Blinding, pounding, spiraling white poured into the dark under Reads-With-Tail's eyelids. Far, far above hung the deep midnight sky, steady and clear, if only he could get to it. But the wind of the Bleak Falls trail hummed and whistled inside his ears, driving the blizzard ever higher, filling his eyes and his lungs and his mind. The Argonian's swimming instincts jerked down hard on his lungs, succeeding only in choking him on his own throat as well as the frozen dampness. Why wasn't the pure air closer?
Frantically, he kicked off from the mercifully solid ground, his mighty swimmer's leap that had once carried him all the way up from the bottom of Windhelm's bay. It felt much the same now, only he'd never had such a frantic need to breathe in the arctic seawater. But besides that, he felt just as floaty, just as dazed, and just as leaden all the way through to his spine. All he could do was try to breach the surface in time, but he might as well have been shackled by the ice below.
Someone was calling in his ear now, a chirp brighter than a mountainside morning, but Reads-With-Tail's eyes were already exploding with snowflakes and the new light was too much to take. He came down from his swimming kick and stumbled, tucking and rolling to keep the weight off of his ankle, which had suddenly remembered the bad twist he'd given it the first climb. His careful shoulder roll seemed to drift on for minutes, sluggish through the watery air. And then, in an instant he fell into such a ridiculous and rapid tumble that he would have laughed if there was any breath left in him.
The voice still followed after him, whatever it was saying. The wind trapped it inside his skull, and he could feel it trying to slip back out. His flesh and scales were already taut as a drumhead, turning his face into a twisted funeral mask that the sound could not escape no matter how hard it prodded behind his eyes. Desperately he kept rolling, hoping somehow to escape the sound. But the world wouldn't allow it. First his shoulder hit a rock, then his bottom rib, and he felt his entire body lift into the air, or perhaps the ground fell away beneath him instead. For just an instant, the blizzard subsided, something warm, dark, and blurry filling his vision instead as the air underneath suddenly turned thin.
And then the little Argonian wasn't cold at all anymore.
He started to yelp but ended up with a wheezing cough as his body belatedly reacted to the world around him instead of the world within. Independent of his labored breathing, his legs sprang hard against a real surface this time, launching him back across the low stack of slate shards he'd sleep-rolled across. He felt the slime trail of ash rolling off scales that he just knew were going to itch like fury once he finally had time to take it all in. Thank Talos that was all he felt, though – rolling into a fireplace ought to have left a much more lasting impression!
The voice was much clearer now that the snowstorm was out from behind his eyes. "Reader! I – uh – wow, that was an awesome jump there! Did you do that when you saved Uncle Hadvar from the spider? Or the blizzard? Did you? Oh, oh, did you sleep okay too?"
Dorthe's rapid twittering lanced through Reads-With-Tail's ears into the top of his brain. His vision was clearing, but there was clearly a large part of him that wanted to stay buried under a comfortably quiet snowdrift a little longer. At least the throbbing under his temples was slowly reminding his mouth and throat how to function. He took in a deep breath to lock it in, savoring the cool dry air like a sunny day in Windhelm, letting it shovel away the last of his bad memories. The fact that he found himself coughing up most of that air was secondary to the relief it gave him.
He knew his smile was thin – at least, the part of it he could control; for all he knew at this point he was grinning like Kennet at a street show and just wasn't awake enough to feel it – but he couldn't help it now. The perfect reply was already rolling off his tongue. "Don't worry. I slept like a log, and –"
"– And woke up in the fireplace!" Dorthe's skirt fluttered as she bounced in place, clapping her hands and chortling. Reader huffed, a little more soot puffing out of his mouth and nostrils. I didn't exactly work hard on that one, but I was proud of it! "That's one of papa's favorite jokes, especially when I catch him napping by the forge! By the way, Mister Ralof showed me your hammer. Papa was so thrilled that you were a blacksmith too! He's really – "
"Wait, I'm a what?" Reads-With-Tail blinked, pushing aside his annoyance at having his punchline stolen.
"A blacksmith!" Dorthe repeated. "You know, with your tool hammer and mining pick? Ooh, Uncle Hadvar said you used that to fight the spider, that must have been so amazing to watch! Just like the heroes Frodnar and I play, except you actually did it. I wish I'd been there."
The Argonian was beginning to feel genuinely dizzy trying to keep up with her. "Miss Dorthe, stop, slow down!" He padded the air with his palms for room, then sneezed on the backs of his hands. His snout twitched as he blinked the snow flurries out of his eyelids again, an image that made him shiver madly before he could refocus on his friend's face.
Without warning, her arms were around his waist, as far as they would reach – he was no giant himself, but he still had to be half again the girl's age. But Dorthe had a tight hold of his whole body, gripping him by the knot on the heavy robe he'd only just realized he'd been dressed in. His lungs seized again, but on account of a new and far more dangerous threat.
She had him tight, but she still barely came up to his collar. Reads-With-Tail's longer legs gave him plenty of distance as he hurled himself backwards, breaking through her grip only to catch his heel on the hearthstones again. "I swear I didn't mean it!" they said in unison, his voice far more shrill and panicked than hers.
Dorthe grabbed for him again, this time confining herself to grabbing his hands. Her grip was ginger but she had timed it perfectly, slipping her own hands into the double windmill of his arms and dragging his right wrist to a halt, anchoring him just enough to keep his tail out of the fire. His horns rubbed against the wall, gathering even more soot, but at least he'd avoided any further injury.
He just wished that could still be the case if Hadvar and the rest of the village found out what he had done.
Somehow Dorthe loomed over him now, despite being a head and a half shorter and clearly not trying to do anything of the sort. She cocked her head, her smile coming halfway back, though he could see her chest still fluttered after the surprise. "You don't have to be sorry about anything, Reader! The robe's a bit singed and still a little hot too, but there's no harm done. I'm sorry if I grabbed you without asking – I wanted to make sure you weren't still cold."
Dorthe's laugh put a little reason back in Reads-With-Tail's mind. "You," he had to swallow a few times, and he could almost convince himself it was because of all the soot he'd been breathing. "Nothing." Each word ripped at the mucous that filled his throat. "You did nothing wrong." He looked up, halfheartedly shaking his wrists free. But it took him a moment to see her expression. His eyes were full once more, full of memories of weighted sacks at the bottom of the steel Windhelm bay.
Dorthe let go of his left wrist but kept an easy grip on his right. Her head was quirked to the side, like it usually seemed to be, but for the first time he'd noticed since meeting the girl she wasn't wearing a smile. Her raised eyebrows let him know perfectly plainly that she wasn't convinced, and he didn't know if he was more frightened that she might blame herself for his outburst – after all, he was the one who'd made her grab hold, made her even want to – or that she might figure out what had him so worried.
Suddenly the door rattled open, dense pine slats clacking against the frame and dragging down the hinges. Reads-With-Tail shielded his eyes instinctively, but some eave or awning kept the light out. He couldn't make out the rest of the town beyond through the sharp white daylight, but all he had to do was not stare directly out into the street just yet.
Besides, he had more urgent things to look at. The lady who'd just come in wore well-kept clothes, a white linen undergarment beneath a faded sun-yellow gown, but they contrasted sharply with her lined and dusty face. The Argonian thought it was quite a distinguished effect, much like how Miss Berit always presented herself – in fact, this lady had fewer lines and a much taller posture than his Dunmer friend.
"You're awake! Oh, Dorthe, why didn't you come let us know?" Now it was Reads-With-Tail's turn to quirk his head and squint. That accent was the strangest thing he'd heard, somewhere between the south end of Skyrim and the north of Cyrodiil. Was Dorthe's mother an Imperial? No, she couldn't be, she was too tall.
He was still mulling it over when Dorthe answered. "He, er, he was a little wavery. I hoped you would be able to hear us through the door, but..."
Her mother nodded. "Fair enough. How're you feeling, Reader?"
He coughed a little, trying to clear his throat so he could answer. Then he hesitated a little more, trying to decide what he most needed to mention. But his stomach raced ahead of his voice, doing a little leap into his ribcage and snarling loud enough to make Dorthe clamp down harder on his wrist. Instead of words, he just gave a little giggle.
"Fair enough," Dorthe's mother repeated. "Just got through talking to your father about what he'd like for lunch, but I think we'll need a little more variety. And a lot more quantity if we've got a sabercat joining us." She smirked at Reads-With-Tail.
"I'm," he still had to swallow every few syllables, but it already hurt a lot less. "I'm also really dry," he said apologetically. It was true, his scales itched like fury and his eyes felt ready to tug out of his skull, but this family had already spent who knew how many days caring for him, not to mention all the times Hadvar had saved his life before that! But as guilty as he felt about it, he still needed to ask for a few more favors. "Do you have something hot, like tea or cider?"
"You aren't still cold, are you, Reader? I thought you were...oh, wait, it's about the throat, isn't it? You don't feel cold, you feel like you have a cold!" Dorthe was clearly proud of herself for working that out.
Her mother, meanwhile, was pursing her lips. "Nothing ready, I'm afraid. We didn't know when you'd be awake, and my husband tends to prefer cold drinks and hot food to the other way around. We'd have to go draw and boil some water from the river out back."
Reads-With-Tail bounced on tiptoe, his webbed feet splaying out with each hop, the injuries he'd accumulated around Bleak Falls Barrow not slowing him down at all. "I'll get it! Is there a bucket around here?" I won't feel nearly so awful for demanding a treat like this if I get at least some of it myself.
"If you're sure, river's just out back, pails are on the porch." Dorthe's mother fixed him with a level stare, simultaneously conveying compassion, annoyance, and understanding. "If it's too heavy – not saying it will be, but you've been out for two days and the night – let someone outside know." "Alvor will be right outside, around the corner to your right. Don't want to hear the forge breathing all day, and we certainly don't want the flames getting free, so the walls are double-thick and kept damp as we can." She transferred the look to her daughter, who shrugged.
"Wait – two days?" Reads-With-Tail squawked. "What – how – I wasn't –" He'd expected the news, but expecting it and hearing it were two entirely different things.
"So I know you're hungry. Now go on, the fresh air and exercise will do you good! I'll have something ready to snack on when you come back, and we can work out an actual meal for a few marks from now." Both women were leading him towards the door now, Dorthe still by the wrist and her mother with a push on his shoulders.
Can't argue with that.
Riverwood was bright and warm in the late morning sun, a little leftover haze hanging over the woodlands that ringed it, holding in more than enough water to make the young Argonian's day. The glorious humidity was already easing a little life back into his scales, and he could hear the clatter and splatter of a riverwheel somewhere close behind him. The road was nothing more than a well-trodden strip of dust between two rows of buildings, but the high sun lit it up like the snow atop High Hrothgar...which he slowly realized was actually the mountain just off to his left, just viewed from an angle he'd never thought about before.
He returned his attention to the town. Looking at it it might not even be two proper rows; Dorthe's house stood alone while three others faced it. From the signs, there was an inn – the Sleeping Giant – to the left, a sundries shop directly across, and someone else's house a little further down on the right, before the whole town ended with an impressively tall shaded rampart. An elderly lady in a cloth cap rocked on her porch in the sun, eyes on nothing in particular. So wherever the sound of sewing needles was coming from, it wasn't her.
In fact, it sounded remarkably close by, and was punctuated by occasional low mutters. It was hard to make out the tone – Dorthe's mother was right, their house truly did absorb sound, even just from around a corner – but it didn't sound annoyed or frustrated like Miss Berit usually did. Almost more...meditative? With a deep breath, and the inevitable cough that followed it, Reads-With-Tail leaned over the bulky water pails, past a sales rack well-stocked with sledges and lumber axes, to peer out at the source of the voice.
Alvor was a big man, but he didn't look it. Some of his bulk was in his leaded apron, which swung a little around his sides, but most of it ran down his neck to his shoulders. He wasn't much taller than Reads-With-Tail himself, which was sinful by Nord standards, but he more than made up for it in breadth. He was focused hard on his workbench, arms visibly twitching as his fingers darted around. The sudden din from the sawmill out past him didn't even seem to reach his ears. The Argonian stood at respectful attention..
Until his stomach growled.
"Ah, you must be Reader! My nephew's told me such stories already, and he's not known you a week!" Alvor's voice matched him perfectly, proud and firm but also surprisingly small, and coated with an aggressively Nordic accent. "I've been dying to see you - just wish you'd stayed in bed another twenty minutes - got a few things I'd like to ask you, few I'd like to show you too." Well, no question which parent Dorthe gets it from. "But first - my nephew left these here for you," the smith whisked two very familiar tools off the workbench as he turned, his black apron twirling more than enough to block Reads-With-Tail's view of anything else. "And I have to ask, that hammer, it's not just for pounding nails, is it? Are my daughter and I lucky to meet another blacksmith, even just an amateur?"
The Argonian shuffled guiltily, worming his claws through the moss on the deck timbers. It was a charming feeling, cool and damp on his chafed scales. "I'm sorry, sir," he answered after considering the wood beams for a good long minute. "Not even an amateur, nowhere close. I've read books back in Windhelm, but..." Alvor's look confirmed what he'd figured out over the last couple of years - knowing what old masters had written was all well and good, but "hold your hammer such that..." or "incorporate no more than two tablespoons..." or "wait for it to turn the particular shade of blue..." meant less than nothing without a real hammer in his hand and some real metal melting and spraying all over him as he bungled his first few tries. I suppose that's what the apron is there to help with...
Alvor jerked his head. "Well, anything stand out that you can remember?" The head-toss was impatient, frustrated, but eagerness was stamped across his face. He really wishes I was on his level, doesn't he? That should probably be sweet, but I'm just terrified. I read that last one months ago! "Er...there was plenty on how so-and-so held their hammer..." The Argonian held out a hand for the tool in question. His long nap had made the heft so unfamiliar, but he hoisted it over his left shoulder, cocking his arm at what he imagined was about a right angle, bracing an imaginary blade with his right hand.
Alvor frowned, reaching out to tweak bits of the boy's stance one element at a time. He particularly dwelled on Reads-With-Tail's hammer wrist, forcing it onto an axis that seemed entirely alien to the boy. With a final jostle to his shoulders, forcing him into a forward-leaning stance that left his tail stabbing the air in a panic, Alvor stepped back to admire his handiwork. "Could be better, needs something real. Here, toss me the robe – keep it clear of the furnace there!" The Argonian shrugged the thick beige nightrobe off his shoulders, but hesitated to unlace the belt – it was so loose and heavy he wouldn't even need to get it half-off before the entire thing would go floating away!
"Don't worry, Reader, we left you your dignity. I just need to be sure you're not going to rip something, either it or you." Alvor was right, and stunningly whoever the loose, heavy pants had belonged to was almost the boy's size too – a little loose and a little short, which was honestly perfect for him, giving his itchy scales room to breathe but closing tightly a handspan above his ankles. Something about that stroke of fortune made him unreasonably happy.
Alvor seemed quite satisfied too, grinning eagerly as his erstwhile pupil limbered up. "Try striking now - remember you're holding the, er, 'metal' still. Just like your shield on the mountain. it doesn't move out of line, you move your line around it."
Reads-With-Tail twisted, hammer snapping down, yanking his whole arm after it. As his arm went, so did his tail, and as his tail so went his entire body. He pushed his chest up off the deck, otherwise staying on the ground until he was invited back upright. "Yeah, definitely need something real to work with there," Alvor mumbled. "Let's try...oh, come on, Reader, Dorthe's sure you're not broken anymore, you can stand!" The Argonian struggled to his feet sheepishly. "That's better. Remember anything a bit less, ah, physical?"
Reads-With-Tail nodded energetically to clear the spots from behind his eyes. Oh. Oh no, I just committed myself, didn't I? "Well, there's...there's..." I don't remember the numbers! "I'm sorry, sir, I don't know exactly. But it was for working with silver and moonstone...something about two teaspoons evaporated sea salt dissolved in, er, was it three parts still-water to five parts well-water?" He looked up at Alvor, desperate for approval.
"Moonst...pah, let me guess, you got this book off some elf cray enough to stay in Windhelm?"
"Yes, sir," Reads-With-Tail answered right away. "Miss Berit's a Dunmer."
Something dimmed in Alvor's hot brown eyes. Did his breath just catch? Does he know Miss Berit? "Well, that's all well and good for mer-folk. You and I, all we need are good sturdy iron and steel, eh? Can you tell me the difference, how you get each type? Just pick one of each, I know there are a lot of irons and steels in the world."
Reads-With-Tail couldn't. As hard as he tried, he couldn't. Everything he'd read had either assumed the reader already knew and just glossed over those less glamorous metals or else worn him down with drills and details he had no context for, long before any of the knowledge could nestle in. All he could do was shake his head and mumble "no" in a voice so small it might not have left his lips.
Alvor looked as heartbroken as the Argonian felt. He hissed in one deep breath. A second, a third. "Right. Lesson after breakfast. Don't care if you don't want to, you've got the hammer and you're traveling and I will be damned if I let a friend wander this disaster of a country without knowing basic metalwork!" He looked away for a moment, breath steadying. "And...Reader?" His voice had changed, so much quieter now. More personal. "I heard that." Reads-With-Tail quirked his head. "'Dunmer.' It's not a word that many Argonians bother to remember."
Right, Reads-With-Tail thought glumly, reminded of a fact he was glad Miss Berit let him forget. The war. My people were horrible to the Dunmer, weren't we? That's a good reason even Captain Free-Winter gives to keep us outside the city proper. Then, "Wait, you've met other Argonians?"
"Of course, Reader!" Alvor's voice had strength again. "Riverwood's a six-family village and most of my business is keeping the mill running, but we're on the roads to Cyrodiil and Daggerfall here and sometimes people need something touched up. New shoes for them or their horse, a knife that can hold an edge, you know the thing. Not many of your people come up here to freeze - a few mercenaries, a couple merchants, even a sightseer every now and again. So yeah, I've met Argonians. Would like to keep meeting more, especially if they've got coin and something needs mending."
"I had no idea," Reads-With-Tail started to apologize, but Alvor was rolling now.
"Something about the stories Ralof and Hadvar told me, and the way you looked when we'd toweled you off, it stood out to me because of that. Let me guess, you're in that mix-and-match outfit and proud of it, because what more can be done for you? You're just a lizard, and even if you weren't in human lands you'd probably just run around in your scales because there's no way something could possibly fit you. Shirt and pants a decade too big for you, and I'm not even going to insult the noble craft by calling those 'wrapping boots,' and there you go running through snowdrifts and pretending to enjoy it! I'm about right, eh?"
The Argonian hesitated, then nodded. "I really do like the snow though," he said, blinking hard and chewing his tongue until the blizzard under his eyelids drifted away and the simmering forge could reach him again.
"Well then, let me tell you this." Alvor was actually wagging his finger in Reads-With-Tail's face! "No matter how many books they've read or how many probably legendary swords they've made, I can guarantee you I know something no blacksmith in Ulfric's hellhole ever will."
"Hey, that's my home!" The Argonian was indignant, even if the description could be accurate at certain parts of the year. All right, at every part of the year.
"Yes, yes, anyway. Here, Reader, step forward. I want you to take a good close look at this, and promise me you won't go into another coma when you realize what you're seeing." Alvor pivoted away from the workbench entirely, slipping into the gap between it and his furnace and revealing what he'd first been fiddling with.
I'm not sure I can keep that promise. Reads-With-Tail's eyes were wide; his tongue flicked out. But guilt was already welling up in the bottom of his mind and rising fast.
Pride cracked Alvor's voice. "I, er, had plenty of time to take your measurements. You were dead for two days, except when we sponged water down your throat. Ralof's idea. Good man, even if he is an idiot with his politics." He cleared his throat, dragging himself back to the moment. "Like them?"
Alvor's gift looked at first glance like a pair of sandals, which Miss Berit had once considered for her Argonian friend before discarding as too fragile in Windhelm's sodden snow. But the sandals were just the surface, and a thin surface at that. Tall walls of toughened leather formed a stiff well for his ankles, with shorter but more finely sculpted walls shaping a space for the rest of his foot – there was even room left over at the tips for him to flex his webs! And upon closer inspection there were two rows of fastenings, soft cords inside and fat leather strips outside, the leather well masked by two lazily drooping flaps. Reads-With-Tail could already picture how the whole surface came together, the cords knotting in the middle to hold it all closed, the flaps crossing to seal out snow, and the strips to keep them in line. And the entire thing was propped up on a thick sole, a good fingersbreadth at the toe tapering back to a handspan for the heel. There was only a little metalwork poking out of sheathes along the anklebrace. No foreplate, no steel toe, no elaborate engraving of a bear or tundra cat like some Stormcloaks and sea captains wore. It wasn't finery, it was traveler's wear.
And it was the most beautiful thing in the young Argonian's life. Well, second-most after Miss Berit's library, but let's not spoil the moment. But he didn't know how to answer Alvor's question. He slowly peeled his gaze off the ingenious pair of boots and returned it to the smith's eager face. Alvor's expression was childlike, at once incongruous and entirely fitting for his short coarse beard. There was pride, naturally, and Reads-With-Tail couldn't blame him – who ever could have thought up a design like that for legs like these? – but it was mixed with a puppy's eagerness and anxiety. He's afraid it won't be...that I won't like it. How could he be afraid? It's... He couldn't put words together; an emotional squall shredded his overstretched mental sails.
"I need to water," he squeaked out. His tail hooked under the nearest bucket handle and hoisted without him even needing to look. But in the time it took him to lift it, Alvor had crossed the long porch and laid a hand on the Argonian's shoulder.
"Fine, fine. Let's go together, all right?" Reads-With-Tail felt his host trying to make eye contact, felt it burning through his forehead nubs. "You can tell me what you want and leave out what you have to. Besides," the boy didn't need to look up at him to see the grin, "I can't blame you for not thinking clearly when your throat's parched. I'm glad I got as much of a conversation as I did!"
It hadn't dawned on Reads-With-Tail just how close the river was. He'd seen the sawmill, but the waterwheel that ran it had been tucked out of sight, and so he'd assumed it was masked behind the log pyramid that a couple of fair-haired Nord men were sorting through. But then Hadvar had led him out around the corner of the porch, and suddenly there it was. No wonder they keep the walls thick and damp – it must be hard not to! He didn't envy anyone trying to sleep without such precautions, not when the rattletrap wooden wheel was maybe half again his armspan from the house!
The river itself was impressively deep despite visibly only being a side channel around the rise the sawmill had been built on. The constant splash and drizzle from the wheel thrashed it too enthusiastically for him to judge color up close, but all he had to do was crane his neck a little to see flat and placid waters in both directions, sun shining like diamond off the backs of every little ripple.
Alvor wasn't content with the muddy churning wheelwater though, crossing a bright yellow pine bridge past the mill. Reads-With-Tail followed, but a little more creatively. The moment he stepped off the path his feet squelched into the mud; his webs splayed out to keep him balanced but he passed the bucket off to his hand so he could use his tail properly too. Impulse took him and he jumped across the narrow channel, plunging into the rich swampy soil on the other bank, toes digging in barely a fingersbreadth from the mill's foundation. Just as planned. He worked the mud as energetically as his stiff joints would allow, spine relaxing tremendously at the feeling of cool water soaking his scales. It would take a good long drink to get that water into his scales, but he'd take all the relief he could get.
"You're washing that off first, right?" Alvor said once his guest finally made it around the mill behind him. Reads-With-Tail felt a little self-consciousness well up, but it was a faint thing against the raw pleasure of finding such a luscious riverbank that wasn't made of either rock or ice. Still, he's right, I'd better not track any of this back inside!
The river was behind a few tall bushes – the real river now, not the mill channel. It was shallow here, shallow enough he could probably ford it at any point – though maybe not, if they need that stout a bridge, he thought as he looked at the impressively wide stone arch at the far end of the village – and certainly placid enough to let him get away with it. If he didn't need to bring the bucket back soon he could have spent hours just indulging himself.
Well, and if he didn't need to make things right with Alvor.
His brief frolic at the riverside had helped settle his nerves. He was an observer to his own feelings now, able to put them to words without being seized by them – or rather, he was always in their grip, but explaining them to Alvor wasn't about to give them any greater power. "I'm sorry," he said after a moment, setting the bucket down and sitting in the drier sand, worming his toes through the silt at the water's edge.
His host had already found a tree stump to rest on. "What for?" He kept his tone light. It wasn't a rhetorical question, and it wasn't a rebuke. That made things even easier.
"For storming off just now." He took a deep breath, held it longer than he should have, coughed it up. No, you're stalling. Stop gasping and speak. "Your boots were amazing, really. And I trust you when you say they'll fit." He forced himself to look Alvor in the eye and smile. He knew he wasn't being insincere, that it wasn't empty flattery, but that's not what hurts, is it, Reader? "I just...why?" Reads-With-Tail ducked his head away, but kept his eyes up, knowing he looked like he was begging and hating it. That's the opposite of what I'm trying to do.
Alvor stared him down. There was no condemnation on his face, no anger, which only compounded the boy's guilt. "Why not?"
Reads-With-Tail flinched away from the simple reversal. He folded forward, dipping his head close to the river and ladling out a double handful of water. The dull burn across his eyeballs faded a little, a great relief for something he'd hardly paid attention to since waking up. Alvor was right, it is easier to think when my throat's not so dry. And I'm stalling again. He couldn't figure out why it was so hard to voice his doubts now, after all the ways his gentle host had made it easier for him.
Finally he decided to plunge in with both feet; the more he thought it through first the less likely he was to say anything at all. "Because I'm just an Argonian dockworker from Windhelm. Just an Argonian dockworker."
"And also the young man who saved my nephew and my best friend's brother."
There wasn't the slightest surprise in Alvor's voice, and this time that genuinely did make it easier for Reads-With-Tail to continue. "They saved me so many more times. I even made Hadvar need to go back and save me again, remember?"
"Doesn't matter," the smith snorted and shook his head. "You left an impression on three of Riverwood's children anyway, what with your willingness to put yourself at risk for people you'd met the same night. And I'm always inclined to be generous towards anyone Hadvar or Dorthe vouch for, no heroics necessary. Let alone someone they both like!" He'd carried a small smile while speaking, but it fell away as he thought through his next line. "And since it seems to important to you...why would a 'just an Argonian' put himself through so much when a 'proper Windhelm Nord' couldn't manage it?" At last there was anger seeping in, but Reads-With-Tail wasn't sure what had prompted it.
All he could do was answer. "Because Ralof and Hadvar are capable of so much more than I ever will be." The boy flinched away again, not brave enough to watch Alvor's reaction.
But he heard it. "Ah. So you wouldn't have done the same for my Dorthe or Sigrid, then? They're not warriors, not great smiths or poets or jarls – well, Dorthe's not a smith yet at least – just a woman and a girl in a little break in the woods."
"That's not it! That's not right at all!" Reads-With-Tail blurted out, realizing while he spoke that Alvor hadn't had nearly the sort of malice his words suggested. It's an accusation all the same. "I'm sure they, and you, and anyone else here could do anything if you wanted to learn it badly enough! All I'm ever going to be, supposed to be – wanted to be – is a servant to the real children of Skyrim." He sighed and swallowed hard, trying to break down the lump of unfamiliar emotions that had clogged his throat. "So I always ought to serve as best I can."
Alvor's level stare had come back, devoid of either praise or scorn. "And so you don't deserve a reward for services rendered, then? How about pay, they pay you at those docks, I'm sure." You don't sound sure. The irony dripping from that statement drilled a pipe of humor through the mess of pride and guilt in Reads-With-Tail's throat.
"But I didn't pay for those boots or anything. I haven't done anything to help around the town yet, just been given care and food and – and all the things you've promised! And I wasn't paid, didn't ask for pay, for helping Hadvar and Ralof – and even if I had, they needed to rescue me so many times it would've been forfeit anyway, right?"
For some reason, that was what got under Alvor's guard. "Ah. Perhaps. But you're not going to take yes for an answer today on the boots or anything else, are you?" The young Argonian shook his head. "Fine, all a man can do is try. Well, since you mentioned not doing anything for 'the village,' as if saving Ralof and Hadvar didn't count –" Reads-With-Tail shot him a half-serious glare for looping right back around to that argument "– there actually is an errand I've been putting off for the last few days. I've no problem running it myself, but it's directly relevant to that lesson I promised you, and I could toss in the boots as a bonus, all right?"
That felt a bit better in Reads-With-Tail's mind than just receiving even more presents. "What sort of errand are we talking about here?"
Alvor dropped his voice to a stage whisper. "There's an iron mine a little ways west up the road, not a half-mark's hike. Productive and wealthy, strong staff, just expanded so it can sell across both holds and still have some left for me. But they're almost a week late on their delivery and nothing's come through for Whiterun or the Battle-Borns yet either. Maybe their horse threw a shoe or their wagon lost a wheel, I don't know – or maybe the vein's come up dry. I'd just like someone to check on them, all right? See if they need a hand or some new supplies."
Reads-With-Tail nodded at each step. Finally, once Alvor was done, he asked the most important question: "Why are we whispering?"
The smith sat up and shook his head rapidly, as if waking up from a nap. Which truth be told sounds tempting right now, the water is lovely. And though his talk had been unproductive, simply saying all those things had distracted the boy long enough for relaxation to sneak up and club him between the horns. In the time between his question and Alvor's response, he nearly drifted off entirely.
"Old habit, sorry. Dorthe loves it when I help her think there's some great courtly plot or important adventure behind her chores. Doesn't work for you, Reader?"
Reads-With-Tail cocked his head. "I just never thought of it that way. That's clever!"
"What's clever, Reader?" The Argonian's head shot up into his chest as Dorthe piped up directly into his left ear. How she made it past the willow without a sound I may never know. "What have you and papa been talking about? Oh, did I miss the story of how you took down the Frostbite Spider? Or stood with Uncle Hadvar and Uncle Ralof against a whole tribe of bandits? I'd really wanted to hear those...oh, right! I almost forgot, mama is still waiting on that water if you want anything hot to go with lunch." The Argonian wondered if he'd just experienced a levitation spell – his posture hadn't changed, but he swore he'd been off the ground for most of Dorthe's speech. And now his legs and back had cramped to go with it.
"We really must have lost track of time out here! Tell Sigrid we'll be right in," Alvor shouted over his shoulder. She sounds too close to shout at, but then again she's definitely growing into her father's voice.
"I can carry the water if you don't have it already, Reader," Dorthe offered.
Reads-With-Tail hastily dove for the bucket, snatching it up with both hands so she wouldn't have the chance. "No, no, I promised I'd do it." He used the bucket itself to push off the ground, twisting up into a squat so he could submerge it easily. Somewhere a little further out, don't want to bring in a pail of silt!
The pants he'd been lent got blessedly wet around his shins as he splashed out into the shallows, quickly whisking the water up around his knees. This wasn't the sort of soak he was used to in the bay back home – even the Nords stayed out of the water there when they could avoid it! But he could see himself just lowering his body into the river here and drifting for hours if not for his immediate mission.
The bucket was remarkably light even once he had it sloshing full, and a quick squint assured the Argonian that it wasn't on account of a leak. He took his right hand off the grip, twisting his body and tail to counterbalance it.
Except he couldn't let go. His muscles snarled against his scales, threatening to leave them behind if they wouldn't obey, but someone had lined the bottom of the handle with resin and he'd never noticed. The way his hands curled, even his palms were glued on at the strangest angle. It wasn't enough to hurt except when he pulled, but it was far from pleasant.
And much worse, he was balanced as if the pail was swinging off to his left, while it actually remained resolutely in front of him. He fell hard, the weight of the water yanking his arms out over his head as he went. There was no way he could get even his elbows back in position to check his fall at this angle, so Reads-With-Tail scrunched up his muzzle and braced for the pain.
It didn't come from the side he expected. "We've got you!" Alvor grunted in his ear, holding him off the ground by the roots of his tail and his surviving horn. The boy made to rub those handles the moment his belly touched the pebbly ground, but only succeeded in straining his arms from yet another angle. Dorthe was muttering invective from just behind her father, words he wondered if she'd picked up from his own mind right now, all directed at somebody named "Frodnar."
"Don't worry, Reader, I know how he does that. It's not hard to fix, but we'll have to get you inside first, okay?" He felt Dorthe's dress swirling around right of his crooked tail, and slowly levered himself upright so that he swung through his opposite side. Don't want to swat her!
"Thanks," he choked out. "I'll get another bucketful first though. I promised!"
Though the good cheer was back in his voice, and had never truly left hers, Reads-With-Tail still felt the shame of his mistake. He'd run so late on the errand, lost almost the entire pail of water, nearly splintered the bucket, needed rescue here in this safe gentle village...he caught Alvor's eye. The smith looked at him with that same level stare from their talk moments before. Some of the guilt cowered away from his host.
Rather than mope any longer, he carefully lined himself up with the river, bucket and all, and took a hopping dive straight in. The water was deeper than he'd thought out in the middle, deep enough to hold his feet off the bed – not that that's much of an accomplishment, it's barely a wading pool for the local Nords! But it was no less wonderful than in the shallows, the current strong enough to pull at him but nowhere near enough to drag him away like the undertow around Windhelm. He could almost feel the luster seeping back into his scales, and splashed his head underwater to spread the joy.
And...there! Of course a river like this one had salmon to spare. I just hope there aren't any slaughterfish, he realized belatedly, but even with the slight ache in his eyeballs he could see well enough through the faintly green water. Certainly well enough to see the pair of salmon splashing up towards him against the current! Grinning, he spun himself around as far as the bucket would allow, bringing his body almost perpendicular to the riverbed. The fish saw the strange obstruction and swung around him, but his grin turned savage as he kicked out with both feet at once, webs fully outstretched.
The impact left him a little sore, as it always did when he had to take the inverted approach, but he brought his eyes back above the surface in time to see both fish land hard on a slate outcropping on the riverbank, just left of a startled Dorthe and slowly applauding Alvor.
Reads-With-Tail gave a wave both both hands and the bucket, letting the water cascade over his head and wash his broken horn, then dipped the bucket back under the surface one last time and swam back to shore triumphantly.
The moment his chest left the water his pride faded to meekness. "Sorry I got the clothes wet..."
"I've still got the robe," Alvor replied easily. "And two salmon for later is more than a fair trade for a little space on the drying rack!"
"I can hang this up for you if you show me where it goes. And I'll take care of the fish once we're ready too." The boy was loathe to make his success mean extra work for his hosts.
"You gut it and Sigrid will gut you," the smith said with his loudest laugh all day. "She handles the cookfires around here, and no one else!"
I guess that's her choice, Reads-With-Tail thought, still grudgingly.
"Now stop playing around and let's eat! I've been at the workbench since midmorning, and you're going on three days out from your last meal, so move!"
Now that the boy had no argument with.
or, enter your birth date.*
"Sonic the Hedgehog" and all related IP are the property of Sega.
The "Star Wars" series and Expanded Universe are the property of Disney.
This is a work of fanfiction. No copyright infringement is intended.
The crawl from one intersection to the next had seemed so short the last time Tails had made it. To be fair, he'd been carried along by a squad of people twice his size, so it hadn't actually been a crawl. Even so, he had to have been at least halfway there when the tunnel had caved in behind him, and somehow he was still dragging his weeping tail past cell after cell with no sign of the exit.
He hadn't only been limping along, though, he reminded himself as scrabbling sounds echoed from behind some freshly-fallen stone on his left. As soon as his ears had stopped ringing he'd hurled himself at the first blocked cell door he'd seen. The fox had never experienced a cave-in in person but Knuckles had shared plenty of echidna stories, and he found it all too easy to imagine each of the components to that kind of death. Freezing cold at first, then stifling warmth, breath that didn't fill his lungs, the breaking pain of rocks against his joints – that one was particularly fresh in his mind – and of course the ever-growing hunger and thirst and desperation as hope shriveled and died. He'd gone through each piece individually at some point or another and those memories had driven him to pull every muscle in his upper arms trying to stop whoever was behind that wall of rubble from feeling them all at once. But the debris had been too heavy – no, I was just too weak. Knuckles wouldn't even have noticed those rocks and Sonic could have drilled right through. If anyone's going to get out they're going to do better without me getting underfoot.
But somehow that still felt like he was lying to himself. Like he was letting himself run away. And that sneaking suspicion prodded another corner of his brain into action. Of course you're trying to get away, Tails. Half of one tail is gone, your hands and feet are scratched beyond recognition, you don't even know what happened to your back, and now your arms aren't working either! The argument didn't quell the shame churning just below his growling stomach, in fact if anything it worsened it, but it also got him moving again. He gave a last pitying glance at the newest fallen wall and pressed on.
The battered kit was down on three limbs, arching his fileted tail over his head and holding it taut by the bedraggled tuft of fur left on the tip with his free hand. Ironically enough his namesakes were still living up to their most basic purpose; his tripodal stance would have been horrendously unstable on the shifting floor if he hadn't been able to shift both tails around to hold his balance. The pain had quieted now, at least, though the fox had no idea why. He'd dragged the skinned strip that spiraled along that one tail through the dirt and stone at least twice now, after all. Still, even though he could still move, it was a long slog along a path he still never quite had the night vision to see. At least that meant that some of the shields were still up, and hopefully by the time the warden dug his way out of the debris the alert would be off and he'd stop shooting people.
That thought pumped a little energy back into him. Yeah, it was a stupid hero stunt, I guess. But I learned from the best. Although Sonic would probably have taken them all out before they even saw him. Still...no, no matter what Wedge said about the other prisoners in here I'm not going to let people stroll through and hurt them like that. He felt what was left of his fur bristling and his lips drew back into a thin snarl. Chaos knows I've had enough of that treatment myself. And then his brain started talking back again.
Okay, yeah, so you were a weakling back in Emerald Hill too. Don't you dare compare that to getting shot through a locked door!
"Will you two shut up?" he muttered under his breath. It was cathartic no matter how crazy he sounded. At least he was the only one who could hear. And it brought the burgeoning argument to a halt before his thoughts could run away with him again.
Tails' eyes were on the ground, both in the forlorn hope that he might eventually see what was in front of him before it cut into his feet or stabbed his palm and because he simply lacked the stamina to keep his head off the floor for much longer. Still, when he crabwalked over a particularly jagged shard he dragged himself up a little in surprise. How'd I see that...ah.
Apparently the cell doors weren't the only shields still working. The entire three-way grid between him and his old cave – and more importantly the mine access tunnel where they'd dragged that Talz – was glowing close enough he was almost amazed his whiskers weren't smoldering. Not that the barriers gave off any heat, but they looked so much like they should he felt almost offended. Better than feeling ashamed of himself or crazed with pain though, so he'd take it. Okay, come on. How do I open this? He was going to need both hands for this so he draped his mauled tail around his neck like a pus-seeping winter scarf and used the generator housing to hoist himself back to his feet. Let's see – controls are up top but since I've got time I want to figure out what these things really do.
Besides, while he could probably just press buttons randomly and hope for the best the symbols on the access pad weren't what he was used to. They seemed tantalizingly familiar, like numbers on a digital clock, but if he made a wrong assumption and overloaded the circuits or something...not like I won't do that easier by poking around inside it, right? The thought brought a wry grin to the surface, something much softer than the rictus his wounds had locked him into at first, and the simple action left him feeling like he'd had a nice hot drink for the first time in months. Now that's a sensation I'm never going to forget. Hot chocolate with whipped cream and peppermint leaves from that restaurant Sonic stopped at the late autumn he met me. More of it got on my whiskers and cheek fur than actually went in my mouth. He shook himself, little clouds of dust wafting down from his ears. Those memories would have to wait – he might have been able to take apart and reassemble the Tornado in his sleep but he'd never worked with Imperial technology before and he needed to be focused for this part. Man do I wish I still had Sonic's screwdriver though!
Unlike the blaster's housing the generator had a little lever pushed all the way to the bottom of its maintenance panel. It moved easily at first, then caught about halfway up. The fox took a deep breath and then let it go, grabbing for the rounded panels and easing them apart. The first centimeter passed smoothly before they jammed against their internal lock and Tails sighed again. Don't be nervous, he reminded himself, it's just a piece of tech like any other. He pressed the clamshell panels back together until they clicked home and tried the lever again. This time, as soon as it caught he threw his scrawny shoulders into the effort, his already damaged muscles flooding his brain with resignation letters, until the lock slid away and the two halves of the cylinder flexed open. He just sat there staring at the machine for a moment, tongue wedging his teeth open as he panted. This is going to be a long project, I can already tell.
Still, it wasn't like he had anything else to do, and even if he managed to cook himself on a live wire at least he'd probably bring the shield down anyway when he woke up. He'd done much stupider things on the Typhoon and lived, after all. And at least the Empire's electricians seemed to be neater than he or Eggman had ever been, although amid the plain circuit boards and impossibly untangled cable runs he noticed the distinct lack of any emergency breakers. Why does that no longer surprise me? But even though he sighed most of the nerves had gone flooding out now that he was back in his element. Now if I just had an electrode of my own. Something to convince that output cable that it'd gotten the right signal. I don't think the computer's going to give it the go-ahead unless I enter the right code and I've got no real...wait.
It was a risky idea considering that the shield was still switched on, but if he'd had his gloves Tails wouldn't have even thought twice. He gently tugged at the output cable that wrapped around the circuit board under the keypad until it came free, exposed metal dully reflecting the shield's blue and grey. "He's made it through the first step with no electrocutions," he said in the closest thing to an Earth sports announcer voice he could manage, though he'd never heard any announcer sound so fatigued. "Can he keep it going?" He slid the covered part of the cable forward between his middle and index fingers, keeping the rest of his hand as far from the surprisingly heavy-gauge wire as he could feasibly get, and eased the whole thing closer to the keypad.
And that was when the nerves in his wounded tail finally got bored of holding back the pain. The fox's whole body jolted as the wet skin burned colder than the wind outside. The wire slipped from his suddenly flaccid hand and struck something clearly important. He lurched away from the spark, whimpering and flinching at the miniature thunderclap and dense puff of smoke that followed, and fresh pain rocketed through him as the wrist he caught himself with twisted and gave. His back and both tails hammered the ground repeatedly until finally his nervous system couldn't hold any more and deadened the pain again. For a few minutes he just lay there, eyes open but unseeing, chest ratcheting in and out as his heart and lungs gradually realized he hadn't just sprinted a marathon.
Then the maroon spots and blue-violet waves stopped dancing and fell out from in front of him, and in their place was an open hallway. The other two barricades were still up, but as long as his body obeyed this time he knew what to do, and from there he could find his way back to the infirmary and out. Wedge had to be gone by now, and the other rebel pilots with him, but as long as Tails could touch the sky one more time he could accept whatever else happened.
Ever since the second shield had collapsed Tails' nose had been assaulted with an odor he couldn't wait to forget. I get the feeling I'm going to be way too familiar with burning person by the time I get out of this. Not even wrinkling his nose, breathing shallowly through his mouth, and holding the tip of his filleted tail in front of both could keep it out; the history of blaster fire had worn itself into the walls of this place. And I'm stumbling down deeper into it trying to stay alive. Something seems kind of backwards here. But he'd volunteered to loop around through the medical room anyway, and even with his litany of injuries it still sounded like a good plan.
Then he stumbled over something much softer and warmer than the rock, and that assumption promptly died. Smell's really strong here. Whoever this poor guy was they must have shot him during the breakout. But then he realized where the body was laid. No, wait, he was trying to get back into the cell blocks. What kind of place is this that that's a good idea?
Well, if he wanted to get out of it he'd end up learning sooner or later, so the little fox squared his shoulders as best he could while down on all threes and stepped gingerly over the corpse. There was a faint ripple of white light against the rock in a surprisingly round tunnel to his left and he moved towards it as quickly as he could manage.
The stink of burned flesh and ozone tang of energy fire was concentrated enough to immediately bowl Tails over, and after the darkness of the tunnels seeing such bright light sent even more tears to his eyes as he tried to ward off the crippling overstimulation. He wasn't able to shut out the stench anywhere near enough, though, and his retch echoed loudly down the side corridor. Almost instantly a hailstorm of eye-searing crimson bolts hammered the opposite wall into shrapnel and Tails ducked into the smallest ball he could manage, skinned tail sticking straight up with its white tuft forming a flag of surrender. After a few seconds of silence he surreptitiously uncurled and checked his fur for fresh debris. Finding none he crouched as hard as his back and legs could stand in Sonic's signature sudden-start stance. He stared at the little pool of light between him and safety, swallowing hard, and then cannoned forward and sailed across it. Another blaster volley followed eventually, presumably once the gunners figured out what they'd just seen, and Tails silently thanked them. They'd shown him his ticket out.
Now that he knew what to look for he could make out a tall box that managed to be even darker than the rest of the room. It was probably just his overloaded brain toying with him by now, but if it helped him out anyway then he'd take whatever he could get. He inched closer to it, letting his night vision reset yet again, and finally smacked his chapped nose squarely into a heavy metal rim. He pinged off of it, managing to catch himself with both hands and his safe tail before he broke anything else. As he massaged his nose ruefully he used his free hand to examine the object he'd just collided with. It was big, no doubts there, and now that he was actually checking it out in detail he felt little tank treads underneath it. Lucky I hit it where I did – a few centimeters either way and I'd have pinched my muzzle in the treads. That hurts.
For the first time since he'd been locked up on the Emerald-forsaken rock Tails' eyes were genuinely adapting to the darkness around him, and a pressure he'd grown so used to he'd forgotten was there leaked out of his forehead as he stopped straining for sight. It felt like he'd let out a weeks-old breath and his whole body sagged in relief as his brain finally adapted. Good, there's a door. A door, he thought giddily – maybe that bit about letting out a breath wasn't just a metaphor, and indeed he was breathing ever more rapidly despite his relaxation. And that sent his heart into overdrive, and then the pressure all came flooding back.
Shaking his head, Tails hopped up on the tread, careful not to get his feet stuck somewhere he might not get them back, and jostled the latch until the door swung open. He was left dangling from that latch by one hand as his weight carried the door outwards, but it was just as fun an experience as his euphoria of seconds before that he didn't care. In fact, he rocked himself forward and back, a kit on a swingset, and the hinges stayed tolerantly silent all the while.
Then he got a look at the cabin and promptly let go, landing heavily on his skinned tail. At least the sudden tidal surge of fresh pain knocked him out of his shock, letting him devote what little coherent thought remained to scrambling away and trying to process what he'd just seen. No smell. No char or blaster burns or anything. And he looked almost...skeletal, but if Wedge was right they had to use this thing just a few hours ago to burn through the wall! He can't have decayed – plus I bet I'd smell that too, wouldn't I? What's going on down here? His thoughts came just as thick and fast as moments before, but panic had swelled up to replace euphoria and he could hear the pitch of his mental voice rising sharply.
He was breathing fast enough to shame the birds he so often flew past, but even though he couldn't get his lungs under control his brain eventually wrested command back from his spinal reflexes. "Right," he said a little more loudly than he'd meant to. "I don't have a light or a weapon or any energy left, so the only way out is through. The only way out is through." The little reminder steadied him another fraction more and he finally caught his breath, slowing down from hyperventilation. Then he pulled himself up, his pus-coated skin sticking to the dirt as his tail popped out after him, and tugged the dead man out of the open seat. The corpse clattered more than it squished, but by now Tails couldn't even tell if it had sent a shiver down his spine or set his fur on end. Besides, all the noise really did was confirm that the man really was as skeletal as he'd looked. How he'd gotten that way, though, was still an open question and one the fox hoped never had to be answered.
There was only a tiny layer of dust on the machine's controls, and that did more to spook Tails than anything about the corpse itself had. Whatever happened, it's only been a few hours at most considering all the debris down here. I've got to get out of here now before my heart pops! And to that end he needed to get the machine switched back on. His eyes skittered off of the unfamiliar alphabet so instead he guessed at the controls simply by position and size. Big red button. That's probably a good thing since it's not under some kind of cover. The big knobbed stick between his legs – he had to snicker at that, I'm ten, I'm entitled to a little immaturity from time to time – was obviously the control, and considering that there was a much smaller joystick on the raised panel it was presumably in charge of the drive while the little one governed the drill. At least, assuming this is the vehicle that drilled that shaft in the first place.
Well, he might as well find out. There didn't seem to be any ignition or on switch, although even now that he could see things at all most of the cabin was still pitch-black so it wouldn't be too hard to miss. Rather than waste more time in this creepy hole looking at the panels, though, he wrapped stiff-jointed fingers around the upper joystick and angled it upward. To his almost delirious joy servomotors ground around him and pitched a big cylinder he'd completely failed to see before up a few degrees per second. Another snicker broke the surface. Who was that human psychologist? I guess he really was on to something universal. If the machine had been lit and well-maintained he assumed he'd have had some way to tell where the hole was going to end up, but in the absence of any sights the best way to find out was to simply pull the trigger.
Except he couldn't. His finger tensed, taut against the plastic frame, but it refused to go any further than that. Oh, come on! It's not like I'm shooting anyone with this. But clearly his memories had a stronger hold over him than that. In frustration he let go of the stick and slammed his hand on the console. Something clicked under his hand, something cold and smooth, and he only realized he'd touched the button by mistake when a blast of light and sound hammered the polarized glass canopy. The dangling door tore free in the backblast and Tails felt his fur freeze to his left leg in the sudden wind, but at least he'd been shielded well enough that he could still see and hear. Whatever the "drill" had fired, there was nothing left but a steaming circle directly in front of him. No rockfall, no shrapnel. No starlight either, though, but that wasn't anything a few more blasts wouldn't fix. Except – the fox's eyes narrowed. Was something moving through those vapor clouds? I bet whatever killed the other driver did it right after he fired the drill. The realization tore through him but before he'd even consciously processed the thought he had tackled the other door open and taken off running.
The nearest cover he could make out was a sharp bend in the corridor in front of him, but that was a double-edged sword. He couldn't see around it either, and if there was something coming from that side there was no way he could fight it off. His ears were at full extension, twisting like satellite receivers as they strained for any sounds that might be coming to kill him. That skittering noise – is that rockfall or is something moving? And then, blind with his panic, he put his foot squarely down on the jaw of another skeletal corpse. Screaming in fear and yet another source of pain, the kit coiled up and sprang back the way he'd came, body and mind finally in complete agreement. Except now it seemed like the scrabbling sound was closer, like it was all around him, and despite the thin air his lungs and heart slowed to a standstill as he pressed himself into the soft soil between the digger's treads.
He had no idea how long he stayed down there. Every heartbeat seemed to flash past and yet wait seconds to arrive, and the sounds around him were stretched and attenuated to match. Eventually, though, they faded away into the throbs of his own body, vanishing so completely Tails had to wonder if he'd heard them at all. And on the heels of fear came embarrassment and humiliation, and with cheeks burning so hot he felt they ought to light the cavern the fox eased himself out of his safe little burrow and swung back around into the machine, hissing as his back and tail scraped against the grime-encrusted metal. Even when that pain subsided into the general background roar there was still a void-cold patch on his tail, and he knew what that meant from an old experience he'd hoped never to repeat. Looks like I have a time limit now, he thought more calmly than he'd given himself credit for. Not that the Imperials will be generous with the disinfectant, but maybe I can find an independent who'll help me. A lot of people mentioned smugglers – if I can find one of them then maybe I'll make it.
All right, Tails, focus. The barrel looked like it was in the same place, so all he had to do was hit the button again. But if it wasn't enough...If it doesn't break through I am not going through that routine again! His hands tried to curl into fists but his joints were so arthritic after the day's chaos that he couldn't quite pull it off. So how can I guarantee...no, can't rewire it, not in this darkness. But I don't have anything else to amp up the blasts either, and besides I don't want to drop the cave on my head. But what else is there?
He must have been sitting in the barely padded chair for five minutes kneading his forehead before the answer hit him, and as soon as it did he hit himself for not seeing it sooner. He oozed back out of the machine, taking great care to keep his injuries safe this time, and rustled around below him for a nice solid rock. Just finding a rock down here in a mineshaft wasn't the hard part; no, the hard part was finding a rock flat and yet coarse enough he could just perch it on the firing stud and leave it there while he ran for shelter. His search led him back to the fringes of the illuminated killzone, and even though he didn't spark another volley the glow murdered his night vision just fine on its own. He felt his forehead knot with the fresh strain and felt an urgent need to scream at the universe's unfairness. He settled for a long groan followed by a yelp of shock when the sentries heard him after all and chewed another meter out of the far wall.
Still, the kit found his stone and placed it proudly on the big red button. He realized just how exposed he was when the backblast hurled him into a corner and the rolling shockwave battered each limb against the stone independently. He dragged himself lurching and groaning back under the treads, only one of each set of limbs responsive enough to get him where he needed to be. No sooner had he tucked himself under the hulking machine than the second blast arrived, kicking the soft dirt into a miniature sandstorm that clogged his nose and mouth in seconds. Defeated, Tails curled up on his side and tucked his face into his fur to wheeze out the worst of it and endure the rest. The cold burn of wound infection vanished into the hot wind as the uninjured parts of his tail were polished smooth by the sand. He had no words to describe what happened to the wounded strip.
Between the tread wheels he could see the lights start to shake, or maybe those were just the tears in his eyes. His whole face was rigid with the pain and fear, his eyes locked as wide as they could be. Shadows speared across the charred wall as plastic-plated feet clattered across the stone. Eventually they came into view, three pairs of filth-caked white boots. Flashlights strobed as they passed over Tails' hiding place and he held his breath, shivering, as a trooper darted to the machine and knocked the stone out with a ping before the drill could fire a sixth time. But nobody had seen him, not yet at least. He kept one eye open to stare out at the troopers and the other screwed shut. Please let me get out of here soon. Please please please please please!
Then the boots all froze in place. "Load with ion. They're trying to lure the spiders!" A few clicks and clatters later everything went mad. Tails was shaking so hard now the machine was probably vibrating with him, but his nervous energy had nothing on the troopers' insane dance. Their spotlights painted senseless patterns across the driller machine as their bearers swung around to track something, blinding white glare accented by crackling blue lightning as they fired at something the fox was grateful he couldn't see. Lightning outside the windows. Tails hadn't realized he could tremble even faster than he was already going and he could feel his body tapping the last of its reserves for simple nervous energy.
A rifle clattered to the ground and one of the troopers started shaking his hips violently as he tried to claw something off of his upper body. The same tooth-twisting whine from the warden's sword filled the cavern and something screeched in a timbre no humanoid throat could produce. Then whatever had made it thudded to the ground in front of Tails, its multitude of segmented limbs jittering and crunching as it bounced. At least two of them ended in long daggers that scratched at the kit's ears even as he pressed himself hard against the opposite tread, heedless of his back injury.
And just as suddenly it was gone as a trooper Tails hadn't seen move hammered the fire button one more time and the drill's discharge swept it away. If not for the clayish dirt that had been whipped into his skull by all of the other blasts he figured the backblast from that one would have carried him away with it, just like it had taken his sight and hearing. Again.
As his senses returned, though, he realized that not all the light in the room came from the soldiers anymore. There was a soft circular spotlight on the ground just in front of the driller, light so distant and natural the fox's instincts screamed for him to crawl out and wallow in it. But first he waited while the troopers withdrew into their own tunnel with satisfied if mildly shell-shocked mutters and strained his ringing ears for any sign of the monsters that had attacked them. Maybe that was the only one, he thought without much hope, but he couldn't hear anything and so cautiously eased his way out of the sand berm around him. His heart leapt into his throat as a single articulated leg twitched in front of him and he scurried backwards, leaving claw trails in the sand. But as it continued twitching – and nothing else – he realized it had simply been pinned there when the blast carried its owner away. I hope.
Mustering his courage, Tails pulled himself all the way out from under the machine in one giant lunge that carried him well into the pool of light. He looked up at the night sky, so close now after the claustrophobic darkness of the tunnels, and bloodshot blue eyes relaxed open wide. Then he gathered himself for one last leap and landed on the glassy smooth surface of the new shaft.
It may have been as slick as a well-kept window, but it had a much more important trait – it was still warm. Heedless of his injuries Tails nuzzled the stone, worming all the heat he could capture into his fur while he still could. He spent perhaps five minutes there, just luxuriating in the closest thing to comfort he'd had in at least two weeks, before digging his sand-scoured pads into the walls and dragging himself up. At least his dulled limbs were responding again now, but it was still going to be rough going even with the traction his vestigial paw-pads offered. But he was a creature of the sky and stars, and no playground slide was going to keep him from reaching them one more time!
The escape shaft might not have stopped him from reaching the open air again, Tails reflected as he flopped out over the lip at last and lay panting on his back in the sand, but it had certainly slowed him down. What had been mere starlight when he started climbing had long since given way to what passed for day on balmy Kessel, the harsh red glare of desert canyons tearing at his eyes without offering a hint of warmth in return. But the razor-sharp winds of his ride in were nowhere to be found, and although his eyes were still overloaded from the Chaos-blessed sunlight he'd never trade it for the tunnels he'd left behind.
He let his head loll to glare back down the shaft. The only reprieve he'd gotten from dragging himself along by his sticky damp pads had been when he met one of the cross-tunnels that evidently honeycombed the mines, craggy natural things that either absorbed the light from above or else somehow emitted their own. They'd come from all directions, some even threatening to swallow him up from below, and he hadn't been able to convince himself to touch their rims at all. Something could have lashed out and dragged him in screaming, or sensed his vibrations and chased him up the walls, or – he stamped those thoughts down. I got out and I'm in the sunlight now. It's over.
But it wasn't over, of course. Unless some Imperial patrol ship spotted him he'd have to get off this plateau by himself, and waiting for rescue would just seal him away in the caves again – assuming he didn't simply get blasted for his escape attempt. With a weary sigh he rocked himself upright and staggered to his feet. No point in crawling, I guess. Not unless I have to.
Fortunately it didn't seem like that was the case anymore. The open air, thin and frigid as it was, had pumped a little life back into him and he was able to keep his balance even with one tail sticking stiffly out behind him. Helps that I'm limping with both legs, I guess. There were a few spectacular crags around him, spirelike peaks in the distance sculpted by centuries or more of erosion and asteroid strikes, but for the most part the kit kept his eyes on the ground in front of him. His head was too heavy to lift anymore.
At least looking at his feet gave him something to think about too. Man, I'm filthy. Knuckles would totally dunk me in the nearest pool he could find. And probably have a heart attack when he realized I wasn't complaining. For all that he loved swimming Tails had done his best to avoid actual grooming when he could talk his friends out of it, a childhood tradition owing more to some sense of honor than anything rational. Either way, his fur was a mix of silver and thick clotted red where it was left at all, and where he'd been worn down by his ordeal the skin was caked just as thick with the same colors. Maybe a trained eye could find something artistic in the patterns, or a geological history lesson in the layers, but Tails would gladly clog every pipe in his workshop to get his natural fluff back.
Still, perhaps it was the matted filth that was keeping him so warm, however relative a term that was right then. The smooth rocks beneath him curved down into the canyon he'd rode through the first time, sloping gently at first and then suddenly vanishing into a polished cliff. Getting down would usually have been trivial for Tails, but with one of his namesakes immobilized it would take some much more creative maneuvering he wasn't sure he had the energy – or the grip – to pull off anymore. Look on the bright side, Tails. If you slip you'll get down there that much faster. Shaking his head at his weak attempt at humor the weary fox felt his way towards the cliffside and began looking for purchase.
He found something much better than purchase. Whether through the erosion of a soft vein of rock or the artifice of some work team there was a rough-hewn path down through the edge of the cliff. Even more fortuitous, it truly was inside the cliff edge, with a swooping spine shielding him from view. It wouldn't have hidden a human very well, but Tails was more than small enough to fit under the rim and between the sides. Incredibly soft sandstone dust poured downhill at his touch and Tails just dug his heels in and rode the wave as best he could. There were a few hard jumps to make, true, and a few sharp corners and sharper rock shards, but now that he was out in the light those were practically thrills. Guess Sonic really did rub off on me!
Tails stumbled towards the hangar entrance with a grin swallowing his face whenever it wasn't disrupted by hard coughing. Then he rounded a hairpin turn in the pass and his happiness rushed away like the loose sand. The noise had been muffled by the mesa in the way; even now it was fainter than he remembered from the tunnels. But the lights were unmistakable. Below him, green and red blaster bolts hurtled out across the steel landing pad to smoke against the shields of one of the folding-wing shuttles or into the canyon walls. Tails couldn't be completely sure from this blind angle, but it was obvious that the Rebel troops who'd come to rescue Wedge were still there. And that thought terrified him.
It's been hours since we split up. How have they not found him yet? It was easy for the fox to come up with reasons. Booby traps. Soldiers. Loose monsters from the mines. More rockfalls. The images, and a few twinges of remembered pain, flashed through him. “No. Not going to think like that.” Liar. “He's going to be fine. His,” the fox's already raspy voice clogged his aching throat, “his friends are here for him.” I really made a mistake, didn't I?
This is a bad time to worry about that now, though, Tails. He could feel another layer to his headache bubbling up through his brain as the argument started. Where's your ship, for one? And even if you could get there, where's home?
And I know whose fault all of that is. It's sure not the Empire's decision.
“That's enough out of you two!” Tails snarled aloud, totally unconcerned with the way the words tore chunks out of his dry and dusty mouth. “We –” whoops, “I can deal with that all later. Right now, there's a...a friend here who still needs help. You coming?” he asked his recalcitrant brain with all the irritation Sonic and Knuckes had ever taught him to express.
Then he vaulted over the crumbly stone wall and down towards the platform without waiting for a reply.
It took Tails about a fifth of a second to realize the reasons why that had been a stupid move. First and most urgently, the only reason his tail wasn't still weeping fluids was because it was completely caked in grime. He hardly had enough muscle control left to wag it, let alone fly with it! For all the lift he could get by spinning his namesakes, Tails wasn't the least bit aerodynamic even back when he'd been getting daily runs in with Sonic – or dashing away from robot armies, more often than not. Gliding was purely a fantasy.
Second, the platform was directly beneath him, true, but it was also the center of a massive firefight. Even if he could slow his velocity to something less terminal, Tails doubted he'd have any sort of choice in his landing site. And with his leg and tail so injured, even making a safe landing wasn't nearly the certainty it had always been. Not something I've had to think about in six years now. Since Sonic came along and stopped me needing to wrestle coconut palms.
And third, the air was every bit as thin and frigid as he'd nearly forgotten from his tram ride across. He was already hyperventilating just to keep his brain working – though maybe that's not as worthwhile as normal, is it you two? Adding panic to the mix, either from the perfectly terrifying situation he'd put himself in or the slowly dawning realization that he'd breached the pressurized caverns and exposed all of the slave workers trapped down there to the barely breathable surface air, would just mean he suffocated in open air long before crashing. Which, again, might be a good thing.
As it happened, though, one of those problems seemed ready to solve the other two for him. The razor wind hadn't been purely a product of the high-speed tram; instead, it seemed tied more to the canyon itself. Or maybe the shuttle and the pocket-sized ground war were stirring it up. Either way, spastic updrafts hoisted the little fox higher into the air as they passed, long tentacles of pressure flailing up from the smooth-worn valley floor to grope blindly for the sky before crashing down over the lip. Tails spun almost in place, flier's instincts helping him shift his weight to stay centered over the platform as he made his gradual descent. Even his bloody ribbon of a tail pulled its weight, spinning far slower than it should have but still fast enough to let him do more than drift with the eddying air currents.
He was still dizzy though.
The platform had been much, much farther away than he'd thought when he'd jumped, but after an agonizing minute he was finally drawing close. Close enough to clearly make out individual soldiers, white plastic – plastoid, rather, he reminded himself with that strange part of his mind still able to hold onto information like that – clumped behind barricades in the cave mouth while people in bizarre black and white teardrop helmets huddled into whatever cover they could find out close to the shuttle. Many weren't in cover at all, just blazing away at the Empire's troops in a frantic effort to avoid getting shot. Tails nodded a little, remembering that “technique” from all of his times fighting Eggman's bots in the Tornado, or from battling the...the... Think it, Tails. It's okay to remember the name.
He took that thought under advisement, but refocused entirely on about the only people on the platform who weren't in constant motion. A man in a ruffled concrete-grey suit crouched behind the shuttle's boarding ramp, safely armored from the raging battle. At least, Tails assumed he was a man; in any case, he had much the same physique as Wedge had, only far less emaciated. And he was practically spitting into a walkie-talkie – no, they're called coms in this part of the universe, remember? Two others in the regular outfits flanked him, peeking out from behind the ramp to contribute a little more firepower, and that one sees me! Great!
Except it isn't. The man brought his blaster up, a long rugged rifle that looked like it had been duct-taped together from two or three Earth guns, and leisurely lined up a shot on the falling fox. Tails sucked in a big breath to shout that he was friendly, but the air was so thin here, and his throat hurt so much just breathing now. His whole world narrowed to the man's trigger finger.
Without warning even himself, Tails juked hard to the left. His bloodied tail somehow still stayed loyal, flying him smoothly towards the deck as a sustained barrage of blaster fire clawed through the sky around him. His vision blurred, no longer focused on the one guard yet unable to find purchase anywhere else, but from the flashes at the corners of his eyes he was able to realize the man he'd watched wasn't the one who'd just shot him. He had no idea how he'd managed to avoid all that fire from his blind spot, but he had neither the time nor energy to complain.
And no pain tolerance either. He slammed into the metal deck shoulder-first, bouncing hard and feeling both tails bruise as they continued to whip against it. The fresh damage he'd inflicted on himself and the platform's ice burn were an incandescent orange against his eyelids, but like lightning the flash dimmed to nothing more than a footnote. My brain's not working too well to begin with, but it's not doing any worse now.
That was a very relative claim though. As Tails staggered to his feet, tails and left shoulder limp and useless, it dawned on him once again how tired he was. Weakness spiraled through his head, pooling in his neck where it choked his thoughts and motions to a clumsy trickle. He wasn't even sure he was standing up, not without focusing all his attention on that and not the war going on around him. At least it seemed like both sides had written him off as a threat, which suited the faltering fox just fine.
He was finally upright now; his eyes and ears scanned the platform blankly. Everything he saw and heard reached his brain preprocessed, chunked up into little packets that jerked around in his head like an antique TV monitor. Little ruby blaster bolts stuttered back and forth, nobody bothering with stunners or ion guns or sonics... Sonic. Sonic would have bothered. He could have stopped this without anyone else getting...well, killed. There'd be lots of headaches to go around after though! The slideshow in Tails' eyes smoothed out, a soft green filter sliding over everything, replacing Kessel's sullen overcast with the colors of home. Not quite the sparkling emerald of his big bro's eyes, though. More like...Cosmo. The fox relaxed, almost hypnotized as memories of warmth and friendship pumped through his entire body. I promise I'll do better this time.
Then his eyes shot open wide as a blaster bolt caught his already crippled shoulder, pitching him onto his back and, inevitably, onto his raw tailflesh. Through the sudden pain he saw the diamond of light continue streaking off into the canyon – a near miss then – but all of the pleasure he'd just felt gushed out through the cauterized gouge it had burned into him. Maybe it's floating out in the air there, so the soldiers can catch a little? The little fox giggled as he struggled through the pain, knowing that the laugh was delirious.
Though his body was brutalized, it still knew far better than his mind that he still had a duty on the battlefield. He was little more than a passenger inside himself now, thoughts lagging seconds behind what was going on around him. Which was probably for the best; there was no way he'd have ever consented to turret up on his abused tails and spring-launch himself into the middle of the firefight.
No way either that he'd have been able to decide where to launch to. As his brain caught up with the action he wondered what clue had carried him towards that particular trooper, a tabby-patterned felinoid with tapered ears poking out through slits at the back of his helmet. Maybe there was something about his posture, or his angle or something one of the stormtroopers was doing in the distance. Chaos, maybe I just picked him because he looks like me! It was all academic anyway; Tails was already in motion, touching down from his initial leap and skidding through the jagged silt. He continued his charge in a frantic zigzag he'd never have been able to plan out ahead of time. It was guided purely by instinct, instincts honed by years of bullies and battlebots, and he blessed Sonic for helping him survive long enough to learn that.
Something changed again. It teased around the edge of his senses, some flash or noise or jostle or charge in the air, something he probably never would be able to identify. Whatever it was launched him into a graceless plop over the rebels between him and the cat-man, landing on his helmet with all six limbs. They hit the ground with matching yowls.
Tails felt the blasters pointing at him, felt claws coming out underneath him, but his ears were filled with the chirp of one Imperial rifle in particular. Though his face was buried in the man he'd tackled and blaster bolts gave off almost no waste heat, he knew there was a stream of red light filling the air right above them. And that even despite his lunge the beams were coming closer anyway, with nothing in the way to shield him.
And then they stopped. The blaster fire in his ears went quiet so abruptly he had to swallow to pop them. The little fox resolutely refused to think of the most likely reason why the gunner had stopped. He...he just got distracted. Yeah. That makes sense. Why couldn't people settle their differences through fistfights like civilized Mobians?
Without waiting for a “thank you” or a “damn you,” Tails unwound himself from the shocked rebel and sprang back into the madness. He was full of objections, his shredded calves and cramping lungs leading the rebellion against the rest of him, but their selfishness melted away when he saw where he'd taken himself this time. The woman was twice his size and weighted down with an armored jacket, which from the way she writhed and gasped on the ground had been the best decision she'd ever made. But the weight was immaterial to his surging energy. Tails stooped down low and hoisted her onto his less damaged shoulder, good tail bracing the parts of her his arms couldn't grip.
And then the pain caught up with him. He froze as all of the sensations of the last minutes? Hours? Seconds? caught up with him. Froze in the middle of the battlefield, with every gun on both sides undoubtedly swinging towards the strange interloper, or so he knew he'd see if his eyes saw anything but black. His terrified brain delegated once again, giving his body full control since it seemed to at least know what it was doing.
Tails had no recollection of crossing the meters-kilometers-millimeters to the shuttle, only a dim realization that there was a thinner, warmer metal with much less sand under his pawpads now, and that his charge was still safely writhing. A figure stepped out of the soft white light inside the shuttle, wearing the same grey fatigues as the rebels the fox had been rescuing, and stretched out his arms for the wounded woman.
They said something to him, something his ears were too overloaded to process, and stepped in close to take the weight off his back. It was only when they pulled away that Tails even registered the burning prick in his thigh.
The last thing he saw was a blue-capped needle in the medic's hand, and then a comforting mint ocean filled his eyes.
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Well, this is new.
I've been beating my head against a wall with Chapters 6 and 7 for literally years now, and I decided it was time for a new approach. The last several pages of this chapter have been heavily edited from where they were up until now, with the purpose of pushing Tails along past what was honestly an extra three to five chapters of filler to the point I actually wanted him to be at. I intend to resume the story with another chapter much sooner, as well, one starting off much closer to the end of this edit than the previous Chapter 6 did. Get things rolling with some additional action, one last round before I shift over to some relative fluff.
In related news, I'm working on a similar reboot for In Their Absence, but that's less a matter of restarting the last chapter and more of just finding an approach that works for the current one. I tend to swing from sci-fi to fantasy moods at the drop of a hat, so I'm aiming to keep my momentum rolling by writing on whichever story best fits my mindset each day.
or, enter your birth date.*
The "Star Wars" series and Expanded Universe are the property of Disney.
This is a work of fanfiction. No copyright infringement is intended.
It didn't take very long for Tails and his cellmate to find a comfortable routine – well, as comfortable as they were going to get in a Kessel prison cell, at least. The guards opened the top-right quarter of the shield to drop in food three times a day, at least according to what little remained of the fox's internal clock after so long away from home, and Wedge set aside about fifteen minutes in the middle of each break to try to convince Tails to pick up the holdout blaster. Other than that, they basically just talked and slept, using the time to dream about life with the Rebel Alliance.
And then there were the medical probes. The doctors still kept Tails unconscious for each of them, once every six feedings, although at least they'd only needed to shock him one more time before they got the anesthetic right. Each time he came back with the same set of holes, maybe a little wider, plus extra patches in his coat and a few aches in his tails. And sometimes there was a weird slithering pressure against his temples that made him think the medic had gone back on his promise not to inject the fox with anything more than the knockout drug. With no hard evidence, though, it was easier for him to just put it down to nerves and be grateful for the basic grooming they gave him each time too. Probably makes it easier on Wedge too, since I'm not sure which of us is oilier right now. Get me back in a machine shop and I'll totally take home the crown though.
On the subject of hygiene, it hadn't taken long for the normally apathetic kit to come up with a proper use for his jumpsuit. He'd developed a tradition of ducking bathings and groomings while he was growing up with Sonic and the hedgehog usually hadn't had any problem using him for a pillow anyway, and he'd tried to tug the orange fabric on exactly once to humor Wedge and given up in seconds. It pulled his fur flat in the wrong direction, itched like mad, didn't even have a slit for his tails, and simply wasn't his color, so wearing the silly thing wasn't really in the cards. It did, however, make for an excellent tablecloth, which made life easier not only for the two prisoners but also for the poor quartet of guards who brought them their food. Tails had also taken to tucking it under his side and flipping it up as a shelter whenever they slept. The human kept his head and chest warm while the cloth did a vaguely passable job of protecting his back and legs. Not remarkable, but better than freezing his tails off had been!
Still, even with another flier to talk to there was only so much to say. Even Wedge's stories of battles among the stars, populated by names as familiar as Luke and as bizarre as Crix and Rieekan - Tails had had to ask for details on spelling that one - had to peter out eventually, and they'd made the critical mistake of saying too much too quickly. That was brutally apparent after just the first eight mealtimes; they'd both burned out their voices. That left Tails with far too much time on his hands, a situation only made worse by the way his brain refused to dream and insisted on thinking. Cosmo wasn't just haunting his dreams anymore, she'd made it out into his conscious stream of thought too.
So it was a very morose fox that shook himself awake once again for Wedge's little firearms-awareness speech. Only this time, probably the thirtieth so far, it was a little different.
"Is your planet really that peaceful, Tails?" Wedge asked quietly. Tails felt the strangeness in the situation, the almost silent voices belying the scorn that was sure to follow. "You won't even use the gun in self-defense?"
"But it wouldn't be," Tails pointed out. "I'd be breaking out. They're supposed to keep me in here, so where in that do they deserve to d – to get shot?"
"You could just say the word," Wedge hissed at him. "It isn't like I'll think any less of you for it." Probably because your opinion's already at rock bottom.
But there was a little more to it than that. A technicality, but still. "There's still the stun setting. Not on this gun, you've told me, but just in general. And I'm going to wire up mine like that as soon as I get the chance. Still hope I never have to use them because that thing hurts, though."
Wedge's eyes widened fractionally, a motion Tails would never have noticed if he hadn't been locked in this gloom with the man for a week or more. "You really mean it. You just don't see things the way I do." Tails shook his head. "Look, I know that you're young. And whatever it is you see every night that makes you kick me awake, I'm fairly sure that gunfire was part of it. But when those walls go down it really will be them or us, and when the bolts are flying there's no time to make sure everyone on the other side is guilty. Or that all of your own are innocent," he added musingly, looking through Tails' ear at something only he could see. His words came almost as an afterthought.
But ironically his argument had given Tails a leg to stand on himself and with a little effort he could turn it into rhetorical tails to fly with. "Then you make time," he said with a little more assurance – and volume – than he'd meant to. He swatted his forehead as he realized he'd raised his voice but drove ahead anyway to make it sound a little less suspicious. "If you have to kill then you went wrong somewhere along the line. There's always room to be a little faster, smarter, more accurate, whatever you need to be." I'm usually none of the above, but hey, look at Sonic. Only time he ever killed someone is when I shot him at her.
"Let me guess, your brother the hedgehog taught you that bit, right?" Okay, now that they'd stopped hissing at each other Tails could definitely hear the tongue-lashing building up. "It might even be possible for him. I mean, if you can fly and toss things around with those tails of yours and look up to this guy, there's got to be something to it. But even still, you've been fighting the same warlord for six years now, you say?"
"Eggman's a friend, kind of," the fox said sullenly. I can't believe I'm grasping at that to prove a point, but it's close enough to true to keep me out from behind another trigger.
Wedge scowled and the fox shrank away from him. It was a terrifying sight on that bland, friendly face. "Have you asked all the people he uproots or imprisons or just plain blasts if they feel the same way? I don't kill because I enjoy it, believe me, but I enjoy seeing people I could have stopped rampage through genuine innocents even less. Think about that for a change, Tails."
"And the Imperials probably think the same about you," Tails protested. For some reason Wedge relaxed a little.
"I'm counting on it. If things ever get to a point where the people of the Empire think I'm nothing but a criminal then they're probably right. As it is, opinion's divided between the military and everyone else."
"And you wouldn't be either if you'd flown all your missions without killing people."
"Who'd have gone on to mow down a crowd of petitioners on the steps of the planetary capital, or board a luxury liner and shoot up people I might've known a decade ago, or any number of other things. Most of the stormtroopers are probably pleasant enough people, Tails, but we're still enemies. And Imperials have a track record only one notch above pirates when it comes to dealing with civilians that get in their way."
The fox worried at his argument like his feral cousins would a bone. "But they captured you, didn't they? To me that means the Empire's just proven it's stronger than you are."
The glare from earlier hadn't even been a warm-up, but Tails had no room left to cower this time. "Hardly." Wedge's voice was still passionless, but now it belonged to a war robot instead of a quiet young man. "Like I told you, they blasted us out of the sky with enough firepower to shred a lighter ship. They only sent a capture team after us after that, and one of two pilots got away from them anyway. Plus they outnumber us every time and at least match us for firepower on top of that, and their armor just ignores stun shots." He snorted. "Of course they're in a position of strength, and they still realize it's better to put an enemy down if he's still a threat. You need to see that, Tails, or you're going to get us both killed if we ever try to get out of here."
I...no, he's still wrong, he's got to be! But Tails didn't have an argument left, just the armor of his denial. After all, you felt the same about the Metarex, didn't you? That's why you sent Cosmo to die, so you could destroy them once and for all. No captures, no stun-guns or compromises. It didn't matter that they might not even have been sentient by the end, he'd still consigned an entire species to its death and only cared about the one part of it he'd known personally. And you wonder what you've been trying to tell yourself with all these nightmares, Tails. You've never been fast or strong or even smart enough to live up to Sonic's expectations of you. Or any other thinking being's if Wedge is anything to go by.
The little fox leaned heavily against the metal slab of their bed, shoulders shaking. Wedge leaned over behind him and started scratching behind his ears again. He'd gotten a lot more accurate in the last few days, Tails had to give him that. "Hey, don't sulk. I won't take any of it back, but there's something else to this whole thing, I can tell. Come on, talk to me."
"Said I could keep it all to myself," Tails muttered through crossed arms. His tails had wrapped tight around the other pilot though, holding him there until the fox could get himself under control, and Wedge gave no sign of pulling away. Given the way you tug he probably doesn't even know they're there.
"Unless it threatened the mission or your squadmates, I said. Sure, you're not under my command and Force known when we're getting out of here but I think this fits." The massaging hand tightened a little on the kit's scalp, flicking the three limp bangs back upright. "Tails?"
Tails had screwed his eyes shut, namesakes knotting together behind his cellmate. Half his mind screamed to tell his new friend, to clear things up and maybe even get a little help, but the other half reminded him that it was entirely his own fault and had to stay that way.
The second half was winning when the roof fell in.
Tails shook off the headache he'd gotten when a slab of rock bounced off his skull. It wasn't that bad, probably not much more than a pebble, and at least it had missed his ears. The same couldn't be said for the sound wave; he could feel the tinnitus shaking his whole body. Let's see...came from right above the bed. He sighed. Why am I the only electrician I know who actually wires up circuit breakers? It can't be cost-efficient to replace a whole room every time you get a power surge! At least it took care of the last microphone, although Wedge had taken a much heavier hit than he had so that didn't matter much. The fox knelt in the dust and started heaving debris off of the other pilot with all six limbs. He's halfway buried! "Come on, Wedge, people with as many hard landings as we've got can't lose to this little rock pile!"
Eventually the cairn dwindled away, leaving only an even more thoroughly dust-stained duo behind, and Tails rolled his friend face-up. He was breathing shallowly for now, but it was a healthy sort of shallow considering all the sand in the air. And this gives me an opportunity. Sorry, Wedge. The fox fished around in the dirt for the pistol, dangling it away from himself in the shield's light. "Let's see. Warden said that stunners don't use the gas cylinder at all, but that can't quite be true if...wait, no. It's a switch inside, something to do with the circuits. Need to get this silly thing open." The staccato stream of thoughts came as he turned the weapon delicately around, looking for the elusive access panel or molding seam or whatever else it had.
That's it! There was a little rectangular opening on the back of the grip. "Too small to be the seam for the entire gun though," he mumbled as his fingers worked. "Which means it's probably the gas, and the wiring should be right above it – which makes sense since that's where the dial was on the warden's model. Gotcha!" he cried as the little grey canister popped out at last. Holding it between thumb and forefinger he spun it around, letting the anemic light catch the two golden contacts and large depression at the top. Man, I wish I had my toolkit. Even the screwdriver would be nice right now. No matter what he was using, rewiring a live appliance by hand was usually scarier than it was worth. Only right now it's worth quite a lot, so stop fretting and get to work.
If he'd had the fingers of a feral fox he'd never have gotten them through the tiny opening. That said, a feral fox wouldn't have been millimeters away from electrocution either, so there were trade-offs. Let's see. I need to take the gas cylinder totally out of the equation here, which means I need to take these two wires here and just – got it? No way had he gotten it right on his first try. Still, without any ammunition there wasn't really anything bad that the gun could do to him unless he really had pulled it off, and even then the worst that could happen was that he and Wedge woke up together a few hours later. Which was pretty bad considering the guards had to be there any second after that cave-in, but nowhere close to lighting himself on fire.
And way better than lighting whoever's down the barrel on fire too. That's what really matters.
On the off chance he'd done things right they could quite possibly have a way out of the cell, though, and Tails leveled the pistol in both furry hands. As small as he was he could fit two fingers from each hand under the trigger guard, but none of them seemed interested in slamming the little sliver of metal home. Come on, you silly fox, it's just a piece of metal! But even the one shield generator he could still see over the rocks wore Cosmo's face now, grey metal shimmering into overlapping green petals. Just from looking at it he could feel the roselike softness under the protective waxy coating, the touch he'd only just gotten used to before he destroyed the one person it belonged to.
And that means this isn't her, idiot! The illusion faded as he finally jerked the trigger back, squeezing off a rod of blue energy that hammered right through the shield and set the generator sparking. Another shot followed it, then a third, and the dancing blue and purple current erupted into choking black smoke. Chaos, I hate electrical fires. That smell is awful! His nose was already shriveled up in anticipation.
Right on cue heavy plastic boots thundered across the rock outside even as something massive set the whole tunnel shaking. "No good, the emergency elevator's blocked off. We need to take the prisoners overland."
"What about our reinforcements? We can't control this many special prisoners with what we've got down here!" either a second trooper or the man's split personality spat back. "Besides, those're the Rogues outside, got to be. They'd nail the landspeeders before we were even out of the blasted caves."
Definitely at least two troopers judging by the overlapping impacts of plastic on plastic. "You want to tell the warden that? Because I'm not going to – what?"
There was a moment of hushed silence that set Tails' fur crawling. He twirled the pistol in his tail and surreptitiously tucked it underneath himself. "Stand down from riot condition," one of the soldiers said. Great, probably more than just two then if they're giving orders. "We have max-sec prisoners loose. Stun shots only or Command will flay us alive." Considering what I've seen of the Empire he just might mean that literally.
"How'd the Rogues plan this? This is the cell with that Antilles man in it, right?" somehow the voice came across as young and breathless even through the helmet.
Another plastic thud. "They didn't. That shield only popped because the roof hit it on the way down. Rogues wouldn't kill one of their own." Tails' ears picked up a mutter he doubted was meant for anyone else. "They're too good for that."
If Tails was going to get out of here, preferably with Wedge and anyone else who wanted to come, he needed more information than these people were giving him. And that meant it was time to take a calculated risk. "Um, hello? Guards? I'm still here." All right, so it was more of a wild and desperate risk. The fox pushed himself as close to upright as the tilted rocks above him would allow. "Wedge got hit when the rocks came down and I didn't want to leave him. The shield only went down a few seconds ago. What's going on?" Funny. I didn't make up a single word of that.
Four long black muzzles snaked through the debris to cover him while the flashlights under them ripped at his much-abused eyes. "Rebel attack and a riot in the outer areas. We're taking the prisoners in this block to our assault walker division for safekeeping. Grab your cellmate and move."
Tails eased himself out of the rubble, palms outspread and a cheesy smile on his face. "Sure, sure. Give me a minute here..." He felt the silence as much as he heard it. They can't have seen the pistol yet, can they? He had his answer as he started turning around. No, not the pistol. Not the pistol at all. Blast it.
The Tibanna gas cylinder lay out on the open floor where he'd left it, dully glinting in the portable lights. Tails whipped his head back around to the squad, tails cracking out into a wider stance as he willed his cramped muscles back to life. No time to go for the blaster anyway even if it would work. Even if I thought I could use it. Probably easier like this anyway. The thoughts whipped through his skull in an instant, then he dropped onto one arm and catapulted himself through the debris at the surprised stormtroopers.
It had been so long since Tails' last real flight – in fact, this still didn't count – but he'd never forgotten the syrupy sensations of adrenaline. From what he'd gathered Sonic got the same thing, which probably explained a lot about his big brother's achievements. The whole world slowed down around him even as he swam through it only a little faster than the rest. He wasn't really moving any quicker, not really, not the way Sonic could, but his body was giving him all the time he needed not to crash into everything around him.
Or in this case, to only crash into the things that really deserved it. His tails lashed out as he hurtled forward, floating through the air at the two furthest rifles even as he grabbed for the two right in his face. For all the fury of his attack, though, he was still somewhere under twenty-five kilograms on a good day and most of that was fur, and he'd stretched himself too far going for everyone at once. A single blaster carbine tore away in his left tail as he looped it behind the grip and yanked, but the others were barely knocked aside.
And one of them hadn't even gotten that far. Something far, far beyond scalding plowed along the kit's back and he screamed as he felt the fur scorch, but it was still a near miss. So were the next two, although considering the ice-burn of frigid air across the fresh scar he probably wouldn't have noticed.
His ears were reporting a different kind of chaos, one of confused squawks and indignant protests, but Tails didn't have enough focus to spare for any of it. He flipped himself around as best he could, yelping as the blaster burn twisted and tore even wider, and hammered his feet against the knees of the man who'd shot him. With all four free limbs to support him his small frame was still enough to flatten the poor soldier, who shrieked loudly enough to get through the confusion as his kneecaps stopped resisting.
At least with that attack Tails had broken their line, and as the other two armed soldiers tried to catch up he rocked to his feet – grinding the new-made char of his back into ever finer scabs – and ducked around behind them. Well, as close to behind as they would let him get; they were wary now, backs to the cell or the wall as the one dove for his weapon and the other two tried to get another shot off. The soldier on the ground pitched and moaned, screams breaking off into sobs, and the fox wanted to just roll over and surrender so they could all go get his legs fixed together.
Focus! You can reassemble them once they've stopped trying to take you apart! He was still low to the ground, a small stiff target that was clearly giving the troopers fits, and even though it couldn't be another knockout he slapped the outside rifle away with both tails. If nothing else his nerves were damming up the burn signals; he couldn't feel anything more detailed than a general screaming pain now. What an improvement.
The movement must have jostled the trooper's finger, because the blue flare of a stun bolt lanced directly from one gun to the next. Tails had maybe an eighth of a second to react after the stricken rifle sparked, and even with his adrenaline-fired reflexes he couldn't physically get out of the way before the explosion. The small blast wave plastered his burned hide against the far wall as snaggletoothed shrapnel tried to cage him there, and only through a small miracle did he peel himself off with only five or six minor cuts to the insides of his calves. The cavern hadn't been so lucky; he could still hear a fresh rain of boulders clattering to a rest just down the hall. Mercifully it wasn't blocking the exit, not yet.
Then he looked up to see the two concussed troopers trying to throw away the second rifle, and only after that did he pick out the metal lance buried in the stock. No fair.
The second blast dealt with the other two soldiers, but this time Tails was left with three or four new splinters trying to find paths to his lungs and his back so badly split he wouldn't be entirely surprised if he could touch his own spine. And there was still one soldier climbing to his feet, one man still with a gun, and although he was obviously dazed he was still more mobile than the savaged kit. The fox watched through a brownish haze as the final rifle swam towards him almost leisurely, feeling his beloved speed bleed away into the rocks of Kessel. The barrel came to a rest directly above his muzzle and he wondered what the faceless man was feeling about him, the mutant who'd just crippled his friend. As a final blue flash ripped his sight away Tails felt the trooper fall onto his legs spasming, and behind him was Wedge Antilles with the holdout blaster steaming in his hand.
Tails twitched his way back into wakefulness. Whatever rest he'd gotten had been fitful, with sounds and sensations – mainly pain – filtering through constantly without ever quite waking him up entirely. The closest he'd come had been a weird icy slime across his back. Now that he actually was awake he quickly realized why he'd had a problem with that. How could my back feel anything? Those grooves in it have to be burned clean through! But no, the entire admittedly insignificant width of his back was feeding him feelings again, and even if they all set his stomach churning with the crackling and twisting and breaking when his charred skin slid they shouldn't have been there in the first place and that was much more important. Plus, that liquid and the odd sense that he had fresh fur already had him curious. No, not fur. Bandages, maybe? Regardless, he could smell char and burnt flesh, neither of which he'd ever wanted to associate with again.
Against his better judgment the fox rolled up on his side, feeling gravel snag between his belly fur and the loose cloth across his chest as he moved. Yep, definitely bandages. I hope they got that trooper's legs set first though, poor guy really needs it. The scars flanking his spine complained but he resolved to ignore them. After all there was no avoiding the pain at this point, and besides whatever that icy cream he could feel smeared over him was probably the best medical care he could expect. With a final aching twist he sat fully upright, blinking away the darkness as he tried to make sense of his situation.
And someone grabbed him by his right shoulder and promptly pressed him back into the dirt. "Stay down until you're ready to move," Wedge hissed from somewhere above him. I was! Tails wanted to complain, but since it felt like there was still plasma in his fur he had to agree with the man after all. Wedge reached down into his boot with the hand he'd just used to flatten the fox and tossed him the pistol, keeping a confiscated trooper rifle braced on a shield generator. "You've had fifteen minutes to rest, no more." And that explains why I don't feel like I've slept. I didn't.
As Tails looked around and took all that in he started to realize exactly where they'd ended up. More or less. That's probably one of those side corridors I got marched past, like where the poor Talz jumped us. If it's the same one then we don't have far to go, just a straight line past that sonic shower or whatever it was and we're at the hangar.
"I'm ready to move," he said breathlessly after another minute. "Why aren't we going? Those troopers said Rogue Squadron was here and I bet they're wai –" Wedge jabbed sharply at the ground and the fox caught his shut-up gesture instinctively. Keeping his ears ducked – not something he actually had to worry about after his ordeal but still worth keeping conscious track of – Tails edged out past his friend's ankles to see what was going on. Nothing? "Wedge, what's wrong?" he whispered as if he was hiding from the microphones again. In fact, that was entirely possible, but something else clearly had the pilot's guard up.
And as he started focusing properly he realized he didn't need things explained to him. Gunfire down the corridor. Can't see the flashes so I've got no idea where it's coming from. The high sharp notes echoed and overlapped, making it impossible for even Tails' big ears to pin them down. Bet Knuckles would know exactly what was up. Of course, Knuckles would've just bowled those first four guys over and moved on so it wouldn't have been a problem. It wasn't that great of a hop from the hulking red echidna to Sonic, and it was even easier to get from there to homesickness. "Wedge," he panted again, "can we get moving?"
And again he was hushed, but at least this time the pilot gave him an explanation. "Not in this direction, not yet. Troopers everywhere, and some of the prisoners got blasters."
Tails frowned at him. "Isn't that a good thing?" Again the hushing gesture. I'm not even making noise! Come on, Wedge. At least he knew better than to moan that complaint aloud no matter how tempting it seemed. "They're on our side too, right?"
"Tails, turn around," Wedge instructed him. Tails cocked his head and ears quizzically, but obeyed. His eyes shot open and he promptly vomited a thin stream between his hands into the dust. I thought the burning smell was my back. Not...
Five corpses lay draped across a barricade of overturned tables and gurneys. At least, it looked like five, but considering the circumstances it could easily be more. One in particular was chest-up with his head thrown horribly back, staring just past the fox through the other door to the room. And as he looked at it, transfixed, he thought he recognized it. "That's him, isn't it?" His voice was hushed for a whole host of reasons now, but stealth was no longer among them. "The...the doctor who took me in for those tests." If it weren't for the face Tails wouldn't even have been able to tell the victim was a man, because whatever clothes he'd worn had been fused with his ribcage under sustained blaster fire. "Who did this?" His hands cramped up and he took a few deep breaths, managing to steady neither his nerves nor his stomach but at least easing the pressure in his fists.
"I don't agree with the Empire on most things," Wedge muttered a little louder than usual. Tails had always thought Wedge's voice usually sounded cold. Now, as he stood there shivering, he realized how wrong he'd been. "Pirates are one of the exceptions."
Tails' voice was as calm and level as Wedge's but the way his hands and feet and tails jittered gave him the lie. "People do this to each other here? These guys didn't –" Wedge rounded on him while keeping the rifle braced and Tails shrank back.
"No, they didn't deserve it. But they had things the other runaways wanted." He tossed his head at the other opening, which was even worse-lit than the one he was guarding. "Cover, medical supplies, and I think maybe a way out."
If there'd been any substance to those ration packs Tails would probably have lost it then. Even with nothing left there was still a deep ache as his stomach tried to heave again and again. And a much deeper one as he tried to process that the enthusiastic young medic who'd recognized his hate for needles and handled him as gently as he could had been shredded like that for no better reason than bad timing. He didn't bother unclenching his fists this time, not even as the muscles in his hands began to ache. "Well, what are we waiting here for?" This time the fox didn't even bother trying to keep his voice down no matter how frantically Wedge gestured. "Wedge, tell me what's going on down here!" There was a whiny edge to his voice but at this point he was beyond caring.
The man ran his free hand through his hair. "All right, Tails, all right. The rioters must've blasted their way through the wall somehow. Actually, I think it came from the other side since the rubble's all in here. If it was a laser drill it wouldn't leave much debris either way. Anyway," he pressed on before Tails could sidetrack him with questions. "The warden moved in with what looked like a full twenty stormtroopers and choked off the tunnels. Some of us from the back room stuck together, but we scattered when they showed up."
"You left people behind? But if you lost other people, people who could actually fight...then why'd you save me?" Tail's voice was tiny, almost swallowed by the still cave air before it reached even his own ears.
"Because you aren't with Black Sun or Zann or the Hutts," Wedge explained with a long-suffering air. It sounds like he's heard this before, then. "I don't think even a dedicated Imperial spy could play their part quite as well as you have, Tails, let alone a raider. And because of that I knew you wouldn't do something like this." Tails closed his eyes, feeling the heat just behind his lids. Oh, Wedge, you have no idea how wrong you are. I'd like to think I wouldn't be this petty or savage about it, but I'm not sure how much credit I can give myself. "Look, I don't have to kill those people, especially not with the stormtroopers already on it. But I owe them nothing either. And besides," he added, "I'm more worried about the people down the other hole, down in the mine tunnels. But if it was a laser drill that opened this tunnel there'll be no way for us to escape down that end." Wedge shuddered a little, muttering rapidly under his breath.
Tails ignored the pilot's rapid-fire planning. "Drill," he repeated slowly instead. Anything to distract himself from the horror around and inside him. "Right, the mines. I know they intersect with the main tunnel back up where we were because the troopers dragged someone down them. But you're right, unless these guys are total idiots we'd just end up trapped by the guards an...what?" Wedge was looking at him with an odd expression. And then, slowly, he started to laugh.
"'Unless they're total idiots,' he said with a chuckle. "Well, Tails, we might just have a chance after all!"
Tails scurried through the passage downrange of Wedge on all fours, namesakes dragging through the dirt and eviscerated holdout gun clamped between his teeth. I'm probably going to regret this, and he didn't just mean the dental bill. Even with the Tibanna canister tucked safely into his tail fluff so smoothly he could barely keep track of it, he was still charging an unknown but large number of the same people who'd set his back on fire earlier essentially unarmed. Wedge's covering fire wouldn't amount to much either, and if things went according to plan he wouldn't have to shoot at all. They needed the stormtroopers chasing Tails down the wrong corridor, and if that was going to happen his teammate had to stay unseen. They'd argued over who got decoy duty, but in the end the fox's small size and superior speed had won out. Assuming I've still got that speed with my back all messed up.
Stop complaining, Tails. You volunteered, didn't you? Besides, this is what Sonic taught you to do best. You're not about to let him down again, right? There were times when he wondered how crazy it was to want to snarl at his own conscience. There are times for those thoughts. This isn't one of them. You're about to run right into –
And then there he was. The cavern had been growing marginally better-lit as he approached, mostly by strobing red and white lights and the off-blue radiance of whatever shields had held out this long. He was already about as low to the ground as he could be but he pressed himself down a little further, a ribcage trained against the Emerald Hill Zone's local bullies barely registering the protruding rocks. Ears tucked back he edged his head around the corner and finally got a good look at what had left Wedge running scared.
Definitely more than twenty, he thought almost calmly even as his heart pumped faster than the Tornado's engine. Warden's scarier though. The man still didn't have a helmet on for whatever reason – even if he didn't think he needed one against the prisoners, surely the cave-ins should have convinced him! Judging from his demeanor he probably assumed he could take either and win handily. A sword that looked too cylindrical to be practical glowed yellow in his hand – maybe it's a shock prod? That'd explain it – while a weapon somewhere between a carbine and pistol waited at his hip. An already familiar smell wafted down the passageway. Tails wrinkled his nose as tight as his tired muscles could make it go, gagging as the stench of burning flesh washed over him once again. All right, I need to get their attention and then try not to get myself killed too badly. Easy, right? Sonic's done it loads of times.
Of course, you're not Sonic, are you, Tails? He stamped down on that thought – bruising his toes against the rough ground in the process – before it could take root. No time for that. His hindquarters lifted off the ground, wriggling a little as he nerved himself up. Let's see. Got to be at the right time – maybe when they're distracted so I get my chance to run? It had worked well enough in Emerald Hill, although he rather doubted that the soldiers were quite foolish enough to fall for a tossed rock or something no matter what Wedge had said.
And while he huddled in that corner waiting to pounce, Tails saw something that changed the plan completely.
A little down the hallway he could see the first cell in the block, its shield still shimmering through the gloom. The warden stowed his sword, the yellow glow-rods set in a plus formation around the black cylinder dimming. In its place he drew his blaster, and without even bothering to bring it up and aim he simply locked back the trigger and sent a storm of red bolts straight into the barrier. Tails could hear the screams, attenuated but not at all blocked by the still-intact shield, and suddenly all rational thought of evasion and maneuver went straight out of the airlock. He spat out the blaster shortly before he would have bitten through it and snatched it up as he hurled himself through the hallway directly at the Imperial officer.
The stormtroopers snapped their rifles up, but even in the much broader tunnels out here there was still such a thing as overkill and most of them had no way to even aim at the fox. Those who could held back, though, since Tails' enraged charge had carried him all the way to their commander. A leaping double-pawed kick sent his heavy blaster skittering against the shield, leaving it sparking unhealthily. With a snarl the grey-haired old man snatched the sword back out, only to find it wrapped tightly in a tail. The fox knew he was a hair away from wresting control of the weapon away from the warden when a high whine filled the air. His ears flattened reflexively, but whatever pain the sound was causing was utterly insignificant compared to what the sword had just done to him.
His tail uncoiled and withdrew, not that it had much choice, and he felt the cold stickiness of his blood somewhere he'd rarely had to before. For almost its entire length his precious tail had been skinned down well into the muscle, and unlike the blaster bolts this sword wasn't polite enough to cauterize the would. For a stunned second Tails just stood there staring at his crippled namesake as his own blaster clattered to the floor, then the other tail came up by reflex to hold the man's arm at bay before his swing could take the kit's head off too. It wasn't entirely successful, not when shock had left him powerless, but the frantic move at least bought him enough time to scramble back down on all fours and try to break off down the hallway with little more than a nick across the scalp.
Of course, that brought its own problems with it. For one thing, the soldiers now had a mostly clear shot at him, and for another the warden's reach was still substantially longer than Tails was even before factoring in that obscene sword. But one problem could sometimes solve another, and as the soldiers fired intermittent bolts in the fox's general direction their leader ducked back out of their way to salvage his own gun. With the injuries he'd taken he didn't know if he could outrun the soldiers after all, and with his blaster gone he couldn't even try to knock a few of them out or damage their weapons like before.
Gritting his teeth, the badly beaten fox took off at the closest thing to a sprint he could manage, going back on all fours and keeping his mauled tail held stiffly aloft. Between the white fur and the weeping fluids it would stand out like a neon "shoot me" sign in the troopers' flashlights, but he was moving quickly enough even with his back crumbling into dust around him that they'd have a little trouble with that. More to the point he was moving so erratically that even saturation fire wasn't quite doing it. The cave was wide enough and he was so tiny within it that the limited front line couldn't hit every spot he might dodge into, and through a minor miracle he started to open the gap.
More shields started to show up alongside him, their prisoners watching with anticipation at the unexpected show as Tails charged along, his entire body waving as again and again he kicked off the ground with each pair of limbs just like his feral ancestors. Not even the harsh ground was going to slow him down here!
Not until it exploded centimeters from his face. A blaster bolt finally went high instead of low and shards of half-melted rock clawed furrows in his cheek, mercifully scalding them closed again as they passed. At least it'll go with my back and tail, he thought hazily as he pitched forward and landed hard on the point of his chin. His skull sang with the impact, but unlike before the ringing and the flashing lights faded quickly to let him hear a single pair of boots clattering closer. Not like this. Barely conscious though he was, Tails' nerves had run out of space to pump in pain signals and his brain was whirring away at full speed. Not here!
He had no idea why it was he chose that precise moment to lash out. It wasn't as if he could see the warden while lying face-down in the dirt, after all. But his healthy tail slammed across the tunnel at flying speed to hit something metallic out of his killer's hand. The weapon was surprisingly hot to the touch even before it sent a bolt of energy sparking somewhere he couldn't see. And with that the exhausted kit had one surprise left to share. He kicked off the ground as hard as he could, lunging as high as his damaged body was willing to accept, and started spinning his tails together. The flayed one burned, he screamed, but he couldn't stop flying now. Too much was riding on his success – if the soldiers thought to check back on Wedge, or even keep executing prisoners, when he could have led them off by just pushing himself a little harder, it would hurt far more than a filleted tail or a blaster bolt to the spine. He heard filtered gasps and yells behind him but no blaster fire, and finally he took the opportunity to look back. The entire force, warden included, was charging forward as fast as they could, weapons forgotten in their haste. And then Tails' eyes widened and were promptly overloaded as the officer's battered pistol finally broke. An eruption of white light filled the room and close on its heels the thunderclap knocked everyone to the ground.
The fox scrabbled to his feet despite slipping a few times as the rock shuddered and broke beneath him, and his own trembling didn't help matters. Way too much like lightning for my liking. He slipped and slithered across the ground time after time, his bloody, weeping tail hurting so much that he could barely feel his legs. Blind with the darkness and pain, Tails groped around for it until he finally managed to grab the undamaged fur at the tip of the tail and tossed the whole limb up over his shoulder. It lay there limply and he had to resist the urge to whisper to it like a frightened pet.
He had finally managed to get himself upright again when another thunderclap came, this one jolting its way through the ceiling. He didn't even bother looking back this time. I can't help them out of a cave-in now. I'm just not strong enough. Wherever the boulders landed they'd be sure to dam up the tunnel, leaving him stuck with just one passage left open to him, and if he was really unlucky they'd even force the soldiers to double back right to where Wedge was running. No, he's got to get away. I might have been an idiot and messed everything up for him, but I can't let him get caught too!
But no, there was nothing left to do. The situation had completely left the kit's hands now, and with a sob that wracked his whole body he sat down and simply watched the falling rocks block the soldiers from view. Maybe they're trapped in there, like between two different fracture points or something. Then they could get out in a little while if they dig or shoot the rocks. But the prisoners in those cells will be stuck in there with them, and the warden was killing everybody. I don't care what they did to the medic, no one deserves what I just caused.
His eyes burned, a sensation he'd grown far too familiar with for his big brother's tastes, and after watching helplessly a few minutes more the defeated little fox stood up and trudged down the hallway. His shoulders shook, his breath came hard, but worst of all was the sad green figure that danced just ahead of his closed eyes. Tails, why do you keep failing? It wasn't Cosmo's voice, it wasn't his voice, it wasn't any voice, it was just the product of his own nightmares.
But he listened anyway. Why do you keep making things worse for everyone? I thought you wanted to be a helpful person.
I do, he tried to protest, but his brain wouldn't let him silence himself so easily. No, that wasn't true. It was the thought of Cosmo rebuking him he couldn't stop. He could see her face so clearly, lit like they were back on the Blue Typhoon instead of buried in some freezing tunnel under Kessel. I thought I was trying! That thought he could hear, in the high whining tones he used whenever Sonic or Eggman beat him in some argument.
You were. Cosmo's expression softened for a moment, but his hopes fell with her face. But you don't succeed. You killed all of those men and women back there just like you killed me, and what did it earn you besides a slow death of your own?
"No," he muttered as he sagged to the ground, energy drained at last. "No, I'm not going to..." His mouth didn't even fully close before he fell asleep again, but Cosmo refused to leave. Alone in his mind Tails just stared into her mournful eyes and waited for something to change.
Because Chaos knows I can't change things myself.