Chapter 1: Away We Go
Half past midnight was his time to call it a day.
Not a bad day, Shadow the Hedgehog reflected, staring at himself in the mirror as he brushed his teeth.
All was dark and still in the suite, the group bustle having died down as each member of their party retired for the night. Most, if not all of them, were day people, but Shadow's attempt to adjust his sleep schedule years ago did not fully take. So he learned to work in the daytime when needed while still enjoying the privacy, the room to think, that nighttime welcomed.
Today was long, he had to admit. It was training run day at the White Acropolis downhill ski venue. The sun had been bright and the air crisp, infused with the perfect nip of late-autumn chill. His run went fairly well; he felt good, his skis were natural extensions of him, and the condition of his knee was satisfactory again. Almost like he never needed rehab. Ice and heat treatments, a warm bath, and his discreet knee brace had helped even more afterwards.
Shadow gargled and spat into the sink three times, as was his custom, and ran a wet washcloth over his face. He would remove his contacts once back in his room – good thing Espio the Chameleon was a heavy enough sleeper. First, however, it was time to refill his water thermos.
He stepped out and padded down the dark hallway toward the commons area. When he saw a figure framed in the opening, he paused.
Sonic the Hedgehog sat facing the large front horizontal window, illuminated by moonlight. Shadow, seeing him in profile, became bashfully entranced, almost tempted to plaster himself against the wall so as not to disturb him.
But Espio was always better at that sort of thing anyway. Just as well, since the younger hedgehog did not feel Shadow's presence, what with his eyes closed and headphones covering his ears. Sonic's hands were folded over his belly and his slender legs, one bent, were stretched out on an ottoman.
Shadow didn't expect anyone else who had a race the next day to still be awake. He felt torn – a part of him could look at Sonic all night, for he appreciated the beauty in the young man's current meditative state. But he couldn't help wondering why Sonic was here rather than asleep in his room.
Finally, Shadow moved from his spot, quietly walked toward Sonic, and nudged his shoulder. Sonic started, eyes flying open, his body leaning away from Shadow even as he turned stunned green eyes upon him.
Shadow gestured toward the hallway with a mild jerk of his head. "It's late," he murmured, apology in his baritone.
Not that Sonic needed to be told that, but the rookie still nodded sheepishly, catching his breath, fumbling with his headphones and readjusting his posture. "Yeah, right," he said, "just trying to get my mind off things."
Shadow blinked. "What things?"
Sonic shrugged, more out of loss for what to say than truly not knowing. "It's just…hitting me, I guess. My first ranking Mobius Cup race day. I can't believe it." He sighed. "Doing my very first training run was awesome, but there were a couple of spots that could've messed me up if I weren't paying attention. I hope the real race goes better."
Shadow's brows knit slightly. For weeks Sonic had done his diligence in training and with weights. As a rookie he also posed excellent questions that Shadow was glad to answer. His eagerness to ski, his confidence, his smile – that wonderful, dazzling smile – all seemed to grow with each workout. The person before him now wasn't the kid who nearly fainted when he witnessed how much Shadow could deadlift (more than their strength trainer Knuckles the Echidna, really, but he preferred not to make Knuckles feel bad).
Sonic's training run was very smooth, and he appeared to enjoy it. So Shadow thought he'd overcome his nerves. And yet…
Nodding thoughtfully, Shadow lowered himself onto the opposite end of the couch, perching amiably there. After a moment, he said, "None of us ever know how race day will go. We all start somewhere." He half-smiled. "Before my first race I trained about as much as you, and wanted a better result than what I got. But it was still something."
Sonic's smile this time was crooked. "And now you own every course you touch?" he said, poking harmless fun.
"Even I wouldn't say that," Shadow chuckled amusedly. "But you do start to gain your legs after maybe the first handful of races."
If anyone, even his best friend Rouge the Bat, had asked him just eight Mobian months ago where he'd be now, he'd have answered with a shrug, Where I always am this time of year. Skiing. Training. He would not have included "reaching out to befriend a new teammate" if he could help it. In his case friendship with teammates happened through no great effort on his part, he thought. Marine the Raccoon, now retired, was unflappably outgoing. Espio and Shadow thought on similar wavelengths, which made Espio naturally easy to get along with.
Sonic was…different. Twelve and a half Mobian years his junior, fresh out of upper secondary school, he was three months shy of eighteen when discovered by Shadow himself at Rouge's ski resort. Getting to know him nudged Shadow out of his comfort zone but was surprisingly fun. Maybe it was Sonic's inborn friendliness, in some ways akin to Marine's. Maybe it was something else about him that drew Shadow in, like the scent of a flower drew a bee.
In all of this he remembered a major difference between himself and Sonic: while Shadow had no skiing role model, he was Sonic's. The newcomer was probably tying himself into knots wondering how he'd stack against the veteran athlete. As promising as Sonic was, Shadow knew comparing himself to his hero in such a way wasn't the best thing for the kid.
He looked directly at Sonic and softened his tone. "I began having no idea how world-class skiing worked, and there was no skier I looked up to. Like anyone else, I just went for it." He shrugged for emphasis. "What was there to lose?"
The younger hedgehog processed Shadow's words with a mild frown that didn't linger long. Shadow could see a light bulb switch on the moment his frown lifted, and Sonic smiled softly, tilting his head.
Shadow found it…cute. Endearing, like so much about him.
"Yeah…you're right," Sonic agreed, sliding his legs off the ottoman, leaning forward with palms against knees. "I'm overthinking." He gave a self-deprecating shake of his head. "Which I don't normally do, it's just…this is pretty much the one place I never thought I'd be."
Shadow smiled, understanding, and spoke measuredly, "You wouldn't be here if you didn't put in the work. I've seen what you can do. That's what you bring to your races. Try not to think about standings…just stay on your skis and do what your training has taught you."
Sonic nodded, shoulders relaxing, placated. For him, simply talking things out helped bring clarity. Shadow liked this about him; he wasn't one to get weighed down with emotional baggage, but when it happened, a little prodding would help bring it to light, which would put it halfway toward resolution already. He was refreshingly uncomplicated in such matters, Shadow thought…and braver than he himself, whose tendency was to keep most of his life under lock and key.
He could not express, for instance, how much lighter-hearted he felt just watching Sonic. Even if he could put it in words, where would he begin?
The rookie smiled gratefully at him. "Thanks, Shadow. I think I can sleep now." Then he frowned quizzically. "What are you doing up?"
Raising his thermos, Shadow answered, "Needed water. Was doing equipment prep, but I'm heading to bed myself."
In truth, the elder hedgehog didn't need much sleep, at most four to five hours each night. He'd grown accustomed to this, as a lighter sleeper than most. The last time he remembered slumbering soundly through the night, he was no older than nine years of age, when he still lived with his human grandfather, Gerald, and his human sister, Maria. But Sonic didn't need to know that now.
"Oh, okay." Sonic stretched languidly and yawned, eliciting a soft smile from Shadow. As the blue hedgehog rose from the couch, he too smiled. "Thanks again…good night."
He walked around behind the couch and disappeared into the hallway, as Shadow acknowledged and watched him.
Yes, the day would begin early. Racers must check in at the course two hours before start time. The team's wakeup call would be three hours before that so as to eat, do final equipment inspection, and prepare to bus to the course. Sonic would need every available drop of sleep. Should he take this seriously, he'll learn to savor sleep.
However, Shadow still couldn't sleep. Not that he could complain – the more time he spent in Sonic's company, the more refreshed his soul.
He looked to the window and allowed himself a full smile.
"At the gate – number 023, Shadow the Hedgehog!"
His game face was on.
Most ski fans probably believed his game face to be his true face – dark heavy brow, downturned mouth, a glare that could shatter all obstacles in his path. Red-trimmed black quills swept back and upward (totally natural, a point of personal pride for him) completed his warrior-esque look.
Perhaps it did correctly depict him at certain low, unsavory points in his life. Now that his lot had improved, he could say at least his team, and Rouge, knew better. But if that mug earned him fan support (and team and sponsor support, by extension), then he had no problems employing it.
Currently there was an actual obstacle before him: the White Acropolis downhill ski course. Mobius Cup races began three weeks ago, but with extra rest and knee rehabilitation, Shadow's season was just getting started. Ineligibility for the overall title – he could not ski the full season's schedule and therefore could not compete for it (no fur off his back, he'd earned titles aplenty) – was no excuse to let his skills go.
Game face aside, he was glad to be back.
So was Knuckles. "Yeah! You got this, Shads!" cheered the red echidna from behind him.
He kept his goggled eyes on the clock display posted to his right. When the first buzzer rang, he gripped his poles. At the second and third buzzers, he stomped to loosen his muscles.
As the last and highest-pitched buzzer sounded, he sprang forward. Knuckles whooped with joy. Tunnel vision took over.
Grey mountains loomed like sentries in the distance, but the course owned his entire focus. He swung his poles and pushed off with the right ski, left ski, right ski, left ski, then lowered into a sturdy tuck, following the blue lines painted onto the course, tilting as needed into the curves. Even though three of the first five curves were very close to each other, he sailed around them all with practiced ease as snow crackled beneath his skis, sticking close to the flags, knowing no rush like the pull of gravity and rebellion against cold wind.
Loop-the-loop six flung him upside down; he tucked in and glided through smooth as greased gears, and flew off the snow as the course dipped beneath him, leaving him airborne for seconds. He took this opportunity to untuck and gently extend his legs downward, angling his skis so they reconnected seamlessly with snow.
From there he continued down the hill, negotiating tight curves seven through nine with no trouble, bolting through corkscrew ten – a series of consecutive loop-the-loops, he really had to hold his tuck – landing just in time to zigzag through the last five curves, keeping immaculate lines all the way to the home stretch, where the cheering crowd became audible.
Outside of his own home, team training, and riding his motorcycle, he was most in his element on skis. They were now bringing him to his first finish of this season. A successful one, from the look of things. With a grin he prepared to end his run on a high note.
Crossing the finish line, he swung in a wide arc and drifted across the finish corral, kicking up a white wave to the crowd's delight. A familiar chant rose from the stands: "ALL HAIL! SHADOW! ALL HAIL! SHADOW!" Some held banners and posters aloft, some waved shiny pom-poms, many blew horns or clanged bells…Shadow could swear he heard bagpipes from one corner. The audience thrill was palpable.
The announcer seemed to perk up as well. "In third place, Jet the Hawk. In second place, Scourge the Hedgehog. Moving into first place, Shadow the Hedgehog! Welcome back!"
While his time did not set a new record, his satisfaction was heartfelt today. With characteristic, confident reserve he smiled closed-mouthed, nodded, raised an arm and a pole in thanks. His season was beginning beautifully.
In contrast, last season he could only ski two of his three planned final Mobius Cup races. Though he finished first in both, his knee was so badly sprained after the second race that he was forced to withdraw from the third. His resilience, unusual even for a Mobian, had enabled him to enjoy sixteen remarkably injury-free years of racing before then. His team and Rouge tried to console him afterwards, insisting it was time he got more rest, at least he didn't need surgery, he'd return better than ever, and other such platitudes.
But ski racing was Shadow's bread and butter, his only real job ever, one at which he preferred to do his best always. Missing even one race was inexcusable to him…and humiliating, to be very honest. Mighty the Armadillo had to walk him to the on-site physician at the conclusion of that second race, and he had to firmly insist on walking so that Mighty wouldn't sweep him off his feet!
That burden was clean off his shoulders as he now ambled freely to the top three finishers' waiting area, carrying his skis and poles. He shook hands with Jet and Scourge. Both met him with professional cordiality and neither were shocked by the outcome, though faint annoyance marred Scourge's expression.
He turned toward one of the giant, bright flat screens posted at the corral, the chatter of the crowd wafting to his ears, and waited.
About half a minute later, the announcer spoke again. "At the gate – number 024, Sonic the Hedgehog!"
Supportive cheers broke out. He watched the form of his rookie teammate atop the hill, framed by the start house portal. He was bedecked in a dark grey ski suit and white helmet identical to Shadow's, green eyes blocked from view by opaque goggles, standing at full height and exhaling gentle steam in deep, even breaths.
The champion skier privately admitted Sonic had a tough act to follow. The teen was far from the first competitor to come down with nerves in the wake of one of Shadow's runs. But Sonic was holding together well in light of that. He looked almost serene, flakes of snow falling like a delicate curtain before him, quills swaying in the light breeze, no sign of the previous night's nerves manifesting.
The elder hedgehog knew better. Yet, in his opinion (which he generally kept hush), the youngster had amazing potential. On their team freshman skiers also did not compete for the overall title, as the first year was their learning and exploration period; rookies were free to decide at year's end whether to make it their career. Shadow honestly believed Sonic had it in him to do well and enjoy it.
He stared at the flat screen as if he could will peaceful thoughts into his teammate.
No room for overthinking now…you'll be fine, Sonic. You'll be fine…
The first beep sounded, from both the starting gate and the corral's display speakers. Shadow watched Sonic grip his poles and lean forward. Somewhere in the waiting area partitioned off by the wall behind him, he knew Mighty and Espio, who finished two places behind Jet, also watched and waited.
At the second and third beeps, Sonic shifted his grip and faced forward, sights on the white expanse ahead, Knuckles audibly uplifting him as well.
At the final beep: go time. He was off like a shot.
For those first few moments, Shadow was not aware he was holding his breath. He beheld the cautious lines Sonic cut through the first five curves, mildly wobbling on his first turn, then bumping an elbow into a flag at the third – get it together, thought Shadow, build up speed on the first leg and it'll carry you to the end – then his path smoothed out, skis pointed resolutely forward, and he settled into a nicer tuck than during his training run.
By curve five Shadow knew Sonic would not mess up, and he let out his breath, steam floating upward. Yes. Sonic was getting it. Getting into it. Keeping his posture sturdy but flexible. Winding around the flags, perhaps not quite with Shadow's precision but the focus was there. Spinning through loop-the-loops as if on a leisurely stroll. Suspended in midair when the path changed its downward angle, floating like a snowflake himself, landing on strong legs that were prepared to absorb the shock.
So much about ski racing was literally thinking on one's feet in excess of eighty miles an hour. Shadow had to learn that himself once. Empathetic tension coursed through his own body as he watched Sonic.
"Wicked," he heard Jet mutter under his breath.
He could be faster, Shadow knew it. He needed to refine his technique. For sure the kid could ski and his speed was already breathtaking. Most took years to learn what Sonic was pulling off right now. But times were recorded down to hundredths of seconds, thousandths for tiebreakers. The smallest details could make the biggest difference.
That said, he was an absolute force of nature, simply mesmerizing to watch.
The crowd agreed, shouting its approval as it waited for Sonic's result. The only missing piece was his family, who were unable to support him in person. Home was just a time zone away, so hopefully they were present in spirit.
The happy cacophony grew louder in Shadow's ears, yet it was all but muted in his mind as a blue blur came into view on neon green skis, dashing to the finish line. When Sonic crossed, his name and time flashed on a separate display.
"Sliding into fourth, Sonic the Hedgehog – fastest first-race finish in twelve years!" the friendly announcer stated.
…Was that a sigh of relief from Jet? No matter. It barely registered above the noisy crowd.
What did matter was the lack of disappointment in Sonic's features as he came to a stop and saw his time. Instead, a brilliant smile of another sort of relief – along with traces of bemusement, surely he also heard the bagpipes – stretched across his face. The crowd loved that too. Lifting his goggles off his face and onto his helmet, he waved, grinning, clearly glad the race was done and that he placed higher than on his training run, when he finished seventh.
Shadow smiled as well…in fact, had been smiling unconsciously for the past minute at least, watching the newbie leave his very first official Mobius Cup mark, applauding his performance, feeling warm at the sight of his blue teammate taking it all in. It was all so new to Sonic that Shadow felt as if he, too, were seeing the event with fresh eyes. The youth's happiness was catching. Shadow could watch him smile all day.
There were sixteen more skiers after Sonic. His first ranked race under his belt, the pleased rookie walked toward the exit gate leading to the waiting area in the back, where Mighty and Espio would no doubt receive him with congratulations.
On his way, his eyes met Shadow's. They crinkled as his smile turned shy. He raised a hand and waved with his fingers as he passed by and, while returning the wave, Shadow was filled with warmth once more.
"Not bad for his first time," Jet remarked next to him.
"No," Shadow agreed in a murmur, "not bad at all."
It would be three and a half more hours before Shadow reunited with his whole team. After the remaining skiers moved through the course, the results went under disqualification review by jury. A section of the finish corral was cordoned off and the exit gate blocked by security. Members of the press would be checked into this section shortly.
The first three audience rows were reserved in front for team members and family of podium finishers. Sonic, Espio, Knuckles, and Mighty sat off to the right just behind the press. At Shadow's first glimpse of Sonic, the younger hedgehog grinned and gave him two enthusiastic thumbs up. Shadow knew Sonic could see him chuckle across the distance as he waved back. From his seat he frequently checked on his teammates during the podium ceremony set-up, watching them chat and pass the time. Sonic especially looked wonderstruck being there at all, as if the newbie hadn't just finished fifth himself (he was bumped down one spot by skier number 033).
It brought a fond smile to the elder hedgehog's face. If attending the ceremony amazed Sonic, how would he handle his first podium finish? That could easily happen this season.
"Guess you're rubbing off on him," Scourge said offhandedly to Shadow, referencing Sonic's speed.
Shadow shrugged. "He put in his own work, just like I did mine."
"It shows," Jet acknowledged with grudging respect. "Wonder what it'd be like to race him one on one."
At least Jet saw Sonic's strength for what it was. "You could ask him," Shadow suggested.
"Maybe I will," the hawk said with his own shrug.
So he made occasional small talk with Jet and Scourge, whenever they weren't talking amongst themselves. He tended not to hold himself very close to skiers outside his team. Although he wasn't unfriendly – his teammates and Rouge did compliment his improved social skills over the past few years – gregariousness just wasn't in his nature, and based on his observations he didn't seem to have much in common with the others. They mostly came from stable families who willingly afforded for their children to train as elite skiers. Shadow had no idea whether his family would have done the same.
He knew luck got him in more than anything. If not for Rouge's connection with Ray the Flying Squirrel, he might not be here now. Rouge, a champion ski jumper in her day, had the fortuity to train alongside Ray in the last three years of his career, and they'd built good camaraderie. Rouge already knew Shadow was an excellent skier. In the month before his fifteenth birthday she'd recommended him to Ray, who by then was running a young ski racing team with his best friend Mighty.
Ray and Mighty liked his potential. The rest was history.
Well, not that alpine skiing had much history anywhere on Mobius even up to this point. Mobius-Earth relations only began some fifty Mobian years ago. From older articles Shadow read, a great deal changed since; Shadow observed waves of cultural and technological shifts in his own three decades. Alpine skiing was among several sports imported from Earth that Mobians made their own. It was viewed as countercultural around the time of his birth. Now, it was gaining recognition and respect across the planet.
It grew up with him, in a sense. Shadow supposed he should be glad he caught onto it when he did. In the beginning, however, he just needed money. Every competitor who placed in the top 20 won prize money. The higher the placement, the bigger the purse. Rouge supported him early on with her ski jump winnings. He would always be grateful for that, but he didn't want to depend on her forever. He wanted to hold his own.
"Ladies and gentlemen," a spokeswoman's voice nudged Shadow out of his recollections, "the jury has found no disqualifications in today's event. The ceremony may now begin."
Shadow sat up straighter, as did Jet and Scourge. Right. Time to get on with it.
Afterwards, three operations personnel members escorted Shadow and Mighty to the gymnasium, the press conference site. Only one teammate could accompany each skier. For their team, it was usually Mighty.
"Back in excellent form," said the team co-owner, clapping him on the shoulder, "just like always."
"Thank you," replied Shadow with a genuine smile. "It felt good."
"How's the knee?"
"Maybe a little sore," the skier admitted.
"I could have Sonic do the honor of drawing you a bath," grinned Mighty. "That would make his day. He's been stoked about everything here."
Shadow chuckled. "He worked hard too, I'm pretty sure he needs a warm bath himself."
"Honestly, I can barely tell. He looks like he can ski this course another five times today."
The elder hedgehog smiled as he remembered their talk. Clearly the kid left his nerves far behind. "Then this will be a very good season."
The roomy lodge was filled with visitors on the first floor, and ski teams at rest on the second. Staff and security guarded the foot of the stairs leading up to the second floor, as well as the double doors into the second-floor lounge area. When Shadow and Mighty entered after the conference, a congratulatory cheer burst forth from excited fans. Shadow offered a graceful nod and wave before heading upstairs.
They found Espio, Knuckles, and Sonic in a corner, each sipping hot chocolate, all relaxed on a cushioned bench near a fireplace.
Espio saw them first, and rose from his seat. "Good to have you back," he said with a broad smile, hugging Shadow with a brotherly arm.
"Toldja you got this," agreed Knuckles with an amiable fist bump.
And Sonic, now standing too, looked prouder of him than he remembered anyone looking in a good while. It was an unexpectedly welcome sight.
Most of the alpine ski community, including Shadow himself if he was completely frank, were accustomed to him winning. Everyone was shocked when he withdrew from his last race the previous season. Shadow the Hedgehog never missed a race. Yet he was out for the beginning of this season, and no one knew what condition he'd be in for his comeback.
He was back now, and if the look in the blue hedgehog's eyes was true, Sonic did not doubt him once.
He opened his arms and embraced the youth, for that was an honor to him.
"Congratulations," Sonic said companionably.
"Thank you," said Shadow, pulling back a bit, "and you did very well. Gaining your legs already."
"Guess I'm starting to," agreed Sonic with a grin. "Thanks for that."
The black hedgehog shook his head, half-smiling. "Who knows? You might be the fastest thing alive one day."
"At least the fastest thing on skis," added Mighty.
"Maybe the buffest thing on skis too, I can make that my mission," offered Knuckles in jest.
Sonic laughed loud. "Then you can set my workouts to the sickest bagpipe jams!"
That sent everyone into giggle fits and further chatter as they began to pack up their things. Shadow just grinned, the mere sound of Sonic's laughter brightening him up beyond words.
Thank you for reading the first chapter. :)
A few things I should disclose…
My approach to characterizing goes three ways: canon happens in the past (things they've moved on from), in the future (what they're being shaped into), and/or is part of their core public persona. In between these there's wiggle room where I exercise liberties, I guess. I'm also fairly new to Sonic fandom and am not sure I know the characters that well yet...
No interplanetary conflict, no Eggman, not much tech even, so stakes aren't that high. The two-worlds thing I don't necessarily subscribe to canonically, but I thought it'd be interesting here as a background detail.
So this story is pretty slice-of-life because I don't trust myself with anything more complex! Really, it exists because the image of Sonic decked in ski racing gear burned itself into my head one day, and my heart craves sappy Sonadow. Don't quite know what I'm doing beyond that. ^_^;