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Recalibration

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A vast, arid desert stretched for miles, a harsh wind whipping the sand across the endless dunes, creating great whirlwinds reaching for the great, blue sky.  Pillars of an ancient civilization stuck up sporadically throughout the dunes, a gust of wind occasionally revealing the remains of a platform before covering it once more.  No sign of life or movement appeared under the scorching sun.  Suddenly, in the midst of the sand, the air crackled and snapped, subtly at first but fluctuated and grew violent within a matter of seconds, ending in an explosive boom that shocked through miles of the desert wasteland.

Sand and ancient debris whirled through the static air as a pulsing, swirling portal appeared.  With a powerful wave of energy, a mass of damaged, sparking red metal was thrown from the center of the portal, landing several feet away before coming to a sliding halt, half buried in the hot sand.  The air crackled once more before the portal faded out of existence, disappearing as quickly as it had appeared and leaving only heaps of displaced sand and the immobile pile of robotics behind.

Not far off, the hum of a hovercraft filled the now-silent air as its shadow ran across the sandy hills below.  The craft sped through the desert before reaching the deposited robotic body, stopping above it just long enough for its driver to inspect the creation, using a pair of robotic attachments to grab it.  Lifting the half-buried body out of the sand and hoisting it in the air enough to not drag, the hovercraft returned the way it came with its new discovery.  A quiet laugh escaped the man inside as he returned to one of his many bases.

Finally… something to replace his own lost creations.  It would take some repair, but nothing he couldn’t handle, he was sure.  The real challenge would be keeping the new addition under his control; he was growing tired of robots going rogue on him.

 


 

“If I had let the fight continue, it would have turned in their favor.  You couldn’t have just expected me to stand by, could you?  He asked me to help with a specific job and I did, and no, he did not specifically ask me to fight Shadow, he just asked me to intervene in the fight.  It was my decision how to do it and—Kipper, are you even listening?!”

“Huh, what was that?  I stopped listening ten minutes ago.”

Burgundy and blue quills prickled as pale cheeks puffed in irritation.  A small hedgehog girl crossed her arms, narrowing furious green and purple eyes at the doll sitting on the back of the rust red couch.  She slammed her hands down on her crossed legs while a toothy, terrifying grin spread across the little fox doll’s face.  “K-Kipper!  Don’t as-ask me about the… past if you aren’t gonna l-listen!”  Her face reddened as she barely stammered through her command, causing the grin on the doll to widen further.  As soon as she realized he was only looking to tease her, as he often was since he was given the ability to talk—something Itara regretted more everyday—she huffed indignantly and turned away.

There wasn’t far to go, unfortunately, as they were still in the base she’d originally set up in several timelines ago, so she couldn’t do much to escape the infuriating doll’s teasing.  It was a small cabin, set far into the forest and away from any town.  Itara had found it abandoned initially, but it worked for what they needed, a simple base of operations.  They had refurnished considerably to create a more comfortable living space, as well.  One of the two smaller rooms was turned into a bedroom for her, the other she’d turned into a computer room, and the larger, main area was sectioned off into a living room and kitchen by a half wall.

The living room was furnished with an old TV and couch, where she spent most of her time, either journaling or watching a show or two when she managed to catch them.  She kept her small, black journal on a side table beside the couch so it was easy to grab and write in.  On the other side was an even older, more worn out chair and a spiral rug sat in the center of it all.  The rug’s material was matted and coarse, thin from years of use, and a bit scratchy to lie on, but Itara often lay there, in front of the TV, to watch her shows.

The kitchen was outfitted with the most basic of necessities: counters, an oven, a fridge, and a few cabinets they’d repaired, themselves.  Against the far wall, just beyond the half-wall’s reach, was an old, scratched up dining set with four vaguely matching chairs.  A recycled set of blue curtains hung over the two windows in the larger area, the ones over the dining room window cut shorter than the living room curtains so they didn’t run over the table.  It wasn’t much, and everything in it was salvaged from something or another, be it street side giveaways or thrift stores, but it was enough for the current residents.

Yelling out in frustration, the young hedgehog girl reached over, shoving the little yellow doll off the back of the couch where his two tails had been propping him up.  Even the talking doll, that was now filling the small cottage with a haunting laughter, looked as though he’d been picked up from a gutter.  His patchy orange fur was matted down from years of questionable stains, his body badly sewn together with puffs of stuffing sticking out between the threads.  What used to be white fur on his ears, padded hands, and belly were grey and spotted with specks of brown.  His black button eyes were scratched and dulled, and the red gem that hung from a wire on his head fared no better, having a decent chunk taken out of one side.  It was a creepy imitation of a well-known two-tailed fox, but years of abuse and an innately unsettling design with an off-putting aura had left it in an antique shop window for decades.  The cleanest part of it was the shiny white ribbon wrapped around its neck.

“Keep it up and I’ll tear the rest of your stuffing out, Kipper.”

The young hedgehog had stormed over to the dining room where the other two residents were set up at the table, one of them hunched over in pieces in one of the chairs, while the other stood over them, working on a laptop.  The taller of the two, a towering, thickly-built echidna covered in thin red fur glared over towards the laughing Tails doll, his single, glowing green eye backing his threat and bringing the possessed doll’s amusement to an end.  Satisfied, he turned back to the laptop on the table to continue his work; though thanks to the long, metallic claws jutting out from one hand, the process was slow, even though he was plugged into the computer, itself.  A long, red tail flicked back and forth as he waited for loading screens.

The other, far quieter bot sat propped in one of the chairs, inactive and badly damaged. The blue and white bot had a leaner design than its red companion, though with the sharp, jutting metallic chassis it was difficult to tell what its original appearance used to be.  While the red robot showed signs of damage, between a shattered eye hidden under a black eyepatch, the exposed ‘skin’ on one of its dreads, a long scratch going down its muzzle, and a missing hand, wrapped and replaced with a hook, the blue one was even worse.  One arm was missing entirely, only a heavily gashed ball joint and exposed electrical wires remaining; the other was badly cracked and dented.  Both legs were splintered and torn, half its torso was nothing but jutting edges and exposed wiring, the top of its head was shattered and charred black, and a long, webbing crack ran across its eyeglass.

At one point in time, both robots had been notoriously deadly creations of Robotnik, designed and built solely to battle and destroy their mobian counterparts.  Yet one had been abandoned for years, left to decay in the rubble of a fallen base—until a time-travelling child rescued and repaired him—and the other was reduced to scrap metal after a time-shattering battle against an angry God.  Nonetheless, the less damaged of the two was determined to fix his companion, however he could.

“Itara, do me a favor and get the extra USB cord from the other room?”

The small hedgehog muttered a quiet ‘sure’, turning her attention to the room connected to the dining room, shuffling around in it for a moment before returning with a long, black cord, USB ports on either side of it.  Handing it to the red robot, she stood back and watched him curiously.  “Have you thought of something new to try?”

“Just testing another theory.  He’s still going to need a lot of repair before he’s fully functional again,” he paused, adding a small, “if he’s ever fully functional again,” before continuing in the same monotone nonchalance, “but if we can at least get him back online, even if only to a minor degree, it could make the process considerably faster.  He would know how his circuity works better than even I would, especially since no one can go back and look now.”  Itara shuffled uncomfortably at the suggestion, but it went unseen by the other.  “But he’s… even more damaged than I was initially.”

“I wish I could just check,” Itara muttered, casting a hateful glare towards the black journal in the living room.  Turning back, she noted, “at the very least, with as much damage as he’s sustained, if we do get him back online, we likely won’t have to worry about his loyalty chip… or his communications system, for that matter.  We’ll have to make sure those don’t turn back on at any point during the repair, but it’s easier to keep something offline than to turn it off sometimes.”

“So what happens when he wakes back up, remembers everything that happened, hates you all for it, and kills everyone?”

Both robot and hedgehog turned a wary eye towards the amused doll.  It wasn’t so much that they hadn’t considered the possibility, between the two of them they’d run through just about every possible outcome and came up with several contingency plans to deal with them, but that was the most dangerous option out of all of them.  Unlikely as it was.  Even if he remembered most of what had happened before, and even if he did still hold a grudge about certain circumstances, he would be too damaged to do anything about it.  For as terrifying and talented of a killer as their out of commission guest was… he was hardly more than a pile of bolts nowadays.

Sighing in annoyance, Itara turned away from the doll first, crossing her arms as she explained, “RK shouldn’t have any trouble with him, if he tries to attack.  He’s built stronger and Sparky’s super broken.”

There was silence in the room afterwards as they considered the answer, RK turning back to continue his work while Itara moved to sit down at one of the empty chairs beside him.  Kipper shrugged and dropped against the back of the couch, returning to his ‘sleeping’ state.  He could at least talk and move on his own at certain points, but he couldn’t remain active indefinitely.  He returned to his doll-like state whenever he no longer felt like interacting with the others, and more often than not, both RK and Itara welcomed the moments of silence.

As usual, they took advantage of the current silence and continued their work on their broken project.  RK decided to hook up to the other robot, directly, leaving Itara to run the programs necessary for his new tests through her laptop.  Once everything was set up and ready to run, RK shut off unnecessary background programs and let Itara take over the process, using the larger, functioning robot as an interpreter and display for the possible errors running on the other robot once they booted power into him.  It took some time before Itara was able to reconfigure the mess of code into something readable but once she did, she relayed the information.

After a quick discussion, and a lengthy argument about how to do it, they decided to shut down everything except the ability to turn lighting and optics on.  They would start at the smallest, most basic structure of the design and if no errors appeared, move on until they found the core problem.  Then the problem would be fixing whatever came up, but if they could at least figure out what, the how would come.  Once again, using his own processors as an intermediate, RK began routing power to the broken Metal Sonic while Itara kept a sharp eye on her laptop screen, watching for problems.

Processors began to whir and familiar crackles of the long-time shorted circuitry sparked up, getting a cautious gaze from the young hedgehog, but when she saw RK making no attempts to stop the process, she returned to the screen to watch for errors.  Whirs and the puff of internal fans filled the silence of the open rooms, the occasional warning showing on the laptop screen, that Itara looked into before continuing the process.  Unaware she was holding her breath, Itara let it out sharply when she saw one of the bright red eyes light and begin to glow, dimming and brightening slowly along with the notification that appeared on the laptop.

The robot made no movements; even the glowing red eye remained stationary, prompting Itara to look into the program to see if it was getting any optical feedback or if the light behind the screen had been the only component to turn on.  She relayed the information to RK once again while pulling up the visual programs of both robots.  RK’s was normal, showing a dimmed view of the living room from the one functional eye.  Metal Sonic’s however, only showed static.  But it was more than they had gotten before.  It had only shown black before, if they were getting static now, it meant something was working.

Itara quickly took a seat back in her chair to start looking into it, digging deeper into the code to try and locate the exact problem of the feed, relaying the information directly to RK’s communication lines via the computer since he’d shut his auditory programs down to conserve power.  This was the most they’d gotten out of the broken robot since the reset and they were both equally eager to push on.  Even when Kipper activated again and started with his usual sass, likely awakened by Itara’s cry of excitement at having finally made progress, she aptly ignored him in favor of working on the robot.  While she was still wary about activating him completely, considering his nature and the previous timelines, it was the biggest source of distraction to keep her from thinking about things she preferred not to.  She would happily forget problems she couldn’t solve for the ones she could.

As she worked, however, more whirring and sparking started up, causing her to pause and study the still immobile robot.  The single lit eye had stopped blinking and remained consistently glowing, and the opposite side even gave an occasional flash, but nothing moved.  Checking the various programs open on her laptop again, making sure nothing was overloading or trying to turn on more than it could handle, she returned to work when she felt satisfied she could press on.  She knew of Metal Sonic’s previous circuitry problem, knowing he had a short in his system that he’d learned to manipulate, and was likely to return, if not get much worse, so she expected sparking when they reactivated him.  That was why she nicknamed him Sparky, after all.

Reassuring herself that was all it was, she poured through the codes again, looking for anything that could be relevant to his reboot.  During her search, however, a string of errors finally popped up that brought her progress to a short stop.  Optical errors, software errors, reboot errors, overheating errors, the list went on.  Sighing, she sat back again, looking over the list before leaning forward again to let RK know… but the second her fingers touched her laptop, a sharp zap ran up them, causing her to quickly withdraw.  Leaning back again, she eyed the laptop, concerned, reaching out to try again, knowing she’d need to let RK know to disconnect before anything more happened… when a sharp electrical current zapped through all three electronics.

Darting up and away from the frying laptop with a screech, knocking the chair back and nearly tripping over it on her way, Itara scrambled away from the table and the robots, watching in shock and horror as both Metal Sonic and RK jolted spastically from the assault.  Her laptop managed to throw a stream of errors and warnings on the screen before making a horrifying crackling sound, flashing several times, before finally blacking out, the smell of burnt plastic and metals filling the room.  Metal Sonic and RK continued sparking for several minutes before they gave a final jolt and dropped forward, leaving a wake of fried electronics with a smell of burnt faux fur.  Just as Itara was getting up to start looking over the damage, however, the entire cabin gave off a soft hum as the power shut down, leaving only the light of the setting sun to fill the dark, quiet rooms.

Itara shut her eyes, her ears pinning against her head as she heard Kipper moving behind her, before crying out in anguish and distraught.  Kipper chuckled behind her, the light red glow of his gem casting wide shadows around the room when she opened her eyes again.  “Oh no, would you look at that,” the doll laughed, “Momma bear’s shorted.  It’s gettin’ dark.  The powerless little hedgie is all defenseless.  What’s going to happen?”

A quick chill ran down Itara’s spine at the suggestion, but she quickly shook her head, turning around to grab the floating doll out of the air and wrap him tightly in her arms, “nothing’s going to happen, Kipper.  It’s not like I’m averse to the darkness or anything, I just have to get the power back online… and then… very carefully disconnect everything from RK to let him reboot.”

“But I wonder what caused that in the first place,” Kipper continued, disgruntled at being grabbed but continuing his taunting, nonetheless, “is it possible your killer robot is more active than you originally thought?”

Itara remained silent, keeping the doll tightly wrapped in her arms as she made her way out of the cabin and around the side to check the circuit breaker.  She was at least glad the sun was still up, low as it was, but they were so surrounded by forest that even the comforting light of the sun came off more as a harsh, burning glow, casting long, reaching shadows.  It was late in the year, on the cusp of winter, so the biting cold was snaking its way through the trees while the setting sun turned the changing leaves to fire.  There was only a small dirt path leading down the hill from their cabin, which didn’t reach a solid road for at least a mile, and even then they were several miles outside of town.  They were, in many aspects, entirely isolated and alone.

Shaking her head again, Itara flipped the switch on the breaker, one ear perking to listen for the snap of the electricity turning back on before she headed back inside.  Casting a longing glance towards the sun, she sent it a silent message on her way back inside.  As soon as she stepped foot back inside, however, as she was preparing to return to the robots… the electricity snapped back out, causing her ears to flatten once again.

“You forgot to-”

“Shut up, Kipper,” she hissed, tightening her hold on the doll to emphasize her point, walking over to the robots and disconnecting them both from the main power.  With that taken care of, she returned to the breaker, flipped it on again, and finally returned to the robots to start unplugging everything.  Knowing she wouldn’t be able to work while holding the doll, she released him and watched him float up above the robots while she went about unplugging them.  Sighing in defeat when she saw the state of her laptop, she set it on the kitchen counter.  That had been expensive.  It would take forever to save up to get another like it.  Stupid Sparky, he owed her a new laptop.

With the sun finally setting over the horizon, the woods outside the cabin fell to darkness and silence while Itara sat quietly working to repair the robots.  She couldn’t even check to see how far that had set them back, or even what caused it in the first place.  Kipper’s comment about Sparky maybe being more aware than they initially thought was caught in her brain and had her concerned.  If that was, in fact, a defensive maneuver on his part, whether on purpose or not, it could complicate his repair even more.  If they couldn’t hook up to him without fearing for their electronics, or in RK’s case, his own computers, she wasn’t sure how they were going to repair him at all.  Well, first things first, she had to get him back online in the first place.  Luckily he was more resilient than her laptop and only seemed to be offline, much like the breaker, he just needed his switch flipped back on.  Once she had him disconnected and made sure turning him on wouldn’t damage him further, so far as she could tell without her laptop, she initiated a manual startup.

 

“I’ll try to get you a new laptop soon.”

“Mhm.”

“For now, I suppose you’ll have to do your homework at the school library, though.”

Itara looked up from her journal in horror at this, meeting the unamused stare of the robot who had been trying for several minutes to get her attention.  “I didn’t think of that!  RK, I can’t!  We have to get a new laptop now!”

He shook his head, shrugging, “sorry, Itara, but as you said, it’s going to take a little time to get enough for a high end laptop like that.  You’ll be fine.  Just let them know your home computer crashed, they should let you use a school computer for whatever you need one for.”

“That’s not the problem!  I don’t want to be in that Hellscape any longer than I have to!”

RK stared at her, an eyebrow rising, “I still don’t understand why you hate it so much considering everything else you’ve lived through: Multiple timelines, a destroyed future, and everything that happened with Mephiles, and it’s school that’s the Hellscape?”

“Yes!”  Desperation was so blatant on her face, RK almost smirked in amusement, but shook his head, instead, turning back towards the dining room.  “Don’t ignore my suffering!”

“You’re the daughter of a God.  You’re fine.  Come eat your dinner.”

Itara whined loudly and dramatically, but eventually sighed in annoyance and returned to her journal, finishing her thought before setting it down on the stand again.  With as much vigor as a slug willingly walking to a salt pile, the young hedgehog made her way to the half of the table that wasn’t consumed by tools and cables and sat with a heavy ‘thump’ in her seat.  A small bowl of mac and cheese and a glass of milk sat, waiting for her, but the young girl seemed as interested in it as she had been in Kipper’s earlier taunting.

“Don’t play with it, eat it,” RK warned, watching her poke at the small, orange noodles with her fork, resting her head in her hand and an elbow on the table.  “You can pout all you’d like, there’s nothing we can do about your laptop for now, you’re just going to have to be patient.”

“Another reason to hate my lack of powers,” the girl muttered angrily, glaring at her dinner now, but slowly started eating with another warning glance from the much taller robot.  An echo of snickers from across the room gained the doll responsible the same glare, though the snickering didn’t stop as Itara’s pouting did.

“In any case,” RK sighed, looking over the table at the remainder of their available tools, “we’re going to need another trip into town soon.”  They might need to put Metal Sonic’s repair on hold again until they can replace the laptop, it would be difficult to do anything without at least one computer and he couldn’t suffice on his own.  Especially with the new string of errors he couldn’t get rid of.  After a long, thoughtful silence, he spoke up again, “perhaps we should look into moving to a new base.”

Itara looked up at the suggestion, tilting her head to the side in confusion.  She’d chosen this cabin for a reason in the original timeline, it was far enough that they could work in considerable quiet, but it was also one of the few places RK could remain intact for as long as she needed him to be.  Of course, with the reset, with Solaris’ fusion, she doubted the second reason would be relevant anymore, but they’d still need to be cautious about the first.  “Where else would we even go?”

“We can only do extremely minimal repairs and upgrades in the situation we’re in, with as few computers as we have at our disposal.  One laptop gets fried and we lose all sources of operations, it’s problematic.”  Itara’s eyes narrowed as she started picking up on his point, but let him continue, “in such a small base, even if we had the proper amount of computers, at a high enough level to work on Metal Sonic and myself, they could never fit and the menial power such a small dwelling can even get could never power them all.  In addition, getting our hands on such high end electronics is near impossible, and stealing them would create unwanted attention we can’t really handle at the moment.”

“RK… what are you suggesting, exactly?”

“If anyone would have the equipment necessary to do the repairs we need to… it’d be the original creator.  It’s no secret Dr. Robotnik has a number of abandoned bases around the area, if we could pinpoint of them, clear them out, get them back online without tipping him off about it, it would offer everything we don’t have at the moment.  It’s a dangerous gamble, but if we’re careful about it, it could work.”  He turned towards her, crossing his arms and adding, “plus, we might be able to find something closer to your school, so you have less of a walk.  Or at least something closer to the trains.  There are a number of underground bases he used for surveillance purposes that should be empty now; they’d have normal buildings above them to avoid suspicion.  If we can find one of those, it could work.”

Itara grumbled in annoyance at the mention of her school again, but went into careful thought about the actual potential of looking into one of Robotnik’s abandoned bases.  She’d looked into a number of the doctor’s inner workings during her runs through earlier times, looking for the most beneficial times to steal his robots, she’d run across a number of his various bases, including the underground ones RK mentioned.  The problem, more or less, came from taking them without tipping anyone else off.  If they powered up a previously abandoned base, it could alert him, and they would be in far more trouble than they were now.  Not to mention, it could also tip of others.  Robotnik wasn’t their only concern.  He never had been.

“What are the chances of success?”

“Depending on the base, it varies anywhere between 2% and 78% chance of success.”

“78%?  That’s a surprisingly high percentage,” her brows furrowed in confusion.  She wasn’t expecting anything beyond fifty.

“As I said, it depends on the base.  There are some that are nearly ruined where the largest complication would just be getting power back to it, it’s old enough that it would be long since off Robotnik’s radar and so far away from populations that it wouldn’t be likely to catch attention from the general populace.  However, they are… rather far out of the way, even more than we are now.  They’re isolated, but also decrepit.”

Itara hummed in thought, pushing her now empty bowl aside to cross her arms on the table, leaning forward to think about it.  It had potential.  It would be a search, and they’d have to be careful about how they went about it, but maybe they could do it.  Just using an old Robotnik base did offer them a lot of solutions they didn’t have at the moment.  She didn’t much care about the location relative to her school, she didn’t even want to go in the first place, but if they had bigger computers, it would be easier to fix Metal Sonic.  And the sooner they got him fixed, the better.

Hopefully.

“I’ll run the numbers a bit more later, for now, are you finished?”  Itara looked up from her thoughts, having completely forgotten about dinner, but nodded, prompting him to nod towards the sink, “then put your dishes away and get ready for bed.  We’re going to have a busy day tomorrow, either way.”  The small hedgehog huffed, but did as she was told, dropped her dishes into the sink before grumbling off to her bedroom.  RK watched her until she closed her bedroom door before turning back towards the other robot, running the numbers while studying the broken chassis.  He had to wonder if the shock earlier was intentional or not.  To a degree he hoped it had been intentional, it meant Metal Sonic was in a better shape than they initially thought and they might be able to convince him not to do it again so they could repair him.  However, at the same time, it meant he was inherently hostile, which was to be expected, all things considered.  But if he couldn’t be reasoned with, RK had to be ready to forcibly restrain him and as much as he loved a fight, he didn’t want to damage Metal Sonic any further than he already had.

His repair was going slow enough as it was.

Shaking his head, he moved to sit down and run through the possibilities of taking over a base again until Itara came back out, dressed for bed and looking for Kipper.  Once she had the inactive doll, he told her goodnight and sent her off to bed, waiting until the light from her bedroom switched off before going into a partial sleep mode.  He wanted to save as much energy for his scans and calculations as possible without wasting any on unnecessary functions.  It was irritating that he still had to preserve energy like that, but there wasn’t much he could do about it until he could be better repaired.  The best bet, for both him and Metal Sonic, was to find a base.

Besides, he wouldn’t mind finding something a bit bigger to give Itara more space to move around.  Maybe even something a bit nicer so she didn’t have to live in a literal shack in the middle of the forest.  They’d fixed it up as much as they could manage on their own, from new coverings for the walls, installing furniture and proper kitchen appliances, and even wiring it for power.  But there was only so much they could do in their situation.  If he could, he wanted to give her a room as close to the one she had in that mansion as possible.  He knew he couldn’t find something quite that large without drawing attention to themselves, but he wanted to see if he could get close.

He knew there had to be something out there, he would just have to find it.

Chapter Text

RK stared at the large wooden box, crossing his arms as he looked between the back of the rented truck, the thin layer of snow over the driveway, and the open front door.  The box was too large to fit in the front door, by far, but the contents within were far too… well, precarious to bring out of the box to move inside on their own.  Between the snow and the line of neighbors that could be, and likely were, watching from their own homes, he didn’t see pulling what was inside out as a great idea.  There was, technically, a garage door attached to the house that should have been large enough to fit the box through, except that the garage wasn’t real and the door was only for show.  The entrance to the lab was behind that wall and if he tried to open it, by force or otherwise, it would reveal secrets the quiet neighborhood didn’t need to know.

They were at least at the far side of a fairly isolated cul-de-sac.  They didn’t have any direct next-door-neighbors, per se, there was at least a house’s length between them and the others on one side and a good portion of forest on the other side.  There was another side-street of houses behind them but there was a line of thick trees between the streets, and their new house, specifically, had a high fence around most of the ‘yard’.  In reality, the length of fencing around the house was used to measure the size of the lab underneath, with a few feet of gap between the ground and walls for… some very Robotnik-esque reasons, RK had found out.  While the plot of land fit in almost seamlessly with the little suburban neighborhood it was built in, inside it was as noticeably Robotnik as they all were.  He was honestly a bit impressed the doctor even managed to disguise it as well as he did, considering how rarely the good, overly well-known Dr. Robotnik applied actual tactical subterfuge.  It wasn’t uncommon for his bases to be the most obvious, massive, machine-gun-equipped, giant-robot defended stretches of land in an area.  Even if he put them out in the middle of forests, there was no attempt at subtlety whatsoever.

However, luckily for them, at least in this instance, even Dr. Robotnik was capable of undercover surveillance setups and, just as luckily, it was left entirely abandoned and unguarded.  RK had a wild guess the doctor had completely forgotten about it, judging by the rodent infestation he’d found in the kitchen, as well as how easy it was to get into.  Even the lab underneath was shockingly easy to access with some minor alterations of his own readings.  He was still technically a Robotnik robot, even if he had been rogue for some time now, and the fact that he was once a high-level robot made the job even easier.  He only needed to verify that communications to the main base were cut off before trying to access the lab so it wouldn’t tip Robotnik off that it was being accessed at all.  If he’d forgotten about the base, RK intended to keep it that way.

Once the base was open and the security systems were inspected and shut off, the move, itself, had been surprisingly straightforward.  They hadn’t had much to pack from the old base, especially with the frying of their only computer.  Most of the boxes were from Itara’s room, having decided to get rid of most the shoddy furniture in favor of buying new furniture upon moving.  Though RK hadn’t realized just how little decor the new base would have, either.  He should have realized, if anyone had been staying in the house at all before Robotnik abandoned it, they were likely robotic in nature, they wouldn’t need much beyond what you could see through a quick glance in a window.  They couldn’t leave it totally barren, that would be suspicious, but almost all of the two bedrooms, two bathrooms, and kitchen were empty.  Then again, with the rampant infestation, between small rodents and insects, they likely would have replaced it all, anyway.  The house and base were equally filthy.

Then there was the weather.  It had taken him some time to locate and narrow down potential bases without tipping the doctor or any of his systems off and as he was searching, the chilly autumn had turned to a biting winter.  The temperature, itself, didn’t bother him so much as the wet snow and ice did.  Ice slowed him down considerably, going back and forth between the bases, and then the wetness offered its own unique, infuriating challenges.  Between soaking packages, making the fur stick to his chassis, making it difficult to move what little furniture there was out, and even giving Itara a cold—which he wasn’t even aware was a possibility—he was already over the winter.  Unfortunately, it had only just started and, judging from past records in the area, it was only due to get worse.

All of that, in addition to visibility, was making the last part of their move to the new house-base… irritating.  He’d moved most the rest of what they had already, and had plans to take Itara shopping later for missing basics, and all that was left in the back of the rented moving truck was the large box they’d had no choice but to pack Metal Sonic into.  Despite his destruction of their electricity and Itara’s laptop, the blue robot was still nonfunctional and carrying him out in the open would have been asking for trouble.  Unlike him, who had been out of commission for several years before going rogue, Metal Sonic was still relatively well-known.  He was an upgraded, roboticized version of a famous ‘hero’ hedgehog, and had been used, albeit not to maximum potential, even RK knew, out in the open a number of times.  Minor adjustments kept RK from being recognizable, but it would be far more difficult for someone like Metal Sonic.

Especially with how many robotic parts were visible at the moment and all the damage he’d sustained.  There was no feasible way to fully disguise him without drawing unwanted attention.

But he couldn’t leave that door open much longer, either.  He only had the truck for so long, for one, but it was also supposed to start snowing again this evening.  The longer he stood in the back of the truck debating, the more cold air was going to get into the house and the more suspicious he might look for not just going through the ‘garage’.  What about the back door?  If he could get into the backyard, beyond the fence, he could take Metal Sonic out at the back sliding door, and bring him inside without anyone noticing.  Then he could disassemble the box and be done with it.

Nodding to himself, he jumped down from the truck with a light crunch from the thin layer of snow, and turned around to pull the box forward.  It was the only wooden container they’d brought.  Everything else was either in cardboard or small plastic totes, but he’d asked the old man at the antique shop if he had anything larger and the old fox cleared out a wooden crate he had some lamps packed away in for them.  It came up nearly to the old fox’s shoulder when he was hunched over, coming up a little over RK’s waist, standing up, and was luckily just wide and tall enough to fit his broken, inactive fellow robot.  He imagined, however, that if Metal Sonic ever knew about how he had to be transported, he would be… less than pleased.  But it was all he could do at the moment.  RK just wouldn’t tell him.

Though, he suspected the mischievous two-tailed doll just might.

Shaking his head, he pulled the crate over and lifted it up on his shoulder to head around the back.  He had to shift its balance slightly, figuring out where the majority of Metal’s weight was and ensure his claws wouldn’t dig into the wood too much.  Realizing he might not be able to open the fence gate with his hook, he called for Itara to come out and help him while turning away from the truck.

He nearly lost his balance, and the box, however, when he came almost immediately face-to-face with a widely grinning human woman, wrapped up in thick scarves, jackets, and even mittens, standing just beside the truck’s wall, planted firmly between him and the fence gate.

“Well, hello there, new neighbor!” the woman exclaimed, though RK didn’t miss the quick, sliding eye before they rested on his face again, “We wanted to welcome you to the neighborhood!”  RK looked past her to see another human woman of about the same size and slender build as the woman in front, and a man beside her that was a couple inches taller, but hardly any thicker.  Humans were considerably taller than mobians, since most mobians capped out at an average of three feet, and even RK and Metal Sonic still came up short compared to most of them.  But between a considerable amount of upgrades and the lift from his boots, RK only came up a few inches shorter than the human women, rather than several feet.

He towered over other mobians and even had a good couple inches on Metal Sonic, but seeing as he didn’t often involve himself with humans, he wasn’t much used to being the shorter one.  At least, though, he knew he was significantly stronger than all of them, should they ever start anything with him.  Though he’d prefer to keep the need for a fight to a minimum.  They were trying to stay under several radars.

Eyeing the woman in front again, he studied the glassware covered in plastic wrap in her hands before nodding, “Thank you.  I appreciate the gesture.  I hope our moving hasn’t caused you much disruption.  We’re just about done.”  He didn’t know how close he wanted to be to the humans of the neighborhood, but he knew they at least needed to keep up formalities.

“Oh, no disruption at all, don’t you worry,” the woman smiled.  Perhaps he was mistaken, spending so much time with so many blatant, straight-forward mobians, but RK thought he was picking up something insincere in her smile.  “It’s just been a long while since we’ve seen someone in this house and thought we’d introduce ourselves.  My name is Lynda, I live three houses down.  This here is Aiko and Jeri; they live at the end of the street there.”

RK had to resist the urge to inform them that he already knew all their names, having looked into the neighborhood to determine whether it was safe enough for them to be there.  Instead he simply nodded and debated how to answer, wondering if it would be okay to use his abbreviated name.  He hadn’t used his full designated name since leaving Robotnik’s control, but he wondered if they would question what the letters would stand for.  Even the shortened ‘Robo-Knux’ would likely be a bit obvious.  “You can call me RK; it’s a pleasure to meet you.”  When he noticed Jeri’s eyes falling on the large box balanced on his arm, he started towards the fence again, explaining, “I hope we see more of each other, but I must finish here.”

Unfortunately, it didn’t appear Lynda was done talking yet, “of course, that looks so heavy.  You must really be quite strong to lift that on your own, perhaps we can help?  I bet you have a lot to unpack and, not to brag, but I’ve been told I’ve got quite the eye for interior decorating.  Oh!  And I brought you a casserole, to welcome you in, as well.  We should get this in a fridge!”

It hadn’t occurred to RK that being able to lift something so ‘heavy’ as the crate could be considered abnormal.  The crate, itself, was approximately fifty pounds on its own, and then there were at least a hundred more in robotic parts sitting inside.  If not more.  Metal Sonic’s weight always seemed to vary considerably and RK couldn’t tell off-hand how much he was carrying at the moment.  In addition, he didn’t even have a fridge yet.  It was one of the appliances he and Itara needed to pick out today, so he wasn’t sure what to do with a casserole.

“I can handle the box,” he finally stated, but looked towards the door to call for Itara again, as she hadn’t come out yet.

“Itara, is that your little girl’s name?” Lynda questioned, still making no movements to get out of his way.  His systems were starting to shift to ‘hostile’ and he was having a hard time dismissing them.

“Well, she’s not necessarily…” he began, wondering how best to explain it.  Luckily, the little time traveler finally made her slow way out, Kipper wrapped tightly in her arms, as she appeared in the door.  “There you are, I need to finish unpacking,” he started, motioning towards the box still sitting on his shoulder, “can you get the fence gate open so I can take this around back… and… come meet the… neighbors.”

Itara’s brows furrowed, looking between the box, RK, the fence, and eventually the small group of humans seeming to hover around the giant red robot.  “R-right,” she stammered, moving towards the fence, but frowned at the realization that she couldn’t possibly reach the locking mechanism.  It was on the other side and the fence, itself, was twice her height.  “I gotta go around b-back.”  Before she could get far, however, Lynda jumped at the opportunity to butt in further and moved towards the tiny hedgehog.

“Here, why don’t you take this inside and put it away for us and I’ll help daddy out,” she grinned, holding the glassware out, half-crouching in front of the small girl who’s eyebrow lifted suspiciously at the word ‘daddy’.  After a quick hesitation, she switched the orange doll to her arm and took the casserole, nodding, and turning around to go back inside.  She didn’t like the weird lady already.  She just wanted to go back to bed.

With no small show about it, Lynda moved over to the face gate, RK doing his best to keep his concerns off his face, as he followed her over to it.  He may have to wait to actually bring Metal Sonic inside, if he couldn’t get rid of this Lynda woman so easily.  The other two humans seemed to exchange glances before bidding him a final ‘welcome’ and taking their leave, but Lynda was still determined to follow him even once he reached the back porch.  Unfortunately, the box still wasn’t going to fit through that door, either.  He would have to take Metal Sonic out to get him inside.  But he didn’t want to leave him in the box, outside, for long, either.  It was already starting to snow again.

Setting the crate down with a heavy thud, likely giving away the true weight, judging by Lynda’s shocked and curious expression, RK turned back towards her and, in an attempt to get rid of her, explained, “thank you for the assistance and the casserole.  I’ll try to repay the favor sometime.”

His attempt, however, got him no more than a dismissive smile, “I’ll have to call you whenever I need something heavy moved.  Are all you mobians that strong?”  She gave a quick glance towards the hook on his hand before continuing, “Mrs. Mobian must really like the rugged types.”

RK could only stare, trying to search the look on her face for a meaning.  At first he was concerned she had caught on he was no normal mobian.  As strange, and tall, as he was, no one had ever questioned it before.  He had a feeling the old fox from the antique shop knew, but he had never bothered to ask.  But the comment about ‘Mrs. Mobian’ threw him off entirely.  It took him a minute to realize she was questioning a non-existent partner, as he’d never looked into the relationships of humans, and left him debating even longer on how to answer.  The only ‘partner’ he’d ever had was Metal Sonic, and she had referred to Itara as his ‘daughter’ earlier, so surely she didn’t mean her.  Of course, Itara wasn’t his child, either, but that was a conversation for later, if ever.

Eventually, the only answer he could decide on was, “there is no Mrs. Mobian.  It’s just Itara and I.”  For now.

“Is that so?”

There was a tone in Lynda’s voice that RK didn’t entirely recognize.  He thought Itara was a strange, unreadable child at first, but he was starting to wonder if it was just all organics.  Maybe the programs necessary to read expressions was one of the ones damaged beyond repair.  Perhaps he could try to reinstall that, as well, now that they had the lab.  Being unable to read organic facial expressions and tones could potentially be a dangerous limitation later on.  Especially in the situation they were in.

“You’ll have to tell me more sometime,” she continued, looking in towards the glass sliding door, blatantly studying the dim, barren inside until Itara caught sight of them and made her way over, pulling the sliding door open with an eyebrow rose.

“It was-wasn’t locked,” she explained, looking between the two.

“I know,” RK responded, looking back at Lynda again, “in any case, we still have a lot of work to do.  As you’ve probably seen, we’re still missing quite a bit of necessary appliances and I need to get that truck back sooner rather than later.  Thank you again for the assistance, Lynda, and it was nice meeting you; we’ll have to chat more later.”

Finally, at last, she seemed to take the hint and smiled almost bitterly at the two of them, “of course.  Moving is always rather time consuming.  Well, you know where I am, let me know if there’s anything I can do for you.”

“I’ll remember the offer.”

“You should come meet my little boy sometime, too, Itara.  I think you’d get along well,” she added, before nodding and turning to leave.  RK and Itara both waited, watching her walk around the other side and back down the street, before Itara let out a light huff.

“I d-doubt that,” she muttered under her breath, turning to RK again, “so why did... why the back?”  She motioned towards the crate while RK shook his head, checking once more to confirm no one else was around anymore, before turning to the crate to start opening it.

“It wouldn’t fit through the front door, but it won’t fit through the back, either, unfortunately.  I need to take him out to get him inside but I didn’t want to do that in full view of everyone so I thought the backyard was the best way to go about it.  I wasn’t expecting neighbors.”  As he explained, he snapped the tightly shut lid off, revealing the carefully packed robot and his various parts they had recovered.  Gathering as much of the other robot as he could, RK lifted him out of the box and walked past Itara into the house.

There was only one light at the moment, a tall corner lamp that they’d brought from the other base, with the same curtains from the other living room draped around the front window to the street.  While RK looked for a place to set the broken robot in the meantime, Itara moved to close the curtains.  They didn’t have a couch or dining table or chairs yet, so RK opted for leaning Metal Sonic against a far wall in the hallway towards the lab entrance before going back to retrieve the separate parts sitting at the bottom of the crate, closing the lid once it was emptied.  Luckily, only the living room and part of the dining room was visible from the front window, anyway, but much more was visible from the glass backdoor.  The kitchen, dining room, living room, and part of the hallway were visible from the back and they hadn’t bought a screen for that door yet.

Near the hallway was a door leading to the ‘garage’ entrance to the lab, then two bedrooms on the left, and a bathroom and small closet on the right.  The bedroom towards the back of the hall was the master and had its own half-bathroom.  They’d brought Itara’s bed from the old base and, while RK originally planned to set it up in the master bedroom, she had decided she wanted it in the small bedroom and they could refurnish the larger room as an upstairs computer room or something of the like.

“Alright, that’s everything we have for now,” RK began, walking back out to the living room, closing the sliding door and heading for the front, “I wasn’t planning on going this late, but we are missing some necessary appliances.  Did you still want to come with me for that?  I don’t know if it’s a good idea for you to be out this late in the snow.”

Itara huffed, rewarded with the cough she’d been holding in since the neighbors appeared for the action.  “I c-can’t even… believe I get sick,” she growled, grabbing the coat that had been carelessly tossed in the corner of the living room, “but I’m going.”

“Well, I suppose you are part of the Sun God, perhaps winter is just your off time—leave Kipper here.”

“What?  Why?”

“I don’t want him causing trouble while we’re trying to shop.  He’s not been very inconspicuous since we started moving,” he eyed the doll still wrapped up in her arms as its jewel glowed and a sarcastic grin spread across its face.

“Aw, whaddya mean?  I wasn’t gonna do nothin’,” Kipper sneered, “I’m innocent.”

“You’re innocent and I’m organic.  You’re staying.  And don’t cause any trouble while we’re gone, either.  There are people around now, you need to be cautious.  Having a doll that looks like Tails is one thing, having a floating, talking, smart mouthed doll of Tails would gain attention we don’t need.”  The doll practically hissed at the mention of his look-alike, the red gem on its forehead glowing before it calmed again and shrugged.

“Whatever.  I’ll just hang out with Sparks, then.  Whaddya wanna bet he can hear me?”

“Unlikely.  But leave him be, just in case.  I won’t be the one to stop him should he try to mutilate you when he’s active again.”

Kipper floated up out of Itara’s arms and over towards the dark hallway, grinning, “That broken pile of nuts and bolts would have to catch me, first.  But go have fun, do your shopping.  Don’t forget to buy your tiny child lots of thick coats for the winter season, Momma Bear.”

RK rolled an eye, turning to Itara, "Are you ready to go?"

"Yeah, I suppose."

Once she had her jacket on and zipped up, he lifted her up on his back.  "We should go by the antique shop first, since it closes the earliest, see what we can find there, and then we can finish the rest of our shopping afterwards."

"We're going to the antique shop?"

"I thought we could, yes."

"Then we should bring Kipper!"

RK remained silent, not wanting to bring the troublesome doll at all, but relented with a cringe and called out for the doll, "but no funny business.  I don't want you scaring the old man."  The grinning doll floated over, getting comfortable in the nook between RK and Itara's shoulder, but said nothing.  He would make no promises.  "I mean it, Kipper.  None of your nonsense."  Getting everything settled again, he fixed his jacket and headed out the door, locking it and heading down the street.

"But Momma Bear, I'm made of nonsense," the doll mocked, getting an unseen roll of the eye from the robot.  "Eh, I suppose I can play somewhat nice with the old guy, though."  Itara just smiled and leaned against RK, snuggling down while he got the truck closed up and took her around to the passenger side, getting her settled in and buckled.  He moved around to the other side and took off before long.

Chapter Text

“Okay, we just need to pick up a few necessary appliances for now and we can do a more in-depth shopping trip later.  When it isn’t so late.  As it is, our options for shopping centers are narrowed considerably by what stores are still open after five.  It seems, at least so far as I can tell from the local shops, a fair number of shops close around four or five,” RK explained, helping Itara out of the large truck after they dropped it off.  “It’s a considerable walk to the majority of the shops from here so it’s likely best for me to carry you until we arrive.”

Itara looked up towards the sky once she was back on the ground, attempting to study the falling snow, only for a sneeze that nearly sent her toppling back into the grey slush to interrupt her thoughts.  Hissing in annoyance, she nodded to RK, following him into the small building to hand the truck’s keys back before they headed off.  “The sooner we get this done, the better.  What’s on the list to get tonight?”

“Just going off what we had in the previous base, I think a refrigerator, freezer, oven, and couch should be our priorities for the night.  From what I’ve seen of most websites regarding larger appliances and furniture, there are options to get ‘next day deliveries’, so we should be able to get them in and installed by tomorrow at some point.  Then we should probably do some grocery shopping once that’s done.  We can pick up some non-perishable foods on our way back home tonight but we should obviously leave anything that can spoil for after we have a fridge.”  Itara nodded, eying the truck as they passed by it again on their way out of the rental center.

Once outside the gates, RK pulled Itara up onto his back, mapped out the quickest way to the antique shop, and took off at a light run.  He wasn't the fastest, not even amongst the robots when he had Metal Sonic to contend against, but he was still considerably faster than most and especially so for Itara.  He still ranked after Sonic, Metal Sonic, and Shadow, but he was faster than his mobian namesake.  Either way, a run to the antique shop, which was technically further than it was from their old base, was still faster than going by car.

There was, however, a lot more icy wind to contend with.

By the time RK started coming to a slow, Itara's ears were tightly pierced against the back of her head and her nose was twitching from the cold.  The sudden warmth of the old shop was so comforting she let out an audible sigh of relief and nearly jumped when a voice spoke up.  "Cold out there, isn't it?"

"It would seem so," RK responded, letting the little girl down off his back and looking over her to make sure the cold hadn't been too much, "maybe we should get you a thicker coat."

"I-I'm f-fine," Itara stammered, shivering and reaching up to rub her nose while an old, hunched over fox made his way across the room.  He crouched down to meet her eyes and gave her a quick pat on the head, smiling warmly.

"I've got the heater set up near the counter, why don't you go warm up?"  She opened her mouth to argue, but reconsidered and nodded, instead.  Hugging Kipper to her, who had gone into full doll mode, she made her way across the room while the fox stood up to talk with RK.  "How's everything going?  You two doing alright?"  There was an extra note of concern behind his voice that RK almost missed, glancing towards Itara before nodding.

"I think she's doing better, yes.  She doesn't talk about it much, and still insists it doesn't bother her, but she was able to go back to school finally.  They're on winter break at the moment but they go back in a couple days."  He followed the old fox, who was nodding along, back towards the counter, glancing through the shop as they walked, "we actually just moved to a new neighborhood, I thought it best to start shopping for furniture and... figured we could start here."

"Oh, is that so?  Must be difficult moving during the winter.  I'm glad to see you again, though.  I'd been wondering how things had been going since your last visit."  He glanced around the shop a bit as he moved back behind the counter to return to his stool, "well, just let me know if you find anything you like and I can get it set up to ship for you."  RK nodded and looked over Itara, who was curled up in front of the heater, and then started walking through the floor to see what might fit in their new house.

The shop was decently sized, nothing massive but enough to fit a considerable amount of furniture in addition to the shelves of ancient toys, figures, and decorations.  While RK looked around, Ned turned his attention back to the little girl huddled by the heater, catching sight of the familiar doll wrapped up in her arms.  "How's Kipper doing, there?"

She looked over her shoulder towards him, looking down at the doll, and thinking about her response.  Should she explain what Kipper actually was?  Before she could decide either way, however, Kipper made the decision for her and piped up, "pretty great, all things considered.  Could use more souls, though."

Ned nearly toppled over from his chair when the doll turned and stared at him, the gem on its head glowing lightly and a wide grin spreading across its plush face.  RK sighed from across the room and Itara reached up to bap the doll on the head, turning back to the shocked fox and apologizing.  "Kipper is kind of a brat, but I'm glad to have him around... most the time," she explained, standing up and straightening her clothes out to walk over to the counter, "I guess I should explain why he can talk, though."  She waited for a response, but getting none, continued, "He's... actually kind of a... ghost?  Possessing a doll.  He used to go by Tails Doll but he's Kipper now.  He didn't have any power before, which is why he stayed still for so long, but... he has some now."

"And now that he can talk, I wish he would go back to being powerless," RK grumbled.

The room remained silent as the three let the old fox process the information, the shocked expression taking several minutes before it finally left his face, being replaced by confusion and eventually settling on deep consideration.  Itara frowned slightly, a bit worried that they might have scared him too much and he wouldn't want to talk to them anymore, and apologized again, but much to both hers and RK's relief, he waved her apologies away.

"No, no, it's okay," Ned began, speaking slowly, still trying to process the information.  He studied the doll closely, rubbing his chin, and speaking again, "well, I can't say I'm not a bit surprised, but... well, I guess that explains why he took so long to sell.  I knew there was something about that doll but I never imagined that's what it was.  Though I am a bit concerned as to where he got that power."  He eyed the doll with suspicion while Itara looked away in thought.  That, she decided, was actually too much to explain to the old shopkeeper.  A talking doll was one thing, multiple timelines and the destruction of humanity and her Sun God father was something else entirely.

"We just... found a source of easy power for him," she stammered, frowning and continuing to avert her gaze.  Ned studied the doll a few minutes longer, but shook his head and resituated himself back on his chair.

"Well, I guess he found the right family to join, then.  I'm glad he's got a place."

Itara looked up at him, confused, exchanging glances with Kipper.  It was a strange thought, that they could be considered a family, she wasn't sure if that's what they were.  But she didn't want to argue the point so she only nodded and moved back towards the heater.  She didn't like excessive heat, but she wasn't overly fond of the freezing cold, either.  Right up against the heater was exactly the temperature she enjoyed most.  It wasn't the same warmth as her dad, but it was close enough for a small, metal contraption.

She huddled there in silence for several minutes, slowly nodding off but jolting right back up when she felt her head dip. Ned watched her with amusement, making sure she didn’t bump into the heater, itself, while Kipper debated whether or not to scare her awake again.

“Itara, why don’t you come help me pick out a couch?”

RK walked back over to her, watching her eyes droop before she jolted back up to look up at him.  She had to blink a couple times and shake her head to understand what he’d even asked.  Once she did, he continued, “There are a couple over there I think will fit the house well enough so I want your input on which one we should pick.”  She looked up from the heater, resisting the urge to whine about having to move away from it, but stood up and walked over.  “Go ahead and pick the one you want.  I have no judge for what’s considered ‘comfortable’ or not so you’re going to have to decide on what we get.”

Now that he was thinking about it, what was Lynda saying about interior design, as well?  Studying the different colors and styles and even fabrics of the couches available, he wondered if they should be trying to balance appearances or not.  Did it matter?  Would it be suspicious if they didn’t at least consider a theme?  Maybe he would look into it.  The convenience of having the internet available at any given moment right in his head.

Watching Itara taking off towards the show floor, he switched into a windowed mode, keeping his optical sensors active but opening a secondary window to look into the concepts of ‘interior design’ and what exactly it called for.  Apparently there was a considerable amount of information available about it so he simply started with the first article, scanned through, downloaded some images, and continued on to the next.  It seemed to be a rather complex situation, regarding colors, styles, eras, materials, personal preferences, the list went on.  But as RK was considering how important it even was, his optical sensor informed him of an approaching body and he switched back into visual mode to face the old fox, who had joined him once again.

“Looks like she found a comfy one,” he grinned, nodding his head towards the couches.  RK followed his sight and found Itara fast asleep on a light blue love seat, curled up into a tiny ball against the cushions.  Shaking his head, walked over to gather the little girl up, trying not to wake her.  “Must have been a long day of moving, hm?”

Shifting her to one arm, he walked back over to Ned and nodded, “she’s… got a cold, as well, so I believe it’s tired her out more than expected.”  He would have to find the stove and fridge on his own, but he doubted he would have time to run Itara back home and return again, so he would just have to carry her.  He would have preferred to have her on his back so his arms were free, should he need them, but he could manage.

Ned nodded, “that time of year.  Just make sure she stays plenty bundled up and drinks a lot of water.”  He walked over to grab the tab off the couch so he would know which one they wanted, and then followed the two back to the counter to get it all rung up.  “You take care of her on your own, don’t you?”

“Uh… yeah, for the most part.  Kipper is usually just there to cause trouble.”

“It’s what I do best,” the doll grinned, moving up from the little girl’s grip to RK’s shoulder, getting a side-eyed glance from the shop owner.  “I only help when it’s fun for me.”  RK shook his head, looking around and deciding to add a couple smaller decorations to the couch, not wanting the house to look quite so barren.  Ned then offered to have what they’d picked out shipped over for them and gave a couple recommendations to find what else they might need for cheaper.

"Alright, we should probably finish up and head home, then," RK explained, shifting Itara onto his back without waking her, motioning for Kipper to keep her secure.  Ned nodded, hammering out the final details so what they chose would be delivered to the right place.  "Thanks for the help again."

"Oh, no problem, no problem at all," the old fox grinned, "like I said before, you two come on by here whenever you want, alright?  I'm happy to see you and I'm glad to see the little one is recovering well enough from the... incident."

RK nodded, glancing back at the sleeping girl, "and thanks again for getting those delivered for us."

"No worries, that just comes with running a shop."

Once everything was taken care of and Kipper had moved back between Itara and RK, he bade the old fox 'goodbye' and headed out of the shop.  Luckily, with Ned’s suggestions, the rest of the shopping could be taken care of in one stop.  It wouldn't take long and then he could get Itara home and in bed.

Walking back down the street, he gazed up towards the blackened sky, noting the continuous drift of snow coming down and checked the temperature to see if Itara would be alright until they got back home.  She at least had a thick jacket and scarf, but he figured he should likely hurry, nonetheless.  The next stop was a five minute run at his full speed, but would the wind speed bother Itara?  He would save time by running, but the cold air would likely worsen her cold.  The natural wind was cold enough, as it was.  Nodding to himself, he started off at a brisk walk.

Before he could get far, however, a sudden commotion from further down the street stopped him in his tracks and put him on high alert.  The first things he heard were the screams, though he hardly had enough time to wonder about the cause before an earth-shattering explosion and the loud screech of oversized robotics echoed across the previously quiet night sky.  In the dark of the night, the orange glow of the sparking fire could be seen from a considerable distance and, while most the population around them went running, screaming, from the towering scrapheap rolling through the street, RK only stared in brief annoyance.  Of course Robotnik would be attacking here and now, of all times.  It seemed the rest of the shopping would have to wait, after all.

As he turned to leave, and take another route home to avoid any collateral damage that would likely come from the attack, he caught sight of another tall, red robot standing several feet away, surveying the larger robot.  It wasn’t one RK recognized, in fact, the entirety of its design was foreign to him.  Even with as many upgrades as he and Metal Sonic had gone through, they were still noticeably robotic and, specifically mobian in design.  As far as he knew, he and Metal were Robotnik’s most advanced creations… and the doctor had never roboticized a human before.  Yet, the general outline, and especially the face, of the robot were exceptionally human.  Its mechanical parts were bright red and white, with some kind of softer, black covering over the exposed limbs.  Long, yellow hair fell back in a ponytail under what appeared to be a red and white helmet and sharp, blue eyes seemed to be carefully and closely studying everything around it.

RK didn’t recognize him at all.  Yet, surely only Robotnik was capable of something so distinctive.

But, more importantly, why was he there?  Normally Robotnik liked to be more directly involved with his attacks.  If he wasn’t in the machine, itself, he wasn’t far behind or above it.  So far as RK could see, the doctor was nowhere to be seen, or more importantly, heard.  It was only the large, attacking bot, and the oddly human looking one, on either side of the street.  He would have to go past one or the other to leave and he had a short panic that maybe that was the intent.  But surely, if Robotnik had found him again, he would be there in person to gloat or ostracize.  In addition, the humanoid robot didn’t even seem to see him.  It was looking at the attacking bot.  Studying it with narrowed eyes.

It wasn’t until a long, glowing blue sword appeared in the robot’s hand that RK considered he might, somehow, not be related to Robotnik.  The larger bot was unmistakably his, even without the usual giant logo of his face; he wouldn’t send two different robots to fight in the middle of a shopping center.  There were training arenas for that.

“RK?”

Looking away from the others, RK looked down to see a half-asleep Itara staring up at him in confusion.  Glancing towards the fight that was taking place, he looked back at her and explained, “don’t worry about it, go back to sleep.  We’re on our way home.”

She stared at him warily for only a moment, but her dropping eyelids gave way to light snores again before long.  Unfortunately, the sleep didn’t last long as the crackling of metallic and further explosions from the larger bot jolted the hedgehog right back awake.  “W-what’s going on?!”

RK had no time to answer, however, as he had to dart away from the main street to avoid the line of sight of a blue streak zipping right by them.  Motioning towards Itara to hang on and be quiet, he ducked around a far awning, watching cautiously as the blue streak stopped just in front of the larger, rampaging machine that was swatting around at its previous opponent.

“Good timing, I was just getting bored, Egghead!  …Hey, who are you?”

“RK, w-we need to leave… immediately,” Itara hissed quietly behind him, keeping a tight hold around his neck as her legs wrapped around his torso.

“Aw, but it’s just getting good,” Kipper grinned, watching the fight with wide, crazed eyes.  Both RK and Itara ignored him.

“Yeah, I know.  I’m just making sure the others aren’t near before we take off,” RK explained, scanning the area while keeping out of range of the battle down the street.  Gravel, metal chunks, sparks and… Sonic’s usual smarmy remarks were flying but when RK finally deemed it safe to move, he started around the edges of the square towards a far street.  It was the direction Sonic had come from, but it was the opposite direction of the fight that still lead to a path back home.

“What did I miss?” Itara questioned once they were further away, the battle becoming noise in the background.

“Well, firstly, you fell asleep on one of the couches while we were shopping, but while I was on the way to the next destination, the larger bot attacked.  It’s an older model of Robotnik’s, so far as I can tell, mostly designed for defense so I’m not sure why he would send it out to attack like that.  However, there was another robot that seemed to be surveying the attack.  I don’t know who or what they are, it wasn’t a design I recognized.  It started attacking the defense bot just before Sonic arrived.”

“A new robot?  That’s… troublesome,” Itara frowned, looking out at the snow again, shivering lightly and snuggling down further into her jacket, as much as she could from RK’s back.  “What did it look like?”

“I’ll give you more details when we get home, for now I think it’s important we just get home.  I’m going to run the rest of the way, will you be okay back there?”

“I’ll be fine.”  RK nodded, getting another quick look around, before taking off in a quick sprint, going into a full run once they got past the limits of the city.


 

“RK!  Have you seen Kipper?!”

RK narrowed an eye towards the stairs as Itara’s steps echoed down to him, putting the tool in his hand down to turn fully towards her once she reached him, putting his hands on his hips, instead, “no, you can’t find him?”

“No,” she frowned, taking a quick glance around the lab before frowning up at him again, “I haven’t seen him since we got back last night.”

Letting out an audible sigh, the tall red robot reached up to rub his temple, “that little nuisance better not be causing trouble.  Let me finish up here really quick and I’ll help you look, alright?  The couch should be here soon, anyway.”

Itara nodded, stepping back to take a longer look around the expansive, metallic underground lab they’d managed to finally clear out.  It wasn’t the largest lab in Robotnik’s arsenal, even Itara knew that, but it was the full length of both the house upstairs, as well as the yard around it.  RK had mentioned something about a few inches of empty space between the lab walls and the cement basement walls, though, so it was several inches short, but it hardly made a difference.  It was clearly set up only for basic functions for what Robotnik usually had, but it was plenty for their needs.  Most of it had been cleared out long ago, but the main computer, four charging stations, and a defense system remained behind for their use.  Just enough to make the repairs they needed, Itara figured.  Plus a little extra.

With as much space as there was, and how little of it was actually being used, she figured they could start building up a proper, fully-functional base over time.  Since they certainly had far more of that than she was used to.  The remnants of Metal Sonic were set up in one of the charging stations closest to the computer and RK had already hooked him up to start on repairs again.  He’d been working on getting full functionality out of the computer, itself, when she came down and had returned to finishing that while she waited.

Leaning back on her heels to watch him work, she looked up towards the monitor, which was several times larger than her, wondering why lab monitors were always so big.  It reminded her of the lab room she often slept in after she met her father, its computer monitor consisted of several large screens connected to a long, curved console.  It had been the only working bit of technology she had seen in that future.  Her father explained that, because that specific lab was the source of Solaris’ split, it had been kept mostly out of harm’s way during Iblis’ rage.  She thought it a bit ironic, sparing the source of your hatred when you destroyed everything else, but she hadn’t questioned it.  She never questioned anything her dad told her.

While she was examining the room, a small flicker of an image appeared on the large screen in front of her, though disappeared before she could discern what it was.  Tilting her head curiously to the side, she edged closer to the screen, being careful to stay out of RK’s way, but wanting to test to see if it was even on.  She thought it had been off.  Leaning over the keyboard to try and reach the power button, she ran her fingers carefully over the side of the tall, thin screen, looking for any sign of a button.  She didn’t even know if she could reach it, the monitor was so tall.  Before long, however, her fingers brushed over a bump and, leaning up on her toes, she pressed it in, hoping it was the power button.

With a quick flash of deep red and a cut to black, a giant terrifying, fang-filled face filled the screen, followed by a harsh, loud static and a low rumbling.  Swirling, deep black eyes stared out with a crazed look while long, thin, orange arms lifted to reveal massive, red-stained claws reaching out as if to escape the screen it appeared on.

Itara jolted back with a screech, the commotion catching RK’s attention, looking to Itara first before looking up at the monitor.  A sharp glare fell into irritation as the doll on screen burst into a fit of laughter, its eyes and fangs returning to normal size while it put its hands back down again.

“Kipper, where have you been?” the unamused robot questioned, going back to his work while Itara huffed in annoyance, pulling herself back to her feet.

“Oh, you know, around,” the doll grinned, looking around the screen before it flickered off again.  A sharp crackle of static filled the room before the doll materialized from the screen, floating just above the desk, laughing, “You should have seen the look on your faces-”

“Kipper, th-th-that w-wasn’t funny!” Itara snapped, reaching over to grab the doll, wrapping him up in her arms again, glaring angrily down at him.  “Where have you been?”

“Sh-sh-sh-sure it was,” the doll mocked, laughing again, getting a hateful glare from the little girl holding him and a side-eyed glance from the robot half under the table.  “I told you, I was just around.  Thought I’d get a good look at our new neighborhood… and neighbors.”  A toothy grin spread across his face again, Itara sighing and shaking her head at him as she turned back towards the stairs.

“Well, I hope you got a good look around… and didn’t cause too much trouble.  RK, we’ll be upstairs,” Itara called, heading back up to the main house once she got a nod from RK.  Someone needed to be upstairs to wait for the deliveries, after all, and the longer he had to repair and upgrade the computer, the better.

Though it was Lynda who showed up again before the fridge or couch, and Itara had no idea how to deal with her.  It took her a moment to convince Kipper to go back into doll mode, but once she did, she was glad she managed.

“Hello there, little one,” the human woman smiled once Itara answered the door, “how goes the move?”  She glanced past the door into the still barren living room, making Itara glad they’d already moved Metal Sonic downstairs.  “Is your daddy free?”

Itara still wasn’t sure how much she wanted to explain this to the people in the neighborhood.  It bothered her, yet again, that she couldn’t check the future to find out.  On the one hand, it was none of this lady’s business, Itara had the distinct feeling she was the kind of person who would take an inch and run a mile.  But at the same time, even if RK was mobian and not a robot, they weren’t even the same species and she had a feeling Lynda was going to ask about that eventually, so maybe it was best to get some minor explanation out of the way now.

“The move is… progressing,” she started, looking around before settling her eyes on Kipper, “but RK isn’t really… my dad.”

“Oh?”

There.  That tone.  Itara did not like that tone.  It sounded nosy and annoying.  But she resisted the urge to say as much as she continued, “my dad is… away, RK is taking care of me in the meantime.”

“Then what is he to you?”

Itara blinked.  She’d been running a number of possible answers to that question in her head long before she started the explanation, knowing it would be the most obvious course of conversation.  But there was something about having it said out loud.  In those exact words.  It took her a minute to process them.  “He’s my… uncle.”  She had explained it differently once before, to the family she only got to know briefly, she had told them that RK rescued her from Robotnik.  But for some reason, that didn’t feel like the right explanation now.  Perhaps it was because ‘uncle’ wouldn’t have been gotten far before, and using Robotnik explained her disappearance, which she no longer needed.  Somehow, for some reason, this neighborhood felt… removed from Robotnik and his shenanigans.  Like bringing him up here would shatter some kind of well-contained illusion.

So she went with uncle, instead.

Looking up to study Lynda’s expression, wondering if she was suspicious, she noted a look of amusement on her face, instead.  It was an odd reaction, but Itara had little time to think it over, as a large moving van pulled into the small driveway just then.

“Speaking of moving,” she started, “you’ll have to e-excuse us now, it seems we’ve got a bit more work to do.”

“Oh, of course,” the woman agreed, slowly, before giving Itara a quick nod, “well, let your uncle know I dropped by, then, and I’ll let you get what you need done.  Come see me any time, alright?”  Itara nodded and watched the woman walk away, waving to the movers as she passed them, before looking back when she heard RK’s steps come up behind her.  “Lynda dropped by again.”

“I heard.”

He made no further comment about it, however, nor did Itara, and instead he went out to help the movers get the couch moved in.  Itara did her best to stay out of their way, since she could offer nothing in the way of help outside of instructing them where she thought it should go.  Between the two adults and one robot, the furniture was moved in and the movers were on their way.

“Alright,” RK began, walking out from the kitchen into the living room, “I’m going to see if I can just order the rest online and have it delivered, as well, since I’m sure they’re still repairing the shopping center after last night’s attack.”  After a moment of silence, he added, “you go back to school tomorrow, don’t you?”

Itara visibly cringed, having hoped he had forgotten in all the commotion and business of moving.  “Yes… I suppose I do,” she muttered, begrudgingly, glaring towards a wall and muttering under her breath, “not that I want to…”

RK rolled his eye and headed towards the lab entrance again, “then make sure you get to sleep early enough tonight, I’ll be downstairs working on the computer.  Since it’s a new route and you’ve never ridden a train on your own before, I’ll go with you tomorrow, to make sure you don’t get lost.  Luckily, from our new location, there’s a train that takes you within walking distance of the school and a station just on the other side of the neighborhood.”

Itara groaned again, this time far louder, just to declare her disinterest as dramatically as possible, though it went largely ignored by the robotic echidna as he disappeared down into the lab.  Huffing, she snuggled down into the new couch again, glaring out at the large window leading out to the street.  What a pain.  Why did she even have to go to school?  She didn’t want to go.  Everyone looked at her strangely enough from the get-go, but it had only gotten worse after the fire.  She had avoided going back for several weeks after that, but eventually RK thought it best she return and as soon as she did, everyone looked at her strangely.  She didn’t want their pity.  That wasn’t even her real family, anyway.  She didn’t care what happened to a couple of mortals.  She had just stayed with them to see if they were useful.  She didn’t have any kind of connection to them.

Shaking her head violently to throw the thoughts from them, she looked up in annoyance at the empty space between the couch and the wall and muttered, “We need a TV.  I’m missing my shows.”

Chapter Text

"RK!  Have you seen my shoes?!"

"They're in the box in your room labeled 'footwear', Itara," RK called back, briefly glancing up towards the stairs before shaking his head and returning to the computer screen.  He'd managed to get everything ordered and installed, and the computer functional again.  Now he just needed to work on repairing Metal Sonic.  He needed to take Itara to school before long, but he had some time before they needed to leave that he intended to get some work done in.  The larger setup, and the computer designed specifically to work with Robotnik robots was making the process far easier than it ever could have been on an everyday laptop.  He was already making headway.

Unfortunately, that headway would have to come to a halt for the time being as the stuttering little hedgehog made her way down the stairs, huffing and crossing her arms, "I can't find them!"

Letting out a fume of air, he stood up and met the little girl halfway to the bottom step, "alright, alright, I'm coming.  Really, though, they shouldn't be that difficult to find, we don't exactly have a lot to begin with."

"Yeah but I started unpacking and now I can't remember if they're still in the box or I put them away."

"Did you look?"

"Yes!"

The side of RK's mouth pulled into a line as he led the way back upstairs walking into the mess of a room across the hall from the lab entrance.  Somehow, despite them not having much, Itara managed to turn her bedroom into a disaster zone while getting ready for school.  He cast an incredulous glance, getting little more than a pout and a view of her back in response, but rolled his eye and went about searching through the remnants of the whirlwind for her shoes.  It took less time than walking up the stairs to find them.  In the box.  Sitting in the closet.  Casting another sideways glance, he handed her the shoes and continued out of the room to double-check she had a lunch and her jacket ready before they left.

Once the child and her various requirements were properly wrangled into jacket, shoes, and backpack, RK checking once more to check she had everything she needed and she hadn't crumpled her homework into a mess at the bottom of her backpack, he locked up and pulled her up onto his back to take her down to the train station.  The snow had reached up to two feet overnight and, though the streets and driveways were plowed down to barely an inch of slush, he didn't much trust Itara to not get lost or soaked.  He had seen her try to walk down the driveway once already and had been grateful for the warm, running water they had now afterwards.

"So, as I said last night, I'll take you all the way to school today and tomorrow if you need it, but it'd be best if you can start going on your own before too long.  I need to start putting in more time at work and I won't know what hours it'll end up being.  There's a station just down this street and that'll take you into the city.  As long as you get off on the right stop, the school will be another short walk from that station.  It seems these trains run a good distance around the area so you should have no problem getting around even without me, as long as you don't get lost."

Itara gave little more than a disgruntled mutter, calling him to look back at her, "You should write down where you need to go so you know."

"Yeah, yeah, I will," Itara grumbled, though only leaned her head heavily against his shoulder, staring out in utter disinterest.  She didn't want to go back.

On their way down to the first station, a number of other kids from around the neighborhood joined their direction one after another, though only a couple were being chaperoned by their parents.  "It looks like it's fairly common for children to head to school on their own, even at your age, at least."

"RK, I'm like... a hundred.  At least.  I don't even know my real age.  Especially if you count the Solaris part of me.  I'm not actually a child," she growled, "which is all the more reason this whole 'school' thing is stupid.  I have the knowledge of a thousand timelines and I'm taking third grade math."

"I admit that, mentally, you far out class an elementary school level, there are some subjects where not even a university level class would offer you much.  But it was easier to put you in a school based on your physical body than your mental age.  Mira managed to get you into some higher level classes within the school, but that's the best we can do for the time being without drawing in too much attention.  It's a complicated situation-"

"This is why this entire school thing is stupid to begin with!  I don't need it!"  Without thinking about it, she threw her arms in the air in frustration, forgetting that she needed those to remain on RK's back and went flailing when she lost her balance.  Luckily, before she could plummet into cold, wet snow, RK reached back and stabilized her, waiting until her arms were firmly wrapped around his neck before letting go again, "in any case," she huffed indignantly, "it's all stupid."

"A lot of kids your age seem to share your sentiment," RK commented, though smirked slightly at the growl it got from the little girl.  That maybe had been a bit of a jab, and it seemed to get the point across as Itara huffed and went quiet again.  They made it to the station, getting the usual amount of strange stares from both the other children, as well as the couple of parents that walked with them.  Hopefully they got used to their presence before long and the stares stopped, or at least lessened.  It would be nice to not grab attention everywhere for once.

Once the train arrived, the other kids piled in while the parents remained, waving goodbye and reminding their children of various forms of 'behave' and 'be back by dinner'.  RK was the only one to step into the train with them, though the rest of the train, at the very least, had the usual mix of adults, children, teens, humans, and mobians going about their daily morning routines.  It wasn't completely packed, but it was at least busy enough that hardly anyone looked up from what they were doing to notice every new person that boarded.  That was both some small relief to RK... but also being in a small, closed space with so many others put him on edge.  If anything were to ever happen, it would be a hard situation to escape unnoticed.  Perhaps he should put a couple of contingency plans in place, for both him and Itara just in case.  He would have to look into it more later.

For now, he needed to show Itara which stop to get off at, since there were several of them throughout the ride.  The one they were looking for, specifically, was just past the main part of the city at a station on the other side of the mansion Itara's family had lived in.  It would have been far out of the way to try and take from their previous base, since they were so far out in the forest, but being in the suburbs offered a number of conveniences they hadn't had before.

As he was studying the map and the stops to explain them to Itara, however, he felt a slight tug from behind him and first looked to Itara, thinking she wanted his attention, but when she only stared at him curiously, and the tug came again, he realized it wasn't her and looked fully behind him.  The tug came from his tail.  A small human child had grabbed onto it and was now grinning up at him.  RK looked briefly around him before looking down again, raising an eyebrow.  He didn't necessarily want to threaten anyone, but his urge to throw the child across the train was rising the longer he remained.  Unfortunately, none of the nearby adults seemed to be paying attention to him, either, so he had to wonder if one of his parents were even with him.  It was a bit harder to tell who was related to whom with humans, since they were generally all one species.

"I suggest you cease that immediately," he finally stated as calmly as he could manage, but still wanting his point to get across.

"Ya gonna make me?"

Well.  He could.  Easily.  But that would be trouble he didn't need.  Itara focused back in at the conversation and looked to RK, first, before following his eyesight to see the other kid still grasping tightly onto the long, furry tail.  "No, but I will," she hissed, knowing she had more freedom to threaten the kid than RK did, being the same size.

"Oo, I'm so scared of a girl," the boy laughed, giving RK's tail another tug, finally getting the attention of some others.  RK secretly hoped one of them was the boy's parent so they could avoid further provocation, but there appeared to be no such luck.

Itara rolled her eyes, secretly wishing for her powers again, she'd show him a thing or two, but unfortunately it relied on physical, or verbal, means at the moment.  While debating how to deal with it, however, she heard a small whisper from behind her and turned an ear around to see if she could pinpoint it.  It took her a minute to realize it was coming from her backpack.  Kipper.

Well.  Maybe.

Climbing down from RK's back, she walked around behind him and opened the zipper to let Kipper out.  Once he disappeared into the floor, she closed it back up and walked back around to glare the kid down, "you should stop before you re-regret it."

The other kid just laughed and turned towards her now, letting go of RK's tail, finally, but stood tall in front of Itara, mocking, "wuh-wuh-what ya gonna do about it?"  Itara only stared.  He was a good bit taller, and he seemed to take amusement in that fact, she was small even for a mobian, but his attempts to intimidate her got little more than an eye roll.  She had faced far, far scarier horrors than a little human brat.  When he refused to back off and took one step too close to her, before even RK could step in, black goo seeped up from the floor underneath him, keeping him from moving either closer or away.

As soon as the kid noticed, it was Itara's turn to grin, and her turn to step closer, using what little control of her powers she had to briefly flash the whites of her eyes a molten red, switching the purple and green of her irises around, as she whispered, "I.  Suggest.  You.  Run."  As soon as his confusion turned to panic to fear, Itara stepped back, the black goo disappeared, and the kid went running, crying, to the other side of the train.  Itara smiled, satisfied, turning away from the rest of the train riders to let Kipper back into her bag, and grinned happily up at RK, who only lifted an eyebrow.  At least it made the kid leave.

Hopefully they wouldn't have to deal with him again.

The stop they needed came up before long and RK let Itara back onto his back, stepping off the train in the open station, pointing at a nearby map to let her know which stop they had gotten off at and which direction she needed to head afterwards.  Unlike the mid-city stations, which had closed-off buildings for the trains, both the stop by their base and the one to the school were open-air stops with two sets of tracks going either way.  The school was about a ten minute walk down the road.  Average ten minutes.  It was faster for RK, but it would be slower for Itara.

"Keep Kipper from causing trouble while you're at school, Itara," he warned, "and don't use him to get out of classes, either."

"Yeah, yeah," she grumbled, the satisfied smile fading from her face again.  "Am I going home on my own?"

"No, I'll come pick you up so wait for me at the entrance, alright?  I want to make sure you know where you're going.  I'm also planning to do some grocery shopping on my way home, since I'm out, anyway, is there anything specific you wanted me to pick you up?"

She hummed in thought, shrugging, "as long as we have plenty of snacks, I'm fine.  Maybe some chocolate cookies?"

RK nodded, having already had the cookies on the list to begin with.  She was an easy guess most the time.  There was little she seemed to love more than cookies, for whatever reason.  Except maybe those strange store-bought brownies with the colored candies.  But he only got those for her on occasion, since they never lasted long when they were around.  Even when he told her only one a day, they somehow managed to 'vanish' within two.  She never knew why or where they could possibly have gone.  Clearly Kipper ate them.

Reaching the front of the school, he let her back down onto the ground again, watching the other kids arriving and nodded to the teacher assigned to watch the arriving students.  "So I should be here by the time you get out, but just in case I'm running late, for whatever reason, wait for me here, alright?"

"Yeah, alright," Itara sighed, trying to avoid looking at her fellow classmates.  It was the first day back from winter break so at least she wasn't the only one who was bemoaning having to return, but it didn't mean she would find any solidarity with any of them over it.  She had other reasons she didn't want to return that they could never understand.  "You sure I have to-"

"Yes.  Behave yourself, make sure Kipper behaves, I will have cookies waiting once you get home."

She perked, ever so slightly, at the mention of having cookies once she suffered through the school day, but immediately returned to her previous look of boredom as she waved and turned around.  RK smirked, watching her walk into the school grounds, and then turned around to head back down the road.  He would need to find a different shopping center for the time being, but he should still be able to find what he was looking for fine.  He had a built-in GPS, after all.


 

He hadn't expected it to be quite this busy.  Of course, he had expected busy, it was further into the city where there were considerably more people, it was a more active area, and then there would naturally be others from his area that would have to go further out to do their shopping, as well.  So he expected crowds.  But he hadn't expected the shopping district to be holding an event.

There were people, humans and mobians alike, absolutely everywhere, packed into such tight spaces RK wondered how they even moved through such a mob, or why they bothered, in the first place.  Not even the sky above him was totally empty as the mobians that could fly had thought it easier to get through the crowds by air were swarming about.  But then there were also a number of them, and hand-controlled robots, holding up signs and putting on shows to draw attention.  He had never seen so much hustle and bustle in his long, mostly-inactive existence, and worse... he had to get through it.  Without punching someone.

Letting out a quick puff of steam, he looked around for the clearest route through, already knowing where he would need to go, and debated for a moment just going by the roofs.  Of course the city was big enough that this wasn't the only shopping center around, but it was the most extensive one and the only one with some of the items he needed.  He could get the more basic items elsewhere, but considering what it was taking just to get through a crowd, he thought it best to get what he needed here now to avoid having bags knocked around and trampled later on.

As much as he tried to avoid it, he eventually muscled his way through to the first store he was looking for, about halfway into the crowded square, and only had a brief moment of respite in the slightly less packed store front.  There was at least room to walk here, but it was no less busy than any other store.  At least he would only need a small basket, rather than one of the larger carts, and went to grab one and start his shopping mission.

Anything he could get further out, he would.  Plus, from what he'd read, it was better to get colder items towards the end of a trip so they aren't out in the open too long.  Especially anything that needed to be frozen.  He would get those as close to home as possible.  For now, however, he just needed to find the brownies he intended to get Itara, since it was one of the few places that actually had them.  Why were they so hard to get ahold of?

In addition, there were specific ingredients for tonight's dinner he could only get here.  Well, the other center had it, as well, but he knew for a fact the store he got them at was destroyed.  That would take some time to rebuild and restock.  Maybe he should alter his menu plans until everything was rebuilt.  He wanted to avoid coming here as much as possible.

Heading down the aisles, still trying to avoid bumping into anyone, he mapped out the most efficient path to get what he needed and leave and thought it best to start towards the back and move forward, based on the layout.  He'd nearly bumped into someone a couple times already when they walked out from another aisle directly in front of him, forcing him to a complete stop until they passed by again.  Mortals, he had noticed, were considerably less aware of their surroundings than he expected.  Though perhaps having a Proximity Meter built in gave him an unfair advantage.  Or disadvantage.  It was incessant at the moment and his inability to turn a number of his faulty programs off was only making his irritation worse.  Luckily nothing was reading at a high risk priority, but just having people constantly and unexpectedly in and out of his range was wreaking havoc on his systems.

Turning down an aisle, hoping to get out of the bulk of the traffic, he started scanning the shelves for any of the items he needed.  He realized, a bit too late, that he'd gone down the wrong aisle; he needed the one next to it.  However, as soon as he started for the end, he noticed it was being blocked by two inconveniently placed carts without their attending shoppers.  Was he allowed to move them, himself?  He didn’t want to draw attention to himself, though.

Instead, he turned around and headed for the other end of the aisle, luckily there were two... but before he got far, he realized there was a group of three just standing at the entrance.  Talking.  He was trapped in an unintentional pincer move.  Letting out another puff of annoyance, he looked back and forth between the carts and group, wondering what to do, eventually deciding to just scan the items on the shelf again.  He knew there was nothing there he needed, but one or the other had to move eventually and he wanted to avoid confrontation.

He already couldn't wait to get back to the base.

Itara wouldn't be home, even Kipper was with her and couldn't bother him, and he could lock up and remain down in the lab, just working on Metal Sonic.  It would be quiet.  Even if Lynda decided to come by again, he likely wouldn't hear the door from the lab and could just ignore it.  He would need to repair some of his own systems, while he was at it.  He could feel some of them overheating already.

Finally, finally, the group at the far end of the aisle moved on and, before anyone had the chance to corner him again, RK all but bolted out.  Of course, he was almost immediately cut off as soon as he did, barely catching himself in time to stop before running right into a cart that felt the need to very suddenly appear in his path.  The woman behind it even went so far as to throw him a dirty look, despite stopping before he reached her.

Was that the same woman that nearly ran into him before?

RK shook his head, it didn't matter.  He just needed to finish and leave.  Once the woman was down another aisle and the road was open again, he went where he needed and found the section the brownies would be in.

Should be in.

Should have been in.

They were out.

Reaching up to rub his forehead, he took a moment to cool his heating systems before opening another window to look for another store that might have them, heading back down the other side to at least finish what he needed to do there.  There were still a couple items he needed here, he could get them and leave and find another place with the annoyingly hard to find candied brownies.

This was only the first store.

Produce was next.  That was towards the front and put him up by the registers so he could finish.  Luckily, there were no outstanding incidents regarding the vegetables he needed and he was on his way out.  Having his next destination planned out, he walked down to the registers, looking for the emptiest one to shorten his trip, though all the lines were likely longer than they normally were due to the event.  The shortest one still had two or three people, and at least one, if not two, in every line had very full carts that would be a considerable wait to get through.  But there wasn't much he could do about it.  He decided on one and started towards it... when the back of a cart caught the side of his claws and jolted both him and the cart awkwardly sideways.

He turned to apologize, knowing the two long, metallic claws that vaguely mimicked the spikes on his namesake's fists often caught on various materials when he wasn't overly aware of them.  Except that when he turned to face the person he bumped into—or rather, bumped into him—he saw the same woman that had nearly gotten herself ran over twice already during that one, singular shopping trip.  There was a brief moment of realization between the two before all Hell broke loose.  While RK did his best to keep his temper in check, the woman made no such efforts and turned into a screaming tantrum in the middle of the clearing, gathering all the attention RK didn't want.

The temptation to just flip her cart over and leave her to deal with the mess was so high he had to keep his hand wrapped tightly around the basket his hook was previously holding to keep from doing so.  Instead, he forced out a half-assed apology and walked away without another word.  He never wanted to shop in this area again, if only to lessen his chances of ever seeing that woman again.

Making his way to the far side of the line of registers, he stood in a longer line just to avoid going near the woman again, and eventually got through and back out of the store again.  But what should have been relieving, only served as a reminder that the entire square was a mob pit.  Audibly groaning, he fixed the bag in his hook and started pushing his way through again.  He was growing less and less concerned with getting yelled at for pushing the longer it went on.

At the very least, his next stop was ever so slightly less hectic.  There were still a lot of people to deal with, and instead of a screaming woman that constantly cut him off there was a screaming toddler running rampant and touching everything it could get its tiny paws on.  RK got what he needed and was out before the urge to punt the terror across the store took over fully.

But with those two taken care of, he could finally at least leave the hectic shopping center and move on to the further off stores.  Even if the other places were still busy, he doubted anything could ever be as hellish as what he'd already dealt with.  Making sure his groceries were properly packed, and he had enough room to move again, he took off in full run.  It was only a five-minute run, at the most, but it was enough to get some of the aggression RK had built up out.  He still wanted to punch something.  Or everything.

If he ever came face to face with Robotnik again, he was going to punch him square in the face for sending that bot out and making him go through this nightmare.  He suddenly regretted not getting in on that fight.

Shaking his head, he let out a long puff of air once he arrived in front of the next store.  Outside of the brownies, this should be his last stop.  Once he felt calmer again, he walked into the store and mapped out the most efficient course to get what he needed and leave quickly.  Grabbing a basket again, he started towards one side and, instead of going back to front, decided to work side to side.  This way, frozen goods were the last stop before heading out.

The store was still relatively busy, but nowhere near as bad as before.  He had plenty of room to walk, there was no chance of pincer attacks, and he kept a sharper eye out for people walking into the aisles suddenly.  Making his way down his list, there were a few items that were still out that he decided he would just have to get later.  He didn't want to go anywhere else anymore, he wanted this shopping done.  He had to set a number of fruits back into their containers before he crushed them on the spot when he noticed at least half of them were overripe, but beyond that he managed to finish his shopping and head out again.

He even found a fresh batch of chocolate chip cookies for Itara.

Honestly, as far as he was concerned, that was better than the store-bought brownies.  He just wanted to get home, put the groceries away, and lock himself in the silence of the lab.  He could get brownies for her later when he picked up the rest of what he was missing.  For today, he was done.

Getting all the groceries tightly packed and making sure he wouldn't lose any of them on the run home, he walked out of the shop and down the street, mapping out the run back, and took off.  Finally.  Finally, he could get home.  He would need a considerable recharge once he did, as his overheating systems used far more power than they should have during the day.

The run home was much shorter than the train ride out and he sighed in relief when the house came into view.  Digging into his coat pockets for the keys, and growling when he couldn't find them right away, he got the door unlocked and let out an audible, loud, sigh of relief.  Locking the door behind him, just in case, he went to the kitchen, put everything away, set the cookies out on the counter for later, and made his way down to the lab again.

He wasn't sure how long it would be still until he could get Metal Sonic activated.  The larger, specially designed computer made the job easier but he still wasn't sure how much damage was done to the core processors.  Metal had been redesigned to handle Chaos Energy at some point, but an exceptional amount of it had pulsed through him during the fight with Solaris, enough to actually affect the Sun God.  But there had been signs of active programs once he got him hooked up, so they had at least made progress.  Then there was the shock that caused the move in the first place.

Of course, there would be a lot to explain and deal with once Metal Sonic was awake.  They didn't know how much he would remember and he hadn't been particularly happy with him the last time they actually talked.  Not to mention Metal Sonic was an inherently act-first, ask-questions-later kind of robot and the likelihood of a fight, even if he was obviously at a disadvantage, was extremely high.  RK wanted him fixed, of course, but he wasn't ready to deal with him being fixed just yet.  Especially not today.

"In any case, at least I can get back to it now," he stated aloud, descending the lab stairs.

"Back to what, exactly?"

RK stopped short, staring across the room from the bottom step at the glowing red eye narrowed dangerously at him from the charging station.

For fuck's sake.

Chapter Text

RK stared at the broken, still malfunctioning robot across the lab, debating how best to deal with his early reactivation.  Of course, he was glad to see his companion moving and, well, mostly speaking again, but at the same time he knew the situation was precarious and needed to be handled correctly to avoid fallout.  Though, at least one uncertainty was answered with the other robot's second question.

"Who are you and what is your objective?  Why are you in this lab?"

He looked ready to strike, though RK wondered if it was because he didn't know the extent of his own damages.  At least he could read he was within Robotnik's lab, or what used to be his lab, anyway, which meant basic lines of communication were functioning.  Opening his own lines, he watched the single red eye glow as he allowed the other bot to read his model number and basic information.

"Metal Series 03: Metal Knuckles... according to my database, you are inactive."  The blue robot lifted the remaining clawed hand, pointing a finger and demanding, "Explain."

RK let out a puff of air and moved towards the computer, responding, "There isn't enough time in two timelines to explain everything.  It'd be better if I just-” He stopped, however, when Metal Sonic moved back into a defensive position.  "I'm not looking for a fight, Metal.  You're badly damaged, let me help repair you."

"Where is Dr. Robotnik?  I should report to him to be repaired."

RK's brows furrowed.  Was his loyalty chip not destroyed in the blast, after all?  Then again, it sounded more like Metal Sonic was working off a bare minimal programming rather than any active decision.  He decided to test the waters.  "Robotnik isn't present, you'll need to authorize your own repairs."

The red eye glowed.  When it returned to normal, it looked towards the large computer and then back at RK, "authorization inaccessible.  Refer to Dr. Robotnik for further analysis."

Inaccessible.  Not outright denied.  It was system damage, not the loyalty chip.  "As I said, Robotnik isn't present, let me do an override so I can repair you.  Power back down and I can continue your repairs."  But once again, when he moved towards him, Metal Sonic went on the defensive.  He wasn't going to make this easy, was he?  "Don't make me fight you, Metal, even without your current damage I'd win."

"Is that a threat?"

"If you take it as one, it is."

Admittedly, he probably should have attempted to de-escalate the situation a bit better, rather than prompting a fight, but his need to punch something won out over his interest in keeping Metal whole.  Thus, when the blue robot moved back into an attack stance after his comment, he responded with his own defensive one, planting himself firmly in place and egging the other robot to try his hand.  It wasn't until the heavily off-balance, sparking bot was crashing into him that he was reminded how bad of an idea fighting him was.  Watching even more pieces shatter and dent, and even some snap off when the much larger warbot smashed him back into the ground, RK decided to hold the other one down to avoid accidentally damaging him further.

Unfortunately, realizing he was at a distinct disadvantage, Metal Sonic shot off the apparently still active laser in the middle of his chest.  It only grazed RK, as he rolled out of the way of it, but the sudden hole blasted through the roof of the lab and the house on top had RK ready to punch him a second time.  He didn't have time for those kinds of repairs!  And Chaos forbid anyone actually saw the beam of light that shot up through the middle of their house.  Doubling down on his grip to keep the other bot in place, he felt a quick zap of electricity before the glowing red eye below him went dark again and Metal Sonic stopped clawing at his arm with his one remaining hand.

It took him a moment to calm back down, especially once a puff of snow fell all the way through down to the lab, but with a sigh and grunt, he pulled the now inactive bot up and over to the charging station.  He wasn't sure if it was him or the use of the laser that caused Metal's short, or some other over-exertion that likely occurred, but he was equally concerned and relieved to see him quiet again.  At least he had an idea of what happened and would be more careful with repairs.  It seemed like his AI needed to be turned back on first.

 


 

“So did you do anything special over the break?”

A young mobian squirrel looked up from his backpack to face his friend, nodding, “Yeah, we went to visit some family out of town.  How about you?”  He pulled a notebook out and began scribbling, trying to pretend he was being productive while they talked.

His friend, a dark-furred bat, shrugged and responded, “Nah, we had family come here this time.  My dad wanted to make this big adventure out of taking them to see Solaris’ shrine but there was some kind of attack the day we were supposed to go.”

“No way, what happened?”

“Some kind of weird monster appeared around the shrine and nearly destroyed it before it was driven off.  I didn’t see it but I heard it was some kind of horned purple monster running rampant through the city.”

Itara turned an ear back towards the two classmates talking across the room.  She’d been eavesdropping a little, but was about to stop when they mentioned an attack, assuming it was the one that happened in the shopping district.  She had heard nothing about this monster, though.  She would have to look further into it.  Later.  For the time being, she had to make it through the rest of the school day.  The two continued chatting about the incident, eventually moving into holiday topics Itara cared little about, and thus put an end to her eavesdropping.  Lunch was next, and then her robotics class after that, so she was closer to the easier half of the day.

As soon as the bell rang for lunch period, she packed up and, waiting until everyone else was gone as she always did, made her way out of the classroom.  There were several grades in the one school so they did lunch in blocks of two or three, meaning she only had to deal with the third and fourth graders.  She still preferred to be as far away from everyone as possible and it became considerably easier when RK packed her a lunch.  She didn’t even have to go to the cafeteria, she could head directly for the stairs at the back of the building and avoid everyone.

Once she was out of sight of her fellow classmates and the teachers assigned to watch them, she reached back to open her backpack and let Kipper free, watching him float up beside her as she sat down on the bottom two steps.

“You really shoulda let me scare those kids in your class,” the doll huffed, floating around in front of her as she pulled her little wrapped lunch out of her bag and opened it to see what RK packed.  “And clean your backpack better, it’s all cramped in there.”

“You’re the one who… followed me,” Itara stated, bored and poking at the bagel in her lunchbox.

“Well, yeah, cuz I thought you’d be more fun than Momma Bear.”  When she gave him no response, he continued, “you hear those kids talkin’ about the attack down in the city?  The one that almost destroyed your dad’s special little shrine?  Bet that’s buggin’ ya.”  He was looking to goad her into a fury and she knew it well enough.

“I did,” she frowned, setting the bagel back down after finally picking it up, “I want t-to look into it as soon as I can.  But the computer room’s being used right now, so I’ll have to check later.”  Looking over her lunch, she spotted the cookie packed underneath a pile of carrots and smiled, digging it out and munching on it immediately.  There were still issues she was working out regarding her dad, but his shrine being attacked was too important for her to ignore.  Could she convince RK to take her into that part of the city after school?

“What do you think it might have been, huh?  Maybe Robotnik?  Maybe Shadow remembered the past timelines and wants to destroy Mephiles before he can reappear?”  Itara visibly hitched at the suggestion, getting a grin from the doll, “maybe there’s some new enemy looking to lure your dad out and fight him.”

Itara put the remains of her cookie down, staring off, her brows furrowed.  Was it just a rampaging monster?  Or was someone directly targeting her dad?  Did her dad even know about it?  He hadn’t answered her since before the reset, even after the flux in her powers.  Maybe he was unaware of what was happening right now.  Shaking her head, she picked her cookie back up, “I’ll ch-check after school.”

Realizing he wasn’t getting the response he wanted, Kipper huffed in annoyance and floated back down to sit on her backpack, “yeah, whatever.  You weren’t more fun than the momma bear, after all.”  She eyed him suspiciously, and then went back to her food, wanting to at least eat before lunch period ended.

On her way back, before the lunch bell rang again and Kipper was firmly stuffed into the bottom of her backpack, she caught sight of Sceira across the hall and narrowed her eyes, if only briefly.  Before she could fully formulate a trick to play on her this time, she heard quiet whispers of monsters from the other side of the hall.  Giving Sceira one final dirty look, Itara turned back around to follow the voices, realizing they were coming from the teacher’s lounge.  Glancing around a quick moment, she pressed an ear up against the door to listen in on the conversation.

“…aren’t too far, are they?”

“Unfortunately not, no.  It looks as though someone’s on its tail but if it doesn’t stop it could run right by the school.  We should make sure the children stay inside until it passes.”

“First period lunch should be ending soon so we’ll just inform second and maybe third period that they need to remain inside during their lunches today due to the cold.”

“Yes, I think that’s best.  Please let the other teachers know, I’ll keep an eye on its progress from here.”

Itara’s eyes narrowed, but when she heard footsteps coming towards the door, she scrambled away from it, catching her own foot in the process and going tumbling face-first into the floor as soon as the door opened.  The teacher stared down at her, confused, while she remained in place for a moment, too embarrassed to move.

“Ms. Sheera, mind explaining yourself?”

Itara winced at the name but drew herself back to her feet, keeping her head down.  It was her least favorite part of still going to this school.  The constant reminder, all around her, right in her ‘name’, of the hedgehogs in the mansion.  She did her best not to think about them, as it always caused a tightness in her chest that took hours to get rid of, but every time they used the last name she was enrolled with, every day when they took attendance, every single class, she couldn’t escape them.  She couldn’t escape the fire she didn’t stop or even warn them about.

“S-sorry,” she stammered, keeping her eyes on the ground, “I j-just t-tripped when I was… as I was… passing by.”

Finally, the bell rang.

She could feel the teacher’s eyes on her, but she dared not look up, releasing her shoulders only when she heard them sigh and wave her on, “get on to your next class, then.”  She nodded and turned to take off down the hall again, though watched her feet more carefully as she did, not wanting to trip twice.  Her nose hurt plenty from the first time.  On the way to class she huffed angrily and shook her head to rid herself of the thoughts, refocusing back on what she’d heard before her fumble.  Something was headed for the school.  Some kind of monster.  Was it the same one that had attacked before?  If she could just see the one coming towards the school, it might help her figure something out.  She had to see it.  Somehow.

But how far was it?  Someone was chasing it, what if they caught it before she could see?  She had to see, no matter what!  If she could just get out class… but she wouldn’t even know which direction they would be coming from.  There were telescopes set up on the roof for the astronomy club, if she could borrow one of those, maybe she’d be able to find it.

Perhaps a quick trip to the ‘bathroom’ was in order.

“You should have gone during lunch.  We’re starting our projects right now, it’ll just have to wait.”

Itara mentally huffed, but nodded and turned on her heel to go to her work station.  She would need another way out.  Maybe she could ask Kipper to create a distraction.  Reaching her work station, she looked over the hefty, broken robot lying across the table and the line of tools hung up around it.  They had been studying the codes and basic mechanics of Robotnik’s discarded bots up until the winter break and were told they’d be working more hands-on once they got back.  Itara had an idea what this ‘hands-on’ project was now.

Once class started and everyone was where they needed to be, the teacher confirmed her suspicions by explaining that they would be repairing these robots back to basic functionality.  The core systems were removed so they were no longer Robotnik-loyal, so if they could get them functional again, they should basically be open-software chassis.

Suddenly.  Itara had an idea.

Waiting just long enough for everyone to get started, she set her backpack up on the work table and informed Kipper of her plan quietly, using the clanking and casual conversations around the room as cover for her own.  Once he got the point, she set to work figuring out what she had to work with and what all was removed from the previous system, glad she only had to create a few minutes of distraction and didn’t need to actually fully repair the bot.  Her work on RK and Metal Sonic was about to come in handy in a new way, but she had to work fast to make sure she didn’t miss the monster.  Luckily, Kipper had been pining to cause some trouble all day and this could offer him an opportunity, as well.

Getting the basic movement functions and systems online, she let Kipper know what the bot should be able to do at its limited functionality.  With a quick warning about not causing too much damage, and only minor injuries to students were allowed, she let the ghost doll out of her pack and watched him disappear under the metallic skin.  She got a quick glance around before the robot’s eyes lit up, sitting up on the desk after a quick test of its limbs, and moved to get up onto its thick, blocky feet.  Itara feigned a jump back, catching the rest of the class’s attention, and as soon as the teacher moved forward to see what was going on, the robot lurched forward and swung with a long, clawed arm, sending both Itara and the teacher diving forward to avoid it.

“Itara!  What happened?!”

“I-I d-don’t know!”  There’s only a ghost possessing a repaired badnik.  I have no idea what it could possibly be doing.

The lumbering metal screeched against unused joints and Itara dove under the work station to get out of view while the rest of the students ran for the opposite side of the room and the teacher made sure everyone was out of harm’s way.  The red-eyed bot smashed through a nearby work station, sending parts and tools flying, causing further panic from the other students, giving Itara the opportunity to crawl away from her own and towards the further exit.  With Kipper’s rampage keeping everyone distracted, even going so far as to go running towards a line of students and smashing the giant badnik into the wall when they moved, Itara was able to slip out of the classroom easily enough.  She checked to make sure no one was coming yet before running for the nearest stairs, leaving the sounds of her classmate’s screams behind her.  Hopefully she wouldn’t get in too much trouble, but if she had to she could play the ‘maybe all its systems weren’t removed properly’ card to keep suspicions off her.  Of course, even if they had been left in, she likely could have still repaired it without the robot rampaging, but only RK would know that.

In the meantime, however, she needed to get to the roof.  Everyone on the second and third floors were still in class so all she had to do was stay out of sight in the stairwell before reaching the roof.  She also had to check that no one was on the roof, either, but if the teachers were keeping everyone inside she didn’t think there’d be anyone out there.  Nonetheless, she gave a quick glance around once reaching it, nodded at the clear view, and ran out to where the telescopes were set up.

“Alright, now let’s see what we can find,” she stated aloud, pulling the cap and cover off while scanning the horizon.  She still didn’t know which direction to look in… but it didn’t take long to figure out.  In addition to the downright commotion coming from the city side of the road, the monster that was being chased was giving off a powerful, dark aura that Itara could not only feel getting closer, but she could see it racing at an unimaginable speed directly towards the school.  There was also a line of G.U.N. foot soldiers chasing after it.  “Gotcha.”

Lining the telescope up, she moved it around to zoom in on the creature.  Just as her classmate described, the creature was lizard-like in shape and a deep purple and blue with a long spike coming out the front of its nose.  It ran on all fours but its front ‘paws’ were noticeably thicker around than its back ones and it shot out the occasional spike from its back to keep its chasers at bay, along with a horrible squealing noise that caused Itara’s ears to pin at the sound.

“What is that, though?  It almost looks like…”  As she contemplated it, however, she lost sight of the creature as it ran around a thick tree and vanished.  “Drat.”  Moving the telescope around to try and catch it again, she only caught a quick glance here and there before it darted back out of sight again.  From what she could tell it was darting around and between trees and the outer lying buildings around the school.  The shouts of the G.U.N. soldiers started making their way to her as they drew near, though came as far off gibberish, rather than any kind of intelligible words.  “Is it within the school grounds?”

Stepping back from the telescope, she walked to the railing, looking around for signs of the creature.  Its aura was still powerful enough for her to sense so she knew it was nearby, but she couldn’t see it anywhere.  She couldn’t even see its dark glow anymore.  As she was turning to check the other side of the building, however, a heavy thud landed behind her, causing her to freeze, the furious growl sending her nerves into a frenzy.

Well.  It wouldn’t be the first time she’d faced monsters down.  Just because she could no longer summon her own didn’t mean anything.  Letting out a shaking breath, she turned around to face the much larger-than-she-expected creature, eyeing her down with bright, glowing, red eyes.  Its lip curled back to reveal a row of black teeth and let out another low snarl, standing up on its hind legs to tower even further over the tiny hedgehog.

Not even Iblis’ Biter had been quite so tall; though, it hadn’t stood on its hind legs at any point, either.  At this distance, though, Itara became increasingly sure she knew who the monster belonged to… but not so much why it appeared.  Unfortunately, she had no time to question further or study it as the monster reeled back, its red eyes narrowing, as it prepared to pounce.

“N-No!  B-B-Bad Nightmare!  D-Down!”

It gave no sign of understanding, however, as it only bared its black fangs once more and leapt.  Itara quickly curled over, covering her head and preparing for the attack, knowing she had no hope of fighting back or running.  Suddenly, a shot rang out and before Itara had time enough to uncurl, she felt herself being grabbed around the waist and lifted up and away from the crashing monster.  She heard its roar as it smashed into the telescope, likely shattering it, and bashing into the metal railings.  Another shot rang out, followed by a yelp and a second thud.  Itara kept her eyes shut tight until she felt whoever picked her up land again and even then waited until she heard them speak before she dared open her eyes.

“You shouldn’t be up here.”

S-Sorry,” she stammered, her eyes shooting open as she also recognized the deep, slightly irritated voice.  She looked down at the red, black, and white shoes and long black and red legs above them and her ears pinned back in horror.  Keeping her eyes glued to the ground, she debated how to handle the situation, though the other hedgehog set her down on the higher ground of the roof after a moment.

“It’s dead now, at least.  You should get back to… class,” he continued, walking just ahead of her, talking quietly to himself as he wondered aloud, “something is happening around here, though.  It may be best to keep an eye on things for now.”

Itara finally looked up, cautiously, at the tall black hedgehog with his back to her, studying him carefully with narrowed eyes.  He wasn’t even talking to her.  He had saved her, put her back down, and now had his back to her.  Was it possible… not even Shadow remembered?  Surely he could at least sense something?  As curious as she was, she didn’t want to test her theory.  Not now.  Not here.  The last time she was caught off-guard around Shadow, without RK anywhere near, it… didn’t end well for her.  Instead, she only wanted to get out of there as quickly as possible.

But she also wanted answers about the monster.

She knew what they were… but she didn’t know why.  Could Shadow possibly know?  Did she even want to ask him to find out?  Well, it could be for her dad’s sake, to find out.  Then again… it was for her dad’s sake, what happened before.  Did she want a repeat that badly?  At some point Shadow had turned back towards her, though by the time she zoned in enough to realize, he was giving her a strange look and she worried, for a brief moment, that he might have remembered her suddenly.

“There’s nothing to be afraid of,” he began, though sounded as irritated as ever instead of reassuring.  In a way, that was reassuring.  “That monster is dead and you’re fine.  There’s no need to react like that.”

Itara quickly straightened her expression and looked down, not wanting to cause any sort of suspicion.  “O-Of c-c-course,” she stammered, fidgeting with the bottom of her shirt to keep her hands busy.  “I-I’m not… I didn’t… th-thank you.”  That hurt to say.  She knew it was common courtesy to thank someone for saving your life, not that she figured Shadow of all hedgehogs expected thanks, he only ever did exactly as he wanted and it was never for gratitude.  But she didn’t want to come off as strange in any way, and instead started looking for a way off the roof to get as far away from him as possible.

Unfortunately, when he noticed her looking around, he walked back over to her, nearly sending her back into a panic.  “I guess I should help you back down,” he sighed, picking her up around the waist again and jumping back down to the observation deck before setting her back down again.  “There, now get out of here.  I have work to do and I’m not interested in babysitting all day.”

Itara resisted a huff.  She was no baby, she could watch after herself just fine.  Mostly.  But she only nodded and turned to run for the door leading back to the staircase… tripping on her feet once again and landing face first in the concrete.  Stupid, stupid feet and their stupid tripping!  Why couldn’t she just float?!  Hearing a hum from behind her while she pushed herself back to her knees, she could no longer resist the glare she shot over her shoulder towards the black hedgehog, who turned away as soon as she did.  He was laughing at her!  Not out loud, but she could tell!  She’d show him!  …Someday.  Again.

Having to take a quick, deep breath to calm herself, knowing emotional outbursts tended to cause her powers to flare, she took off for the door again.  Her nose hurt again, but her ego hurt so much more.  How dare that idiot laugh at her?!

Once she was inside, back in the shade of the dark stairwell, she sighed and sat down on the top step, wanting to let her mood subside before she went back to class.  That Shadow.  That stupid, stupid Shadow.  Just because he saved her didn’t mean he got to laugh at her.  She was relieved before that he didn’t seem to remember her, but now she greatly wished she could yell at him, berate him for not even knowing what the monster was.  She knew.  She saw the timeline it originally came from once.  He was clearly inferior for not knowing.  She would rant about this more later, to Kipper and RK.  But, she supposed, for now, she should probably return to class.  She didn’t know how long Kipper could keep up the distraction.

Sighing heavily again, she pushed herself back up, though slouched forward as she headed back down the staircase, glaring at the steps in front of her the entire way down.  Her mood was soured and now she just wanted to go home.  Besides, she wanted to see what RK thought about both the attack in the city, as well as the monster that attacked the school.  She still wanted to see if she could convince him to take her into town to check out the shrine, itself, and see what else she could learn.  Shadow had one thing right, at least—that she already knew of course—there was certainly something happening around here again.

Were the other Gods active?

Chapter Text

RK crossed his arms, resisting the glare threatening to come to his face as the headmaster explained to him what happened.  Itara awkwardly shuffled beside him, doing her best to look every direction except at either of them.  When the headmaster was finally done, RK let out a puff of air and looked down at the little hedgehog, who briefly glanced up at him before looking off again.  She showed far less remorse than she ought to, considering the chaos she—likely purposely—caused that day.

“Luckily no one was badly injured, but the damages to the classroom were severe.  Of course, Itara isn’t entirely to blame, it’s possible the robot she was given was defective and not properly disarmed.  But she won’t be able to finish the project now, so we’ll be sending her home with some extra online homework.  Were you able to get ahold of a new computer to be able to do that?  If not, she can continue staying after school to finish her work,” the man explained, looking over thick black glasses with slightly narrowed eyes.

RK debated for a moment, almost tempted to say they didn’t have one just yet to make Itara suffer a little more, but dismissed the thought and explained, “She’ll be able to do her homework just fine, but thank you for the offer.  I’ll make sure it gets done.  I’m sorry for the trouble she’s caused.  Already.  On the first day back.”  He shot a glance to the little girl, but once again, she was looking elsewhere.

“Accidents happen, as I said, at least no one was badly hurt.  But I’m glad to hear she’ll be able to get that done without a problem.  Then, if you’ll excuse me.”

They nodded to one another and the headmaster returned to the school while RK turned his attention to the now-whistling little girl beside him.  “I’m expecting a full explanation when we get home, Itara.”

She looked up at him, opening her mouth to argue or defend herself, but snapped it shut and nodded.  She knew RK would know more than the teachers or headmasters would about what happened, but she had a good reason she couldn’t explain right there.  It was better to get home quickly.  However, once they started towards the train station, she decided to at least throw out, “but just for the record, it was as much Kipper’s fault as it was mine.”

“I’m sure.”

The train ride home was quiet aside from RK’s occasional vague question about the day, mostly asking what else she did during the day besides cause trouble.  Itara didn’t have much to tell, though, and the conversation dropped several times before they even reached the first stop.  On the walk back to the house, however, RK spoke up one more time, this time explaining, “In other news, I’ve made some… progress… with Sparky.”  He didn’t often use the nickname Itara gave Metal Sonic, knowing he would likely hate it if he ever heard it, but didn’t want to use his name outside amongst their nosy neighbors.

Itara looked up at him her brows furrowing, “what kind of progress?”

“You’ll see.”

She narrowed her eyes, but nodded and looked forward again, not wanting to slip on the ice.  She’d had enough of landing on her face today.  Once she was finally back inside again, she let out a long, dramatic sigh of relief, dropped her bag off her shoulders at the door, and kicked off her shoes.  “Home!  So glad to be home!  Today was so long!”

“Itara put your shoes away properly,” RK scolded, pulling his own snow-covered boots off before continuing in towards the kitchen, “I’ll make you a quick snack so I want you to tell me everything that happened today at school.  And I mean everything.  I know that robot didn’t rampage on its own.”

“No, that was Kipper,” she explained, setting her shoes more neatly in the small shoe rack and opening her backpack to pull the doll out, “I needed him to create a distraction for me so I could get to the roof.”  She could hear the sigh from the kitchen.  “Before you get mad, there’s a good reason!”

“I am dying to hear it,” RK grumbled.

“…You’re a robot.”  She got an annoyed glare from around the corner and held her hands up, “okay, okay.  Fine.”  Following him to the kitchen and taking the newly made sandwich, she went back to the couch to start explaining, RK following after her and Kipper floating up to the back to get comfortable.  “Two of my classmates were talking about some kind of attack in the city so I wanted… decided to listen in, but then they said Solaris’ shrine was attacked by some kind of monster so, of course, I knew had to look more into it.”  She barely missed the eye roll from the robot standing beside the couch, watching her.  “And while I was walking back from lunch I heard the teachers talking about some kind of monster headed towards the school, so I had to look into that, t-too.  So I had Kipper create a distraction by possessing the robot I was supposed to be repairing in my robotics class and I slipped out and went up to the roof to see if I could find it.

“And I did!  But then I lost sight of it when it started running around the sides of the buildings and then it was behind me.  It was tall.  Anyway, it tried to attack me but then I kind of got saved and… well,” she glared down at the sandwich in her hands, looking up at RK, who was still patiently waiting beside the couch.  “It was Shadow.”  RK frowned, uncrossing his arms and moving around to sit beside her to look over her.

“Are you okay?  Did he recognize you?  I’m assuming not because you’re fine and home, but-”

“No, I guess not even he remembers the past timelines.  Which is good, I suppose.  Except he laughed at me!  Not outwardly, he just made a noise, but inwardly I knew he was laughing at me because I tripped!  Do you know how many times I’ve tripped today, RK?!  My nose hurts so much!”  The tiny girl huffed angrily, puffing out her cheeks and getting a slight smirk as response from RK.  Kipper burst into a fit of laughter.  She glared at them both and continued, “Anyway!  Shadow is dumb, but… but that’s not the important part.  The important part is the monster that attacked, if it’s the same one that attacked the shrine, or even the same type.”

“Did you know what it was, then?”

“Yes,” she nodded, “It was one of Dark Gaia’s Nightmares.”

RK’s brows furrowed, running his database for any information on Dark Gaia.  “Another of the Gods?”

“Yes.  The important thing now is that we figure out why one of Gaia’s minions are running around and I think we should go into town and look in on the shrine.  That was where it headed first, apparently.”

RK hummed, running over what he knew of Gaia, “I don’t know, Itara… maybe it’d be best if we didn’t get involved with this.  You said Shadow took care of the Nightmare, maybe we should leave it to-”

“No!  We have to at least look into it!”

Sighing again, RK stood, “well, maybe.  We’ll talk about it later, for now there’s something else I want to show you.  Come down to the lab.”  Itara huffed at him, but grabbed Kipper and jumped off the couch to follow him.  “As I said earlier, I made some progress with Metal Sonic.  It turns out he managed to activate himself between the time we left this morning and when I got home; but not only were his memories of the previous events wiped, but his AI was inactive.  At first I thought his loyalty chip might still somehow be intact, but I realized he was only following a base coding.  Once I got him offline again I decided to start there and managed to get a good bit back online.”

“Is that even a good thing?” Itara questioned, unsure about having Sparky’s AI online solely because she remembered a number of angry, violent meetings with the blue bot.  Unlike Sonic’s inherently cheerful nature, Sparky almost seemed to embody the complete opposite and was just always in a bad mood.

“Well,” RK began, giving it a moment of thought, “I admit he’s a bit… grouchy… but in the long run it’ll be better to have his AI than the core programming.  For reasons you so aptly demonstrated today at school.”  He glanced back at her, getting a sheepish grin from the small hedgehog, and turned back around to continue leading the way into the lab.  “In any case, I managed to get him active again.”

Itara made another disgruntled face, but followed RK across the lab from the stairs towards the large computer and the charging stations… where the exceptionally damaged blue robot sat, staring towards the large screen running various diagnostics.  Itara took an unconscious step behind RK once they reached him, for reasons she would never admit, and waited for the other robot to notice their presence.  It took a minute, but eventually a glowing red eye slid over towards the larger red robot, narrowing dangerously, but not moving this time.  Instead, he looked down at the smaller figure practically hiding behind RK’s legs.  It took until Itara slowly glanced out from around said legs and stared up at him with curious, but cautious and unsure, large, purple and green eyes before he reacted.

“You!”

Itara jumped at the sudden fury and hid behind RK’s legs again before she even realized she was doing it.  RK, on the other hand, threw up his hands in her defense, exclaiming, “calm down, Metal.  She-”

“You said he didn’t remember!” Itara whined, looking up and around his side.

“He didn’t, but I-”

“I should destroy you right here and now, you little anomaly!”

“Rude!  You should be grateful we didn’t just leave you a pile of scrap!”

“Why you little-!”

“Enough!” RK shouted, cutting them both off, glaring between them as he stepped over to the computer, leaving Itara out in the open.  She immediately went back on the defensive and gripped Kipper tighter, taking a step back and preparing to run.  Metal Sonic scowled at them both, though as soon as he made a movement to get up from the table he sat on, RK shot a warning glare his way.  “Enough bickering.  To explain, Itara, I fixed as many memory files as I could access and filled in a few of my own so it would be easier to explain the current situation to him.  And Metal, you created that anomaly so I suggest you back off.  She may be a part of Mephiles, but you’re the one who put that power in a physical body.  You’re just as responsible for her existence as Solaris.”

“Oo, Momma Bear’s in threat mode,” Kipper snickered, catching a disgusted Metal Sonic’s attention.

“What the hell is that thing?”

“Tails Doll, or at least, that’s what he used to go by.  Itara named him Kipper.  If you don’t have a file on him I can share the information with you.  I found him in an antique shop in… I suppose the original timeline.  He didn’t talk back then, though,” RK explained, turning to the computer to transfer some files and check the scans, muttering as a final note, “I wish he’d go back to that.”

“I only stick around because the little ‘anomaly’ is fun,” Kipper explained, grinning, “When Momma Bear brought me home for his little baby hedgie, all the drama with her ‘daddy’ gave me more power.  Plus, sometimes she lets me destroy things.”

Itara and RK both rolled their eyes at the explanation, but Metal Sonic looked suspiciously between the three, ending on RK, “it sounds like you have a considerable attachment to the anomaly I created.”  He looked back at Itara again, studying her, watching her fidget uncomfortably under his gaze.  “I hope you know I didn’t free RK from that base so he could just go babysit some failed experiment of Robotnik’s.”

She looked up towards him, puffing her cheeks, before looking away again, “I’m not a failed experiment and I’m not an anomaly and I don’t need babysitting!  If anyone needs babysitting, it’s you!  Before I rescued RK from the wreckage of that base, I went to you first and warned you not to fight Sonic after you went rogue.  I told you, you’d regret it!  And what did you do?  You fought him anyway, and lost, and ended up back with Robotnik.”  Spinning back around, she stuck her tongue out at him, exclaiming, “So there!  Neeeeh!”

Metal Sonic recoiled, mostly at the memory, but only for a moment before growling again.  Before either RK or Itara could react, he was back off the table and had snatched the hedgehog up by the neck, glaring and growling, “I should have snapped your neck then and there, then.”  A small squeak escaped her mouth as Kipper dropped from her hands, floating out beside her, instead, watching with a hint of amusement.

“Put her down before I break your other arm off.”  The demand came out relatively calm, but the underlying threat from the warbot gave Metal Sonic the briefest of pauses.  It wasn’t until the other bot turned to glare back at his companion that he finally huffed and dropped the hedgehog, turning back towards the table to sit again.  Itara dropped with a light thud, shaking only a moment before going back to glaring at the other robot, reaching up to wrap her arms as fully around her neck as possible.  She remained sitting on the ground, curling her legs up against her chest, glaring angrily over at the blue robot, her ears flattened against her head as Kipper floated back down to her.

The air in the room remained thick and tense for some time, Itara remaining curled up several feet way from Metal Sonic while Kipper floated beside her, silently laughing at the entire situation.  Metal Sonic sat on the table beside the computer and glared off in another direction while his scans ran, displeased with the entire situation and debated why he was even reactivated in the first place in such a situation.  RK remained the most outwardly calm, looking over at Itara once in a while to check that she was alright before returning to his work on the screen.  He was running several scans and repairing as many programs as possible for Metal Sonic, as well as checking which memories and what information he still retained while he was at it, matching them up to his own data, checking for corrupted files.

The room remained silent as RK worked, the only conversation happening between him and Metal Sonic occasionally when he needed something checked.  While he worked, Itara had grabbed Kipper again and got herself comfortable on the floor, still far out of the angry bot's reach, but sat quietly to watch and study.  She could see what all RK was doing on the large screen, listening in on the conversation between them, and studied the programs they were restoring to see what all she understood.  She logged what she didn't know away for later to ask RK about them.

As they were working, however, another screen popped up on the computer, showing the front door and notifying them of a visitor with low risk levels.  Though, once the image appeared with the notification, RK debated changing that risk level.  The tall, thin dyed blonde from three doors down was on their porch again, wrapped up in a thick red coat, knocking not-so-patiently on their door.  When she didn't get an answer after the first knock, she started calling out for either RK or Itara.

All four of them looked up at the screen when they noticed, Kipper shrugging and ignoring it while Itara just watched her strangely.  Why was she back again?  Despite the quick pace of her knocks and the repetitive calling, she didn't look that frantic, but she did certainly look like she wanted a response sooner rather than later.  Metal Sonic raised an eyebrow at the woman on the screen, seeming cautious of her appearance but saying nothing.  RK had already explained they were in a human neighborhood that Robotnik had set up a spy base in; he supposed it would be expected to see said humans every so often.

RK, however, seemed the least thrilled of all of them.  He let out a puff of air, hesitating to see if she'd go away on her own, but audibly sighed when it didn't seem like she would.  "I'll... be right back, I suppose," he grumbled, turning away from the computer to head up the stairs.  He stopped between Itara and Metal, however, turning to the apprehensive bot, and warning, "do not touch her while I'm dealing with this."

Metal scoffed in response, shooting him a glare but looking off again at the responding glare.  "It's not like I'm in great shape to begin with."

"Precisely."  With that taken care of, he continued up the stairs to go deal with Lynda and see what she demanded his attention so badly for.  He hoped it wasn't anything too important and she was just dropping by again.  Then again, with the laser incident earlier in the day, he was concerned she had seen it and was growing suspicious.

Once he was up out of the lab and out of earshot again, Metal turned back towards the screen to watch, waiting until RK appeared just at the edge of the view at the door.  The human woman looked relieved to see him, which caught the other bot off-guard.  No one was ever relieved to see one of them.

"Ah!  RK!  There you are," Lynda grinned, clapping her hands together, "I was worried something might have happened, after all.  Is Itara alright?"

RK still wasn't sure she wasn't talking about the laser, so he decided to play clueless until she explained, "she's fine, why?"

"Well, I heard about the attack on the school today!"  Ah, so that was it.  "My son goes to the same school and he told me that not only did one of the robotics projects go wild but there was some kind of monster on the roof!  I wanted to make sure Itara was alright!  My son was so frightened and he wasn't even near any of it."

RK wanted to laugh.  He resisted, though, and shook his head, "no, Itara's fine."  How much should he divulge to her, exactly, though?  Would it be safe to mention it was Itara's project that rampaged?  Or that she was on the roof when said monster attacked?  No, perhaps that second part should be left out.  "Itara was in that class, however, the one with the robot incident.  But she was... well away from it when it started up."

"Oh!  She must have been so scared!"

He shrugged, "she handles things better than most."  Because she usually causes it in the first place.  "I can guarantee it'll leave little lasting impression on her."

"What a brave little girl she must be."

"That's one word for it."  Walking troublemaker was another.

Back down in the lab, Metal Sonic had been listening in on the conversation and narrowed his eyes, finally looking over towards the little girl who had been making faces at the incident in question.  "Who is this human?"

Itara straightened her face and looked over, eyeing him suspiciously and leaning away slightly, debating before she responded, "I don't know... some lady from the neighborhood.  She's kinda nosy."

"Is she a threat?"

"I don't think so.  I mean, I suppose I can't say for sure.  I no longer have access to my powers, since the reset, so I can't be sure of anything anymore."

There was a short silence while Metal returned his attention to the screen... before Kipper spoke up to break that silence.  "She's awfully interested in our resident warbot, it seems," he practically sneered, catching the other's attention again, getting a raised eyebrow from Itara.  "She showed up as soon as we started moving in... looks for every reason to come over here already."

"Does she work for someone?" Metal questioned, narrowing his eye again, looking between the screen and the doll grinning from Itara's arms.  "He should be wary of someone so nosy, she could be looking for a reason to oust him as a Robotnik robot for all you know.   Why is he talking so casually with her?"

"Who knows... maybe he's gotten soft with the humans since going rogue," Kipper continued, his grin widening at the shift in stance in the bot.

"Then he should cease interactions with all others until he can properly realize the situation again.  We're robots designed to hunt and destroy, not fraternize and we're certainly not normal mobians."  He moved to get up off the table again, glaring at the screen and moving to tell the other off, causing Itara to jump to her feet, though still kept her distance.

"Don't cause problems we can't handle right now, Sparky," she warned, catching a much darker glare than the bot was giving the screen.  "You're barely functional and any unwanted attention could get us noticed by Sonic or Robotnik... or worse, Shadow.  Just because the timeline's been reset doesn't make them any less of our enemies."  However, Metal's attention was already gone at the mention of Shadow's name.  He seemed to zone out for a moment, pulling up every bit of information and memory regarding the black hedgehog, before his glare became all the more dangerous.

Itara's eyes narrowed further, unsure of what the other bot was thinking and questioning whether she should go get RK or not, when the remaining arm began sparking at the tips of his claws.  She jolted away, stumbling over her feet in the process, but caught herself and tightened her grip on Kipper.  "W-what are you... you shouldn't... S-Sparky don't--"

"Stop calling me Sparky!" he roared, the lightning blue sparks running up his arm and through the rest of his broken body, a bright yellow light lining through them as they travelled through the cables attached to him and into the large computer.  The short zapped through the basement's electrical grid, travelling all the way through the rest of the house's lines.  Several snaps and cracks ran through the computers and wires until a dull hum echoed through lab and house, lights and appliances powering down.  Metal Sonic, as well, gave one final snap before leaning forward, the LED in his eyes going dark.  Itara and Kipper stared into the darkness, only the light of Kipper's gem glowing around them.

"As I said, I only-" RK stopped as the crackling ran through the house and darkened his eyes when the power suddenly hummed out.

"Oh dear, what happened?" Lynda questioned, leaning around him to look into the empty silence behind him.

"Our... power is having trouble keeping up with the appliances at the moment," RK lied, straining to keep the irritation out of his voice, "since the house went unused for so long, the wiring is a bit faulty.  I have someone coming to fix it soon so we just have to deal with it for a couple days."  He was more than sure it was Metal Sonic that caused the short.  Again.

"How dreadful, is there anything I can do to help?  Do you need to stay somewhere else until it gets fixed?  Having shorting power in this cold must be awful, especially for the little one," RK didn't miss the small grin on her face as she continued, "my place is fairly large and it's only me and my son.  You and Itara could fit comfortably, I'm sure.  Especially if it's only a couple days."

He only gave a moment of thought, or rather, pretended to give it a moment of thought to not appear suspicious, before explaining, "No, thank you, but we'll manage.  It comes on again quickly so it hasn't been a problem yet.  But if you'll excuse me, I should make sure Itara's okay and check the circuit breaker."

"Oh, right, of course," she frowned, disappointed but smiled again, "well, I should let you get to that, then.  But you know where to find me if you need anything.  At all."

RK nodded and bid her farewell, waiting until she was further down the street before closing the door and heading for the circuit board to turn everything back on.  With a few flips of switches, the power droned back on and he headed back down the lab to find out what happened.  When he reached the bottom step, Itara was up and poking at an inactive Metal Sonic, Kipper laughing hysterically off to the side.

"What did you do?"  The question was more or less directed at Kipper, but Itara jumped and swung around to face him.

"I-I-I didn't d-do it!"

"Not you."  He walked over and grabbed Kipper by the tails, holding him up to eye level, scowling, "you."

Kipper just continued laughing, going incorporeal to escape the warbot's grip, and floated further away, "what makes you think I did anything?  It was Sparky here who shorted everything."

"And why did he do it, exactly?"

"He got angry about Lynda," Itara explained, knowing Kipper would eschew it, "he thinks she might be suspicious of our identities.  He may have a point, though.  She is awfully nosy.  What if she suspects something?"

Kipper just started laughing again, "That ain't it."

Itara tilted her head in confusion while RK eyed the doll suspiciously, shaking his head and going back over to reboot the computer, "I don't think she's suspicious, Itara.  Don't worry about it."  Crossing his arms, he leaned back while the computer started up again, annoyed that he would have to restart a lot of processes and the short would likely set them back a good bit.  He would need to have a word with Kipper later, and perhaps with Metal to avoid a third repeat.  The lab was better suited to deal with higher power outputs, but it would slow a lot of repairs if it kept up.

"In any case, Itara, go find what you want for dinner and get started on your homework.  I'll be up once I run a few more diagnostics."

Itara groaned at the mention of homework, but with a side-glare from RK, she grabbed Kipper again and headed upstairs.  At least she got to decide on dinner tonight.  Today had been a long, eventful, kind of terrifying day and she wanted something good for dinner!  Maybe a cookie.  Or two.  She deserved it, as far as she was concerned.

Chapter Text

Itara stared up at the hastily applied boards on the hallway ceiling, perking an ear up at the thuds and scraping coming from the roof.  She hadn’t even noticed the holes until RK mentioned going out to fix them, but then she wondered how she ever missed them.  They went right through the hallway floor and ceiling, right in front of her bedroom door.  Despite the temporary attempt at a fix, the ceiling was still dripping from the snow and small paint bubbles were beginning to form around the edges where the water was running through.  She hadn’t even had a chance to ask how it happened, either, as RK was on his way out when he mentioned it and she didn’t much feel like going out to ask him about it.  It was cold outside.  She would ask when he came back in.

Instead, she turned around to go back to the kitchen.  She wanted hot cocoa while she worked on her homework.  If she had to do extra work because of the robot incident she was at least getting some cocoa for it.

Unfortunately, a lot of necessary pieces were far out of her reach.

Narrowing her eyes up at the cupboards above the counter, knowing they had not only the cup she required, but the chocolate mix, she started looking around for something to climb.  RK had warned her not to climb the counters a number of times by now, but he was busy and Kipper was usually too much of a brat to help her out unless it meant he could wreak havoc.  Climbing was clearly the only option remaining.  It was their fault for putting everything so far up.

Pulling a chair from the dining room, trying not to scrape it against the floor too much, she climbed up on it and onto the counter.  Getting her cup first and then crawling across to the door that held the cocoa mix, she smiled happily to herself when she managed to get both without knocking herself off with the doors.  Now she just had to heat up some water.  She could just… use the hot water from the sink, right?  It didn’t need to be that hot.  Right?

While she was debating, setting her cup and the little packet beside her, a pair of light steps approached the kitchen. She immediately panicked, thinking it was RK coming back inside even though the steps were much lighter than his and she hadn’t heard the door open.  As she was scrambling to get off the counter, however, the drop ended up being much further than she expected and her legs gave out from underneath her as soon as she hit the floor, sending her thudding back against the counter behind her.

“Ow.”  She reached back to rub her head, but looked up once the steps stopped at the kitchen entrance, “I swear I wasn’t-!”  She stopped when she saw who it was, though, and looked away, muttering, “oh… it’s you.”

“Who did you expect, exactly?”  His tone was cold as ever, which normally meant little to Itara, she was used to cold tones, but in the current situation it annoyed her.

Huffing, she pushed herself back to her feet, avoiding eye contact as she pushed the chair over to the sink and climbed up again, “d-doesn’t matter.  What do you want?”  He wouldn’t tell, right?  He wouldn’t even know she wasn’t allowed on the counter in the first place, he saw nothing, he had nothing to tell!

The blue robot made his way further into the kitchen, scanning the area with his one functional red eye.  They’d done what they could for the time being to cover up some of his exposed wirings using what was laying around the abandoned base, but there wasn’t much and the snow made it hard to search for useable scraps.  They had removed the damaged joint from the missing arm and covered the shoulder as best they could until they could find a replacement, as well as covering the hole in his side.  RK had managed to mostly reshape the dent on top of his head and replace the damaged parts inside while Itara had pulled his ‘quills’ back into a low, loose ponytail to cover the rest.  She even repainted the charred bits for him.  His splintered legs were melded back together and the wiring reconnected to make them usable, though the faulty connections were obvious from the limp and occasional spastic jolt in his walk.  The robot had certainly seen better days, but he had also seen worse.

“I was running through the memories RK had left for me to file and check, since I had nothing better to do, and the files from the apparent previous timeline came to my attention,” he explained, his tone going from irritated to a distinct bitterness directed at Itara.  She looked away from the running hot water to raise an eyebrow at him, wondering where he was going with this.  “I couldn’t help but notice the file about Sonic’s death in there.  Yet with the reset timeline, he still lives.”

Itara’s face went blank before she cringed and looked away again, her ears flattening.  She had a feeling she knew what he was getting at now, and didn’t much care about it, but there was a more personal memory from that moment she tried to avoid thinking about.  “Th-that’s,” she stammered, reaching out to check the water, “S-Solaris h-had his reasons… I’m sure.”  Admittedly, she was bitter about that, but she wouldn’t say it out loud, and especially not to Sparky.  “What about it, S-ow,” she pulled her hand back out of the steaming water, she hadn’t expected it to be quite so hot.  She found herself caring less and less about the stupid cocoa.

There was silence for a couple minutes while Itara stared at the water, trying to decide how much she still wanted the cocoa in an attempt to distract herself from the other topic.  She didn’t want to think about it.  It made her chest hurt.  For a number of reasons.  But then Sparky spoke up again, sounding more confused than irritated this time, which caught her off-guard, “what are you even doing?”

“N-nothing,” she practically whimpered, glaring down into the sink.  But her pouting came to a quick end when she heard him stepping forward again.  She jumped and turned around to face him as he moved beside her to look into the sink and cup filled with the cocoa mix.  “G-go away!  If you’re just here to bother me about stupid Sonic then I have nothing to say to you!  I don’t know why he’s alive and I don’t want him to be but I won’t question my d—Solaris!”  Her face reddened in frustration as he remained silent, watching as his eye glowed, knowing well enough what it meant from watching RK do it so often.

“Shouldn’t you be boiling that water?  Do you not even have a proper kettle?”

“N-No one asked you!”

He studied her, rolling his eye and moving back over to his spot against the wall. He moved his arm up to cross them, realized he only had one, and put it back down, glaring off.  “In any case, I only came up here to let you know, so you can let your father know, that Sonic is mine to kill.  And he won’t be coming back when I do it.”  Itara’s cheeks puffed as he turned his back to her, waving her off, and returning back down the hall to return to the lab.  She huffed loudly at him and stuck her tongue out, but turned back towards the sink once he was out of sight, frowning.

“…It’s not like he even talks to me anymore, anyway.”  Glaring at the sink, she grabbed her cup and filled it with the steaming water before shutting it off, setting the cup back down on the counter so she could move the chair back to the table.  She had homework to do.  But, ugh, the only computer was downstairs in the lab.  They hadn’t been able to get her a new laptop yet.  She didn’t want to be down there with that jerk.  Whining loudly, she grabbed a spoon, threw it in her cocoa, grabbed the cup—and Kipper from the couch—and headed downstairs, angrily stomping the entire way down.  She was just going to ignore his presence.  His stupid bad-memory-bringing-up presence.


 

With a huff and one final shove, RK watched the rest of the pack of snow slide off the roof and into the yard below.  He originally intended to only clear out the spot he needed to repair and a foot or so around it, as well as a path to and from the hole, for easy fixing, but ended up clearing off the entire roof.  He wasn’t overly confident in the stability of the tiling and wanted to ensure it would last through the winter, getting some of the weight off it while he was at it, and it ended up turning into a three-hour job.  But the hole was thoroughly repaired and the leaking should no longer be a problem.

Giving one final test to the stability of his fix, he nodded, packed the tools back away, grabbed the shovel, and made his way towards the edge of the roof to get down.  He hadn’t brought a ladder, as he had no trouble jumping up and down, especially from the back deck, but when he checked around to see if the snow had blocked the front door, he spotted a colorful figure standing in the driveway.

Again.

Glancing warily towards the oddly determined woman, he moved towards the back to get down, dropping the toolbox and shovel down into the snow on the back porch.  Maybe if he stayed on the roof a bit longer he could avoid a lengthy discussion.  Giving a silent sigh, he walked back around to the front and gave a short wave, calling over, “hello Lynda.”  What did she want now?

“Hello there!  Aren’t you cold?!”

He did only have a light jacket and his usual cargo pants and boots on, mostly to keep the moisture off more than any actual concern for the cold, itself.  But he couldn’t explain that.  “No,” he answered, crouching down at the edge of the roof, watching her walk closer, trying not to step into the deeper snow he’d dropped off.  Once she looked up again, he motioned to his fur covering, explaining, “Pretty well insulated.”

“Oh, being covered in fur really must be convenient,” she laughed.

Nodding, he questioned, “Did you need something?  Not to be rude, I just need to finish some repairs.”

“Oh!  Of course,” there was that glint again, “you really are quite something, doing that all on your own.  Home repairs in the dead of winter, wish I had someone like you around to take care of the house like that.  I usually have to hire someone to do all our maintenance.”  RK nodded again, not wanting to comment in case it caused a tangent, or roped him into doing it somehow.  He hoped she would get to her point soon.  “But, I won’t keep you long.  I just saw you working outside and thought I might let you know about the New Year’s Party.  I hold one for the neighborhood every year, it’s one of the biggest deals around here.  Since you’re new to the area you really must come!  And, of course, bring your little one.  It’ll be a great opportunity for you both to get better acquainted with everyone!  You’ll come, right?”

RK had to keep the grimace off his face as he considered.  Would that be such a great idea?  He still wasn’t sure about getting too close to those in the neighborhood.  Then again, it would draw attention if they were too reclusive, as well.  But did he want to deal with Lynda for that long?  Looking off away, in thought, when he looked back at Lynda again there was a pleading look on her face.  That didn’t work for Itara, it certainly wasn’t going to work for her.  But he didn’t want to appear rude, either.  Eventually, he gave a non-descript, “I’ll have to talk with Itara about it.”

“Of course,” Lynda answered, the pleading leaving her face to be replaced by that same glint again.  He had no idea what that look even meant but he didn’t much care for it.  There was something odd in it.  Not even threatening, just… strange.  “I always prepare a big dinner for the event so people start showing up around six for it, but of course, some come later.  You two are free to come whenever you’d like.  It’d be great to introduce you to the rest of the neighbors since everyone comes.  There are even some kids around Itara’s age that come so she won’t just be surrounded by us boring adults.  No need for an R.S.V.P., just come on down at some point on the 31st.”

“Alright, thank you for the invitation.”

“You’re very welcome,” she grinned, giving a wave before turning to leave again.  RK watched her go again, waiting a bit longer to give it some thought before going back over to jump down off the roof.  He would need to shovel around the porches and driveway again.  It would give him some time to think about the party.  He needed to consider every possibility and risk in going or not before he talked to Itara.  For some reason, he didn’t think she would actually want to go, but there may be merit in attending.  Jumping down to the porch, grunting when the snow nearly went over his boots, he grabbed the shovel from where it stuck and started working on the back porch first.

By the time he finished the back porch, a path through the side fence, in front of the front porch, and all the way down the driveway, the afternoon had grown dark and he was soaked.  He could already feel the faux fur clinging to his chassis and knew he needed to get inside and dried off before it caused ill effects in his systems.  He wasn’t overly sensitive to water, but he wasn’t fully resistant to it, either.

Propping the shovel up against the wall, he made his way inside, letting out a long sigh.  The living room and kitchen were empty and he didn’t hear Itara or Kipper in the bedroom, though he called out for her as he pulled his boots off to leave by the door.  He pulled both his jacket and the tank top underneath off and headed for the hallway bathroom to hang them up over the shower bar, looking in on the bedroom on his way when he got no answer.  “She must be down in the lab, then.  Hopefully doing that homework she needs to do.”  He would check on her in a minute, first he needed to get out of his wet pants and dry the fur covering as much as possible.  He didn’t have nearly as much clothing as Itara, but he did at least have a couple pairs of extra pants he kept in the hall closet.

Grabbing the first article in the pile, which was a pair of looser camo sweats, and a towel from a different pile, he headed for the bathroom to dry off and get as much snow unstuck from his tail as possible.  Most the rest of him was slightly damp, but his tail had caught several chunks of snow that stuck to it in annoying little balls.  He would need to run it under some hot water to get it out and then dry it again.  Maybe he should invest in thicker pants and jacket for working in the snow so he didn’t have to worry about getting damp.  He’d  heard it wasn’t uncommon to take hot showers after working or playing in the snow, usually to avoid colds, but not only did he not get sick, but showers weren’t an option for him, either.  The only part of him that could be fully submerged in water was his tail, a part of him he would never even fully understand why it existed.  Thinking about it, even Metal Sonic had a tail, though it was much smaller.  It was designed like a hedgehog tail.  Why did his own look more like a dog’s?

He shook his head of the thought before long.  Itara, and her various designs and visual decisions, would always be a mystery to him.  Perhaps it was best left as it was.

Getting as dry as he could, and giving his tail a quick shake to dry and fluff back out, he changed pants, wrapped the towel around his neck in case he still needed it, and headed down to the lab.  He needed to look in on Itara now.  He would throw his shirt and jacket and pants in with the next load of laundry to clean and dry them, as well.

“Itara, are you doing your homework down there?” he called from halfway down the stairs, hearing the clicking of the keyboard.  He still got no response, though, and narrowed an eye in suspicion.  When he reached the bottom, he looked out over the lab and, just as expected, saw Itara sitting with her back to him working on the computer.  One screen open was, at least, the homework she was supposed to be doing, but another screen displayed a chat log.  It was a short conversation between her and Metal Sonic, who was sitting off to the side, staring at a far wall with an irritated glare.  Kipper was sitting on the desk, propped against the screen, back in doll mode.

“Don’t ignore me, little girl,” he commanded once he reached her, tapping her head to get her attention, grabbing Metal’s as well.  When she only gave a huff as a response, he looked up to the chat window to see if he could find the source of everyone’s apparent irritation.

Don’t talk to me.

Fine.  I’ll type to you then.

Don’t do that, either!  Go away!

You’re the one who came down here.

I have homework to do!  Shut up!

Why must you do it here?

There was no response after that.  He looked down at Itara with an eyebrow rose, realized he wasn’t going to get a response and looked to Metal, who had been watching him curiously.  When RK looked his way, however, he returned his gaze to the wall in front of him.

“I leave you two alone for a couple hours and you’re already fighting?”

“He started it!” Itara yelled, finally breaking her silence, but keeping her glare on the screen.

“I simply warned her that I will be the one to finally kill Sonic,” Metal responded casually, turning just enough to side-eye the angry little girl.  “Apparently it struck a nerve.  Also, she apparently doesn’t know how to make hot chocolate.”

“I-!”  Itara’s cheeks puffed out, glaring at the bot, but turning right back to the screen.  She didn’t want to argue that because it would more than likely get her into trouble.

RK let out an audible sigh, reaching up to rub his forehead, “of course it struck a nerve, it’s best not to bring that timeline up with her.  More importantly, Itara, were you on the counters again?”

“N… no?”  Her response was far less angry this time around.

“Do you not remember the last time you were climbing on the counter?  And fell?  On your arm?”

Itara swung around in the seat and glared up at him, getting a raised eyebrow in response, “that wasn’t my fault!  Kipper scared me!”

“You shouldn’t have been up there in the first place.  Besides, what makes you think he won’t do it again?”

“I…,” her cheeks puffed again as she stared down at her lap, huffing after a moment and turning back around to face the screen.  She mumbled something incoherent under her breath and brought the screen with her homework back up to get back to work.  Correctly assuming that if she were working on her homework the subject would be dropped.

Rolling an eye, RK turned towards Metal again, catching him quickly looking away again.  “On the other hand, don’t bring that up around Itara.  As much as she refuses to admit it, Mephiles was equally willing to kill her to get to Sonic, of course it would be a touchy subject.  Something you kept me from preventing.  So I’m not overly fond of the memory, myself.”  He narrowed an eye dangerously to get his point across, to which Metal Sonic only scoffed and waved a dismissive hand to the topic.

“As if I care.  Since that memory is corrupted I can’t even recall why we had that fight, I only have what you can tell me.  I don’t even know if I fully trust these memories you’ve given me, for that matter.  According to your data, even your own data was corrupted and filled in by the little anomaly.  All of it could easily be a lie.”  He turned to glare directly at RK, meeting the warbot’s glare in threat, “given even filled in files I have on Mephiles, and the origins of her creation, it isn’t outside the realm of possibility that she isn’t manipulating you for some grand scheme.  I’ll take no chances with her or you until I’m sure of where your loyalties lay, Metal Knuckles.”

Itara’s typing had stopped midway through his assertion, looking cautiously over her shoulder and watching him while RK only stood in silence.  Picking up on the tension in the air, Kipper activated again and grinned wildly at the two robots, obviously waiting for a fight to break out.  Metal Sonic never took his eye off RK, hammering in his point, though the larger red robot only sighed.

“Scheming as Mephiles was, Itara’s sometimes too easy to figure out.  She isn’t planning anything, Metal,” he explained, getting a glare from both of them, and a pout from a disappointed doll when no fight started.  Turning towards the little girl again, he explained, “In other news, we’ve been invited to a New Year’s party over at Lynda’s.  I think we should go.  I can explain my reasons later, but for now, finish your homework.  I need to start a load of laundry, my clothes got soaked working outside.  I’m also going to need to look into how these parties normally work.”

“Wait, what?!  No!  RK!” Itara yelled, reaching out when he started walking off, “I don’t wanna go!”

“I don’t care.  Finish your homework.”

“RK!”  When she got no further answer, she huffed loudly and dramatically, glaring across the room at the wall.  She turned towards a confused Metal Sonic, still angry with him, and stuck her tongue out.  “I’m not easy to figure out!  But I’m not scheming, either.  Not that I care if you trust me or not.”  She turned back towards the screen with another huff and went back to her work, noticing Kipper awake and pouting and questioned him about it.  He only moped for a moment and went back into doll mode.  If there was no fight happening, he wasn’t interested.  Though, maybe he could start something later.

Metal Sonic, on the other hand, was left baffled by RK’s response.  He expected him to either realize the fault in the situation and show further caution with the anomaly or even get defensive.  Instead, he practically blew him off!  Just how brainwashed was he by the little schemer?  Did she actually install a loyalty chip without mentioning it?  Glaring back at the tiny hedgehog in the chair, he knew he couldn’t drop his guard around her.  He had no intention to originally, but clearly she was cleverer than even RK was giving her credit for.  He would need to be careful.

Chapter Text

“But RK, why?”

The tall red robot towered over the tiny hedgehog staring up at him with the most pathetic, pleading expression he’d ever seen her make.  She sat on the edge of her bed, her ears flattened against her quills, her bottom lip poking out, trying to get as much sympathy as she could from the un-budging robot.  She was dressed in a shorter, A-line-style blue dress that came up to a little below her knees, a thick blue sash wrapped around the waist and tied up in a large bow off to the side.  The sleeves were long and fitted with a small pouf at the shoulders and the skirt of the dress, in contrast to the dark blue of the top, was a thick cotton with a light blue gingham style pattern.  Two large, shimmering, dark blue ribbons tied her quills up into pigtails.

She wasn’t the only one dressed better than usual, either, as RK had managed to find a pair of black dress pants he’d fixed up to fit him as well as a loose-fitting, sleeveless burgundy turtleneck.  Though because his shirt was sleeveless, he’d also found a black and grey trench coat to wear over it and had removed his hook for the time being.

“Because, from what I read online, it seems these kinds of parties are normally more formal than casual.  This was the best I could find on such short notice,” he explained, reaching over to put the little girl back on the floor, checking her ribbons before standing back up straight, “It’s just until midnight, and it’d be rude to not go at all.”

“I fail to see the problem with that,” Itara glared back up at him, crossing her arms.

“No you don’t.”  He turned around and left the bedroom, Itara huffing and mumbling behind him as she followed him out to the living.  There was a TV and stand set up in front of the window now, as well as a somewhat newer reclining chair next to the couch, where a bored Metal Sonic was sitting, staring at the blank screen.  “Okay, we’re leaving now,” RK stated, getting little more than a side-eyed glance from the other bot, “as I explained before, we’ll be at the house three doors down on the other side of the street and we’ll be back after midnight.  Don’t cause any trouble while we’re gone.  And if Kipper decides to activate while we’re gone, don’t listen to anything he says.  He likes to cause trouble.”

Metal scoffed and looked away towards the window, “What trouble could I possibly cause in the state I’m in?”

“That’s a longer list than I care to go through at the moment,” RK responded, getting Itara wrapped up in her jacket before picking her up and getting her situated on his back.  “See you in a few hours, then.”  With another scoff from the annoyed robot, they were out the door and headed down the street to the party.  RK had to take special caution to keep his pants, which were normally tucked into the top of his boots, from dragging through the slush and end up soaked through before they got down the street.  Not only did he not want to track the snow into Lynda’s house more than his shoes already would, but he didn’t want to deal with wet pants at someone else’s house.  He had at least waited until nearly eight before heading over, purposely avoiding the dinner so he wouldn’t have to explain why he couldn’t eat or drink anything.  He still wasn’t upgraded enough for that.  Plus, the less time spent around Lynda, the better.  He had no idea what the rest of the neighbors would even be like, now that he was thinking about it.

It was a short walk to the right house.  Both outdoor and indoor lights lit the snow all the way to the sidewalk while the murmur of music and talking filled the air around it.  A line of multicolored lights still hung around the roof edges and the vague shape of some yard ornament poked out of a snow mound at the end of the driveway.  Three cars were parked between the driveway and sidewalk, though only one RK recognized as being Lynda’s, suggesting at least two people had driven from elsewhere to attend the party.  The driveway and porch was cleared of snow but a thin layer of slush, packed down by several pairs of feet, still covered the outer edges of the sidewalk, much like the rest of the neighborhood.  Their own house was the strangest in that regard, since they had no car there was little keeping the snow off their driveway and RK only cleared out a path to and from the street, rather than clearing the entire width.

Itara sighed and leaned forward against his head as they approached the house, grunting in slight annoyance when he reached up to pull her down and set her back on her feet in front of the door.  “Watch your temper, alright?” he warned, eyeing her, though she only crossed her arms and looked away.  Shaking his head, he looked up and reached over to ring the doorbell, though before he could press it down, the door swung open, revealing a widely grinning, luxuriously dressed Lynda.

“RK!  Itara!  Welcome to the party!”  She had always looked decent whenever she visited them, even wrapped up in thick coats and long pants, her hair was always lightly curled and her makeup was always done up, so he was used to her looking considerably better than most.  Today, however, for the sake of the party, she had gone to even further measures.  Though, admittedly, they only ever saw her wrapped up in large coats, today she wore a fitted, long-sleeved red dress that went just above her knees with a layered, ornate, silver necklace.  Her long, strawberry blonde hair was elegantly curled and carefully positioned around her head for the most volume.  Her makeup was noticeably more dramatic, with a smoky eyeshadow and bright red lipstick to match her dress.  Even her nails were newly and carefully painted with two silver bracelets on one wrist, matching her necklace.

“Hello Lynda, sorry we’re here so late.  We had some work to finish up before we could head over,” RK explained.  It was partially true, he was working on Metal Sonic again while Itara finished her homework up.

“No worries, no worries, like I said before, everyone tends to come at different times.  Come on in, it must be freezing out there!” Lynda exclaimed, ushering them in, “let me hang your coats up for you.  You look incredible, by the way.”

“Thank you.”  RK hesitated for a moment, having planned to leave his coat on because of the sleeveless state of his shirt, but didn’t want to look strange if it was common to remove your jacket while inside.  Itara shook her jacket right off, looking away towards the living room full of people.  He glanced towards her to check that she wasn’t glaring at everyone before pulling his own jacket off, catching that strange look from Lynda again once he did.  One of these days, he would figure out what exactly that look meant.  But for the time being, he just watched as she hung their jackets up in a nearby closet before leading them further into the house.

“Just about everyone is here already, you remember Aiko and Juri from before,” Lynda continued, motioning towards the two that had accompanied her down to their house before.  They were standing near a snack table, talking with another couple but waved when they caught sight of them.  RK gave an awkward wave back.  He wasn’t sure about them just yet, they seemed to follow Lynda around fairly often, yet they rarely talked.  “Over there with is Susan and her husband, Lawrence.  They live at the end of the street, on the other side of the crossroad.  Susan and Lawrence have a daughter in the same school as Itara and my son.  Susan and I are both part of the PTA and Lawrence heads a neighborhood watch program around here.  Then you’ve got Kimmie, Evan, Jack,” she continued showing them around the living room and kitchen, introducing them to everyone present.  Most were parents from the neighborhood.  There were only the two that went to Itara’s school while the rest of them either went to the public school, were homeschooled, or were in college elsewhere.

There were one or two couples that didn’t have children and there was one elderly couple whose children were all grown and off on their own.  The two that had been far enough to drive were childhood friends of Lynda’s that had come from out of town.  Lynda’s son and Susan’s daughter were in a room away from everyone else playing some game of some kind; they were the only kids close to Itara’s ‘age’.  “You haven’t met my son yet, have you?” Lynda asked, finally finding her hideaway son, “Simon, pause that game and come say hello.  Have you met Itara?  She goes to your school.”

The young brunette gave a quick roll of his eyes before pausing the game and looking over, studying the three standing in his bedroom door.  Itara had been half standing behind RK, mostly ignoring everyone, but looked over curiously at the mention of a fellow classmate.  Sure enough, she recognized him from around the school, but he was a grade above her.  She’d never spoken to him.  The school had both mobians and humans, but it wasn’t exactly an even split.  There were considerably more humans.  Most mobians went to the public school, she’d learned.  If they went at all.  Mobians had much different ways of life than humans, school and work and such systems didn’t much appeal to most mobians, but those were the ones who usually lived as far away from the cities as possible.  Mobians like Sonic, for example.

She and RK were the only mobians at the party, as well.

“Oh,” he frowned, looking back at the screen, “yeah, I’ve seen her… I guess.”

Susan’s daughter, a taller, thinner, black-haired girl, looked over as well, studying them with a cautious eye.  She said nothing, but turned back towards the game after a moment.  Itara recognized her, as well.  She was friends with Sceira, the pincer-haired pseudo-scorpion she distinctly loathed.  She’d said all of maybe a sentence to her since being enrolled but there was something about the blind mobian she just didn’t like, didn’t trust.  The same went for her friend group.

“Jeez, you kids and your video games,” Lynda sighed, turning back towards the two, “he’s not the most social of kids, but hopefully you two can get to know each other before long.  Simon, why don’t you let Itara play with you two?  You have another controller, don’t you?”

“Mom, this is a two-player game,” he sighed.

“Well then let her have a turn!”

“It’s f-fine,” Itara interrupted, “I don’t really… play games.”  Actually, she was curious about them, but she didn’t want to be left alone with the human children at the moment.  She hadn’t liked the look the other girl gave her.  She would be staying by RK’s side until they left.

“Well, if you’re sure,” Lynda frowned, “I’m sure they’ll be in there for a while so if you change your mind later just go ahead and join them.  For now let’s get back out to the others.  Are you hungry or anything?  There are leftovers from dinner and I have plenty of snacks.  I’ve got plenty of drinks, as well.  Go ahead and make yourselves at home and don’t be afraid to ask for anything.”  She led them back to the kitchen, “did you eat dinner before coming over?”

“Yes, we did,” RK answered, while Itara scanned what she could see sitting out on the table.

“D-Do you… have any cookies?”

“Of course!” Lynda led Itara to the snack table set out in the living room, pointing to the trays as she explained, “there are chocolate chips, peanut butter, oatmeal; the chocolate chips are vegan, too.  Do you have allergies?”

Allergies?  Allergies.  She looked up at RK in confusion, not even sure what constituted an ‘allergy’ to begin with.  He shook his head and explained for her, “No, she doesn’t.  None that I’ve found yet, anyway.”  Initially he would have doubted a part of a God could even have allergies, but he also didn’t think she could get sick before a couple weeks ago, either, so he was no longer sure of this.

“That’s good, then.  What kind would you like, then, little one?”

“Uh, chocolate,” Itara answered, looking between them and then back at the table, curious what else could be up there.  She could barely even see over the edge.  Stupid humans and their tallness!  She wanted back on RK’s shoulders.  Would it be weird to ask to be picked back up?  She wasn’t sure.  Lynda put a couple cookies on a small paper plate and handed them to her, smiling and patting her head between her ears, turning back to RK to continue talking to him.

“Can I get you anything?  A drink, perhaps?  We’ve got the adult drinks cooling in the garage.”

“Ah, no, that’s alright.  I’m fine,” he explained, looking away, wondering what exactly an ‘adult’ drink was and pulled up a side window to look into it.

“Well, as I said before, just let me know.  For now, come!  Get to know everyone!”  She reached over and grabbed his wrist, staring at the long, metallic claws protruding from the one hand for a moment before pulling him towards the group of four standing at the end of the table.  “Susan, Lawrence, have you had a chance to meet RK here yet?  His niece goes to the same school as our kids.”  RK jolted from the movement, but reluctantly followed, having finally discerned that ‘adult’ drinks usually referred to alcoholic beverages and focused in on the conversation again.  He was a bit taken aback when Lynda referred to Itara as his ‘niece’ this time, though.

Itara blinked for a moment, having briefly forgotten she had told Lynda that RK was her uncle, but looked away again, not wanting to get caught up in whatever conversation was about to happen.  She was more interested in the cookies, anyway.  What was ‘vegan’?  Taking a cautious bite, her face scrunched when the taste was… off.  She couldn’t figure out what exactly it was that tasted different right away, but it wasn’t what she was expecting.  It was still chocolate, at least, but she decided she much preferred a normal chocolate cookie over whatever ‘vegan’ meant now.  What other kinds of snacks did they have?

After a thorough search of the snack table, and a brief eavesdrop on RK’s conversation, deciding she wanted nothing to do with any of it, she decided to wander the house a little.  She didn’t necessarily want to stray far from RK, since human adults were even taller than the unnaturally tall robots she was used to being around, but she hadn’t found anything on the tables within reach that looked worth the effort.  The living room and kitchen entrance was full of loud, chatting humans, all dressed up, many of them glancing towards her and RK in the middle of their conversations, causing her to subconsciously wander towards the emptier hallway.

It was darker down there and the only time anyone passed through was when they were headed to the bathroom, so Itara found solace in the quiet corners of the house.  Most the bedroom doors were closed and she didn’t want to get in trouble for wandering too much, so instead she found the furthest corner to crouch down in and go into thought.  The dark, colder, isolation was far more comforting than the lively main rooms.  It reminded her of the abandoned lab she stayed in with her dad in the first timeline, the corner giving a similar comfort to her makeshift bed under the computer room’s console.

Her comfort was soon interrupted, however, when Simon came out of his bedroom, having been heading across the hall to the bathroom but jumped when he caught sight of Itara.  “What are you doing?!” he shrieked, looking back and forth between his bedroom door and the hallway.

Itara’s ears flattened against her head at the loud noise, frowning, her bright green and purple eyes nearly glowing in the dark corner.  “I… I was… n-nothing!” she stammered, not even sure how to explain it, “I was just… comfy…”  She looked off to the side as the other human girl came out from the bedroom to find out what was going on, raising an eyebrow at the hedgehog practically curled into a ball.

“What kind of freak are you?” she sneered, eyeing Itara with suspicion, receiving a glare in return.  Itara huffed in annoyance, but glared off to the side again, ignoring both of them.  She didn’t know how to respond without either sounding silly or accidentally saying something she shouldn’t, so she opted for silence, instead.  The other girl scoffed when she got no response, turning back around to return to the room while Simon looked between them both.

“Come on, Cam, that was a little mean.”

“I don’t care, there’s something wrong with her, even amongst her own kind.  Hurry and get back so we can finish our game.”

Simon sighed, looking back at Itara again, who was still ignoring them, continuing to the bathroom.  Once he was gone again, Itara’s shoulders dropped ever so slightly, her glare lowering with it, as she pulled her knees closer against her chest.  Sceira was the one to blame for this, she knew it.  She didn’t want to associate with any of them, anyway.  She just wished she had brought Kipper with her.  Then again, they might have made fun of her for carrying a doll around, too.  It wouldn’t have been the first time.  Huffing angrily, she pushed herself back up and headed down the hall again, intending to tell RK she wanted to go home.  She no longer cared if it was rude to leave before whatever event was planned, she no longer wanted to be there.

“So, of course, Camilla won first place, as if the other kids even had a chance,” Susan was explaining, getting a slight scowl from the hedgehog that had just walked into the conversation.  “What about your, what was she again, niece, RK?  What kind of after school activities does she take part in?  Where did you say her parents were, again?”

“Ah, well,” RK began, crossing his arms, “none, at the moment.”  He hadn’t even considered after school activities before.  Was that something he should look into?  Then again, Itara hated going to school plenty as it was; he doubted she would want to be there any longer than she already was.  But then again, maybe if she found something fun to do it might change her mind.  “But her parents are…”

“Travelling,” Itara interrupted, making her presence known and glaring up at the nosy woman, apparently Camilla’s mother.  “My dad t-travels a lot.”

“And what of your mom?”

Itara frowned, looking away.  She didn’t have anything in the way of a mom.  She could suggest her mother had died, but that brought her thoughts to Mira and Kelly… and she refused to let them back into her head.  Luckily, the awkward silence forced a change of subject and Lynda brought the attention to her, “you know, Susan, I heard Camilla only placed first in the finals because the other girl dropped out at the last minute.”

“What are you insinuating, Lynda?” Susan snapped, turning her sharp gaze from the two mobians over to the other woman, who only smiled sweetly and put her hands up in defense, holding a glass of red wine in one of them.

“Nothing at all, Hun, just a rumor I heard is all.”

A deadly silence drifted between the group as Susan and Lynda seemed to mentally square off.  RK and Itara exchanged glances, though not before catching a slight roll of eyes from the ever-silent Aiko and an uncomfortable shift from Juri and Lawrence.  If RK had to guess, from the various reactions, this was not a new situation between the two, making him curious what sort of past they had.  Yet, at the same time, it was not something he wanted to delve into.  He was getting some high tension readings that he would prefer to avoid.

Lynda was the first to move, smiling sweetly over at the other woman and taking another drink of her wine, waving the mood off while turning back to RK, “you’ve kept relatively quiet so far.  You should tell us more about yourself.  Where are you from?  What do you do?  How did you come to take care of the little one?”

RK shifted, looking off in another direction as he debated the answer.  There was a lot there he couldn’t actually tell them.  He had hoped just letting them talk and maybe even keeping the topic on Itara would suffice.  He couldn’t tell them much about himself without giving away his identity.  “Ah, well, you can probably imagine I’m not from around here, per se.  We moved here because I had… an acquaintance… that used to own the house that no longer had need for it and we were looking to move.  As for what I do, I work… security….  I suppose you’d call it contract work, as it’s rarely for the same place.”

“Oh?” Lynda not so subtly moved closer, giving him a light nudge with her shoulder, winking, “well, with all that strength I’ve seen so far, it must suit you.  Roughing up troublemakers and all.”

RK watched her curiously while Susan dramatically rolled her eyes and loudly scoffed, crossing her arms and getting a playful scowl from the strawberry blond.  “Yes, I suppose,” he hesitated, “and as Itara explained, her… father… travels fairly often and didn’t want to move her around so much, so he asked me to take care of her until he returned.”

“Excuse me if I’m being nosy,” Susan began, though didn’t sound all that apologetic about it, “but I can’t help but notice you and Itara don’t look… much alike.  Is that common for mobians?”

“Now that you mention it,” Lynda paused, looking between the two, “you are a bit different.  How does that work if two mobians are different… breeds?”  RK looked off, going through a number of possible explanations, exchanging glances with Itara, who was more visually panicked about the question than him.  Before he could come up with a fitting answer, however, Lynda luckily decided she apparently no longer cared and leaned against him ever so slightly, grinning, “Actually, I’m more curious how similar mobian and human anatomy might be.”  Susan, once again, audibly scoffed while Itara’s eyebrow went up, wondering why that would be important.

RK, however, just welcomed the change of subject and started explaining the various ways mobians and humans differed, as far as his data supplied, anyway.  He didn’t have extensive information on the subject, but he could at least explain basics.  Though, Lynda seemed less interested in the actual answer, despite having been the one to ask, and more interested in leaning further against him.  Was she perhaps getting tired?  It was considerably late for most organics, save for the more nocturnal mobians, that was.  “Would you like to sit down?”

“Only if it’s in your lap-”

“You’re drunk already, aren’t you?” Susan scolded, though there was a hint of vindictive amusement in her tone.  RK, however, was only further confused and doing his best to step further away from the human woman, without letting her fall over.  Something told him he should keep his distance, especially once Lynda started waving at Susan to hush with the hand holding her half-empty glass.

Itara’s eyes narrowed suspiciously, wondering what was even going on.  She still wanted to go home.  Before she could inform RK of this, however, the front door rather suddenly swung open and a worryingly familiar voice called out for him, instead.  Both she and RK, along with everyone else at the party, swung around towards the door in either shock or confusion, or panic in her and RK’s case.  Standing in the door, glaring over towards them with a noticeable amount of disdain, was Metal Sonic, wrapped up in one of the longer coats RK had hung in the hallway closet.  He had to pull it much tighter than RK normally did, as he had a much thinner frame, but at the very least, the coat and high-necked sweater underneath covered the majority of his broken, robotic parts.

“Me-!” RK began, though cut himself off, Itara taking over for him.

“Sparky!  Wh-what are you doing here?!”

The other bot narrowed an eye, but walked in towards them, seeming to all but ignore everyone else, “I grew tired of waiting and RK’s communications are offline.”  He briefly studied the room before his one red eye fell on the woman RK was propping up, who only stared over in confusion.  “And I did not give you permission to call me that.”

“Who is that?” Lynda questioned, attempting to stand up again, though wobbled as soon as she did, looking to Itara first, “a friend of yours?”

Itara resisted the urge to scoff, “n-not… exactly.”

“He’s my… partner,” RK explained, sending the room, including Lynda, into a shocked silence.  She had asked him about a partner once before so it was the first, and most viable, explanation he came up with on the spot.  Susan narrowed her eyes but Lynda looked between the two while Metal Sonic only raised an eyebrow.

“We haven’t-”

“We’ve worked together for a long time,” RK continued, moving over between him and Lynda, mostly to keep him from saying anything unnecessary.

“Oh, a work partner, of course,” Lynda laughed, relieved about something RK couldn’t comprehend.  “Well, it’s nice to meet a colleague of RK’s, then.  Why don’t you join us?  We’ve still got a couple hours until midnight, after all.”

“I have no interest in joining your human festivities, I am only here to retrieve RK,” Metal Sonic stated coldly, turning to the larger red robot, “why are your communications offline?”

“Because,” RK growled, grabbing the other bot by the shoulders and shoving him off towards the hallway to talk, leaving Itara to stare after them, blinking, unsure how to handle the situation.  Once the two bots disappeared into the hallway, a number of eyes fell on her, making her want to retreat back to the dark corner again, and averted her gaze as best she could.  She didn’t manage long before Lynda specifically put herself into her line of sight, crouching down to talk quietly with the hedgehog.

“So, who’s this colleague of your uncle’s, then?  Is he staying with you or something?”

Itara frowned and considered the question and possible answers, wondering what would be the best response.  “Uh… y-yeah… he’s… staying with us,” she stammered, looking away, “he, uh, he was pretty badly injured recently… so, RK said he should stay with us… so we can… help him out.”  That was one way to explain it, she supposed.  More importantly, though, she would have to have a word with Kipper for not doing his job and keeping the other bot home.  Then again, Kipper was more likely to goad him into showing up, rather than keeping him home, just to watch what kind of reaction it got.

“Oh, how caring,” Lynda beamed, clasping her hands together, “he’s strong, caring, and good with kids?  And here I thought all you mobians just liked running around causing a ruckus.”

Itara’s eyebrow rose, watching the human woman with suspicion and taking an unconscious step back.  What was that supposed to mean?  The humans were just as troublesome as any of the mobians.  In fact, save for maybe Shadow, they were debatably worse.  Not to mention Robotnik.

“Though, it sounds like he isn’t so fond of humans.”  Itara stiffened, concerned Lynda might have caught on to something.  “Does he normally live with other mobians?”

“Uh,” she looked between the hallway and Lynda, “actually… he just used to live with an especially irritating human.  Soured his image of you guys a bit.”  Not that she thought any better of them.

“Oh, I see,” Lynda gave it some thought, looking towards the two quietly arguing robots in the hallway, before grinning, “well, I guess any friend of RK’s is a friend of ours.  I hope he enjoys his visit, however long it ends up being.”

Eyeing the woman suspiciously, Itara turned around and followed after RK and Metal Sonic, listening to their ‘argument’ about interrupting parties.  Figuring they were likely having the real conversation via communication lines, and weren’t paying attention to her presence, she walked up and pulled on both RK’s pant leg as well as Metal’s coat, exclaiming, “I want to go home.  I no longer care that it’s early, I want nothing more to do with this party.”  Both bots looked down at her, Metal Sonic glaring slightly while RK’s mouth pierced into a solid line.  Perhaps it was best to head back home, after all.

Chapter Text

“I heard she likes sitting off in dark corners just waiting to scare people.”

“What?  That’s creepy.”

Itara shot a spiteful glare over her shoulder, catching the attention of her two barely-whispering classmates, watching their faces flush at the realization that she heard them.  They turned back around, whispering much quieter, and Itara continued on through the cafeteria, grumbling angrily under her breath as she headed for the empty staircase again.  Kipper wasn’t with her today, though, so she would be eating entirely by herself.

Word had spread annoyingly fast around her school after the New Year’s party, even though only two actual classmates were even there.  It wasn’t the worst rumor, having everyone think she was creepy and that she liked to scare people.  It wasn’t the first time people thought she was creepy and if anything it kept them further away from her, which she preferred.  Though, if anything, she actually wanted them all destroyed rather than just scared.  So no, it wasn’t the rumor, itself, that bothered her so much… it was the fact that Camilla had been the one to spread it.  No doubt it made its way to Sceira, as well, and the last thing she wanted was to give Sceira any kind of material to further mock her with.

Huffing, she dropped down on the bottom two stairs and set her lunch in her lap, glaring at the wall as she picked at her food.  Maybe she’d get lucky and the school would be attacked again.  Maybe it’d even be destroyed completely and she’d never have to come again.  As if she’d ever been so lucky.

With a sigh, she set her food aside and pulled the worn black notebook out of her backpack, flipping through the pages filled with scribbles and notes and sketches, scanning over them to make sure there was nothing new.  The last entry was the previous night’s.  Nothing from today.  Nothing from the future.  Still.  Nevertheless, she closed her eyes and tried searching out for the timelines, or even just the shadows, to see if she could feel them at all yet.  She tried opening a portal, summoning a monster—since they’d been appearing again, after all—or manipulating the shadows.  But there was still nothing.  Like reaching out into a void.  Nothing answered back.

Opening her eyes again, she stared out at the wall in front of her, leaning forwards on her knees and sighing.  “I know they’re still there… so why can’t I access them?”

“Access what?”

She nearly shrieked at the sudden voice, whirling around and scowling at the grey-eyed mobian standing at the staircase entrance.  “N-None of your business!” she hissed, shoving her notebook back into her backpack and grabbing her lunch, jumping to her feet, “if you’ve come to mock me, save your breath!  I’ve heard it all already.”

“I’m not even here for you, Itara,” Sceira scoffed, “I was just passing by and heard you talking to yourself again.”

As her face flushed up, she was briefly grateful that the pseudo-scorpion couldn’t see, glaring off to the side, “I was just th-thinking out loud.  L-Leave me alone.”

“I don’t know what you’re always up to, Itara, skulking about and mumbling to yourself all the time, but I hope you know it won’t fly,” the other girl warned, narrowing pale eyes in the hedgehog’s general direction, “we don’t need any troublemakers here.”

Itara studied her carefully, narrowing her own eyes, but scoffing and looking away again, “what I do is no concern of yours.  Or anyone’s, for that matter.”  Wanting to get away before she said anything more, always on the verge of threatening people with the full extent of what used to be her power, she shoved her way past Sceira and into the hallway, “I suggest you keep your nose where it belongs, Sceira.”  She heard nothing more from the other mobian as she continued down the hall, heading outside, instead, since her stairway spot had been impeded on.  She would need to find a new hiding spot.  Somewhere further from everyone.

Maybe she could go back up to the roof during lunch.


 

Checking her phone one last time, she looked at the time and up at the train station signs.  She was finally out of the Hellscape called School, but she didn’t entirely feel like going back home just yet.  There were things she’d wanted to look into since the incident on the roof, but RK kept refusing to take her into town to look into the shrine, finding new reasons every time she asked.  Well, just because she looked like a child, didn’t mean she actually was one.  If she had to ride the train home on her own, anyway, and since it went through the city, she could just go herself.  She didn't necessarily need someone with her to visit her father’s shrine in Soleanna, but she would have felt better going with RK.

She did text him and let him know she was going, just in case.  Her main solace was that no one else remembered the previous timelines.  If not even Shadow recognized her, no one else should, either, even if she ran into someone, they wouldn’t know her.  It would be fine, as long as she got off at the right stop on the train ride over.  She’d never taken a train before recently and, while she knew how to get to school and home, she wasn’t sure where the rest of the stops led.  Surely the heart of Soleanna would be easy to pinpoint, though.

Once the train pulled up and she found a spot closest to the large map of railways and stops, she pulled her notebook out and drew it out for herself on an empty page.  She always had a good half hour or so between stops so she figured she would have plenty of time to draw out what she would need.  She made note of everything the speaker said at each stop, scribbling as many notes as she could, tracking what went where.  When the train grew more packed, she figured she was likely close to where she needed to be but still wasn’t sure which stop was the correct one.  And she refused to ask the mortals.

When the speaker mentioned a ‘Soleanna Station’, it jolted her out of her thoughts just in time for the train to start slowing.  Keeping her notebook out, just in case she needed to draw more maps and directions, she pulled her backpack back on and wiggled her way through legs and taller mobians to reach the door.  She barely tripped her way out onto the cement platform before the doors closed again.  Huffing, she straightened herself back out, looked around to make sure no one was mocking her, and turned to find another map.  Luckily she knew the actual streets of Soleanna well enough that once she determined where she was, she could find her way.

Checking her phone again to see if RK had responded yet, she tucked it away when there were no messages and continued her search for a map.  Why did humans have to be so tall, though?!  As if it wasn’t bad enough that she was small even for a mobian, the humans were so much taller, and so tightly packed into the station, it was all she could do to stay on her feet, let alone find what she was looking for.  Stumbling, and half-shoving, through the crowds, she found a far wall and decided the streets were an easier option.  She could find her way from there.

“Excuse me, are you lost, little one?”

Itara’s ears flattened at the childlike tone, resisting the urge to growl, and looked up at the annoyingly tall human towering over her.  He looked as though he worked in the station and, to anyone else, had a friendly enough face, only wanting to make sure a small child didn’t get separated from their parent.  But to Itara he was a nosy human mocking her for being small and insinuating that she couldn’t find her way on her own.

“I’m fine,” she explained, with barely disguised irritation, causing the man to jerk back in surprise.

“Right, of course.  You just looked a little lost; did you get separated from someone?  It’s easy to lose people around here but I can help you find them.”

Sighing, Itara waved him off, “I d-didn’t lose anyone.  I’m by myself and I know perfectly well where I’m going, thank you.  Everyone is just too tall and in my way.”

“Oh, I see, okay then.  Well, there’s always someone in those little buildings there if you ever need anything, alright?”

She glanced over at the small, four-walled room set up on the edges around the platform.  They had one door and three of the four walls had large windows in them to see the person inside.  The one the man was pointing to was empty, suggesting he was normally there.  Looking back up at him, she nodded curtly and turned away again, “I’ll remember that.”  Not that she would ever need help from anyone, anyway… except maybe RK.  And Kipper… once in a while.  But they were the exceptions.  Turning towards the stairs leading up to the streets, she continued her way out.  Despite what she told the man, she was still lost, but knew she’d find her place once she was back in the open air.  She’d travelled all across this city, multiple times, in multiple timelines, both intact and destroyed.  She didn’t need help finding the center.

Then again.

Now that she was thinking about it, she did usually have to use inactive time travel powers to get to places on time.  It wasn’t exactly uncommon for her to get a little lost and have to write out her own directions for her past self.  It was also a little easier to find the center of a city when it was completely flattened and she could see the center from several miles away.

Scratching her cheek, she gave a long look around, studying various signs and looking for familiar buildings, realizing more and more how little she actually paid attention to her physical surroundings.  Well.  Still, the center shouldn’t be that difficult to find!  She’d just walk towards the sun, surely that would lead her to the shrine.  Nodding with her decision, she set off; taking careful notes about everything she passed so just in case she happened to get lost, she would at least know where she’d already gone.

She followed the setting sun down the longest stretch of road she could find, passing a number of shops, diners, and tall buildings, some of which she recognized.  From the original timeline.  They were some of the few buildings to remain somewhat intact in what came to be known as Crisis City.  A shudder ran up her spine as she passed them, prompting her to pull her coat closer around her and briefly wonder why she had to wear a skirt even in winter.  As much as she liked her loose-fitting clothing, even she thought the skirt uniform was a poor winter choice.

The longer she walked, the lower the sun got, and the colder it got; and yet, she was still no closer to finding the shrine than she started out.  Huffing out loud, she stopped to glare around, catching the attention of some passersby, but straightened back up when her phone went off.  Pulling it out of her coat pocket, she checked the text, which mostly boiled down to RK telling her to get home before it got dark, and huffed again.  She refused to go home until she accomplished what she came to do, and she told him as much before shoving the phone angrily back in her pocket.

Fine!  She would ask someone!  Her feet were starting to hurt and it was cold, she wanted to hurry up and find her dad’s shrine so she could yell at him for making her suffer like this!  Looking around, she waltzed into the nearest shop, which happened to be a small restaurant, and walked angrily up to the counter where a yellow hedgehog stood, punching numbers into the register.

“I need to find Solaris’ Shrine!  T-Tell me how to get there!”

The hedgehog jolted at the rather sudden outburst, leaning over the counter to meet her eyes, staring curiously.  “Uh,” it took them a moment to register what she even asked before shaking their head, “oh, uh, sure.  It’s in Town Square just a mile or so that way,” they pointed down the street in the direction Itara had come from, causing her to grimace.  “If you follow the road this way and then take a right on main, it’ll take you right to it,” they continued, looking around before looking down at her again, “did you get separated from your parents?  Do you need me to call someone?”

Itara huffed.  Again with this.  “No.”  She turned towards the door, stopping after a moment and muttering a small, “thank you for the directions.”  Walking back out of the restaurant, she sighed loudly at having to go all the way back.  That’s what she got for following the sun, apparently.  How dare her father lead her astray like that?  Well, she could yell at him for that, too, once she reached the shrine.  She got another text from RK, but she was too angry to check it this time, and instead focused on hurrying back down the street… without tripping.  If she could run without tripping over her own feet, she would have, but the best she could do was walk quickly.  At least the city sidewalks weren’t covered in ice and snow like the sidewalks in the neighborhood.

By the time the shrine finally came into sight, the sun was nearly gone under the horizon and Itara was utterly freezing and tired and extremely cranky.  The lights around the square, shimmering off the fallen snow that coated various statues and buildings, along with the long stretch of orange and pink sky was a lovely sight, but Itara was far too irritated to look at it for long.  Once the shrine was within sight, she stormed right up to the water’s edge, glaring at the towering stone torch-like structure in the middle of the square.  The massive torch and surrounding buildings sat at the center of a great, deep pond, the sparkling orange sky dancing off the nearly black rippling waters.  A stone statue with great, widespread wings stood on a pedestal in front of the main structure, the bright red gem in its chest glinting in the torchlight.

Itara stared at the statue from the railing around the waterway, wishing she could get closer, wanting to make sure her father heard her, but knew the only way over to the small inlet directly in front of the statue was by boat.  And she still couldn’t float.  Sighing, she glared towards the setting sun, watching it fall behind the horizon, before directing her glare back to the stone statue.  The square was busy as always, despite the cold and the setting sun, but Itara had found a relatively empty area to study the shrine from.

“I hope you know… I’m mad at you,” she threw out, her glare firmly on the statue.  She could see the small chipped slashes where the monster had likely attacked before being run off even from her spot.  “I don’t know why you aren’t answering me… and I don’t know why I can’t access my powers, but I hope you at l-least know I’m mad at you.  B-But I also intend to… I’ll also look into the monsters that attacked.  As much as I can.  Without my powers, I-”  She stopped when a couple walked near her, keeping a sharp eye on them until they were gone again, then back towards the statue, “in either case, I hope you at least answer me soon.”  Staring down towards the water, she studied the sparkling lights, about to turn and leave when a much larger orange glow appeared in the water’s reflection near her.

Looking up again, she caught the brief sight of a glowing, burnt orange creature running away from the square and tilted her head curiously.  She had only seen it for a split second before it disappeared, but it almost looked like… one of Iblis’ Biters.  She knew that shape well enough, she’d recognize it anywhere, even at a glance.  First one of Gaia’s Nightmares, now a Biter?  What was going on?  She hesitated only a moment before jumping away from the railing to follow it towards the alley it had disappeared into.  Normally she would avoid Iblis’ creatures as much as possible, the Nightmare already tried attacking her, there was little reason a Biter wouldn’t, as well.  But on the off-chance that it was, in fact, some form of response from her father, since neither Iblis nor Mephiles technically existed anymore, she didn’t want to miss the opportunity.

She crossed the square to the alleyway, giving only a quick look around before walking down it.  It was an empty enough space, just a small road between buildings, no one was around.  The further down the alley she walked, the warmer it got, much to her utmost comfort.  The source of the heat walked out from around a far corner before long, revealing the—much smaller than she was used to—smoldering Biter.

She stopped, unsure whether or not it planned to attack, the creature doing the same as they stared one another down.  When it didn’t attack outright, she glanced around before reaching a hand cautiously towards it, “I-it’s okay… I won’t hurt you… you’re made by my dad, right?”  It was strangely comforting, seeing the creature again, as many terrifying memories as she had with them, it had been so long since she felt that familiar warmth.

But just as she thought the Biter might actually recognize her, or at least confirm it wasn’t a threat to her, it moved into a defensive pose and growled viciously, exposing it’s long, molten fangs, its tail whipping angrily behind it.  Panicking, she held her hands up in defense, taking a couple steps back, “n-no, d-don’t… i-it’s o-okay, d-don’t-!”  Her words went unheard, however, as the creature crouched, causing Itara to lock up in place.  She couldn’t even duck out of its way and, instead, felt her spines crystallize, worsening her panic.

As the Biter leapt, likely taking the altered form as a threat, Itara could only snap her eyes shut, her ears pinning back at the sound of the growl, screeching in horror when it knocked her over.  Its body was heavy and pinning her down, the once comforting heat turning scalding to the touch as the molten fangs hovered dangerously over her.  Her hands burned as she tried pushing its massive jaws away, fiery claws stabbing into her sides, her own crystals stabbing uncomfortably into her back where she landed on them.

When she thought she couldn’t hold it any longer, however, as her arms were far from strong enough to really keep it at bay for any period of time, there was a sudden whirring through the air and the creature screeched in pain as it flew further down the alley.  A light thud sounded beside her and it took her until someone pulled her back to her feet and talked to her before she focused enough to realize what had happened.  Wide, horrified purple eyes met shining, confident green ones as the taller blue hedgehog looked over her.

“…Alright, there?  Hey, it’s okay, it’s gone now,” he grinned, “but man, this place has been busy lately!  You should be careful from now on, there might be more of those things.”

“Y-You!”  Itara jerked back and away from the other hedgehog, pulling her hands back and nearly tripping over her feet. He jumped, reaching for her again before she fell back against the concrete.

“Well that’s a reaction I don’t normally get,” he laughed, making sure she would stay on her feet, seeming to not notice the utter panic his mere presence was causing.  “C’mon, why don’t I get ya home?  Those look like some bad burns, you should get them taken care of.”

Itara, however, only stared in wide-eyed horror, taking another unconscious step back.  Of all the mobians.  All the hedgehogs.  Why did it have to be him?  Sure, he obviously didn’t recognize her, just like Shadow didn’t, he wasn’t even saying anything about her crystals, but just being in such close proximity to Sonic, especially right after being attacked, was too much for her to process properly.  She had little control over herself as she stammered out the first response that came to mind.

“Why are you even alive?”

“What?”  He jerked at the response, having not expected it and crossed his arms in thought, raising an eyebrow, “that creature wasn’t that difficult to beat.  I mean, I guess it looks pretty tough but it’s no big deal for me.”

Itara shook her head, taking a moment to calm herself and mentally sighed at his cluelessness.  Well, it benefitted her at the moment, but it did little to calm her irritation.  She thought she’d finally gotten her response from Solaris, seeing the Biter, but then it attacked her.  Now to see Sonic so closely again, considering the last time she saw him was no fond memory of hers, it was too much.  She closed her eyes tightly, trying to calm herself.  Sonic spoke up again, but she heard none of what he said.  Instead, only a dizzying wave of confusion came over her and a growl echoed through the alleyway.

Opening her eyes, her brows furrowed when, instead of Sonic, she saw the Biter again.  She had expected it to get back up, but not so soon and not in front of her.  It had been behind her a moment ago.  In addition, Sonic was gone.  She was facing down the alleyway the other direction again and the Biter had moved back into a pouncing position.  What happened?

She had little time to contemplate it as the creature pounced again.  This time, being more distracted by the repeat situation than the creature, itself, she dove out of the way with a small yelp.  The heat of the creature flew over her, but as she moved to get back to her feet and try to run, a crackling and sharp rush filled the air as the creature screeched and thudded against the ground.  Expecting Sonic again, Itara prepared herself to face him before pushing herself back to her feet, turning around and looking up… only to meet an entirely different set of eyes.

“Y-you-?!”  Déjà vu.  Shaking her head, she stared up at the half-robot, half-human looking man with the long, glowing blue sword in hand.  It was the same one from the incident in the shopping center.  He had been studying the now halved creature, but looked over to her when she spoke.

He studied her silently, then questioned, “are you unharmed?”

Itara looked down.  Her knees were scuffed from diving out of the way, but the burns and wounds from before were gone.  Looking up again, confused, she nodded slowly, “I’m… f-fine…”

“Very well, you should get home, then.  This place has grown dangerous.”

“Who… are you?”  He looked down at her again, the glowing blue sword retreating back into its handle as he turned to face her.  “I don’t… recognize your design, is all.”

“My design?”  It was his turn to raise a curious eyebrow, though it was a movement lost to his helmet.

“I mean,” Itara frowned, unsure how to ask without giving too much away, “you aren’t a creation of Robotnik, are you?”

“No.  I was-”

“Itara!”  Both Itara and the humanoid robot looked towards the alleyway entrance, Itara nearly jumping out of her skin, as RK appeared, eyeing the other bot cautiously.  There was a short silence before he continued, “I told you not to come out here, what are you doing?”  He glanced towards the halved creature, looking between the two, studying the alleyway, before resting his sights on the tiny hedgehog again.  He could guess what happened to a degree, but he would ask later, once they were home, “come on, it’s getting late.”

Itara frowned, looking between the two bots, curious about ponytail, but edged towards RK.  She gave one final glance back at the other bot with uncertainty, “th-thank you for… saving me.  What’s your name?”

He remained silent, studying the two, before looking away, “My name is Zero.  You should be more cautious in the future.”  With that, he continued down the alleyway while RK pulled Itara up onto his back.  Itara watched after him until RK left the alleyway and he was out of her sight, sighing afterwards and leaning against the big, fluffy robot.

“So what happened?”

“I’ll explain when we get home,” she sighed, closing her eyes, wrapping her arms tighter around his neck, “but I think I might have accessed a timeline.  I don’t know if I just saw an alternate possibility, or I actively went between the two.  But I saw two different outcomes.”

RK looked over his shoulder towards her, turning back after a moment, “In any case, answer your phone when I call you.  Just because you aren’t actually a child doesn’t mean you can’t get hurt, as you just saw.  Even when you had your powers you weren’t exactly untouchable.”

Itara sighed loudly and dramatically, “fine, fine.  But don’t think I’m done looking into what’s happening!”

“Of course you aren’t.”  Itara nodded with finality and the rest of the trip home was relatively silent.  Once they were out of the city limits, RK ran the rest of the way and once Itara was changed and warmed up—after a short bout with Metal Sonic regarding her need to be chased after—she explained the events of the day.  She started with all the annoyances during school, ensuring her hatred of the entire situation was known, and then continued on to her trip to the city.  She conveniently left out getting lost, though.

When she explained about the alternate situation Metal Sonic took sudden interest in the conversation and pressed for more information regarding her unusable powers.  Kipper, for once, remained silent and in doll mode throughout the evening.

Chapter Text

RK pulled his jacket on, checking his communication settings once more to ensure they were completely offline—with a final reminder sent to Itara—as he headed down to the lab to talk with Metal Sonic.  He had his hook screwed back in and had sharpened his claws in preparation for the day’s plans, all that remained was to double check backup plans and systems.  As usual, Metal Sonic was set up in a chair beside one of the charging stations, hooked into both the station and the computer, backing up several files and logging a set of new ones RK had given him as a just-in-case.  The blue bot looked over once he approached, studying his oddly geared up companion with a suspicious gaze.

“Going somewhere?”

“Yes, there’s something that needs taking care of.”  Holding a small chip out to Metal, he explained, “I may be gone until at least tomorrow, which means I’m going to need you to take care of things here for me until I return.  My communication systems will be offline to prevent detection as much as possible but should anything go wrong, if I’m caught, I’ll reconnect long enough to send a message to this computer.  If it comes, I’ll need you to load this and set the destruct sequence off.  It’ll wipe my systems, hopefully before anything can be retrieved from them.”

Metal took the chip, tucking it away in a protected compartment but returned his gaze to RK with an eyebrow rose, “what exactly are you planning to do?”

RK shook his head, “if I say, you’ll follow me.  Especially if anything happens, I’d prefer you and Itara remain safe, which is why I’m giving you those codes.  Hopefully nothing happens, though, and I’ll be back within a day.  While I’m gone, though, I want you to keep an eye on Itara for me.  I know you don’t trust her, but… I’ll be able to focus better if I know someone’s taking care of her.”

The other bot scoffed, looking away, “you’ve grown far too attached to that thing, RK.”

“All the more reason I need to know she’ll be safe while I’m away.”

The room remained silent for several minutes, RK waiting for a response while Metal Sonic considered his demand.  Eventually Metal sighed in annoyance, waving him away, “fine, fine.  I’ll watch over your little anomaly.  But on one condition.”  He turned a piercing red eye to the other bot, “you tell me where you’re going.  Whether I follow you or not is my own concern, but don’t think I’m so stupid as to walk into a situation that managed to defeat you.”

RK gave it a moment of thought, but upon his explanation he received a furious glare from the other bot in response.  Metal did his best to convince him his goal was foolish, but RK only shook his head, double checked his systems, and reminded Metal to keep watch over Itara.  Once his preparations were complete, he nodded and added, “she should be getting off school in a couple hours, make sure she does her homework, eats dinner, and goes to bed by eight.  She’s hard to wake in the morning sometimes but make sure she’s up and dressed by seven so she can get to the train on time.  And don’t let her convince you to give her more than two cookies after dinner.  She will try her damnedest, but it always gives her a stomachache and she’ll whine about it the entire rest of the night.”  Metal watched in baffled silence while RK nodded and left the lab, confident that he could handle it.  Or at least, he hoped.

Having everything he needed, he laced up his boots, pulled his jacket tighter, and took off out the door.  He walked down the sidewalk, planning to run once he was further away from the houses.  On his way out, he ran into Susan, who stopped him to ask about some upcoming school event, but he had to duck out of the conversation, much to her annoyance.  He would talk to her more once he returned, if he returned, but for now he had no time to waste.  It would be a long run and the snow would only make it longer, but he figured he ought to reach his destination by nightfall so long as nothing got in his way.


 

“RK!  I deserve a brownie!”

“You deserve to be kicked across a minefield.”

Itara jumped, flinging her shoe halfway across the room, at the exceptionally annoyed voice that responded.  Taking a moment to calm her breathing, she glared over at the blue robot leaning against the far wall, hissing, “You should have stayed broken!”  Huffing, she pulled her other shoe off angrily and went to retrieve the flung shoe, looking around for the robot she had actually expected to see, frowning when he didn’t respond to her earlier call.  “Where’s RK?”

“Out.”

“Where?”

“None of your business, but more importantly, he’s left me in charge of you until he gets back.  I don’t know why he thinks I’m some kind of babysitter for brats, though.”  Itara glared again, subconsciously slinking away from him, getting a grin from the robot.  Standing up, he walked over to her, grabbing her by the back of the shirt and holding her out at arm’s length, grinning widely at the panic she was trying so hard to disguise with a scowl.  “Like a cornered animal.  Now, go on, please tell me why you deserve a brownie.”  If he had to watch the brat, he was at least going to have fun with it.

Itara, on the other hand, wanted desperately to know why RK would leave her alone with the psychopathic killer robot in the first place.  She didn’t deserve this abuse.  She just wanted to come home, get a brownie, and maybe avoid her homework.  She hadn’t checked her phone yet, so she hadn’t seen the texts from RK explaining the situation, she’d been too caught up in recent events, but she was planning to tell him off when he got back home.


 

The run out to his destination had been a long one.  Not only was the base he was headed for much further out than even the old one he and Itara used to stay in, but the snow had slowed him considerably.  He didn’t have the same equipment he once did, hovering hadn’t been an option since his initial damage at the hands of an exploding base, so he’d had to run the entire way.  It was made no easier by the fact that he was a considerably heavy bot compared to most his size.  He was built as a war machine, after all, everything was heavily fortified.  It was the only reason he survived that explosion in the first place.  But it made snow and sand particularly difficult to get through.

As the day grew into night, he made his way through a thick line of trees and a large field opened up in front of him.  In the far-off distance, the lights of an enormous, brightly lit base came into view.  There was little between him and the base once he left the tree line, so he remained at the edges, scanning and studying what he could from the distance, formulating a plan.  And several backups.

The base stretched for several yards just from what he could see of the front and he knew several of the towering buildings would be heavily defended, both inside and out.  A long line of sparking wires wrapped around the outer edges and a number of smaller scout robots patrolled across the field.  He would need to either destroy only enough to reach it before they saw him, or find a way to get past them.  He opted for destroying.  The next issue would be getting inside the electric wire.  He would need to be cautious of cameras, likely more scouts, and heavier duty defense bots.  Then he would also need to ensure he had an escape route once he accomplished what he came for.

He briefly wondered if Robotnik had built anything similar to him or Metal Sonic since they went rogue.  Would he have to face another AI bot?  Or would they all be programmed defense bots?  There was no way to tell without turning his communications back online, but that was too risky.  Even if he was seen, he was unrecognizable in his current state, he could fight his way back out without tipping Robotnik off to his identity.  If he turned his communications back on, however, another bot could read his ID numbers and Robotnik, he imagined, would be far more likely to give chase knowing he was still out there and not destroyed.

No, he would just need to figure it out as he went.

First things first, he needed to get to the base.  Pulling his jacket off, not wanting to restrict his arms in any way, he tied it around his waist and rolled his shoulders.  His fist ached for the crunch of destruction, as long as he didn’t go overboard he could have fun with this.

It was a decent run to the first scout bot but he managed to come around behind it and slammed a clawed fist directly through it, tearing it to shreds and sending sparking parts across the field long before it could ever register his presence and inform the other bots.  They were carefully spaced out across the field so he could waste no time admiring his handiwork before he had to bolt for the next.  He made his way through the field in a zigzag shape, shattering bots and leaving a field of nuts and bolts in his wake until he finally came up to the electric fence.  It was several feet high, probably enough to keep most organics out, more than likely designed to keep one specific hedgehog out, but RK had no intentions of going over the fence in the first place.

Electrified as it was, because of the upgrades and precautions Itara had taken to deal with Metal Sonic, RK had little trouble taking down one of the posts connecting the fence’s power.  He suffered little more than a quick zap and restored his systems before the thick, metal pole even hit the ground, taking out several wires with it and creating enough of a gap for RK to get through.  The fence would be noticed right away, but they hopefully wouldn’t have sufficient time to repair it before he got out again.  For now, he needed to find his way inside and keep an eye out for cameras.  Luckily, he knew exactly what he was looking for.  Robotnik had never been subtle in any way.


 

“For the last time, would you just watch and stop talking?!  You’re gonna miss the important parts if you keep talking through them!” Itara yelled, glaring over at the bot sitting across from her in what had once been designated RK’s chair.  A plate of pop tarts and a brownie sat on her crossed legs with a glass of half-drank milk between them, a kid’s cartoon was playing on the TV with the living room lights turned off.

“What makes you think I want to watch your ridiculous show in the first place?” Metal Sonic scoffed, leaning back, making a movement to cross his arms, though at the realization that he still only had one, put it back down.

“I can only assume you’re completely absorbed in it because you’re still here and you’re asking questions,” Itara grumbled, “but I’m telling you, it’ll explain why she’s fighting the giant horse robot if you shut up and watch!

“I’m only here to make sure you eat your dinner and go to bed on time, as RK asked me to do.  I have no interest in these silly mortal pastimes.”

“I’m not mortal, either, you dumb robot.”

“Insult my intelligence one more time, anomaly!  I will send you back to that Sun God father of yours in pieces!”  Itara stuck her tongue out at him, but shrieked and scrambled away, knocking both her plate and milk over as the furious robot’s claws nearly clipped her sides and stabbed a hole through the back of the abandoned couch.


 

RK pulled his claws out of the towering Gunner, jumping back and watching it crash before taking off again.  While he had been trying to avoid fighting most of the sentinels to keep evidence of his presence to a minimum, that one had been directly guarding the entrance and wasn’t going to move otherwise.  Having taken it down, he studied the large metallic door.  It could be opened by most badniks, and Robotnik, himself, but he decided to smash through it.  It took a couple of hits before the door creaked and fell inward, granting him access to the inner base.  But now he needed to be extra cautious.  The inside would be better guarded and monitored than the outside.

Besides, the last time he had been inside an actual full-detail base… it came crashing down on him.

Keeping against the walls and his scanners active, he made his way through the winding halls, mostly using an outdated memory of general base layouts to navigate.  It was better than nothing but it wasn’t exactly going to be an efficient way to go about it, either.  He found several labs, charging rooms, and an empty sparing arena before he found the area he was looking for.  Unfortunately, his presence was finally noticed by a scout and managed to set off an alarm before he could eliminate it.  The scout didn’t last much longer after it set the alarm off, but RK knew he would need to hurry and retrieve what he was there for and get out.

But he still needed to find the right room.

Well, if he was already detected, it meant he no longer had a reason to hold back.  He had no choice but to destroy everything that came his way.  He wasn’t sure if it would complicate his escape or not, but he would deal with it when it came.  Continuing down the hall, a number of smaller bots rushed him from the other direction, likely intending to overwhelm him, but he smashed through them easily without even needing to stop.  He just hoped it wouldn’t get Robotnik’s attention too directly.


 

“Stop-stop-stop!  O-okay!  I g-give!”

Metal Sonic came to a nearly sliding stop as the much smaller hedgehog curled into a ball at the end of the hallway, her hands wrapping around her ears as she cowered in front of him.  He hadn’t expected her to give in, at all, let alone so easily, and he almost felt more disgusted by the notion.  He was too used to dealing with Sonic and his endless amounts of sass and self-assurance, and while it wasn’t exactly unheard of for mobians to cower before him, it was rarely someone of any consequence.

But as he stood over her, contemplating what to do about her, she opened a single eye to glance up at him.  At first he considered letting her off with a severe warning, as not even someone so tiny and clearly fragile would receive much mercy from him.  But then her expression shifted, and, within seconds, a powerful electrical current ran through him, sending his systems into shock, reacting too strongly to his own shorts to keep him functional.

Itara watched in silence as the blue robot sparked and jolted before toppling over, causing the lights in the house to flicker until he stopped, and stood up once she was sure he was off.  Huffing angrily, she stuck her tongue out at him again, taking the cord away from the floating doll behind where Metal had been standing and putting it away.  Kipper just floated over the robot, snickering, before following Itara back to the living room.

“He’s gonna be pissed when he gets back up, you know,” the doll grinned.

Itara frowned at the spilled milk and picked the cup up, taking it to the kitchen and grabbing paper towels to try and mop it up.  “It’s his fault for trying to kill me,” she stated, placing several paper towels on the spilled milk, grabbing her knocked over pop tarts and brownie, and returning to the couch to finish her show.  “… But hopefully he doesn’t turn back on until RK gets home.”  Kipper just laughed and landed on the back of the couch, deciding to watch the rest of the show with her.


 

Finally.  He found the right room.  He knew he wouldn’t have much time before more bots came and he had no intention of being cornered in the room, so he needed to find what he needed fast.  As luck would have it, though, it was sitting right out on a counter.  Well, it did probably get the most use out of anything in Robotnik’s bases, so it made sense it would be easily accessible.  Grabbing it up and putting it safely away in a hidden compartment, he ran out of the room and back down the hall, mapping out where he’d been to figure out the easiest exit.

As he passed piles of shredded metal and strewn parts, though, he started growing suspicious when no more bots showed up to try and stop him.  He knew he couldn’t have destroyed every bot in the base, nowhere near it, so it likely meant Robotnik had something planned.  A trap, most likely.  He would need to be careful.  Hopefully whatever trap was planned was just a larger bot to fight and nothing he couldn’t break out of, but he would need to be careful about running into open areas, nonetheless.

He reached the exit again with no problem, raising his suspicions… until he saw a figure standing out in the open, clearly waiting for him.  It was too small to be Robotnik, but too tall to be another mobian or mobian-based bot.  However, as a light blue sword lit up the bot’s body, revealing the red coverings and long, blonde hair, RK realized who it was.  So he was working for Robotnik, after all?  But then why was he fighting a badnik in the shopping center?

Either way, RK wasn’t sure how much time he had to waste fighting the unusual bot.  If he was working for Robotnik, it meant he was likely watching from somewhere and RK didn’t want to be within the Doctor’s sight any longer than was necessary.  Walking out to meet the ponytailed bot, remembering his name was Zero, he looked around for the Doctor before questioning, “So you work for Robotnik after all?”

“I am assisting him currently, yes.  Why are you here?”

“I had a score to settle.  You don’t want this fight right now.”

“You believe you can beat me.”  It was no question.

“I might.  And as much as I want to find out for sure, I don’t have the time right now.  If you insist on a fight, I’m going to find a way to leave rather than meet you full-force.”

“That’ll be your mistake, then,” Zero stated, moving to attack.  RK gave a mental sigh while preparing to meet him in battle.  He didn’t want to stick around longer than necessary.  It was possible Robotnik could recognize his attack patterns and abilities, if he didn’t already know somehow, but he also didn’t want to chance holding back and somehow losing to the newcomer.

RK had expected the other bot to be strong, judging by appearance alone, he looked powerful and capable, but he hadn’t fully expected him to match him so well in pure physical strength.  He’d managed to avoid the sword, not knowing what it was made of and didn’t want to chance anything, but when he slammed a clawed fist into the side of his opponent’s head, he recovered much faster than most.  It at least put a small amount of distance between them, but at the speed Zero came at him again, the distance meant about as much as it did fighting Metal Sonic.  He was fast and strong.

As much as the prospect of a worthy opponent excited him, RK knew he had to keep to his word and look for an out rather than meeting him full-force.  He would do enough to keep him at bay, mostly testing out his abilities at first, remaining on the defensive, but he also searched for any opening to create a distraction.  It wasn’t until Zero hit him square in the chest, denting the thick steel chassis, and sending him flying into one of the pillars that an idea occurred to him.  He had noticed Zero shift one of his fists into some kind of cannon on one arm and goaded him into charging it by keeping his distance as long as possible.  He seemed to prefer close-combat, as RK did, but when he realized he was going to stay out of his reach, a ranged attack became the obvious choice.

Perhaps a bit too obvious, though.

Zero charged his attack and RK maneuvered in front of one of the less structurally sound pillars, waiting just long enough for the blast to have its aim before he moved.  Though, equally last minute, Zero altered his aim to blast the other bot instead of the intended pillar, once again sending him flying.  RK flew through the remaining, functional fence, coming to a sliding stop far outside the base, having to take a moment to shake his systems back up and scramble to his feet again, taken aback.  He hadn’t expected Zero to anticipate the move, but he also wasn’t expecting to end up exactly where he wanted to be, either.  Zero wasn’t giving chase, for whatever reason, compelling RK to question his motives, but he had no time to contemplate it.  Giving one final glance towards the other red bot, RK turned tail and ran for it.

He wanted to actually fight Zero, at full-force, someday.  When he had the time, and when Robotnik wasn’t looming.  Whoever he was, whoever he was built by, he seemed like a promising opponent.  But for now, RK had a long run ahead of him and the damage he’d taken from the other bot would complicate it further.  Again.  He would need some additional repairs once he returned home.

 

When RK finally saw the neighborhood come into sight again it was well into the next afternoon and he was ready to shut down and recharge for several hours.  His systems were badly overheating and the damage during the fight had become all the more apparent the more he pushed it.  He had only been able to run at half his normal speed, and even had to stop to let his systems cool more than he would have liked to admit, making the return trip long and arduous compared to the run out.  The line of single-story, lightly painted houses was the most welcome relief he had felt in some time.  He slowed to a walk once he got close to the quiet neighborhood, checking the time and figuring he had about an hour or so before Itara should be home from school.

Once again, someone from the neighborhood caught sight of him on his way in, though this time it was Lynda and RK almost audibly groaned at having to deal with her.

“Well don’t you just look exhausted?  Hard day at work?”

“Something like that.”

“I won’t keep you long, then, I just wanted to ask if everything is alright at home, since I caught you.”  The concern on her face was not something RK wanted to see.  What happened while he was gone?

Narrowing his eyes with suspicion, he questioned, “what do you mean?”

“I mean, with your power flicking like that and Kimmie said she thought she heard screams last night.  She went over to see if everyone was alright but no one answered the door.”

RK wasn’t sure whether he was more concerned for Itara’s safety, or irritated by what likely happened.  But he couldn’t let Lynda know either thoughts and only reassured her, “the power is still a little faulty.  We finally got it fixed but with the snow and all, they said it’d likely still flicker a bit.  We can’t get a full overhaul until the snow melts.  As for the screams, Itara was just… watching a movie.  She’s easily startled sometimes and can be a little dramatic about it.”

“Oh, I see.  You shouldn’t let her watch something so scary so late, you know.”

“Apparently.  In any case, like you said, long day so…”

“Right, right, of course.  I’m just glad everything’s okay.  Go get some rest,” Lynda smiled, waving him on and returning to her house.  RK nodded and did just that, though was already reopening his communications to get onto Metal Sonic about whatever happened.  As soon as he did, however, a slew of messages from Itara dinged in, nearly blinding him for a moment as he reached the porch.  Taking a quick minute to minimize them again, he opened the door, pulling up a line to Metal Sonic, but stopped as soon as he did.

The couch was knocked over, there were wet towels on the carpet, Itara’s shoes were strewn carelessly in the doorway, there was a long, deep gash in one of the walls, and the fridge door was wide open.  That was what he could see from the doorway.  With a sharp intake, he yelled out for Itara, Metal Sonic, and Kipper, slamming the front door shut behind him.  As soon as he yelled, he got a screech in reply that echoed up from the lab and he stormed his way to the stairs, not even bothering to take his shoes or jacket off first.  The damage only got worse the further into the house he got.  More walls were marked up with claw marks, Itara’s bed was in utter chaos, cords were haphazardly thrown around the hallway, and the yelping noises coming from the lab were putting him on edge.

Once the lab came into view, the explanation for the yelps and screech became apparent as Metal Sonic stood near the computer with Itara wrapped tightly in his grip, kicking around, trying to escape.  RK took in another sharp breath before walking over and decking the other bot in the face, grabbing the tiny hedgehog in the process and looking her over to check that she would be alright.  She was shaking violently and coughing for air, but otherwise appeared unharmed, so he turned his attention, instead, to the blue bot that was pulling himself back to his feet.

“When I said watch her, I didn’t mean strangle her!  And what did you do to the walls?!  I leave for one night and you two completely wreck the house!”

“That little urchin deserves everything she got and more!” Metal growled back, “she has been mocking me the entire time and even purposely shorted me!”

“He t-tried to k-kill me!” Itara yelled back, though her voice was hoarse.

“I warned you!”

“Shut up, both of you,” RK interrupted before they could get any further, “I don’t want to hear another word until this house is fixed.  I mean it.”  With that, he turned around and carried Itara upstairs, wanting to get a better look at her, and scold her for skipping school, leaving a frustrated and, once again, baffled Metal Sonic to sulk angrily in the lab below.  RK had been expecting chaos when he got home, considering what he heard from Lynda, but he hadn’t expected just how much damage the two could cause in one night.  Not to mention Kipper was nowhere to be seen, having likely incited plenty of it, as well.  He wasn’t even sure he wanted the full story on this one.

It took several hours of calming, and cleaning, before any of them were willing to talk again.  RK got as much fixed as possible without the need of putty and paint, questioning Itara on the spilled liquid and having to take several more minutes to not strangle both of them, himself, once he got the answer.  He turned the couch back up, properly cleaned the spilled milk and crumbs, put all the cords away, and gave the school a call to let them know Itara was just out sick for the day.  Itara cleaned up her room and Metal remained down in the lab, not wanting to see any of them.  When Kipper finally made his appearance again, RK gave him a good, long talking to before letting Itara have him again.

He then fixed a proper meal for the little girl, who had only been snacking most the night when she wasn’t being chased by Metal Sonic, and sat down with her at the table to let his systems cool again.  He still needed to talk to Metal about the incident, but he needed far more energy than was available for that.

After the long afternoon of quiet, Itara finally piped up for the first time since he got home.  “So… uh… what did you even go do?”

In all the chaos of getting home, RK had nearly forgotten the entire reason he left in the first place and suddenly debated the worth of going.  But once he opened the compartment and pulled the small plastic case out, remembering the entire reason he stole it, he decided it was still absolutely worth it.

Itara, however, only stared, her face twisting into further confusion when he opened the case, “what is that?”

“Robotnik’s mustache comb.”

Chapter Text

Itara eyed the slush across the school yard with caution and disgust.  Her classmates filed out the doors around her and made their way to the gate to leave, catching her attention as a number of them slipped and slid across the wet, icy ground.  She didn’t want to meet the same fate and embarrass herself so she preferred waiting until most, if not all, others were already passed before heading out, herself.  As she prepared to step out onto the slush, with another quick glance around, she caught sight of a flash of red above the gates and stopped to watch.  Dark blue, oddly shiny ears poked out next, causing her to narrow her eyes suspiciously.

Questioning why he would be there waiting for her outside school, she continued across the yard, looking up at the red robot casually chatting with the on-duty teacher once he came into view around the gate posts.

RK looked down at the young hedgehog when he caught sight of her, explaining, “There you are.  I thought we’d pick you up today.”

“We?” Itara practically hissed, looking around him to see Metal Sonic standing behind him, glaring off in another direction, seeming about as pleased about the situation as she was.

“Yes, I thought we’d do something together in town.  Come on,” RK motioned for her to climb up on his back, crouching down so she could do so and standing again once she was situated.  He gave a final nod to the teacher and turned back towards the train station, giving Metal a quick nudge to follow.  The blue bot grumbled unintelligibly, but reluctantly followed, though refused to speak even once they were further from people again.

“So… what’s this about, then?” Itara asked, at least relieved she didn’t have to walk in the slush anymore.  She wasn’t sure how much she wanted to deal with Sparky at the moment, but at least RK was there.

“To be frank, I’m still annoyed with you two regarding what happened when I left.  You two need to learn to get along, however that has to happen.  We’ve got enough enemies as is, we don’t need to fight one another, so while searching online for ideas, I read that quality time together was the most effective way to bond.  There are a number of ways to go about that, but due to certain limitations between the three of us, the best option I found was a day out on the town.  What we do is up to you two, as long as it’s within reason, but it has to be something we can do together.”

Metal scoffed, shoving his one hand in the deep coat pockets and glared away from them, “this is pointless.  I have no need to get along with that brat.  The only reason I’m even still here is because you obviously need watching around her.  She’s going to be your downfall someday, RK, mark my words.”  He scowled back towards the little hedgehog, who returned the look from the safety of RK’s back.

RK shook his head, “and that’s what I’d like to prove to you, Metal Sonic.  She isn’t the threat you think she is.  Besides, weren’t you the one who essentially created her?”  The question gained him a scowl from both parties, but he ignored them and continued, “You should be more concerned with her continued growth, considering all the effort you put into bringing her into the world.”  Metal’s gaze became briefly contemplative at the final comment, looking ahead to consider it, before he scoffed and looked away again.

“I only created her at the behest of Robotnik.  Even though I was the one to retrieve the scepter from the desert, I was the one who chose the vessel, and I was the one who ran all the experiments to find the right solution before it was all stolen from me,” he snarled, his hand moving out of his pocket to flex and curl angrily, he finished, “I still don’t trust your little anomaly.  In fact, everything regarding her creation only angers me further.  I should like to crush her for the sole factor that she constantly reminds me of working under that fool of a doctor.”

“Imagine if you had actually listened to me when you went rogue,” Itara muttered, squeaking in surprise when RK suddenly jerked to catch Metal’s wrist.

“Enough.  Both of you,” he warned, eyeing Metal to back down before he would let go of his wrist and continued on.  “This is what I intend to start fixing today.  I don’t want to hear another argument out of either of you.  We’re going into town, we’re doing things together, you’re going to get along, and that’s that.  Now.  Where do you want to go?”  Itara huffed loudly while Metal made no attempt to hide his seething, though still kept pace with RK as they continued.  “That’s not an answer.  If you don’t pick, I will.”

“Fine, then I wanna go get a new game,” Itara exclaimed, “I… there’s… I just… heard they were fun.  I wanna see what’s so apparently great about them.”

“Then that’s what we’ll do,” RK agreed, mapping out the nearest stores that sold any kind of games, narrowing them down to shops that specialized in them but asked, “what kind of game did you mean?  There are apparently many.”

“V-Video games,” she stammered, her face flushing in embarrassment.

Nodding again, RK narrowed his search down by video games and found a number of video game stores, as well as ‘arcades’, which apparently offered games you could play right on site instead of at home.  Once he had the nearest location mapped out, he sent the address to Metal Sonic and they took off at a quicker pace.  Though, it occurred to RK, as he was researching what all video games and arcades entailed, that Itara didn’t have any of the required systems.  They had a computer down in the lab she could play ‘PC games’ on, but she had no consoles or handhelds.  If she wanted anything like that, he would also need to pick one of those up.

Luckily, he just got paid.

It was a relatively short run to the first store and RK reminded Metal Sonic to mind himself before they walked in, to which he once again scoffed and glared off.  The store was average in size for the area, with one main counter where the registers were set up and two humans standing behind them going about their work.  The entirety of the walls, and five or six stands were filled with game boxes, all organized by the system they played on.  On one wall near the front, two screens with controllers attached to each were set up, playing demos of various new releases.  There were only a couple other shoppers in the store, one standing at the counter talking with an employee, and the other shuffling about towards the back.

“So, what exactly did you have in mind, Itara?”

“I… I don’t know… exactly,” she frowned, looking around, “I just… some of my classmates talk about the games they play all the time and… I th-thought… maybe…”  Her voice trailed off and RK reached back to pull her off his back, setting her on the ground.

“Why don’t you look around, then?  See if anything catches your attention.  Just keep in mind we’ll likely have to pick up whatever system it’s played on, as well.  We only have a computer, after all.”  As much as he wanted to get Itara what she wanted, especially if it might help her socialize more at school, some prices were considerably higher than others.

“R-Right,” she fidgeted, looking around before taking off cautiously into the store to look around.

Once she had taken to looking through the cases, RK decided to have a look around, himself, wanting to know more about the new interest Itara had apparently picked up.  As he moved towards the demos playing, curious what they were about, Metal scoffed from behind him.  “So we’re wasting time and energy on games now, are we?”

“I don’t consider it a waste if it fulfills a purpose.”

“And what purpose is that, hm?  Appeasing your tiny master?”

RK turned towards him again and crossed his arms, “she’s not my master, I’ve explained this.  A number of times.  Nor is the purpose to appease her.  I asked you both what you wanted to do, she answered first.  That said, I do want to find something we can all do together and my searches turned up the idea of an ‘arcade’, that offers promise.”

“I’m so glad we’ve escaped the Doctor’s control to play games with children,” Metal complained, walking away from him to examine what the shop had to offer.  RK watched him, frowning, but gave a mental sigh and returned to his searches.  It would take Metal some time to adjust to the situation.  Maybe once he was better repaired his mood would improve.  It was just difficult to find full parts for repair during the winter.

After some time, watching both Itara and Metal scour through the store for anything of potential interest, one of them noticeably more interested in their search than the other, Itara returned to RK first with a couple of the smaller cases.  She held them up towards him, excitement thinly veiled behind uncertainty as she explained, “I… I think… these look… fun?  But I… I can’t decide… I only want one, I promise… but… I don’t know which one.”

He took one up, looking over it and checking the system it needed, searching it online to learn as much as possible before searching for the other one.  They were at least the same price, and were luckily the cheaper options, as they were for handhelds, but were vastly different games.  One was a simulation of some kind and the other was an ‘adventure’ game; both had particularly cartoony and ‘cuter’ styles, though they varied considerably.  Handing the games back, he questioned, “did you want me to let you know which one is higher rated?  Or would you prefer a more detailed description of the gameplay to help your decision?”

“Um… g-gameplay, please.”  Nodding, he gave a full explanation of each game, based on what he had found in his search, though left out the story elements of the adventure game, in case she chose it.  When she still seemed unsure, he added that both supported multiplayer, but the simulation would be easier to play with others who might not be at the same point of the game as her.  “I… I think I’ll… go with this one, then,” she finally decided, handing the simulation game to him to return the adventure game to the rack, though added a final, “Not that I care about multiplayer, though!  I don’t care about other people!”

“Of course you don’t,” RK sighed, turning the box over in his hand before walking over to where Metal Sonic was studying a wall of console games.  “Find something you like?”

He gave a short, sarcastic laugh in response, “don’t be ridiculous.  I was simply studying what people distracted themselves with lately.  How pointless.”

“You know, if you want one, you can just say so.  While I was waiting I looked into prices for all the systems and, while the newer ones are a bit expensive, it seems easy enough to get older ones cheaper online.  I’m going to need to get Itara a handheld for her game, but I can probably-”

“Don’t be stupid.  Hurry and get your little master’s games so we can leave already,” Metal growled, turning away and returning to the door.  “If I stay here much longer I may destroy something.”

RK sighed in annoyance, rolling his eye but turning back towards the counter to see about the game and handheld.  He may get a cheaper console and a couple games to set up in the living room after all later.  Just to spite Metal Sonic for insulting him.  Besides, maybe it could be something he and Itara could do together, instead of destroying the house while he was out.

Once Itara had the color and type of system picked out and RK paid for them both, having her put the bag in her backpack so it didn’t get lost or destroyed while they were out, he led the way back outside, looking into the next destination.  He wanted to try the arcade next.  Not only did they have games to play, but it seemed most offered food and he was sure Itara was getting hungry.  Plus, in a busy place like that, with more than just food going on, it wouldn’t be suspicious if he and Metal Sonic didn’t eat anything while Itara did.  With his decision made, he gave the address to Metal again, pulling Itara back on his back, and took off.

“It’s not going to be… too busy… right?” Itara asked, sounding a bit unsure of the idea.

“I’m unsure, hopefully not,” RK explained, slowing to a walk again once the neon lights of the arcade came into view.  Metal Sonic had taken off ahead of them and was waiting impatiently outside the door, even going so far as to tap his foot.  RK had to resist the comment almost begging to be made at the sight, but managed to keep it down, not wanting to incite a brawl in the middle of the city.  Instead, he continued leading the way inside, warning both of them not to wander too far as they entered the expansive building.

It was a decently packed place, with hordes of both small children and parents alike crawling around every corner, yelling loudly, the noise bouncing off the tall walls and echoing up to the high ceiling.  The front was mostly restaurant, with a long buffet as well as a line of pizzas behind glass.  A separate section was cornered off for tables and seating, leaving the restaurant floor mostly open, save for an exhausted parent or two going back and forth between the buffet and tables and the occasional screaming child running amok with a face full of pizza sauce.

Past the checkered restaurant floor was a small stretch of half wall that opened into the arcade portion, where the majority of the children were running around, waving play guns, tickets, or various brightly colored plastic toys.  The sounds of noisy games barely reached the front over the noise of the children and teens running wild around them.  There was a wide enough range of games to play, and plenty all three of them could even play together, but the battlefield between them and those games was causing even RK to double guess his decision.

However, as soon as both Itara and Metal Sonic turned incredulous looks to him, a stubbornness sparked and he continued in towards the busy arcade.  If nothing else, maybe this would teach them to get along in the future, so he didn’t force them to return here again.  Of course, while Itara had no choice in the matter, she was on his back and wasn’t likely going to run for it on her own, Metal Sonic hesitated before following him in.  He had plenty of freedom to run for it, and even a number of reasons to do so, but matched RK’s pace soon enough, his glare returning to his face before long.  Itara, however, just sighed and resigned herself to her fate.  At least she couldn’t be totally clobbered from RK’s back.

“Did you want something to eat first?”

Looking around the area and debating, wondering just how long she wanted to draw this torment out, she shook her head.  “No.  Not really.”  Maybe she’d get something to drink later, but for now she didn’t want to chance getting down long enough to eat.  Nodding, RK looked into how the games worked, scouted out the nearest ‘token’ machine, and got them a handful of the strange coins.  He decided he would walk around the area first, wanting to scout it out, before making any decisions, and mostly hoping Itara would spot something that interested her.  He wasn’t holding out much hope in Metal Sonic playing along so easily, he would likely have to ‘nudge’ him into playing, but maybe he could at least get Itara started.

Luckily, it took less time than he was expecting for all the flashing lights and music to catch the tiny hedgehog’s attention.  She remained silent for a good few minutes while they walked, studying the games carefully, devising which were complete random chance, which ones were skill based, and which ones required too much physical exertion.  Some of the more physical games she’d decided she wanted to see RK and Sparky play but for now she wanted something she could play.  Eventually, one of the fighting game cabinets caught her attention, as the name suggested some kind of battle of the gods, and she poked RK in the cheek to point it out.

“You want to play that one?”  He raised an eyebrow, figuring why she likely picked it, but moved towards it.

“Kinda… I mean, I just wanna see… how it works, that’s all,” she stammered, getting an eye roll from Metal Sonic.  “But you should play with me.  Since, you know, it’s a two-player thing.”

“Are you going to be able to reach the controls without me holding you up?”

Itara’s face dropped at the realization, looking around frantically before pointing desperately at Metal Sonic instead, “you!  Fight me, instead!  We have a score to settle, anyway.”  Though mumbled angrily, “stupid machines, being built all human-sized.”

Metal Sonic only raised an eyebrow, “what makes you think I want to play your silly games?”

“Because I’m challenging you to a battle.  Unless you don’t think you can beat me even in a video game,” she grinned, watching the one red eye glow furiously before he moved over to the other side of the controls.

“Fine.  If you wish to be wholly defeated on your own terms, then I’ll happily oblige.”

“Less talking, more tokens!”

Not even RK was sure where the sudden bout of energy came from, but handed her the tokens they needed and pulled Itara from his back to hold her up to the machine.  She was right about one thing, though, the machines were obviously built with humans in mind, rather than mobians.  There were, however, several stacks of stools around the area, likely for that reason, but Itara seemed more intent to battle Metal Sonic now, anyway.  He didn’t mind watching, though, the entire point was to get them to do something less destructive together.

Unfortunately, the ‘fight’ turned out just as he and Metal both expected it, much to Itara’s dismay.  Once Metal had the controls memorized, it was only a matter of reading Itara’s tactics, which he was built specifically to do.  The match was over quick and Itara was right back to pouting, but already searching out a new game to beat him in.  RK couldn’t help but give a small laugh, but Metal seemed far less amused by the entire ordeal.  Once her feet were back on the ground, and her backpack was thrown to RK, Itara took off to find their next match, calling over to them from a couple feet away.

“I never agreed to play any more of these games,” Metal Sonic argued once they reached her again, but it went in one ear and out the other as Itara held her hands out for more tokens.

“The last game was all computer tactics; this one will be fairer,” she insisted, motioning to the two giant pinball machines, “the one with the highest score wins.”

Metal Sonic was about to inform her that she would still be battling a computer, but RK moved into his sight and shook his head, handing her the tokens.  While she dragged a stool over that had been left near the machines, the taller red bot sent him a direct message warning him not to ruin her fun.  Just what did he expect to happen when she was beat again because she was still facing an AI, though?  RK gave no response and only handed him the tokens and pat his back, a little more forcefully than he had been expecting.  More importantly, however, how did either of them expect him to play such a game with one arm?!  They still hadn’t replaced one of his limbs!

As if realizing the problem before he could even bring it up, though, RK moved over beside him and reached out for the button he couldn’t press.  Between Metal Sonic’s missing arm and RK’s missing hand, they had just enough hands to handle either side of the machine.  Itara looked over at them with an eyebrow rose, having forgotten about Metal’s removed arm.  RK just motioned with his hook to explain what he was doing and smirked as the realization flashed across her face.  He had managed to beat her so easily with one hand on the fighting game that she had forgotten that he wasn’t just mocking her.

Refocusing in on her own game, she grinned, “well you’re gonna need the help to beat me, anyway!”

“Somehow I doubt that,” Metal Sonic grumbled, exchanging a look with the red robot looming over him before focusing on his own machine.

Pinball took considerably longer than the fighting game, since it wasn’t actually two-player, but Itara ended up coming out victorious, much to Metal’s fury this time.  He accused RK of letting her win but the other bot just waved the idea off and suggested another game they could play to distract him.  Itara had decided she wanted to see the two robots square off in a game this time and pointed out the Test of Strength, grinning wildly up at them as they both looked down at her incredulously.  “Dare you to do it without breaking the machine.”  RK couldn’t help but wonder if there was an ulterior motive to her plan when he noticed the grin on her face once they agreed.

Metal Sonic went first, walking around the machine a couple times to test its sturdiness, wondering just how much force he could put through it without breaking it and realized it was much less than he would have liked.  He wasn’t even built for pure strength like RK and even he had to hold back considerably, his ‘punch’ being more of a flick and still, the tiny mechanical punching bag screeched at the speed it had been shoved back.  The lights flashed wildly and an irritating horn blared, screaming about a high score and catching the attention of a number of passersby.  His attention went back to the machine as a long line of tickets started printing out onto the floor, which Itara wasted no time collecting.

Next it was RK’s turn, who looked even more unsure than Metal Sonic had.  He hit even harder and sometimes had trouble gauging the amount of force he put into punches.  Not to mention, unlike Metal Sonic, who only had clawed fingers, he had two long, metallic claws stretching out from his fist that he could do nothing about.  It would be too easy to leave the machine in the same condition as Robotnik’s scout bots.  Reeling back, he turned his fist to keep his claws out of the mechanical arm, and thrust forward with the slowest, least conspicuous punch he could.  Yet still, not only did the mechanical arm screech back into its socket, but the entirety of the machine jolted back and nearly toppled over, if Metal Sonic hadn’t caught it and righted it just as quickly.

The machine started blaring again and, despite not destroying it, at least, the show caught more attention than either bots were comfortable with, even as the clueless hedgehog with them dove again for the long strand of tickets coming out.  RK recognized a couple looks as similar to the ones Lynda often gave him and quickly turned his attention back to Itara to avoid any possible social opportunities.  Once she had her tickets, he picked her back up and motioned for Metal Sonic to follow.  He did no grumbling about it this time, at least.  They got as far from the machine as possible, finding the clearest section of room they could, before RK audibly sighed.

“Perhaps it’s best if we avoid machines we could potentially break for future games,” he stated, Itara looking up from the now neatly folded pile of tickets, grinning.

“But it was fun to watch.”

“Yes, but I don’t want to be responsible for replacing anything.  Besides, it draws attention, even in this crowded place.”

Itara frowned, looking between the two bots before shrugging, “yeah, yeah, alright.  You did it once so I guess that’s enough.  But look at all these tickets!  I bet we could get something cool with all these!”

RK’s eyebrow rose, looking at the tickets as he shook his head, “so that’s why you actually wanted us to do that one.”

“W-what?!  N-no!  I mean… it was fun to watch, too…”

Metal Sonic scoffed, reaching over and quickly swiping half the tickets, getting a whine from the little girl, “I believe these are mine.  You only get to steal RK’s.  If you want more, you should get them, yourself.”

“What?!  But-But Sparky!”

“Now I’m especially not letting you have them.”

RK couldn’t help but notice the slight smirk on Metal’s face at Itara’s utter defeat, but shook his head.  It was better than fighting.  “Come on, we’ve still got more tokens, let’s see how many more tickets we can get you before we head home.”

Itara huffed angrily at Metal Sonic, sticking her tongue out at him even though he’d turned his back, but nodded to RK, “Yeah, okay.  We’ll show him!”  RK smirked and nodded, setting Itara down again to let her lead to whatever she wanted to do next.  Metal Sonic followed behind them again, though more willingly joined the games this time around, claiming to want to keep Itara from getting as many tickets as she hoped but RK was picking up on ulterior motives again.  He wouldn’t say anything, though.

They went through a few more games, a couple shooters, where Itara had more fun trying to shoot everyone but the monsters on the screen; a ball-rolling game, that Metal Sonic seemed all too pleased to show off his physical prowess over; and finally a racing game that started with Itara facing off against RK but ended with RK facing off against Metal Sonic in a second round.  By the time the tokens ran out, Itara got noticeably crankier from being hungry so they headed for the prize counter to turn in the tickets they’d collected.

Itara was left baffled and disappointed when, even with her considerable pile; she could still only get a little plastic spider ring and a gummy pencil top.  Metal Sonic’s pile fared no better, but he was far less interested in actually redeeming his than Itara had been.  As she was trying to decide how to split up her tiny prizes, he tossed the pile to her and looked off.

“I don’t need silly plastic toys.”

Itara eyed him suspiciously, but recovered quickly enough and told the person behind the counter to add the new tickets to the pile so she could see her new total.  With the addition of Metal’s tickets, she managed to reach a high enough count to get a booklet of stickers if she used all of them.  It wasn’t anything fancy, just generic stars and faces and two-word expressions, but it was far more interesting than plastic spider rings and Itara happily took it, quickly stowing it away in her backpack.  With the prizes taken care of, she returned to RK’s back and the three of them left the restaurant arcade.  It was dark and much colder outside by the time they left, prompting Itara to wrap back up in the jacket she’d ditched long ago.  With her properly wrapped up again, RK and Metal Sonic took off for the city limits, keeping to a quicker pace until they reached them, but taking off in a run once they were in the clear.

Metal Sonic was, as always, much faster and beat RK back to the house by several minutes.  He was already down in the lab and hooked up to the charging station by the time RK got in the front door.  He put Itara down, telling her to go put her new stuff away while he got her dinner ready.  The day had a bit of a rough start, but he thought they at least made some progress.  He just needed to find out if it lasted to the morning.  They were in fine enough moods for now, but the real test of progress would come from how they acted towards each other tomorrow.  But that was a concern for tomorrow.  For now, he had a dinner to prepare.

Chapter Text

"I thought you didn't like these 'silly' things."  RK grinned down at the other bot, watching him turn a hateful eye up at him from the couch.  Metal Sonic was sat, crossed-legged in the middle of the couch, a controller sat on one knee so he could reach all the buttons with one hand.  The TV sat on a pause screen with an older, lightly scuffed game console connected to it and placed beside it on the stand.  RK pulled off his boots as Metal returned to his game, resisting the urge to laugh at the lack of response and, instead, decided to watch.

The game was a pixelated platformer that RK had picked up in a bundle deal with the console online.  Someone was selling it on a resale site along with two games and two controllers for far cheaper than any store listings.  He was originally going to have to wait until his next paycheck to pick anything up, but it had been a lucky find.  Itara had been thrilled by its appearance, and spent equal amounts of time dodging homework to play the handheld simulation game and the console platformer.  Metal Sonic, on the other hand, had spent several weeks scoffing at it before RK finally caught him playing it when he came home from work.

"I don't," the other bot insisted, still glaring at the screen, "I'm just studying.  Your tiny child seems to greatly enjoy these so obviously they're some form of mental training.  I refuse to be left behind in these strange training tactics."

RK almost audibly laughed.  At least Metal Sonic had stopped calling her an 'anomaly', but to insist that she was training rather than just enjoying the games was so utterly ridiculous he doubted Metal actually expected him to believe it.  "Sure, Metal, it's training," he grinned, turning back towards the kitchen, knowing Itara would be home from school soon and wanted to have an afterschool snack ready for her.  Metal cast him another sideways scowl, but returned to the game quickly enough.  It was something at least.  Now he wondered how often Metal came up from the lab to play while no one was home.  Maybe he would ask Kipper.

Just as expected, Itara got home almost as soon as he finished making her a snack, setting it out on the table as the front door closed and looked over to let her know it was there.  He stopped when he saw the frustrated look on her face, though.  "What's wrong?"  Metal looked over from the TV to study her, but said nothing and returned again to the game.  He couldn't be distracted from his training.

"There's some kind of event coming up at the school and I don't understand it," she explained, glancing at Metal Sonic and the TV, eyeing him suspiciously, before continuing to the table, "RK, what do you know about Valentine's Day?"

"Let me find out."  Motioning to the snack at the table, he opened his internal browser and searched the term, scanning through several articles, histories, and common modern practices to give her a full explanation.  Well.  Almost full.  There were some apparent facets of the holiday he would not be explaining, since they were more adult-based than something someone her... well, physical... age should be concerned with.  "It appears to be a holiday for couples, mostly.  Depending on the region and culture, one side of a couple gives the other some sort of edible gift and card, sometimes a toy of some kind.  They can either be homemade gifts or store bought.  For younger children, it's seems more customary to give out cards to classmates, as well as a potential future mate."  Looking down at her again, he questioned, "What did the school say regarding this?"

"They said we could hand out cards but only after school to keep distractions to a minimum.  But chocolates were to be left outside school."  She poked at the carrots on her ‘snack’ plate, having been hoping for a cookie but at least the dipping sauce was sugary.  "I don't really have any interest in any of it but if someone's giving out free chocolate I want some."

"Did you... want to make cards for you classmates?"

"No, not really.  I don't like any of them that much."

RK contemplated it, wondering whether he should force the subject further or not but shrugged and let her be.  It did, however, give him an idea.  "Very well, then finish your snack and do your homework."

Itara mumbled incoherently under her breath at the mention of homework, but side-eyed Metal from the table, "I thought those were 'silly mortal things', Sparky?"  RK smirked again while Metal Sonic glared over his shoulder.

"As I told RK earlier, I will tell you now.  I am studying your tactics, child.  Just because you use strange systems to train with doesn't mean I haven't caught onto it.  Now silence and let me train."

"What?  Those aren't-" But RK stopped her, shaking his head with a slight smirk.  He wanted to see how long Metal Sonic thought that excuse would last and having Itara explain it outright would cut his fun short.  She eyed him when he did, but shrugged and went back to her snack, mumbling again while RK headed down to the lab.  He needed to charge for a while; it had been an active day at work.


 

“And you’re absolutely sure you don’t want to pick up some cards on the way to school?  It’ll be last minute but…,” RK began, helping Itara into her jacket and backpack.  No matter how many times he asked to be sure, she always refused, but he figured he would give it one final check before she headed off for the day of.

But just as she’d done every other time, Itara rolled her eyes and pulled her shoes on, “I’m sure, RK.  I don’t care enough.  I doubt I’m going to get anything, why should I bother with them?”

“You never know, you might.”

She scoffed and turned for the door, reaching up for the knob, “I don’t need my powers to know.  I’m leaving now.”

“Alright, see you when you get home.  Try not to fight any monsters or set any robots off on your class today.”  He stood back up and followed her to the door, getting a ‘hardy har’ from the little girl as she stepped carefully off the porch.  It had been a few days since the last snow and the temperature was beginning to up-and-down its way towards warmer days, but there was still no end to the slippery slush.  The snow had reached a high point of four feet and there were several inches of pure ice underneath the thickest parts.  The ice was kept mostly off the sidewalks and roads, but even a bit of slush offered a precarious trip for someone as clumsy as the tiny hedgehog edging her way down to the station.

RK watched her for several feet, as he often did, before turning back around and closing the door.  Metal was lounged across the couch again, the controller resting within reach on the floor, clicking through the limited channels the antenna offered.  RK made a quick reminder about looking into cable or satellite TV as he walked to the closet to grab one of his longer jackets to pull on, returning as Metal finally decided on a news report.

“More monsters sited outside of Soleanna today.  Officials are warning citizens to be cautious of these monsters, and are urging anyone with potential information to report it to the proper authorities.  Rumors have started that the Royal Family might be seeking out the help of Sonic the Hedgehog to deal with these threats, though an unknown figure has been spotted taking out a number of them, as well.  Today we’ll-.”

“Tch.”  Metal scoffed, flipping the channel and reaching for the controller to turn the console on, instead.  “Idiot hedgehog.”

“I’m sure you’ll be able to fight him again someday,” RK commented on his way to the door, getting a side-eyed glare from the other robot, though only for a quick second before the starting screen of his game drew his attention back to the TV.  “In any case, I need to make a run into town but I won’t be long.  Did you want anything while I’m out?”

“The rest of my body.”

“Hopefully soon, Metal.”  RK closed the door behind him, debating whether or not to lock the door, since there was technically someone home, but thought it best to lock it just in case.  He didn’t want to chance anything.  Tossing his keys in his jacket pocket, he headed down the driveway, pulling up the directions to his destination.  As per usual, he walked far enough to be out of sight of the neighborhood, and then took off on a careful run.  The slush and ice made it difficult even for him.

While doing his research regarding the day for Itara, RK had realized that Valentine’s Day, while mostly reserved for romantic—generally organic—couples, offered an opportunity for people to grow closer and bond more.  He’d read that many friend groups often celebrated the holiday with each other, as well, and even parents sometimes bought candies or toys for their children.  Much like any other holiday, it seemed to spread beyond one, singular, purpose and therefore gave him an idea.  He’d already bought a pack of the brownies Itara liked for when she got home, now he wanted to pick something up for Metal Sonic.

Itara would be at school for the bulk of the day, and he didn’t have work today, so he thought he might spend some time with Metal.  He was hoping, between the gift he was picking up and the plans for later, it might improve Metal’s mood by at least a small margin.  The other bot really was just always grumpy and, having made a list of likely reasons, RK planned to run them down to see what would finally pick his partner back up again.  He didn’t remember Metal Sonic always being such a grouch, after all.  Destructive, sure, that was the core of his programming: to annihilate anything that stood in his way.  But not always so angry.

He was sure working under Robotnik had sparked much of that animosity, going back to the doctor after going rogue once before and then continuously not being used for your main purpose.  He wasn’t sure what was worse: being misused or being inactive, but either way, it was a sore spot for either of them.  But while he’d finally gotten mostly over it, Metal Sonic hadn’t.  RK didn’t blame him, there was more there to hate for him, but it made the top most reason for his anger hard to combat.  So, instead, he would start on the rest of the list and maybe after some time, and repairs, Metal Sonic could feel more at ease.

Getting him active again and able to move was step one and two.  The boxed item tucked away under his arm was step three.  It hadn’t been an easy item to find by any means, he hadn’t planned to even start looking until the snow melted more, but the holiday gave him the push to look.  It had been the first time he’d ever relied on anyone from work for anything, normally he didn’t talk to anyone, but he remembered a guy he worked with a couple times before that could be of use and got in contact with him.  He was shockingly helpful.  RK would need to do some work on it, himself, once he got it home, or Metal could, but that wouldn’t be a problem for either of them.

It was an hour’s run out, with the inconvenience of the ice, and another hour’s run home for the same reason.  Luckily, the actual pick-up was an in-and-out job with no delays.  It was barely ten by the time he reached the neighborhood again and the present for Metal was still safely tucked away in its long, wrapped box.  He hurried down the street… but had to resist a cringe as a woman’s voice called out to him as soon as he passed the third house down from theirs.

“Oh!  RK!  I was just going to head over to your place to see if you were home,” Lynda called out in her ever-cheerful voice.  RK inwardly sighed, but turned around to face the woman cautiously jogging up to him.  She was as heavily made-up as ever and wrapped in a thick, white, wooly sweater, her hair smelled heavily of a bleach scent, which RK learned was a tactic organics used to lighten their hair or fur.  It was more common for humans than mobians as mobians were more sensitive to the chemical.

“Hello Lynda.  What can I do for you today?”  Please let it be nothing.

“Did you hear the news this morning?  More attacks in the city, isn’t it just dreadful?  I’m so afraid for my Simon sometimes, with everything that’s happened,” she frowned, her hand going up to her mouth, “do you worry for Itara as well?”

The side of RK’s mouth pulled back as he considered the answer.  Well, he worried for Itara plenty, but usually for other reasons.  “I suppose I do, but she knows how to take care of herself.”  Mostly.  As long as Mephiles isn’t around.

“Oh, what a strong girl she must be,” Lynda responded, continuing for several minutes about topics RK only vaguely paid attention to.  She went on about the school, the attacks, Simon’s various allergies, even mentioning Sonic at one point and causing RK to change the subject when she questioned him about his view on the hedgehog.  He didn’t loathe Sonic quite like Metal did, but he was no fan of him, either.  When Lynda went on a tangent about the blue hedgehog, the news report earlier that day sparking her sudden interest, RK finally stopped her when she mentioned Knuckles.  He still had the same knee-jerk reaction to his mobian counterpart, much as Metal Sonic did, and didn’t want to provoke a reaction in front of the human woman who seemed otherwise entirely oblivious to the concerns of mobians.

“Listen, Lynda, as much as I don’t mind standing here chatting with you,” he interrupted, though he actually minded quite a bit, “I need to get this home and out of the cold.”  He motioned towards the box under his arm, drawing her attention to it and seeming to remind her of her initial reason for coming out.  “So if there’s nothing-.”

“Oh!  Right, I’m sorry,” she laughed, waving a hand, “there was something I wanted to ask you, though.”

Great.

“So, you know what day it is, right?”  There was a strange coyness to her tone.

“Valentine’s Day, correct?  Itara asked about it in regards to school.”

“Yes, I bought Simon some little cartoon cards to hand out to his class.  Did Itara bring anything for it?”  RK shook his head and she continued, “well, anyway, the kids are gone until much later and, as you know, I’m a single woman these days.  There really aren’t many other single dads—or uncles, I suppose—around here.  I was wondering if you maybe wanted to come celebrate a bit at my house.  We could have a Valentine Lunch, with the house all to ourselves.  What do you think?”

Oh.  So that was it.  RK looked away from her, mentally grimacing at the offer and narrowing down the best possible response.  Of course, he couldn’t actually eat and that was a problem in and of itself, but more than anything he already had plans to spend time with Metal.  Maybe that was a sufficient enough response.  Looking over again, he studied her expectant expression before explaining, “I apologize, I’m afraid I can’t.  I already have plans with… Sparky today.”  Motioning towards the box again, he continued, “This is a present for him, in fact.”

Lynda’s expectant face dropped to confusion as her eyes darted from him to the box to him again.  She seemed baffled and RK worried he might have upset her.  She was incessant, for whatever reason, but it seemed she had a fair bit of control over the neighborhood, it would likely be unfortunate to get on her bad side.  As he considered another form of apology to hopefully lessen whatever reaction she was having, her expression changed again and she looked over at him with uncertainty.

“The, uh, blue mobian, huh?”

“Uh… yes.”

She crossed her arms, appearing to consider his response, shifting her weight to one leg as she stared at the ground.  Eventually she looked up again and smiled, “oh, I see.  I should have asked sooner, sorry for asking so last-minute.  So what’s the present for?  Is his birthday near?”  RK’s brows furrowed in confusion.  Did she not realize it was a Valentine’s gift?  That was the holiday, after all.  But when he explained, she laughed again, “You must be the kind of sweetheart that gets presents for all your work buddies.  How precious.  Did you get something for Itara as well?”

“Well, yes, I got her some brownies.  She likes the ones with the little colorful candies.”

“Good on you.  I suppose I should let you hurry on home, then.  Next time I’ll remember to ask you earlier so you don’t make plans beforehand.  Have a good day, RK,” Lynda waved, turning around and finally heading back to her house, leaving a perturbed and slightly concerned RK behind.  It would apparently be harder to get out of her plans next time.  He briefly considered making daily plans with either Metal or Itara to ensure he always had an out as he turned around and continued back to the house.

As soon as he entered the door, he sighed and dropped his shoulders, “how tiring.”

“Don’t tell me a short run tires you out now, RK,” Metal mocked from the couch, not taking his eyes off the screen as RK shot him a glare.

“No, the run did not tire me out, Sparky,” that got exactly the response RK was looking for, to which he only grinned and set the long, thin box up against the wall to pull his shoes off.  “I ran into Lynda on my way back.  Or rather, she came after me.  I don’t understand why, but she is determined to bother me as often as possible.  She invited me over for a Valentine’s lunch and only barely accepted my excuse that I already made plans with you.”  Metal narrowed his eye further.

“I don’t trust that human, she’s up to something.”

“You don’t trust anyone.”

“There’s a reason for that.  You should take note.”

RK rolled an eye, picking the box up again and moving over to the couch, sitting down beside him, reaching over and shoving the other bot’s legs off the cushions, gaining him yet another scowl.  “In any case, it wasn’t just an excuse, I was hoping to spend some time with you today so turn your game off for a bit.”

Metal hesitated for a brief moment, looking between RK and the game with reluctance, not wanting to turn it off but eventually doing so.  “What do you want?”

“While I was looking into the holiday for Itara, it occurred to me that it could be used as an opportunity to bond with others.  We haven’t actually done much together in years, centuries if you consider the multiple timelines we’ve all experienced.  Even before everything with Mephiles happened, I was inactive for years, but I did enjoy working with you so long ago.  You’ve likely worked with a number of others, being the first of our series and in use for so much longer, but you’ve always been my best partner.  I want to try and get some of that back, without Robotnik controlling our every move.”

Metal remained silent, studying him, so RK held the box out to him, continuing, “I thought we could start with this.  I’m sorry it took me so long to get ahold of, and it needs a bit of work, but it’s a start.  It shouldn’t be difficult for either of us to get up to our standards and it should help you out a fair bit.”

Still, Metal remained silent, but shifted his position to set the box in his lap, studying it cautiously but then reaching around to snap the tape around it.  The box, itself, was about two feet in length and about six inches in width and height.  It was a thick cardboard wrapped tightly in packing tape and a shipping sticker on one end.  Once Metal had the tape cleared away, he pulled the lid off to reveal a long, slender, shiny metallic arm.  The shoulder and elbow was the same ball joint as his other arm and the material looked flexible and lightweight.  The hand was fully jointed and ended in sharp claws, much like his current hand, though the style was slightly different.

“There’s a guy I work with whose wife is an engineer and they were looking for a way to test a new material.  I told him about your missing arm and she agreed to make it for you as long as I send the results back.  I figured it was a small price to pay for getting you a functional, high quality arm,” he explained, watching Metal pick the arm up and inspect it.

“You told them we were robots?”

“No, I used Itara’s excuse that you were just injured at work and lost an arm.  I told them you had a prosthetic built in once but it was cheap and fell apart so you have the nerve connection already, you just needed the robotic parts.”

“Hm.  Clever.”

The room remained silent for several minutes as Metal studied the arm, testing the weight and balance and material, while RK studied Metal, waiting for his response.  After some time, Metal looked up again, “well, I suppose we should find out whether this engineer is worth anything.”  RK smirked, but nodded and got up, following him down to the lab to get the arm attached.

Once they were down in the lab, RK instructed Metal to get set up on one of the chairs near the computer while he went to grab the tools necessary to connect the arm.  They would have to do a bit of work to get it situated properly, considering both how intricate of a robot Metal Sonic was to begin with, but also the work they did in removing the previous damaged arm.  It would be no quick process and thus RK decided to throw in his secondary idea while he was working to reopen the shoulder for the new ball joint.

He told Metal to hook into the computer, telling him he had more files to transfer and wanted to keep track of the installation.  Once Metal was hooked up, he plugged into the computer, as well, getting a strange look from the other bot, but initiated a file transfer while he continued working on the shoulder.

The new arm was entirely for Metal’s sake, both wanting his fellow robot to have full range of motion again but also hoping it would improve his mood.  The files he was transferring, however, were a number of memories he still held regarding both him… and Itara.  He’d already shared a number of files regarding Itara up to that point, but he hadn’t showed him all of them, for a number of reasons.  He was hoping, by sharing them now, it might convince Metal she was hardly any threat to them and that it was, in fact, thanks to her that the timeline wasn’t destroyed completely.  Because she had that relationship with him and Kipper, her memories caused a rift in Solaris as a whole.  Metal should have remembered that from the fight.

Metal hardly seemed pleased with the attempt at first, realizing what RK was up to again, but stored the memories, nonetheless.  Besides, they weren’t all about Itara, either.  Some of them were memories regarding him.  When he was broken and unable to function, the pieces he had been in.  It was frustrating, realizing he had been so badly damaged, but knowing RK spent so much time and effort repairing him, even putting his own systems at risk to get him back online… well, he was still dysfunctional.  He’d consider thanking them when he was fully repaired.

He glanced down at the new arm, looking between it and the old one, giving it all a good bit of thought.  Suddenly it occurred to him which arm was the new one.  One eye flashing at the realization, he looked at the new arm again, holding it out as soon as he had control over it.  The scar.  His constant reminder of his failure.  It was gone.  The only damage Robotnik refused to let him repair, the lighting scar on his right arm, it had been on the removed arm.  Looking back at RK, he questioned warily, “My other arm, did you find it?”

RK looked up from where he had been working on his shoulder and shook his head, “no, otherwise I would have tried to repair it, rather than just removing the whole thing.  There were a number of parts I just couldn’t find.  I found pieces of your other hand, but the arm was gone.  Why?”  Metal looked forward again, dimming his eye as he thought it over.  So it was gone for good.  That constant reminder was gone.  “Metal?”

He shook his head, turning his optics on again and explained, “No reason.”

RK raised an eyebrow but went back to work.  It was another hour of work before he finally stood back and crossed his arms, “Okay, I think that should about do it.  Test it out and let me know if there are any kinks.  It might be rough from the get-go but as your systems integrate it should get smoother.”

Metal pulled his hand up, curling his fingers and moving his arm out and back in again.  He made a fist, rolled his shoulder, and stretched the arm out, testing every movement and function and ensuring he had full control of it.  Satisfied, he grinned, “finally.”

RK returned the grin, nodding and moving to put the tools back, “congrats, you have two working arms again.  You can challenge Itara to another game of pinball without my help.”  Metal shot him a glare at the comment, getting little more than a side smirk from the warbot.  Once the tools were put back away and the bots disconnected from the computer again, they headed back up to the main house.  Itara would be home from school soon and there were investigations to conduct before she returned.

Chapter Text

The room was quiet.  RK was in his reclaimed chair by the wall, watching Metal Sonic, who was lounging on the couch playing his game.  They knew it was only a matter of time before the tiny child would be home from school, and RK dreaded the possibilities of the holiday outcome.  He hoped for the best, but prepared for the worst whenever it came to her.  For the time being, however, he was just happy to see Metal Sonic apparently satisfied with his ability to play more efficiently with both hands.  The new arm hiccupped once in a while, causing him to either press a button he didn’t actually mean to or miss a jump, but for the most part it seemed to be working well enough.

But their quiet time was soon enough brought to an end as they heard a light slosh, slosh, slosh coming up the driveway, followed by a concerning thud and a cry of shock.  Both robots looked up through the window as a frustrated screech echoed out, urging RK out of his chair to check on the little hedgehog.  By the time he reached the door, however, it slammed open and against the wall as a soaking wet, scowling, red-in-the-face Itara stormed her way into the house.

“RK!  I hate e-everything!”

Every visible inch of her fur was soaked through and her uniform, even her backpack, fared no better.  Small snowballs clung to her spines and her shoes sloshed as she kicked them off with some struggle.  Slamming the door shut, she threw her backpack off and glared up at the concerned red robot.  “Th-this holiday is even stupider than I thought!”

RK’s mouth pulled back, he reached down and picked her up, stating, “Let’s get you dried off and you can tell me what happened, alright?”  She huffed angrily, crossing her arms, but said nothing as he headed down the hall to her bedroom.  Metal glanced towards them, smirking, but returned to his game.  He was almost at the end of a level.

Taking her into her room, RK shifted Itara to one arm to grab a pair of warmer pajamas and then headed down to the main bathroom, grabbing a towel from the closet on the way.  He set her down in the bathroom and got a warm bath going for her before asking, “So what happened?  Why are you so wet?  Surely it wasn’t all from just falling outside the door.”

He watched her cheeks puff out as she shimmied out of her wet uniform and, once the water was warm enough, jumped into the bath.  “N-No, it wasn’t just from that one fall,” she stammered, slinking as far into the water as possible while it filled the tub.  RK sat on the edge while he listened, setting her pajamas on the counter.  “I was mad the entire way home so I… the stupid snow tripped me.”  He couldn’t help but smirk at the sudden change in fault halfway through.

“Did something happen at school, then?”

Once again, she slid deeper under the water before answering, looking off to the side and mumbling, “I didn’t get any cards…”  Yeah, that was about what he was expecting.  “N-Not that I care… their st-stupid cards don’t mean anything to me.  I don’t even like any of them, why would I care about some stupid cardboard?  Just because everyone else got one doesn’t mean I care.”

He crossed his arms, leaning back in thought before reaching over to shut the water off once it was full enough.  “It certainly sounds like you care.”

“I don’t!  Why should I?!  Just because that stupid Camilla was mocking me about it and showing off her stupid pile of cards, doesn’t mean I care!  It’s all stupid mortal garbage, anyway.  I’m more important than they’ll ever be and if they don’t know it, that’ll be their own downfall!”

RK hummed softly, considering this.  Camilla again.  If it wasn’t Sceira, it was Camilla, when it came to Itara.  As much as she hated everyone around her, those two seemed to have earned her scorn the most.  Then again, Camilla sounded a bit like a brat.  Not that Itara wasn’t, she caused plenty of trouble, but Camilla sounded like quite the handful, as well.

Itara remained silent in thought, glaring out at the water as she sunk under enough to cover her nose, glad to be in warm water after the freezing walk home.  Watching the snowballs melt and steam in the hot water was somewhat entertaining and offered a brief moment of distraction from her terrible day, but after they dissolved an overwhelming sadness replaced her previous rage.  She blew a couple bubbles in the water before looking up at the contemplative RK again, rising enough to speak, “In any case, I’m just glad the day’s done.  Can I have a cookie after my bath?”

A smirk spread across RK’s face at the mention of a cookie and he shook his head.  One track minded, that child.  “We’ll see,” he answered, watching the frustration come back to her face, “get warmed up and dressed, I’ll go put your uniform through the dryer and see what I can do about your backpack.”

“Uh… speaking of my backpack… can… can you check to make sure my game is in there?”  RK raised an eyebrow as she sunk further again, looking away, “I… couldn’t find it on the train ride home…”

Sighing, he nodded, “I’ll take a look.  You better not have already lost that, Itara.”  She puffed her cheeks in response, but said nothing.  Rolling his eye, he got up and left the bathroom to see about drying everything and looking for the missing game, picking up the uniform on his way out.  He checked the washer to make sure it was empty, figuring he could do a load of laundry while he was at it and threw in some towels and other clothes from the hamper in the hallway.

Heading back out to the living room, he picked the backpack up and looked over it, noticing a side-eyed glance from Metal.  “What?”

“I’d been wondering why the possessed doll kept calling you ‘Momma Bear’… I think I see now.”

RK’s expression dropped at the mention of the doll and his nicknames.  “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he insisted, taking the backpack to the table to pull everything out of it and see what was damaged and what was salvageable.  The outside of the bag was damp, but the inside seemed mostly untouched.  That was relieving.  What was more concerning, however, was that the missing game was nowhere to be seen.  With Metal returning to his game, RK checked online to see if the bag could be thrown in with the rest of the wash before doing just that.  He then went back to grab Itara’s afterschool snack and set it on the table as the young hedgehog came out of the bathroom, dressed in her pajamas and rubbing off the edges of her spines with the towel.

“RK, can I-?”  She stopped, looking towards Metal, jumping back in shock and staring wide-eyed, “YOU HAVE ARMS!”

Metal glared over at her, but grinned after a moment of thought, pausing his game to mock her, “Shockingly perceptive of you.”  Getting up off the couch, he turned towards her, flexing his new hand as he continued, “As it turns out, I need to test this new arm out to gauge its full potential.  Maybe I should test the sharpness of the claws.”

“RK!”

“Metal.”  RK’s tone went flat and unamused, garnering a glance from Metal as Itara bolted for his side in the dining room entrance.

Metal stood back up straight and studied him, as well as the tiny hedgehog now clung to his pant leg.  RK had his arms crossed and his one functional eye narrowed dangerously towards the other bot, with a small package of brownies in the one non-hook hand.  Standing at his full height, he looked, even to Metal, exactly like a mother bear ready to maul.  Metal didn’t know if he wanted to mock him, or scowl, and instead returned to the couch to pick the controller up.  “I wasn’t going to hurt your tiny child, Momma Bear.”

“Don’t you start on that, too!” RK warned, hearing an echo of snickers from down the hall where Kipper had been ‘resting’ in Itara’s bedroom.  Grunting in annoyance, RK unfolded his arms and turned to Itara, instead, holding the brownies out to her, “here.  I thought I would get you a special snack since its Valentine’s, so now you haven’t gotten nothing today.”  His irritation ebbed ever so slightly as he watched her giant eyes widen and nearly sparkle at the sight of the brownies.  She snatched them up and shot a quick glare towards Metal before happily ripping the plastic off and munching on the side with the most candy pieces first.

While munching on her brownie, she looked towards the table where the contents of her backpack were laid out, frowning again.  “My game wasn’t there?”

“No, it wasn’t.  Not that you were supposed to bring that with you to school in the first place.”  Itara looked away, shoving the rest of her brownie in her mouth as she walked back out of the kitchen, “Itara.”

“Look, I-!”

As she reached the hallway, trying to sneak away from the conversation, however, there was a knock at the door.  Itara debated whether that could be the distraction she needed or not, but decided RK was less likely to yell at her if there was company and rushed to the doorway to answer it.  She welcomed the intrusion for once… at first, but with the reveal of the intruder she was suddenly far less interested.  Simon, the human kid down the street, Lynda’s son and one of Camilla and Sceira’s group, was standing there, still dressed in his school uniform and shuffling awkwardly.

“What do you want?” she all but hissed as RK walked over, eyeing Itara sharply before focusing on Simon again.

“Uh, well,” he stammered, looking over at Itara, then up at the towering red ‘mobian’ behind her, then over to the other mobian eyeing all three of them from the couch.  He looked back and forth between the three of them for a moment before shaking his head, focusing back on Itara, reaching back into his back pocket and pulling a small, purple handheld out.  Itara’s eyes lit up for a brief moment, recognizing her game easily enough, but then grew wary.  “This is yours, right?”

“…It might be,” she muttered, looking away, unsure of the situation.  She knew he played games too, so she didn’t think he’d mock her for playing them, but at the same time she’d apparently lost it somewhere and he might use it against her.  What if he planned to hold it ransom for something?

To her surprise, though, he held it out to her, explaining, “I found it in the stairwell and well, I knew you hung out there pretty often during breaks.”  Itara turned red in the face at the insinuation, but snatched her game up, keeping her eyes off to the side as she held the game close to her.  “Uh, I looked at the game you were playing, to see if I could check to see whose it was and… well, I have the same game on mine.  Did you, uh… maybe wanna add me as a friend and play together some time?”

It was Simon’s turn to go pink in the face when Itara looked over at him, shocked and clearly confused.  She stared wide-eyed for a second before growing suspicious again.  She wasn’t the only one, either, as Metal Sonic’s eyes narrowed at the conversation.  Simon glanced around, trying to alleviate his discomfort under the many gazes, eventually averting his eyes to the sidewalk instead.  They remained silent for some time, Itara questioning the situation, wondering what he was getting at, wondering what would happen if she agreed, glancing towards the black book sitting on the kitchen table but knowing it would be no help, looked to RK, instead.  His eye was glowing, indicating he was thinking it over.  When he noticed her looking up at him, he nodded, motioning towards Simon to give her the go-ahead.

Itara was still unsure, narrowing her eyes ever so slightly, but looked over at Simon again, studying him carefully.  He was fidgeting under all the attention.  She’d been around long enough to read body language like that, but that didn’t help her much.  What if he was so uncomfortable because he was plotting and was afraid of getting caught in his lie?  But RK approved.  He didn’t even approve of her dad, but he was giving the ‘go ahead’ to this human kid?  Then again, it was just… playing video games.  That… was harmless, right?

She gave it a moment of further thought before finally sighing, “Sure… I g-guess that’s… fine.”

Simon looked up again, smiling and losing his fidgeting, “Great!  Uh,” he looked back towards his house before returning to her, “Do you, uh… wanna come over now?  I don’t have my game on me at the moment, my mom doesn’t let me take it to school.  We could go play now.”

Once again, Itara grew suspicious, but looked to RK.  She wasn’t sure whether she wanted him to say yes or no, she wasn’t sure about the entire situation.  On the one hand, she didn’t trust this kid any more than she trusted Camilla or Sceira, he was in their group, after all, and he was mocking her as much as Camilla on New Year’s.  But at the same time, she was actually a little excited to go play games with someone.  She only ever played by herself.  But she wouldn’t ever admit that.  If RK said no, it would make staying home and away from people easy, it wouldn’t fall on her to turn down his invitation, not that she cared what he thought, anyway.  But if he said yes… she wasn’t sure what it meant.

After a moment of silent thought, and a glance back towards the table, RK crossed his arms.  “Well, you haven’t finished your homework yet…” he began, and suddenly Itara wanted nothing more than to escape to Simon’s house and play video games.

“She could… do it at my house,” Simon suggested, “My mom always makes me do my homework as soon as I get home, anyway.”

“Well,” RK went silent, considering Lynda and her habits.  Finally, he nodded, “Very well.  Go grab your coat and your boots, since your other shoes are soaking wet, and I’ll get your homework together to bring with you.”  Itara glanced warily at him, but nodded and turned around to grab her stuff while RK returned to the kitchen, “come on in for a moment, Simon.”  He nodded and stepped inside, closing the front door so the cold air stopped coming in, but remained just inside the door, looking around.  He glanced over at Metal, who was still eyeing him cautiously, before looking away quickly to see what game he was playing.

“Uh… that’s a pretty fun game, too,” he commented, clearly uncomfortable under the razor gaze.

Metal glanced towards the TV before scoffing and looking away, “I’m only studying.  I’m not playing for fun.”  Simon’s head tilted in confusion but RK shook his head, coming back with Itara’s homework clipped together.

“Ignore him.  Will it be alright with your mom; Itara coming over right now?  Did you ask her if it was alright?”

“Nah, it should be fine, I invite Camilla over all the time, too.”

“Alright, well, let her know I’ll appreciate it if she makes sure Itara does her homework before playing games.  She likes to put it off.”

“Yeah, she never lets me play games before homework so we’ll have to do it, anyway,” Simon frowned, showing the same disinterest in the subject as Itara often did.  RK nodded and handed the clipped together papers over once Itara returned with her coat on and carrying her shoes.

“Very well, then make sure you’re home before… dinner, I suppose,” RK stated, walking them out the door, “thank you for bringing that back, Simon.  I only recently bought that handheld for her and I’d have been upset if she already lost it.”

Itara cringed but Simon grinned up at him, “No problem.”  He looked over at Itara and led the way back down the driveway, “Come on, let’s go get our homework finished so we can play.”  Itara nodded, slowly, and glanced towards RK before following after Simon.  She was still unsure about the situation, and was making careful note of the slush to avoid falling again like she had when she got home, but was secretly looking forward to playing.  She would still be on her guard, though.

Once they were further down the sidewalk, RK closed the door and turned back around, smirking slightly.

“Is it wise to trust the humans so easily?”

RK looked towards Metal Sonic, who was eyeing him suspiciously again.  “I do not trust them easily.  But those ones, at least, have no ill-intentions.”

“How are you so sure?  That Lynda woman is awfully aggressive.  I still find it likely that she’s planning something and you’ve let the small one walk into their den unaccompanied.  Not that I’m concerned about your tiny child, mind you, but she knows more than they could ever imagine.  If she tells them too much--”

“You and Itara are both so overly suspicious.  Trust me, I’ve looked into them.  Lynda is… irritating, sure, but she isn’t dangerous.  I was scanning Simon’s intentions as he spoke, there was no lie in his statements, he only wanted to play games with Itara and I believe it’ll be good for her to socialize with others more.”

“I don’t see why that would ever be beneficial,” Metal scoffed, returning to his game.

“Situational adaptability, Metal Sonic.”  Metal glanced at the larger robot as he walked off, narrowing his eyes slightly, returning to the game.  He had his doubts, but for now he had higher priorities.  “Situational adaptability.”

Chapter Text

“And remember, you’ll need your parents’ signatures and the permission slips in before the trip to be able to go.  Anyone who forgets to turn the slip in or doesn’t have their parents’ signatures, both parents for those of you it’s applicable to, will be remaining here and will be assigned make-up work instead of going.”

Itara’s ears flattened against her head as her homeroom teacher passed the slips out to the class, which erupted into murmured excitement.  As soon as the teacher explained about the apparent upcoming school trip, she’d already decided she didn’t want to go.  An entire four days with nothing but her classmates and teachers in potentially unfamiliar locations, likely subjected to a series of ‘team’ projects or group activities sounded exactly like the opposite of fun to her.  She barely tolerated them all for the length of a school day, being unable to escape back home for four days sounded like downright torture.

But then the teacher announced where they were going and a hint of familiarity sparked her sudden interest.  It took her a moment to remember, since it was a city she only briefly glanced by in her research into the other Gods, but with a name like Spagonia, it clicked soon enough and she changed her mind.  To everyone else, Spagonia was an Art Studies hotspot and the location of a major university.  It was a notable cultural location and thus a popular tourist spot.  But more importantly to her, in addition to its artistic focus, the University studied and held a number of ancient artifacts and amongst them were the Gaia Manuscripts: a series of supposedly prophetic books and articles relating to the rise and fall, sleep and waking, of the ancient deities known as Dark and Light Gaia.

It was an opportunity to research what was happening with the Gods that she couldn’t pass up.  She would just have to escape from group activities once she got there, but if she utilized Kipper properly, maybe even suggested taking a trip to the University, itself, it would be easy enough.  Well, supposedly.  She couldn’t be sure and she cursed her lack of powers once again for not being able to check the most efficient way to look into the scripts, but she was confident she could still figure it out.  With some sneaky help.

Waiting until the teacher neared her desk to hand the slip to her, she asked, in as quiet of a voice as possible, “Wh-where are we… going during this t-trip?”

“Were you not listening, Itara?  We’re going to the city of Spa-”

“Yes, no, I kn-know that.  I meant where in the city are we going?”

“Oh.  Well, we’ll discuss that in a moment.”  Itara’s lip pulled back, but she nodded and let the teacher continue.  Once all the permission slips were handed out and the teacher returned to her podium, the conversation continued as Itara hoped it might.  “Remember, get those signed.  Don’t delay.  Now, while we’ve got the location and some major spots we’ve already planned to look at, if any of you know of any specific spots or locations you’d like to visit, we’re still taking suggestions to see what we can work into the schedule.  Have any of you ever been to Spagonia before?”

A couple of hands went up around the room, but not many in the class of sixty-odd students seemed to know anything about it.  Amongst them, Itara’s hand had gone up the fastest.  It wasn’t often she was overly thrilled about taking part in school activities, but this was an exception.  Once the teacher acknowledged her, she offered her suggestion about the University, getting strange looks from some of her classmates which she quickly ignored.  They were in third grade, why would they be visiting a University so soon?  But that wasn’t her concern.

“Well, that’s certainly an interesting suggestion,” the teacher began, writing it on a notepad on her desk, “but I’ll pass it along.  It’s good to see your interest in a higher education, Itara.”  Itara almost scoffed at how little anyone knew, but kept it to herself.  She wouldn’t mind her classmates thinking she was just so far ahead of them that she was already considering colleges.

The rest of the class gave their thoughts and ideas about the trip, mostly boiling down to restaurants and amusement parks, before they fell back into the usual quiet clamor of individual conversations.  There was noticeably more conversation today due to the trip announcement, but Itara still did her best to ignore it and focus on her own interests.  She’d never actually read the Gaia Manuscripts before, despite all her travelling and research, it had never been necessary before.  She learned what she needed to about the other Gods, but seeing as both were inactive at the height of her roaming and would be for some time still, she hadn’t looked too deeply.  If she could get the Manuscripts, though, she might find something useful for the current activations.

Once class ended and the students were free to escape for the day, Itara shoved the permission slip into her backpack and headed out behind everyone as per usual.  The snow was finally starting to melt, with no new snow being added to it, but it meant there was more slush than anything.  Spring was on its way, but with it came a flood that covered every inch the snow didn’t.  At least with the temperature on the rise it was less likely to turn to straight ice, but there were still considerable patches in the mornings and later at night when the temperature dropped again.  Which meant Itara slipped less on her way out, but practically needed an icepick on her way in.

But she wasn’t concerned with the snow and ice and wetness today.  Today she was focused on Spagonia battle plans.  She was so focused in on her future plans that the world around her nearly disappeared and thus brought her jolting back out of her head when she suddenly smacked into something that knocked her clean back and onto the wet path.  Giving out a cry of shock, and shuddering at the freezing water, she glared up at the offending object before her face twisted into confusion seeing Simon staring worriedly down at her.  Unfortunately, both Sceira and Camilla were standing just behind him, Sceira staring off as usual but Camilla snickering at her misfortune.

“Are you okay?” Simon questioned frowning and holding a hand out to help her up.

Itara’s face reddened in embarrassment, glaring off and pushing herself up, ignoring Simon’s hand.  “I’m f-fine,” she muttered, avoiding eye contact with all three of them.

“You should pay attention to where you’re going, Clumsy,” Camilla chided, grinning.

“Camilla, names aren’t necessary,” Sceira scolded, “but Itara you really should be paying more attention to your surroundings.  It’s-”

“Yeah, yeah, I get it!  J-jeez,” Itara scoffed, fixing her backpack and shoving past all three of them to continue out the gate, “maybe people should just learn to stay out of my way.”  She heard an indignant huff from Sceira, but the laugh from Camilla only angered her further. Simon said nothing either way.  Unfortunately, her apparent need to bump into things today wasn’t quite at the end as she went head-first into something much harder, but felt herself swiped up before she fell back onto the wet ground again.  Opening one clenched eye, she looked up at RK, who was eyeing her back curiously.  “Wh-What?”

“What was that all about?”

“N… Nothing!  What are you doing here, anyway?”

“The school asked me to come pick you up,” he explained, motioning towards the collection of parents waiting near the front gate.  Lynda was standing just beside him, smiling happily and waved once she looked at her.  “With the increase in attacks lately, I guess the school didn’t want students walking home alone and suggested any parents capable of picking their kids up do so.”  He looked towards Lynda again, and then over at Susan, who was talking with the on-duty teacher, “though, I wonder if it’s necessary for all three of us to come when you three live on the same block.  It should theoretically be enough for one to accompany the three of you, I believe.”

“Oh,” Lynda chimed in, “I hadn’t even thought about that.  I suppose you’re right.”

Simon and Camilla reached the gate, glancing around at the parents, as well, while Sceira walked to one of the few parents that showed up daily.  Itara huffed, crossing her arms and getting comfortable in RK’s arms, “whatever, let’s just go home.  I’m wet.”

“Why are you wet again?”

“None of your business!  Let’s just go!”

RK rolled his eyes, but walked towards the train station, Lynda and Simon following close behind.  Camilla and Susan remained behind to continue talking with the teacher at the gate.  Then again, Susan was head of the PTA so it wasn’t uncommon to see her at the school talking with the teachers after it got out.

The walk to the train station was relatively quiet until Lynda tried sparking some conversation between the four of them.  “So, how was school today?  Anything interesting happen?  I’m glad you had the free time to come pick Itara up, RK.  I feel much safer with such a big, strong mobian around,” she beamed over at him, but RK looked off in another direction, wanting to avoid that conversation completely.  If a monster did actually attack on their way home and it came to a fight, he would be more concerned by what it would likely give away rather than any actual danger.

“Nothing really,” Simon shrugged, “just the usual pre-Spring Break test prep.”

“Oh that’s right, Spring Break is coming up, isn’t it,” Lynda continued, looking up in thought before smiling over at RK and Itara, “any big plans for the week off?”

“It’s… in the planning process,” RK responded.  They didn’t actually have anything at the moment, but if he told her that he had a sneaking suspicion she might try to plan something for them and he had no interest whatsoever.

“Um… I… have a t-trip… before the break,” Itara added quietly, getting the attention of all three.  “A four-day trip to a nearby city for my whole class.”

“Oh!  Well that certainly sounds fun!”

“What do you need for this trip?” RK questioned looking down at her as the train took off from the station.

“I have a paper for it.  I think… you have to sign it?  You have to get parent signatures but… well…”  RK nodded and the conversation dropped for a short while.  It was Simon who picked it back up this time, though.

“So you’re gonna be gone for four days, then?”

Itara looked down at him curiously, shifting her position to see him better as she nodded, “We’re going to be leaving Wednesday morning and coming back Saturday evening.  I don’t know where we’re going to stay, though.”  But then she remembered that she was still mad at him for earlier and narrowed her eyes, looking away again, a motion that didn’t go unseen by any of them.  Simon’s eyes widened before he looked away, sulking.  Lynda gave them both a look of concern while RK raised an eyebrow at Itara.  When RK tried to get an explanation out of her, though, she only huffed, “I’m not mad.  I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Instead of trying to prod her further, Lynda instead turned to Simon to ask about it.  Simon explained that she’d knocked into him on her way out and fell in a puddle.  Itara loudly huffed at his explanation, but reddened further when he explained that Camilla was making fun of her for it.

“Camilla again,” RK noted, studying Itara’s face.

“Susan insists she’s such a little angel, but honestly, they’re both kind of brats,” Lynda added, glancing around before leaning over and whispering to RK, “That woman is on such a high horse all the time.  Camilla can do no wrong but every other kid is so inferior, it really gets on my nerves.  Which is why I’ve been trying to dethrone her from head of the PTA this year,” she grinned a bit viciously, “I’m not the only mom she drives mad with her holier-than-thou shtick.  It’ll be funny to see the look on her face when she loses her throne.”

RK raised an eyebrow at her, unsure how much he wanted to do with any of this.  Susan was certainly standoffish and Camilla always seemed to be causing problems for Itara, but he thought it best to avoid them as much as possible.  He knew very little of this PTA thing, only knowing it was some system built by parents and teachers to keep track of students and their education.  Lynda had asked him to join it once before, after the New Year’s party, but he quickly turned it down.  From what he had seen thus far it was a cutthroat world not even he was prepared for.  Especially since they didn’t seem to settle their differences with fists.

The train ride fell to silence once again until they were nearly back to the neighborhood.  Itara had pulled her game from her backpack at some point and played quietly, but stopped once their stop neared and looked around.  She was still frustrated with earlier, causing her to not want to talk to anyone, especially Simon, but sighed in annoyance once they got off the train.  “Hey.”  RK looked at her first, but realizing her focus was elsewhere, looked to the kid she was actually talking to.

It took Simon a moment to realize he was the one her biting attention was on, but looked up curiously once he did.  Itara waved her game lazily to motion towards it, stating, “Check your stupid messages when you get home.  I sent you something.”  Simon blinked but beamed at the realization and nodded.

“Yeah, sure.  Was it for that medal?”

“It might be.”

RK looked back and forth between the two, wondering what they were talking about, but was more curious about Itara’s tone.  She still sounded annoyed, despite what she was actually saying.  It was giving off mixed signals.  He would have to ask her about it once they returned home.

“You bring your games to school?” Lynda questioned, eyeing the little girl who had returned to said game.  Itara only glanced up and nodded, saying nothing, and prompted Lynda to look to RK.

“She does it whether I tell her not to or not,” he shrugged, “it’ll be her own fault if she loses it and she knows that.  She already almost lost it once.”

“I need something to do on my way home and at lunch,” Itara growled, not taking her eyes off the screen.

“Shouldn’t you be eating at lunch?”

“I do.  I eat and play my games.”

“And the lunch duty just lets you sit there playing video games?”

Itara turned a bit red, looking off to the side, and mumbling, “I don’t stay in the cafeteria at lunch.  Not that it’s anyone’s business.  I prefer being alone.”

Once again, Lynda turned an eye on RK, who questioned the situation.  Was it bad for her to spend time alone at lunch?  He wouldn’t mind her spending more time with her classmates and at least trying to make friends, but he never thought to question her about how she spent her lunch hours.  As far as he had read, as long as she ate her lunch she was fine, wasn’t she?  Was there more to it?  He would talk to her about it once they got home.  For now, he shrugged and continued on down the sidewalk.  There was plenty Lynda didn’t know about them and so he couldn’t take all her advice and strange looks seriously, but if this was something to consider, he would do it after more research.

They parted ways at Lynda’s house, Simon calling to Itara that he’d be online once he finished his homework if she wanted to play again later and Itara giving a half-hearted wave of agreement as they walked on.  Once it was just the two of them again, she sighed and slunk further against RK, crossing her arms and closing her eyes.

“Did you want to talk about it?”

“No.”

He left it at that until they reached the house, setting her down again once they were inside and looking over to the couch where Metal Sonic was still lounging about.  RK had picked up a new game for him relatively recently after the blue bot complained that he’d ‘learned’ all he could from his current one.  Though now he couldn’t help but wonder if the two of them were playing too much nowadays.  Maybe he should get them all out of the house again soon.  Metal barely even glanced up once they entered, to which RK crossed his arms and stated, “I may need you to pick Itara up for me tomorrow.”

“Why should I do that, exactly?”  Both Itara and Metal eyed him warily at the statement, Itara dropping her backpack and kicking her shoes off while Metal stared at him over the arm of the couch.

“The number of monsters appearing has risen considerably and the school doesn’t want the kids walking home on their own if they can prevent it but I’ll be at work when she gets off tomorrow.”

“I don’t see how this concerns me,” Metal scoffed, returning to his game, “I could care less about your tiny child or her monsters.”

“I don’t need anyone to walk me home, RK,” Itara chimed in, narrowing her eyes towards Metal, “especially not him.  I’ll be fine, it’s not like I’m unfamiliar with the monsters like everyone else.”

“While that may be the case,” RK continued, walking down the hallway to grab a towel for Itara to dry off again, “I’d rather not chance it.  Just because you know them, doesn’t mean they’ll recognize you and even then, there’s nothing guaranteeing they wouldn’t attack you anyway.  Both the Biter and the Nightmare before tried to attack.  I’d rather be safe.  In addition to that,” he continued, returning to the living room, handing the towel to Itara, and moving in-between Metal Sonic and the TV, getting a scowl from the other bot, “you have barely moved from this couch for a week.  When was the last time you even went downstairs to charge or run a system scan?  Your systems are still malfunctioning, we need to keep a better eye on them.”

While Itara huffed and went to her room to change out of her uniform, Metal Sonic eyed the taller red robot with a white-hot piercing gaze.  “I am perfectly capable of taking care of my systems on my own, Robot Knuckles, I do not need you to tell me what to do,” his tone was as dangerous as the look he was receiving in return.

“Then answer my question, when was your last scan?”

Metal Sonic remained silent, checking the date and time of his last system scan and compared it to the day’s date.  Realizing it had been a few days, he continued to remain silent.  Somehow, he managed to lose track of time.  Now that he was looking into it, his energy levels were surprisingly low, that explained a couple things.  But he wasn’t going to dignify RK’s mothering with that response.  Instead, he simply scoffed and looked away, “I am perfectly functional, thank you.  Go mother your hedgehog, not me.”

RK rolled his eye, figuring that was all the answer he needed and moved around the side of the couch.  For all of a split second, Metal Sonic believed he had won the argument and was about to return to his game… until RK grabbed him around the waist and hoisted him up onto his shoulder.

“Robot Knuckles you put me down this instant!”

“I’ll put you down in the lab, at the charging station, where you’re going to stay until you do what you need to.  Or I’ll break your legs back off.”

“You wouldn’t dare.”

“Try me.”

There was a moment of silence as Metal Sonic debated the validity of RK’s threat, but knew easily enough RK had never been one for empty threats.  It was infuriating, but for the sake of his physical well-being, it was best to remain silent for the time being.  Besides, he needed the charge, anyway.  But RK was fooling himself if he thought the argument was over just because he was going to go charge.  If anything a charge and scan would just give him more energy later to continue this.

While he was getting hooked up to the charging station and computer, RK remaining nearby to verify that it got done, the tiny hedgehog ventured down to the lab with a packet of papers and the possessed doll wrapped up in her arms.  She glanced towards Metal, who scowled back at her, before returning her attention to RK.

“Here… these are the papers we got for the trip,” she explained, holding the packet out to him when he turned towards her.  “You have to sign them so I can go… I think.  I mean… we’re supposed to get… our parents to sign them but… you’re…”  She trailed off, looking down before shaking her head, “anyway, I have to get those signed and turned back in before we leave.”

“What trip?” Metal questioned, though hardly sounded interested in the answer.

RK took the papers and looked over them, “Itara’s class is going on a school field trip to Spagonia.  I’m not sure what all it entails, though.”  Turning back towards the computer, he sat down at the desk chair and pulled up an extra window to look into what exactly a school trip was.  After a few minutes of research, he looked to the papers again, “It seems like a fairly decent opportunity to get closer to your classmates, at the very least.”

Itara scoffed, explaining, “That’s not why I want to go.”

“Why would you want to go in the first place?” Metal spoke up again, “Don’t get me wrong, I’d love nothing more than to get rid of you for a full four days, if not longer.  But this sounds like a waste of time and an opportunity for traps.  The school doesn’t even want you walking home on your own but they’re fine sending you off on trips?”

RK and Itara both looked towards them, Kipper having ‘woken up’ at the sound of the trip and floated over to RK to take a look at the papers, himself.  “Sounds more like a prime opportunity for tricks and fun to me,” the doll grinned, getting shoved off RK’s shoulder by the annoyed robot.

“They’ll be under constant supervision throughout the trip, from what I can tell,” RK explained, “I assume they would have plans in place if anything dangerous happens, but perhaps I should look more into that, just in case.”

“You’re all missing the point,” Itara sighed, waving to the papers, “I don’t care about the trip, itself, and I certainly don’t care about spending more time with my classmates, what I’m interested in is the location.  Spagonia is the location of the Gaia Manuscripts.  I can look into the other Gods more, maybe find a clue about what’s going on!  Since monsters from both Solaris and Gaia have been attacking, and I already know everything there is to know about Solaris, it might be helpful to look into Gaia.  Maybe even Chaos at some point.  That’s why I want to go.”

RK remained silent, taking this into consideration, suddenly unsure about the trip if that was Itara’s true intention.  He already knew the lengths she would go for Solaris, and it was unlikely he would be able to accompany her on this trip.  Without anyone else there that knew of her connection to the Gods, and her true intentions for the trip, it could be dangerous to let her go, after all.  Looking through the papers once more, checking over all the details carefully and wondering how to keep Itara safest if he let her go, he noticed a line towards the back, near the signature lines, giving a number to call if there were any further questions… or any parents interested in chaperoning along with the teachers.

After a moment of thought, he got back up and headed for the stairs, commanding the other three to stay downstairs while he checked on something.  He had an idea, but he would need to get more information first.  Itara and Metal both eyed him suspiciously as he walked off before returning their gazes to one another.

“I still don’t understand why you want to go in the first place.  It’s not like you can’t visit these places on your own, with RK even.  It’d be less dangerous than going on some school-based trip.  Not that I care about your safety, but you know too much about us.  You getting into the wrong hands is just as dangerous as us getting found by Robotnik.”

Itara waved a hand, disinterested in his concerns, “It’s not like anyone even knows who I am in the first place.  If anything happened to me, I assure you, it would only benefit you.  Not that I intend to let anything happen in the first place.  I’m going to find those Manuscripts, maybe even find someone who knows more about Gaia and his monsters, and I’ll return with more information than you’ll ever have.”  She grinned over at him, getting a scowl in return.

“In that case, I hope you’re eaten by one of those Nightmares this time and RK can be free from your incessant whining.”

“Don’t forget I helped fix you, you know!  I sacrificed my laptop just so you could short our entire base before we moved here!”

“Tch, all of the important repairs were done by RK, don’t expect gratitude from me, tiny organic.”

“I’m not that small!”

Kipper cackled at the back and forth, getting comfortable against the computer desk before deciding he wanted to know what RK was up to.  Melting into the keyboard while the argument continued, he appeared back upstairs where RK was standing in the kitchen, apparently on the phone with someone.

“Whatcha doin’, Mama Bear?”

“None of your concern.  Go make sure Itara and Metal stay downstairs for a little while,” RK waved him away, but as the doll shrugged and floated towards the hallway, he called out, “and Kipper, I already know what you’re planning.  Don’t you dare cause trouble on Itara’s trip.”

What?  I would never,” the doll grinned widely, getting a narrowed eye, before continuing back downstairs.  There was fun to be had soon.  He couldn’t wait.

Chapter Text

“Okay children, now remember the groups you’ve been assigned and don’t stray or cause problems.  Listen to the teachers and chaperones at all times and behave yourselves.  Those of you taking separate cars instead of the bus, make sure your driver has the map packets we’ve handed out.”  The school’s headmaster continued instructing the field of students lined up around the parking lot, waiting enthusiastically to file into the bus and cars, while a small handful of parents stood around the edges waiting to take off.  Some chatted amongst themselves, some were looking over the aforementioned maps to get an idea of where they were going.  Two, however, were standing as far back from the others as possible, having a silent argument.

No words were spoken out loud, but as red and green eyes glowed and a scowl spread across one of their faces, an already heated argument only worsened at the mention of separate cars having been an option.  When the children were finally dismissed to group up and get on their way, an uncertain burgundy hedgehog shifted her backpack, grabbed her brand new little blue suitcase, and edged her way towards the two silently fuming mobians.  While excited chatter exploded out from the rest of her class, she pressed her lips into a hard line as she studied the two.  When they didn’t notice her, she gave a small cough to get their attention, gaining a scowl so deadly from one that it nearly toppled her.

“Come on, Metal, it won’t be that bad,” RK finally spoke up, out loud, crouching down to check that Itara had everything she needed before she set off.

“Then why don’t you go?!” the furious blue bot fumed, throwing clawed hands in the air.

“I told you, I’m working,” RK waved with a calm nonchalance.  Standing back up, he turned to the other bot again, explaining, “But I need someone to watch over Itara and make sure she doesn’t try anything drastic to get her hands on those manuscripts.  She can be an unstoppable force sometimes for someone so small and no one at this school is equipped to deal with that.”

“Hey!  Who are you calling small?!” Itara huffed, joining Metal’s sentiment about the situation.  She didn’t want him going with her any more than he did.

“You, but that’s beside the point,” RK responded, looking between them and resisting a smirk.  For some reason, it was actually satisfying seeing them both so displeased about his decision.  “In any case, the decision is already made and they’re getting set up to leave so you’d best be on your way.  Itara, don’t do anything dangerous, and Metal don’t start any fights.  I expect you both back home by Saturday evening, in one piece, with no large organization of any manner chasing after either of you.  Understand?”

Itara huffed at the insinuation, crossing her arms and looking away, while Metal kept his glare, “And what if I refuse?”

“You already know my answer to that.”

There was a moment of silence, RK allowing his unspoken threat to sit, watching Metal Sonic’s eyes narrow dangerously.  It wasn’t until the head teacher gave last call for the bus that the silence finally broke.  Metal Sonic growled and turned on his heel, towards the bus, and stated, “I’m not going to protect your tiny child, Robot Knuckles.  I’m only going because there are matters of interest to me in the other cities.  Don’t expect me to babysit.”

RK could no longer resist the smirk, but nodded and let it go, turning to Itara, who was staring after Metal Sonic with suspicion.  “You too, Itara, best get a move on, you don’t want to miss the trip.  Besides, I need someone to make sure Metal doesn’t attack anyone.”

Itara turned to him with an eyebrow rose, “And you expect me to do what, exactly?”

“I’m sure you’ll think of something.  Now, off you go.  Have fun and don’t get lost or separated from the others, alright?  And keep Kipper in check, I know he’s hiding in your backpack.”  Once again, he received an incredulous look for the instruction, but he shook his head, reached down to pat hers, and shooed her off towards the bus.  She hesitated only a moment before finally turning around, waving back to him, and running off towards the bus, catching up with Metal Sonic at the door.

RK gave them both a wave before they got on the bus, mentally grinning at the scowl again.  He would be worried about all three of them for the duration of the trip, knowing their natures for trouble, but would also look forward to the four days of silence in the house.  He hadn’t actually had that much alone time since the original timeline and his memories of that were vague at best considering they weren’t ones Itara could fill back in.

Once on the bus, both Itara and Metal Sonic looked for the emptiest spots and mentally cringed when there was only the one.  Directly in the middle of the bus.  Huffing silently, Itara stared up at him once they reached it, wanting to sit on the outside but only received another scowl in response.  When neither made a move towards the seat, Metal picked her up by the back of the shirt and dropped her on the inside, sitting at the far edge of the outside, crossing his arms.  Itara silently cursed him for it, but fidgeted out of her backpack and looked for a spot to put her suitcase as the teacher at the front took a quick head count so they could get going.

“And I was so looking forward to getting rid of you for four days,” Metal hissed, side-eyeing her.

Itara kicked her suitcase further under the seat, glaring up at him, “I’m not exactly happy about you coming, either.  I would rather have come alone.  You’re not stopping me from getting those manuscripts, though.  I don’t care what RK says.”

Leaning back against the seat, Metal went into silent consideration before grinning over at her, “You know, just as payback for all of this, maybe I just will make sure you don’t get anywhere near them.  Just to make your life half as miserable as mine.”

Itara hissed and turned fully towards him, pointing, “Don’t get in my way, Sparky!  I don’t care what you do during this trip, but if you get in my way I’ll… I’ll-!”  Her cheeks puffed and her face reddened in frustration when she couldn’t come up with anything, getting another grin from the bot.

“You’ll… what?  When have you ever been able to stop me?  You couldn’t stop me with your powers, what makes you think you can do anything now?”  Her face only reddened further as she stuttered and stammered, looking for a retort.  When she found none, she reached out to punch him, though regretted her decision as soon as she made contact.  Wincing, her ears flattened at his mocking laughter while she slumped back into her seat, glaring out the window as she rubbed her fist.  “Foolish child.”

“I hope you get struck by lightning,” she mumbled, getting a scoff in response.

“As if that would even do anything to me-”

“Hey what are you guys talking about?”

Itara and Metal both looked back towards the two other children that were hoisted up in their seats and leaning forward to peer over the backs of their seats at them.  One was a human girl and the other a mobian boy, neither of which Itara had ever spoken to but recognized them from her math class easily enough.

“None of your concern,” Metal hissed, glaring back at them, “mind your business.”

“Tch, rude… not our fault you were talking so loud,” the human girl pouted, glaring back while the mobian stared him down, seeming suddenly unsure about the strange, taller mobian in the seat in front of him.  Before his friend could continue, he pulled her back into their seat, whispering his suspicions and hoping to change the subject to avoid further conflict.  Something about the red-eyed hedgehog made him uneasy.

Itara watched them both carefully out of the corner of her eye, noting the other mobian’s response to Metal Sonic and waved him down, as well.  “Be careful what you mention around others, Sparky.  Humans aren’t likely to recognize you, but mobians might.  Unlike RK, you were active for a while,” she whispered.  Metal raised an eyebrow in response, but only scoffed once he thought it over.  Not that he was necessarily concerned with a bunch of third graders recognizing him, but there were the few other parents to worry about, he supposed.  They were more likely to cause a ruckus and draw attention he didn’t need.

What was the point of being free from Robotnik if he had to constantly live in hiding?  Well, it was at least better than being told what to do by the doctor, but only barely.  Mentally sighing, he leaned back against the seat again, staring off in thought.  He was out of range of RK’s limited com-unit now so he couldn’t even yell at the other bot about the situation anymore.

He would just do research on their destination; see how it changed from his existing records about it.  Perhaps the time traveler could fill him in further.  Looking over at the young hedgehog again, he watched as she fidgeted in her seat and found a comfortable way to curl in on herself against the side.  Before he had a chance to either ask or mock her, however, his attention was grabbed by yet another small child, this time from the ones in front of them.  They’d turned around in their seats and were peering over the tops of them at him and Itara.  Mentally sighing in frustration, he turned a glare towards them both, “what do you want?”  Itara looked up from her ball to see who he was talking to, following his eyesight to the seats in front of them but saying nothing.

“Are you Itara’s uncle, too?”

This, unfortunately, caught the attention of the two behind them again and four sets of eyes were now on both Metal Sonic and Itara while they each questioned the answer silently.  Itara’s ears perked, her face reddening with all the attention as her eyes slid away from everyone.  She had no idea how to respond to that, anyway, she’d never considered what Metal Sonic was supposed to ‘be’ besides a nuisance.  She knew most her class thought RK was her uncle, considering they also unfortunately knew about the hedgehogs in the mansion, as well.  But what did that make Metal Sonic?  Was he even anything?

Her thoughts slid back to the same question she’d asked herself before.  Technically, Metal Sonic was just as responsible for her creation as Mephiles… he was the one who broke off the shard of Mephiles’ power from the scepter and transferred it to a physical body.  He was the reason she existed in the first place.  Even though her body now was a creation of Solaris’ after the reset, Metal Sonic was her original creator, long before she ever met RK, or even Mephiles.

As she debated all this, however, Metal Sonic just rose an eyebrow and questioned, “What business is this of yours, child?”

The other kids looked uneasy, all but the human girl from before, who glared at the repeating question.  She seemed to take the initiative to get the answers the others were apparently searching for, “Because Itara’s shown up with three different guardians before you.  We heard her parents died, so who are you?”  Itara cringed at the mention of her ‘parents’, looking away out the window again.  She didn’t want to talk about them, she didn’t even want to hear about them.

“I heard the echidna that shows up to pick her up sometimes is her uncle that’s taking care of her now,” one the others chimed in, looking to Itara, specifically, “is he on your mom or dad’s side?”  Itara only curled into herself further.  She didn’t want to talk about this.

“Wait, but he’s an echidna, and both her parents were hedgehogs, I saw them when they were getting the tour around the school,” the other kid in front of them exclaimed, looking to Metal, “you’re a hedgehog, though, right?  Are you actually her uncle?  Are you and the echidna married?  How come your fur color doesn’t match?  Your fur is blue… kinda like-”

Itara shot up and the general description of a frantic screech escaped as she threw her hands up at the other kid to stop him before he could finish his sentence, knowing where it was going.  That was not an avenue they wanted to go down on a loaded bus full of mortals.  The other kids gave her a strange look, but she only glanced towards Metal, already seeing the building fury.  When a giggle mumbled out from her backpack sitting on the floor beside her, she gave it a swift kick and turned her attention back to the kids, “I-I-It’s n-none of your b-business!”  Unfortunately, even with her powers of time travel and without the help of her book, she knew that being mysterious about it all would only spark further curiosity and start rumors she didn’t want to deal with.  She would have to come up with a satisfyingly mundane answer to stave them off now.

“But if you must know,” she huffed, crossing her arms, trying to buy time to think.  She glanced between the window and Metal Sonic, who was glaring her down, she could see the light twitch in his claws and mentally cringed.  All eyes were on her as she struggled and stammered through a response, running down several possible avenues so far as she could see without her powers, and finally sighed.

“Maybe he and the echidna are dating,” one of the kids interjected before she could decide on a proper response.  It was a strange suggestion, to both Itara and Metal, but maybe she could work with it.

“Y-Yes, fine, you’re right.  Sparky is my… uncle’s boyfriend,” she stammered, looking almost sheepishly towards Metal to see his reaction.  He narrowed his eyes further for a brief moment at the hated nickname, but then switched to a look of suspicion.  Boyfriend?

“What exactly do you mean by this?” Metal hissed, lowering his voice ever so slightly.

While the other kids looked between themselves, Itara gave a small, uncertain laugh and waved a hand, “Y-You know, boyfriend, partner, companion.  You guys have been partners longer than even I’ve been around, right?”  The only reason she knew the term better than he did was because she went to school with older kids and some of the upperclassmen talked about dating often.   In fact, even just in her robotics class, there was one girl always talking about what she and her boyfriend did during the weekend.  Itara had ignored it for the most part, having no idea what she was talking about at first, but she was a louder classmate and Itara picked up on details after hearing about it for so long.

There was a small echo of ‘oohs’ around their part of the bus, making Itara flush up further and Metal stare off, uncertain of the titles.  Now that he was thinking about it, RK had said something similar during that New Year’s party.  Well, they had worked together for quite some time before RK was put out of commission and then went rogue.  He supposed ‘partner’ was an accurate enough description… but something about ‘boyfriend’ made him wary.  For one, they were robots, they didn’t technically have genders.  They only assumed pronouns of one or the other based on their organic counterparts.  Secondly, Metal Sonic had no need for ‘friends’.  While RK was likely the closest to that he would ever have, he preferred ‘battle partner’.

“So you’ve been dating for a long time?” one of the kids spoke up again, returning his attention back to the small gathered crowd of eyes, “are you going to get married someday then?  How come you aren’t yet?”  Itara’s face only reddened further, more from second-hand embarrassment for Metal than anything.  She knew this was all going over his head entirely and while she wanted so badly to laugh at him, she was still uncomfortable with all the attention it had drawn.  Her ‘solution’ almost seemed to backfire as it drew even more attention from the curious elementary school kids now suddenly wanting to pry into the love affairs of a clueless robot.

Married?” Metal Sonic questioned, overly aware of the sudden influx of attention and shot another accusatory glare at Itara.  Just what was she trying to pull here?  Then again, judging by the look on her face, he had a sneaking suspicion this was not the outcome she was originally searching for.

“Are you and the echidna going to adopt Itara when you do?  Since she doesn’t have parents?  You already take care of her, right?  Do you all live together?  I heard Itara lives down the street from Camilla, do you live there, too?”

At this point, neither Metal nor Itara knew how to respond to the sudden barrage of questions coming their way from all sides and it was all Itara could do to keep Metal from exploding at all of them.  As much as she wished everyone would leave them alone, letting a killer robot loose on a full bus would absolutely draw attention they couldn’t handle.  Instead, she concocted her best lies to satiate their curiosity to hopefully keep them from wanting to know more.  She tried to keep their lives sounding as mundane as possible and everything as basic and natural as she could, but even she still struggled with the idea of ‘normal everyday life’ and some of her explanations got the exact opposite  reaction that she wanted.

As much as she loathed the fact that she was stuck in a class with actual kids, it didn’t often affect her everyday life.  She didn’t associate with most of her class, the most infuriating part was usually just the excessively easy work.  But never had she seen a more apparent display of the mental age difference than during the four hour drive to Spagonia.  For the most part, because she went to a higher end school, her classmates, kids as they were, were usually on the quieter, more composed side.  But during that bus ride, with their curiosity sparked and being obviously bored from having to sit with nothing to do for so long, they bombarded her and Metal Sonic with question after question, wanting to know every little detail they could get.  Some even flew off into introspections of their own, making wild accusations about their lives that were somehow more ridiculous than the reality of their situation.  It briefly reminded Itara of Kelly… but she, luckily or unluckily, had no time to dwell on it before more questions came barreling in.

By the time the bus finally reached the first destination and came to a stop, Itara and Metal Sonic couldn’t escape it fast enough.  Metal barely waited long enough for the bus driver to swing the door open before he darted right out of it and as far from the bus as possible while staying within sight of it.  Their first stop was the hotel they would be staying at for the duration of the four days and Metal was already waiting by the door by the time even the teacher had stood up to talk to everyone about the plans.

The kids around Itara—who was cursing Metal for his ability to escape so easily and yet left her behind—exclaimed in shock at his speed, looking between the now-empty seat and the blue mobian tapping his foot near the hotel doors.

“Whoa, he’s fast!” One of the kids exclaimed while the rest of the bus gathered their items and the teacher instructed everyone to stay with their groups.

“Like Sonic!” Another of the kids added, getting another cringe from Itara.  At least he was far enough away that he likely didn’t hear what she had been trying so hard to avoid the entire trip over.  Metal’s appearance had changed drastically over the years since his first creation, much like RK’s, he’d kept many of his Neo Metal designs in later upgrades… but it didn’t make the comparison any less infuriating for the blue bot.  Despite being designed specifically as a counter to Sonic, or perhaps because of that, Metal Sonic would always hate being compared to the blue hedgehog and Itara knew it well enough.

“Look, guys,” Itara stammered, trying to get their attention one last time before running away in a similar manner, “Don’t mention Sonic in front of Sparky.”  When she got confused glances in response, she cringed and explained, “He, uh… isn’t a fan…  Sonic… uh,” she was grasping for straws again.  She didn’t want to insinuate too much, but she also didn’t want to be too vague and compel them to specifically bring it up to Metal.  “Sonic… destroyed a creation of his once.  It was on accident, but Sparky’s held a grudge since.  He doesn’t forgive easily.  So just… don’t bring Sonic up around him, kay?  He hates anyone who brings him up as much as he hates Sonic, himself, so… just be careful.”

There was a look of confusion around her, before it was replaced by concern and once she got nods of confirmation, she nodded, herself, grabbed her bags, and finally escaped the cramped bus.  Sighing to herself once she was back on the pavement, she glared towards Metal, who was still tapping his foot impatiently by the hotel doors.  Despite his attempts to distance himself from Sonic… he looked almost exactly like him whenever he got impatient.  She half expected a ‘you’re too slow’ as soon as she reached him again.  If he angered her too much on this trip, she was going to use that against him.  Now that all the confusion and panic of the bus ride was over with, it was back to business and she hadn’t forgotten his threat to keep her away from the Gaia Manuscripts.

Once the rest of the class was off the bus and their items were gathered, the teachers and chaperones herded their groups together so the head teacher could explain the rest of the day’s schedule and plans.  Itara edged her way around the back of the large group, staying close enough to hear what was going on, but far enough that she had room to breathe and move again.  Her legs were cramped and as soon as the teacher was done talking she wanted to go yell at Metal for ditching her.

At least it sounded like they were going to have an hour or so to get situated in their hotel rooms, walk around, stretch out, take care of anything they needed to before they left for the first actual stop of the trip.  It didn’t sound like even the first day would be all that calm and, as soon as they were rested up and stretched out from the ride over, they would be leaving for a number of events.  The first of which was going to be some kind of art museum and then lunch at a nearby park.

The teachers led the students into the hotel lobby, telling them to wait quietly out of the way while they checked in and got room keys.  There were a few more than sixty kids in Itara’s class and ten chaperones, teachers and Metal Sonic, included.  The rooms were split up in groups of three or four based on the designated groupings, meaning for every room that had a chaperone, there was half a group that didn’t.  A list of who was in what room had been handed out with a packet of information about the entire trip to each student and chaperone before the trip.  Once the room keys were handed out, the rooms with chaperones being given to said chaperones, the layout of the hotel was explained and with a final warning about behaving, they were dismissed to find their rooms and get situated.

Itara hunted Metal back down once the rest of her class dispersed, finding him surveying the central area of the hotel.  It was a fairly standard hotel, so far as she could tell, but the lobby and connecting dining area was large enough to fit several of their house side-by-side.  Reaching the robot, she decided to check the room arrangements again, having only briefly glanced at it when she first got it but realized there would be another one, maybe two, classmates in the room with them.  Also, the realization that she would be sharing a room with Metal Sonic and couldn’t escape to another room when she got tired of him hit.  At home, when he wasn’t playing games on the couch, he was downstairs in the lab.  It was easy to avoid him most of the time, though fighting him for the TV when her shows were on was another story, but now she was stuck with him, in the same room, for four days.

She groaned quietly at the thought, but pulled the packet out to look at the list.  They were going to be in a three-person room, at least, instead of four, so they only had to deal with one other person.  They had an actual group of six, just like everyone else, for the duration of the trip, but at least in the hotel it would only be one other person.  She couldn’t help but wonder how Metal was going to handle this whole ‘chaperoning’ concept when he actually needed to do something beyond scowl.  As she was trying to remember who the girl on the list even was, as it was someone she never paid attention to in any way, she heard footsteps approach and glanced over her shoulder towards them.

She had expected it to be the girl on the list, come to find out where their room would be and what not, but when Itara turned around, not only did she recognize the classmate walking up… but it wasn’t the girl on the list.  It was Sceira.

Glaring, she turned back towards her backpack and list, hissing, “What do you what, Sceira?  Aren’t you in a room with Camilla?”  Camilla’s mom, Susan, had been one of the other volunteer chaperones so, of course, Susan, Camilla, and Sceira were all in a group and room together.

“I was, originally, yes,” Sceira explained, her pigtail pincers feeling her way out around the area, catching Metal’s attention finally as he glanced back towards the blind mobian.  “But I asked for a switch.”

Itara had to resist a growl as she stood up and spun around, glaring at the grey-eyed pseudo-scorpion, “What?

Sceira hardly reacted to Itara’s apparent fury, wrapping her arms behind her back as she explained, “I requested Tonia and I switch, so I’m in your room now.”

“Why?!”

“Because I want to make sure you don’t cause trouble during our trip.  You cause plenty enough at school, I refuse to let you mess everything up for everyone on our yearly trip.  I asked the teacher to switch me to your group and put Tonia with Camilla and she obliged when I explained why.  Camilla wasn’t happy about it, but it’s for the sake of our class trip.  Everyone should be able to enjoy themselves and learn without you causing problems.”

Metal Sonic’s eyebrow rose, though he said nothing, but Itara’s eyes narrowed dangerously.  She was absolutely seething.  As if having Metal Sonic there trying to keep her from the Manuscripts wasn’t going to be enough of a pain, now she had to deal with Sceira, too?!  Well.  Nothing was stopping her, she had already decided.  She’d deal with both of them, however she had to.  She didn’t care about Sceira and her stupid trip, she only had one task to accomplish and nothing was getting in her way.

Chapter Text

Itara let out a long, exasperated sigh as Sparky unlocked their hotel room and let the three of them in.  The room was decently sized, with two queen-sized beds, a bathroom, small closet, and sitting area with a couch, lounge chair, and coffee table.  Across the couch against the far wall was a much nicer, larger TV than Itara had been expecting with a mini-fridge fitted into part of the stand with a number of snacks and drinks pre-packed into it.  There was plenty of space for movement and while Itara went about exploring where they’d be staying for the next few days—including the snacks—Sceira walked around, doing the same by feeling out corners with her long, piggy-tailed pincers.  Metal, on the other hand, scanned the room and checked the location of the sockets, wondering how well a hotel system would handle his charging needs.  Knowing they would be amongst a number of mortals in tightly packed areas, he hadn’t exactly been able to bring a full charging station for the four-day trip.

Itara had dropped all her bags by the door, only bothering to toss her backpack on the nearest bed, but Sceira placed hers carefully inside the door of the closet.  Once she had the snacks properly investigated, and realized the hotel would charge extra if she touched them, Itara flopped herself onto the bed she had chosen and stared up at the ceiling.  At least the hotel was nice and the beds were comfy, and the TV was big, but the idea of having to share all of it with Sceira of all people heavily degraded its worth.

While she was mulling it over, Sceira had completed her rundown of the room and continued over to the beds… sitting beside Itara, much to her dismay.  Glaring up over at the other girl, Itara hissed, “go sit on your own bed, this one’s mine.”

“There are only two beds, Itara,” the pseudo-scorpion commented, as if that was supposed to explain her decision.

“And?”

Sceira turned towards her now, less for the purpose of making eye contact and more so Itara could see the look of disbelief on her face.  “There are three of us and two beds, it makes more sense for us to share a bed, seeing as we’re smaller.  Unless you’d… rather share one with your… guardian?”

Itara sat up, looking between Sceira and Sparky, who had taken to a window to inspect their surroundings further.  He looked back towards them with an eyebrow rose, but said nothing.  Itara shook her head, facing Sceira again, “Sparky doesn’t sleep on beds,” waving the thought away, she continued, “He can have the couch or something.  He spends most his time on the couch at home, anyway.”

“But…”

“What makes you think I don’t want one of the beds?” Metal grinned, turning just enough to side-eye Itara, who glowered.  He didn’t actually have any interest in their sleeping quarters, he’d already decided the chair was closest to an outlet and would be the most inconspicuous way to charge during the nights, but he also greatly enjoyed making Itara’s life more difficult than it needed to be.  Especially since it was her fault he was there in the first place.

“Because you never sleep… on a bed!” Itara exclaimed, frustrated.

Metal turned around fully and grinned, shrugging and looking off, “well, this is supposed to be a vacation, isn’t it?”  He only opened one eye to see the look on her face, which was exactly as flustered as he’d hoped.  He knew he had her cornered.

Itara’s cheeks puffed up and her face reddened, stammering for a moment.  Getting a calm look back, she reached over, pushing Sceira away from her.  “Fine.  Then Sceira can sleep on the couch.  I claim this bed and I refuse to share.”

“Hey!”

Metal snorted and turned back towards the window, “I’ll leave that between the two of you, then.”

Sceira jumped to her feet and scowled at Itara, who crossed her arms and looked away stubbornly.  “I am not sleeping on the couch, Itara!  The bed is plenty big enough for both of us!  You’re barely even bigger than one of the pillows!”

Once again, Itara’s face flushed up.  Sure, the beds were built human-sized, since the hotel got both human and mobian visitors, meaning any mobian visitor had plenty of space and could easily fit several onto one bed.  The ones in their room could likely even fit three or four humans, depending on their size, but even so Itara was still sensitive about her size and took it as a slight rather than an observation.  “I’ll show you ‘bigger than a pillow’ when I suffocate you with one!”

“That doesn’t even make sense,” Sceira scoffed, “besides, you can’t.  Not only would that cause you plenty of trouble, but I’m more than certain I’m stronger than you.  You don’t need to see to know of your many blunders in PE.”

“THAT’S IT!”  With no more words, Itara dove from the bed and jumped for Sceira.  She knew full well that she had no physical strength to speak of, she was clumsy and incredibly easy to knock around, but it mattered little to her at the moment as both she and Sceira hit the ground.  She went for the other girl’s throat first, but Sceira grabbed her wrists before she could get far and held her back long enough to knock her off to the side.

While the two wrestled it out on the ground, Metal simply glanced back and out the window, debating to himself if he should break the fight up.  He was supposed to be some sort of chaperone to an entire group of the small children, letting a fight break out almost immediately upon arrival at their destination might look bad on him.  Then again, he didn’t exactly volunteer for this in the first place and it was no concern to him whether Itara and her little mortal friends fought.  Maybe if she came back with some kind of injury it would teach RK a lesson about putting him in charge of the brat.  Again.

Then again, the possessed doll’s description of a ‘momma bear’ was an accurate enough one for RK regarding the tiny hedgehog and mobians had a tendency to do far more damage during fights than most humans.  Even at younger ages.  He’d learned that quickly enough dealing with Tails.  If she came home with injuries, lesson as it may be, it’d also get him hit.  He had no problem with a fight, for the most part, he was built to destroy and a good fight sounded like the exact kind of stress relief he needed right now… but not a fight with RK.  Soft as RK had gotten over the years, his fist hadn’t and he’d already been punched twice now since his reactivation.  He didn’t necessarily want to make it a third so soon.  Sighing in annoyance, he turned back around, finding one of the scorpion’s pigtails wrapped tightly around the little hedgehog’s neck and almost smirked.

“Alright, alright, that’s enough, you two,” he sighed, walking over and picking them both up by the backs of their shirts, shaking the pigtail loose and watching Itara gasp for breath.  “As much as I enjoy a good fight, now isn’t the time.”  Sceira cooled down the quickest and quickly apologized, prompting Metal to put her back down first, but Itara only got angrier once her breath returned.  Holding her up further, he raised an eyebrow, “you just enjoy getting choked out, don’t you?”

“P-Put me d-down, Sparky!” she hissed, coughing afterwards.

“And what if I don’t feel like it?”  She growled in response, but Metal walked over and set her down on the bed.  “We’re supposed to be taking off again soon so both of you need to calm down.  Go… wash off or… something.”  Sceira nodded quietly and walked off to the bathroom, but Itara crossed her arms and looked away.  Once the bathroom door shut, Metal just grinned and leaned over, lowering his voice, “You ought to learn to actually fight before you start things you can’t finish.”

“Sh-shut up.”

 Metal shrugged, readying himself to face the insanity of the rest of the third graders again while waiting for the two children to finish getting ready, themselves.  No further words were spoken between the two of them, Metal only commanding them to follow once Sceira returned from the bathroom and they were ready to go.  He wasn’t exactly ecstatic about the idea of leading a bunch of third graders around Gaia’s domain, either, but perhaps he could learn something about the current state of the world while they were out.

The three headed back down to the hotel lobby where most the other students were already standing around waiting, chatting amongst themselves, while the chaperones for each group hovered nearby.  Camilla was standing further away from her group, talking with her mother, neither seeming all that pleased, either, but Itara paid it no mind.  Instead, she decided to take another look at the stack of papers to find out which group was theirs.  There were two clusters of children without obvious chaperones, since not everyone was back in the lobby yet, but she pointed them out soon enough and Metal lurked reluctantly near them.  Itara and Sceira continued all the way to the rest of the group, but Metal remained at a distance.

Once everyone was gathered again, the head teacher got everyone’s attention, went over the schedule for the rest of the day, and explained how they were getting from each place.  The first stop was the major art museum, a short bus ride further into the city, then from there they would be walking to a nearby park for lunch, and then another short walk to a shopping center for a ‘cultural scavenger hunt’, led by the chaperones.  Itara was most distraught over the idea of walking for long periods, for a number of reasons, but she hadn’t missed the look of utter disinterest on Metal’s face when the scavenger hunt was brought up.  She wanted to laugh at him, but knew it’d come back on her all too easily without RK around.

The kids who had taken the bus down packed back into it, while the kids who had taken the cars went back to them once they were given another set of directions for their drivers.  Itara and Metal wasted less time getting onto the bus this time to avoid the dead center again.  Not that they could avoid being surrounded altogether, but at least they could sit towards the front so it was a quick and easy on and off.  Itara debated whether she wanted to sit by Metal again, but realized easily enough that there weren’t many other options and plopped down beside him with a disgruntled huff.

“Get on the inside,” he demanded, eyeing her.  He refused to be locked in any more than he already would be.

“Well then why did you sit down first?” Itara huffed back, crawling over him to the inside of the seat and shuffling out of her backpack.

“Because I originally intended to sit here alone.”

“Yeah, well, it’s either you or some other classmate I don’t care about since there aren’t enough seats for both of us to sit alone.”

“That’s hardly my concern.”

“It is now.”

There was a moment of silence as they eyed one another before they both turned away in disgust.  Itara shuffled around in the seat to get comfortable again, opening her backpack to pull Kipper out, who was still stuffed into the main pocket, and wrapped him up tightly in her arms as she pulled her legs up to her chest.  Admittedly, she had been expecting the doll to cause some kind of problem by now, since he never stayed this quiet for this long even when she was at school, but she was at least grateful for it.  Then again…

Tilting her head to the side to look the doll in the eyes, she glanced around, waiting for the bus to get loud with chatter before whispering, “Wanna help me get back at Sceira?”

The red gem on the doll’s head lit up and the dead felt eyes came briefly to life, before returning back to their doll-like state, though the gem remained glowing.  He was listening.  Glancing up at Metal, she shuffled closer to the window and curled in on herself more, whispering her ideas into the little doll’s cotton-stuffed ears, watching one of them twitch in response, and smiling when she got a confirmation nod.  If she couldn’t fight Sceira directly, then she would just fight indirectly.  It’s what she did best, after all.

The drive over to the museum was much shorter than the drive from Soleanna, even with the heavier traffic, making some of the mobian children question why they couldn’t just run or fly over.  Even Metal scoffed that it would have taken him less time to run to the museum than it took the bus to even get started, but Itara shook her head, pulling her backpack back on while keeping Kipper in her arms.  As someone less… stable than other mobians, she, like most her human classmates, preferred the ride over.  Metal, however, once again wasted no time getting off the bus once the doors were open.  He was out and waiting on the sidewalk before even Itara realized he’d left.  She couldn’t wait to see him have to keep pace with a bunch of tiny third-grader legs for the scavenger hunt.

With the same awe and confusion, the rest of the kids filed out of the bus, watching the antsy blue hedgehog as they did, some of them quietly whispering amongst themselves about topics Itara hoped to High Hell he couldn’t hear.  As entertaining as it would be to watch him go ballistic on her classmates, they didn’t need a short end to this trip right now.  Not yet.  Shuffling quietly over to him, the rest of their group following before long, the teacher once again announced the plans for the museum in further depth.  They were to be quiet, courteous, and fill out a worksheet about specific works of art while they were there.  Each group’s packets were different, with focuses on different pieces, that they would then be creating a small presentation for the other groups and the museum patrons, something the school had worked out with the curators before the trip.

Itara silently raged at the idea.  She hated presentations.  She hated group projects even more.  Looking around at her group, she scowled off to the side, hoping she could convince them to maybe not force her to talk during whatever presentation they would be doing.  It was embarrassing enough dealing with her stutter in front of her classmates, to embarrass herself in front of an entire museum of strangers sounded horrifying.  She wanted nothing to do with it.

With the packets handed out, the teacher dismissed all the groups and the droves of small children entered the museum, in their somewhat separate groups, to find the answers to their packets.  They had two hours to get it all together, then they were supposed to meet back up in the museum’s main lobby.  Itara scanned the questions as they walked, Metal Sonic staying as far from any one person as he could manage without escaping altogether.  Quickening her pace to catch back up with him, she reached up and pulled on his sleeve to get his attention.

“What.”  He sounded as frustrated as he looked.

Itara held the packet up to him, “You know these… you can just- look all this up, can’t you?”

He looked down at the packet with an eyebrow rose, scanning the questions before looking up again, scoffing, “of course I can.  But I won’t.”

“Why not?  The faster we get these answered, the sooner we can escape elsewhere until the presentation.”

“Because, dear little hedgehog,” Metal smirked down at her with a narrowed eye, “what would you learn if I just gave you the answers?”

Itara frowned, narrowing her eyes back, “Like any of this matters to me in the first place.  None of this is related to Gaia.”

“I’m fairly certain I saw a question on there about a painting of Gaia.”

“I already know full well what both Dark and Light Gaia look like, a painting of him is of no interest to me!”

“Shh, don’t yell in a museum.”  He was having too much fun mocking her and she was going to get him back for it.   Huffing angrily, she looked away from him, following silently as they continued their way through the museum.  One of the other kids in her group went to grab a map for them so they could figure out where each of their works should be located and Itara decided to point out the quickest route through to hit them all and circle back.

While they walked, they crossed paths with other groups often enough, sometimes ending up going the same way for a little while, causing the groups to merge.  Itara continued to remain on the outskirts of all of them, only listening in or searching out the answers for the packet and having no interest otherwise in the conversations going on.  However, during one of the merges, it ended up being Sceira’s original group, with Susan and Camilla, that they ended up on the same path as.  Itara had even less interest in everything happening than she had before.  Sceira and Camilla, of course, grouped back up and chatted about what they’d found so far, while Susan walked far behind them all, her signature look of patronizing disinterest never leaving her face.

The group stopped in front of a large painting of a green and purple, shadowy figure floating and watching over a corner of the earth from space.  The figure, itself, was vague in shape, several times larger than the earth and almost snake or worm-like in its perceived motion.  The title of the piece was ‘Life and Destruction’, and there was a small description in the museum guide book about it being theorized that it was some kind of Ancient God, though it had never been confirmed which one.  The other children had a discussion amongst themselves about it, since their packet questions asked for their own opinions on the matter, but Itara once again remained out of it.  She knew who it was.

It wasn’t uncommon for the Ancient Gods to give life as often as they destroyed it, Chaos only went rampant because the Chao were attacked, even Solaris only held a grudge because his power was tainted by humans.  But between the title, the colors, and the familiar purple-glowing tendrils floating around the head of the figure, Itara knew it was Dark Gaia, specifically.  Gaia was said to be in a constant back and forth with itself, split into Light and Dark, Creation and Destruction.  Dark Gaia awakened only once every thousand years to destroy what Light Gaia had created, then go back to sleep and let the cycle continue.

She had seen the previous iteration of that cycle once.  Dark Gaia had an extremely recognizable figure when you’ve seen it in person, even for an uncertain, vague painting.  Maybe she should explain this to her group, ensure that they had the right answer, at least.  If she was going to be involved with some kind of presentation of information, she could at least make sure they had the right answers.  She knew nothing about art, but she could at least explain some of the history in them, if it came up.

While she walked over to the group to correct their incorrect assumptions about the Ancient God in question, Susan inched towards Metal, who was doing his own research towards the back of the room.  She’d been watching them all with a sharp eye and, after listening to Itara’s apparent certainty regarding the painting, felt the need to investigate.  As she approached, Metal’s proximity meter alerted him to her presence and he minimized the window he’d been looking at and turned a bored eye to the human woman.  RK had warned him about this one, she seemed to be suspicious of them, unlike Lynda.  Well, or so RK said.  Metal wasn’t entirely convinced their nosy neighbor wasn’t equally suspicious, he would watch what he said around either.

“You’re Itara’s… guardian, correct?”  There was a certain spitefulness in her voice that put Metal on guard with her.  It was entirely unlike Lynda’s, who just appeared to be nosy, instead she sounded exactly as suspicious as Metal thought them all to be.

“I suppose that’s what I’ve become for this trip,” he responded with equal levels of disdain, hoping to prove he didn’t fear her prodding the way the others might.  He wouldn’t give away their true natures, of course, but it took more than a nosy human to put him on edge.

“You were at the New Year’s Party, as well, were you not?”

“Briefly.”  RK wasn’t particularly happy with him after that event.  Not that it mattered.

“So what is Itara to you, then?  You don’t sound overly pleased about being called her guardian.”

Metal glanced over, studying the look on her face and the tone of her voice.  There was no doubt about it, she was digging.  She was looking for something specific.  He couldn’t determine what just yet, but he recognized the tone easily enough.  It wasn’t unlike the Doctor’s at some points, making him quite disinterested in talking further with such people.  He’d had enough of them.  He was too busy trying to drag Itara’s plots out to deal with the humans.

“I don’t believe that’s any of your business.  Now, don’t you think you should get back to your children?  They seem to be taking off,” he motioned towards the group that had joined them as they continued towards another hallway while his own remained stationary in front of the painting.  Susan eyed him coldly, but said nothing and followed after them, disappearing beyond the door soon enough.  Metal gave a short mental nod of affirmation, but shook it away when Itara approached him.

“We’re just about done with our packets, Sparky.  We just have one more statue to find and we can head off to the lobby, how much time do we have left?”

“Mm, thirty-two minutes,” Metal glared down at her afterwards, “I’m getting tired of this nickname you’ve given me, as well.”

“What, you want me to call you by your full name?  Here?  Amongst people?” Itara hissed, lowering her voice and glancing back towards the rest of the group, mostly wary of Sceira.  Metal frowned, debating it.

“Then why doesn’t RK have a ridiculous nickname?”

“Because he’s been inactive for decades and RK already technically is a nickname.  Robo-Knux isn’t exactly his built-in name, after all.  Not that this is the place for this discussion.”  She turned around towards the hallway they needed to continue in, shrugging and tossing over her shoulder, “you’re just gonna hafta deal with it for now, Sparks.”  Though, with her head turned over her shoulder and her eyes closed, it barely took the length of that final sentence before she tripped over her shoes and plummeted face-first into the tile ground.  Much to Metal’s amusement.

“Perhaps you’re right.  Some nicknames are worth it,” he grinned, getting a scowl from the little hedgehog as she pushed herself back up.  “Left-foot.”

“D-Don’t you dare!”

“Don’t I dare… what?” Metal’s grin only widened as her face reddened in frustration, “Come on, you had packets to finish, didn’t you?  Best get on our way.”  He led the way back out of the room, leaving Itara to mumble and pout her way out.  If she was going to give him embarrassing nicknames that he had no choice but to go by for now, then he would return the favor.  She gave him plenty opportunities to exploit it, after all.  Now that he thought about it, Mephiles wasn’t exactly all that graceful on his feet when he had to actually walk, either.  Perhaps there was a reason the half-God was always floating in that black mist of his.

Chapter Text

Itara took a step back, watching with barely contained amusement as one of the many museum patrons took a step closer to the large oil painting in front of him.  A red, velvet rope hung on golden poles around it, keeping the painting out of reach, but the man stepped as close as he could without crossing the line, studying the large painting of a flaming bird closely.

Though Itara stood alone at the moment, her group was nearby, studying a marble sculpture.  They’d answered all the questions on their packets and had decided to explore and examine some of the pieces they hadn’t before.  The main lobby was directly to their left so they wouldn’t be far when it got close, and because of this Sparky had decided to take a rest on one of the nearby benches.  He sat to Itara’s right and she backed up towards him until she sat on the metal bench beside him.  He eyed her as she did, noting the look of trouble easily enough.

“What are you up to, Left-Foot?”

“Me?  Nothing, nothing at all, Sparky,” she responded rather matter-of-factly, keeping her sights on the painting.  He eyed her suspiciously, eventually following her line of sight to the painting.  He studied it, comparing it to a file online to see if something was different about it, but saw nothing… at first.  But then, he swore, the painting shifted.  It was subtle, and even he hadn’t been sure at first, but upon reviewing his optical files he confirmed that it did, in fact, shift ever so slightly.  The bird’s beak moved a centimeter to the left to stare at the man studying it.  The man also seemed to catch something, but with the shake of his head, he dismissed it, much to the tiny hedgehog’s amusement.

“You are planning something.”

“Nope.  Not me.”

“…Where is the possessed doll?”

A grin spread across Itara’s face before it vanished again, “I wonder…”

So that was it.  Looking towards the painting again, he had only enough time to stand back up before the room’s lights flashed, drawing everyone’s attention.

“That’s strange… it’s only this room,” one of their group, who had been closer to the entrance lobby, commented.

“What happened?” Sceira questioned.

“The lights are flashing.  But only in here.”

Another quick smirk flashed across Itara’s face, which only Metal caught, as the lights stopped flashing and dimming down instead.  As it dimmed, a deep red glow emanated from the painting of the bird, causing the man near it to jump and move away, drawing the attention of the others, as well.

“What…”

“What’s going on?”

“What is that?”

For whatever reason, Metal could find no discernable reason why, the group of children flocked back to him, keeping him between them and the painting.  Did they think he would protect them?  How funny.  Itara, on the other hand, remained in place and just watched the painting with intrigue and amusement.  She was hardly trying to keep it off her face.

As the darkened room drew attention from others in connecting rooms, including museum staff, the painting shifted once again, less and less subtly until the great, flaming bird turned to face directly out and screeched.  Both children and adults screamed in horror around them, the man that had been closest scrambled away in terror, and the security that had run in stared in baffled confusion.  The children huddled further behind Metal, who eyed them quizzically before returning his gaze to the painting, scanning it for the doll’s signature.

The oil in the painting reeled back from the bird’s flames as it neared the unseen wall between them, screeching and cawing so loudly that mobians and humans alike shielded their ears.  Even Itara’s ears flattened against the noise, but she remained still as the bird’s claws and beak scratched and stabbed at the barrier of the painting.  The canvas charred as flames engulfed the wooden frame, grasping at the white wall behind it.  Children screamed in horror and security ran for fire extinguishers, though they had no effect on the ghostly flames spreading across the wall.

“W-We should… g-get outta here!” one of the children of the group yelped, gaining a side-eyed glance from Metal, who waved him away.

“Off with you, then.  Nothing’s keeping you here.”

“But-!”

“Come on, Val, let’s just go!”

The group of five, Sceira in tow, ran yelling from the room, leaving Itara and Metal standing near the bench, watching curiously as the bird finally smashed through its barrier and screamed out of the painting, diving for the nearest security guard.  Itara could feel the heat coming off its body, but as it swooped in and around the room, the lights cut out entirely for all of a split second before coming back on… and both the fire and the bird vanished.  The red glow was gone and the painting, frame, and wall returned to normal.  A shadow behind the painting shifted, unseen by all but Itara, who carefully set her backpack on the ground, watching the shadow skirt around the edges of the room and melt into the side of her backpack.  She picked it up and returned it to her back without a word, looking up at Metal, who stared down at her incredulously.  She only offered an ‘innocent’ smile before walking off towards the lobby.

“We should meet back up with our group.”

“What was even the point of that?”

“I don’t know why you’d think I’d know.  I did nothing.”  And yet, she sounded so utterly satisfied with herself that Metal believed exactly none of it.  He would question her further about it later, answering now risked someone overhearing.

They continued out to the lobby, greeted with the staring, horrified faces of many museum patrons, much of Itara’s class, included.  Itara wiped the amusement off her face quickly enough but Metal’s own look of boredom never changed.

“What was that?!”

Itara shrugged, walking back over to her terrified group, one of which was explaining everything that happened in explicit and horrified detail to the blind, confused pseudo-scorpion.  Camilla and Susan were amongst the group that had been standing nearby, staring, and neither Itara nor Metal missed the looks of suspicion they both gave them, though neither seemed overly concerned about it, either.  None of them said anything, and as museum curators and security, alike, went running to the ‘haunted’ room, the main teacher decided it best that they skip their presentations and move on to their lunch location.  It was still early and therefore the lunch they’d ordered wouldn’t be meeting them for another hour or so, but they decided it was best to let the children rest after such a ‘terrifying’ experience in a nice, open park.

Few of the children had qualms with this plan and only Susan voiced opposition to it amongst the chaperones.  Ultimately, it was decided they could give their presentations during lunch to their classmates and moved out of the museum.  Itara wasn’t sure how she felt about giving the presentation at a park, where more people were likely to be, but it was worth it.  Sceira looked terrified.

With the class grouped back together, the smaller groups dispersed amongst the crowd again during the walk, though remained in a relatively straight line along the way.  Both Metal and Itara remained near the back, not for lack of keeping up in Metal’s case, but to keep as much distance between him and the others as possible.  Itara, however, was just slow.  Though the city was on flatter ground than the outer edges of Soleanna, the walk was still decently long and Itara was easily the shortest amongst her classmates, even mobians.  When she slowed further, incidentally falling back by Metal, he stared down at her with a raised eyebrow.

“I’m not carrying you like RK.”

Her face flushed, “I d-didn’t want you to!”

“So you’re just slow.”

“You’re slow!”  His gaze turned from amused to furious at the accusation, but Itara crossed her arms and looked away, “In fact, I bet with all the damage you’ve taken, Sonic’s faster than you now.”

Take that back.

She was edging into dangerous territory, and almost regretted looking up at him when she did, but stubbornly doubled-down instead of doubling back.  Puffing her cheeks out, she scoffed, “You’re just fast compared to RK because he’s built for impact rather than speed.  I bet Sonic’s way faster than you now, being all out of shape and lazy as you are.”  She glanced over, not seeing him at first, and looked back to realize he’d stopped.  His eyes were narrowed dangerously and glowing brightly.  Even in the bustle of the city, she could hear his systems whirring and turned all the way around, putting her hands on her hips, “what are you doing?  Don’t do anyth-.”  But long before she could finish her sentence, the wind was suddenly knocked clean out of her and the world rushed by in a flurry of colors and puddles of shapes.  Her head spun and she felt sick to her stomach, similar to when she first learned to time travel, and reached up to grab her head.

By the time she could think to close her eyes, however, the world came crashing back into view, though her head was spinning so badly she was convinced she was still moving.  She wasn’t even sure when she got put back on the ground, but felt the rough warmness of sand and the dry wind soon enough and reached out to grab onto the soft ground to try and stabilize herself again.

“Who’s slow now?”

It took her several minutes to look up at the towering, angry robot, but fell back against the sand as soon as she did, staring dizzily up at him.  “B-Bite… me… S-Sparks…”

Metal huffed in amusement and stood back up straight, staring out at the wide open desert before them.  The city was several miles behind them and the nearest tree several miles in the opposite direction.  The wind whipped sand around and the sun beat furiously down on them, Metal grunted at his heating systems but Itara only laid and basked in the warmth.  It had been so cold lately, and while the wind was still biting, the sun felt incredible.  After some time, she sat back up and looked out towards the desert, watching the shifting dunes, reaching up to brush the sand from her quills.

“I found that scepter in an area similar to this, you know.”

She looked up curiously, then back out at the horizon, “I’m surprised you’ve retained that memory.  RK couldn’t remember the base that I rescued him from because of the reset.  I had to fill it in for him.”

There was silence again before Itara sighed and stood up, brushing the rest of her quills and clothes clean, “but to answer your earlier questions, I asked Kipper to help me get some revenge.  It was 100% worth it to see the fear on Sceira’s face both when everything was happening and when it was being described to her.  Plus, it might be difficult for Kipper to activate much during this trip due to the hotel room setup so I wanted to give him something to do, as well.”

“That doll is increasingly reckless considering how careful we have to be about our situation,” Metal glared back towards the backpack that housed said doll.

“Maybe… but people are more willing to overlook things when it comes to ghosts.  They don’t like believing in them and will more often than not come to their own more ‘rational’ conclusion.  So I think letting Kipper have some fun every so often is fine, as long as he doesn’t bother anyone in our neighborhood.”

“If you say so.  Not that I care, as long as I remain out of Robotnik’s reach I couldn’t care less.”

Itara basked in the sun a bit longer before finally turning towards Metal fully, “we should return before our absence is noticed.  It likely already has been…”

Metal smirked and reached down, pulling the hedgehog up by the waist, much to her displeasure, “we can just say something caught your attention.”

“Why me?”

“Because I’m not so easily distracted from a mission.”

Itara huffed, but closed her eyes as soon as she heard his systems whirring again, wanting to avoid as much dizziness as possible this time.  At least she knew what was coming.  She had been joking earlier about him being slow, having said it mostly to get on his nerves, but now she was actually curious what his highest speed capped out at.  It could be important later.  What with the monsters reappearing, Sonic being active again, and that new robot working for Robotnik, it might be best if both Sparky and RK were in prime fighting condition.  Just as a precaution.

When they returned to the city again their group had only just reached the park, gathering in a larger, open area away from other people while the head teacher gave out commands regarding their ‘break’.  Itara heard exactly none of anything that was being said, as she was still trying to keep her head on her shoulders after the run.  Metal rejoined them as inconspicuously as possible, only running to just outside the park and then walking the rest of the way to keep as much suspicion off as he could manage.  Luckily only a couple parents towards the back of the group had even noticed him walking up and paid little mind to it.

The kids were going to be given about twenty minutes to regain their bearings and discuss their presentations, whatever they had of them, and at the thirty-minute mark, they would give them, going in group number order.  Metal checked his log for their own group number, and after counting the dispersing kids, realized they were the last group.  That both slightly annoyed him, the idea of going last, but at the same time it mattered little to him.  He wasn’t actually involved in any of this.  He wasn’t going to be doing anything except staying as far away from everyone as he could get.  He almost debated just going for a run around the city while Itara did her little ‘presentation’.  Maybe get an updated layout of the city, for his personal records.

Having made his decision, he set Itara back down, watching her stumble for a minute, before explaining, “I’m going for a quick run.  Don’t cause trouble while I’m gone.”

Itara looked up at him with an eyebrow rose, Metal smirking when her eyes were still somewhat spinning from the run.  “We just got back from a run, where are you going now?”

“Wait, you’re leaving us?” Sceira questioned, catching Metal and Itara’s attention as they realized their group had rejoined them.

“Just for a couple minutes, if even that.  You can handle your little project on your own, you have thus far.”

“You can’t just leave us unattended,” the scorpion argued, much to Metal’s irritation.  Shouldn’t she know better than to argue with her elders?  Then again, Itara argued with anyone, but he figured that was just her.  As small as she appeared, she was actually much older than everyone around her.  Not that she always acted like it.

“There are several adults around you, you’ll be fine.  If you can’t be trusted alone for a couple minutes then perhaps you shouldn’t have been trusted on such a trip in the first place,” Metal eyed her, though realized the pointlessness of such an act when Itara not-so-subtly waved her hands in front of her own eyes.  Metal studied the grey-skinned little girl for a moment, noticing the rather obvious film over her eyes and the pincers she’d pulled into piggy tails.  “What kind of mobian are you, exactly?  You don’t look like a normal scorpion.”

“I’m not,” Sceira responded, her pincers moving up and around her, causing Itara to subconsciously flinch and step away.  “Apparently I’m referred to as a ‘pseudo’ scorpion.  We’re smaller and less lethal than normal scorpions; we’re also commonly blind, as you can likely tell.  My father is a normal scorpion, but my mother is a pseudo.”

“Interesting…,” it was the first time Metal Sonic had seen such a creature.  “In any case, I’m going to go stretch my legs.  I’ll be back in two minutes, work on your projects and don’t cause trouble.”  Before any of the kids could argue further, he took off in a ‘light’ jog, planning to speed up once he was out of their eyesight.

Once he was gone, Itara sighed, reaching up to scratch the back of her ear, “he’s such a problem child.  Anyway, let’s get this stupid presentation thing done with already, I need a nap.  And a cookie.”

Her classmates eyed her strangely, but she ignored them and pulled the worksheet from her backpack to get the presentation started.  Honestly, she didn’t even know where to begin with any of it and hoped the others would do most of the work, she didn’t exactly like the idea of public speaking, she barely liked normal speaking.  Unfortunately, Sceira was relentless in getting her involved, despite her many protests, and Metal had returned long before they ever finished and apparently thought it was amusing to also get her more involved than she ever needed to be.  At least she managed to talk them out of having her be the main speaker, considering not even Sceira wanted to hear her stutter through it all, but she ended up writing most of the presentation.  She was only glad they were going last so she had the time to tweak what they had wrong.

When it finally came time for them to present theirs, Itara remained as far back as she could manage without escaping entirely while her classmates explained the pieces they had studied at the museum.  However, as they were standing in front of the entirety of the rest of their class, and Itara stared off in every other direction, something off in the distance caught her attention.  It was over the line of trees behind her watching class, off to the side a bit, a small, reddish-purple creature popping up and over the trees for a second before disappearing behind them again.

She focused in on it, narrowing her eyes, ignoring her classmates now, waiting for the creature to pop up again.  It wasn’t so much its appearance that struck a nerve with her… it was the energy it was giving off.  It felt familiar, yet not at the same time, and she couldn’t quite place it.  After a moment, the creature popped back up again, a small burgundy and white, almost foxlike mobian, with little green wings.  It floated above the tree line, scanned the area, and then dropped back down again.  Something about it put Itara’s nerves on edge.

Luckily or not, her attention was drawn away from it when Sceira nudged her, letting her know the presentation was done and they were free to relax until lunch.  It was the only positive sentence she’d ever heard from Sceira the entire time she’d known her.  As the rest of her class scattered around the park, Itara marched over to Metal, who was standing under the nearest tree, his eye lit up as he stared off.

“Hey, Sparky,” she called, reaching up to smack the side of his arm, receiving a glare in return.  “I need you to look into something.”

“And if I choose not to?”

Itara huffed, glaring up at him, “there’s a strange creature here with a familiar energy signature and it could be related to the other things.”

“Too bad for you, RK specifically told me to keep you out of that other things trouble.  So unless it confronts us directly, I’m choosing to ignore it.”

“Why do you listen to RK so easily but ignore everything I say?!”

“Simple, I trust RK more.”

“No, you just don’t wanna get hit again,” Itara hissed.

“You think I’m afraid of RK?  Please,” Metal hissed in return, “He may be built stronger, but I do not fear him.  Back when we were both still active, before going rogue, he was my only sparring partner, the only other robot strong enough to fight me.  I don’t fear him, I look forward to fights with him.”

“Uh-huh, sure.  If you don’t fear him, then help me look into the thing.”

“I am not so easy to trick, Daughter of Mephiles.  Now go play with all your kiddy friends, I have work to do.”

Itara’s spines stood on end at the insult, her fists curling as her cheeks puffed.  However, instead of wasting her time with retorts, she stormed off towards the trees where she saw the creature, “fine.  If you won’t look into it, I’ll do it myself.”  However, before she could get far, the ground beneath her rather suddenly disappeared and she found herself face-to-face with the unamused robot, “p-put me down!”

“Not a chance.  Stay where I can see you, troublemaker… and put those spines down before I start calling you a porcupine.”

“I am not a porcupine!”

Metal smirked, but set her back down, watching with amusement as she tried flattening her spines and fur but only worsened them the huffier she got, muttering angrily under her breath the entire time.  Eventually, she gave up and screeched out in frustration, getting a short chuckle out of the robot.  “I hate you.”

“Good.  Now go play with your friends like a proper child.”

“Go jump in the ocean,” Itara growled, turning on her heel and storming off.  Not necessarily towards the rest of her classmates, she had no interest in them, either, but away.  Instead, she went to find a place to hide out of sight so she could talk to Kipper.  On her way to find said hiding spot, however, the other source of her constant irritation cut her off, refusing to move when she threatened them to do so.

“Like I’m afraid of you,” Camilla mused, crossing her arms and standing taller, just to tower over Itara that much more.  Sceira and a couple other girls from Camilla’s group were standing around her, as always.  “I bet you had something to do with what happened at the art museum, didn’t you?  I don’t know how, but trouble follows you like a shadow.”

“How could I possible have done that?  D-Don’t be stupid,” Itara growled, not in the mood for mockery.  “And I’d prefer Shadow didn’t follow me, either.”  Apparently that joke went entirely over their heads as they all looked at her strangely.  She briefly wondered if any of them even knew who Shadow was.  As involved as he often was with bigger problems, he wasn’t exactly as well-known as Sonic.  She rolled her eyes but took a step towards them, intending to walk past them, but neither Camilla nor any of the others moved out of her way.

“Where do you think you’re going?”

Itara remained silent for a moment, going over several possible responses, eventually looking up and grinning, “Oh, you know, just off to reawaken an Ancient God so it can destroy the world.  Nowhere interesting.”  She hoped that came off as much of a joke as she mostly meant it, but worried for a couple minutes that they might take her seriously.  While the Ancient Gods were active lately, she had nothing to do with it for once.  Though she wouldn’t put it past Camilla or Sceira to try and pin it on her somehow, anyway.

Not that she wouldn’t love to show them her true power someday, either.

Someday, if she ever got full control of her powers again, she wanted to show them why they should fear her.  Show them the mistakes they’ve been making, by ostracizing her so much.  Even her ‘guardians’ were two Robotnik-created ex-killer robots, one of which assisted her in destroying the world once before.  Just because they were trying to lay low now, just because she didn’t have her powers anymore, didn’t mean they were average in any way.  Didn’t mean they shouldn’t be feared.

But that wasn’t an example she could give at the time.  For now, she just had to hope Camilla picked up on her sarcasm and didn’t push it any further.

Camilla stared her down, but as she spoke again, a distant, inaudible shout from across the field drew both their attention… a few seconds too late as a bright red disk careened directly at them.  The speeding round object struck Itara dead in the middle of the forehead first, bounding off and cracking against Camilla’s face, sending both of them crashing back into the dirt, more so from the shock and panic rather than the force of the plastic object lying between them.

There was a moment of silence as a small group of classmates sped over, likely the ones throwing the Frisbee, before a chorus of barely contained laughter broke out.  There were only giggles from the girls that had been following Camilla, though Sceira stood in confused silence, but from the parents and kids that had caught sight of the event, muffled laughter erupted.  Some less muffled than others.  The kids that were running over apologized, trying not to join the laughter, while Susan bolted over to check on Camilla.

“I’m so sorry!” the boy at the lead of the Frisbee group exclaimed, swiping his Frisbee up and hiding it behind his back, “I didn’t mean to throw it that hard!  Are you two okay?”

Camilla recovered quicker than Itara, who scowled hatefully up at the boy, her mom helping her up and obsessively checking for injuries.  “That hurt, you jerk!”

“I’m sorry!”

Itara shook her head, reaching up to rub her forehead and briefly scowled up at the boy before pushing herself up to her feet, “next time just aim for Camilla and leave me out of it.”  She was done with everything today already, including this entire conversation, she was leaving.  She waited until Camilla and Susan created a ruckus before slipping away from all of them, half feeling sorry for the boy who threw the Frisbee.  As much as that hurt, she somehow felt the brute force of the other two’s rage was too harsh of a punishment for knocking Camilla over, especially considering Camilla only got the bounce.  But she wasn’t overly concerned with it, either.  She wanted to find her quiet spot away from everyone to talk to Kipper.

Chapter Text

Itara wasted no time escaping to the edges of the park again and finding a quieter place under a section of trees.  Once she had her spot and was sure she would be mostly alone for the duration of lunch, she set the little box the school had planned for them aside.  Pulling her backpack off, she dug around for a few minutes, pulling Kipper out to sit in her lap, until she found what she was looking for.  She smiled widely and pulled the little plastic container out as Kipper reactivated to float beside her, popping the lid off to reveal the several days’ worth of chocolate chip cookies.

RK baked them, though made her promise she wouldn’t eat them all at once.  She was only supposed to eat three a day, one more than the usual two she got because it was a special occasion, but there was also no one to stop her from eating more, either.  Well, if she ate them all at once it meant she wouldn’t have any for the rest of the trip so maybe she’d try to save them.  Maybe.  But for now, she thought she deserved at least two of them.  Her face hurt and everyone was annoying.

“Aww, Mama Bear made you cookies for your trip, how cute,” the doll cooed as sarcastically as usual, but only got a side-eyed glance from the little hedgehog, who was happily munching away on her first cookie.  “So what’s our next plan, then?”  Itara knew he wasn’t talking about the actual school-planned activities.

“I don’t know, whatever comes to mind, I guess,” she shrugged, looking around briefly before grabbing the sandwich from her actual lunch.  She was rather hungry, outside of her need for cookies.  “We’re going to be here at the park for another hour or so, and then we’re going on some kind of scavenger hunt in a shopping center.  I’m sure we can find some trouble to cause there.”

The doll only grinned, his gem flashing briefly, before he rather suddenly dropped back into her lap, going back to doll mode.  Itara stared down at him strangely but her ears perked sharply when she heard rustling amongst the leaves.  Looking up and around, she narrowed her eyes as she scanned the trees for the sudden intruder, setting her sandwich down cautiously.  There was silence, but as Itara was about to pick her sandwich back up, the trees rustled again and a small, burgundy creature dropped down in front of her, causing her to screech and nearly toss everything on her lap.

“Ah!  Sorry, sorry!  I didn’t mean to scare you!” the little creature exclaimed, though was clutching his own chest, having been just as startled by her scream as she had been by his appearance.  Once Itara relaxed, he spoke again, grinning, “I just thought I smelled chocolate and couldn’t help myself.”

Itara’s calm demeanor shifted as a snarl spread across her face, instead hissing as she hid her cookies scowling at the small creature recognizing it as the one she had seen earlier.  The creature frowned at her response, looking disappointed that he might not get some of her cookies, after all.  It took several minutes of scowling before Itara realized this was her opportunity to look into what she’d been wanting to earlier and forcefully calmed her face—and spines—as she questioned, suspiciously, “Wh-what… Who are you?”

The creature, who looked about ready to leave, turned towards her again, smiling widely, “My name is Chip.  What’s your name?”

“I-Itara…”  She was wary, and didn’t actually want to share her cookies, but she also desperately needed to know what or who this ‘Chip’ was.  “If… If I give… you a cookie… w-will you… answer something?”  The offer pained her.

Chip’s smile widened as he dropped down in front of her, crossing his legs, “sure thing!”

Sighing, Itara reached over and grabbed one of the smaller cookies and handed it to him.   She remained silent for a moment as he took it, trying to decide how to phrase her question.  Now that he was closer and she could study him better there was no doubt about it: The energy he gave off was anything but normal.  It was definitely familiar somehow, but she still couldn’t place it.  She had no idea who he could be associated with and thus didn’t want to give her own associations away so easily, so she had to keep her questions vague, but specific enough to get the answer she wanted.

“What… are you?” she finally asked, “you… give off a strange aura, you don’t feel like… you’re not a normal mobian, are you?”

Chip looked between her and his cookie, seeming to debate the answer before frowning, “I don’t remember, the reason I’m here now in this city is to answer that, myself.  But you’re the first person I’ve come across that’s even been able to tell anything’s different.”  Itara mentally cringed.  Not only was she not going to get any answers, but now she stuck out to him.  That was exactly what she was trying to avoid.  “Maybe you can help me figure this out!”

Itara hastily threw her hands up, crossing them and exclaiming, “No!  No way, I’m not… I don’t… I can’t.  I’m sorry.  I don’t know anything, I’m just here on a field trip, I’m not even from around here.  There was just something about you that felt strange to me, that’s all.  If you don’t know, yourself, then I can’t-!”

“Hey, now that you’ve mentioned it, there’s a strange power coming from you, too, compared to the rest of this park.”  Itara couldn’t keep the cringe off her face this time.  She could almost hear the chuckle from Kipper.  “You’re not a normal mobian either, right?”

“N-No, I… I’m completely… I’m n-normal, I’m normal.  I swear.”

Chip jumped up to his feet, his wings fluttering enough to lift him off the ground ever so slightly as he stared at her, wide-eyed and ecstatic, “we can work together to find out who I am!”

“No!  I don’t-!”  Even as she argued, he did a flip in the air, clearly hearing nothing she was saying, much to her dismay.  She wanted to run and hide but that never worked out for her.  She had to convince him to leave on his own.  Closing her eyes and calming herself back down, she let out a slow breath and opened them again, “Listen, Chip… I don’t know what you’re reading from me… but I guarantee, I’m just a normal mobian.  I can’t help you.  As I said, I’m just here on a field trip.  I’m only in third grade.  You’re better off finding someone else.”

Chip calmed after a moment, looking over her, but the way his expression shifted into concern, concerned her.  “Have you forgotten who you are too?”  What.  “Maybe you woke up with no memory, either, and just tried to live a normal life, never knowing who you are, and so you don’t know what kind of power you truly hold!  How terrible!  We really must work together!  For both our memories and pasts!”

Now she really could hear Kipper’s laughter.  Glaring down at the doll, she hissed, before moving to get up, tossing her lunch and cookies—and the doll—back into her backpack and pulling it back on.  “No, really, Chip… I… I know who I am… I have no memory loss… I swear, I’m just-.”

“It’s okay, it’s a hard thing to come to terms with.  But I’ll help you!”

Why.

Why her?

Why today?

Looking around, she knew she couldn’t go back with the rest of her class until she got rid of Chip, he’d draw way too much attention, she needed to get away from him.  As Chip rambled on about something she stopped listening to, she spotted Metal, still on the outskirts, and decided to walk around the edges of the park to get to him.  It’d take longer, going all the way around, but he had to help.  …Well.  No.  He didn’t.  But it was either him or nothing.

Slowly and carefully, with Chip at her back the entire way, she edged around the park, being cautious of her classmates’ locations, until Metal was within earshot.  Calling quietly over to him, having to hiss a little louder to get his attention, she saw the undamaged ear shift towards her and called out a final time.  Red eyes met hers, moving over to the creature hovering nearby with curiosity, before the robot finally moved towards them.  Itara sighed in relief and shot a slight glare towards the unaware Chip, before frowning up at Metal.

“Help.  Please.”

“What is this thing?”

Chip looked up at the towering, red-eyed robot when he approached, staring in baffled silence for all of a second before he darted behind Itara in fear.  Itara sighed and moved away from him, “I don’t know, he doesn’t know, but it’s the thing I asked you to look into earlier.  He found me first… wanting one of my cookies.”  She shot him another scowl for the lost cookie before returning her attention to Metal, “He’s lost his memories and is convinced I’ve lost mine.  He’ll draw too much attention if he stays. Please convince him I’m just a normal mobian.  Please, Sparky…”

Metal contemplated the situation a moment before an amused grin spread across his face, much to Itara’s further dismay.  “I don’t know, you are a bit of an anomaly.”

“Sparky please… now isn’t the time for this,” she begged.

Utter, vengeful amusement spread blatantly across his face at her begging, but he remained silent just long enough to scan the other being.  As entertaining as tormenting Itara was, he also wanted to know more about this ‘Chip’.  Itara was right earlier, -- there was something strange about his energy signatures.  It took him a moment to compare them to a number of signatures he had data on, but once he pinpointed it he had to debate whether or not to let Itara know.  It was definitely of interest to her current goals, but that compelled him to withhold it all the more.

During his silence, Chip had done his own studying of the towering hedgehog while Itara went back to trying to convince him to leave.  “I’ve never seen a mobian with black eyes like that before, either.  But you don’t even have a readable power.  Maybe you’re the strange one.”

Metal focused back in on the conversation, staring the creature down and crossing his arms.  This one seemed like a loudmouth.  Their situation could too easily be exposed if he learned too much.  As much as he would have liked to mock Itara further, it would be best to get rid of him after all.  Unfortunately, Metal had a long history of dealing with the unpersuadable and recognized it rather quickly; it would be no easy task to get rid of Chip.  Not without revealing too much, at least.

As he considered the possibilities, however, one of his ideas had decided to act on its own as a pool of goopy blackness bubbled up underneath Chip.  Neither he nor Itara seemed to be aware of its presence, so Metal decided to remain silent and watch.  Itara was growing more frustrated and frantic by the minute, but as the ethereal blackness reached up for the creature in front of her—finally drawing their attention—she stopped and jerked back.  Chip panicked wildly, his wings fluttering faster, trying to rip away from the searching tendrils, but to little effect.

The tendrils dragged him down into the bubbling pool.  Itara watched on in shock and confusion as his tuft of white hair disappeared below them.  The pool disappeared with him before long, though as soon as it did the earth shook with a violent energy.  A sudden burst came with a short stabbing pain in Itara’s head, which she promptly shook off.  Unsure of the cause, both she and Metal quickly realized they should get away from the swaying trees before one fell.  The quake sent the park visitors scrambling, though it was hardly enough to knock anything heftier than a street sign or two over.  It was however plenty enough to knock the small third graders around, Itara included.  Metal ended up reaching down and picking her up around the waist again on the way back to the gathering class seeing as she could hardly stand on her own.

The shaking subsided soon enough having done minimal damage, leaving only shaken third graders in its wake, the energy that Itara had felt disappeared with it.  Despite the minimal damage, the teachers had decided it best to move on out of the area.  The head teacher thought it best to end the day early and return to the hotel and instructed the kids to remain together while she called for the bus.  The kids collected their belongings, regrouped around their chaperones, and waited for the bus that would take them back.  After the initial shockwave dispersed, the kids all broke out into frantic chatter while their chaperones looked on in concern.

Mostly.

Metal had instead decided to look into the source of the quake.  He couldn’t ask the doll directly just yet, not with children surrounding him, but he could at least scan the area and log the energy signatures that were given off to inspect later.  He had an idea what might have happened but he would have to confirm it with the one responsible later once he had a moment alone again.  At least they were returning to the hotel, where he could likely find a quiet place to talk.  Hopefully.

The ride back to the hotel was the noisiest trip yet, with a bus full of terrified children and the adults trying to calm them.  Itara, on the other hand, remained deadly silent the entire way, lost in her head, concerned about the energies she felt.  Not to mention what happened to Chip.  What if he returned, blamed her, and brought it to someone else’s attention?  She would need to consider all possible escape routes from the bus and the hotel as well as a plan of action once they did escape.  As long as Metal was cooperative the escape would be easy enough, but if too much attention was brought to them they might be in trouble even if they went home.

Luckily, Chip didn’t reappear during the bus ride back.  They were safe there.  Neither she nor Metal wasted any time returning to their room, though Metal arrived long before her.  Sceira would likely be longer.

Tossing her backpack on the bed, she unzipped it and pulled Kipper out, frowning at the doll, “wh-what was that?!”

“I’d also quite like to know,” Metal stated, walking over and looking over the floppy, stuffed animal in the hedgehog’s hands.

It remained flopped over for several minutes, but eventually the black of the doll’s eyes widened, a toothy grin spread across its previously mouthless muzzle, and the bright red gem lit up.  The lifeless doll lifted its head as it floated away from the little girl’s hands, looking between the two with his usual amusement.  “Whaddya mean?”

“Don’t you ‘whaddya mean’ us, Kipper,” Itara growled, “what did you do to Chip?  As annoying as he was, that was too risky.  Did you not feel the earthquake that caused?  What if he comes back and draws attention to us?  I know you like causing trouble, and I like it too, once in a while, but that was too much.”

“I’d quite like to know what that clash of energy was, as well,” Metal added.

Kipper looked between the two, the grin never moving from his face, before he pulled his little stuffed paws up in a shrug and explained, “That wasn’t me.”

Itara jerked back, nearly sending herself toppling at the motion but only stumbled until she could gain her footing again.  Metal stared at the doll, studying him carefully, looking for the lie, but closed his eyes after a moment to consider it.  Before they could discuss it any further, however, there was a knock at the door and Kipper dropped back onto the bed.  Metal sighed, but walked over to open it, letting the little grey scorpion girl in.

“You left me behind,” she stated rather indignantly, walking across to the bed.

Itara sighed and stood back up straight, glaring over at Kipper before eyeing Sceira.  As much as she wanted to get back to the hotel, she didn’t want to be stuck with Sceira for the entire day either.  “Did the teachers say anything about going back out any time soon?”  She and Metal had darted for the room so quickly that if there had been any further discussion, they hadn’t heard it.  She was hoping not, so she would have time to look into the situation.

“Only that we’ll be staying here until dinner.  At five o’clock we’ll meet back up to go out for dinner after the teachers check that everything is safe.”  Sceira ran her hand over the end of the bed, as if to contemplate, before walking further to the sitting area where she took a seat on the far end of the couch.  “You are free to roam but don’t cause trouble, Itara.”

With a final roll of her eyes, Itara grabbed the doll back up and headed for the door, “I’m going for a walk around the hotel then.  Sparky, come with me.”  For once, Metal gave no arguments and willingly followed after her.  He wanted to know more about the situation as much as she did.  If Kipper hadn’t been the source of the blackness that dragged Chip away, there were few other options and all of them were much less likely the doll.  Sceira nodded to the two as they left and Itara headed down the hall towards the elevators, wondering where the best place to have their talk would be.  The lobby would certainly be too busy and the hallways were far too easy for eavesdroppers.  There was a pool area, which would likely be just as busy as the lobby, and a couple ‘event’ rooms, though Itara was sure those would be locked.

Once they were in the elevator, before Itara could push any of the buttons, Metal reached over and pressed a hand against the control panel.  With a spark and a series of snaps and cracks, the lights in the elevator flickered violently before going out, the red backup light coming on after a second.

“That works, I suppose.”

Metal pulled his hand back and crossed his arms, turning to lean against the wall, his glowing red eyes further lighting the small, closed off room.  “That won’t last long so let’s get to the point.  Tails Doll, you were not responsible for what happened to ‘Chip’?”

The doll floated up again, shaking his head, “nope, wasn’t me.”

“But then what happened?” Itara frowned, looking between the two.

“There are a few possibilities,” Metal explained, remaining silent for a moment to run the data before focusing on Itara, “but, after Tails Doll, the next most logical explanation would be you.  Mephiles was able to manipulate shadows and create portals, correct?  I assume you have that ability, as well?”

Itara’s brows furrowed, “Well, yes but… I can’t…”

“You can’t access your powers, I know.  However, they have been fluctuating lately, haven’t they?  You can still control your eye colors, your crystals have a tendency to spike when you get upset, and you saw an alternate timeline in the city, didn’t you?”

“I don’t know for sure that’s what that was, though,” she frowned, crossing her arms and looking down in thought.  “I suppose you may be right but…”

“It would explain the quake that happened afterwards, as well.”

“Why?”

“I’m fairly certain ‘Chip’ is actually one of the Ancient Gods, or at least part of one, like you.”  Itara’s eyes shot back up, widening.  “It would explain why his energies stuck out to you.  That said, I can’t say for certain which God he belongs to.  Process of elimination suggests Gaia, as his energies don’t match yours and I’ve had enough exposure to the chao to know theirs and Chaos’ readings.  Plus, it would make sense for a part of Gaia, with amnesia, to be drawn to this city.”

“So… that energy…”

“Was a clash between Gods, essentially.  Even with his amnesia, much like your powers reacting to your emotions, his sparked in his panic.  It’s likely, that had it been Tails Doll to ‘attack’ him, he simply would have broken free no problem, but because it was another God’s power he faced, it caused that reaction.  At least, that’s my theory.”

Several minutes of silence fell between them, filled with the hum of the emergency lights, as Itara contemplated it all.  If that had been her doing, why were her powers reacting so strangely?  They revealed themselves so haphazardly sometimes, but then refused to activate when she actually wanted them to.  She should at least remember to write this all down in her book once she got back to the room.  As useless as it had been since the reset.

Finally, she looked up again, questioning, “For the sake of argument, and just to cover bases, if it wasn’t me… what were your other theories?”

“They grow less and less probable after that, but some other possible explanations were: Solaris, himself, for whatever reason; Dark Gaia, if that actually was the other half; or an outside source we don’t know about yet.”

“This Gaia-Guy certainly has been causing a lot of trouble lately,” Kipper grinned, “I’m a little jealous.  I need to catch up.”

Itara glared over at the doll, reaching over and grabbing him, wrapping him up in her arms, “No you don’t.  But you are right; Gaia has been more active than the others.  I haven’t seen anything from Chaos at all yet.  But that means we have to get our hands on those manuscripts sooner rather than later!”  Before she could say more, the normal elevator lights switched back on with a sharp crackle, the bright red emergency lights shutting down as the doors slid open, revealing a mechanic standing outside the door.

“Are you alright, there?”

“We’re fine,” Metal responded, stepping out of the elevator and heading back down the hall, Itara following quickly after him.  The mechanic watched after them, but nodded and stepped through to take a look at the panel to find the cause of the short.  Metal led the way back to the hotel room, letting them both in and catching Sceira’s attention while Itara headed for the bed.  She fixed Kipper into the nook of her arm while she dug around in her backpack, pulling the beat up old notebook out.  It had a scratched up black cover and ‘Itara’s Do Not Touch’ written across it with a mechanical pencil clipped onto it.

“I’m going for a longer walk, I’ll be back later,” she explained, turning back towards the door.  Metal shrugged and took a seat in one of the window sills.  She had a lot to consider and she didn’t feel like dealing with Sceira’s questions.  She went back down the hall and to the elevators, taking the opposite one, since she had no interest in ever taking the stairs, and stood quietly watching the floors go by as she ran over everything that happened that day in her head.  It had been such a long day, the morning felt like it was days ago already.  She wanted to talk to RK but her phone was off and in her suitcase back in the room, she hadn’t thought to bring it with her on her walk until she was already out of the elevator.  She would just have to call him later.

Lurking around the first level of the hotel, she studied the groups of hotel-goers as they passed by:  chatting classmates, lounging chaperones discussing the day’s events, random hotel patrons on their phones, some dressed in suits, wheeling their cases behind them, some dressed more casually with towels around their necks likely headed to the hotel’s pool.  A bellhop dashed by with a wheeled tray and several lidded platters while a number of room cleaners darted by with towels, cleaning supplies, blankets, and large sets of keys.  It was certainly an active, popular spot.

But she wanted a quiet place.

Turning a corner that was further away from the main hustle and bustle, she found one of the event rooms.  The hallway was much less populated than the previous ones so Itara ventured down it, passing only one other person along the way and eventually, out of curiosity, checked the door to the first event room.  She had absolutely expected it to be locked, and thus jumped when it opened easily.  The room was empty, with only one light on at the far end.  She glanced around, making sure she wouldn’t be caught, before darting in, closing the door behind her and walking over towards the middle of the darker wall, sliding down it and sighing heavily.

Finally.  Quiet comfort.

The room was massive, even a little cold, and dimly lit.  She could only vaguely hear the muffled noise from outside, so she pressed her ears against her head until she couldn’t hear it at all.  Closing her eyes and leaning her head back against the wall, a small smile escaped as she let out another, far more content, sigh.  Kipper floated back up out of her grasp, but she didn’t move for several minutes.  When she did finally open them again, Kipper’s bright red gem was glowing directly in front of her and his massive, black, swirling holes for eyes were staring her dead in the face.  It caused her to jump, her ears darting right back up, though they flattened again as she calmed, narrowing her eyes at him.  The doll grinned and moved further back, sitting on the ground in front of her as she pulled the notebook up into her lap.

“Hiding out now?”

“Just wanted some peace and quiet to think.”

“So… you brought me?”

Itara looked up from the notebook, studying the curious gaze on the doll, before smirking and returning to her search for a blank page, “yes.  As much of a butt as you tend to be, you and RK are…”  The grin faded as her brows furrowed, “You’re… just… comfortable to be around.  Look, it doesn’t matter.  I just wanted company and Sparky is annoying and Sceira is… infuriating.  So it was you.”

The doll’s laughter echoed around the empty room and sent a shiver up Itara’s spine, but she shook her head and returned to her notes.  She wanted to get every detail of the day up to that point and didn’t want to forget anything.  Details were always the most important.  Besides, it helped her clear her thoughts on everything when she wrote it all out carefully.  That was mostly what that journal had become, since her loss of powers: A way to process everything.  She found that she could form more careful decisions in the future if she fully considered the past since she could no longer travel through time to fix mistakes.  And there were plenty.

Chapter Text

“What do you suppose that earthquake was yesterday?”

“I don’t know.  I hope it doesn’t happen again today, though.”

“Yeah, I heard one of the teachers saying if anything more happens they’re going to cut the trip short.”

There was a brief moment of silence amongst the group of children as they walked along the busy shopping center path.  Three of the six were grouped together chatting amongst themselves, mostly about yesterday’s events.  Two were walking a step or two behind the others listening to the conversation of their classmates.  However, they preferred their own topics of conversation about the day’s plans, and how best to accomplish what they were supposed to do in the shopping center.  The last of the group was, as usual, much further back, closer to the unamused, unwilling chaperone robot that was just barely within eyesight of the group of children.

While they went about their chattering, Metal Sonic was doing his best to resist the urge to attack everyone around him, including the children he’d been put in charge of.  His proximity meters were throwing constant warnings on his internal screens, which he had to forcibly ignore as he was unable to turn them off entirely.  He was going to destroy RK when he returned from this awful trip.

At some point, the children had stopped walking, allowing Metal and the straggler to catch up.  He stopped as they all looked up at him expectantly and raised an eyebrow, unsure of what they wanted.  He glanced to the straggler, wondering if she had answers, as she often seemed to when the others said nothing to his gaze.

“This is one of the stops we’re supposed to explore,” Itara explained, sounding as interested in the prospect as he looked.

Reading the sign above the small shop, he mentally sighed and crossed his arms.  It was some kind of bakery or another.  “Then what are you waiting for me for?  If you know what you’re supposed to do, just do it,” he waved, turning away from them.  The day had only just started and he was already tired of it.

“You’re supposed to chaperone us, not constantly leave us to our devices,” Sceira responded with a barely contained hint of annoyance.  Metal, at least, picked up on it easily enough and glanced back at the scorpion girl.  She did her best to hide it, or what he assumed was her best attempt, but it was all too easy for him to read the constant irritation she held with both him and Itara.  It would be amusing if it wasn’t equally infuriating.  He was being bossed around by an actual child.  Itara was much older than she appeared and not even she got away with bossing him about, Sceira was exactly the age she appeared.

It would be all too easy to abandon them all right now, though.

He was under no one’s control any longer and he had all his limbs again.  If he wanted to, he could leave right then and never return and never have to deal with any of these children, demi-gods, or haunted dolls again.  RK would be furious with him for leaving the Mephiles-spawn on her own, but how much did Metal honestly care?  She clearly still had access to her powers somehow, even if she didn’t know how to control them, they were still there.  If push came to shove, he didn’t doubt she could defend herself.  Besides, how much mortal danger could a splice of a God possibly ever be in?  Even if she ‘died’, wouldn’t she just return to the rest of Solaris?

Glancing down towards the children again, while the others were staring up at him with a mix of concern and confusion, the tiny immortal was staring off elsewhere, her ears pinned against her head.  Curious of her sudden focus, he followed her eyesight to a shop across the path with a bright, neon sign and a number of colorful paintings and decorations on the window.  An arcade.

Well, he did have a score to settle, now that he had his other arm.

He would defeat her at her ‘games’ first, then maybe he would take off.  It’s not like he wouldn’t have time later, after all.

Looking back to the other children, then back towards the shop they were supposed to be inspecting, he gave it a moment of thought before finally motioning towards the door.  “Fine, then.  Head in and get this over with already,” he stated flatly, grabbing Itara’s attention again, as the children filed inside, Itara and Metal taking up the rear, as usual.  The children went right to searching for the answers to their questions, filling out packets similar to the ones from the art museum.  Metal remained near the door but Sceira went to the counter to ask more direct questions.

After a quick conversation in the back, the owner came out and offered to give the children a tour of the back and explain how everything was made.  Deciding that was his opportunity, Metal grabbed a small bead from the shop window and flicked it at the back of Itara’s head, putting a finger up to silence her when she looked back and nodded towards the door before leaving the little bakery.  Itara glared between him and her classmates, making sure they weren’t paying attention to her before following him outside.

“What was that for?!” she hissed, glaring up at him, though he gave no answer and instead only nodded again, this time towards the arcade.  Itara looked back and forth between the shop and the arcade for a moment, unsure, but finally nodded and followed him across the street.  She only cared about the bakery for the potential of getting a free cookie but she hadn’t even seen cookies in the outer room so she dismissed the idea.  They were all Danishes and fancy cakes that hardly looked edible.

“I have both my arms now and RK isn’t here to let you win, so I have a score to settle with you, Left-Foot,” Metal warned, getting a handful of the tokens they would need.

“That just sounds like a lot of excuses as to why I beat you, Sparky,” Itara grinned, scouting the games out and moving to a fighting game, though changed her mind quickly enough and moved, instead, to a side-scrolling beat-em-up.

Metal, however, grinned at the sudden change, “And yet, you didn’t want to play the fighting game.”

“Sh-Shut up!  Get over here and f-fight!”

Metal gave a short laugh, but followed and handed her half the tokens, saying nothing more as they started the game.  The opening cinematic played and the two characters, hardly any different in model besides the colors, appeared with witty one-liners to open the first stage.  The game, itself, was little more than an old-school side-scroller, but both Metal Sonic and Itara took the challenge with an intensity fellow arcade goers couldn’t help but notice.

Neither of them said a single word to the other as they caught the attention of a stray gaze, followed by another curious mobian that caught sight of the first one watching.  A couple that had just finished their game and was walking past stopped to watch, adding to the group, but it went entirely unnoticed by either players.  Metal Sonic’s screens alerted him to the approaching bodies but it continued to remain background noise as he focused on the game.  Itara blocked it out completely.

With the first stage cleared and a short cut-scene playing, Itara’s ears perked back up after they’d been pressed so firmly against her head, catching the sound of someone else pushing their way through the small ring of watchers.  Metal Sonic kept his sights on the game, but Itara glanced towards them, frowning when she saw Sceira and the other girl in their group.

“Excuse me, but this is not what we’re supposed to be doing here today,” Sceira scowled once the girl she’d brought informed her that the two were aware of her presence.  The small crowd looked down at the girls while Itara hissed under breath.  Metal remained silent, not wanting to be pulled away from the game, but sighed after a short mental debate and stood back up at straight, turning to the children.

“Did you finish your tour?”

“Yes.  We did.  Not that Itara will know what we learned now,” Sceira growled.

“Not that Itara cares, either,” Itara muttered under her breath, glaring towards the screen.  They were about to lose a life if they didn’t get back to the game.  Metal came to the same realization but internally sighed.  He and Itara could come back to the arcade later, he supposed.  They were staying in the general area throughout most the day, there’d likely be a better time to slip away unnoticed.

“Fine, fine, let’s move onto the next thing then, I suppose,” he shrugged, walking away from the arcade cabinet and following the children out of the building.  Itara looked between them and the game a couple times, the distress of losing their progress more evident on her face than it had been on Metal’s, before sighing dramatically and following, as well.  She knew having Sceira in their group would ruin all her fun!

With considerably more reluctance, the group moved on to the next stop, much slower than Metal would have preferred due to the children’s need to stop and stare and explore everything along the way.  Itara’s clumsy footing and the crowds didn’t do much to help, either, as more than once the tiny immortal got tripped up by shopper in a rush or a stray crack in the pavement.  Metal was starting to understand why RK carried her everywhere, left to her own devices, and without the ability to float, she was entirely left-footed.  He was having a hard time deciding between letting her trip about for his own amusement or picking her up and saving them all some time.

Once she started lagging behind after the third stop, he waited until she caught up before grabbing her around the waist, catching the tiny hedgehog by surprise, and lifting her up onto his shoulders.  He smirked at the squawk of surprise before wiping it quickly from his face.  “You’re too slow.”

Itara’s cheeks puffed, glaring down at the robot, before glaring off to the side, mumbling incoherently under her breath.  The other kids in the group looked back and up at them, a look of amusement spreading across a couple of their faces, but after recalling the warning from Itara, turned back towards the street to continue their search for the next location.  It was at this next location that Metal realized they had another opportunity to escape back to the arcade, noting that having Itara on his shoulders sped the trip up and they could get at least a couple rounds of something in and be back before the others noticed.

However, as soon as the children were distracted and he walked out of the building to take off in a sprint back down the street, another group of Itara’s classmates walked up from the opposite side.  Though, unlike their group, this group comprised of two others and was a considerable horde coming their way.  It would be harder to escape unnoticed.  While Metal managed to resist a sigh of frustration, Itara was less in control of her verbal reactions and gave a quiet curse from her spot.

Of course, as soon as Metal recognized one of the other parents as Susan, he found it increasingly difficult to keep his own curse under control.

“Oh, Itara, Sparky!  Funny seeing you here!” the other woman called once she spotted them, giving a wave while Susan only reacted to their presence with a silent scowl.  Metal, however, only scowled back at Itara for the ever-present nickname.  Did RK really have to use it for this trip?!  He couldn’t come up with anything else?!  Itara avoided his gaze when he glared back at her, however, prompting him to remove her from his shoulders.  They wouldn’t be going anywhere any time soon so there was no need for him to continue carrying her.  She pouted for only a moment when she was returned to the ground, but turned back towards the rest of her group after a moment.

“Considering we’re all around this shopping center for several hours today, I find it highly unlikely that our meeting is anything but inevitable,” Metal anguished, crossing his arms and looking away from them all.

“Unfortunately,” Susan added, looking away, as well, before returning her attention to Itara, “shouldn’t you be with the rest of your group rather than out here?  Surely you aren’t relying on the others to answer the questions for you?”

Itara’s eyes narrowed, glaring at Susan over her shoulder before returning her gaze to the shop, “maybe I’ve already answered it and they’re all just being slow.”

“Then you should be making sure everyone has the correct answer.”

There was a brief moment of silence as Metal resisted the urge to silence the woman, himself, and Itara debated a retort.  Before long, however, the other woman interrupted in an attempt to lighten the tense atmosphere, turning her attention to Metal, “Have you been around this area before?”

“I have.”

“It’s such an interesting city, isn’t it?  I’ve never been here before this trip but I’ve always wanted to visit.”  Metal glanced towards the two women.  Susan, he was aware lived on their street and often associated with Lynda.  The other, he believed, was named Veronica, another human.  There were so many of those around this area, Soleanna and Spagonia.  Though perhaps that was for the better, a mobian would be more likely to recognize him, not that humans wouldn’t.  At least these humans seemed mostly unaware of his existence, though he questioned how much of that was from the reset timeline and how much was from their natural ignorance.  In any case, he was unsure why they were suddenly so keen on talking to him.

“You’re awfully tall for a mobian, though.  I’ve met a lot of the other parents at the school, including the mobians, you and Itara’s other guardian are… rather tall compared to… well, all of them,” Veronica continued.

Metal glanced down towards Itara, unsure of how to answer, only to find that she had already taken off to return to their group, leaving him alone with the human women.  That little brat.  Looking up again, he gave it a quick thought, shrugging, “I suppose.  Maybe they’re all short.”  In their original designs, both he and RK more closely resembled Sonic and Knuckles, being the same height and build as their mobian counterparts.  It was only after years of upgrades and perfecting that they reached their current height and builds.

Veronica laughed, though Metal wasn’t sure what she could possibly have thought was funny, but Susan only narrowed her eyes further, studying him sharply.  As much as he didn’t trust any of them, he trusted that one the least.  Her eyes were constantly scanning, studying, judging, hunting for exploitations.  More than any of them, this one couldn’t learn of their true nature.  It was best they all kept their distance from Susan.

“Hey, some of us chaperones are planning to go out for drinks later tonight, after all the kids are back at the hotel and in for the night.  Would you like to come?” Veronica offered, smiling, the question sparking a scowl from Susan.

“I’m not interested.”  It’s not like he could drink, anyway.

Veronica’s smile faded, but only for a brief moment, turning instead to an almost starry gaze, “Oh, I see.  Is it because you’d rather stay near the kids?  I suppose if all of us go out, no one would be around to watch them.  But we’re just going to the bar connected to the hotel, we wouldn’t be far.”

Metal had to debate this for a moment.  As little as he actually cared about any of the children, or their chaperones, for that matter, it did offer a better excuse for his disinterest.  How covert was this operation, exactly, though?  How much interest was he required to show in the others?  RK didn’t explain enough of this situation to him.  Then again… he rarely had to interact with others.  Yet RK did it daily, and had been for some time.  Well, Metal could handle this.  If RK could do it, so could he.

“I need to keep a close eye on Itara,” he explained.  “It’s been some time since she’s been away from RK for such a long period of time and we’re unsure how she’ll react.  So far she seems to be fine, but the longer it is, the worse she might get.”

“Oh?  Poor girl, does she not deal with separation well?”

“Not particularly, no.”  Metal scanned through his files quickly and continued, “She’s very dependent at times, and it’s why I’m on this trip.  RK was unable to come, himself, so he asked me to accompany her to ensure she’d be alright.”

“How sweet of you to do that for them, then,” Veronica smiled, “I heard the poor girl went through a rough time right at the beginning of the school year so it’s nice to hear she has such a supportive family taking care of her.”

Right.  RK shared those files with him just recently.  After the reset, they ran into the mobian parents of the child he kidnapped for the experiment, only for them to die in a house fire not long after.  Even Metal could tell how upset Itara was about the ordeal, her attempts at hiding it were subpar at best and he had caught her regular attempt to pretend they never existed nowadays.  It was a fine enough excuse, he supposed.

“RK certainly makes sure she’s well taken care of,” he smirked, glancing towards the returning group of children, Itara in-tow.  “Isn’t that right, Left-Foot?”

Itara glared up at him when she heard him, looking between him and the other adults, crossing her arms, “I don’t know, but for my own sake I’m going to say ‘no’.  What are you talking about?”

“Your Momma Bear.”

“You should stop picking up nicknames from Kipper.”

“You should stop picking nicknames altogether.”

“Who is Kipper?”

Itara and Metal both looked to Susan, remaining silent before Metal explained, “An annoyance.”  Turning back to the children now, he questioned, “Did you finish here?”  Getting nods from them all, he continued, “then we should continue so we can hurry and finish.”

“Actually, it’s just about lunch time, isn’t it?” Veronica asked, looking at her watch before smiling at Metal again, “we’re all supposed to meet up again for lunch so why don’t we all just head there together?”

“Right… lunch.”  At least Susan appeared no less frustrated with the suggestion than Metal felt, it seemed she wasn’t overly fond of his presence, either.  It briefly sparked a need to stick around longer, just to inconvenience her as much as he could, but he no longer deemed the prospect worthy after a moment of thought.  Instead, he pulled Itara back up onto his shoulders and motioned for their group to continue on.  Whether Susan and Veronica followed was their decision.  Veronica apparently decided for them, collecting the rest of the children and following after him.  For the purpose of talking to him still.

“At least with everyone back together again it’ll give us some much needed rest, right?  We’ll finally be able to sit down for a little while.”

“I’m not so easily tired out,” Metal responded coldly.  His energy reserves may not have been in peak condition due to the damage, but that didn’t mean a couple hours walking around a city shopping center at a snail’s pace would deplete them so easily.

“Really?  I envy you, then.  I’m afraid I’m already starting to get tired out,” Veronica gave an uneasy laugh, “What about you, Itara?  Looking forward to lunch?”

Itara, who had been shifting about on Metal’s shoulders trying to find a comfortable position since he wasn’t fluffy like RK, stopped squirming just long enough to look over at the other parent.  She didn’t even know whose mom it was, since she at least knew she wasn’t a teacher, and was curious why she was so set on talking to Metal at the moment.  “I s-suppose.  I am hungry,” she stammered, looking away again, “Sparky, you aren’t as comfortable as RK.”

Metal glared up at her, “Would you rather walk?  The only reason I’m carrying you is because you’re so slow.  I can just as easily leave you behind, Left-Foot.”

Itara went back to grumbling while Veronica gave another short laugh, gaining her a side-eyed glance from both of them.  When she noticed, she threw her hands up in defense, explaining, “Sorry, it’s just cute listening to your banter.  You must really be close.”  Itara’s face flushed up at the insinuation, moving to cross her arms but after a panicked flail, quickly grabbed back onto Metal’s head.  Metal only glared and huffed, preparing to deny her claims, but remembered his earlier statement and remained silent.  Perhaps he should at least pretend to care about the tiny child’s well-being.  For now.  Besides, he was sure Itara would launch into a denial soon, anyway.

The rest of the walk to the lunch destination was hardly silent.  Veronica was plenty talkative, though not nearly as pushy as Lynda, nor prying as Susan, and the children were hardly any different.  Though at least the children kept their conversations amongst themselves, Veronica and Susan practically demanded Metal’s constant attention the entire walk.  They asked about his work, his relationship with Itara, his past with RK, the apparent ‘injuries’ he sustained at ‘work’ –which Itara had to answer for him –even at one point suggesting he should join the school’s ‘PTA’, whatever that was.  Metal had no interest in any of it and wanted nothing more than to return to the safety and silence of the lab back home.

By the time they finally reached the restaurant, and met back up with the rest of Itara’s class, Metal was in desperate need of an escape.  Setting Itara back down again, he informed her that he was going for another run and would be back soon, but once again, he was stopped before he could get far.  What hellish influence did these organics command?!  Turning, once again, to Veronica’s curious gaze, he gave a short ‘what’ and resisted the urge to start tapping his foot.

“You don’t want to get lunch first?”

“No.  Now, if you’ll excuse me-.”

“You should at least get something ordered before you take off, otherwise you might miss the chance to eat.”

Metal’s claws flexed as he strained to keep his temper in check, getting tired of the humans are their constant interruptions.  As his eyes glowed with his frustrations, however, Itara edged her way back over and grabbed Veronica’s attention.  Whether she picked up on his mood or simply demanded the attention, he didn’t know nor care.  All he saw was a brief moment to finally escape and wasted no time in taking it.  He was out the door and gone before Itara could even finish her sentence.

Itara watched the empty space behind him a moment before shaking her head and turning her attention to Veronica, “C-Can you help me find the b-bathroom, please?  It’s so… there’s so many of us it’s hard to move… and I’m so much smaller…”

Veronica looked back towards the door, blinking, but returned her attention to the small hedgehog asking her help and smiled, “Of course.  Come on.”  Itara took her hand once she held it out to her and they skirted their way around the large group of children to find the bathrooms, which were at the back of the restaurant and required a bit of snaking through people to reach.

Chapter Text

Itara waved Veronica off once they returned from the bathroom, waiting until she left to rejoin her own group before turning to get her lunch.  She spent a couple extra minutes in the bathroom to quietly talk with Kipper since she hadn’t had the chance to since they left the hotel, so by the time she returned everyone else was sat down and either waiting on their food or were already eating.  Scanning the room to check for Metal, she continued to the counter to let them know which number she was on the list the school sent and then moved off to the side to wait for it, watching the dining hall.

It was a busy enough place, even without the entirety of her class taking up almost every table in the surprisingly spacious restaurant.  It looked smaller from the outside, being just another door and window amongst many like everything else in the area, but the inside spread out rather far in the other three directions.  The restaurant was a nicer, yet still cozy, seafood place that had paintings and sculptures of all manner of sea creature all around the walls and even hanging from the ceiling.  The walls were painted a light teal and the floor was a deep blue tile and matching covers were spread across all the tables.  Even the tables and chairs were painted and sculpted in a matching style, giving it a wholly put-together look.

Rocking back and forth on her heels as she waited, Itara glanced around for her own group, wondering if they were all sitting together or had dispersed out amongst the other students again.  It didn’t take her long to find Sceira, at least, as even amongst mobians her pincers were noticeable, and with them she found the rest of the group, as well.  All five of them, with two extra, empty chairs at the table.

Were they saving her and Metal a spot?

She only had a moment to debate it, as one of the restaurant waiters brought a boxed lunch out to her.  He gave her a strange look, probably because she was standing off to the side instead of sitting at a table, but said nothing and left her to decide whether she would join the group or not.  One of the chairs was next to Sceira.  How much did she want to spend all lunch with her?

Then again, the rest of the dining hall was rather full and it wasn’t like there were any single-seating options.  Unless she wanted to eat against the wall or on the floor, the table with her group was her only real option.  Taking a breath, she headed towards the table, forcing the smile off her face and keeping the same look of disinterest she preferred.

Until Camilla sat in the seat she was headed for.

Susan took the chair beside her, filling the seats around the table, before Itara could get halfway across the room.

Oh.

Now that she thought about it, of course Sceira would be saving the spot for Camilla, and of course Susan would be with her, too.  Pressing her ears flat against her head, she turned on her heel and continued in another direction, trying to give the impression she was headed that way the entire time.  Why would she want to sit with them, anyway?  She hated Sceira and it’s not like she had any particular interest in getting so close to the others, either.

But now she had the problem of finding an open spot.  She wasn’t exactly close with anyone else in her class, either, and she couldn’t sit with complete strangers.  Even her teachers were all sat at a table together with no open spots and Metal wasn’t back from his run yet.  Returning to the same wall she’d been at, she scanned the room again, trying to ignore the occasional strange glance that was thrown her way. She huffed angrily as turned on her heel, nearly tripping over her own foot in the process, and stumbled her way back towards the bathroom.  It was down a long, empty hallway.  She would just go sit…

Alone.

Again.

Then again, there was a staff-only entrance to the kitchen down the hall, and anyone who needed to use the restroom would see her not-so-hidden spot easily enough.  She didn’t want a repeat of New Years.  Simon wasn’t there because he was in a grade above them, but Camilla was.  Sighing heavily, she continued into the bathroom and locked herself in the largest stall.  At least she could hide and if anyone asked she could just say she had a stomach ache.

Dropping her backpack, she opened the flap to let Kipper out before sitting on it so she wasn’t sitting on a dirty bathroom floor to eat lunch.  Once the doll floated up and looked around, he gave her a questioning look that she promptly ignored and opened her boxed lunch.

“I know you’ve probably hunkered down in worse places, all things considered, but a bathroom stall is a strange choice for lunch,” Kipper smirked, floating around the spacious area.

“Shut up, Kipper.”

The doll looked back at her before shrugging and floating to sit on the metal bar behind her.  “So when do I get to have fun today?  You haven’t let me out all day, it’s cramped in there.”

“I haven’t had an opportunity to do anything,” Itara muttered, poking at the fried shrimp in her lunch.  “Sceira’s been watching too closely today.”

“Where did Sparks run off to?”

“I don’t know.”

“What do you wanna bet he runs off and leaves you here?” the doll grinned, watching with amusement as Itara’s ears pressed tightly against her head, curling into herself further.

“Wh-What would I… c-care?  I don’t need him.”

“Sure.  Sure.  I bet he-,” though his next taunt was stopped short by the bathroom door swinging open and Sceira calling out.

“Itara?  Are you in here?”

Itara mentally sighed, dropping her head and considering not answering for a moment.  Why could she never be left alone when she wanted to be?  “What do you want, Sceira?”

“Are you alright?  The others said you’ve been in here for a while.”  From her position on the ground, Itara could see the pincers swaying back and forth as the scorpion girl walked closer to the stall door.

“I-I’m f-fine!  Just… a stomach ache,” Itara frowned, her voice wavering more than usual at her lie.

There was a moment of silence before Sceira walked away again, “Okay well, when you come out, we saved you a seat.”  What?  “We had to grab one from another table since Camilla decided to sit with us instead of her group, but we found one that wasn’t in use.”  Itara sat up straighter again, looking towards the door, her previously pinned ears perked in surprise.  She could only offer a weak ‘I’ll be out in a minute’ before Sceira left again, but had to sit back and debate again.  So they did save her a seat?

She took a moment to calm herself again, putting the lid back on her lunch and standing up, exchanging glances with Kipper, though grew red in the face at his smirk.  “Sh-shut up, Kipper.”  The doll only laughed and moved back into her backpack so she could close it up and leave the room.  She took a deep breath before leaving, but skulked back towards the table seeing that were was, in fact, an extra chair on the other side of Sceira that hadn’t been there before.  Everyone at the table had even shifted positions to accommodate it.  Luckily, Metal still wasn’t back from his run.  Maybe he did finally decide to leave on his own.  She couldn’t completely blame him, but it did complicate her situation.

Her arrival at the table caught the attention of everyone sitting around it, causing her face to redden further at all the gazes so suddenly falling on her.

“Sceira said your stomach hurt, are you feeling better?” one of the other kids questioned as she slid into the chair.

“Y-Yeah,” she stammered, keeping her eyes down and on her box, “I’m… fine.”

“Where did your… guardian go?  He seems to have disappeared,” Susan questioned from her apparently stolen chair.

“He, uh… doesn’t really handle crowds well so he went for a walk.  He’ll probably meet back up with us after lunch… or something,” Itara frowned, poking at her food again.  Or something.  For all she knew, he wouldn’t be back.  That would be hard to explain.

“Oh man, Itara you got shrimp?!  I’ll trade you one for some of my fries!  I couldn’t decide which one I wanted and ended up going with the crab cake but I’m totally jealous of your shrimp now!”

Itara’s face twisted into confusion as she looked up at her classmate, who was holding three of his larger fries out to her.  Why should she care if he picked the wrong dish?  That was his problem.  Then again, she didn’t get fries with her lunch, and she did like them a lot, too.  It wasn’t like he wanted her cookies, at least, maybe she could share just one of her shrimps.  Finally nodding, she held the box out to him to let him pick one, watching a wide grin spread across his face as he dropped the fries in her box and grabbed a shrimp, exclaiming excitedly about it.  If he wanted shrimp so badly, why did he pick the crab?

Conversations broke out amongst the group again, once the distraction of Itara’s appearance passed, and while Itara attempted to only sit and study them all, Sceira was determined to drag her into as many conversations as possible.  Much to Camilla’s dismay, Itara could tell.  On the one hand, it’s not like she liked Sceira any better, but seeing Camilla’s resentment over her inclusion lit a vicious spitefulness in Itara’s mind.  She wanted to join more conversations to frustrate her further, and thus ended up having several lengthy discussions with her fellow classmates she otherwise never would have.

Before Itara even realized it, lunch was coming to a close and- realizing again that Metal still hadn’t returned-felt a small knot tie up in her stomach.  She had been hoping he would come back, as little as she expected him to, and the idea of having to explain his absence to everyone put her on edge.  As everyone shuffled about, gathering boxes and silverware and backpacks before continuing out the door, she went silent again, following her group out.  How was she supposed to handle this?  Why couldn’t he have at least waited until they were back at the hotel to leave?!  If they were at the hotel, she would have had her phone and could have given RK a call to ask him what to do, but she didn’t bring it out with her.

She sighed as she glanced down the street where they came from, hoping he was just waiting outside, but found no such luck.  Metal Sonic was nowhere to be seen.   Turning back towards her group, mentally working on an excuse for his absence, she watched the rest of the groups disperse again.  Before long, only Susan and Veronica’s groups remained, in addition to her own.  Great.  As if dealing with her own group wasn’t going to be bad enough, she had to combat Susan now, too.  Dammit, Sparky!

When the others finally took notice of the final chaperone’s absence, all eyes fell to Itara in curiosity and concern.  “Hey, where’s Sparky?”  “He’s not back from his walk yet?”  “Man, I hope he didn’t get lost!”  Itara almost laughed at the last comment, knowing he was anything but lost.  But maybe she could use that as the excuse for why he wasn’t there.

“M-Maybe,” she stammered, looking away, “We should… I’m sure if we wait… he’ll show up soon.”

“It’s rather irresponsible,” Susan scoffed, “leaving you children on your own like this.”

As mad at Metal as she was, the tone in Susan’s voice infuriated Itara far more as she swung around to face her, scowling, “He’ll be back!”  No he won’t.

“He did disappear rather quickly as soon as we arrived,” Veronica added, frowning and looking in the direction they all came from, as Itara had done.  She was noticeably less abrasive than Susan, but it still got under Itara’s skin in a way she couldn’t fully explain.  She didn’t even care what they thought of Sparky, he was a jerk, anyway.  If it was RK they were judging it would be a different matter, altogether, but even she had already assumed Metal had abandoned them.  She didn’t know why she was getting defensive, but she could do little to stop herself.

“I told you, he just doesn’t like crowds.  He’ll be back!”  He has no reason to come back.  “He has to come back.  RK will be mad if he doesn’t come back.”  Why would that stop him?  “He wouldn’t leave, he wouldn’t.”  Her body shook violently as she reached up and wrapped her hands around her ears, which were pressed firmly against her head.

He can’t abandon me.”  Everyone around her went silent, though whether it was because they stopped talking or if she just couldn’t hear them, she didn’t know, but she curled further in on herself, shutting her eyes tightly.

She didn’t even know why she was panicking like this.  It was just Sparky.  She expected him to leave a long time ago, even RK hadn’t fully expected him to stay as long as he had, this was inevitable.  The timing was unfortunate, but she avoided getting attached to him for this exact reason, he was too unpredictable.  She barely expected Kipper to stick around as long as he had.  Her reaction was senseless, she knew, but she could do nothing to stop it, either.  Hearing Susan voice what she’d silently feared made it real, undeniable; her chest hurt and her legs felt weak.  She wanted to escape.  To the past, the future, another timeline, anywhere but here, anywhere but now.  But she couldn’t.  She was stuck.

She had no control over her powers.

She had no control over her emotions.

She had no control over those around her.

And the only one who could fix it had abandoned her.

He left her.

Itara.

He wasn’t coming back.

“Itara.”

He wouldn’t-

“Itara!”

Itara’s breathing was heavy and uneven and her eyes burned when she opened them again.  Her chest felt tight and her ears tinged with a sharp pain when she flicked them up.  Her entire body felt stiff, but it was the arms wrapped tightly around her that kept her from moving far as the world around her returned to her sight.  Tall buildings, a blue sky, a warm breeze, and glowing red eyes.

A mechanical imitation of an eyebrow rose as she slowly regained her composure and spatial awareness.  Turning hot in the face as recognition finally sparked, she reached up to wrap her arms around the thin neck of the confused robot.  “You c-came back.”

“I told you I was just going for a run,” Metal stated, albeit slowly as he studied the tiny hedgehog.  He had gone on an especially long run this time, needing to clear his thoughts and cool his engines, but it had been no different than the last time he took off for a run.  Although, this time when he returned, Itara was in a catatonic state on the sidewalk, digging her nails into her ears with hints of her crystals sparking at the tips of her spines.  He’d only picked her up in an attempt to hide them as her classmates were completely surrounding her in their concern.

Susan had been unusually quiet since his return, considering Itara’s apparent episode, causing him to eye her suspiciously as he waited for the little girl to stop clinging to his neck.  When he got little in the way of an answer, he voiced his question to the group, “what even happened?”  Not that he actually cared, but if Momma Bear found out about this it would be better to have more information ready for him.

“We don’t know,” one of the children answered in the place of the silent adults.

“Camilla’s mom started asking about you not being here and Itara freaked out.”

Veronica moved towards him first, despite Susan apparently being the inciter of the incident, and spoke to him quietly, “I think it might have been what you were mentioning to me earlier.  About her having issues being away from home.”  Metal had a feeling there was more to this than that, but only nodded and turned his attention back to the tiny, shaking hedgehog that still clung to him.  Somehow, she looked even smaller than usual.

“Well, they have their chaperone now, we should continue on our way,” Susan finally spoke, turning away from all of them.  “I only wanted to stay to make sure the kids weren’t left unattended.  Come along, kids.”

The children in Susan’s group, Camilla, included, cast a final glance towards Metal and Itara before following silently after their chaperone.  Veronica waited a moment and offered a small apology before taking off with her group, as well, leaving Metal alone with Itara and the five other children again.  At least it was a smaller group, but he was still stuck with children and now a catatonic Itara.

“Yeah, alright, I suppose we should finish what we started, as well.  What’s the next stop on your list?”  He wanted to get the kids distracted again so he could talk with Itara and find out what actually happened.  He didn’t want to do that with all the staring eyes of the other children.  Well, four sets of staring eyes and one set of much sharper ears.  He’d need to be cautious of what Sceira could likely hear over the others.  It took some prodding but he finally got the other children back on track, waving their concerns about Itara aside for the time being and letting the tiny girl continue to cling.  He had been planning to carry her, anyway, it didn’t much matter how.

It only took another stop before the children’s attention was shifted, at least, and once they went into the next shop, he remained outside to try and pry the strangely silent hedgehog off his neck to talk with her.  It was easier than he had been expecting, though she hardly seemed calmer, just less stiff.  “So what actually happened then?  RK’s going to want an explanation as to why your ears are nearly torn through.”

Apparently this was new information to the small girl as she reached rather slowly up to touch her ears, cringing when she hit the sore spot.  “I… I don’t know,” she stammered, keeping her eyesight down.  He’d only just noticed that the whites of her eyes were a deep magenta.  He wondered if she was even aware, herself.

“Well calm yourself down first because you can only hide so much.”  When she looked up at him in confusion, he pulled one of her longer spines around to show her the tiny crystals and continued, “Your eyes are also turning colors.”  A small squeak of a noise escaped as she shut her eyes tightly, purposely slowing her breath in an attempt to calm herself.  Though he assumed her eye color would change back before long, he wondered if she could get the crystals to disperse so easily.  According to a memory RK shared with him, it often took a full night’s sleep to calm her enough to get rid of crystals.  At least they were small.  Maybe she could pass them off as decorations.

Once she was calmer, she opened her eyes again to reveal that they’d turned back and Metal nodded, “Alright, now I want an explanation.  What caused this… episode?  It’ll be inconvenient if it happens again.”

Itara huffed indignantly, but sighed, “I don’t know… I just… I thought you left.  For good.  N-Not that I care, mind you, I expected as much but… when Susan brought it up with that infuriating tone of hers, it… frustrated me.  But then Veronica mentioned how quick you were to leave and I got more frustrated and… upset.  I…”  She stopped, closing her eyes again and taking a deep breath.  When she spoke again, her voice reclaimed its lost composure, “I lost control of my emotions.  It won’t happen again.”

Metal’s brow lifted again at the shift, scoffing, “Child, you’ve never had control of your emotions.  If Iblis had been sealed in you instead of Elise, he would have been freed years before he was meant to be.”  A string of disgruntled, indignant stammers escaped the small girl as she grew red in the face again, trying to find coherent words to express her fury as she scowled up at him.  He only grinned in response and laughed, “My point, exactly.”

She huffed again, crossing her arms and glaring off, before her expression calmed ever so slightly and she reached up to lightly rub her ears.  Metal watched her curiously, wondering what all went through her head during her ‘episode’ but decided he would ask later, back at the hotel.  Though they got a free moment from the group of children, they were still in a busy shopping center, surrounded by humans and mobians, alike.  It was no place for a lengthy discussion about the inner workings of a time god’s mind.

Instead, he scanned the sidewalks, eventually spotting a pinball machine setup outside a grocery store and flicked the little hedgehog’s nose to get her attention.  When she scowled up at him again, he pointed to the machine and grinned, getting a weary smirk from her before too long and walked them over to it.  They hadn’t been able to get back to the arcade just yet, but surely they had enough time for a quick game of pinball.

Except their ‘quick’ pinball match was much longer than the average and by the time either of them even reached their second ball, the children had rejoined them again.  Sceira voiced her aggravations with their ‘gaming addiction’, but was quickly enough overruled by the other four children that wanted to see how the battle panned out.  Just like before, it was a battle for the highest score, but this time Metal required no assistance from RK and he was determined to take his rightful place as winner back from the tiny cheater.

It was hardly a battle.  As close as Itara thought she was to beating him, and as much of an advantage as a several-hundred-year-old demi-god might have had over anyone else, she was still no match for such an advanced AI.  By the final ball, he had her score doubled and came out the victor, followed by hollers of excitement from the children surrounding them.  Itara pouted and called him a cheater, but he paid it no mind as he pulled her back up onto his shoulders and continued on down the street.

“Let’s hurry and finish this scavenger hunt of yours so we can go back to the hotel.  I am in desperate need of a recharge,” Metal sighed, motioning for the children to lead again, as they were the ones with the packets and the hints to the destinations.  He could have easily grabbed Itara’s and given them the answers, and debated doing so several times, but then he would be left to amuse six children for an entire day and that sounded worse than following them through a busy shopping center.

The closer they got to the end, the more parents and classmates they ran into, eventually meeting back up with Veronica, though she wasn’t with Susan by that time.  Neither Metal nor Itara had any interest in asking why, either, and only vaguely acknowledged Veronica’s presence.  They’d both had enough of the other parents for the day.  As they grouped up near the pick-up point, Susan joined them and Camilla found her way to Sceira’s side to talk about the day.  More than once, Itara caught the other girl glaring at her before looking away again, but Itara didn’t have the energy to care anymore.  The day had been long and exhausting and she just wanted to go back to the hotel and maybe call RK, or at least text him.

Even Metal remained quiet and thoughtful during the ride back to the hotel.  Itara only bugged him once to quietly ask if the hotel would be able to sufficiently charge him and he gave barely more than a grunt in response, crossing his arms and ‘closing’ his eyes.  She briefly wondered if he was capable of shorting the entire hotel but resisted the urge to ask, in case he tried it just to prove he could.  As entertaining as that would be, she didn’t feel like dealing with a hotel-wide outage after such a long day, since it would likely cause a considerable panic amongst everyone else.  No, she would prefer the rest of her evening to be quiet.