Eugh…There’s nothing quite like finding a rat infestation in one of our grain cellars. We’re already running out of sprouts as it is! They took care of it, but I can only wonder where the rats came from. Maybe it was that gal, Dolly? The little cat-type, I know she may have had a pet…
In any case, my evening is going swell.
He… had a mother. A mother and a brother. Commander… was no longer making the separation. Was finally…
He had been the son of no one, the tool that the military would use without remorse. The best he had hoped for was a better superior when Commander had told him that he was alive. But he’d gotten a father instead. Someone who didn’t use him, but, instead, had pushed him to become his own person. Now, he had a family. Not just a father, but a family. Yes, two of them he would never meet but…
But it meant that he could finally be on the same level as both of them.
It was hesitant footsteps that made their way to Commander, red eyes sometimes shifting to the stranger watching him before they landed on the page. On the open page with the woman and the child. His mother and his brother.
… He wished he could have met them…
"What – What were their names?" he finally asked, hoping this was the right question. Hoping that, somehow, he wouldn’t irritate his father for making him relive the worst of his life.
The smile on Commander’s face was nothing but loving as the boy came to see. The apprehension had all but faded, and left a residue of eagerness. Slight, but it was there.
"…The woman, your ‘mother’, in essence, was named Rouge. I sometimes called her Jewel, as a term of endearment. If you see that nickname pop up at all, it refers to her." A wink, and he went on.
"This little boy here? His name was Gerald, but it didn’t last long. He had a condition that wouldn’t allow him to hold still for long; he would twitch every so often, as his body tried to connect to a Chaos force that wasn’t there. So we called him that. Twitch. He was a very…very kind little boy, and you two would have loved each other."
There was a tinge of wetness in the organic eye - barely noticeable, after years of practice. He then smiled at Hark with that knowing look in his eyes - one that said he could leave if he wanted, but Commander would not force him out by any means. No; Hark deserved to hear the story just as much as Opiate did. He had nothing to hide.
"I know you have a question for him. Come in and ask."
… He’d been seen. He’d tried his best to stay in the shadows, spot the newcomer that seemed to shake his father a lot, and in his mistake, he’d been seen. Good thing? Bad thing? He didn’t know. He didn’t know at all. But he was quickly coming to the conclusion that, whoever this man was, he knew a lot, a lot more than most, and knew how to make things move.
Just like he made him move.
Going from his position of sitting against the doorframe, he showed himself, ears unsure if they should stay up or fold back as he hesitantly stepped in. He knew his question, he knew what he wanted to ask, but he wasn’t sure. Even as the stranger nodded in approval.
"Is that – Is that why you hugged me when you discovered I left for the Red Monster’s lair?"
But he had to ask. He had to. Else he would never know, would he?
Oh no. How did…? Hark had to be some sort of wizard, because the second the meek child entered the room, his own face softened. He’d been listening, hadn’t he? This entire time, his second son had been waiting for acknowledgment. And he was given it, as Commander gave him a weary smile. Welcoming, fatherly, but most importantly, apologetic.
"…It is. It’s exactly the reason, kiddo. C’mon in. I got nothing to hide from you. Not anymore. I presume you heard the entire thing, huh…? …Who am I kidding, of course you did. You’re Opi’. You’ve got eyes in the walls.”
A pause, eyes glancing away, before back at the confused child.
"…Just like the mother you never knew you had."
For a moment, Hark brought a hand to his heart, trying to stop its painful beats as he kept a neutral expression. It hurt. It would always hurt to speak of the past. Not matter how many times he did, no matter how times he tried to walk away from the pain that would reach into him, it would always hurt to the point where he felt like the tears of old would take him and never give him back.
It was so bad that the only thing that reminded him he was in the present, that he was with someone who needed his presence was the sound of Commander sitting next to him. Sitting and reach for the well-worn book that he turned to the page of his wife and child.
Rouge and Twitch. Hark’s sister-in-law and nephew that the latter would never get to meet, except if he went in the past to meet them. But he knew that face, the motherly look Rouge was wearing. She had worn it so many times while she was with Knuckles and her children. He had seen it every evening after her first born and she asked for a friendly night out with him.
And he’d also heard the words Commander was saying many, many times when Knuckles had taken him apart and he’d asked how were the kids.
Same hopes, same dreams. Just one thing different. Commander wanted him to know the joy. To understand the joy he’d lived.
And would live if he gave the boy by the door a chance.
"I don’t think I will either. I just have to make sure they’re in a safe place first. I hope it’s soon. And, just one thing, don’t be there because you have to be. Be there because you want to be," he said, placing a hand on Commander’s shoulder before hesitantly reaching for the picture. "So, what happened to them? I know they’re gone, but… how? Care to share?"
There was a soft chuckle, and Commander traced his hand over the protective film, smoothing out an air bubble before moving his eyes to meet Hark’s own, warm smile growing.
"Of course. I want to be there. Besides, I know you’ll need some tips here and there. How to change a diaper with one hand occupied, perfect bottle temperature - assuming you use them at all - the works.” A laugh and Commander’s mood seemed to lift with it, unwavering as he turned his gaze back to the album, until the question was asked. He grew pensive, lips pursing for a brief moment before he decided he might as well get it out into the open.
"…Well, it all happened too quickly for any of us to really get a grasp on. I wasn’t…home at the time, but rather coming home from a routine perimeter check with what was left of our GUN forces. They…they told me my son was nowhere to be found, and Rouge seemed to have gone missing, too. I…I’d gone livid. I couldn’t believe nobody in Satellitus knew where my wife and son had gone, so I set out to find out. I made the mistake of not bringing my gun that day." Commander swallowed thickly, downing the nerves. Did it ever get easier?
"I…jumped to the only possible conclusion. She’d gone to…his fortress. Tried to reason with him, we assume. And…Twitch…had gone after her. Followed her right out of the tower and into his death. He killed them both, and by the time I got there…”
He trailed off. The last words hung heavy with pain, deeply sodden with it. His voice had become reverent by now, soft and quiet with the air of respect for the fallen. But first? A cringe.
"They were gone. I went berserk. Lost every sense of control…and it cost me dearly. Cost me an arm and a leg, well…two legs, if you’ll excuse the metaphor. I don’t…like to think about that day or the months that came after it, but I’ll go on if you’d like me to. Does that suit your purposes…?"
Maybe no control. Maybe Commander was just looking for someone to relate to, someone who had the answers to the questions his past had left behind. How to heal, how to cry, how to grieve.
And, most likely, not to end up alone in the big old mess called life.
So Hark sighed, sighed and looked ahead of him as he gathered the memories. Every tiny bits of memories that he could collect while his gaze deepened, became almost ancient before he spoke.
"Five thousand years ago, the first Sonic died. My first partner died of an explosion that no one could prevent, no one could even stop as the hero decided to face Robotnik on his own one last time. Neither of them knew the engine was being overloaded, and the Doctor had locked them both in. Neither of them survived, and I learned of it when I saw the plume of smoke and from Tails a few minutes later.
Sober, and quite hallowed, eyes took in Hark’s range of emotions as he spoke. Yes, he had been there. One time too many. Many times too many. And it became clearer and clearer with every recount. Weary eyes turned to the window, his expression blank, before a bionic eye reflected data streams passing across the dark screen. They blinked out mere seconds after, lost to the archives of Commander’s brain. He heaved a sigh he didn’t know he’d been holding, before moving to relocate himself beside Hark on the bed, taking the album with him.
Wordlessly, he flipped it open, pages whipping together as he scanned them, and then just as soon as he’d opened it, he stopped at a well-loved page. In the center of this solitary page was nestled one picture, tinted by time and love. This picture held two figures: One was a lovely white bat, matronly and youthful all in one, garbed in soft linens. Her eyes gazed down with a tenderness only achieved by a mother, aqua eyes focused on the pale child she held in her arms.
Red eyes, eyes in the present, held a sorrow only achieved by one who had lost everything. A solemn remembrance. And quietly, he spoke.
"…Hark, I hope you know what it is to one day hold your own infant in your arms. To feel that security, to know that they know you will love them, and take care of them, for as long as you will live. It’s a heavy risk, not one that many are prepared to take in times like these…” Eyes closed, shoulders sunk, and he reclaimed his resolve.
"…But I believe you can do it. You’ll make a wonderful parent one day, and I want you to know that I’ll be here for you and your family, whatever it takes. To love and to lose is one thing, but to have never loved at all is something entirely different. Take this chance, boy. I…I don’t think you’ll regret it."
The sight of the album, the way Commander was holding it, Hark already knew what were within those pages and what the taller one wanted to show.
Memories. Ones of a better time, one of a complete and happy family Commander craved to join, if only sometimes. Memories of something he’d most likely have to carry to his grave.
Commander knew he couldn’t get rid of him, didn’t he? He knew he couldn’t do anything. So he was sharing instead. Tying Hark unbelievably close to have control over him, if only where it concerned him, by giving him an offer he couldn’t refuse.
Brilliant move, even if unconscious.
Hark sat on the bed without a word, knowing that most of the talk would come from Commander, and didn’t take a cover.
If he was right, then, unless he pointed out something, there would be no tears tonight.
Commander did not move from his spot by the window, an ear swiveling at the creasing of the comforter on the bed. Mere feet away, Hark sat elevated from the miasma he was putting off - of course Hark would know.
"You know the pain of losing those close to you, don’t you? Riddle me this. How is it that you can be so solid, after all your years…and move on?"
A weathered face turned to look at Hark, seeking answers in an almost rhetorical way. The agent wasn’t perfect, no, but he had one thing Commander seemed to lack: Time. Time that had likely given the older one many chances over to cope, to grieve…and he had never so much as touched the territory.
"…You know I wouldn’t normally ask, and this is very unlike me. I know. I’m not the one you’d expect to see moping on the floor, eh? But…tell me. I want to know your story. How you’ve come this far. Where you’ve been. We’ve known each other for a while, and yet…we know so little about each other. I want to remedy that, and it was just cemented into motion by Miles. There are obviously things unsaid, and I want to know just why you’re so empathetic towards me.
And more importantly, what made you tick?”
Hark wasn’t sure what he expected as an answer from Commander, but it certainly wasn’t the bitter, cold response he got. In fact, he had expected the man sitting on his bed, a glass of whiskey in his hand to try to drown his sorrow.
But the path he’d chosen was a much darker, corrupted one. The path of someone who truly wanted to keep everything a secret and the simplest opening left him to return to the worst thoughts, to the worst lessons.
Not supposed to stay alive. Everything you lived for, loved is dead. What is the worth of life if they are not there?
Just kill me. End my misery.
The initial shock was gone with a breath and a blink, and it was a neutral look that was upon Commander’s back, absorbing the painful words again.
“He told you, didn’t he?”
The words filled with hate, filled with corruption that spiraled around the taller man like a tornado. It would a miracle his bionics didn’t itch or the scar didn’t burn.
Another breath, and Hark stood as tall as he could, no pride, but resolve.
"He has. And?" was the only answer Commander would get. He’d let the man enrage, he’d let him hit him if necessary. But moving Hark from his spot? Impossible for now.
Commander had provided him the shelter he’d looked for when all looked grim. So if the officer thought Hark would be his executioner, then he had another thing coming.
And? And what? A whole lot, that’s what. A head turn and a flick of the ear, and though not fully facing Hark, he had turned enough so that the object he was holding could now be seen clearly: A photo album. Weathered by time, disheveled pages and all, the hedgehog held it with an odd reverence. There was no anger, not as he let out a sigh he’d been holding in for a while.
"…I wasn’t expecting him to. Didn’t know he had it in him. Thought it still bothered him to talk about, but…I guess he’s doing better than I am. After all this time…"
A bitter chuckle. How long had it been now? Forty, forty five? With another huff, he knelt to the ground, placing the album beside him. Legs crossed, and the solemn figure sat quietly, watching light flakes of snow fall right outside that window. A small moment of silence passed, before he spoke, this time in an oddly welcoming tone.
"…Come sit with me a moment. Grab a throw off the bed if you’re cold, but come take a seat. I want to show you something. Ask you something, too, if the moment permits it.”
No, Commander didn’t trust anyone. And by the end of this, he’d probably trust Hark even less. But this had to be done. Not for him, not for anyone in the multiverse, but for the ones that lived near him. For Miles, for Opiate, for Commander himself, things had to change, and the sooner, the better.
A hand was put on Miles’ head for another pet once more, a reassuring smile on the older one’s face.
"I will not ask what I know you’ve tried to do already. All I ask is to be on standby should anything happen. ‘Cause hell knows I’ll be lucky if I get out in one piece."
Before Hark stepped out of the other’s way.
"Now, I suggest you get some rest. I cannot guarantee what will happen, but I will try to stay safe. I will see you next time, Miles."
And, with the silent promise of giving Commander back to the ones that needed him, Hark politely stepped out of the room, knowing what he had to do. Every step to the man’s room only confirmed it. Something had to be done, everything had to be set right. And, right now, the next actions depended entirely on the one beyond the door he knocked on.
Farewells were sometimes easy. Especially if someone was bidding you goodnight, in Miles’ case. But down the hall, someone took them a lot harder than most. Or did he? Hark would find out, as the door swung ajar. Unlocked and open: uncharacteristic of the moody type. Said moody type lingered by the window, object in hand obscured from the angle at which he stood.
And from the being, few words were spoken.
"He told you, didn’t he?”
Bitter, cold, but direct. There would be no hiding. If Hark wanted answers, he’d get them…unconventionally, if need be.
Memories were vicious, vicious things, sometimes. Very, very vicious things, it felt, and it only got worse from there.
And even if Hark could only imagine what Commander had gone through, his mind sent him back to a time where Knuckles, the very first one, had been more contemplating than usual. Had been more silent, more violent towards him than usual until they’d finally sat down and spoke.
Miles chuckled at the accusation.
"No, I don’t think he trusts anyone, frankly. Sure, he lets me stitch him up and do repairs, but he and I aren’t as close as we could be. He doesn’t really…let anyone in. I doubt his son knows half of what goes on behind closed doors. But you’re right; it’s usually him doing the mending."
There was a tense pause, Miles pursing his lips before looking to Hark. Retaking his mug, he raised both bushy eyebrows as he took a sip of the lukewarm beverage, and once he did so, he merely smiled. Half sarcasm, half worry, all Miles.
"How do you plan to go about that? I mean, no offense, Hark, but he hasn’t been mentally sound since before the incident. There’s no way he’d just…open up like that. I’ve told you more than I think he’d tell you in a month. I mean, I’ll be here, but…”
Blue eyes glanced down at the milk, blinking sleepily. Or was it just weariness of a different kind?
"…There’s no guarantee on your safety if you pursue the dangerous path. If you want to explore that road, I’ll provide supplies, but I am in no way coming with you. You want to heal the healer? Good luck, I say. I would trust no other with a task like that. I think you might just be the man for the job.”
Bomb. Storm. Hark had known something of big proportions was coming, and from what he knew, it had to do with the Chaos Emeralds Commander’s son, Opiate, had transported into this world. It had shook it, given the earth a rude wake-up call which had, in turn, awoke the monster outside the walls.
Everything pointed to another attack, another bout where Hark had no idea what would happen, but from the anger, from the hatred he was feeling… The monster would let nothing stand in his way to get to his target. Not even Commander.
So, as much as he knew Miles was going to talk, was going to say more than he intended, he didn’t ask. He knew too well how to get the information he wanted to confirm his suspicions, certainly from a Tails, and he wouldn’t force his hand.
Instead he pulled away slightly and put a hand on Miles’ head, gently petting it.
"I won’t. This fight is not mine and I won’t cause you more worry than you need," he began with a fading smile. "I only have one question. What happened to Commander’s family?"
What drove him to separate himself from even the ones he treated as family? Or should, for that matter?
Oh, that was nice. Nobody had petted his head like that since he was a child. It got a grin out of him, but that turned into a grimace shortly after Hark asked the question.
"Oh boy. Ooooh boy. He…won’t be happy if he finds out I told you, but…I’m surprised he hadn’t told you already, with the amount of trust he’s got for you. But I suppose I can share the story.
About forty years ago, possibly longer than that, Knuckles was at the peak of his corruption. More sporadic. More malevolent, maybe. But out of sheer spite, one day he took it upon himself to assassinate Rouge and Gerald, or ‘Twitch’, Commander’s son.”
There was a pause, Miles sighing apprehensively.
"He was stricken with grief and inconsolable rage. Went to take revenge on Knuckles himself…and it didn’t end well. At all. His anger blinded him, made him vulnerable…that…that was the day he was so badly injured that we had to put him through a roboticizer. There was no other way we could have saved him. A necessary sacrifice, if you will.”
Nausea? Regret? Many things flashed on the fox’s face, until he finally settled on a morose quiet.
"It was many months before things started to turn around for us. It was the darkest time in both of our lives…
…Does that suit your purposes?”
Hark was not paranoid. He knew already that, if Knuckles had been able to be saved, it would have been done already. He knew for a fact that Miles, that Tails must have attempted to save his oldest brother for years.
And that, by the time everyone was gone, he’d killed the last shreds of hope left.
Eyes became sad, weathered. Filled with a depth that could only attest that even if Hark had never lived the sight of a corrupted Knuckles, he could very well imagine it and how his friends must have reacted.
He lifted from his seat with a sigh, and went to hug the fox, knowing that it might cause surprise, but would help his words go through.
"But you still miss him, don’t you?" was all he said, though, and was all he had to say. Because he knew, somehow, that deep down, Miles still wanted everything back. And that if ever there was a chance at saving Knuckles that he didn’t take, he would forever be mad at himself.
A shuddery sigh, and Miles merely accepted the hug, wrapping a friendly tail around Hark to return it. It was a moment before he spoke, heavy with sorrow that had festered for years, and would continue to fester, until closure was found.
"Yes. I miss him. The real him. Not the one that shows up every now and then to attempt genocide of massive proportions, but the one who I used to call my brother. In fact, if you’ve noticed? People around the tower are getting edgy. I’d think we’re due for another attack. Make sure you’re not around when that bomb goes off.”
An ominous cliffhanger, if anything, but Miles would indeed keep talking, were Hark to ask. It all rode on the visitor.
"Else I’d hate to have to stitch you up, too.”
Fifteen. Old enough to understand, yet still young enough to feel the dagger going through his heart.
But considering the sleepy state Miles was in, he’d have to be blunt. Painfully blunt."How was your next meeting with Knuckles after they did?"
Setting the now-forgotten mug on the table, Miles went to draw his knees up in a rather childish gesture, one unbecoming of such a mature Mobian. But it happened all the same, and going to hug his tails, Miles merely sighed softly, his eyes not leaving the grain of wood on the weathered table.
"…There was no next meeting. I don’t know how much Commander told you, but just in case, I’ll reiterate it. Our Knuckles is no more.”
Wiping at a frosty eye with the corner of his sleeve, whether from exhaustion or regret yet to be seen, Miles turned his eyes up to the hedgehog. The child within him screamed for mercy, and yet…some things had to be said.
"The emeralds…their power…corrupted him. Beyond salvageability. …Can I tell you something, Hark? I don’t think Commander would have told you this. Knuckles…the Red Monster, as many people here know him now, is the very reason our world is like this. Cold, dark, and dead. Snow clouds may be white, but they lost their novelty ages ago.
He saps the world dry of its power. He still lives, Hark. He’s still alive. As much as I thought he could be saved, all those years ago…he can’t. And that’s what hurts the most. The Red Monster wants us all dead, and he’d burn this tower down if he could. Do you understand? It…should clear up any lingering paranoia, I suppose…”