Knuckles knew he had to be on guard, but he couldn't stop thinking about Vector. He paced back and forth in front of the Master Emerald, recalling the day he and the crocodile met up again at the mall. A few days had passed, and since then the two had been calling and texting a lot, talking about little things here and there now more than catching back up.
But Knuckles' thoughts kept coming back to the brief moments they shared together. Their stumble at the food court, Vector brushing the echidna's hand, albeit accidental. Both instances made Knuckles feel something he hadn't felt before. But he just couldn't figure out what it was.
Knuckles shook his head, telling himself that he was overthinking this. Whatever it was he was feeling about Vector, he had to stop dwelling on it before it drove him insane.
Knuckles went back to guarding the Master Emerald, but gave up after about three hours due to thoughts of Vector lingering in his head. He decided to go hang out with Sonic and Tails, maybe walk around until they found something fun to do. He grabbed his phone and texted Sonic.
Hey. You and Tails wanna go do something?
Sure, Knux. Sonic replied. How 'bout we hit the tennis courts?
Sounds cool. Meet you guys there. Knuckles texted back.
The three had played badminton a few times during a trip to London, but they had little experience with actual tennis. So they decided they'd give the game a try. Knuckles met up with his friends at the tennis courts.
"Get bored guarding, Knux?" Sonic asked.
"More like distracted." the echidna replied. "Needed to clear my head."
"Well, this is a good way to do that." Tails said. He handed Sonic a coin. "Go ahead a flip to see which of us will play you first, Sonic."
"You want tails, Tails?" Sonic teased.
Knuckles laughed, and the fox gave Sonic a glum look. "Just flip." he muttered.
Sonic flipped the coin, then peeked at the side it had landed on. "Heads. You and me, Knux." he said.
Tails stood back on the sidelines while Sonic and Knuckles took their places on the court. Theirs was more of a practice session than an actual game, as they were still getting used to the rules and the mechanics. During their game, Knuckles noticed a trio entering the courts, and his focus completely settled on them and couldn't be shaken.
It was Vector, Espio, and Charmy. They had come to work on their game as well, but first they were watching their friends play. Knuckles then caught site of Vector smiling at him and giving him a thumbs-up. The encouraging gesture made Knuckles smile as well-
"Ow!" Knuckles cried out as the tennis ball suddenly smacked him in the face, right below his right eye. He fell to the ground, one of his hands clutching where he had been hit.
"Knuckles!" Sonic cried out. Everyone ran over to the downed echidna in concern. Knuckles sat up with a grunt, still holding his hand to his face.
"Are you okay, Knuckles?" Sonic asked. "I'm so sorry! I swear I didn't mean to!"
"It's okay, Sonic. It's not your fault." Knuckles said. "I wasn't paying attention."
Tails lifted Knuckles' hand away, revealing a purplish bruise that was starting to form on his cheekbone. His eye was blackening as well.
"Oh, man." Vector said. "That doesn't look too good."
"We'd better get some ice on that." Tails said.
Later, Knuckles sat down on the sidelines with the Chaotix, holding an ice pack to his injured cheekbone and eye. Sonic had decided to play against Tails next, still feeling guilty for hurting Knuckles, despite the echidna reassuring him that it wasn't his fault.
Vector was sitting next to Knuckles. He nervously rubbed the back of his head.
"Sorry." he said. "For distracting you. You got hurt 'cause of me."
"C'mon, man." Knuckles said, grinning. "Do I really have to tell you what I told Sonic?"
Vector looked at Knuckles with surprise, then smiled, relieved that his friend didn't hold the incident against him.
"Hey, if you wanna blame yourself and spare me the trouble, I'm down." he said.
"Jerk." Knuckles elbowed Vector playfully, laughing.
They sat in silence a while longer, watching the game. But when Vector spoke again, it was Knuckles' turn to be surprised.
"Y'know, that bruise really brings out your eyes."
Knuckles felt his muzzle heat up with a blush, though he didn't know why. It was just a compliment, an odd one, but still. He side-glanced at Vector and replied as casually as he could, "Thanks."
Knuckles wasn't the only one affected by Vector's words. Espio and Charmy shared a glance. There was something about the way Vector said that that piqued their interest. He sat in a laid-back, casual manner, but that didn't fool them. He had to be hiding something, they knew him too well for it to be otherwise.
Sonic won against Tails, so Vector went up next. He stretched to warm up, and Knuckles noticed sunlight glinting off his broad chest. And like that, the sight brought back the unfamiliar feeling that demanded the echidna's attention. His blush became more prominent, his head clouded with thoughts, and he could feel a slight fluttering sensation where his heart was.
Now he had a hunch of what this mysterious feeling was.