Chapter 10: Of Promises and Payments
“Agh! What the hell are you doing?! Just butt out!”
An otter sitting on a pipe near a fenced-off area near the checkpoint to Sector 6 fell to the dirt at the sight of Tails’ greatsword pointing at him. The fox raised an eyebrow at the strange fellow who was cowering in terror. “Sorry ‘bout that,” he said, sheathing the blade. “I heard some noise back here. Thought it was a Robian.”
The otter soon calmed down, picked himself up and brushed the dried earth off of his rear end and legs. His coat was a rich, dark brown with a circle of white fur around his left eye. He wore a simple green vest and a pair of black jeans with black and orange sneakers. He faced the fox and glared darkly at him. “Sheesh,” he muttered. “Here I am, sitting by myself in my special spot and you just barge in here with the intent to murder! Geez, man…”
“Wait,” Tails said, holding up a hand to interrupt. “What do you mean, a ‘special spot’?”
The Mobian’s face went from fuming to smiling in an instant. “Yeah!” he exclaimed happily. “This place here is my special spot! It’s amazing! I mean, look what’s beyond there!”
Curious, Tails looked through the fence the otter was pointing at. His head then started tilting back and his vision was filled by the titanic support pillar that balanced the load of the entire Sector 7 Plate. It was a colossal 75-by-75 meter concrete structure that extended from the ground level and into an insert on the plate’s underside 100 meters up. Right next to it was a smaller, steel tower with various cables going into the pillar.
Though his face portrayed indifference, Tails was inwardly awed at the sight. ‘I’ve passed by this thing multiple times… but I’ve never stopped to take a good look at this thing,’ he thought as he observed the steel tower and the cables that connected it to the support pillar. ‘Those cables must be used to monitor the integrity of the pillar, probably to make sure it remains intact… Wish I could take a closer look at this thing…’
The otter grinned. “A sight to see, huh?” he said, his rough and energetic pitch catching the fox’s attention. Tails saw the otter’s face fall a moment afterwards. “Y’know, there was a bombing up top,” he said, crestfallen. “If this pillar should come down, the whole plate’ll fall on us and everyone here will be toast… but what the hell am I worried about?” A grin returned to his face. “No point in doing that now, huh? Chances of this thing falling are moot, in my opinion!”
‘Well… He seems upbeat, at least…’ Tails thought to himself. He turned around but craned his head back to address the otter. “Listen, I gotta go,” he said. “You should get home where it’s safe.”
The otter scoffed. “Ah, don’t worry about me. As long as I’m in my special, wonderful place, I’ll be alright,” he said. “Oh yeah, my name’s Pacchi. My nan named me that cuz of the white patch on my eye. You’re welcome to come here anytime.” He flashed a salute from his left hand and then turned back to stare at the pillar.
Seeing that no danger was present, Tails walked away from the pillar-obsessed Pacchi’s special spot and towards the residential district. Bark and his crew were waiting for him at the entrance gate. As he loped towards them, he saw the bear cross his arms, his face contorted into a scowl. “Yo, what the hell were you doing just now?” he asked, eyes narrowed in suspicion.
Tails suppressed a sigh. ‘Still overly paranoid.’ “Thought I heard a Robian over there,” he responded, pointing to the fenced-off pillar access behind him. “Turns out that it was only Pacchi.”
The steely look Bark gave him softened slightly as he let out an exasperated chuckle. “Oh, you finally met that guy?” he said, wearily. “Yeah, he’s a weird one – totally and completely obsessed with the pillar, but he’s a decent fella. Anyways, come on y’all!”
Passing through the gate, the group entered the district and wound their way through the narrow streets towards the bar. Though it was the middle of the night, the district was alive with activity. Neighbours were milling about with one another on the streets and Tails could pick up their worry-filled conversations about the events that occurred on the Plate. Children, roused from their slumber, were out on the streets wondering what the commotion was about and why the adults were looking extremely concerned. The nervous chatter was juxtaposed by the loud and raucous noise coming from Vanilla’s Haven at the end of the main thoroughfare.
As they neared the bar, Bark pressed a tiny switch on the side of his Gun-Arm. Tails heard a sharp click and he watched as the bear removed the ammunition that fed into the prosthetic. From one of his side pockets, he then pulled out a long clip with a blue band around the base and inserted it into the feed. Tails looked at him quizzically. “What are you doing?” he asked as the group finally stopped at the entrance to the bar. From the boisterous commotion coming from Cream’s establishment, it sounded like she had a full house tonight.
“It’s closing time,” the polar bear replied cryptically. He strode up the steps and burst through the saloon doors. He then pointed his gun upwards and opened fire at the ceiling. The explosive sounds of gunshots startled the patrons and they started to depart in droves, leaving their uneaten food and drink behind. Bark chased the rest of the stragglers outside and eventually tossed out a drunkenly protesting, red-headed man with his good arm. “You heard me! It’s one in the friggin’ morning! We’re closed for the night, so GET OUT!” he yelled, stomping down the stairs. He let Biggs, Wedge and Jessie pass him before he stood at the bottom of the stoop, blocking access to the bar.
‘Hmm… blanks. Now that’s a way to clear out a room,” Tails mused as he walked up to the bar. He was soon accosted by the redheaded drunk, who stood up and shambled towards the warrior.
“Hey… Heeeeey! If it ishn’t the childhood fren!” he said, his voice slurred from heavy drinking. “Um… Why… Why’d they throw ush out? We wash having funnnn…”
A badger came up to the man’s side and put his arm around his shoulder. “OK Johnny, it’s time to go home,” he said, hoisting him up before turning to the fox. An apologetic half-smile crossed his face. “Sorry about that. After news of the explosion broke out, everyone started to panic… That is until Cream announced that all drinks were half-off…” he sighed. “Say what you will about the state of affairs, but alcohol lets us forget that we live in a shithole, at least for a little while.” He turned towards the house next to the bar; a structure constructed using part of a mobile home and scraps of metal and brick. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I gotta take this guy home. His parents’ll be furious, but still.” He departed with his drunk friend in tow.
“Hey, foxy! Get off your slow movin’ ass! You’re going in, aren’t cha?” Bark said harshly. He moved out of the way so that the fox could go through. Tails shot him a withering glare as he strode past him, pushed the saloon doors open and entered the bar.
Cream looked up from the sink as Hope bounded up to Tails, her eyes closed and a wide, joyous smile stretched across her lips. Before she could call out to her, the tiny girl then launched herself into the fox’s chest and hugged the startled Mobian tightly.
“H-Hey!” Tails cried out.
Hope stiffened. She lifted her head out of his chest and her crystal blue stared into his own glowing, electric blue. Embarrassed, she abruptly let go and dashed away to hide in a nook next to the bar counter.
Cream watched the exchange and let out a gentle sigh as she opened the flip-top portion of the bar counter. She then walked to the little girl’s hiding place and bent down, smiling at her. “Hey Hope, aren’t you going to say hello to Tails?” she asked.
Hope squeaked and nodded, her face a shade of fiery red.
Gathering the little girl in her arms, the fighter approached Tails. “Welcome home,” she said. Hope glanced at Tails for a moment and then buried her head into the crook of Cream’s neck, which caused the rabbit to giggle. “It looks like everything went well,” she said, as she placed the girl back down onto the floor. The little Human promptly hid behind the taller Mobian’s legs. Cream then shot Tails a stern look. “Did you fight with Bark?” she asked, her hands on her hips.
Tails gave a sidelong glance to the wall where the pinball machines lay. “…He started it,” he said after a long pause.
The bartender huffed and crossed her arms. “I figured that was the case,” she said, exasperated. “Bark’s always pushing people around and you,” she emphasized this by pointing a finger at him. “Have been getting into fights ever since we were little.” She paused, her hard expression softening. “I was worried.”
Tails looked back at his childhood friend and shrugged. “No need to. I’m fine,” he said with an air of nonchalance. He then did a once-over on himself. “…Well, a little banged up, but yeah, I’m fine.”
Cream let out a laugh. “Well, I’m glad to hear that,” she responded. Her eyes spotted something sticking out of the fox’s side pocket. “Hey Tails, what’s that in your pocket?”
“Oh, this?” Tails said, reaching back and pulling out a pair of thin envelopes. He handed one over to her. “Here, open it.”
The rabbit gave her friend an odd look as she tentatively opened the paper to reveal its contents. Her eyes widened. “Flowers?” she said, a dreamy look in her eyes as she held the yellow daffodil in her hand. “Aw, how nice! You almost never see them here in the slums.” She looked down and tenderly caressed the soft petals with her fingertips. “But…” she started, glancing back at him with a tiny smile dancing on her lips. “A flower for me, Tails? Oh, aren’t you suave?”
Tails tried to look indifferent, but Cream couldn’t miss the upward quirk of his lips. “No big,” he said, scoffing. “It’s the least I can do, considering all that you’ve done for me lately.”
Cream brought the daffodil up to her nose. “Thank you Tails, it smells wonderful,” she chimed. She turned around to the counter and quickly looked for a vessel to put it in. “I’d really love to fill this place with flowers… I think it’d make a nice touch. Don’t you think so?” When she didn’t hear him respond, she turned back around to see the warrior kneeling in front of Hope.
“Here,” he said, handing over the other flower in the package to the little girl. “A little something… for putting up with me these last few weeks… and as a thank you for letting me stay here.”
Her receding blush brightening once again, Hope clutched the white flower towards her chest and blinked shyly at Tails. Wordlessly, she scampered away and hid behind Cream’s legs. She peeked back at the fox for a moment before ducking behind them once more, her cheeks now a deep shade of crimson.
The rabbit’s heart swelled with joy at the exchange. ‘I never knew he was good with kids,’ she thought as she watched Tails rise up. ‘It seems like Hope’s taken a shine to him, at last.’ “Sorry Tails, Hope’s a little shy,” she said.
Tails shrugged in response as he unsheathed his sword, walked to a nondescript corner of the bar and placed it against the wall. He then took a seat at a table near the one Biggs, Wedge and Jessie occupied.
Cream’s eyes lingered on the sword for a moment. He had put it at that same spot every single time he returned to the bar after finishing his rounds for the day for the last three weeks. As she stared at the battle-scarred blade, she felt old and hazy memories bubble to the surface. She also felt a prickling sensation both on the scar that lined her abdomen and on a second, smaller scar on the back of her head, next to the base of her right ear. Cream forced herself to stow down feelings of regret and hatred while resisting the habitual urge to touch the scar on her head. She instead hoisted Hope up into her arms, placed her on a barstool and then returned to the back of the counter.
Biggs stood up from his seat, approached the counter and asked for three shots of what he called ‘The Good Stuff.’ Grateful for the distraction, Cream giggled mirthfully as she pulled down a bottle of Downundian Whiskey from the top of the shelf. She then lined three shot glasses on a tray and expertly poured three, precise 1oz drams in each glass, taking care to ensure that not a single drop of the amber liquid was spilled. The task completed, she returned the bottle to the shelf and slid the tray over to Biggs.
Grinning, the raven-haired man downed one of the shots and took the other two to his table. Cream then turned to the sink opposite of the bar counter to begin washing up for the night, idly listening to the conversation behind her while she worked.
“Heeeey! Tails!” Biggs exclaimed loudly. Cream stifled a chuckle as she imagined the man’s trademark grin plastered all over his face. His speech was starting to slur and his face was slowly turning red – clear cut signs that the whisky was doing its job. “Here, have a drink to celebrate, huh?” He held out the shot glass filled with amber-brown liquid. “It’s the good stuff: snatched from Downunda! It’ll grow hair on your chest, kid!” He paused. “Well… more hair than you have right now, I mean… Anyways, here, have one!”
Tails opened his mouth to speak in what Cream expected to be a refusal. Instead, she heard him say, “You know what, that’s not a bad idea.” The bartender spun around to see the fox pluck the glass from the Human’s hand and down it in one go. He swallowed and relished the drink. “Ahh… not bad,” he said, flipping the glass upside down and slamming it onto the table. “It could be stronger though.”
“Yeah!” The black-garbed man hollered jubilantly, getting up and pumping his arms in the air. “Yo, you really are a badass! That shit’s just over 80% alcohol and you downed it like nothing! Still,” he calmed down, settling back into the chair once more. “You’re only a rookie in this operation, see? So, y’know, you should listen to what I tell ya.” He lolled his head backward for a moment and stared at the ceiling before it snapped back to Tails. “Oh! Hic… Um… don’t tell Bark what I just told you, alright?”
Tails gave him a flat stare. “Yeah, sure,” he said, his brows lowering into a scowl.
“Hey, aren’t you hungry?” Jessie asked him from across the table. “I mean, all that fighting and running around must’ve worked up an appetite, huh? I’ve eaten three platefuls of food and I’m STILL famished…”
“Yeah, me too,” Wedge chimed in between mouthfuls of the last portions of what was today’s special. “Mmm… Cream’s cooking is the greatest. Hey, Tails, I gotta tell you,” he faced the warrior. “Cream always lets me taste her cooking; it’s probably the reason why I’m all roly-poly. But still, this bar’s famous because of the food and drink here.” He then returned to his eating.
Tails cocked an eyebrow. “… I’ll get something later,” he muttered as he pushed the chair back and stood up. He headed over to the saloon doors when they slammed open as Bark strode in.
Hope’s face brightened at the sight of the bear. “Papa Bear!” she cried as she hopped off of the stool and ran towards her father.
Bark’s grizzled frown morphed into a wide and playful grin of his own as he knelt down with his arms spread open. “Hope! I’m home, little cub!” he said as the little girl flung herself into his arms and nuzzled her face into the soft fur on his chest. The bear soon hefted the little girl onto his right shoulder and straightened up. It was then that he noticed the flower clutched in her tiny hands. “Hey, where’d you get the flower from?” he asked gently.
“Tails gave it to me,” she said, smiling at her father’s bemused look.
“Oh…” he said. He looked at Tails with an unreadable expression on his face before turning back to his adoptive daughter. “Did you thank him?” he questioned.
Hope’s cheeks turned a shade of bright pink as she looked back at the warrior. “… Thank you Tails,” she said before taking her father’s cap and hiding her face behind it.
Bark burst into laughter. “Hah hah hah! Aww, don’t be shy kiddo,” he said in between guffaws. Reining his laughter in, he took his hat back and replaced it on his head.
Cream crossed over the bar counter and cleared her throat to catch her leader’s attention. “You alright Bark?” she asked.
“Just great!” he responded, a triumphant grin plastered all over his muzzle. He walked towards the pinball machine at the far end of the establishment. Holding his daughter steady on his shoulder with his Gun-Arm, he bent over slightly, passed his hand underneath the machine and flipped a switch. “Alright, everyone! Get down here, we’re starting the meeting!” he said, pressing the right and left flipper buttons twice and then pulling the plunger back three times.
The floor beneath him, along with the pinball machine, began to descend into a secret area beneath the bar. The three Humans got up and followed their leader, hopping down into the opening. Cream heard someone then reactivate the secret elevator to bring the lift back up. The platform meshed perfectly with the bar’s hardwood flooring and concealed the hideout beneath it once more.
As she watched Tails approach the pinball machine, Cream called out to him. “Hey Tails, why don’t you come sit here for a bit before going down?” she said, jerking her head towards the seat in front of the counter. “I’ll even make you something to drink? How ‘bout it?’
The fox halted in his tracks, walked back to the bar and took the aforementioned seat. He placed his elbows on the counter and propped his chin on steepled hands. “Really? You got anything stronger than that stuff you got from Downunda?” he asked teasingly.
The rabbit gave him a wicked smile. “Oh, something even stronger, huh?” she said. “Then I have the perfect drink for you.” She turned to the shelf behind her and started pulling five specific bottles down, setting them on the counter. “I’ve been meaning to mix this one for a long time, but no one’s been willing to try it.” She then brought out nine jiggers, a chilled cocktail glass and a shaker from underneath the bar. Lining up the shot glasses into a row, she placed a scoop of ice into the shaker and started mixing Tails’ drink.
Cream started by pouring out some Christmas Island Brandy into the first shot glass. She then expertly flipped the bottle into the air with her right hand while grabbing the one labelled Icicle Town Vodka with her left. Deftly, she began pouring three shots of the clear liquid as the bottle of brandy sailed down towards the surface of the bar. Upon pouring the third shot, she extended her right hand and delicately caught and balanced the bottom of the brown bottle with her pinky. Slipping it and the vodka back onto the counter, she moved onto the Mercian Absinthe. Swinging the bottle up and around with flair, Cream took a shot glass, flung it upwards and caught it, the bottle’s neck fitting neatly into the glass. Gracefully, she rotated both bottle and glass 180 degrees, placed it on the table and lifted the bottle. The measure was filled to the brim with bright, green liquid. She repeated this a second time and followed up with a shot and a half of the Station Square No.1 Gin.
Grinning at the fox, she grasped the necks of both bottles and began juggling them. The gin bounced artfully off of her left elbow and the absinthe spun lazily in the air above her head. Catching it and setting it and the gin onto the counter, she poured the contents of the final bottle into a measure – a shot of Chaoberry liqueur. Lining them up in order, she poured the contents of each jigger into the shaker, closed and shook the contents vigorously and strained the deep burgundy liquid into the cocktail glass.
She slid it towards Tails, who caught and stared into the muddled, blood-red drink. He arched an eyebrow at her. “Pretty impressive moves there,” he said, his eyes sparkling with interest. “Do you do this with all your customers?”
“Only the very special ones,” Cream pipped, a mischievous and devilish look in her eyes. “Drink up… if you dare.”
Smirking, the fox took a healthy gulp of the dull red liquid. Instantly, he set the glass down hard on the counter and began coughing loudly. “Hack… What… What the hell is this?” he asked as Cream started laughing at him.
“Hah… That’s… Hah, hah… I call it an ‘Aunt Roberta’,” she said over fits of giggles. She took several breaths to calm herself before continuing. “A little drink that I came up with that’s got more of a kick than the whiskey from Downunda. I named it after a distant aunt of mine who was always sharp-tongued.” She cracked a large grin at the fox. “I’m glad to see that you’re enjoying it, Mr. Ex-SOLDIER.”
Tails narrowed his brows. “Bite me,” he responded hoarsely, annoyed that his quest for a good hard drink left him worse for wear.
The rabbit only chortled in response. Settling down once more, she leaned in and placed her elbows onto the counter. She regarded the fox, concern filling her eyes. “You know, I’m glad you made it back safely,” she said.
Tails looked taken aback at her words. “What’s with you all of a sudden?” he replied, surprised. “That wasn’t even a hard job.” He took another swig of the potent cocktail – a little less than what he took the first time – and shuddered slightly as the stinging liquid went down his throat.
Cream looked away from her close friend, her eyes downcast. “I guess not…” she said. “I mean, you were in SOLDIER, after all.” The two entered a comfortable silence as Tails kept drinking. “Make sure you get your pay from Bark,” Cream said eventually as the fox finished and set down his drink.
Tails nodded. “Yeah, I will,” he said “I’ll probably be going tonight after I get my money. I’ll need to find a different base of operations for my services. Can’t very well work out of the same place that a terrorist organization resides in, right?”
Cream stiffened at his words. She felt her veins turn to ice and her hand clenched tightly on the counter “Y-yeah, of course,” she said hesitantly, lowering her head.
“But I’ll come and visit once in a while,” he added.
Though Cream heard his words, they barely registered in her mind. ‘It makes sense what he’s saying… but I wish he’d stay,’ the thought ran through her head. ‘Something’s not right here… The way he walks, the way he talks… The confidence and the swagger? It’s all throwing me off here… and it reminds me of someone-’
“…eam? Cream?” she was startled by the fox’s voice. “Are you OK? You look like you zoned out for a second there,” he said, a light smile on his muzzle.
Cream blinked. “Y-yeah, no, I’m OK,” she replied a little too quickly. She brushed a stray strand of ivory hair away from her face. “It’s been a long night for all of us. I must’ve made more today than I have all this month – it’s gonna be a busy one for the ledgers tomorrow. Oh, speaking of which, you should go down now. Bark’s probably getting impatient.”
Tails hopped off of the stool, a withering smile crossing his lips. “You’re right,” he said. “Time to get this over with.”
“Hey, Tails?” Cream found herself blurting out as the fox left the bar and headed over to the pinball machine. He turned around to face her. “I know you asked me just now, but… Are you feeling alright?”
Tails’ eyebrow quirked up at her. “… Yeah, why?” he asked, nonplussed.
The fighter bit the inside of her cheek. “Oh, no reason,” she said, her smile a little too shaky. “You just look a little tired too, I guess.”
The fox returned a smile of his own as he went up to the pinball machine, hit the buttons on the sides and pulled the plunger three times to activate the lift and descended into the basement.
As Cream watched him go down, she couldn’t shake off the dread she felt about him permanently leaving the bar. ‘There are too many questions and not enough time to answer them…’ she reflected as she began wiping down today’s detritus from the bar counter. ‘And if he leaves now… I fear that I’ll never be able to ask him again…’
“Live from the studio in Sector 2, this is the Kintobor News Network,” the wide-screen tele-crate blared out as Tails got off the lift. “With your hosts, Scarlet Garcia and Moses Rye-Williams.”
Wedge got up from his seat at the square table in the middle of the room and pointed to the screen situated beside Jessie’s workstation. “Guys, guys! It’s starting!” he called out.
Bark ceased hitting a heavy bag at the opposite side of the room with Biggs holding it in place. Hope, sitting on a box and watching her father, hopped down and went with them out of curiosity. The three joined Wedge and Jessie and crowded around the TC, while Tails found a wall to lean on behind them.
“Hello, you’re watching KNN. I’m your host, Scarlet Garcia,” the brunette newscaster said to the cameras.
Sitting beside her was a handsome, silver-furred lynx wearing a charcoal pinstripe suit, a light blue dress shirt and a muted, striped blue tie. “And I’m Moses Rye-Williams,” he said in a deep, modulated tone. “Tonight’s top news story: The explosion that rocked Megapolis, caused by terrorists blowing up the No.1 Energen Reactor and RINGTEK Plant just prior to midnight.”
Scarlet picked up from her co-anchor. “The terrorist group in question – TORNADO – has also released a video in the last fifteen minutes claiming responsibility for the attack. The video proclaimed that Energen is not an infinite source of energy and that RINGTEK is doing more harm for the environment than good. They also accused Kintobor Incorporated of misleading the public on the health risks of RINGTEK and ended with dire warnings that the attacks would continue should the city continue to depend on this valuable resource. The president of Kintobor Incorporated, which is the parent company of this news station, held a press conference immediately after the attack and had this to say:”
The station then cut to a recording of the press conference. President Gerald Kintobor stood on a podium behind a minimalist, metallic lectern, its top lined with microphones. A banner displaying the company’s logo was draped on the wall behind him. The white-suited Human cleared his throat to catch the attention of the press.
“Ladies and gentlemen of the media, thank you for coming on such short notice,” he said in a calm and matter-of-fact tone. “I can confirm that the group that calls themselves TORNADO has carried out this attack on our great city. It is also expected that this group will continue its reign of terror upon the populace. However, I can assure you, good citizens of Megapolis, that there is nothing to fear.” His lips curled upwards into a winning smile. “I have just initiated measures that will help us root out these terrorists so we can bring them to justice. And,” he continued over the sounds of cheering and clapping. “And also, I have mobilized SOLDIER to protect our people against this senseless violence.” He paused, as the cheering grew louder. The recording ended and the broadcast cut back to the anchors.
“In other news,” Moses continued, shuffling his papers on the desk. “President Kintobor went on record to state that the current labour strike resulted in tonight’s terrible tragedy. He goes on to say that, and I quote: ‘The terrorists appear to have hacked the payroll system and have exploited a flaw which prevented payments from going through. We are working hard to correct this flaw and will ensure that everyone receives their pay plus interest.’”
Scarlet picked up from her co-anchor and continued to talk about other news stories related to the attack. At this point, the team heard enough and took this as a cue to move away from the TC. Bark and Biggs returned to the heavy bag, Hope returned to her spot, Wedge sat back down to papers splayed across a table and Jessie straightened up on her chair and faced the monitor, staring at the data streaming from the data stick Biggs recovered.
A few moments later, the woman slammed her hand hard on the workbench next to her, covered in various electronic equipment. She stared at the screen, her eyes narrowed to slits. “Shit,” she muttered. Noticing that the room went silent, she swivelled the chair around and faced the group. She scratched the back of her head nervously. “Sorry,” she said quickly. “I think I know why the alarms went off when Tails mounted the bomb; it turns out that we neglected to disarm the tampering alarms before turning on the device and mounting it. It was a miscalculation on my part that caused it, but at least I know for next time.”
The fox pushed himself off the wall and continued into the hideout, which caught Wedge’s attention as he was nearest to him. “Hey, he’s here Boss,” he said to Bark.
Bark stopped once more. “Finally!” he said, disgruntled at waiting. “There’s something I’ve been meaning to ask you: Those tails of yours, that let you fly like that? Are they for real? And how the hell did you do that in the first place?”
The fox stopped in his tracks in front of the TC. ‘Well, that came out of nowhere…’ “…Yes, they’re real, I was born with them,” he responded after a brief silence. “And yes, I can fly. How, I can’t tell you. You’ll have to live with that.” After gauging Bark’s reaction, the fox eyed him critically. “I get the feeling you have another question you want to ask me. Care to share it?” he said cockily.
Scowling, Bark thought for a moment. “Yeah… One more,” he said curtly. “Anyone from SOLDIER fighting us today?”
Tails moved to the space in front of the tele-crate. He crossed his arms and shook his head. “None,” he said. “I’m positive.”
“You sound pretty sure of yourself,” Bark responded, hitting the heavy bag once.
“I AM sure,” Tails retorted, gritting his teeth. “If there was anyone from SOLDIER at the reactor today, you wouldn’t be standing here right now.”
The members of TORNADO watched the exchange with bated breath as the tension between the two Mobians got thicker by the minute. The polar bear glared at the fox. “Don’t go thinking you’re the shit just because you were in SOLDIER,” he said, growling.
The Ex-SOLDIER turned his back to Bark, processing what he said. ‘So, this is the thanks I get for saving him, huh? Some employer he is…’ he reflected, his folded arms hiding his clenched fists. He turned back around and was about to speak his mind, only to see Bark’s fist miss the punching bag, hitting Biggs instead.
The force of the blow sent the Human flying into the wall. He crumpled to the ground like a sack of flour. “Did… anyone see that… truck that hit me?” he said, dazed.
Bark cringed as he heard the man hit the wall before rounding on Tails. “Yeah, you’re strong,” he said. “Probably all those guys in SOLDIER are.” He gave the fox a dirty look and raised his voice to a commanding level. ”But don’t forget your two-tailed ass is working for TORNADO now! Don’t get any ideas about hanging onto Kintobor, hear me?”
‘OK. That’s it.’ “Stayin’ with Kintobor?” Tails said, his voice seething with anger. “You asked me a question and I answered it… That’s all.” He walked up to the bear, stood on his tip-toes and used his tails to balance himself. He levelled his electric blue eyes with Bark’s reddish-brown orbs. “I’m going upstairs,” the fox hissed. “I want to talk about my money.” Righting himself onto the floor, he turned away and headed for the lift.
Cream suddenly hopped down into the hideout. She halted in front of the mercenary, panic flooding her face. “Tails, wait!” she said. “We can still-”
“Ah, let him go Cream,” Bark interrupted, his lips curling into a sneer. “Looks like foxy here still misses the Kintobor.”
Tails faced the bear again, his eyes blazing with anger. “Shut it!” he snapped, the room going dead silent as he spoke in a harsh tone. “Need I remind you that I’m a mercenary? I don’t work for you or Kintobor. I work for myself and I care for one thing and one thing only: my money. So, I suggest that we meet upstairs and you pay me. Now.” He turned back to the elevator, brushing past Cream as he did so and activating the lift.
Tails paced back and forth, waiting as patiently as he could for Bark to arrive and pay up so he could leave. He perked up as he saw the elevator descend, but frowned when he saw Cream coming back up instead of his employer. “What are you doing here? Where’s Bark,” Tails asked firmly.
The rabbit ignored his question. “Tails, please,” She said, giving him her most imploring look. “I’m asking you to join us.”
“I’m sorry Cream…” Tails muttered, turning away from her.
Cream sighed, frustrated at her friend’s attitude. “Look, Mobius is dying. Slowly, but-but surely it’s dying,” she said. “Someone has to do something about it and I know that –“
“Then let Bark and his buddies handle it,” Tails interrupted. He picked up his sword and strapped it to his back before making his way out of the bar. “Look, when Bark gets his act together, tell him to find me at the Wall Market. I’m out of here.”
“SO! You’re really leaving?!” she shouted out suddenly as Tails pushed on the saloon doors. “You’re just going to walk out and ignore your childhood friend?!”
Tails whipped around. “How can you say that!?” he said angrily, his calm and collected persona put aside. “ I’d never leave you alone! I just can’t stand Bark! He’s an asshole!”
Cream’s mouth parted open slightly at the fox’s words. She took a step towards him. “So, you didn’t forget then? Our promise?” she asked cryptically.
Tails took a step back. “Promise?” he whispered, his mind racing for information. All he got from it was static… and the sounds of a sinister laugh echoing inside his brain.
The fighter looked away to the floor. Her shoulders slumped and she let out a wistful sigh. “You forgot the promise?” she said, her voice laced with sadness, disappointment and a little incredulity. “Tails, it was seven years ago…”
Her words triggered something in Tails’ mind. He felt as though the floodgates within him opened and was suddenly awash in memories that drowned out the buzzing static within him. “…The Great Oak Stump,” he blurted out abruptly.
Cream’s head shot up and she blinked at him. “You mean…” she said, trailing off, hope shining in her amber eyes.
“Seven years ago,” Tails continued, taking a step towards her. “I asked you to meet me by the Great Oak Stump, right by the well in the middle of Knothole. I remember it was a cold, winter’s night.” He paused, looking down to the floor in a rare show of embarrassment. “I… honestly thought you’d never come…”
Fourteen-year-old Miles Prower was freezing his tails off.
It was a cold and clear winter’s night in Knothole Village as he huddled at the edge of an oaken stump fifteen feet in diameter. He wrapped his two, bushy tails around him to keep warm. The trees that surrounded the town looked more like the skeletal arms of great beasts, rather than the beautiful foliage and knotted limbs that the hamlet was known for. The light from the full moon illuminated the towering figure of Mobius’ highest mountain in the distance.
The fox shuddered as waves of cold air hit him. He cursed himself for dressing inappropriately for the weather – a black t-shirt, blue shorts and a pair of red and white sneakers. He had no chance to grab his jacket before he could sneak out of his house. Glancing furtively at the house next to his own, he let out a deep sigh as his frustration mounted.
“Where are you…” he whispered, burrowing deeper into the layers of fur keeping the cold out. He almost wanted to give up and go home.
His ears pricked as he heard the crunching sounds of gravel being stepped on behind him. He spun around to where the sounds originated from and spotted a figure approaching him from behind the elevated water well. The fox could barely make out the silhouette, but inwardly he hoped that it was the Mobian he was waiting for.
“Hey Miles,” it said, in a soft, sugary-sweet voice. “Sorry I’m late.” The figure stepped out of the shadows and the moonlight revealed a young rabbit girl with ivory fur and patches of brown on her ears, head and around her eyes. She wore a thick brown winter coat over a subdued orange-coloured dress and matching brown winter boots.
Miles shook his head. “It’s OK Cream,” he said, a ghost of a smile on his lips.
The young girl walked over to the stump, hopped onto it and sat a few feet away from the two-tailed fox. The two entered an awkward silence as Miles tried to form the right words in his head. Eventually, the rabbit bit the bullet. “So Milles, you said you wanted to talk to me about something?” she asked politely.
The fox gulped, feeling a lump in his throat. He unwrapped his tails, turned towards her and gave her his most determined look. “Come this spring… I’m heading to Megapolis,” he said.
Cream shrugged, looking down and away from him. “All the boys are leaving town,” she said.
“No, but I’m not like those guys,” he said, his pre-pubescent voice cracking. “I’m not just gonna find a job, I’m gonna join SOLDIER!” He brought a clenched fist up to his face, looking at it. “I’m going to be the best there is… just like Nazo.”
Bringing a hand up to her mouth, Cream’s eyes widened. “Nazo… The great Nazo?”
“Yeah,” Tails replied. The two then lapsed into a long silence.
“… Isn’t it hard to join SOLDIER?” the rabbit asked, glancing at Miles, who looked away at her gaze.
“I… might not be comin’ back to this town for a while.”
“Oh…” Cream said, her head bowed. “… Will you be in the newspapers if you do well?”
Miles shrugged, his voice hopeful, but unsure. “I’ll try to.” Silence permeated between the two teens once more.
Cream suddenly slid across the stump and moved closer to the two-tailed fox. She looked at him fiercely. “We should make a promise.”
The fox looked taken aback at her suggestion. “Huh?” he said, confused.
She looked away from him once again, a tinge of red dusting her cheeks. “Umm… if you get famous and… If I’m ever in a bind,” she began shyly. “You’ll come to rescue me, alright?”
Miles felt the heat rising in his cheeks. “W-what?” he stammered.
“Well, whenever I’m in trouble, my hero will rescue me,” she said, her face turning redder at every moment. “I want to experience that at least once in my life.”
“What?” the fox repeated, clearly not believing that this was happening.
Cream turned her head towards him. “Come on Miles!” she said, “Just promise me, please?”
There was a pause, which Miles used to collect his thoughts. After a moment, he nodded. “Alright… I promise,” he said as a shooting star sailed above them, sealing the oath under the moonlit sky…
Tails frowned after recalling the memory of years gone by. “I’m sorry Cream,” he said to her. “I’m not a hero and I’m not famous. I…I can’t keep the promise.”
Cream moved closer to him, trying to look into his eyes. “But you got your childhood dream, didn’t you?” she asked. “You joined SOLDIER. So come on! You have to keep your promise…”
Before the mercenary could respond, he heard the lift ascend to bar level. After a moment, it raised with Bark in tow, his arms folded and his snout painted with annoyance. “Hold up a sec Tails,” he said gruffly. Stepping off the lift, he dug into his vest, pulled out a wad of cash held together by a money clip and tossed it to him. “Here’s your pay, as promised,” He turned his back to the fox, tapping his foot impatiently. ”Now get the hell out of here and don’t let the door hit you on the way out.”
Catching it easily, Tails fingered the bills and counted them in his head. ‘1,500, huh? Not bad.’ Instead of pocketing it, however, his eyes travelled to Cream. She was standing in between the two, chewing her lip as her eyes flicked between the fox and the bear. Tails took a moment to think about what she said, and about the promise they made all those years ago, before coming to a decision.
“Is this my pay?” he asked, looking at the money with feigned disdain. “Don’t make me laugh.”
Bark did a double-take. “What?!” he barked out, half-surprised and half-furious at the fox’s declaration. “Then you’ll –“
“If you got the next mission lined up for me, I’ll do it for double,” Tails interrupted, a smug smile crossing his lips.
The polar bear reeled back from the fox’s words. “What!?” he repeated, his eyes seeing red. He went to approach the mercenary, only to have Cream stop him mid-way.
“Hey, hey, it’s OK Bark,” she said, before speaking to him in an undertone that Tails could hear. “Look, I know we’re really hurting for help, but… you’ve seen first-hand what he’s capable of. We’re gonna need him if we’re to succeed.”
Bark sighed, rubbing his forehead with his palm. “Y’know, that money was supposed to be for Hope’s school fund…” he whispered, shaking his head.
Tails frowned, his enhanced hearing picking up their conversation. ‘That money was for Hope? I may be a mercenary, but I’m not that heartless.’ “Bark, I have a suggestion for you,” he said to the bear. When he got his attention, he flung the money clip back to him.
Hastily catching it, Bark gave him a confused look. “What are you –“
“Call it insurance on your end,” Tails butted in again. “You keep the 1,500. If we succeed, you agree to pay that back to me plus another 3,000 on top. If I don’t perform to your standards during the next job, then you keep the money and I don’t get paid. Plain and simple as that.” He gave the polar bear a moment to let it sink in. “So, how about it?”
Bark crossed his arms and contemplated his offer. “This,” he eventually said, holding up the bills. “Plus another 1,750.”
‘And here we go…’ Tails thought, inwardly smiling. ‘Either I convinced him that I’m the best man for the job, or he’s desperate.’ “2,600,” The fox countered.
“Done,” Tails said with a cocky smile on his face.
Cream approached the fox and beamed at him. “Thanks, Tails,” she said.
“Well, if you’re done, we got work to do,” Bark groused as he returned to the pinball machine. “Gotta go over the plans for the next operation. We start bright and early in the morning, so get down here and pull your weight, merc, because I’m paying you good money for this!”