall backwards with a loud splash, and Infinite covers his face. When he looks back up, Big is floating, belly up, like a weird, fluffy island.

Infinite wades out a little further, watching the sand dance around his feet.

“How do you stay afloat like that?” he asks.

He’s seen … smaller things, lighter … lighter beings sink into water like they are pulled down by a merciless force, but Big, he’s gigantic and he just floats there, like it’s no trouble at all.

“It’s cause I’m fat,” Big says and paddles with his feet. “I’m not so good at swimming, but I float good. Can you swim?”

Infinite shakes his head.

“I come from the desert,” he says, and pushes the images of flailing limbs and desperate gasps out of his head.

“Don’t go out too far alone, then.”

“I wasn’t planning to.”

Big floats around in the water, looking calm and serene, and Infinite walks, just a little, slowly, sort of just taking everything in, sand and stones like a desert and plants and life like the jungle and then so much water on top of it all, butwater you can’t drink.

His instincts to hunt keep resurfacing every time a creature comes close, but he doesn’t need to, he can’t, and with the size of these creatures, he really shouldn’t either, and it feels weird. Feels weird to just let opportunities slip past. Feels weird to just exist, without having to do anything. Weird and a little unreal.

His eye is caught by something moving slowly through the water, he thinks it’s a plant at first, moving with the tide, but then it seems to be moving against the way of the wave and he’s suddenly in doubt.

His movements are almost trance-like when he walks closer to examine the weird thing, the water around his legs making melodious splashing noises as he pushes through it.

It’s reddish and transparent, not a red that makes Infinite think of the ruby, it’s warmer, like a sunset, orange, and sort of looks like a clump of hair, a small sun that has been unraveled into strings and dumped in the sea, and he still isn’t sure whether or not it’s moving, but it seems like it’s trying to. Like it expands and then flattens in order to propel itself forwards, but it also swings with the tide.

A slightly bigger wave rushes past, and the thing is suddenly sent towards Infinite at a speed he hadn’t expected, he lifts a foot because he doesn’t want to touch it, and is greeted with a sudden stinging pain on the bottom of his foot.

“Ow!” he says and pulls his foot out of the water, but there’s nothing to see, even though he feels like he’s been burned.

There’s a splash behind him when Big gets on his feet. Big creates small waves when he walks through the water, washing the jellyfish away.

“Oh no,” Big says. “Did you get stung?”

“Ow,” Infinite just says again, quietly, almost questioning.

“Don’t touch it,” Big says.

Infinite stops with his hand hovering over his foot, looking up, then staggers a bit because he’s standing on one leg. Big catches him. Infinite holds on to Big’s arm, and Big scoops up a handful of water, still with gloves on and all, and pours it over Infinite’s footpad.

“That’s a nasty place to get stung,” Big says. “Try not to step on it right now.”

He pours more water over Infinite’s foot.

“What happened?” Infinite asks. He does not like the fact that the ocean just attacked him with some invisible force.

“It’s the jellyfish. They burn. I keep forgetting ‘cause my fur is too thick, I can’t feel it.” A few more handfuls of water is poured over Infinite’s foot. “Does it hurt a lot?”

“I’ve had much worse,” Infinite says, his voice flat.

“It’ll stop hurting soon.”

Big pats Infinite’s head. His hand is soaking wet and sends a cold drop of ocean water all the way through Infinite’s hair.

“This place is just full of surprises,” Infinite mumbles.

He reaches down to rub his foot, and Big stops him.

“It’s best if you don’t touch it.”

Infinite sighs, defeated.



Infinite wakes up in the middle of the night, from a dream where a struggling figure slowly drowns in a sea of red, blinking cubes while Infinite watches silently from above. He stares at the dark ceiling, silently, trying to push the feelings that weigh in his chest and churns in his guts away.

It takes him hours.




 

 

 

Infinite stares at the checkers board with quiet intensity. He might actually have a chance this time. He reaches out, pauses when his hand is over the piece he wants to move, his hand curling up a little bit. Then he makes his move.

He takes one piece, a kinged one - it’s not much of a jump, but maybe it will be worth it. He thinks it will. If just -

Froggy beeps - that really is the sound he makes, a beep. Big’s head jerks upwards, suddenly alert. Infinite’s reflexes overrules his knowledge of the aching chest, and he’s on his feet way too quickly and has to stand with eye closed and teeth set for a long moment while he fights to stay upright.

“That’s a warning call,” Big says, stands up, and runs to the porch. Froggy follows right after.

Squiggles makes a long, shrieking, hoarse sound that Infinite has never heard before. She’s responding to a similar sound coming from outside, hoarse, long shrieks that Infinite had no idea a frog could make.

He takes a second to make sure his legs will hold, and then he walks to the porch as fast as the pain will allow him.

“No!” Big booms, standing at the top of the stairs and waving his arms, and for a moment Infinite staggers because he thinks it’s at him, but it is not.

“Go away! No hunting here! Not here! Go home with you!”

It takes Infinite a few long moments before he finally spots the tiger.

The eyes are the intense pinprick yellow Infinite knows all too well, a hunter’s piercing gaze.

It's staring directly at Big, unblinking.

“Go, go, go!!” Big yells and stomps his feet so much that Infinite can feel the vibrations through the porch. “This is a place for frogs! Not a place for a tiger, go, go, go!”

Infinite sees the mighty predator’s muscles shift, and his breath hitches in his throat -- he knows Big can handle this, he knows Big is the strongest thing in this jungle, but Infinite is also looking at something that, even as a mercenary, with his body intact and his sword in hand, he would not have wanted to fight, and now he has none of those things.

“GO AWAY!!” Big booms, claps his hands, stomps his feet, and Infinite is sure the beast is going to charge, but then it turns around and leaps back into the jungle, nothing more than a rustle to be heard, leaving no trace.

Around them, the frogs are still wailing with their thin yet intense screeching voices.

Big turns his head.

“Go tell Squiggles that it's safe now,” he tells Infinite. “I'll go check if everyone's okay.”

“What if it comes back?”

Big shakes his head.

“It won't. Squiggles hasn't heard this much alarm call before, she must be really scared.”

Infinite hesitates for a second. Then he complies.

Squiggles gives a thin and shrieking greeting when she sees him, she's dangling on the edge of the tank and almost looks like she's going to fall off.

“It's okay,” Infinite tells her, walks over and tries to urge her away from the edge, “the tiger’s gone now, Big took care of it. Calm down.”

Even as he says that, he keeps glancing towards the doorway, and when Squiggles hops onto him and climbs onto his head, he lets her, and lets her stay, even though he knows his face will feel numb and itchy later if she sits in the same place too long.

The game of checkers is left unfinished.

Chapter Text

Infinite wakes up in the middle of the night, his ear twitches, he thought he heard a sound, like a windchime or a silver bell, and his eye blinks open. The first thing he sees is the moon, but that can't be right, he's inside, it must be a firefly, but why is it so gigantic? And then the light fades into a silhouette, there's someone in the dark, Infinite can only make out the vague shape but there is definitely a person there now, a short figure.

Infinite blinks rapidly, and stares.

“Big?”

The voice is light and gentle, almost just a whisper, but it's definitely there. Infinite pulls the blanket over his face, tries to be invisible, his golden eye staring out from under the quilt.

“Big?” The voice calls again.

“Mm … Huh?” Big's enormous silhouette rises in the dark, one of his ears twitch. “Tikal!” Big tries to talk through a yawn. “Are you okay?”

“Do you think the moon is lonely?”

Infinite squints, looks at the figure, completely baffled by such a weird question in the middle of the night.

Big sits up, puts his feet over the edge of the bed, fully awake now.

“Hm … No,” Big says. “I think the moon is happy.”

“She's all alone up there,” Tikal says and looks up, like she's expecting the moon to be visible through the palm leaves.

“Don't you think it's peaceful?” Big says.

Tikal sits down next to him on the edge of the bed, her knees together, hands resting in her lap.

“But you have Froggy … And even I was lonely, sometimes, even with Chaos and all the chao, before I met Blaze. Don't you think she needs someone to talk to?”

“I'm sure she can feel that you're thinking of her,” Big says and puts a hand on her head.

“And she dances with the ocean,” Tikal says, her voice distant, the sound of wanting to cry has faded from her voice.

“She dances with the whole earth!”

Tikal smiles, looking up, wistfully.

“I want to dance with the moon.”

“You can do that!”

“I want to dance with Blaze.”

“Does Blaze not want to dance?”

“Oh … Sometimes. But it’s … hard for her to do other things right now, when there’s all that fire. She won’t dance with the moon, though. She says I worry too much.” Tikal frowns, her voice thoughtful. “Do you think the moon cries?”

Big shakes his head. “No.”

Tikal is quiet for a while. Infinite is almost worried she’s going to stay there forever, he can’t stay hidden forever, the sun is going to rise and he’ll be visible and she will know he’s alive and she’ll know this is where he’s hiding.

“That sounds sad,” she then says.

“Huh? Why?”

“Because … when you’re filled with emotions … when you feel love and loss … when something really hurts, or when you have to let go … when you know things can’t last forever, no matter how much you love them now. Or when something is too beautiful to have inside. Or you’re just really tired, and you need the universe to know. If you can’t cry some of it away, what do you do?” She looks down at her hands. ”It must be horrible. To just hold it all inside forever.”

“I think the moon can cry if she wanted to,” Big says, somber and genuine, while carefully stroking Tikal’s head. “But I think she’s happy, so she don’t.”

“Maybe she cried it all a long time ago … and now she doesn’t need to.”

“Got it all out,” Big agrees.

“Maybe that’s the trail you can see in the sky around her on some nights … All her tears. So she doesn’t need to cry them anymore.”

There’s silence for a long while. Then Tikal stands up. She turns to face Big, and bows her head to him.

“Thank you, Big,” she says.

“No problem,” he says and pats her head. “Any time.”

Tikal lifts her head, turns around, and then gasps, putting a hand over her face.

“Big! You didn’t tell me you have guests!”

Infinite freezes up, his breath catching in his throat, for a moment he feels like he can’t breathe, he wants to hide under the blanket but if he moves he’ll be seen -- but he already has been seen, it’s too late --

“Oh! Uhm …” Big looks concerned,  his eyes darting back and forth. “That’s, uh, that’s just Infinite.”

Infinite kills a distressed wheeze before it can really be born.

“What a funny name,” Tikal says, “did you name her yourself?”

“Infinite is a -- oh!” Big’s ears perk up as he sees Tikal sit down on her knees next to the nightstand. “Oh! No, that’s Squiggles! Her name is Squiggles.”

“Squiggles?” Tikal repeats, and then lets out the gentlest gasp and looks up at Big with eyes full of wonder. “Is she good at wiggling?” she whispers.

“The best at wiggling,” Big assures.

Tikal leans so close that her nose almost touches the glass. “I love you, Squiggles,” she whispers, and even though Infinite can’t understand how anyone can love a sleeping froglet they’ve just seen for the first time -- and even ‘seen’ is generous, it is in the dead of night and all one can see is vague shapes and shadows -- there’s so much emotion in her voice that he knows it to be true.

“We’re looking after her until she’s big enough to go back home,” Big says.

Tikal nods solemnly, and then she stands up again.

“Thank you, Big,” she says, and bows her head, almost doing a little courtsy. “And thank you for taking care of all the little ones. Please,” she says, reaches out and touches one of Big’s hands, “if you go fishing up in space again, will you say hello to the moon from me?”

“I promise I will. Do you want a hug?”

Tikal looks surprised, then thoughtful, in the span of a few seconds, and then she steps forwards with her arms out. Big gives her a big, gentle hug.

“Thank you,” she says again, steps backwards, and then the sound is there again, like a windchime of glass or crystal water singing, Tikal is surrounded by light, and then she is the light, and the light dissolves into a sprinkle of glowing sparkles that slowly blink out, and a little bright light flies up, spirals around, and is gone.

The glow leaves dancing spots on Infinite’s retina. The light has left his vision useless in the dark, and he has to take a long moment before he can even see Big’s silhouette again.

Infinite has to take an entire minute before he can find the will to speak, and even then, it’s barely more than a whisper.

“What on earth was that?” he asks, still staring into the darkness where a girl just appeared and then disappeared again.

Big perks up a little, he looks like he was about to go back to sleep, just like that.

“Oh!” He says, keeping his voice low, though he doesn't whisper. “That was just Tikal. I'm sorry if we woke you up.”

“What --” Infinite clears his throat to stop his voice from sounding like an unoiled door hinge. He has a million questions, but one presses more than the others. “What if she finds out what if she mentions my name to someone?”

“I don't think she can,” Big says, thoughtfully. “She can only leave the mystic jungle and angel island sometimes, when it's really important. She comes down here sometimes, but that's because we're close to where she lived when she was alive.”

“She talked about Blaze. The doctor told me about Blaze, if she finds out --”

“It's kinda the same with Blaze, now. Uh. Unless her emeralds want her to, she can only be here together with Tikal. Because Sonic went back and changed everything but some of the things had already happened so Blaze is not from our world this time …” Big shakes his head, making his giant ears flop around his face. “All this time travel stuff makes my head hurt.”

“Silver is the one who time travels,” Infinite says. He knows these things - he even met Silver once. A foolish kid talking about hope. “Blaze is from another dimension but she doesn't time travel.”

“Not this time?” Big says, sounding like he too is unsure how it all fits together. “There was a time where she was best friends with Silver, in the future, not yet, Silver is from the future, so back then she was also in the future. And in that future, something didn’t go so good, so I think Silver brought her along? And she helped fight some bad things, but it was not good for her, and they had to put her in another dimension. But then they went all the way back and destroyed the bad things before they could get bad, so everything didn’t happen anyway -- but Blaze stayed in the other dimension, just differently, so she doesn’t know Silver ...? She remembers him, I think. But they don’t know each other. This time Blaze is in the same time as now, and Silver is still in the future, but now Blaze is friends with Tikal because Tikal is worried about her, because she’s scared that the bad thing that Blaze had to fight is still there even though it doesn’t exist this time. So I guess Blaze didn’t time travel, really, but some of her past still stayed time travelled and that’s why she’s here sometimes, and can do things with fire?”

“What are you talking about,” infinite asks.

“Uhh … Blaze?”

Infinite lets out a tense sound.

“All right fine,” he says and flops back down in his bed. “Fine. Fine! Good night.”

“Sleep tight!” Big says, unfazed by Infinite's frustration.

Infinite hates this jungle.

Chapter Text

Amy is back one day, catching Infinite by surprise, he had almost forgotten about the pink hedgehog, almost forgotten about the world outside. He also at that moment has a frog in his hair and has a small moment of panic when he hears Amy’s bright, chipper voice call out.

“Big? Are you home? I hope you don't mind me stopping by today.” She's walking at a brisk pace down the path, a basket over her arm and the hammer on her back, and Infinite sees her before she sees him, which gives him a few moments of warning that he uses to sort of panic, and make an attempt at getting Squiggles to leave his head, which of course only makes her more determined to stay there. “I have some stuff for - oh, it's you.”

Squiggles slips between Infinite's hands and climbs all the way to the top of his head where she gets a solid grip in his hair. Infinite grunts and tries once again to get her to let go, but it's a lost cause.

“Wamp!” She says - she's stopped screaming at him when he tries to remove her from his body, she's learned that if she just finds some long fur and holds on, there isn't much Infinite can do about it if Big isn't there to help.

“And that must be Squiggles,” Amy says. “Where is Big?” She looks around.

“He went to fetch water, how do you know about Squiggles?”

“Waamp!” Squiggles says, her satisfied sound, happy with being the center of conversation.

“Big called and told me all about you last week when he was in town. Good to hear he's being a good influence on you.” She walks past him up the stairs like she owns the place, and puts the picnic basket down in front of the door. Then she turns around and looks Infinite up and down, like she's scrutinizing a cleaning job done by someone whose work etiquette she has little faith in. “At least your face looks better.” She squints. “You are cleaning that eye every day, aren't you?”

Infinite had forgotten how infuriating this child is.

He has also forgotten to clean his eye for quite a while now.

“Squiggles, get out of my hair,” he says instead of responding. “You're going to make my whole face numb,” he adds with a grumble.

Amy rolls her eyes. Then she walks over and leans forwards to better look at the frog on Infinite's head.

“Hello there, Squiggles,” she says. “I'm Amy Rose.” She puts her head on the side. “I had no idea those black frogs existed of a more normal size.”

“Rooibbit.”

Infinite feels like an awkward companion who everyone has elected to ignore.

Amy stands up straight again.

“She's cute,” she says, and if it hadn't been Infinite she was talking to, she wouldn't have been suppressing her smile.

Infinite sends her a narrow look.

“Thanks?” he says with a hesitant edge to his voice, he's gotten used to act friendly with Big by now, but her?

Amy sends him a flat look and the unimpressed lift of an eyebrow.

“Are you really going to take credit for that?”

Infinite makes a face. “ No, ” he says.

So much for being polite.

Amy puts her head on the side. “Is it really a good idea to have her on your body? That kind of black frogs are usually toxic.”

“She won't let go, ” Infinite hisses and makes another attempt at wrestling Squiggles out of his hair, still with no success.

Amy rolls her eyes again, very demonstratively this time.

“Hey, Squiggles,” she says and holds her hands forwards. “Do you wanna come say hi to me?”

“Ribbit,” Squiggles says, but shows no incentive to move.

“Aw, come on now,” Amy says, “don’t be shy.”

Amy reaches over and holds one hand in front of Squiggles while gently pushing from the back.

Squiggles shrieks. Infinite pulls his head away from Amy’s hands and tries to tilt his head so he can look Squiggles in the eye.

“No alarm calls!” he reprimands, “we’ve talked about this, you’re going to scare everyone.”

Squiggles stops mid-shriek and looks at him, dissatisfied.

“WroooOomp,” she says instead, the good old I-don’t-want-to-do-that -croak.

See? ” Infinite says and shoots Amy a look.

Amy crosses her arms and huffs, but then shrugs.

“I guess that’s your problem.”

She walks over and picks the basket up again, and carries it inside. Infinite looks after her, and then gets distracted when Squiggles puts her foot directly on the sad remains of his right ear.

“Squiggles, seriously, get off my face, ” he says and tilts his head, “I don't want another rash.”

He has to lean so far that Squiggles is almost upside down before she decides that sitting here isn't worth it. Infinite rights his head again; Squiggles is hanging in his hair now, trying to climb back up almost immediately, but he gets a grip on her and stops her.

“Let go, Squiggles. Let go. Let - go.”

“Wrroooomp!”

“Let go.

“Wrooomp,” she says again, thinner and more whiny. Then she lets go.

Infinite lets out a sharp sigh.

“Thank you.”

 

 

Amy is unpacking her basket when Infinite carries Squiggles inside, pulling out cans and small bags and putting it all on the counter.

Her hammer is leaning against Big’s bed. There's a pot sitting on the stove.

Infinite holds Squiggles over the tank, and she jumps back in. Then he sits down on his bed and stares at Amy, who is unfazed.

“Tea?” she asks.

“You just own the place, huh,” he says with a squint.

She turns around with crossed arms and a lifted finger.

“You think it's your place just because you've been borrowing the guest bed for a couple weeks? I'm the leader of team Rose, you sour grump. I know this place better than you do, now do you want tea or not?”

For some reason, it never occurred to Infinite that other people has been using this bed, that other people have been sleeping on the floor of Big’s hut, that the bedframe and the palm leaves have existed way before he got here and he’s merely occupying this space for now.

“Whatever,” he snarls.

“What was that?” Amy says, her eyebrows lifted, as if daring him to be rude again.

Fine ,” Infinite growls instead.

Amy opens the cupboard and pulls three mugs out.

“Still got some work to do regarding your attitude,” she says and finds the tea bags. “But one thing at a time, I suppose.”

Infinite resists the urge to growl at her.

He perks up when he can hear Big’s voice outside, and then immediately slinks back down with a scowl when he sees that Amy had the same reaction.

Amy puts the mugs down and jogs to the doorway,  pushes the palm leaves aside, and waves.

“Hi, Big!”

“Amy!!” Big cheers, followed by the thundering sound of him galloping up the stairsteps which always makes Infinite worried that the whole porch is going to collapse.

Big almost throws the water bucket as he puts it down, then he grabs Amy in a hug, lifting her off the ground. Froggy croaks excitedly.

“Hi!” She says. “I hope it's okay I stopped by-”

“Amy!!”

“I had some things I thought you might need --”

“Amy!!!!”

She gives up. “Hi, Big, I missed you too.”

Big holds her up with a hand under each arm and beams at her.

“You're back!” He exclaims, finally finding use for other words.

He puts her down, and the movement is fast enough that Infinite would expect Amy to at least stumble, but Amy knows exactly when to put her feet down to the ground, she's clearly used to it.

“Ribbitt!” Froggy says.

“And hello to you, Froggy,” Amy says and crouches down.

“Riiiib!” Squiggles announces.

“I stopped by with some things,” Amy says and gestures to the counter.

“Thank you!”

Amy picks up the water pail -- she has to carry it in both of her arms, but aside from that, she seems untroubled -- and carries it over to its spot in the kitchen. She scoops up water with the pot.

“I'll get some firewood,” Big says.

“A few logs should do it,” Amy says and opens the cupboard.

Infinite watches the two, and after Amy’s words, he is painfully aware of how coordinated the two are, how used to each other they are, how much it is Infinite that doesn’t belong in this space.

Squiggles clambers up to the edge of the tank and observes Amy, her eyes full of curiousity. They’ve become lighter, has an almost silvery sheen now, instead of being little black dots.

Infinite grabs his tail and pulls it into his lap, and sits with it in his arms, still glaring at Amy.

Big comes back with three logs of firewood and puts them in the oven, and Amy puts tea bags in the mugs. Then she pulls a bowl out of the cupboard and carefully holds her hand over the pot, before picking it up and pouring a bit of the now warm water out before it boils.

She goes over to rummage under Big’s bed, still acting like she owns the place. And Big doesn't mind at all.

“And …” She says, extracts a clean cloth, and brings it back to the bowl, “something for you,” she turns to Infinite, “to clean your face with.”

Infinite draws a slow breath through his nose and lets it out again, and manages to receive the bowl without doing anything but scowl at her.

He knows he should say thanks, but he is absolutely not going to.

“So how has everything been?” Amy asks Big.

She goes back to the stove and leaves Infinite to his own devices. Infinite has a few moments of wanting to throw the bowl at her, but he instead picks up the cloth and dips it in the water.

“Everything's been great!” Big says. “Squiggles has legs now - you need to meet Squiggles!”

“Don't worry, I said hello when I came. She's cute.” Amy smiles at the froglet.

“Wamp,” Squiggles says.

“She is!” Big beams. “Infinite has been so good at taking care of her.”

Infinite looks up with a squint. He had gotten the impression that his care was more than just a little lacking.

“That's good to hear.” Amy takes the pot off the stove and pours water in the mugs. “I've been mentioning you,” she says, and Infinite twitches, his head jerking up. “Just to see what people think. You're ... still unpopular.”

“Shadow is coming to kill me,” Infinite says with intense eyes and hands clutching the cloth so tightly that water drips from it.

“I haven't told them, you silly egg. I've mentioned your name, nobody knows you're alive.”

Infinite blinks, then lets out a terrified huff of air.

“But you can't stay here forever,” Amy continues. “I'll keep testing the waters. Sonic hopes you're okay, at least.”

That is the least convincing lie Infinite has ever heard.

“They're going to kill me ,” Infinite says, he can't believe this child can't get it into her stupid head.

“Nobody's going to kill you. I'm not going to tell anyone that I know where you are before I'm one hundred percent sure that everyone is on the same page.”

“Please stop talking about death,” Big says. “My friends are good guys … They wouldn't kill anyone.”

Infinite looks up at Big. Amy is suddenly very concentrated on pouring water into the mugs and finding sugar and stirring.

“Well, you know - Shadow still thinks Infinite is a bad guy. But it’s all a big misunderstanding and we’ll get it cleared up very soon, tea’s ready, here you go! And one for you --” she walks swiftly over to Infinite, quick and precise and doesn’t spill a drop, and Infinite has to drop the cloth to receive the mug because she seems like she just might let go of it without regards to whether or not Infinite is holding on.

Infinite can clearly smell that something’s different with his tea. He sniffs it tentatively - Amy is already gone, cleaning some stuff up and acting slightly frantic - and then puts it down, he’s not drinking that. There has to be some sort of poison or at the very least sedative or something in it when it smells so weird and Amy is acting so weird about it.

He’s not going to go down that easily. Not letting them take him out like this.

“You shoud tell him that it’s okay,” Big says.

Amy makes a nervous sound that sounds like a weird parody of laughter.

“You know how Shadow can be,” she says, trying to seem at ease and achieving the opposite. “We just need to make sure everyone is on the same page first -- just, you know, to make sure nobody's too angry about …” She gestures with her hand in the air. “You know.”

“You can never tell anyone about me and you know it,” Infinite growls.

“Don't be silly,” Amy says, a little too quickly, and takes a sip of her tea, then frowns and stares into her mug. “Didn't I …”

She turns around, opens the cupboard, gets a teaspoon and then notices the other teaspoon already on the counter. She stops and blinks and then puts the new one back.

First when she tries to get a spoonful of sugar and it cakes onto the spoon does she realize that this spoon has already been in the tea. She stares for a long moment.

“Big, did I give you my tea?” she asks.

Big gives his mug a slightly wall-eyed stare. “Nope?”

Amy frowns. Infinite looks at her and resists the urge to roll his eyes. This child.

“You gave me your tea.”

“Oh!” she says and with a small headshake at herself, walks back over and puts her mug down. “If you’re sick, please warn me now.”

“I didn’t drink any of it,” he says with a squint. “It smells horrible.”

Amy rolls her eyes and takes the other mug, and then stiffens up, because Infinite has closed his hand around the wrist and is staring at her.

“Amy,” he says, and even though he’s trying, maybe without thinking about it, to intimidate, the way his jaw is set and his shoulders hunched and his eye both intense and a little desperate, it is clear that he is scared. “Don’t tell anyone.”

The voice that is used to order and demand is practically begging now.

Amy pulls her arm free with force and takes a step backwards. She huffs and gives Infinite a displeased look.

“I’m not telling anything” She talks quietly, trying to keep Big out of the conversation. “I’m making sure nobody is overtly hostile. Or outright murderous, at least. And it’s exactly to avoid what you’re so afraid of, so stop worrying --”

“If you mention me --”

Amy actually whacks him. Not hard, just enough to make Infinite jerk back and snarl, almost sputter.

“You’re not going to get killed by me saying ‘I wonder what happened to Infinite’ and seeing how many people say they hope you died,” she hiss-whispers, “now stop it, you’re worrying Big.”

Infinite sets his teeth, but turns his burning gaze away from Amy and focuses on his tea instead.

“So,” Amy says, turning to Big with a chipper smile. “Has everything been good? I see Squiggles has grown legs already.”

“Yes!” Big says. “She’s been catching her own bugs now! She’s doing super well.”

Infinite sips his tea while Big chats with Amy. It’s all aimless chatter, but even if Infinite had wanted to follow the conversation, his mind is too occupied by the thought of the world outside and what it thinks of him.

“I wish I had some fish you could bring home with you,” Big says.

“Don’t worry about it.” Amy stirs her tea. “You didn’t know I was going to come today.”

“We could go fishing today?” Big says. “You could bring home all sorts of delicious fish for people.”

Amy sighs. “I’m afraid I need to get home soon. There’s still a lot of work to do, and they need all the help they can get.”

“Awww ...” Big pouts. “I wanted to help with food.”

Amy looks at Big’s disappointed expression, thinks for a few seconds, and then puts a hand on his elbow - she has to reach up to even be able to.

“Maybe I can come back tomorrow?” she says. “Tomorrow morning?”

“And get fish?”

“Yes, exactly!”

“Yay! That’s a good idea!”

Squiggles decides that all this people talk is too boring, gets up to the edge of the tank, and yells.

“Waa-aaamp!”

“Me too, Squiggles,” Infinite mumbles, realizing too late that he’s talking like he understands her. Which he does, partially - she’s dissatisfied with her stuation and wants someone to do something about it -  but he’s not proud of it, and he really doesn’t want Amy to know.

He has to hold back a small grimace when he realizes that the whiny edge to her voice very clearly means ‘I am bored and you should do something about it’, and he can tell.

He has been spending too much time with this frog.

“Waaaaaaamp waamp waaamp waaaaaaamp,” she says.

Infinite downs as much of the tea as he can before putting his mug down and standing up.

“I’m coming, I’m coming,” he grumbles.

Squiggles jumps into his hands more or less the moment he starts the motion of reaching for her, and he has to lounge forwards to catch her.

“Why are you like this? ” he asks.

“Wamp,” she says, satisfied.

Of course, Big decides to actually point it out. “You’re getting so good at understanding her,” he says and ruffles Infinite’s hair.

Infinite jerks away.

“Stop it,” he hisses.

Big stops mid-ruffle.

“Oh?”

“We’re going outside,” Infinite says and slips under Big’s hand.

Big looks down to where his hand is still hanging in the air. “Huh?”

Infinite is already on the porch.

Squiggles immediately jumps from his hands, and this time, lunging towards her only gains him a sharp shot of pain through his chest.

Squiggles hits the porch with the characteristic uncomfortable slapping sound. She's unfazed as always.

“Squiggles,” Infinite starts, and then he has to interrupt his lecture to start a different one,“--wait, stop, don't go too far!”

When Amy comes outside again, Infinite is on hands and knees, trying in a very strained voice to convince Squiggles to come out from under the porch.

Amy watches Infinite's inefficient attempts at getting the froglet to come back. Her expression has a hint of something a little softer than the usual disapproving look of ‘I can't believe I have to be the one to clean up this mess’.

She sits down on the bottom stairstep, her legs crossed and hands in her lap.

“You're not exactly great at controlling her, huh,” she says.

Infinite dares to take his eyes off of Squiggles for long enough to make a small grimace at Amy.

“Squiggles, come back here,” he says, deciding to ignore Amy. “I'm not going to crawl in after you -- I'm gonna have to aren't I,” he adds with a mumble.

“Maybe you should try another approach,” Amy suggests.

“Then why don't you do it,” he hisses, wanting to glare, but he can't allow himself to be distracted because Squiggles is hopping in the wrong direction, away from him, and if he has to walk around the hut to where she is, there's a good chance he's going to find a treacherous spot to get stuck and lose his boot in and in the time it would take to get free Squiggles would have time to get eaten at least three times.

“No, no, I won't interfere, it's your responsibility after all,” Amy says.

This is the most demeaning situation Infinite has ever been in.

“Squiggles, just … Please. Come on.”

He sounds slightly pained.

“You're bad at this,” Amy remarks.

“I'm not the one who can talk to frogs around here,” Infinite snarls, not even looking up this time. “Squiggles!”

“Oh, she can understand you just fine, she's just ignoring you.”

Infinite's head turns enough that Amy can see an eye of burning anger and a set of exposed teeth.

She stands up, turns around, and crouches down so she can look under the porch.

“Hello, Squiggles! Are you having fun?” she asks.

“Ribbit!!”

“Would you like to play tag? I'm sure you can catch us if everyone hops.”

Infinite's head snaps around with an equal amount of outrage and disbelief on his face.

“You are not getting me to hop around like a frog.”

Amy lifts an eyebrow.

“You're not giving her much reason to want to listen to you with that attitude, now are you?”

She extends a hand, her face almost neutral and yet clearly full of aloofness. Squiggles hops into her palm with a “Wamp!!”

“Playzone is the porch,” Amy announces and puts Squiggles down atop the stairsteps. “And you got me,” she says with a knowing look to Squiggles, “so now I am ‘it’!”

And with that, she crouches down and makes a ridiculous parody of a frog hop up the stairs. Squiggles squeals with excitement and propels herself away from Amy with all the grace of a boiled potato fleeing across the dining table after escaping from the dinner platter.

Infinite watches them with an expression of utter disbelief.

“Here I come!” Amy says and hops towards her.

Squiggles finds herself in a corner, squeals, and tries to escape by hopping over Amy, which she is definitely not in any way capable of.

“I've got you now!” Amy says as Squiggles bonks into her knee and falls down.

“Are you serious?” Infinite says.

Amy looks up, and then sends Squiggles a knowing look.

“I feel so sorry for letting you be in the care of such a bore. Tag!” Amy pokes Squiggles in the belly.

“WAMP!!” Squiggles says, and Amy doesn't even get to make one hop away before Squiggles has propelled herself directly at Amy’s face and latched onto her hairband.

“Ah! Squiggles! Okay, okay, you got me, please -- Squiggles I'm pretty sure you're poisonous, please don't sit on me --”

Infinite sighs, gets onto the porch, and grabs Squiggles.

“Let go, Squiggles,” he says.

His voice is a little bit aloof, but he is surprised at how quiet and weirdly gentle the command sounds, and even more surprised when Squiggles actually lets go without hesitation.

“Wamp,” Squiggles says, sounding satisfied.

Infinite looks at Amy, trying not to look too self-satisfied, and probably failing. Amy looks a little disappointed, or maybe just unimpressed. Then she pokes him in the leg.

“Tag,” she says and hops away, still pretending to move like a frog, without caring about how much of a fool she's making of herself.

“Wha -- I'm not part of this!”

Squiggles jumps out of his hands and over to the other end of the porch where Amy is. She turns around and croaks, a little tauntingly, but mostly just excited.

“Someone's a sore loser,” Amy says.

“I'm injured,” he hisses.

Even if he was willing to act completely ridiculous to entertain a frog, just one of those stupid hops would probably have him in pain for hours.

“Well, then you walk normally. I'm sure it will add up.”

Squiggles jumps closer, wamps, hops to the side, and watches Infinite with eager eyes.

Infinite shakes his head. “Act like a joke for all you want, I'm not going to be part of this.”

He turns to walk inside again. Amy calls out to him.

“Don't you dare leave without tagging someone,” she warns.

Infinite sends her a look. She sends him a look back, the same flavor, but harsher.

“Just get over yourself and play with your frog,” Amy says.

She genuinely sounds like this is a battle that matters to her.

“She's not --” Infinite starts, wanting to set it straight that Squiggles is not ‘ his frog’ , but then Big is in the doorway, and he stops.

“Whatcha doing?” he asks.

“We were going to play tag, until Infinite decided to be a killjoy,” Amy says.

“I can't hop!” Infinite defends, and then feels stupid.

“I told you, you don't have to hop,” Amy says.

“Tag is fun!” Big says, beaming.

Froggy climbs out from behind Big’s ear and wamps.

Infinite feels a sense of dread climbing up his spine; his chances of getting out of this is minimizing by the second.

In a last desperate attempt to escape, he squints at Big.

“Then you be ‘it’,” he says, puts a hand on Big's arm, says “tag,” and then slips past him through the doorway and away from the dangerous trap that is the porch.

Froggy immediately leaps off Big’s head and joins Amy and Squiggles in the corner, far away from the ‘it’.

“Wait!” Big calls out after Infinite. “No tag inside, please!”

“I'm not part of this. ” Infinite briskly gets some distance between him and the door, and then sits down on his bed to sulk.

A moment later, he can hear the game resuming outside. He really hopes Big isn't going to hop; surely the porch would collapse under that much strain.

Judging from the tremors in the floorboards, Big isn’t hopping in quite the same way as Amy, but the porch might very well give way anyway.

Infinite lies down and is bored on his bed for what feels like a small eternity, but he knows it probably isn’t more than twenty minutes, tops. Then the game of tag seems to mellow down, and Big and Amy talk for a bit, Infinite tries to follow along, but once again, it’s mostly friendly talk and Amy saying goodbye, and that she will be back tomorrow morning, and be good, Squiggles, and see you later, Froggy, and how good it was to see Big again.

Then, after a pause that Infinite assumes must be caused by one of Big’s signature bear hugs, she leaves.

Big comes inside again, Froggy on his head and Squiggles in his hands.

“Do you not like tag?” he asks.

Infinite squints up at Big, who is holding Squiggles over her tank so she can jump back in. Big seems completely earnest.

Infinite opens his mouth, but then he stops, because he knows that explaining why he’s not going to play tag with a bossy hedgehog and a baby frog on a small porch isn’t going to be possible when it’s Big he’s talking to.

“No,” he just says instead.

“You could  just have said you didn’t wanna play,” Big said.

Infinite huffs.

“I sincerely doubt Amy would have taken no for an answer.”

Big doesn’t look too pleased with that answer. His brows furrow, he almost looks upset.

“What?” Infinite asks.

His wariness gives his voice a hostile edge, and he silently reprimands himself.

“But she has been getting so much better at that …”  Big says, mostly to himself.

Infinite opens his mouth to say that if this is better, he really doesn’t want to know what she was like before, but then he takes a look at Big, reconsiders, and decides that’s probably not what Big needs to hear.

“Squiggles was bored,” he says, forcing a shrug.

He can’t believe he’s defending that brat. But he has to admit, it worked. And now Squiggles is sitting in the water with only her face above the surface and looks very much like she’s asleep, even though her eyes are open. Do frogs even have eyelids? Fish don’t seem to, Infinite has noticed that much. He’s pretty sure he’s seen Froggy blink, though.

The point is that Squiggles is back, and calm, and as much as Infinite doesn’t like Amy, he’s very grateful for that.

She did also save his life, he realizes. Or not so much realizes as he realizes the impact of it. How big of a thing that was to do, after everything.

She’s infuriating, that’s for sure. Bossy, loud, way too quick to give her opinion on how Infinite is handling his existence. But he does owe said existence to her right now. And … it’s not like he thought highly of Big in the beginning. And Squiggles can be mildly infuriating too, when she’s sufficiently bored.

Maybe he should … talk to her. Ask her why she did what she did, what she expects from him. Let her know that he’s grateful, if nothing else.

He suppresses a small grimace; she’s made it clear that she doesn’t exactly think highly of him, and he doesn’t particularly enjoy her company either. But he’s supposed to play nice. That has to mean he at least has to try. If she still sees him as an unfortunate detail of the ending of the war, so be it. If she doesn't …

Infinite is honestly more worried about what will happen if she doesn't.

Hostility is easy, it's what he's always known. But if he doesn't want to be seen as an enemy, he has to stop acting like he is one.

Whatever the alternative might end up looking like.

 

Chapter Text

Squiggles is calm enough that Big insists they can leave her alone for a few hours.

“She’s a big frog now! Um. Bigger. She can be alone for a little. We’ll be back later.”

Squiggles barely stirs, only looks up a little. She really does seem tired.

Infinite doesn’t look convinced.

“I guess she can’t cause too much trouble in the tank,” he says, his mouth thin, looking more than a little suspicious.

“Rrrb,” is the only response Squiggles gives.

Infinite squints at her for several seconds, looking for any hint of eyelids.

“You wanna stay home with her?” Big asks, pulling Infinite from his trance.

Infinite shakes his head and looks away from the froglet.

“No, I’ll come along.”

A second later, he realizes that Big might want to go to the big river, and Infinite is not in the mood for a long walk and even less in the mood to be carried home together with whatever giant monster fish Big might end up catching this time.

For a few moments, he thinks about asking Big how far they’re going, but if he shows apprehension, Big is going to insist on carrying him and Infinite doesn’t want to be carried, he just doesn’t want to be at the big river at all. So instead he follows behind with the hope that if Big was planning a longer trip, he would have said so.

Infinite praises his luck when Big follows the little stream down to his favourite fishing spot instead of crossing over and continuing into the jungle.

Big sits down at the shore and throws his line out with a master’s precision. Froggy hops into the water and sits with his head over the surface, and Infinite finds a spot in the shade where he can lean against a tree.

The air is hot and humid and full of the sound of buzzing insects. Infinite bats a large fly away, and Froggy is there immediately, catching it in the air with his tongue.

“Thanks,” Infinite says, and then grumbles, because this is something like the third time he has caught himself talking to a frog today and it is not a tendency he appreciates.

“Ribbit,” Froggy says and hops back into the water.

 

Infinite never means to fall asleep during these trips, it just happens. The atmosphere and the heat and the fact that he isn’t up and about must remind his body of the midday naps in the desert, because every time they’re out at this time of day, he’ll blink awake and realize he fell asleep again.

He rarely used to be the first one to wake up, almost always the second or third -- the moment one of his squadmates stirred, he would too. But Big is so calm and quiet when he fishes, and there’s no other people and no ever gnawing hunger to wake Infinite up from these unexpected naps, no silence to break because the jungle is a constant buzz of noises. The result is that he has absolutely no idea for how long he’s been asleep.

He scans for the sun, and finds it, but he didn’t exactly look for it when he dozed off, so seeing its position doesn’t do much to help. The shade from the trees is too soft and irregular for him to tell if it has moved much. Big’s bucket is almost halfway filled with fish, but it’s never easy to say how long it takes Big to catch anything. The only thing Infinite has to judge by is the uncomfortable crick in his neck. He must have slept with his head half against the tree, half just kind of dangling there.

He rubs his neck, and feels something on his cheek. He rubs it, squints at his glove and the faint wetness on it, then aggressively wipes his mouth and scrutinizes his hand with an incredulous grimace. Has he been drooling?

“Big?” he asks, still looking at his glove.

“M-hm?”

“For how … long do you think we’ve been here?”

Big hums.

“A while?” he suggests.

Unhelpful as always. Infinite shakes his head and wipes his hand in the grass, trying to remove the evidence of that unfortunate little incident. He’s never ever noticed himself drool before, but he has no idea what else it could possibly be, and in this weird jungle, he really doesn’t want to think about it.

He rubs his neck and makes a displeased sound; it’s a different pain than the one he’s used to, new and annoying. He’s having a day with minimal chest pain and of course he has to ruin it, because of the way he fell asleep. How pathetic.

Big makes an unexpected grumbling sound, and Infinite looks up with a start, ready to jump up, but Big is sitting with his eyes closed, chin resting against his chest, and infinite realizes it was not, in fact, a growl, but the beginning of a snore.

It’s a little comforting to know he’s not the only one who finds the heavy jungle air very sleep-inducing, at least.

Infinite leans back against the tree. He leaves Big to his nap; he’s going to wake up the moment a fish bites. Heck, sometimes it seems like he has some sort of sixth sense that makes him wake up the moment before a bite.

Even though Infinite has been in the jungle for weeks, he still keeps getting struck by how peaceful everything is. He had never imagined he would end up in a place with such peace. When he fantazised about a better life, it would be about ruining this kind of peace for others.

He doesn’t know how to feel about that.

The familiar rage boils up in his chest, it isn’t fair that he had to fight and struggle to even stay alive, not fair that when he finally gets a part of this peace it’s with eternal pain in his chest and the threat of death right outside - but it doesn’t fuel him like it used to, now he just feels torn. He didn’t deserve the life he was handed, his squad didn’t deserve the fate they met, he’s certain of that and yet he still doesn’t feel like he’s in the right. He can’t be mad at Big. He wants to, sort of, for having the easy life Infinite was denied, but that really isn’t Big’s fault. Big has nothing to do with it. Big … would probably have wanted to help, if he had been asked.

Infinite didn’t want help, though. He wanted … the time back then feels so distant, he can’t even remember his own reasoning and desires. To punish the world for forgetting him? To make it sorry it abandoned him, to show it he was worth something? He doesn’t know. He doesn’t know anything anymore.

He lets his eye slide shut, lets out a deep yet quiet breath, lets his head fall. It’s not like it matters anymore.

Big’s sixth sense kicks in; his ear perks up, he blinks awake, and a moment later, something tugs at the line.

Big reels it in, grabs the fish, snaps the neck and puts it in the bucket. Froggy shuffles and wamps from atop Big’s head, clearly not prepared to stop napping yet.

“The fish bite real good today!” Big says, then frowns and tries again. “A lot? Are biting? It’s good,” he concludes.

“I’m … glad,” Infinite says, sort of hesitantly.

He doesn’t exactly feel like he’s gotten a lot better at keeping a friendly conversation. Or even being part of one at all.

Luckily, Big is easy to satisfy. He nods so enthusiastically that Froggy almost falls off.

“Lots of fish for Amy!”

“WrAmp!” Froggy complains.

“Oh! Sorry, buddy!”

“Riiibbit.”

Froggy shuffles back in place.

Infinite looks at them, and his expression softens, for a second it seems like he might even be about to smile. He’s a guest here on borrowed time, injured, fearful and in hiding, but he is getting to be part of this peace for now, and he … it’s a bittersweet feeling, but in the middle of it all, he’s glad that he gets to experience this for himself, that he's getting to feel what it's like, just for a while.




About an hour later, Big says that they should probably go home and make sure Squiggles is okay. He gathers everything, including the now full fish bucket, and offers to carry Infinite. Infinite is doing well, he can make the way home himself.

Froggy strays from the path. At one point, he croaks an attention seeking call, and Big turns his head.

“What is it, buddy?”

“Riiiibbit ribbit!”

Big turns around and follows the sound of Froggy, crashing through the undergrowth. Infinite stands on the path and watches Big leave, feeling slightly lost.

A moment later, he can hear Big’s excited voice coming from somewhere in the greenery, and then Big calls out to him.

“Infinite! Come and look!”

Infinite blinks. Then he sort of hesitantly follows the path of destruction that Big has made.

Big is a few metres into the forest, leaning over a small pond. Infinite approaches and looks into the water. Small black dots are swimming around, tails like little twisting pieces of thread, and there's so many of them, the water seems almost alive. He blinks a few times.

“Tadpoles!” Big cheerfully announces.

Infinite had guessed that much.

“Why are they so small?” He asks, squinting. These are way tinier than Squiggles ever was, barely the size of small pebbles, with thin tails and even less signs of any features that could ever become something, Squiggles may have looked like a lump or a potato but these things are just … dots.

“They're very new,” Big says. “And they're going to be small frogs. They don't really understand anything yet, like Squiggles could when we found her. They're kinda like eggs that can look for food … they'll learn thinking soon!”

Infinite looks up with a very sceptical look on his face.

“How would you know whether or not they can think? ” he asks.

“You can just kind of feel it.” Big says with a small shrug, like that is a reasonable explanation for anything. Then he perks up. “We should go looking for more!”

“Wamp,” Froggy says.

“Huh?”

“Wamp,” Froggy repeats. “Wamp.”

“Oh! Yes! We’ll do it tomorrow, then.”

Infinite used to feel like an ignorant outsider for not getting any of what Froggy says to Big; now he’s relieved that he’s at least not that much of a frog-talker. Anything beyond simple indicators of mood and wants is beyond him, and he prefers it that way. He also has a strong feeling that what Big has described to him might in fact a telepathic link. To frogs. And infinite does not want part in that. Squiggles would be using it to yell at him all the time. The amount of screaming she does as it is is already excessive.

“We can come back here later,” Big says, as if it had been Infinite who got distracted by the tadpoles and not himself, “we should get the fish back.”

Infinite pulls away from the path so Big can go back the way he came. Infinite sends one last look at the tadpoles, and then he follows after Big.

As soon as they get back in the hut again, Squiggles pokes her head over the edge of the tank, and starts yelling.

infinite shakes his head, walks over, and holds his hands out so Squiggles can jump aboard.

She immediately tries to climb up his arm. He stops her, and tries to put her back in the tank – or pretends to, at least, just so she knows that he will if she misbehaves.

“Waaamp!” she complains.

“Then stay on my hand, you little bastard,” he says and pokes her belly.

“Wamp.”

She sounds slightly cross, but accepts it, and stays on his glove.

Infinite looks around; Big hasn't followed him inside. He brings Squiggles out on the porch with him to see what Big is up to out there.

He can't see him.

“Big?” He calls.

“What is it?”

Infinite walks across the porch and down the stairsteps to look around, but Big is nowhere to be seen.

“Where did you go?” Infinite asks.

Squiggles slowly reaches forwards with a hand, putting it on the rim of Infinite's glove. Infinite looks down at her. She pulls the hand back again.

“I’m just storing the fish over here,” Big says from somewhere behind the house.

Infinite walks over and looks around the corner. Big is trying to get some large ferns out of the way of a metal hatch.

“Tails made this,” Big says and pours the fish down the hatch. “It keeps stuff cool! It’s super smart.”

“Rrribbit ribbit ribbit!!” Froggy says.

“Huh?” Big leans over the edge, and then lights up. “Oh!! That's my kettle!”

“Ribbit ribbit ribbit!”

“Why … Why was your kettle in the fish hatch?” Infinite says.

Big pulls the kettle up and flicks a fish scale off of it. “I don't know!”

Infinite squints at Big and wonders why he is so weird. Squiggles climbs a little closer to Infinite’s arm. He pushes her back without even looking down at her.

“Squiggles is restless,” Infinite says.

“We should bring her down with us to the small stream when we fish,” Big says.

“She’s going to fall in the water,” Infinite notes.

“We’ll get her back up again.”

 

Squiggles does not fall in the water. She very deliberately jumps in.

They get her back up again.

Chapter Text

They get back home in the early evening with another bucket full of fish, and Infinite sits down on the porch with Squiggles in his hands while Big pulls a bunch of large squared rocks out from under the porch and carries them out to behind the hut. He brings stacks with two or three stones at a time, large granite slabs that Infinite would barely have been able to lift on his own back when he was in his prime.

It takes Big twenty minutes to put up his smoke oven, and then he sits down to clean all the fish.. Infinite helps by putting them on spids once Big is done cleaning them. Squiggles hops around in the mud and tries to catch the bugs that Froggy has already caught. Infinite watches her when he has to wait for Big to finish cleaning another fish, ready to call her back if she gets too far away, but she's content with the area she's in, and Infinite gets to just watch and snicker at her overzealous shenanigans.

Froggy ends up climbing up to the railing every time he catches something; otherwise, Squiggles is going to throw herself at his face, mouth first, to try and steal anything that sticks out of Froggy's mouth.

Froggy is good at climbing and can use the posts to get to the railing. Squiggles cannot. Instead of trying to catch her own prey, she sits below where Froggy is and wails at him.

“Squiggles, there's a beetle right there,” Infinite says. He receives another fish and drives the spid through the gills like Big has shown him. “It's right there, on the stairs.”

“Waaaamp!”

“Don't ignore me, Squiggles. Th -- you just looked at it!”

“Waaaaaaamp waamp,” she wails up at Froggy.

“You could at least try to -- and it flew away.”

Infinite resists the urge to facepalm; his gloves are full of fish.

Froggy catches the beetle with his tongue as it passes.

“WaaAMP!” Squiggles whines.

“Catch your own bugs, Squiggles,” Infinite says.

“Roob roob,” Froggy says. “Ribbit.”

“It's okay,” Big says and removes the guts from another fish, “she can play around for a bit.”

“And beg for Froggy’ leftovers,” Infinite comments flatly.

“Froggy knows how to say no.”

Infinite makes an unimpressed humming sound; Squiggles has gotten a fair share of bug wings and spider legs from Froggy today.

She does eventually get tired of being ignored by Froggy, but instead of going out to catch her own food, she hops up the stairs to where Infinite is, and screams at him instead. Repeatedly telling her that he has no frog food, stop it, does no difference.

Big ends up suggesting that Infinite goes with her, so after all the fish are clean and on spids, Big and Froggy go to smoke the fish, and Infinite gets off the porch to follow Squiggles around.

“Couldn't you eat some of all these mosquitoes,” Infinite asks and bats one away.

Squiggles assaults a pebble.

“That's not food,” Infinite says, without being able to hide an edge of amusement.

“Wamp,” Squiggles says and spits the pebble out again.

“Idiot,” Infinite says with a wry smile.

“Wamp,” Squiggles agrees, sounding satisfied, and charges at a spider.

Squiggles’ method of hurling herself at prey with her mouth open and hoping for the best seems incredibly clumsy compared to Froggy’s projectile tongue, but this time, it actually works.

“There you go,” Infinite says. “See? It's not that hard, you fool.”

Squiggles jumps onto his boot and croaks.

“What?” Infinite says. “Is that all?”

“Womp.” Squiggles squints at him.

Her eyes have become lighter, a pale sky blue, clear against her dark body. She used to be a muddy brown, now it almost seems like she's about to get darker markings … Or maybe she's just dirty, Infinite can't really tell.

“Come on.” Infinite looks down at her. Remembers her eagerness to play a game of tag. “I bet you can't catch … Five bugs, before Big comes back.”

“WAMP!” Squiggles says and propels herself off into the mud.

“You have to stay out here!” Infinite calls out. “You can't go in the forest! Squiggles!” He groans and rubs the bridge of his nose. “It only counts if it's out in front of the hut.”

“Wamp,” Squiggles says from somewhere in the greenery.

“Where I can see you.”

Squiggles hops out of the bushes, wamps crossly, and follows Infinite back to the porch.

Infinite sits down on the stairs.

“All right. Show me what you got.”

Squiggles immediately propels herself into the mud.

She manages three, and then Big comes bumbling back because he forgot something.

Squiggles wamps at him, crossly.

“Huh?” Big asks. “What's wrong?”

“Someone's a sore loser,” Infinite says.

“Waa-aamp,” Squiggles whines.

Infinite crosses his arms and leans forwards. “At least you got more food than you did from bothering Froggy. See? I told you. Maybe next time … If you spend some time practicing hunting instead of begging.”

“You caught bugs?” Big says. “That's great! You're becoming an all grown up little frog soon.”

Squiggles jumps up and sits on Infinite's knee.

“Wamp,” she says.

“I guess we're getting there,” Infinite says, with a look that could almost be described as fond. Then it changes. “Now get off, I don't want you sitting on me. You make everything itchy.”

Squiggles is clearly still in the mood for challenges -- at least, she takes that as one. Not much more than a few moments later, she is perched securely on Infinite’s head, and Infinite has no idea how she managed to dodge all his attempts to grab her, shrug her off, and make her lose her balance.

“Roob,” she says.

“Squiggles!” Infinite shakes his head violently; she stays. He looks around, but Big has gone back to his task and isn’t there to help. “Squiggles … okay, fine. But you have to stay on my hair! On my hair, you understand? No rashes! Stay on top of my hair.”

He really doesn’t know if repeating himself will do any difference, but it works when Big does it, so it’s worth a try.

Evening approaches, Squiggles lets Infinite convince her to go in the tank, and Infinite finds that a good part of his forehead has indeed become itchy and irritated. Squiggles doesn’t even have the courtesy to look just a little bit ashamed of herself.

Most of the food Big serves has been a delicacy compared to what Infinite used to eat, but the smoked fish is one of the best things he's ever tasted. Big looks slightly concerned when Infinite proceeds to eat even the skin of his fish.

“You can have another fish instead if you want to?” Big says.

Infinite wipes his mouth with the back of his hand.

“It's good food,” he says, “there's no need to let it go to waste.”

Big slides him another fish anyway, and once Infinite is done with that, Big, still looking a little puzzled, offers Infinite the skin of his fish too. Infinite eats it all, and when there's nothing but heads and tails and bones left, he picks out the eyes and eats those too.

Big watches Infinite empty the last fish skeleton for anything that might count as edible. Then he nods to himself.

“You're right. It's good to not waste food. Most people just think some bits are gross, I guess.”

Infinite doesn't have an answer to that. He just shrugs.

“I can't eat it if it feels slimy,” Big says. “It feels really bad in my mouth.”

Infinite looks up at Big with a questioning expression, but still doesn't say anything.

“I'm glad you like it though!” Big says. “Are you more hungry?”

Infinite shakes his head. He is more than full, a heavy, comfortable feeling that he's still nowhere near used to, making him feel sleepy and content.

Big gathers whatever fish parts are left.

“I can wash your gloves for you,” he offers, and Infinite slips them off and hands them to Big.

Big goes to clean Infinite's gloves and leave the fish bones out for the scavengers, and Infinite gets up from the porch and walks inside.

Infinite is laying on his bed when Big comes back, resting on his back with his eye pointed to the ceiling.

“Your gloves are outside. Do you wanna play checkers?”

“Maybe later,” Infinite says.

He's very content with lying here right now. He doesn't even feel tired, really. Just calm.

Big does the dishes and talks to Froggy and Squiggles. Afterwards, he goes outside, telling Squiggles that he will be right back and bringing Froggy with him.

Infinite looks up at the palm leaves above, at the last sunlight that reaches through the canopy and makes the veins in the leaves stand out like a skeletal structure. Soon the cicadas will start buzzing, and Big will untie the palm leaves that make up the doorway, closing it to keep the mosquitoes out, and Froggy is going to go hunt for the bugs that just woke up.

Big comes back, as usual, around when the last light has faded, says good night and climbs into bed. It is not long before he starts snoring. Squiggles is thankfully asleep already. Froggy is still outside, catching the last snack of the day. Infinite isn't tired, so he stays awake, lying on his back and savoring the calm and the comfortable feeling of being full. The night sings around him, muffled by the walls.

Froggy comes back not long after, signified by his characteristic plapping sound when he hops across the floor. He climbs up the bedpost and finds his usual sleeping spot above Big’s head. Big doesn't stir. He just keeps snoring.

Infinite lies awake, and he thinks. He thinks about Amy and her choice, and he thinks about strength and weakness, and he thinks about himself. How the last few weeks … Even though his body is broken and his free will is limited and he has to spend his time taking care of a frog, when he thinks about his time in the desert and then his life now … He wouldn't say he is happy, but he does feel… At peace. And yet, he is so very weak. He is good for nothing, he has no purpose anymore. He doesn't understand. He used to be strong, a leader, a ruler, and yet he suffered, and yet he fell, and now, now that he is nothing, he gets to rest, he gets to live in peace, at least for now.

Perhaps, strength is not what he thought it was. Sonic, and that rebel child, despite all odds, they had defeated him. He had seen them as weak, but now he is beginning to suspect that he was never strong in the first place. Maybe he has always been weak, and never known it.

He supposes it does not matter much anymore. Whatever chance he might have had at becoming strong has passed now. This is all there’s left of him.

He lies there in the dark, trying to figure out what he’s feeling, and failing. Outside, it starts to rain. Infinite is awake long into the night, watching the darkness and listening to gentle raindrops dancing on the roof.

He can’t even find it in his heart to be upset.

Chapter Text

Big getting out of bed wakes Infinite up as always, but he’s tired enough that he tries to ignore the fact that he’s awake. Maybe if he just pretends, his brain will be fooled. Miracuously enough, it works, even though Big is moving around and talking to Froggy and Squiggles. Infinite falls back into a light sleep, until Amy’s shrieking voice wakes him back up.

He only barely resists the urge to groan.

When she comes inside, Infinite is only barely sitting up, the blue blanket hanging from his shoulders, he looks like a ramshackle chair degraded to clothes hanger because nobody in their right mind would dare sit on it.

Amy looks at him with her standard look of begrudging acceptance.

“Good morning,” she says, like one would greet at unpleasant business partner.

Infinite breathes in through his nose, then lets the air out with a huff.

“Good morning,” he mumbles, and then turns his back to her and shrugs the blanket off.

Big walks in after her with Froggy on his head.

“Good morning!” he says and ruffles Infinite’s hair in passing. Infinite barely reacts.

Squiggles gets to the edge of the tank where she shrieks a greeting to Amy, and then loudly demands to be let out. Infinite makes a tired sound, gets up and walks over to pick her up. She immediately tries to climb up his arm. He stops her.

Amy is already filling the kettle.

“I will get the fish!” Big says.

Amy thanks him and hands him a plastic bag.

Infinite sits with Squiggles on his glove, looking at Amy, thinking about what to say. He’s absentmindedly wrestling with Squiggles to keep her on the glove -- when did she become so strong anyway? -- frowning to himself, biting his lip.

Amy takes the kettle off, finds a bowl, pours a bit of water in that hasn’t boiled yet. She uses her elbow to feel the temperature, then gets a cloth. She carries cloth and water over and places it next to Infinite.

“Here,” she says. “Clean your face.”

Infinite has to stop Squiggles from immediately aiming for this new body of water. Once he has her under control, Amy has already turned her back again.

He looks at her back, then at the bowl, and then at Squiggles. He shakes his head to himself, and lifts Squiggles up. She immediately aims for the forbidden land that is the top of Infinite’s head, so at least she’s out of the way now.

Infinite picks up the cloth. Looks at it.

“Amy?” he says, and clears his throat a bit.

“Hm?” she says, sending him one of her unimpressed looks.

“I … ” he says, trying not to talk through his teeth, “suppose it is appropriate to … thank you. For saving my life.”

It feels so wrong to say. To admit that his life had been in tatters and the only reason he isn’t dead in the sand is this child who decided it was important to save him, for some unfathomable reason.

He clenches the hand holding the cloth, staring at the droplets dripping down into the bowl.

“I'm … grateful.”

He's a little bit too aware of how his heart beats, quick and tight in the silence, rehearsing his own words, wondering if he shouldn't have, if he said something that will make everything worse, what if she did it to hurt him further, keeping him alive like Eggman did with Sonic, what if now that she knows he wants to live, she'll take it away …

He wringes the cloth, runs it over his eye, he knows he's being ridiculous but he still has to keep himself from trying to flee, get away, undo his words somehow.

“Rrribbit?” Squiggles says.

Infinite can't resist the urge to look up to know Amy’s reaction.

She's sort of just staring at him, an expression of surprise on her face. There's a second’s pause where they're just looking at each other, and then Amy blinks the surprise off and makes a noncommittal hand gesture and turns away.

“Oh come on, I couldn't just leave you there,” she says, trying and failing to sound casual.

“... You could have,” Infinite says and pries the corner of the cloth out of Squiggles’ mouth, still while keeping half an eye on Amy. “Most people would.”

Amy stands, halfway turned away, looking into the distance like she's seeing an unpleasant thought coming and is wondering whether to run or fight it. Then the kettle whistles, and she almost jumps, then quickly darts over and takes it off the heat.

The kettle’s shrill cry slowly fades.

“Well,” Amy starts, a nervous edge to her voice, very much looking at the kettle and not at Infinite, “that's --”

Big's thundering steps up the stairs make them both turn their heads.

“Here they are!” he says, pushes through the doorway and holding the bag up. “We can eat some for breakfast. Amy, do you want breakfast?”

She blinks, takes a second to readjust to the interruption, and then shakes her head.

“I already ate. It’s probably better if we save them anyway.”

Big hands over the bag.

“I wish you could visit longer,” he says, his ears drooping.

Amy nods. “Me too.” Then she looks up and gives him a smile. “But once we have figured everything out, you’ll come help in the city, right?”

Big’s ears perk up again, and he nods enthusiastically. “Yes!! I’ll get to see everyone again! It’s been so long. I miss you.”

The little ear Infinite has left folds down to lay close to his head.

As long as he’s here, Big is going to be just as trapped here as Infinite is.

Infinite puts the cloth back in the bowl, stands up and brings it over to the counter without a word. Then he goes back over to his bed, the bedframe is a flimsy bit of protection against the feelings of Amy’s dislike of him and the fact that he doesn’t belong here.

“Now get down from there, Squiggles,” he mumbles.

“RIIib!”

“I should have seen this coming -- Squiggles, get down.”

“Riiib!”

“Get down!”

“Riiib.”

“Squiggles,” Big says. “Don’t bully Infinite.”

“She’s making sure he doesn’t get a big head,” Amy says and finds three mugs in the cupboard. “I support her.”

“Amy,” Big says, “Don’t bully Infinite!”

“It’s not bullying, it’s womanly solidarity. Besides, she’s got the right idea. Men who has everyone do what they ask for so easily get conceited.”

Big is quiet for a few seconds.

“Can you say that again with smaller words please?” he asks.

“I just meant that I support Squiggles in everything she does,” Amy says. “And if she’s teaching Infinite a lesson in --”

Infinite has managed to get Squiggles off while Amy talks, and Squiggles reacts by immediately hurling herself from his hands and towards his head to reclaim her lost kingdom, but instead she bumps against his shoulder, tumbles down and lands in the palm leaves with a small thump.

She gets on her feet, looks up, and screeches angrily.

“You did that!” Infinite says. “Not me!”

Amy sends a look at the escapades with an expression like she’s trying to decide if it would be appropriate to laugh.

“Why don’t you let her sit on your head, Big?” she asks instead. “You’re basically immune to … everything. And she would be higher up.”

“She likes Infinite best. And … uh ...” Big sends a look at Froggy who is perched between his ears. “I don’t want Froggy to get jealous.”

Amy sighs in an attempt not to chuckle.

“Just be careful he doesn’t lose the other eye, I guess.”

Big turns his head to look at Infinite, genuinely worried.

“I don’t think she’s that much poisonous?” He says with concern.

Froggy croaks a few times.

“You think so? But he’s not a crocodile.”

“What are you talking about?” Infinite asks, sounding slightly wary.

“Froggy was just talking about how the wild crocodiles have all sorts of frogs sitting on their heads, also up in the cliffs where Squiggles is from, but wild crocodiles have very hard scales … I don’t know if it’s the same.”

Infinite makes a tired grumbling noise.

“Great,” he mumbles.

“Just don’t get her in your eye,” Amy says, “and then I’m sure it will be fine.”

“And now she is going to make it her goal to get as much in my eye as she can, ” Infinite says and sends Squiggles a look.

“Wamp,” Squiggles says.

“Have you been that bad of an influence, or are you just being paranoid?” Amy asks, flatly, while pouring tea.

She has just made it her life goal to make things as difficult for me as possible,” Infinite says with a snarl.

“No more!” Big says. “No more being mean about Infinite and Squiggles.”

“I -- What- I’m just saying that --” Infinite starts, but Amy immediately interrupts.

“I’m sorry, Big. We were just joking around.”

“No more,” Big says and shakes his head so the ears flop around his face.

“All right, we’ll stop.” Amy sends Infinite a strict look. Infinite puts some kind of effort into not grimacing at her. Amy blinks at him, disapproving.

He waits with rolling his eye until she’s looking the other way, and then sends Squiggles a stare, because he doesn’t know how she does it, but she will always find the most inconvenient thing to do and he might have to keep quiet about it but he wants her to know that he knows.

Squiggles looks up at him and croaks. She isn’t sorry at all.

Infinite wants to tell her a few things, but instead he reaches out and prods her belly with a finger. She gleefully tries to eat his hand. He shakes his head at her.

Amy pours tea, and when she hands Infinite his mug, it’s without any flat, disapproving glare, she just gives it to him while still talking to Big. Squiggles croaks at her.

“No,” Infinite says, puts the mug down, and picks Squiggles up. “I am not letting you into the boiling hot water , you idiot.”

Squiggles kicks her legs and makes a disapproving sound.

“You’re restless and you’re going to try and jump into my mug, I can tell, ” he tells her while he gets on his feet.

It takes him a small fight to get her to let go and get back in the tank. She swims a lap and croaks loudly -- her croaks are getting deeper and less squeaky, and she never quite got the melodious voice that Froggy has, it’s just deep and booming.

“We’ll take her out on a trip later,” Big says. “She’s growing up. The tank is not where she’s supposed to be anymore, she’s ready to go explore the world on her own soon.”

Infinite looks at the little lump with legs who’s sticking her head out of the water and staring at him in the hope that he’s going to do something exciting.

“And get herself eaten,” he says, quietly and flatly.

“She’s a tough little frog! She’s going to be okay, I promise,” Big says.

Infinite sits down again and takes his mug. Big can’t promise that, and Infinite wants to say it, but Amy is there, he can’t argue with Big now.

“She’s a black poison frog the size of a grapefruit, I highly doubt anything is going to want to try and eat her,” Amy says and sips her tea.

Infinite looks at Squiggles. He doesn’t seem convinced, but he stays quiet.

“By the way,” Amy says to Big. “You haven’t been in Tails’ workshop lately, have you?”

“Nope. I think someone’s living there right now? Everything is a mess.”

“Oh.” Amy looks thoughtful. “No, that was why I asked - I saw there was a mess and went to see what was up, but, there’s nobody there. It’s just empty. I didn’t think you would leave it like that, but … I don’t know who else it could be.”

“Maybe they … left again,” Infinite says. “After everything … ended.”

Amy shakes her head.

“It didn’t look like that last time I came. It has to have been recently.”

Infinite’s eye gets wide.

“That’s weird,” Big says. “I should put Tails’ things back. They’ll get wet if it rains.”

“Someone’s looking for me,” Infinite says.

Amy sighs and rolls her eyes.

“Stop being so paranoid,” she says. “How would they know you had even been here? Most people think you’re dead. It’s probably just someone looking for food or something.”

She looks at him. At his tightened jaw, his eye staring into the mug, the way he sits with his back curled just enough that he resembles a scared animal trying to hide.

She gently shakes her head to herself.

“You’re not going to be hiding here for long anyway,” she says. “Once we get you to the city, everyone will know you’re not an enemy anymore.”

Infinite can’t believe that she actually believes herself, that she genuinely thinks the first person who sees him won’t jump at the opportunity to kill him.

“It’s been really nice having company,” Big says.

“It hasn’t been too much?” Amy says with what sounds like a bit of surprise.

“Infinite is nice and quiet,” Big says, “it’s okay when I don’t have to talk to people all the time. Then I don’t get so tired.”

Amy gives a small smile. “I'm glad,” she says and reaches out to touch Big's arm. He pats her head in response. “You know,” she says while looking at Infinite, “this has all gone a lot smoother than I expected.”

Infinite looks up from his tea to meet a pair of eyes that could almost be described as friendly, or at the very least neutral, ready to make the best of this mess.

Infinite realizes he’s staring, and looks away.

He looks so much less like a relentless monster now that the mask has been replaced with a scarred face and hanging ears, more like a neglected street dog who’s trying to cope with suddenly being inside. Hopefully Shadow will be able to see this too, Amy thinks, and tugs on the label of the tea bag.

Big’s stomach rumbles.

“Breakfast!” he says. “I forgot breakfast again. We need to eat breakfast.”

Amy finishes her tea and puts the mug down.

“I’ll leave you to it,” she says. “I’m sure everyone is excited to get fish to eat,” she says and smiles when Big’s face lights up.

Big picks her up in a bear hug.

“Yay!”

“Is there anything else you need?” Amy asks.

“We’re good,” Big says, and puts her down.

There’s a small pause. Then Amy turns her head.

“And you?”

It takes Infinite a few seconds to realize that she is talking to him. He looks up and blinks. Confusion must be easily readable on his face, because Amy gives him an almost pitying look.

“Resources are sparse, so there’s no gourmet deliveries,” she warns. “But I might be able to gather some stuff if there’s anything you really need.”

Infinite shakes his head, at the same time trying to shake off his bafflement and come with a proper response.

“I … Big has been providing more than well for me,” he says, brushing a lock of hair out of his face and looking down at his hand. “I have everything I need.”

“Well, in that case … I’ll get back to help the others.”

Amy gets one last hug from Big before she leaves. The hut becomes quiet.

Squiggles doesn’t much care for that.

“Wamp,” she says. “Waaamp. Wamp. Ribbit! Wamp wamp wamp.”

“Breakfast first,” Big says. “Then we can go outside.”

Chapter Text

Squiggles keeps yelling while Big cooks porridge. He suggests they take her with them out to the porch while they eat, and Infinite just barely manages to avoid getting a bowl full of breakfast with poison frog.

“Squiggles, I swear to -- you’re going to burn yourself. You’re going to ruin my food! Stop it!”

“WaaaAAAAaaaamp!!”

“No! Go catch a bug. Away with you. Squiggles!”

Big rescues Infinite and Squiggles and the porridge by gently grabbing Squiggles and putting her on his head. Froggy looks up, ribbits quietly, but accepts it.

“Will you stay up there now please?” Big says.

Squiggles tries to hop onto his ear, and almost falls when the platform isn’t solid. Infinite almost throws his bowl as he scrambles to his feet to try and catch her, but the pain in his chest is there immediately, forcing him to his knees before he can make it.

Squiggles is holding on to Big’s ear, dangling like a christmas ornament.

“Oh boy,” Big says. “Maybe we should put her back inside.”

Infinite grits his teeth, pushes the pain away and fights his way to his feet. He grabs her, pries her free, and goes inside.

She refuses to let go of his glove, clinging on and squealing pathetically. Infinite sets his jaw, says nothing, and dangles her above the water, trying to shake her off. She hangs on. Infinite feels rage rear its head, and pushes it down and back, closing his eye and regaining his composure.

Squiggles tries to climb up his arm. He shakes his hand to deter her, and then, fueled by frustration, pulls his glove off and dumps it in the tank with frog attached.

He looks at Squiggles, who lets go and kicks to get to the surface of the water, and at the glove sinking to the bottom of the tank, realizing this might have been a bad decision. But he’s not dealing with it now. If he gets even close to her, she’s going to be clinging to him like a burr again.

He turns and walks back to the porch without a word. Squiggles squeals after him, and he ignores her.

He has to grit his teeth and wait for the pain to stop beating in his chest when sitting down next to Big again.

“She really wants to go adventuring today,” Big says.

Infinite doesn’t respond, just lets out a long, quiet breath of air through his nose, and then starts eating.

They eat breakfast in silence, only broken by Squiggles’ occasional calls of ‘stop ignoring me, I am bored’ from inside. Infinite makes a point of pretending he doesn’t notice. But then she stops screaming, and Infinite can’t help but turn his head, look at the doorway, wondering what made the ever persistent little lump give up.

He scrapes the last bits of porridge from the bottom of the bowl, thorough to get all he can onto the spoon, still while focusing on the lack of screaming.

The moment he puts the spoon in his mouth, there’s a faint scraping sound, and then a loud slapping noise. Big turns his head, puzzled. Infinite makes a face, cringes, and then stands up, trying not to rush himself, and pushes his head through the doorway’s palm leaves.

“Ribb,” Squiggles says, quietly, and shuffles her feet against the wooden floor.

Infinite pulls the spoon out of his mouth and flings it to the ground.

“Squiggles, I swear to every force of this Earth, if you don’t manage to kill yourself today then I’m going to have to,” he snarls with all his teeth showing.

“Infinite--” Big says from outside, sounding a little bit frantic, Infinite can hear him scramble to his feet.

“I’m joking, ” he calls out so Big knows he’s not actually going to hurt her, even though he sort of really wants to right now.

“Don’t be mean to her,” Big calls and pushes his head through the doorway.

“She jumped out of the tank, ” Infinite says and walks over to pick her up.

Big’s eyes grow wider.

“Did you get hurt?” he asks, and Infinite has to take a fraction of a second before he realizes it’s not directed at him.

“Ribbbb,” Squiggles says.

Infinite has never heard that sound before.

“Careful, she hurt her arm,” Big says.

Infinite pauses in the middle of picking her up from the floor and looks up at Big. Squiggles climbs up on his hand on her own - not overeagerly hopping, just climbing up, using her hind legs and only grabbing on with one hand.

Infinite’s teeth lock together, sharp fangs and incisors finding the gaps where they fit between each other, creating a cold ivory wall.

“Serves you right,” he mumbles through his teeth.

He goes over to fish his glove out of the water. Squiggles squeals loudly when he approaches the tank.

“Stop screaming, ” he hisses and pulls his soaked glove up.

“Why did she have your glove?” Big asks.

“Let’s just get her outside already.” Infinite clutches the dripping glove in one hand and walks past Big. “Before she runs off on her own and falls off a cliff and dies.

“It’s okay!” Big says while shuffling after Infinite, “She’s okay, she just hurts a little bit.”

Infinite stares down at Squiggles, and the hand not holding her curls up into a fist, pressing water out of the glove and creating a trail after him.

He slaps the glove down on the rail, making a similar sound to the one Squiggles just made when she threw herself to the floor.

“Ribbit?” Squiggles says, puts her hand on the rim of Infinite's glove and looks up at him.

He looks at her small, ice blue eyes, the faint purple tint under her chin where he can see her breathe, and then he just wordlessly pushes her hand away.

Squiggles grabs onto his finger and clambers onto the back of his ungloved hand and up his arm. Infinite makes a rasping sound, and Squiggles makes a surprised clicking noise when he grabs her and pulls her off his arm.

Big starts.

“No! Be gentle!”

Infinite stares up at Big, then glances at the frog in his hand, and he feels such a strong urge to just throw her, just chuck her into the mud and get rid of her, hurl her so far into the jungle that it would be a journey for her to get back. He stares. Squiggles stares back. She's calm, her chin moving with her breath, she's in her papa’s hand and she's been here before and she's wondering what will happen next, will it be something exciting?

Infinite lifts her up and wordlessly hands her to Big.

“I'm not coming along,” Infinite says.

“What about Squiggles?” Big asks.

Infinite turns around to face the doorway.

“Just please get her away from me.”

“Huh? Infinite?” Big says after him. “Are you okay? What's wrong?”

Infinite pushes through the palm leaves. “Just leave me alone.”

“But-”

“No!” He snaps.

Big starts, almost flinches. Froggy shuffles and looks concerned. Squiggles is unfazed.

Big stands there for a long time, looking at Infinite who curls up in his blanket with his back turned and then lies still. Then Big backs away and shuffles out of the doorway with his tail hanging.

Big’s voice sounds sad when he talks to the frogs, but Infinite just can’t find it in him to care right now, so he doesn’t listen, just waits for Big’s footsteps to fade. Then he lies there, quietly, for a long time, watching the air, while the anger slowly, ever so slowly seeps out of him and becomes something he can control.

He lets a slow, even breath out between his teeth and forces his jaw to unclench. Then he takes another while to just lie there.

He gets up. Feels the pain wake in his chest, slow and heavy beats, and he thinks about it, long and hard, focusing on it, making sure his anger over pain and frogs and his useless body won’t flow over. After several minutes, he walks outside.

He follows the path down to where Big’s favourite fishing spot is, but Big isn’t there. Infinite lets out yet another bitter sigh - it helps him, just a bit, with calming his temper - and then he lifts his head and tries to call.

“Big?” No answer. “Big, are you out here?”

He lifts what little ear he has left, but can hear no response. He shakes his head - Big could be anywhere in the jungle, and Infinite is alone and doesn’t really want to draw too much attention to himself when he’s this far from the hut. Or at all, really; he’s not sure how much the local predatory felines actually respect Big’s private property when he isn’t there to chase them away.

A frog hops across the path, stops, and looks up at Infinite. It’s a small brown thing, half the size of Squiggles, with dull-coloured eyes and nubby skin.

“Do you know where Big went?” Infinite asks.

“Ribbit,” the frog says.

“I,” Infinite says, slowly pronouncing each word to really drive the point home to himself, “cannot - speak - with -   frogs.”

“Roob?” the frog asks.

It hops to the side when Infinite passes, and croaks again. Infinite walks back the way he came. He can’t help but notice a rustling behind him, and when it continues, he turns his head to look back.

The frog is following him.

“Are you serious,” he says to the universe in general.

The frog hops up to where he stands.

“Ribbit,” it says again.

“I’m sorry I asked, ” Infinite says with a strained voice, “because I can’t understand what you are saying anyway, and now you apparently understand me for some reason which is just great.”

The frog makes intense eye contact - Infinite had no idea eye contact with a frog could feel intense - and then it hops to the side, looks at him, and croaks again.

“Ribbit. Ribbit. Ribbit.”

Infinite grimaces and keeps walking.

The frog follows. It hops a few times to catch up with Infinite, then says the same sound, and then resumes hopping to keep up. Infinite ignores it for a whole minute, hoping it will just go away, but the frog simply becomes more persistent, and then it hops in front of him so he has to stumble to not trip over it or kick it, and Infinite gives up, and stops.

“What do you want? ” he says while trying to keep his anger down. The word really is testing him right now -- good , that’s good , he needs to be able to keep his temper under control, he has to -- and he’s wrangling the urge to just kick the frog into the underground with all his might.

“Ribbit,” the frog says again, apparently hoping that if it says the same thing enough times, Infinite will stop being stupid. “Ribbit!”

Then it shuffles backwards, still while looking at Infinite. It keeps eye contact, blinks (solving the mystery of eyelids, those were definitely eyelids), croaks one more time, and then turns around and hops down the path.

Infinite has a feeling where this is going and he doesn’t like it. His fingers curl up, he looks at the frog, makes a face. The frog turns around and croaks yet again.

There’s no way I’m trusting a frog to lead me through this jungle, Infinite’s mind says.

He takes one step closer.

“Ribbit!” the frog exclaims, and then hops further down the path.

Infinite follows the frog into the jungle while his rational mind screams in despair.

 

 

The frog leads Infinite down a path where the mud is a little bit too thick for Infinite’s tastes, but at least it very kindly stops hopping and waits for him every time he has to stop and pry his boot free.

“This better not be a trick,” he tells the frog. He’s basically given up on stopping himself from talking to it by now, he has become a person who talks to frogs, it’s too late for him, this is what he has become.

The frog just waits for him to pull his foot free, and then it hops to lead the way again.

Infinite follows, still not knowing why. They’re on a path. He could probably just turn around and follow it back and make his way home safely. He thinks. Hopes, more like, because he is beginning to doubt that his little tour guide has his best interests in mind. Then the frog hops off the path, and Infinite stops.

The leaves are great and big here, shielding the route the frog took and leaving very little light to see by. The ground slopes upwards just enough that Infinite’s already tired chest would probably not like the ascend. The foliage does seem like it has gotten a bit squished recently, but Infinite feels like Big isn’t the only being who could have done that.

There’s a faint “ribbit” from somewhere in the undergrowth, urging him to keep up. Infinite hesitates. He lifts his nose to try if he can pick up Big’s scent, but the jungle is full of so many thick and heavy smells that it’s hard to really judge -- was that it?

He thinks that was it. He can’t be sure in this jungle where everything is so loud and busy, but …

He follows the frog.

 

 

Big is leaning over a pond, bending so low that his nose almost touches the puddle. Infinite sees Big’s tail first, and slows to a stop.

“Ribbit,” his guide says from somewhere beneath the undergrowth.

Big’s ear perks up. He straightens himself and looks around, scanning the ground for frogs, not really looking at anything above knee height, and thus not noticing Infinite.

“Um,” Infinite says. “... hi.”

Squiggles looks up, and then propels herself forwards with a squeal and no regard for distance and the laws of physics. The result is that she lands in the pond, but she takes that very well and just swims across.

“Infinite!” Big says and trots around the pond.

Infinite reaches down to pick Squiggles up as soon as she’s in range, to deter her from making the climb herself and get her tiny poisinous feet everywhere. The moment he’s upright with her in his hands, Big pulls him into a hug that almost lifts him off his feet.

“Aack--” Infinite almost drops Squiggles when his fight or flight instincts kick in, and he has to use all his self-control to not try to kick Big in the stomach (not that Big would have felt it anyway).

He hangs still in the unexpected embrace while trying to calm his screaming reflexes.

“Infinite! You're here!”

“It's been like half an hour,” he says after getting over the surprise, and then he sputters, because Squiggles is not above taking advantage of Infinite’s current situation, and now his nose is being used as a stepping stone so she can get to her favourite spot on top of his head.

Big lets him go.

“I didn’t know you were here! Did you come here all alone?”

“No, I … ” Infinite stops, because he’s not sure he is willing to admit how he got here.

But apparently, the universe is determined to draw Infinite all the way into mingling with frogs, because his guide hops out of the shrubbery and croaks.

“Mister hoppler!” Big says. “Did you show Infinite the way? Thank you!”

“Waaaamp,” the frog says, blinks, and then hops off into the greenery.

Big turns to Infinite.

“Is everything okay?” he asks.

“Ah. Um.” Infinite gathers himself. “Yes, I … just needed a break. I’m okay now, Squiggles, get off my head.”

“She missed you,” Big says and pats Infinite’s shoulder, now that his head is full of frog.

“Missed bothering me,” Infinite mutters under his breath, but Squiggles willingly lets go when he grabs her.

She looks up at him and croaks loudly.

“We were looking at the tadpoles,” Big says. “I went here to pour water on these so they wouldn't dry out, but we can go back to closer to home and see some of those there, I am done now.”

Infinite has to take a moment to find head and tail in that sentence, and by the time he figures out what Big just said, Big has already grabbed Infinite’s free hand and dragged him along.

Chapter Text

Big drags Infinite all the way back to the hut, so really Infinite could have just stayed back with the same result, and then Big pulls him past the hut and shows him the safe way through some thick mud and they go into the undergrowth until the ground becomes so wet that Infinite is afraid he’ll sink in and lose his entire leg instead of just a boot. Big does not mind being in mud to the knees one bit.

“Many of Froggy’s friends like to come here when they lay their eggs,” Big says, “Then I can look after them a bit too. Look! Tadpoles!”

The ground is dotted with pools and ponds, plants competing with the water, and Infinite sees several frogs move around in the reeds. The water is muddy and alive with tadpoles.

Infinite tries to find solid ground to stand on.

“Squiggles, don’t get lost,” he says.

Squiggles jumps over to another frog and gleefully croaks at it. She’s way bigger than it is. It croaks back, and then hops away. She jumps into the nearest puddle and swims a lap.

“The toads like to be here a lot,” Big says. “Hello, Nubble. This is Nubble, he’s been here since I first came. He’s a toad.”

“He looks like a frog,” Infinite says.

“Toads are a special kind of frog.”

Big lets Nubble hop onto his hand.

The toads seem to have the same hunting strategy as Squiggles does, only they quietly wait for prey to come close. Froggy catches darners in the air and keeps from the bugs close to the ground. Squiggles crashes through the reeds and scares everything up, and judging by the croaking, it sounds like she is quite unpopular with the other ambush hunters. Infinite witnesses her jump after a bug that another toad is slowly approaching, immediately scaring the prey away. Infinite sighs.

“You’re determined to not learn a thing or two from them?” he says.

“Wamp!” she says, sounding proud, and then she repeats the stunt with another frog’s lunch.

The other frog hops at her face and seems to try and munch on her head, even though she’s something near twice its size. Infinite can only assume it’s a scolding.

“Well, now they’re mad at you,” Infinite says. “I hope you’re happy.”

Squiggles sets her eyes on another poor unsuspecting victim. Infinite sighs.

“Come on, Squiggles,” he says. “Let’s … explore over here instead.”

He can’t believe it actually works, but she immediately follows him. He leads her away from the densest frog gathering and to a little, still pond hidden behind a large cluster of water docks. Infinite makes sure there are at least some other frog around, just to make sure a frog-murdering monster doesn’t reside here, but a little toad is sitting on a rock, a frog peeks up from under the water, and occasionally a tadpole skims along the surface before it dives down again.

The ground is also less soggy here.

“All right,” Infinite says, “do your worst.”

Squiggles hops around awkwardly and actually manages to catch a few flies. Then she hops around a bit, looks up at Infinite, and squeaks.

“Go catch some more food,” he says.

She tries to jump onto his boot and climb up, but she slips in the mud, and Infinite ever so gently kicks his leg so she tumbles off and into the pond.

Big is talking to the frogs while Froggy hunts. He occasionally looks over at where Infinite is, making sure he seems okay. Then he takes a small round where he looks into every pool to check on the tadpoles and see how far they’ve developed.

A loud splashing noise gets Big’s attention, and he looks up, scans after Infinite, excuses himself to miss Leapy and pushes through the foliage.

Infinite basically tumbles out of the water docks, his arms soaked and his legs dripping with mud, holding a very displeased Squiggles who squeaks for him to let go of her.

“She ate a tadpole!” Infinite exclaims.

“Oh. Oh boy!” Big says. “Squiggles! This is a safe frog place. Don’t do that.”

Infinite sputters something incoherent. Big carefully pats Infinite’s head.

“It’s okay -- she shouldn’t do that, but they’re not thinky frogs yet so it’s not too bad, and we forgot to tell her.”

“She ate a tadpole! ” Infinite says again, staring down at the frog in his hands with an unreadable expression. SHE was a tadpole! Like a week ago! Absolutely ten times the size of these tadpoles but she was still a tadpole and now she ate one.

Squiggles squeaks again and struggles to get free, not seeing any problem with her sudden act of cannibalism.

“It happens sometimes,” Big says, apologetically. “Squiggles, don’t eat other frogs. That’s not nice.”

“RiiiiiEEEEBBBbbt!!” she says.

Not a frog. Small water meat thing.

Infinite blinks rapidly. Looks down at Squiggles.

Then he stiffly shakes his head, slowly yet with aggression towards the world and everything in it.

“No,” he says. “That’s enough. We are going home.”

“Wamp!”

A totally normal croak, just a sound, a sound that comes out of a frog and Infinite decides that he’s just not had enough sleep today and he’ll never think about that again, and then he turns around and marches back to the hut.

“You’re going back in your tank,” he says.

“Infinite?” Big asks.

“Just … stay out here. Do your thing.”

“Um. Okay. See you later?”

Infinite just nods and keeps walking. Squiggles makes a disgruntled sound and tries to wrestle free, but Infinite has a good grasp on her, and all she manages is to get one arm out between his fingers that she can try and slap him with. Infinite would probably have been amused if he wasn’t too out of it over Squiggles’ newly discovered cannibalistic tendencies to really think of anything else. As it is, he ignores her all the way back.

 

Infinite deposits Squiggles back in her tank. She's been trying to wrestle free the entire way home, and she only realizes that now it would be a better idea to hold on when it is too late. She hits the water with a splash.

Infinite shakes his hand, the one with no glove, it feels numb and itchy. He lets out a low growl.

“Wamp!!” Squiggles complains. “Wamp wamp wamp waamp!”

“No,” Infinite says. “You’re staying in there.”

He finds a bowl in the cupboard, fills it with water from the water bucket, and puts his hand in it, hoping he can wash out the poison a little.

“Wamp!” Squiggles says again. “WAMP!”

Infinite steadfastly ignores her.

She keeps screaming.

“You’re horrible,” he mumbles through his teeth.

He picks up the bowl and carries it outside. Squiggles does not take well to him leaving her line of sight. Infinite pours the water out over the railing while he grimaces, because Squiggles is very very determined to get his attention and he knows she isn’t going to stop any time soon and he just wishes he wasn’t forced to go through all of this nonsense.

Of course, the frog he is being ordered to raise turns out to be a cannibalistic, poisonous menace.

The moment he walks in again, Squiggles gathers all her power and somehow manages to yell even louder than before.

“Shut up!” Infinite hisses, needing all his willpower to not yell at her.

“WaaAAAaaamp!!”

Infinite pointedly goes to lie down, pulling his blanket over his ears and turning his back to her. She keeps yelling, demanding to be let out, demanding that something entertaining happens. Infinite so wants to tell her that there’s no playtime for horrible frogs and the more she yells the more horrible she becomes, but that’s stupid, talking to frogs is stupid, so he just keeps ignoring her until she finally, finally shuts up.

There’s two minutes of peace where all that is heard is some gentle splashing sounds, and then Infinite becomes too suspicious. He sits up with narrow eyes, turns around, and Squiggles is dangling over the corner of the tank, one leg and two hands outside, and Infinite growls and steps forwards just as she falls and bumps into the nightstand, and she would have tumbled to the floor is he hadn’t caught her.

“Ribbit!” she says with satisfaction and tries to jump from his hands.

“That’s enough,” he says, his voice cold and chilling.

He lifts her up and lets go, and she falls into the tank with a splash. While she rights herself, Infinite starts to move her sticks out of the tank and push her bits of bark into the water, until finally, she has no way of reaching the tank’s edge again.

“Now stay in there .”

Squiggles swims up and puts her little red-toed hands on the glass.

“Wamp!!” she complains.

“You’re vile,” Infinite says.

Then he turns his back and returns to his bed.

“Wamp,” Squiggles says. “Wamp! Wamp! Wamp!”

Infinite ignores her.

“WaaAAAaamp!!”

She starts out disgruntled, then she keeps making more or less the same annoyed sound for what feels like an eternity, and then finally, she quiets down a little, only occasionally letting Infinite know that she still wants something to happen and it has to be now. Every time, Infinite thinks she’s finally stopped, and every time she disappoints him. Then she increases her croaking again, sounding more whining and pitiful. Infinite grimances. He’s not going to fall for that.

“Riiib!” She whines. “Ribbit? Riiib!”

“Forget about it,” he mumbles.

“Riiiibbit!! Riib? Riiib!”

She becomes louder and louder and more and more whining and it grates in Infinite’s ears, but he’s determined to shut her out.

“RrrriiiiiIIIIIIIiiiiIIIIibbbbbbbb!”

“Why are you like this,” Infinite hisses.

“RIBBIT! Riib riib riiIIIIb!”

“Forget it!” Infinite snaps. “It’s not happening! I’m not letting you out! You’ve caused enough trouble for today.”

“Riiibbbit!”

“Just let it go, Squiggles. Stop it!”

“Ribbit ribbit ribbitttt.”

“Give up! Just give UP already. Because I won’t, so you might as well--”

“RiiiIIIIIIIBBB!”

Infinite ignores her, and she keeps whining, and finally, Squiggles opens her mouth and lets out a long, thin screeching sound.

“WeeeeeeEEEEEEEHHHHH!”

Infinite shoots up, turns around, and stares her down.

What is wrong with you?” He snarls. “No alarm calls! You KNOW that!”

WEEEEEEEEEEEHHHHHHHHHHH!!

Outside, Infinite can hear the other frogs join in with the screams, and he glares daggers at Squiggles.

“Look what you’ve done! Now everyone is freaking out!”

“WEEEEEeeeeeeeeehhhhhhhh!”

“Stop it!”

By the sound of thunderous footsteps, Big has been alerted by all the screaming, and he comes crashing inside a moment later.

“What is it, what’s wrong?” he asks, his eyes wide, looking around for any sign of danger.

“Squiggles is just throwing a tantrum-- gah!!”

Infinite is pushed out of the way as Big storms over to the tank and picks Squiggles up. Infinite’s ears press close to his head. She got what she wanted. Great.

“You made Big worried,” Infinite says with a narrow look at Squiggles.

Froggy croaks loudly.

“Why is there no sticks anymore?” Big asks, looking around the tank.

“She kept climbing out,” Infinite says and crosses her arms.

“Oh,” Big says, “oh boy. That’s … that’s no good. Oh no, I should have remembered to say that. Oh, it's good you called, Squiggles.”

What?”

Big turns to Infinite, and his expression is so haunted that Infinite has to keep himself for taking a step back, he has no idea what Big is so riled up over.

“She’s not a tadpole anymore. Grown up frogs can’t breathe underwater.”

It takes Infinite a few seconds where he just stares, things cycling through his head, she can swim, though, but then again, she always sits on the sticks when she sleeps, and then his stomach drops and it feels like nullspace has manifested in his chest because how long has it been? An hour? More? And Squiggles is curled up into a tiny little frog lump in Big’s hands with her head held low and her eyes almost shut, her chin moving rapidly. She’s exhausted. Infinite doesn’t notice that his hand has moved up to cover his mouth before he feels his own claws dig into his face.

“I keep forgetting to tell things because I’m bad at telling things.” Big sounds heartbroken. “Why am I so bad at remembering to tell things?”

“I … Squiggles --”

Infinite steps forwards, and Squiggles immediately perks up, squeals and backs away from him. Infinite stops dead in his tracks. Squiggles stares at him from behind Big’s thumb, and Infinite stares back, and all his doubts about whether or not he’s imagining her emotions are gone because he knows that look all too well, and it is fear.

“It’s okay now.” Big says. “She’s okay! She’s okay, and now I told - and we will put the sticks back! It’s all, we figured it out, and Squiggles is okay now.”

“I’m … I'm sorry,” Infinite whispers, hearing the words without realizing he has said them.

Froggy hops from Big’s head to his shoulder and begins croaking gently and steadily.

“Wamp wamp wamp wamp, wamp wamp wamp wamp,” he says.

“She is okay now,” Big says again. “She is okay.”

Infinite just stands, still as the trees outside, staring at Squiggles and realizing everything that just happened, her cries, oh god, and red-tinted images of flailing limbs and the sound of splashing water and a body sinking, reaching for the surface until there’s no more energy for fighting, watching with half an eye and bored disinterest as the now limp figure is pulled from the water so the cycle can start anew -- and if Big hadn’t come, then …

And now she’s staring at him. Scared.

“I’m …”

But he can’t fix this with words, he can’t.

Big puts Squiggles down on the nightstand, and she hops over to the edge of it, tucks her legs in, and sits down. Big begins to carefully put every stick back in place.

Infinite kneels down on shaky legs, trying to look Squiggles in the eyes, but she squeals and hops away to hide on the other side of the tank, he can vaguely make out her pale blue eyes through glass and water.

Big is methodical and thorough with placing the sticks properly, but when he’s done and calls for Squiggles to put her back, she squeals and jumps away.

“It’s okay now,” Big says. “The sticks are back, you won’t drown.”

Infinite’s chest grows cold at the word.

“Riiibbb,” Squiggles whines and positions herself so close to the edge of the nightstand that Infinite is afraid she’s gonna fall.

“Okay,” Big says. “It is safe now, but you can wait if you don’t want to.”

Big looks up and sees Infinite, who is still sitting on his knees, tail hanging and expression haunted, just staring at Squiggles, who moves back to hide behind the tank.

“I’m sorry,” Big says, “I didn’t know I forgot to tell you that.”

“I didn’t -- I thought she was just … being like … like that. I don’t --” his head turns to stare at Big. “Why did you ask me to do this? I can’t do this.”

It sounds more desperate than accusatory.

“It’s not your fault,” Big says. “I’m so bad at telling all the things because I don’t know what will be important, I’m sorry.”

Infinite shakes his head.

“She was -- she was crying after me, you would have understood her.”

His voice is a trembling hiss, his eye fixed on the vague frog shape hidden behind the glass.

… “Do you need a hug?” Big asks.

“No.”

Infinite gets on his feet, turns around and walks outside.

He sits down at the edge of the porch, resting his feet on the first stairstep, and closes his eye shut.

When Big comes to sit next to him, Infinite just ignores it.

“Are you sure you don’t need a hug?” Big asks.

“Go comfort Squiggles,” Infinite says. She’s the one who almost -- he cringes, makes a face.

“Froggy is with her.”

Infinite doesn’t respond to that, just continues to stare into the air. Images keep forcing their way into his head, limbs reaching for the surface, a gloved hand replaced with a foot with small red toes, a humanoid shape becoming small and amphibian, and he can’t stop them, and he wants to claw his own mind out and tear the thoughts apart until they stop coming.

He feels sick.

Big sits there for a while, and then he tries what usually works: reaching out and petting Infinite’s head. Infinite doesn't flinch, or protest, doesn’t really react at all, and Big decides to hope that that’s a good sign.

“I'm really sorry,” Big says after a long while.

“It's my fault,” Infinite says. “I should have listened to her. I should have listened --

“Please no more being mean to yourself?”

“But it's true ! I should have listened when she cried out for me! She was scared, Big, and I just …” He sees himself hang three feet in the air, watching with little care, turning his head away and rolling his eye, thinking it was a waste of time, silly, a ridiculous form of entertainment that had no appeal to him, scoffing at the doctor -- not even once sending a thought to the body in the water, to the fear, to the toll.

He hides his face in his hands. “I just ignored her.”

Big needs all his willpower to not just try and hug it better. He gives Infinite's shoulder a small squeeze instead.

Infinite feels the power in the giant hand being so careful not to hurt him. He can't believe after all this, Big is worried about him.

“I'm a horrible frog parent,” he says and chokes a bitter laugh; he can't believe he just said that.

“You've been really good at it though.”

Infinite sends the flattest look up at Big. Then he scoffs.

“It's true!” Big says. “She likes you so much. You've been so good at playing with her and looking after her. You're so good friends.”

Infinite turns his gaze down. He doesn't exactly agree, and he's pretty sure Big is saying that just to cheer him up because Big can't take when anyone is sad, not even a horrible neglectful failure of a villain who destroyed a whole world and can’t figure out how to not kill things.

“It's not like it matters anymore,” Infinite says through gritted teeth, letting his gall spill. “I've screwed it up and she's afraid of me now, I guess I've taught her that everyone will hurt her eventually.”

“Infinite,” Big says, and the reprimanding edge almost feels good, validating. “Don't talk like that. We can still make it okay.”

How?” Infinite asks. “She's scared of me.”

“Give her some time. Me and Froggy will talk to her. She'll forgive you when she knows you didn't mean to hurt her.”

“You don't know that.” Infinite's voice is quiet, his resentment to himself worn down into a dull, festering thing.

“Of course she will. She loves you.”

Infinite can't help but send Big another sneering look, but Big is open and earnest as always, and Infinite just turns his head away again.

 

When Big asks again, Infinite yields and lets Big give him a hug.



Squiggles doesn't want to go back in the tank. She whines, shuffles, makes herself look small and pathetic.

“But your skin is going to dry out,” Big says. “You can't be out in the mud, it's getting dark out, it's not safe.”

“Riiibbbb bb …”

“It's not because you have to,” Big says, “but you're getting all dry.”

“Ribb!”

“Just a small soak?”

“Riiep.”

“If I hold you the whole time?”

“Riiiiiebb!”

It's so different from her normal sound of defiance, small and thin and shrill. Infinite watches Big’s attempt to bargain, while a shadow of a frown pressing his face into a dull, numb expression. Frogs need to stay wet, Big has explained, so their skin can breathe properly. Whatever that means. It sounds bizarre, but Infinite can gain from Big’s tone that it's important. But Squiggles won't get near the tank. She let Big pour a handful of water over her earlier, but she won't get in the water, and evening is approaching, and by Big’s worried expression, Infinite can gain that a whole night without water won't be good for her.

Infinite would stay up to pour water on her, if that was what it took, but she still won't let him approach her. Every time he gets close, she squeals and hops away and stares at him like she expects him to lunge at her and grab her and force her back under water.

Infinite has stopped trying.

Big takes a break from negotiating. They still haven't had dinner, and Infinite can tell from how distant Big is when he chops the ingredients that his mind is on Squiggles and nowhere else.

He doesn't even finish chopping before he asks her again, but the result is the same. And again when he's done chopping. And then before he goes out to get the fish.

Infinite can hear Big talk to Froggy outside, hushed and worried, and he's almost certain Froggy's tone is the same.

He looks over at Squiggles. He can tell why Big is worried. Her black skin is supposed to be shiny, shimmering like a rock right after an ocean wave has washed over it, but it is dull-looking now.

After a long moment of taking in Squiggles’ lack of sheen, the sound of Big’s worry from outside, the fallout of Infinite's mistake, Infinite gets up and walks over to the kitchen counter. Gets the bowl he had used to soak his hand in earlier.

Squiggles whines when he gets near, and jumps away. He tries not to look at her, he can't take that look, it reminds him too much of the expression of so many people back when he…

He scoops up water with the bowl and places it down next to the tank. He wants to push it closer to Squiggles, but he heeds Big’s word to give her space and leaves it on the other side, away from her, and then retreats back to his bed.

It’s hard to resist looking over, but Squiggles is still hiding the first time Infinite has to peek over his shoulder. Ten minutes later and she still hasn’t moved. The third time Infinite looks, she’s sitting somewhere else, but still far away from the bowl and from him.

He didn’t actually expect it to work, but he had still hoped it would. He doesn’t like that Big seems so on edge about Squiggles. It makes him worry too. But she won’t go near the water, and Infinite isn’t helping by looking at her every five seconds while hoping she has a sudden change of heart.

Maybe Big can use his diplomatic skills later. As it is now, Infinite isn’t doing any good by lying here.

Infinite gets up and walks outside.

Big is cleaning a fish. He looks up when Infinite walks outside.

Infinite sits down next to him.

“Need help with anything?” he asks, not even masking the tiredness in his voice.

“I’m gonna pick the bones out,” Big says, sounding slightly apologetic.

Infinite makes a small grimace; he hates doing that.

Big keeps to his task, and Infinite just sits there, uselessly, looking into the jungle where the dark seeps through the trees like a creeping fog, surrounding them from all sides. Infinite smells the air. It’s going to rain soon.

“How can you even see them in this light?” Infinite asks. “The bones,” he clarifies, because Big sent him one of his confused looks.

“Um. I shouldave done it earlier.” Big looks down at the fish in front of him. “I forgot to think about the light.” Then he looks up at Infinite again. “Will you get my lantern maybe? It’s under the bed. And the matches.”

“Do you know approximately where under the bed?”

“Next to the post, where my head is.”

“Which side?”

“Right!”

Infinite stands up. “I’ll try.”

“Thank you!”

Infinite goes inside, and immediately perks up, lets out a relieved huff, and almost, almost smiles. Squiggles is sitting in the bowl with her head above water and her feet resting over the edge.

He does have to get quite close, though, to get to the spot where the lantern is. He can see it, right next to the nightstand, under the bed - he might even have to move the nightstand to get to it. He considers aborting the mission, now that she’s finally in water, but he really doesn’t want fish soup with bones in it.

Instead, he tries to ignore her, keeps his back turned as much as he can, tries not to peek at her. There’s a scrambling noise when he approaches, followed by splashing, and he pauses, forcing himself not to turn. He looks out of the corner of his eye to see Squiggles, out of the bowl, crawling away from him, while her makeshift kiddie pool rotates in place, considering if it wants to fall over or not.

Infinite reaches out and pushes it back into standing position. Squiggles spilled most of the water when she jumped out, but Infinite lets mess be mess for now and gets down on hands and knees to reach for the lantern.

He has to push the nightstand a little bit away. Squiggles squeals.

“Sorry,” he mumbles.

He pushes a neatly folded piece of knitwear out of the way and pulls the lantern out, puts it down on the floor, reaches back in to grab the matches.

When he stands back up, Squiggles is peeking at him from behind the tank’s corner. Infinite makes brief eye contact, then quickly looks away. He puts the matches down on the bed and goes to get a cloth.

He makes sure to walk in a circle around Squiggles, and doesn’t look at her while he cleans the mess she made. He can see out of the corner of his eye that she hops back to hide behind the tank, but he keeps pretending she isn’t there. Then he fills the bowl again, puts it back, grabs lantern and matches and goes outside again.

“Thank you!” Big says and pats Infinite’s head. He barely has to lift his arm to reach, even though Infinite is standing.

Big lights the lantern and places it between them, then leans down to continue his task. Infinite watches the flame, saying nothing. A moth flutters close, bumping into the lantern, and Froggy catches it with his tongue.

Infinite looks down at Froggy, who swallows the moth with a satisfied look on his face.

“Any chance you can catch me a peace offering?” Infinite asks idly.

“Ribbit?”

But Infinite has gone quiet again.

 

When they go back inside, Squiggles is back in the bowl. She perks up a little, putting both hands on the edge of it, and Infinite tries not to stare, but he’s very afraid she is going to topple it over and fall out and possibly get hurt.

“Squiggles!” Big says, happily. “Oh, did Infinite get that for you? That’s really good! Is it okay if I move it so it won’t fall?”

“Ribb?”

Big moves the bowl to the floor, Squiggles included. Infinite sits down on his bed with his side turned, trying to seem like he’s ignoring Squiggles but not Big. He tries to look over once, but she immediately ducks down behind the rim of the bowl, staring over the edge with bright blue eyes almost glowing in the low light. Infinite keeps his back half turned after that.

He wants to say something, to her or to Big, but he doesn’t know what.

Big cooks soup, and Infinite goes with him to sit on the porch. If the jungle wasn’t so full of beasts, he would have asked if he could sleep out here tonight. Give Squiggles some space.

After eating, Infinite stays out for a little longer. Big takes Infinite’s empty bowl and leaves him with the lantern. Froggy is climbing on the stairsteps, moving in and out of Infinite’s field of vision. Infinite stares at the flame, at the bugs circling the light, how the shadows hop and dance, and he doesn’t even bother to bat away the mosquitoes that circle his ears.

Froggy reappears and climbs up to the porch. In his mouth, he is holding a large, shimmering black spider, its legs twitching and spasming as it struggles for its life. Infinite looks at Froggy and at the bug, and there’s a long moment where that’s all he does, but then he carefully reaches out and grabs as many flailing legs as he can.

Froggy lets go of the spider, and Infinite grabs it and crushes its head.

“Thank you.”

“Wamp.”

The spider’s body is about the size of a large acorn, and even though Infinite had taken care to only crush the head, there’s still visible blood on his glove.

“What a catch,” he mumbles.

Then he gets up, grabs the lantern, and goes inside.

Squiggles pokes her head up from over the edge of the bowl. Infinite stands in the doorway, awkwardly, looking down at the dead spider, trying to find the best way to present his peace offering. He cannot very well leave a crushed spider in the middle of Big’s floor … especially not one this size. It would create a miniature replica of a massacre if someone stepped on it.

He walks over, trying to not look too much at Squiggles, but she still jumps out of the bowl, causing it to rock while water splashes onto the floor.

Infinite puts the spider next to the bowl and wonders, for a moment, if he should say something, but what is there to say? He turns away.

He throws a look at his bed, but he’s not ready to lie down yet, he really isn’t, so he goes outside again, and leaves the lantern behind.

“Infinite?” Big says. “Don’t you want some light?”

“Too many mosquitoes,” he says, half-heartedly.

He doesn’t want to see or be seen by the world right now.

“Don’t stay out too long!” Big says. “It’s dark out.”

“I won’t.”

Infinite sits down right outside the doorway, pulling his knees close, his tail moving to rest next to him. He stares into the night, dark shadows moving against even deeper blacks.

There, in the dark, the thoughts untangle, move to create one solid thought, and it circles him like a shark cycles prey, looking for the best angle to take a bite, and finally, he dares to fully form it in his mind.

Squiggles almost died.

He almost killed her.

And it wasn’t even on purpose.

He lets out a shaky breath and hides his face near his knees. It … this has to be some cruel joke. A punishment. And what could be more cruel than to make him care for something so feeble, something that clearly would never last?

What could be more fitting?

There will always be someone stronger. The biggest spider is no match for Froggy and the biggest frog can’t rival whatever is to prey on them and there’s always something stronger than you. Even with unrivaled power … Not even with the stone that made him the master of reality itself was he safe.

And Squiggles is so small.

Even when he wasn’t trying to hurt her, even then she wasn’t safe from him. How would she survive an attack? How will she survive?

Watch something destined to fail as she grows to trust and love you.

It’s only a matter of time.

He sits there for longer than he probably should, wallowing in his own misery, until he’s pulled out of his homegrown trance.

“Ribbit?”

He lifts his head just enough that he can peek over the edge of one knee. Then he blinks, an ear perking up ever so slightly.

It really is her.

Squiggles hops over to his shoe, her little blue eyes reflecting the weak light coming from inside. Infinite stares at her, eye wide, for a long second.

“Rooib?” she says and shuffles her feet.

Infinite uncurls himself from his ball of misery and ever so slowly, ever so carefully, reaches out to Squiggles - why are his hands shaking? - and she doesn’t jump, but she does put lift a front leg and puts it on his finger, and with all the tenderness he never knew he had, he picks her up and holds her in his palms.

“I’m … I’m sorry,” he says. “I’m … so sorry.”

“Rrrrriibb,” she says.

He doesn’t know what that means, but it doesn’t matter. She’s here. She’s not fleeing from him. She’s alive. Infinite holds her close to his chest, as close as he can without trapping her or touching her with anything but his gloves, his hands making a loose platform right in front of where the phantom ruby rested once, presses his eye closed, and just sits, and she just sits as well, gently croaking now and then, noncommitted and without passion behind it.

“I’m sorry,” he mumbles in a whispering mantra. “I’m sorry … I’m sorry.”

“Rrrrb.”

“I …” He looks down at her. I can’t keep you safe.

Her eyes are blue and bright and she looks up at him and puts her red-toed hands on his fingers and croaks.

He can’t help but think that maybe she’ll be lucky. Or not thinks, hopes, because it’s so unlikely, why would exactly she stay safe, and luck is only just that, luck -- but he can’t help it, he can’t just look at her and also just give up, and maybe that’s how the resistance stayed afloat, maybe that’s how everyone managed to keep fighting back, kept believing they had a chance. Because they had to. He should accept it, that Squiggles is small and fragile and in this world there’s no way she will be lucky enough to make it … but he just can’t. He just can’t help but hope. Wish. He can’t just … give up on her.

He huffs and shakes his head. So this is the feeling that allows the feeble to persist. Fear-driven delusions that just maybe, everything will work out. Even though it’s so unlikely …

Perhaps the resistance were not clueless at all to the impossibility of their task. They simply had no choice. And, well -- it worked out for them. A bitter smile curls at the corner of his mouth. Maybe it will work out for Squiggles too.

She certainly has the same lack of regard for her own mortality as Sonic shows.

He supposes he has to cling to that hope, now that he’s one of them.

“Come on,” he says. “Let’s go back inside.”

“Ribbit,” Squiggles agrees.



Infinite was expecting Squiggles to hop back into her bowl, but when he puts her down, she hops over to his foot, and then she follows him over to his bed.

“We have to sleep now,” Infinite says.

Squiggles stares.

“You can just be in the bowl tonight,” Big says. “It’s okay.”

Squiggles keeps staring.

“What do you want?” Infinite asks. He almost sounds concerned.

“Rrrrrriib.”

“You can’t climb on my head if that’s what you’re after,” he says. There has to be some ground rules. “You need to be in water. And I need to not be poisioned by your … little feet.”

That is the worst and most stupid thing he has ever said and he wishes he hadn’t held back the initial insult, but now he has said it and it was horrible, never again, he’s just going to have to keep calling her mean things, it’s better that way.

Squiggles keeps staring.

“Squiggles,” Big says gently. “It’s bedtime now.”

She blinks. Infinite sends her a suspicious squint. Does she have transparent eyelids? That explains why he couldn’t tell if she had any. Why are frogs so weird.

He sort of just wants to lie down and go to sleep and let her do her thing, because he can’t tell what she wants, but after today, that seems like … a bad idea.

“Could you … tell us. What it is you want.” Infinite says.

“Rrribbt,” she says.

“She says there isn’t anything,” Big translates.

Infinite, at a loss for what else to do, takes a long moment to just stare back. He’s not sure what he expected it to accomplish, but nothing happens, which isn’t surprising. Then he picks her up. She accepts this. He walks over and puts her into the bowl.

“Bedtime,” he says.

She sits in the bowl and looks at him. He turns around to go back, and she hops out again. He stops halfway to his bed and looks down at her. She sits down by his feet.

“No, Squiggles,” he says.

“Can't you just tell us what's wrong?” Big asks.

Infinite walks back over and points at the bowl.

“Are you still scared?” Big asks her.

She hops into the bowl.

“Stay there,” Infinite says. “Sleep now.”

She blinks at him again. He sighs.

“Good frog.”

But when he's back in his bed, right about to wrap himself in the blanket and lie down, she's there again, next to his bed, looking at him.

Infinite stares back.

Not good frog,” he corrects.

“Ribbit!”

“What is with you?”

She tucks her feet under her body. Infinite sits and looks at her with defeat written on his face, but then a gentle frown appears on his forehead, and he looks over. Big is talking to Froggy, trying to see if Squiggles has told him what's going on. Infinite gets up once more - Squiggles follows - and when Squiggles has deemed him close enough to the bowl, she hops in again.

He picks the bowl up. His chest complains when he bends down, but that is too far down his priority list for him to care about right now.

He carries her over and places the bowl down next to his bed.

“Now don't touch me , okay? It's bad enough that you go around poisoning me in the daytime.”

Squiggles rests her chin on the edge of the bowl, looking innocent in a way that should be suspicious, but for once, it doesn't actually feel that way.

Infinite curls up in the palm leaves and pulls the blanket up around himself. He sends Squiggles a suspicious look, but she is just sitting there.

“Why are you so weird, ” Infinite asks.

“Ribbit.”

Big looks up, first now noticing the rearrangement, he had been too deep in conversation with Froggy.

“Me?” he asks at first, but then noticing Squiggles. “Oh! That was it!”

Infinite grumbles a bit without any real passion behind it.

“I'll turn the light off then,” Big says.

“Good night,” Infinite mumbles.

“Sleep tight.” Big lifts the lantern and blows out the flame.

“Ribbit,” Froggy says.

“Roob.” Squiggles’ voice is, for once, relatively gentle.

“You too,” Infinite mumbles into the darkness, responding to nobody in specific.

Chapter Text

Infinite’s consciousness stirs, struggling to break free of the mess of thoughts that his dreams have made, trying to find out what is making the, is it a noise?

Someone calls his name.

He opens his eye.

“Good morning,” Big says.

Infinite lets out a heavy sigh. He doesn’t quite remember his dreams, but he knows that they were jarring, unpleasant, left him with a sense of dread and urgency, and it is such a relief to know that he is awake, and all that stuff has been left behind in the land of subconsciousness and he doesn’t have to deal with it.

“Riiiiib.”

Infinite turns his head.

Squiggles has her hands on the edge of the bowl, looking at him, eyes gleaming. She hops out, almost tipping the bowl over. The feeling of relief washing through Infinite’s mind allows him to deduce what his forgotten dreams must have been about, and he holds out his hands, feeling the weight when she jumps into his palms, she’s alive, she’s okay.

“Good morning, you wretched little bastard,” he says with all the tired tenderness of someone who has accepted his fate of caring about a frog.

“Rbbitt,” she replies.

“How are you feeling?” Big asks.

Infinite’s chest aches, dull and steady pain, and he barely even cares.

“It’s not so bad,” he says. “I’m okay.”

“Wamp,” Squiggles says.

“Want me to make some tea?”

“Yes please.”

Big makes tea and breakfast. Infinite sits with Squiggles in his hands until the tea is ready, then he deposits her back in the bowl.

“Do you want to go fishing today?” Big asks.

Infinite is quiet for a moment.

“I’ll stay home with Squiggles today,” he says.

“Squiggles could come too!”

Infinite hesitates for a long moment.

“I… guess?” The thought of letting her near rushing water is not appealing to him right now.

“Squiggles, would you like to go fishing with me and Infinite today?” Big asks.

“Rooooob!!”

That's her excited noise, so that's settled.

 

They go out to the porch with their food, and Infinite has his struggles with getting to eat, because Squiggles wants to sit on him and he has to keep her away from his body while also using his hands to hold bowl and spoon. He ends up sitting cross legged with one foot out to the side so she can sit on his boot.

Just as he's beginning to worry that she's going to stay this clingy from now on and never leaving his space, she spots a shiny sparkling dragonfly and jumps off to follow it.

Infinite follows her with his eye as she makes the trip down the stairs, sort of hopping, mostly tumbling, ending up in the dirt below. She hops after Froggy with an excited squeak, brave and bold once again.

“Your food’s gonna go cold,” Big says.

Infinite blinks.

“Ah ... Right.”

He scoops up a spoonful of porridge, and his gaze draws back to Squiggles as he eats.

“Are you still feeling bad after yesterday?” Big asks with that gentle voice as if he’s afraid some part of Infinite might snap and fall off.

“How,” Infinite says, trying to be soft, trying not to be mean, but his gall still seeps through and drenches his words, “how do you keep going? You’re not … you’re not stupid.”

Big shrugs. “Sometimes.”

Infinite wants to argue, he isn’t, though, he’s just … strange. But that’s not what’s important right now.

“You know how the world is,” Infinite continues, staring into his food, his brow folded into jagged arrows pointing down and in, his lips curled so his teeth can catch a glimpse of the world outside. “You know, ” he says, his voice catching in a strain of unwanted emotion as he looks up at the two foraging frogs, “that I can’t protect her.” He shakes his head to rid himself of all these useless feelings clouding his mind and his judgement and his rational thoughts. “The world is full of horrors and harm, how can you keep caring for everything that is feeble and fleeting when you know, ” and he pauses for a fraction of a second, the anger and the sharpness and the gall seeping out to leave something hurt and defeated, something lost, “that it’s going to be gone any moment.”

Big is quiet, staring with large eyes.

“We can’t be strong for her,” Infinite says, almost whispers. “No matter what, it is still her. And she is weak. And … ”

Big reaches out and pets Infinite’s head.

“It can be scary to love someone,” he says.

Infinite cringes, holding back a sound of disgust. There really isn’t any use in denying it anymore, but he still wishes Big wouldn’t … put it like that.

“But Squiggles is a strong little frog!” Big assures.

“She’s still a frog, ” Infinite replies. “There are so many things that are stronger than frogs -- she ate a tadpole yesterday! There has to be countless things that could do that to her … accidents and creeks and -- you know better than anyone!”

He throws out his arms.

“But, Infinite,” Big says. “That already happened.”

“And I didn’t even mean to hurt her, it just -- happened! What if someone actually wanted to do her harm, what then?

“No, I mean, when we found her.”

Infinite blinks, looking up at Big out of the corner of his eye.

“She had tumbled down all the way from up the mountains. She was all alone, with no good tadpole food and not the right plants and everything was different for her. But she is okay, because we helped her!”

“And what if something like that happens again?” Infinite bites back.

“Then we’ll help her again!”

“We won’t be around every time.”

Infinite is beginning to disagree with himself regarding whether or not Big is stupid.

“Then someone else will.”

“You can’t just say that like you know that.” That’s -- that’s stupid.

“You don’t know that they won’t.”

Infinite stares up at Big, who just looks back. Infinite sputters something incomprehensible, trying to figure out how the hell to explain to Big that he is a weirdo and nobody else just goes around and adopts frogs out of nothing.

“You,” Infinite starts, “you, are the only person, who would just … look at a tadpole and, just … bring it inside and give it a name and …” he gestures vaguely. “You’re literally the only person, Big. You must know that.”

“She already had her name,” Big says, which is once again extremely weird but that’s really not the issue at hand. “And nobody else has to adopt her, we already did that. That’s why we help each other, because everyone helps with different things. You just gotta help with what you can, and find other people who can help with things, and then you all help each other with different things that you can’t do and … what were we talking about?”

Infinite lets out a tense sigh and picks his spoon back up.

“Never mind.”

The porridge has gone cold, it feels heavy and slimy now. He eats it anyway; it’s his own doing after all.

Big pets Infinite’s head again.

“It’s okay to be worried. Bad things happen sometimes … and that’s no good. But we can’t stop them by just thinking real hard about it. We just have to help each other when there’s bad things, and then make more good things when there isn’t.”

Infinite shakes his head.

There’s a pause where Infinite slowly eats, he knows he isn’t going to get anything out of Big that he can use, but he still has more on his mind, and after a while, he ends up talking again.

“I would understand if we were keeping her here,” he says, “Like -- Froggy. Looking after him makes sense. But when she goes back, she’s going to be gone, with no help, nothing. She probably can’t even come back. Nothing is going to be different, all what we did, it’s not going to change anything. We won’t even know if she lives or dies. Nothing … changes. For any of us.”

“Yes it did! It changed for her, a lot. And you know that you helped her. And she knows. You made her life better. That’s what everything is all about … she will always be in your heart.”

“That is such a weird expression,” Infinite says, because his mouth is kind of just spilling everything that comes to mind.

“Huh,” Big says. “It is.”

There’s a small pause. Big’s hand is still resting on Infinite’s head: it seems as if he’s forgotten.

“That’s what love is,” Big says. “You can’t see it, you just have it. And no matter what bad things happen, it won’t go away. That you cared about someone … That’s what it means, the thing with the heart.”

“Yeah, yeah, I get it.” Infinite pulls his head free from under Big’s hand, which is quite heavy, and turns back to the last of his porridge. “I know what it means.”

“Are you okay?” Big says.

“I’m fine.”

He isn’t quite. He’s … better, he thinks, maybe, but he is more unsure about the world than ever. He has no idea who or what he’s supposed to be, and talking to Big just makes him even more disoriented. His worldview seems so simple yet is so difficult for Infinite to wrap his mind around, it is like Big is speaking simple common sense about the rules of another reality.

Infinite can sense that Big isn’t really buying it either. Infinite isn’t in the mood to talk more about it; he’s been spilling out enough emotional babble already, and he’d rather just take it all back and forget about it.

“Let’s just go fishing,” he says, hoping that will distract Big.

Big immediately perks up.

“Fishing always cheers me up!” he says.



Infinite spends the fishing trip trying to avoid admitting that it seems that him and Squiggles have grown closer, while actively fleeing from, ignoring, and denying that it makes him feel both relieved, and strangely accomplished. Maybe it’s the newfound voice he finds himself using. He’s not thinking about it, it just happens, and he doesn’t notice before he’s already done it, but every time he calls for her, there’s something gentle behind it, he doesn’t even know what it is, but it is there. And the weirdest thing is, it works. She turns her head, she comes over, she listens. She still has her own opinions on what should happen, that’s for sure, but instead of just hopping off while ignoring Infinite, she comes over and argues with him about it. Which is not exactly how Infinite would prefer to spend his time, but at least she doesn’t charge head first into the currents of a creek or stray into the forest on her own.

He does have to stay awake and keep an eye on her though. Every time his attention diverts for more than two minutes, she is back to trying to do something exciting and very possibly dangerous.

“You exhaust me,” Infinite tells her.

“RrrrroIIbbit,” Squiggles says, which means something along the lines of, but I really really want to try and jump over to that rock and I don’t care that it is way too far out and I will fall in the water and you will have to chase after me and try to catch me before I get carried downstream and disappear into the jungle forever.

It’s a fine balance between keeping her entertained and making sure she stays safe. He tried challenging her to catch a great darner that was circling them earlier, and she almost died five times while trying, and Big had to grab her to keep her from following it into the jungle. It took Infinite almost ten minutes to convince her not to try and follow it.

On the way home, Infinite collects a few large, flat rocks. Squiggles jumps out of his hands every time he finds one, and then places herself on top of the stack once he has picked it up.

Big stays on the porch to clean the fish. Infinite goes inside.

Squiggles lets out an indignant screech once he brings the rocks to the nightstand.

“I’m not putting you in the water,” Infinite says, “calm down.”

He puts her down on the floor and sits down next to the nightstand, trying to get the rocks to cooperate. After about two minutes, Squiggles’ curiousity is too much for her to handle, and she demands to be picked up anyway. Infinite brings her up to sit next to his attempted rock stack.

He attempts to add the last rock. The pile falls over. He grumbles. Squiggles tries to climb onto his hand. He pushes her off and places her on the corner of the nightstand.

“Wraaamp,” she says, clearly not finding Infinite’s boring person activities entertaining enough.

“Then go do something else!” Infinite says. “You’re the one who wanted to be up here.”

She makes another attempt at climbing him, and he picks her up and moves her. His rocks shift, one of them fall to the floor.

“Look what you’ve done,” Infinite reprimands. There isn’t much power behind the words; it’s not like it truly matters anyway, the pile was about to fall over anyway.

“Rroooibbit,” she says, and Infinite doesn’t have to be a frog whisperer to know that it means that she doesn’t care, whatever he is doing is stupid anyway, now let me climb on your head.

“I’m trying to help you not break all your bones,” he says. “Since you insist on leaving as you please anyway.”

He looks down at his attempted staircase and shakes his head at himself.

“Useless.”

Squiggles climbs onto the rocks. Infinite sinks down, places his arms on the edge of the nightstand and rests his chin on top.

“Is this what I’ve been reduced to?” he says and pokes Squiggles’ foot.

“Wamp,” she says.

“Incompetent frog architect,” he says, and then he can’t help but let out a scoffing laugh over himself.

Squiggles is eyeing him, specifically the top of his head and the short distance between it and her current position, and he sends her a look.

“Don’t even think about it,” he warns.

“Wamp,” she says, and shuffles.

He briefly considers ducking down and letting her sail over his head and down to the floor, but that would really not help his goal of having her not break her bones, so instead he lifts his hands when she leaps. He almost manages to catch her, but in the end, she ends up tumbling back onto the nightstand.

“Wamp,” she says, offended.

“Did I remember to tell you that you are horrid?” he asks and pokes her belly.

She attacks his finger. He laughs again and wriggles it back and forth. She wrestles it with all the bloodthirst of a miffed adolescent frog, but in the end, she has to make a tactical retreat.

“I sincerely hope you saw that coming,” Infinite says flicks his finger in a taunt. Then he regards his glove with a displeased expression. “Euch. Mucus.”

“Roob,” Squiggles says, coyly.

Infinite picks her up and puts her down on the floor.

“I’m going to wash my hands.”

She immediately sets after him.

Chapter Text

Squiggles sleeps in the bowl next to Infinite’s bed for another night. Big helps building a more effective ramp from the tank to the nightstand, and Infinite spends most of his day getting Squiggles comfortable with the tank again. She is mostly okay with it, as long as Infinite doesn’t leave her, so Infinite sits on the floor next to the tank and stares through the glass for a significant amount of time that day. Squiggles makes sure to scream at him if he as much as seems like he is about to turn his head, but at least she isn’t too loud. She just lets him know that she will turn up the volume if she has to.

She’s being more dramatic than necessary, but he can’t find it in himself to truly blame her.

In the end, it is Infinite who has to call it off. He tells Squiggles that it is because he is tired of sitting here and watching her swim. Then he holds her in his hands for a long while, looking down at her. Trying to focus on the fact that she’s okay.

He brings her outside, puts her down on the porch, and Big, who was dozing off against the railing, picks up on Infinite’s silence and tense shoulders and folded ears, and wordlessly puts an arm around him.

Infinite curls up around himself and lets himself lean against Big’s side.

“Is it still making you feel bad?” Big asks.

“Of course it is,” Infinite mumbles, so quietly that someone with smaller ears than Big wouldn’t have been able to make it out.

Big squeezes him a little tighter.

“It’s okay,” he says. “We’re all looking after each other, so we’ll be okay.”

Infinite doesn’t respond.

“Squiggles,” he says, “don’t go under the porch alone.”

“Woomp!” she responds from somewhere under the porch.

“Then take Froggy with you,” Infinite says.

“Woooomp!!”

Infinite lets out a tired groan.

Froggy follows Squiggles, and a moment later, he has guided her back out and into Infinite’s field of vision.

“Squiggles, you’re a rascal,” Big says with joy in his voice.

Infinite huffs a laugh.

“She certainly is.”

Big looks down at him.

“Are you tired?”

Infinite presses his eye closed, shakes his head, and pushes himself out of Big’s fur and upright again.

“I’m fine,” he says.

He isn’t sure where this wave of sleepiness came from, but the jungle is quiet and the dark is falling and Infinite’s chest is beating with a low ache and his head is full of unpleasant emotions, and, well, he would be lying if he said he isn’t looking forwards to getting to go to bed.

Big pets his head.

“You can go sleep if you want,” Big says. “I’ll look after Squiggles.”

Infinite pushes his hair out of his face, trying to get it to stay behind his ears, which is difficult when he has about two thirds less ear than he is used to having.

“It’s my responsibility,” Infinite says.

“You’ve been doing a lot,” Big says.

Infinite is quiet for a moment.

“It’s okay to need help with it,” Big says. “You don’t have to do it all on your own.”

Infinite still isn’t speaking, just looking down at his hands. Then he looks up, at the frogs, Squiggles is almost invisible in the low light and the deep mud, but her striking red patterns light up, serving as a warning that if anyone tries to eat her, they are in for a nasty time.

“I …” Infinite starts, and then pauses. His tail is behind him, weighted down by the splint, so instead he picks at the edge of his glove. “I want to be here,” he says, then.

He’s not sure why, but he does. He wants to watch Squiggles be a rascal and snort at her when she faceplants into the mud. It seems important to be there.

Maybe she really will tough out all of the world’s challenges and be around to throw herself face first into mud for years to come, but there is also a chance that she won’t. But she’s here to do it now, and Infinite doesn’t want to just sleep through it.

“Can I just …” He gestures vaguely. “I’m not going to sleep, I just …”

“Of course,” Big says and lifts his arm. “I’m a good pillow,” he adds with genuine pride in his voice.

Infinite huffs again, amused, he can’t help it, Big is proud of the weirdest things. But he is right, Infinite thinks as he sinks against Big’s side, like a chick seeking shelter under its mother’s wing, finding shelter from the world.

Too tired to really think about his image, Infinite doesn't do anything to hide the small smile that Squiggles’ next shenanigan inspires; her leap sends her into mud so deep that her head gets stuck for a few seconds and she has to wildly flail with all her legs to get free again.

She emerges with a squirming worm sticking out of her mouth. She swallows and hops off to look for her next snack.

Infinite's gaze stays soft as he follows her overeager motions.

 

Squiggles hops up the steps and proudly displays a large moth, wings speckled brown and green and black, that she caught.

“Well done!” Big says, keeping his voice low. “That’s a good catch! Those are big and they can fly.”

“Roob,” Squiggles says.

“Schhhh,” Big says. “He’s sleeping.”

“Rrrribbit?”

“I know, but he’s very tired. It takes a lot of energy to be upset, so he just needs some rest.”

“Roooibb.”

She drops the moth.

“What?” Big says.

“Roooibb!” she repeats.

Big frowns for a long time, trying to gain what Squiggles is saying.

“Oh!” he finally says. “That is very very nice of you, Squiggles. Infinite doesn’t eat bugs, though.”

“Mnngh?”

Infinite stirs, the sound of his name making his ear perk up. Big pets it back down.

“Schhh. It’s sleepytime. Schh.”

“Ribbb,” Squiggles says, sounding sceptical.

“It's true,” Big says. “He eats fish and meats and bread and stuff. People food.”

“Ribbit,” Froggy confirms.

“Wamp?”

“He would want you to have it,” Big says. “You caught it all by yourself!”

Squiggles looks at the sleeping jackal leaning against Big with the confusion of a child who has just heard a grownup say that they don’t like candy. Then she chomps down on the moth.

It takes her quite a while to manage to swallow it.

“Come on,” Big whispers. “Let’s go inside.”

When Big moves, Infinite blinks awake again, looks around with a disoriented squint, and then he’s picked up. The noise he makes is unfortunately best described as a squeak. The ground is a little farther away than he would like.

“Schh,” Big whispers.

It's an automatic response, he’s focusing on where he places his feet, he hasn't noticed that Infinite is awake. It has gotten dark while they were outside, and while Froggy knows how to avoid Big’s feet, he doesn’t want to accidentally kick Squiggles.

He kneels down and carefully puts Infinite down in the palm leaves.

“I fell asleep,” Infinite mumbles, half questioning, half disappointed.

“Shush,” Big says and pulls the blanket up around him. “Schh. It’s sleepytime.”

“Big, I’m not a tadpole.”

But Big just brushes his hair in place and pats his head.

“Sleep tight,” he says, and tucks Infinite in, and now it feels wrong to sit up and demand to be treated with just a little bit of dignity, and Infinite is basically half asleep anyway, and what was he bothered about again?

When Big comes back with the bowl with water and Squiggles, Infinite is sleeping again. Big puts the bowl down, whispers a goodnight to Squiggles, and tiptoes back to his own bed.

 

 

“Rooob!!”

“Squiggles - slow down!”

Squiggles jumps onto a rock and turns around, watching Infinite impatiently.

“Had this been a year ago, I would be the one who had to wait for you,” Infinite tells her.

“Riiiib!”

Squiggles hops off the rock and continues her quest.

Infinite can't help but sigh wistfully. How different it would be if he could leap across the terrain like he used to, back before the phantom ruby and Shadow and all this mess. As it is now, he can barely keep up with her.

He had hoped that letting her have a trip into the jungle would help tire her out, but as it is now, he’s going to be the one who has to back down first. He curses his feeble body and looks for a way around the fallen log that Squiggles just jumped over. Climbing over it will not be fun in his condition.

He looks over his shoulder to see how far away they’ve gone. Big’s ears are visible from over the undergrowth, and they could stray a little further without getting lost, but there’s a fallen tree in the way and brambles around it and Infinite makes a face, but he has to admit that he needs to give up.

“Squiggles,” he says. “That’s far enough.”

“WrooOOmp!”

“No, come back here.”

“WroooooOOamp.”

“Get back where I can see you.”

Squiggles comes hopping out of the greenery.

Infinite finds a spot on the fallen tree that isn’t covered with slippery moss, and sits down.

Squiggles struggles to find foothold to get up, but she manages without help and climbs up to sit next to him.

“I thought you were tired of sitting still?” Infinite says.

Squiggles doesn’t answer. She gets comfortable in the soft moss, still damp from the morning’s rainfall, her brilliant dark red feet in sharp contrast with the moss. She’s gotten so bright and fat. Loud, too. Big frequently has to remind her to use her indoor voice when she’s in the tank.

Infinite looks down at her.

“It’s time for you to leave soon, isn’t it?” he asks.

Squiggles moves her head, looks at him. Her chin moves when she breathes, a quick, steady rhythm.

“Meet some other frogs like you. Explore on your own. Back to … where you were meant to be.”

Squiggles puts her head on the side, every so slightly, maybe Infinite is just imagining it.

“I can’t keep up with you anyway,” he says, as if making an argument, but there’s nobody else there, nobody hears it but Squiggles and himself.

Then he smiles, just the tiniest bit.

“It’s probably safer for you anyway.” He leans back, props his arms up behind himself, looks into the canopy. “I’m escorting you for my own sake, you know,” he says. “I can’t fight any of the horrors of this jungle. My best bet is to make sure we get eaten together so I don’t have to feel guilty.”

But then his voice goes back to being more earnest.

“You can’t go around with an escort all the time. It’s about time you go somewhere that is safer for your species.”

She croaks gently, unaffected by Infinite's words. Infinite doesn't like the knot of emotions moving inside of him, he wants to say something about finally being rid of her, but he can't make himself.

“You’re …” horrible. An awful little pest. An useless lump. He’s said it all before. And it’s not like she minds, not at all. There’s nobody else here to hear, Big won’t be upset about it. But …

“You’re not so bad.”

“Rrrribbit,” she agrees.

They sit there on the log for a while. Infinite breathes in the air of the jungle, all its strange smells, the scent of rain still hanging in the air. The jungle is rustling, whispering with activity, Infinite has to send a glance to make sure Big’s ear is still in view, just in case something happens.

He looks down at Squiggles. She looks back, watching him intently.

Infinite gets off the log, turns to her and holds out his hands. She hops on board.

“Let's go back to Big,” he says.

 

 

That evening, while eating smoked bass on the porch and watching Froggy hunt and Squiggles also technically hunt even though it looks like she’s just going mud-diving, Infinite lets his fork rest against the plate, sits there, motionless, for a moment, and then speaks.

“She’s ready to go back, isn’t she?” he asks.

Big looks down at Infinite. Infinite is looking at Squiggles. She’s doesn’t chase after Froggy anymore, not even when what he has caught is large and sparkly and still flapping its wings, begging for attention.

“Are you ready for her to leave?” Big asks instead.

Infinite huffs.

“Is that what we’re making the deciding factor?”

Infinite tries to not sound bitter. He wishes Big would stop treating him like something small and frail that might break at any moment.

“Um,” Big says. “... smaller words please?”

“I was … ” Infinite says, interrupts himself, shakes his head. Big is waiting patiently for him to find the words he want.

Infinite lets whatever he was saying die.

“... Yes,” he says instead. “I think I am.”

“Then she’s ready too, I think,” Big says.

Infinite doesn’t comment on Big’ strange way of reasoning. He has given up on understanding how on earth Big’s world fits together by now. He pushes some fish meat to the side and picks a stray bone out of his fillet. Big is probably right about whatever it is he is trying to say. That’s how it usually is.

He flicks the bone away and thinks about what he used to do before he had Squiggles to annoy him. Less than a month has passed, but it feels like she's been there since forever.

It's not like he does much even though she is here. Mostly just keeps an eye on her. She can do most things herself - jump onto the nightstand and use the makeshift ramp to get in the tank, catch her own food, make her own fun - it's not like his routine will change much.

How does such a little frog manage to fill so much anyway?

 

Squiggles has slept in the tank for one whole night and seems ready to do it again, and Infinite finds himself almost wishing that she wouldn't, that she would be right next to him in the bowl for just one last night. But it's good to see that she feels safe again, so he lets her be, tries to be proud and only proud.

Big boils water, Infinite gets a cup of tea and some lukewarm water for cleaning his scar, Big and Froggy have a gentle conversation while Squiggles sits on the edge of the nightstand and just sort of watches. When Infinite is done with his tea, it is dark enough that he has to move slowly and feel his way when he brings the empty mug to the kitchen counter.

He takes a small detour over to Big's bed, and stoically accepts the goodnight hug that Big assumes he came to get. What Infinite really wanted, though, is to get to the nightstand.

He kneels down in front of the tank. Squiggles swims down and stares at his face through the glass, just like she did as a tadpole, he can only make out her clear blue eyes and the darker blue belly.

“Good night, Squiggles,” he says. His claw tip finds its way up to the glass, and she swims to it, following it with her eyes. He huffs a laugh and draws a little circle, watching her follow the movement. Then he pulls his hand away. “Sleep tight. You have an adventure tomorrow.”

Squiggles swims to the surface.

“Ribbit,” she responds.

Big ruffles Infinite's hair.

“Sweet dreams,” he says.

“Sleep well, Big.”

Infinite reaches up to the hand on his head, giving it a gentle squeeze to acknowledge the gesture. Then he goes back to his own bed and curls up in the blanket, lies and stares into the darkness, thinking about war and drowning, about frogs and tadpoles and Big and his friends, about fishing and quiet air, and about Squiggles, and about why she fills so much and why she means so much. Time passes around him, but he barely notices, and after a while, the thoughts run out, and he thinks of nothing, and then he falls asleep.

Chapter Text

Infinite wakes up to a feeling of deep wistfulness, and the sound of heavy rain. A fraction of a second has him wishing to curl up deeper in the blanket and stay in his nest, rest through the storm, safe in the knowledge that he has nothing to do …  and then he’s up, pushing the blanket aside and moving over to sit at Squiggles’ tank.

Hey eyes slide open, Infinite sees eyelids, and then more eyelid, moving to the side, a transparent membrane, frogs are so incredibly weird, and he realizes there’s probably a million other things he doesn’t know about her and now never will … Squiggles sends him the kind of look you might send someone who just woke you up for seemingly no reason too early in the morning, and closes her eyes again.

He sinks down against the nightstand, leaning one arm on it, looking at her. Big is snoring, Froggy is on the bedpost next to him, also asleep. Infinite should be too, he knows.  It’s not even properly light out, just a thin sheet of greyness that allows him to see, seeping in through the leaf walls. The air is chilly. He should fetch his blanket … but then he might as well go back to bed, so he just pulls his tail a little closer. It has stopped hurting when he moves the splint around. He wonders how long it will take to fully heal, if he can get the splint off soon. He should ask Amy next time she comes by.

The world is so quiet, like nothing has woken up quite yet.

“Infinite?”

He lifts his head, blinks.

“Why are you sleeping there?”

“I wasn’t --” Infinite makes a displeased expression. “I didn’t mean to fall asleep,” he grumbles instead.

“It’s okay!” Big says and swings his legs over the edge of the bed. “But you don’t have to sleep on the floor, okay?”

“I drifted off for like a second, Big.” Infinite straightens himself.

Big just looks concerned. Then he gets out of bed, reaches down, and hoists Infinite up by the armpits. Infinite mostly manages not to yelp.

“What the -- Big --” Infinite protests.

Big places Infinite on the edge of the mattress.

“There,” Big says. “No sleeping on the floor, there’s a nice bed right here!”

“I’m not gonna sleep, this is your bed, it was an accident, don’t tug me in!”

Big stops mid-motion, his blanket dangling from one hand.

“Are you sure?” he asks.

Yes I’m sure.”

Infinite tries to get past Big’s wall of impending comfort. His willpower keeps failing him, growing weaker and weaker after his defeat, and he’s not sure he’s strong enough to avoid succumbing if Big manages to wrap him in a blanket.

Froggy ribbits, blinks, looking at the calamity. Squiggles immediately joins the party by climbing to the edge of the tank and more or less tumbling down the ramp they’ve made her and onto the nightstand.

She squeals. Infinite dives under Big’s arm and moves over to help Squiggles upright. Comfort crisis averted.

As soon as she is right side up again, she climbs into his hands.

“But you were tired …?” Big asks.

“I’m fine,” Infinite insists, and takes a step away from the bed, just in case. “I was checking up on Squiggles. I just drifted off for a second.”

Big takes a second, then he puts the blanket back down.

“We can nap later,” he says.

Infinite draws a breath of relief.

Big looks behind him, in the direction of the doorway, his left ear perking up. The tip of it can almost reach the ceiling.

“I think it’s raining too much for Squiggles to go home today,” he says. “Everything is gonna be all slippery.”

Infinite looks down at the young frog in his hands.

“Guess I’ll have to endure you for a little longer, then,” he says, keeping his voice down.

“Rrrroiibt!”

Infinite isn’t sure how he feels about that. He’d been preparing for her to leave, and then it turns out that it won't be yet after all. And it’s … it’s not like he wants to be rid of her. No matter how much he says it is. But he had thought it would be now, and he knows he’s going to be thinking about it all day. He would almost rather have it just be over with.

Big lets a few moments pass, then he turns his head.

“Do you … then want to nap, then?” he asks.

Infinite has to restrain himself from rolling his eye. Big’s care is so exaggerated that it almost becomes amusing.

“I’m not tired,” he says, and pushes Squiggles away from his arm. “I mean it.”

“I didn’t think you were lying,” Big immediately reassures. “I was just thinking, uh … if we have nothing to do … and she’s not leaving now, so --”

Infinite interrupts Big’s monologue or apology or whatever it is he’s trying to get across.

“Breakfast?” he asks.

It has the intended effect.

“Yes!” Big says. “Breakfast! We need breakfast. I’ll make breakfast.”

Infinite smirks a bit.



Squiggles must be at least somewhat aware of what the plan is. Infinite refuses to believe that she is just coincidentally this clingy today. Keeping her out of the porridge proves to be quite the challenge, and she absolutely refuses to not climb all over Infinite. He can’t even get her to sit on his boot while he eats, she wants to be on his head and on his shoulder and in his hair and in his breakfast.

“Squiggles,” Infinite says and pushes her to get her off his arm - why is she so strong, how can she just hold on to his limbs like that? “You’re going home tomorrow. I would appreciate if I didn’t have to spend today being mad at you.”

Big reaches over and frees Infinite from his new attention-seeking and mildly toxic armband. Squiggles squeaks in dissatisfaction.

“Be nice, now,” Big says and puts her down.

“Wamp.”

Froggy hops over to the stairs and croaks, trying to get Squiggles’ attention. Squiggles croaks back, her no-I-don’t-want-to sound, and tries to climb up Infinite’s leg instead.

Infinite puts his bowl down as far away from Squiggles as he can and grabs her.

“For today, I will be as patient as I can,” Infinite says, “but don’t test me, Squiggles.”

“Riiiiib?” she says.

Infinite looks at her. She stares back. He groans loudly.

Fine, ” he says. “Just this once, then.”

Squiggles tries to jump from overexcitement, and she’s slippery, but Infinite holds onto her until she can climb onto his head without having to get up there herself and putting her poisonous toes everywhere in the process.

She croaks, satisfied. This was exactly what she wanted. Infinite makes a face and picks his bowl up again.

“Horrible,” he mutters under his breath, quietly enough that with a bit of luck, Big won’t hear it.

“You need to catch some food for yourself,” Infinite reprimands and nudges her away from his scars. “I'm not doing it.”

“Wamp.”

Squiggles is unconcerned.

Infinite shakes his head and turns his attention back to his own breakfast.

Infinite finishes eating before Squiggles even considers going to hunt. Big says he's going to bake some bread. Infinite stays on the porch. After a moment, Big comes out again, looking a little sheepish, holding Infinite's blanket half behind his back. Infinite makes a sound that is half a sigh and half a laugh, but he accepts the blanket, even says thank you.

Big goes inside to actually make the bread this time, and Infinite moves to a corner of the porch where he can watch Squiggles, stay dry, and lean against part of the railing. He wraps himself up in the blanket, and entertains himself by watching Squiggles chase beetles. The rain is a heavy pitter-patter on the leaves above, but here in the jungle, while he’s warm and dry, it’s almost soothing to listen to.

Squiggles loves this weather. She becomes a poorer hunter, though -- her excitement has her yelling every time she sees anything that could be prey, which obviously scares it away immediately, but that doesn’t even get to her. Her hops are big and her head-fist dives into the mud are full of enthusiasm, and every few minutes, she turns to see if Infinite is still watching, and yells an excited “WAMP!!” at him before she hops on.

Infinite is sitting with his head resting against the railing while he watches Squiggles with a gentle look on his face, and he almost knocks his head against the wood in startlement when the bird lands.

At first, he thinks it’s a person, a someone, with large wings, the size throws him off, but it’s not, it’s an animal, with real, feathered wings and horrible naked legs and a beak that takes up most of the face, eyes proportionally small and somehow still way too big staring at him.

“WROOAMP!!” Squiggles says, propping up her body and expanding her croaking sack.

Infinite snaps back into coherent thought.

“Squiggles get BACK here!” It is the day before she is going home, he is not letting her get eaten by some monstrous bird right in front of him.

The bird looks up at Infinite. Then down at Squiggles. Infinite has already discarded the blanket, the stairs are slippery from the rain, he almost tumbles, and his chest gives a vicious stab of pain, but he doesn’t listen, just runs to where Squiggles is and throws his body in front of her. His vision fails him for a fraction of a second, and he grunts, but Squiggles is safe, he scoops her up and holds her close to his chest.

The bird is flopping around on the ground, beating its wings against the mud, trying to get up, which is strange, Infinite could have sworn it was about to take off the moment he lunged towards Squiggles.

Squiggles squeaks an alarm call.

Big busts out of the door, dough clinging to his hands and a light dusting of flour trailing after him.

“No!” he thunders as he runs across the porch. “No shoebills! Bad, bad frog eating bird! You can’t be here! No! No fishing here! Go! Go eat things somewhere else.”

The shoebill panics, flails, desperately trying to get up, but it stumbles and falls into the mud again. Big stops at the top of the stairs and looks.

Squiggles repeats the alarm call.

Big is quiet for a moment.

“You’re hurt, huh?”

Infinite doesn’t have the air in his lungs to respond, and then he realizes it wasn’t directed at him. The bird tries to get up again, is up on one leg, balancing with its wings, but when it tries to lift the other foot, it stumbles and falls into the mud again.

There’s something bright tied around its feet.

It blinks, milky white membrane, stares, with yellow eyes, its beak looks more like a club than a shoe, and even lying down it is gigantic, wings spread out and its grey feathers puffed up.

It is scared. Infinite can tell.

Big’s demeanor changes. He walks down the stairs, towards the bird, it flaps its wings and jabs with its beak, making a menacing clapping sound in the peaceful air. It tries, once again, to get on its feet, and once again fails, falls down. Big stops.

“I’ll only help you if you’re nice,” he says. “I don’t like you.”

The shoebill stares. Infinite prefers that, he doesn’t like its eyelids. It looks like thick sickness morphed into skin.

Big walks over, ever so slowly. The shoebill watches, watches, watches. Infinite can tell that it is trying to get on its feet, but it doesn’t succeed.

Big kneels down next to it. Reaches out. It jabs at him with his beak, and he pulls his hand away and lifts a reprimanding finger.

“No! You’re bad! You’re a bad bird. I don’t like shoebills.”

But he still waits patiently, and then reaches out again, under the feathers and the wings, awfully close to that massive, snapping beak, and gets to the feet.

Infinite watches with quiet terror, holding Squiggles so close to his body that he will probably regret it later. The bird’s feet are awful - clawed, too long, almost fingerlike, scaley and full of mud with long skinny toes, way too skinny, way too large. Honestly, the tangle wrapped tightly around one ankle makes the thing a little more decorative, maybe Big should just let it stay.

Big suddenly moves quickly, grabbing the bird by the neck, holding it, and Infinite flinches, he’s seen this grasp before. But Big doesn’t do anything. He holds the bird firmly, ignoring its struggles and complaints, and casually picks it up and puts it down on its back.

It’s a mess of wires, tangled around the bird’s left ankle and wrapped tightly around the toes on the other foot. The protective layer of rubber is torn and broken, and the copper is digging into its feet, leaving reddish, swollen marks. It must have been trying to bite it off.

Big holds onto the shoebill’s neck and tugs at the wire. It thrashes. Infinite almost gets slapped by a wing.

“Riiibbit.”

It’s Froggy, he’s up on the porch. Squiggles croaks back.

“Infinite, put Squiggles inside, can you help me please?”

“I …” Infinite gets out of the mud, still clutching Squiggles close. “I will.”

Big is speaking soothing words to the shoebill, while occasionally reminding it that he doesn’t like it. Infinite fights his way over to the porch. He puts Squiggles down.

“Follow Froggy,” he says, trying to speak as intensely as he can. “Go inside. Be good. Okay? Promise. Stay inside.

“Ribbit.”

He looks at her. Then nods.

Froggy leads Squiggles inside, and Infinite turns back to Big and the monster bird. He pulls himself together. The pain is pounding in his chest, and his heartrate isn’t exactly calm either.

“What …  do you need me to do?” he asks, standing a few metres away, out of slapping range.

“Just hold her feet out. Don’t worry, I’m holding her.”

Infinite doesn’t much care for the fact that his apprehension for this monstrosity is that obvious, but his displeasure over that just reads as more discomfort to Big.

“I promise, she can’t hurt you,” Big reassures.

Infinite tries not to grimace. The sooner he gets this over with, the sooner Big will stop trying to soothe him.

“She?” he asks instead while kneeling down next to the bird.

It whacks him with his wing. He whacks back. Big sends him a gentle yet stern glare. Infinite wants to say that the shoebill clearly started it, but he decides not to.

“She’s a lady shoebill,” Big says.

Infinite decides to take Big’s word for it.

Infinite holds the feet out, and Big holds the monster’s neck with one hand and uses the other to free her feet. She thrashes and squawks, but gradually struggles less and less against the hold.

“Giving up, huh?” Infinite says and pushes a wing away from his face for the fifth time.

“No, she just trusts we won’t hurt her,” Big says.

“I know,” Infinite mumbles. “I was joking.”

It feels like giving up, though. He wants to not be the only one. He lasted longer, at least … victory against an unfortunate bird doesn’t seem like much, but it’s better than nothing

“That’s a mean thing to make fun of,” Big says. “She’s being brave.”

Infinite keeps himself from wincing, he almost wants to snarl.

“I thought you didn’t like shoebills,” he says instead.

Big actually hesitates for a second, for a moment only fiddling with the wire.

“It’s not her fault that she’s a shoebill,” he says then.

He sounds … almost sad. Or regretful. Maybe even a bit ashamed?

Infinite draws a breath through his nose.

“I’m sorry,” he says with a glare to the bird, silently telling her that he’s apologizing to Big and not to her. She’s pathetic and should be ashamed, she probably got herself into this mess anyway.

Big gets another toe free from the wires. The bird claps its beak, but gently, not a vicious snap this time.

“How did you find this stuff and get tied all up in it?” Big asks. He tugs at a little box that was stuck under the bottom of the shoebill’s foot, unwraps it from her leg, and reveals three small diodes on the wire. One of them is dangling from just one bit of broken wire, she must have ripped the rest off. “What is this stuff anyway?”

“Probably some lights from the casino,” Infinite says and moves the other leg so Big can unwrap the wire.

“The casino? What casino? How would a bird get into a casino?”

Big seems both confused and distressed.

Infinite makes a face.

“The doctor built a casino, deeper in the forest. Started building it. One of his first projects, before he … decided to conquer the entire world instead.”

Big’s eyes get wide, he frowns and nods.

“So that’s what all that weird stuff is. I was wondering why all the animals keep coming around here … they were chased out of their homes. And explains the blinking lights coming from somewhere also. I thought they were fireflies maybe.”

Infinite bites his lip, looks away.

“There we are!” Big says.

Infinite only just registers that the bird is free and Big has the wire in one hand, and then Big lets go of the shoebill, just like that. Infinite ducks, instinctively rolling out of the way when the bird takes off. He manages to finish the tumble, and then the pain overwhelms him, and he collapses into the heavy mud.

“Infinite?” Big says.

“Ow,” Infinite mumbles.

His chest feels like it’s on fire.

Big kneels down next to him, offers a hand, and Infinite takes it, and he thinks about getting on his feet, and he probably could, maybe, if he really fought, but he doesn’t. After a brief moment, Big picks him up, holding him like he weighs nothing, and carries him back to the hut.

Big kicks his sandals off on the porch, but it really doesn’t do a big difference in how much mud he carries inside with him. He puts Infinite down on the floor, Infinite is once again baffled by his gentleness. Then he gets the towel, offers it to Infinite, and Infinite dries himself off as well as he can while Big puts firewood in the stove.

Squiggles is overjoyed by the mud party that has been brought inside, just for her, because she is so good and special. She climbs into his tail, poking her head out from one of the thickest cakes of mud, and wamps happily.

“At least one of us is happy,” Infinite says.

“We’ll brush it off when it dries,” Big says. “Squiggles, don’t be here at the stove. It’ll get warm and you’ll dry out.”

“WrrooooAmp!” Squiggles says, in a ‘if I can’t have a party then why on earth did you bring all this mud in here in the first place’ sort of  manner.

Infinite picks her up. She thrashes, dissatisfied with her father and the fact that he’s going to claim all this fun mud for himself. Big takes her from him, and then grabs a good handful of mud from Infinite’s tail, which Infinite is only mildly weirded out by, Big definitely has a plan behind his weird actions. He always does.

The plan is to pile the mud on top of Squiggles’ head, apparently. She doesn’t seem quite satisfied, but accepts it. Big puts her down on the nightstand. She buries into her mud pile, looking slightly grumpy.

Big comes over and sits next to Infinite. Infinite pulls his shoes and gloves off, offers Big the towel, but Big thanks no, his fur is thick, he’s not cold, so Infinite wraps it around his own shoulders like a shawl. It’s wet and full of mud, but it does help a little.

Soon, the warmth from the stove begins to spread.

Infinite tries to pull mud out of his hair. It’s so much messier than the wet sand of the desert, it gets everywhere, doesn’t cake in the same way, isn’t as heavy but sticks more. His hair looks more grey than white. He gives up with a dissatisfied grunt.

Big rubs some mud off of the wire and scrutinizes it.

“Do you think there’s more of this stuff in the jungle still?” he asks.

“Probably.”

The casino had been a test of the ruby’s power, made almost solely out of conjured materials, materials that won’t exist without the ruby. All that was real about the place were the finishing touches the doctor added on his own, after he had gotten enough of Infinite’s refusal to acknowledge the importance of string lights. The jungle must be littered with blinking diode lights and glowing spinny wheels and neon signs, crashing down and scattering when whatever they were decorating disappeared from reality, flashing out of existence like it was never there.

“We need to clean it up before more animals get hurt,” Big says.

Infinite stays quiet, doesn’t say anything about how the casino is probably the least important area to clear out. It was a palace and a plaything for the doctor, and a training exercise for Infinite, seeing how much the phantom ruby could do on its own. Everything they made to aid in the war had been crafted out of real materials, artificial reality factories building real robots from real metal, illusionary traps guarding real weapons. There’s no need to make with the ruby what we can just craft, the doctor had said, you should focus on, uh, making more soldiers, how is the Chaos copy coming along?

Infinite’s gaze shifts to the floor, he stares at his claws, picks at one of them.

The doctor had wanted to make sure the empire would still stand even if Infinite fell. The doctor had seen Infinite as vanquishable all along. He had been … prepared for such an event.

“Infinite?”

Infinite is pulled from the vortex of thoughts twisting inside him. He looks up.

“What’s wrong?” Big asks.

“Nothing,” Infinite says, hears how hurried he sounds, he’s not convincing. Big puts his head on the side, his gaze softens, that look he gives Infinite when he’s about to try to soothe and comfort and then eventually pry out what it is that troubles, and Infinite does not want to talk about the war and remind Big that it is Infinite’s fault, all of it, the casino and the wires and the mangled foot of horrible birds and the tigers that come creeping close because their homes have been destroyed, so Infinite makes a desperate attempt to divert the conversation by asking, “why don’t you like shoebills?”

He’s surprised by the reaction. Big looks down at his hands, his ears falling, looking slightly shameful. Infinite would have thought the explanation was simple: Big likes frogs, shoebills eat frogs, Big doesn’t like shoebills.

“They … They could eat the frogs. And … they’re mean to their babies.”

“Oh.”

“I know it’s just nature, but it makes me sad.”

Infinite looks at Big, trying to figure out what to say. Big seems genuinely upset, as if Infinite is picking at an old wound. Big took Squiggles eating a tadpole in stride, a tadpole, a baby frog, one of the frogs that Big loves so much, but just the idea of shoebills has him in genuine distress.

And yet …

“She knew you were going to help her,” Infinite says. It’s halfway a question, why else would an injured bird come here?

“I don’t want to talk about shoebills anymore,” Big says.

Infinite is taken aback by how genuinely sorrowful Big sounds, enough that it takes him an extra moment before he can respond.

“... noted,” he says. He can’t think of anything better.

They sit in silence. Infinite’s body is slowly warming up, he shivers slightly as the cold releases its hold on him. Big looks over, inquiring, but Infinite suppresses the next shiver, and Big turns back to stare at the stove. Both of them sit lost in thought for a long, long moment, and then Squiggles decides that it’s time to put the party back in mudparty, and jumps off the nightstand, taking most of her pile with her. Small splatters of mud fly from her when she lands.

“Rrrrribbit!!” she says.

Froggy comes over to her, and Infinite thinks he’s going to scold Squiggles, as he should, but he just walks up to her and just kind of steps in the muddy mess she’s made. She croaks at him, excited. He ribbits and walks around in the mud, as if it’s something to do. Squiggles jumps around him, almost ectatic that he is liking her event.

“Squiggles, stop that,” Infinite says.

“Why do you want her to stop?” Big asks.

Infinite sends Big a disbelieving look.

“She’s getting mud all over the floor,” he says and gestures, as if Big didn’t already know where to look.

“But there’s already mud all over the floor,” Big points out.

Infinite pauses.

“She’s …”

“She shouldn’t make a mess,” Big continues once it’s clear that Infinite’s sentence isn’t really going anywhere. “But we already made the mess.”

“I ... guess,” Infinite says. He watches the frogs hop around in their tiny little homemade mudpile. Then he looks at his tail, the mud still caked there, and pulls some of it loose. It’s already beginning to dry into wet mulch.

“Catch,” he says and chucks it at Squiggles.

He didn’t expect her to take it literally. She hops at it, face first, and gets her mouth full of mud.

“... Maybe don’t encourage her too much though,” Big adds.

Squiggles spits the mud out and croaks once again, clearly over the moon.

“This is her last day inside,” Infinite points out. “Unless it's still raining tomorrow.”

Big is quiet for a moment. Then he nods.

“You're right!”

Then he gets up and leaves.

Infinite turns to look after him, and his chest reminds him not to swivel around like that. He takes a moment to just sit still while the pain washes through him, and once he's regained his bearings, Big is back, holding a giant pile of mud in his hands.

Infinite just gets to think to himself that Big wouldn't really take mud inside on purpose right, and then Big drops it on the floor.

“Wamp?” Froggy says. This is apparently unusual, even for Big.

“It's a goodbye to Squiggles pile,” Big explains.

Infinite snorts a laugh without even meaning to.

“Huh?” Big asks.

Infinite shakes his head. “Nothing.”

He gets up, slowly, to not put unnecessary strain on his chest, moves a few metres to ge top the mud pile, and reaches out a hand.

“Come here, you little bastard.”

Squiggles jumps into his palm, and Infinite can almost keep from grimacing at the feeling of mud and frog all over his hand, and then he realizes that without his gloves, he’s not safe from her toxins, but it’s too late, she has already decided to climb up his arm. He sighs, and then just lets her.

“Um ... Infinite?”

Infinite looks up at him.

“That’s, uh, actually not a nice thing, to say.”

Infinite squints, trying to find out what Big is trying to say.

“What?”

Big looks sheepish.

“Bastard, is, uh. Something, people usually say to be mean.”

Infinite blinks, trying to find out exactly what Big is trying to say, and then he gets it, and tries to hide the tug of a smile, mask it as confusion and use the excuse that Squiggles has gotten to his hair and is climbing with vigorous purpose.

“No, that can’t be right,” he says while pushing Squiggles up with a hand, strategically holding her so he can hide his amusement behind her.

Big nods solemnly.

“Are you sure?” Infinite pushes Squiggles all the way up to the top of his head, and just so happens to smear mud on his forehead that he has to brush off, the movement hiding his expression.

“I’m sorry, but it’s true.”

Infinite finally regains his composure, and brushes his hair back in place while expertly dodging Squiggles’ attempt to eat his hand.

“Well … good thing Squiggles doesn’t understand me then,” he says, and the smile is back, he doesn’t think he quite manages to make it look sheepish, but Big doesn’t seem to catch on. “I guess I’ll have to spend the last half a day on finding out what else to call her.”

“Buddy?” Big sits down next to him.

“No. That’s too confusing. You call me that sometimes.”

“Little buddy!”

“Everything is smaller than you, that won’t help.”

“No, but, you don’t call me it, so she’ll know.”

“We can’t call her the same thing ,” Infinite says, trying to sound like that’s the most obvious thing in the world, partially to hide his amusement. “What if she can’t tell us apart?”

Big needs a second to process this.

“Of course she can tell us apart!”

“You really think so?” Infinite says, he can’t help himself. “Even though we’re both covered in mud right now?”

“You’re her papa, Infinite! Of course she knows who you are … Is something funny?”

Infinite has to bite his lip and look away.

“No.” He takes a moment, hears how unconvincing it sounds, and he can’t just leave Big hanging, he’d be trying to figure it out all day, so after a second, he adds: “I’m just happy.”

“Aww,” Big exclaims and pulls Infinite into a giant bear hug.

Infinite pushes down the urge to counter the grapple with a knee to the stomach and a quick twist, a kick aimed at the throat and then a swift escape from the hold so he can turn to face his opponent, there is no opponent, it’s just Big. He goes against his instincts and instead presses himself against Big’s fluffy chest to get the point across to himself.

“Rrrribbit!!” Squiggles says.

“Wamp!”

Froggy jumps up on Big’s head to join the party.

Infinite huffs one last laugh.

It doesn’t even feel all that claustrophobic, if he reminds himself to stay calm. Big isn’t the threat, and he is on Infinite’s side, and his fur is thick and almost dense enough to hide in.

Big lets Infinite go, reaches to ruffle Infinite’s hair, but Squiggles is in the way, so Big pats his shoulder instead.

 

They play checkers in front of the stove while fur and mud dries. Froggy comes over after he’s played with Squiggles for a while. Squiggles keeps having her own little party. She burrows into the mud and croaks and jumps out again and croaks some more. Infinite keeps looking over at her, he can’t help it, nothing new happens, but her endless excitement for the same pile of mud is almost entrancing. He barely notices that he seems to have the upper hand on the checkers board until he realizes that he has basically won.

“That was fun,” Big says. “One more game?”

“Sure.”

Infinite is still looking at the board, at his three pieces and Big’s none. He’s not entirely sure how he did it, but that doesn’t stop him from feeling immensely satisfied with himself.

 

Big and Froggy go out to fish, Infinite stays inside because it’s raining and he has had enough adventure for one day, and Squiggles also stays because there is mud inside the house, which is the most exciting thing that has ever happened to her.

Infinite twirls a lock of hair between his fingers. Dirt flakes off into dust. He gets his hairbrush, sits down in the corner furthest away from everything, and brushes his hair while Squiggles plays.

It’s a slow process to get all the dirt out of his fur. He brushes his hair methodically until there’s no dried mud left, then moves to his shoulders and arms. He can’t reach his back with the brush, he’ll have to think of something else. He wonders if just a stick will be able to get the mud off … or he could just ask Big for help, he realizes.

First when the light begins to fade, while he is brushing out the last mud from his tail, does he notice the lack of white noise outide. Only the occasional drip against the roof persists when the leaves overhead let go of the water still weighing them down. It has stopped raining.

 

 

Infinite wakes up in the morning, lies still like a dead pet abandoned at the side of the road during a frantic escape from the eggman empire, the pain in his chest begging him to stay in bed, but then he pulls himself together and sits up, rolls his shoulders, sighs.

Big throws his legs over the edge of the bed.

“Good morning,” he says.

“Morning,” Infinite replies and chokes a yawn.

Big gets out of bed.

“Good morning, Froggy,” he says and crouches down to be eye to eye with his friend.

“Wamp,” Froggy says without opening his eyes.

Big chuckles and stands up straight again.

Infinite lifts his most functional ear to listen. It isn’t raining right now. He breathes in the air through his nose, feeling the now familiar scents that he still can’t identify, but there’s no hint of fresh jungle rain. He lets the air escape his lungs again in a silent sigh. Today, it’s for real.

He escapes from the bed’s bounds and gets to his feet. His chest isn’t happy after yesterday, he should probably be resting, but he can’t spend today in bed. He’ll have to deal with the consequenses later.

He moves across the floor, and Big reaches out and ruffles his hair, but Infinite barely reacts. He’s moving like a ghost.

He has to steady himself with a hand on the nightstand when he kneels down.

“So,” he says to the sleeping Squiggles. But he has nothing to follow up with. He just trails off, staring, but without really looking.

Squiggles opens one eye, looks at him for a few seconds, and then closes it again.

“How are you feeling, buddy?” Big asks, in his special gentle ‘please don’t shatter at the sound of my voice’-tone.

Infinite is quiet. He looks down at his hands. Stares. Tries to find an answer.

“I don’t know.”

His own voice sounds so strange.

“That’s okay!” Big reassures quickly. “Do you need anything?”

Infinite pushes himself backwards from his kneeling position, folds his legs in front of him, apparently planning to just sit on the floor. He hasn’t taken his eyes off Squiggles.

“I just want to get it over with,” he says. Why does his voice keep sounding like that?

Big moves from foot to foot in that way that means he’s concerned, but doesn’t want to push  the issue.

“Maybe … some tea, first?” he asks.

Big taps his fingertips together in a steady rhythm, Infinite isn’t answering, is just staring into space, what does that mean?

“Yeah,” Infinite says, just as Big was beginning to suspect he might have fallen asleep sitting up. “Tea. Tea sounds … good.”

He gets up and moves over to the kitchen counter, where he sort of just stands. Big joins him, pours water in the kettle and places it on the stove. He reaches out to pet Infinite’s hair while waiting for the water to boil. Big’s hand on Infinite's head makes Infinite feel so fragile, the way Big moves it back and forth ever so slightly, as if bigger movements would cause Infinite to break. Infinite wants to pull away, but that will worry Big, and then Infinite will have to explain himself, and that might end up in Big making Infinite talk about feelings and Infinite does not want to talk about feelings. He's fine, really. Doesn't feel much about the situation.

He's worried that he will, later. Worried that he'll suddenly have to deal with a bunch of emotions that he’s unfamiliar with. He doesn’t exactly know what to expect. Has no point of reference.

“Are you okay?” Big asks.

Infinite pulls himself back to reality.

“I got lost in thought.” And then, because Big is petting his head with a back-and-forth motion that is so small that it’s almost unnoticeable, and it makes Infinite feel fragile and pathetic, he adds: “I should clean my eye.”

“Yes! You’re right.”

Big removes his hand to get Infinite a bowl, and Infinite takes a step to the side, out of the danger zone.

Squiggles wakes up and begins making her way out of the tank as soon as Infinite sits down with his cloth and bowl of warm water. She tumbles down her ramp, hops, or maybe just skillfully falls, to the floor, and eagerly lumps across the floor. Infinite hurriedly grabs the cloth, maybe he can be done before she comes to put her little feet all over everything.

For a creature about as aerodynamic as a potato, she’s fast, and Infinite is not done when she arrives, which means an opportunity for her to climb on him while his hands are full. He fumbles with the cloth while trying to grab her, drops it, and gets momentarily distracted by something dark in the folds. Squiggles is climbing up his shoulder, and he weighs his options, but lets her do her thing in favor of picking up the cloth to get a closer look.

He unwraps the scab and picks it up. It’s small, just a flake, and he brings his hand to the mangled part of his face, runs his fingertips over it until he finds a spot that is smoother than everything else. Squiggles hops up and lands on top of his hand, trying to get a foothold and ends up kicking Infinite with her feet.

“Squiggles, get off,” he says and pulls the hand away from under her.

She squeaks and flails and kicks him some more, her foot grabbing onto his nose and getting dangerously close to Infinite’s good eye.

He grabs her, pulls her off, and puts her down on the bed.

“I’ve gotten this far without losing my vision completely, do you think you can make the last few hours without blinding me?” he growls.

“Wamp,” she says, collects her feet under her body and puffs out her bright purple croaking sac.

Infinite sighs and shakes his head at her.

“You’re a rascal.”

“Rrrrbbt!”

“Ghrh,” Infinite responds.

She hops over and tries to climb onto his leg. He pushes her off. She targets his hand. He pulls it away. She goes for his knee again.

Infinite stands up, takes the bowl, and walks to the kitchen counter with long, resolute steps, his chest warns him that he can’t keep this up, but it’s worth it to see Squiggles throw herself in his direction to try and keep up.

He stands with his back turned, watching her out of the corner of his eye until she is right next to his boot, lifting a foot to begin climbing, and then he takes a step to the left.

Squiggles looks at the place where there had been a shoe a moment ago with bafflement. Then she charges at Infinite again. He takes a step back, and she catches nothing but the floorboards.

Big takes the kettle off the fire just before it begins its shrill cry, pours water over the tea leaves, and then turns around to tell Infinite that the tea is ready, but gets distracted by the fact that Infinite is doing some sort of little dance - wait, no, Squiggles is there at his feet, he’s not dancing, they’re playing.

“Come on,” Infinite taunts. “Weren’t you going to climb? Put your backbone into it.”

“Infinite, don’t be mean,” Big reprimands gently.

“She can take it.” Infinite takes a step to the side.

“But it’s still not nice to tease people,” Big lectures.

Infinite looks up to read Big’s face, trying to find out how big of an offence he has committed. Big doesn’t seem too upset.

The second of divided attention is all Squiggles needs to execute a perfect ambush on Infinite’s boot.

Infinite looks down and smirks.

“Well, would you look at that.”

He lifts his foot and shakes it a bit. Squiggles sticks to it. He puts it down again.

“Wamp,” she says, satisfied with herself.

“There’s tea now!” Big says.

Infinite receives his mug and walks to his bed with it. Squiggles stays attached to his boot the whole time.

He sits down and gently wiggles his foot.

“All right, all right, you got me. Now get off.”

Squiggles does not get off. Infinite puts the mug down and prods her belly.

“I said get off.”

She moves to perch on the metallic edge on the tip of his boot.

“Seriously? There’s no way that can be comfortable.”

“Wamp.”

“All right, suit yourself.” He tucks the frogless leg under himself and lets the other one stay stretched out. And then he adds, quietly, so Big won’t hear: “You menace.”

Infinite sips the tea. It burns the tip of his tongue. Still too hot, then. That’s on him; he should have known that it would be burning two minutes after it was poured.

Squiggles sits and watches him, her chin moving gently, observing Infinite like she’s afraid she’ll miss something. He sends her a look. She just keeps staring. He lifts en eyebrow at her, and she puts her head on the side.

Infinite puts his mug down on the floor, placing it so he won’t knock it over, his chest strains because he’s trying to keep the foot Squiggles is on still. Not that she would mind, she’d probably just cling on. But he does it anyway. Then he reaches over, grabs her, despite her attempts to dodge without actually leaving his boot, and picks her up.

He takes care to place her away from his eyes, away from his scars, and in a spot where his hair will hopefully protect him a little.

“There you go,” Infinite mumbles.

Squiggles shuffles with satisfaction and sits down.

“Wamp,” she says.

“Yeah, yeah.”

He picks his mug back up, holds it between his hands, feels the warmth in his palms and breathes in the steam. it's only a question of time before her toxins reaches through Infinite’s fur and makes his skin itchy and irritated, but that's a consequence he’ll deal with later. For now, the weight on top of his head is a reminder that she's still there. She's quite heavy. Not too heavy though, just enough that her presence won't be forgotten.

She leans forward to observe Infinite as he takes a sip of his tea. Infinite pushes her hands back and away from his face. She tries to use his finger as an armrest, but Infinite moves his hand, and she has to choose between clinging to the hand or the head, and of course the head wins. Infinite smirks at her predictability and bows his head a bit. Squiggles realizes that the spot she's in is no longer the highest point on Infinite's head, and that just won't do. She backs up a few steps and sits down in his hair.

Infinite finishes half a cup of tea while Squiggles sits on top of his head, acting surprisingly well-behaved, sufficiently entertained by her vantage point, but of course that can't last.

Infinite reaches up to free a lock of hair from being stuck, presumably under Squiggles. He tugs at it.

It tugs back.

“Are you chewing on my hair?

Squiggles says nothing. Infinite pulls the lock of hair free with force, holds it out and scrutinizes it, and yes, that's frog mucus.

“You are unbelievable ,” Infinite says while staring in disgust at the slimy lock of hair.

“Roob,” Squiggles says, probably demanding to get her chew toy back.

Infinite banishes Squiggles to his boot again, but now she won’t settle. Infinite tries to deter her while also holding the disgusting slimy mess away from the rest of his hair. He is not particularly successful at either task. He almost knocks the tea over. His swearing alerts Big, who looks up at the scene in front of him and tries to figure out just exactly what is going on.

Squiggles makes a jump, and she's aiming right for the middle of Infinite's chest, he drops the lock of hair and it falls against his face, he swears again and tries to push himself to the other end of the bed.

His chest decides that it has had enough of him ignoring its warnings. The next stab of pain is like a needle being drawn through his body, he gasps, and his arms give way. He collapses gracelessly, the back of his head hitting the bamboo bedframe.

He hisses in pain, staring at the ceiling, trying to force the black dots to disappear from his vision with the power of will alone.

Squiggles plows her way through the palm leaves and is at Infinite's head in a matter of seconds.

“RIIIIIB!!”

“Infinite!”

Big rushes to him.

Infinite opens his mouth to tell them that he's okay, but his body won't let him speak. All that escapes is a rough wheeze.

“What happened? Are you okay? Did you hurt yourself, did something sting you?”

Infinite lifts his hand in a dismissive gesture and shakes his head ever so slightly in an attempt to calm Big down.

“Wamp?”

Froggy emerges from between Big’s ears to stare at Infinite.

“RIIIIB!” Squiggles says again.

Big scoops Infinite up, lifts his head away from the bedframe and places him back in the palm leaves. Infinite whimpers.

“Infinite?” Big sounds panicked.

“I'm okay.” It's a raspy whisper, but the words get out. The pain is coursing through his body. and he feels like Big won’t appreciate the addition, but he hurts too much to care, so he says it anyway: “Fucking hell.”

“What happened?”

“It’s just my chest.” He draws a shaky breath. “I’ll be fine.”

Squiggles puts her hands up on Infinite's face; Big grabs her and pulls her back just an inch.

“Riiib!!” She screeches. “Roiib riib riiib--”

“Squiggles for heaven’s sake please stop screaming,” Infinite says.

Squiggles shuts up.

Big is sitting next to Infinite with large eyes full of doubt, unsure of what to do. He looks around himself to see if his surroundings can give him a hint, and spots Infinite's mug.

“Here,” he says and helps Infinite into sitting position, supporting him with an arm around his back. “Tea.”

Infinite tries to struggle, but it is so minuscule that Big doesn't even pick up on it. As Big holds him up like this, with one arm and almost no effort, Infinite is reminded of what a powerhouse Big is and Infinite is completely defenseless --

“Riiiib?”

Squiggles’ scream is gentler this time. She puts her hands up on Infinite's glove, but doesn't try to climb. Infinite clenches his teeth, swallows, forces himself to calm down.

Big holds the mug close. Infinite drinks.

Once the mug is empty, Big ever so carefully lowers Infinite into the palm leaves again. Infinite lets out a shaky breath. He should be used to this - used to Big, used to getting Big’s help, he should know that he's not in danger, but he hates being defenseless like this, and it always makes his heart race when he's reminded how outpowered he is, how much he is at Big's mercy. He keeps forgetting, Big is so calm and gentle, but when he finally does something that reminds Infinite of how strong he really is, Infinite's blood runs cold.

It shouldn't. But it does.

Big puts the blanket around Infinite, tucks him in and gives his head a pat. Infinite groans. Big gives him another little pat.

“We need to get Squiggles home,” Infinite complains weakly.

“We’ll do that later.”

Infinite lets out a weary sigh. Big is right. Infinite can’t do anything in this state anyways.

Squiggles shuffles up and sits down right next to Infinite’s head. He sends her a suspicious look.

“Don’t go climbing on Infinite now, okay?” Big says.

“Rooob?”

Big stands up, leaving Infinite with no defense against Squiggles if she decides not to listen to Big. Infinite sends her a look, wanting it to be a glare, but it ends up betraying that he might be a little bit on edge. She’s been so clingy today, who knows when she’ll decide to get in Infinite’s eyeball.

She stares at him.

“Wrrib?” she asks.

“Don’t you dare touch me,” Infinite says.

His own voice is the most pathetic thing he has ever heard, weak and tired, clearly not able to pick a fight. But Squiggles just sits down in the palm leaves next to him, still staring with her large, blue eyes. Infinite stares back.

After a while, despite the odds, Infinite’s eye drifts closed.

 

He wakes up, blinks, looks around, and sees Squiggles, sitting more or less exactly where she did last time he looked.

He stares at her.

She croaks.

“Why are you still here?” he asks.

Squiggles pushes closer, and Infinite reels back just a little, but she stops an inch away from his face and just stares.

“Roob,” she says again.

He can’t lie here and stare at a frog all day. He groans weakly and pushes himself up in sitting position. Squiggles hops out of the way. Infinite resists the urge to stretch, instead doing a small roll with his shoulders, but not even that goes unpunished by the phantom ruby’s abandoned cave. He winces.

Squiggles comes over and puts her hands on this leg. Doesn’t climb, just puts her hands there. He looks down at her, and she looks back.

Wordlessly, he scoops her up. It is a trial to get to his feet when one hand is occupied by a frog, but now he has to commit. Once he’s up, he stands for a long moment while the pain subsides. He’ll have to stop ignoring his body’s distress signals if he doesn’t want it to remind him by force again.

He looks around.

“Did you see where Big went?”

Squiggles doesn’t respond.

Infinite walks outside and looks around. Big is not on the porch. He puts Squiggles down on the railing so he has both hands free, and walks down the steps with great care. He would rather not collapse down the stairs, especially since the ground is still soft after yesterday’s rainfall. Yesterday’s mud bath was more than enough, he doesn’t need another.

Squiggles is of a different opinion, she immediately jumps from the railing and all the way to the ground. Infinite looks down at her, but as usual, she seems unaffected by the long fall, and just looks at Infinite,  ready to follow him.

Infinite scans his surroundings.

A little bit of purple is visible among the bushes further down, around where the small stream is. Infinite takes care to walk slowly, and Squiggles follows right next to him.

Froggy sees Infinite before Big does. He turns around on Big’s head and croaks to get Big’s attention.

“What is it, buddy?” Big asks.

Infinite pushes the foliage aside. He should probably make his presence known, he thinks, and then he tries to think of a way of doing it that isn’t antagonizing, and realizes that is not anywhere in his repertoire. Maybe if he just clears his throat? It shouldn’t seem too much like he is trying to assert authority if he does it softly. Right? Can he even do it softly? Maybe he should just … say something instead.

Infinite's internal dialogue lasts around three seconds, which is long enough to bore Squiggles. She decides to take matters into her own hands.

“Waamp!” she yells, saving Infinite from having to make a decision.

Big turns around.

“Oh! Hello! Are you ready?”

Infinite takes a second of just standing. Then he nods.

“We are.”

Chapter Text

“Are you sure you don’t want me to carry you?” Big asks as they walk through the jungle.

“I’d rather walk.”

It’s not a question of pride; there’s nothing dignified about Infinite’s slow and careful steps, and Big has to hover close to help Infinite across logs and rocks and roots, and to be ready to catch him in case he stumbles. But it just feels right to be walking on his own.

Squiggles is hopping next to them, in and out of the bushes, back and forth, chasing bugs, chasing leaves and shadows, and every time, Infinite has the urge to call her back, but he stops himself. And every time, she comes back safe on her own and follows their pace for a while, before something new catches her attention.

Every time she comes back, Froggy croaks to her, and they converse for a little. Froggy must be explaining the plan, Infinite presumes. Or maybe he’s just saying goodbye.

Infinite keeps his eye on Squiggles and walks slower when she isn’t there, even though she could keep up no problem.

Maybe he's walking slower than absolutely necessary. Maybe he's stalling, just a little bit.

The mountain walls are looming above, and Infinite keeps glancing up at them. They're so large and steep, and Squiggles is so tiny. And it shouldn't be his problem anymore. If she can't make it, so be it, he can't dote over her forever ... But it is his problem. And it matters. If she doesn't make it, then …

Then what has all this even been for?

He shakes his head and picks up the pace. Get it over with, rip it off like a bandaid. Tear it out, like a rock.

The ground begins sloping upwards, and the terrain becomes rocky and uneven. Infinite has to admit defeat and let Big pick him up. Squiggles thinks that is very unfair when she has to walk all on her own and tries to hop onto Big as well. She ends up sitting on his foot as he walks. Infinite watches her as she’s carried along on the bumpy ride. Infinite can’t imagine that’d be comfortable in any way, but Squiggles doesn’t seem to mind.

Finally, they make it to where the mountain walls begin for real, where you’d have to truly climb to move any further. Big puts Infinite down. Squiggles jumps from Big’s sandal and onto Infinite’s boot and begins climbing up his leg.

Despite the stabbing pain in his chest, he bends down and picks her up. He walks the last steps and lifts her up as high as he can and places her on the rocks.

“There you go,” he says. “Home with you.”

He knows this tone of voice by now. It still feels strange to hear it, but it’s no longer surprising; he knew he would find himself sounding like this again.

In all honesty, it would feel wrong if he didn’t.

Squiggles turns around on the rock and wamps. Infinite encourages her with a throw of his head.

She propels herself forwards and lands right in the middle of Infinite’s forehead.

He stumbles and Big has to catch him.

“Squiggles, for heaven’s sake!” He pushes her away from his face, and she moves up to sit in his hair instead. “Why are you -- what was that for?”

“Rrrribbttt,” she says.

She places her foot on the hand Infinite is using to keep her out of his face with.

“That’s a happy noise,” Big says. His voice is trembling a little bit.

“I know,” Infinite says. “I’ll …” but he can’t make himself say that out loud, so instead he gently nudges her with a finger. “... Be safe, okay?”

“Ribbit.”

Squiggles hops from his head and back onto the rocks. She turns one more time, ribbits, and then hops to further up, climbs over a small bump and hops to the next foothold. Infinite takes one step back so he can watch her ascend. Big puts a hand on his shoulder.

A few metres up, Squiggles makes a daring hop, and when she lands, she slips, her feet catching nothing but air. Infinite jolts forwards, reaching out like there is any way he could possibly help from down where he is, but Squiggles finds a crack in the rock and pushes herself back up again, and continues to climb as if nothing had happened. Infinite steps back with shaking legs. When Big wraps his arm around Infinite’s shoulder, Infinite lifts a hand and places it on Big’s, to find some sort of support in all this.

They stay there until Squiggles is nothing more than a bumbling dot amongst the rocks. Then she disappears from view behind an outcropping, and Infinite stands and stares after her, looking like he’s lost his purpose in life.

After a minute, a gentle “wamp!” sounds from somewhere high, high up.

“Roob roob wamp,” Froggy says.

“She made it!” Big translates.

The tremble in his voice makes Infinite look up.

“... then why are you crying?” he asks.

Big wipes his eyes with his free hand, and then he grabs Infinite and scoops him up in a big bear hug.

“I’m so proud of you,” he says.

“You should be proud of Squiggles, not me,” Infinite mumbles.

Big sniffles.

It’s clear that Big is hugging him more to confort himself than Infinite, so Infinite accepts it. He reaches out a hand and awkwardly pats Big’s upper arm. Then he slumps against Big’s shoulder, because this hug is clearly not ending anytime soon.

After a while, Infinite speaks.

“Do you think she’s going to be okay?” he asks.

It’s not like what Big thinks will change anything, but Infinite just … needs to hear it.

Big nods.

“I think she’s gonna do real well,” he says.

It sounds like a prophecy. Like something Infinite can believe in. Big knows things about frogs. Squiggles is going to be fine.

Big adjusts Infinite so he is carrying him in his arms, and turns around. Infinite tenses up, turns his head, stares at the rock wall.

He can’t just …

He’s going to have to leave.

He doesn’t know what he expected - to sit at the bottom of this rock wall forever? In case she comes back down? But it just really sinks in that she has left, and he’s going to have to walk away and … go back. And everything will be like before she was there. Except it won’t.

He slumps down in Big’s hold, hides the intact part of his face in Big’s fur. Grabs onto a tuft of it and clings to it while trying not to think too hard about anything.



They empty out her tank. Sticks and algae-covered bark and small pebbles pouring out with the water, swirling down the stream and disappearing, meaningless artifacts, no more special than any of the million sticks in the world, now that she isn’t here to cherish them. For a few foolish seconds, Infinite had actually considered keeping her favourite pebble. Just because. Just to remember her by. But that’s stupid, it’s not like he could forget her even if he had wanted to, and the pebble is just a pebble, so he lets it fall in the water with the others, watches it sink and disappear.

Big wipes the tank down, stores it under the bed again after refilling it with stuff to make space for it.

“Do you wanna go fishing?” Big asks.

Infinite wants to do anything but that. Sitting and watching the water, when the world is quiet and everything is passing by has a way of making him think, and that is the last thing he wants to do right now. But what else is there to do? He certainly doesn’t want to be all alone with his thoughts in the completely empty hut.

“I guess,” Infinite says.

Big pats his head. Infinite makes a face; he’s not in the mood for this.

He follows Big down along the stream. Squiggles used to play here. He shakes his head; why can’t he stop thinking about that -- that stupid frog.

“Could we go to the ocean instead?” Infinite asks.

“But then Froggy can’t come along,” Big says. “It’s too dry.”

Your frog won’t be coming on the trip, how terrible for you, Infinite thinks to himself. But he’s not going to ruin his shot at being a friend, so he says nothing.

“We could go to the big river though?” Big says.

Infinite grimaces.

“No thanks.”

“I could carry you?”

“I don’t want to.”

“Oh, okay then.”

Infinite looks at Big. Well. That was … simpler than he had expected.

But they still end up at Big’s preferred fishing spot downstreams, and Infinite sits and stares into the water while Big fishes, trying with all his might to stop thinking about Squiggles, why can’t he just stop? This is stupid. She’s -- it’s out of his hands, and she’s a frog, for heaven’s sake, and really this is a milestone -- he’s done, maybe not well, but the best he can anyway, And Big says Infinite did a good job so why does he feel so bad?

Figures. He goes through all that just to end up feeling devastated. Over a frog.

He hates this. Hates feeling like this, hates knowing it’s illogical and pointless and still not being able to do anything about it.

For once, he wishes his body would force him to have an unplanned nap, but with how much he's already slept today, there's no way that's happening.

He lets himself fall back into the soft grass and stares up at the clouds.

He lies there, motionless, for a long time. That’s the biggest difference in having no Squiggles around; there’s nothing to distract him, nothing that craves his attention every five seconds, and no relief in being able to finally rest, just for a while, before she comes to pester him again. He’s alone with his thoughts. She was a distraction from his own mind, but now she’s not there anymore and he has to fight it himself.

God. How pathetic. He’s suffering because he no longer has the help of an annoying frog.

Infinite stays like that for almost the entire fishing trip. He keeps being awfully quiet for the rest of the day, deflecting all of Big's worried comments with “I'm fine”, in the sort of tone that implies that he's really not fine, and dodging all attempts at comfort or affection in favor of sulking.

 

“Lunchtime!” Big says and hands Infinite a plate.

Infinite barely even grumbles.

“You wanna come sit with me and Froggy on the porch?”

Infinite wordlessly gets up, sends Big’s hand a sharp glare when it reaches over to help him up, but follows to the porch and sits down too carelessly, just letting himself drop, causing a wave of pain starting from his chest and rushing through his entire body.

He hisses.

That’s all there’s left, isn’t it? Pain. New and exciting forms of pain, he might get a distraction now and again but ultimately it will all run out and pain is all there’s left for him. For a moment - hah! - he had thought there might be a life for him after all of this. What a fool, what an idiot he was. Blinded by Big and his endless optimism, by the thought of hope. As if there is hope for him.

Big looks at Infinite’s turned back, his folded ears and the way he’s just staring into his food without making any move to eat. He puts his head on the side, eyes full of sympathy, and reaches a hand out to touch Infinite’s shoulder.

“You miss her, huh?”

Infinite snaps.

“Shut up!”

Big reels back in shock, staring wide-eyed, ears up.

“Infinite?”

Infinite stares, chest heaving. Yes, that’s what it feels like. Startled, surprised, hurt, a breach of trust in the world -- he snarls through his teeth and drops his fork.

“It’s your fault that I feel like this, you know?” he hisses.

“I … what?” Big says, looking both confused and hurt. “N… no it’s not?”

You made me -- you made me care! If it wasn’t for you - - I knew it was useless! You tricked me, you made me, even though you knew that she was going to have to leave and leave me feeling like this .”

“Ribbit!!” Froggy yells and props himself up to look as frightening as he can, but Infinite doesn’t even look.

“I … what? I don’t … understand …” Big’s ears fall to lie flat against the back of his head.

Infinite points an accusing finger at Froggy.

“Him! How would you feel if he had to leave? But he doesn’t --”

“Froggy lives here,” Big says.

“But Squiggles doesn’t. And you knew that, we both -- but you insisted that I should care for her until I cared, even though I never wanted to , and then you took her away.

Big retreats into himself a little, looks down with a frown.

“Why do you get so mean when you’re upset?” he mumbles.

“Don’t make this about me!” Infinite snarls.

“Rrrrriiiiiiibbit!!”

“Stop,” Big says, suddenly staring, still looking sad and hurt, but there’s resolve in his eyes as well. “Stop it.”

Make me.

“No,” Big says. “You make you.”

Infinite doesn’t know what to say to that, he sits and huffs and stares, and then he suddenly roars and throws his plate.

Big visibly cringes and shields his ears. Froggy has to jump out of the way of a stray fish fillet. The fork rattles down the steps, the plate hits the railing and falls into the mud below.

Big turns around.

“No!” he says.

“Now you know how it feels--

“It’s not my fault,” Big says resolutely. “You’re just being mean because you’re upset, and I don’t wanna be mad at you but you’re making me be mad at you. Stop! A-and, and you can’t even make people care, that’s not how it works. You made you like Squiggles because you’re a good person and you care about things.”

HA! ” Infinite barks, because that is the stupidest thing anyone has ever said to him, “No I’m not .”

“Yes you are. You just get really mean sometimes and I don’t understand why you do that.”

“Maybe I’m just a horrible person and a waste of space?” Infinite says. His fangs are showing as he talks.

Big shakes his head.

“You’re not horrible. You’re just deciding to be bad right now and I don’t know why.”

Infinite scowls, and that’s his only response.

“You’re my friend,” Big continues. “I don’t wanna be mad at you when you’re also feeling bad. I wanna help you, but not if you’re just gonna be mean about it. It’s not my fault. It’s not someone’s fault at all.”

That shuts Infinite down. He just sits, breathing heavily, and regrets tossing his food, that was stupid. How childish. He’s the one who is paying the price, it wasn’t even an attack, just a desperate outlash. Chaos. Why is he like this. Why is he so pathetic.

Big stands up and goes over to get Infinite’s plate. He walks past Infinite and into the hut, and Infinite can hear the sound of splashing water.

Froggy stares at Infinite.

“Rrrrrob,” he says, looking anything but pleased.

“Yeah,” Infinite says. “At least you have a better judge of character.”

He folds his legs up and wraps his tail around himself.

Big comes back and puts the now clean plate next to his own. Infinite watches with quiet bafflement as Big pushes about half of his meal to the other plate.

“Don’t do that,” Infinite mumbles. “You deserve it, I don’t. I did this to myself.”

“I’ll find some fruit later,” Big says and pushes the halved lunch over to Infinite.

Infinite looks at the meal with quiet contemplation, his brow furrowed and his eyes cast down.

“Do you not want to talk about Squiggles?” Big asks.

Infinite turns his head and huffs.

“I just don’t … want to feel this bad,” he grumbles and takes a bite. “I didn’t … want to care, I guess. And then I did it anyway, and now I feel … stupid.”

“It’s not stupid. It’s good to care.”

Infinite is quiet for a while.

“What if I’m not good?” he asks.

“You are.”

“You keep saying that. What if I wasn’t. What if I really was a horrible person. What then?”

“Then you should stop,” Big says and shoves in another mouthful.

Infinite huffs again.

“If only it were that easy.”

“It is,” Big counterargues. “If you’re being bad, you should stop doing that. Then you’re not bad anymore.”

“Truly? Do you not think there would have to be more to it? Can you just -- do whatever and then beg for forgiveness and expect it to be handed to you?”

Big goes cross-eyed from processing that many words.

“I don’t know,” he says. “... but if you’re being bad, you should still stop.”

Infinite sighs, shakes his head a bit, and goes back to eating. Perhaps Big is not the person to discuss this with … especially since Infinite would rather not delve into the details of what exactly it is he has done.

In a way, though … Big is right. His way of viewing things is simple, so very simple, and on one hand, nothing is that simple and the world is a complicated mess, but on the other hand … Big has a point. Infinite was a merciless weapon of destruction, and now he isn’t. And that’s … good. That’s a good thing. It doesn’t automatically make him a good person, or someone who deserves forgiveness or kindness or even another shot at life, but he stopped - he was stopped.

It’s over.

And that’s --

Birds with legs tangled up, swollen feet where the wire has cut in and wrapped close, homeless beasts who roam to find new hunting grounds, broken legs and backs and necks, a body flailing as it reaches for the surface, desperate for air, cries for help and for mercy, red and warped worlds, red and warped bodies, laughter, sick, fermented laughter at the sight of it all, of blood and broken worlds and broken lives --

That’s a good thing.



 

Another piece of scab flakes off his scar when he cleans his face that evening.

Chapter Text

For once, Infinite wakes up after Big has already started the day. He's kneading dough when Infinite blinks awake.

Infinite sits up, still with the blanket around his shoulders, stifles a yawn and brushes his hair away from his face. He shakes his head as if to shoo the last bit of sleepiness from his mind and looks around.

The nightstand looks so empty without the tank. The world is too quiet.

Big doesn't seem to have noticed that Infinite is awake. Infinite watches his turned back and wonders what it must be like to not have to watch your back at every turn. Big could probably just literally shake off a potential ambusher. He doesn't have to pay constant attention to his surroundings, the smells and sounds, the shifting shadows, the moving dust. He can just … Be.

Infinite folds up his legs, pulls his tail close, and wraps the blanket tighter around himself, trying to do the same and just be. But the silence only serves to remind him that Squiggles isn't here to bother him, so he sighs and gets up.

“Morning,” he mumbles.

Big turns around.

“Good morning!! I'm baking bread!”

The shadow of a smile appears at the corner of Infinite's mouth.

“I can tell.”

And then, because he has nothing else to do, he goes over to stand next to Big. A moment later, a flour-covered hand is patting his head, he really should have seen that coming, and he can't help but snicker just a little.

He takes a step back and brushes the flour off his forehead. It's probably for the best that Big doesn't have to watch his back. That cat is not good at keeping track of his surroundings.

Infinite absentmindedly scratches his forehead and then winces at a slight sting of pain. He runs his fingertips through his fur, carefully feeling his hairline. Itchy and sore. Squiggles. He must have been scratching the rash without noticing.

His fingers linger at the spot for a long moment.

His chest aches. Absentmindedly, he runs his palm over the empty hole in his chest. He should go lie down.

He stands for a moment, almost as if he's buffering, before he finds the resolve to actually move back to bed.

 

The day passes quietly, time moving slowly in the warm jungle air. They eat fresh bread. Go to Big’s fishing spot. Infinite dozes off in the shade of a tree. Froggy goes for a little swim up the steam, and Big has a nap while he is gone. Then they go home, play checkers, eat lunch. Big makes tea. Infinite sits in his bed, and Big has a two-way conversation with both Infinite and Froggy, and Infinite does his best to avoid feeling anything specific about the fact that he can’t understand any part of the frog side of the conversation.

Evening rolls around. Big shows Infinite how to clean a fish so Infinite can help with dinner without having to pick out any bones.

Infinite finds himself enjoying the work despite the slippery fish and the smell of their guts. There’s something satisfying about a clean cut, it reminds him of his days with the sword, but at the same time, it’s strikingly different. Slower, more deliberate. Calm. A set place and depth for every cut,  then out with the guts before cleansing the inside.

After he’s done, he has to stretch carefully. Even just the act of leaning over his work gets to his chest, he can feel the warning aches that tell him to take a break or he’ll regret it. So he washes the knife and his gloves in the stream before going back. He sits down next to Big to keep him company; he can do that without straining himself, at least. Not that he’s the most interesting companion, but Big seems to appreciate it anyway, even though Infinite doesn’t really have much to say. Then again, Big mostly hangs out with frogs. Maybe his standards for what makes for good company is … different.

So they sit in silence, Big tending to his task, Froggy hunting, and Infinite taking in the sounds and smells of the jungle.

He’s beginning to be able to pick out some of the scents here, even though they tend to muddle together. Big is easy, he always smells of large mammal and vaguely of fish, and then just of himself, like all people do. The guts of the fish he’s cleaning is the strongest smell, though that always lingers around the hut, and on Infinite as well these days. The frogs aren’t easy to pick out, they blend in with the mud and the water and the rotting leaves … the hut itself has its own scent as well, the beams holding it up smelling mossy, of wood, dried leaves, smoke, right now the scent of bread still lingers ever so faintly in the air, mostly drowned out by the fresh fish.

Big pauses in his task.

“Are you okay, Infinite?”

Infinite pulls himself from his thoughts.

“I …” He lets out a quiet breath. “I think so.”

Big reaches out. Infinite shields his head and recoils.

“Big, the fish!

Big frowns. “What's with the fish?”

“Your hands. They're covered in fish right now.”

“Oh? Oh! Right! I get it!” He squints. “I don't get it.”

Infinite takes a short, deep breath.

“Please don't touch my hair while your hands are covered in fish.”

Big lights up.

Now I get it!”

In his excitement, he reaches out to ruffle Infinite's hair, and only stops once Infinite has flinched away again with a glare.

Big pulls back, looking embarassed.

“Whoops! Sorry.”

Froggy croaks, sitting on the stairsteps and watching them. Infinite sends Froggy a glare.

“What's so funny?” He hisses.

You're funny, Froggy. Froggy is just silly.”

“I'm pretty sure he's laughing at me,” Infinite says.

“Don't be silly,” Big says. “He just thought of some funny frog thing probably.”

Froggy hops past the pile of fish and onto Big’s shoulder, and then finally up to sit on Big's head. Infinite stares up at Froggy with suspicion.

“Um,” Big says. “Don't be mean to Froggy …?”

Infinite looks away and wants to say something about being able to dish it out but not take it, but he doesn’t. Instead he discreetly rolls his eye once he’s sure Big can’t see it.

A centipede slips past next to Infinite’s foot. He lashes out per reflex, catches it, crushes it between his fingers, first then realizing that Squiggles isn’t here to eat it. He stares at the unfortunate bug. He’s not going to eat it. Strange bugs in new places is rarely a good idea. He could offer it to Froggy … but Froggy just laughed at him, so that ship has sailed.

Infinite tosses the dead bug into the mud. It feels like a waste, but … whatever.

This place is overflowing with food anyways.

 

Big finishes cleaning the fish, stuffs them with herbs, wraps them in leaves and then cover them with clay, and puts them directly into the flames in the stove. They play checkers while they wait for the food.

Infinite doesn’t have to look over his shoulder every five seconds to see if Squiggles is up to something. It’s so quiet. So peaceful. So strange.

So … empty.

Big casts worried glances at Infinite’s distant expression, sometimes side-eyeing Froggy to see if he has any input, but Froggy is fully absorbed in the game - or, absorbed in how many pieces he can snatch and drag away before anyone notices.

Infinite actually does notice, but he just assumes that it’s a thing that Froggy does for some reason Infinite isn’t in on, so Froggy manages to steal quite a stash before Big needs to king a piece and can’t find any spares.

“Huh?” Big looks around. Then he gets to his feet and walks in a little circle around himself. “Did I sit on them?”

“You mean … the pieces Froggy took?” Infinite asks.

Big looks around.

“Froggy?”

Froggy sits under the night stand on top of his pile of checkers pieces and just kind of stares.

“Froggy!” Big says. “What are you doing with all the pieces?”

Froggy takes being caught red-handed - or  red-toed, rather - quite in stride.

“Wamp,” he says after a moment’s pause.

“Froggy, you’re silly,” Big laughs and kneels down to retrieve the stolen goods.

Infinite feels jealousy rear its ugly head. Big is going to have a frog that will bother him forever … why couldn’t Infinite be like Big? Why couldn’t he laugh it off, why didn’t he appreciate it while she was there, now she isn’t and - and it’s not someone’s fault, but he keeps circling around in blame, Big should have told him to appreciate what he had, Infinite shouldn’t have gotten so attached, Squiggles should have been less rowdy - and he tries to stop, but he can’t.

Because he knows there is blame to place. And it is all on him. Because even if he had been told everything he wishes he knew, would he have listened?

He clenches his fists.

He has nobody but himself to blame.

If only he wasn’t like this.

Big is picking up the checkers pieces one by one. When he looks away to pick up another one, Froggy grabs one with his tounge and pulls it out of Big’s hands, and then just lets it fall to the floor while playing innocent.

Big doesn’t notice. Froggy steals another one. Big looks over at the sound of a piece falling to the floor.

“Froggy!” he says. “You’re so silly! Why are you so silly?”

“Wamp!”

“Help me pick them up now, okay?”

Froggy croaks again, and  then hops to Big’s arm and targets the checkers pieces he just snatched and drops them in Big’s hands.

Infinite stands up.

“I’m going outside.”

Big looks up over his shoulder.

“I almost have the pieces back now,” he says.

Infinite shakes his head.

“I need a moment alone.” He sends the checkers board a glance. “You’ve won anyway.”

“That’s not for sure yet.”

Infinite turns and walks to the door.

“Infinite?”

“Just leave me be,” Infinite says, harshly, like he’s giving an order, and steps outside.

Infinite goes over to the railing, grabs it with a tight grip, and stands and stares into the night. It’s raining ever so slightly, just a light dusting that can barely be seen and only gently felt. Squiggles is out there, somewhere, in the night - in the rain - she loves the rain - how is she going to resist playing around in the mud? Completely oblivious to all the predators circling around her in the dark, horrible creatures that she can’t see … there has to be chasms up there among the cliffs - she has fallen down from there before, and she has so many more bones now that she can break. Why did he say she should leave? Why did Big let her leave? Why did he let Big rope him into this? Why did he let himself get roped into this? Why does he care?

“Infinite?”

Big peeks through the doorway.

“Leave me alone,” Infinite says.

Big’s ears fall just a little, he puts his head on the side and stares at Infinite’s turned back.

“Did I do something wrong?”

“No,” Infinite says, and then, a little softer: “ You didn’t do anything wrong.”

“Then … what happened?”

“Nothing happened.”

“But what’s wrong?”

Big, ” Infinite snaps, a little too harshly, and flinches, he can imagine Big reeling back, the hurt look on his face, and he can’t get himself to turn around and face it -- even when he’s not trying, hurt is what he causes, just like he always did, just like he did with Squiggles when she almost -- he collects himself, grasping the railing, and talks, as slowly and softly as he possibly can: “I’m sorry. I’m sorry I keep messing up.”

“It’s okay--”

Infinite lifts a hand, wordlessly shushing Big. He can’t -- he can’t take more of Big’s talking right now. He needs to say this, he needs Big to understand.

“I’m trying, okay? But I’m not the person you think I am, I’m not -- I’m not good at this.” He stares down at his hands on the railing, at the gloves fitted for long and curved claws. “I keep   trying to not be mean, okay, but I get angry and I just …” he snarls into the air. Then he takes a deep breath. “I’m going out here so I don’t end up yelling at you and making you sad. But I can’t do that if you keep   following me. So please just … leave me to be angry and - and mean out here, okay?”

“Oh … okay.” Big sounds hesitant. “I just … I don’t think you should have to be alone if you’re sad.”

Infinite sighs.

“I’ll come back inside once I’m done.”

Big hesitates for a second, and his ears lift ever so slightly.

“And get a hug?” he asks.

Infinite lets out one single huff of air that is right on the edge of being laughter. He just can’t help it. Big is hopeless.

“Yes,” he says.

“Okay then. See you soon?”

Infinite doesn’t respond. Big steps back inside. Infinite can hear his voice through the leavy walls.

“Where … Froggy? What are you doing? Why are you so silly today?”

Then there’s a bit of rustling, and Big pokes his head out again.

“Do you wanna finish the game afterwards?” he asks carefully.

Infinite manages a small smile through all the gloom on his face.

“No. It’s okay. Let Froggy keep the pieces if he wants them so badly.”

“Froggy doesn’t understand the rules,” Big complains before going back inside.

Infinite stands in the warm evening air and watches the darkness come creeping. A lizard scuttles past. A flurry of parakeets dart across the sky above like a cascade of jewels before they disappear into the greenery, their chattering hanging in the air long after they're gone from view. The last smear of sunset paints the top of the mountain walls in reddened shades of golden, up where Squiggles is now, somewhere. It's quite beautiful, really.

Infinite turns his face down, his expression hard and tense. Why can't he just appreciate it? Why can't he just - be happy? Why does he still look at it all with anger ?

Why can't he stop thinking about burning it all to the ground?

Where was all this when he was new? Why was he thrown into a barren wasteland when all this was out there the whole time? He was left, forgotten, discarded, to fend for himself, the world barely sparing him even a glance, occasionally throwing him a scrap like he was a beggar, leaving him to pick it from the dirt and the dust, just enough to neither really live nor die off. And all this was just out there?

They didn't know.

The only time the world even cared was when he rose, slashed, destroyed - and then when he did, they beat him up and left him broken and hated.

You didn't want their help.

Where was all this - the birds and the water and the fruit and the frogs, where was that when he was healthy and strong, before he became a shambling mess, barely able to walk? Why does everyone keep everything just an arm’s length away, just far enough that no matter what he can't reach it --

It's not anyone's fault.

Why did -- why did nobody tell him there was a better life?

Why …

Why didn't he try to make a better life?

It's too late now. The world took everything from him. A proper existence, then his squad, then his power, then his body, until all be had left was his dignity, and then it took that too.

And his --! His …

He feels the anger well up inside of him, the familiar feeling, he'll show them, show them what happens when they cast him aside, show them what it's like, take away the everything they kept for themselves all this time, he'll show them, he'll burn it all --

His … Frog.

He lets out a dry sound, almost a cough, half bad laughter, half pitiful scoff at himself, because is that really what he has fallen to? Of all the things that have happened and the frog makes the list?

But Squiggles wasn't taken, she left, and she was never really his. He knew that. He didn't - he didn't even want her! The world offered him a gift, albeit a very stupid gift, a wonderful stupid gift, a magnificent beautiful idiot gift, and he said no. Only because he was so weak and because Big insisted - the world had to break him down and shove it into his hands for him to accept anything.

He turns his face down, stares at the ground. Everything still feels horrible, unfair, cruel, like the entire world is out to stomp on him specifically, like the entire purpose of the universe is to drag him through the mud. But he also can't wish to see it all go up in flames when the world has Squiggles in it somewhere.

God. He's pathetic. His goals sizzling out and dying because of a frog.

He lifts his head and stares into the night.

“You win this round,” he says under his breath.

His claws dig into the wood under his hands. But I'll be back.

Then he turns around and walks inside.

Chapter Text

Big doesn't say anything when Infinite comes back. He just picks him up in a bear hug and holds him there for so long that Infinite realizes that his urge to struggle is just fading out, until there’s nothing to supress at all. It’s just … not really there.

Big lets him go.

“It’s late,” he says.

Infinite nods.

“Let’s go to bed.”

The checkers game is nowhere to be seen. Infinite wonders if Big cleaned the pieces or if he just put them back in the box while they were still covered in frog spit. Infinite supposes he’ll have to wait and find out next time they play.

They climb into each their bed. Big has a gentle conversation with Froggy that is mainly about Froggy being silly (Froggy seems more proud of it than anything), and then, after a few minutes of silence, he begins snoring.

Infinite is usually able to tune out Big’s snores by now, but tonight, it bothers him enough that he can’t fall asleep. So he lies away and toys with some thoughts without really wanting to commit to any of them. He weaves around in known paths - how can one creature snore so much, is Squiggles okay, how many eyelids do frogs have anyway - until he ends up somewhere familiar and has a harrowing realization.

Just like the urge to struggle fizzled away once everything in him finally learned to trust that Big isn’t going to hurt him, the anger that has always been in the back of his mind, the feeling that has allowed him to keep going through his entire life, monsoon after monsoon, hardship after hardship, the wrath at the injustice of the hand he was served, the fury that has kept his spirit lit this entire time, has faded to nothing but a flickering silhouette. He reaches out for it like he has done for his entire life and is met by nothing but an echo. It feels like stumbling. Feels like falling, feels like the moment where you’re about to lose your footing and you realize there’s no railing anymore.

Cold fear chills through him, a feeling he’s begun to know way too well by now. By reflex, his mind reaches for footing where it has always done, in the very thing Infinite has just realized is crumbling. No. No! He can’t -- he can’t give up, he can’t just accept -- after everything the world has done to him -- no! It’s not fair! He didn’t deserve the life he was given, he didn’t -- !

And all of that feels just as true as it has always done, and yet, the anger’s gone. He’s just … tired.

So tired.

He’s supposed to be strong. He’s supposed to be the leader, he’s supposed to be the one who gives the world what it deserves, supposed to be the one who shows everyone what it’s like. That’s all he’s ever been. It’s all he has ever wanted. His deepest, truest desire, and everything that life has thrown at him only served as fuel on that fire.

And it wasn’t fair. It can’t be right. It wasn’t supposed to be like that. He wasn’t supposed to end up like this.

But he doesn’t want to do anything about it. Not anymore. He …

He’s just tired.

He doesn’t even particularly desire vengeance. Not on the world. Not on the resistance. Not on the doctor.

He sort of just wants to sleep. And that’s it.

And it's terrifying.

He desperately tries to throw kindling on what was once a fire, hoping there's still an ember in there that can keep him going, keep him from losing who he is, he's lost everything else he ever had, he can't lose himself too. He was left to fend for himself in a desert without proper food or shelter while the world around him was teeming with life --

Nobody out there knew about me. Nobody hid anything from me.

-- he searched out civilization and shelter and all he met was hostility and hate --

As you do when someone challenges you for your territory. I would have done the same.

-- he was tossed aside by the doctor again and again and again, left to fend for himself, left to die --

Because I am a failure. Because I’m weak. It's what I deserved.

-- he was picked up from the brink of death only to be humiliated and pushed around and forced to care for frogs --

They're helping me. They're doing more than I ever deserved.

-- Squiggles is gone --

Squiggles is where she belongs.

-- his squad is gone.

But not even that can rekindle his resolve. There's nothing but ashes left. They didn't deserve it. It was unfair. Unjust. And yet …

It wouldn't have happened if I had been a better leader.

All he really feels is a dull feeling ...

If I hadn't brought us back to the doctor.

A feeling of guilt ...

If we hadn't all been so weak.

And sadness.

He huffs deeply, too much air escaping him and making his chest feel empty for a fraction of a second before he can breathe in again. He really is weak. Not even for his squad can he manage to be angry. Not even for them can he find the urge to take revenge. Not even the wish for revenge.

He lies on his back and tries to imagine his vengeance, but everything fades away to pictures of the war, of warped red worlds, he tries to imagine punishing Shadow for killing his men and all it makes him feel is regret. Why wasn't he stronger. Why didn't he avenge his squad when he had the power to, instead of toying with everyone, entirely forgetting them in the light of his new power. Why wasn't he there. He … He should have been with them. He should have died with them.

There's nothing left that he wants to do in an attempt to set anything right. All he has left are things he wishes he hadn't done. All he has left is a tattered past.

And there, he finds an ember. Why is he still alive. Why is he still here. Why did Shadow choose to sentence him to live through all this alone. Why did Amy pick him up and force him to keep going as this useless shell of a being --

The spark flickers and dies. He can't be mad at Amy. She saved him. She helped him. He can't - it's not her fault. It's not …

He forces the thoughts aside and tries to refind the ember, it was there, all wasn't lost, he just needs something else to kindle the fire … but there's nothing but ashes. It's too late. It's gone. His wrath at the world has died as well.

The dark feels so much denser now. He lets out a shaky breath, staring into the ceiling, fear gripping at him, at a loss for what to do. What … who is he now?

Nothing.

He clenches his fists.

I’ve always been nothing.

There’s still no anger to be found.

He sits up way too quickly, ignores the pain in his chest, gets up and fumbles his way to the doorway.

The moon casts pale light down among the trees. After a minute, Infinite can see the vague shapes of his surroundings. He walks to the railing and holds on to it like it’s a lifeline.

Froggy watches Infinite as he goes. Big is snoring. Froggy wamps and jumps from the bed post and right onto Big’s face.

Big sputters mid-snore and paps his face. Froggy hops out of the way.

“Wamp!” he says.

“Huh? Froggy? What are you doing?”

“Wamp. Wamp.”

Big looks around.

“Infinite?”

When nobody answers, Big stands up and walks to the doorway where he carefully pushes the leaves aside just a little bit.

Infinite’s hunched silhouette is visible against the night, and Big hesitates at the sight of him, almost about to let go of the leaves and turn back, but instead, he speaks.

“Do you wanna be alone again?” he asks carefully.

“No.”

One quiet word, almost fading away in the night breeze. Big’s ears perk up in surprise. Then he pushes the leaves aside and trots over to Infinite.

“Did you have a bad dream?” Big asks.

“No.”

Infinite doesn’t even look up.

Big stands awkwardly, wondering if any of his usual repetorie of late night comfort is going to work on Infinite.

“Do you wanna talk about it?” he asks.

“There’s nothing to say.”

“Oh. Well … that’s okay.”

Big puts a gentle hand on Infinite’s shoulder.

Infinite lets his head fall. He wonders, if he had been created in a place like this, would he had become a good person, or was he rotten from the start?

Not that it matters. Nothing really does anymore. It’s too late. His past self is gone, and all he has left is this frail mess of a body and a world that hates him and no squad and no frog and no will to do anything.

Big sees Infinite’s head sink. He frowns gently, as in deep in thought. Then he takes a step back.

“Come on, Infinite. Let’s go back inside.”

For a moment, Infinite wants to protest, but then he sighs silently and walks away from the railing. He passes Big, who gives him a gentle pat, and back into the dark hut.

Big follows after him, but doesn’t go back to bed. Instead, he kneels down beside it and pulls out the lantern and some matches. Infinite is about to crawl back in bed, but stops to looks over when Big summons a flame. He watches Big with a gentle squint, puzzled, while Big lights the lantern.

Big blows out the match, places the lantern on the nightstand, and stands up.

“Do you want tea?” he asks.

“Big, it’s in the middle of the night,” Infinite says.

“It’s good to do something nice when you feel bad at night.”

“I feel fine.”

It’s not really the truth, but not quite a lie either. Sure, his thoughts are chasing each other round in circles, persistently shoving themselves at him and demanding he think this, then that, then this again, but he doesn’t really feel much about them.

“I’ll boil some water,” Big says.

Big takes a single log of firewood and puts it in the embers in the stove. There’s a long moment of silence while Big gets a flame going and then waits for the water to boil. Infinite scratches his shoulder. Toys with a lock of his tail fur. Froggy ribbits before he jumps down and hides under the bed, away from the light. Big finds mugs in the cupboard.

“Do you need the tea that helps with pain?” Big asks.

Infinite shakes his head.

“I’m good.”

Big gets the chamomile tea. The kettle starts whistling, and Big cringes and immediately takes it off the heat and pours the water into the mugs.

“Scchhh!” he reprimands. “Schh. Schh.”

The whistle fades out.

“I don’t think it can hear you,” Infinite says before he can stop himself. He’s too tired to really think about his words.

“I don’t like that it’s so loud,” Big says, thankfully not taking offense to Infinite’s comment.

He brings the mugs over, places them next to Infinite’s bed, and sits down. He takes one of the mugs and holds it between his hands. Infinite sits and sort of awkwardly stares at Big.

They’re quiet for a few moments.

“Is it hard to be here all the time?” Big asks.

Infinite shakes his head with a little huff.

“No. I like it here.”

When he’s not busy comparing it to his old life and being mad about it, that is. It’s safe, the days are bearable and the nights are warm, and there’s food everywhere. What more could he want?

“I know many of the others need there to be more things around. I like being just me and Froggy, but many of my friends find it too i -so-lated.” He pronounces the word carefully. “You’re used to having many friends too?”

Infinite makes a small, sharp sound.

“That’s not the word I’d use,” he says. Then he sighs. “But I … suppose. I’m not used to being alone, at least. But I don’t mind it,” he adds.

“I’m used to it just being me and Froggy. At least some of the time.” He leans back a bit. “It’s kinda weird to have someone that’s there always. Maybe also a bit tough sometimes … but I’m glad I made a new friend! And I’m glad you like it here, even though we’re not a lot of people.”

Infinite gives a wry smile.

“You prefer frogs over people?” he asks.

Big shrugs.

“Not really. It’s just easier, because the frogs know I’m weird. Because I’m not a frog. So they don’t mind so much if I talk wrong or can’t be together or don’t like a noise. And me and Froggy like to do the same things. People can be difficult because I don’t always know what they mean when they say things, and sometimes they’re mean, and it’s hard to understand. But I like them! They just make me tired sometimes.”

Infinite responds with a small hum.

“Good thing you can thrive on your own, then.”

Surviving on his own in the desert would have been a hassle. Possible? Yes. But also taxing to the point where Infinite isn't sure he would have been able to resist the allure of a scavenger’s life in the streets of the city.

Big nods enthusiastically.

“I'm not so good at understanding people, but I'm good at being on my own. I couldn't do it without Froggy though I don't think. That would get lonely.” He blows on the surface of his tea. “It must be really super difficult for people who need to be with people but they're bad at it.”

“It is,” Infinite says, voice flat and dry. “Trust me.”

“Do you have problems with people also?” Big asks.

Infinite averts his gaze. Picks up his mug, stares into it.

“You know how I can be.”

Big blinks, puts his head on the side, and then he finally figures out what Infinite means.

“You've gotten super a lot better at being nice!” he praises.

Infinite scoffs softly.

“So that's what it takes. Lose all your ambitions and watch yourself become an empty husk with no will to do anything. Then you'll start to become a good person.”

He sips his tea.

Big looks at him, his head on the side, concerned.

“No,” he says. “... that just means you're sad, Infinite.”

Infinite doesn't respond.

“Like, really sad,” Big urges on.

Infinite gives another small scoff. He has clearly checked out of the conversation.

“You should talk to Shadow about it,” Big says.

That snaps Infinite back to reality. He starts, the movement causing his mug to spill, and Infinite's strong leather gloves are the only thing preventing him from getting burned.

What? ” he says, while putting minimal effort into not dripping hot tea on himself; his main focus is on staring at Big in utter disbelief.

“He's good with big feelings. He comes here when he's really sad sometimes, and then we go fishing and he just sort of talks about it. I never really know what to say, but he says it helps anyway. And he brings weird chips.”

“Shadow wants me dead,” Infinite reminds.

“I meant, if you feel like this still, after Amy has talked to everyone.”

Infinite looks up at Big's innocent face. He sighs defeatedly, a sharp edge to the sound.

“There's not going to be an after, Big,” he says quietly. “Shadow finds out, he kills me. End of story.”

“No,” Big says and shakes his head. “Stop saying that. Shadow is my friend, he wouldn't hurt my other friends. I know he won't! I know he seems scary sometimes, but that's just because he's also bad with people. He's nice.”

“He told me he'd kill me if he ever saw my face again. Then I destroyed the world, do you really think he's changed his mind after that?

“He didn't mean it. I know he didn't.”

Big pouts defiantly.

Infinite shakes his head.

“If that's what you want to believe.”

“Shadow is a good person, Infinite,” Big says, and there’s a reprimanding edge to his voice.

Sure, Infinite thinks, his entire squad was eliminated by a good person. But he keeps that to himself.

“Whatever side he’s on, good or bad, he’ll never believe that I am on the same one,” he says instead. “And trust me,” he adds quietly, “any of them would be better off without me.”

Big shakes his head violently.

“We just have to tell him! He knows what it’s like. He worked with Eggman also - he tried to destroy the world too once! But he didn’t. Instead he got friends who helped him save the world, and now he fights to protect it.”

“The ARK incident,” Infinite says and sips his tea. “I’m familiar.”

Big is quiet for a moment.

“He got really hurt, you know.”

Infinite squints and looks up with suspicion.

“He was gone for a really long time,” Big says. “We thought he was dead. But then Rouge found him again in Eggman’s base. And they made a new friend. And now they all protect the world together, and they’re really happy --”

Don’t compare him to me,” Infinite snaps. “He's strong, I'm weak. He can actually do the work necessary to turn back, I can't do anything. How am I supposed to rebuild anything, I can barely walk! Look at me, Big. Look at me! Am I worth keeping around?”

“Yes,” Big says softly.

“No I'm not. I've got nothing to make up for what I did.”

“That's … Not what it's important, though.”

“So why do you think Shadow would spare me, why did you even bring it up?!”

“Because you're good now!”

Infinite shakes his head violently, keeping a snarl at bay, too distracted to notice that Big is going in for a hug before it's too late to move out of the way. Infinite pulls his shoulders up, but he doesn't struggle or try to pull away.

“You can't fix everything by hugging me,” Infinite sneers.

“Nobody can fix everything,” Big just says.

Infinite lets out a soft scoff, but doesn't complain, doesn't do anything, and Big just keeps him in the hug. Infinite lets out a scornful sigh, but then he slumps against Big in quiet acceptance.

“I'm pathetic,” Infinite says.

“I don't think so.”

Infinite is quiet for a while.

“But Shadow does, ” he says.

“That doesn't mean he's gonna hurt you!” Big pulls back and looks Infinite in the eye. “It's okay. Everything's gonna be okay.”

Infinite looks defeated. He shakes his head in quiet defiance. Big carefully pats him.

“Just, please, don’t … let anyone find out about me. Especially not Shadow.”

“I don’t understand why you’re so scared of him,” Big says.

“I don’t want to die,” Infinite softly hisses under his breath.

“You’re not going to die!” Big says with intensity. “Shadow isn’t like that anymore - he wouldn’t kill anyone.”

“Oh, really?” Infinite says, flatly.

“Yes! Really! He’s changed.”

“Then how come he killed my entire squad? ” Infinite asks.

Big looks confused, distressed.

“No … that can’t be right. He wouldn’t do something like that.”

Infinite picks his mug back up and holds it in his hands, staring at Big.

“He did. They’re gone. All of them.”

“It - it can’t have been him! He’s not like that.”

“He didn’t want to upset you. So he doesn’t tell you. That doesn’t mean he wouldn’t do it.”

“No!”

“People kill each other all the time.”

“No!” Big says, it’s almost a shout, and Infinite starts at the harsh outburst, he’s never heard Big be this loud before. “Good people don’t do that! My friends are good!”

“How else would they survive?” Infinite says. “The world will take everything from you if you don’t fight it, what else is there to do?

“Is … is this things Eggman told you? Eggman is bad! It’s not true.”

“The world taught me,” Infinite says.

“People who say that are wrong. That’s how wild animals do sometimes, but we’re not wild. We’re people. We should be good to each other. And none of my friends would ever want to kill anyone.”

“Then where’s my squad?” Infinite says. “Dart? Shiv? Wayward? Hook? Howl? Did he just accidentally kill every single one of them?”

“It’s not … something’s wrong, ” Big says. “He can’t have done that. It must have … it can’t have been him.”’

“Well, in case you manage to find this merciful version of Shadow, feel free to introduce me.” Infinite says sarcastically. “Maybe if I’m lucky, he won’t kick in my other eye.”

“I’m sorry about your friends,” Big says gently.

Infinite makes a face and stares into his tea. He’s quiet for a while. Then he speaks.

“I wish he had taken me out too,” he says quietly.

“Infinite,” Big says with concern.

“Then at least I wouldn’t have to drag this weak, useless body around while I wait for Shadow to find me and finish what he started,” he says bitterly.

Big reaches over and pulls Infinite into another hug, and Infinite makes a choked sound and tries not to struggle, Big is holding him tightly this time, and being trapped in such a strong grip is terrifying. Infinite forces down a scared noise and scolds himself, stop being so pathetic!

Big, thinking Infinite is tense because of his loss, rocks him back and forth. Infinite tries to just sit rigid and wait for the hug to pass, but he’s tired, his mind is full of anger over what Shadow did to him and fear of what more he will do if he finds out that Infinite is still alive, and after a while, his body decides that fighting the hold isn’t worth it, and he once again slumps down.

“It’s okay,” Big says. “You don’t have to meet Shadow if you don’t want to. I’m sorry. I keep forgetting that you lost so many of all your friends … It makes sense that you’re all upset and scared often.”

Infinite’s face twists into a pained grimace. I’m not scared! I’m not WEAK!

But he is weak, he’s useless, he’s nothing.

His body is already calming down, realizing that there is no threat. He closes his eye and hides his face in Big's fur.

“I'm sorry I can't help you better,” Big says.

Infinite shakes his head.

“No. I'm the one who should be sorry. About … all of this.”

About all the pain he'll cause if him and Shadow ever clash. Big is clearly not ready to face reality, but if Shadow ever finds Infinite, there will be no denying it anymore.

Big pats Infinite's head.

Infinite sighs.

“Let's go back to bed.”

“Will you be okay?” Big asks.

Doubtfully, Infinite thinks. But he just nods, downs the rest of his tea, puts the mug down and goes back to his bed.

“Goodnight, Big,” he says.

Big turns the lantern off.

“Sleep tight, Infy!”

Infinite squints, taking several seconds to process what Big just said.

Infy?” he repeats.

Big is halfway in bed already. He shuffles all the way into his blanket before reacting.

“Huh?” he asks.

Infinite doesn't know how to respond, he's too busy being flabbergasted. Big waits for a few seconds, and then proceeds to climb into bed and get comfortable.

“... all right,” Infinite mumbles to himself. “Sure. Whatever. Why not?

He can’t believe this.

Big begins snoring almost immediately. Infinite once again marvels at Big’s ability to just fall asleep like that. Right away. It seems … scary. Being asleep makes you so vulnerable, susceptible to attack, unable to defend yourself. Big does it so quickly, without hesitation, just lets himself. Even when Infinite is here, in the safety of the hut, it always takes him time to be able to fall asleep. But he supposes it makes sense -- Big is so solid and massive. And back in the day, the only time Infinite was truly vulnerable and defenseless was when he was sleeping, having to put his trust in his dormant senses and his squad. Now, whether or not he is awake to see an attack coming makes little difference. But the feeling still rests within him, the deep-rooted instinct of never falling asleep without being sure nothing will come for him.

He listens to the snoring. Is Big really that against the idea of killing? If he truly does believe that none of his friends would ever kill, it makes sense that he can sleep undisturbed and at any time.

If Big finds out what Infinite has done, he’ll never forgive him … But Infinite has changed. He could never kill in this state. And Shadow still kills. Which side is Big going to take? Hopefully … Infinite is surprised to find that the first thought he has isn’t himself, but just, hopefully one of them. Hopefully, Big won’t lose both of the people he considers friends.

Infinite hides his face in the palm leaves.

Hopeless.

He was brought here as a chance for him to make it through this alive, and all he’ll manage to do is jeopardize Big’s friendships. They … they should have left him there in the dirt.

He sets his jaw. Well, it’s too late for that now. If there’s a chance that Big will protect him still, he’s not going anywhere. And at least, if Shadow kills him, that leaves Amy with the guilt of having ruined Big’s good faith in the world, not Infinite.

That bitter thought is what Infinite falls asleep with.



Squiggles hops up ahead and croaks at him. He pants, clutching his chest.

“Squiggles, wait up.”

Squiggles does not wait up. She hops up, under the leaves, onto the road, and then she disappears out of sight. Infinite stumbles.

“Squiggles, no, not that way! Don’t --”

He stumbles onto the road. It crumbles under his feet, warped images of himself staring at him from below, and he runs, looking around himself, desperately, where is she, where --

The wave of cubes comes crashing down onto the shattering concrete, right in front of him, and he stumbles, backing away from it, he knows it’s going to swallow him if he touches it again. But there’s Squiggles! She’s being carried down with the current, shrieking her thin alarm call, flailing, crying out with terror, and Infinite’s breath hitches, but then he gets a running start and charges into the flood after her.

She’s gone. He can’t find her. Where is she, where is she? It’s a warzone out here! She can’t be here, it’s not safe. The robots are tearing the city apart, there’s fire everywhere, the resistance is looking for her, not to mention all the shoebills, who knows when one will strike -- he desperate pushes through the cubes, searching for a glimpse of black and of ice blue eyes, but every time he reaches for her, she turns into a warped illusion and fades away. He has to find her, he has to get her out of here, he has to protect her. He has to!

He wakes up with a choked gasp for air, and lies quietly, panting, staring into the darkness. He swallows, presses his eye closed, shakes his head to get rid of the images.

It’s fine. He’s fine. Squiggles is …

His thoughts stop there and linger, not wanting to take another step.

Not my problem anymore, Infinite resolutely finishes and closes his eye, no matter how much he doesn’t want to.

It’s not like he can do anything for her now.

Big’s snoring is a comforting and very real sound, and Infinite tries to focus on it and not on the lingering images of the dream. His heart is still pounding, and he wishes he could just … make sure, that Squiggles is okay. Just … he just wants to know.

He shakes his head and growls at himself, buries his face in the palm leaves, tries not to think about anything, tries not to think about war and about frogs. But he can’t. He can’t stop thinking, and he can’t fall asleep again. So instead, he sits up, stares into the darkness. Lets his fingers aimlessly trail through the fur on his tail. Scratches his neck. Listens to the night without really hearing it.

It's okay. It's not like it matters if he sleeps. There’s nothing he needs to do … He doesn’t have to make every minute with a bearable temperature matter, a few hours of sleep isn’t going to make the difference between a good day and one where he goes hungry. Not anymore.

He sits slumped over in the dark night until he’s so tired that he can barely hold up his head, and first then does he give in and lies back down, too tired to worry about what nightmares await him on the other side of consciousness.

Chapter Text

For once, when Big wakes up, Infinite remains unmoving.

“Infinite?” Big says.

Infinite doesn’t stir. Big gives him a worried look.

“Are you okay?” he asks.

Infinite tugs at his blanket, moves an inch, and doesn’t respond.

“Rooob,” Froggy says.

Big nods.

“I’ll wake him up when the food is ready.”

Infinite isn’t asleep, but he wishes he was. He’s too tired to deal with anything right now, he just wants to rest. So he lies still and pretends he hasn’t awoken.

His arm itches. He ignores it, stays unmoving.

“Ribbit,” Froggy says after a while.

“No, I’m fine.” Big is quiet for a few moments. “I’m just worried about Infinite,” he says then, a little more quietly.

“Rrribbit.”

“I wish I could help him not be so scared and sad all the time,” Big says.

“Ribbit.”

“I know … but I still want to.”

There’s a long silence, and Infinite hopes that’s the end of it, but it’s not.

“I hope Amy figures things out soon,” Big says. “So that Infinite can get some help, from someone who’s better at things. And so he won’t have to be so scared of Shadow. He needs some friends who are better with big things and knowing things and feelings.”

“Riiibbit. Ribbit! Ribbit.”

Big hesitates.

“Maybe a little bit,” he says. Is quiet for a little. Speaks again. “I just don’t know what to do when he gets all upset … I want to help him, but … I just get sad … “

Infinite curls up just a little more in the blanket, but he still doesn’t let them know he’s awake.

“I also just wanna go help everyone,” Big says. “I haven’t seen my friends in so long … and they all need help with fixing things. I wanna help them.”

Infinite clenches his jaw.

Big should talk to Amy about it. Infinite doesn’t know how to deal with stuff like that.

Or maybe … Infinite grows tenser. If Big doesn’t do it, maybe … maybe Infinite should. He doesn’t want to, but he wants to deal with an upset Big even less. He can barely manage to avoid being the one to upset him in the first place.

There’s nothing left in Infinite, but there’s no need for him to drag Big down with him. Amy will just have to find another place to hide him.

He lies hidden under the blanket until he’s pulled out of his stew of misery by a gentle hand on his shoulder.

“Good morning, Infinite,” Big says gently. “There’s breakfast! Do you want tea?”

Infinite groans softly and tries to remember how you’re supposed to act when you’re awake. He pushes himself upright and rubs his forehead.

“Are you okay?” Big asks.

Concern. He’s so worried all the time, so … focused on Infinite. So caring. He shouldn’t have to look after Infinite like this.

“I’m fine,” Infinite says.

“Do you want the special tea?” Big asks.

Infinite opens his mouth to decline, but then he hesitates, and then just nods. Maybe Big will worry less if Infinite pretends his chest is the only thing that’s bothering him.

Big gets the bowls of porridge and hands one to Infinite.

“Do you want to sit outside?”

Infinite lets out a quiet sigh.

“I’ll stay in here.”

Big gives him one of those gentle, worried looks that means that he’s using all his might to not try and get Infinite to talk more about it. Infinite tries to soften his expression, even though he can’t really get his face to smile.

“Are we going fishing later?” he asks.

A little bit of weight leaves his chest when he sees Big’s face light up.

“Riiiibbit!” Froggy cheers.

Big ruffles Infinite’s hair.

“Of course!”

Infinite tries one more time, and manages a small tug at the corner of his mouth.

“Sounds nice.”



They eat dinner together on the porch. Big got caught up in fishing, and Infinite just let it happen, so it's gotten late enough that Big has brought out the lantern so they can see their meal in the beginning dusk. Infinite's thoughts are somewhere else, and he grimaces when a bit of fish gets stuck on his upper lip. He roughly wipes it away, and then pauses with his hand over the right side of his face. He pokes his scar. A large scab has gotten loose, and he prods it, but it doesn't let go.

“Um,” Big says in that very gentle tone he uses with Infinite. “I don't think it's so good to pick at it.”

Infinite lets his hand fall with a soft growl.

“Right.” He grabs the fork again, but now the scab is gnawing at his mind. He sighs harshly. “I should clean it.”

Big shovels the last bit of fish into his mouth and chews thoroughly.

“I can cook some water?”

Infinite nods.

“Thank you.”

Big takes his plate and goes inside.

After a few seconds, Infinite can hear Big correct himself.

“Boil,” he says from inside. “Boil some water.”

Infinite finishes his meal and brings his plate inside.

“There’s almost no water left,” Big says and picks the bucket up under one arm. “I’ll go get some more so we can make tea.”

Infinite nods.

“I’ll be right back! Froggy?” Big calls and trots outside. “Froggy, do you wanna come along to fetch water?”

Infinite pours the water into a bowl, tests the temperature, gets a cloth.

Big pokes his head through the door again.

“Um,” he says.

Infinite turns his head.

“ … be careful with your scar, okay?” Big says, sounding a bit nervous.

Infinite just nods with a bit of amusement in his eyes.

“I will. I promise.”

Big’s ears perk up the tiniest bit at the reassurance.

“See you soon!”

“See you.”

Big steps outside again, and Infinite shakes his head. Big worries too much. Infinite has mixed feelings about it; it’s still annoying to be reminded of how frail he is, but the worst part is really that gentle, nervous tilt to his voice, reminding Infinite that Big still can’t trust him to play nice. On the other hand, it’s a little bit … touching, almost. That Big tries to look after Infinite’s well-being, even though he really should be able to take care of himself.

“Huh?” Big says from outside.

Infinite looks up.

“What?”

“I don’t know.”

Infinite looks at the doorway for a few seconds. Then he shrugs. Big is weird.

Soon, Big’s footsteps disappear, and his voice fades soon after as him and Froggy move into the jungle.

Infinite wringes the cloth and brings it to his face, trying to soften up the scab so he can get it to let go. He promised to be careful, but if he doesn’t get it off, it’s going to bother him all night.

He washes over the scar, rubs it carefully. It doesn’t hurt. Can’t he just … peel it off? He makes a face, but keeps trying with the cloth, if Infinite hurts himself, Big is going to give him one of those sad, disappointed looks and Infinite never really knows what to do with himself when that happens.

Infinite hears gentle footsteps on the stairs. He softly rolls his eye, equally amused and exasperated. It’s been a minute or maybe two, Big definitely didn’t make it to the spring already, but it still had to be a while to backtrack just to check on him. Maybe he forgot something. Infinite picks at the scab with the cloth, expecting to hear a question or a comment, but when the leaves are pushed aside without any greeting, Infinite turns around to ask if everything is okay.

The comment he gets is not one he was expecting.

“Of all the places,” Shadow says.

The bowl falls to the floor, snaps into three pieces, small splinters of ceramic breaking off from the cracks, carried along with the splashing water. Infinite backs into the counter, hands against the edge, heart pounding, his brain desperately trying to catch up to - no, why, what, how, how, why -- why now? What --

“Of all the people to get involved.” It’s almost a whisper, but it feels like a roar. “And this is where she thought to hide you.”

With a scramble of ceramics, Infinite’s feet move. He throws the cloth, aiming at Shadow’s face, and uses the momentary distraction to turn and lunge directly at the leaf walls. He crashes through them in a flurry of leaf tatters and vines and excruciating pain flaming up in his chest.

“Get back here. Chaos spear!”

Infinite can feel his fur stand on end when the burst of energy graces him. A slight smell of burnt hair serves to inform him how close that was, and one of the pieces of wood keeping his tail in place snaps and splinters when the raw chaos energy touches it. But the vines also snap, granting him escape. He falls in a burst of leaves, hits the mud outside and immediately pushes himself back, away, under the porch on hands and knees, as far away from the hedgehog as possible while his lungs feel like they’re trying to cut their way through his chest and escape without him.

There’s a burst of light, and Shadow is there, right outside, Infinite can see his shoes and knees. Shadow takes a step closer to the porch, stepping on the remains of Infinite’s splint, pressing it into the mud. Pauses. Then turns to face the porch, the only viable hiding place in sight.

Another gleam of light tells Infinite that Shadow has summoned another spear.

“Get out from under there,” his voice is colder than the arctic ocean, “and maybe I’ll make it quick.”

Infinite screams.

“Big!”

A burst of light too bright too look at cuts through the air, Infinite can hear the wood above wanting to snap when the energy rushes past it, and the ground near Infinite’s feet explodes in a cascade of dirt and mud, soaking his fur, he can feel the heat radiating from the spot. He whimpers. A small horde of bugs flee in an unorganized burst, and Infinite thinks he sees a frog flee for its life somewhere in the corner of his vision.

“Keep him out of this.

If Shadow’s voice was ice before, it is now the surface of a dying star, burning with a rage hotter than anything on earth can compare to.

“I give you one chance, ” he says. “Come out here, right now. Quietly. And I’ll let you have a painless death - even though Chaos knows you don’t deserve it. But keep Big out of this.

“It’s too late for that,” Infinite says, his voice is thin with fear and it’s more of a hiss than actual words, and he’s going to say more, but he’s interrupted, because Shadow has grabbed part of the porch and is -- he’s ripping it apart. He’s ripping off -- oh god.

Shadow tosses the floorboard aside and faces the porch once more.

“If you try to call him over here, I swear to god, I will rip you limb from limb while you’re still alive,” he hisses. “Is that really how you want to do this?”

Infinite whimpers again.

Shadow scoffs and grabs another board.

“Crying won’t help you.”

Infinite watches in terror while his brain is going faster than should be possible and yet still getting nowhere, he can’t call again, he doesn’t dare, what does he, how will he, oh god, what, what’s he going to do, what can he do? Burrow into the mud like a frog and hope Shadow can’t find him before Big comes back? Even the frogs are fleeing, the frogs have a better chance of getting out of here than he does --

Frogs. Frogs. Crying. He can’t call for Big, he probably can’t hear it anyway, but --

Infinite takes a deep breath, and Shadow starts, turns around, energy crackling around his hand, but Infinite just lets out a long, whining, pathetic noise.

“... What? ” Shadow says and tosses another floorboard aside.

Infinite whines again. Shadow makes a noise like he’s seen something disgusting and grabs another wooden board, but then he pauses when a similar sound seems to come from behind him, and then to the side, and then the entire clearing is sounding with alarm calls.

“What,” he says, his voice cold enough that Infinite would not be surprised if the ground under him was freezing, his hand tensing around part of the porch, and Infinite can see how the wood gives under his grasp, “The fuck. Did. You. DO?

Infinite shies away, pressing into the mud, crawling deeper into the shadows under Big’s house. It’s not going to work, it’s too late, Shadow is pulling the entire hut apart faster than Big can make it here, and Infinite’s entire soul is trembling, what is Shadow going to do to him - probably exactly what he said he’d do, why, why did he -- Infinite sets his jaw. At least now he won’t get to run from the truth, at least now Big will see who Shadow really is --

Tumbling. Footsteps. Crashing. Infinite thinks he hears the sound of a small tree falling.

“What’s wrong?!”

Infinite has never been so happy to hear Big’s voice.

“What’s happening, why are you screaming?”

“Ribbit!” Froggy points out.

Big looks over. “Oh? But - That’s just Shadow.”

There’s a fraction of a second where all that’s heard is screaming frogs, and then Big is hit with realization. “Um. What, uh, are you doing here?” he asks very, very carefully.

Shadow takes a tense breath through his nose. The sparks of energy around his hands sizzle out and disappears.

“Big,” he says, sounding more tired than anything else. “... Get him out from under there.”

Big stands, shifting his weight from foot to foot, his eyes darting around.

Froggy hops over to the porch, sees Infinite, and croaks to call Big over. Big hesitantly follows. He kneels down in front of the porch.

Infinite stares at him with his eye open wide, begging, desperate.

Big reaches out a hand.

“You can come out now,” he says.

Infinite scrambles on hands and knees, and basically throws himself at Big, who catches him and pulls him out from under the house. Infinite immediately retreats so Big is between him and Shadow, gripping Big’s fur tightly in order to stay on his feet. His legs are trembling and his chest is burning, but most of all, his mind is screaming, fight, run, flee, do something, do something!!

Shadow takes a step closer. Big reaches out to shield Infinite with an arm.

“Don’t hurt him,” Big says.

Shadow lets out a deep breath.

“What has Amy told you?” he asks.

Big shakes his head violently.

“I know he did some bad things, I know he tried to end the world, but it’s okay now! He’s not evil anymore, he’s my friend.”

Shadow’s voice is full of so many things, anger, annoyance, exhaustion … regret?

“Amy’s heart is in the right place,” he says, “but trust me, Big. That is not your friend.”

“No, yes he is! It’s okay, I mean it!”

“And so do I.” Shadow looks at Infinite with hard eyes, and then up at Big, an expression on his face that is hard to read, regretful yet resolute. “He’s not just an ordinary villain, Big. He didn’t just try to end the world, he tore it apart.” He hesitates for a second, but then continues. “And he laughed while doing it. He messed with Omega’s systems, he was offline for months --” Shadow’s face turns into a grimace full of anger, and his voice lowers. “We thought he was gone for good.” He shakes his head before continuing. “Thousands of people have lost homes, lives, loved ones because of him. The rookie told us he killed their entire group, right in front of their eyes … and then laughed in their face. He’s the reason Sonic was imprisoned, tortured, for six months on the death egg. He was ready to wipe everyone out for his own gain.”

There’s a pause, and it seems as if even the frogs stop yelling.

“He’s not just a villain. He’s a monster,” Shadow says in a hoarse whisper.

Bis ears fall as Shadow speaks, all the way down to be pressed against the back of his head. He looks so small, somehow, as he shakes his head, as if it could all be undone if he just denies it hard enough.

“No,” he says, “no, that can’t -- that can’t be true.” He turns his head and stares down at Infinite, and now he is the one to look desperate and begging. “Infinite, say it’t not true!”

“Yes, Infinite,” Shadow says with quiet venom in his voice. “Do it. Lie to the face of your savior, why don’t you?”

Infinite takes half a step back, stares up at Big’s eyes, at the sadness and fear and disbelief, and what can he say? What is there to say? He just stares back, unable to look away, unable to do anything, and Big’s expression gives way to realization and to hurt. Big shakes his head, desperate, scared, betrayed, and Infinite’s tail tugs between his legs as he realizes it’s over. Big knows now. He knows.

“But …” Big says. “But you … it can’t … he helped raise a frog and everything …”

“Does a frog really make up for hundreds of lost lives?”

Shadow’s voice is so weirdly gentle, gentler than Infinite would ever be able to be, and Big’s head falls in silent defeat.

Shadow takes a step to the side. Infinite yelps, skids around Big, reaches out to grab at his fur and then pulls back like it had tried to bite him.

“Step aside,” Shadow says.

His voice is still soft. Almost regretful.

Big stares at Infinite, and Infinite stares back, terror in his eyes, his breath so frantic that it almost sounds like he’s whining.

Big shakes his head.

“No. No, don’t hurt him.”

Shadow lets out a tense sigh.

“Big,” he says, a bit of edge coming back into his voice.

“But -- Amy brought him here because she wanted him to help fix things! Build everything up again. Hurting him won’t solve anything. Amy believes he can be good, and -- and so do I.” Big stares at Shadow with sad but determined eyes. “I won’t let you kill him.”

“Amy is truly willing to expose ‘her Sonic’ to the very person who imprisoned and hurt him for that many months?” Shadow lets out a rough sigh. “One person more rebuilding won’t amount to anything. But the pain he’s going to cause? Let them heal, Big. Let them forget him,” he sends Infinite a cold look. “Let them put him and everything he did behind them.” A spear sizzles to life in his hand, and he takes a step closer. “It’s better this way.”

Big blocks Shadow’s way.

“No it’s not. It’s not okay to kill him.”

“Hasn’t he caused enough pain? Do you really want to rip open those old wounds? Just let them forget.”

Big frowns and puts out an arm to shield Infinite.

“Amy was there too, and she still wants Infinite to help. She’s upset also, but that doesn’t mean she wants him to get hurt!”

“Amy’s good heart is admirable, but I am not making Sonic relive whatever happened on that Death Egg,” Shadow says, voice cold and chilling, and Infinite feels fear burn in his guts, thinking back to the first time they were face to face, how much stronger Infinite was and how calm Shadow had been, and now Infinite can barely stand and Shadow is furious -- what is he going to do to him?

“Sonic wouldn’t want you to kill him either,” Big says.

Shadow halts at that, for a fraction of a second, with a rush of emotions making his eyes twitch. His jaw sets, his brows furrow, he stares daggers at Infinite. But then he takes half a step back.

He crosses his arms.

“Fine. Then I’ll confront Sonic, about all of this. But if I see even a trace of regret over Infinite’s continued existence … I won’t let anyone stand in my way.” Shadow lifts his head and looks up at Big, and his hoarse voice has an edge of remorse, yet there's no hesitation in his words. “Not even you.”

Then there’s a flash of light, and he’s gone.

Infinite’s chest burns like hellfire. He’s trembling, gasping for air, his legs are threatening to give way under him. He reaches out to grasp at Big’s fur, trying to get support, but immediately lets go when Big stares down at the hands like they’re something venomous that he doesn’t want to startle.

“Wamp,” Froggy says urgently, “wamp! Wamp wamp wamp!! Wamp!”

Big looks at Infinite, and the look on his face is enough that Infinite has to take a step back.

They’re quiet for several seconds. One last alarm call fades away from somewhere deeper in the jungle. Big’s gaze falls to the side.

“Could you … maybe … go inside, for a bit?”

“He’s gonna kill me,” Infinite whispers.

“... I’ll be right outside, I promise. Okay?”

No, Infinite wants to yell, it’s NOT okay, Shadow can teleport, Shadow could be here any moment, ready to rip Infinite apart limb by limb, and Big is just going to turn his back to that? Aren’t they friends? But Big’s expression is haunted, warped with the tragedy of the truth, the knowledge that who he thought was a friend turned out to be a monster, and Infinite just backs away until he’s at the porch, and then he turns, clings to the railing as he makes it up the stairs, stumbles across the broken floorboards on his own, and disappears into the hut.

He collapses on the other side of the doorway, clutching his chest, sits on hands and knees and pants, tries to control his fear, but it’s wrapping around him like an endless snake, choking him, weighing him down.

He -- he has to get up. He has to get up.

His walk is a shambling hurple, but he’s on his feet, and he manages to get to his bed before his legs give way. He more or less tumbles into the blanket and then just lies there.

The wall near the kitchen counter is torn apart. The floor in the corner is lopsided, one of the boards is partially ripped up, torn up along with the porch. The broken bowl lies in a pool of water where it was dropped. Infinite stares at it all. He can hear Big’s quiet voice outside, he’s talking to Froggy, clearly upset -- is he crying?

Infinite curls up into a ball. This is it. It’s over.

The frogs have quieted down, and the jungle is calm again, rustling and bustling and going about its existence. Nothing has changed. He’s -- he’s just another prey animal fallen victim to the tigers. Nothing here cares.

He doesn’t -- he doesn’t want to die. Maybe Shadow is right -- it’s not as if Infinite hasn’t been thinking it himself. If he disappeared, forgotten, nobody would miss him, the world would be thankful. But he doesn’t care. He could not care less about what the world wants and thinks, he wants to live. There’s finally something for him here, however small it might be, and he’s not ready to give up on it. But what can he do? There’s nowhere to run, even if he could. The jungle is full of twists and turns, poision and deathtraps and predators. He can’t run and he can’t fight, and there’s nowhere he can hide.

He feels like he can’t breathe, like there’s an invisible force wrapped around his throat and chest, pressing all the air out of him. He presses his eyes closed, tries to tear air into his lungs, clenches his teeth so hard it hurts.

If Big would just -- if he could just get Amy -- if they -- Infinite’s chest spasms around a shaky mouthful of air. There’s nothing that can be done. There’s nothing. It’s over. He has to --

He has to just accept it.

No!

There’s nothing he can do.

NO!

He has to.

No, no, no!

He …

No!

No ...

He’s …

Please …

He’s so scared.

He lies in the palm leaves and trembles. What was it the doctor had bragged about telling the resistance? The anticipation of the end is worse than the end itself. Now Infinite understands. Time is dragging itself slowly through the world, every second full of dread and fear and uncertaincy. An involuntary huff of cruel laughter tears itself from his lungs at the thought of Shadow keeping him like this for three days, like he did to them. I should have just let him rip me apart, the cold void inside of him says, and Infinite feels like that’s the truth, but he doesn’t want to die. He … he …

Pictures flash in his mind. A drowning body. Squiggles’ drowning body. Corpses strewn about. Heroes being thrown to the ground. A wolf, crying, stumbling over their feet, falling, getting up, staring over their shoulder with fear in their eyes as they try to sprint away, away from the dead remains of their group, away from him.

Determination as the same wolf beats him to the ground.

He wanted them all to know what it was like. Now they’re doing the same to him.

He doesn’t know what’s happening to him, but his body forces him, and out comes a dry, rasping laughter. He hiccups, laughs at the cruelty and irony of it all, watching himself like it is happening to someone else, until it dies out on its own.

His cheeks are wet.

For several minutes, nothing more happens.

Then there’s a flash of light, and Infinite makes a choked sound as he’s grabbed and pulled up by the neck.

“You,” Shadow says, “are coming with me.”

And then the world disappears.



Amy is chatting with Vanilla over a cup of tea, sitting in the kitchen of what was once Amy’s house, and is now a makeshift orphanage. Out of nothing, like an invisible force is pushing her hand, Amy drops her teacup, and it falls and shatters on the floor.

“Oh, my!” she says and stands up, careful of the shards.

“Are you okay?” Vanilla asks and puts down her own cup.

“I’m fine!” Amy kneels down and picks up one of the biggest shards. “It just slipped -- I’ll get this cleaned up before one of the little ones come out here and …”

Amy stops. Stares at the puddle, the shapes drawn between the broken pieces of porcelain. The tea bag has torn, and a small silhouette has taken form in the escaped chamomile herbs.

Fuck ,” Amy whispers under her breath.

“Amy --” Vanilla says, wanting to be stern but not being able to hide her worry at the sudden outburst, but she doesn’t get to say any more.

“I have to go,” Amy says and sprints out of the kitchen, leaving the broken cup behind.

Chapter Text

Infinite feels reality rush past in disconnected ribbons, tearing and whipping and moving out of the way, and then it’s over as suddenly as it began, and he’s dropped on the floor where he scrambles until his back meets a concrete wall. His gaze flickers from Shadow and to the surroundings, desperately trying to find an escape route, and the grey concrete walls make Infinite’s already beating blood rush with adrenaline, because why are they here, why are they here, of all places, the facility is the last place he wants to die. How did Shadow know, how did Shadow know about this place at all? But something is wrong … the wear and tear is gone, the walls aren’t cracked and the air isn’t lukewarm and heavy, and Infinite has a moment of doubt as to whether or not this really is the facility where he was made, but where else would it be?

Shadow watches Infinite’s gaze jump around.

“Are you going to try to flee again?” he asks.

Infinite absolutely is.

Adrenaline momentarily returns him to who he was once, enough that he can get up and sprint down the corridor to their right. The beats of pain from his chest feels like they’re happening to someone else, only fueling his desire to get away, far, far, far away from Shadow and from -- whatever this place is.

“You’ve got nowhere to run,” Shadow calls out to him.

Infinite keeps running.

Shadow walks after him at a steady pace.

Infinite crashes through a doorway, desperately looking around, and then stops, right in front of a large window showing an expanse of nothing but stars. And that’s -- that’s the moon and that’s - that’s the …

“I told you,” Shadow says as he watches Infinite stare down at the Earth. “I’m your only way out of here.”

Infinite whips around, pressing his back to the glass and stares with terror in his eyes. Shadow just looks at him. Makes no move to attack.

“Do you know where we are?” he asks.

Infinite doesn’t answer, he just breathes, trembles, stares.

“The ARK. I was made here, a long time ago. Able to stare down at the place I was made to protect.”

Infinite makes the split-second decision to not stay to listen to Shadow’s monologue. Deciding on the passage to the left, he pushes away from the glass and sprints past Shadow and down yet another corridor. Shadow appears annoyed for a fraction of a second.

“Which part of ‘nowhere to run’ is so hard to understand,” he asks the empty room, and sets after him.

The hallways are dimly lit by green panels, and Infinite can barely see where he puts his feet, he’s terrified of losing his footing, he’s not sure his body will let him get up ever again if he trips, but he’s even more scared of slowing down, so he keeps running. The door slides open, and he doesn’t stop to think about it. The path splits, left, right, and he looks around himself, left seems longer so he makes another panic-fueled split second decision and turns to run that way.

Shadow makes it to the end of the corridor, stops and looks to either side to catch a glimpse of Infinite’s tail disappearing behind the corner. He shakes his head and doesn’t even bother to use his hoverskates. He just walks after him.

Infinite keeps running until he reaches the end of the narrow corridor, but this door doesn’t open, and he more or less falls against it, unable to properly stop in time. The pain in his chest is desperately demanding his attention, adrenaline or no, and he claws at the door, as if there is any chance that would change anything.

Shadow appears around the corner. Infinite backs against the door, pressing against it like a cornered animal. His eye is jumping back and forth, trying to find some sort of escape. He crouches down, baring his teeth, staring, staring.

“Do you really think you can make it out of here if you just keep running?” Shadow asks. “There’s nowhere to go.”

Infinite growls, all of his fur stands on end, he looks more like a feral animal than like a person.

Shadow seems to think for a second or two. He looks at Infinite, at the door behind him, and glances at the wall to his left.

Shadow takes a few steps forwards, then reaches out a hand and presses it against a panel in the wall.

“Go ahead, then. I won’t stop you.”

Energy flickers around his hand and the panel glows gently.

The door behind Infinite slides open.

Infinite doesn’t waste a second.

Shadow shakes his head at him and follows at a leisurely pace.

Infinite flees down the corridor, this one even darker, eerily glowing emergency lights the only thing allowing him to see, and he yelps and skids to a halt and backs away from the death-drop he almost threw himself head-first into. He stares with a heaving chest - there’s a panel down there, moving back and forth, but it’s connected to another door, he’s merely staring down from below, he can’t make that jump, his chest is already trying to reach through the tsunami of adrenaline so it can choke him for what he’s done.

Footsteps behind him make him turn, he staggers, and for a heart-stopping second he actually thinks he’s going to fall, but he doesn’t fall, he stumbles and his legs collapse and he ends up on hands and knees on the floor.

“Really?” Shadow says. “Is that all? I thought I’d have to follow you through the entire ARK before you faced the truth.”

Infinite’s lungs are burning, his entire body hurts, his brain, his eyes, his teeth feel like they hurt. He pushes himself backwards on hands and knees, trying to get away, and his left leg finds thin air and he yelps and staggers as he slips, and then a hand grabs him by the scruff of his neck.

“That’s enough,” Shadow says, and pulls him upright.

Infinite can’t stand. None of his joints will hold any weight, he can’t stand and he sure as hell can’t resist. Shadow scoffs.

“Pathetic,” he says.

The world flickers and warps again, but it’s over much quicker this time, and when it returns, Infinite still sees nothing but otherworldly emergency lights and barren, dull concrete as Shadow drags him along, he’s practically dead weight and Shadow doesn’t seem to pay it any mind. The grip around his neck feels like cast steel, and it makes no difference whether or not he tries to move along or not, except for whether or not his knees drag along the concrete.

Shadow stops in front of a door, and instead of pressing a panel or simply teleporting inside, he leans down, and with his free hand, grabs the bottom of the door and lifts it up with nothing more than a grunt. He steps inside, almost tosses Infinite, and Infinite scrambles away until he finds himself in a corner.

Shadow lets go of the door, and it falls with a deafening metallic clang. Infinite cringes, and then realizes he’s effectively trapped in here. With Shadow. And nobody else around. Possibly in space.

Shadow walks across the floor, up two steps, past a bit of railing, and reaches down to undo a giant metal hatch. He nonchalantly flips the lid aside and looks down at whatever rests below.

“They made sure this area wasn’t accessible via chaos control,” he says, “to make sure we couldn’t get in here. Gerald was very particular about that.”

Infinite crawls on hands and feet, tries to claw at the door, but it doesn’t budge, not in the slightest, if he hadn’t just seen Shadow open it he wouldn’t have believed it even could.

“He was afraid me and Maria might sneak in here, and get hurt. One of the only places that were off-limits to us.” he walks along the edge of the hatch. “They disposed of dangerous experiments here. Anything that couldn’t be recycled, thrown in here and then incinerated.”

He sends Infinite a look, and Infinite cowers.

“Of course,” he adds casually, “the incinerators have been offline for more than thirty years. This research section was shut down along with everything else. I’d be surprised if they even work anymore.”

Then he turns to fully face Infinite.

“Get over here,” he says.

Infinite scrambles into the corner, as far away as he can. Shadow lets a chaos spear manifest in his hand, crackling to life, bathing everything in a sharp, flickering light.

“Get,” he says, “over here.”

The spear hits the wall right above Infinite’s head, concrete dust bursting into a cloud, small shards of wall hitting Infinite in the head, and a long crack manifests in the wall, Infinite tumbles away, out of range, and for the third time, a hand grabs his neck, but this time Shadow lifts him all the way up from the ground, dangling him from his grasp, and Infinite thrashes desperately for a second, but then goes completely still.

“Still one hell of a drop, though,” Shadow says quietly, holding Infinite above the inactive incinerator.

Infinite stares. There’s nothing but darkness below him, he has no idea how far down there is. He does not want to find out.

“Is it still fun?” Shadow asks coldly. “Is the idea of having full control of someone’s life and death still amusing to you? Do you feel like laughing?

“Please,” Infinite whimpers, his hands scrambling to grab onto the arm holding him up, his only lifeline right now.

Shut up, ” Shadow says.

Infinite whimpers again, a low and pathetic sound.

“How many people said that?” Shadow asks. “How many people cried and begged for their lives? How many people, innocent people, good people, did you laugh at while they pleading for mercy?” He leans closer, his voice colder than the empty void they’re surrounded by. “How many did you spare?”

Infinite’s grip is cramplike around Shadow’s wrist, Shadow could let go at any moment, Infinite isn’t even sure he can hold on if Shadow does, and he presses his eye closed, trying to think through the terror that is crashing through his mind like a flood from a broken dam.

“You know,” Shadow says. “The things thrown in here … they were all for a good cause. Experiments, research, steps taken to make the world better. But you,” he scoffs. “You’re not just trash that has served its purpose. You’re worthless.” He lets go, for a fraction of a second, using it to readjust his grip, and Infinite feels the entire world do a barrelroll around him before the hand is back again.

“And that’s your luck,” Shadow says, grabbing onto Infinite's wrist and pulling one hand away from Shadow’s arm. Infinite desperately tries to grab onto something, anything, but Shadow holds his wrist in a solid grip and out of reach of anything. “You’re not worth compassion and you’re not worth any second chances. You’re not even worth ending up in the same place as failed research pursued for a good cause.” He loosens his grip on Infinite’s neck, and Infinite is sure it’s over, but Shadow just twists his hand, forcing Infinite’s other hand to let go of Shadow’s arm, and then he in turn grabs onto Infinite's other wrist, for a second Infinite feels a sensation of falling and yelps, but Shadow lifts him up, dangling him above the drop by the arms instead.

“And you’re certainly not worth upsetting either Amy or Big over,” he says. “Not even if it meant getting rid of you.”

He takes half a step closer to the abyss in front of them, the tip of his shoe right on the edge.

“But if you ever cause the slightest bit of pain for anyone, anyone I care about again,” Shadow says, “then you’re going to wish you had met your end against the bottom of this incinerator.”

There’s a moment of silence, nothing is heard except for Infinite’s panicked breathing.

“Have I made myself clear?” Shadow asks.

He sounds weirdly calm in the midst of all the burning white hatred etching in his voice.

“Yes,” Infinite whimpers, his voice only barely able to shape the word.

“Good,” Shadow says, and lets go.

Infinite feels mortal terror, too much to even remember how to scream, feels like his entire existence try to escape his skin as he’s plummeting with flailing limbs towards what can only be certain death, his eye staring into total darkness, the bottom could be anywhere, he could be crushed against dull grey featureless concrete any second, now or in an hour, and he wants to scream, he presses his eyes closed and opens his mouth and wails.

“Chaos control!”

A blink of light, he’s grabbed by the waist, and once again the universe rips past in fluttering pieces and Infinite isn’t sure if he’s still falling or not - and then momentum causes him to be lounged forwards because his body is still in the middle of free-falling, only stopped by Shadow’s arm.

Infinite stares down at the floor of Big’s hut.

Shadow drops him.

Big immediately stands up from his bed and rushes across the floor to kneel down next to Infinite.

“Infinite! What happened? Shadow, what -- what did you do to him?”

“I spoke to him in the only language I knew he’d understand,” Shadow says. “Don’t worry. We’re on the same page now.” He sends Infinite a look devoid of anything. “Isn’t that right?”

“Y-yes,” Infinite whispers.

Shadow nods, once, and walks out of the hut.

“Ribbit!!” Froggy yells after him. “Ribbit!! Ribbit!!”

A small glimpse of light from outside signifies that Shadow isn’t hanging around to listen.

“Infinite?” Big says, “Infinite, what happened? Did he … did he hurt you? What did he do?”

“Nothing,” Infinite whispers, sounding like he’s half expecting the events to have conspired differently, like he expects to think back and remember his own death, “I -- he didn’t -- he barely touched me, he … didn’t … He didn’t hurt me at all.”

Infinite doesn’t get a warning, a fight that he gets to lose, any sign at all. It happens from one moment to the other. One second, he’s staring into thin air as Big tries to get him to at least sit up, the next, he is full on sobbing, tears of fear and confusion and pain and pure relief spilling and he bawls like a child, utterly helpless against it.

Big reels back and stares with wide eyes.

“Oh no! Oh no, Infinite,” he says and pulls him into a hug.

“He spared me,” Infinite whispers, and then he presses his entire face into Big’s fur and goes limp while crying, full on crying for the first time in his life, sobs and tears and snot and all, and Big holds him and pats his head, trying to soothe.

It hurts. Every sob that pulls itself from Infinite's body makes his chest jerk, and every time his chest jerks, white-hot pain shoots out into his already burning body like an electric shock, and the pain is so intense it makes him cry even more. He feels so utterly helpless. His own body has taken control and he is powerless to stop the cycle, powerless to stop the tears. Big holds him and pats him and says “there, there”, gentle and concerned, and Infinite is so glad he's there because it's the only thing that can help convince Infinite's mind that he's not going to die from this.

Infinite feels like it's never going to stop, like he's destined to cry until he chokes, but after several long, painful minutes, the sobs slow down, his body beginning to tire itself out.

Froggy hops over with a cloth. Big reaches out for it and hands it to Infinite, who wipes his face and snivels.

Ew, ” he exclaims weakly.

The fur on his face is soaked with tears. He had no idea crying was so … So much.

He feels another sob coming and almost panics, trying to force it down, but it tears its way out anyway. He cries for a little longer, terrified that this might never actually end, but Big is there to gently pat him and it makes it feel a bit less likely that Infinite is going to drown in his own tears.

“There, there, there. Infinite, it's okay. It's okay. Did he hurt you a lot? What did he do?”

Infinite weakly shakes his head.

“Nothing,” he says, voice hoarse from crying, “he didn't --” his voice shakes and trembles and another painful sob tears out of his chest. “--h-he didn't … Do anything, he just … talked,” and that's all Infinite can muster for now.

His sobs are less violent now, and a feeling of exhausted calm settles in his chest. Tears still leak from his eyes, but less violently, more as if they’ve just forgotten how to stop. He makes no move to try and wipe them away, so Big takes the cloth from Infinite’s hand and carefully dabs the tears away from his face.

Infinite lies limply against Big, his breathing heavy, blinking to get the last tears to retreat.

Big carefully leans to the side so he can look at Infinite.

“Do you feel better now?” he asks gently.

“Everything hurts,” Infinite mumbles.

He does, though. Kind of. The space all the tears left behind is quiet and devoid of anything. He feels exhausted, but weirdly calm. If it wasn’t for the pain in his chest feeling like someone is trying to remove all of his ribs.

“Do you want tea?” Big asks.

Infinite wheezes once, and coughs.

“I’ll make you some tea, okay?”

Infinite nods.

“I dropped the water outside though. I have to go get it.”

Infinite can’t help but send Big a slightly desperate look. Big looks back, worried, and Infinite averts his gaze.

“Froggy can stay with you,” Big offers.

Infinite answers with another snivel.

Big picks Infinite up and carries him over to the bed. Froggy manages to pull the towel out from under the bed and drag it over to them, and Big helps Infinite get rid of most of the mud. Infinite tries to help, but he can barely move, so Big does most of the work. He removes Infinite’s boots and gloves, puts him down in the palm leaves, and wraps him in the blanket.

“I’ll be back real soon, okay?” Big says.

Infinite nods weakly. Froggy hops over to sit next to Infinite.

Being alone is terrifying. Even the knowledge that apparently, Shadow has decided against killing him can’t soothe it, Infinite keeps feeling like any second, he’ll be back and it will be over.

Froggy walks into Infinite’s field of vision and croaks gently. Infinite blinks, and then his chest lunges with another unsuspected sob.

“Ribbit?” Froggy says, concerned.

“I miss Squiggles,” Infinite confesses.

“Roob.”

“I know,” Infinite responds, not because he knows what Froggy says, but his head is telling him “that’s stupid” and he might as well pretend that Froggy agrees.

He moves to wipe his face with his hand.

“Wamp!” Froggy says.

Infinite stops and looks.

Froggy takes the cloth in his mouth and yanks it to get Infinite to reconsider.

Infinite huffs, or tries to, but mostly ends up coughing awkwardly. But he takes the cloth and wipes his face, properly this time.

“Thank you,” he mumbles reluctantly.

He lets the cloth fall to the floor and doesn’t even retract his arm fully. Froggy puts a hand on Infinite’s arm and makes another concerned noise, but Infinite doesn’t react this time. He just lies still, breathing through the pain.

He manages to not start crying again, even through all the pain and the fear and the suddenly being way too sentimental, and after a while, his body lets go of the urge, and Infinite eases a little more. He focuses on his breathing and on not whining audibly, even though he sort of wants to.

It feels like an aeon passes before Big finally comes back with the water.

“Ribbit!” Froggy greets.

“There was mud on it,” Big explains apologetically. “But it's all clean now!”

“Roob.”

“Infinite?” Big asks.

Infinite opens his eye and looks up at Big without moving his head.

“Oh! Okay. Good. I thought maybe you fell asleep.”

“No such luck,” Infinite mumbles.

Froggy hops over to Big, and Big picks him up and places him on his head.

Big boils water and makes Infinite a mug of tea. He has to help Infinite sit up, and Infinite's hands are shaking so much that Big stays to support the mug and help holding Infinite upright. After the mug is empty, Big holds Infinite for a little longer, and Infinite accepts the comfort with gratitude.

Big places him back in the bed, tucks him in and takes the mug, and Infinite moves little more than a doll would. He's still in shock, his mind is a mess, and he's in too much pain to make sense of it, so he lies limply and just lets Big move him. In all honesty, he's grateful that he doesn't have to move on his own. The blanket is warm, and being wrapped tightly grants his mind a feeling of just a little protection, and he closes his eye and waits for the tea to soothe the pain.

Big walks around, cleans the mud off the floors, talks to Froggy. Then he looks over at Infinite, who is unmoving save for his gently rising chest. He looks up at Froggy. Then he goes outside to sit on the remains of the porch.

Infinite can hear him talk, and he curls up a little more, trying to ignore the fact that Big is keeping his voice down, enough that Infinite won’t be able to hear what he’s saying.

Infinite lies still and thinks of fear. He thinks of tears, of cruelty, and of the terror of looking directly in the eyes of death and thinking, this is it. And he thinks about Big, who is so soft, who cares so much about the well-being of those around him, be they frogs or birds or beaten evildoers. No wonder he’s upset.

The tea is only able to take away the worst sting of pain, Infinite still feels like his ribcage is being slowly pulled apart by someone who is very determined to see how every bone fits together. He breathes with soft, labored gasps, trying to stay quiet, trying to tough it out, trying not to get overwhelmed by this force that he can’t control or do anything about.

Big is outside for a long time, and when he finally comes in again, he steps carefully, tiptoeing across the floor, but he stops when the sound of Infinite’s soft noises of pain catches his attention.

“Infinite?” he asks softly.

Infinite opens his eye just a tad, barely committed enough to turn his head.

“Are you okay?” Big asks.

Infinite lets out one huff of laughter at the notion of being anything even remotely close to “okay”, but it turns into a pained whine halfway there. Big’s ears fall in concern.

“One moment,” he says.

Infinite just lets his eye fall shut again, trying to keep himself from making any more pathetic noises.

Big gets something from the counter and fills Infinite’s empty tea mug with water. Then he walks over and kneels down next to Infinite.

“Infinite?”

Infinite just groans softly in response, he’s too tired for anything else.

“I went and got some leaves,” Big says. “They’re in the tea normally, but they help more with pain on their own … they just taste really bad.”

Infinite turns his head ever so slightly.

“I think I’ll cope,” he says, his voice thin through the pain.

“Here,” Big says and hands him three leaves. “Chew them as much as you can, and then drink this water.”

Infinite tries to sit up, but Big has to help him, he can barely get to his elbows on his own. He feels so small and useless.

He takes the leaves from Big and stuffs them in his mouth. They feel weird, almost a little bit fluffy. The moment he bites down, a dry, bitter taste hits his tongue. He chews a few more times, and the leaves seem to dry out his entire mouth. He struggles to keep chewing. Big offers him the water, and Infinite determinedly forces his teeth to close around the plants a couple more times before he takes the mug and downs the entire thing. After it’s done, he makes a soft sound of disgust.

Big helps him lie back down. Infinite curls up around himself, breathing shakily.

“Roob?” Froggy says.

Big makes no move to stand up.

“Do you want a lullaby?” he asks carefully.

This time, Infinite can’t help but laugh. It’s a dry, hollow sound, thin with pain.

“Why not?” he says with soft exasperation.

Big places a gentle hand on Infinite’s shoulder and starts singing. His voice is deep and rumbling, more charming than pleasant, and he sings about the sun falling and the day ending and the dark encroaching, sings about huddling up somewhere safe while the darkness lurks outside, waiting for the sun to come back. Infinite listens, feeling small and tired, and his body still hurts, but it’s like it’s happening to someone else, like he is floating next to his body and just observing the pain from outside, and then he lets go of it and lets himself sink into quiet unconsciousness.


“Big? Big!”

Froggy is the one who wakes up first. He croaks and jumps onto Big’s head, paps him a few times to wake him up, and then jumps down to the floor and to the doorway. Big blinks in confusion.

“Huh?”

“Big? Infinite? Infinite!”

Big’s eyes go wide, and he rolls out of bed and hurries outside to meet Amy.

“Schhh!” he says.

Amy rushes to meet him.

“Oh thank god. Infinite, is he --?”

“Schhh. He’s sleeping,” Big whispers.

Amy lets out a relieved breath and steadies her hands on her knees, breathing hard. She must have been running.

“Thank god,” she repeats.

“What are you doing here?” Big asks. “It’s in the middle of the night …?”

“I had a -- a feeling, ” she says. “I just thought, that something was … wrong.”

“Shadow was here,” Big says.

Amy shoots upright.

“He was ? What happened?”

Big shakes his head.

“I don’t know! He was just there … I told him not to hurt Infinite, but then he grabbed him and teleported away. I don’t know what happened -- Infinite says he didn’t hurt him, but he seems really hurt, and he won’t tell me what happened.”

“But he’s alive? And not -- you know, visibly injured?”

Big nods.

“Oh, thank god,” Amy says one last time.

“He just hurts a lot I think. Or is really scared? Or both.” Big’s ears fall, and he looks down and adds, “He’s been crying.”

Amy looks surprised, then worried.

“We should … get, someone, to help. Maybe Cream? I guess the cat is out of the bag -- that’s an expression -- so maybe we could get him to a real doctor …”

“Maybe you can help me talk to him?” Big says. “So we can find out what’s wrong. I’m not that good at it when he’s upset.”

Amy nods.

“I’ll see what I can do.”

“I think we should let him sleep now though,” Big says.

Amy breathes for a few more seconds before she nods.

“Yeah,” she says.

She’s slightly breathless still, suddenly looking very small and tired, and Big puts his arms around her in a hug and holds her for a while.

Chapter Text

Infinite wakes up with aching limbs and a pounding headache. He lifts his head with effort and is surprised to see Big very much up and about. Then something bright catches his eye, and he turns his head to see Amy fast asleep in Big’s bed. He blinks a few times, but she doesn’t go away, so he makes a confused noise at the back of his throat to see if that will do the trick.

Big turns around.

“Good morning!” he says. “How are you? Do you feel okay?”

Infinite responds with something that sounds like “mmmnrg” and tries to sit up. He gives up halfway and instead just lies so more of the hut is in his field of vision.

“What is she doing here?” he says.

Despite his choice of words, he sounds more confused than accusatory.

Big looks over.

“Amy can sometimes sense if things are gonna go wrong. So she came to make sure you were okay.”

Infinite blinks a few times. Then he gives something akin to a nod and just leaves it at that.

Big comes over with a mug of tea, helps Infinite sit up, and Infinite accepts the mug without a word. Big sits very quietly by his side and helps hold him upright while he drinks.

Amy stirs. She yawns and sits up, blinks and looks around. Infinite immediately tries to move away from Big’s support, refusing to look weak in front of anyone else, but his body is having none of it and Big has to grab him to prevent him from spilling the tea everywhere.

Infinite hisses. Big pats his head. Infinite forces down an urge to bat his hand away.

Amy shakes her head.

“Good morning!” Big says.

“What time is it?” she mumbles groggily.

“It’s morning,” Big says helpfully.

Amy blinks a few times, squinting against the world while processing that answer. Then she sighs and swings her legs over the edge of the bed. She takes a deep breath and then finally turns to look at Infinite. Infinite scrunches up his nose, pulls his shoulders up and looks away.

“How are you feeling?” she asks.

Infinite gives her a suspicious look. Then he huffs.

“Dreadful,” he mumbles reluctantly.

He tries to empty the mug so he doesn’t have to lean on Big like a half-fallen tree, but it’s still a bit too hot, and all he accomplishes is to slightly burn his tongue.

Amy stands up and seems to shake off her sleepiness by force. She walks over and kneels down.

“All right. Let’s find out where the injuries are, then.”

Infinite shies away and stares at her with a snarl.

“What, do you think they’ve moved since the last time?” he snaps.

“With how worried Big is, you can’t convince me you don’t have any new ones,” she says.

Infinite hates how aloof she always sounds, even when she has nothing to have it in. But Big is right there, so he keeps it at a gentle sneer and scowl.

“I don’t …” he starts, stops again, hesitates, glances down. “He didn’t … do anything.”

Amy prods his arm. He reels back, fighting every instinct that tells him to kick and bite.

“Don’t touch me!” he hisses.

“If you’re not going to tell us where you’re hurt, I’m going to have to find out myself.”

“You think I’m lying?” he snarls.

“Either that, or Shadow convinced you not to tell us what he did. Which is bullshit, and I’m going to tell him that, so don’t worry.”

Amy is still aloof. Infinite so wants to give her a piece of his mind, but Big is still right there, and when Infinite glances up at him, he’s quiet and looks confused and distressed, Infinite is not going to add to that.

“Well, I’m not,” Infinite says sharply. “He barely touched me, okay?”

Amy gives him a flat look and reaches out again.

“Don’t!” Infinite snarls.

Big pushes Amy back just a little bit.

“I don’t think we should …” he says.

Amy puts a hand on Big’s arm.

“I know, but I’m not going to let him get hurt by some wound we can’t see, okay? It’s bad enough as it is. Now if he would just stop being a big baby about it,” she says with a stern glare.

Infinite glares back, teeth bared.

“Just let me look at your head and your chest, at least,” Amy says. “Do you have a concussion? Feel dizzy? Does anything feel weird when you breathe?”

“Shut up!” Infinite hisses.

“Don’t be mean to Amy,” Big says.

It’s sudden and resolute, and Infinite can’t help but flinch a little bit.

“Sorry,” Infinite grumbles reluctantly. “I have a headache, okay? Just … ”

“Then tell us what happened,” Amy says.

“Nothing!” Infinite insists.

Amy stares. Infinite snarls again, but then he averts his gaze.

“I tried to run, okay? I thought … I didn’t know what he was going to do, I just wanted to get away . There. Happy?”

“And what did he do?” Amy says.

Her voice is a bit gentler now. Still determined to get answers, but more forgiving about it.

Infinite hesitates for a second.

“He just told me not to screw up.” He looks down at his hands, rubs his thumb across his fingertips, feeling strangely vulnerable without his gloves, “... and that he would … stop me, if I tried. Nothing I couldn’t have figured out myself,” he adds, trying to be nonchalant about it. “And no, I didn’t hit my head,” he says sharply. “I’m fine.”

Amy lifts an eyebrow, and she almost looks vaguely amused, in a disbelieving sort of way. Infinite growls.

“You know what I mean,” he says.

“And that was all?” Amy says.

She doesn’t sound convinced, the sort of tone that says that if you’re lying right now, there’s gonna be hell to pay. Her eyes bore into Infinite’s, and he gets an urge to look away, but hell no, he might be weak but he’s not that weak, so he stares right back. He clenches his teeth.

“He grabbed me a few times. That’s it,” he says.

He wonders if Amy can see right through him, wonders if she can see the incinerator and the memories and the fear, if she can hear Shadow’s words and Infinite’s pleas, and he wants to look away, but he can’t, she might get suspicious, she might try and pry more, please don’t make me talk about it, please, just don’t …

Her eyes let go of Infinite’s soul.

“How exactly did he grab you?” she asks.

Infinite squints.

“What do you mean …?”

“I mean, where do we look for potential broken bones,” she says dryly.

“Nothing’s broken,” he insists, but that just gains him another flat, unconvinced look.

He rolls his eye.

“By the neck,” he yields.

“I’m going to assume that since you’re not paralyzed, that means we’re in the clear,” Amy says. Then she lets out a gentle sigh. “And … you ran.”

Infinite winces and scowls. What, would she rather have him just accept his fate? She’s the one who has torn his honor to shreds in the name of keeping him alive, she has no place to talk.

“Let me at least just have a look at your chest,” she says.

She’s not stern this time, sounds more tired than anything. Infinite subconsciously raises his arm to cover the Ruby’s old cave. She stares, a flat look, almost disappointed.

“Come on. You’ve been running, and you have a giant hole in your chest. We can’t just let that go uninspected.”

Infinite grits his teeth, but lowers his arm.

Amy sits down on the floor and bends down to look at his chest.

Infinite has the sudden realization that he could probably kill her. She’s just turning her back and exposing her neck, he could hurt her.

He reels away, pulling up his shoulders.

“Come on now, I didn’t even touch you,” she says, righting herself.

She’s completely oblivious. She doesn’t even … how can she be so unconcerned? He’s the enemy, for god’s sake! Sure, he’s weak, and he wouldn’t get far -- he literally just told her that Shadow would kill him if he laid a finger on her -- But it still has to feel wrong. Yet she doesn’t seem to mind at all.

She looks at him, her eyes telling him to pull himself together and stop throwing a fit. Infinite clenches his teeth. He lifts his head and folds his arms on his back, grabbing his elbows and holding himself in a firm grip.

She leans down again.

“You’re not bleeding,” she says. “So that’s something.”

“Are you okay?” Big asks and puts a hand on Infinite’s shoulder.

“I’m fine,” Infinite says, trying not to speak through gritted teeth.

“Tell me if anything hurts more than usual,” Amy says and very softly presses against Infinite’s torso a few inches above the phantom ruby’s wound.

It aches like a bruise, but Infinite is surprised by the lack of a stinging, agonizing stab through his entire body like he expected. Amy slowly makes her way around the wound with soft presses, and Infinite can almost keep himself from wincing.

She pulls back and nods.

“I think we’re in the clear. Hopefully. I’ll … see what I can do about getting some actual medical attention, at some point. Soon. But I think you’ll be okay for now.”

“I told you I was fine,” Infinite mumbles without much real passion behind it.

Infinite downs his tea, deciding to ignore the light prickling on his tongue from the water still being a little too hot, and places his mug down. Big takes the cue and helps Infinite back down. Infinite groans softly and lets his head fall into the leaves.

There’s a moment of silence where Amy just bites her lip, looking like she’s deep in thought.

Big has been uncharacteristically quiet the whole morning, but now he speaks.

“Amy?” he says.

“Yeah?” she says, sounding a little bit tired, but putting on a brave smile.

Big looks down at his hands, twiddles his thumbs a bit.

“Shadow said some things,” he says quietly.

Infinite’s blood runs cold. By the look on Amy’s face, she doesn’t care for the subject either, but she keeps looking at Big, bravely confronting whatever he’s going to say.

Big twiddles for a little more. Then he looks up with big, sad eyes.

“Is it true?” he just asks.

Amy shrinks a little, averting his gaze.

“I’m sorry,” she says, “I should have told … I just, I wasn’t sure what else to do, and, then I didn’t really know how to tell you, and …”

“Is everyone okay?” Big softly interrupts.

Amy looks up again. Her lip trembles a bit.

“... All of our friends are alive,” she says.

“How is Sonic?”

“He seems okay -- maybe a bit … distant, I can’t really tell … but it’s not too bad. I think.”

Infinite feels like he really should not be here for this conversation.

“You can tell me things, you know?” Big says.

“I’m sorry.”

Infinite stares at Amy, who had grabbed him by the arm and quite literally dragged him back to the land of the living whether he wanted it or not. She seems insecure now. None of the dismissal or the handwave or that look of vague disappoint at Infinite being who he is. And Infinite stares, because it’s terrifying. Isn’t she supposed to be the strong one right now? Does nobody here have anything under control ?

“Amy … Are you okay?” Big then asks.

Amy falters there for a fraction of a second, but then her brave face is back.

“I’ll be fine,” she says with a small, courageous smile.

There’s a scrambling sound from outside. Big and Amy turn their heads. Infinite’s nose catches an edge of something that doesn’t belong in the jungle, and his heart feels like it might stop. Something that reminds him of the harsh chemicals Eggman got his robot pawns to clean the laboratory with, and a faint edge akin to something on fire that really should not be on fire.

“He’s back,” he rasps.

Amy shoots up, but Big pushes her aside and rushes to the doorway.

“Shadow?” he says with a faint edge of worry.

The only response is a grunt. Something clatters loudly.

“What are you doing here?” Big asks and pushes something with his foot.

“Fixing your porch,” Shadow says and scrambles some more.

Amy gets to her feet and walks over so she can peek through the doorway, and Infinite catches a glimpse of Shadow with a bunch of planks in his arms.

“Do you actually know how to do that?” Amy asks.

Shadow stops in his tracks and sends her a sharp look.

“Why are you here?”

“To make sure you hadn’t caused any internal bleeding or broken ribs or something,” she says. “Obviously.”

Shadow squints at her.

“How did you get here already?” he asks.

“Girly intuition,” she says with a nonchalant shrug.

“I didn’t do anything,” Shadow says and turns his back to them.

“Except chase him.”

“He’s a hardened war criminal. Is running a few laps too harsh a punishment for that?”

“He has a hole the size of a grapefruit in his chest, if you hadn’t noticed.”

There’s a few seconds of silence.

Another scrambling noise.

“How was I supposed to know that?” Shadow dismisses.

“By looking? With your eyes?

“I told him to stop running,” Shadow bites, and by the sound of it, he’s dropped another plank.

Amy regards whatever scene is unfolding on the other side of the doorway with a look that Infinite knows all too well.

“Are you just juggling those around to make it seem like you know what you’re doing?” she asks.

“Mind your own business,” Shadow hisses.

“Did you even bring a hammer?”

“Watch your tongue.”

Amy rolls her eyes.

“Men,” she says. “Here, give me that.”

She reaches out a hand.

“What do you know about building things?” Shadow says.

“I at least know you’re gonna need a hammer,” she says and pulls hers out, seemingly from thin air.

Infinite listens to the exchange, waiting for an outburst that never comes. Shadow sounds thoroughly irked, but never more than that, and then they stop bickering and Shadow actually hands Amy a plank with nothing more than a scoff, and Big steps out of the way so they can get to work. Infinite’s ears are perked up on high alert, and his throat feels constricted, the knowledge of Shadow being right outside causing his heart to race. But nothing happens. Nothing at all, except Amy remarking that at least Shadow brought some nails, and then adding that it sort of makes it even more impressive that he didn’t think of bringing a hammer, and Shadow grumbles something that Infinite can’t make out and stomps down the stairs.

It takes a while before Infinite realizes that Big is very softly staring at him. In fact, it is a concerned “ribbit” from Froggy that makes him look up and notice. Infinite looks at Big, questioning, while casting nervous glances at the door every other second.

Big looks down, his ear twitches, he twiddles a bit more.

“Why … why did you do all that?” he asks.

The question hits Infinite like a speeding train, forcing all the air out of him, making him feel like if he doesn’t reel in the next breath with force he’s never going to get his lungs to work again.

What -- What is he supposed to say to that? What is there to say?

Infinite shies into himself, his face contorting, pulling up his shoulders, unable to look Big in the eyes, but Big does the worst thing he could do, which is to sit down next to Infinite on the floor with a gentle thump and then just wait.

“What do you want me to say?” he hisses gently.

“I just wanna understand,” Big says.

Infinite cringes, as if he’d been burned or stung.

“You couldn’t possibly understand,” he says.

Big is good, Big is kind, Big doesn’t know how evil and ruthless the world is, he doesn’t -- he’s different. He’s not like Infinite. He’s never … Infinite couldn’t possibly …

“Please,” Big just says.

It hurts. Big is begging for Infinite to say something to soothe the pain, but he’s asking for something that Infinite can’t give.

“I want to understand,” Big says. “I wanna … I just wanna know. Because -- because Knuckles also got tricked by Eggman! And Shadow too, once, and Silver thought he had to do bad things to save the world, and … Just, tell me, please?”

“And what if I don’t have an excuse?” Infinite says with a snarl that is more desperate than intimidating. “What if there’s no heart-tugging sob story about the greater good, what then?

“I just wanna know why,” Big says.

“Because I’m a bad person, Big!” Infinite has a hard time not screaming, so instead he hisses through his teeth, and for a second he’s afraid he’s gonna cry again, and in a desperate attempt to stop it, he keeps hissing, terrified of what will happen if he stops, “because I’m not good, I’m mean and I’m cruel --”

“That’s not how it works,” Big says with a defiant pout and a tense look to the side.

“Because I wanted to,” Infinite snaps. His chest is heaving, heart pounding as if he was in the middle of a fight. “Because I -- I wanted to, just -- because I could, I could finally do something -- something they wouldn’t forget . Nobody! Nobody will ever, be able to,” he chokes a lurching sob, chokes it, not now, not - never, never again, he’s not, he’s not … weak … “just … just … stop …” no, that’s not -- “trying, to see me as a good person,” stop, stop talking, just stop, “because that person doesn’t exist,” tears, he’s crying now, and anger flares up, why is he so fucking weak, “so just STOP!

Silence falls. There’s a clattering sound, and then heavy steps up the stairs, and Infinite’s face contorts into an evil grimace, his heart can’t even find it to pound any harder than it already is, Shadow might as well tear him apart, who cares.

Shadow pushes the leaves out of the way and looks through the doorway, at Big, who has his hands on his ears, ready to close them in case the yelling escalates, and at Infinite, the pathetic heap with fangs bared and tears soaking the fur on his cheeks, staring at Shadow with pinpricks for pupils, staring, staring, sobbing, staring,

“Amy,” Shadow says while looking at Infinite like one might look at a pile of vomit. “Do something about this mess.”

Amy pushes past him. Shadow turns his back and walks back outside.

“What’s going on?” she asks, looking from one to the other, trying to get a clear view of the scene.

“Infinite’s doing that thing where he gets really mean because he’s upset,” Big says with a pout and a frown.

“Oh, so now you believe it?” Infinite hisses through his tears.

“Stop it,” Big says firmly.

“Or what? ” he retorts with a voice on the edge of hysterics. “What are you gonna do about --!”

Big reaches over and closes his hand around Infinite’s muzzle, trapping his jaws. Infinite snarls and growls and claws at the hand, and it’s just as hopeless as it’s always been.

“Stop it,” Big repeats.

“Mrrrrrggghghh!!”

Infinite thrashes and struggles and then suddenly he’s pulled into a hug, still with Big’s hand holding his mouth shut.

“Stop being so stupid,” Big says, a weird mix of gentle and annoyed, “you’re just being stupid now.”

In a bizarre twist, Infinite finds himself to immediately stop struggling the moment Big closes an arm around him. His attempts at telling his body that Big is not an enemy worked, perhaps a little too well, and the moment of faltering is enough for Infinite’s lack of strength, any kind of strength, to catch up to him -- everything hurts, inside and out, he can’t be the person Big wants him to be, he’s screwed everything up, he’s scared , he can’t stop crying … and he collapses against Big’s chest and just quietly sobs into his fur.

Big lets go of his muzzle and wraps the other arm around him.

“I don’t understand why you do that,” Big mumbles while rocking Infinite back and forth.

Infinite’s attempts to choke his sobs somehow does the opposite.

Big looks up at Amy, who looks both lost and upset.

“It’s okay,” Big mumbles, “he just does that sometimes.”

Infinite tries to push out of Big’s arms, but Big doesn’t even notice, and Infinite’s body gives up the moment he meets any sort of resistance.

Big reaches up to pat his head.

“Infinite,” Amy scolds, sounding slightly shaken.

“S-shut up,” Infinite whimpers between sobs.

“Don’t be mean to Amy,” Big says resolutely.

Infinite opens his mouth to say something, anything, to get Big to stop it with his everlasting torrent of kindness, but his body is against him and what actually escapes him is a thin, pathetic wail.

Big hugs him closer.

“Now the sun is falling,” he hums.

No!

“The sky is dark outside --”

Not, not that, not now …

“Out there we can’t see a thing, but we are warm inside …”

Just like that, in front of everybody, Infinite should never have said yes, he should never have said yes to any of Big’s kindness and weird ideas, but he’s too weak to do anything -- everything hurts, his soul hurts, he hates this, he hates himself … and finally, finally, the last of his defenses crumble.

All because of a lullaby.

After two verses, Infinite is sitting quietly, slumped against Big, ever so quietly shaking as small sobs force their way out of him. Big pauses his singing and looks down at Infinite who has gone quiet and still. Amy stares too, looking lost, worried, not sure what to do with herself.

“D-don’t you think I wish,” Infinite finally whispers, “that I had an excuse?” He shakes his head, as if he’s trying to deny the whole world. “That I could say something to make this -- just --”

He hides his entire face in Big’s fur and just trembles for a few seconds.

“Infinite …” Amy says quietly.

Infinite cringes and tries to turn his head even further away, but Amy just reaches out and places a careful hand on his shoulder.

“We’re -- we’re gonna figure this out,” she says with determination, as if she can will it into becoming reality. “Things are gonna be okay.”

Infinite just sort of cries some more.

“We,” she says, “should get some breakfast.” She nods at her own idea. “Something to eat. Get the blood sugar up.”

She stands up. Big looks after her as she walks to the counter.

“There’s oats in the cupboard. Do you want help?” he asks.

“I’m good. Just take care of Infinite.”

Infinite makes a disgusted grimace at the notion that he needs to be taken care of, but he has no energy for anything else. He sniffles a bit, shakes his head, tries to wipe off the tears, but it’s hopeless, every time he thinks he’s done another one comes rolling down his cheek. It’s awful.

Big gently pats him.

At least Shadow isn’t there to see this. Not that he doesn’t know that Infinite is a pathetic wreck, but at least he doesn't get to see Infinite hide like a scared animal, doesn't get to see how Infinite is clinging to others because he can’t even handle his own weakness.

“You were upset, weren’t you?” Big says.

Infinite sends him a questioning look, tense and wary through glassy eyes.

“You got all mean because you were upset,” Big says. “And then … Eggman told you to be mean to Sonic.”

Infinite just stares, unable to see where this is going, unable to find out why it matters, why Big is so set on finding some sort of meaning - as if that would change anything.

“He did that with Chaos too. He found out he was upset, and then got him to fight Sonic … it was because you lost your friends, right?”

Infinite looks down, frowning, trying to process things.

“Is it so impossible to imagine that I’m just an asshole?” he mumbles.

“You’re nice when you’re not upset,” Big says with an edge of defiance.

Infinite is quiet for a moment.

“I wasn’t before,” he finally says.

Amy comes over with a bowl and spoon.

“Here,” she says.

Infinite makes a face at the bowl.

“I’m fine,” he lies.

“You’re really not,” Amy says and pushes the porridge closer. “Here. Eat.”

Infinite grimaces, but he picks up the spoon.

“Careful, it’s hot,” Amy warns.

“Stop doting over me,” Infinite sneers.

“You’re doing it again,” Big says with a disappointed frown.

Infinite can’t keep himself from snarling.

“Just talk to us,” Big says. “We wanna help you.”

Why? ” Infinite hisses.

“That’s enough,” Amy cuts in. “Eat your food.”

“I said stop doting over --”

“Eat your food,” Amy says again, sharply this time.

“Please no yelling?” Big says quietly.

Amy picks up the spoon, scoops up some porridge, and holds it towards Infinite, as if she is actually trying to feed him, and it's the most demeaning display that Infinite has ever experienced. He lashes out, swipes the spoon out of her hand, grabs the bowl and turns away.

Big stands up. He walks to the kitchen counter, fills a mug with water, and gets another of the ill-tasting leaves.

“Can you give him this afterwards?” he asks and hands both to Amy.

“Sure …?” she says.

“Thank you. I’ll be back real soon.”

Infinite forces down a mouthful of porridge. He’s hungry, but he would much prefer that to the hard, dull pain of swallowing. It feels like he's forcing rocks down his throat, not food. It hurts.

Amy is looking at the leaf with a slightly puzzled look on her face. Infinite looks over, cringing as he forces the next spoonful down.

“Give me that,” he orders.

Amy looks at him, and then she has the audacity to hold the leaf away from him.

“Eat your food,” she says again.

“It hurts,” Infinite complains.

Amy regards the leaf for a second, and then she looks back to Infinite and crosses her arms.

“Has nobody taught you how to ask nicely?”

“Are you serious?

“It doesn’t hurt to be polite,” she says with her nose lifted slightly.

“Just hand it over,” he says. Amy just looks at him, apparently willing to make a battle of wills out of anything. Infinite makes a face. “ Please,” he adds reluctantly.

Amy doesn’t seem quite satisfied, but she settles.

“You have to eat your food,” she says as she presents the leaf.

Infinite just takes it from her hand and stuffs it in his mouth. Amy shakes her head at him. Infinite chews, then swallows, and gestures for the mug. For a brief second, Amy looks like she’s going to demand a polite request again, but she decides against it and just hands the mug over. Infinite washes the horrible taste away, wincing as he gulps down the water. Then he picks up his spoon again.

“There,” he says and scoops up a spoonful of porridge. “Happy?

She stands up and takes the mug.

“See? Wasn’t that bad,” she says before taking the mug to the counter to clean it.

Infinite eats slowly, but his mind soothens quickly, and he manages to make it through half the bowl without too much pain. However, when Amy looks over, Infinite is just sort of staring at the food. She looks at him for a few seconds with contemplation, and then she sighs to herself.

“You done?” she asks.

Infinite blinks a few times, shakes his head a little, trying to clear the fog from his mind. He scratches his elbow while staring down at the food, trying to think clearly, he’s supposed to eat that, Amy wants him to. He takes another mouthful and grimaces at it, it doesn’t feel right. He doesn’t … want to eat. But he supposes he has to.

Amy kneels down and reaches out a hand. He stares at it, at her, absolutely unable to figure out what she wants.

Amy saves him by gently taking bowl and spoon from him.

“Well done,” she says again, gentler this time. “You should probably rest now.”

Infinite blinks heavily. She’s right. He should.

He passes out almost the moment he lies down.

Amy walks outside and sits down on the stairs.

“Well, he’s been drugged,” Amy says.

“It’s just a leaf,” Big says.

“It’s probably for the best,” Amy says with a sigh.

“Ribbit,” Froggy agrees.

She looks at Shadow, who may or may not be trying to hammer a nail into a plank using another plank. She shakes her head and leans against Big’s arm.

After a while, she takes notice to how unresponsive Big is.

“Big?” she asks. “Are you okay?”

“I just wanted to go fishing,” Big says into the air.

She looks up at him. He looks exhausted, has that kind of dull, blank stare he gets when he’s been using more energy than he has, staring into the air with glassy eyes not really seeing.

Amy puts a hand on his arm.

“You do that.”

Big looks down at her.

“But … Infinite is there,” Big says.

“Don’t worry about him. He’s sound asleep. I’ll get you a bowl of food, and then you and Froggy can go on a little fishing trip while me and Shadow …” she looks at Shadow’s attempts at craftmanship and changes her choice of words. “While I help Shadow with whatever it is he’s doing. And if Infinite wakes up, I’ll come and get you. Okay?”

Big processes the words, and then he nods.

“Okay. That sounds okay.”

She pats his arm and stands up to get him a bowl of porridge.

Big eats, gives her a big hug, and then he walks down along the stream and disappears out of view.

Amy takes a deep breath and rubs her forehead. She stands in the doorway for a moment, but then she squares up and walks over to where Shadow is.

“Why don’t you just use chaos control to warp back and get a hammer?” she asks him while picking up a plank.

Shadow scoffs.

“I am not using my power for things so insignificant as running errands, ” he says.

Amy looks up.

“I once saw you teleport from the couch to the fridge.”

Shadow sends her a look.

“No you didn’t.”

“And back again. Here, let me handle this, you’re gonna break it.”

Shadow chucks the plank down, steps aside and crosses his arms.

“A mere mortal like you couldn’t possibly fathom the limits of my power.”

Amy picks up a half-smashed nail, discards it and grabs a new one.

“The limits of your power?” she says.

Shadow narrows his eyes at her. Amy looks up.

“You spent a bunch of energy chasing Infinite around, didn’t you.”

Shadow squares his shoulders.

“I did what had to be done.”

Amy rolls her eyes and pulls out her hammer.

“Go remove the broken boards, won’t you. Carefully. Don’t rip up the ones around it, just wedge them free.”

Shadow huffs, but goes to do as Amy says.

They both fall into a familiar pattern, and with Shadow’s strength and the experience Amy has gotten with fixing and rebuilding in the last month’s time, the work moves along relatively smoothly.

“We need to get these boards out,” Amy says, crouching down on the porch and reaching under the leaf walls. She knocks on them. “They’re full of splinters.”

Shadow walks towards the doorway without a word.

“Try not to wake him up, will you?” Amy says.

Her words are slightly tense. She’s still set in her belief that saving Infinite was the right thing to do, still annoyed, maybe even a little angry, that Shadow had tried to ruin her work to get Infinite to recover, but when all that is said and done, staying true to that belief is so much easier when Infinite isn’t awake.

Shadow just grunts.

Amy decides to go after him, just to make sure.

Infinite is passed out in the leaves, and Amy is worried for a second before she sees that his chest is in fact gently rising. After a moment of hesitation, she walks over, picks up the blanket that is lying in a messy heap at Infinite’s feet, and drapes it over him.

Shadow is in the corner, staring at Infinite with uncensored contempt.

“He’s harmless, you know,” Amy says and stands up.

“Is that so?” Shadow says and turns his attention to the splintered floorboards.

“Eggman took the ruby from him,” Amy says, “you know that.”

“He’s a mercenary, Amy.”

“N--” Amy stops herself from immediately denying it, realizing she actually doesn’t know anything about Infinite. Aside from the fact that he destroyed the entire world, tormented one of her closest friends, terrorized countless of people and first now, over a month later, does he seem to show any sign of remorse.

She falters. Looks at him. At his scarred face and tattered ears.

“He -- he’s injured, okay? He can barely walk, it’s not like he’s gonna …” Her chest constricts for a second, and she takes a different route. “He can’t do anything. Like. Literally.”

“And now, even if he could, ” Shadow says, “he knows there will be consequenses.” He twists a broken board up and picks out a bent nail. “I refuse to gamble with the safety of my friends.”

Amy clenches her fist.

“Well,” she says, trying to keep her voice from shaking, “now he’s even worse off and can’t do anything, except, yell at people I guess. So. Good luck getting him to help with rebuilding now.”

“Rebuilding?” Shadow says with a glance in her direction.

“Yes,” she says, “Rebuilding. He broke everything! Don’t you think it’s fitting that he cleans up his own mess?” The two seconds of silence feel dense and choking. “We need all the help we can get,” Amy insists.

“Is that your reasoning?” Shadow says.

Amy feels a sting at the sound of his voice -- he almost sounds disappointed.

“You don't agree? Huh?” she says, sounding a little bit desperate.

“Since when do you let that stop you?”

Amy crosses her arms, trying to fight the hurt inside, trying not to let the last six months of trauma, grief and uncertainty get to her, but they still cloud her mind and before she can consider if she really should, she snaps back:

“Well you clearly can't even fix a porch! So!”

Shadow pulls up another broken board and discards it.

“Did you truly look at that,” he gestures to Infinite, “and see a resource for rebuilding?” he picks up the wood and stands up. “You literally just said that he can't do anything.”

Amy feels emotions well up inside her, and when Shadow turns and walks outside, she stands there for several moments, battling her emotions, but then she rushes outside after him.

“L-listen!” she yells, “I don't know a-about you edgelords, but I couldn't just leave someone to die like that! Don't you think I know he doesn't deserve -- don't you think -- because I do! But I couldn't just leave him there, without a-at least trying!”

“Exactly,” Shadow says.

Amy falters for a second, taken aback by that one gentle word, and it gives Shadow enough time to continue.

“The Amy Rose I know doesn't weigh fairness and use. She follows her heart.” He tosses the broken boards in a pile with the rest, the gesture weirdly careless when compared to the softness of his hoarse voice. “Your willingness to give hostility the benefit of doubt and extend a hand to anyone has saved the world before, and it would not surprise me if it did again.” He stops with his back half turned. “This war has taken way too many tolls already. If it had made even you grow cynical, we would have lost something truly irreplaceable.”

Amy stands, stunned, with a trembling lip, but there's a gentle light in her eyes, and then she can't help but quirk her lip into a bit of a smile because goodness, Shadow has a weird way of trying to talk to people. She has the urge to throw her arms around him, but she knows how aversive Shadow is to hugs, so she restrains herself, just smiles and blinks the beginning tears away.

Shadow hears her sniffle and squares his shoulders.

“The planks are the wrong size,” he says instead of acknowledging this blatant display of real emotion.

“Oh, we'll figure it out!” Amy says, sounding like she just might turn into pure sunshine right then and there.

Shadow makes sure his face is out of view before he gives a satisfied quirk of his lip. Now that's more like it.

Chapter Text

Infinite wakes up to the world's most surreal scene. Big is sitting on the edge of the bed with Froggy on his head and an ugly mug of tea in his hand, talking to Amy who is perched next to him, holding a mug of her own, dangling her feet off the edge and listening to Big with a gentle smile. All normal, regular, realistic things that by all means should be allowed within this realm of reality. What makes the whole scene so absolutely bizarre is that Shadow is sitting on the floor next to the nightstand, leaning against the bed behind him, casually sipping tea from one of the ugly mugs. The alligator, more specifically.

Infinite stares. His still slightly woozy mind is completely unable to understand what he's seeing.

Shadow looks up and to the side. Their eyes meet. Alarm signals go off in Infinite's brain, danger, danger, but he's completely unable to remember what he's supposed to do about it, so he just freezes like a deer in headlights, still staring.

Shadow stares back, waiting for some sort of reaction.

About twenty seconds pass without one. Shadow decides to be the one to speak up.

“He's awake,” he informs before breaking eye contact and going back to focusing on his tea. The tea, that he is drinking, from the alligator mug. What?

“What?” Infinite says.

“R-rrrbbit?” Froggy says.

Big’s ears perk up the tiniest bit, and he turns his head. The moment he sees Infinite, they fall ever so slightly.

The gesture hits Infinite’s chest harder than Sonic ever did.

“What?” Amy repeats, trying to find out what Infinite is so puzzled about.

“I …” Infinite trails off.

Amy sends him a pitying look.

“How are you feeling?”

Infinite frowns, mulling over that for several moments.

“I don’t …” he shakes his head, then winces and puts a hand to his forehead. “Ow …”

“Here,” Amy says, “we boiled some extra water. I’ll make you some tea.”

Infinite can’t stop looking at Shadow, staring, as if that is going to get things to make sense, but reality refuses to readjust, Shadow is still there with an alligator mug in his hand.

Shadow glances over, and Infinite involuntarily flinches.

Shadow looks at him with an expression of something akin to mild disgust.

“I thought I had made it clear that I have no intentions of hurting you,” he says.

Infinite curls up in himself a little, somehow unable to break eye contact.

Shadow narrows his eyes.

“What?” he asks, a bit of a sharp edge in his voice.

“It’s rude to stare, Infinite” Amy says.

Infinite snaps out of it, blinks and looks away. He stares at his tail instead, reaching out and picking at the fur. His eye keeps wanting to look to the side, pay attention to Shadow, Infinite’s instincts screech when he’s forced to look away, the burning presence of an enemy that he’s not allowed to keep track of making his skin crawl.

Amy gives him a mug of tea, and he takes it, wraps both hands firmly around it, forces himself to look at the swirling patterns of tea leaves dancing in the hot water instead of at Shadow.

Tense, drawn-out silence follows. Infinite is trying to control his breathing, trying to pretend he’s calm, trying to seem like nothing’s wrong, like the person who tried to kill him less than 24 hours ago isn’t sitting less than five metres away and drinking tea. It’s rude to stare, so he doesn’t stare, doesn’t glance up, doesn’t keep an eye on the enemy …

Finally, after way too long, something happens. Shadow puts down his mug and stands up, and Infinite’s gaze snaps up the moment he moves, staring once again. Shadow glances at him, but then seemingly decides that Infinite isn’t worth paying any mind.

“I’m going back,” Shadow informs and walks towards the door.

“Wait,” Big says.

Infinite flinches once again. No, don’t wait, go, just leave. But Shadow pauses two steps from the doorway and turns his head ever so slightly to signal that he’s listening.

“You’re not … staying, uh, for dinner?”

“Rouge and Omega will be expecting me back,” Shadow says.

“Right now?” Big asks.

Infinite’s eyes jump back and forth between them. Amy is looking at Big with a questioning look.

“Unless there’s something else you need my help with,” Shadow says, turning his head back towards the doorway, “then yes.”

There’s a moment of silence where nothing happens, except Big twiddles his thumbs a bit. Shadow looks at the doorway, seemingly eager to leave.

The gesture prompts Big to finally speak.

“I just … I don’t, uh … I mean. It doesn’t have to be … right now, I guess, if you need to get home …”

Shadow turns, now only halfway facing the doorway. He lets one hand rest loosely on the wooden doorframe. It’s almost dramatic, him there in the dying light, next to the open doorway, half gone and half there.

“What is it?” Shadow says.

His voice is like the breeze outside, too soft and low to be avoided, the rustling leaves echoing back to him. Infinite subconsciously folds his ears down, making himself seem smaller.

Big is looking down. Everyone’s eyes are on him, except for Infinite’s, he still refuses to look away from Shadow. Froggy climbs forwards, closer to Big’s face, and wamps gently. Shadow’s pose shifts ever so slightly, no longer two moves away from leaving.

Big looks from his hands and up at Amy. He’s met with questioning eyes, and his ears fall a little.

“I just wanna know what happened,” he finally, finally says.

Infinite’s heart is grabbed by a hand colder than a lone desert night. Suddenly, it’s easy to look away, impossible not to, he can’t look at them, he can only stare into his tea, try to disappear into his own fur, into the backdrop.

Amy shrinks a bit.

“Big, I -- I’m sorry I didn’t tell you, I, I should have, but I just --”

Shadow turns fully, takes two steps closer to them. He reaches out a hand, interrupting Amy with a tiny gesture.

“We’re doing it now.”

Shadow sits down on the floor again, between Infinite and the bed. Infinite tightens his grip around the mug, stares into it, seeing his own eye reflected in the surface.

“What do you want to know?” Shadow asks.

Big hesitates for another second.

“Fighting is … it’s not the same as war. There’s more people when it’s a war. So … who … who got hurt?”

Shadow sighs, but nods.

“Most civilians were captured rather than killed,” he says. “The casualties were mostly among those who took to fighting back … and those who got caught in the crossfire, or were too slow to evacuate.”

“Some people never made it off the death egg,” Amy adds quietly.

Shadow nods once.

“Some of the more fragile didn’t survive the long imprisonment in close quarters …” This time, there’s violent emotion in his voice, a trembling undertone betraying an ocean of deep emotions whirlpooling within. “... the sick. And those who went against Eggman’s orders.”

“A lot of people are still missing,” Amy supplies.

Her voice is quiet and full of hurt.

“The casualties are way higher among the resistance,” Shadow continues, sending Infinite a glance. “Once the doctor let him loose in a city, he was done taking prisoners.”

Infinite’s hand curls up, claws slipping against the side of the mug. Is that all he was in the eyes of the resistance? Eggman’s attack dog?

Amy swallows, but straightens her back a little and speaks up.

“Most of the damage is material -- houses and, roads and such. But …” she trails off for a second before she manages to reel her thoughts back in and continue speaking. “We do our best to provide food and shelter, but … it’s hard to help everyone. Everyone who can provide medical help are working as hard as they can. We’re still trying to get rid of the last of Eggman’s rampant robots, but they’re not nearly as organized now. They’re just kind of … running around. Creating havoc. Nothing we’re not used to,” she adds with a small, nervous laugh.

“The larger cities are still too polluted to be safe to live in,” Shadow says. “Most people are homeless. Almost everyone is mentally scarred.”

Big nods solemly as the state of the world is described, looking tired and hurt with his ears hanging down.

Amy rights herself.

“But it’s getting better,” she says with resolve. “Most cities are safe to go into for short periods of time, relatively at least -- we’re building shelters near the resistance headquarters, it’s -- it’s a real town now. And more people are accounted for every day.”

So full of hope. But what else is there to do? If Infinite has learned one thing about being weak, it’s this: you either hope, or you lie down and die.

Big reaches out and gives Amy a giant hug. Amy sniffles a bit and pats Big’s arm.

After a long stretch of silence, Infinite finally dares to look up.

Shadow is staring at him.

Infinite shrinks under the force of the cold, red eyes. But Shadow doesn’t look away.

“What do you want me to say?” Infinite says in something between a whisper and a hiss. “You want me to apologize? ” he huffs, a desperate sound. “As if that would bring anything back.”

Shadow just blinks, casually, like he didn’t even hear him.

Infinite feels like he’s going to choke on his own breath. With shaking hands, he puts the mug aside, and stares back, his single golden eye with a wild and primal edge.

“And what about you, huh?” he rasps. “Don’t you have anything to say?”

Big looks over at him.

“Shadow,” he says with a tired voice, “don’t make him be more upset, he’ll get all mean again.”

“No,” Shadow says. “Let’s hear what he has to say.”

“Are you -- aren’t you going to say anything? ” Infinite rasps.

Shadow apparently isn’t.

“My men! My squad! ” Infinite snaps.

“They were working for Eggman,” Shadow says.

So casual. So unaffected. It’s the most rage-inducing sight Infinite has ever laid eye upon.

“Oh, did they? And that made it okay for you to kill them all?!”

Shadow finally reacts. By lifting one eyebrow a miniscule amount. God, Infinite hates him so much.

I,” Shadow says, with pressure on the pronoun, “don’t kill people without a good reason.”

“Oh? So what was the reason?” Infinite rasps, needing all his self-control to keep from shouting. “Tell me!”

Shadow stares. Infinite stares back. Then Shadow lifts his chin ever so slightly.

“None.”

Then what--”

“Because I didn’t.”

Infinite stops mid-sentence. Then he laughs, harsh and cold, for long enough that both Amy and Big become visibly uncomfortable.

“Then who did?” Infinite hisses. “The copies that didn’t exist yet? Another black and red hedgehog with unfanthomable power? Do you think I’m an idiot? I saw you! You spoke to me!”

“We fought, yes,” Shadow says, sounding slightly impatient -- about time he shows some kind of emotion -- but still calm as ever, “and I beat them, yes. But nobody died.”

“Oh, I see! They just disappeared! Of course, that changes everything --

Shadow interrupts Infinite’s sarcastic ramblings.

“Eggman had his base in the middle of a jungle. I wasn’t going to leave a bunch of wounded soldiers among who knows how many predators,” he says.

Infinite’s words slow to a halt. For the first time, a smidgen of confusion, of doubt, appears on his face, barely visible through the anger.

“I moved them,” Shadow says, in case Infinite really is that dense.

Infinite falters for about two seconds, swallowing, breathing hard, but then he shakes his head ever so slightly and reaches out to grasp his anger like a smoldering piece of coal.

“So you moved them, but not me?” he says with an ugly grimace.

“You were conscious. Right next to the base … ” and for a second, Shadow seems to show some sort of emotion, something that could possibly be an inkling of regret. “... And, possibly, in need of medical attention.” He then huffs softly. “Just like Eggman to take the opportunity to graft you into a superweapon instead.”

Infinite sits and stares, possibly even more intensely, yet not truly looking at Shad