After a last wide curve around the floating city, Babylon Garden fell behind them and the Tornado gradually climbed into the clouds.
Sonic leaned on his Gear, feeling the wind and propeller wash tug on his quills. He watched his friends, Knuckles looking rather relaxed as he gazed down to the side, at peace and at home between the clouds, but Tails was frowning at the biplane's controls as if the dashboard was plotting a scheme against him and he'd just caught up with it.
"What's up, Tails?" Sonic flashed him a grin when his young friend looked up, but Tails didn't smile back.
"I was thinking about what will happen to Babylon Garden now," the fox said. "It has been lost for so long, and there's certainly plenty of secrets still there. But we don't even know who owns it now and who's going to take care of it."
"Jet and his guys?" In the rear seat, Knuckles had turned away from his cloud gazing and was frowning up at Sonic instead now, probably because he could hardly frown properly at Tails given the seating arrangement.
Tails shot half a look back at the echidna, then turned to Sonic again. "You think? That's why you gave him back the cube, Sonic?"
The hedgehog shrugged. "Why, yes. He had it before, obviously, so I thought it's his."
"They're descendants of the Babylonians," Knuckles threw in from behind Tails again.
"Yes, maybe, but they lived on this island thousands of years ago. I wonder if that's still binding." He waved an arm. "Can you just go 'My great-great-great-great-grandparents lived here, so I own the place'? If everyone did that, it'd be chaos. Imagine I find out somehow my ancestors lived where Future City is now and I would go and say I own the place because of that. Imagine all people doing that!"
Sonic shrugged. He'd admittedly not thought about it in legal details. "Well, do you think Angel Island is Knuckles'?"
Tails blinked. "Sure!" He sounded indignant now. "Of course it is!"
"Then where's the difference?"
Tails' double tails twitched in the cramped space between his back and seat. "Knuckles doesn't go around stealing Emeralds. They were involved in a robbery, and the police all forgot about it real quick."
Sonic leaned back into the wind a bit, let it bear some of his weight. He'd always been familiar with the wind, it was his element when he was running, but now, after focussing on it so much while mastering Extreme Gear riding, he was more aware of it. "The problem is, they didn't steal anything anyone actually owns. Sure, they broke a window and some police cars, so there's property damage, but they can't really sue anyone for taking a Chaos Emerald. Who owns Chaos Emeralds anyway?"
Tails tilted his head, throwing a tentative look back at the red echidna behind him. "Well, by the logic you apply to the cube and to Babylon Garden... Knuckles?"
The guardian gave a short laugh. "Sounds 'bout right to me!"
Sonic grinned. "Now you just need to take the whole thing to court and find someone there who agrees with us. Which will probably be hard, because Chaos Emeralds and lost treasure cities are something everyone wants a piece of, so people will hardly be fair about it."
"Yeah," Tails grumbled. Actually grumbled, and that happened, what, once in a blue moon?
Sonic felt his ears curve back in sympathy. "Come on, what's up, little bro? It's not about flying gardens, is it?"
"No," Tails admitted, biting his lower lip. "It's not fair, Sonic! They only won by sabotage! I thought they were just really good at riding Extreme Gear, and at building them, but they needed to cheat to win. First, she comes and makes fun of me, then they tried to rile us up and intimidate us all the time, and then they had to cheat. And don't even get caught!" Tails was rambling now, quick and agitated words, and gesturing with his free right hand, the left steering the Tornado, though admittedly a little haphazardly and shakily. "There was an explosion, everyone saw it, and nobody even considered any sort of investigation!"
In the backseat, Knuckles was all raised brows now, obviously unused to one of Tails' rare outbursts. "Well, it was a race with hardly any rules. 'Everything goes', Eggman said," he threw in, carefully, softly, like he wasn't sure he wanted to say anything. Sonic thought it was funny, and kind of sweet actually, because Knuckles certainly didn't worry about talking back to him when it came to it. And it came to it often.
"I know that," Tails noticed, "but still it's... I dunno."
Sonic nodded. "Leaves a foul taste in your mouth?"
"Yeah." Tails sat back into his seat, drew a deep breath. "Sorry."
Knuckles' head was tilted in thought. "So, do you want to go back there and demand a rematch? I'd be game if that helps."
Sonic grinned. "I'm sure we just have to wait a bit. The races were really popular; did you see how many people attended? Someone will probably slam their copyright on it and hold frequent races soon."
"You think they'll be back then?" Knuckles was looking at Sonic now. "Maybe they were just in for the Emeralds, or for getting the chance to dig out Babylon Garden. We were in for the Emeralds, after all."
"We were also in for the competition," Sonic pointed out, and although Knuckles didn't say anything, he wasn't denying it, either. "And I've raced Jet to the finish line. He's got a competitive streak. Extreme Gear riding is their thing. Soon as there's another competition, they're gonna be back. I'll bet on it."
"You probably won't find anyone to bet against ya," Tails smiled a little now, but just for a moment. "And when it comes down to another match, I'll make sure we're better prepared."
Sonic raised an eyebrow. "Are you still on about that? Your boards are fine, Tails, really." He patted the new one he still held. "This one's a real charm! It's much faster, and much better to control, and - it's just great! Honest!" He put his hand across his heart in mock drama. "Would I lie to you?"
That finally earned him a short grin, but before Tails had a chance to think of a reply, Knuckles had spoken up.
"She probably just said your board is a piece of junk to discourage you, Tails. Heck, she probably saw it was really good and figured your tinkering means a lot to you, so you'd take it to heart if she dissed you about it." The echidna's violet eyes were narrowed in anger at the memory again.
Sonic waved a hand at the guardian. "See, even Knuckles has her sussed out, buddy." Surprisingly, the echidna didn't rise to Sonic's implication he usually wasn't all that fast when it came to figuring out people. "She was just being mean. Let it go."
"In fact, she needed to sabotage the board you customised for Sonic to keep him from winning on it. That pretty much says it all." Knuckles still looked a bit grim.
"I don't even have any idea how she did that, or when," Tails mumbled.
"Uh, when she looked at it at the river there?" Sonic shrugged. It was the only time anyone not on their team had actually gotten a hand on the board.
"Yes, probably, but it must have been a really tiny device to go hidden for so long."
"Sure made quite a bang for a tiny device," Knuckles remarked, studying Sonic briefly. "You wiped out pretty spectacularly, too." He grimaced.
"You were not worried, were you?" Sonic smiled. He knew Knuckles cared more than he was willing to admit.
"Was quite a bang, and a fall at high speed, is all I'm saying." Knuckles brushed back his long quills.
"I've taken worse falls, at higher speeds, too." Sonic shrugged. "I just didn't expect it at all. It's not that there was anything to trip over."
"Knuckles is right; you still could have been seriously hurt," Tails said. "The explosive must've been sticking to your board all through the races, think of what would've happened had it gone off on accident at a more critical time, when you weren't going pretty much in a straight line close to the ground. We can't even look at what it was she set off there; there's hardly anything left of your board to examine..."
"Well, good for me I bought my technical genius along who could just pull a new one out of his sleeve when I needed one." Sonic tried another smile, making a gesture to brush down the new board.
It didn't work; Tails' brow was still deeply furrowed. "It's the fact that your feet were right on top of that old one when it disintegrated in a big explosion that's bothering me, Sonic."
Sonic returned the frown now. "No, it's the fact you missed on the bomb when looking at the board. That people try to blow us up goes down as occupational hazard. Eggman blows us up all the time. But you checked the board over and worked on it between races and before that last race and you said it was fine, and that's the problem, isn't it?" He finished more softly than he'd spoken the rest of the retort. He didn't like saying it right into Tails' face like this, but he couldn't let him wallow in this morose mood any longer, either.
Tails was looking up at him, blue eyes wide. Sonic had hit the nail right on the head. "Yeah," the little fox admitted. "I just should have seen something was up."
"You can't see everything, and we can't prepare for everything, Tails." Sonic indicated the brand new Gear in his hold. "And you already were quite well prepared for all sorts of trouble. I'm fine, and I could only go after Jet and Eggman because of you being prepared as you are."
"Sonic is right, and you know I don't say that often," Knuckles cut in. "Stop beating yourself up."
"Even Knux is on my side, Tails, give up." Sonic patted his board for emphasis again. "You did great today, couldn't have done it without you. 'kay?"
Tails nodded hesitantly. "Okay... Thanks, guys."
Sonic smiled back, returning the nod to Tails when the fox finally brightened, too. "That's more like it, bud."
"Now that we're waiting for the rematch to come around on its own, where are we going, Tails?" Apparently having decided to change the topic, Knuckles threw another look down the side of the biplane.
"I was thinking we drop off our Gear at the workshop and snatch a bite before we take you back up to your island?" Tails turned over his shoulder again to look at the red echidna behind him.
Knuckles grinned. "Sounds good to me," he said, settling more relaxed into his seat.
Sonic was grinning, too. "The snatching food bit or going home?"
"Both," Knuckles admitted.
"Glad I'm not the only one who's starving," the blue hedgehog noticed.
"As would be usual," Knuckles muttered, almost quiet enough for the wind to swallow his words, but not quite.
On impulse, Sonic stuck out his tongue at him. "Didn't eat enough breakfast today then? Or maybe eating only grapes is not really sustaining you through a whole day of mad racing?"
Knuckles glared at him. "I don't eat 'only grapes'," he insisted.
"What were the little round fruits you were eating this morning then?" Sonic knew it had been grapes, he'd seen Knuckles' brief, disbelieving delight when he'd discovered the fruits, because Sonic was sure it wasn't grape harvesting season on the Floating Island yet, and Sonic really thought Knuckles should eat as much of his favourite food as he wanted when he got the chance, but he kept teasingly grinning at the red echidna anyway, all along watching the two-tailed fox between them. Tails was smiling and shaking his head.
"At least I'm keeping a healthy diet, Sonic, that's something that can hardly be said for what you eat," Knuckles gave back, with an expression that was somehow half glare and half an attempt to keep from laughing. "What was it you had this morning, before your first race, too? Sports on a full stomach. Tsk."
"I had pizza," Sonic volunteered. There was really nothing wrong with pizza for breakfast, race or no race. His whole life was a race if you looked at it that way, he was sure pizza, chili dogs and fries fit into it just perfectly.
"That was a lunch or dinner food last time I checked," Knuckles noticed, arms folding across his chest, his right eyebrow mockingly held high.
Sonic's ears twitched. "When did you become an expert on proper dining, huh? Last time I checked, you were a hermit living on a flying island, with not a single restaurant in sight."
"Guys!" Laughing outright by now, Tails loudly called out to be heard over engine noise and arguments flying back and forth over his head. "Stop it! You'll never agree on food choices, not in a million years!"
Sonic grinned. "Who said it was about agreeing on anything? Can't we just -"
"Argue for the sake of arguing?", Tails finished for him, still trying to keep from laughing.
"Arguably," Knuckles piped up, in an all serious tone, too, "we totally can."
In the pilot seat, Tails nearly lost it now, helplessly trying to stop laughing while keeping their aircraft steady. "Stop, both of you," he gasped out. "I'm gonna crash us!"
"I'll be fine, I can glide," Knuckles noticed innocently.
"I have a fine hover board," Sonic added, mimicking the tone. "You should really get one yourself, just in case you wanna partake in a race, or, you know, need to escape from a plane crash."
Tails was wiping tears from the corners of his eyes. "I can fly, better than either of you, you know."
"Oh, can you? You'll have to show me." Sonic winked at his brother. "A race around Knuckles' Floating Island after dinner?"
"On Gears or on foot?" Tails grinned.
"Why, Tails." Sonic pointed at his feet. Fastest feet on the planet, too. With or without Gear under them, but on Gear there had been contest. "I thought you knew I like competition!"
In the backseat, Knuckles rolled his eyes with an exasperated groan, and Tails was shaking his head, but his eyes were still twinkling with mirth. "You haven't even seen the improvements I made to our boards," he announced.
Sonic smiled. "Oh? Now you're on!"
Tails smiled back brightly, ears perked, and pushed at the Tornado's throttle for some extra speed.