Chapter 22: Playground Chat
“…You seem pretty tired?”
Tails opened his eyes at the sound of the familiar voice. They suddenly narrowed upon seeing the white expanse. ‘Here again?’ He turned his head to see the familiar, black-garbed figure standing to his side. Despite the hood obscuring its features, Tails could have sworn that he was smiling.
With a hand planted on its hip, he gestured towards the fox, beckoning him forward. “Haven’t slept in a bed that soft and comfortable in quite a long time, no?” he said as Tails approached.
The fox stopped and crossed his arms. “Not true,” he replied, eyeing the figure suspiciously. “I slept alright at Cream’s?”
The figure shrugged exaggeratedly. “Yeah, but right now? You’re completely conked out,” it said. Tails could practically hear the smile in its voice. “I doubt even the dead could wake you right now. Anyways, come closer. I wanna show you something.”
Still eyeing it with some skepticism, the fox wordlessly walked towards it. ‘Why do I get the feeling that I know this guy from somewhere?’ he thought as he stopped in front of the robed figure.
“So, again, do you remember the last time?” The black figure asked. When he saw Tails give no response, it shrugged. “Here, I’ll show you,” it said. Waving its arm with a flourish, the space around them transformed.
Below the fox’s feet, a roughened, hardwood floor started to appear and began spreading outwards. On the northern end, the wood transitioned to slate grey cobblestones. Where the floors ended, walls began to materialize and they rose to a vaulted, timber ceiling above Tails’ head. The space slowly took the shape of a small home as more items started to appear; a small kitchen with a stove, a refrigerator and a sink where the cobblestone flooring ended. A pair of beds along the southern wall with a nightstand in between. A landing on the western side of the house with a water heater in one corner of the room and a stack of boxes in another. Forest green accents dotted the space and golden sunlight peered through the small window in the kitchen.
Two figures then materialized in the scene. One was a younger Tails wearing his SOLDIER uniform and splayed out on one of the beds. His namesakes were bunched up behind his head like a pillow and his unfocused gaze drifted up to the ceiling. The other was an older fox with golden yellow fur wearing a navy blue cotton dress and sandals humming pleasantly to herself while standing by the stove in the kitchen.
The older Tails watched stoically at the sight of his mother preparing one of his favourite meals. He studied her face as she turned to his younger self on the bed, shutting off the stove at the same time. It was as though he was seeing a female image of his future self.
She had the same eye shape and colour, the same ears and the same muzzle, but while his features were hardened and sharp, hers were softer and more feminine. Her shoulder-length hair was tied into a messy ponytail and a smile stretched out at the sight of her son.
“My goodness, how you’ve grown,” she said, her voice playful. “I bet the girls never leave you alone?”
“Not really,” the younger Tails said nonchalantly.
His mother’s smile turned wistful. “You know, there are a lot of temptations in the city,” she said. “… I’d feel much better if you had a girlfriend and settled down.”
Young Tails shook his head. “…I’m alright,” he replied after a pause.
“I think you should have… an older girlfriend,” his mother continued. “One that will take care of you. I think that would be the perfect type for you.”
“…I’m not interested,” came the fox’s response.
His mother sighed and said something else, but the older Tails stopped paying attention as he felt something tug at his senses. He turned away from the scene towards the landing with the water heater in the corner. On the wall was a simple, wooden door. ‘Was that there before?’ he thought as he approached it.
Before he could place his hand on the knob, a gloved hand clamped around his wrist. Tails turned to face the hooded figure, and for the first time, he could catch a glimpse of his eyes from underneath the hood. They were a shade of glowing, jade-green.
“It’s time to wake up, little buddy,” the figure said to Tails. Suddenly, he, it and the space around them disintegrated into darkness.
Tails’ eyes snapped open to reveal an unfamiliar ceiling above him. He took a moment to process his surroundings before remembering that he was still in Cosmo’s house.
“I must’ve fallen asleep,” he muttered as he slowly rose out of the bed. Looking out of the window and up through the unfinished portions of the plate, he saw the sky lightened ever so slightly. “It’s morning,” he surmised quietly.
He looked to the wall where Cosmo’s room was behind. He could hear her breathe steadily and rhythmically in slumber. Tails stood up, his eyes still on the wall. He still wondered why he was so drawn to the flower girl. Something about her evoked a sense of familiarity within the fox, despite only properly meeting her yesterday afternoon. The more he thought about it, the more his head began to hurt.
The fox shook his head to clear the cobwebs netting up his mind. ‘Sector 7 is just past Sector 6… I should be fine on my own.’ Tails carefully walked out of the door and quietly snuck past Cosmo’s room. He paused to confirm that she was still asleep and then continued down the stairs to the first floor.
As he moved through the dim space, he spotted a parcel lying on the dining table with a note that had his name on it. He picked up the note and unfolded it, his heightened vision allowing him to read it in the low lighting:
I left these for you. Thank you for helping Cosmo.
Inside the parcel were a set of phials: two Potions, an Ether and an amber-coloured liquid labelled “Phoenix Down.” Pocketing the restoratives, Tails gathered his sword, slinked out the front door and closed it softly behind him.
Cosmo lay awake in her bed.
She waited until she deduced that he was truly asleep and then quickly changed out of her pyjamas and into a fresh set of her everyday clothes. Tying her hair into its customary braid, she then lay on the bed and stared into the ceiling. Her mind kept wandering around the events over the past few days and their relation to the mysterious fox resting next door, which prevented her from getting a proper night’s rest.
Turning to her alarm clock, she flinched at the red numbers that flashed back at her. ‘It’s 5:00 am?’ She stretched out, stifled a yawn and then began breathing in and out rhythmically, as though she was asleep to not arouse Tails’ attention.
“Stargirl, if you weren’t my girlfriend or were suddenly playin’ as a Chun-nan sleeper agent, I’d be very afraid of you right now,” she recalled Spikes saying to her once when he stayed over for a night. “Seriously, I couldn’t tell if you were awake or asleep? That’s some skill…”
Though she smiled on remembering the comment, thinking about him now brought the sorrow and grief that she pushed down within herself to rise back up to the surface. She wanted nothing more than for things to return to normal, but she knew that fate had other plans for her. While she finally decided to follow along with what Mobius was planning for her, she was still battling through the negative emotions that roiled within her.
She was angry and frustrated that she still couldn’t make sense of the visions she received both at the church and the broken pipe in Sector 8. She remembered the fear that rooted her to the spot, waiting for the moment when the former SOLDIER would arrive from the reactor’s wreckage. She remembered the anguish choking at her insides on seeing the sword on his back. What made her squirm the most were the icy blue eyes that froze her veins. They were cold and unfeeling, compared to the warm, deep green she was used to seeing.
Cosmo suppressed a sigh when she thought of those eyes. ‘Now’s not the time.’
She suddenly heard sounds coming from the aforementioned fox’s room. Soft, slow footfalls padded through the room he occupied, towards the stairwell and then down to the first floor. If she was asleep, she would have never noticed him sneaking out.
Her face fell. ‘So, he’s leaving. Just like the visions said he would.’
The moment she heard the front door close, Cosmo hopped off her bed and looked out of her window. She watched the two-tailed fox leave her home towards the residential area. “There he goes,” she whispered to herself.
Moving quickly, she pushed open the window and dropped a rope made from sheets attached to her bedpost. Tugging the makeshift rope to make sure it was secure, she swung one leg out. Before her descent, her eyes trailed over to a folded sheet of paper on the dresser, her heart tightening in her chest.
‘I’m so sorry Mom.’
Pushing her guilty feelings aside, Cosmo quickly climbed down and headed in the fox’s direction. Instead of following the main road that he was on, she skirted through pathways and side streets known only to the locals to get ahead of him. As she neared the entrance leading to Sector 5’s main thoroughfare, she wormed her way into an alcove between the large pipe occupied by the sick ferret and a rusted tractor-trailer, shimmied down a narrow, junk-filled passage and finally arrived in front of the abandoned checkpoint separating Sectors 5 and 6.
Cosmo didn’t have to wait long when Tails entered her field of vision, a look of surprise on his normally stoic face. “Well, well, looks like someone’s up early,” she said to him, relishing the shocked look on his face. “If you’re ready, we’ll head to the Wall Market in Sector 6. The trains are still out of commission, so we’ll have to take the long way through instead. We’ll grab some breakfast, find my guy who makes fake IDs and we’ll be in Sector 7 grabbing a drink and a bite to eat at your friend’s bar by late noon.”
She walked towards the checkpoint gate and hopped over the turnstiles. “You coming?” she said, smiling at him. She heard him scrambling to catch up and couldn’t help but let out a giggle.
Soon, the two passed the thick barrier wall and were in Sector 6. Compared to Sectors 5 and 7 with their bustling streets, the main thoroughfare within the slum was severely uneven and littered with abandoned buildings and construction equipment. The ground had shifted so much that pieces of the road raised and dipped, creating walls, cliffs and canyons that made travel difficult for the layperson.
Tails sniffed at the sight. “Another one of Kintobor’s failures,” he explained to Cosmo. “It’s likely that they were trying to develop the slums to be like the cities on the plate above. Urban Development probably ran out of money, which is why it’s in the state it is today.”
Cosmo nodded wordlessly. ‘Well, isn’t he a wealth of information,’ she mused. ‘Always with an explanation, unlike-’
Tails suddenly grabbed her hand and stopped her before they could round the bend. He pressed a finger to his lips, his burning gaze compelling her into silence. “There’s something up ahead,” he said, in a low, harsh whisper. “Get ready for a fight.”
He drew his sword, placed his hand on one of the Emeralds and drew out golden-yellow energy. Nonplussed, Cosmo’s fingers brushed the hilt of her retractable staff as Tails crept around the corner to face what was there.
“Huh?” she heard him say. “Why is there a house here?”
The colour drained from the flower girl’s face. Without thinking, she grabbed onto one of the fox’s tails and yanked him backward, causing him to yelp loudly. “Tails get back! It’s a Mutate disguised to look like a house!” she hissed at him as the structure in front of them shuffled to life.
The ‘house’ had a shabby, gabled roof stained blood red with two crooked spires on either end. Its flimsy walls were uneven, cracked and were barely holding together. A low moan escaped from what appeared to be the front door and a single, yellowed eye from a window above the door looked out at the Mobians.
Still holding a magic charge in his hand, Tails sheathed his sword. Motioning to Cosmo, he spoke softly to not attract further attention. “Don’t make any sudden moves.” With the house’s eye still on them, the two Mobians backed away slowly.
As they neared a raised section of the road, Cosmo leaned into Tails’ ear. “Through here,” she whispered, pointing to a recess created by two unfinished concrete walls jutting out from the uneven ground. Keeping a wary eye on the house shambling in their direction, Cosmo slid into the space first with Tails following right behind.
After passing through the crevasse, the flower girl turned around and felt her blood go cold as she came face to face with a trio of Robians. Two of them were red-bodied avians brandishing bladed pinion feathers on their hands and sharp talons on their feet. Behind them was a grey wolf, its metallic tail swaying up and down, the metal plates that replaced the natural fur crinkling softly with every movement. It crouched low with its long sharp claws extended and ready to pounce.
Cosmo dimly heard Tails speak words of relief as he passed through, her attention was solely focused on the three Robians that appeared in front of her. “Uh… Tails?” she said, with a touch of worry in her voice. “We got company!”
The avians suddenly emitted a shrill, metallic cry from their curved, wicked beaks, their red eyes honed in on the two. The fox whirled around, drew his sword and launched himself at the three.
The flower girl got over her initial shock and extended her staff. Knowing that the Robians watched the swordsman’s movements more than her own, she surreptitiously placed her hand on the Fire Emerald. The green gem glowed brightly at her touch as she quickly drew and shaped the magic. Letting go of her staff, which began floating in midair at waist level, she brought both hands to the sky, swept them down and called “FIRE!”
Instantly, a plume of flames engulfed one of the avian Robians, just as it was about to charge and run the fox through with its talons. The fire was so hot that it melted its outer shell and fused its joints, rendering it immobile.
Without missing a beat, Tails leapt forward and severed the melted Robians head. Using the momentum of his swing, he then took on the wolf. The Robian, however, caught the blade between its teeth and growled madly at him. The third Robian then turned towards Cosmo.
Cosmo gulped. She gripped her staff tightly as the avian approached her menacingly. ‘OK, yeah, I can take this thing on, no problem,‘ she analyzed, fighting the overwhelming urge to panic. ‘I just need to get some space first-‘
Her train of thought was broken as the avian suddenly rushed forward to attack. Cosmo barely got her staff up in time to block the bladed wingtips as it swiped furiously at her from all sides. A talon shot out and scratched her arm, causing her to yelp sharply from the pain. In desperation, she thrust the staff out and caught the Robian in its eye. The eyepiece shattered from the strike.
Cosmo pulled the staff back and quickly followed up with a swing that caught it in the head. She avoided a retaliating strike using the momentum of her swing and then – with both hands – thrust the polearm out once again and caught it in the gut. The force of the blow, coupled with the avian’s light weight, sent it sprawling back a few paces.
‘There!’ Feeling a small dribble of blood ooze down her forearm, Cosmo quickly drew another charge and called “FIRE!” Another pillar of flames appeared around the Robian and its metal body warped and melted in the same way as its partner did. The red eyes on its fused husk were soon extinguished along with the flames.
Turning her attention to Tails, she saw him beat the wolf back with the flat of his blade before severing it from the waist. He finished it off by plunging the sword into its head. Wiping the oil off and placing his sword on his back, he faced Cosmo and shot her a grin that looked more like a grimace. “Took those two on by yourself eh?” he said, breathing hard. “Not bad.”
Cosmo’s eyes trailed from the pained look on the fox’s face towards his tails. Between the fight just now and the moment she yanked one of them to get his attention, the small spots of blood on the wrappings indicated to her that his wounds had reopened.
The flower girl’s mouth opened in shock. “Oh Goddess, Tails,” she said, her heart heavy. “I-I’m sorry for grabbing-”
“It’s OK,” came his terse response as he regained his breath. “It’s minor, should start healing soon enough.”
‘Healing… That’s it!’ Cosmo’s eyes widened as she remembered what the fox told her back in the church. “Hey, do you still have that Cure Emerald?” she piqued.
Tails looked at her quizzically before he shared the same look of realization. With a small grin plastered on his muzzle, he pulled the gem out from his pocket. “I kinda forgot about that-”
Cosmo reached her hand out and cut the warrior mid-sentence. “You’re still in no proper condition to use magic,” she said tentatively, biting her lip. “So… if you want… Uhh… I can do it for you?”
The fox stared at her, his expression turning to one of bemusement. After a few moments, he scoffed and then placed the Emerald into her open palm. He then unwrapped and extended the wounded tail to her, his icy eyes locked onto her.
Cosmo swapped the Fire Emerald on her staff with the Cure Emerald and placed her hand on it. ‘I have to control myself… ‘ she found herself thinking as she drew out the light green energy within the gem. ‘Can’t overdo it; I just need to do enough to close the wounds and stop the bleeding. Simple, really.’ “Not,” she muttered quietly to herself.
‘Goddess-damned super hearing!!’ “Nothing, let me concentrate,” she replied tersely. Cosmo shaped the energy with her Mana and then placed her brightly glowing hand on Tails’ tail. ‘Please let this work…’ “Cure!” she called.
Within the moment of casting, she could instantly feel the healing magic penetrate and repair the damage done to the appendage. A pale green aura enveloped the tail and then dissipated a moment later. Cosmo let out a content sigh and then beamed brightly at Tails. “There, that should do it,” she said proudly. “You can remove the bandages.”
Tails nodded, his lips turning upwards slightly as he tugged on the fastenings. As he unwrapped the stained gauze, the flower girl’s face went from pleased to shock. Her face blanched and she felt beads of cold sweat go down her back as she saw the fully healed tail… with half-grown fur instead of the bare patches she intended to leave behind. ‘Oh man, I overdid it…’
The former SOLDIER looked at her with astonishment. His mouth parted, but words failed to come out of them. “…Between the fights from yesterday and today and just now… You definitely got some raw talent there,” he said after he gathered himself. He then slouched, crossed his arms and smirked at her. “Still looking to join SOLDIER? You might not have the physical build, but your magical abilities could more than make up for it.”
Relief swept through the flower girl as she looked into his bright, twinkling eyes. ‘Roll with it Cosmo, he doesn’t know what you are…’ She placed a finger on the side of her chin and tapped it thoughtfully. “Mmm… Nah, I think I’ll pass on that offer,” she said cheerily.
Ignoring the flat look the fox gave her, she resocketed the Fire Emerald back into her weapon and then handed the Restore Emerald back to Tails. “Now, let’s keep going. We’re almost there.”
The two then climbed over a fallen crane and descended a set of girders to reach the entrance to a small playground. It was abandoned and unkempt from years of neglect. To their left was a swing set, its chains covered in a layer of rust. In front of the two was a sandbox littered with broken glass, used needles and other paraphernalia. Just past the sandbox was a play dome that had four entrances. On top of the dome were a pair of round ears and cat-like eyes. Beside it was a tall, domed slide with the same aesthetics as the structure next to it. Both were covered in a layer of grime.
“Wow, I can’t believe it’s still here,” Cosmo said, surprised. She walked up to the swing set and turned to face Tails. “I used to play here long ago before the shifting ground made it impossible to get around.”
She stared wistfully at the swingset, remembering the times her mother would bring her to play with the other children. She cleared her head and turned towards the massive metal doors on the other side of the playground. “Over there is the checkpoint between Sectors 6 and 7,” she said. “The path next to it leads to the Wall Market, which is where we’re heading to. I don’t think my friend will be up for a while yet, so, let’s take a break here.”
“Sure,” Tails nodded.
Tails watched as Cosmo suddenly raced to the slide, climbed up and then sat on the very top of the structure. She waved down to the fox and patted the space beside her. “Over here!” she called.
Tails shook his head and smiled, amused at her antics. He unlatched the sword and stuck it in the ground near the slide. He double-checked that his Ice Emerald was placed in his armour before climbing up himself. Settling himself beside the flower girl, the two sat and stared off into the distance.
“So, I guess when you get your ID card, you’ll head back to your old life?” Cosmo asked.
“Hmm… probably,” Tails responded distantly. He looked back at her suddenly. “Have you used a fake ID yourself?”
The flower girl huffed. “Well, having a fake ID helps me to get to the Upper Plate without the Chaotix tracking me, so yes, I have used them from time to time.” Tails smirked at her response, which only made her glower at him. “Look, it wouldn’t be good for my business if those weirdos were chasing after me all the time!”
Tails let out a chuckle. “OK, OK, I get it,” he replied. He felt relaxed around her, which caused him to wonder. ‘She’s a complete stranger to me, and yet I feel like we’ve known each other for years… I don’t understand?’
He suddenly thought of Cream.
“So… you wouldn’t mind coming with me to Vanilla’s Haven?” he asked, changing the subject. “I think… that Cream would want to meet the person who helped me out.”
“… Well I could?” Cosmo said, tilting her head and tapping her chin in thought. “But… wouldn’t I be in the way?”
Tails raised an eyebrow. “…In the way of what?”
“Oh, nothing then,” came the response. Cosmo then started shuffling beside him. She pulled out her staff and removed the Fire Emerald. “Here, you can have this back.”
The fox shook his head, pushing the gem back into her hands. “You keep it,” he said. As they brushed hands, he idly noted how warm hers were. “It’d be better off in your hands anyway, in case the Chaotix come back for you.”
She flashed him a brilliant smile that stirred his heart. “Thanks,” she said sweetly. They both settled back into silence.
“… What rank were you,” Cosmo asked a moment later.
‘What’s with all these questions?’ “Rank?”
“You know, in SOLDIER?”
Tails smirked. ‘Still on about the SOLDIER thing.’ He looked up to the Plate ceiling, thinking. “I was…”
A brief flash of white obscured his vision. He blinked in surprise and then continued speaking. “I was ranked First Class.”
Cosmo drew her knees up and rested her chin on them. “Just the same as him,” she said.
“The same as who?” Tails asked, his curiosity piqued.
Cosmo glanced at him for a moment. She then looked away, towards the distant shutter doors blocking access to the wastelands beyond the Megapolis outskirts. “My first boyfriend,” she replied, a tinge of sadness in her voice. She tightened the grip around her knees as she spoke.
“…You were… serious?” Tails asked after a pause.
“No, not really,” Cosmo shook her head, her tresses bouncing lightly. “But I did like him for a while.”
Tails brought a hand up to his chin and stroked it in thought. “I probably knew him,” he said. “What was his name?”
The flower girl straightened her legs out, her lips in a thin line. “It… It doesn’t really-”
She was interrupted by the sound of klaxons going off, followed by the rattling noise of metal doors opening from the Sector 7 checkpoint. The two Mobians turned to watch a pair of guards wave something through the gate. Coming into view was a grey convertible hovercar with its top down. It hung a left, heading towards the Wall Market just as the checkpoint doors began to close.
The driver of the convertible was unremarkable, but it was the backseat passenger that caught Tails’ eye: A familiar rabbit with cream-coloured locks wearing a blue, figure-hugging dress. “What the hell? Cream!?” he exclaimed. “CREAM!”
He saw her face turn towards his voice and saw her jaw drop as the transport went out of view.
“That girl in the back? That was Cream?” Cosmo said, her eyes narrowing. She suddenly let out a gasp, slid down the slide and started running towards the Wall Market.
“Wait!” Tails called out to Cosmo. “I can handle this on my own! You… go… home…” he trailed off as she, too, disappeared from view. Gritting his teeth, he leaped from the top of the slide, plucked his sword from the ground and gave chase. As he ran, he wracked his mind, trying in vain to figure out the connection between the mystery transport and Cream’s involvement.
‘What’s going on here, Cream?’