Knothole Village was not a large neighborhood by any means; the total area it occupied was smaller than the Mobotropolis Park, and was heavily forested, requiring the residents to pack their houses together rather closely. Space on the ground had recently run out, and until the town’s borders were properly expanded, potential homeowners were advised to build their houses in the trees or look elsewhere. But there was nowhere else anyone in Knothole would rather live, not even the “primary” city of Mobotropolis.
The city had no significant financial problems, nor a deficit of available housing, nor a high crime rate--but it was very obviously a planned city, built to specifications that its populace ultimately didn’t follow; except for a few scattered days, Mobotropolis appeared to be very empty. The park had been one attempt out of many to rectify this, and judging by the fact that it was the only one to attract a crowd (albeit a slowly-growing one), the people would continue to not follow.
On the plus side, it had been very easy for Tristian to go to the recruitment office. That was about the only “plus”, as he’d been flatly informed that seventeen was too young to join the Royal Army. Len had been similarly rejected, despite the official work she’d been doing alongside her brothers, Sir Charles and Jules, starting from when she was twelve. So it was perfectly acceptable for a preteen to run headfirst into situations requiring incredible physical and mental dexterity--situations that came with a high risk of injury or death--but the Army was a no-go. Logic? What was that?
The only justification Tristian could come up with as he dejectedly left the office was that Len had been accompanied by her adult brothers.
The rejection was about a week ago; Tristian was currently sitting on a cut tree stump and watching the children play in and around Knothole’s one (rather small) clearing. Len would keep an eye on the kids as well, but her assistance was needed elsewhere; the ladies were preparing for some sort of open-house night in Mobotropolis and Len was tasked with bringing ingredients back-and-forth and packing. She would have tried cooking, too, but the last time she tried to make a more complex meal than spaghetti ended with noxious black smoke pouring out of the chimney, and Rosie shouting something about the oven “not working that way”.
Tristian’s daughter gently bopped another child on the shoulder with her toy mallet, and immediately took off in the opposite direction as she was no longer “it”. Amy had ostensibly started using that mallet to play tag because she was too short to reach anyone’s shoulder; as wary as her parents were of letting her go around hitting the other kids with it, her playmates didn’t seem to mind. Len had still specifically instructed Amy to never hit anyone in certain areas, regardless.
She was so tiny that Tristian almost lost track of her amongst the older children, with only her pink fur to help her stand out. Amy and her twin brother were the youngest kids in Knothole at two, and everyone had been worried that the other children wouldn’t want to play with them--but so far things were working out just fine. The kids didn’t shove them, or tell them they couldn’t play, or anything of the sort. No, the only real problem was making sure--
Tristian froze. All the kids were currently in the clearing, and he didn’t hear anyone walking around the huts. And the adults were either in Mobotropolis, or preparing for tonight, and the kids had been asked to stay outside the huts for a while--
His son had gone missing. Again.
Today was one of Mobotropolis’s busier days; people lined the streets and tried not to knock anyone over as they made their way to their destinations. It was easy to forget, but as sedentary as everyone was, the city still had a sizable population, composed of an innumerable amount of different species and groups; big events like the one coming up were the only way to really see that for oneself. The crowd seemed to blur together, it was so densely packed in places; nobody had enough time or space to see the little hedgehog scampering in-between the adults.
Sonic Rose didn’t want to play tag; there was no challenge in it. He wanted to go to the park, because that was the only place with the kinds of flowers he liked; it only took him about a minute to run from Knothole to the city. He would keep running, but there were too many people and he’d get stepped on. Even for a toddler, he was a short hedgehog.
The crowd made it difficult to tell where he was going now; everyone towered above him and blocked his field of vision. The few landmarks he could see were familiar, though, and he was seeing them in the right order. The park was nearby.
Sonic kept walking; the crowd eventually thinned out, and he was able to pick up the pace. Soon he was jogging, though he didn’t want to go full speed and startle anyone. The park was just ahead.
The grassy areas of the park had always been in Mobotropolis; it just took them some time to make a path leading to it, and to install a fountain; it still technically wasn’t done and wouldn’t be for a while. Sonic knew not to go beyond the caution tape, even when no machinery or workers were present.
Today the caution tape blocked off most of the park, including the flowers he was going to look at; the fountain was shut off and the water had been drained from its basin. Sonic couldn’t hear any work being done, or see anyone else in the park aside from a big kid who looked just as frustrated as Sonic felt over most of the park being temporarily off-limits.
This big kid, a light brown chipmunk, didn’t dress like anyone Sonic had ever seen; her turquoise top and pants seemed to glitter in the afternoon sun, and as she turned around, so did her gold crown and necklace. Sonic had just met her and already he knew that she was someone important--so maybe it wouldn’t hurt to walk up to her.
She didn’t seem to be aware of his presence at first, and had to crane her neck down rather far to look him in the eye. “What are you doin’ out here all by yourself, kiddo?”
Sonic pointed to his right, where the flowers he couldn’t reach were. He could talk; he just wasn’t too keen on talking to strangers. (His parents had said nothing about gesturing.)
“You wanted to see the flowers, right? I don’t know why they blocked that off if they’re not digging there…” She petulantly glared at the caution tape. “I was just gonna walk around, but there’s no point in pacing back and forth over three feet of grass. And I don’t wanna go through the crowd again, so…I guess I’m stuck here?” The big kid sighed. Then, to Sonic’s surprise, she extended a hand to him.
Sonic tilted his head in confusion. What was she doing?
“I’m assuming you’re stuck, too, so…introductions are in order? I’m Sally Acorn. And you?”
Hesitantly, he reached his own hand out and took Sally’s, as he assumed he was supposed to; she gently shook it. “Sonic,” he replied, almost too quietly for her to hear.
Sally looked him over. He was very young, still a toddler--far too young to be wandering around on his own; Sally shouldn’t have been, either, but this was her city and if anyone wanted to hurt her, they’d have to contend with the Royal Army. So technically, it would be best if her friend stayed with her at all times.
The crowd was still bustling with no signs of letting up any time soon, so Sally took a seat on the grass; Sonic followed suit.
“I’ve been walking around all morning,” she began, knowing that this would likely be a one-sided conversation. “I’d finished my lessons early and asked Julayla--she’s my teacher--if I could go outside for a while. She said yes, but that was before everyone started walking around--I have no idea where they’re going to, if tonight’s open-house is being held in one building. Maybe there’s a bunch of sales going on…Are your parents gonna go?”
Another puzzled tilting of the head.
“I mean, are they going to open-house? We don’t hold those very often, so it tends to be a big deal…Where do you live, anyway?”
Sonic pointed to some far-off point in the distance.
“That doesn’t tell me much.”
But thinking about it, it looked like that point was an area of higher elevation than Mobotropolis, with a dirt road leading to somewhere deep in the forest…
“Oh! You’re from Knothole, right? One of my friends lives there! Do you know anyone named Bunnie Rabbot?”
No spoken response.
“Um--she’s a yellowish-orange rabbit, a little older than me, green eyes, usually wears pink…”
To Sally’s surprise, Sonic actually spoke: “She doesn’t play with us.”
“Yeah, she mentioned something about all the kids being too young…Did her aunt and uncle move in with her yet?”
Sonic shook his head.
“Aw. They said they were gonna do that before the year was over…”
Something else had caught Sonic’s attention and he turned to get a better look, with Sally following his gaze. It was just the fountain, but Sonic was staring at it rather intently.
The stone had been carved into an elaborate structure encircled by a winding strip; it was aesthetically pleasing, but on higher-pressure settings, the water tended to splash everywhere but into the basin. The strip began on the basin’s rim and seamlessly ended at the tip of the main body, wide-side up.
A loud crack and sudden gust of wind startled Sally badly enough to make her nearly fall over, and suddenly Sonic was balanced on top of the fountain, looking down at her and smiling. How did he--?
The hedgehog turned around and ran back down the narrow strip
and leapt off the rim to land in front of Sally, all in the span of roughly two seconds. His form had become a bright blue blur, almost like light…
“W-wow!” Shock immediately gave way to excitement. “You’ve got super-speed! I--I don’t know anyone in Mobotropolis who’s that fast--can your parents run like that, too?”
“Mom can,” he replied. She was getting more of those out of him--must be a good sign.
“What about your Dad--or other Mom, or..?”
Sonic laughed. “Dad’s real slow!”
“Oh, I see--um…I’m kinda slow, myself…” To demonstrate, Sally got back up and ran around for a bit at a mundane pace; nobody in her family had anything beyond above-average speed. Apparently the ability to break the sound barrier on one’s own power was not a common trait to chipmunks.
That stunt Sonic pulled gave her an idea; she suddenly turned to face the fountain and sprinted directly at it, hopping onto the rim and dashing up the strip. Her foot slipped not to far up, and with a panicked squeak she grabbed onto the stone and righted herself; even with the water shut off, it was slippery. But Sally was determined to stand at the top of the fountain; it just didn’t look like she’d be able to run now. The strip curved in such a way that she was able to reach up and climb over it, and soon she was where Sonic had been a minute ago.
“Well…at least we know I can get on top of the fountain, right?”
Sally hopped off to a rough landing on the grass, but not so rough that the impact broke the skin. The fountain was quite a bit larger than her; she’d hate to imagine what would happen if Sonic had leapt off from that poi--
Where was Sonic?
She whipped around to see him back on the tip, and this time it looked like he was going to jump--she scrambled to her feet and ran forward with arms outstretched. Sonic was so light that she barely felt the impact; gently, she lowered him onto the ground.
“Hey, make sure I’m ready first! You could’ve been h--”
Another hedgehog maneuvered his way through the crowd, and stumbled over to the two children, out of breath and glasses askew; his fur was a deeper shade of blue than Sonic’s, but they had the same bright green eyes. He was smiling now, but also exhausted in a way that Sally felt was more than physical. “I asked you to stop wandering off--”
His voice trailed off when he spotted the kid next to Sonic. “Oh…h-hey, Princess Sally.”
“You don’t have to call me ‘Princess’. Is he your son?”
“Yeah! Sonic usually goes to the park when he does this--” He picked Sonic up, and then looked away in embarrassment. “Wait, I should tell you my name--I’m Tristian.”
Someone came up from behind Tristian, and Sally immediately recognized her as Julayla. Absolutely impeccable timing.
“There you are, Sally. It’s almost 3 ‘o clock--oh, hello.”
Tristian was awkwardly shifting his weight from one foot to the other, unsure of whether or not to make eye contact with the Princess’s teacher; there were so many ways this meeting could go wrong. “I was just g-going to…take my son home.”
Julayla chuckled. “I figured. And I suppose he’s met the Princess?”
“Yep,” Sally said. She took Julayla’s hand and prepared to depart with her to the Castle, when Tristian blurted out:
“Did he stay with you the whole time?”
“Whole time? Well--I ran into him in the park, and I wasn’t in the park for very long, so…not really. But we stayed in this area here and didn’t go past the tape.”
“I see…Do you come to the park often? Sonic does--I think it’s the flowers…”
Sally nodded. “Does Sonic run off a lot?”
Why did she have to ask that here? Julayla was looking right at him-- “Yes. We can‘t stop him.”
Sally turned to her teacher, and beckoned her to lean in close; she whispered in Julayla’s ear, the older chipmunk nodded, and both ladies brought their gaze back to Tristian. “I can look after him, if you want,” Sally told him.
“I…I’ll have to speak to my p--wife about that. But that would be greatly appreciated.”
“Okay!” She was beaming.
Tristian watched Julayla and the Princess disappear into the crowd; with a heavy sigh, he began making his way back to Knothole.
The din of Mobotropolis faded away and eventually became inaudible. The walk back to the village wasn’t terribly long, but Tristian was not a good runner by any means, and that mad dash down the hill had taken it out of him; the walk back up felt more like a climb.
It didn’t help that he was in no mental state to be trudging up the incline. He was angry, very angry indeed--at himself. Before Len had the twins, and for a time after, all the adults they’d gone to for help had told them the same thing: they couldn’t raise the kids properly. They would fail spectacularly at every imaginable turn, and would be better off giving the kids to someone “responsible”--or not having them at all.
The only people who potentially had any sort of legitimate advice to give to them, a pair of frightened teenagers, and they refused. They did everything short of explicitly calling Len and Tristan a couple of complete dumbasses who had to be led by the nose on everything. Yes, fifteen was too young to have children. Yes, they could have put a bit more thought into things. But they wanted to keep the twins, and they wanted someone with more experience on the subject to help them make the right decisions. They begged and begged, and were left to fend for themselves. Even Tristian’s own parents tried to block him out of their minds.
…It was too perfect, really. No one would miss them. Absolutely no one.
They packed their things and set off for Len’s old home in Knothole, where her brothers lived. They weren’t too happy to hear about what happened to their sister during her time away--the adults had been way too harsh on her and her partner, even with all things considered. If they really cared about Sonic and Amy’s well-being, Chuck said, they wouldn’t have disavowed the parents. Really, moving out of that disaster of a town was the best thing Len and Tristian could’ve done, both for themselves and for the kids.
But the damage was done.
Sonic was starting to get restless; his father transferred him from his arms to his shoulder, just in time to make it to the top of the hill. There was still a ways to go before they re-entered Knothole.
“For the last time, you cannot help with the pies.”
“But I know what I did wrong last time!” Len did her best to not let too much of a whine into her voice. “Come on, I’ll never learn if you don’t let me.”
Well, she was willing to correct her mistakes. But the fact was, they simply did not need another damaged oven on their hands, open-house or no.
“Not today, Len. You can help Bunnie decorate them, but that’s the absolute extent of it.”
Something was tossed into the trashcan; Bunnie walked back into the main area of the kitchen with flour still on her hands and arms. “Ah hope the party’ll be worth all this aggravation,” she grumbled.
“The King and Queen themselves are hosting it. I assume it will be.”
“If they’re the hosts, then ah guess ah won’t have the chance to talk to Sally-girl tonight.” Bunnie joined her elders around the island and held open the cooler bag, ice packs already at the bottom, for Len to dump the perishable food in.
“Well, do you know anyone else over there?”
“Ah don’t go down to Mobotropolis very often, sugah-hog. Too long a walk and nobody has anything good in stock.”
Rosie attempted to scoot past Len and ended up pressing her against the island.
“Sorry--” A bit of effort and Rosie made it to the other side of the kitchen. She craned her neck up to look at the door, over the heads of the other cooks. “Len, I think Tristian wants you.”
Conveniently, she’d just zipped up the cooler bag. Len didn’t have an easier time making her way through the kitchen than Rosie, but she was out the door quickly enough.
And Tristian was so close to it that he was nearly bowled over by his own partner. He backpedaled just far away enough to give Len room to do the same.
“Man, you look bushed. Don’t tell me--”
“Sonic got away from me again.” Sonic could be seen in the clearing playfully running away from his sister and her mallet; Tristian was keeping a close eye on both of them. “But, you’re not gonna believe this--he was with the Princess when I caught up to him.”
“Yeah. She even offered to look after him whenever he goes wandering around.”
“She did? But--she’s only eleven, right? I dunno if she’ll be able to keep the both of ‘em safe--”
“I was worried about that, too. But as I was coming home, it occurred to me…” He paused to take a seat on the tree stump, and Len followed. “They’re not always with her, but she’s got a ton of bodyguards. And one of her friends--I forget his name--he’s the son of the Royal Army General, so between him and them, she probably doesn’t have much to worry about. So I figured, Sonic should be in good hands.”
Tristian leaned forward to rest his chin in his hands, and sighed again; there was more of an edge to it this time. He didn’t resent his son, not in the slightest. But some days it was easy to keep track of him, and some days he’d run to the park in the time it took his father or mother (or both) to blink. If it were just the flowers, Tristian would’ve tried to find some seeds and plant them around Knothole, but sometimes Sonic would be far away from where his preferred flowers usually grew.
The first thing the counselor had said, before he was even finished reading the file, was to medicate Sonic. He recommended immediately going down to the psychiatrist’s office, over Tristian’s protests that Sonic was only two, and said nothing about talking to Sonic or following him or taking him to places where could run freely. Tristian bade the counselor farewell and never set foot in his office again.
Talking didn’t work, and the field between the forest and Mobotropolis made no difference. Len could only follow Sonic on the rare occasions that she caught him leaving. But Tristian was absolutely not putting a goddamn two-year-old on Ritalin.
Once, they tried to tie Sonic down. The moment he realized that he was tethered to a stump, he burst into tears. Len immediately untied him, while wondering if it was just a trick--but Sonic remained upset for hours afterward.
A tap on the shoulder brought Tristian out of his thoughts. “Is that everything?”
“Eh…” He shrugged. “Back in the ghetto, everyone told us that we were inherently incapable of doing a good job, and…I don’t know if letting the Princess babysit Sonic counts as proving them wrong.”
“We’ve done a good job with Amy, though, haven’t we?”
“I guess--but she doesn’t run off.”
“True. But she’s happy, and so is Sonic. He’s well-behaved on all other counts. So I think that so far, we’re OK.”
One of the other kids knocked on the door of Rosie’s hut, asking if it was okay to come inside yet. Rosie poked her head out from behind the door and told him that it would be another fifteen minutes.
“They wouldn’t mind if you and I switched off, would they?”
“Rosie said I was allowed to decorate the pies, so I’ll probably be going back in. I dunno if you’d want to anyway--it’s crowded in there right now.”
About five minutes of watching the children run around, five minutes of making sure Sonic didn’t take a sharp right turn back into Mobotropolis. Len stood up and went to rejoin Rosie and Bunnie. Tristian took his eyes off Sonic for a moment, then jerked his head back. Sonic was still there.
…He wasn’t sure why he was still so worried. There was someone outside the village who cared enough about that little hedgehog to take care of him.
The grass took the most effort out of anything in this picture ('twas sorta following this tutorial: fav.me/d2ocfuu
)--so much effort that I didn't notice that the pen tool was at 80% opacity until I put highlights on Sally's hair.
So yes, it's the return on the normal pic + prose in the artist's comments; author's notes may not always be present.
(edit: fixed the image a bit.)