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Runaway Amy

Chapter Text

Amy stepped into her bedroom and closed the door. She leaned against it, breathing heavily, before slowly sliding to the floor, pulling her knees up to her chest. Tears came to her eyes and cascaded down her cheeks like a waterfall.

"It can't be true." she whispered. "It-it just can't be true." But a small voice in her head told her it WAS true. After all, hadn't she heard it with her own two ears? And those girls in the smoothie bar had seemed so certain. Not to mention the other thing...

Her tears increased, and she closed her eyes as the memory returned.

FLASHBACK

"So, Keslie, I suppose you've heard about that Sonic fangirl, Amy Rose?" the turquoise mouse whispered to her friend. Amy's ears twitched slightly. While she knew it was rude to eavesdrop, she was sitting at the table behind them, so she couldn't help overhearing. She took another sip of her kiwi smoothie, and tried not to look as though she was listening.

"No," confessed the puce squirrel, "but I'm listening."

"Well, far be it for me to gossip," said the mouse, in a tone that implied that gossiping was a hobby of hers, "but it seems that Sonic...well...thinks she's a nightmare."

"A nightmare?"

"Yes. Of course, I can't say I'm surprised, the way she's always following him around. Apparently, he can't stand her, and he's sick of her following him. In fact, I heard that he said if he sees her again...well, I'd better not say it."

"C'mon, Jacqueline, spill the beans." Keslie urged.

"OK. Apparently, if he sees her again...he's going to leave her to be captured by Eggman."

"NO!"

"Yes."

Amy froze. No, it couldn't be true. It had to be a lie. And yet... they seemed so, well, sure. And it fitted in with what had happened...

Her thoughts were interrupted by the realisation that the girls had started speaking again.

"Are you sure it's not just another rumour?" Keslie asked.

"Positive." nodded Jacqueline. "I heard it from Toby, and since when has he been wrong about anything?"

"Well, there was that time he told you that lime-green bodysuit looked good on you."

"That was just one time."

"Or that time he told you that there were celebrities in the park, and they were just look-alikes. And the time he convinced you that platform shoes would help your balance. And how about that time..."

"OK, knock it off!"

Amy was no longer listening. Abandoning her smoothie, she paid the bill, and headed out of the bar, back to the apartment she shared with Sonic and Tails. Today, the walk back, normally half an hour, seemed so much longer, and she felt as though someone had replaced her bones with iron rods.

END FLASHBACK

Amy ran her hands through her hair, and choked back a sob. While she would admit that she could be a little, well, annoying, she had never thought that Sonic HATED her. Not until today. She desperately wanted to believe that it WAS a lie, but she just couldn't. Not after...

Another sob rose in her throat. It had been only yesterday. She had been following Sonic, as usual, but he had seemed less willing to tolerate her presence than usual.

FLASHBACK

"Sonic! Wait for me!" Amy yelled as she ran after the speedy blue hedgehog.

Sonic turned around, and his eyes widened with shock. "A-A-A-Amy! Er-er-go away!"

Amy felt rather shocked at this rudeness, but she wasn't the type to let it put her off the pursuit of the one she loved, so she kept at it. While she wasn't as fast as him, she was still able to keep him in her sights.

After a while, she notice him starting to lose speed, allowing her to catch up to him. "Sonikku!" she squealed, glomping him. As she did, however, the package he had been carrying, which she hadn't noticed until now, fell to the ground. There was a loud smashing noise.

Sonic stared dumbly at it for a few seconds, then picked it up and shook it. There was a horrible tinkling sound, like broken glass.

Amy had a feeling she had broken something important. "Sonic, I..." she began. Before she could finish, Sonic turned around and screamed at her.

"AMY! I TOLD YOU TO GO AWAY! NOW LOOK WHAT YOU'VE DONE!"

Amy gasped and took a step backwards - he had never yelled at her before, no matter how frustrated he may have been. "Sonic, p-please." she whimpered, tears welling up in her eyes.

"I'VE HAD ENOUGH OF THIS! YOU'RE ALWAYS FOLLOWING ME! NOW I HAVE TO SEE IF THIS CAN BE REPLACED!

Amy winced, as though she had been physically slapped. "Do-do you want me to come with you?"

"NO! NOW GET IT INTO YOUR HEAD AND LEAVE ME ALONE!"

And with that he had zipped off, leaving Amy alone with her tears.

END FLASHBACK

Amy took several deep breathes, and managed to get her misery under control. Sonic had been angry at her, but until she had heard the girls in the bar confirm it, she had thought he'd forgive her by the end of the week. Now she saw there was absolutely no chance whatsoever of that happening.

"Well," she whispered to herself, "if he really does HATE me, then there's no point hanging around here. I'll...I'll run away. Then he'll never have to see me again."

Rising to her feet, she pulled her pink calico backpack from under her bed and thought carefully about what she would need. She had read too many stories about people who had run away and found that they had forgotten something important. "Clothes. I'll definately need clothes." she murmured, and headed to her closet. Opening it, she selected several changes of clothing and put them into her backpack. She then went to her piggybank and emptied the entire contents into her purse, which she placed in her bag. Her tarot cards, hairbrush, mobile phone, charger and a torch went in too. As she was leaving the room, her eyes fell on Mr Sugey Bun-Buns, the stuffed giraffe she'd had since she was 6. She hesitated for a moment, then put him in her backpack as well. He was childish, true, but it would be nice to have company.

From the bathroom, she took a towel, a packet of soap, a tube of toothpaste and her toothbrush. She had no idea when she would get to use them, but better safe than sorry. She opened the airing cupboard, took out a blanket and cushion, and put them into her bag. If she had to sleep rough, she might as well have SOME comfort.

In the kitchen, she took a loaf of bread, 4 bunches of bananas, 6 apples, 7 packets of crisps, a custard tart, a box of donuts and a bottle of soda and placed them into her pack. There was always a lot of food in the apartment, as Sonic had a very high metabolism and needed a LOT of food. She took a Thermos and made herself some tea as well.

Looking around to make sure she hadn't forgotten anything, it occurred to her to take some spare batteries for the torch. Then she decided to pack a first aid kit, just in case. She took some plasters, some bandages, a small pair of scissors, a pair of tweezers, some bottles of medication, a thermometor and a first aid book and put them into a small plastic tub, which she then put into her backpack.

Taking some paper and a pen, she scribbled a quick note:

To Sonic

By the time you read this, I'll be far away. It has come to my attention that you don't like me, so I'm leaving so you'll never have to put up with me again. Don't look for me, celebrate my birthday or anything like that. In fact, forget I exist altogether.

Goodbye,

Amy

This note she left on the kitchen table. Pulling on her backpack and grabbing her coat and umbrella (just in case), Amy stepped out of the apartment and closed the door behind her. She took a deep breath, then walked away. Away from the apartment, away from her friends...away from Sonic.

Chapter Text

"Hey Sonic," Tails called from near the ceiling, where he was hovering while hanging up a pink banner. "How's this look?"

"Perfect, little buddy! Amy's gonna love it." The blue hedgehog nodded his approval and glanced around Knuckles' basement, which they had borrowed for the party. It was decked out with balloons and banners, all in pink and white, which were the favourite colours of the birthday girl. A chair decorated to look like a throne stood in the corner, near a large pile of presents. A large painting of Amy hung over the "throne". Nearby, a table groaned with all sorts of delicious food-tuna, cheese and cucumber sandwiches; cheese-and-onion, salt-and-vinegar and prawn cocktail crisps; salad; chili-dogs; chicken drumsticks; quiche; sausages on sticks; scones; cherry tarts; doughnuts; trifle; strawberry and vanilla ice-cream; chocolate blancmange; orange jelly and cream; iced buns; toffee popcorn; orange, cherry and cola soda and in the centre of the table, a triple-layer chocolate and almond cake, filled with buttercream icing, and topped with vanilla icing and cherries. On the other side of the room, Vector and Espio were setting up the sound system for the disco, while Charmy worked on making the pinyata. Blaze was putting the finishing touches on a plastic tiara painted silver and a pink ribbon sash which said, in purple letters, "Birthday Girl".

Sonic had been determined to make this the best birthday party ever, and he had rounded up all his friends to help. Several of them had surprised him, particularly when it had come to preparing the food. While he had known that Big would be a good cook, since the cat ate so much, he hadn't counted on Silver or Jet being so skilled when it came to culinary matters (although the hawk had warned that if Sonic breathed a word of his skills to anyone, he might find a rumour that he wore bunny pyjamas posted on the internet). He had also been surprised when Rouge had told him that she was giving Amy some of her old jewellery, knowing how much the bat loved jewels. But perhaps the biggest surprise had come when Shadow had unveiled the painting of Amy, which he had painted himself.

It had been beautifully painted, although admittedly, it was a little, well, unusual. The painting showed Amy in four different outfits: vampiress, with black lace dress, black and red cloak, black fishnet stockings, black heels and glittering fangs, while a bat (who bore an interesting resemblence to a chibi Rouge) perched on her shoulder; mermaid, with glittering pink tail, red starfish bra, and sea flower in her hair, perched upon the side of a rock pool; gypsy, with white baggy-sleeved blouse, deep green sash, gold bracelets, wine-red skirt, grass green sandals and silver comb in hair, dancing as she played a tambourine; and princess, with beautiful red, pink and white meringue gown, silver shoes, gold crown, orb and sceptre encrusted with a myrid of priceless gemstones. While Shadow had responded to the praise of his art skills with his usual caustic remarks, it had been obvious that he had been pleased. He had intended to wrap it up and put it with the other presents, but they had convinced him to hang it above the birthday "throne", so that everyone could see it.

Sonic smiled slightly. Thinking of these two presents had reminded him of the other gifts that his friends had bought. Apart from Rouge and Shadow, they had all agreed to keep their chosen gift a secret. While he had no doubt that they had all purchased something nice, he privately hoped that his gift would be the best received. After all, it had taken so much time and money.

"Sonic," Sonic snapped out of his thoughts as Cream's voice entered his ears. "Isn't it nearly time for you to go fetch Amy?"

"That's right! Thanks for reminding me, Cream." He clapped his hands, and all eyes turned to him. "OK, guys, I'm gonna fetch Amy, so find a place to hide until I get back! Vector, you guys nearly done with setting up the disco?"

"Almost." the crocodile answered. "Want one of us to come with you?"

"No, I'm good."

"Um...little help?" Charmy's voice asked.

Sonic had to stifle a laugh. Charmy had somehow managed to get himself entangled in the tape he was using to make the pinyata. Espio, on the other hand, was not as amused. "Vector, can you finish by yourself? I have to help Buzz-Brain." The chameleon walked over to the bee, and started trying to pull the tape from his body.

"Good luck with that. Once you're finished, hide somewhere. I won't be long." And with that, Sonic zipped out of the room.

In addition to being a super-fast runner, Sonic was also a super-fast thinker, and right now he was considering the best way to get Amy to come with him as he sped towards the apartment that he shared with both her and Tails. Originally, he had just planned to ask her "on a date", but after yesterday, well...

This was partly the reason why Sonic had wanted to fetch Amy alone. He needed to think about what he'd said to her yesterday, and if he'd gone with someone else, they might have noticed how unusually quiet and pensive he was. He paused for a few seconds, as the memories entered his head.

Yesterday, he'd decided to buy Amy's present. But it hadn't been just any present, oh no. It had been something very special indeed, something that she had wanted for a long time. The problem was, he'd had to search in about 50 different shops before finding what she had wanted. And then there had been a matter of price-he'd had to use all the money he had been saving. He'd briefly wondered if he should choose something else, but had decided against it when he'd thought of her happy face.

He had thought it would be simple getting it home, even if Amy did see him-after all, he was the fastest thing alive-but when she had indeed seen him, she'd surprisingly been able to catch up with him. Of course, he'd initially outpaced her, but the thought that he might break the gift (WHY had her most desired gift been made of glass?) had forced him to slow. She had easily glomped him, causing him to drop the present and break it.

Any hopes that it had survived the drop disappeared when he'd picked it up and heard the tinkling of broken glass. Amy had started to speak-perhaps to apologise?-but he'd seen red. And it hadn't just been over the broken gift, or all the time and money that he had sacrificed to purchase it, but EVERYTHING-all the times she had put herself in danger just so he could rescue her (especially when they had been younger and her infatuation had been a mere crush), all the times she had chased him, all the dates she had tried to get him to go on. He'd just lost it and screamed at her. It had been TERRIBLE. And it hadn't just been the screaming, but WHAT he had screamed at her, that had been terrible. He had heard himself scream, and yet he hadn't felt as though he were really saying them.

After he'd left to replace the gift, the image of her tear-stained face had remained etched into his memory, even as he'd slept. Not that he'd actually HAD much sleep, what with the words he had screamed echoing in his head like some broken CD that kept repeating itself. Even today, with preperations for the party to distract him, the guilt had remained, nagging at the back of his mind.

Sonic shook his head to clear it. If he didn't hurry, he'd be late back to the party. OK, she should still be at the apartment, he thought to himself. So just tell her you're sorry-after all, THAT's true enough-and that you want to take her out to make up for it. This thought firmly implanted in his mind, he resumed his run.

He arrived at the apartment within seconds. Opening the door and stepping inside, he realised that Amy had not greeted him as she usually did whenever he returned home, nor was there any sound of those silly talkshows she liked so much issuing from the TV. She must still be upset about yesterday, Sonic thought to himself as a stab of guilt jolted into his stomach. "Hey, Amy?" he called. "Are you here?"

Silence.

Sonic was starting to feel slightly worried. After all, no matter how upset Amy had been with him before, she had never failed to answer him when he called, even if it involved a slug with the Piko Poko Hammer. Besides, he didn't really know whether she HAD gone home after he'd been so horrible to her, as he and Tails had decided to spend the night at Knuckles', in order to prepare for the party. He decided to search in all the rooms for her, starting with her bedroom.

"Amy?" he asked, poking his head into her room. No sign of her. As he was about to leave, however, he suddenly noticed that her wardrobe door was ajar, and some of her clothes were spilling out. This worried Sonic, for he knew that Amy loved clothes and would never treat any item of clothing with such "disrespect", as she'd call it. His eyes spotted her piggy bank lying on her bed, cork removed. Even from where he stood, he could see it was empty.

Sonic took a deep breath. "OK, OK. Just calm down." he whispered to himself. "Just because her clothes are messed up and her piggy bank is empty, it doesn't mean she's..." He didn't go any further than that, for he'd suddenly remembered that her coat and umbrella had also been missing when he'd entered the apartment-he'd noticed it, but had paid it no attention until now. "Gotta check, gotta know for certain." he decided.

A quick look around the room confirmed that several of her things were missing, even that goofy stuffed giraffe of hers,Fuzzyfinkles or whatever it was called. Well, it was only natural that she'd take that if she had run away, as Sonic himself had given it to her himself when she was 6 and he was 8. She had been so attached to it even then, he mused. Perhaps that was when her little crush on him had begun?

Forcing himself back to reality, he darted into the bathroom and checked there. Yep, as he'd feared, her toothbrush and several toiletries were missing, as well as a blanket and cushion from the airing cupboard. Quickly he zipped into the kitchen to see if any food was missing, but he had barely started his search when his eyes spotted what looked like a note on the kitchen table. He picked it up, and quickly scanned it. The words he read filled him with horror.

"Oh no." he whispered. "No, no..." Tears came into his eyes, the angst she must have felt clear in every word.

He composed himself with difficulty. "Ok, get a hold of yourself. Crying never got anyone anywhere. I have to get back to the others, 'cause it looks like I'm gonna need help."


 

"I'm hungry." complained Big.

"SSSSSSHHHHHH!" Blaze hissed. "If we make a noise, Amy's surprise is gonna be ruined."

After Sonic had left, it had become clear that hiding places were limited, so they'd had to make do with what they had. Cream, Cheese and Knuckles were behind the throne, Espio was pressed against the wall (his colour-changing skills had certainly come in useful), Vector, Mighty, Charmy and Storm were behind the sound system and the other party guests were under the table.

"But..." Big began, only to be cut off as Silver clapped a hand over his mouth.

"Quiet!" he muttered. "Somebody's coming!"

Sure enough, they could hear the sound of footsteps approaching. As the door flew open, they all emerged from their hiding places.

"SURPRI..." The word faded on their lips as they saw Sonic, doubled over and gasping for breath in the doorway, and no Amy.

"Erm, Sonic," said Jet, the hint of a sneer in his voice. "Weren't you supposed to pick up Amy?"

Sonic glared at him. "I was, but something's come up."

"What kind of something?" asked Marine.

For an answer, Sonic held up the note. "Amy's run away!"

"WHAT! Gimme that!" Rouge snatched the note and read it quickly. When she had finished, she looked at Sonic. "You're POSITIVE that she ran away?"

"Of course! There's the note, for one thing, and for another half her stuff's gone!"

Marine gasped. "STREWTH! Why'd she take off like that for no reason?"

"Well, according to this note, she somehow got it into her head that Sonic hates her. So unless there's another reason, I believe that explains why." remarked Rouge.

Sonic opened his mouth, then closed it again. No...he couldn't tell them what he'd done, they'd be furious with him. Although, maybe he deserved it. After all, he HAD yelled at her over something that, as it had turned out, had been easy to replace.

"Can we eat now?" asked Big.

"BIG!" snapped Blaze, literally burning with rage and causing the other cat to cower. "Amy has run away, and all you can think about is your stomach?"

"Blaze." said Silver soothingly. "Screaming isn't going to find Amy. We need a plan."

Sonic nodded. "Right. We'll split up and look for her. Tails, you, Cream and Rouge take the Tornado and search by air. Vector, you, Espio, Charmy and Mighty look to the west side of town. Blaze, you, Silver and Shadow take east. Knuckles, you, Big and Marine go south. Jet, you, Wave and Storm look north. I'll do a general scout-around."

"Excuse me," said Storm. "But who exactly made YOU captain of this search party?"

He was answered by an icy glare. "No-one. But if we're gonna find Amy, we can't waste time with stupid questions or making other plans. Now let's go!"

Chapter Text

The cold wind blew, its icy breath chilling the people as they bustled about busily, either shopping, conversing with friends or just killing time window shopping. They thought of nothing much, other than whether it was going to rain or whether they should make their way home where it was warm. They certainly paid no attention to a miserable pink hedgehog who trudged through town, head low and looking for all the world as though all the troubles of the world were on her shoulders.

Amy shivered as the wind blew around her-she could feel the chill even through her thick coat. She was starting to wonder if running away had been such a good idea, but there was no point turning back now. I just couldn't bear to see HIM, she thought to herself. Not after the way he yelled at me, or after what I heard. Besides, nobody seems to want me around, as nobody's come after me. (Of course, this was a very foolish thing to think, as she had no idea if anyone had actually found her note, but she was feeling very upset and unwanted, so it was understandable.)

Stopping in front of a small shop, she idily glanced in the window. What she saw made her eyes go wide with excitement, for she was standing in front of a shoeshop, and she loved nothing more than clothes shopping.

Her mind started to race: It's sure to be warm in the shop. And look at all those beautiful shoes! I could use a new pair of boots, and those fur-lined ones look perfect! And those kitten heels! I think I'll buy two pairs, one yellow and one purple, and... She was just about to take her purse from her backpack, when she stopped. What AM I doing? I need this money, and I'm not going to have it much longer if I spend it all on clothes.

She was going to have to get away from the shops, so that she wouldn't be tempted. Looking around, she spotted a small alleyway nearby and ducked down it.

It was dark down the alley, although not as dark as it would have been had it been nighttime. Still, there was a hint of eeireness about the place. A large dumpster nearby would provide the perfect hiding place for any muggers or gangs.

Maybe this wasn't such a good idea, mused Amy. Oh well, at least it's not a closed alley; I can see the opening from here. I'll just have to make do, otherwise I'll be tempted to use all my money on stuff I don't really need. She blinked hard. I cannot BELIEVE I just thought that!

She pulled her gloves and scarf from her coat pockets, as it was starting to get colder, only to drop them as somebody barged into her. "How rude can you get?" she muttered to herself as she knelt to pick her gloves and scarf up.

"What did you say?" demanded a voice in front of her.

"Huh?" She lifted her head to see three girls standing before her. The first, the one who had spoken, was a red cat with chestnut-coloured hair, wearing a black leather jacket, a black biker cap, a white t-shirt, black jeans and black Doc Martins. The second was a plum-coloured rabbit with short black hair, wearing a denim jacket, a black t-shirt, a black-and-navy bandana, black fingerless gloves, red spiked wrist-bands, stonewashed jeans and combat boots. The third was a white wolf with short, spiky hair dyed green, wearing a camoflage-coloured jacket, a red-and-blue striped top, a pink tutu, brown Doc Martins, purple striped stockings and bright pink lipstick.

Amy had a feeling she was going to be in a lot of trouble if she said the wrong thing, so she answered, in her politest voice, "I'm sorry if I've offended you in any way. I merely wished to point out that what you did, barging past me like that, was rather rude."

The cat glared at her. "So what? Ya wanna make something of it?"

"No..." Amy began. The cat interrupted her.

"Ya better not be planning ta! Do you know who we are?"

Really obnoxious, Amy thought to herself. "A street gang?"

"You damn right we're a street gang! But we ain't just any old street gang, hell no! We're Diamond Dust, the roughest toughest street gang that ever existed! Nobody messes with us and gets away with it! I'm Latoya, the leader, and these're my pals, Scarlet," she nodded at the rabbit, "And Oynx!" A nod at the wolf.

Amy couldn't decide whether they wanted her to feel intimidated or impressed. As she stood silent, Scarlet spotted her backpack. "What's in the bag?" she demanded. "Any cash?"

Amy gulped to herself. "N-no, just food and stuff. I'm running away from home, and this is all the stuff I'm gonna need." (Well, it was PARTLY true, although she was starting to wonder whether she should have bothered with her phone charger-after all, there weren't going to be many places to plug it in.)

Latoya sneered. "Y'know what I think? I think you're lying. I think you got a tonna cash in there. Yer're probably some rich punk who goes around flaunting her wealth."

"I am not!" snapped Amy, although she was starting to feel frightened.

"Oh yeah? Then how come you got such a fancy coat? Or such a nice backpack, huh? Answer me that."

Amy felt anger and fear coursing through her veins. She had to get out of this situation, or she was probably going to hit someone, and these girls looked more than capable of hitting back twice as hard. Forcing herself to remain calm, she answered "If you must know, I got these for my last birthday. As a matter of fact," she added, an idea coming into her head. "It's my birthday today, so if you'll excuse me, I have to get back home for my party."

"Thought you said you was running away?" Onyx asked suspiciously.

"I was," said Amy quickly, "but I've changed my mind, and realised that it's not such a good idea. Now, if you please..." She turned to leave, but Latoya seized her shoulders and turned her around to face her.

"If you think we're fallin' for that, you're stupider than you look. Nobody changes their mind about runnin' away that quick, and nobody decides to run away on their birthday. You ain't going nowhere until we see whut's in the bag." she sneered. Releasing Amy, she nodded to Scarlet and Onyx, who grabbed the backpack off Amy's shoulders and opened it. Latoya reached into the bag and, to Amy's horror, the first thing she pulled out was Mr Sugey Bun-Buns. "Hey, girls! Look! Little Miss Moneybags has a stupid li'l stuffed toy!" she sneered. "Let's have some fun with it!" And with that, she dropped him onto the ground and started kicking him about. Onyx and Scarlet abandoned the backpack and joined in with utmost glee.

Any fear in Amy disappeared, to be replaced with incandescent rage. How DARE they treat something so precious to her with such disrespect! How DARE they kick her most treasured possession around like an old football! How DARE they! "STOP THAT RIGHT NOW!" The words shot from her mouth before she could register what she was saying.

Time seemed to stop. The girls had frozen where they were, Onyx with her foot drawn back to aim another kick at Mr Sugey Bun-Buns. Passers-by, who had previously decided it would be safer to ignore what was going on down the alley, had stopped in their tracks at Amy's scream. Even the cars appeared to have stopped. It was a full minute before anyone moved.

"So." growled Latoya, abandoning her abuse of poor Mr Sugey Bun-Buns and advancing on Amy, who stood startled at her actions. "So."

Amy gulped. NOW she was in for it! She glanced around, but everyone seemed to have disappeared at the first sign of trouble, for there was nobody to be seen outside the alley. "Ummm...would it help if I said I was sorry?" she squeaked. From the looks Scarlet and Onyx gave her, it clearly wouldn't.

Latoya placed herself square in front of Amy, hands on hips. "Think you're pretty tough, huh?" she spat. "Well, let's see how tough you really are!" And with that, she drew back her fist.

Amy reacted almost instantly, pulling her Piko Poko Hammer from hammerspace and slamming it down on Latoya's foot. Latoya let out a painful scream, hopping on her other foot and clutching her sore one. Scarlet and Onyx ran to their leader; taking advantage of this, Amy grabbed her backpack and Mr Sugey Bun-Buns, and ran off as fast as she could, out of the alley and into the street.

"HEY! YOU COME BACK HERE!" shrieked Latoya, running after her, followed by her friends. Amy gasped, and started to run faster. Spotting a large crowd of people up ahead, she ducked into it. Surely they won't find me here? But as she wove in and out of the people, she could hear shouts of shock and outrage as Diamond Dust forced their way through. While they were slowed down by the size of the crowd, Amy knew that she wasn't as fast as Sonic, and that she wasn't going to be able to outrun them forever. Besides which, she was running out of breath. They were going to catch her for certain, unless...

Emerging from the crowd, she spotted a group of rubbish bins nearby. Quickly, she dropped to her knees and crawled behind them, hardly daring to breath as she saw Diamond Dust stop in front of her hiding place through a tiny space in the bins.

"Where did she go?" screamed Latoya. "When I get hold of that no-good hedgehog, I'm gonna..."

Amy crept back a little, slowly so as not to make a noise and draw their attention to her presence. As she did, however, her foot hit a bottle and made a tiny TINK noise.

"I dunno where she went, Latoya." Onyx answered, gasping for breath, bent over with her hands on her knees. As she straightened up, she glanced over at the bins, frowning, for she had heard something.

It had been a very small noise, but Onyx had very good hearing, and she realised where their target had gone. She leaned close to Latoya and whispered something in her ear.

From her hiding place, Amy could see Onyx whisper something to Latoya, Latoya nodding and the gang departing. After waiting a few seconds, she slowly crept out of her hiding place, convinced that they had abandoned their pursuit of her. As she stood up, however, she felt a rough hand clap on her shoulder, and she could have sworn her heart stopped as she was spun around to face Diamond Dust. She tried to run, but Scarlet and Onyx seized her arms to prevent her from fleeing.

"Well, well, well." sneered Latoya, cracking her knuckles. "Thought you could get away, huh? Well, I'm about to teach ya what happens when ya mess with Diamond Dust!"

Terrified, Amy squirmed, but Scarlet and Onyx held her tight. Her eyes widened in fear as Latoya drew back her fist again, ready to punch her in the face. She closed her eyes and waited for the pain.

"WHAT is going on here?" thundered a voice, suddenly. Amy felt the death-like grip on her arms disappear, and she opened her eyes. What she saw surprised her.

Latoya seemed to have frozen in place, fist still raised to strike and a strange green aura around her. Scarlet and Onyx were backing away, arms raised as if to push something-or someone-away from them. And no wonder, for standing before them, hands on hips and a look of fury etched on her face, was an orange swallow with long black hair, wearing a red headscarf, a deep purple dress, a red shawl tied around her waist and golden-yellow sandals. Around her neck was a glowing green stone necklace, evidently the cause of Latoya's paralyzation.

"M-Madame Unazuki!" stammered Scarlet. "We were just-"

"Just picking on another innocent victim, who I highly doubt has done anything to deserve your... "attention", shall we say?" snapped Madame Unazuki. "You cannot fool me, Scarlet Hanahon. I know your type well." She turned to the frozen Latoya, and tapped her necklace three times. The aura around Latoya faded, and she threw her punch. Luckily, Amy had moved aside, and the punch hit thin air.

"Whut the-" she demanded, spinning around only to stop dead at the sight of Madame Unazuki. "Madame Unazuki! I didn't expect to see you."

"From the way you were acting, I should think not! You should be ashamed of yourself, Latoya Terexu. I had hoped that you had learned your lesson the last time we met! Onyx Osertyn," Madame Unazuki turned to Onyx. "I believe that you and your friends owe this girl (she nodded at Amy) an apology, and you appear to be the only one capable of apologising everytime you and your friends have committed a wrong."

Onyx opened her mouth, perhaps to refuse, but closed it at the look Madame Unazuki gave her. She turned to Amy, looking mutinously at her feet. "Sorry." she muttered.

"Say it so that we can ALL hear it!" snapped Madame Unazuki.

Onyx jumped at the harsh tone, then lifted her head to face Amy. "I hope you will accept my most humble apologies for the way my friends and I have treated you."

Amy had the feeling she was being sarcastic, but she decided not to press the matter. "Your apology is accepted."

"Good." said Madame Unazuki in an approving tone. She turned to Diamond Dust. "Now I suggest the three of you leave, before you anger me again."

"C'mon, girls. Let's go." said Latoya. As she started to walk off, however, she muttered "Stupid witch." under her breath.

"WHAT WAS THAT?" snapped Madame Unazuki. Latoya shrieked and ran off, followed by Scarlet and Onyx. As the three of them darted around the corner, Amy turned to Madame Unazuki.

"T-thank you for helping me, ma'am."

"There is no need to thank me, dear child." said Madame Unazuki in a softer tone of voice. She frowned slightly. "But tell me, why do you have a backpack with you? Are you planning a long trip?"

"Well..." began Amy, but she was cut of by a sudden flash of lightning and a rumble of thunder.

Madame Unazuki looked up at the darkening sky and sighed. "Drat it all! We cannot continue our conversation here," she added, turning to Amy. "Come back to my shop with me, and we will talk there."

Amy thought for a moment. She knew one must never go anywhere with strangers, but Madame Unazuki seemed nice enough. And she HAD saved her. She decided to risk it. "OK. Lead the way."

Chapter Text

Sonic zipped through the streets, hardly noticing the rumble of the thunder or the rain that came down in torrents, soaking him to the skin even with his speed. His feet splashed in the puddles, spraying dirty water over the few people who were either brave or foolish enough to be out and about in this weather. He hardly noticed the dirty looks he received, for his thoughts were focused on one thing and one thing only. "C'mon, Amy, you gotta be here somewhere." he thought frantically.

He was starting to feel panicky, for he had looked in all the places she might be-the mall, the park, the beauty parlour, even the miniture golf course-but even with his speed, he had had no success, and the fact that the town was a big place didn't exactly help matters. He was rapidly running out of places to look, as he'd checked in every shop, and if she wasn't in a shop then there weren't many other places for her to hide.

Stopping for a moment to catch his breath, as he'd done a lot of running even for someone as fast as himself, he tried to remember if there were any places he hadn't looked, but it seemed that every place that came into his head was a place that he'd already searched.

Let's see now... clothes shop? Nope, already looked in three of 'em. Shoe shop? Nope, already checked. SIX times. Perfume department at the mall? Nope, looked in there for an hour. He sniffed at himself, and nearly gagged. He'd had been sprayed with Aurora knew how much smelly stuff, and even the driving rain hadn't completely removed the stench. GAAH! I'm getting nowhere! I've looked in all the types of places Amy likes, but there's no sign whatsoever of Amy! Then a terrible thought drifted into his mind. What if something bad's happened to her? What if she's hurt? Or been mugged? Or even...

An image of Amy lying on the pavement, bleeding from knife or gun wounds as the rain fell like tears, appeared before his eyes. In the image, she lifted her head weakly and opened her mouth, but only had the strength to croak out "S-Sonic..." before she fell into unconciousness, or even...

Shaking his head to remove the morbid image, Sonic cupped his hands over his mouth like a megaphone and cried "AMY!"

"AMY-MY-MY!" reverberated through the empty streets, the echo almost mocking to his ears.

A small noise from an alleyway behind him made him spin around. "Amy?" he asked hopefully, approaching the alley.

The alley was pitch black, forcing him to strain his eyes in an attempt to make anything out. As his eyes slowly became accustomed to the darkness, he heard the noise again. Looking around, he spotted a group of rubbish bins in the corner, the source of the sound, and a shadow dart behind them. He approached them cautiously, for he knew that dangerous people lurked in alleyways, ready to mug unsuspecting victims. While he had no doubt that he could outrun them, he would much rather avoid them if he could.

"Amy, izzat you?" he asked, squatting down and poking his head around the bins.

In answer to his question, a cat, disturbed from its peace, jumped out at him, hissing and spitting. He fell onto his back with a startled yell as it scratched his nose before darting out into the street.

Sonic sat up, rubbing his nose. "I hope the others are having better luck." he groaned.


 

Knuckles grumbled to himself as he stood outside the telephone booth, waiting for Marine to finish her call. While he had to admit that she was probably correct in her assumption, that didn't mean he had to be happy about waiting in the pouring rain.

"Hey, Knuckles? What was Marine's plan again?" asked Big as he walked up from the hotdog stand he'd found, a hotdog covered in mustard, relish and onion in his hand. On his shoulder, his pet frog, simply named "Froggy", croaked happily, for she had always loved the rain.

Knuckles could not believe the cat was asking this. Well, actually he could, but that was beside the point. "Big," he said through gritted teeth (he was starting to feel a bad mood coming on). "Were you even LISTENING when she explained?"

Big had the decency to look ashamed. "Well, yeah, but then I got hungry, and saw the hotdog stand, and..."

"Never mind." sighed Knuckles, knowing he shouldn't be so mad at Big. After all the cat wasn't stupid, just clueless. "Listen now, and pay VERY close attention." the echidna said in a firm voice.

Big nodded, stuffing the hot dog into his mouth whole.

"Marine thinks that Amy took her mobile with her, so she's decided to call Amy's number and see. Admittedly, we don't know whether she DID take her mobile, but with Amy, it's more than likely, so it's worth a try."

At that moment, Marine put the reciever down and stepped out of the booth. Knuckles turned to her. "Any luck?"

Marine shook her head. "'Fraid not, mates. I tried 3 times, but I got nadda. So she either didn't take it, or she DID but hasn't turned it on."

Knuckles groaned. "Great. NOW what do we do?"

"We could go get ice-cream." suggested Big in his clueless way. Both Marine and Knuckles glared at him. "What?"


 

At a park across town (not the same one Sonic had searched), the Chaotix weren't having much luck either. In fact, that was a bit of an understatement. They were having no luck whatsoever, and in addition to that, they were currently sporting several injuries.

Vector was sitting on a park bench under a group of trees which provided shelter from the rain, muttering to himself as he rubbed his ankle and head. He'd been searching for Amy in a clump of bushes, when he'd had a run-in with a big dog who'd evidently thought it would be a bit of sport to sink his teeth into the crocodile's leg. Well, as one could imagine, Vector had NOT been pleased, and had spent the best part of an hour shaking his leg in a vain attempt to dislodge it. Luckily, after he'd stopped shaking his leg, Charmy had given the dog a good sting to get rid of it. Unluckily, the dog's owner, a very snobby-looking lady in a fur coat, had stormed up to them and hit Vector over the head with her handbag, completely ignoring the fact that the dog's actions had been unprovoked and insisting that Vector had scared her "poochy-woochy". In the end, she had only left them alone after Charmy had stung her as well, and had (reluctantly) threatened reprisals if she didn't leave.

Espio had been searching in the trees, his ninja skills having come in useful for jumping from branch to branch, when one had broken beneath him. While he had managed to jump off safely, the branch had unfortunately contained a hive of honey bees, who had immediately attacked Espio. He had run off the moment they had come buzzing out of their hive, jumping into a nearby lake in an attempt to evade them, but they had remained hovering over the surface of the water. When his oxygen-starved lungs had forced him to surface for air (VERY quickly), one of them had stung him on the nose. This had happened 5 times, each time with a different part of his head, until he had had the bright idea to break off one of the reeds and use it for breathing until they had left. Now he sat next to Vector, glowering as the places where he had been stung continued to throb.

Mighty was leaning against a tree, scowling at anything and everything. He had had the "bright" idea to search near the kid's playground, which had turned out to be a BIG mistake. When the kids had seen him, they had started to throw things at him, giving him several bruises that would probably take a week to fade. He had curled up into a ball to avoid the objects, but the little brats had then decided it would be more fun to hit him with their dolls, baseball bats or plain old sticks. He'd borne it patiently for a while, but when he'd finally decided he'd had enough and had unrolled in order to give them a good scolding, they'd knocked him to the ground, tied him up with their skipping ropes and forced him to play tea party with them. He'd probably still be there if their mothers hadn't scolded them for playing with a stranger and made them untie him and apologise.

In fact, the only one who had escaped injury was Charmy, who was currently sitting on the edge of the park fountain, happily swinging his legs and ignoring the rain.

"What are you doing, Buzz-Brain?" snapped Vector irritably. "Get over here before you catch a cold and give it to the rest of us."

Charmy shook his head. "Can't, I'm afraid. This is part of my brilliant plan."

"And what, pray tell, might that plan be?" demanded Espio.

"Well, we've been looking for Amy, but we've had no luck, so I figure if I sit here, everyone I've ever met in my life should show up, including Amy."

Mighty rolled his eyes. "Charmy, that is, without a doubt, the single most STUPID plan I have ever heard in my life. EVER."

At that moment, an elderly chipmunk with grey hair in a bun, wearing a red floral dress and carrying an umbrella in one hand and a bag of groceries in the other, walked by, calling "Hello there, Charmy."

"HI!" Charmy called back. "My second grade teacher, Mrs Minchpin." he explained to the other Chaotix members.

Vector, Espio and Mighty looked at each other. And decided it was safer not to comment.


 

"Enlighten me as to WHY exactly we had to come here, to the roughest part of the town?" asked Shadow, stepping over a rubbish bin which had been knocked over.

"Sonic told us to search everywhere, and that's what we're doing." said Silver in an annoyed tone of voice. "If you don't like it, go home and leave finding Amy to the real heroes."

"REAL heroes?!" echoed Shadow. "How, exactly, are YOU a real hero?"

"I helped save the world from an evil god."

"You nearly murdered Sonic because you were stupid enough to believe Mephiles' lies!"

"Oh yeah?! Well at least I never tried to destroy the whole world just because some guys with guns shot my girlfriend!"

"3 things. 1: she was not my girlfriend. 2: I had partial amnesia. And 3: NEVER BRING MARIA INTO THIS!" roared Shadow, throwing a punch at Silver. Silver dodged it, levitated a nearby bin and sent it flying at Shadow, knocking him into the wall. Shadow got to his feet, lowered his head and charged at Silver. Silver sidestepped, causing Shadow to smack into a lamppost. He staggered for a few seconds, then jumped on top of Silver and started wrestling him, finally looping an arm around his neck and throttling him.

Choking heavily, Silver spotted an old bicycle frame nearby. He stretched out his arm, levitating it a little, then jerked his arm back allowing it to smash into Shadow, knocking him off Silver. Still levitating the bicycle frame, Silver got to his feet and was about to drop it on top of Shadow, when a fireball smashed into it, knocking it into a wall.

"Will you two knock it off!" snapped Blaze. "We're here to find Amy, not pick stupid fights with each other!"

"He started it." grumbled Shadow, staggering to his feet.

"I don't care WHO started it! I'm finishing it! And if I hear one more word out of either of you, you're both getting fricasseed!"

"But Blaze-" began Silver.

"NOT ANOTHER WORD!" snarled Blaze, her temper fraying. She always dreaded it when Shadow and Silver had to work together, as they were always fighting. Perhaps it has something to do with Mephiles imitating Shadow's appearance? Well, whatever it is, we have more important things to do. She shot them both an icy glare, then walked off. If only there was something they agreed on.

"Stupid fire-wielder." muttered Shadow.

"This time, I agree with you." nodded Silver. He and Shadow stared at each other in shock.

"We never breathe a word of this to anyone, right?"

"Right."


 

"AMY!" yelled Jet as he, Wave and Storm zoomed through the streets on their hoverboards, scattering civilians everywhere. The angry shouts from those who were knocked over were ignored, for the Babylon Rogues were interested in one thing only: finding the missing pink hedgehog and bringing her home.

"AMY! Where the heck are you?!" called Wave. "C'mon, you've gotta be here somewhere, we've already searched half this sidea town!"

"AM-" began Storm, but the cry died in his throat, as he spotted a pink figure. A pink figure with a very familiar hairstyle, wearing a long trench coat.

"Hey, guys! THERE she is!" he cried, pointing. Jet and Wave glanced around at his cry, as did the figure. It gave a start, then darted into a nearby crowd.

"Quick! After her!" cried Jet, turning his hoverboard in the direction the figure had gone. Wave and Storm followed. Ploughing through the crowd, ignoring the cries of outrage from the shoppers, the Babylon Rogues pursued their target.

For some reason, Amy didn't seem to want to slow down and speak to her friends. Instead, she sped up in a desperate attempt to evade them. But no matter how fast she ran, the Rogues were always that bit faster, and they were soon gaining on her.

Suddenly, Amy slammed into a lamppost, collapsing to the ground and sparking-wait a minute. Sparking?

"HEY! This ain't Amy!" cried Wave, jumping off her hoverboard and pulling off the trenchcoat to reveal a metallic duplicate of their friend. "This is one of ol' Eggy's Metal Amys!"

"What's it doing here?" asked Storm.

"Don't know, don't care." replied Jet. "All's I know is, that ain't Amy, so the real Amy's still out there somewhere."

"But...what if it's dangerous?"

"Storm, it wasn't doing anything dangerous. And even if it was, well, it ain't gonna be doing anything much now, is it?" pointed out Wave.

"Well, I guess you're right. But I feel uneasy just leavin' it there."

"Don't worry." said Wave, picking up the robot's body and placing it in the storage compartment of her hoverboard. "When this is over, I'll take it apart. Might be able to use its parts for something else."

"Well, now that's sorted, we've got a friend to find." said Jet. "C'mon, Rogues, let's get going!"


 

"Any sign of her, Cream?" Tails asked.

Cream removed the super magnifying binoculars from her eyes and shook her head. "Not yet."

"I cannot believe we're out here, in the pouring rain, looking for Amy." complained Rouge. She'd been flying alongside the Tornado for an hour, and was getting soaked to the skin, not to mention chilled to the bone. "Look, can't we just go home where it's warm and dry?"

"Rouge!" Cream exclaimed in outrage. "How can you be so selfish?! Amy's out in this weather, and all you can think of is yourself!"

"Hey, I am not being selfish! I'm just saying, we haven't found her, and I highly doubt we're going to, so why not just call it quits?"

"You're a horrible, nasty old bat!"

"WATCH YOUR LANGUAGE!"

"Um, Rouge," ventured Tails. "I think she was referring to your species."

"You stay out of this, pipsqueak!" Rouge snarled.

"Don't yell at him!" shouted Cream. Cheese chirped in agreement.

"If I wanna yell at him, I'm gonna yell at him!"

"Then I'm gonna yell at you!"

"Don't even think about it, you stupid brat!"

"I am not a stupid brat! You're an old hag!"

"How DARE you, you immature little punk!"

"I'm not immature! You're immature!"

"OH YEAH?!"

"YEAH!"

Tails had to get them to stop shouting at each other, as he was starting to get a headache. "Um, could we please stop fighting?"

It worked. In a way. They stopped shouting at each other and yelled "STAY OUT OF THIS!" at him.

Tails groaned to himself. "Amy, you'd better appreciate this." he muttered to himself.

Chapter Text

Madame Unazuki lead Amy through the streets, hardly seeming to notice the torrential rain which poured from the sky like water gushing from a tap. Indeed, she wore no raincoat, held no umbrella, but walked through the downpour as if she were walking through a sunlit forest.

Amy was glad that she had thought to bring an umbrella, as the torrent had started a few seconds after she had started following Madame Unazuki. Now she held it above her, trying to keep a tight grip on it against the wind which blew around her. Her companion, on the other hand, did not seem to feel the cold which chilled one to the bones.

Finally, the swallow stopped in front of a small shop. "Here we are."

Amy had expected something like this, after the way Madame Unazuki had dealt with Diamond Dust, but it still surprised her somewhat. The sign, cut into the shape of a full moon -or maybe a crystal ball?- hung above the bright red awning. ENCHANTE MAGIQUE, it read. In the display window, there were ouija boards and rune stones, arranged on a bunch of royal blue silk. Madame Unazuki took a small key from a pouch on her belt-which Amy hadn't noticed until now- and unlocked the door.

"Please, after you." she said, opening the door and gesturing inside. Feeling slightly apprehensive, Amy closed her umbrella and stepped over the threshold into the shop.

She looked around, and decided to herself that the best way to describe the shop would be a cross between a witchcraft shop and a fortune-teller's booth. It was painted a soft sunset colour, giving off the impression that the room glowed with a soft light. Palmistry and horoscope charts lined one wall, and many shelves and racks lined the others. They were packed with all sorts of things: packs of tarot cards; various ornate jewellery decorated with pentacles; dowsing rods; various crystals of all shapes, sizes and colours; jars and bottles filled to the brim with various powders and liquids; pendulums; inks; dark, leather-bound spellbooks; dice; amulets; feathers; herbs and various other objects. On one side of the room, behind a red beaded curtain, there stood a small table covered by a deep purple tablecloth, upon which stood a crystal ball. Dream-catchers and wind chimes hung from the ceiling. Filmy scarves in red, green and purple adorned the door like curtains. An incense burner on a nearby counter filled the entire place with soft smoke that carried the scent of sandlewood. In fact, if it weren't for the cash register which stood on the counter and the single lightbulb which illuminated the shop, it would have been easily mistaken for a real fortune-teller's booth.

Madame Unazuki walked over to a small wooden door, situated at the back of the shop, which she opened to reveal a single flight of stairs. "Please, step this way. We shall go into my apartment, and have tea and a talk." Noticing the startled look on Amy's face, she chuckled. "Let me guess. You did not expect to be invited into my home?"

Amy shook her head mutely.

"Well, I feel that if we talk in the shop, we are likely to be interrupted by customers. I can tell that what you wish to discuss, you would not wish to discuss with strangers. Therefore, if we talk in private, we are not likely to be interrupted." She started up the steps, then stopped and looked back at Amy expectantly.

Amy hesitated. Was this really a good idea, going into some stranger's apartment, where anything could happen? But Madame Unazuki didn't seem like the type of person who would hurt somebody. Well, not unless they deserved it. What the heck, she thought to herself. I'll risk it. Besides, if she tries anything, there's always the Piko Poko Hammer.

The flight of stairs lead to another small door, this one fitted with a lock. Madame Unazuki placed a key into the lock and turned it. The door opened with a small "click" to reveal a small white hallway, with a pea-green rug placed over a polished hardwood floor. On the walls to the left and right of them, there were four doors, two on each wall. The wall opposite the front door held a cast iron black coat rack, although the only things hanging from it were a few brightly-coloured shawls. Upon seeing it, Amy, placing her backpack on the ground and her umbrella against the wall, automatically pulled off her coat and hung it up, before realising what she'd done. "I-I'm sorry." she stammered, but Madame Unazuki smiled kindly.

"There is no need to apologise, child. After all, you are a guest here. Now, through here, if you don't mind." She opened the first door on the left, behind which was a comfortable-looking sitting room.

It was a very homely room, with terracotta walls and a cream-coloured carpet reaching from wall to wall. The sofa and armchairs were wine-red and very fat. Appropriately, there were sevearl items related to witchcraft and fortune telling: the many shelves were filled with spellbooks and crystals; a beautiful crystal wind chime, with a dolphin centrepiece, hung in the window, the few feeble rays of sunlight filtering through it and casting spots of rainbow light everywhere; and on the wall there hung a lunar calender next to an ordinary calender and three astology charts (one of the Zodiac, one of the Chinese Zodiac and a general astrology chart). There were no lamps, just several stubs of candles in dragon candle holders dotted here and there. Amy noticed that there was also no main light, television or other electronical objects, her hostess obviously not being the type who cared for technology. Well, not much of it at least, she mused, noticing a telephone on a nearby shelf.

Madame Unazuki showed Amy to an armchair and then bustled into a room hidden behind a rainbow-beaded curtain on the right, which was obviously the kitchen. While she busied herself with the preparation of tea, Amy looked around at her surroundings again, taking in every little detail of this apartment, so much like her own and yet so different.

Then she spotted something she hadn't seen at first: a small blanket-covered basket in the corner of the room. Soft chirping noises issued from it. Her curiosity was roused, and, although she knew that it is impolite to touch another person's belongings, she got up and walked over to the basket. Kneeling down, she removed the blanket.

Next second, all the wind had been knocked out of her as a small, chirping thing hit her in the stomach, knocking her to the floor. Looking down, she saw a small mint-green Chao, with a pink bow on its head, sitting quite comfortably on her stomach. Around its neck was a powder-blue collar with a pentacle hanging from it. She smiled at it- it reminded her of Cheese.

"Ah," said Madame Unazuki, re-entering the room holding a tray upon which stood a small silver teapot, a milk jug, a sugar bowl, two teacups and a plate of cookies. "I see you have met Peppermint. You are very privileged-she is normally very shy with strangers." She gave a small whistle, and the Chao fluttered from Amy's feet to face her mistress. "We need a table and something to sit on, Peppermint."

Peppermint gave a small squeak of understanding and fluttered into the next room, returning, much to Amy's surprise, with a small table and a pouffe in her hands. The pouffe she placed in front of the chair where Amy had been sitting and the table she placed a little way nearby. Madame Unazuki placed the tea tray on the table, and was about to sit when she seemed to notice for the first time how wet she was.

"Drat it all." she sighed. She turned to Amy, who had gotten to her feet. "Feel free to start without me, dear child. I must change."

"Thank you" said Amy. Then, as Madame Unazuki was leaving the room, she blurted out "And please stop calling me "child". My name is Amy Rose."

Madame Unazuki turned to look at her, and for a moment Amy thought she had said something wrong. But after a tense moment, the swallow smiled. "Very well, Amy Rose." Then she left the room without another word.

Amy seated herself in the armchair again, and stared at the tray. Madame Unazuki HAD said to start without her, but she couldn't just help herself. Could she?

As if sensing her worry, Peppermint fluttered over to her, picking up the teapot and pouring tea into both cups. She then added two lumps of sugar and milk to one cup, evidently her mistress's, then looked at Amy expectantly. "Huh? Oh! Um, same as your mistress, please." Amy replied, guessing what she wanted.

Peppermint complied, and Amy took the cup and sipped. She then made a face. "Yuk." she said to herself. "This is disgusting."

"You do not like herbal tea?" said a voice from the door.

Amy looked up, mortified. Madame Unazuki stood in the doorway, now wearing a floral kimono and with her hair, wrapped in a towel, piled up on her head.

"I-I'm sorry!" stammered Amy. "I didn't realise I spoke aloud." Realising how wrong that sentence sounded, she backtracked wildly. "I-I mean-"

Madame Unazuki held up a hand to stop the apology. "Quite understandable. I have found that it is an acquired taste."

She seated herself on the pouffe and sipped at her own tea. "Now, then, back to business. Why DO you have a backpack with you?"

Amy gulped. "Well, ma'am," she began, "the thing is, I kinda...ran away from home."

Madame Unazuki raised an eyebrow. "You...ran away?" she repeated. "Why? Are you having problems with your parents?"

Amy took a deep breath. "N-no, ma'am. I share an apartment; I have no problems with my parents."

"Then why would you leave the warmth and comfort of your own home? Is there another problem?" Her face darkened. "Is it...a boy?"

Amy wondered what the best way to put her answer was. Madame Unazuki seemed to be getting angry, and if the fury she had shown Diamond Dust was any indication, she was not the type to cross. "Well," she said slowly "as a matter of fact, it IS a boy."

Madame Unazuki snorted. "I thought so!" she said angrily. "Typical men, making you think they love you and then breaking your heart without a second thought!" She took a few deep breaths, then seemed to calm down. "Please continue."

"Well...I've had a crush on this boy for years. Well, I say "crush", but to tell the truth, it's more than that. I tend to follow him around-not that I'm a stalker-I just like to be with him. Normally he gets annoyed, but he doesn't seem to mind. But yesterday..." She broke off, tears welling up in her eyes.

"Go on." urged Madame Unazuki, gently.

"I...I don't think I can."

"Amy Rose, unless you tell me everything, I cannot help you. After all, a problem shared is a problem solved."

Amy bit back a sob. "Y-yesterday, I saw him come out of a shop, so I ran after him. When I glomped him, as I usually do, I caused him to drop the package he was holding. It was obviously breakable; I heard the shards tinkle. But when I tried to apologise, he shouted at me, told me I was a nightmare, told me to leave him alone. T-then today..." She gasped for breath, trying not to break down.

"Today?" came the gentle prompt.

"T-today, I o-o-overheard somebody say t-that he hates me!" wailed Amy, breaking down and sliding from the armchair onto her knees. She took her face in her hands and sobbed. Madame Unazuki knelt beside her, patting her back and handing her a handkerchief, while Peppermint hovered nearby, squeaking sympatheticly.

"Hush now, child." Madame Unazuki whispered after a full minute had passed. "No man or boy is worth it. They are all the same," she added darkly. "Heartbreakers, liars, interested only in themselves and their own amusement."

"Madame Unazuki?" Amy's sobs had abated, although the tears continued to fall. "Why don't you like men?"

The swallow frowned. "What gives you that impression?"

"Well," said Amy quickly. "It's the way you speak about men, as though you're speaking from experience. Can I ask why?"

Madame Unazuki did not answer straight away, instead rising to her feet and walking over to the window, staring out at the falling rain as though seeking an answer in the jet-black storm clouds. After about thirty seconds, she turned to face Amy. "Let me tell you a story, Amy Rose."

Amy nodded mutely.

"Once, there was a young girl, about the same age as yourself. Now this girl, she fell in love with a boy who was 3 years older than her. He seemed to like the same things she did-fireworks, herbal tea, fortune cookies, the occult...but most of all, he seemed to return her feelings. He told her that the love they shared was a sacred thing that others would not understand. And he...asked her out. Naturally, she accepted. But her family did not approve. 'He is much too old for you.' they said. 'It will never work out.'

"Well, she was not going to take it, so one night, she packed up all her belongings and left, leaving a note explaining what she had done. She went to her beloved's home, and asked if she could live with him. He agreed, but knew that if her family knew where she was, they would not be happy.

"It so happened, however, that he had inherited a run-down building and apartment from a deceased relative, and told her that if they fixed up the place, they could both live there. Her family would never know that she was there, and nobody could take her away from him. So that is what they did.

"For a few months, it was paradise. She had to remain in the apartment, of course, but despite that, she was happy, for she thought that they were going to be together forever. But one day, she felt restless, and decided to go for a walk, in disguise so that nobody would recognise her.

"After all those months in the apartment, being outside was a breath of fresh air. She walked freely through the streets, unrecognised by anyone. After doing a little window shopping, she decided to go to the park. That turned out to be a BIG mistake."

Amy gasped. "She was recognised?"

"No. Although it might have been better if she had been."

"Why?" Was it her imagination, Amy wondered, or had the swallow's eyes filled with tears?

"At first, she felt free. Well, who would not, after spending all those months in an apartment? She delighted in the feel of the grass under her feet, the sweet smell of the air, the wind blowing in her face. She ran about happily, little suspecting the heartbreak that awaited.

"It was as she was passing by the great fountain which stood in the middle of the park that she heard it. Girlish giggling. Her curiosity aroused, she peered around the fountain, only to see a sight that, to her, seemed like the most awful sight in the world: her beloved kissing another girl.

"She did not make her presence known, as she knew there was always the chance that the girl was simply a relative. To her dismay, however, her beloved soon proved her suspisions right, as he spoke to the girl and told her that she was beautiful and that he'd love her forever...the same things that he had told the girl this story concerns.

"Well, she went back to the apartment, and when he returned she confronted him. There was a terrible argument, her accusing him of not caring about her, and him saying that it was just a little fun. And then, she gave him an ultimatum: her or the other girl.

"I am very sorry to say that he chose the other girl and moved out the very next day, leaving her on her own."

Amy's tears fell harder, although this time they were not for her. "That poor girl." she whispered. "What became of her?"

Madame Unazuki paused, as if she were considering something, then continued. "At first, she was heartbroken, crying as though her delicate soul would shatter. But after she had recovered, she realised that she could not stay like this her whole life-for one thing, she needed money and for another, if her ex saw her like this, he would know he had won, and she was determined that that would never happen.

"She got to work straight away. As I have already mentioned, she was interested in the occult, and had brought some objects for fortune-telling with her. With the help of these items, she was able to make enough to live on. A little she saved, until she was able to renovate the building...into a shop dedicated to witchcraft." The swallow stopped talking, and gave Amy a meaningful look.

And Amy understood.

"M-Madame Unazuki?" she asked. "That girl. Was she...was she you?"

Madame Unazuki gave a small nod. "Yes, Amy Rose, that girl was indeed myself. I allowed myself to fall for a man's flirtatious lies, and now look at where that has lead. I have had no contact with my family for years-I have not dared to contact them. Not that it would make a difference. My family probably presume that I am dead. Contacting them would not convince them who I am."

She stared straight at Amy. "I do not expect you to agree with me, Amy Rose, but the fact remains: I think little of men. I do not hate them completely, but I do think little of them."

Amy nodded, then found herself trying, and failing, to stifle a huge yawn.

"Have I bored you?" asked Madame Unazuki.

"Oh no!" said Amy quickly. "I'm just feeling tired. It's stopped raining now, so if you could please direct me to a good bed-and-breakfast, I'll be on my way."

"No, you will not." said Madame Unazuki, in a voice that told Amy she would not be argued with. "I think it will be best if you stay with me for a while, until you are ready to return home."

"Um. Well, thank you, ma'am, but I don't want to trouble you."

"No trouble, dear child. Now, I will show you the guest room."

In the hall, she opened the first door on the right. "Here you go."

Amy stepped inside, groping on the wall for the lightswitch. She found it, and flicked the light on. And gasped.

The room was beautiful. Admittedly, there was dust over all the furniture, and there were boxes everywhere, but it was still beautiful. The walls were painted pale pink, with a lilac carpet, white furniture and lilac drapes. The bed, which stood underneath the window, was covered with a turquoise duvet and pink pillows.

"This was my room when I lived here with..." Madame Unazuki swallowed heavily. "With him." At the puzzled look on Amy's face, she chuckled lightly. "I should have explained. We were never in...well, THAT type of relationship. We had seperate rooms. His was next door. I sleep there now. Surprising, yes, but true."

She looked around. "We shall have to dust in here, and move a few boxes, but it should not take too long. Perhaps I could get rid of a few things. I am a bit of a horder, I admit, and I find it difficult to part with things. I should have gotten rid of them sooner, I suppose, but most of them are old birthday gifts." She chuckled to herself, then noticed that Amy had saddened. "Is something wrong?"

"Oh, it's nothing important. Really." Amy answered. She did not want her hostess to know why she was so upset, but the word "birthday" had reminded her...

Madame Unazuki folded her arms and raised an eyebrow. "If it is truly "nothing important", it should not be upsetting, now should it? But something is upsetting you, so please do not tell me it is nothing."

"Well, you see, ma'am, it's my birthday today. And..."

"Ah! Say no more. You are sad because you are not with your friends to celebrate? Because you have not recieved the gifts that they have chosen for you, to show you that they care?"

Amy nodded.

"Well, I can help you in one of those things." The swallow opened the lid of a nearby box and rummaged through it, pulling out a small yellow box. "For you."

"Oh no, ma'am, I can't just take it." protested Amy.

"I insist. It means nothing to me, and it IS your birthday today."

Hesitantly, Amy took the box and opened it. And gasped again, for inside was a beautiful charm bracelet, decorated with charms of cats, hearts and stars.

"This was the first gift I recevied from my so-called 'beloved'." said Madame Unazuki. "I wish to have as little to remind me of him as is possible, but as I have told you already, I am a horder."

Amy looked up at her. "Thank you for the bracelet, ma'am, but you can't just let me stay here free of charge."

"And why not? I own a witchcraft shop, not a motel."

"Please ma'am," Amy said insistantly. "Allow me to do SOMETHING for you."

"Such as?"

Before Amy could answer, there came a chirping sound from the hall, and looking round, she saw Peppermint pulling at her backpack.

"Um, I guess I should unpack that."

"Then please, go ahead."

Amy had expected her things to be damaged after Diamond Dust had thrown the bag to the ground, but amazingly everything was still intact and in perfect working order. Well, almost everything. "Ewwww." she gagged, removing the crumbled and sticky custard tart from the bottom of the bag. Peppermint squeaked. "Ok, here." Amy held out her hand, which was covered in the sticky, gooey mess, and giggled as the Chao licked her fingers.

Madame Unazuki, noticing the tarot cards, picked them up. "You read the tarot?"

"Huh? Oh, yes. Occasionally."

"In that case, my friend, I believe that I have found a way for you to help me."

"How?"

"Well, you probably have not noticed, but I run my shop alone, which is rather difficult, I admit. So, if you are determined to do something for me, as I believe you are, then perhaps you would consider being my assistant?"

Amy thought for a moment. "I'd love to, but what if I'm recognised?"

"Do not worry. Whilst you are at work, you shall be veiled. That way, nobody shall recognise you, and you shall not be made to return home any sooner than you wish to."

Amy had to admit, that sounded like a pretty good idea. "Ok. I accept."

"Excellent. Now, it is rather late, so if you will help me dust and move the boxes in your room, you shall be able to sleep there tonight. But before you do, please wash your hand."

Amy glanced at her hand, still covered in sticky custard, and smiled sheepishly.

Chapter Text

Sonic paced the floor, occasionally biting into the chili-dog he'd taken from the plate. The fact that it was stone-cold and the tomato paste had congealed didn't matter. All he knew was that if he didn't do something to take his mind off the endless worry that was coursing through his mind, he'd go crazy, and eating seemed like the best option. Of course, after several hours, none of the food was especially edible-the ice-cream had melted into pools, the salad was dry and the soda had gone flat-but that was the last thing on his mind right now.

He glanced around the basement for what might have been the fifth time in as many minutes. Having been the first one back, he was alone in the elaboratly decorated basement, which (to his eyes) no longer seemed to be as magnificent as it had been when he had left. The banners, which were covered with a thin layer of dust, drooped as though affected by his fear that something awful had happened; the balloons had deflated slightly and even the brightly painted potrait which hung above the 'throne' seemed dull and bland. All in all, it seemed to reflect his cheerless mood well.

He paused in his pacing and wondered when the others would be back, and more importantly, whether they had found Amy. Well, if they did, they've had better luck than I have, he thought glumly, glancing over at the door, as though hoping beyond hope that someone would walk in with news of Amy's whereabouts, or even better, with Amy herself.

He gave a weary sigh. He'd never been the type of hedgehog who panicked easily, but Amy had been missing for hours, and with every passing minute, his fear that she would never been seen again increased. Picking up her note, which he had dropped on the arm of the 'throne' before leaving, he re-read it, not really expecting to find an answer in it, which was fortunate as there was none to be found.

If only he knew where she'd gone! But no matter where he had searched-and he had searched EVERYWHERE-there had been no sign of her anywhere, and that did nothing to ease the guilt that was burning in his chest.

He shook his head sadly, knowing he was going to have to face the facts. She was gone, vanished like a dream fading in the morning sun, and it was all his fault. He had driven her to it, screaming at her, telling her he wanted her to stop following him, and this was his punishment.

"Amy," he whispered, his voice so low that it was barely audible, "where ARE you?"

Almost at once, a flurry of grim images appeared in his mind, one after the other: Amy digging through a dumpster, trying desperately to find something edible to eat; Amy hanging out in a crowd, pulling purses and wallets from pockets and bags; Amy lurking in a dingy, dimly-lit alley, waiting for some rich gentleman looking for, well, a "good time" to walk by...

So lost was he in these dark thoughts that he didn't notice someone had come into the room until a hand was waved in front of his face and a voice trilled in his ear. "Helloooo, anyone home?"

"Wha-what?" Startled, Sonic glanced up to see Knuckles, Big and Marine standing before him. "Oh, it's just you guys."

"Nice to see you, too." snapped Knuckles. "That's charming, that is. We've been out in the driving rain, which was YOUR bright idea, I might add; we're soaked; I'm probably gonna get pneumonia, and this is the welcome we get?" He sank into the 'throne', removed his sneakers and rubbed his sore feet, trying to get some feeling back into them, and pointedly ignoring the glare Marine shot him.

"Look, don't take that attitude with me, OK?" said Sonic testily. "You startled me, that's all." He glanced around, as though looking for something. Or more accurately, someONE.

Marine, noticing this, shook her head. "Sorry, Sonic. I know ya probably don't wanna hear this, but we didn't find her. We looked everywhere, and I mean EVERYWHERE, but no luck."

Sonic gave her a worried look. "You looked everywhere and couldn't find her? Please, tell me this is a cruel joke."

The glare on Knuckles' face softened a little, and he sighed. "'Fraid not. As much as I wish it was, Marine's telling the truth. We've honestly had no luck locating her." Seeing the worry etched on Sonic's face deepen, he quickly added "Hey, don't panic. Maybe one of the others found her. After all, it's just possible that we missed something in our search. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if they're on their way back right now."

The moment the words left his lips, a very distant roaring sound came into earshot, growing louder with each passing second. For a second, none of them could tell what it was-then they realised that it was the Tornado returning, since its passengers had obviously completed their search for the lost hedgehog, and, with any luck, were coming back with their missing friend.

"Sounds like Tails and his group are back." said Big, causing everyone to roll their eyes.

"Gee, I'm glad you told us that, Big." said Knuckles, his voice dripping with sarcasm. "I would have never realised that otherwise."

"You're welcome." said Big, sarcasm completely lost on him.

The sound of the Tornado's engines nearly deafened them as it flew overhead, before quieting to a dull roar and finally ceasing altogether as the plane landed on the roof with a dull 'thud'. There was a brief silence, then the indistinct sound of voices could be heard through the ceiling. While it was difficult to make out what they were saying, clearly two of the voices were in the middle of a furious argument and the third was trying (and failing) to restore order.

"I wonder what that's all about?" Marine thought aloud. She didn't have long to ponder, however, as the voices began to grow louder and more audiable as the owners grew closer to the basement:

"...thought I told you to stay out of this, furball!"

"Look, Rouge, I was just saying-"

"I don't care WHAT you were saying! This isn't your fight, and you have no right to get involved in it!"

"Don't talk to him like that, you horrible old stinkbreath!"

"Oh, great comeback! And for the record, I'm being extremely sarcastic!"

"Girls, please, I really don't think there's a need for this."

"What part of 'shut up' do you not understand?!"

"But Rouge, be reasonable! I mean, you're arguing with an eight-year-old girl!"

"So what?"

"So it's not right."

"Don't worry about me, Tails. I can take care of myself."

"Hah! Big words from someone who still sleeps with a teddy bear!"

"Why you..."

"PACK IT IN!"

Silence, then a sigh.

"Look, I didn't want to have to yell, and I'm sorry if I've hurt your feelings, but my head feels as though a herd of elephants ripped it off and played football with it, so please. If you can't say anything NICE to each other, don't SPEAK to each other. OK?"

No answer.

"I'll take that as a yes."

With that, Tails came into the room, rubbing his temples. An angry-looking Cream and Rouge followed, shooting daggers at each other, each looking as though they would like to strangle the other.

"Erm, what happened with you guys?" asked Big. "What's with all the shouting and angry looks?"

"DON'T ask. I really don't wanna discuss it." groaned Tails. "Does anyone have any aspirin? I have a headache the size of a bowling ball."

"Here's some." said Marine, pulling a bottle of aspirin from her pocket. Noticing the suprised looks she received, she shrugged. "Hey, I like to be prepared, ok?"

"Hope there's enough for two of us." said Blaze as she entered, followed by Shadow, Silver and the Chaotix.

"Huh?" said Tails. "When did you guys get back? I didn't hear you come in."

"We came back a few seconds after you guys." said Mighty. "And I'm not surprised you didn't hear us, what with all the noise you were making. Next time, though, you might want to shout a little louder-I don't think they quite heard you on the other side of Mobius."

"Never mind that." said Sonic. "Where are the Babylon Rogues?"

"Probably still searching-that is, if they haven't been distracted by things to steal. They should be back soon."

"Well while we're waiting," said Blaze. "I'd like to hear how everybody's search went. You first, Sonic."

"Um, if it's all the same to you, I think I'll pass."

"Oh no you don't." said Rouge, breaking her glare with Cream. "You'll probably want to hear OUR stories, so we want to hear YOUR story. C'mon, fair's fair."

Sonic opened his mouth to protest, but closed it as he saw everyone was looking at him expectantly, waiting to hear what he had to say. "I'm not gonna get out of this, am I?" he sighed.

"Nope." said Charmy, cheerfully.

Sonic glared, then relented. "Fine. But let me tell you, my story's not very exciting."

"So? Let US be the judges of that." said Vector.

"OK, but don't say I didn't tell ya." With that, the blue hedgehog took a deep breath and began his story. And as he had said, it REALLY wasn't all that exciting.

"Basically, all I did was look in the places where she'd most likely be-y'know, the mall, the beauty parlour, etcetera etcetera-but she was nowhere to be seen. 'Course, I didn't get away completely unscathed-in the perfume department of the mall, nearly every single saleswoman insisted on spraying me with the latest scent-"

"I was wondering what that stench was." Silver mock-whispered. Sonic shot him an icy look, then continued.

"-and I got scratched by an alleycat when I disturbed its slumber. I'm also soaked to the skin, but that's beside the point. But never mind that. What about you guys?"

"What about us, what?" said Big, confused.

"What happened on YOUR searches? I'm not dumb or naive enough to think you found Amy-I can see that she isn't here-but I'd like to know what you got up to."

"Oh, I get it." said Big, his face breaking into a smile. "Well, I enjoyed a tasty hot-dog, and then I-"

"That's not what he means, dope!" snapped Knuckles. He turned to Sonic. "What happened to us was nearly the same as what happened to you, only without the scent and alleycat, of course. Also, we tried calling her mobile, but we got nothing. So really, our search wasn't any different from yours. Well, unless you count the fact that Big ate a lot."

"Not really." said Mighty. "I guess it's our turn now, so I think I should tell you our search was slightly more...interesting, so to speak."

"How so?" asked Cream, Cheese chirping in a puzzled tone.

"Well..." the armadillo began, but Vector cut him off.

"Interesting? INTERESTING?!" the crocodile spluttered incredulously. "You honestly think getting bitten by a mad dog, whacked by a psychotic woman who won't listen to reason, stung by an entire hive of bees and attacked by a buncha brats is interesting?! You have a strange idea of interesting if ya do!"

"I'm guessing it didn't go so well for you guys?" Marine asked Espio lightly.

"You guessed correct." the chameleon nodded. "We've all ended up hurt one way or another. Well, all except Buzz Brain." he added, glaring at Charmy.

"You shoulda done what I did." said the bee. "Just sat and waited for everyone you've ever known to pass by." Upon receiving a snort from someone ((he couldn't tell who), he frowned. "Hey, it worked! I saw lots of people!"

"Oh, yes." said Vector sarcastically. "Too bad you saw everyone EXCEPT Amy!"

"There's no need to be that way." Charmy muttered.

"Changing the subject." said Sonic quickly, as he could see Vector was about to retaliate. "how'd it go with you, Tails?" he asked, turning to the fox.

"Oh no. I said don't ask and I meant don't ask." Tails answered stubbornly.

"That's not fair, Tails, mate." protested Marine. "Ya can't listen to our stories and not tell us yours. So spill it."

Tails made a face. "But-" he began.

"No 'buts', Tails." said Sonic firmly. "I hadda tell my story, now it's your turn."

"Ok, ok." Tails sighed. "Okay, here we go." He cleared his throat. "I've had the worst time of my life, and I wanna put it as far behind me as is possible. All I have left to say is that I hope Amy appreciates what I've gone through. Okay, story over, who's next?"

"Nice try, Tails." said Silver. "There's more to the story than that, I can tell. What else happened?"

"I thought you might say that." Tails groaned. "There oughta be a law against this." he muttered under his breath.

"Don't bother complaining. Just tell us what happened."

"Fine." With that, the fox began his story anew.

"Take my advice: if you ever decide to take up flying, NEVER take Rouge and Cream anywhere with you. I'm not making it up when I tell you I'd rather eat my own tails than listen to anymore of their squabbling."

"Know how you feel." said Blaze, shooting a glare at Shadow and Silver. "Go on."

"Well, to be honest, they didn't really start fighting until we got right over the city. THAT'S when the trouble started."

"How so?"

"Rouge started complaining that she was cold and wet, and that she wanted to abandon the search for Amy and go home. Understandably Cream got upset about that-I was pretty upset too, but that's beside the point-so they started shouting at each other. I felt like my eardrums were gonna burst at any minute, it was that loud. And then-"

"Hang on a second." said Big, frowning. "Are you saying Rouge didn't care if anything had happened to Amy?"

"Of course that's not what he's saying!" snapped Rouge, although she looked rather uncomfortable. "I know this sounds like a horrid thing to say, but-well, let's face it-she obviously isn't in town anymore, so I don't see why I should waste my time, getting cold and wet, looking for her."

"I'll tell you why you should 'waste your time' looking for her." said Cream angrily. "A, she's our friend-"

"Correction, she's YOUR friend. She and I have never been more than acquaintences."

"-and B, how could you live with yourself if anything bad happened to her? Huh? Answer me that!"

Rouge muttered something grumpily.

"What was that?" Cream demanded, while Cheese growled angrily.

"I said shut up!"

"Just answer the question, Rouge!"

The bat sighed. "You're not gonna stop bugging me until I tell you, are you?"

"No."

"Well, I suppose there's only one answer I can give you."

"And that would be?" asked Cream. To her surprise, Rouge smiled lightly. "I'll whisper it." the bat answered.

With that, she approached Cream, lifted one of her ears and put her mouth close to it. "The only honest answer is…" she whispered, then paused. "No. Maybe I shouldn't tell you the rest."

"Tell me."

"Do you really want to know?"

"Tell me."

"Are you sure you want to know?"

"Tell me, for goodness sake!"

"Fine. The only honest answer I can give you is...IT'S NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS!"

This last part was yelled so loud that Cream staggered back with a screech, clutching her ears as though they would fall off as the words reverberated in her head. Cheese flew to her, squeaking worriedly.

"Don't-ah-worry, Cheese. I'm-ooch-fine." Cream answered, wincing slightly as her ears were still rather sore after Rouge's little outburst. Talking of which...

Shaking her head to clear it, Cream glared at Rouge. "This proves it! You don't care about Amy! You only care about yourself! You selfish-"

"Hey, don't start calling me names again! I am not selfish, ok?"

"Yes you are! You practically admitted it just now!"

"HOW did I?!"

"You wouldn't answer when I asked if you could live with yourself if-"

"OK, that's enough!" snarled Rouge. "Just because I didn't answer, it doesn't make me selfish!"

"Well it does in my book!"

Shaking with rage, Rouge opened her mouth to retaliate, when Blaze drew back her arm, summoned a fireball, and threw it at the squabbling girls with all her might. Luckily, both of them saw it in time to jump out of the way, so the only thing that happened was that the wall got a little charred.

"HEY!" shrieked Knuckles, jumping out of the 'throne'. "What are you trying to do, burn my house down?!"

"Sorry, Knuckles." Blaze apologised. "But I had to do SOMETHING to make them stop fighting. I've had enough of that from these two." She jerked her thumb over her shoulder at Shadow and Silver, who pointedly looked away.

"Ah yes, the Kings of Quarrel." sniggered Sonic. "So, how was it?"

Blaze didn't answer at first. "Terrible." she finally answered. "They fought over EVERYTHING. It didn't matter how many times I threatened them, or yelled at them, they just kept on. If one wanted to go one way, the other wanted to go another. If one of them wanted to search in one place, the other wanted to search in another. And if ...well, you get the idea."

"What about you?"

"I stayed out of it as much as was possible. There was no way I was getting involved in silly disputes."

"Ex-CUSE me," said Shadow, "there wouldn't have been ANY disputes if SOMEONE (he shot Silver an angry look) hadn't kept picking fights with me."

"Ok, for the record, I did not pick any fights with you. YOU picked the fights with ME." snapped Silver.

"Did not!"

"Did too!"

"Did not!"

"Did too!"

"NOT!"

"TOO!"

"Great. They're at it again." groaned Blaze, clapping her hands over her ears.

"NOT!"

"TOO!"

"NOT!"

"TOO!"

"NOT!"

"TOO!"

"Erm, pardon me for saying so, but it sounds like you both started it." said Big, nervously. The two hedgehogs briefly paused in their quarrel to yell "STAY OUT OF THIS!" at the cat, before resuming from where they had left off.

"I did not start any of those disputes, and you know it!" snarled Shadow.

"Is that so?" scoffed Silver, folding his arms over his chest. "Who wouldn't shut up complaining all the time we were looking? Oh, that would be you. Of course, what could one expect from someone as inferior as you?"

Shadow shook with rage. "Just what do you mean, 'inferior'?" he growled, his voice low and dangerous.

"Well, you can't seriously expect to compare to someone who can use telekinesis, now can you?"

Shadow looked just about ready to explode. "For your information, Starfish Head, I've never needed your stupid power to succeed in saving others." he spat. Then he snarled out, "It's too bad your brains aren't as big as your hairstyle, or we might have actually found her."

"HEY!" shrieked Silver. "Do not insult the hairstyle!" And with that, he gave Shadow a good, hard kick on the leg. Shadow let out a screech and began yelling in Silver's face, his words so coarse that Tails, Cream, Cheese and Charmy had to have their ears covered. Silver just rolled his eyes and then, in what would probably go down in history as one of the stupidest, if not THE stupidest, things to do, he casually lifted his hand, levitating a plate of orange jelly, and caused it to land on Shadow's head.

For a few seconds, there was silence, everyone staring mutely at Shadow, who stood stock still, jelly dripping down his nose, and Silver, who was now smirking.

"Hah!" the silver-grey hedgehog sneered. "How do you like THAT, ya loudmouth?"

Next second, his smirk faded as Shadow's fist slammed into his face, knocking him into the buffet table, which collapsed under the impact, resulting in him being covered in food. He got to his feet, grabbed a bun and threw it at Shadow. Shadow ducked, causing the bun to hit the wall behind him, and lunged at Silver, knocking him to the floor again. He held him in a tight headlock and jabbed his knees in his stomach. Silver balled up his fist and slammed it into Shadow's chin. He then wrapped his hands around the black hedgehog's throat and started to throttle him. Shadow kicked out, catching Silver in the stomach and forcing him to let go with a gasp of pain. Silver clutched his stomach for a second, then let out a furious snarl and threw himself at Shadow, tackling his legs and pulling him to the ground again, puching angrily at his face.

"C'mon, Big." sighed Mighty. "We'd better stop them before they kill each other."

Big nodded, and the two seized Silver and pulled him off of Shadow. Shadow got to his feet, and lunged at Silver, only to be held back by Vector and Espio.

"Let me at him!" the silver-grey hedgehog snarled. "I'll knock some sense into him!"

Shadow growled. "Not if I knock it into you first, you good-for-nothing..."

"BOTH OF YOU SHUT UP!"

Everyone was surprised by the outburst, for it had come from Charmy. The bee rarely got angry, but now he was glaring at the two hedgehogs, hands on hips and shaking with fury. "I CANNOT believe you two! Amy has run away, to Aurora knows where, and all you two can think about is fighting with each other! You should be ashamed of yourselves! And you!" he snarled, turning to Rouge. "You're just as bad! While Amy's probably rifling thrugh the garbage and sleeping in alleyways, all you can think of is your own comfort! You make me sick!"

"I am not thinking of my own comfort..." Rouge began.

"Oh no?" scoffed Charmy. "Sure sounds that way to me!" Then he flew closer to Rouge, putting his face close to hers. "Tell me something: would you like to be out there, on this cold, dark, rainy night?" He didn't wait for an answer, but continued. "The answer is: no, you wouldn't. NONE of us would. But Amy's out there, and she needs us to find her and bring her home! The streets aren't a safe place at the best of times, and this definately isn't the best of times. Can't you just imagine what horrible things could be happening to her?"

There was a moment's silence as Rouge, Shadow and Silver admitted to themselves that Charmy was right. For once. Finally, Shadow spoke.

"You're right, Charmy." he sighed. "Locating Amy is our number one priority right now, not having petty squabbles." He turned to Silver. "I'm sorry I called you 'Starfish Head'. And you're right-I did start those disputes."

"Hey," said Silver, "it wasn't ENTIRELY your fault. I picked more than my fair share of fights. And I'm sorry I called you 'inferior'."

"While we're all saying sorry," said Rouge. "Um, me too. For being so selfish. I didn't mean it, though-believe it or not, I'm worried too. I was just upset about being out in such horrible weather."

Everyone knew that Rouge meant it, for the bat rarely apologised about anything. "That's ok, Rouge." said Cream, a kind smile on her face. "I'm just glad to know that you really DO care."

"Hey, I may be more interested in jewels than in people, but I'm not COMPLETELY selfish."

Suddenly, there came the sound of a door being slammed and footsteps pounding on the floor, and next second the basement door flew open to reveal the Babylon Rogues, bent over and gasping for breath as though they had run for miles.

"What's wrong with you three?" asked Sonic. "Where have you been?" A hopeful look appeared on his face. "Have you found her?"

Jet shook his head. "No," he managed to gasp out. "But we DID find something I wish we hadn't."

"Which was?" prompted Tails.

Storm picked up a bottle of flat soda and gulped down the contents. "Well," he began. "We were out searching, when we saw someone who looked liked Amy..."

"WHAT!" shrieked Sonic, leaping onto the albatross's chest. "AND YOU DIDN'T BRING HER HOME?!"

Storm lifted Sonic off of him. "I said 'looked like'. It wasn't the real Amy."

"Then who was it?"

"Not 'who'" Wave corrected. "But 'what'. It was a Metal Amy."

"A Metal Amy?" said Blaze in surprise. "I didn't know Eggman was attacking. There was no news, no panic... "

"He wasn't attacking." said Jet, straightening up. "It was just...there."

"Anyway," continued Storm. "So, we chased it for a while, thinking it was the real deal, and we only found out it was a phony when it smacked into a lamppost. Wave decided to scrap it, but then we found out that it wasn't quite deactivated."

"How so?" inquired Silver.

Wave took up the story. "We were searching some more, when we heard this loud banging coming from the storage compartment on my hoverboard, which is where I put it. When I opened it to see what was going on, it flew out at us! We dodged, but it activated its stupid homing attack and chased us everywhere we went! We couldn't escape, no matter how hard we tried! And as if that wasn't bad enough, it started attacking us with its electric and energy attacks! I threw a wrench at it, but it activated its shield-"

"Yeah, yeah, we know what attacks a Metal Amy possesses." said Marine, a testy hint to her voice. "What I wanna know is, is that the reason you came racing back? And is it still after you?"

"Um, no." said Jet, looking a little embarrassed. "After a few minutes chasing, we finally figured out that we should split up and confuse it. So we did."

"And you didn't try that before, because..." Sonic trailed off.

Jet glared at him. "Hey, you of all people should know that when you're being chased, you don't have time to think straight! We're not all super-quick thinkers, y'know!"

"Anyway," said Wave quickly. "So we split up, and it got so confused about which one of us to go after, it blew up. That's when the trouble began."

"Why?" asked Rouge.

"The force of the blast knocked us off our boards, and without us to control them, they caused chaos. Jet's smashed into a window, mine knocked over a large crowd of people and Storm's flew through a car windshield. In addition to that, the shockwaves destroyed a couple of lampposts and half the road! Well, as you can guess, everyone was furious with us, so we had to beat a hasty retreat."

"Changing the subject," said Storm. "How did YOUR searches go?"

"Oh no, we're not telling them again." said Shadow. Noticing the disappointed look on the faces of the Rogues, he sighed. "Look, they were as successful as your search, i.e. not at all."

"Well, look on the bright side." said Mighty. "Maybe she'll come back on her own."

"I doubt that." said Marine. "I'm guessing she was pretty upset when she wrote the note, so she wouldn't wanna come back. Question is, what made her so upset?"

Upon hearing the question, Sonic groaned and put his head in his hands, as the one thought he couldn't forget floated into his mind. "Oh, what have I done? This is all my fault." he muttered to himself.

"How can it be your fault?" came Tails' confused voice, making Sonic jump-he hadn't realised he'd spoken aloud.

"Tails is right," nodded Charmy. "You didn't do anything to cause this."

Sonic shook his head. "Yes I did. I-" He stopped abruptly, realising what he'd nearly admitted to. He knew everyone would be furious with him if he confessed, but surely he deserved their anger, after driving Amy away? And anyway, wasn't finding Amy the top priority right now, not his secrets?

"Sonic." Espio's voice snapped him back to reality. The chameleon was staring at him sternly. "What did you do?"

Sonic licked his lips nervously. "Well," he began slowly, "yesterday, when I went to get that special present-y'know, the thing I told you about-she saw me and started chasing me, as she usually does. I couldn't outrun her, not while holding something so breakable, so she easily glomped me. But she made me drop the present, and it broke. And I was so angry, I...I..." He paused, wishing more than ever that the ground would open up and swallow him.

"You what?" demanded Knuckles.

Sonic took a deep breath. There was no getting out of it now. "I...I yelled at her, told her to leave me alone, told her I was sick of her following me."

Cream gasped. "Sonic, you didn't!"

"Look," Sonic said quickly, "I know I've screwed up-"

"I'll say you have!" said Knuckles angrily. "What were you thinking?! No, better question. WERE you thinking?! How could you have said such horrible things?"

"I didn't mean them. In fact, I was gonna apologise to her on the way here."

"Oh, and that justifys things, does it?"

"I didn't say I was trying to justify myself." snapped Sonic, but his eyes didn't meet Knuckles'. "Look, I'm sorry, ok?"

"Sorry? Sorry?! Will 'sorry' repair the damage you caused? No! How could you break her heart like that?"

"I didn't!" Sonic shouted. "I just told you, I said something I didn't mean! Anyway, why are you so upset about it? Is it because you fancy her, or something?"

"Of course not! I just don't like it when people upset my friends!"

Sonic opened his mouth to retaliate, but Shadow clapped his hand over it. "That's enough of that! We already agreed that fighting wasn't going to get us anywhere."

"He's right." said Silver, nodding vigorously. Then he and Shadow stared at each other in shock, for they had just agreed on something.

"But-but didn't you hear what he just said?" spluttered Knuckles.

"We heard him, but accusations aren't gonna find Amy." said Tails. "Besides, I believe Sonic really does regret it, and it's not just because I'm his friend. I know Sonic better than anyone else, and he says a lot of things he doesn't mean, but he's always willing to apologise. So let's just forget what he said and focus on finding Amy, ok?"

Knuckles glared icily. "I won't bring it up anymore, but that doesn't mean I forgive him."

"Ok, now that that's out of the way," said Sonic quickly, before anyone else had a chance to object. "Our searches have proved one thing-she's not in town anymore. So I think our next step should be finding out where she could have gone. We should check the airport and the train station and the bus stops..."

"Erm, Sonic," said Charmy. "Sorry to interrupt, but I think we should leave that until tomorrow. After all, we've been searching for hours and..." A large yawn cut off the rest of his sentence.

"Wow, Buzz Brain's right again." said Vector. "Have we stepped into some parallel universe or something?"

"Knock off the sarcasm, Vector." said Wave. "I agree with him. We've done a lot of searching, and I'm tired too. So let's go home and get some sleep. We'll meet back here tomorrow."

"Bonza idea." said Marine. "See ya tomorrow, everyone."

As everyone said their goodbyes before heading home, Sonic's thoughts returned to Amy. Where are you sleeping tonight, Amy? Have you found a nice warm room for the night, or are you sleeping on a park bench huddled under a blanket? Well, wherever you are, I'll find you. I'll apologise, and I'll show you that I don't hate you...my Amy.

Chapter Text

Amy awoke to the warm rays of the morning sun. Her eyelids fluttered open and she briefly glanced round the room in fright, wondering for a moment where she was, before calming as the memories of last night came flooding back. She sat up and stretched leisurely, her arms and back popping slightly, before seeing her reflection in the large mirror that stood opposite the bed.

Her first thought was that she looked a mess. While she had been thorough in packing, she hadn't expected to be invited to stay in someone else's home, so she hadn't brought any nightclothes. As a result, she had slept in her dress, which was now covered in wrinkles. Her hair could best be described as a bird's nest: all tangled and knotted, with strands sticking in all directions.

Her stomach gave a small rumble as the scent of freshly-brewed coffee and fried eggs entered the room, but she ignored it. First things first, shower.

With that she rose from the bed, picked up her hairbrush (which she'd placed on the bedside cabinet) and headed to the bathroom.

The bathroom was just as beautiful as the rest of the apartment. The floor was covered in pale pink marble tiles, which were decorated with tiny white flowers. The walls were a deep shade of umber, with silver pentacles painted on them. Along one wall, there was a shelf covered with various hygenie products: soap, toothpaste, shampoo, conditioner, assorted lotions, a sponge, mouthwash and shower gel. A shower, tiled with marble, was cut into the wall opposite, its sliding glass door providing privacy if required. Next to it was a towel rack, fluffy white towels neatly folded over the bar. An enamel sink, topped by a white-framed mirror, was attached to the wall opposite the door. Two toothbrushes, Amy's own pink one and her hostess's cyan one, stood in a small plastic cup atop the sink. And then there was the toilet, of course, next to the sink.

Amy placed her hairbrush on the shelf, removed her dress and picked up shampoo, conditioner, shower gel and sponge. Stepping into the shower, she turned it on and stepped under the stream, letting it run through her hair and over her body. She took the sponge, poured on a little shower gel and worked it into a rich lather. She washed herself, then shampooed and conditioned her hair.

Drying herself off, she returned to the bedroom, one towel wrapped around her body and the other around her hair. She was about to rummage through her backpack for something to wear, when she spotted a set of neatly folded clothes placed on a nearby chair, clearly having been put there by Madame Unazuki. Picking up each item of clothing, she quickly discovered that it was an Arabian outfit consisting of a filmy pink veil; a crimson bra; baggy pink trousers; a jewelled headband and curly-toed burgundy slippers. She tried them on. They were a perfect fit. She briefly admired herself in the mirror, before working on brushing the snags from her hair.

3 minutes later, she entered the sitting room to find the table and pouffe in the same place they had been last night. Madame Unazuki was already seated, writing on a piece of paper. She looked up as Amy entered, and smiled.

"Good morning, Amy Rose." she said. "Did you sleep well?"

"Very much indeed." said Amy, seating herself opposite the swallow. "Thank you again, ma'am, for taking me in."

"Amy Rose, I believe that I told you there is no need to thank me." Madame Unazuki answered, fetching a plate of egg, toast and coffee from the kitchen. "I hope you do not mind," she said as she placed the plate before Amy. "But I used some of the bread that you brought with you. I have little in the kitchen, you see, for I have not been able to purchase groceries yet."

"That's ok, ma'am." said Amy. "I would've eaten it anyway."

"Yes, well," said Madame Unazuki, taking up her list again. "I really must make a trip to the store today, if you are going to be staying for the unforeseeable future."

"Thought fortune tellers could see into the future." Amy said to herself. Then she realised that she had spoken aloud. "I-I didn't mean..." she stammered. To her relief, the response was a small smile.

"No need to apologise." said Madame Unazuki. Then, her smile widened slightly. "But you of all people should know that a fortune teller NEVER uses her abilities for her own gain."

Amy nodded. She'd lost count of the number of times she'd been tempted to use her tarot cards to cheat on her school tests.

Madame Unazuki's attention had returned to the list. "Hmmm...let me see now. I seem to remember that you do not like herbal tea, so I shall have to purchase some of the 'ordinary' tea bags. And I think we are running low on binbags..."

"Oh, I don't want to be a burden." said Amy, feeling a twinge of guilt. "I promise I won't eat you out of house and home, and I'll do my best to earn my keep, as we agreed last night."

"You are truly determined not to accept charity, are you not?"

"Yes."

"Then perhaps you would not mind running the shop for a while, whilst I am grocery shopping?"

"By myself?" Amy asked, before biting into a piece of toast.

"Is that a problem? I do not get very many customers, so I do not think you are going to be swamped with work."

"Oh no, it's not a problem. But what if someone recognises me?"

Madame Unazuki smiled. "Amy Rose, do you recognise anyone in town?"

Amy blinked in surprise, her cup raised halfway to her mouth. "Why do you ask?"

"Please answer the question."

"Um...no. I don't know anybody."

"Then tell me, if you do not recognise any of THEM, how could they recognise YOU?"

"I see your point. But what about my friends?"

"Dressed as you are, no one will know you. If you are still concerned, you can wear the veil I gave you."

Amy thought for a moment. "I guess that would work...yes, that'd work great."

"Good." With that, Madame Unazuki rose to her feet. "Now if you'll excuse me, I have to open the shop." She was heading to the door when she realised something. "Oh, one more thing, Amy Rose."

"Yes ma'am?"

"I believe that it is unwise to rely solely on the tarot to see one's future. Tell me: are you familiar with the other methods of scrying?"

"Methods of what?"

"Scrying, dear child, scrying-seeing into the future. Tea leaf reading; reading one's aura; using the ouija board; handwriting analysis; the method of shell scrying; using mirrors; the methods of pendulum scrying and so on."

"Oh. Well, I've dabbled with them in the past, and I think I can remember how to use them."

"Good, good. Now finish your breakfast, then meet me downstairs. I will show you how to use the till before leaving."

"Yes, ma'am."


 

Latoya took a cigarette from the packet, lit it and inhaled deeply, reveling in the nicotine that rushed through her body. Health warnings be damned! She really couldn't care less if each puff was a step nearer to death, if the smoke burned her lungs and filled them with thick black tar. After all, didn't everyone die at some point? Besides, smoking helped her forget her problems.

She exhaled a cloud of cigarette smoke, then turned to Onyx. "So, after buyin' those egg 'n' bacon bagels, coffee and these fags, 'ow much we got left? After all, you're the one who's supposed ta be keepin' an eye on our expenses."

Onyx took a rather battered calculator from her pocket. "Well, let's see now. We started off with 30 bucks." she said, punching the numbers in. "The bagels were $2.19 each, the coffee was $1.95 each and the fags were $14.50, so that leaves us with... $5.29." She sighed. "We ain't gonna get much more grub outta that."

"Don't worry. We'll just havta shake someone down again."

"Who? We ain't seen no-one all mornin'!" Scarlet pointed out, gesturing toward the other side of the street, which was overcrowded. Occasionally, someone would head to the traffic lights, intending to cross over to the side where the girls were, only to immediately scurry away when they saw who was standing opposite.

Latoya scowled. "Cowards!" she sneered. "Scared to confront us. 'Course, can't say I'm surprised, what with us being the roughest and toughest street gang ever." She took another drag on the cigarette. "Mind you, if no-one comes ta this side of the street soon, we're gonna havta go hungry. And I really don't fancy that."

"Tell me about it." agreed Scarlet, turning her full attention to the other side of the street, scanning the crowd for the sight of someone-ANYONE-who was foolish enough to cross to the other side. Then she spotted something so unusual, she had to do a double-take in case she had imagined it.

"Hey, girls, ya probably won't believe this, but someone's comin'!" she cried.

The other two glanced in the direction she was pointing, and saw a little racoon girl, aged between eight and nine, with frizzy turquoise hair held back by an orange Alice Band and wearing a green dress decorated with little violet flowers, standing at the traffic lights, clearly planning to cross. She must have been either very young or very foolish, for she did not seem to notice the presence of the so-called roughest and toughest street gang ever.

"Well, well, well." sneered Latoya, flicking some ash off the end of the cigarette. "Looks like ol' Lady Luck is smilin' on us, girls."

"I dunno about this, Latoya." said Onyx slowly. "I mean, she's just a kid. She ain't gonna be able ta fight back."

Latoya sighed. "Look, Onyx, we need money, and there's the perfect target. Besides, we ain't gonna hurt her physically. Of course," she added slyly, "we ain't gonna tell HER that."

"It still don't seem right." protested Onyx.

"Oh, so you're gonna let your principles stand in the way of us gettin' some much needed dough?" demanded Latoya. A small smirk crossed her face. "Always knew you were a wimp."

"I ain't no wimp!" snarled Onyx defensively. "I'm just smart enough ta think these things through. And right now, I think this is a terrible idea." She turned to Scarlet, who hadn't said a word since the argument had begun. "C'mon, Scarlet. Back me up here."

"Oh no!" said Scarlet firmly, shaking her head. "I ain't gettin' involved in this argument."

"But you don't get involved in ANY of our arguments."

"So why start now?"

"Look, Onyx," Latoya snapped waspishly. "I don't care what you think. All's I care about is gettin' some cash, and that kid's the perfect target. Look, she's crossed the road and is comin' near, so make yer choice. Either yer in, or yer out, but either way I'm confrontin' her!" She then gave Onyx an expectant look, waiting for her to make her decision.

Onyx sighed. She didn't know why she was bothering, really she didn't. After all, she knew that no matter how much she protested, and no matter how much Scarlet tried to stay on the sidelines, they would end up joining Latoya in extorting money from the girl, as they always did.

"Alright." she sighed. "Count me in."

"Yeah, me too." added Scarlet.

"Good." said Latoya, nodding in satisfaction. She glanced over her shoulder at the approaching racoon. "Now remember, pretend ya don't see her 'til she's close." With that, she leaned against a nearby wall, puffing on her cigarette. Taking a cue from their leader, the other two started having a thumb war, all the time keeping an eye on their approaching target.


 

Little Suzi-Lu skipped happily down the pavement, the coins in her purse jingling and every skip taking her closer to the local candy store. She had every reason to be happy: it was a beautiful day, her dear grandmother was visiting and just yesterday she had been the only person in class to get a perfect score on her Math test. The thing that made her happiest, however, was that she had not only been given 20 dollars by Grandma for doing so well on the test, she had also been allowed to walk to the candy store alone to spend her reward.

Of course, Mama hadn't been too happy when she had heard that Suzi-Lu planned to go out alone, as was to be expected, but Grandma had pointed out that they lived in a quiet neighbourhood, and besides which Suzi-Lu knew not to talk to strangers and to be safe on roads. After a brief discussion, Mama had allowed it on the condition that Suzi-Lu didn't stay out too long. So here she was, on a beautiful sunny day, headed to the store all by herself as though she were older than her nine years.

Looking around, it was difficult to see why Mama had been so worried. After all, aside from the occasional wave or smile, nobody had paid much attention to her, seeing as how they had all appeared to have urgent appointments. Why else would they scurry away from the traffic lights? As for herself personally, her only appointment was with a big bag of candy, which was why she had chosen to cross the road. After all, it was the quickest way to the candy store.

Thinking about the candy store filled her head with images of the delights to come, so she paid little attention to her surroundings, only vaguely noticing that she had passed someone, and probably would have done so the rest of the way to the store if a voice hadn't drawled, ""Hey, kid, whatcha got there?" and caused her to stop mid-skip.

"I'm sorry, I'm not allowed to..." she began, turning to face whoever had spoken to her, only to feel a cold stab of fear enter her heart when she saw as she realized who was standing before her.

"You're Di...Di...Di..."

The cat-Latoya, wasn't it?-smirked nastily, twirling her cigarette and placing her face close to Suzi-Lu's, so close that the young girl could smell the smoke on her breath. "That's right, kid. We're Diamond Dust. And I believe I asked you whatcha got?"

Suzi-Lu gulped, trying not to let her fear show on her face. "I-I don't have anything." she stammered.

"Hah! Like I'm gonna believe that." scoffed Latoya. "Ye're carryin' cash. Hand it over now and ya won't get hurt."

Suzi-Lu thought quickly and decided that her options were limited. After all, the three were bigger than her, stronger than her, and she knew that there was no way she could outrun them. "Ok, here, take it." she said quickly, opening her purse and holding it out.

Latoya snatched it, emptied the contents into her hand and made a quick calculation of its worth. "Twenty bucks!" she announced to the other two. "That gives us three square meals for three days, girls!" She paused, as though considering something, then a nasty grin slowly appeared on her face as she put the money into her pocket.

Onyx, recognising the look, started shaking her head. "No, Latoya, come on now. We've got what we wanted, we should let her go now."

"Shaddup!" Latoya snarled, turning and shooting her a dangerous look. "I toldja I don't care what you think!"

"But you said we weren't gonna hurt her physically!"

"Guys..." began Scarlet.

"So I changed me mind!" snapped Latoya, ignoring the rabbit. "So what?"

"So we'll get in trouble! More so than usual!"

"Guys..." Scarlet tried again.

"Not now." Latoya said shortly. She turned her attention back to Onyx. "Look, it ain't like we've got anything better to do. Well, nothing that's as much fun, anyway."

"But she's just a kid!"

"And I care because?"

"Guys..." Scarlet started again.

"Don't you understand? This ain't just assault we're talking about, it's child abuse! Besides, she's done nothing to hurt us."

"You're right. She's just a good target."

Scarlet sighed in frustration. She'd had enough of being ignored, so now it was time for desperate measures. She moved closer to Latoya and gave the cat a good, hard kick in the knee.

"Yeow!" screamed Latoya, clutching her knee and giving Scarlet a look that could wilt plants. "For your sake, Scarlet, you'd better have a good explanation for that." she hissed through gritted teeth.

"As a matter of fact, I do." said Scarlet, jerking her thumb down the street. "The kid's gettin' away!"

"WHAT!" shrieked Latoya, quickly glancing in the direction Scarlet was pointing. Sure enough, the small figure of Suzi-Lu could be seen running down the street as if her life depended on it.

Latoya glared at Scarlet. "Why didn't ya say something?"

"What?" spluttered Scarlet, unable to believe what she had just heard. "For your information, I tried ta say something, but ya wouldn't listen! As usual!"

Fuming, Latoya opened her mouth to retaliate, but was cut off by the third member of the gang.

"Look, guys," said Onyx. "We could stand here quarrelin' all day, but if we do, that brat'll be far away, not to mention she'll probably get the cops on our tail. So hadn't we best get after her?"

Latoya closed her mouth, pondering. As much as she hated to admit it, Onyx had a point. The corner was only about 5 minutes away, even less if you ran, and she knew that if the cops were involved, she and the others were definately going to be in BIG trouble. "You're right." she admitted reluctantly. "We can't trust the kid ta keep 'er mouth shut. C'mon, after her!" And with that, she charged after the fleeing raccoon, Scarlet and Onyx hurrying after her.


 

Amy took two candy-pink candles from the box at her feet and placed them in their dragon-shaped silver holders. Taking the tarot cards from the pack, she shuffled them throughly until she felt satisfied, then placed them in the centre of the table, in preperation for anyone who wanted a reading. Madame Unazuki had just left, so she was on her own.

Picking up a mirror from a nearby shelf, she scrutinized her reflection. Madame Unazuki had been confident that no-one would recognise her, but she still felt nervous. After all, no matter how elaborate a disguise might be, just one little slip-up could make all the difference between passing yourself off as someone else and being recognised by someone you knew. And even though she was now in an unfamiliar town, where everyone she met was a stranger, there was always the small chance of running into one of her friends. Wasn't there?

Perhaps it was strange, as in the note she had written she had asked her friends not to look for her, but a small part of her WANTED somebody to come searching, asking for information as to her whereabouts. And while she didn't think that Sonic would come looking for her (his harsh words had proved THAT much), surely her other friends would? Or were they of the same opinion as Sonic: that she was a nightmare, a headache, something they were glad to be rid of?

Well, the others HAD been acting a little strangely, lately. Just three days ago, she had been at the food court at the mall, when she'd seen Cream and Tails having a conversation with each other. When she'd approached them to say 'hi', however, they'd taken one look at her and left rather quickly, leaving her confused and slightly hurt.

She'd tried to put the incident behind her, but that evening, when she'd tried to phone Blaze, the cat had made several rather pathetic excuses as to why she couldn't speak to Amy, then hung up. Then, when she'd gone to visit Shadow, he'd acted colder to her than usual, refusing to even let her in, let alone tell her why he was covered in paint.

In fact, it seemed that every time she'd tried to speak to one of her friends, they'd either had very urgent appointments or just didn't have the time to stay and chat with her. It was as if they didn't want to know her anymore. As if that wasn't bad enough, no-one had remembered her birthday. Throughout the whole of yesterday, she had received nothing - no cards, no presents, not even a "Happy birthday, Amy". She had expected it from Shadow or Silver (the 2 hedgehogs weren't exactly known for their willingness to acknowledge anyone's special day), but to have received nothing from anyone else? Even Cream, her so-called "best friend", had ignored the date yesterday, acting as though it was just a normal day.

Does EVERYONE hate me? she thought to herself. I mean, I know I can be aggressive and violent at times, but I'm not like that ALL the time, and I have plenty of good qualities-I'm kind, caring and optimistic, not to mention I protect my friends when the need arises. Surely that counts for something? And even if it doesn't, surely they'd tell me if they hated me. Wouldn't they?

Suddenly, a loud scream shattered her thoughts.

"HELP!"

Running to the door, she opened it in time to see a small blurr dash by, followed by three larger blurrs. Clearly someone was in trouble.

Not pausing to think, Amy pulled out her Piko Poko hammer and raced after the blurrs.


 

Suzi-Lu darted into the nearby alley and continued to run, until she reached a dead end. She turned around and saw to her horror that Diamond Dust had caught up with her. Trembling heavily, she backed away, her eyes wide with fear, only to come to a stop as her back touched the wall.

"P-please," she whimpered, dropping to her knees and hiding her head in her arms. "Don't hurt me..."

"Quiet!" snarled Latoya, punching her fist into her palm. "Now get over here."

Suzi-Lu buried her head deeper into her lap. "No."

"WHAT WAS THAT?" the cat thundered, slowly advancing on the quivering raccoon, Scarlet and Onyx following in her wake.

No answer, just a tiny sob.

Latoya reached down, seized Suzi-Lu by the tail and yanked her up so that they were face to face, ignoring the raccoon's pained squeals. "Whaddaya think we should do ta her first, girls?" she sneered, turning to the other two.

"Considering I didn't even WANT to join in, I don't think I should answer." said Onyx.

"AH, yer no fun." snorted Latoya. She turned to the rabbit, knowing that she was as eager to join in brawls as she was to avoid arguments. "Scarlet? Suggestions?"

Scarlet smiled nastily. "I know," she said, approaching her leader. "We could start off with this." And with that, she drew back her fist and slammed it into Suzi-Lu's midsection, chuckling darkly as the raccoon whimpered and clutched her stomach.

"Good one." Latoya nodded in approval, then threw Suzi-Lu to the ground and kicked her in the ribs. "Wha' 'bout you?" she asked, turning to Onyx. "You joinin' in or not?"

Onyx hesitated. Latoya and Scarlet stood looking at her expectantly, waiting for her to join them in this so-called 'game' of theirs, waiting for her to put aside her conscience and pretend that their victim had no feelings, no real purpose except to elevate their boredom.

And yet the raccoon had curled up into a tiny ball, sobbing quietly, clearly in great pain. The sight alone was enough to break one's heart; it certainly broke Onyx's into a thousand tiny shards.

"C'mon, Onyx!" snapped Latoya, sensing the wolf's hesitation. "Ya don't normally care when we beat someone up. You certainly didn't care when we were gonna deal with that stupid hedgehog!"

"That's different!" growled Onyx.

"How? How is it different?"

"It's different because we've always attacked those who are the same size as us! And for the record, I always care, you just ignore me and do what you want!" the wolf nearly shouted. "This is wrong on so many levels."

Suzi-Lu, seeing that they were preoccupied, tried to crawl away, only for Scarlet to stamp on her tail, preventing her from moving before slapping her face, drawing a gasp of pain from the child.

"LEAVE THAT CHILD ALONE!"

The three members of Diamond Dust glanced up to see a furious pink hedgehog standing at the entrance, Piko Poko Hammer at the ready.

"Well, well, well." sneered Latoya. "If it ain't our ol' friend."

"Don't you 'old friend' me!" snapped Amy, stepping into the alley. "I saw what you were doing to that raccoon! Hurting a child for fun-that's the lowest of the low."

"Just what I was saying." muttered Onyx.

"Shut up!" hissed Latoya. She turned her attention back to Amy. "If you think I'm gonna be scareda you, you're gonna be disappointed. I seem to remember you runnin' like a stupid baby last time we met. Gonna do the same thing now?"

"No." growled Amy. "But I WILL make you pay. Now leave her alone."

Latoya pretended to think it over for a moment. "Um...no."

"Leave her alone."

"What part of 'no' are you too stupid to understand?"

"Leave her alone, before I do something you'll regret." Amy hissed, her voice low and dangerous.

Latoya laughed nastily. "Didn't anyone ever teach ya ta count? We outnumber ya three ta one; ya wouldn't stand a chance against us. Now run along home and play with yer dollies." With that, she turned her attention back to Suzi-Lu and stamped on the raccoon's hand. Hard.

That did it. Amy saw red. With a yell of fury, she launched herself down the alley and slammed the Piko Poko Hammer into Latoya's face, causing her to stumble back and fall.

With rage in her eyes, Latoya rose to her feet. "Ok...that's IT!" she snarled. She turned to Scarlet and Onyx, who were awaiting orders. "Forget the kid! Pummel this punk!"

"Do we hafta?" asked Onyx. "I already said I didn't wanna get involved."

"Ya didn't care yesterday!"

"Yesterday, you were just gonna punch her once, ta teach 'er not ta mess with us." said Onyx, stubbornly, folding her arms and glaring at Latoya. "Today, you got that look in your eye."

"What look?"

"The look that says you're gonna beat someone senseless."

"I'll beat you senseless in a minute." growled Latoya. "I'm sick ta death'a this! Yer nuffin but a hypocrite."

"I am NOT a hypocrite!" snarled Oynx.

"Oh, sure you ain't." said Latoya, sarcasm evident in every word. "After all, ya just go on about why we shouldn't fight, then join in anyway! Sure you ain't no hypocrite."

Onyx was starting to get angry. "Oh yeah?" she snapped. "Well at least I ain't no love child!"

From the gasp that issued from Scarlet, Amy could tell that Onyx had crossed the line. Latoya looked as though she had been slapped, an expression of shock etched on her face. It quickly dissolved into a look of fury.

"You..." she was so angry that for a moment she could not speak. "You little COW! You're gonna regret sayin' that!"

Before Onyx could blink, Latoya had rushed at her and slammed a fist into her stomach, knocking her into the wall. Winded, but not hurt, she righted herself and launched herself at Latoya, seizing her around the knees and knocking her to the ground, before punching her in the jaw. Latoya slapped her cheek forcefully, stunning her slightly, then pulled herself into a sitting position, raised both fists, and brought them down on Onyx's head, hard. Snarling, Onyx grabbed Latoya's hair and pulled. Screeching, the cat bucked her hips and drew up her legs, placing the soles of her feet on Onyx's stomach. In one swift motion, she kicked the wolf off of her, but as Onyx was still clutching Latoya's hair, several chestnut strands were yanked out of the cat's head as she fell backwards.

Hissing in pain, the cat rose to her feet and kicked Onyx in the face, breaking her nose and causing blood to splurt everywhere. Onyx staggered upright, a hand raised to her face to check the damage. She drew her hand away, and saw that it was covered in blood. She wiped it away, then ducked down and kicked Latoya in the shin. Ignoring the sudden pain which flared in her joints, Latoya placed both hands on Onyx's chest, and shoved her into a group of rubbish bins, knocking her down again. Seizing a bin lid, Onyx pulled herself to her feet again and charged at Latoya, slamming the lid down onto the cat's head. Latoya staggered slightly, then gave Onyx a solid uppercut to the chin.

All the time this was happening, Scarlet had not joined in on either side but had remained in place, her foot still pinning Suzi-Lu's tail to the ground. Her attention focused solely on the brawl taking place in front of her, she did not realise that Amy had moved until she felt a hand on her shoulder. Turning round, she was greeted with a white-gloved fist in her face, causing her to stumble back off of Suzi-Lu's tail. She regained her balance in time to see Amy help Suzi-Lu to her feet and run towards the entrance to the alley, followed by the raccoon.

"Oh no ya don't!" the rabbit snarled, hurrying after them. She tackled Amy's legs, pulling the hedgehog to the ground, then turned her attention to her still-brawling friends. "Guys!" she called. "GUYS!"

But the two combatants did not hear her, or if they did they paid no attention to her words. Looking around for something to get their attention, Scarlet spotted half a brick close to where she lay. Grabbing it, she hurled it against one of the rubbish bins, resulting in such a loud CLANG that Latoya and Onyx were forced to break off from their fight and clutch their ears.

"What in Aurora's name was that for?" shrieked Latoya, glaring at Scarlet. "Are you tryin' ta deafen us or summat?"

"Sorry," said Scarlet, "but I hadda get yer attention somehow. These two (she jerked her thumb at Amy, who had managed to push Scarlet's arms off her legs and rise to her feet, and Suzi-Lu, who seemed paralysed with fear) were tryin' ta get away-no doubt ta get help."

"Oh they were, were they?" sneered Latoya. "Well, we'll just see about that!" She started to approach the two, cracking her knuckles.

Amy protectively placed herself in front of Suzi-Lu, her Piko Poko Hammer held in a defensive position. "Don't even think about it!" she snarled.

"Brave today, ain't we!" sneered Scarlet. "And ta think, you were the world's biggest coward yesterday!"

"Yesterday, you weren't attacking a child who had done nothing to deserve it." snapped Amy. "You can do anything you want to me today, but I won't let you hurt this child anymore!"

"Izzat so?" Latoya purred. "Then I'll make you a deal. You let us do what we like to ya, and we let the kid go free. Deal?"

Amy thought for a moment. Despite her recent actions, she was still terrified of the three girls and what they could do to her. The events of yesterday were still fresh in her mind and she did not doubt that they were capable of causing her severe injury if they so wished. Every part of her was screaming to just forget the raccoon and make a break for it.

And yet the child had already been badly hurt, and would probably be attacked again if Amy refused, as Diamond Dust had already proven that they weren't going to let a little thing like age get in their way of attacking people. Was she so selfish that she would let a child continue to suffer?

While she was considering this, she felt a hand on her arm, and turning her head, she found herself looking into Suzi-Lu's terrified face. The look in the shivering child's eyes said, quite plainly, 'please don't let them hurt me anymore'. It was this look that clinched Amy's decision.

"It's a deal." she said, turning back to Diamond Dust, who were looking at her expectantly. "Do what you want to me, but let the child go."

"Very well." said Latoya. "It's more fun when the target fights back anyway." She turned to Onyx, their brawl forgotten. "The offer to pummel the hedgehog still stands. You in or out?"

"Like I have a choice?" sighed Onyx.

"Nope. No choice whatsoever. Anyway, why do ya even bother tryin'? We both know yer gonna join in anyhow."

Onyx sighed again. "Fine, I'm in. I'm not happy about it, but I'm in. As usual."

Amy turned to Suzi-Lu. "Run."

"But what about you?" asked Suzi-Lu. "I can't just abandon you, not after you helped me."

"Don't worry about me." Amy reassured her. "I've dealt with worse. Besides, I don't want you to see this. Now run."

Suzi-Lu didn't need telling twice. She turned and charged out of the alley.

Amy turned her attention back to Diamond Dust. "Come and get me, if you feel brave!" she challenged.

Without warning, Onyx lunged at Amy, seizing her wrists and twisting them, trying to force her to drop the Piko Poko Hammer. Amy lifted her foot and kicked Onyx in the stomach, causing the wolf to release her grip and double over in pain. She charged, but the wolf straightened somewhat and sidestepped, giving the hedgehog a good, hard kick in the rear. Amy fell to the ground, the Piko Poko Hammer falling out of her hand, and quickly rolled out of the way as Onyx's boot slammed into the place where Amy's side had been a few seconds ago. Scarlet, noticing that Amy had dropped the hammer, lunged towards it, but Amy quickly regained her feet, snatched it up and smashed it into the rabbit's stomach, knocking her against the wall.

Latoya sprang towards Amy and threw a punch, but the hedgehog easily ducked it, and slammed her fist into the cat's face, before kicking her in the shin. With a snarl of fury, Latoya leapt on top of Amy, knocking her to the ground again. Pinning her down with her knees, she backhanded Amy hard. Amy brought up the hammer, intending to smash it into Latoya's face, but Latoya grabbed it with both hands and began to press it downwards towards Amy's throat. Amy pushed back, resulting in a type of stalemate as neither opponent was prepared to give in. Each time one of them strengthened their grip, the other would push back harder than ever.

"Ready ta give up?" Latoya hissed in Amy's ear.

"Never!" shouted Amy. Noticing that the position of Latoya's head meant that the cat's ear was close to her mouth, she bit it, hard. Latoya screeched and twisted, rolling the two of them across the ground. Amy landed on top this time and slammed her hammer into Latoya's face. Suddenly, a booted foot came out of nowhere and smashed into the hedgehog's side, knocking her off her opponent. Onyx had rejoined the brawl. Grabbing the stunned Amy and hauling her to her feet, she slammed her fist into the hedgehog's face. She swung again, but this time Amy managed to duck the blow, before ramming her hammer into Onyx's chin. Gasping for breath, she stood facing the two, prepared for anything else they might attempt.

Suddenly, someone seized her in a bear hug, forcing her to drop the hammer. Scarlet had regained her feet and was now holding Amy tight, pinning the hedgehog's arms to her sides.

"Good one, Scarlet." said Latoya as she regained her feet. "Hold her steady now. I'm gonna give her the thrashing she deserves."

Amy just glared at Latoya, preparing herself for anything.

Suddenly, Latoya slammed her fist into Amy's stomach, earning a small grunt of pain. Smirking slightly, she swung again and this time her fist slammed into Amy's face, catching her in the jaw. Amy just gritted her teeth and winced inwardly, taking each blow in silence.

Suzi-Lu glanced nervously into the alley, fighting with the urge to go back in and help. After all, the hedgehog had helped her. But she knew that she stood no chance against Diamond Dust, and any attempts to help would result in her being hurt even more. And yet, she couldn't just stand there and watch.

Then she had an idea: if SHE couldn't help, then maybe she could find someone who COULD. She turned and ran down the street as fast as she could.

As luck would have it, the very first person Suzi-Lu met was Madame Unazuki, returning from the grocery store with her arms full of grocery bags. She knew the swallow's name, but had never spoken to her, as Mama thought fortune-telling was evil. But there was no time to find anyone else, and surely Madame Unazuki was the best choice, seeing as how Diamond Dust were practically terrified of her.

"MADAME UNAZUKI!" Suzi-Lu shrieked as she approached with all speed. "MADAME UNAZUKI, COME QUICK!"

"Hmmm?" The swallow, who had just put her bags down in order to open the door of her shop, spotted the young raccoon rushing towards her. "Ah, yes, Suzi-Lu, is it not? Why, whatever is the matter?"

Suzi-Lu stopped and bent over, gasping for breath. "I-it's Diamond Dust, ma'am. They're beating up a hedgehog, down in the alley! They took my money, then chased me into the alley, where they started to attack me, but then this hedgehog came and-"

"Hedgehog?" said Madame Unazuki suddenly, and Suzi-Lu knew that something was very wrong, as the swallow did not usually interrupt people. "Quick, child, tell me. This hedgehog-was it a pink female wearing an Arabian outfit?"

"Yes, ma'am. Do you know her?"

"No time to answer, child. Just show me where this attack is taking place."

"This way. Hurry!" And with that, Suzi-Lu charged back towards the alley, Madame Unazuki close behind.


 

Bruises were starting to form on Amy's body and blood dripped from her wounds, but she never made a sound nor shed a tear, determined not to give them a reason to mock her.

Latoya's knuckles were starting to throb slightly, but she ignored the pain, her eagerness to teach this good-for-nothing interloper a lesson drowning out all else. Scarlet and Onyx just stood in their respective places, one gripping Amy tightly so that her leader could beat the hedgehog senseless without worrying about her victim fighting back, the other staring at the one-sided fight and silently hoping she wouldn't be called upon to join in.

Suddenly, a shadow fell across the alley and a familiar voice, its tone as cold as ice, rang out. "You three again?"

Startled, all three of them glanced around to see a VERY angry Madame Unazuki glaring at them, arms folded over her chest. Suzi-Lu nervously poked her head around the swallow's skirt.

"Madame Unazuki! How lovely to see you." cried Scarlet, quickly releasing Amy (who collapsed) and trying to look pleased. "Um-er-nice day, isn't it?"

Madame Unazuki's glare did not fade. "What," she asked, her voice low and dangerous, "do the three of you think you are doing?"

"There's a good explanation for this!" Onyx piped up. "I just can't think of one right now."

"I can!" declared Latoya. "She started it! Yes, that's right. We were just minding our own business when she attacked us for no good reason! Disgraceful, don't you agree ma'am?" she asked, putting on her most respectful tone of voice.

"You liar!" shouted Suzi-Lu. "She did nothing of the sort! You stole my money, then-"

"Quiet, child." said Madame Unazuki, placing a hand on Suzi-Lu's shoulder. She then turned her attention back to Diamond Dust. "Tell me, Latoya Terexu, do you think I am stupid?'

"What?"

"Do you think I am stupid? It is a yes-or-no question."

"Oh. No, of course I don't think you're stupid, ma'am-"

"Then why do you believe I will fall for such an obvious lie?" asked Madame Unazuki, her voice rising slightly. "I trust you remember that I have come across incidents like this many times in the past, and always the three of you have been the cause of it?"

There was no answer from any of the gang members.

"I will take that as a yes, since you seem incapable of answering." said Madame Unazuki. "I must say, though, that out of the many you have attacked, these poor children (she nodded at Suzi-Lu and gestured towards Amy) have suffered worst of all. Now leave, and do not let me see you for the rest of the week."

"Yes, ma'am." said Latoya, a tiny hint of sarcasm evident in her voice, as she started to leave the alley, accompanied by Scarlet and Onyx. Before she could leave, however, Madame Unazuki clapped a hand onto her shoulder.

"Just a moment." said the swallow in a stern voice. "I believe you have something that is not yours?"

"It's a lie!" Latoya shouted in panic. "I never took 20 bucks from the kid!"

"Oh no?" said Madame Unazuki, folding her arms. "Then tell me, if you did not commit such a deed, how exactly did you know what I was about to accuse you of stealing?"

Latoya opened her mouth, then thought better of whatever she was going to say and closed it again. Madame Unazuki held out her hand, clearly waiting for Latoya to hand over her ill-gotten gains, the look in her eye warning the cat not to try anything.

"Fine, take it." Latoya grumbled, pulling the money from her pocket and stuffing it into Madame Unazuki's hand. "C'mon guys, let's get outta here."

With that, the three of them stalked out of the alley, before beating a hasty retreat. Madame Unazuki handed the money to Suzi-Lu, then approached Amy, who was struggling to get up. She helped the hedgehog to her feet, then quickly checked her for injuries.

"Let me see now...several bruises and cuts, but nothing too serious. Nothing a bit of herbal medicine will not fix."

Amy moaned slightly as Madame Unazuki's hands gently touched her wounds. "The...the girl..."

"What about her?"

"She...got hurt...too..."

"Only my side and face." said Suzi-Lu quickly. "I would've been hurt much worse if you hadn't showed up."

"Nevertheless, I should have a look at those injuries too." said Madame Unazuki. "Come now, back to the shop so that I might tend you properly."

With that, she picked up Amy bridal-style and headed back to ENCHANTE MAGIQUE, Suzi-Lu following in her footsteps.

Chapter Text

Darkness.

That's all there was.

It surrounded him; covering him like some unearthly blanket, blinding him to everything but his own being, engulfing him in its clutches. No matter where he looked, all he could see was a sea of never-ending blackness.

And it terrified him.

If Sonic had been asked to be completely truthful about his biggest fear, he would have admitted that he had always hated the dark, even more than he hated water. It was not the thought that some unearthly beast lurked within the shadows, biding its time before it struck, that terrified him. No, what frightened him was the omnious feeling of loneliness.

Perhaps it was ironic, as he spent most of his time alone, but that was how he felt. Just the feeling that there was no longer anything-or anyONE-to fight for... it sent chills up his spine. And that was not the only reason he was terrified of being alone, oh no. Loneliness was emptiness; silence; the echoes of the past gliding through the endless darkness like silent birds. Loneliness was as cold as the winter winds, as oppressive as a totalitarian regime and as black as the darkness. But, most of all, loneliness was the knowledge that someone you cared about was gone, maybe forever.

It was perhaps that final aspect of loneliness that frightened him most of all, for he knew what being alone did to other people. It made them hate everyone who had supposedly abandoned them; made them cause trouble just to get attention; made them feel that no one understood them. He had even seen some of them go crazy with loneliness, seen them hold conversations with people who had never existed or who were no longer there. He had felt some sympathy for them, it was true, but he had always taken for granted the thought that such a fate would never befall him. After all, he had never truly been alone, no matter what had happened to him. Whether it had been trying to find the Chaos Emeralds before Eggman; trying to stop Perfect Chaos; being incarcerated at Prison Island; battling the Finalhazard or even experiencing his own death, his friends had always been there to comfort him whenever things had gone wrong, to help him whenever he had needed it, to take care of him whenever he had been injured or emotionally hurt. They had been his team, his guiding light, his support in times of need. While he had lost a few friends, he had thought that those who remained would be around forever.

But now, in this jet-black, eternal void, it seemed that his worst fear was coming true. Lost in loneliness, he started to wonder what would become of him. Hoping his friends' faces would pierce the darkness...

No. In all honesty, there was only one particular face he wanted to see. One fair, smiling face; one face that managed to look pretty even when it was angry; one face belonging to someone he dearly missed.

Yes, he realised. That was why he was here. The reason why he was trapped within this mocking reminder of his greatest fear. How could he survive without seeing Amy's rosy pink face, and those dangerous jade green eyes that he would get lost in every time her gaze landed on him? That bright sunny smile that brightened his day whenever he was around her. Oh and her voice...that beautiful voice combined with that gorgeous laughter, which made him weak in the knees everytime he listened to it...

He didn't realise he was crying until he felt the dampness on his face. He made no move to brush the tears away, allowing them instead to pour down his cheeks like a waterfall, his arms hanging limply by his sides like lead weights.

"Oh, Amy." he whispered to the darkness. "This is all my fault. If only I hadn't been so...if only I hadn't"... The tears grew harder as he struggled to find the words that he wished he could say to her face. "I shouldn't have treated you the way I did, shouldn't have said what I said. I wish I could turn back time. I'd take back those horrible words that hurt you, apologise instead of leaving you alone." His voice started to crack. "Oh, how I wish you were here. I...I miss you s-so..."

All his strength seemed to leave him as he broke down completely. He dropped to his knees and took his face in his hands, sobbing quietly to himself and rocking back and forth in his sorrow.

"A-A-Amy," he choked out into the unanswering void. "P-please come back. Without you...it feels like someone took a knife and drove it deep into my heart. Every heartbeat aches in my chest, and I don't know what's keeping me alive. I didn't really mean to hurt you, truly I d-d-didn't. Please. If only I could see your face again...hear your voice."

"Such a touching speech. But tell me, do you truly mean it? Or are you simply trying to hide the fact that you hate her from everyone, including yourself?"

"What?" snapped Sonic, his tears disappearing as he jumped to his feet, his eyes darting around the void in fury, searching for the source of the voice. "Who said that? Who's there? And just what did you mean by that?"

No answer at first, which lead him to wonder-had he imagined it? But as this thought came into his head, he heard a cold chuckle near his left ear.

"Why would you need to ask me that? Really, my blue friend, I had believed that I made it clear what I meant with the question I used." the voice purred mockingly. "Dear, dear, you really are a slow one, are you not? I must admit, I cannot believe that you have not yet perished. However, since you are clearly too stupid to figure it out, then I think it is about time I made it agonisingly clear as to what I really meant. Look behind you."

Sonic turned. At first he thought that his eyes were playing tricks on him, for a turquoise glow, little more than a pinprick, had formed in the depths of the void. But no matter how much he rubbed his eyes, there it stayed. Then he realised it was growing every second. Bigger and bigger, brighter and brighter. Within a matter of seconds, he had to shade his eyes to prevent himself from being blinded as the light grew to its full intensity. Then he realised it was coming towards him. He tried to back away, to flee, but his feet seemed stuck to the ground. Try as he might, he could not seem to come up with the strength to move. All he could do was stand and watch the light approach.

And then it engulfed him completely.

For a moment, his skin seemed to be on fire as a burning sensation swept through it. And then he found himself falling as whatever force that had supported him earlier now shattered like glass. He plummeted faster and faster with no end in sight, spinning through nothingness. It was as if he was spilling out of himself, dissolving; and there was light, a blinding white light...

And then the light faded and the force of gravity returned, causing him to land on what felt like a hard stone floor. He staggered to his feet and cried out as pain rushed through his leg and back.

"Hurts, does it not?"

"What?" Sonic hissed, the pain temporarily forgotten. "What type of stupid question is that? Of course it hurts! I'm surprised I haven't broken anything!"

Another cold chuckle. "Now you know how it feels to be in pain, do you not? If you had broken a limb, it would have been no less than you deserve. Of course, broken arms, legs, backs-all of them heal quickly. Broken hearts, on the other hand, they take far longer to heal...if they ever heal at all, that is. In my opinion, you should really consider yourself lucky. After all, that pain you are feeling right now is but a fraction of what you did to the pink rose."

Sonic was silent for a few seconds, rubbing his back almost absently before answering. "Why are you telling me that? Do you honestly think I don't know that? 'Cause I do! Even if I hadn't just fallen however many feet it was, I still feel as though there were snakes wriggling around in my stomach. I can't stop thinking about what I said. Can't stop thinking about how much I screwed up. I've been aware I hurt her ever since I ran off and left her in tears." He knew it sounded lame, even to him, but he meant every word of it.

Apparently, the voice thought otherwise, responding as it did with yet another cold burst of laughter. "Tell me, hedgehog, do you actually think, for one moment, that I will believe such a blatant lie?"

"I'm not lying!"

"Really? So what you are saying is, you are emotionally bonded to her? Able to feel the burning heat of her anger, the crippling discomfort of her fear, the relaxed contentment of her happiness, the sudden shock of her surprise? Most of all, you are saying you are able to feel the unbearable torment of her current heartbreak, her current misery, her current sorrow?"

"Erm, well, no..."

"Then how can you pretend to know the full extent of her pain?"

Sonic took offence at that. "I am NOT pretending!" he snapped. "Maybe I'm not an empath, but I don't need to be to know when she's angry or scared or anything like that! And even though I don't exactly know just HOW upset she is, it's not like I can forget the harsh words I screamed at her. Like I can forget the image of her heartbroken face, the tears welling up in those beautiful green orbs and cascading down her cheeks like a monsoon." His voice dropped to a low whisper. "Like I can forget the pleading tones in her voice, forget her shivering form, forget her-"

"Yes, yes, all very poetic." the voice interrupted, a hint of impatience in its tone. "In other words, you claim that this particular incident was a one-off? That you do not usually run around saying things that you claim to regret? That you are not normally so hurtful to her?"

"Of course."

"Ha! Nice try, hedgehog. I have to give you credit, though-you sounded almost serious."

"I AM serious!"

"Oh really? There is no point denying it. As I believe I have previously mentioned, you clearly hate her."

"I do not hate her!"

"So you say."

Sonic felt anger boil through him, but he forced it down with difficulty. Arguing his point further clearly wasn't going to get him anywhere. "Look," he said, trying to keep his voice calm. "Why are you so determined to believe that I hate her? You don't know me, and I don't know you, so-"

Again he was interrupted, this time by a fourth cold laugh. "As a matter of fact, little fool, I do. I know you more than you think I do. Why else would I know that you are lying?"

"Oh yeah?" Sonic challenged. "If you know me as well as you claim, then you know I've never been more truthful in my life, and you know that I meant every word I said before you spoke to me. So how can you accuse me of lying?"

"Because you ARE lying. Your past actions say as much."

"I TOLD you: I didn't mean what I said."

"Not your actions of two days ago, my foolish friend. All the things you have done before that day."

Sonic frowned. "What do you mean? What things? I know that sometimes I can be...well, impatient with her, but I've never done anything to imply that I hate her."

"Oh no? Why do you think I brought you here?"

"Why you brought me here? Well, that's obvious, isn't it? You brought me here to mock me, to make fun of me, to toy with me as though I was merely a little wooden doll carved for your pleasure!"

"A good theory, my little blue friend, but one which is wrong in every way. I did not bring you here merely to mock you-I could have easily done so without transporting you. No, I brought you here to show you the consequences of your past actions towards the pink rose."

Upon hearing this, Sonic smirked slightly, even though he had no idea as to whether his mysterious tormentor could actually see him. "Well, if that's the only reason you've brought me here, you've wasted your time. I already know the consequences of my actions-Amy gets mad, pulls out that hammer of hers and chases after me until she either catches me or I manage to outrun her. So really, there was no need for that little light trick'a yours."

"Once again, hedgehog, you prove how stupid you truly are. After all, the last time you saw her she did not react the way you described, did she?"

The smirk on Sonic's face faded, to be replaced by a look of immense guilt as the one incident he would give anything to erase entered his mind for what must have been the thousandth time. "No." he admitted, his voice so low it was almost inaudiable. "She didn't. She didn't slug me one, make a big deal out of it or anything of the sort. In a way...I wish she HAD attacked me, or even shouted back. The fact that she just stood there while I screamed at her...that makes what I did a million times worse."

"The one time her anger would have been justified, and she did nothing." the voice purred, every word dripping with false honey. "Just as you did nothing whatsoever to make amends for your actions. You did not even seek her out and apologize."

"I was busy. We had a party to plan! I-"

"More lies. Of course, what more should I expect? After all, everything is just a game to you, is it not? You cannot even take your responsibilites as a hero seriously-"

"That's not true!"

"Do not interrupt me again. As I was saying, you take nothing seriously, so there is no reason for me to believe that you either understand or care about the things you have done. At the end of the day, despite all the good deeds you have done, you are little more than a selfish, impatient, arrogant, rude, egotistical, short-tempered liar."

Despite the guilt that was still seeping through him, Sonic felt himself start to shake with impotent fury. "That's a lie!" he hissed through gritted teeth. "I'm none of those things. You take back what you said right now."

A fifth cold chuckle in perhaps as many minutes. "So you cannot handle the truth...Sonikku?"

That did it. Sonic's rage reached boiling point. "THAT NICKNAME IS FOR AMY'S USE ALONE!" he bellowed. "SHE'S THE ONLY ONE WHO CAN GET AWAY WITH IT! APART FROM HER, NOBODY-NOT TAILS OR KNUCKLES OR WAVE OR ANYONE ELSE-HAS THE RIGHT TO CALL ME THAT! ESPECIALLY NOT YOU, YOU GOOD-FOR-NOTHING COWARD!" He broke off, gasping for breath.

It was perhaps a minute before the voice spoke again. When it did, it was in a tone laced with anger. "What did you call me, hedgehog?"

"You heard!" Sonic snarled. "You have the audacity to accuse me of things that aren't true, to insult me and to disregard everything I say, but you don't have the nerve to insult me face to face! You'd rather lurk in the shadows as though you were a wanted criminal too afraid to show his face in case he's recognised! Well, I'm sick of this! If you're gonna mock me, at least have the decency to show yourself!"

"You demand that I reveal myself?" The voice came again, fading with each syllable. "As you wish. But I warn you, you may not like what you see..."

The last word faded into nothingness. And then there was silence.

Sonic was suddenly painfully aware that he had been alone in a pitch black void talking to someone who, perhaps, was never there. It was as if the entire world around him had died; as if time and space had ceased to exist, leaving him isolated in the endless shadows. All he could hear was his own laboured breathing, followed by an echo of that breathing.

For a moment, fear struck deep into his heart; fear that the cold mocking voice had never truly existed; that he had become yet another of those people he had so often pitied: just another lonely soul, driven to creating imaginary people in a desperate attempt to stave off loneliness, to deny the simple truth that was in front of him-that everyone he cared about had abandoned him, that he had driven everyone away with his actions, that he was doomed to spend the rest of his life alone.

Then he heard it. A soft hissing sound, similar to the noise steam makes when it escapes from a kettle. And it was coming from behind him.

He turned slowly, every muscle tensed, ready to do battle with whoever or whatever had emerged from the shadows to challenge him, or, if necessary, to flee into those same shadows in an attempt to find protection should his opponent overpower him.

What he saw surprised him.

He had fully expected to see a large snake poised to strike, fangs dripping with deadly venom, or at least a vicious wildcat with unretracted claws and teeth like spears, ready to pounce. What he had not expected was to see a white, filmy wisp of steam rising from the ground, its tip curling in on itself, over and over, creating a perfect circle. Even as he stared in stunned silence, the circle grew, each rotation becoming whiter, more solid, than the last, until it was no longer merely a circle but a glowing white orb, as large as his fist. Then the wisp of steam vanished, and the orb hung in the darkness like an eeire, pupiless eye.

The orb 'stared' at Sonic and Sonic stared back, trying to decide whether his desire to know exactly what was happening was stronger than the uneasy feeling that had started to creep through his skin. In the end, as it had so often in the past, his curiosity won out. "Well, I gotta admit, that's pretty impressive." he said, trying to keep the nervousness out of his voice. "But I don't see what it has to do with our previous conversation. What exactly are you trying to tell me?"

No answer.

Despite his nervousness, Sonic started to feel annoyed. He had never been patient at the best of times, and this definately was not the best of times. "Hey, pal, I asked you a question. And last time I checked, it was considered polite to answer when someone spoke to you. So what do you want?"

Again, no answer.

Sonic growled in frustration, and placed his hands on his hips, tapping his foot-just what was he going to have to do to get an answer? "Look, buddy, if you're tryin' ta make me mad on purpose, then believe me, you're succeeding! Now just what's going on here?"

Still no answer.

"Look, I haven't got all day, so unless you want to tell me something, I'm outta here!"

Still no answer.

"Ok, that's it!" snapped Sonic, his already-thin patience running out. "I've had it! First you bring me to this place for no reason whatsoever, then you mock and insult me, and now you refuse to answer me! Well, fine! You're obviously not going to tell me what the point of all this is, so I'm leavin'!" With that, he turned on his heel and stormed away.

A dull roaring noise in front of him was the only warning he received before a bright blue flame burst from the ground in front of him, blocking his path. Startled, he tried to side-step the column of fire, only to be thwarted in that escape attempt by another jet of flame. He turned and ran back the way he had come, putting on a burst of speed, but even as he did, a third tongue of flame sprang up, forcing him to stop so quickly that his feet slid out from under him and he fell onto his back, banging his head against the hard, unforgiving surface of the ground. Even as he staggered to his feet, more flames were erupting into existance, until finally he was surrounded by an impenetrable ring of fire, the flames crackling fiercely, threateningly, as though daring him to try to get through.

Sonic gulped, feeling the waves of heat wash over him as though he was standing in front of a blazing furnace. "O-ok," he stammered, backing away from the flames, trying to keep his tone casual, as though he were having a conversation with friends instead of speaking to a disimbodied and now silent voice while surrounded by a circle of fire in a pitch-black void. "Ok, Mr Whoever-You-Are, you've made your point. You don't want me to leave. Fine, no problem, I'll stay. But could you PLEASE tell me what's going on? This is already scary enough." By this time he'd reached the centre of the circle. "Not that I'm scared, of course. I mean," he gave a nervous laugh as he turned around, not really expecting to see anyone standing behind him. "It's not like I don't feel fear, far from it. I just..." His voice died in his throat, for the orb, which had been hidden by the flames, had reappeared in front of him. And not only that, it seemed to have become brighter, so much so that the flames around him, while strangely beautiful in their own deadly way, seemed dull and lifeless in comparison.

As before, Sonic found himself staring at the orb, and as before, his curiosity got the better of him. But this time, he suppressed any questions he might have had, as well as his usual habit of charging headfirst into a situation, and slowly approached the floating ball, carefully and cautiously. When he was within arms reach of the glowing sphere, he reached out, index finger extended, and with a wariness he never knew he possessed, carefully poked the orb.

He was surprised to discover that the surface of the orb felt solid, as though he was poking stone, instead of the misty substance he had expected. What was more, it felt icy to the touch, like plunging your hand into a bucket of snow, rather than white-hot like the sun it resembled. He frowned deeply-while many strange things had happened already, this was by far the strangest occurance yet.

Suddenly, the orb started to crackle, and strands of electrical energy shot up Sonic's arm, knocking him off his feet and sending him sliding across the ground, stopping just short of the flames. Staggering to his feet for what must have been the third time, he let out a snarl of unbridled fury, his temper and dignity smashed to pieces. "Ok, buddy, that's IT!" he shouted. "I've put up with a lot'a things since you dumped me here-I've put up with your insults and your refusal to either let me go or answer me-but this is the last straw! Now you're gonna get it!" And with that, he charged towards the orb with raised fists, the thought that he might not be able to actually fight something like this never occuring to him.

Just as he was within striking distance, however, he felt himself slowing down, as though he was wading through treacle while wearing shoes made out of concrete. It was as if his arms had turned to lead, as if his feet had been glued to the floor. Every step he took seemed to increase the problem. All the feeling in his body felt as though it was draining away, and yet there was no pain. He tried to speak, to ask what was going on, but the only sound that came from his mouth was a slurred, drawn-out moaning.

Then he stopped moving entirely, his arms dropping to his sides, his legs springing together, his mouth snapping shut and his eyes staring straight ahead, once more focused on the orb and somehow unable to look away. It felt as if his whole body had been turned to solid stone-even his breathing seemed to have stopped. The only thing to assure him that he still lived was the sound of his heart, its rapid pounding resonating in his ears. He tried to lift a finger, to blink an eye, to wiggle his nose, but all to no avail. All he could do was stand and stare into the milky depths of the orb, stand and wait for something-ANYTHING-to happen.

Then the orb started to pulse, its colour fading slightly then returning with each 'beat'. And not only that, with each pulsation it started to grow, only a centimetre per beat but it grew nonetheless. After 5 beats, it was the size of Sonic's open hand, 10 beats and it was the size of his head, 15 beats and it was the size of his stomach, at which point it stopped growing, although its slow steady pulsation continued, as though it were a heart pumping blood around a living body.

Suddenly, the orb exploded, a radiant halo of light rippling outwards from its centre, so bright and overwhelming that it was painful to look upon. The white appeared to engulf everything, blazing like a beacon in the darkness.

And then, just as suddenly, it was gone.

Sonic blinked, surprised at what had just happened, then realised he could feel his limbs again. He looked down at his hands and experimentally clenched his fists a few times. Everything moved. That was good.

What was more, as he looked up, he saw that the blazing circle of fire was gone, as though it had burnt itself out. That was better. Perhaps he could leave before anything else happened...

A cold chill running up his spine was his only warning that something was amiss before a hand clamped down onto his shoulder. Startled, he spun around, and found himself face to face with a figure about his size, its face completely hidden by the hood of the dark cloak it wore. Instinctively he jumped back, striking a taekwondo pose, but the figure made no movement, instead continuing to stand in place, its hidden face pointing at him as though it were staring into the depths of his soul.

Sensing that he wasn't going to get attacked (just yet, at least), Sonic cautiously lowered his arms, and decided to get the facts straight. "Ok, pal, just who are you and what do you want?" he demanded, glaring at the figure suspiciously. "And are you responsible for whatever's been going on here?"

A dark chuckle issued from the depths of the cloak. "Three very good questions, hedgehog." the figure answered, in a voice that sounded strangely familiar. "Three very good questions which I shall answer in reverse order. Firstly, maybe I am responsible for everything that has happened, and maybe I am not. That is for you to decide. Secondly, you will soon discover just what it is that I want. And thirdly...you already know who I am."

"What are you talking about?" asked Sonic. "I've never seen you before in my life, and I never forget a face-or lack of, in your case. So just who ARE you?"

"Who am I? Come now, hedgehog, surely you have not forgotten me already!"

"How can I forget you, when I don't know you?" Sonic replied, starting to feel exasperated. "You're not making any sense."

"I think you will find that I am making perfect sense. You just do not understand what I am talking about."

"Hence you're not making any sense."

Another dark chuckle. "You genuinely have no idea who I am? Even though I have spoken to you ever since you arrived in this void?"

"What are you-" Sonic began, then it dawned on him. "Hey, wait a minute! YOU'RE the guy who's been insulting me and accusing me'a hating Amy!"

"Is that not what I just said? Really, hedgehog, you really are very dull-witted, are you not?"

Sonic growled. "Enough with the insults, already! Just what's goin' on around here, anyway? 'Cause if this is a joke, it ain't funny!"

"A joke? Trust me, my friend, this is far more serious than any vulgar joke."

"Don't you 'my friend' me! And what could be so serious about this? This is a joke! A farce! A-a mockery!"

"Well, hedgehog, if you would be quiet, you would understand the purpose of all this. Now, shall we move on?"

"What? No way, pal!" Sonic folded his arms across his chest and glowered at the figure. "First of all, I need some answers."

"I have already answered your questions."

"Not all of them, you ain't! Why do you keep insulting me and accusing me of something that isn't true? Why did you dump me here? And what was with the whole orb and flame thing?"

A third dark chuckle. "You will not be satisfied until you have an answer, will you? Very well, I will tell you, but only because time is growing short and we must move on." Confused, Sonic opened his mouth, but the figure raised a hand. "No more questions. Now, in answer to your first question, I keep insulting you and 'falsely accusing' you, as you put it, for the same reason that you make fun of Doctor Eggman-because it amuses me. In answer to your second question, which I believe I already answered about 20 minutes ago, I brought you here because I could not show you the consequences of your actions if you remained in our previous location. And in answer to your third question, there was no real reason for the orb and the flames; I simply wished to-what is the phrase?-put on a little show, so to speak. You know, for entertainment purposes."

Sonic was so dumbstruck, it was perhaps a full minute before he could bring himself to speak. "Excuse me?" he spluttered, feeling his rage boil. "Did I mishear you, or did you just admit that you could have appeared without all the special effects? That you could have just told me what this was all about? That there's no real reason for you to insult me?"

The figure gave a small nod. "I did. Not in as many words, perhaps, but I admitted it none the less. Is that a problem?"

"PROBLEM? PROBLEM?" shrieked Sonic. "I CAN'T BELIEVE THIS! YOU INSULT ME, MESS ME ABOUT AND PLAY STUPID SO-CALLED GAMES, AND YOU HAVE THE NERVE TO ASK IF THERE'S A PROBLEM WITH THAT? OF COURSE THERE'S A PROBLEM, YOU IDIOT! DID YOU HONESTLY THINK I WASN'T GONNA GET MAD ABOUT IT? HUH? 'CAUSE IF YOU DID, YOU THOUGHT WRONG! I'VE NEVER BEEN SO ANGRY IN MY WHOLE LIFE! IN FACT, YOU'RE LUCKY I'M NOT PUNCHIN' YOUR FACE IN! AND ANOTHER THING-"

"Quiet."

Sonic paused in his ranting to stare at the figure, startled slightly by the harsh command. "What did you say?"

"You heard me. I told you to be quiet."

"Oh, giving orders now, are we?" said Sonic hotly. "Well, let me tell you something, Mr Be-Quiet, if I wanna speak, I'm gonna speak, and there's nothing you can do to stop me. And besides-"

"That was not a request." The figure lifted a hand and clicked its fingers. Abruptly, a loud rasping noise issued from Sonic's mouth, causing the hedgehog to clutch at his throat, eyes wide with horror-his voice was gone.

"Much better. And so, to business."

With that, the figure turned away from the cobalt hedgehog, reached into its cloak and pulled out what appeared to be a piece of chalk. Sonic, who had been expecting something more impressive, didn't know whether to feel exasperated or just a bit let down. Before he could decide, however, the figure pointed the chalk into the empty space between them and started pressing against the air, moving the chalk sideways, downwards, the opposite way, and back up, drawing the image of a large rectangle. It did this so meticulously that Sonic could have sworn that he could see the shape as clearly as if it had been drawn on a piece of paper. Then he had to close his eyes and shake his head to make sure that his eyes weren't playing tricks on him, for suddenly he really could see the rectangle, glittering as clearly as if someone had drawn it in gold ink. He waited to see if the figure would draw anymore, but instead it put the chalk away, took a step to the right, and clapped its hands twice.

For a moment, nothing happened. Then, all of a sudden, the rectangle started to glow, its outline shining as brightly as the sun. The glow increased, becoming brighter and brighter, until it seemed to fill the entire void. Finally, the glow faded to reveal a magnificent mirror, twice Sonic's size, with a beautiful golden frame, standing on 2 clawed feet. Entwined around the frame were vines of an unusual pink-and-blue colouration, clinging together so tightly that one might believe they were grown together.

Sonic stared dumbstruck at the mirror, unsure what to make of this new turn of events "A-a mirror?" he stammered out, only vaguely aware that his voice had returned.

"Yes, a mirror." came the sarcastic answer. "A flat piece of glass that reflects light so that people can see themselves or whatever is behind them."

"I know what a mirror is!" snapped Sonic. "But why's it here?" He frowned. "Come to think of it, why am I here? I mean, it's not like there's any real reason for me to be here, 'cause despite what you said, I'm positive that you could've shown me this when I first arrived in this void. So unless..." He gasped as something occurred to him, then shot the figure an angry, suspicious glare. "I knew it! I just knew it! In fact I can't BELIEVE I didn't call you out on this earlier!"

"Oh?" the figure asked, its voice filled with false ignorance.

"You're not here to show me the consequences of anything I've done, you're just here to mess with me! You're here to take advantage of my guilt and sorrow at what I did and twist it into something a thousand times worse! You're playing a cruel, sick joke for no reason other than to satisfy your own twisted amusement! Well I've got news for you, pal, I KNOW what I did was wrong, I KNOW I screwed up big time, and there's nothing whatsoever you can do to make me feel any worse than I do now! I admit that I don't know the full details-for all I know, you could've had this planned from the minute you first spoke to me-but I do know that this ends now! This whole thing is driving me crazy, and there's obviously no reason for either of us to be here, so-"

For the fourth time-or fifth? Sonic was starting to lose count-the colbalt hedgehog was interrupted, as the figure let out a chuckle that was not only dark, but cold as well; so cold that it sent shivers down Sonic's spine, although he tried not to let it show. "My dear blue friend..." the figure purred, leaning against the frame of the mirror. "It seems that I must congratulate you."

Sonic narrowed his eyes suspiciously. "Because my accusations were correct?"

"No, because I believed that it was impossible for you to be any stupider than you already were. I now see that you have proven me wrong: you are stupider."

Sonic boiled with rage. "Why you no-good-" he snarled out, but he got no further than that before the figure moved in front of the mirror, raised its hands, and started to chant:

"Mystical mirror, that shelters the past,

To the onlooker, your memories reveal.

Show us your secrets, let us see

The mysteries that you conceal.

The past is an enigma

And its secrets are deep.

Show to us now,

The memories you keep!"

To say that Sonic was confused would have been an understatement. As the figure lowered its arms and stepped away from the mirror, he opened his mouth, but before he could say anything, the mirror began to flash. Slowly at first, then faster, pink and blue flashes flickering on and off, until the whole mirror started glowing with a powerful aura. The frame that held it started to glow even brighter, forcing the blue blur to cover his face as his eyes were subjected to a blinding light show for what must have been the fourth time. When the light faded this time, it seemed to Sonic that nothing had changed at first. When he looked closer, however, he saw that the glass in the mirror had become obscured by a thick mist, swirling smoke-like wisps wafting across the reflective surface like clouds in the sky.

He blinked, rubbed his eyes, and blinked again, privately fearing for his sanity. "What the..."

"I told you that I brought you here to show you the consequences of your actions," the cloaked figure purred, moving to stand behind Sonic and forcing the hedgehog to turn around. "And now I will prove it to you. Have you figured out why I went to all the trouble to bring you here and conjure this mirror?"

Sonic thought for a moment, wondering if his previous accusation was still suitable after what had just happened. Finally he shrugged. "I dunno. 'Cause you're crazy?"

Another cold, dark chuckle. "No. You see, hedgehog, this is no ordinary mirror-"

"I figured that much out myself, funnily enough."

"Do not interrupt. As I was saying, this mirror is no ordinary mirror, for it shows not your reflection, but all that has been. Every action, every conversation, every memory of yesterday."

Sonic frowned. "Y'mean, it only shows the past?"

"Precisely. Now look into the glass, hedgehog. Look into its depths and see all that you have done, all that you have said, all the hurt you have caused."

"Just a darn minute!" snapped Sonic. "Are we still talkin' about Amy? 'Cause I already toldja: apart from yesterday, everything I've done has had the same result. And I can't have hurt her that much, 'cause-"

"Look. Into. The. Glass."

Something in the figure's suddenly harsh tone told Sonic that he had better obey. Although he had not been attacked yet, that could easily change. So he turned back to the mirror, and stared into its misty depths.

Initially nothing happened, which lead him to wonder what the point of this whole thing was. But as he was starting to feel frustrated, an image began to form in the glass. It was hard to tell just what it was at first, but then the mist started to fade and the image became brighter, until he found himself staring at the image of what appeared to be a playground, consisting of a swingset, a roundabout and a sandpit. A little pink hedgehog, aged between 5 and 6 and wearing a green blouse, an orange tutu, and blue-and-red running shoes, came skipping into view, giggling to herself. Sonic's eyes widened-not only because he could actually hear the sound of her laughter, but because he recognized her. "Is that..." he began.

"The pink rose?" said the figure. "Yes."

"But...how can I hear her?"

"Do not question how the mirror works. And pay attention. Even if you believe otherwise, the things the mirror shows are very important."

Sonic looked back at the glass. The image of the young Amy had changed slightly. Now she was sitting in the sandpit, laughing as she scooped some sand into a bucket. As she tipped the bucket upside down and tapped the bottom of it with her spade, however, a blue blur came zipping past so quickly that she was knocked onto her rear and sand was blown into her face, causing her to cough heavily and rub at her eyes. Another cloud of sand was kicked up as the blur came zipping back into the scene and screeched to a halt.

Sonic gasped at the sand cloud settled, revealing the blur's identity. "That-that's me!"

And sure enough, it was. The Sonic in the glass was a little chubbier, looked to be about 9 years old, wore a red t-shirt and green hi-tops and had a band-aid on one knee, but he was still recognizable. He bent down and offered the young Amy a hand. "Hey, are you ok?" he asked, in a voice that was noticeably higher than the current Sonic's. "I didn't hurt you when I knocked you over, did I?"

The young Amy looked up at the young Sonic, a slight blush creeping up her cheeks. "H-hurt me?" she stammered, taking the offered hand and pulling herself up. "Oh no, I'm fine." She giggled, nervousness evident by her tone. "You're not from around here, are you? 'Cause I don't 'member seein' you before."

The young Sonic shook his head. "Nope, just moved here. I'm Sonic, by the way. What's your name?"

The young Amy blushed deeper, shuffling her feet. "Amy. Amy Rose."

As the image started to fade, Sonic turned to the figure. "Um, I know this is probably gonna be a stupid question, but...what was that about?"

The figure chuckled darkly, clearly amused. "That, my stupid idiot, was a memory of your first meeting with the pink rose. Considering that I previously told you that this mirror shows only the past, I would have thought that would have been obvious."

Sonic ignored the insult. "That's not what I meant! You told me that my actions have always hurt Amy in some way, but she seemed pretty happy there. So, what's the big deal?"

Another chuckle. "My dear fool, we have only just scratched the surface, so to speak. Keep watching, and you will see. As a matter of fact, here is another example."

Sure enough, another image had appeared in the glass. In that one, a slightly older Amy, now about 8-9 years old but wearing the same clothes she had in the previous image, was cutting a Valentine heart out of red construction paper. She glued the shape to a larger paper heart, this one made from pink paper and decorated with lace, then took a gold gel pen and wrote something on it, before putting the heart into an envelope, which she then proceeded to lick closed.

The image in the glass rippled slightly, as water does when something is dropped into it. When it had settled, the scene had changed. Amy skipped happily down the sidewalk before stopping outside a house. She glanced furtively to her left and right before placing the letter on the doorstep knocking on the door. Hearing the sound of footsteps from within, she ran and hid behind a tree, peering at the house.

The door opened to reveal an 11-year-old Sonic, now wearing his famous red-and-white sneakers in place of the t-shirt and hi-tops, and holding a half-eaten chili-dog in one hand. He looked around to see who had knocked, and seeing no-one was about to close the door when he spotted the envelope. He picked it up, opened it and pulled out the paper heart. He glanced at it, then grimanced. "Yuk." he muttered, screwing it up and drop-kicking it into a nearby rubbish bin. "What a hunka mush."

Behind the tree, Amy gasped. As the younger Sonic closed the door, she ran to the bin and pulled out the screwed-up paper. She stared at it, then sighed sadly and threw it back into the bin.

The Sonic watching this in the mirror felt a lump grow in his throat. "She looks so sad." he said glumly. "Can't say I blame her, after what I did. And yet..." he sniffled slightly. "And yet even after what I did, she still continued to send me Valentines. Every year, without fail, I'd find a Valentine on the doorstep, more elaborate than the last." He felt his stomach dive. "And every year, I'd throw it in the bin without reading it, never appreciating all the time and effort put into it. I've never liked romantic stuff, but after seeing this...oh, I just feel so heartless."

"So you say." said the cloaked figure, causing Sonic to jump-he had briefly forgotten that he wasn't alone. "So you say."

Recovering from his shock, Sonic glowered at the figure. "I'm serious!"

"I repeat: so you say."

Sonic opened his mouth to retaliate, but the figure put a finger to its invisible mouth and pointed to the mirror. "Do not talk. Look."

And now a third image faded into view. In this one, a 10-year-old Amy, wearing a plain white t-shirt and a green tartan skirt, was sitting on a bench, swinging her legs. From the expectant look on her face, it was clear that she was waiting for someone.

"Hey, Amy!"

The pink hedgehog turned and smiled as a 12-year-old Sonic appeared. "Sonic!" she squealed, jumping up and engulfing him in a firm hug. The blue hedgehog laughed slightly. "Wow!" he remarked. "I knew we were friends, but I didn't expect such a warm welcome!"

Amy blushed and quickly let go. "Sorry," she apologized, "I'm just real excited. Y'know that concert we're havin' tonight?"

"Y'mean the one that celebrates the anniversary of the day I kicked old Eggy's butt, and saved us all from becoming his robotic slaves? What about it?"

"Well, a few days ago, there was a contest where you could compose your own solo, and the person who did the best solo would get to perform their solo at the concert." She giggled with excitement. "Guess who won?"

The blue hedgehog pretended to think. "Gee, I dunno. Um...you?"

"YES!" Amy squealed, louder than before, clapping her hands happily. Suddenly she stopped, a nervous expression on her face. "Um, Sonic," she murmured, looking down at her feet. "I was wondering, if you would...erm..."

"If I would what?" The blue hedgehog prompted gently.

Amy blushed bright red, and her words came out in a rush. "Iwaswonderingifyou'dcometotheconcert?"

The blue hedgehog frowned. "What?"

"S-sorry." Amy stammered, looking mortified. "I said, I was wondering if you'd come to the concert. Y'know, to hear me perform. I mean," she added quickly, "you don't have to come if you don't want to, I just thought, well-"

"Sure, I'll come."

Amy blinked. "Y-you will?"

"Sure. I mean, it obviously means a lot to you."

Amy's smile grew so wide, it threatened to split her face in two. "Oh, Sonic, thank you so much!"

"Such a trusting child." the cloaked figure sneered. "A pity, really, that she had to learn the hard way."

Sonic gave the figure a poisonous look. "And just what do you mean by that?"

"Well, let me see," the figure purred in a mocking tone. "You told her that you would go to the concert, but an hour before it started, you went to visit your fox friend, and when you learned that he had been working on his aeroplane, you challenged him to a race from his workshop to the beach to see who could go fastest. You got so caught up in the race, you forgot all about the concert, and only remembered when it was too late to get there, even for someone of your speed. Am I right?"

Sonic felt his face grow warm. "Yes." he admitted sullenly. "But I made up for it later." he added quickly. "When she came around to my house shouting and screaming, I spent the best part of an hour apologizing, and it was only when I asked her to play her solo for me that she calmed down."

The figure snorted. "That may be so, but that does not change the fact that you made a promise and then proceeded to break it." It turned its hooded face to the mirror. "See, hedgehog? The mirror will show you the result of your broken promise."

As before, the image rippled and settled, revealing Amy, now wearing a pale pink dress with puff sleeves, white Mary Jane shoes and a red rose in her hair, standing on a slightly elevated stage in a large concert hall, playing a beautiful melody on a flute. The tune was low and sweet, filling the concert hall with beautiful sound. When the music came to an end, the audience swiftly rose and gave Amy a standing ovation. She beamed as she curtised, her eyes scanning the audience as though she was looking for something, or more likely someONE. After a few seconds, however, her face grew sadder and sadder, something that appeared to go unnoticed by the audience as they started to call for an encore. Instead of complying, the pink hedgehog sadly left the stage. Once off-stage, she threw her flute against the wall and burst into tears.

As the image faded, Sonic felt his eyes fill with tears, and quickly brushed them away before the figure could notice. "Oh-oh no. " he choked out, his voice thick with emotion. "I knew she was upset and angry, but I didn't realise just how much."

"That, I think you will find, is your problem. You have NEVER realised just how much your actions hurt her. Let us view another incident, shall we?"

Sonic sighed as another image of Amy, this time appearing at least a year younger than she would be now, standing outside a movie theatre, holding 2 tickets in her hand, materalised in the glass. Every now and then, she would look at her watch, then look around as though waiting for someone.

"Is she...waiting for me?" he whispered.

"Of course. Did you expect anything less?"

Sonic watched as the Amy in the glass checked her watch again, before looking down at the tickets. Suddenly, her face darkened and she started to tear the tickets to pieces. "He did it again." she hissed. "He did it again! First the concert, and now our date! He's aways making promises and never keeping them! And he KNEW this was important to me, this being a semi-official date and all!" By now, tears had started to well up in her eyes. "I guess that unless it revolves around him, it doesn't matter!" She let the torn-up pieces of paper fall to her feet, then walked away, sobbing slightly.

"Amy, wait!" Sonic shouted at the glass, even though he knew that she wouldn't be able to hear him. "I swear I didn't forget on purpose!" Hearing yet another dark chuckle from behind him, he whirled around angrily. "I'm telling the truth! I was dragged into the time of King Arthur, and had to fight him and his knights!"

The figure folded its arms. "Oh really? And I suppose that you told her what you have just told me?"

"As a matter of fact, I did!" Sonic answered smugly.

"And I suppose she believed you?"

Sonic's smug grin faded. "No." he admitted reluctantly. "She didn't When I told her what had happened, she accused me of forgetting on purpose, and chased me around with that hammer of hers for 3 hours."

"Which is precisely the same thing you would do if someone told you such a ridiculous-sounding story, is it not?" Before Sonic could answer, the figure looked over at the mirror. "It would appear that you are in luck, hedgehog. Your final memory is here."

"Wha-" Sonic followed the figure's 'gaze', and his heart leapt into his throat. "No..." he gasped. "No, please. Not this memory. Not THIS memory!"

The figure chuckled darkly. "Yes. THIS memory!"

Sonic tried to close his eyes, but they snapped open with each attempt. He tried to clap his hands over his ears, but his hands wouldn't respond, however much he tried. All he could do was watch as his mirror self left the gift shop, clutching the precious gift, only to hear Amy's voice and start running. He looked on helplessly as the mirror-Sonic, upon discovering that the gift was broken, started shouting at Amy, ignoring the tears that sprang to the pink hedgehog's eyes, before turning and running off, not even bothering to look back.

"Stop it! Stop it, please!" he shrieked, dropping to his knees, and taking his head in his now-unparalyzed hands.

"Very well..." The figure waved a hand, and when Sonic looked up, thick swirling mist had replaced the image in the glass.

Whimpering, the cobalt hedgehog looked at the cloaked figure. "You mean that this is what Amy has to put up through whenever I push her away?"

The figure silently nodded. Sonic looked down at the ground in shame as more tears filled his eyes.

"Having to endure THIS throughout these years! I dunno which is worse: that I caused it , or that I kept on piling even more upon her heart. No wonder she left me." He let the barrier of tears crumble, no longer caring that he wasn't alone, that the figure could start mocking him at any minute.

"Oh, Amy," he sobbed out, burying his face in his hands as his tears grew thicker. "I'm so, so sorry. I'm sorry I yelled at you. I'm sorry for all those times I ran off and left you. I'm sorry I threw away all your Valentines. I'm sorry about all the promises I broke. And I'm especially sorry I ran off without apologising!"

"Why are you telling me these things?" the figure asked, its voice suddenly sounding feminine. "Does that change the fact that you actually DID these things? Does that change the fact that these things are only a FRACTION of all the heartbreak you have caused? Most of all, does that change the fact that you hate her?"

Sonic glared at the figure through his tears. "What does it matter to you? YOU'RE not the one who's had to put up with these things! And I've told you a MILLION times: I don't hate her!"

The figure chuckled darkly. "I think you will find that it matters to me a lot. And if you do not hate her, why did you do those things in the first place...Sonikku?"

Sonic jumped to his feet, a look of fury etched on his tear-stained face. "I TOLD YOU, THAT NAME IS FOR-"

"'Amy's use alone?'" the figure purred. "Believe me, I remember."

Sonic growled. "Well, if you 'remember', why don't you-" But before he could go any further, the figure lifted a hand and drew back its hood, causing Sonic's eyes to widen in horror and fear to strike into his heart. The figure's face was covered in black-and-blue bruises, as well as several cuts and scars, but it was still recognizable.

Sonic swallowed hard. "A-A-Amy?" he stammered.

The pink hedgehog smiled coldly. "Yes Sonikku...my DEAR Sonikku...this is what happens when you break someone's heart." She gave a small shrug, causing the cloak to slide from her body, and almost lazily threw it aside before slowly turning, revealing the full extent of her injuries.

Sonic felt physically sick. Amy's body was covered in ugly, bleeding gashes, scars and huge bruises, some fresher than others with bright purples and blacks, some weeks old, a mixture of greens and yellows. "Oh, Amy," he whispered. "Who did this to you?"

Amy threw back her head and laughed, not her usual sweet giggle or the dark chuckle she had previously used, but a cold and cruel cackle. "You poor, stupid idiot!" she sneered. "YOU did!"

"W-what?" Sonic cried. "How could I have done this? I may have hurt your feelings many times, but I've never raised a hand to you!"

Another cackle. "Do you not see? Every bruise, every cut, every scar-they represent the times you have hurt me emotionally. This one-" she pointed to a moon-shaped scar on her cheek ."-is the result of your broken promise to attend the concert. This one-" she indicated a bruise on her left forearm."-is the result of you forgetting our date."

"But I didn't-"

"Do. Not. Interrupt." she hissed, her voice becoming low and dangerous. "And this wound-" she placed a hand over her chest. "-this is the worst one of all, as well as the newest. This is the result of your actions..." she removed her hand, revealing a hole in her chest, and a heavily bleeding heart which had been sliced into 3 pieces.

"TWO DAYS AGO!"

Sonic screamed with fright. Quickly he turned and ran, but it was no use-there was nowhere to run and nowhere to hide. He turned to see Amy approaching him, blood gushing from her chest like a waterfall and staining the ground with each step she took.

"What's the matter, Sonikku?" she snarled. "Can't you cope with seeing a broken heart? That's surprising, considering the number of times YOU broke it!"

Sonic started to back away, but he had only taken a few steps before the ground gave way beneath him, and he found himself falling. He tumbled through the darkness, helpless to do anything but listen to her harsh, reproachful voice echoing around him, repeating the same thing over and over: "It's all your fault! It's all your fault!"


 

"Sonic! Sonic, wake up! Sonic!"

"Wha-wha-what?" Sonic jerked awake, sitting bolt upright and gasping for breath. He looked around frantically, trying to get his bearings, before realising that he was in the apartment, lying on the sofa, where he had collapsed after returning home last night. Tails was kneeling beside him, an extremely worried look on his face.

"Sonic?" the fox asked in a concerned voice. "Are you ok? Is something wrong?"

"Tails!" Sonic cried, latching onto the fox. "Oh, Tails, am I glad to see you! I just had the worst nightmare ever! I was in this void, and it was just endless black, and then this voice started taunting and insulting me, and then it turned into a cloaked figure, who showed me all the times I've been horrible to Amy, and then it turned out to actually BE Amy, who was covered in all these wounds-wounds that I'D made, with my actions, and then she had this hole in her chest, and her heart was broken-LITERALLY broken-and then-"

"Whoa, whoa, whoa, Sonic! Slow down." said Tails, holding up his hand. "Now, let's see if I understand this. You had a nightmare?"

Sonic shook his head. "No, Tails, it wasn't just a nightmare. It was a nightmare featuring Amy. Oh, Tails, it was horrible! There was this cloaked figure, and it made this mirror appear, and it showed me all these things: the first time I threw out Amy's Valentine, the time I broke my promise to go see her perform her solo because I was too busy racing you, the time I didn't show up for our date, what I-" he couldn't say it.

"What you did 2 days ago?" suggested Tails softly.

"Yes! And then the nightmare got worse, 'cause the figure WAS Amy, and she showed me all these cuts and bruises she had, and she told me that they were the results of all the times I hurt her emotionaly, and then I saw that her heart was broken. And I mean that literally-her heart was in pieces! And then I started running, but the ground disappeared, and I was falling, and-" he broke off, gasping for breath.

"Oh..." said Tails quietly, understanding. He was silent for a few seconds, trying to find the right words. "Look, Sonic." he began uncertainly. "I'll be honest with you: I'm not proud of what you did. In fact, I'm kinda ashamed of you. But if you keep worrying about it, you'll go crazy."

"So what? I'm supposed to just forget what I did?" snapped Sonic. "Tails, I'm the reason Amy ran away! If I hadn't yelled at her-"

"No, Sonic, that's not what I'm saying! I'm saying that you can't worry about things like this. I have to admit, I agree that YOU'RE mostly to blame, but sitting around pointing fingers and bellyaching isn't going to solve anything."

Sonic nodded, falling silent as he thought about it. While he wanted to accept the advice, he simply couldn't forget what he had done. In fact, he was starting to wonder if maybe all of this had been coming for a long time, and his actions of 2 days ago had simply been the last straw.

"Sonic?"

"Huh?" Sonic looked up, realising that Tails had been speaking to him. "What did you say?"

"I said we'd better get going." Noticing the confused look on the hedgehog's face, the foxelaborated. "Remember? Last night you told us to meet back at Knuckles' place this morning, so we could resume our search for Amy."

"Oh yeah, so I did." Sonic muttered unenthusasitcaly. Sinking back against the sofa cushions, he sighed deeply. "Oh, Tails, I dunno if I can do this. Now that everybody knows what I did...I just don't know if I can face all those accusing faces."

Tails shrugged, getting to his feet and heading for the door. "It's your choice, Sonic. I can't force you to come with me. I gotta say, though, I'd have thought that finding Amy and making amends for your actions would be more important to you than whatever the others thought about you."

Sonic raised his head and looked over at Tails, who had his hand on the doorknob but hadn't opened it, clearly expecting the hedgehog to follow him. Briefly, he thought about what the fox had said, before getting up and following after him.

Chapter Text

Amy hurt all over. Her face, her back - even her chest seemed to be on fire, her lungs burning with every faltering breath. Her ribs felt as though they had been hit with a sledgehammer, and it hurt to open her mouth. Dimly, she remembered Latoya's fist slamming into her face, and wondered if the cat had broken her jaw.

She was vaguely aware that she was being carried, but by whom she couldn't tell. All she knew was that she was in pain. And it wasn't a dull ache, such as one would get from a sore neck or stubbed toe, but a sharp stabbing affliction, as if she had been kicked down a dozen flights of stairs by someone wearing hobnailed boots. Her vision was starting to blur around the edges as well. No matter how much she tried, her eyes kept drooping closed and it was getting harder to force them open. Clearly, the fight had taken more out of her than she'd thought.

The sound of a door being opened caught her attention, and she tried to lift her head, which turned out to be a big mistake. Letting out a gasp as a spasm of pain shot through her (and coming to the conclusion that Latoya had indeed fractured her jaw, even if she hadn't succeeded in breaking it), she instinctively reached a hand to her neck, only to wince and lower her arm as her body screamed in agony.

The person holding her tightened their grip. "Lie still. You are very badly injured as it is, and if you try to overexert yourself, you may make things worse."

"Huh?" The words sounding slurred and misshapen even to her own ears, Amy blinked hard, trying to force her vision to stay clear long enough to focus on whoever had spoken. "Who...what?..."

"Hush now, not another word. Save your strength - you will need it if you are to fully recover."

"But..." Amy began, but she got no further than that before the desire to collapse into the blessed oblivion of unconsciousness finally won out over the determination to stay alert, and anything else she might have intended to say died on her lips as she gave into her exhaustion and passed out.

Madame Unazuki laid Amy gently on the bed and began removing the tattered and bloody remains of the hedgehog's outfit, moving slowly so as not to make the bleeding worse. Surveying the injuries with the eyes of a skilled healer, she frowned deeply. While she had accurately surmised that the injuries were not life-threatening, and that they could easily be fixed up with her herbal remedies, it was now clear that the hedgehog had been beaten more severely than the swallow had first thought.

A dark bruise was forming over Amy's ribs on one side. Her left eye was turning a nasty shade of purple. There were many scratches and scrapes up and down her arms and legs, and her left knee was badly grazed - the result of rolling around on the ground. Her lips had swollen to twice their normal size, and her lower lip was split. A trickle of blood was sliding down the side of her mouth, staining the pillow. Madame Unazuki slowly rolled the hedgehog onto her stomach, taking care not to hurt her, and was greeted with the sight of several gashes and dried blood on Amy's back. The cuts did not appear to have been inflicted by a knife, and even if they had, she had had enough dealings with Diamond Dust to know that they did not carry any type of weapon, preferring to let their fists do the talking. Perhaps the hedgehog had rolled onto glass during the fight, and had been too caught up in the action to notice. Well, whatever the cause, the cuts must be cleaned as soon as possible, for who knew how much dirt and grime had gotten lodged in them, perfectly capable of causing infection the longer it remained?

A gasp from the doorway drew the swallow's attention, and she turned to see Suzi-Lu standing there, her arms full of grocery bags (which the Madame had forgotten about in her haste to get Amy inside) and a shocked expression on her face.

"I...I thought maybe I should do something useful..." the raccoon began, then placed the bags on the ground before approaching the bed, staring at the unconscious hedgehog. "How is she? Is she gonna be ok? Why doesn't she wake up?" She gasped. "Is she gonna...die?"

Madame Unazuki shook her head, kneeling before the girl and placing a reassuring hand on her shoulder. "No, she is not going to die. What has happened will leave her bruised for quite some time, but it is hardly fatal."

Suzi-Lu didn't look convinced (then again, that was perhaps understandable considering that she had just witnessed 3 of the worst thugs in the whole town administer a brutal beat-down to someone who's only crime was to come to the aid of a stranger in need). "But...how do you know? Did you check for broken bones? Chest trauma?" She gasped again. "What if she has eternal bleeding, and it's getting worse even as we stand here, and she could be dying and we don't even know it, and...we gotta call the hospital!" She dashed into the living room and snatched up the phone receiver, but before she could dial 911, Madame Unazuki, who had followed her, grabbed her wrist.

"First of all, I believe you mean 'internal bleeding'. After all, there is no such thing as 'eternal bleeding', as that would involve bleeding forever, and there is only a limited amount of blood in the body of a Mobian. But more to the point, there is truly no need to worry. After all, have you ever known Diamond Dust to attack someone - ANYone - with such ferocity that the victim is left paralyzed, or worse?"

"Well, no..."

"Exactly! So why should this time be any different?"

"Because nobody's ever stood up to them before, let alone fought them in the defense of a complete stranger, and while I have to admit, it was pretty cool, I don't think they...um, what's it called when you're thankful for something...apprisate..."

"Appreciate?"

Suzi-Lu nodded. "Yeah, that. Whatever it's called, they didn't like it, and, I dunno, maybe that made them meaner or something. I've never seen them beat anyone up like that before - of course, I haven't SEEN them beat anyone up before, but from what I've heard, when they DO beat people up, it isn't pleasant, so this might be worse, but then again it m-" The raccoon was cut off when the swallow leant forward and placed a finger over her mouth.

"Thank you for that, but I believe you have made your point - you are worried about her." Madame Unazuki straightened up and looked down at the 8-year-old. "While I must admit to being pleasantly surprised that you are so worried about someone you have only just met, I must repeat that there is nothing wrong. After all, at the risk of sounding conceited, I like to think that I know a little more about this sort of thing than someone as young as yourself. But, if you are still not convinced, come with me." And with that, Madame Unazuki took Suzi-Lu's hand and lead her back into Amy's room. Peppermint, having been woken by the raccoon rushing into the room, fluttered behind them.

Madame Unazuki took two of Suzi-Lu's fingers, and pressed them on the side of Amy's neck. "Do you feel those palpitations?"

"Those what?"

"Palpitations, child, palpitations. That rhythmatical throbbing."

"Oh! Yes, I feel it."

"Then there is no need for panic. She is in no danger, and will make a full recovery after she has been tended to."

"Well, if you're sure." said Suzi-Lu doubtfully, looking at Amy. Despite the swallow's reassurances, she felt as though she was visiting someone on their deathbed, and even though common sense (as well as the Madam) told her there was no need for concern, the unconscious form of her savior, lying there so still and looking so fragile, did very little to dispel her worries. Perhaps it was only paranoia speaking, but even so…

The look on the raccoon's face did not go unnoticed by Madam Unazuki, and she realized that reassurances alone would not soothe the child's nerves. "Child," she said softly, trying to sound as comforting as possible, "I realize that you do not have much reason to believe me – if our positions were reversed, I would probably not believe you – but in all honesty, do I have anything to gain by lying to you?"

Suzi-Lu thought. "Well, there's my money-"

"Which I have not asked for. And even if I had, what good will that do in this situation?"

"Umm…"

"Exactly. And I can assure you, right here and now, that I am not the type of Mobian who takes pleasure in falsely encouraging the hopes of others. Therefore, by that reasoning, the only logical solution is that I must be telling the truth. But come, we are wasting time with this conversation. Now, first things first. Does your mother know you are here?"

"Well, no. As far as she knows, I'm at the candy store."

"Then your first priority is to call her and let her know what has happened before she becomes unnecessarily worried about you - that is, of course, unless she is already worried. You do know you're pone number, right?"

"Yes, Mama made me learn it off by heart, because she said you can't be too careful. But…if I tell her I'm here, she'll be angry. She hates what you do, and says you're a wicked old witch who takes pleasure in coruping the innocent and vulrable, and…" Then Suzi-Lu remembered who she was speaking to, and clapped her hands over her mouth. "I –I'm sorry. Please forgive me! I didn't mean to insult you, honest I didn't! I-it just slipped out."

The Madame chuckled. "If I was to lay a curse on everyone who had called me 'witch', this town would soon gain the title of 'The Worst Place to Live.' Believe me, I have heard far worse, and I am hardly likely to fly into a violent indignant rage at such a minor comment."

"It was still rude of me, though. I beg your pardon."

The swallow waved her hand. "Pardon granted. And to calm your concerns, I did not say that you had to tell her your exact location. Simply explain what happened, and assure her that you are somewhere safe. But if you must tell her, I am certain that she will be relieved to know that you are safe and secure regardless of where you might be."

Suzi-Lu bit her lip as she thought about the swallow's words. While she didn't think Mama would be too worried (after all, she'd been gone for, what, 15 minutes), if she stayed any longer (and she certainly intended to) Mama would undoubtedly come looking for her, and despite what the Madame might think, if Suzi knew her mother as well as she thought she did, Mama would not be happy to find her only daughter in a place she herself disapproved of. It wouldn't matter that Suzi was safe from the bullying gang that roamed the streets; fortune tellers were just not welcome in Mama's world.

"Ok, I'll call Mama. Stop her from worrying." And make sure she doesn't come looking for me, she added mentally. Then something else occurred to her. "Er, actually…I can't." Noticing the exasperated look on the swallow's face, she hurried on. "I – it's not that I don't wanna, really, it's just…well, erm, I don't have a phone. Mama won't let me have one until I'm 16, because she says they turn little kiddies' brains to sludge."

"I see. In that case, you may use mine. I am afraid it is only a land line, but I trust that will not be a problem?"

"Oh no, no problem, but I can't use it. It isn't mine."

"Well, what choice do you have? I do not know if our friend has a phone, but even if she does, I cannot give you permission to use it. Besides, I do not recall that bothering you when you were so desperate to call the hospital a few minutes ago."

Suzi-Lu looked down at the receiver, which she was still holding. "Um…sorry," she murmured, blushing.

The swallow gave a short laugh. "Rest assured, I am not bothered by letting you borrow mine. And while you are contacting your mother, I shall tend to our friend."

"Can I help when I'm done calling Mama?"

"Well…"

"Please?"

The half-pleading, half-hopeful look in the child's eyes made Madame Unazuki relent slightly. "Perhaps. Maybe, we shall see. It all depends on…"

She got no further than that, for the child let out an excited squeal, as if helping out a stranger who utilized herbalism in healing was her life's dream, and threw her arms around her. "Thank you, thank you so much! I couldn't leave without knowing she was gonna be ok, and I promise I'll be nice, and quiet, and I'll do whatever you want me to, and-"

"You are welcome, my dear." The Madame cut her off, removing herself from the child's grasp. "Now, we have wasted enough time. Any more delays, and who knows what will happen? So I shall leave you to make your call, while I tend to our friend." And with that, the Madame bustled into the kitchen.

It was perhaps fortunate, thought Madame Unazuki as she opened the little cupboard under the sink, that she had decided early on that a fully-stocked first aid kit was a must. Pulling out the white metal box containing the various herbal extracts and powders and oils and salves that she had spent many an hour making, patiently cutting and stewing and measuring the exact amount needed for the healing properties to work, she paused to consider what else she would need. Hot water, definitely. Taking the kettle from the stove, she filled it, then turned on the stove and placed it on the hob, taking a basin from the cupboard above the fridge. Bandages…there should be enough in the box, but just to be on the safe side…picking up the rag bag which was always near the window, she tipped the contents onto the kitchen unit and rummaged through them, picking out the newest and cleanest for use should the need arise.

It was as she was pulling out a tray to put her load on that the sound of Suzi-Lu's voice rising slightly in indignation drifted into the room.

"It was Diamond Dust, Mama! They attacked me." A pause. "Well it wasn't exactly my fault, Mama. I had no idea they were nearby!" Another pause, then a more contrite answer. "I'm sorry, Mama, I know I shouldn't answer back…But Mama, I can't leave now! The girl who saved me needs looking after…Yes, Mama, I know it's none of my business, but I can't help feeling that it's my fault… Well, what if Diamond Dust are still about? Surely it's better for me to stay where it's safe...I'm sorry, Mama, I can't tell you where I am. You don't have to worry, though." Another pause, then a shocked gasp. "What! B-but, Mama…No, that's not a problem, but I can't tell you where I am… No, of course it's not inappriate, or whatever you said, I just can't tell you… N-no, it's not that, it-it's just-"

The child's voice sounded close to panic, and looking into the room, the swallow could see her struggling to find the words to explain her situation without upsetting her mother. Sighing in frustration, she realized that she was going to have to step in, or she was going to have the girl's irate mother beating down her door and yelling at her for "teaching" her daughter "disgraceful, disgusting, despicable and evil arts" – or better yet, get arrested for "kidnapping". As if she hadn't been distracted enough already.

Suzi–Lu looked up as Madame Unazuki entered the living room. "Excuse me, Mama." Covering the receiver with her hand, she turned to the Madame. "It's Mama. She wants to come pick me up! What do I tell her?!"

"Nothing."

"Huh? But you're the one who told me to-"

"Never mind that now. Allow me to handle this."

"But-" the raccoon started to protest, but the stern look she received silenced her and she handed over the receiver.

The Madame put the receiver to her ear, but before she could say anything, she was drowned out by an irritated voice: "Suzi-Lu, where are you? Answer me, young lady! You are in so much trouble when you get home!"

"Madam?" tried the swallow patiently.

"I suppose you think this is some sort of joke? Well, it's not funny! I asked you a question and I expect an answer!"

"Madam?"

"Just you wait until I get you home! You're grounded for – "

"MADAM!"

There was a minute's silence, making her think they'd either been cut off or whoever was on the phone had had to stop for air, then the voice said:

"Who are you, and where's my daughter?"

"In answer to your first question, just a Good Samaritan," she assured the caller. "And your daughter is fine. Rest assured, Madam, I will bring her home myself."

"Really, now?" The voice sounded suspicious. "How do I know you're telling the truth?"

"Well, what proof do you require?" the Madame asked politely. "After all, you HAVE just spoken with your child, and if that does not prove she is fine, then I fail to see what will."

"That doesn't mean anything! For all I know, you could've kidnapped her and be holding her hostage – or worse, planning to sell her as a slave to some foreign rich sultan – and made her talk to me so I don't suspect that anything's wrong!"

Deciding to ignore the accusation (a rather difficult task, seeing as how she had only been on the phone for about 30 seconds, and the woman was already starting to metaphorically ruffle her feathers), the swallow continued, trying to keep an edgy tone out of her voice, "As to the second point, I'm afraid that I can do nothing to undeniably confirm that I speak the truth, so I must ask you to put your trust in me."

Another pause, then a snort. "Seems like I've got no alternate, doesn't it? But I demand that you have her back here within the next hour. Any time after that, and I'm calling the police - is that clear?!"

"Transparent."

"Good. Now, how will I recognize you?"

"Well –" before Madame Unazuki could continue, she felt a tugging at her skirt, and looking down, she saw Suzi-Lu, wide-eyed and silently mouthing 'no'. "Please, excuse me a moment." Not waiting for a reply, she covered the mouthpiece with her hand and directed her next question to Suzi-Lu. "Is something the matter?"

"You can't take me back! Y-you can't! What if Mama realizes who you are?"

"Then that is a risk I will just have to take. We cannot have your poor mother worrying about you."

"But-"

"Child. Please. You must trust me on this." She spoke with such authority that Suzi-Lu found herself shutting her mouth and nodding mutely.

Satisfied, the Madame returned her attention to the phone,but just as she was opening her mouth to speak, a sudden squeaking made her look round in time to see Peppermint struggling to stay aloft under the weight of the tray containing the things she had gathered to tend to Amy. Dropping the receiver (which was quickly grabbed by Suzi-Lu), she darted over and removed the tray from the Chao's grasp, then placed it safely on the table.

Turning back to Suzi-Lu, she was surprised to see that the raccoon had moved closer to her, and was holding out the receiver. Deciding not to question this, she accepted the object, and placed it once again to her ear…only for her hearing to be assaulted by a loud squawking of "Hello?! Hello?! Are you even listening to me?!"

Madame Unazuki rubbed her temple, feeling the beginnings of a headache coming on. "Please forgive me, Madam, a small matter that required my attention just emerged. Now, in answer to your earlier question –"

"Well, it's about time you answered! So, how am I going to recognize the woman who has so graciously decided to walk my daughter home?"

Madame Unazuki bristled at the sarcasm. "I will be wearing a kimono and turban, and have a Chao by my side," she replied, an undertone of ice in her voice. "And I must say, Madam, that I hope you are not always this antagonistic towards someone who is trying to do you a good turn."

"How dare you speak to me like that! I could have you arrested, you know!"

Feeling her patience eroding, the Madame decided to end the call before she did something she would later regret. "I am fully aware of that. Now, if you will please excuse me, there are things I need to do before I can fulfill your request, and I believe 5 minutes of my appointed hour are already up." And before the voice could say another word, she walked briskly to the phone and replaced the receiver on the hook, ending the call.

A shrill whistle indicated that the kettle had reached boiling point, so picking up the basin (and wishing that Peppermint hadn't interfered), she went back into the kitchen and turned it off, then poured the hot water into the basin.

Wrapping her hand in a tea towel, she picked up the basin and headed back into the living room – and was surprised to see Suzi-Lu, tray in hand, heading into the bedroom. "Whatever are you doing?" she asked, following the raccoon.

The child shrugged. "Well, you'll have to let me help now, won't you? I mean, if we're gonna get this done in time." Realizing how rude she sounded, she quickly backpedaled. "T-that is, Mama's only given you an hour – from what I heard, anyway – a-and –"

"Yes, yes, very well, then." The Madame interrupted as she placed the basin on the bedside table, anxious not to waste any more time than she already had. "If you are truly desperate to help…" Then she paused, unsure to get herself out of this mess. In all honesty, she didn't really want the girl to help her – after all, she could quite easily manage by herself. On the other hand, the child genuinely seemed eager to do whatever she could to assist, and would likely be hurt by a refusal.

A squeaking from the door caught her attention, and she watched as Peppermint entered the room, curiosity aroused. Almost immediately, an idea formed, and she smiled down at Suzi-Lu. "As I was saying, if you are truly desperate to help, then you can do so by watching Peppermint. She is a dear little thing, but rather distracting when I am trying to work." She held out her hand, allowing the little mint-green Chao to flutter onto it, and then lowered her arm to the raccoon.

Suzi-Lu looked uneasy. "I don't know…"

"It is perfectly fine, I assure you. She is completely harmless in every way. Although I must warn you, she tends to be uncomfortable around strangers."

Feeling a little reassured (but not much), Suzi-Lu placed the tray on the bad, then slowly lifted her hand and patted the Chao on the head. Her nervousness disappeared completely as Peppermint squeaked in pleasure and nuzzled against her palm. "She likes me!"

"I knew she would. So, will you look after her?"

"Of course!" With that, Suzi-Lu gently took the Chao into her hands and left the bedroom, closing the door behind her. Allowing herself a sigh of relief, the Madame finally set to her long-delayed task.

Taking the first aid kit from the tray, she opened it and removed a bottle of white vinegar and a tablespoon. Uncorking the bottle, she proceeded to pour the liquid onto the spoon and add it to the water in the basin, giving it a good mix for good measure. Setting the bottle and spoon aside, she took a rag, dipped it in the basin, wrung it out and started to gently wash the dried blood off of Amy's back. A small flinch from the hedgehog made her pause in her ministrations, but when there was no further movement, she continued with her task.

Once Amy's back was cleaned of blood, the Madame gently turned her over and examined her bruised ribs. While she knew there was a possibility they could be broken, there was nothing she could do about it until Amy woke up and confirmed it, and there was no telling how long that would take. Deciding to focus on what she could heal, she took a small tin of homemade arnica salve from the kit, opened it, and gently rubbed the pine-scented ointment on the bruise.

After smearing Amy's scratched arms, legs and grazed knee with homemade calendula cream, applying witch hazel to her black eye, and bandaging her up, the Madame scrutinized the hedgehog's swollen lips. Ice should reduce the swelling, but she hadn't thought to bring any with her – an oversight she now cursed herself for. HOW could she have forgotten? - so she would have to improvise. Placing the back of her hand on the basin, she found that the water had cooled slightly, but not enough to be considered freezing. Good. Now what was needed was –

A crashing sound and a squealed "Oh!" caught the Madame's attention, and she quickly jumped up and hurried from the room. Seeing nothing broken in the sitting room, she began to wonder if she'd imagined it, until a guilty looking Suzi-Lu emerged from the kitchen with her hands behind her back, Peppermint floating behind her.

Madame Unazuki opened her mouth, but before she could ask what had happened, Suzi-Lu took one hand from behind her back and held out a salt cellar, the top half broken off completely. "I'm SO sorry! I – I was throwing this" – here she held up a small cloth ball – "for your Chao, a-and it bounced off the wall into the kitchen, and it hit – oh, it hit your salt cellar. A-and now i-it's broken, and…" Here she broke off and threw herself into the Madame's arms with a small sob.

"Hush now, child." said Madame Unazuki soothingly, petting the child's back while silently cursing this newest delay. She didn't have time for this!

Lifting her hand to her neck, the Madame was just about to tap her necklace, when she had an idea. "Child, tell me, quickly – did you spill any of the salt?"

Suzi-Lu removed her head from the Madame's chest and blinked in confusion. "Um…excuse me?"

"Child, I do not have time to waste!" Seeing the girl's bottom lip start to wobble, Madame Unazuki realized she'd been harsher than she'd intended. Taking a deep breath, she said, in a softer tone of voice, "Child, your mother only gave me an hour to do what I needed to do before I had to return you home. So please, let us not waste any more time with silly questions. Did you spill any salt?"

Suzi-Lu dried her face on her arm, sniffling. "Y-yes, I did. It's all over the counter, n-next to the kettle."

"Good. Now listen closely – I need you to collect a teaspoon of salt, and bring it to me - CAREFULLY."

"W-why?"

"No questions, remember? You wanted to help, and so I am giving you the chance – a PROPER chance, this time."

Suzi-Lu gasped, her eyes widening. "Really?"

"Yes. Now, please – salt!" As the raccoon started to scurry off, the Madame called after her, "And when you have done that, I need some cotton wool from the drawer beneath the counter."

"Why do you keep cotton wool in the kitchen?"

"Suzi-Lu!"

"Right, the salt!" The raccoon hurried into the kitchen.

With that little matter settled, Madame Unazuki turned to Peppermint. "Tell me, did you see how badly hurt the raccoon is?"

A flurry of squeaks issued from the Chao.

"I see." mused the Madame. "No visible injuries. And yet, I am certain she did not escape unscathed – she mentioned her face and side being injured. It seems I will have to do what I can. While I am busy, can you please fetch my kimono, and a scarf?"

A short puzzled squeak in reply.

"Because I told a very unpleasant person that that is what I would be wearing. Please, Peppermint? I do not have time to waste."

As the Chao fluttered off to complete her assigned task, Suzi-Lu re-entered the living room, a teaspoon of salt in one hand, and a packet of cotton wool balls in the other. "Is this enough salt?" she asked, holding up the spoon.

"Thank you, yes, that will do." the swallow answered briskly, taking the spoon and returning to the bedroom. The raccoon followed, dropping the packet and hurrying over to the bed upon seeing Amy's bandaged body. "I-is she alright?"

"She will be fine" Madame Unazuki replied assuringly, although she could understand the girl's concern. Even bandaged, the injuries were shocking to see.

Pushing any negative thoughts to the back of her mind, the Madame tested the temperature of the water again, and finding it appropriate for her needs, poured in the salt and gave it a brisk stir before looking over at Suzi-Lu. "Cotton wool, please."

"Hmm?" The raccoon looked surprised, as though she had only just remembered her assigned role. "Oh, right!" Scurrying over to where she'd dropped the cotton wool, she snatched it up and brought it over to the swallow.

"Thank you." Taking a ball from the packet, the Madame wet it and gently started brushing the salty water over Amy's lips.

No sooner had she begun, however, than Amy began twitching and murmuring. "Son…Sonniku…it hurts…"

Suzi-Lu blinked. "Sonniku? Who's that?"

The Madame shrugged. "I must admit I have no idea. But I need her to be still, so I can finish up."

Taking the statement as a hint, Suzi scurried round to the other side of the bed, clambered onto it (careful not to sit on Amy) and gently took Amy's hand. "It's ok, miss. You're fine. We're friends – we're helping you, making it better."

Amy stilled. "Son…?" she whispered, before going limp again.

With a nod of thanks, the Madame resumed her task, finishing up in a matter of moments. Dropping the cotton ball on the side, she scrutinized the hedgehog one final time in the event that she had forgotten anything. Seeing that everything appeared to be in order, she would have liked to rest, but time was running short, and she still had one more thing to do. Taking the arnica from the box, she looked over at Suzi-Lu. "Child, could you please come here?"

As the raccoon slid off the bed (being careful not to disturb Amy), the swallow opened the tin for the second time that day, wondering if perhaps she should have left it open for this purpose. Trying to ignore her doubts – sometimes, hindsight wasn't a good thing – she turned to face Suzi-Lu, who was now standing right in front of her.

"Now, Suzi-Lu…" she began, then stopped as she realized how awkward her next words were going to sound.

"Yes?"

"Well, if you do not mind…that is to say…" Oh, drat it all, there wasn't going to be any other way to say this. "Could you please remove your dress?"

Suzi-Lu's eyes widened – apparently, she was not unaware of how that question could be interpreted. "Um…excuse me, Madame Unazuki?"

Try to make a joke out of it, the Madame thought to herself. "Well, child, I can hardly tend to your side if you continue to wear it, now can I? Unless, of course, your dress happens to be absorbent."

Suzi-Lu giggled. "Not really, no. Ok, point taken." With that, she grabbed the skirt of her dress and pulled it over her head, leaving her in her vest and panties. The Madame knelt down to her level, lifted the vest, and inspected her side, then took the raccoon's chin in her hand and turned her head from side to side, examining her face.

Compared to Amy, it appeared that the raccoon had gotten off lightly. The bruise on her side was roughly the size of a large tomato and already a lovely shade of purple, and her face had a small red slap mark, but that appeared to be it, as far as her injuries went. All the same…"Tell me, child, did Diamond Dust inflict injury on any other part of your body?"

"N...well, Latoya stamped on my hand, before Miss Hedgehog – "

"Amy. Her name is Amy."

"Right. Before Amy saved me." As if to prove the truth of her statement, Suzi-Lu lifted her hand, revealing another bruise, this one the size of a golf ball.

The Madame scrutinized the hand. "Anything else?"

"No, Madame Unazuki."

"I see. Well, now that that has been established…" the swallow smeared some of the arnica onto her fingers."Please hold still, this may be a little cold." With that, she rubbed the arnica into the raccoon's bruises, being careful not to press too hard, and then proceeded to bandage her up. Stepping back slightly, she surveyed her work, then nodded in satisfaction. "That should do it."

Picking up the cloth she had used on Amy, Madame Unazuki cleaned her hands while Suzi-Lu pulled her dress back on. A squeaking alerted them to Peppermint's return, the Madame's kimono and a pale pink scarf in her arms. The Chao was flying rather slowly and erratically – then again, that was hardly surprising, considering both the weight of the clothes she bore and the fact that her vision was obscured, causing her to bump into the wall occasionally (luckily, the soft fabric prevented any injuries).

"Ah, excellent." said the Madame, relieving the Chao of her burden. Placing the bundle on the bed, she started to remove her shawl. As though sensing what was about to occur, Suzi-Lu turned her back, focusing her attention on Peppermint. "Should we bring her with us?"

"Why do you ask that, child?"

"Well, we can't very well leave her behind, can we? I mean, what with Miss Amy being unconscious and all…"

A soft chuckle. "Ah, child, there is no need to worry about her. I can assure you, she is more than capable of looking after herself." Peppermint let out a series of small, happy chirps, obviously agreeing with her mistress. "And besides, do you honestly think that it is a good idea to let Miss Amy, as you refer to her, wake up and find herself alone? She will not be up and about for a while, and she will need someone to help her – even if the person is a Chao."

Suzi-Lu considered the Madame's words. While she doubted that Peppermint would be much help if somebody broke in (she may have been 8 years old, but she wasn't that naïve), she supposed she should trust the Madame on this – after all, Peppermint was her pet.

"Well, I guess if you're certain, then ok, I suppose."

"If I am certain? Suzi-Lu, do you honestly believe I would entrust my shop's security – not to mention my little apartment – to my Chao if I did not trust her to defend herself if need be?"

Suzi-Lu shuffled her feet in embarrassment. "Um…I guess not."

"Exactly. Well, now that that is settled…" The Madame, now clad in her kimono, and with the scarf draped around her head and face, headed for the door. "Come along now, your mother is expecting us."

Suzi-Lu opened her mouth, as if to ask the swallow why she was dressed that way, then closed it and scurried after her, out of the bedroom and the apartment. Peppermint, now alone in the room, fluttered over to the bedside table and settled down upon it, keeping a close vigil over Amy in the event that the hedgehog should wake up.

Chapter Text

Pace, pace, pace, turn. Pace, pace, pace, turn. Pace, pace, pace, turn –

"You're gonna ruin Knuckles' rug if you keep that up, Sonic." Tails observed.

The hedgehog was pacing for the second time in as many days, his hands behind his back and his brow furrowed with worry. He didn't answer Tails, instead glancing up at the clock every few seconds.

Tails shifted his position slightly, wondering if it would be rude to move to the sofa instead of the chair he had been offered (the latter obviously not designed for comfort). "Don't worry; I'm sure the others will be here soon."

Receiving no answer, he tutted. "Come on, Sonic, surely you didn't expect everyone to be here before us? I mean, you are the only one of us fast enough - "

"Of course I wasn't expecting them to already be here!" the hedgehog suddenly snapped, pausing in his pacing and jerking his head around to look at the fox. "I'm not an idiot, Tails!"

Tails was taken aback by the sudden outburst. "I wasn't implying that you were, Sonic." he said in a hurt voice. "I just –"

"Just what? Wanted to jump to conclusions and assume you know what I'm thinking?!"

"No –"

"Good! And where the heck is everyone? They should be here by now! We've been waiting for hours!"

"Actually," said Knuckles coolly, entering the room carrying 3 glasses of root beer and a plate of sandwiches on a tray, "it's only been about 40 minutes. And while I was in the kitchen, I received a call from Marine, saying that she'll be here with some of the others soon." He placed the tray on the end table, then turned to fix Sonic with an icy look. "And don't take your temper out on Tails like that, Sonic. He's done nothing wrong - if you hadn't made Amy run away, you wouldn't be here now, clockwatching and wearing a hole in the floor while waiting for the others."

For a moment, Sonic looked as though he was about to retort, but whatever he intended to say died on his lips, and he seemed to deflate. "I know." he sighed, putting a hand to his forehead. "I'm just – I'm just so frustrated. I should be out there looking for Amy, not just hanging round here. I mean, what if -" He paused, unsure whether to voice what was bothering him.

"Yes?" Tails prompted.

Sonic licked his lips, which suddenly felt dry. "What if she's lying in an alley somewhere, sick or injured? What if she really needs our help and we can't get to her? What if she's being attacked, tortured, or worse? What if she…she…" His voice cracked, and he found himself unable to continue.

Knuckles walked over and put a reassuring hand on Sonic's shoulder. "Sonic, I'm as worried about her as you are, but you don't see me yelling at people who have done nothing to deserve it. And Amy isn't some meek and submissive damsel in distress – I'm sure if push comes to shove, she'll be able to defend herself and anyone else who needs it."

Sonic nodded. "You're right. And, listen, I'm sorry for my earlier outburst."

The echidna shook his head. "I'm not the one you should apologize to." he pointed out, gesturing at Tails, who quickly put his hands up.

"That's okay! He doesn't havta – "

"No, Tails, it's not okay." interrupted Sonic. "This is why Amy ran away – because I said things I shouldn't've said. I'm not gonna make that mistake again. I…I'm sorry."

"Why's Sonic upset now?" asked Cream, as she and Cheese entered the room followed by Marine and the Chaotix.

Knuckles opened his mouth, but Tails spoke first. "Don't worry, it's been dealt with."

"Right. Well then, what I wanna know now is, whadda we gonna do now?" asked Marine, plopping into a red velvet armchair without asking Knuckles if she could sit down. "I mean, we can't just go out searching without a plan; we'll never find Amy that way."

"Well, personally – " began Knuckles, but before he could continue, he was cut off by Charmy. "I know what we can do! I know what we can do!" the bee squealed, practically jumping up and down in excitement. "I was up most of the night thinking – "

"That's true." Espio muttered to Sonic. "Vector had to tie him to his bed to stop him flying up and down the corridors disturbing us."

" – and I had this great idea just before I drifted off to sleep!" Charmy continued, as though he hadn't heard Espio. "Why don't we call a psychic hot line?"

The other Chaotix looked at him as though he'd said something extremely stupid (Sonic thought it sounded pretty dumb, too, but he didn't want to upset anyone else, so he figured it was best to remain silent). "A psychic hotline?" repeated Vector. "THAT'S your brilliant idea?"

Charmy nodded his head vigorously. "Yeah. Isn't that great?"

Vector let out a snort. "And I thought you couldn't get any dumber! Just HOW is a psychic hotline gonna help us?"

The bee looked slightly taken aback, as though he hadn't thought they would reject his idea. "Well, I thought maybe we could phone up, and maybe whoever answers could tell us where Amy is. Y'know, 'cause they're psychic?"

Another snort. "Charmy, those hotlines only work because people think they work. We'd be better off tracking down a real psychic. And even if we DID find one, HOW would they know where to find Amy, unless they've actually met her?"

"Um…"

"Exactly!" Vector folded his arms and gave a self-satisfied nod.

Charmy looked downcast. "It seemed like a good idea last night." he murmured.

"Hey, c'mon, don't be so blue!" said Marine, reassuringly. "Let's keep that idea on the back burner fer now. I mean, y'never know, it might actually work."

"Yeah…in his dreams." Mighty muttered to the other Chaotix, causing them to snigger.

Marine shot them a glare. "Well, at least 'e tried! What's YOUR brilliant idea for findin' Amy, huh? If ya even HAVE one, that is!"

Mighty met her glare with a cool stare of his own. "As it so happens, I do." he replied. "All we have to do is make some Missing Person fliers, using a recent photo of Amy, and distribute them. After all, somebody's BOUND to have seen her."

"That DOES make more sense." admitted Cream, Cheese nodding in agreement.

"Yeah, it makes sense, but do you know how many people live in this town?"

All eyes turned towards the doorframe, which Rouge was leaning against. "And just how long have you been standing there?" asked Knuckles.

"Just got here." the bat answered. "And going back to my previous question, there's gotta be at least 3000 people living in this town. Are we gonna hand out fliers to ALL of them?"

"W-what?" spluttered Mighty.

"I said – "

"I heard you the first time, Rouge! But of COURSE we're not just gonna stand on the street corner and hand out leaflets!"

"Actually, we haven't COME to a decision yet…" began Tails, but Rouge held up her hand. "Not now, kiddo, I wanna hear how we're gonna do this WITHOUT handing out fliers to everyone who passes by – if they're even interested, and don't think we're advertising a new pizza parlor or something, that is."

The armadillo looked offended that his suggestion wasn't being taken seriously. "I was gonna suggest that we stick them on telephone poles and walls, for your information, or hire a billboard ad." he grumbled.

Charmy burst out laughing. "And you called my idea dumb!" he giggled. "Do you have any idea how much that's gonna cost?"

"Well, it's better than calling a psychic hotline!" Espio snapped. "Besides, Little Miss Jewel Thief" – he directed this at Rouge – "how about coming up with an idea of your own, instead of criticizing other people's?"

"Talk about the pot calling the kettle black." muttered Marine. If Espio heard her, he gave no indication of having done so.

Rouge opened her mouth, but before she could say anything, the glow of Chaos Control shone from the next room, followed by the sound of a door being opened. Approximately 30 seconds later, Froggy hopped into the room, Big scurrying after her. Behind him came Shadow and Blaze.

"What took you so long?" asked Vector wryly. "And what was with opening the door? In case you've forgotten, you do that bef – YEOW!" The last outburst was due to the tray holding the sandwiches and root beer floating into the air and flying straight at his face, scattering sandwiches everywhere (Sonic managed to catch the root beers).

"For your information, Vector," said Silver, poking his head into the room, lowering the hand which he had used to perform his telekinesis, "there's a very good reason for what we did." He turned his head to the front door. "And here it comes now."

"Wha - ?" began Tails, but before he could finish his sentence, the sound of hoverboards approaching could be heard. Seconds later, the Babylon Rogues came zooming into the room, narrowly missing Knuckles (who was picking sandwiches off his rug). The echidna shot them an annoyed look. "I assume there's a reason for this, other than the possibility that you've forgotten how to walk?" he said.

"Very funny, Knuckles." Jet snarked, hopping off his board and grabbing one of the root beers. "Actually, we kinda ran into trouble on the way here."

"Oh dear. What sort of trouble?" asked Cream in a worried voice.

"Well," began Wave, removing the other drinks from Sonic's hands and giving one to Storm, "remember that Metal Amy we found yesterday? And the huge damage it caused? Well…"

"They were spotted by some of the people they upset yesterday, and got chased." cut in Blaze. "They had to call us and ask us to open your door ready for them, Knux."

"HEY! I was telling that story!" protested Wave.

Blaze shrugged. "And I finished it. It all evens out."

"Ok, well," said Storm quickly, holding up his free hand to discourage an argument, "what's our next move?"

"So far? Nothing." sighed Cream. "Our only choices so far are calling a psychic hotline – "

"Which is dumb." piped up Vector.

" – and putting up some 'Missing Person' posters." the rabbit continued as though the crocodile hadn't spoken. "So, unless anyone else has an idea, we're stumped."

"Actually, as it happens…" began Rouge.

"Well, I do have one suggestion…" Shadow interjected.

"I was up until late thinking about this…" the bat plowed on, ignoring the black hedgehog.

"And I wouldn't suggest this unless I thought it was a good idea…" Shadow raised his voice slightly.

"Basically, all we havta do is…"

"I think we should just…"

"Call GUN for help." The 2 finished together.

"W-What?!" spluttered Sonic. "Guys, be serious! This isn't something to joke about!"

Shadow gave him an icy look. "Actually, Sonic, we were deadly serious. Well, I was, at least."

"Hey! I was serious too!" snapped Rouge.

"Uh, 'scuse me, guys," said Big, raising his hand, "but wouldn't it make more sense to go to the police instead?" He flinched as everyone turned to look at him. "Sorry, that was dumb."

"Actually, Big," said Sonic slowly, "you may be onto something there."

"I am?"

"He is?" chorused the others.

"Yeah, think about it!" the hedgehog continued. "With both the police and GUN looking out for Amy, we'll find her in no time! Why didn't we think of that before?"

"You mean BESIDES the fact we have 4 infamous thieves among the group, who're probably wanted for Aurora knows how many thefts and are only free because they've helped save the world a few times?" deadpanned Blaze. "I'm surprised they didn't shoot down the idea the minute it was brought up."

"I resent that remark!" objected Jet. "For your information, Miss Firebug, we haven't been in trouble with the law since that incident with the Duchess' tiara, and we just got questioned and released!"

"And I haven't been caught in months!" piped up Rouge.

"Y'mean ya've actually managed to resist the urge to steal for months?" asked Marine skeptically.

"No, I just haven't been caught."

"Ain't it amazing what bribery can do?" Wave stage-whispered.

"Right, ok," said Storm before Rouge had a chance to retaliate, "I gotta say, we've got some pretty good ideas, so –"

"Hang on!" protested Jet. "They haven't heard OUR idea yet."

"Do we WANT to hear it?" asked Silver.

"Well, you've heard all the other ideas, so what have you got to lose?" pointed out the hawk.

"Good point." agreed Tails. "So, what's the plan?"

Jet didn't answer right away, instead fixing them all with a stern look. "Before I tell you, I want to ask you all something: how do we know Amy really ran away?"

"WHAT?!" Sonic practically squawked. "Didn't you read the note she left?!"

"Of course I did!" snapped the hawk. "But how do you know she wasn't forced to write it?"

This was followed by a pause which lasted several seconds, before being broken by Blaze's laughter. "L-lemme get this straight." she said, gasping for breath. "You believe Amy was kidnapped?"

"Yes. Yes, we do." said Wave with a nod.

"Keeping in mind that, according to Sonic, there was absolutely no evidence of that whatsoever?"

"Ah, but think about it." pointed out Storm, knowingly. "What better way to cover up a kidnapping than by faking a runaway? It's probably not that difficult to force the victim to write a note and to take a few things to support the illusion."

Sonic appeared to consider what he'd just been told. "Yes, that would be a very good idea…if it weren't for the fact that there was no sign of a struggle! I highly doubt Amy would meekly and submissively go with whoever 'kidnapped' her!"

"And you don't think that if there had been evidence of a fight, it would've roused suspicion?" challenged Wave.

"Well…"

"Exactly!"

"What do you mean by 'exactly'?" asked Knuckles, handing the sandwiches to Big, who immediately started devouring them. "Even if you're right – and I doubt it – that still leaves 2 questions: who'd kidnap Amy and how did they manage to avoid being attacked by her?"

"Well, we don't know HOW she was kidnapped," admitted Jet, "but we know WHO could've kidnapped her. The same guy who's responsible for most of the disasters we have to face!"

"Eggman?" asked Cream.

"No, the Easter bunny. Of course Eggman!"

"But…why would he kidnap Amy?"

"I dunno, probably for the same reason he does all his evil deeds! You could take this seriously, y'know!"

"And just how do you expect us to take this seriously when you clearly haven't thought this through?!" demanded Silver. "Besides, if he HAS kidnapped Amy, how come he hasn't let us know?!"

"Didn't you hear what I just said?! I don't know how the guy's mind works!"

"Hey, hey, guys." said Charmy, lifting his hands beseechingly. "Let's not fight. Surely there are more important things to think about? Like finding Amy? Besides," he added with a shrug, "who's to say the Rogues don't have a point?"

Everyone had to admit, if only to themselves, that the bee was right. After all, the time they'd wasted squabbling and deciding what to do was time that could've been spent searching or putting a plan into action.

Tails broke the momentary silence. "So…which plan are we using?"

"Mine/ours." Everybody spoke at once.

Sonic threw his hands up in frustration. "You gotta be kiddin' me!" he squawked. "We've spent Aurora-knows-how-long making plans – "

"Actually, it's only been about an hour." interjected Knuckles.

"– And we STILL can't agree on one?!"

"Well, here's an idea!" snapped Shadow. "Since you haven't contributed an idea, why don't YOU choose which one we're gonna use?"

Sonic looked taken aback. "Um…well…"

"Thought so." The black hedgehog said smugly.

"But," Sonic stammered, clearly trying to save face, "how can I choose when they're ALL good ideas?"

"All good ideas…" murmured Tails.

"You're jokin', right Tails?" Vector deadpanned. "You honestly think the psychic thing was a good idea?"

"And maybe it is." said the fox. "Have you ever tried that sort of thing before?"

The crocodile looked puzzled. "Um…no…"

"Exactly! So where's the harm in trying? Besides, who's to say it won't work – after all, stranger things have happened."

"So…does this mean we're gonna use my idea?" asked Charmy, practically buzzing with excitement.

Tails shook his head. "No."

"But you just said – "

"Never mind what he just said!" cried Sonic. "What I wanna know is, is there a point to all this?"

Tails sighed. "As I was about to suggest," he said, folding his arms, "we don't need to choose just one idea – we can use all of them!"

There was silence as everyone considered Tails' words. "That's it?" asked Rouge. "That's your brilliant idea?"

The fox looked a little embarrassed. "Um…yes."

"Well I like it!" the bat surprisingly declared. "So, which idea are we using first?"

"Here we go again." sighed Wave. "It's like watching a tv show on repeat."

"No it isn't, because there's not going to be any arguments this time." said Shadow stoutly. "We'll use my idea first."

"Just a minute here!" snapped Storm. "What gives you the right to decide which idea we use first? Besides, our idea's better."

"No it isn't!" snapped Espio. "I say we use our idea first!"

"What about mine?" piped up Charmy.

"Mine!"insisted Rouge.

"OURS!"

"MINE!"

"OURS!"

"Hey!" Big's voice cut in. "Why don't we use them all at once?"

Silence fell upon the group for the third time in a row. "All…at once?" said Silver slowly.

"Yeah!" said the cat eagerly. "I was thinkin', maybe we could split up, so we could get it all done in a day, and –"

"Charmy," interrupted Vector suddenly, "I wanna apologize for what I said earlier."

The bee stared at the crocodile, eyes wide. "Really?"

"Yeah, because what Big just said is even stupider than your idea! Seriously?!" he asked the cat. "THAT'S the best idea you can come up with?!"

Big looked hurt. "I just wanted to help." he whimpered, looking as though he might cry.

Marine frantically tried to cheer him up. "It's ok, mate," she said reassuringly, "'e didn' mean it, did ya Vector?" She directed this last one at the crocodile, followed by a glare.

Vector stubbornly folded his arms. "Actually, I did. I'm not gonna apologize for speaking my mind."

"Why ya no-good –"

"Vector." Sonic suddenly said. "Apologize. NOW."

"Weren't you listening? I said –"

"I heard what you said." responded the blue hedgehog, his voice sounding uncharacteristically dangerous. "And I'm disgusted. Have you forgotten why we're here in the first place?" He didn't give Vector a chance to answer, but continued. "I made the mistake of hurting someone's feelings, and I'm dealing with the consequences now. I can't believe you'd even think of doing the same thing. Now, I'm going to give you a choice. Either apologize, or leave."

"Just a min –" began Vector, but the glare on Sonic's face made him change his mind. "Alright, alright. I'm sorry I was mean to you, Big." he grumbled.

"That's ok!" said Big, happily. "I forgive you!"

"Well, that's all very nice and all, but we STILL don't know which idea to use first." pointed out Blaze.

"Then can we please decide?" asked Knuckles, sounded extremely annoyed at this point. "We've probably wasted half the day with this stupid debate – we could've been looking for Amy by now!"

Sensing that another heated argument might start at any moment, Sonic whistled for everyone's attention. "You'll be happy to know I've decided on a course of action."

"Took him long enough." Jet whispered to Shadow. Sonic glared at them before continuing. "We'll use Big's idea, and do all of them."

When nobody responded, Sonic fidgeted in his place for a moment. "I mean, it's not like anybody else has a better idea, and, to be honest, I'm sick of these fights. I just want to find Amy and bring her home. I'm sure we all feel the same way, and -" he was cut off when Marine hopped over and placed a hand on his back.

"Sonic's roight! I say we give it a shot, 'cause the worst that could happen is we don't find Amy. Roight?" she said. The others shot skeptical glances to one another as they thought over the idea.

"I highly doubt Charmy's idea will work, but hey, if there's a chance it'll help Amy, then let's go for it," Vector sighed.

"Yippee! We're finally working together!" Cream and Cheese held hands and elevated themselves to the ceiling via ears and wings, cheering gleefully.

"Great! Now then," said Sonic, clapping his hands together decisively, "the way I see it, the only ideas that are gonna need more than one person to be pulled off are Mighty's and the Rogues, so if we split into 2 groups –"

"Um, Sonic," said Charmy, "there's 17 of us."

"No there isn't!" protested Cream, holding up Cheese.

"Ok, ok, there's 18 of us." the bee corrected himself. "So, who's going with who?"

"I think the more accurate question is 'who's doing what'?" said Espio. "We can figure out groups after that."

"Well, I don't know if Eggman really did kidnap Amy, but if he did, then it's only right that I should face him." said Sonic, clenching his fist in determination. "Who's with me?"

"Kind of a silly question, doncha think?" chuckled Tails. "As if I'd let you go anywhere without me."

"We're in too." said Jet, gesturing to himself and the other Rogues. "It was our idea, anyway."

"I wanna go too." piped up Marine.

"Oh no you don't." said Wave firmly. "You're too young."

"Too young?!" spluttered the raccoon. "Listen, mate, yer lookin' at someone who's been building ships since she was about 5 years old! 'Sides, Tails is only a year older than me, an, 'e gets ta tag along."

"Tails has been doing this longer than you have." pointed out Blaze. "Besides, have you forgotten what happened with Captain Whisker?"

"That ain't the point! I know I ain't known Amy all that long, but she's a pal, and I ain't gonna let Old Fatso hurt her!"

"And how exactly do you plan to fight Eggman? Can you fight him in hand-to-hand combat? Are your skills good enough to dismantle his machines?" There was a slight hitch in Blaze's tone, as though she was worried for the raccoon's safety. "This isn't going to be something you can just wing your way through, you know. You have to be alert, on your toes at all times. Can you do that?"

"I dunno what I CAN do in a fight, but I do know that I'm gonna do the very best I can. Look, I 'ppreciate the concern, but you ain't my mum, so please don't act like it. And don't try ta talk me outta this - I'm going with Sonic even if I havta sneak after 'im!" With that, Marine folded her arms and gave them a stubborn glare.

Blaze sighed. "Since I can't get you to change your mind, I'll have to do the next best thing – I'm going with you."

"Then so am I." declared Silver.

"You can count me in, as well." said Knuckles, cracking the joints which he was named after.

"And me." said Shadow.

"Looks like the rest of you guys are stuck here making leaflets." said Storm, turning to face the rest of the group. "Have fun!"

"Don't patronize me, Bird Boy" Vector muttered threateningly.

"What about calling GUN? And the psychic?" asked Cream.

"Don't worry, kiddo, we'll take care'a that now." said Rouge, pulling a couple of cellphones out of hammerspace.

"How long have you had those?" asked Knuckles. "And for that matter, where were you keeping them?"

"To answer your first question, I recently, well, 'acquired' them." said the bat. "And to answer the second…you REALLY don't wanna know."

The echidna went redder. "Sorry I asked."

"Anyway, down to business." Throwing one of the phones to Charmy, Rouge walked into the next room, dialing a number as she went. At the same time, Charmy pulled something from his pocket.

"And what is that, dare I ask?" inquired Vector.

"A list of psychic's phone numbers." said Charmy. "I was looking through the phonebook for these before I came here." Seeing the incredulous looks the other Chaotix were giving him, he shrugged defensively. "Well, you never know, we may need to ask more than one person!"

As the Chaotix started to "discuss" (in other words, argue) the probability that one psychic would know something another didn't, Tails walked over to Sonic. "You ok?" he asked.

"Yeah." said Sonic.

The fox shook his head. "No you're not," he said. "Not really. And you probably won't be until we find Amy and bring her home."

Sonic didn't answer for a few seconds. "Tails…" he said finally, "what if we DON'T find her? Or worse, what if we find her, and…a-and…" His voice cracked, and he was until to continue the sentence, blinking rapidly as tears threatened at the corners of his vision.

Tails put a comforting arm on his shoulder."Sonic," he began, "I can't promise that she'll be alive when we find her, but even if she is…well, y'know…at least we'll know. Surely, even that's better than this uncertainty?"

"But Tails!" Sonic had abandoned trying to hold back the tears, and let them flow freely down his cheeks. "She'll never know I was sorry! Never know I was g-gonna apologize!"

"Oh, Sonic…"

"Sonic?"

"Huh?" The blue hedgehog turned to see Cream standing nearby, Cheese floating beside her. "The others are getting ready to leave." said the rabbit, pointing over to the door, where the Rogues, Blaze, Shadow, Silver and Knuckles stood waiting for the last 2 members of their party.

Sonic quickly brushed the tears from his face. "Thanks for the heads-up, Cream, we'd better get over there." He turned to walk away, but stopped when he felt Cream's hand on his elbow. "Sonic," she whispered, "it'll be ok. For some reason, I think – no, I KNOW – she's still alive."

The hedgehog glanced over his shoulder at her, and nodded – he didn't know if she was right, but the thought made him feel better. "Thanks." he said, before turning back to the others. "Ok, we all know what we're doing?" As 17 cries of "yes" rang out, he nodded again. "Ok – let's go!"

Chapter Text

Amy's first thought upon awakening was that she didn't remember falling asleep. Her second thought was that she ached all over, as though she'd been in a fight or something. She shifted slightly in an attempt to lessen the pain, but that only make the aching intensify, so she stopped.

What happened? She wondered. Where am I? Have – have I been kidnapped?! Her heart rate sped up in panic, only to return to normal when she realized how foolish that was -after all, it was unlikely that any kidnappers would be considerate enough to provide her with a soft bed like the one she could feel she was currently lying on.

A strange noise – a sort of combination of squeaking and snoring – caught her attention, and she somehow managed to force her eyes open, blinking several times to allow her vision to adjust itself to the change in light levels. She slowly started to push herself into a sitting position…only to instantly regret it as pain flared in her ribs and caused her to cry out.

Peppermint, who had been dozing on the bedside table, shot awake with a startled squeak. Seeing Amy sitting up clutching her ribs, she hopped from the table onto the hedgehog's pillow, chirping in concern.

"What?" said Amy, frowning at the Chao. "Who - ?" Then the fog that had descended upon her memory disappeared, and she smiled in recognition. "Peppermint!" she cried, turning slightly to face the Chao…which turned out to be a big mistake, as the pain in her ribs spread throughout her whole body. She cried out again, causing Peppermint to flutter over to her chest and try to gently push her back down onto the bed. Amy didn't try to fight it, and allowed herself to lie back down.

"Heh, ok, sitting up, big mistake." she said with a short laugh, then looked up at the Chao, who was hovering in front of her face. "Um…is your mistress here?"

Peppermint chirped, shaking her head.

"Well, what about that…" Amy paused, trying to remember. "That girl?"

Another chirp, another shake of the head.

"So…it's just you and me?"

This time a nod as well as a chirp.

"Ok. Well…um…" Amy hesitated, unsure what to say next – it wasn't easy having a conversation with someone who could only talk in chirps and squeaks. "I…uh…"

It was then she noticed how dry her throat felt. "Um…I don't suppose you could…well, maybe…get me some water, please?"

Peppermint squeaked and saluted (making Amy giggle slightly), then fluttered over to the door. Taking the handle in both hands, and planting her feet firmly on the wood just below it, she pushed down on it as hard as she could. The door remained closed, however, her weight obviously not enough to open it.

"Oh!" Amy gasped slightly, seeing the flaw in her request, and mentally cursing herself for not realizing it sooner. "Hang on," she said, throwing off the covers and getting out of bed. "I'll help…" She swayed slightly and clutched the bedside table for support, the brief adrenalin rush disappearing as quickly as it had occurred and the pain from before returning with reinforcements.

The mint-green Chao, noticing her charge was up on her feet, squawked in panic and flew over to the hedgehog, shaking her head and waving her arms frantically.

"Don…don't be silly…" Amy said, forcing herself forward, wincing with every step. "I can manage…a few…" She got no further than that, as her legs gave out from under her and she pitched forward, falling to the floor.

Peppermint let out another high-pitched screech, the sound making the ache forming in Amy's head intensify, but she paid it no mind, heaving herself onto her elbows and shaking with pain, although she tried to stop. "I'm…I'm ok…" she gasped out. "Just…need to…"

Despite her best attempts, however, her strength gave out completely and she collapsed again. Peppermint landed and hopped over to her, shaking her and squeaking in concern.

The hedgehog lifted her head slightly. "'M…'M fine…" she slurred out, before dropping her head back onto the carpet. "'S'not so bad 'ere." And indeed, she did feelkind of comfortable lying there. Maybe, if she just fall asleep again right there, it wouldn't hurt. Only for a little while, though, and she'd be up in no time...Yeah, just 5 minutes, she thought to herself, before allowing herself to fall into the welcoming black abyss.

The floor had somehow become soft and warm when she next regained consciousness. At first, she was unsure what had aroused her, then she heard the sound of voices swimming in and out of her hearing – well, actually only one voice and a series of chirps. They were conversing very, very quietly, for which she was grateful, because her head felt as though it would explode if she was forced to listen to anything louder than a whisper, and she was too tired to care very much about what they were saying, anyway. She tried to block out the noise and go back to sleep, but it was difficult to get her mind to shut down now that she was wide awake, and added to that she felt more thirsty than before. Surely whoever was talking wouldn't mind if she got a glass of water to quench her thirst and (hopefully) return to a dreamless slumber.

Opening her eyes – and snapping them shut a second later as bright light assaulted her vision - she tried to sit up, but her ribs and limbs erupted in pain, causing her to moan in pain. A second later, she felt somebody putting their arms around her, gently helping her into a sitting position, placing another pillow behind her back.

"Easy, now." said a soothing voice. "You have quite a long way to go before you are completely healed."

That voice…so familiar…"S…Soniku?"

A slight movement, as though the person holding her was shaking their head. "No, I am afraid not."

Then who…? Suddenly, as though somebody had opened a door in her mind, memories came flooding into her head. She had woken up thirsty, asked Peppermint to get her a drink, tried to get up and open the bedroom door, and then passed out. As to the identity of whoever was supporting her, the Chao was too small to do so, and in any case did not possess the ability to speak, so that left… "M…Madame Unazuki?" she whispered, forcing her eyes open for the third time, and lifting her head very slowly to look into the face of the kindly swallow.

"Yes, Amy Rose, it is I." the swallow nodded. "How do you feel?"

"Honestly…I hurt everywhere." she admitted raspily. "My ribs are throbbing, my muscles ache, and my throat feels as though there's a desert in my mouth."

"Well, I think I can do something about the last one." The Madame turned away slightly, reaching over to pick up a glass of water that was stood on the bedside cabinet. Turning back to the hedgehog, she gently placed the edge of the glass against Amy's mouth.

Amy took a small sip, then as the cool water washed over her lips, drank with greater urgency, as though she'd forgotten how delicious water could be.

All too soon, in her opinion, the glass was removed from her mouth. "That is enough for now." said Madame Unazuki. "Too much at once, and you are likely to be sick." She returned the glass to the cabinet, then addressed Amy. "Feeling better now?"

Amy considered, then nodded, smiling slightly. "A little, thank you."

The swallow smiled back. "That is good to hear." Then her smile faded, and she became more serious. "Now, I hate to ask this, after you have just awoken, but what, exactly, did you think you were doing?"

Amy looked down, feeling sheepish. "I'm very sorry, Madame Unazuki. I know I probably shouldn't have been out of bed, but I was just so thirsty, and –"

"No, Amy Rose, that is not what I meant. I meant to say, what did you think you were doing, taking on 3 opponents by yourself?"

"Huh?" Amy tilted her head, confused. What did the Madame mean? Then it hit her. "But...with all due respect, Madame Unazuki, I had to do something. I mean, Diamond Dust were ganging up on an 8-year-old!"

"And it never occurred to you to fetch help? Or wait for me to return, or even to call the police?"

"I couldn't! They'd already started beating her up by the time I got there! If I'd waited, or even darted upstairs for my phone, they probably would've KILLED her, or at least put her in a coma!"

"That does not alter the fact that you could have knocked on a door and asked the resident for assistance."

"But I don't know anyone else around here, apart from you! If I had asked, they might not have agreed to help!"

The Madame had to admit that the possibility was more than likely. After all, unless she was mistaken – and she seldom was – nobody had intervened on behalf of a frightened, defenseless 8-year-old except for the wounded hedgehog she was currently supporting. Not that she was surprised, of course, as she could probably count the number of people who dared to stand up to Diamond Dust (herself and Amy Rose excluded) on one hand. And that wasn't an exaggeration; it was the truth. It seemed that as far as the townspeople were concerned, as long as they didn't interfere with the street gang, they themselves would go unharmed.

Her reverie was broken when she realized Amy Rose had spoken to her. Judging by the worried look on the hedgehog's face, she had obviously asked an important question. "Yes?" the Madame prompted, in the hopes that the question would be repeated.

Instead, the worried look was replaced with one that was a combination of shock and dismay, and the swallow realized that not only had she inadvertently answered the question; the answer itself had not been the one Amy Rose had wanted to hear.

Amy didn't say anything, but Madame Unazuki felt her slump slightly. "I should've been faster," the hedgehog whispered in a dejected voice. The Madame didn't need to ask what Amy was talking about, but before she could say anything, the hedgehog continued. "She got hurt because I didn't get there in time to save her. This is all my fault."

Madame Unazuki felt she should nip this in the bud before it got worse. "I believe," she began, "that we have experienced a minor miscommunication."

"What?" Amy now looked confused. "But, Madame Unazuki…you just told me -"

"No, Amy Rose, I do not, in fact, know what I just told you. You see, I was rather preoccupied with my own thoughts to pay much attention to your question, and for that I apologize. I did not mean to cause you any unneeded distress. Now, forgive my asking, but what exactly did you believe I had told you?"

"I…I thought…" Amy paused slightly. "Actually, it sounds kinda silly now…"

"Tell me anyway."

The hedgehog shifted slightly in embarrassment. "Well…I thought you told me she was hospitalized."

"Then I am glad to inform you that you are wrong. Although, I must admit, had you not intervened, she might have ended up in a far worse condition than she did. As it happens, she received no more than a few bruises, which should fade within 3 days or so."

"Um…I don't wanna sound rude, but how exactly can you be sure of that?"

Madame Unazuki felt an uncharacteristic urge to roll her eyes. "Who do you think tended to you both? If I may say so myself, I am rather good at creating potions and medicines to tend to the sick or wounded, even if I am not a qualified medic. Or did you believe that those bandages simply materialized out of nowhere?"

Amy ignored the sarcasm in the last remark. "Well, if you're certain –"

"I am."

"– Then I guess I won't have to worry." She giggled slightly, to cover up her remaining embarrassment. "Not that I probably should have worried, seeing as how I don't really know much about her."

"Do not say that, Amy Rose." the Madame gently chided. "This is my own opinion, but I find the fact that you WERE worried about someone you met only briefly quite admirable. There are not many who would choose to help a stranger in distress."

Amy's confusion returned. "But, didn't you just say about 5 minutes ago that I shouldn't have intervened?"

"Only because you tried to help someone by yourself, with no-one to help you if you got in trouble, which you did. And while I still wish you had gotten help, it was very brave of you to help a stranger in peril – indeed, if more people were like you, perhaps the world would be a far better place."

Amy blushed. "Please, Madame Unazuki, I'm no hero. She needed to be rescued from those thugs, and I stepped in to defend her. Any noble person would do the same, I think."

"Perhaps, but they did not do so this time. And as for not being a hero, I am certain our little raccoon friend would disagree."

"Maybe, but – " Amy's words were cut off by a loud growling noise. It took her a moment to realize that a) it was coming from her stomach, and b) she hadn't eaten since breakfast, which had been who-knew how long ago. "Um, sorry about that." She murmured, blushing for the second time in as many minutes.

"No need to apologize, Amy Rose. In fact, perhaps I should be apologizing to you. It is past lunchtime, and I should have remembered earlier. Now, your stomach will not yet tolerate anything too heavy, but I am sure I can come up with something simple."

"Oh, no, you've already helped me enough. You don't have to – "

"I know I do not have to, but I want to. Please, allow me."

Amy was about to protest, but her stomach growled again, louder this time, so she decided it would be easier to just give in. "Ok, if you insist."

"Excellent! Oh, and before I forget, there is someone who wishes to see you." This last was said as the Madame got to her feet and headed over to the door.

"Really?" Amy asked. "Who – " But her question was quickly answered when Madame Unazuki opened the door and Peppermint came zipping in, heading straight for Amy and throwing her tiny arms around the hedgehog's neck (although not without being careful of her injuries).

The Madame chuckled at the Chao's enthusiasm. "She has been worried about you since you passed out. When I arrived back after escorting our little acquaintance home, I found her literally hovering over you, and I must say, I thought I was going to have another patient on my hands - she was so hysterical, she nearly fainted."

Peppermint briefly paused in her snuggle attack on Amy to give the swallow a reproachful look, but the only response was a very not-at-all intimidated chuckle. "It is no use trying to deny it, Peppermint, you forget I was a witness to the entire thing. But come, this is not getting lunch prepared." With that, Madame Unazuki left the room.

As the faint sounds of porcelain clattering and cutlery clinking emerged from the kitchen, Amy turned her attention to the little Chao clinging to her as though the hedgehog would disappear if she let go. "Were you really that worried about me?"

Peppermint nodded so fast her head was little more than a blur.

"I'm sorry about that. I just wanted to help you with the door – I didn't mean to cause you concern."

Peppermint let out a series of squeaks and chirps, which Amy took to mean "Don't worry about it.", and patted the hedgehog's cheek, giggling when Amy looked cross-eyed at her, which in turn made the hedgehog giggle. "So, does this mean I'm forgiven?"

The Chao appeared to consider this for a moment, then nodded again.

"Well, good to see you don't hold grudges." Amy joked. "Don't worry, though, I have a feeling we won't be seeing those 3 bullies for a while. I mean, your mistress scared them pretty good last time, and she must have done so this time."

A shrug from Peppermint, as if to say "I doubt it."

"Hmm. Guess we'll just havta wait and see." At that point, Amy's attention was diverted by Madame Unazuki re-entering the room carrying a tray, upon which was a steaming bowl of vegetable soup, a roll, and a small cup of tea.

"Now, here we are, Amy Rose – a light repast to tide you over until you are to eat heavier foods again."

"Thank you, Madame Unazuki." said Amy, gratefully taking the tray from her hostess. For several minutes, the only sound that could be heard was that of eating, as the hedgehog eagerly tucked into the food, while the swallow just sat watching her, looking as though she was contemplating whether or not to ask something. Finally, Madame Unazuki sighed. "I am sorry to have to intrude on your personal life like this, but, if I may ask…who is Sonikku?"

Amy was prevented from answering straight away, as she accidentally inhaled a mouthful of soup in shock, and had to be slapped on the back for several seconds as she broke into a coughing fit. Gasping for breath, she looked up at the Madame. "D-did you j-just say S-Sonikku?" she gasped out.

The swallow nodded in affirmation. "I did. You see, you mentioned that name as I was tending you, and I believe that whoever they are, they are very dear to you – in fact, and I apologize for being presumptuous, but it is my personal opinion that they may even be the reason you ran away. So, do you wish to enlighten me?"

Amy bit her lip as she considered. She knew that she couldn't keep the identity of the guy who had broken her heart a secret forever (it was just good luck that Madame Unazuki hadn't connected 'Sonniku' with 'Sonic'), but she didn't know if she was ready to divulge that piece of information yet, not when the pain was still too raw. "With all due respect, Madame Unazuki, I'd rather not tell you."

"You would not? But surely –"

"Please, Madam. I'm grateful for all you've done for me so far, and to be honest, I don't think I'll ever be able to repay all the kindness you've shown, but I'm afraid the answer is no. It…it's a very sensitive subject for me, that's all."

The Madame raised an eyebrow slightly, but decided not to ask any more questions, being only too aware of how Amy felt. "Very well, if that is your decision, I shall not pursue the subject. But if you ever wish to talk about it, I am always ready to listen. Now, drink up your tea."

Pleased that the swallow had respected her wishes, Amy took the cup of now-slightly cool tea and drained it. The moment she put the cup down, she began to feel woozy. "Wh-why am I so sleepy?" she yawned. "I only woke up a few minutes ago."

"Nothing to worry about. I simply added a mild sedative to the tea I gave you. After all, sleep is one of the greatest healers for those who are sick or wounded."

"B-but I don'…wanna…shleep…" Amy slurred, feeling her eyelids starting to grow heavy.

"I know, but really, there is little you can do until you recover, and slumber will speed up the process slightly." Madame Unazuki gestured to Peppermint. "Let us leave now. She needs her rest."

Amy forced her tired eyes open, intending to thank Madame Unazuki, but the swallow had already left the room, accompanied by the mint-green Chao. Drowsiness won out, and the hedgehog fell into a deep slumber.

Chapter Text

In the abandoned factory which currently served as a secret hideout, Dr. Ivo Robotnik - more commonly known as Eggman, evil inventor and would-be world-ruler extraordinaire - turned off the blowtorch, removed his welder's mask, and stepped back to admire his latest creation. "There, that should do it. Now to see if it works."

Turning slightly, he picked up the black metal helmet from the worktable and placed it on his head, before tapping a code into the computer. "Excellent," he mused, looking at the monitor. "All readings seem to indicate that there won't be any problems. But just to be on the safe side…"

Reaching into his coat, he pulled out a small remote and pointed it at the vaguely-humanoid metallic figure on the lab table, pushing one of the buttons. Electricity briefly crackled through the robot, causing it to arch its back off the table, then the surge faded and it lay still. There was a moment of silence, in which the mad doctor began to wonder if this had been such a good idea after all, then the robot began to twitch, its fingers flexing. It slowly raised itself from the table and stood ramrod straight, as though it were a soldier awaiting orders.

An evil smile began making its way across the doctor's face as he scrutinized his newest Badnik. At first glance, it appeared to be an average humanoid android, aside from its head, which was vaguely reminiscent of a Velociraptor, with a single yellow eye in the centre of its faceplate. Easily at least a head taller than its creator, its plating was blood-red, the shiny silver Eggmanland logo on its chest complimenting the chosen color. Both its hands were silver, with 4 digits on each extremity. The red color scheme was broken here and there by acid-green streaks on its arms and legs, and an acid-green crest on its forehead. Spikes on its shoulders completed the overall appearance. It certainly looked intimidating…but would it live up to its image?

There was only one way to find out.

Pointing the remote at the wall opposite, Eggman pushed another button, causing a panel on the wall to slide upwards. From within a bright blue target emerged. Upon this target there was a crude drawing of a certain hedgehog scrawled across it. "Now, unless I'm mistaken – and I rarely am – this helmet will allow me to control my Super-Badnik by thought alone. So..." Putting his fingers to his temples and closing his eyes, the doctor focused as hard as he could on the target and the target alone, forcing all other thoughts from his mind, mentally willing his latest creation to obey him.

Almost immediately, the Super-Badnik lifted its right arm and clenched its hand into a fist, which retracted into its forearm to be replaced almost a second later with a large blaster. In one fluid motion, it pointed the blaster at the target, and fired off a powerful energy shot at the target, reducing it to little more than a smoldering piece of wood.

"Good, good," the evil doctor nodded in approval. "But superior firepower means nothing against that accursed hedgehog's speed. Better see how my Super-Badnik fares." Another push of a button, and the target slid back into the wall, to be replaced with a new one on a long pole. There was a pause, then the pole began to shake and judder, before splitting into six extensions, each one holding a perfect copy of the target. Almost at once, the extensions began to rotate, slowly at first but slowly getting faster and faster until they were little more than a blur.

Once more the doctor focused his thoughts, and once more his creation responded, discharging shot after shot. Tiny shards of wood flew in all directions, forcing him to duck down in order to avoid being hit by the wooden shrapnel. When the sound of the last shot had faded, he lifted his head to see that the extensions had stopped moving, and every single target now had a huge gaping hole in the center. "Perfect."

Grabbing a small black notebook from a nearby table, he opened it and started scribbling a few notes. "Hmm, no, no, that'd never work!" He erased what he'd just written, then wrote something else. "Not bad, not bad. Although, there's still the whole Super thing to consider, what with those accursed emeralds. Maybe if I reinforce the titanium - "

An alarm blared, causing Eggman to instinctively drop his notebook and pencil and clap his hands over his ears. "What the-? Computer, pull up camera feed!"

In response, the computer console hummed and the screen flared to life, revealing footage from the loading dock of the factory. While there was no audio, it was clear that the robots the diabolical doctor had created in order to guard against intruders were being destroyed by something small, blue and VERY fast.

"So, Sonic's here, is he?" Eggman sneered as he slid his notebook into his pocket. "Well, I had hoped to have some more tests done before he arrived, but I suppose there's no better time for a field test!"

Approaching the wall opposite the target, he placed his hand on a hidden computer panel and typed in a few numbers. There was a click and a whirr, and the console slowly sank into the floor, where it would be safe during the oncoming battle. He typed in a few different numbers, and the wall slowly slid open to reveal a secret room. Slipping inside, he pressed a hidden button and the wall moved back into place just as the sound of a deafening rumble reached his ears, causing the building to shake. Now he would be able to observe, thanks to the hidden two-way mirror in the wall, but not be seen himself.

From the haze of smoke caused by the explosion emerged Sonic. But if Eggman could have seen him, he would have been very surprised, for there was no smug look on the hedgehog's face, no cocky overconfident sneer. Instead, his eyes were cold, and his expression could only be described as extremely livid. Dangling from his clenched fist, the metal buckling slightly from the pressure he was putting on it, was the detached leg of a robot, the broken wires sparking slightly.

"OK, Eggman!" Sonic snarled, looking around the room with an enraged glare, not noticing Tails, the Babylon Rogues, Marine, Blaze, Silver and Knuckles entering the room behind him. "Where are you?!"

Tails winced slightly upon hearing his best friend's uncharacteristically harsh tone. The glower on his face just didn't seem right for someone who was normally so cocky and devil-may-care. "Uh, Sonic?" he asked somewhat nervously. "Don't you think maybe you should...calm down a bit?" He quickly regretted saying anything, as Sonic gave him a poisonous look.

"Calm down?" hissed the hedgehog. "Calm down?! You want me to calm down when Amy's going through Aurora-knows-what?!"

"B-but you don't actually have any proof that that's what's happening! Besides, if you don't calm down, Eggman could take advantage of your anger to take you by surprise!"

Inside the hidden room, Eggman listened to this conversation via a hidden microphone and smirked. So, his archenemy was mad about something, was he? And it had something to do with the pink hedgehog? Interesting.

"Tails is roight, Sonic, gettin' mad ain't gonna help us. We gotta stay calm, focused and - WHAT THE BLOODY 'ELL IS THAT?!" shrieked Marine, jumping back and landing heavily on Knuckles' foot. For she had just spotted the motionless Super-Badnik standing a few feet before them, in all its glory.

Blaze tilted her head as she scrutinized the robot. "Well, I might be mistaken, but I believe it's a Badnik."

"Thank you for that, Miss State the Obvious," deadpanned Silver. "I think the real question us, whadda we do now?"

"Do?" repeated Sonic incredulously. "Do?! We'll do what we always do!" And ignoring Tails' cry of "Sonic, wait!", he dropped the leg, took a few steps back and charged towards the Badnik...

...only to bounce off the force-field that suddenly appeared and slam into the opposite wall.

"Sonic, are you alright?!" cried Storm as the blue hedgehog groggily got to his feet.

"Yeah," Sonic groaned, rubbing his head, "but I wasn't expecting THAT."

"That's what I was tryin' to tell you!" said Tails. "This whole thing is a trap - it's gotta be!"

"A trap?" scoffed Jet. "Oh, please!"

"I'm serious!" the fox protested. "I mean, think about it - we break into Eggman's lab, and there's this Badnik just standing there, waiting for us? Isn't that even a little suspicious?"

"Well, I guess so," the hawk admitted ruefully, "but that doesn't prove anything! We just fought our way through several robots -" he gestured to the robotic leg Sonic had disgarded "- and Eggman ALWAYS builds Badniks to guard his hideouts - it's what he's KNOWN for, for Aurora's sake! There's nothing new in that."

"Maybe. But when's the last time he just left a Badnik out in the open?"

"Er - "

"EXACTLY! Obviously, he knew we were coming and set this up!"

At that, Eggman had to clap a hand over his mouth to stop himself from bursting into laughter. He wasn't very surprised that somebody had reached that conclusion (he had done stranger things, after all), but the whole thing sounded ridiculous, even to him.

Silver obviously had the same opinion, as he made a derisive noise. "Don't be a moron, Tails. Even if Fatboy DID know we were coming, do you really think he'd build a Badnik that would just stand there and let us pummel it, instead of attacking the moment we came bursting in? It makes no sense for him to do something like that."

"And the fact that we're just standing here talking instead of trying to defeat it does?" muttered Wave.

"Well, considering what happened when Mr. Impulsive here- "

"OI! Who're you calling 'Impulsive'?!" snapped Sonic.

" - decided to rush into things - "

"And just whaddaya mean by that?!" demanded the blue hedgehog. "Last time I checked, you didn't have a problem with my 'rushing inta things' when we were battling Mephiles!"

"That's different!" Silver retorted. "We knew what we were getting into then - more or less - but this Badnik is something we've never encountered before."

"WHAT?! Did you hit your head or something?!"

Eggman stifled a snort of laughter. "This is so amusing! It almost makes me feel bad about having to do this..." Closing his eyes, the mad doctor focused so hard on what he wanted the Super-Badnik to do next that his face started to turn an unpleasant shade of purple. Suddenly his eyes shot open, a flash of light and determination whipping across them, further highlighted by the lens in his round glasses. (Ironically, he wasn't as short-sighted as they suggested, at least not in that sense.)

The Super-Badnik scanned the area. Data flashed and scrolled down its vision: Blaze, unhappy, angry, fire, little danger at a distance; Silver, floating, telekinesis, stay out of range; Miles, tails, IQ, spanner hidden in socks, weakest; Sonic, fast, number one priority. Each detail flashed faster than a human eye could accept, but then again this was no human. A twitch, then the robot lunged towards the Mobians, retracting both hands as it did so.

"I'm telling you, this is not, as you put it, 'something different'!" Sonic snapped. "After all - YYEEOOWW!" This last outburst was due to the fact that the Super-Badnik had thrust its arms forward and fired an energy blast at him - luckily, he and the others had noticed and managed to dodge in the nick of time, but even then it was a close call.

"W-watch out!" gasped Tails as the Super-Badnik darted past them, then turned and charged back the way it had come, unleashing a barrage of shots as it did so. Shadow's eyes widened as it headed straight for him - he quickly activated his Hover-Shoes and was only just able to skate away before a blast hit the spot where he had been standing seconds ago.

"Ha!" exclaimed Shadow. "Bet you weren't expect..." He trailed off as a set of roller skate wheels suddenly popped out from underneath the Super-Badnik's feet, before it lifted its slowly charging blaster towards him. "Uh-oh." Backing away, he turned and ran, narrowly avoiding having his heels scorched by another shot. The sound of wheels behind him, however, indicated that the robot had given chase, and was actually managing to keep up with him. Not good, not good, not good! he thought frantically, darting past his friends, who were trying to avoid getting blasted themselves. I gotta do som - AHA! His eyes lit up as he spotted the wall on his left-hand side. Quickly, he changed direction and charged towards it; if he could just reach it maybe he could-

"AAARGH!"

Something caught him around the ankle and he fell flat on his face onto the cold concrete floor of the warehouse. Twisting his head around to see what was wrong, he saw that he was entangled in the wires of the robotic foot Sonic had thrown aside. Gasping, he quickly reached down and started yanking frantically at his bonds in a desperate attempt to free himself, but even as he worked frantically, he could see the Super-Badnik getting closer, closer, closer...

Then, to his surprise, he found himself being lifted into the air high above his opponent. The Super-Badnik, however, was not so lucky and, despite withdrawing its wheels, it slammed heavily into the wall, causing its creator to unleash a (muffled) string of curses.

"W-wha?" stammered Shadow, then it occurred to him. "Hey, thanks!" he shouted down at Silver, who had telekinetically lifted him and was now gently lowering him to the floor. "But couldn't you've done it a little sooner?"

"I should've let the robot shoot you," muttered Silver, rubbing his head slightly - he was feeling a little tired from the effort of lifting a fellow Mobian.

"Hey, metalmouth!" As the Badnik pulled itself away from the wall, Storm took advantage of the momentary lull in the shooting to draw back his fist and slam it into the robot's faceplate. He immediately regretted it, as pain shot through his arm. Screaming, he dropped to his knees, clutching his sore hand - and got punched in the face by the Super-Badnik, which sent him crashing into the wall opposite.

"Smart move, genius," deadpanned Blaze. "What's your next plan?"

"Let's see YOU do better," muttered Storm as he got to his feet.

"If you insist." Lifting a finger above her head, Blaze proceeded to move it in a circular motion, creating a ring of fire. As it floated down to hover in front of her chest, she raised both her hands and pushed it towards the robot as hard as she could. If she had hoped to damage it, however, she was sadly disappointed - the Badnik calmly lifted its left arm, and shot a stream of water from its wrist, extinguishing the flames.

"You were saying?" sneered Storm - only to find himself forced to dodge as the fire-manipulating cat summoned a fireball and threw it at him.

"Guys, this is no time to fight among ourselves!" yelled Wave, running over and grabbing Blaze's arm. "We're sitting ducks - we need to focus, because if we don't I don't think we're gonna last much longer!"

Scowling, Storm opened his mouth, but was cut off by a series of energy blasts - the Super-Badnik had rejoined the battle, forcing the albatross to abandon his attempt at verbal retaliation and leap aside in order to avoid being vaporized. Unfortunately, his attempt at escape wasn't very successful - while he managed to dodge the first one, the second one hit him in the side, causing him to yell in pain and drop to his knees, clutching his wound.

"STORM!" cried Jet, running over to his fallen teammate. He quickly draped the albatross's arm over his shoulder and helped him to his feet, but before he could move Storm away a whining noise caught his attention, and he looked up to find himself staring down the slowly-charging barrel of a blaster. "Uh-oh," he gulped, stepping back, but Storm's weight made him stumble slightly and he fell to the floor, accidentally jabbing his friend in his wound and earning another shriek of pain. He didn't hear, however, his gaze fixed on the blaster that would shoot them any second now...

Suddenly, there came a strangled yell, and the blaster was jerked away as Marine, adrenaline coursing through her veins, charged forward and threw herself at the Super-Badnik, landing on its shoulders and clapping her hands over its eye. "Oh no ya don't, ya bugger!" she screamed, clinging on with all the strength she could muster (which was surprisingly a lot for such a little raccoon), while Jet took advantage of the distraction to lift Storm again and get them both to safety.

"Blast!" growled Eggman, gritting his teeth with rage. "That accursed raccoon spoiled a perfectly good shot! But I'll fix her!" With that, he snapped his eyes shut and concentrated once more.

In a flash, the Super-Badnik's other arm shot up and fastened its claws around Marine's tail, yanking her off her perch. She let out a screech of pain, flailing her arms madly as she felt herself being pulled down, then gasped in horror as the robot drew back its arm and hurled her towards the nearest wall.

"MARINE!" Frantically spinning the appendages that gave him his nickname, Tails leapt into the air and hurtled towards the stricken raccoon. Pushing himself forward with all the power he could muster, he was able to grab Marine just before she made impact and used the momentum of the robot's throw to swing her onto his back...only to be halted in mid-air as a renewed volley of energy blasts hit the wall in front of him. "YIPES! Change of plans!" Quickly, he turned and darted back the way he'd come, Marine clinging to his back.

"Uh uh uh uh, fox boy," Eggman sneered, wagging his finger mockingly (which was sort of pointless, since nobody could see him from inside the room). "None of that. Let's put a stop to it, shall we?"

Retracting its blaster, the Super-Badnik replaced it with a grapple, and fired. The strong metal cable looped around Tails' ankles and yanked him back. With a startled yelp, he tried to kick out, but he wasn't powerful enough to break free, and he felt himself being pulled down as the robot began to retract the cable. A familiar - and unwelcome - charging sound caught his attention, and he couldn't stop himself from gulping. Frantically, he redoubled his efforts in an attempt to pull himself loose. But no matter how hard he struggled and jerked, it didn't make the slightest difference - he was held tight.

"Storm, Fastball Special, quick!" shouted Knuckles, hurrying toward the injured albatross.

"With this arm?!" Storm protested, gesturing to his singed shoulder.

"I know, but it's their only chance. DO IT!"

"Fine." Seizing the echidna around the waist (and wincing as he did so), Storm lifted him off his feet, swiveled slightly and sent him hurtling towards the Badnik. Knuckles raised his arms as he flew through the air, spikes pointing directly at his target.

Eggman only just managed to put his fingers to his temples in time. Unable to activate its force-field, as doing so would have forced it to release its captives, the Super-Badnik swung its arm and used Tails like a flail, slamming him into Knuckles and sending them both ploughing into the floor. Marine was thrown off Tails and collided with Blaze, knocking her backwards and causing her to drop the fireball she had been creating. It fell to the ground, and dissipated.

"S-sorry 'bout that," Marine stammered as she untangled herself from Blaze.

"It's not your - LOOK OUT!" screamed Blaze, grabbing Marine's wrist and yanking the raccoon to the floor, throwing herself down as she did so. A second later, a blast of energy shot over their heads and blew a huge hole in the wall opposite. Lunging to her feet, Blaze managed to form another fireball and launch it just as the robot took aim and fired again. The attacks met in midair and exploded on impact, sending everyone in the room ducking for cover as small pieces of fireball shot in every direction.

As the flaming debris slammed into the walls and became little more than wisps of smoke, the Super-Badnik retracted its blasters and replaced them with claws once more, before darting forward on its wheels towards Wave, who was nearest. The swallow quickly dropped to her knees, leaving it grabbing at the empty air, but was forced to throw herself backwards as it attempted to kick her in the face. Flipping herself onto her hands, she lashed out with a Spin Kick, and actually managed to strike it in the midsection.

In the secret room, Eggman stumbled back, clutching his stomach as though he'd been kicked in it. "W-what?" he gasped out, then growled as realization struck him. "Blast! It must be mental backlash! I'd better finish this fight, and fast!"

Emboldened by her success, Wave attempted another kick, but this time her opponent was ready for the attack, and it seized her foot and hoisted her into the air. Wave let out a yelp as she dangled helplessly, flailing madly.

"HEY! Back off, Robo-Jerk!" yelled Jet, as he and Storm rushed to aid their fellow Rogue. But quick as a flash, the Super-Badnik wrapped its other hand round Wave's throat and began to squeeze, forcing the albatross and hawk to skid to a halt. Wave gasped for air, scrabbling futility at the robot's grip as she began to turn blue, while her friends could only watch, desperately trying to figure out how to save her without making things worse. Luckily, not everyone was in such a predicament. Tails had managed to get himself untangled from Knuckles, and now he leapt into the air and flew at top speed towards the robot.

"Not long now," Eggman thought triumphantly, as he felt the Super-Badnik's grasp tighten. "Just a few more minutes, and -" And then he was sent sprawling with a strangled cry as Tails slammed his feet into the robot's head, forcing it to drop to its knees and release Wave, who staggered to her feet gasping for breath.

"No!" growled Eggman, pulling himself up, unaware that the helmet had started to get hot. "I won't be defeated! Not like this!"

Within moments, the robot was on its feet and back in the fight, replacing its hands with machetes and unleashing a flurry of vicious slashes, which the Mobians in its vicinity were only just able to evade. But even then it was a close call - Tails lost an inch of fur as he dodged a swinging blade.

"Doesn't-this-thing-ever-give-up?" panted Jet, narrowly avoiding having his face sliced off as he ducked under a machete, then dropping to the ground to elude a downward thrust. Unfortunately, that proved to be a big mistake, as he was then kicked in the face so hard that he was sent flying across the room and slammed into a wall, sliding to the ground clutching his now-broken jaw.

"W-what?!" spluttered Eggman. "I didn't order it to do THAT!" His face turned puce as he screwed up his eyes and clenched his fists, concentrating so hard he barely noticed that the helmet was starting to spew a tuft of smoke.

Groggily getting to his feet, Jet looked up in time to see the Super-Badnik charging towards him. Squawking in shock (which he quickly regretted when his jaw started throbbing), he tried to run, but only managed to trip over his own feet, as he was still too dazed to stand properly, let alone escape danger. And judging by the looks of things, he had about ten seconds before being skewered by the robot's blades. Gulping, he could do nothing but watch as it came nearer and nearer...only to be suddenly ploughed into by a certain blue blur. An instant later, it switched targets and raced after Sonic, raising its blades as it did so.

"I don't think so!" Shadow yelled as he darted towards it, leaping into the air and performing a Black Tornado. While it didn't have the effect he had hoped for, he did manage to get it to turn its attention towards him. For the second time since the battle had begun, he found himself being pursued by the Super-Badnik. This time, however, there were no robotic body parts to stop him from carrying out his plan. Glancing over his shoulder to check that it was indeed following him, he skidded to a halt, mere inches from the wall.

"Shadow, are you mad?!" shouted Silver. "Get out of the way!" He made to run towards the black hedgehog, but was stopped when Blaze grabbed his arm. "What the - LET GO! He's gonna get himself killed if someone doesn't -"

"Don't worry," the cat replied calmly. "I know what he's doing." So, it seemed, did everyone else, as while they watched on tenderhooks as their friend put himself at risk, nobody tried to interfere.

"Ok, here goes," Shadow muttered as he watched the Super-Badnik get closer. "Three...two...one..." Seconds before it could plunge a machete into him, he side-stepped it, and its blades sunk into the hard wall behind him.

"You stupid machine!" Eggman snarled. "I ordered you to - what smells like smoke?" He suddenly became aware of the increased heat from the helmet and was forced to tear it from his head before it gave him second-degree burns. "YEE-OWW! It's overheating!" Even as he dropped it on the floor, blowing on his fingers in an attempt to cool them down, sparks began to fly from it, coming dangerously close to the mad doctor's legs. Quickly, he slammed his finger onto the hidden button, and the door of the secret room slid open. As the Mobians watched in surprise, he kicked the helmet away from him, sending it soaring the length of the room, before coming to land on the tallest object in the room: the head of the Super-Badnik.

"HIT THE DECK!" yelled Marine, throwing herself to the ground. Everyone else, even Eggman, quickly followed suit as the helmet exploded, propelling the Super-Badnik free of the wall and onto the floor, where it slumped in a heap, smoke billowing from the empty cavity where its head had once been.

"No, no, NO!" screamed Eggman, jumping up and down in a rage. "It was perfect! It was undefeatable! It was -" His rant was cut off as Sonic sprinted towards him and punched him in the mouth, knocking out one of his teeth and sending him sprawling. "OW! What the - " He got no further than that as Sonic punched him again. And again. And again.

"Sonic!" cried Wave, grabbing the hedgehog's arm as he drew back his fist for another hit. "Calm down, before you kill him!"

Sonic opened his mouth to retaliate, then closed it, grudgingly admitting to himself that she was right. "Alright, fine," he grumbled, lowering his other fist. "But that doesn't mean he's gettin' away with what he's done!"

"What I've done?!" spluttered Eggman, pulling himself into a sitting position. "In case you've forgotten, hedgehog, this happens all the time! I build the Badniks, you smash the Badniks, I come up with a new plan and the cycle starts again! What's different about this time?"

"Oh, I dunno," the blue hedgehog replied, his voice dripping with sarcasm. "How about the fact that YOU KIDNAPPED AMY!" As Eggman was about to retaliate, Sonic clapped his hand over the evil doctor's mouth. "Oh no ya don't! You ain't talkin' your way outta THIS one!"

"Sonic, get a hold of yourself!" protested Tails, placing a hand on his friend's shoulder. "You don't even know if he DID kidnap her!"

"That's roight!" nodded Marine. "Ya can't go accusin' people without proof, even if it IS Eggman!"

"But - "

"But nothing, hedgehog!" snapped Eggman as he yanked Sonic's hand away from his mouth. "And as it happens, I DIDN'T kidnap your little pink friend!"

Storm scoffed. "Nice try, Egg-Boy, but if you think we're gonna believe THAT, you're not as smart as you've always claimed to be."

"How dare you! I'm telling the truth!"

"That'd be a first," Tails muttered to Knuckles, who was busy pulling wires out of the Super-Badnik. The echidna nodded briefly before returning to his work.

"I'm serious!" Eggman protested, getting to his feet and making a sweeping motion with his arm. "Feel free to look around the place if you don't believe me!"

Giving him a look of suspicion, Sonic stood up and dashed out of the room, closely followed by Shadow. Thirty seconds or so later, they were back.

"Well?!" asked Blaze.

"He was right," said Shadow, shaking his head incredulously. "I can't believe it, but he wasn't lying - Amy isn't here."

"See?" Eggman remarked smugly. "How does it feel to be wrong, hedgehog? I was right, wasn't I? I told you I didn't kidnap her, I was -" He was interrupted when Storm grabbed him by the collar and yanked him down to his eye level.

"That's enough of that," said the albatross acidly. "Any more smugness, and you'll find that I hit harder than he does." And to emphasize his point, he raised his fist and placed it threateningly on Eggman's nose, as though daring him to give him a reason to punch the doctor out. Wisely, Eggman didn't respond.

"Looks like you guys were wrong," Silver remarked as he turned to Jet. "Fatboy's innocent. For once."

"Bu wha bout -" began Jet, then he snapped his mouth shut as pain scythed through his jaw again.

"What about the Badnik?" finished Storm, releasing Eggman.

"That's SUPER-Badnik," Eggman corrected haughtily. "And for your information, I'd only just built it. If you lot hadn't come barging in and interrupted me, I could've finished testing it out before sending it out."

"THAT was a test?!" squawked Wave. "You could'a killed me!"

"My sympathies," he muttered, being careful not to let the others hear him.

"And what about that Metal Amy we ran into yesterday?" demanded Storm. "The one that blew up and got us into trouble? Are you gonna claim that you DIDN'T send it out?"

"That's right, I didn't," snapped Eggman. "The only thing I did yesterday, other than work on the Super-Badnik, was dismantle some of my old robots for spare parts - I have too many broken bots, thanks to you lot, and I can't just go into the store and buy the parts I need. Anyway, that particular Metal Amy obviously wasn't broken enough, so it managed to get outside and into town, where you found it." Noticing the cynical looks on their faces, he let out a sigh of exasperation. "Oh, come on! Haven't I just proven that I'm telling the truth this time?!"

"Just because you were telling the truth about Amy, it doesn't mean you're telling the truth about everything else," pointed out Tails. "For all we know, you could be lying through your teeth about this. Unless you have any proof?"

"Proof? Of course!" Marching over to the hidden computer panel, Eggman typed in the code to raise the computer console, then as it came whirring up from the floor, he walked over to it and activated the security feed from the night before. "There," he said, stepping aside and gesturing to the screen. "See for yourself."

Obediently, the Mobians trooped over to the computer, and watched as the grainy black-and-white footage did indeed show Eggman take apart a pile of robots while a Metal Amy wriggled out from another pile and flew out the door (the doctor didn't see that, having been distracted by a Buzz Bomber that had suddenly reactivated and was now chasing him around the room, an act which earned a few giggles from Sonic and the others) and using their parts to build the now-headless Super-Badnik.

As the footage faded to static, Eggman turned to his foes. "Are we convinced NOW?" he demanded. "Because if we are, I have a Super-Badnik to fix, and a hideout to repair."

"Hey, don't - " began Silver.

"Yes," interrupted Blaze. "We are."

"We are?" repeated Marine.

"We are," the pyrokinetic cat confirmed. "Let's go."

"But - " protested Sonic.

"Amy's not here, and his robot's been blown up, so there's no point in hanging around, is there?" Blaze pointed out. "So we'd better get back and see if the others have had better luck."

Forced to admit there was logic behind her words, Sonic headed towards the hole in the wall he had created on the way in, beckoning the others to follow him. Blaze was the last one, but just as she was about to leave, she suddenly paused. "Oh, one more thing..." she said, turning back to Eggman.

"NOW what?!" he groaned.

In response, Blaze summoned a rather large fireball, aimed, and shot it straight into the hollow space inside the Super-Badnik, before leaving with a wave and a "Cheerio."

"Uh-oh." Eggman dived for cover as the robot's body juddered and jerked before exploding into a million tiny pieces which scattered all over the room. Lifting his head, he groaned again as he took in what remained of his masterpiece. "Well, back to the drawing board," he sighed as he pulled out his notebook and began to scribble in it. Good thing he still had the blueprints for it.

Chapter Text

For the second time in as many days, Amy woke to sunlight streaming in through the window. Unwilling to open her eyes, she rolled over and buried her head under one of the pillows, attempting to fall asleep again.

The sound of a gentle knocking on the door put paid to that idea. "Amy Rose, are you awake?"

Amy briefly considered not answering, but decided against it. "Yes," she called, before giving in to a yawn.

The door swung open and Madame Unazuki bustled in, carrying a tray upon which stood a bowl of porridge, a mushroom omelette on a plate and a cup of warm milk. Peppermint flew in after her, struggling slightly under the weight of three books which had been bound together with ribbon, and placed her load on the end of the bed, before fluttering over to the window and undrawing the curtains, letting the morning light into the room.

"Good morning," said the Madame. "How are you feeling?"

"Compared to yesterday?" Remembering what had happened last time, Amy slowly and experimentally pushed herself upright. Her ribs protested slightly, and her limbs still ached, but the pain was more tolerable than before, and she managed to sit up and stretch with no further complications. "Better, I guess."

"Splendid, splendid, that is encouraging news." Placing the tray on the bedside table, Madame Unazuki settled herself on the edge of the bed and gently pushed Amy forward. Gently, so as not to injure her patient any further than she already was, the swallow carefully unwound the bandages, and noted to her satisfaction that the bruising had faded quite a bit, although it was still quite shocking to see. Amy's swollen lips had gone down, and her black eye was starting to look much better already. As for the scratches and scrapes, they had healed to the point where, if one hadn't already known they were there, one would think that they had never existed. Taking the tin of arnica salve from her pocket, the Madame tenderly applied another thin coating to the bruise, murmuring an apology whenever Amy winced, then reapplied the dressings.

Once that was done, she picked up the tray and set it down on Amy's lap. "I hope you do not mind, but I brought you a little something. You should eat it before it gets cold - after all, breakfast IS the most important meal of the day."

"Thank you," said Amy gratefully, looking down at the food the swallow had prepared. It all looked and smelled so good, she could feel her mouth water. For a few seconds, she didn't know where to begin, but finally she picked up the cup and drank some of the milk, feeling a little more revitalized with every sip, before replacing it on the tray and turning her attention to the porridge, which she was pleasantly surprised to discover had been infused with cinnamon and vanilla and topped with sliced banana. She didn't know if this was how the Madame always made porridge, or if this was a one-off, but either way it was delicious.

She said as much to her hostess, who nodded in appreciation of the compliment. "I must confess, I had no prior knowledge of your meal preferences, so I hope it has been at least acceptable."

"It's wonderful! I can't remember the last time I had such a tasty breakfast!"

The Madame gave a gentle chuckle. "I am sure you exaggerate, but thank you." Then her face took on a more serious look. "As loath as I am to have to say this, there is something I must ask you."

Amy paused, her spoon halfway to her mouth. "Oh?"

Madame Unazuki nodded. "Yes. While I appreciate your eager offer to help me in exchange for room and board - "

"Oh, I nearly forgot about that!" Amy exclaimed, moving the tray back to the table and removing the bed covers. "Just lemme take a quick shower and I'll give you a hand -"

"No," the Madame interrupted, shaking her head. "You are still injured. You must stay in bed and rest."

"But Madame, what if you need my help? Besides, I'm fine," Amy said, swinging her legs over the side of the bed, but the second her feet touched the ground a wave of dizziness shot through her, and she would have collapsed if the Madame had not managed to get there in time to steady her.

"You were saying?" Madame Unazuki asked, an amused note to her tone.

"No, no, I'm fine, honest!" Amy insisted, trying to hide her light-headedness by gently but firmly pushing the supporting hands away and forcing a smile onto her face. "Look!" She attempted to take a step forward, but the sudden moment made her feel faint, and she was forced to collapse into the swallow's arms.

"That is all I need to see," Madame Unazuki said firmly, as she gently placed Amy back on the soft mattress and covered her with the duvet. "I cannot, in good conscience, allow you to assist me while you are in this state. Therefore, while I do not wish to sound like an interfering parent, I must insist that you remain where you are - for today, at the very least."

"But Madame, I feel perfectly -" Amy began. At the swallow's look, however, she sighed. "Alright, you win," she muttered, settling herself back against the pillow - despite having a stubborn streak, she didn't feel well enough to get into an argument with her hostess.

With a nod of approval, the raven-haired swallow straightened up and picked up the books, placing them by Amy's side. Upon receiving a confused look from the pink hedgehog, she replied, "I hope you will not think me presumptuous, but I did not wish for you to be bored during your bed-rest, and as I have neither a television or a computer, they were the first thing that came to mind. I hope that you will like them - they were favorites of mine when I was young."

"That's very nice of you," said Amy, picking up one of the books and flicking through it - as far as she tell could from the brief glance, the story was something to do with mysteries in a school for vampires, or maybe trolls. "I'm sure I'll enjoy them just as much as you did."

Madame Unazuki began walking towards the bedroom door. Placing her hand on the handle, she paused and turned back to her reluctant patient. "I shall be back at lunchtime to check up on you and bring you another meal. If you need anything before then, Peppermint has agreed to stay and aid you as much as she can. Now, I suggest that you eat the rest of your breakfast, before it goes cold. Just leave the dishes when you are finished, and I shall deal with them when I return."

For someone who doesn't want to sound like "an interfering parent", you're doing a pretty good job of sounding like my mother, Amy thought with amusement (and, it had to be said, a hint of annoyance). Out loud, she said "Will do. After all, I'm sure it'd be a crime to let such delicious food go to waste!"

With a final satisfied nod, Madame Unazuki left the room. As the door clicked shut, Amy looked at the remainder of her breakfast. A smell of spices wafted up from the omelette, tempting her with its delicious smell, and the rest of the porridge looked just as tantalizing as the first half, but for some reason she suddenly didn't have much of an appetite. As though sensing the change in the hedgehog's mood, Peppermint fluttered onto the bed and nuzzled against Amy's head in an attempt to offer comfort, the gesture rewarded with a gentle pet.

Pushing the tray aside, Amy let out a sigh. "So much for earning my keep while I'm here," she remarked glumly, putting an arm around the little Chao. "Now it looks like I'm gonna be stuck here, leeching off of your mistress's hospitality, for Aurora knows how long." Well, maybe she wasn't 'leeching', per say - after all, it wasn't as though she'd deliberately gotten herself injured so that she had an excuse not to contribute anything - but she didn't know what else to call it.

Peppermint squeaked sympathetically and patted Amy's cheek. Amy smiled, but it only lasted for a second before she sighed again and let her chin slump into her hand. "Y'know, Peppermint, I'm beginning to think maybe I SHOULDN'T have interfered with what those three hooligans were doing."

Peppermint stiffened, looking up at the pink hedgehog with a shocked expression on her face. Realizing how her last statement could be misinterpreted, Amy quickly back-pedalled. "Don't get me wrong, it's not that I regret coming to the rescue - after all, that poor kid woulda probably been creamed if I hadn't stepped in. It's just...well, look what it led to!" And to prove her point, she pulled the duvet away to reveal the bandages wrapped around her midsection. "I can't even stand up without getting dizzy - what good is that gonna do, huh?! I'm gonna be bed-ridden for days, if not longer!" Groaning, she flopped back onto the pillow, jostling the tray in the process. Some of the milk splashed onto her face, but she made no move to clean it off.

Peppermint stared at Amy, wondering what to do. Sure, she could go and fetch her mistress, but the Madame had enough things to do as it was, without Peppermint adding any more to her plate. Besides, Madame Unazuki had left her in charge, so surely that meant cheering up Amy was HER responsibility? With that thought in mind, Peppermint scanned the room, looking for something - ANYthing - that would help her make the hedgehog smile. Then she spotted something, and her face lit up.

Fluttering over to one of the many boxes that lay scattered about the room, Peppermint opened it and rummaged inside, hoping that whatever she was looking for was inside. Ah, there it was.

Curious, Amy sat up slightly. "Peppermint? What are you -" But before she could finish her sentence, Peppermint popped out of the box, carrying the strangest-looking object Amy had ever seen in her life.

It took a moment for her to realize that it was a roughly-sewn cloth doll which vaguely resembled a fox, although it could have been a wolf or even a skunk. Judging by its appearance, whoever had made the thing either had no talent for sewing or actually WANTED it to look grotesque, although for the life of her Amy couldn't figure out WHY anyone would want that. She was about to ask what it was, when Peppermint suddenly raised it above her head and threw it to the ground as hard as she could.

Amy was surprised by this strange act, and her confusion only grew as Peppermint fluttered down to the doll and gave it a good hard kick, then started jumping up and down on it, squeaking something that from the tone of her voice sounded like a string of expletives, before grabbing the doll by its neck and strangling it. The 'I'm trying to look angry but I'm not succeeding' look on her face, as well as the idea of anyone attacking a doll when they had no reason to, was so absurd that Amy suddenly felt an overwhelming urge to burst out laughing despite her mystification. So she did.

Hearing the sound of the pink hedgehog's laughter behind her, Peppermint paused in her throttling and looked over at the bed, spotting Amy holding her sore ribs as her entire body shook. Satisfied that her attempt to cheer Amy up had worked (not that she had doubted it too much - after all, abusing the doll had always seemed to cheer her mistress up), she dropped the doll back into its box, then fluttered back over to the bed.

Recovering from her laughing fit after a moment or two, Amy looked down at Peppermint and smiled. "I don't know what that was in aid of, but if you were trying to make me feel better, then you did a pretty good job."

Peppermint blushed and rubbed her head, happily embarrassed by the praise.

Amy then looked at the tray which held her rapidly cooling breakfast. "Suppose I'd better finish this off if I want to get started on those books of the Madam's," she said, sitting back and pulling it onto her lap. "Besides, the Madam did go to a lot of effort to make it for me." And with that, she wasted no time getting stuck in.

"Thank you for shopping at Enchante Magique, madam, and I hope you will come again."

As Madame Unazuki waved goodbye to her customer, she glanced at the clock. 11.35. Perhaps she should take an early lunch and check on Amy.

Just as she was about to put the CLOSED FOR LUNCH sign on the door, however, the phone she kept behind the counter began to ring. Curious as to who could be calling, she went over to it and answered it. "Hello?"

"Hello!" said a feminine-sounding voice, the sort of voice either a young girl or boy might have. "I want to know where Amy Rose is, please!"

Madame Unazuki blinked. Had she heard correctly? "Um, would it be possible to repeat the question?"

"Sure!" said the voice cheerfully. "I want to know where Amy Rose is, please! She ran away yesterday, and we're trying to find her!"

"May I ask WHY?" said the swallow cautiously.

"Well, she ran away because - wait, shouldn't you already KNOW why she ran away? What with you being a psychic and all?"

A psychic? How had the caller gotten that impression of her? "I believe that perhaps you have made a mistake, my little friend," said Madame Unazuki. "I am no psychic."

"You're not?" said the voice in surprise. "But isn't this one eight hundred Mystic?"

"No, I am afraid not," said the Madame. "This is not a psychic hotline, nor am I psychic"

"Sorry!" squeaked the voice. "Wrong number!" The next second, there came the sound of a dial tone as the caller quickly hung up the phone.

The Madame stared at the receiver, completely dumbfounded. Why on Mobius would someone be calling about Amy? For that matter, why would anyone be calling about Amy in particular? Unless...

Was it possible that this had something to do with Amy running away? That this and her semi-conscious reference to 'Sonikku' were connected somehow?

Moreover, what was she going to do with this new information?

For a moment, Madame Unazuki considered talking to Amy about it, but she dismissed that idea as quickly as it had arisen. After all, Amy had already proven reluctant to divulge any information as to why she had left home, so there would be little point in bringing it up again. No, perhaps it would be best to remain quiet for now, until Amy was more willing to talk, and then mention the little incident.

Yes, the Madame decided, that was what she would do. And so, with that thought in mind, she placed the CLOSED FOR LUNCH sign on the door of the shop, then headed upstairs to prepare the meal.

Chapter Text

"How many of these things do we have now?" asked Mighty, taking the freshly-printed Missing Hedgehog posters from the printer tray.

Espio did a quick count. "With the ones we have now – about ninety-nine."

"One more should do it," said Vector, setting the document to print. "And...done!" He added the newest poster to the pile, then checked the paper and ink in the printer – he felt it was the least he could do, since he WAS using Knuckle's computer without permission.

"Mr. Vector, sir? Do you think this will work?" asked a small voice behind him.

"Hmmm?" Looking around, Vector saw a worried-looking Cream staring at him with an equally worried-looking Cheese hovering by her side. Seeing how concerned they were gave him an urge to pat them both on the head and reassure them that everything would be alright. So he did.

"Now, don't look so worried, either of you," he said. "I'm sure SOMEONE will see these posters and keep their eyes peeled for Amy. We'll have her back in no time!"

"Not necessarily," said Rouge as she entered the room.

"Rouge!" cried Espio, looking up from the pile of posters. "That's a horrible thing to say!"

"Is it?" replied the bat calmly. "I mean, does anyone actually LOOK at missing persons flyers, anyway?"

"Sure they do! Look, we discussed this earlier! WHY are you bringing it up again?"

"Must be the cynic in me, I guess," Rouge shrugged, picking up one of the posters and scrutinising it carefully. "Not to criticise, but don't you think the last part might be overdoing it a little?"

"What last part?" asked Mighty, reading over her shoulder. As far as posters went, it was pretty simple - just a large piece of paper with a recent picture of Amy in the centre, with the word MISSING written above it in big letters and her name underneath. Then he saw what Rouge had meant. At the bottom of the poster were contact details, not just for the Chaotix, but for Sonic and Knuckles as well. "Well, maybe that part IS overkill," he admitted, "but we figure better safe than sorry. After all, at least this way ONE of us is bound to pick up."

"I suppose so," said the bat, putting the poster back on the pile. "By the way, I've put the word out, and both the police and GUN are going to be keeping their eyes and ears open for Amy."

"Good to know," said Vector. "I wonder how Charmy and Big are doing?"

The large cat had been so eager to do something to help that none of them had had the heart to tell him that they could handle things by themselves, so Charmy had agreed to let Big help him call the phone psychics. How anyone could help with something like that nobody knew, but it made Big happy, so they decided not to worry about it.

"I'm sure they're doing just fine," said Mighty as he opened a nearby drawer and rummaged about inside. "After all, how hard can it be to dial a few numbers and talk into a receiver?" Locating what he was looking for, he pulled out three pairs of scissors and a roll of sellotape. "OK, let's go get these posters hung where people can see them. The others will be back any minute, and I don't want them to think we've been slacking."

"But there's not enough sellotape for all of us," pointed out Espio. "You can't divide one roll by seven."

"Five, I think you mean," said Vector. "Judging by the size of that list Charmy showed us, he and Big are going to be busy for a while."

"Five, seven, whatever - the point's still valid. Besides, I'm not sure we'll have enough scissors."

"Maybe there's some more in the kitchen?" suggested Cream. "I'll go see." She turned and walked out of the room, Cheese following in her wake. As she entered the kitchen, she saw Charmy sitting at the table with the phone receiver in his hand. Big was next to him, the list of psychic hotlines the bee had written in his hand, and was reading out each number - as he did, Charmy pressed the appropriate button on the keypad.

So THAT'S how they're doing it, thought Cream as she started opening drawers and looking through cupboards. She tried to be as quiet as possible, because Charmy had started speaking to the person on the other line, but her actions did not go unnoticed by Big.

"What are you looking for?" he whispered as he got up from his chair and came up behind her - he may not have been the brightest crayon in the box, but even he knew it was rude to speak too loudly when someone was on the telephone.

"Espio's worried that we're not going to have enough scissors or tape to hang the posters," Cream whispered back, "so I said I'd look for some."

"Oh. Well, I think there's some in the cupboard under the sink."

"Under the sink?" parroted Cream. "Why would they be there?" Then she frowned. "Wait...how do YOU know what Knuckles has in his kitchen?"

Big shuffled his feet in embarrassment. "I...kinda...got curious and had a little look around yesterday, while we were getting things set up for the party. Only, please don't tell Knuckles? I don't think he'd be happy to know I didn't do the job he asked me to do."

Considering said 'job' had consisted of being asked to stand still and not touch anything, Cream supposed that she shouldn't be surprised that Big had given into temptation and disobeyed. She decided not to mention this, however. "Don't worry, I won't tell."

"Thanks!" hissed Big, before looking over his shoulder. "I'd better get back to Charmy - I think he's nearly finished talking."

He sat down again while Cream went over to the sink. Opening the under-sink cabinet, she spotted a small plastic box and removed the lid out of curiosity. To her surprise, there were three more pairs of scissors and five more rolls of sellotape sitting on top of a small pile of assorted objects. She briefly wondered just WHY Knuckles had all this stuff, as well as WHY it was in such a strange place, but decided not to question her good luck.

Snatching up two pairs of scissors and four rolls of tape, she was about to leave the room when something occurred to her. "Hey, guys," she said, turning to Charmy and Big, who were about to call a new hotline. "Do you mind staying behind while we put up the posters?" (She didn't think they WOULD mind, and Vector HAD said they might be busy for a while, but surely it was polite to ask first?)

Charmy paused with his finger in mid-air and Big looked up from the paper, both with surprised expressions on their faces. "Of course we don't MIND," said Charmy, "but why do you ask?"

Cream thought for a moment - she didn't want them to think that they were being sidelined on purpose. "Well...I mean, SOMEONE'S got to stay behind in case the others get back before we do, and since you're so busy dialling hotlines...um, er, that is..." She broke off, unsure how to finish the sentence.

Luckily, they didn't press her for an explanation. "Don't worry, we get it," said Big. "You want us to stay behind and let the others in, and tell them where you've gone, right?"

"Right!" said Cream, glad that they didn't seem offended.

"No problem!" said Charmy. "We're gonna be here for a couple hours, anyway, so it's not like we CAN do anything else, is it?"

"Guess not. Well, I'd better get back to the others." With that, Cream returned to the living room and handed out the scissors and tape to Rouge and the rest of the Chaotix.

Mighty, who had just finished dividing the pile of posters into five smaller ones, thanked Cream, then picked up one of the piles. "We should probably split up to cover more ground. I'll take the North side of town."

"Bit pointless, isn't it? After all, we don't have THAT many posters," pointed out Vector. "But it's not a bad idea. I'll take the South side - that way, I can buy some more paper and ink for Knux, and we can make some more posters later on."

"Well, I'm going East," said Espio.

"And Cheese and I will take the West side," said Cream.

"And I'm gonna fly around and drop my posters all over town," said Rouge. "Who knows? It JUST might work."

"Right, now that that's settled, let's go." Opening the front door, Mighty made his way outside, followed by the others. Rouge, the last one to leave, spread her wings and took to the air, heading toward the town with the others following in her wake.

About two minutes later, the others returned (except for Jet and Storm, who had decided to go to the hospital and get their injuries treated).

"Well, THAT was a waste of time," grumbled Sonic, flopping down into an armchair and folding his arms across his chest.

"Not really," said Tails. "We DID manage to put a stop to Eggman's plan - or at least we delayed it for a while."

"Yeah, but we didn't find Amy, did we?"

"Well, no..."

"Exactly!" cried Sonic, jumping to his feet and throwing his arms in the air. "Anyway, we ALWAYS put a stop to Eggman's plans, so it's nothing to get excited about! Like I said, it was a waste of time! We're no closer to finding Amy now than we were this morning!" He sank back into the chair with a disgruntled sigh, as though the mere act of standing up had sucked all the energy out of him.

Marine sensed that Sonic was feeling a little despondent, so she tried to comfort him. "Well, look on the broight side," she said, plonking herself down on the arm of the armchair and putting her own arm around the hedgehog's shoulders. "Least we know Eggman ain't doin' who-knows-what to 'er, and that's a good thing, in'it?"

Sonic managed a weak smile at that. "I suppose you're right."

Just then, Big entered the room. He'd overheard Sonic's outburst, and come to see what was going on. "Oh, you guys are back!" he said. "So, how'd it go?"

"Don't ask," sighed Shadow, sinking down onto the floor.

"Was it that bad?" asked the large cat, looking concerned.

"Well, I wouldn't call it 'bad', per say..." began Knuckles.

"Wouldn't call it bad?!" spluttered Silver. "We must have different definitions of the word 'bad'!"

Knuckles ignored him. "Eggman doesn't have Amy. He's been working on some kind of 'Ultra-Badnik' or whatever, and he decided to use US as test subjects when we showed up. But luckily, we dealt with it, so I don't think we'll be hearing from HIM again for a while."

"Moving on, how've YOU guys been?" asked Blaze. "Any luck with the hotlines?"

"None so far," said Big, "but the others went out to hang up the posters."

"And when was that?"

Big blushed slightly and rubbed the back of his head. "To tell the truth, I don't really know. I was busy helping Charmy call the hotlines."

"How can you help with something like that?" asked Wave, raising an eyebrow in confusion.

"More to the point, shouldn't you be helping, instead of talking to us?" asked Sonic.

"Don't need to right now," explained Big. "Charmy had to take a bathroom break."

As if on cue, there came the sound of a toilet being flushed, then the sound of a tap being turned on and hands being washed, and finally the sound of a door being opened. A few seconds later, Charmy came buzzing downstairs. "Oh, hi guys!" he said upon seeing Sonic's group. "Any luck with Eggman?"

"Yes and no," said Tails. "We didn't find Amy, but we DID stop Eggman from unleashing his new Badnik, so it could've been worse."

"THAT'S a matter of opinion," muttered Silver.

Blaze, who had overheard him, gave him a Look. "What's with the negative attitude? We won, didn't we?"

"Yes, but I highly doubt having two of our number end up having to go to hospital counts as good! Anyway, may I remind you Wave was nearly strangled to death?"

Upon hearing that, Big's mouth dropped open and Charmy nearly fell out of the air. "She was WHAT?!" gasped the bee.

"Relax, I'm fine," said Wave quickly, "but yes, that is what happened."

For a moment, Big was so shocked he could hardly speak. Finally, he reminded himself that they faced this sort of thing on a regular basis - except maybe the 'nearly getting strangled to death' part - so it wasn't worth getting upset over (although he suddenly had the urge to do something uncharacteristically mean to Eggman the next time he saw the mad doctor), and cleared his throat. "So...what now?"

"Now?" parroted Sonic. "Now we wait for the others to get back, of course. Then we decide what we're gonna do next."

"But what IS there to do next?" asked Knuckles. "After all, we've already learned that Eggman doesn't have Amy, and we know that's she's not in town."

"He's roight, y'know," said Marine. "Seems t' me that the only thing we CAN do is wait and see if anyone sees the posters and calls us."

Judging by the look on Sonic's face, he wanted to disagree, but was unable to as he knew it wouldn't make any difference. "What do YOU suggest we do, then?" he asked, a little more brusquely than he had intended.

Marine looked a little put out at being spoken to like that. "Loike I said," she said, a little stiffly, "we wait fer someone ta call. No matter 'ow long it takes."

"In the meantime," said Tails, "why don't we make lunch? I'm sure the others will be hungry when they return."

"Good idea!" exclaimed Big. "Let's have fish! We can try out this new recipe I've found - fish skewers!"

"Um, Big," said Blaze slowly, "I hate to disappoint you, but we've eaten fish skewers before."

"But have you tried them with rosemary and parsley? Or covered with honey sauce?"

Silver made a face. "Big, that sounds absolutely - "

"Interestin'!" said Marine quickly, before the cat's feelings could be hurt. "But do ya really want ta cook all that fish and 'ave it go to waste if it turns out we don't like it?"

Big was about to answer when Knuckles suddenly jumped up, hands on his hips. "Now just a minute here!" snapped the echidna. "This is MY house, so I think I should get to pick what we have!"

"Why bother?" asked Wave. "After all, we ALL like fish - at least, we all EAT it - so there won't be any arguments or complaints if we have it for lunch."

"Yeah!" added Big eagerly, pressing his advantage. "And do you REALLY want to give Shadow and Silver something ELSE to argue about?" He got a sharp look from the hedgehogs in question - both annoyed at being singled out - but he ignored it.

Knuckles sighed, getting the feeling that they'd go through with making what they wanted for lunch even if he said no. "Fine," he grumbled, "but no experimenting - I don't have the ingredients for anything too fancy."

Looking a little disappointed, Big went to see what he could rustle up fish-wise.

Charmy turned to Knuckles with a surprised expression on his face. "You don't have the ingredients for anything too fancy? But didn't I see you buying the ingredients for both risotto and poached pears three days ago?"

"Don't you have phone calls to make?" asked Knuckles irritably.

"EEP! That's right!" And with that, the bee darted back into the kitchen.

Mighty finished taping a poster to a telephone pole, then stepped back to make sure he'd hung it straight. Satisfied that he had, he made his way over to a nearby fence, found an empty spot and attached the last three posters to the wooden boards.

The sound of flapping wings caught his attention, and he looked up to see Rouge descend from the sky and land before him. "All done?" he asked.

Rouge nodded in confirmation. "Dropped the last one two minutes ago."

"And I've just stuck up my last ones," said Mighty, gesturing to the three posters on the fence. "Think we should head back?"

"Might as well," said the bat with a shrug. "It's not as if we've got anything else to do, is it?"

It was impossible to argue with that, so the two of them started making their way back to Knuckles' house. As they walked, they were pleased to notice that several Mobians were glancing at the posters as they went about their business. Some even stopped to take a closer look.

"Looks promising," remarked Rogue, pointing over at a telephone pole, where a small group of Mobians were gathered studying a poster.

"Indeed," agreed Mighty. "And to think, you said that they wouldn't be noticed."

"No, I didn't! I asked if anyone actually LOOKED at missing persons flyers."

"Same thing," said Mighty with a shrug. Rouge looked at him crossly, but didn't respond.

They walked in silence for a while, until they spotted Cream and Cheese up ahead. Mighty raised his hand in greeting, and Rouge looked surprised. "What are you two doing here?" she asked. "I thought you were taking the West side."

"We were," said Cream. "But then we were told that sticking up posters in that part of town wasn't allowed, so we had to hand them out to people passing by."

"Did anyone seem interested?" asked Mighty.

"A few," said Cream happily. Then her ears drooped slightly. "But some people just glanced at them and threw them in the garbage. A couple didn't even look at them before throwing them away."

"So why bother taking them?" Rouge asked rhetorically.

"I know."

"Well, never mind," said Mighty, giving Cream's head a gentle pet. "At least some people got the message."

Cream perked up at that. "Do you really think so?"

"I KNOW so." A little white lie, but a harmless one. "In fact, why don't we head back and see if anyone's called yet?"

"You make it sound like we weren't ALREADY on our way back," muttered Rouge.

Mighty didn't answer but started walking again, followed by Cream and Cheese. Realising that she was in danger of being left behind, Rouge hurried to catch up with them.

The rest of the walk back was uneventful until they reached the outskirts of town. To their surprise, a small crowd had gathered around something and were jostling each other for a better view. Curious, they managed to fight their way to the front and were greeted by the sight of Espio standing there holding up a poster.

"What ARE you doing?" asked Mighty.

Espio didn't move, but his eyes darted to the armadillo. "What does it LOOK like I'm doing?" he responded rhetorically.

"It looks like you're just standing there holding up a poster," said Cream helpfully. "Why?"

"Because I lost the rest of my posters, and it's not OK to stick up posters in the East side of town."

"You had that problem as well?" Cream asked sympathetically.

"Never mind THAT - just how did you manage to lose nineteen posters?" demanded Rouge.

The chameleon flushed and muttered something under his breath.

"What was that?"

"I said I put them in the back of a truck!" he snapped, his blush deepening.

"Why did you do that?" asked Mighty. "And for that matter, HOW did that cause you to lose them?"

For a moment, Espio was silent, then he ruefully admitted, "I had a stone in my shoe, and the back of the truck was the only place I could find to put the posters. Unfortunately, I didn't notice that the truck was about to drive off until I had gotten the stone out, and by that time I could only save one poster."

Rouge was incredulous. "So you decided to come here and just stand around holding up the poster, in the hopes that someone would notice it?"

"I didn't know what else to do!" the chameleon snapped defensively. "Like I said, it's not OK to stick up posters in the East side of town."

"But surely you could've come up with a better plan!"

Espio opened his mouth, but before he could say anything, a familiar voice rang out over the heads of the crowd: "Excuse me! Let me through, please! Come on, move it!"

Grumbling among themselves, the crowd parted, and Vector emerged, holding a large carrier bag in one hand. "What's going on here, then?" he inquired.

"Don't ask," grumbled Espio.

"I just did."

For the second time in as many minutes, Espio was interrupted before he could respond. "Genius here lost his posters, and decided it would be a good idea to stand here like a Mobian statue and hold up the one he managed to save, in the hopes that people would actually be interested in what it had to say," Rouge informed Vector, ignoring the glare Espio gave her.

Vector sniggered. "Seriously?"

The bat nodded. "Yup. Don't ask me why. Maybe he's trying out for a new career as a living statue."

"I CAN hear you, you know," growled Espio. Again he was ignored by everyone. Well, almost everyone.

"Don't worry, Mr. Espio," said Cream kindly. "I'll help you out." And with that, she used her ears to hover off of the ground and gently took the poster from Espio (much to the chameleon's relief, because his arms were tired from having held it up for so long), then handed it to a member of the crowd. "There we go, problem solved," she said, landing and walking off in the opposite direction.

The others followed, Vector still poking fun at Espio. "I still can't believe you actually decided to stand and hold up a poster. What were you planning to do if you needed to use the bathroom?"

"Shut up, Vector," grumbled Espio.

"Sure you don't wanna go back to doing it? After all, you obviously think it's the best way to make sure everyone gets the message."

"I said SHUT UP," snarled Espio.

"Maybe we could charge money for it," the crocodile continued relentlessly. "Three dollars to see the poster-holding chameleon, five dollars to throw fruit at him."

If looks could kill, Vector would have been burned to a frazzle by the one Espio now gave him. Sensing things were about to get ugly, Mighty quickly intervened. "Hey, Vector, cut it out."

"Aw, come on, Mighty - it's just a bit of fun."

"Yeah, well, Espio doesn't think it's funny, so knock it off."

"And what's he gonna do if I don't?" Vector challenged.

Mighty was about to speak, but it seemed as though it was his turn to be interrupted. "Vector," said Espio in a dangerously quiet voice, "do you remember that I am a ninja?"

Whatever Vector had been expecting, this wasn't it. "Yes," he said slowly, his amusement replaced by confusion.

"And do you know what ninjas do?"

"Dress up in black and sneak around in the dead of night?" snarked Rouge, before flinching slightly at the look Espio gave her.

"I didn't ask you," he said coolly, then turned his attention back to Vector. "Well, do you know what ninjas do?"

Vector was starting to wonder where this conversation was headed. "What Rouge said. Although, I guess they also disguise themselves and use cool weapons."

"Yes, they do," confirmed the chameleon. "They also happen to be master assassins. Now, I would certainly never go as far as killing someone, especially a friend, but that doesn't mean I wouldn't use my skills for...other purposes. Other UNPLEASANT purposes."

"Are you threatening me?" demanded Vector.

"Maybe," said Espio calmly. "Do you really think you can afford to take that risk?"

Something in both Espio's tone and expression told Vector that the chameleon wasn't bluffing. "OK, OK," the crocodile muttered. "I'm sorry."

"Better." Espio looked slightly more cheerful.

Quiet reigned the rest of the way, and eventually Knuckles' house came into view, the delicious scent of freshly cooked fish wafting out of the front door. Mouth watering, Cream sped up a little and was the first to reach the front door. Mighty would have been second, but for some reason, Vector suddenly came to a halt, reached out and grabbed Mighty by the wrist, clapping a hand over the armadillo's mouth to stop him from crying out in surprise.

Rouge and Espio walked on by, too preoccupied with the smell of lunch to notice what their friends were doing. Vector waited until they were out of earshot, then whispered, "I'll let go if you promise to keep your voice down."

Annoyed, but also slightly curious, Mighty nodded in agreement. The minute Vector removed the hand that was over his mouth, he whirled around to glare at the crocodile. "What was that for?!" he demanded, albeit not loudly - he DID promise, after all.

"Well, I didn't wanna say this in front of Espio," Vector replied, "and I know I was teasing him a while ago, so I'm gonna sound like a hypocrite, but I think he's about to become the laughing stock of Mobius."

"Why?"

"Because I saw someone with a video camera in the crowd."

"OK," said Mighty slowly, "What does that have to do with anyth-" He cut himself off mid-sentence as the implications of Vector's statement hit him. "Oh dear, he's not gonna be happy about that."

"Would YOU want to see yourself doing something stupid on a video streaming site?" Vector said rhetorically. "Think we should tell him?"

"Well, he's gonna find out sooner or later, so we might as well." Mighty's stomach gave a small rumble. "After lunch."