He turned bright eyes up to the loving face above him, who radiated such light, beauty and warmth. They were alone together, a room only just cleaned, lying in bed, just enjoying each other’s presence. He yawned and snugged into the softly rising and falling chest, listening to the heartbeat that lulled him to sleep, sending him on a gentle journey to slumber.
Soft hands grasped at his unruly fur, gently running the digits through his being, through a small tuft at his end and then back to his head. They were humming, the tune wordless and timeless, echoing in his little ears, soothing and comforting. Rougher, but equally as gentle hands would pluck him from her when sleep had almost claimed him, the same tune hummed in earnest as he was placed in the arms of someone smaller than they, but bigger than him.
He would be barely aware of the strangely coloured bars on his uniform, but his nimble tiny hands would grasp at them, eliciting a chuckle from somewhere deep within. The hands that held him now were somewhat clumsier, but love still radiated from them. The other two would watch, eager and light-hearted, as their family’s last piece fell into place with his presence.
He was warm, loved, cherished and adored…
He would know of the dark shadows that awaited them in the dead of night.
The figure, furious and rough, would grab her by a handful of her headfur, her shrieking cry would reverberate in his soul for many years afterwards, and drag her from the safety of her bed, leaving him curled up, frightened and helpless as it had its way with her.
She would always return to him, hours later, red drops staining her dress, but never once did he see her crying, never once did those crystal clear drops he would soon become accustomed to himself fall from her eyes. She held her head high, and walked without the limp the monster had given her again.
It was routine to his young form, his mother would tell him to sleep in her bed across the hall as it stood, fists to its sides, in the doorway. Her quiet voice commanded him in its near-silence. He would not look up at the creature, who reeked of stale whiskey and blood, but rather he would get into her bed and snuggle deep within the covers, ears pulled down by his hands. If he so much as sniffled or whimpered loud enough for it to hear him, he’d be next.
She was older than she had ever been, protection failing him never once, but he would always remember that night; the night she was taken from him, and never returned to their bed. He had always wondered if she had cried when her last breath left her soul.
He learned to fear not monsters but the ordinary people around him…
He was double digits now, glowing candles on the birthday cake on the table, surrounded by love, friendship and adoration. He was happier than he had ever been. The shadow falling across his shoulders was one of deep love and respect, not yet a graduate, but getting to that point. The shining silver etched badge he was attaching to the lapel of his jacket had become one of his most favourite things in the world.
His birthday present, a dream he had set his mind to for years on end, the chuckle and agreement that someday they’d both serve together. He was in his arms, hugged with such ferocity he felt he was going to cry. He couldn’t help but to sniffle a little, looking up at the face of the one he wanted to become when he was a teenager, all the warmth and respect and adoration shining in his eyes.
Laughter rang out as the arms closed around him, hugging him back, strength, honor and courage eminating from his soul. The older two were simply content to watch, arm in arm, prouder than ever, more loving than they’d ever seen them. A happy, bright future spilled out into that room, one he was sure all of them could see.
One day, he’d prove himself ready, and when that day came, they’d both walk proud, side by side, together…
He had been curled up on the snow-covered marble stone, a poignant and solitary reminder of a part of his soul that had been taken away from him.
He could barely feel his arms, or his legs, bruised and battered by the blunt force it had used on him the night before. Puffy, bruised flesh sealed shut his left eye, whilst in the other tears stained silver by the sleet and snow around him coiled down his muzzlefur. She had said may he never know tears. Her death had brought them to him, and kept it with him, through the darkness of the days that followed.
Her funeral was a sordid affair, only it and him standing there with a bored black and white clothed creature. He tried very hard not to cry, but had been belted with the pastor’s book when a whimper escaped him as she was lowered into the ground before him.
Involuntarily from the belting, he had gripped the white rose in his hand, thorns digging into his paw as he fell, slumping before the rectangular gash in the hard ground. Drops of his red had stained her coffin, and the petals of the white rose as they scattered across it when he had let go, other hand trembling for the back of his head where a bruised welt was now forming. It was stalking away, furious and bored with the whole thing. The pastor did not flinch, nor even pay any attention to him, merely retrieved his book from beside him and left, following the monster who had paid him to conduct this waste of time.
He had stayed lying there, eyes closed, ears back, blood still seeping from his wounded head, as tears finally consumed him. She was gone. His last bastion of protection had been taken from him.
And now, it could do to him as it pleased…
He sat in the room, feeling sickened to his stomach from the stench of antibiotics and bleach, tears in freefall.
They’d been told nothing.
Only that they were both to report to this pristine white place that he hated being in, hated the smell, the sights, the noise and the hustling blurs that whipped right past him, oblivious to his presence, as the thunder and lightning clashed and roared outside the building. This was the place that fuelled his every subsequent fear.
His shadow had gone forward up the stairs to demand answers as to what in the bloody hell they were doing in this creepy place, where screams and sadness echoed down its halls, leaving him to his overactive subconscious and the realisation he was not as brave as he believed he was. He wanted her, and him, to return, to wrap their loving arms around him and his shadow and never let them go. And yet…something in him was telling him he would never see them again.
He buried his face in his hands, trying to tell his inner self to leave him alone, to not put such terrible, catastrophic ideas in his head, not here, not now. He could remember more tears coming, without hesitation, sobbing his heart out. He could feel his heart breaking as his brain fed him scenarios and flashes of moments he had spent with them. Where was his shadow? Where was he?!
He couldn’t remember how long he’d sat there sobbing into his hands. But his shadow had returned and lifted his chin towards him. His eyes searched, struggling to see the light that had once been there. He heard words, jumbled and lost in translation, coming from his shadow’s mouth, hands on his shoulders, shaking him slightly, demanding that he stop crying, stop setting him off. He recalled a shake of his head as he watched those silver tears course down, like watching his own face in the mirror, the flicker of the flame in his eyes blown out as the realisation hit home, driving a stake into his soul.
Hands gripped his arms, squeezing him, berating him to stop crying. This wasn’t the shadow he knew, the shadow he’d wanted to follow all his life, this was a stranger to him. He didn’t remember running from it, certain that it would all be better if he got someplace outside, but his footfalls were barely audible.
He didn’t want to stop running…
He could hear it tromping across the snow; long, furious strides towards him.
He dug his claws into the marble stone, hoping for a swift retribution that would allow him the respite of not letting her go on this, her birthday, on the coldest, longest winter day of the year. He was saying it over and over again in his head, his lips moving but no sound from his sore throat, constricted with fear, shame and sadness. He wanted to be forgotten, wanted to be left alone, wanted to just be with her before her memory slipped away from his psyche.
The first strike sent him sprawling into the crackling white, the second tore a gash into the multi-coloured fur that banded down his back end. It was brandishing the shovel in its hands, honed after hours of watching him sleep in the cold darkness of the tiled laundry. He lay there, without moving, holding his breath, hoping to be left alone, hoping to be left to bleed out in peace. For so brief a second, he realised she was out of pain, far from this same suffering it was putting him through now that she was gone. For so brief a second, he felt completely capable of hating her.
The hate was quelled when its hand gripped his neckfur, digging in its claws. It was hissing at him, telling him how worthless a son he was, how worthless a runt he was, that she had birthed for him – the lord of this fiefdom – a runt so incapable of leading he needed to have leadership beaten into him.
Through his bruised eye, he could just make out the swell of pride and pleasure in his father’s eyes as he mercilessly beat him, his son, into submission. He’d blame him next, as he was prone to doing, beating away with his hands instead of his weapon, and yet…why had he not gone that extra step like he’d done with his mother? Why was he still here, still gasping for breath, at the mercy of a father who hadn’t a shred of it?
The last thing he remembered was hitting a cobblestone of the nearby path after his father had flung him to one side, and his whole world went black…
Hands clutched his pillow as his tears came again for the millionth time since the funeral.
His shadow hadn’t said a word of comfort, hadn’t said anything in his direction, since the moment at the hospital. He’d gone about the arrangements, snapping at the slightest damned thing he did. Suddenly the shadow he wanted to follow was a shadow he didn’t recognise or know anymore. He worked nights to keep this tiny apartment of theirs, leaving him to the merciless misery that choked him near to death in the darkness. No hugs, no comfort, not even a reassuring word of experience and knowledge. He had begun to realise that without their parents, neither were allowed to be children anymore.
They fought continuously; him struggling to stay in school without getting suspended at every turn and him trying to graduate with full honours whilst juggling his sorry little tailend, the bills and the rent. He was trying to make the best of his life after their parents had vanished from their lives, doing something with his time, working odd jobs to fight off the pain of the memories.
Now his shadow had a love life, friends and they were going to be moving out of here soon. He’d said nothing about the upheaval to Bigg City. There was no point in even breathing around him anymore. He didn’t exist to his brother. He didn’t even exist to their new teammates in the Star Team.
He kept to himself, angry and ashamed that he was even continuing to dwell on the past, dredging up the sick swell of memories just to provoke a reaction out of his shadow. All he wanted to do was to go back to what things had been like in his childhood. All he wanted was their love again.
All he wanted to do was wake up…
He wanted his mother.
He could feel her arms around him, holding him close, soothing his bleeding, bruised form as it lay in the back seat of his father’s car as he drove them to some unknown place; her gentle, loving warmth seeping into him, comforting him as the darkness spilled into his psyche.
Somewhere in the background he could hear only bits and pieces of his father’s drunken rantings. They felt so far away in the haze he was stumbling through. He was only just aware of his father’s hands gripping on his tail, yanking him out of the back door and flinging him to the pristine snow of the bank. His head connected with something hard, a tree root he realised later, blood trickling from the split in the bruise that had formed where he’d hit it. His subconscious was conjouring up the ghostly visage of his mother, crouching over him, her hands placed gently on his bloodied cheeks, face a mask of fear and worry.
He closed his eyes as his father’s hands, claws bared, replaced his mother’s and hoisted him by a lapel of his thin undershirt, the other hand tearing at the tufty fur of his cheeks. He gripped his headfur, jerking his head back, spitting venom and bile at his only son. But he did not answer, eyes heavy and finally closed as he felt his father’s hands leave him and fling him, partially soaked with his own sweat, blood and tears, to the whiteness below.
He was only barely aware of his father’s screams of how the wolves were going to kill him and serve him a bastion of freedom from his worthless hide. As the calming cold of the snow claimed whatever consciousness that remained in him, his last vestiges of awakening let him feel his blood draining from his wounds, feel the gentle soothing ice on his bruises. He could only just hear the faint howls in the distance. He’d be welcome fresh meat to whatever predator lurked in the woods beyond. Pain and darkness took his sight and he fell unconscious.
All he wanted was to never wake up again…
He’d been alone for most of the years following his parents’ passing, forgotten by everyone who was supposed to have at least some form of sympathy for his loss. He did his work, but he hated being unable to let out the bottled rage and misery he’d kept away for so long. Nobody was there. Nobody was listening. And those who were listening couldn’t help him, or if they tried, it only served to make him feel even more isolated and lonely.
So he hid it under his false childhood bravado, hid it under a blanket of lies he’d gotten so damned good at telling.
He was such a goddamned liar.
He’d run his hands through his headfur the night before, recalling the fight he’d gotten into with Xavier, praying to the Gods to give him a second chance to make things right again in his life, to start over, to be a better kid, a better leader, a better friend than he’d ever been before. He wanted one chance to prove himself, to prove he could work as part of a team, no longer a solo act, just one tiny chance to prove how good he was. And his prayers had been answered in the form of a tree panda boy by the name of Sunnie River’ynn.
Connor hadn’t known what to think, until he’d broken the ice with one simple question. Suddenly, he could talk without being reprimanded, suddenly he could have fun again without being lectured, suddenly he’d had a friend where before there had been nobody for years. And just as suddenly, all the pain and the anger and the hate had come spilling out like a breaking dam. He’d been able to cry and bleed it out of his system in the arms of someone who genuinely understood his feelings. He’d felt complete and whole again after getting the bloodied wound out of his psyche. He’d felt ready to do anything again.
And, as he’d discovered, not all the anger and pain was completely out of his system.
He’d gotten into a fight with Sunnie and it had split them apart for half the thundering, stormy night. The Lady Lorianna had been injured, he and the guys had been imprisoned and the Royal Guard had put out a KOS Order on his friend. Sunnie had fled and he’d followed after giving his so-called mates a piece of his mind. He’d finally found Sunnie and had been forgiven for their argument, able to release whatever last shreds of hurt remained in his shattered soul. And then Margreaves had ruined it all. Connor damned that Kodiak Bear. Connor damned him to the fartherest reaches of the nine hells!
Now he sat on the floor of the dimly lit bedroom, Sunnie lying on the bed barely alive and gasping for breath after having been poisoned by that blasted Kodiak. He clutched his friend’s sweating hand to his cheek, praying, sobbing and wishing he’d have been able to protect him better than he had.
He had wished his father had gone that extra step when Lorianna had fallen.
His heart had been torn from his chest when he’d seen the pool of blood from her broken ankle. He’d pushed past stunned nobles, men and women, waiters and press, feeling as if his borrowed uniform was strangling him, bitter poison flowing into his every pore. He was a faker, a liar, a failure and a fugitive. He’d run blindly into the city, panicked and grief-stricken, trying to escape the sniffing bloodhounds that were the Royal Guardsmen. He’d curled up behind a garbage container, psyche in pieces, staring at his sodden, trembling hands, tears spilling down his cheeks.
He’d run for the Star Team HQ, ducking and dodging and diving and sobbing, and snuck in as quietly as he’d dared to, shedding the uniform which he had been wearing when Lorianna had fallen, an accident he’d surely caused, even though the other half of his consciousness was screaming at him that it wasn’t his fault. He hadn’t seen Captain Star waiting there in the darkness of the guest room, swigging from a bottle of neat whiskey, drunk as a skunk and ready to throttle him within an inch of his life. After he’d quickly redressed, he’d reached for his makeshift silver star pendant on the dresser.
It had all gone terribly, terribly wrong from there.
He’d been dragged through the broken shards of the smashed bottle, sworn at, screamed at like a little whore, all the while begging and pleading for his very life, fearing the inevitability of the whole affair. He’d been crying, his voice a weak, straining whisper, as Star had hurled him out of the back door. He’d landed viciously hard on the jagged pebbled gravel outside, tearing scratches and cuts in his arms, hands and legs. He’d struggled to his knees, hearing the curse words from Star’s maw, as another bottle smashed at his feet, pieces embedding themselves in his ankle and tail, and his star pendant thumped him in the chest. When he’d looked back, the lightning had flashed across the sky, lightning up the Captain’s angry face. He’d felt all the blood drain from him in that split second.
He saw his father standing there instead of the Captain.
Consumed with fear, he’d snatched up his pendant and taken off running, ignoring his injuries as they stained his white sweater a dulling pink colour. He swore that the Goddess hated him, hated him so much that she had cursed him with the life he led before, during and up until this moment. He knew that he was right about being cursed when he’d run blindly into a patrol of the Royal Guard and Margreaves himself. Margreaves had frightened him to the point of wetting himself as he took off with the guard hot on his heels.
He’d run into the disused docks, into the rotting warehouses and broken down old buildings, pulling at everything and anything to slow the relentless pursuit of the Royal Guard. Then Connor found him after a long pursuit and apologised to him, their trust renewed by his words and hug. But just as swiftly, Margreaves had appeared, and Connor, his only friend in Bigg City, had stood in front of him, shielding him from the sniggering bear, ready to go to the death if it came down to it.
He couldn’t remember what had happened next, memories a blurred haze. He could only remember the grief and the pain that had gripped him in a vice, choked him so hard that the world surrounding him had faded to an endless black…
Why in the hell didn’t you do anything?
He ran the thread through his fangs, snapping it free of the sewn fur and flesh, torn and bruised after the last private moment between him and Captain Star. Despite all the beatings, the slivers of glass, the broken bottles he hid in plastic bags in the very bottom of the trash, the constant thought that alcohol would dull the pain and leave him free to move on, the thought still ate away at his every resolve.
Why in the hell didn’t you say anything?
Hunched over the sink, bowl filled with reddish-pink water, scubbing away at the dried blood, fresh as the hours before when his stitches had pulled, Charleston’s claws tearing at them, trying to come to terms with the bruises, the wincing, the pretending, the hasty excuses, the late evenings home. All the lies that had ever slipped from his lips, a habit he’d become so accustomed to, a habit that had become his normality.
Why couldn’t you have told the truth?!
Because it would have split us apart, Thomas desperately wanted to cry, but Charleston had kept up his assault, almost blind with rage. Thomas knew enough of the cat’s behaviour to know that it was not solely directed at him, but more to their brute of a drunken captain, and to himself for never seeing the signs until it was too late. He let the cat rant, threaten him, bring him to the brink of tears, blame him, hate him and finally have enough of him to storm from the room, fists beating against the walls next door. To their credit, neither Jones nor Mackenzie stopped either of them from walking to the opposite ends of the house, both quietly coming to grips with the dark secret Thomas’s lips had finally revealed.
It was all for Connor, Thomas winced as he clenched his fist, feeling blood bead and bleed into the water of the sink, And I’d do it all, suffer the same notes again, to protect him.
Thomas’s other closed fist connected with the bathroom cupboard, head leant against the foggy mirror, remembering the very first punch Star had given him. Little Connor screaming and screaming until he’d found the strength to push the kid out of the office and the door locked behind him. He hadn’t been able to defend himself, having been caught completely off-guard and more concerned for Connor’s safety. Star had beaten him until his senses had left him, then passed out in a drunken stupor in his own bed. He had come to, wincing and limping and crawling down the stairs, to where he had stumbled into his room, into his private bathroom, to deal with his injuries.
He had lied straight to Orion’s face, blaming a scuffle with Xavier over his bullying Connor had caused his injuries. I bit off more than I could chew, Thomas mouthed the words, eyes closed, to the silence of the bathroom. Xavier punched harder than I thought, like punching a brick wall, ha ha ha…
Thomas thumped his head against the glass again, ignoring the steady seeping of blood from his clenched fist under the water, ignoring the sting of pain that coursed through him, ignoring everything else except the sound of his quiet breathing. He had convinced Connor to lie for him, keep a secret, hoping that this was just a once-off occurance. Star was just too drunk to remember even hitting him he reasoned. Time and again, he reasoned the exact same lie. Star was always too drunk to remember. He kept his demons away by drinking more, kept the haze at bay by drowning his sorrows in his damnable mistress. And every single time he went to bed drunk, Thomas would lie awake in bed, waiting for those creaking footsteps en route to the stairs. He would simply stand there, watching the old man, a stare that told him I’m all yours, just leave the boy out of this!
And Star’s office was the furtherest, quietest room in the HQ.
He let Star do this to him to save the boy. He’d do it all over again if he had to. If only Charleston could understand where he stood in the whole affair, maybe he’d see it from his point of view? Thomas pulled out the plug to the sink, eyes closed as tears finally broke through. He knew no matter how much he lied to the others, he couldn’t keep lying to himself. He’d gotten into this mess because he hadn’t the damnable screws to say something sooner. Bloodied water dripped from his unclenched fist, noting how the stitches on his palm had pulled away again. Somehow he just didn’t care enough as he switched off the light.
The cat was standing in his bedroom, claws on both paws unsheathed, trails of blood down from his knuckles, blind rage on his face.
Thomas looked at him, searching his face, trying to see a small glimpse of understanding in those cold emerald eyes. The raccoon realised that whatever they’d had, whatever understanding that had once passed between them was long gone, a distant memory separated by borderlines. If Charleston was this angry at him, he simply stood there, waiting for the blow to hit. He knew that was what the cat was going to do, claws bared, fury of an enraged cougar he’d only ever seen once before, long ago when Moira had betrayed him. Thomas found himself on the floor only moments later, mouth filled with the acrid taste of blood. He had not been expecting the full force of the cougar’s fist to meet his mouth.
Charleston exhaled, an eternity of breath passing from his lips. His claws were dug in so deep they tore at the flesh of his pawpads. He could feel the warmth, smell the salt of the raccoon’s blood on his fist. It seemed the punch had clarified all his thoughts, all his anger, all his fear and sadness. Thomas didn’t even look at him, blood ebbing from his split lip. The tears didn’t even seem to register to Charleston. All he saw was Captain Star’s loyal puppet, taking his daily beatings like a puppy would orders from its master.
Gone was any trace of trying to understand why Thomas hadn’t said a word, gone were the traces of sympthy, of concern, of what little understanding Charleston wanted to come to terms with. Gone was his friendship, whatever remained of it, with the trembling raccoon.
“GOD DAMN YOU, THOMAS!” the cat roared, storming from the room, tears of rage in freefall down his face.
Thomas didn’t even register the slamming of his bedroom door, only the sound of his own sobs, and of his own hand touching the spurting blood from his lips.
In his own room, Charleston’s rage-filled voice had left him, muffled in his arms, sobbing like a frightened kitten. How he had managed to raise a hand against Thomas to begin with, scream at him as if this whole mess was solely his fault, made him feel like the loneliest soul in the world. What had he done? Just now? What had he done to his best friend in this entire world?
You punched him.
The blood, not his own, filled his every thought. Thomas’s blood on his fists. His punch. His fury. His anger at not being able to stop the abuse. His fury at not reading between the lines, not seeing his friend cry out for help sooner.
You punched him, you bastard.
His claws retracted, disappearing into their sheaths, trembling with fear of what he had done, what he had become.
Star was drunk when he hit Thomas. You were sober!
He was back in the underbrush, running for his life. Clothes torn, streaked with mud, hunting dogs snarling and barking a half-mile behind him, the dead of night, the pale yellow moon and the sky streaked with stormclouds.
The raccoon’s face when he had found his friend sobbing in the ditch outside of town, smelling like a stable boy. His quick-thinking and running his worthless hide through the heather-fields behind the farmhouse where he held down a part time job before Star recruited him. The heady scent of the blooms had thrown the dogs off, the pollen polluting the air, clogging up their noses.
Thomas had taken him in, disguised him as an elderly traveller he was escorting out of town on his way to Bigg City.
Playing that double-act to convince Captain Star that he still was a nobleman of a title worth a fortune. That little escapade of theirs that, with his acting abilities and Thomas’s quick thinking, had convinced Star to take them both on board.
Not once had Charleston Keyves Junior ever been grateful to Thomas Douglas Marlesbury for putting his future and career on the line to save his worthless feline hide.
You punched your best friend, you ungrateful son of a bitch!
The sound of Charleston sobbing like a terrified child, coupled with Thomas’s soft whimpering, Mackenzie’s quiet breathing and thinking in the loungeroom and his impending headache, made the old owl walk the long walk to the kitchen alone. He busied himself with a dustpan and broom to clear the bloodied glass shards from the floor of the guest bedroom.
Jones leaned against the doorframe, watching the glinting shards flicker a rainbow of colours as the light from the ceiling lamp rested on them. In his mind’s eye, he saw Sunnie, terrified and sobbing – the bottle breaking somewhere in-between – dragging that poor child through the slivers without even the slightest hint of mercy…
The old owl thumped his closed fist against the door, leaning against it. No one, Riverlander or not, deserved what Star had done.
As he swept up the glass, Jones remembered his studies in his university class. Tolerance. Patience. Acceptance. Understanding. Which of these had he shown to the Riverlander boy?
Did he really have no regrets? What kind of horse’s ass taught such values yet ignored them all in the most base of situations? If something had happened to the Riverlander, he’d be in the soup worst of them all, having been the one who taught such wonderful values and lessons yet failed to show even the basic instincts to the boy, instead driving him to run away.
It’s so easy to destroy and condemn, Jones thought. What right did I have? I didn’t understand the boy and I…I treated him as if he deserved all of this…
He clenched the handle of the broom, furious eyes averted to the ceiling. He had learned how to hate from one person, and one person alone under this roof.
That’s not quite true, is it, old son?
He had learned how to hate so much, his actions that followed that hate were self-serving and useless, serving only one purpose – to drive their Captain to this point, this stupor, where he was every bit a violent drunkard before, during and after. He had seen a way out and blindly encouraged Star to follow that path at his own selfish needling.
Jones had promised himself that when Star got too drunk, he’d stop it with the hard liquor. It all seemed so easy…
Jones shuffled across the floor to the guest bed, sitting down with a thump, the springs creaking in protest, eyeing off the crumpled dress uniform in the corner, splattered with drops of vibrant red. Back in his thoughts, he saw Sunnie discard the uniform, terrified of tainting it further, unaware that their violent, drunken Captain sat at the window, swigging more of that swill, watching and waiting like a beast in the shadows.
Like a monster.
Everything Jones had taught himself about monsters, both as a young fledgeling and now as a wisened old bird, had seemingly come true in that room hours ago. To Sunnie, Star had been a snarling, furious beast reeking of booze and hatred. He’d tried to escape without attracting attention, like any frightened youngster, even Connor, would have done in the same situation, only to be set upon by a monster he, Charleston, Orion and Admiral Star had created, through years of denial, years of struggle and personal tortures and hatreds and the simple fear of failure.
Jones rose, feeling older and less able than ever, unable to wipe the boy’s eyes from his mind, those pale, terrified eyes that screamed for help; but no one heard, no one answered. Reaching the kitchen, he shakily poised over the sink as he retched, running the tap at full bore to wash away the stench and the sound of him upchucking. He ran his fingers through his headfeathers, spitting out bile into the rushing water, closing his eyes and thinking back on the moment Lorianna had fallen.
The boy would have been terrified, Jones thought. He ran from the ballroom, ran back here and then Star…he…
The thought of Star doing what he had done, leaving all the evidence for them to find when they got home, caused the owl to retch once more even though his stomach was empty. Jones felt the tears come, a release he hadn’t given himself the chance to feel in years, not since he was only a child.
If something had happened to Sunnie in this godawful weather, he would never forgive himself, nor would he ever forgive that damnable Captain of theirs for ever hurting the boy in the way he did…
The shrill blast from the engine shook Orion out of his slumber on the carriage seat, sending him sprawling forward in an undignified manner.
He rubbed his forehead gently, before rising and standing purposefully. He left the carriage swiftly, hopefully without any accosting from anyone he knew that chanced to see him. He was in no mood for pleasantries, not after his previous fiasco with Lady Vienna the night before, which had sent him, tailspine tucked between his legs, back to Bigg City. The station was quiet, empty, as was its custom at such an early hour of the morning. Passenger trains were a limited service in the mornings, most if not all would start their endless traversing of the realm at a later hour, usually eight or nine. Goods trains were normally aflutter at this point, but the silence surprised him a little. It seemed like he was walking through a graveyard as he left through the main gates, the ticket booths locked and boarded up as he passed by.
It was still raining when he reached the main street across from the station, a cold, icy steady fall with a windchill that sent shivers down his spine. It was weather Orion never really cared much for. It was rather surprisingly apt weather for his mood however he mused, turning up his collar and re-tying his scarf protectively around his neck. He needed no illness for this sort of situation, even though his stomach was churning as the memory of the night before plagued his every thought. Marlena had delivered a swift smack to his cheek, one that still stung even now, a foreboding reminder of just how much…and how little…he and Connor had worked out their differences. It had been richly deserved and Orion knew it.
Thinking about Connor had dredged up a sick swell of memories, most of all the one involving his first term as leader of the Star Team, his first meeting with Lilliena, their apartment, their engagement…and worst of all he didn’t know, nor understand, why Connor still held his tongue on just how different they really were, on just how deep the hurt between them ran. He was a terrible older brother, one whose pride made his decisions for him. It had been all him, him, him, for as long as Orion could think back. He stopped at a corner, half-heartedly looking out for early-morning traffic, before whirling around and slamming his fist into the nearby wall. The jolt that shot up his arm was nothing compared to the jolt he’d received from Marlena’s open palm. Orion leant his forehead against the rainsoaked brick, quietly cursing his lack of brotherhood to Connor. He was a pathetic, miserly wretch who’d done everything for his own gains and not for the betterment of his own flesh and blood. Orion put his other palm to the brick wall, closing his eyes as he flexed his sore hand gingerly. Punching a wall. How long had it been since he’d gone and done something stupid like that? Orion crossed the road as quickly as he dared to and half-jogged, half strolled down the side-streets towards the Star Team Headquarters.
The first thing that struck Orion was that the curtains were all drawn, blocking out the warm light contained within. It made the HQ look dark, grim, foreboding even; a sure sign that something was very wrong. The next thing that the older hedgehog saw was the note taped to the gate and the dark grey and red striped tape in a cross underneath it. Both note and gate-tape read, very simply in bold black letters:
“BY ORDER OF THE HEIRARCHY AND HER MAJESTY, THE PRINCESS ALICE, THIS BUILDING AND ALL ITS OCCUPANTS ARE UNDER OFFICIAL HOUSE ARREST PENDING FURTHER INVESTIGATIONS. SIGNED, COMMANDER HECTOR MARGEAVES.”
Orion stared at the note, confusion etching his face, before unbridled fury overtook his every thought. Ignoring the fact he was dripping wet from the rain, he snatched up the note and stormed up the front steps, unlocking the front door quickly before slamming it loudly. A cold silence greeted him in the main hallway as he strode purposely down towards the kitchen. Seated at the head of the island in the centre of it all was the owl, Professor Jones, forehead in his feathered hands, staring down at the front page of the newspaper in front of him. When Orion appeared and slammed the note down onto the tabletop in front of him, the old bird didn’t even flinch. He merely glanced upwards, meeting Orion’s furious eyes.
“What the HELL is THIS?!” Orion demanded angrily, pointing down at the sheet of paper that bore the Heirarchy insignia.
Jones stared back at him, looking older than he’d ever done, not batting an eyelid. “Why are you so surprised?”
“What d’ya mean ‘why am I so surprised’?!”
“Just what I said,” the bird replied darkly, shoving the morning newspaper across the table towards him. “Why the hell are you so damned surprised?!”
Orion slammed his open palm down on the newspaper to stop it sliding off the table completely, before his eyes widened in horror at what the tabloids had printed about him and his team. His hands trembled as he turned the page, photos upon photos of the incident of the previous night, splattered across the spread like bloodstains. Jones watched his reactions with impassiveness at first, before realising that his leader really was out of the loop.
“Did Vienna tell you to ignore the media on your way home?!”
Orion gave a small, curt nod, his worried, angry eyes still travelling down the length of the pages spilling before him, at the words of slander, eyewitness reports damning the entire Star Team for their abject failure to protect Lady Lorianna.
“How the HELL did this happen?!” Orion snapped, his voice raising.
Jones smacked his forehead with a palm.
“God DAMN it, Orion!” the old owl snapped. “Do you always follow her orders like a brainless pup?!”
“What the hell is THAT supposed to mean?!”
Jones’ chair grated back as he slammed both palms into the tabletop. “You’re NEVER here! That’s what it MEANS, goddamnit! You knew Lorianna was calling the Magistrates Ball! But you go gallivanting off with Marlena and her bitches instead of thinking about the welfare of your own damned team!!”
“And what are you then, old man?!” Orion snapped, folding his arms across his chest. “You play this like this is solely MY fault!”
“Because it IS your fault, you damnable idiot!!”
Orion snarled and drew back a balled fist, intending for all the world to smack the old bird right in the mouth, but it was halted in its travels by the firm grip from the feline of their team, Charleston. The first thing that told Orion all was not well under this roof was the look in the cat’s eyes as he whirled around to meet them. They were red raw, as if Charleston had been crying, no, bawling his eyes out for quite some time. The cat’s claws dug into his sleeves, pressing against the bare flesh beneath. The cat didn’t seem to register that he was actually starting to hurt the hedgehog. Orion winced and tried to withdraw his arm, but the cat was holding fast.
“Don’t,” Charleston’s voice was icy. “Don’t you dare, Orion Hedgehog.”
“Charleston…” Orion put his other hand on top of the cat’s, trying to wrest it away. “You’re hurting me!”
Orion didn’t see the cat’s other balled fist coming. He was only aware of the searing pain on the right side of his face and that he was on the floor, the cat’s tail lashing angrily behind where he stood.
“You son of a bitch,” Charleston growled, a low growl that cougars only made when they were pissed off beyond all comprehension. “How long did you goddamned wait knowing Star was using Thomas as his damned punching bag?!”
“WHAT?!” Orion stared up at Charleston as if he’d lost his marbles. “What the hell are you on about?!”
“How long did you have your damned suspicions?!” Charleston snarled openly. “You knew! All this time, YOU KNEW, and you stood by and did NOTHING!”
Orion blocked Charleston’s oncoming fist and with a roar of fury, slammed him into the adjoining wall, pinning both his claw-drawn hands with his own.
“What the hell is wrong with you, Charleston?!” Orion barked furiously. “I don’t have a clue what you’re talking about!!”
The cat stared up at him with enraged eyes, and to Orion’s surprise, tears were forming in them, rolling down the curvature of the cat’s muzzle.
“Star was beating him…” Charleston’s fangs were locked tight, but Orion understood every word. “For the last seven goddamned years, he was beating Thomas to a bloody pulp on his damned binges! Binges you and the damned bird ENCOURAGED!”
Orion’s ears pinned flat against his head at this accusation, a snarl rising up in his throat. Jones was equally as enraged at this, but knew far better than to come between the two much younger men.
“You’re as guilty as we are!” he spat back at the cat. “Look who encouraged him to ‘socialise’ if I remember correctly! Blaming me isn’t going to help anything, Charleston!!”
Charleston’s left hand slipped free before Orion could tighten his grip, it balled and slammed straight into his ribcage, taking the wind out of him.
“Blaming YOU is the first goddamned thing we’ve ever done RIGHT!” the cat yelled, onto the hedgehog before he could defend himself. “You pansy bastard! You run and hide behind the fucking Heirarchy and leave the rest of us to pick up the pieces when it all goes to HELL!”
Orion and Charleston rolled into the hallway, kicking, biting, spitting and throwing punches left, right and center. The hedgehog hadn’t gotten into a fist-fight for years, and it was showing too. The cat was relentless and fighting as dirty as his anger allowed him to. Jones seemed to be picking sides every few seconds to every insult that cat and hedgehog traded at one another. Mackenzie and Thomas appeared on the stairs, alerted by the noise.
“You let everyone trade-off your duties whilst you play with the wenches!” Charleston spat, getting in a blow to the right side of Orion’s ribcage. “You cheat on Lilliena every spare chance you get!! And what about Connor, huh? What about the brother you claim is your own goddamned flesh and blood?! You fucking leave him with US whilst you go play with every single lady in this goddamned city!!”
Charleston had unwittingly pushed Orion’s beserk button. When the hedgehog turned on him, his eyes had taken on a feral hunger. Orion’s fists struck everywhere with brutal force. Thomas had reached the bottom of the stairs before Mackenzie, trying to pull Orion off of Charleston before it went completely south.
“Orion! No!” Thomas cried wrapping both arms around the attacking hedgehog’s one. “Stop this!!”
“Connor is a goddamned waste of fucking space! It was YOU who told ME to side with that pincushiony bitchling! Or did you somehow FORGET that, you fucking prick?!”
Thomas winced as his shoulder was jerked forward by Orion’s arm, feeling the stitches tearing violently under his bandages. Somewhere in the crush, Jones had joined Thomas in trying to stop Orion’s oncoming attacks. Mackenzie could only watch as the fight ended the same way it had begun – in tears.
“It was you who goddamned wanted leadership wasn’t it?! WASN’T IT?!? You bloody two-faced sorry excuse for shedding seasion!! It was YOU who took it up the GUFF from that fucking swan BITCH!!”
Charleston snarled furiously at the insult and before anyone could realise what was happening, he lurched forwards, fangs bared wide, going in for the kill. Thomas instinctively barrelled into Orion, raising his arm to shield both his leader and himself. The cat’s jaws slammed shut…on Thomas’s arm. There was the sound of tearing flesh and sinew and the sickening snap of bones breaking. Charleston looked up, only to see not the cobalt fur of Orion’s arm in his maw but the dark reddish-brown arm of his best friend. His maw released its clamping hold in pure shock, both cat and hedgehog hearing no whimper from Thomas as he clutched his freshly broken arm to his side. Orion and Charleston froze, realising what had happened, both sick with shock and shame.
“Thomas…” Orion began, but the wounded look the raccoon gave him silenced him.
“I don’t get it…” Thomas’s voice was soft. “Why?…First Sunnie, then Connor, and now you two.”
Charleston felt as though he was going to be sick. He’d snapped Thomas’s arm in his maw, instead of Orion’s like he intended. Thomas had protected Orion from his assault, just like the raccoon had protected Connor from Captain Star’s drunken tirades. He was no better than the drunken slob sleeping upstairs.
“We get it, Orion,” Thomas was crying, but his voice was steady, coherent through his terrible pain. “You hate Connor. You hate us for not being able to work without you. You hate Lilliena ‘cause she cheats on you. You hate me because I’m too stupid and dopey to be here.”
“That’s not…” Orion tried to speak.
“Just shut up for once in your damned life,” Thomas sniffled. “You are not our leader. Charleston’s right. You haven’t acted like a leader since you took the fall for Connor. Now everything you do is some act of revenge against him.”
“I…” Orion fell silent, nursing his jaw.
“And you,” Thomas rounded on Charleston, who was paling by the second. “You convinced him Connor was trash! You’re as sick and sorry as he is! But unlike him, you started to grow a spine…and it hurt you because Connor shut you out, and now everyday you try to fix that gap between you but you haven’t grown the pills to admit that you were wrong!”
“Thomas…” Charleston’s voice was barely a whisper as his trembling paw reached for his best friend.
Thomas rose gingerly, ducking out of Charleston’s reach. “I can do this without you. Never once were you ever thankful I saved your misbegotten hide from your mother,” he spat at the trembling feline. “I lasted seven years taking Star’s drunken rampages, I can last seven fucking MORE!”
Charleston’s tail had curled around himself, and he was weeping. Jones had knelt behind the cat, hands on his shoulders, but the gesture wasn’t helping. Just like the cat, the owl couldn’t meet Thomas’s eyes.
“We’re not a team anymore,” Thomas muttered as he alighted the stairs. “We’re a fucking bunch of brainless fools, led by an even bigger idiot, and captained by a drunkard. It’s no fucking wonder we’re at each other’s throats and blaming our faults on children.”
Orion winced heavily at this, thinking about Connor. It felt momentarily like Thomas had reached into his soul and gutted him. He looked up, feeling eyes on him. From the stairs he saw Thomas push past the already-injured Mackenzie, who shifted to allow the raccoon past him. Orion found he couldn’t hold the wolf’s gaze for long. It felt accusing and angry. Orion got up slowly, arm around his bruised ribs, and headed into the kitchen.
Jones helped Charleston to his room, for every bit of him that disliked the feline, every other bit felt like a damned louse for not coming between him and the hedgehog. But then, he’d be limping about too, he mused silently. There was something about physical fights that Jones was no longer able to sustain. Verbally, however, he could certainly hold his own. Charleston choked out something about being alone, and the old bird dutifully respected that. As he closed the door, however, he heard the soft clumping noise of Mac’s crutches heading towards the kitchen. For now, he thought better than to go into that room. Mackenzie O’Neill was twenty times more dangerous than Charleston Keyves Junior, and from the look he’d shot at Orion before, he was more than ready to open his own tirade. Jones quickly made for his own bedroom. If there was one more dangerous thing about this whole situation, it was the injured wolf up against an equally injured hedgehog.
Orion was staring at the newspaper again when Mackenzie limped in, leaning heavily on his crutches, watching his leader’s eyes rove slowly, deliberately, over every word. He noted the hedgehog’s ears pinning back when it made mention of the Riverlander boy, Sunnie.
“Don’t give me that,” he growled softly. “Don’t ye dare pin yer ears back. Ye know damned well nobody’s perfect.”
Orion’s eyes darted back up to meet the wolf’s, his quills rising up with some degree of fury. Mac didn’t even flinch to his rising hackles.
“This is yer fault, Orion,” Mackenzie went on, leaning against his crutches. “Ye left when we needed y’. If ye’d had been here, maybe none of this would’ve eventuated…”
“Yes, because I’d have sent the brat home!” the hedgehog snapped. “You’re an Upper Highlander, for God’s sakes…you could have said something to the Captain!”
“OUR drunken Captain?!” Mac snapped, fangs bared. “Listen to y’self PREACH, why don’ ya?!”
“You encouraged him too,” Orion’s voice was dangerously low. “You and the featherbrain.”
“An’ who did nothin’ ta stop us?” Mac fired back. “Who ‘ere is our LEADER, Orion? If ye knew better, and ye damned well did, ye did nothing.”
Orion snorted. “And who’s my second in command? My mentor, even?” he asked, staring at the wolf. “I don’t recall you being so damned vocal back then!”
“Because ye ignored everyone and everythin’ because of yer damnable girlfriend!”
“You leave Lilliena out of this!!”
It was Mac’s turn to snort. “Some leader ye are, aren’tcha? Ye listen to her when she so much as whimpers, but when it comes to yer own team…to yer own brother…it’s us who have ta deal wit’ it all!”
Orion pushed his chair back gently, rising to meet Mac’s eyes. “Don’t you dare tell me that bullshit,” he growled. “You were teachin’ Connor how to be YOU. And he nearly got himself killed!”
“Damned better straight than ‘im tryin’ ta be YOU, innit?!” the wolf glared back angrily. “He adores ye, and ye couldn’t care a lick less! He still tries ta be you. He still tries. I watch tha’ poor kid tryin’ ta get’cha attention day in day out, yet ye couldna be arsed ta even hint in ‘is direction!”
“You shut up about Connor this instant!”
Mac smirked. “An’ when are ye gonna be ‘is big brother then? When yer married off and he shunts inta yer place? When you marry that cabaret skank, he’s goin’ be more alone than he’s ever been in ‘is entire life. And who’ll it be down ta, I wonder? Ye’re starin’ at ‘im. He’s gotta learn quick, Orion. It be a helluva lot more than ye’ve EVER done for ‘im!”
“I PUT MY GODDAMNED LIFE ON HOLD FOR THAT MISERABLE BRAT!” Orion roared. “AND LOOK AT HOW HE REPAYS ME!!”
“Me, me, me, preachin’ again are ya?” Mac frowned at Orion’s tirade. “Ye were so close accordin’ to ‘im. And then ye just stopped carin’ he existed.”
“Is that what he told you?!”
“Does it matter?” Mac countered. “He barely speaks ta me as is. I guess ah should thank ya for that. I don’ have some whiny little teenage brat ta babysit every dang-hell time his older brother can’t be arsed lookin’ out fer ‘im!”
“He is fourteen years old! He can goddamned start learning how to watch out for himself!”
Mackenzie leaned in, until his nose was nearly at Orion’s. “Ye haven’t been part o’ ‘is life ever since ye tried too hard ta be ‘is damned PARENT.”
Orion’s head jerked back at the accusation, before balling both his fists in fury, mouth drawing back into a snarl. Mackenzie didn’t seem the slightest bit worried.
“Ah,” he smirked. “Got ye there. Tha’s yer button, innit? Ah’m dead ta rights there, innit ah?” Mac’s grin disappeared, replaced by a sneer. “Look in yer damned mirror, ye half-drenched bastard! Yer no parent! Yer no leader either! Ye spend so much time tryin’ ta be this big ol’ hero ta yer girl and tryin’ to make out yer standin’ on some ivory tower ta the rest o’ us, that ye don’ give a half damn about doin’ anythin’ ELSE!”
“You take that back. This. Instant!”
“Or what?” Mac used both palms to steady himself on the table. “Ye’ll ‘it me? Like ye did th’ cat?! Ye poor pathetic bastard. He caught ye off-guard. Did a number on yer ribs. What makes ye think ah CAN’T do better if’n ye so much as THINK about it?”
“Your leg in plaster…”
“Pfft!” Mac hissed, baring his fangs. “Ye ain’t seen me fight when ah’m down, have ye? Oh no, ‘course not! The great Orion ‘Ercules ‘Edgehog wouldn’t care fer spats started by anyone under ‘is own roof!”
“Mac…” Orion’s fist rose, balled and ready to throw the first punch. “I’m warning you for the last time. Shut up!”
“Ah s’pose ye think ah’m scared of ye? Whackin’ great lump of idiocy a’fore me? Ye gotta be kiddin’ me!” Mac sneered. “Ah may only be on one leg, but ye are a goddamned pushover!”
Orion swung ferociously, but Mac had jerked his head back before it could connect. He grabbed Orion’s arm, yanking him forward, before his other hand gripped a handful of headfur and slammed him, hard, facefirst into the table. Orion let out a sharp yipe of pain, but Mac held him fast.
“Yer a damned IDIOT!” he hissed into Orion’s ear. “Ye never LEARN! Ye react when ye know we’re RIGHT! Open yer damned EYES!”
Orion didn’t know where his tears came from, but they were there, crystal clear spillage, something he’d not done for years, decades even. Not since… Not since… Mackenzie heard the rumbling growl from the hedgehog’s throat and he took a step back to steady himself…on his bad leg. He yelped, releasing Orion’s headfur momentarily. But it was that leeway, that simple mis-step was what Orion needed. Pushing himself up on one knee and pushing off the chair with the other leg, Orion catapulted into Mackenzie with a roar of fury, gripping his collar and forcing the two of them onto the floor with a heavy thud.
Mackenzie yowled in pain as his back connected with the tiled floor, before his fist balled and he struck the attacking hedgehog square on the chin with equal fury. Orion took the punch, seeing stars only for a few seconds, before getting his own back. Mac felt his muscles contract at the force and he spat out blood as it poured from his fangs. He blocked Orion’s next punch and lashed out with his other hand, claws bared, gripping his cheekfur and yanking outwards. Orion felt his claws tearing at the soft sinew underneath his fur and he yelped in pain, his hand gripping into Mac’s, trying to pull him off.
“HOW DOES IT FEEL, ORION?!” Mackenzie yelled, his voice echoing throughout the HQ as they traded blows. “HOW DOES IT FEEL YE BASTARD, TA BE AS SCARRED AS YER BROTHER IS?!”
Orion felt his breath catch in his throat. Mac’s words had stirred the inky blackness in his memories, he was whimpering from somewhere in his throat, but the wash of red, the cape to his bull, overrode it immediately. His fist met Mac’s jaw and he heard bones crack. Mac’s grip on his bloodied cheekfur released as his blood splattered to the kitchen floor. Orion drew back, readying another punch, but his arm shook. His fist uncurled and his palm went flat against his cheek, feeling the steady flow of blood and tears. Was he trying to stem it? Stop it? He didn’t know why he pulled back his palm, seeing nothing but bloody red tears trickling down it. Mac stared up at him from his unbruised eye, a glare that pierced into him like an arrow. Orion was trembling, shivering, eyes wandering from his bloodied hand to Mac underneath him, pinned and bleeding himself from wounds he had inflicted. In his mind’s eye, he could see himself standing over Connor, flinging hate and bile at his ten year old brother, curled up in a corner of the room, trembling and shivering, crying as he tried to block out his hurtful words at their parents’ passing. He stopped his attack on the wolf, bloodied hand going to his headfur, staining his forehead red. Tears that Orion hadn’t shed for years came tumbling out of him with relentless energy.
Mackenzie snarled, ignoring the jarring pain from his wounded leg as he brought it up in fury. Orion was ripped out of his reverie as he felt Mac’s knee connect with his stomach. He barely had any time to scream in pain as the wolf flipped him over, landing a punch square into his jaw. And another. And another. The wolf drew back, intending to smack him with yet another punch, but stopped when he saw that the hedgehog’s eyes were averted from him. Blood mingled with clear wetness down his opponent’s cheeks.
Mackenzie was not to know where Orion’s mind was.
He was standing over their graves, twin white roses in one hand, gripped so tightly that blood dripped down to the marbled edging. He was in full dress uniform, a graduate with full colours, what his father had always wanted. Where he had sworn to make the best of his life, and the best of Connor’s life; where he had sworn to be the best big brother, and parent, to his flesh and blood now that they were gone. He had placed the roses together in a cross over the top of the small joining marble plate between the headstones. That cross bore his blood – his oath – his promise.
A promise he had never kept.
Mackenzie heard only slivers of jumbled words as they tumbled from Orion’s strangled whimpers. Their leader, this strong, proud, arrogant hedgehog, was crying. The wolf broke his concentration and he eased off of his opponent, hissing as the pain shot up his wounded leg. He groped blindly for his crutches, thrown off the island in the crush, ears pinned back, both at his own pain and at the sound of sobbing from Orion.
“Ah’m sorry…” he whispered to Orion’s heaving form as he slowly righted himself. “If anythin’ else ye needed ta hear it from…”
He trailed off at the sight over his shoulder. Orion was sobbing into his arms, bloodied hand gripping his headfur, claws digging in, curled so tightly into the fetal position that Mac felt his stomach hit the floor. The wolf’s ears tried to lower further, trying to block out the sound of his sobs, feeling his own tears rising up from somewhere in him, the anger melting away and replaced with deep regret and shame from their scuffle. He turned with some limping difficulty, intending to try and comfort the sobbing hedgehog, his friend above all else, above this damned fight they’d had, but he didn’t quite get that far. Jones had appeared in the doorway to the kitchen.
At first, the wolf thought Jones was going to start on Orion now that he was good and down, and he started to open his mouth to warn him off, but Jones was clearly not interested in making his point made. He instead walked over to Mac, much to the wolf’s surprise and ducked under his arm, helping him out of the room, leaving Orion where he was. Mackenzie felt like protesting against Jones’s bold move, but stopped when he saw Lilliena standing at the door. Somewhere in the crush of their brawl, the tearful angora feline had shown up at the HQ, probably having seen the media reports on the whole fiasco. The way she looked at him, tears rolling down her cheeks, made him turn away out of shame. It was the same haunted, accusing look Thomas had given him when he’d limped up the stairs earlier. He’d said some things about her, some hateful hurtful things, and she’d heard him. She’d heard everything. Jones wordlessly took Mackenzie upstairs, ignoring his growled hisses of pain and his muttered apologies, whilst the female feline ran towards the kitchen.
Lilliena found Orion in a position she was only ever familiar of finding Connor in, he was crying bitterly, bloodied and incoherent of his surroundings. She sank to her knees, gathering him into her arms, whispering softly, her light hands finding their way to his cheek, wincing as she found the deep, jagged tears in it. Orion was only dimly aware that someone was by his side, only aware of how many failures he had performed, how many hopeless situations he had made for himself, how many pits he had dug and buried himself in them.
He was standing in that strangling, small room, staring with some fear at the hysterical Princess as she pushed her beak up into his face, demanding penance for the humiliation Connor, his little brother, every bit their mother, had smacked into her for daring to start a fight with Lord Carrelsbury’s little girl. He was leaning over the table, hand trembling and gripped on that fountain pen, flanked by Captain Star and Charleston, feeling himself sweat as she stared down at him, her eyes cold as ice, but that smug smirk on her face… Orion felt his stomach churning as he finished signing that contract, the one that had torn all of Connor’s hopes and dreams away from him with that sneering smile. She had collected the contract from him, handing it to one of her aides, looking back at him with a calm, almost dignified smile of sweetness. Her words reverberated in him: ‘Thank you for playing by my rules, Commander Hedgehog. You’re a good boy.’
Not a good man. A good boy. He had walked into her baited trap like a brainless cub, and instead of him paying the price for his arrogant swagger, she had wittingly turned him against Connor.
And he had LET her do it!
He remembered the look in Connor’s eyes - not a boy standing before him, but a man. He had taken the final decision with grace and nobility. A far damned cry than his own reaction; his fury, his hate, his wonder why the boy couldn’t damned well sit still and not get involved, to follow orders when he was given them and not go off on his own damnable way. Orion wished he could turn back the clock, turn back the decision, find the pills to tell the Princess Alice where to shove her damned decision. Why hadn’t he said what he wanted to say, after all the warnings he’d gotten about the Princess and her consorts? Because back then, he was in his first term, a shaky leadership and a crew he was only just getting used to, all their flaws, their little mishaps with one another, his Captain who was following in the footsteps of a raving drunken father. That first term that had stretched into four, and the event was still inflamed, still red raw, still burning a hole into his psyche, no matter how hard he tried to bury it, smother it under everything else he called his personal triumphs since that moment.
For that break in his memory, Orion realised he didn’t really know Connor, didn’t really know his own teammates, nor his Captain, not even himself.
Had it been Connor standing before the Princess Alice, had the boy been given the leadership like Captain Star had originally intended, Orion had little doubt that his brother, no matter how little he seemed, would have told the Princess where to shove her demands. Connor had a spine. He, Orion Hercules Hedgehog, Leader of the Star Team, had no spine to speak of, backing down at the first sign of higher-up trouble. Where, if he had ever been in possession of it to begin with, was his pride, his courage, his strength to face off with the worst of the Heirarchy?!
Orion’s trembling hand brushed against the soft fur of the hand on his cheek and he started, tearful eyes looking upwards into the eyes of Lilliena. She was crying too, out of worry and anger he realised, staring down at him, her head slightly shaking from left to right.
“You let her…?” she whispered, her head shaking. “You let Alice use you…?”
Orion bit his lip. He had been muttering the whole time, and with Lilliena there, she’d heard everything that had escaped his lips.
“…how could you?” Lilliena gasped, her voice tinged with anger. “You told me you and her had come to an agreement on Connor’s punishment…”
“Don’t,” he whispered. “Not now…I don’t need…”
He heard Lilliena growl behind him. “You asshole. You spineless asshole! You willingly put Connor in the firing line…!”
Orion felt his ears pin back even further as he pushed himself up from the floor, turning his back on her.
“You don’t understand…”
“I understand all right!” Lilliena’s voice was a sharp clap in his ears. “You arrogant prick! Now I understand why you didn’t speak of Connor to me! Why I had to find out about him for myself! You were ashamed of him for something you did!!”
Lilliena pushed herself up off the floor, her fur standing on end, hackles rising.
“That is NOT true!” Orion rounded on her from his position on the floor, getting up and turning to face her. “Let me expl-!”
“What is there to explain except the man I know and love is nothing but a fucking LIAR!”
Orion averted his eyes, his ears pinned back but he didn’t deny her accusation. “You have me. Yes, I lied.”
“WHY?!” Lilliena cried. “Why did you lie to me?! To Sally?! To my parents?!”
“Because if I didn’t you’d have thought much less of me!” Orion realised the retort was childish, but he pressed on. “Connor and I haven’t spoke since our parents died! I have nothing to do with him! I haven’t had anything to do with him since he turned ten!”
“You are a sorry excuse for a man, you know that?”
“I am a womanising prick who would gladly go with any other goddamned girl that walks by looking pretty! Boyfriend or not! Does that answer your goddamned unasked question?! I am a cheater, and I do it damned well, and I was trying for godsdamned sakes to cease what I was getting bloody good at!” Orion snapped. “Do you have any idea what it’s like trying to run this leaking lifeboat and trying to have a social existance over the top of it?! I thought for once in my fucking life I could-.”
“You could ignore everything and hope it all sorted itself out?!” Lilliena cried. “You used Connor to get to me!!”
“I did nothing of the sort!”
“All of this…had you been a better man, a better BROTHER, I wouldn’t be here!” Lilliena’s eyes glassed over with tears. “I would not BE in your life! I love you! God damnit, does that mean nothing to you?!”
Orion laughed harshly. “Oh yeah? What about Xavier? I suppose he’s your occasional dalliance when I’m not here?!”
“What about you?!” she snarled back. “You just admitted to me you’d boink any other girl when I’m not here! You’re one to give a turkey about what I do when you’re not around!!”
“I said I WOULD, not I DID, woman!” Orion growled. “So kissing him that night was just a passing thing? A goodbye forever? What was it you told him? That if I wasn’t in the way, you’d have gone with HIM?”
Lilliena felt her cheeks pale. How had Orion found out about that?!
“There it is,” Orion snarled. “That’s the look you give me when I catch you out! Bitch, you think this city doesn’t TALK behind your back?!”
“Seriously, being blind is one thing, being DEAF is another!” Orion snapped. “An alley cat like him brags…even moreso when he’s raving DRUNK! You think it wasn’t going to get back to me one way or the other?!”
“Th-this is not about me, you arrogant jerk! This is about YOU! This is about how much of an idiot you’ve been to your own brother!!”
“Oh sure, change the subject when it’s about your sexual dalliances! Connor knows about you and Xavier too, you know! He’s known about you and him for years!!”
“If Connor knew, he was looking out for your sorry ass by not telling you, you jerk! Ever stop to think about how much he still loves you, even though you’ve been nothing but a prick to him?!”
“Connor fucking hates me!”
“He only hates you because you turned on HIM, remember?! You turned on him, you turned EVERYONE on him!! You even let Xavier bully him!! I had to come between them last time, and all you did was turn the other cheek!!”
“I fucking did not…”
“You fucking DID!!” Lilliena snarled. “He crawled away and all you did was PUNISH him! You even told Xavier that you APPRECIATED him teaching Connor a LESSON!!”
“As you said, drunken alley cats talk LOUD,” her tail flicked dangerously low to the ground. “But when he’s ranting about how you stole me from him…little hard to ignore it.”
“That’s the confession!” Orion growled, his nose to hers. “THAT’S THE CONFESSION!! You prefer him over me!”
“He comes to the club, you CLOD! Oh jeez, you’re not the only horndog in this city that hangs out there! Please don’t cry me a river about how much you hate having competition!”
“When last I checked, I was just another swinging dick in your repetoire!”
“Oh HO! And what about you and Charlotte then? Marie? Jezebelle?! It seems appropriate that I’m a cat here, isn’t it?! Your selection of fine dining every goddamned night!!”
“Oh cry me a fucking river, I just told you what I was, you deaf woman?! Excuse me for playing the game by YOUR damned rules!!”
“MY rules?! If this whole mess was by my rules, I’d bust your fucking ass back down to Cadet, like your drunken Captain should have goddamned done in the first place!!”
“Would you have gone with me then, bitch?!”
“I would have gone with you even if you were scrubbing toilets, you bloody fool!! I love you, but I can’t stand for the life of me the arrogant ass you’ve turned into!!”
“Oh so I’m a fool now?!”
“Biggest goddamned idiot fool I’ve ever seen!” Lilliena cried, tears staining her muzzlefur. “You blame Connor for everything wrong about you! You blame him when he’s too busy trying to help you out of the pit you dug yourself into!!”
“What if anything has that lazy brat ever done for me, apart from digging the fucking pit for me?!”
“He should hit you with the shovel once in a while, that’s what!!”
Jones, tending to the wolf’s wounds in his room, couldn’t help but smile slightly at Lilliena’s retort. Mackenzie was lying in bed, his injured leg up. He was grateful to the owl for his company, but also couldn’t help smiling.
“Could th’ shovel get any shinier?” he asked softly.
“I’m glad we keep it in the shed out back,” Jones muttered, bathing Mac’s cheek with iodine. “I wouldn’t like to see her bench him with it.”
“Why didn’t ye say somethin’?” Mac asked gently, wincing at the sting of medicine.
“Tha’ she was even…?”
Jones sighed. “It needed to be said I think. There’s a lot I haven’t said yet, but Lilliena needs her turn first.”
“How do we know e’s not going ta…?”
“Break? Oh we’re all doing that right now, Mac, in our own way. You know, I’ve been giving some though to what you told me, about my behaviour on the night?”
“You’re right. This would have happened even without the riverlands boy.”
“…do ye think…Margreaves got hold of ‘im?” Mac asked, his voice nearly a whisper.
Jones stared at his colleague, eyes aflame with the same worry.
“He would have turned up here if he had,” Jones replied. “And to answer your question…ohgods, I hope not…”
“I gave ‘im that badge o’ honor, Jones,” Mac went on as the owl began to stitch up his cheek. “What ‘e mus’ think now…fer all o’ this…”
“I was a damnable fool,” Jones spoke with a heavy voice, burdened with shame. “I teach ethics, Mac! Ethics! I can’t even follow my own preaching!”
“I don’ think any o’ us aren’t guilty o’ that.”
“…Star…oh gods…” Jones looked, and felt, like he was going to be sick again.
“’E was lyin’ in wait, Jones,” Mac’s voice gently supplied. “I was tryin’ ta get some sleep when ah ‘eard it break against th’ floor of th’ guest bedroom downstairs…”
“He was sitting there, in that room, waiting for Sunnie to sneak in,” Jones stopped stitching, his fingers trembling. “The boy is what? Eleven? Star’s a grown man…”
“I ‘eard somethin’, ah think it was th’ boy. Pleadin’ with Star ta let ‘im go…”
“And then he dragged him…”
Jones couldn’t go on, picturing the terrible events of the night before. He felt Mac’s hand on his shoulder and he nodded, his face buried in his hands.
“We’re stuck in here, under house arrest. If Margreaves catches him…”
“Le’s hope and pray ‘e don’ even get near ta ‘im, no’ with Connor out there.”
“Mac…let’s be serious. Connor wouldn’t be able to make a dent on that Kodiak.”
“Nae, maybe. But e’s quick and clever, and ‘is youth is a boon ta ‘im. Ah’m worried sick too, don’ get me wrong. Ah’m worried that bastard is goin’ ta turn up ‘ere an’ tell us Connor’s in the doghouse fer assaultin’ ‘im. Ah’m scared shitless, Jones.”
“That makes two of us.”
“But ah also know we taught ‘im well in Orion’s absence. If anyone is goin’ ta find a way outta this, it’s Connor.”
“…I just wish the whacking great idiot downstairs knew that.”
“Aye well, no use tryin’ ta smack sense inta ‘im. Ah tried an’ failed, ah think.”
“You left him crying on the kitchen floor. I’d say you got through to him just a touch.”
“It was like…’e wasn’t really all with it, Jones.”
“How do you mean?”
“He was starin’ at me, but no’ at me, like I was some kinda ghost.”
“That’s a bit disconcerting.”
“I saw ‘im cryin’ yes, but,” Mac tried to explain it better. “It was like, he was seein’ things that weren’t there, y’know?”
Jones considered Mackenzie’s words and stored them away. When Lilliena was done with Orion, he’d have to get downstairs and get to the root of the matter, at least long before Star came to. For a brief moment he wondered exactly how much alcohol was in the man’s system to have him sleep through the entirety of the fighting, when he was interrupted from his thoughts by the sound of Lilliena screaming at Orion. Mac’s ears pinned back, wincing. Something told the two men that it was better upstairs than down at this very point in the proceedings.
“YOU DON’T FUCKING CARE, DO YOU?!”
“I THINK WE FUCKING ESTABLISHED THAT ALREADY!!”
Lilliena’s shoulders heaved, choking back sobs as she stared at the man she loved, and yet as of this moment, hated with every singular fibre of her being.
“YOU HAD EVERY OPPORTUNITY TO CHANGE, TO GO BACK TO THE WAY IT WAS!! AND YOU PREFERRED TO GO WITH IT INSTEAD OF GROWING A SPINE AND ADMITTING YOU WERE WRONG!!”
“LOOK WHO’S GODDAMNED TALKING ABOUT BEING SPINELESS! LAST I CHECKED YOU WERE THE GUTLESS, HELPLESS PRINCESS LOOKING FOR HER KNIGHT IN SHINING ARMOR!!”
“AND WHO WAS IT THAT DIDN’T THINK TO CHECK IF HE HAD HIS STORY STRAIGHT?!”
“WHAT STORY?! A PRISSY LITTLE BITCH WHO COULD HAVE PICKED ANY OTHER MAN BUT INSTEAD WENT WITH THE LOWEST BIDDER SHE COULD FIND OUTSIDE OF DADDY’S INFLUENCE?!”
“DO YOU THINK A DAY GOES BY WITHOUT ME HAVING TO LOOK AFTER CONNOR WHEN YOU WON’T LIFT A DAMNED FINGER TO HELP HIM?! HE LOVES YOU, HE ADORES YOU, DAMN IT!! AND YET YOU PUSH HIM ASIDE LIKE A BOX OF RAGS!!”
“WILL YOU FUCKING STOP DRAGGING THAT SPINELESS LITTLE SHIT INTO THE CONVERSATION?! HE’S NOT GODDAMNED PART OF ALL OF THIS!!”
Lilliena closed the gap between them and cracked Orion square in his wounded cheek with a ferocious slap.
“IF YOU HAD WORKED HARDER AT BEING HIS BIG BROTHER AND NOT HIS FUCKING PARENT, MAYBE I WOULDN’T HATE YOU AS MUCH AS I DO NOW!!”
Orion’s hand went immediately to his cheekfur, wincing at the stinging pain.
“OH IT’S HATE NOW IS IT?! WHAT HAPPENED TO ENJOYING OUR NIGHTS TOGETHER?! PICTURING YOU BOINKING THAT ALLEYCAT LEAVES A BAD TASTE IN MY MOUTH TOO, BITCH!!”
“STOP TURNING THIS DAMNED THING INTO SOMETHING ABOUT US, YOU GUTLESS PRICK! THIS IS ABOUT YOU!! THIS IS ABOUT HOW MUCH CRAP YOU’VE PUT EVERYONE THROUGH STUMBLING ALONG TRYING TO BE THE FUCKING HERO!!”
“EVERYONE?! CONNOR’S NOT EVERYONE, LILLIENA!!”
“WHY DO YOU THINK MACKENZIE ATTACKED YOU?! HE SAW HOW WEAK YOU TRULY ARE!!”
“HE FUCKING DESERVED WHAT HE GOT OUT OF ME!!”
“OH AND YOU LYING THERE CRYING WAS HOW YOU FIGURED HE’D STOP?!”
Orion balled his fists, and beyond his control saw the memory return with sick clarity. He was weak, helpless, spineless, gutless. Alice had seen straight through him…
“I DON’T HAVE TO LISTEN TO THIS!!”
“THEN WHO ARE YOU GOING TO LISTEN TO, HUH?! WHO?! YOUR DRUNKEN SPINELESS CAPTAIN?! THE ONE YOU KEEP DRUNK BECAUSE YOU’RE TOO GUTLESS TO MAKE HIM STOP?!”
“TAKE THAT FUCKING BACK!!”
“CONNOR BEGGED YOU TO STOP! HE BEGGED YOU AND JONES AND MAC AND CHARLESTON TO STOP PUSHING HIM INTO DRINKING!! AND NOW LOOK WHAT YOUR CAREFULLY MADE PLAN’S DONE!! LOOK AROUND YOU, ORION HERCULES HEDGEHOG!! IS THIS WHAT YOU WANT?!”
“IT’S A DAMNED DEAL BETTER THAN YOU AS OF THIS GODDAMNED MOMENT!!”
Was it though?
Orion immediately felt as though both his feet had gone into his mouth as he said it. Coming home to a drunken Captain, watching him drink every morning during breakfast, several shots of the premium, the rest of the bottle for lunch. And he said nothing. And he did nothing. He just watched. He just waited for the influence to topple over, then all he did was make Star sleep it off.
Charleston’s attack had brought forward all his inkling fears, that niggling voice in the back of his head that continuously was smothered by his willingness to just have a good time. That day he, Jones, Mac and Charleston had come home to Thomas beaten and bloodied beyond normal comprehension. He’d called it a fight with Xavier. The voice in Orion’s head had screamed it wasn’t. But did he act on that niggling feeling?
“GOD DAMN IT LILLIENA, WILL YOU JUST SHUT UP AND LISTEN TO ME?!”
“WHY SHOULD I LISTEN TO SOMEONE WHO DOESN’T LISTEN TO A THING AROUND HIM?!”
“BECAUSE YOU’RE MY FIANCEE!!”
“LOUSY EXCUSE COMING FROM SOMEONE WHO’S NOT ACTED LIKE IT FOR YEARS NOW!!”
“OH HO!! LOOK WHO’S TALKING NOW!! THE GREAT WHITE WHALE GETS ANOTHER LAYER PEELED BACK!!”
The retort died on his lips at the coldness in Lilliena’s eyes. Her lips trembled, but no sound came from them. She was shaking her head at him, mouth contorted into a half-smile, half-sneer of fury.
“You bastard,” her voice was soft, her throat dry from all the screaming, tears rolling down her face. “I loved you so much. I thought the world of you. And you lied to me. You used me. And through it all you still cling to your innocence.”
Orion couldn’t speak, his back was against the wall.
“Whose fault is this?” she held the newspaper she’d walked in with up to his face. “The city is condemning an eleven year old BOY for a thirty six year old MAN’s mistakes!” She growled at him furiously. “For YOUR mistakes!”
Lilliena sniffled, lowering the paper, fresh tears falling from her eyes. “I met Sunshine when Connor and Lord Cee brought him to my apartment. He’d been set on by an angry group of the street near to me. They claimed ‘his kind’ was responsible for taking away ‘our’ jobs. I saw not an enemy, but a down on his luck kid trying his hardest to be noticed. I saw Connor in Sunshine…even if you couldn’t see it.”
Orion felt his composure shatter, and he remained silent, shivering from the chill in the room that had descended on them both.
“I saw the news report when the girls and I were packing up the stage. They crucified Sunshine as an enemy of this city! An enemy that didn’t deserve to LIVE, Orion!” Lilliena’s fangs were bared. “And your team…your team were placed under house arrest for ‘cavorting’ with Sunshine! Just because he is a trainee of the Star Team, he’s running for his life for a mistake the whole city seems to think they have RIGHT to pass judgement upon.”
She stared up at him, his eyes trying to avoid hers every which way.
“The only judgement Sunshine deserves is yours for what happened. But you’re too busy trying to look good that you just expect the rest of your team to pass judgement and abandon him to the elements. You’ve abandoned every last stretch of your duty and honor…and for what? THIS?”
Orion felt the tears beading under his closed eyes. The image of that front page burned into him, he didn’t need to open his eyes to see it, to see the fear etched on Sunshine’s face, to the angry mob behind, baying for his blood.
“Of all the men in this city, you are nothing but a boy. You cry foul when it all goes wrong, and you point fingers at everyone else but yourself. Connor went out looking for Sunshine, shortly after the house arrest order was given. Your brother isn’t here, Orion. Ironic that he’s not here when you need him most.”
Orion let out a sob, unintentionally, but it gave Lilliena the means to continue.
“If Margreaves, that bastard who gave the KOS order, has laid a finger on Connor, OR on Sunshine, I am going to kill you myself,” she told him angrily. “You are not worth either of the children getting hurt for the sake of your fucking pride!”
The hedgehog folded his arms, tears spilling down the curvature of his muzzle. Though his ears were pinned back, Lilliena could see he’d been listening to every word she’d said. Her chest heaved from the exertion of yelling at him, spent, and wondered why he’d gone to such lengths for all of this fiasco.
“Why did you do this, Orion?!” she asked him, crying herself. “Why did you stand by and do nothing?!”
Her tirade was interrupted by a firm knock at the front door. Her hands instantly went to her eyes, trying to wipe them and compose herself to answer it, but Jones was heading down the hallway in her place. To his credit, he didn’t look at her, or Orion. Both the feline and the hedgehog were silent, save for their tears, ears pricked up as Jones opened the door. There was silence for a moment, before the voice cut through the entire HQ with blinding clarity.
“Orion home yet?” the voice sneered in what could only be called a sinister arrogance.
“Who wants to know?” Jones’s icy voice replied.
“I do,” the voice continued, chuckling.
“What the hell do you want, Margreaves?”
“Commander Margreaves, if you please,” the Kodiak corrected sternly.
“I’d say it, but I don’t want to,” Jones replied, equally stern. “What the hell do you want??”
“Just to let the Commander know about the state of his house arrest order,” the bear replied. “It’s been…upped…in the last twelve hours.”
Jones eyed Margreaves before averting to stare at the very visible padding jutting out from under the bear’s dress jacket.
“That must have hurt,” Jones commented dryly.
Margreaves stiffened at the quip. “The reason for your extended house arrest, actually.”
“Fall down the stairs, did you?”
“You know, Professor,” the Kodiak’s voice was equally cold. “I could wipe your stellar record for much less.”
“And sink to the level of your beloved Majesty? Surely not!”
“Jones?” Orion’s voice broke through the icy stand-off. “What is it?”
“Ah! There you are, Commander Hedgehog!” Margreaves’s cruel smile was back. “Spot of trouble with the missus, I gather? Sorry to interrupt.”
“Just what the hell do you want anyway?” Orion countered, ignoring the look the bear gave him at his red eyes.
“Just to let you know that your Riverlander trainee was killed this morning by the Royal Guard. Such a pity, he would have made excellent fodder for the Heirarchy.”
“What?!” Jones and Orion cried in disbelief.
“You had to come home to such abject failure, eh, Commander? What a crew you have, digging your own grave for you…”
Orion did not hesitate. He closed the gap between the old bear and him, gripping him by his collar, pressing his nose to the Kodiak’s furiously. Behind him, Lilliena was crying, hands over her mouth, realising the fate of poor Sunshine. Jones was leaning against the door, eyes wide, staring at him in shock, mind turning immediately to Connor’s safety.
“You traitor!” Orion spat. “We had a truce with the Riverlands! What have you done?!”
“Temper, temper, Commander Hedgehog,” Margreaves extracted the younger man’s gripped fingers one by one from his collar with his good hand. “After all this, you still believe in the truce? Ha. Good luck with that. An envoy is winging their way to the community the brat came from. It’s only a matter of days, maybe even hours, before your entire crew is under the microscope.”
“That boy was innocent until PROVEN…”
“Guilty? He ran from the scene, Commander. He gave my men a merry little chase. And that witless brother of yours just HAD to get involved…”
Orion’s grip returned to Margreaves’ collar and he yanked the bear viciously towards him, a wall of tightly set fangs in his face.
“If you laid a goddamned finger on Connor…!!”
Margreaves shoved Orion back roughly, wincing as his wounded shoulder pulled violently at the movement. He regained his composure and chuckled at Orion’s look of blind rage.
“The brother who didn’t give a damn if Connor got hurt,” he rumbled mirthfully. “My! How time and circumstance change your attitude! For your information, he eluded my guards…” Margreaves’s voice dropped to a low snarl. “And he’s the one facing your charges if they find him. He did this to me, Commander. And nothing will give me more pleasure trying him in your place!”
“GET OFF OUR PROPERTY!!” Orion roared.
Margreaves smirked as he stalked back to his car. “It won’t be your property for much longer, Commander,” he called over his shoulder. “Not if I have anything to do with it!”
Orion belted a closed fist against the doorway as the Kodiak drove away laughing, staring at Jones who stared back with the same shock, anger and disbelief. The boy was dead, killed by the Royal Guard. An envoy was travelling to his community. Star was still drunk as a skunk. It couldn’t be true, yet, here it was, out in the open, in black and white. Orion turned back, only to see Charleston, Mackenzie and Thomas, not standing together by any means, but all watching him for his next move.
What the hell was he going to do to salvage this mess?
“Orion. Kitchen. Now.”
Lilliena’s voice, stoic despite her sniffling, cut through the silence. She had heard Margreaves, every single word that they’d heard, she’d heard. And she had told him moments before Jones had opened the door that she was going to gut him herself if something had happened to Sunshine and Connor. Orion felt no envy from his teammates as they watched him disappear into the kitchen. He stared at Lilliena, who had her back to him, crying as she stared out of the window, her hand straying to her other, the one with their engagement ring. She didn’t speak, for lack of trying to, her mind trying to wrap around the fact that Sunshine, Sunnie, the sweet little tree panda she’d met only a day before, was dead - killed by a group of hatemongering bastards who only followed orders and not gut instinct. It was her sobbing that impaled him in the chest as he watched her, hand gripping his other arm, trying to find a word, any word, to say that this wasn’t as bad as it looked. He chastised himself for thinking it wasn’t as bad as Margreaves had made it look, and feel, in that doorway. Orion silently wished that if he had the chance to right his wrongs, it had come far before this.
“He was only eleven…” Lilliena’s voice was broken, sobs heaving in between. “Margreaves made him…he took the fall for you…FOR YOU…and your fucking team…”
Orion couldn’t speak. He felt the accusing, worried eyes of his colleagues boring into his back, and the tempestous sadness and rage of Lilliena before him. There was nothing he could say for fear of saying it wrongly.
“YOU SON OF A BITCH!”
Lilliena’s open palm, claws bared, struck him across his left eye. She stood there, chest heaving, as the freshly spurting blood cascaded down his face. He couldn’t look up at her, the wound as much as it hurt him to have it, was richly deserved and he knew it. Oh hell, he knew it.
“You let him…you let Connor…you son of a bitch,” she whimpered, her bloodied hand trembling. “I loved you…and I willingly let myself be blind to this!”
No one moved, not even Orion.
“That boy would have done anything…ANYTHING…to be part of the lot of you. Connor adored him! ADORED HIM! And he’s dead because you stood by and did NOTHING!”
She seemed to compose herself, but her tears were still in freefall as she glared at Orion.
“If Connor is arrested…and if you stand by and do nothing like you’ve done with Sunnie…the Gods help you, because I will make fucking carpet out of you!”
She stared at the others, noting how only Thomas had the pills to return her stare. Jones, Mackenzie and Charleston were just like Orion – spineless. How had she been so blind to this? To them? To what Connor had gone through and now what he was going through with Sunnie now dead?
“Don’t call me,” she told Orion as she stalked past him. “Don’t call me unless Connor comes home in one piece. I don’t want to see you, or hear you, until you’re ready to make fucking amends.”
Orion didn’t answer, his tears did it for him. Lilliena refused to look back at him for fear she would lose her last nerve in dealing with him. Thomas, as injured as he was, saw her to the door.
“Did I do…” Lilliena began as Thomas shielded her from the glances of the others, pulling the door halfway closed behind them.
“The right thing?” the raccoon supplied softly, a hand on her shoulder.
“By whom, Lil?” he asked gently. “It needed to be said, as hard as it was.”
Lilliena’s tearful eyes trailed down to Thomas’s bandaged arm, blood beading through the cottonweave bandages.
“What do I tell…?” she began, but Thomas shook his head.
“She’s going to know when she sees you crying like this. Telling her won’t do shit. You getting hurt is all it’s going to take for her to already know.”
“She adores you, Thomas,” Lilliena drew her arms around his neck, hugging him gently. “She’s going to kill you…”
“What Sally can do to me is nothing compared to what you did to Orion in there. I can take the punishment. Hell, I’ve done it for so long it’s second nature.”
“Why didn’t you tell her?”
“I’m like Orion in that sense. I’m scared witless of what people think of me.”
Lilliena cusped Thomas’s cheeks and leant her forehead to his. He leant back, good arm holding her to him in a gesture of comfort.
“Go, Lil…before you change your mind.”
The angora nodded tearfully, before turning away and walking back up the street to where her car was parked. Thomas’s good hand was on his wounded arm as she drove away, still sobbing. The raccoon was right. When Sally saw her like this, crying like her heart had been torn to shreds, it wouldn’t take more than a few seconds for the birdy to go ballistic. Thomas re-entered the HQ, noting how the others had dispersed, leaving Orion alone and sobbing on the kitchen table. Part of him wanted to do the same as they had, leave Orion to his own shattered agenda, to rest and heal his broken arm and set it properly in plaster, but he couldn’t move. He heard Orion crying and thought immediately of Connor. He wouldn’t walk away from Connor, he just wasn’t that big on heartlessness. And besides, Connor would think somewhat ill of him if he didn’t at least try to help Orion.
Orion was only vaguely aware of what was happening nearby to him. The bowl of fresh hot water on the table, the tea towels, needle and thread from the bathroom cabinet, plaster bandages too. Through his good eye, he realised it was Thomas doing everything one-handed. With sickening realisation, Orion knew he’d gotten good at this thanks to Star’s drunken tirades. He couldn’t look any more at Thomas than he could at his reflection in the kitchen table’s surface. Star hadn’t stirred a lick during the entire fight, and Orion knew that with enough alcohol in his system, enough whiskey to drown an entire racecourse, it’d be possible for Star to sleep through anything.
Thomas didn’t say a word, merely pulled up the nearest chair, dipped a clean towel into the bowl and began cleaning Orion’s wounded eye. The older hedgehog flinched at the heat, but the raccoon continued on, ignoring his little hisses of pain as he bushed against drying edges of sinew and fur.
“Thank the Gods your eye was closed,” Orion heard the raccoon mutter. “Woulda been a lot worse…”
“I knew,” Orion heard his voice come from somewhere inside him. “I knew he was hitting you. And I let you take you take it.”
Thomas stopped for a few seconds before continuing clearing away the drying blood. “I lied straight to your face, did you forget? It’s my fault first, man.”
“No it’s not,” Orion’s voice was soft. “Him hitting you wasn’t your fault…”
“I put myself willingly into his line of fire, Orion,” Thomas’s voice was gentle, but firm. “You and the guys weren’t here. I didn’t have the pills to stand up for myself, but I lack the spine for heartlessness against Connor.”
At this, he felt the hedgehog wince under his touch, tears he’d not seen Orion shed until today, his gaze averting to the table’s surface.
“You know, I was almost too late to stop him.”
Orion’s good eye flickered up in his direction, a questioning look in them.
“I knew Star was drunk, yet I still went out on that job. I half-assed it, as you reminded me of it later, but I half-assed it for a reason.” Thomas dunked the cloth back into the bowl, squeezing it until the water turned pinkish-red under his hand. “I half-assed it because I was scared out of my tree that he would go after your brother. You, me, Jones, the cat and the wolf can defend ourselves, Orion. Star wouldn’t pick a fight because he’d automatically lose. But Connor…?” Thomas reapplied the cloth to Orion’s muzzlefur. “Part of me didn’t want to think of it ever happening. Not under our roof. I walked in on my worst nightmare, and you weren’t home.”
Orion’s fingers twitched, but Thomas didn’t give him a chance to speak.
“Star didn’t think I’d come home that early. I surprised him, caught him off-guard, and I was more off-guard than he was. He tore into me, Orion. I knew pain like I’d never felt pain before. And through it all, the only thing I managed to register was Connor screaming.”
His eyelid and muzzlefur damp but no longer discoloured by red, Thomas set the cloth down and carefully inspected Orion’s wounds. Lilliena had put some power behind that strike but to her credit had retracted her claws during the swipe instead of digging them in as would be the normal custom in a literal catfight. The stitching would have to be light around his eye, and Thomas didn’t trust himself doing that. His muzzlefur on the other hand could be stitched safely. Orion would have to wear a gauze-patch over that eye until he could get Walter to come over.
“We’re a real mess, you know, Orion?” Thomas raised a soft chuckle. “Can’t give you all the credit, we’re just as bad as each other.”
“How can you make jokes about this…?” Orion finally found his tongue. He sounded completely beaten. “Sunshine is…is…”
“I heard,” Thomas replied, interrupting him. “And I think we’re giving that Kodiak more benefit than we should do.”
“You believe…he’s still alive?”
Thomas held Orion’s gaze levelly. “You saw what Connor did to Margreaves, didn’t you?”
“Connor would not have gone for the throat like that unless Margreaves pushed him to it. If Sunshine really is dead, Connor would have come home, Royal Guard presence or not. You give your brother so little credit.”
“I do, don’t I?” Orion’s voice was very soft. “I’ve taken him for granted…”
“We’ve all taken him for granted, Orion. I taught him to lie to you, and he got damned good at it. Like older brother with girlfriend.”
Orion winced openly, but nothing Thomas had just said was untrue in his mind.
“No denying here,” the hedgehog replied. “You didn’t have to come between Charleston and I, either.”
“And watch him tear out your jugular? As I said, I’m not big on heartlessness, pal.”
“What did you mean before?”
“When you said he never thanked you for helping him?”
Thomas looked distraught. “I’m not at liberty to say anything, Orion. Not even to you about that. It’s not my place to…”
“Just tell him already. I’ve had enough of carrying the damned secrets.”
Charleston’s voice came from the doorway of the kitchen. Both hedgehog and raccoon stared at the cat questioningly, noting how defeated and depressed the normally uptight, noble and pristine cougar looked. Orion had done a real number on him during their kerfuffle, and both looked to the other, shame etched on their faces by means of a half-hearted apology.
“Charlie?” Thomas asked, but the cat held up a hand.
“If you won’t say it, I will,” Charleston replied snippily. “I’m not a nobleman! Far from it! I’m the disgraced bloody lineage of a female-only society! A fucking sperm bank if you want to be literal about it all!”
Orion noted how Thomas’s ears pinned back flat against his head at the cat’s tirade. He looked back at Charleston, who looked older than either or them combined. Charleston gave a harsh chuckle.
“I spent so long pretending to be something I’m not, I’m damned good at it now! Sound familiar to you, Orion?”
Charleston hadn’t wanted to make Orion wince so much, but his words had clarity for the first time in a long time.
“Charlie…” Thomas’s voice cut through the stony silence.
The cat sighed, averting his gaze to the floor. “I hurt my little sister. She took my sight in this eye as penance. Mother sent half the bounty hunters of the region out after me. Thomas helped me escape and brought me here.”
“…I always wondered,” Orion spoke gently. “But I never asked.”
“I was glad you didn’t,” Charleston admitted. “Else I don’t know what you’d have done…”
“I’d have left it as is.”
“Would you?” Charleston looked at him levelly. “Despite Captain Star, you’d have let it slide?”
Orion nodded. “Despite what you think of me, I wouldn’t have let Captain Star kick you to the curb.”
Charleston leant against the doorframe, arms folded. “So what about you and Connor?”
Orion took a deep breath and let it out as a sigh. “I’m trying to work out why I treat him so differently to the rest of you. So far, I don’t have any answers for myself.”
“Oh here’s an answer for you,” Charleston ignored Thomas’s stern look of warning. “You blame him for your parents’ passing. That’s the long and damned short of it!”
Thomas saw Orion’s fist ball and wondered if he could get between them before this went south again. He needent have worried, for Orion didn’t move, nor make any inclination of throttling the cougar again.
“How can you see straight through me, cat?” he asked finally.
Charleston let himself smile. “You’ve told Frederich enough stick for it to get back to me one way or the other.”
“You’re both felines. I shoulda known.”
“You damned well should have. But that’s neither here nor there, is it?” Charleston’s ears were down as he spoke. “You really think Sunshine is still alive, Thomas?”
The raccoon nodded. “Connor’s focus is entirely on Sunshine’s wellbeing. You heard what Lilliena said. If Sunshine is deceased, where is Connor? He’s quickwitted, he’d outrun and outgun the guards any day of the week to get back here to us, and yet, he’s not home.”
“I have to say I agree with him on that, Orion,” the cat nodded. “Lilliena hadn’t seen him, and Sally would have called if she had him at her side. For now, let’s treat this whole mess as if the boy is still alive.”
Orion nodded in agreement, not wanting to refer to the riverlander boy as dead any more than Thomas or Charleston did. He rose from his chair, feeling older than he’d ever done prior to this moment, glancing over Charleston’s shoulder. The cat followed his gaze to see Jones and Mackenzie. Charleston averted his eyes, realising the owl and the wolf had heard his admission beforehand, but neither made any move against him.
Orion greeted them as carefully as he ventured to, his voice heavy with remorse. Thomas looked from Orion and Charleston to Jones and Mackenzie, hoping this whole thing wouldn’t go in the opposite direction as quickly as it had done some hours before.
“Rough day at th’ office, m’dear?” Mackenzie supplied with a wry smile.
Despite himself, Orion felt the smile come over his face, Charleston following suit.
“We’re a mess,” the hedgehog began. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry…”
“Speak fer y’self!” the wolf snorted, but he was grinning.
“I think we’re all bastards in this mess, Orion,” Jones agreed. “We’ve established that already.”
“How can you…forgive me for this? For all of this?” Orion went on. “I dug you a damned grave…”
“Yeah, well, it’s not like we weren’t used to that already,” Charleston put a hand on Orion’s shoulder and squeezed gently. “Star was digging it long before you took up the shovel.”
“I can’t do this alone,” Orion admitted, his eyes honest for the first time in a long time. “I don’t blame you guys for wanting to bury me in that grave…”
“Like it didn’t cross our minds with Alice’s fiasco?” Thomas spoke up from behind them.
There was a collective wince from everyone around, none moreso than Orion and Charleston.
“What did you have against Connor anyway?” Orion asked Charleston.
“He knew,” the cat replied. “He knew who I was and where I was from and I feared him telling you…and at the time, I didn’t take more pleasure in anything else at seeing his face when you signed his leadership away to Alice.”
“Damn,” Orion muttered softly. “I damned well don’t give him enough credit. You’re right, Thomas…kid’s smarter than me.”
“He’s smarter than all o’ us,” Mackenzie went on. “What ‘e did to the Kodiak is more than any o’ us have done to Margreaves in our entire lives.”
“If Sunshine is still alive, he and Connor better be safe and sound,” Orion breathed fearfully. “I don’t want to think what I could do to that arrogant bastard if he’s touched either of them.”
“When can we expect Sally’s impromptu visitation rights?” Mackenzie asked Thomas.
“Sea Squall Sally?” Thomas looked rather incredulously back at him. “Ohh, we’ll know, Mac…she’ll kick the door in and be brandishing her patented slugger.”
The others shivered at this. Sally was a great gal and a great friend, but get her angry and it was every man for himself. They didn’t want to think about what Lilliena was telling Sally as of that very moment…
“You look pensive.”
There was no reply.
The feline adjusted his jacket slightly, eyeing the compact silver case set on the shelf to his left. To his right lay an open book, a journal, listing the components of what he could only believe were the contents of the cases opposite him. All during takeoff, he had borne witness to the mortar and pestle, grinding at dried ingredients – herbs, roots and still-closed flower heads – and those elegant hands working a masterful trade he had sworn to one day learn. In service of the Heirarchy, knowledge of poisons and antidotes were kept solely to word of mouth, lessons taught only from ruling body to bodyguard only when time, and situations, deemed it necessary. But, as he observed, even after adding the juice of the Cravere Plant she’d sent him out to collect from the locked crevice in the gardens of her family’s estate as they hurried to the car, she hadn’t said a word to him then either. She merely…watched, as the ingredients and the runny, sugary sap congealed together from within the confines of the two syringes, lost in thought, eyes half-lidded and posture stiffened at a situation that could only be called a vital emergency. He hadn’t dared to ask, nor think, what the contents of the other syringes in the gold case on the table were…but he had harbored a guess that if the way she had replaced the phone was any indication, he would not be administering its contents to whomever it was meant for. That would be her duty, and hers alone.
“I suppose I am.” Her soft voice startled him out of his steady composure.
“I’ve really made a mess of things, haven’t I, Fred?” she continued, voice remaining soft. “I should have told them. Both of them. I should have come straight out and said it, that I was their godmother, and his guardian, and I should not have placed a veil on such important information…”
He had not heard her sound so utterly defeated in…well, years. The feline’s ears turned downwards slightly, a response that she did not lift her head to see, nor acknowledge his concerned gaze, his hands upon the gold case, clicking it shut before turning it over in his paws, absently examining it.
“I should have known Alice sank her claws into him. I should have known better than to simply assume that she sowed seeds and not vineyards. I assumed she was harmless enough to be called nothing more than a smear player, incapable of every puppetry. I assumed too much about that vicious Swan…and now I’ve failed them both in the process.”
Frederich tried to speak, but found his voice had departed from him. He merely blinked, watching his Ladyship with a mixture of concern, understanding and the faintest twinge of worry on his face.
“All this time I truly thought she was incapable of taking it this far…incapable of murder…incapable of the slaughter Cuba was so famous for instigating!...She was always capable of every evil. She just managed to make me think, and believe, otherwise. And now,” she breathed in a short sigh, “I am, once again, the mouse.”
Frederich gripped his arm, unable to think of any reassuring words for her. She raised her head, and for perhaps the first time ever since coming into her service, he saw tears in her eyes.
“Faralina warned me that she was trouble. And I blindly told her nothing she could throw at me would ever bother me,” a blink, and silver-blue trailed down the old doe’s cheeks, “I raised myself up to play this game better than she ever did, at the cost of losing her, of losing Madeleine!...when Faralina told me about her allegiance with the family, of her promise that her then-unborn son would become playmates with Connor, I only ever got involved to use them. Use them, Fred!”
Those aged eyes closed again, fresh tears in a course down her cheeks.
“Faralina wanted me to use her as a stepping stone, and inadvertently I used Madeleine and Hercules too as the same things. I swore allegiance for my own stupid gain and now…!”
“I personally think you were right to keep this information away from the children,” Frederich finally found his tongue. “What you did, I’m not agreeing with,” he chose his words carefully, “But what I am saying is that you’re not giving either of them enough credit…and I’m sure despite your actions, that both Faralina and the Hedgehogs knew that you needed them, and were not intending nor ever had any intentions whatsoever of using them in the manner that eventually played out.”
She clasped her hands on her knees and leant her forehead against the closed interlaced fist, quietly crying in what the cat could only say was a dignified manner for a Royal-to-be.
“I promised Maddie I would raise her sons in the manner she always had – freely and without caution. I promised Faralina I would honor her son by giving him that gentle nudge towards the safety of Madeleine’s boys. I abandoned my promises for a game that has left me cornered by the wildcats. God help me, Fred, I wish I had done better.”
“You don’t give Connor enough credit…”
“I speak not of the boy,” Marlena’s voice was hard, “I speak of that impudent leader who is anything but! Hercules would be so ashamed of him…ashamed that I didn’t…!”
“Orion is fully capable of realising his idiocy under his own power,” Frederich’s voice was unnaturally sharp, surprising them both. “He is fully aware that he has shunted his responsibilities aside for the love of a woman who clearly adores someone else when he’s unavailable to her. When he gets back, he’ll be walking into the depths of a hell that he built for himself, My Lady Vienna. None of his repetoire is your fault. It is his own.”
“You,” she spoke softly, her voice marred by the heaving of sobs, “Of all people, Fred…can say that about your dearest friend…?”
“When Alice destroyed his leadership, he stopped being my friend, and my ally,” the cat replied. “He started using me as his comfort zone, his shelter, for all manner of arguments and fights and verbal discrepancies that cropped up for him. Not once did he ever think it was his doing…his fault that it was all happening to him.”
Frederich sat opposite her with a thump.
“I have no love for someone who will blame his actions on his own flesh and blood who is perfectly capable of being the better leader…and the better brother.”
Marlena held Fred’s calm, furious gaze, her breathing slowly returning to normal, but the sadness remained in her eyes.
“And what of Sunnie? Did he deserve to be shouldered with this hate that I have let fester for so damned long? Does he deserve to lose his life at the cost of my winning this godawful struggle to purge the Heirarchy of its corruption?”
“No,” Fred replied, his voice softer. “What that boy went through at the hands of his father, god help me, if I had my hands on Lawrence Senior, I’d kill him myself…”
“Alice got to him first…” she chuckled harshly.
“But with that said, of all the hardships he was put through My Lady, this, this whole fiasco…won’t blow over easily…” the cat’s voice was almost a whisper. “Not without help. Not without Connor’s help…and not without yours.”
“Frederich, the boy is dying…dying a truly horrible, painful death…and it’s my fault he’s in this situation in the damnable first place!”
“The way I see it, Marlena, you have a choice,” Frederich snapped, addressing her by her first name. “We can either turn this plane around, forget about helping either Connor and Sunnie, forget about aiding the Team you adore so much and reinforce why Alice wins…or we can get to Bigg City, save Sunnie’s life, save the Star Team the black veil the populace is hanging over them and prove how much the Swan bitch loses when she plays hardball with the wrong Royal.”
Marlena closed her eyes, bowing her head before feeling Fred’s hand on her clasped ones.
“And what if I lose?” she asked timidly.
Fred’s words were all she needed to hear. When she raised her head to look at him, her eyes were red and puffy, but no more tears were built in them. Frederich simply handed her the gold case with his other paw, which she took from him with no uncertainty.
“If I may,” he began, but Marlena cut him off.
“Margreaves is one of the thorns I should have been rid of a long time ago. Long before this. Long before he became capable of killing for the fun of it.”
“He hated you,” Frederich acknowledged.
“Hates,” Marlena corrected him, running her thumbs across the polished gold. “Because I was responsible for his family’s collapse into wrath and ruin, and sadly, it was necessary to remove his family from power. But I fear his hate may have begun in childhood…and that is something even I cannot wipe clean.”
“But…this…?” the feline began, eyes alight with concern.
“Frederich,” Marlena’s voice was again soft. “I let his father live a long and peaceful life outside of a jail cell for his betrayal of my parents, for the confining of my own sire to a wheelchair for nearly three decades. I let his mother keep her riches to raise her son…and instead she raises a sireling perfectly capable of murdering an innocent child because the blood of the City does not flow within his veins. I have let Margreaves’s family name scruff and bring hell upon my own for whatever gains they give to themselves and bring to wrath and to ruin for all else that surrounds their ilk.”
She opened the case, seeing a dulled, almost tarnished silver syringe with a sickly green fluid encased in its cloudy chamber.
“I am tired of sacrificing myself and my family to protect a bastard who attacks two children because one was not borne of the Cityfolk and the other does not see this world in his same shades of gray. I am so tired of watching him seduce Lorianna into a false state of sensible security for means of destroying all she ever stood for outside of Andrew’s damnable shadow.”
She clicked the case shut again.
“My patience is gone, Fred. I gave him as many chances as it took him to change. And for every chance I gave him, he put me into the floor for my efforts. For Connor…and for Sunnie…no more chances.”
Frederich stiffened at the cold, ruthless look that shadowed Marlena’s face. He simply nodded, a single affirmation that he understood her completely. She reached over and plucked the silver case from the shelf to her left.
“This first case goes directly to Walter’s practice, by my hand, with all speed,” she ordered. “The second syringe in this silver one, I trust you to find and give to Maximillian. He will administer it to Lorianna himself.”
“Yes, My Lady Vienna,” Frederich acknowledged. “And what of Orion?”
“What of him?” she let out a harsh laugh. “He wanted to prove himself as a leader…now’s his chance to show everyone how little he knows.”
“Forgive me for sounding mutinous, My Lady, but…what of Connor? Does he deserve to be left to deal with his brother’s failures too, on top of dealing with what’s happened to Sunnie?”
“Connor is every bit his mother…and then some,” Marlena replied, straightening her posture. “He has been pushed far enough, and Orion will learn that even Connor has limits...however unlikely he pictures it to be a reality.”
“For a moment I could have sworn you were saying you didn’t care about what Connor does to Orion…?”
“I don’t. What is our ETA?”
As swiftly as she had changed the subject, Frederich rose and went to question the pilot. Quietly, and despite his anger at Orion, he hoped his colleague would fare well enough in the aftermath that was coming for him at breakneck speed…
Moira Cougar slipped her cowl over her head, cursing the day she’d ever come into service of the Royal Guard as a seamstress. With Lorianna’s accident, she’d been officially ushered out of the building by the Heirarchy physicians saying her services were no longer needed, despite her protests that Lorianna was her best friend and she had every right to be present. Damn that Margreaves, she growled under her breath as she stepped out of the servant’s entrance tunnel in the pouring rain and headed to her apartment on the other side of the city. The rain hadn’t eased all night, and Moira wasn’t one for superstition, but a storm of this magnitude often meant ill times were ahead. She quietly hoped that Lorianna would be alright, seeing as though the Tigress was a firm believer in old wives’ tales and whatnot.
Moira chuckled to herself, recalling that the Tigress was quite fond of the peonies that grew in the gardens of the lavish estate she lived in, often telling her that they were fastidious plants that punished their owners for deliberately uprooting them by not flowering for years until they were established again. As childish and as naïve as Lorianna appeared to be, there was an impish humor to her, one Moira had latched onto, becoming firm friends with the noble-born Tigress. Being of feline birth status, Lord Andrew had said nothing of his wife cavorting with a ‘peasant girl’ – the White Tiger a firm believer in felines mixing with other felines for they shared common species traits – so Moria had entered Lorianna’s estate as her most loyal friend and her private seamstress, a talent she had learned after her brother’s eviction from home.
Moira felt her ears pin back a little at the thought of her older sibling. She had been an unmerciful, selfish bully, not even close to understanding why he was so jealous of her standing in the family. After a bounty had been placed on his head and he had seemingly been killed by the hunters their mother had sent out after him, suddenly their parent’s attention turned incredibly single-minded. A year later, her sixteenth birthday, Moira had found herself primped and preened, a doll on show to various unspoiled sons of the local provinces, a breeding bitch for her mother’s lofty goals of producing a granddaughter – another female heir to the family. And, her mother had said, she had had her deceased brother ‘put samples aside’ should she produce another ‘bastard son’.
Suddenly her brother’s jealousy, as well as his inherent fear of their parent, didn’t seem too difficult to understand.
She had fled when her mother was meeting with another prospective partner’s family, a winemaker from several towns over, packing only her savings and the clothes on her back, as well as a set of her brother’s clothes in order to confuse the pack of tracking hounds she knew her mother would send after her. She had arrived in Bigg City under cover of darkness several nights later, and after changing her surname, had gone about her life as an ordinary young woman in the bustling city – first holding down a job at the Rockin’ Robin, and then later as an apprentice seamstress for Lord Carrelsbury’s young daughter. She had not expected to see her brother again.
When she did see him, it was at Lorianna’s commemoration ball after her marriage to Lord Andrew. She had told Lorianna that she had a rather unpleasant headache and had managed to escape the event without being seen by him. To have heard Lorianna speak of the ‘handsome male cougar with the monocle’ the following afternoon afterwards had almost made her sick. After everything she had done to him, Moira felt certain that if he knew she was living in the city and had given up the noblewoman’s life, the silver spoon, the estate and the monetary value, he would surely despise her. Worse still, he would tell Lorianna who she really was, she was sure of it. Moira dipped her head closer to her chest, How she hated running away, even when it was absolutely necessary.
A groan from the alleyway closest to where she was walking past garnered her attention. She stopped, ear flickering in that direction, large emerald eyes combing the rainy darkness.
“Who’s there?” she called out, quietly unsheathing her claws as she stepped into the alley.
The red slick coating the ground before her was the first thing Moira registered in the yellow glow of her eyes. The bloodied form of a Royal Guard followed, hunched against the rain-soaked wall, and as her eyes adjusted to the form, she realised who she was staring at.
“Maximillian?!” Moira cried out.
Max’s eyes flickered open to Moira’s frantic touch. He raised a pained grin at seeing her, wincing as she ducked under his uninjured arm, hoisting him upright.
“Heyyyy,” he hissed in pain, arm cradling his stomach. “I know you…don’t I?
Moira’s gaze averted to the still seeping blood trailing from his stomach, mouth agape in fear and horror. Max shook his head, indicating no questions, but when he saw her ears pin back and her mouth contort into a snarl, even he knew there was no arguing with a lady.
“I had…a falling out…with…Commander Margreaves…”
“He did this to you?!” Moira half-shrieked. “Why?!”
“Heh…funny thing…is that…” Max whimpered, half-sobbing, half-gasping in pain. “I grew a spine.”
Moira raised an eyebrow questioningly.
“He went after…the children…”
“Children…?” Moira began.
“Connor,” Max coughed. “And the Riverlander.”
Max’s ear flickered in pain. “…not so loud…please…”
“That bastardly brute went after Orion’s brother?!” Moira cried. “He’ll die a traitor’s death for that act alone!”
She gritted her fangs, holding back her rage long enough to support Max’s full weight.
“Can you stand?”
“Only just,” Max choked out.
“The streets are deserted, no ride in sight…” Moira half-whimpered.
“Blame Margreaves. He ordered all traffic out…”
“The Riverlander. They put out an…APB…a Kill-On-Sight order…”
“On a CHILD?!”
“Now you…see, why…my CO…attacked me…”
“The hospital’s a long walk from here…do you think you can make it if I help carry you?”
“I got this far…from the old docks…where…bear…took…chunk…”
Max struggled to stand upright, arm still clasped tightly over his wound. Recalling how he had ordered Puffa to be arrested under Margreaves’s orders made him force himself to stand straight, despite his injuries. He gripped Moira’s shoulder tight, digging his claws into her dress.
“Forgive me,” he coughed.
“I’m a seamstress,” Moira smiled softly. “A few rips won’t bother me.”
“Good to know…take the backstreets to the hospital. Main roads will still be guarded,” Max hissed in pain, ears flattened against his head.
“You can cuss in front of me, you know?”
“I’d rather not,” Max replied. “Not proper for a lady of the court. I can do that when they’re stitching me up.”
“I’ll be there too. I won’t let you go into surgery without someone there for you.”
Max nodded, grateful that Moira had stumbled upon him when she had. He had been just about ready to just curl up and die there. In his tearful gaze, he studied the cougar woman, drawing similarities to yet another cougar he knew, and knew very well indeed. As they hobbled together through unguarded sidestreets, Moira’s ears flickered slightly, noticing Max’s gentle but pained gaze.
“What is it?” she asked, her voice soft.
“You remind me of someone I know. It’s silly, but, the resemblence is there. Must be a cougar thing.”
“What do you mean?”
“Oh it’s just, well,” Max smiled as gently as he could manage. “You remind me of one of my best friends, that’s all.”
Don’t say it, Max…please don’t say it…
“Charleston Keyves Junior.”
At the way Moira’s ears flattened tight against her head, Max wondered if he’d struck a nerve. He glanced away.
“I’m sorry…did I say something wrong?”
Moira quietly shook her head.
“Then…why are you…so sad?”
Moira glanced at the other feline, eyes soft in her gaze. She felt the tears come before her voice spilled out.
“Charleston is my estranged older brother.”
Max’s eyes widened in disbelief, but Moira continued talking before he could say a word.
“He was born first, I second, but I was raised as heiress. Mother treated him as nothing further than a sperm bank, a loser, second house to my every beck and call. I was so young, I didn’t know the difference between an older sibling and a servant, but having been born with a silver spoon in one’s maw, no child can tell the difference between being spoiled rotten and spared the rod. And before you ask, I was a little bitch to him, I truly was! I hated him, I picked on him mercilessly and all for the sake of pleasing our damnable parent! Charleston feared our mother, feared what she was capable of, and like an idiot…I didn’t listen to him…”
She felt Max’s grip on her shoulder squeeze gently, just enough to comfort her.
“He tried to warn me, just before he ran away from home, what mother was primping me to become. He said she was going to turn me into a noblewoman’s whore. I snapped and attacked him. I struck him in the eye and robbed him of his sight…”
“…he never said…how…he’d lost…”
“The fight brought mother running to my room. When she saw the blood and my tears, all she saw was Charleston. All she had in her was blind rage at him for even attacking me, her heir, the one that would give her granddaughters. He bolted to his room, she called every bounty hunter in the province and every tracking hound they had…funnily enough she didn’t even care I was bleeding until she heard their barking fill the air.”
“…such an idiot…I didn’t see it…” Max shook his head.
“…they returned his bloodstained clothes, which seemed to satisfy mother enough to continue doting on me. There was no funeral, just a coffin filled with his clothes and a simple rock on the estate grounds. Mother didn’t even bother, like she’d done with father when he chose to leave us as kits, nor did she give a second glance. It was like Charleston didn’t exist,” Moira sniffled, recalling her many nights hoping her brother was safe and happy in heaven. “Mother then turned all her attentions on turning me into a breeding whore, all for the sake of a granddaughter. I quickly latched on after the first boy attempted to rape me. I began to understand why Charleston had been so afraid of her, so afraid of what she was doing. It’s because he saw it coming, and I kept believing he was jealous.”
“So…Charlie…he was supposed to father…?”
“If all my husbands failed to give me a daughter, yes.”
“…dearest Gods, your mother’s as psycho as Margreaves’s.”
Moira let out a faint chuckle. “I hope that’s an insult.”
“You’ve seen him, right?” Max’s grin was contagious. “She’s like Medusa that woman. One look and you just…know…she’s pure evil.”
“Just like she did Charleston, she sent the hounds after me too. I used some of his clothes, the ones I’d saved of his after Mom buried him, to throw off the dogs. They lost the scent after I’d taken a dive into the river. It was too wide for them to cross and would have taken them days to do it. I made it here, to Bigg City, and haven’t looked back since.”
“…when did you see him? When did it twig…he was still alive…and living here?”
“It wasn’t until I met Lorianna after she’d seen me with Lord Carrelsbury’s lot,” Moira went on, trying to keep Max coherent. He’d lost a lot of blood and she needed to keep him alive. “Lord Andrew saw no problem with me, probably because I was of some feline birth status like he and his wife. I grew very close to Lori in a short amount of time, and when she told me she was to be wed to Lord Andrew and she wanted me there as one of her grouping, I was thrilled. Thrilled only until I saw Charleston again, with the Star Team and their Captain, long before he took to the bottle of course.”
“…of course…Lorianna loves you, dearly…she wouldn’t dream of…telling a soul…your secrets…”
“I feigned a terrible migraine during the reception and Lori took it at face value, ushering me to take leave of the party and get well enough to return to work. I hated to lie to her, but if Charleston saw me there….he’d tell her everything, and I couldn’t risk that. I’ve been playing hide and seek as best I can for the last few years now.”
Max’s smile was gentle, despite his grimace of pain.
“He doesn’t stop.”
“Talking about you,” Max went on. “He hates…that he fought with you and the end result was him being too much of a coward to stay and protect you. He…ergh, wanted to go back so many times…confront your mother…get you out of there before, well, all of this happened. He doesn’t blame you for taking his eyesight, Moira. He blames himself that you had to take it from him to see sense at the time. He got on with life…he had to. But he didn’t forget you. He struggled…mmngh…all this time, trying to find the courage to go back home.”
“…I practically stopped saying a word about him,” Moira sniffled. “But I continued to think, had we not fought, would we have had the courage to tell mother we didn’t want this life she had planned for us…?”
“You know…enh…the night you took his sight, he overheard your mother talking about killing him.”
“She was going to be subtle and not…oww…tell you. He was going out hunting with one of the bounty seekers and would suffer a fatal dog attack…”
“…ohh that…how could she?!”
“Seems like your Dad, she didn’t want him around.”
“…oh Max. I wish I’d confronted him sooner.”
“Heh,” Max sucked in a breath, blood bubbling on his lips. “How far now?”
“A few more blocks,” Moira’s voice was such a comfort to him. “Max?!”
“…I don’t think…make it…”
“Yes, you can!” Moira tightened her grip on Max’s underarm. “Three blocks, Max! You’ve made it this far!!”
“Since I’m not going t’ make it…may as well say it…”
“Don’t talk like that!” Moira growled.
“You know Puffa? The Railway Cat?”
“Guess who’s his spineless jellyfish of a sibling?”
Moira shook her head, partly out of disbelief and partly out of digging up the strength to drag him just those last few meters to the A&E.
“You know, I thought…the guard…make him proud…” Max’s speech was slurring now, evident he was losing consciousness. “He…wzright…too much…coward…t’ do anythin’…”
Max’s forced grin of pain, through tears he hadn’t shed, said everything to Moira.
“Maybe now…I proved him wrong…”
A few feet away from the sliding doors of the A&E of the Bigg City Royal Wreaths Hospital, Max finally lost consciousness. Fortunately for Moira, several off-duty nurses enjoying the rain from the shelter of the back awning, had seen them and came rushing to help. As they took the unconscious tom cat from the safety and strength of her arms, she suddenly felt completely helpless and weaker than a young child. She managed to get to a chair before she too collapsed, sobbing. All around her, she could only vaguely hear the sounds of doctors and nurses rushing Max to the ER, pumping him full of the blood he’d lost when Margreaves had attacked him for protecting Connor and the new boy, her own thoughts lost to what Max had told her about him, about Charleston, how he’d never let go of the guilt.
She steadied herself, standing carefully upright, taking long, slow breaths to calm her nerves as she approached the help desk, quietly requesting a private phone. The young doctor at the desk gestured to a quiet empty ward upstairs, where Max would be once he was out of surgery. Moira walked slowly up the stairs, lost in thought. Could she do this on her own? Have the courage to speak with someone she thought had died years before? Could she show courage where before there had only been hate and disgust and jealousy?
She would continue to question herself the entire night as she sat by the phone, without the courage to pick it up and dial the numbers, not yet anyway, waiting for Maximillian to pull through…
Marlena had no time to lose.
If she so much as hesitated for more than a few moments, it would be a few moments too late. Frederich drove swiftly after they’d left the airport, their arrival quietly buried under a mound of paperwork by her favourite officials. There were some bonuses to being of the Heirarchy, she mused with relief.
Seated in the back seat of the vehicle as it coursed through the sheeting rain, Marlena had due time to pause and reflect upon her deadly little web. Frederich had reassured her that she would not lose. She would only lose if she sat down and did nothing, she realised. Thus far, she had been perfectly set to lose everything until she remembered Margreaves; and that had shaken her from her stupor, shaken her bolt upright with a promise the Kodiak Bear would get his just desserts by her hand, not by Alice’s. Quietly, her thoughts drifted to Madeleine-Mina, Connor and Orion’s mother. Madeleine too had been a bit of a power player in her youth, which had led to Hercules’s courtship of her hand for that long, tumultuous decade. They had been wonderful friends and even more wonderful parents, naming her their sons’ godmother. Marlena had taken it upon herself to hide her identity from her godsons – not out of want, but more out of necessity – given her changing status as one of the Heirarchy’s leaders.
It was wrong to hide her intentions she realised, but, given Alice’s snooping and her many “friends” in the higher tiers, it was not a piece of readily given information Marlena was willing to part with. She had however kept a close eye on them, even recruiting Lorianna into the deal when Alice had made her Contre tant such readily-available public knowledge. Lorianna fortunately had looked up to her, wished to be like her, with her same grace and poise, and had eagerly sheltered Connor under her wings. Orion however was Marlena’s problem, as she warned Lorianna not to dive in too deeply to the womanising Hedgehog’s charms. Orion it seemed was clearly and thoroughly unrepentant to what he had told Connor after Alice was through with him, Charleston and Captain Star. Marlena had often wanted to take the snide bastard over her knee, but, she considered, he was partly masochistic, so he’d more than likely enjoy it.
Her hands closed over the silver case containing the life-saving antidote to the poison Margreaves had administered to Sunnie. She had not considered that the bear’s mean streak would stretch as far as poisoning a child. She would administer it herself, and then, she breathed, she would deal with poor Connor, who was clearly struggling to uphold a collapsing deck of cards on his less-than-ready shoulders. She cast her mind to the others in the Star Team, and wondered plainly why they had not gone to Sunnie’s aid? Yes, the boy was a Riverlander, but Jones was a University Lecturer, Mackenzie was an Upper Highlander, Thomas and Charleston were from estates near the borderlines…why hadn’t they helped Connor cope with such a terrible trauma?
And then she realised with a sick swell of bitterness that Captain Star had more than likely fed into his hate for her kind by teaching his team to do the same as he was.
It was no secret to her that Star was a quiet hatemongerer. He’d been raised primarily by a hatemongering mother, so the whole fiasco didn’t really surprise her all that much. His father having drunk himself to an early grave commanding a crew made entirely of Riverlanders clearly hadn’t helped matters of tolerance either. Marlena gave every possible thanks to the deities that Connor and Sunnie had grown up not knowing how to hate the other, for she was not truly sure how she would be able to fix things if they had.
The children had more sense than the adults, she realised.
She stared out of the window, not seeing or hearing anything but rain, rain, lightning, thunder and more rain, her reflection in the glass reminding her that she was one person who believed in the children when no one else would. She had tried to reach Lilliena, but her phone and her cell kept ringing out. Marlena did try not to show annoyance at this. No doubt she had gone to the station to meet with her fiancee, to tell him everything before he got home. The old doe gave her conscience a virtuous slap in the confines of her head. Now was not the time to point fingers at everyone. They’d do that themselves under their own power.
Frederich turned a corner and the sight of Walter’s practice came into view, the old bird himself was standing at the window and acknowledged their arrival. From the look on his face as he appeared at the door, Marlena knew she hadn’t any time to waste. She ignored Fred’s attempts to open up an umbrella, and instead snatched up the antidote case and was into the practice before Fred realised what had happened.
“He’s upstairs with Connor,” Walt babbled as she entered. “He’s been getting steadily worse as the night’s gone on…”
“Does anyone know they’re here?” Frederich asked, shaking off the unused umbrella.
“No one,” Walt replied, mopping his forehead. “When Connor got here, everything was silent. He said Margeaves attacked them both…poisoned the boy…Nightshade Flower I identified the compound ingredient as…”
“That’s enough for a warrant, My Lady,” Frederich began. “It’s not easy to come by.”
“No and neither is the antidote. By any means.”
Walt nodded and led Marlena up the stairs towards the bedroom, the old doe slipping the gold case into Frederich’s hands. The Royal Guard nodded and pocketed the case safely into his dress jacket. Connor was only vaguely aware of the sounds echoing down the hallway towards them, head buried in his arms as he knelt by Sunnie, shaking as if he was about to burst into tears again but willing himself to stay strong, willing himself to not give in.
In the silence of that room, for half the drizzling cold night, Connor had wept into his arms, trying to pray, trying to beg whatever deity he could name off the top of his head to save his best friend from the slaughter, from this deadly concoction Margreaves had injected into him. When Walt entered, he was trying to pray but his throat wouldn’t let him speak, eyes closed and trembling, holding back unshed tears. A rustle of silken cloth made him open his eyes and across from him, standing at the other side of the bed with the old hawk, was Marlena.
“…myladyvienna…?” Connor managed to whimper, his voice hoarse from having cried half the night.
Marlena ignored Connor for the most part, seating herself hurriedly on the bed next to the unconscious boy, syringe in hand, wincing only just slightly at the sight of the boy’s bandaged ankle jutting up from the covers. She pressed her fingers to Sunnie’s wrist, feeling the painfully slow beat underneath them. She and Frederich had gotten there with only minutes to spare. Sunnie didn’t even stir, his only signs of life the beaded sweat still forming on his fevered brow and the shallow breaths he was taking. Marlena ran two fingers down his matted neckfur and pressed lightly, her eyes closed, concentrating. Syringe poised in her other hand, she waited once, twice, three times before sliding the needle into the vein of Sunnie’s left wrist, again pausing those three times before depressing its contents into the fevered youngster’s body.
“It’s done,” she whispered, finally allowing herself to breathe normally again. The entire process had taken seconds, but for the old doe it seemed like an eternity.
“Are you sure we got here on time, My Lady?” Frederich asked, watching Connor as he had gripped Sunnie’s hand out of instinct.
“Yes, Fred. We got here on time.”
Connor was struggling so badly to hold back his grief. Marlena allowed herself to stroke Sunnie’s cheek and kissed his forehead, then rose on quiet rustling silk, reached Connor’s side, kneeling before him, her hands cusping the boy’s cheekfur. The boy closed his eyes as she did so, she could feel him trembling under her hands, weak and afraid and trying oh-so-hard to be the leader Orion wasn’t. Walter and Frederich took her actions as a sign that she wanted to be left alone with the children, and both left quietly, closing the door behind them.
“Connor,” Marlena spoke, her voice a gentle command.
The boy didn’t answer, but his tears told her everything, everything that had gone on that previous night was etched into the matted fur on his cheeks. His lips trembled, trying to hold back his sobs.
“Connor, look at me,” the old doe whispered, her thumbs wiping away the fresh tears that had appeared from under the boy’s closed eyes. “No one is expecting you to be emotionless. Least of all now, not after everything you’ve been through to save Sunshine’s life.” She frowned for a moment before continuing on. “Orion didn’t have the courage to look at me last night when he wronged me by accusing you. But I know you’re not him. Look at me, Connor.”
That seemed to do it she realised as Connor’s eyes opened, and the tearful green shimmer in them stared back at her; he was trembling but it was not out of fear. The practice was warm, but Connor was shivering like it was eighty below in that room.
“What happened last night, son?” Marlena pressed gently on the raw subject, seeing the flicker of light in the boy’s eyes fade. “What did Margreaves do to you…?”
Connor’s eyes closed, and he shook his head at her, averting back to the slow rise and fall on Sunnie’s chest as the antidote did its job. The boy’s hands were trembling, shaking, the adrenaline from his flight to save his friend vanishing by the second.
“Sunnie would have died if not for you,” Marlena went on. “You saved his life…”
“…I almost killed him…”
Marlena’s eyebrows shot up in worry. “What? No, Connor! You didn’t…”
“IT’S BECAUSE OF ME HE RAN AWAY!!”
There was a desperate, unrelenting sadness in Connor’s face as he yelled at her. Marlena felt her eyes tearing up as she stared at her godson. Her hands strayed to his shoulders, feeling him shaking with grief and distress.
“No, Connor, no,” Marlena whispered, leaning her forehead against his. “He would never have run from you, no matter what was said between you. You adore him, and he adores you.”
“You weren’t there…” Connor shook his head, his voice angry, but his eyes filled with despair.
“No. No, I was not. But I know he wouldn’t be here if not for you.”
“Everything I’ve ever done,” the younger hedgehog began softly. “Everything I’ve ever known…it all paled for what I witnessed last night…”
“Did Margreaves hurt you?”
Connor nodded slowly, and Marlena’s eyes fell on his arm. Connor didn’t move as she rolled up his sleeve, lifting the gauze bandage and hissing softly under her breath at the wounds, deep and accusing, in the soft fur and flesh. Margreaves had dug his claws in and meant it, that much was certain.
“Bastard,” he heard her growl. “I will put him to the rack for hurting you…”
“He did worse to Sunnie,” Connor pulled his arm away from her, smoothing down the gauze, almost afraid of her angry look. “What he did to me is no comparison…”
Marlena looked towards the bed, watching Sunnie with careful eyes, her hand straying back to Connor’s cheek. She breathed in gently, trying to picture the events of what Connor and Sunnie had been through last night. Her mind was travelling in a direction she didn’t want to traverse. At all.
“I don’t understand how it all happened,” Marlena turned back towards her godson. “How did he push-…”
Connor’s eyes filled with fury as she said it.
“He didn’t push Lorianna!” Connor choked out. “How could he have done?! He’s a quarter of her size! If I hadn’t’ve gotten angry at him, he wouldn’t have taken that dance with her!! He wouldn’t have been anywhere near the Princess…”
Marlena’s grip on her knees tightened. “Near Alice?” she repeated, staring at Connor. “She and Lorianna were…? You mean to tell me, Connor, that the Princess Alice was on the dancefloor with Lorianna last night?!”
At Connor’s nod, Marlena closed her eyes, unbridled fury coursing through her. Alice had gone far more than a few steps into this entire fiasco – she had masterminded everything, right down to the last tree panda detail. She shivered, thinking about what had gone on, and how frightened Sunnie would have been. She would be having words with that woman when all of this was over. More than words, she thought darkly.
“Alice was dancing with Margreaves when last I looked,” Connor was wiping at his eyes. “Next thing I know, we’re surrounded by the Royal Guard…and Sunnie was gone…Lorianna had…she was…there was blood everywhere! I…”
“Shh, shh, shh! Oh Connor,” Marlena gathered the sobbing youngster into her arms, her hands cradled him close. “This is not your fault. This is not Sunnie’s fault. Not at all. Look at me, son.”
She lifted Connor’s face to hers.
“You both are not to blame. Not now, not ever. Do you understand?”
He nodded, but he couldn’t look at her for long. “I feel like such a coward, My Lady…”
Marlena frowned suddenly at this admission of misplaced guilt. In her mind, Connor was no coward, far from it, he had shown remarkable bravery in such exceptional circumstances, even copped a few wounds of his own trying to save Sunnie. She glanced up at the resting tree panda, wondering what would have happened if Connor hadn’t followed the beat of his own heart in the circumstances? She knew the answer to that question, and she didn’t bear thinking about it. She reached over to her godson, and gripped his chin, turning him forcefully towards her.
“Stop that right now, Tennie Connor Hedgehog,” she told him forcefully, staring at his tearful face. “Madeleine-Mina and Hercules Senior did not raise you to believe you are a coward. Bravery comes in many forms, and yours is clearly a cut above that of your damnable brother’s, of your entire team’s. You are the strongest link that team has for success. You are not afraid to stand up for others, regardless of what everyone else thinks of you. I don’t care what Orion tells you, or what he’s drilled into you for these many years, strength means the hell of a lot, Connor, and you have it in spades!”
Connor stared up at her, feeling as though she had reached into his chest and torn away the darkness that had been a part of him for so long. Marlena pressed her forehead to his, continuing on.
“You are the strongest young man I have ever seen, and Madeleine would be so proud of you. I can’t say it any better than that, Connor,” Marlena spoke, tears in her own eyes. “I’m so sorry you and Sunnie had to go through all this pain and suffering. I’m so, so sorry.”
Connor was trembling even moreso now.
“I hope something I have said has helped you a litt…”
Marlena stopped speaking when Connor damned near catapulted into her, his grief finally overwhelming him. She felt him collapse, clinging to her like a frightened kit, his cries echoing in the bedroom. She rose, lifting Connor and holding him close to her, hugging him like Madeleine used to when he was just a youngster.
“It’s alright, Connor. Sunnie’s going to be alright,” she soothed, her voice soft against the boy’s sobbing.
Connor gripped her dress sleeves like a vice as they sat in Walt’s old armchair. All the pain poured out of the youngster, as she talked, and soothed, and held him to her.
“Your mother was my dear friend, Connor, as was your father. They asked me to be yours and Orion’s godmother shortly before they left on their last journey. I was proud, knowing my godsons would become young men in their absence and that I had the best vantage point to witness that.”
She leaned her forehead against Connor’s.
“Circumstances being what they were and my changing stature meant that I could never reveal to you two exactly who I was, and what I was doing.”
Marlena brushed a strand of headfur out of Connor’s eyes, her fingers soft and gentle against his heaving self.
“I attended their funeral but left before I could reveal myself to you both,” she continued, a tear slipping down her own cheek. “I had my own private grieving session, which I know now was a mistake. I should have stayed. Should have, would have, could have…it doesn’t help you now any more than you knowing your parents were my best friends and that I am the godparent you never knew about. I am so sorry, Connor, I should have gone with what was right for you and Orion than what was right at the time of it.”
She slipped a hand into a small pocket on her dress, fingers closing around the polished carnelian stone pin. She drew it out and Connor let out a small gasp. It belonged to his mother. He hadn’t seen it amongst her personal effects when Orion had brought them home, and had always been under the impression that Orion had lost it deliberately to teach him a lesson.
“Where did you…?” he began, but his sobs didn’t allow him more breath.
“It was wrong,” Marlena spoke gently, fingers dancing lightly across the smoothness. “I knew it was wrong, but I had to take it. It was in your mother’s will that you be given it at the time of your ascension as Leader of the Star Team. The Navy’s overseeing officer had her eyes on it. I couldn’t let her take what was rightfully yours. Rightfully your mother’s still before she was buried.”
“You stole it…?”
“I had no choice, Connor. Please believe me.” She reached over and pinned the brooch to Connor’s collar. “Your mother was the most beautiful woman I’ve ever known, and she and Faralina were best friends…”
Connor’s eyes met hers and the unasked question was there.
“Connor…you meeting Sunnie was no accident,” Marlena explained gently. “Your mother and Sunnie’s knew each other for a very long time. Orion probably remembers her, but I doubt it. Your mother was very careful about revealing her friends in that sense.”
“So…I was meant to…?”
“Not in the way this played out to this degree,” Marlena stressed firmly. “But yes. Faralina wanted her son to know you, she wanted more than anything to know her son was going to grow up safe, and loved, regardless of his faction. You were never meant to be told, but given this, here, now, you deserve to know.”
She looked over to where Sunnie still lay.
“You both deserve to know.”
Connor leaned into her, arms still around her. “M’so scared. Of Orion. Of th’ guys. I don’t know how they’ll react to Sunnie…whether or not they’ll even care.”
Marlena ran her fingers through Connor’s headfur, stroking him gently.
“I hate my brother!” Connor whimpered. “I hate him for what he turned into! I hate that he hates me for something I couldn’t prevent!”
Marlena pressed her lips to Connor’s ear, placing her chin atop his head in a gesture of comfort.
“Let it out, dearheart. It’s not healthy for you to bottle this up.”
“But I want to,” Connor replied, his voice steadying just slightly. “I want to have something to work out between us…”
“This isn’t healthy, Connor,” Marlena repeated firmly, meeting his eyes. “I know you and Orion have a lot to work out, and it’s not going to be a smooth ride of it, but you are better than that.”
Connor took a deep breath, before nodding, wiping his eyes. He looked up at Marlena and tried to smile. The old doe nuzzled him back.
“How long before Sunnie…?”
“In adults, the serum works almost instantly. In children, it takes a little longer. In Sunnie’s case, I was…” she trailed off.
“…you were almost too late,” Connor supplied for her. “M’sorry, My Lady…we must’ve worried you sick…”
Marlena allowed herself a light laugh. “You’re my godson. Gods know you don’t intend to, but you do so anyway.”
Connor hugged her tightly. “I don’t know what would’ve happened if’n you hadn’t been lookin’ out for us.”
“Connor, always know that you, Sunnie and Orion are my responsibility, and that I am here for you, whenever you need me.”
“But…what about th’ Princess? Won’t you…I mean…”
Marlena nodded. “Yes, she’ll try everything and anything to get to me, even going through you both. But rest assured, your godmother has quite a number of tricks up her sleeve.” She stroked the boy’s cheek, smiling. “What is it, Connor? What did you want to ask of me?”
Connor squirmed slightly, unsure of how to ask the question, but did so anyway. “Is…is it true…that you and Admiral Star…were involved?”
“We were…romantically involved for a short time, yes,” Marlena nodded. “A short time cut even shorter by his jealous, money-grubbing fiance. I make it no secret that Christopher’s wife-to-be was not my most favourite person to deal with, but I did deal with her and did my best to placate her in such a way that was beneficial for the both of us. It was wrong to play her in the way that I did, but she proved her intentions far too clearly after his passing. I was, in retrospect, far more accomodating to Christopher’s follies than she was.”
“So why did…Cap’n Star…follow…?”
Marlena cusped Connor’s cheek. “I don’t have the answer to that, Connor…but I observed far more than I should have done over the years. Observed and did not take any action for fear of Alice and her powerplayers catching on to my renewed interest in Star, in his Star Team, and in Orion and you. I admit…I was surprised to see Orion with Lilliena at first…” she went on. “I did not think Lil’s little girl would see any particular key factor in him seeing as though he was one of those graduates with a penchant for female trouble…”
“He never told her I existed,” Connor’s face fell.
Marlena kept her growing anger in check. “She did find out about you, admittedly the hard way. In passing conversation, Lil’ mentioned her daughter had only just discovered your existance, and she was terribly, terribly worried for you, and angry at her soon-to-be son-in-law. They doted on you hoping Orion hadn’t done the damage to you that they’d feared…”
She nuzzled him gently.
“…but they were already too late, weren’t they?”
“I hid it well,” Connor whispered, his hands fingering his mother’s brooch. “I had to…was th’ only way to survive it.”
“I wish you hadn’t have been pushed into hiding it, Connor. You have an idea of how angry I am that all this happened, that it all could have been prevented, that if I…that if I had taken action properly, you and Sunnie wouldn’t be in this mess.”
“I let you down,” Connor began, but was silenced by Marlena.
“There is no one you let down, Connor. Not me, not Sunnie, not your Captain or your team. Star let you down by conducting himself in the way he did, for this long, with no intervention. You rest assured knowing I am going to be that intervention whether he likes it or not.”
There was a gentle knock at the door and Walter poked his head around the door.
“Forgive me for the interruption, My Lady. There is a phonecall for you downstairs.”
“Frederich?” she questioned the old hawk as Connor slid down from her lap.
“No. It’s uhm…someone else of your court.”
Marlena blinked before reading the look Walter gave her. She rose steadily, smoothing down her skirts. Why she had not opted for the more casual route crossed her mind at least twice as she did so, but given the circumstances, she would be needing her formal dress today for more reasons than one. She kissed Connor’s cheek gently.
“I’ll be downstairs, Connor.”
“I know. Thank you, My Lady. For everything.”
She smiled sadly at the boy’s continued use of proper decorum around her, but knew it was only his way of respecting her position, no matter what the circumstance. She left the room, flanked by the elderly hawk after he had closed the door, leaving Connor and Sunnie alone. When they were halfway down the stairs, she cast a questioning glance back at Walter.
“It’s Moira Cou—er Keyves,” he corrected himself in a hushed whisper. “She sounds as if she’s been through the wringer. I said you were here, forgive me.”
Marlena picked up the reciever and spoke gently into it, Walter hanging back on the lowest stair. Marlena listened to the sobbing voice on the other end of the line for a few moments, before her commanding voice kicked in.
“Moira. Calm down. What happened exactly?”
“I was…I was walking home from Lorianna’s estate last night. Margreaves cancelled all cars in and out…” Moira was still crying. “I found Maximillian in an alleyway close by, he was bleeding from his lower body, ravaged by that goddamned Kodiak!”
Marlena’s ears pinned flat against her head. This was new information, and it wasn’t good by any means.
“As in Lorianna’s personal guard, Puffa’s brother, Maximillian Johnson?”
“Yes, My Lady! He was so badly hurt…I…I managed to get him to the hospital before he collapsed, and…”
“Slow down, Moira,” Marlena cast a grim look at Walter behind her. “Which ward are you in?”
“Sector 13 I think…the Intensive Care Unit.”
“How is Max?”
“He’s…he lost a lot of blood…they don’t know if he’s going to make it…”
Marlena dropped the reciever to her chest, taking a few deep, controlled breaths. This entire situation reeked of Alice’s feathered ass; if this had been planned down to the very letter, Maximillian had been caught in an unfortunate crossfire. She raised it once more and spoke firmly to Moira.
“Listen to me very carefully, dearheart. You are to stay with Max until Frederich gets to you. He will be carrying something of great importance that we both need you to perform for Max, as he cannot carry out his duty at this time.”
“…anything, My Lady,” Moria’s reply was a little shaky, but she clearly understood.
“He will hand you a silver case. Within it lies a single syringe. It contains the antidote for the serum Margreaves was carrying on him, which he administered to Lorianna at the Magistrates Ball,” Marlena continued. “Lorianna has most likely taken on the appearance of someone who is unconscious, and he may be continuing to administer a further dosage to keep her that way. Maximillian is in no capable state of getting near to her to inject her with the antidote, nor can Frederich if what you say is true about Margreaves’s orders. I know how you despise the Kodiak, gods know I do too, but you are the only trustworthy person amongst Lorianna’s and my court at this point.”
“He’ll be suspicious of me if I ask to see her though…”
“No, he won’t be. If I know Margreaves, he is more likely celebrating his great victory as the new Lord of the Estate with a certain Swan woman who won’t be seeing a crown anytime too soon.”
“I hope not either, My Lady. We have an agreement on that perspective.”
“Good. Frederich will meet you as soon as he can. Be ready.”
“I shall. Thank you, My Lady.”
“We will talk about this situation in greater detail later, dearheart. For now, good luck and god speed.”
Moira put the phone down on her end as Marlena did the same on hers. She re-dialled the phone quickly, hoping that Frederich hadn’t yet reached the guardhouse and started asking questions. The phone rang for a few tense seconds before she heard Fred’s warm voice flood the line.
“Her Majesty’s Guard?”
“Oh thank the Gods, Fred! Where are you?”
“Just pulling into the guardhouse’s street, My Lady, why?”
“U-turn. Right now. Don’t ask, just do it.”
Frederich knew better than to argue with Marlena when her voice was that brisk down the line. He turned the car around as swiftly as he could, then reached for his mobile earpiece, tuning it to the phone’s frequency quickly.
“Can you hear me properly, My Lady?”
“Crystal. You’re to make for the hospital immediately.”
“Hospital?” Frederich questioned. “What…?”
“Maximillian is incarcerated, severe blood loss to the lower body.”
“What?!” the feline cried. “Is he alright?!”
“I was told very little, Fred. Only enough to say that he is in a critical condition.”
“Who the hell-?”
“Must you ask that question, Frederich?” she sighed grimly.
“…” Fred fell silent at her tone. “Permission to sever that bear’s neck, My Lady…”
“You wait in line, Commander,” Marlena admonished. “I am angrier than you and I have first dibs.”
“But, but Lorianna!” Frederich went on as he put his foot down on the accelerator. “Who’s going to administer the antidote to her?”
“We already have an agent waiting for you in Max’s ward.”
“She saved his life, Fred.”
“Oh. Ohhh,” Frederich’s eyes widened in realisation of whom she was referring to. “Pardon my question, Ma’am, but…are you going to tell him about her anytime soon?”
“Eventually. When I am done raking Orion across the coals.”
“No offense meant, My Lady, but put Connor in a room with Orion and he’ll do that for you.”
“Frederich…” her voice was tinted with ice. “Don’t put the image in my head, no matter how tempting. Connor has been through enough.”
“All due respect…but that boy’s got unfinished business with his brother and neither you nor I have any right to come between them.”
Marlena clicked her tongue in annoyance. She knew Frederich was right. Connor may have looked like he had let it go in her mind, but there was still a festering wound under all of that. If Connor didn’t tear Orion limb from limb on sight, she would be very surprised indeed.
“What has the media been saying about the incident?” she asked.
“About Sunnie? They’re claiming he’s dead, My Lady, killed by the Royal Guard last night.”
“Really?” Marlena’s voice took on a thoughtful tone.
“Yes, they’ve sent an envoy to the Riverlands from what I understand.”
“Interesting. We may have leverage now. No doubt the envoy is Eldar Pillsbury himself,” she mused. “When you’ve spoken to our agent, I want you to contact the airport. Ground that envoy before he leaves Bigg City soil, I don’t care how, Frederich. I trust you will do whatever is necessary.”
“Crystal, My Lady. Shall the excuse about charges against relations with farm animals count or are you saving that for Commander Margreaves?”
Marlena smirked despite herself. “I was, but I think you could make better use of it with Pillsbury.”
“Oh, hang on…hello…” Fred’s voice interrupted her thoughts as she heard the car slow down briefly. “Seems someone angrier than Connor is on her way over to the HQ as we speak.”
“Lilliena?” Marlena questioned.
“She’s got feathers, My Lady.”
Marlena felt herself wince as she realised. “Miss Highmyle’s on her way over there??”
“How does she look, Fred?”
“I think she’s been drinking.”
The old doe’s ears pinned flat against her head. It couldn’t be helped, she mused. Sally would have only gotten involved in this royal mess if Lilliena had gone to her in the first place or she had heard everything on the radio. And if she looked unsteady on her feet as Fred had described, she could only pray Orion and the other lads were ready for her impromptu visit. No doubt in Marlena’s mind that Sally was going to shake things up like a handful of tailfeathers.
“Is she carrying anything?”
“No, My Lady.”
“I don’t know whether to be worried or appreciative, Fred,” she admitted honestly. “Has she seen you?”
“No, ma’am. She seems pretty purposefully focused on getting to the HQ.”
“Gods help them when she gets there.”
“Tell you what, My Lady…I was worried you were going to make me give her a lift.”
“Frederich, when I get angry at you, you know it. Giving a lift to an angry Miss Highmyle is suicide. Even on my end.”
Walter allowed himself a gentle chuckle behind the old doe.
“I’m grateful to you, My Lady Vienna.”
“Good. Contact me again as soon as possible.”
“Will do, My Lady.”
Marlena replaced the phone, ending the call and sighing gently before looking at Walter. “I suppose you heard, yes?”
“Sally is on her way to smack the boys around some. Yes I heard that much,” the old hawk smiled slightly. “I’ll be packing my day bag with suture silk and needles for the end result of her visitation rights. Lord knows those lads will need stitching.”
“Don’t waste all your silk on just what Sally’s going to do, old friend.”
Walter glanced back up the stairs, then back to Marlena. “Connor wounds with words, Marlena. He’ll hurt what I cannot stitch back up. He’s not a fighter, dear one.”
“I seem to distinctively recall an old hawk telling me to look at Xavier the next time I saw him?”
“That was then. This is now.”
“After all that he’s been through Walter, I’m surprised he hasn’t thrown a punch yet.”
“He’ll do it in his own way, dear one. For now, all we can do is wait for Sunnie to come to. Tea?” he swept his hand back towards the kitchen in a gentle flourish.
Marlena laughed and nodded, grateful for the old bird’s intervention. “Two sugars, no milk, thank you.”
“Same as ever, my dear.”
Upstairs in the bedroom, Connor was seated on the floor against the bed, listening to Sunnie’s breathing. He had gotten slightly stronger since Marlena had injected him with the antidote and he’d propped Sunnie’s head up slightly with another pillow behind him. Though he was still sweating, the pale tan of his muzzlefur had deepened in colour, causing Connor to breathe a sigh of relief. After all that mercy dashing, after all the suffering both had been through, Sunnie was going to survive, and so was he.
Connor glanced upwards at the ceiling, silently thanking the Gods before leaning back against the bed and allowing himself to doze off. Sleep had come in small doses the night before, brief snatches of time as he prayed and begged and sobbed his way through Sunnie’s condition. The hedgehog’s thoughts drifted to his teammates, and then as quickly as he’d thought of them, he erased the memories from his mind. Sleep wasn’t going to come to him until Sunnie’s eyes were open again. As tired as he was, Connor stayed awake, focusing on what he needed to focus on. The hurt was still there inside him, despite his godmother’s intervention.
He fingered the brooch on his collar, thinking for the first time in a long time about his mother, Madeleine-Mina, and the truth Marlena had told him about his chance meeting with Sunnie. However engineered the situation was at the time of it, he was too close to Sunnie now to even think of letting him go.
And Orion would become aware of it too, one way or the other…
The ‘Rockin’ Robin’ herself was pissed in more ways than one.
There were a few belts in her system as she had stormed out of the apartment, a trail of fire that seared its way down into her toe-claws at what her best friend and almost-sister had told her through her sobs. That beautiful kitty had told her of her decision, a finality that drilled into the birdy just how much she was going to open a can of whoop-assin’ on the boy that had done this to her. As tipsy as she was, and as close to drunk as she’d gotten in those past few hours holding her friend and listening to her cry and repeat the words that rassa-frassin’ bastard had yelled at her, someone was going to pay dearly for it. And that someone was a former hunka-hunka burnin’ hedgehog who had done the godsdamned unthinkable to her girlfriend!
She had left Lilliena covered in a blanket on her couch, where she’d cried herself to sleep. She’d watched her, slamming back shot after shot into her system, getting herself to just that middle line where she could be pissed AND pissed off enough to go settle an old score. What had also rattled Sally’s cage was the fact Lilliena spoke of Thomas in such a hushed tone, and after one word, the dam had broken its banks, and sweet lil’ ol’ Sally had been floored and shattered by the information. The raccoon boy, that sweet lil’ ol’ boy-pal o’ hers was gonna get the same treatment as Orion, so help the Gods.
Lilliena had begged her not to be angry at Thomas for lying all this time, that he had been scared for Connor, and it was hard for Sally to not listen to her friend. But Thomas had lied to her, and he knew the consequence of doing that. She had stared at herself long and hard in Lil’s bathroom mirror, trying to see where it was she had missed the signs of Thomas’s injuries. The other point that Sally had become enraged over was little Sunshine. Lilliena had said it and all her tolerance of this entire city had come crashing down around her. Sunnie was dead, Connor was still missing, and the city was in lockdown trying to find him.
If anything was going to be done today, Sally thought, putting her feathered hand against the glass, it would be that godsdamned Star Team whom she considered her oldest group of friends.
She had left her friend sleeping on her couch, taking nothing with her, not even her phone or her keys or her little handbag, locking the door behind. She was going to walk the long frickin’ way to the HQ in heels, a surefire way to get herself even angrier. With the amount of alcohol sloshin’ in her system and the fact that she was wearing two-inch heels walking at least fifteen miles in the state she was in, whoever it was who opened the door was gonna get her fist smack-bang in his puss.
Rain never really bothered Sally, but this storm raging outside had been hanging around for nearly two days. She debated walking back upstairs and waking Lilliena just to snag an umbrella, but before she could turn around, her thoughts went to Sunnie and Connor the day before. They’d been so darned happy, so darned cute together. Her fists balled in fury and she continued her journey in the rain, not listening to anything but the sound of it cascading down on and around her and the lack of traffic to disturb it.
Sally had taken a few anger management classes in her time to curb her voracious appetite for ending fights. When she’d joined the Rockin’ Robin Café, many of the clients and their dates knew never to cross her right hook on a bad day, but there were a couple of the boys who went that far. Xavier Corlette being the obvious. That’s how she and Lil La Rahnqe, the Cabaret Queen, had met and traded numbers. Corlette had done the unthinkable and tried to feel her up in front of the birdy. He’d gone down like a sack o’ potatoes for that stunt! Sally allowed herself a cruel grin remembering how she’d kicked Corlette’s ass around the room…then drooped her headfeathers remembering her boss’s reaction to the whole torrid affair. She hadn’t been in his good books for a long time afterwards.
Her thoughts drifted sideways to a time when she’d gotten to know Lilliena, and when her doll had gotten back from tourin’ the world with Momma Lil, she’d come back a slinky drop-dead gorgeous woman. Sally had to beat off the horndogs with a stick sometimes when Lilliena dropped by the Rockin’ Robin all dolled up and ready for a night on the town. That first boyfriend of hers, Melvin, was nothin’ but a literal horndog that the birdy had taken an instantaneous dislikin’ to. When he slipped up, and by cripes he eventually did, Sally had done the ‘usual’ to him – made sure he’d be sippin’ fried chicken through a crazy straw in some backstreet clinic somewhere. It had further cemented her friendship with the La Rahnqes, and developed that undyin’ sistahood between her and Lilliena.
When Orion had come into the question as a potential handsome, virile buck-about-town for her gal pal, Sally had had a niggling doubt in the back of her head; that same niggling doubt had turned into full-flown fury as of right now. She knew Orion could be a womanisin’ sumbitch if he was given th’ leeway, but Lilliena was no innocent angel either! She had debated, long and frickin’ hard, about telling Orion what she had seen her galpal do to Xavier Corlette when he wasn’t around. Like a good galpal however, she’d kept her big beak shut.
“An’ fer what reason did ah alls do that fer?!” Sally muttered angrily to herself as she strode through the pouring rain. “Jus’ so ah could watch Lil’ and ‘rion scream each other senseless?!”
Some days, Sally hated herself for bein’ the middleground. She was always coming between the boys and girl one way or another, be it Lilliena and Orion, Connor and Charleston, Thomas and Mackenzie…
“By gaw, Sally-girl, ya come between ‘em more times as th’ dang blasted middleman than their own drunken pincushion o’ a Cap’n!”
Sally squeezed her drenched headfeathers and smoothed them back flat against her head, ignoring the fact that they simply flipped straight back up again. She hissed under her breath, thoroughly annoyed by her ‘cowlick’ headfeathers. They were doing nothing for her simmering mood. Most of the boys back at the Rockin’ Robin used her headfeathers as a surefire sign of her moodswings, which had been quite interesting when she’d learned to control her temper in such a manner that it became impossible to tell if she was pissed off or not. Months spent in Momma Lil’s company had learned her a thing or three.
The Rockin’ Robin hadn’t lasted as long as Boss Skillet had thought, and all good things came to an end one way or the other. The new guy who’d bought him out and sent him packin’ with his tailfeathers between his legs was a muscle-bound ol’ Doberman dog named Big Tony. Of all the goils of the previous establishment, Sally had been the only one left of whom Skillet had kept around. Big Tony had sized her up from afar and instead of a severance check, gave her the means for a better paying job as head waitress of the newly refurbished JazzCat Café. The big ol’ doggy didn’t need to do this for her, but as he’d flirted with her straight off the bat, he ‘knew a pistol-packin’ dame when he saw one’. Sally had instantly warmed to Big Tony’s proper respect of goils.
So Head Waitress she became, a high-payin’ luxury of being able to flirt as much as she ever wanted with Big Tony, and a place where her boys as she referred to them as could hang out without fear of being accosted by some media floozy who wanted to write them off the map. It was here, in this new job, that she became accustomed to the continuous sight of Xavier Corlette and his Zero Boys, high-fivin, talkin-shit rich boys buyin’ drinks on their Captain’s tab. She hid her disgust of them well enough, but even Big Tony grew to dislike them whenever they walked in. He had a habit of movin’ the lil’ kitties along when he knew they were out to fight dirty.
Xavier at least grew the sense to realise he wasn’t welcome in the JazzCat. He started hanging around at Lilliena’s cabaret club, which led to more than one girltalk session on the job about what that mysterious alleycat was playing at. Despite herself and her inkling feelings on him, Sally had joined in flirting with Xavier on more than one occasion. Unfortunately for her, he seemed far more interested in her galpal than her. Sad but true, Lilliena seemed more than happy to accommodate Xavier as her go-to beau when Orion wasn’t around. Worse still, Sally had almost walked in on a more than flirtatious steamy session between Marie, one of Lilliena’s dancing troupe, and Orion himself. She had kept her big beak shut, hoping neither girl nor boy found out about what the other was doing. She slapped her feathered forehead. This whole flirt whilst the significant other wasn’t around thing had gotten way outta hand.
Sally was not to know exactly how Lilliena had confronted Orion earlier, but clearly, the fight had gotten jumbled enough for the whole cheating thing to be smothered under worry for Connor and Sunnie. She did resolve however that once she was outta this rain and in that HQ, she was going to smack some sense into that womaniser she had introduced to her galpal all those important years ago. And Lilliena, she brooded silently, wouldn’t escape the same treatment. She clenched her fist tight, remembering what had set her kitty-gal off; taking off that engagement ring and saying straight to her she would never love him again after knowing what he had done to Connor and Sunnie. She said she’d had enough of being blind to Orion’s faults. She couldn’t love him anymore just knowing he was Xavier in another species.
Sally had used the greatest restraint in herself to not go ballistic at Lilliena then and there.
“Ah love ‘em, ah really do,” Sally told herself loudly. “But Gods ‘elp ‘em when ah get through wit’ ‘em!”
Two miles remained, and Sally was still utterly furious at herself, at her friends and at the circumstances she found herself to be involved in one way or the other. Her feet ached in those heels, further adding to her tempestuous thoughts. She wholeheartedly figured she’d probably beat at least Jones to a pulp with these shoes if he so much as asked her what she was doing on their doorstep drenched to the feathers and pissed as all hell. Part of her wondered why she’d left her Louiseville Slugger back at Lilliena’s apartment. She’d drive a better point home with it in hand. But no, if she went back for it, she’d start regettin’ all o’ this, and then she’d just stand the hell by and watch these boys fall over themselves trying to save their own skins. Sally was through with watching that end result eventuate. She wouldn’t think much of the car that slowed down for a bit behind her, obviously watching her storm through the rain in a pissy, hissy tirade with herself at the time, but it would stick out in her mind a lot later after all was said and done.
She had told Connor to look after Sunnie. Between all the anger and the hate and the yelling she was going to be doing shortly at her friends, this continued to stick in her mind. Sunnie was dead according to Lilliena, according to the radio, the television, the newspapers…someone in that HQ was going to pay dearly for letting that happen in the way it did. And poor Connor, wherever that lil’ sugah’hog was, he better be safe, Sally growled to herself. God ‘elp Orion and his stupidity if’n he wasn’t!
She rounded the next corner in a fierce, almost glowing rage, storming across the deserted street and rounding another corner towards the wooden back fence ahead. In the wind, the back gate of the Star Team HQ was creaking open and slamming shut every few seconds, the latch not properly closed. Sally took a deep breath as she approached, entering and closing the gate, but properly closing the latch. No doubt the lack of sound from the gate would alert someone in the HQ that someone was outside, and was pissed as all hell. As she crunched over the gravel pebbled path, something caught her eye under the awning of the back door. Sally stood there in a state of shock, dripping wet, not seeing and not believing yet seeing and believing it all at the same time. There were drops of dry, dark red and slivers of glass, a whiskey bottle, on the concrete underneath the awning outside the back door. Sally only registered the sound of her heartbeat in her ears, the roar that drowned out the pelting rain on the room above her and the tears she felt forming in her eyes.
Had Cap’n Star…? No…he couldn’t have…could he have…?!
Sally did not hesitate further. The back door, as it usually was when Star was home, was unlocked, but she did not enter from it. She turned and walked smartly, trembling with rage, all the way to the front door of the house, her heels clicking against the concrete, alerting any and all within range to her arrival, but she no longer cared. Like the bloodstains under the back awning, all the lil’ southern birdy saw was red cape of rage.
She balled her fists as she stood facing the front door, looking for all the world like she was going to kick the damned thing in with her heeled foot. But no, not if she wanted to be paying for the door later, and not if anyone within range was watching the HQ for any signs of life. She raised the door knocker and knocked three times, ignoring the cold rainwater that slipped down from her headfeathers into her eyes. She heard the slow rhythm of footsteps, slippered, as they approached the door. She heard it unlock, the doorknob turn counter-clockwise and it opened. Standing there was the very person she had hoped, and in that same breath not hoped, would open the door.
“Sally...” Orion began, but was silenced by the look in her eyes.
“Ohhhh-ho-ho no! No’ a dang blasted WORD outta you, sugah’hog!” Sally growled as she stepped into the HQ, pointing down the hallway. “Kitchen! You and th’ other lads! I don’ give a royal turkey what y’all think o’ me turnin’ up ‘ere lookin’ laik ah alls have been through a washin’ machine! GET IN THAT KITCHEN RAIGHT NAOW!!!”
Orion knew somewhat better than to protest to a very angry magpie-robin crossbreed. Even though she’d turned up without the bat in hand, the hedgehog had a rather quick notion she was not going to need it to drive her point home. Like a frightened cub, he shot into the kitchen, looking as white as a sheet when the others looked up from the table.
“She’s here, isn’t she?” Thomas ventured with a gulp.
Before Orion could compose himself, Sally appeared, drenched to the skin in fishnet stockings and heels, looking for all the world like a volcano that had sent out warning signs for the last 48 hours and still no one had listened.
“Ah consider mahself a reasonable person…” Sally began. “Reasonable enough ta call myself blind man’s bluff to whut’s been goin’ on under this roof fer this long…”
“S-Sally…” Orion ventured.
“I DON’T GIVE A TURKEY, YA HEAR ME?! SIT THE ‘ELL DOWN YA OVERGROWN PINCUSHION AN’ SHADDUP!!”
Orion mercifully did as he was told after that outburst. Sally let her eyes rove across the sorry sight in front of her seated at the table. None of the boys met her eyes, silent and ashamed.
“Ah saw th’ bloodstains outside…” Sally balled her fists. “An’ ah cain’t fer the LAIF of me believe what it is ah was seein’ frum the media t’day,” she went on. “They crucified the lot o’ y’all…and all ah see before me is a bunch o’ cowards lyin’ here an’ TAKIN’ IT!”
No one moved, ears and headfeathers down lower than the stock market after the big service crash. Sally closed her eyes, both hands gripped on the surface of the table, looking like she had poured gasoline over herself and set herself alight, that’s how angry she looked.
“Ah dunno WHAT the hell is wrong wit’cha but you boys better have a damned good explanation for all o’ THIS!!”
Sally took a breather for a few seconds before deciding to all hell to open up with the obvious question for the obvious sumbitch who started the mess in the first place.
“Sugah’hog, where th’ hell is Connor?!”
Orion’s ear flickered softly. “I…I don’t know,” he replied, his voice soft.
“Ah am gonna say whut ah shoulda said long a’fore it came to this point…”
Orion winced as Sally raised her voice again.
“Y’ALL ARE THE WORST EXCUSE FOR A BROTHER AH HAVE EVER CLAPPED EYES ON!!”
Sally panted, clearly not done.
“Ah cannot believe, you of all the idiot sumbitches sittin’ here raight now, that you still don’ have the PILLS to go out lookin’ fer ‘im! You used to NEVAH give a royal DAMN about authority, Heirarchy or no’! What in th’ nine hells is stoppin’ ya NAOW, h-uh?!”
Orion didn’t move, didn’t speak, didn’t even breathe. Sally thumped her closed fist against the table fiercely.
“Ah’ll tell y’all WHY y’all don’ have the pills! ‘Cuz Connor is the better man an’ he ALWAYS HAS BEEN!! You sumbitch! You ruined that poor sugah’s LAIF and you think no one bloody NOTICED?! WHO THE HELL D’YA THINK HE TURNS TO WHEN YER BEIN’ THE SORRY SUMBITCH YOU ARE ON A REGULAR DAY?!”
Orion’s eyes widened in shock. He had thought, for all the world, that Connor turned to Lilliena moreso than he did Sally. Clearly, what he thought he knew was entirely incorrect.
“I thought…” he began, noting the worried looks the others gave him. “No, I knew, I…”
“Lemme lay it on the line fer you, sugah’hog,” Sally leaned in, her beak to his nose. “You. Know. NOTHIN’!”
Orion felt as though Sally had physically gut-punched him in the same manner Mac had done earlier during their scuffle. That would have hurt less than this, he realised.
“Don’ y’all DARE tell me ah’m wrong!” Sally snapped. “Y’all are th’ leader of this team, and yet for all o’ that top o’ your class bullshoi, y’all are blind to what really matters outside o’ yer damned command! Y’all are a cheat, a whore and a liar!”
“Sally!” Orion was suddenly angry at the accusation, but fell silent when she stared at him.
“Oh, ahm sorry. Didna laik the accusation of manwhore, h-uh?” she leaned back into his face. “You an’ Marie, whilst Lilliena was dancin’ on stage that night ring a bell? I walked in on y’all, you cheatin’ bastard!”
She stared dead at him, holding his frightened gaze.
“You are plum lucky ah ain’t yet at a point o’ throwin’ punches, Orion Hercules Hedgehog. Yer lads’d be callin’ ya a bus if’n ah WAS!”
Sally ran her other hand through her headfeathers.
“’Course y’all ain’t entirely guilty,” her eyes looked away from him. “Her an’ Xavier’s become a running thang when y’all are outta town. Ya poor idjit, ya’ll really thought she was ever faithful. She’s a cabaret goil, Orion. Just like you, a Naval boy, she’s a swinger laik the best o’ ‘em.”
“I’ve known that for a long time,” Orion muttered.
“And yet you still put that ring on ‘er?”
“I thought it’d stop her…stop me…from…I…”
“Sugah’hog, ya’ll and Lil’ are mah friends, but god help ya both, ahm through playin’ agony aunt to ya swingers!”
Orion gave a curt nod, understanding all that Sally was telling him. She studied him for a while longer before she opened her mouth and asked him the one question he had hoped she wouldn’t ask him, not here, not now, not in front of his team.
“Why did y’all turn on ‘im, Orion? What th’ ‘ell did Connor do ta deserve a simpering sumbitch laik you in ‘is laif?”
They were all staring at him, listening for his explanation – Sally, Jones, Thomas, Charleston and Mackenzie – all waiting for the straight answer, the heart of the problem, the root of this mess. Orion had let this fester and rot for far too long, and now it’d all come to a head.
“…I lost the one thing that would have made it right,” the hedgehog replied, tears building under his closed eyes. “I lost what our mother left for him in her will, what she promised him, what she made me swear I’d guard with my life in the same way I protected him…”
Orion let his tears come once more, relief at not being judged for showing his emotions now as well as the unforgivable sadness that had plagued him for years.
“When I realised the brooch was missing, I panicked. I lost control of myself, of everything Connor remembered me as. I was fighting with him every chance I got. He blamed me…”
“Did he all tell ya that, or did y’all just assume he did?”
“I…” Orion shook his head, realising he didn’t know the answer. “We fought so damned much it never…it never crossed my mind.”
“Y’all let this fester and rot and sit for this long that it all carried and spilled over inta here, inta this laif, with all o’ us,” Sally continued, her voice hard. “And no’ once did y’all drop the pride act an’ dang well ASK fer sum ‘elp!”
“You don’t understand, Sal’…”
“HELP us all unnerstand, Orion!” Sally snapped. “No more horsepucky, no more lyin’, not ‘ere! What th’ hell was with all o’ that arrogance o’ yours?!”
“Sally, ease off,” Charleston’s voice to her right held a warning tone to it. “I know where he’s coming from. I’ve been there.”
Sally eyed the cat angrily. “Ah wasna askin’ y’all to explain his folly, kitty.”
“Then I’m telling you,” Charleston’s voice was sotto. “It’s not what you think.”
“Ah ain’t done wit’ ‘im. Y’all wait in line!” Sally retorted.
Charleston growled low, but Orion held up his hand, silencing the cat. “Orion?”
The hedgehog lifted his head, eyes red raw from tears, “My arrogance is everything, Sally. It’s all I had left. I lost my parents, I lost Connor, I lost my job, my leadership…all I had left was my pride to bandage whatever else I could see good about myself. Connor paid that price, more times than I was keeping score, because he couldn’t see I was hurting. I was stone cold to him and a wreck in private company, private company only I saw in my own mirror. No one gave me a chance to be any more emotional in this job than Captain Star was at his father’s funeral.”
Sally didn’t seem to accept this as a proper answer.
“You were as emotional as ever when you proposed to Lilliena,” she trilled. “Was that truth or an act as well?
“…partially an act,” Orion replied.
“God ‘elp ya, Orion Hercules Hedgehog,” Sally muttered. “That Lilliena ain’t here to hear y’all say it.”
“Do you honestly think I wanted to lie to her like that?!”
“You tell me, sugah’hog!” Sally snapped back. “Connor coulda stepped in at any dang taime and ruined yer laif…but ‘e didn’t. Tell me why that is!”
“I…I don’t know. And that’s the truth,” Orion replied with a forceful tone. “I don’t understand him any more than I understand why I kept hurting him.”
“Y’all are a selfish bastard in thinkin’ none o’ us ‘ere woulda wanted ta help ya.”
“Excuse me for being scared of what other people thought of me.”
“Other people havin’ th’ same mindset as Connor?” Sally replied. “Izzat what’cha ‘fraid of?”
Orion nodded, wishing for Sally to just stop attacking him and turn on one of the others for once. He hated even thinking that, but right now, he just wanted to be alone with his misery.
“Ah’m sorry, Orion, but ah ain’t all done wit’cha yet,” Sally cut through his thoughts like a knife. “Do y’all know Lilliena wants to leave ya?”
That seemed to snap Orion out of it. He stared up at Sally, who returned his look of shock impassively.
“Ah had a tumultuous taime tryin’ ta convince her otherwise, and gods know ah had to stop mahself frum goin’ ballistic on her for the reason she all gave me.”
“What did you…?” Orion couldn’t bring himself to ask the rest of it.
“Tell her? Ah let her cry, Orion. Whatever it wuz that went down in heah a’fore Margreaves showed up and ruined it all further, ah want ya to tell me y’all didn’t push her laik I know y’all did!”
“You already have your answer,” the hedgehog muttered, running a hand through his headfur, cheeks red with shame.
“Lover’s tiffs are one thang, but y’all fought like tigers in this very kitchen. Ah don’ wanna ask who gave you those marks across yer eye ‘cuz ah’m afraid ah already know.”
“Dammit, Orion! Lil’s the best thang y’all have and she’s wantin’ to walk out on ya!” Sally snapped. “An’ ah cain’t fer the laif of me decide whether or no’ to let her do it!”
“THEN WHY DON’T YOU?!”
Orion had pushed back his chair and had his nose right to her beak. Sally started slightly, but she knew she’d finally got his attention good and proper. Now she was in the heart of the festering wound.
“WHY THE HELL DO YOU LET THIS RUN ON WHEN IT HAS NO FUCKING PURPOSE TO SPEAK OF?!”
“BECAUSE UNLIKE Y’ALL I HAPPEN TA LAIK TH’ IDEA OF SEEIN’ YA BOTH TOGETHA!!”
Sally pressed her beak into Orion’s nose.
“Ah happen ta laik not havin’ ta watch her stumble over another horndog whose intentions fer her include rape, assault an’ battery,” she continued in a softer voice. “I don’ laik seein’ her laik this…an’ nor do I y’all. Siddown, Orion. Siddown a’fore ah hurt ya worse laik.”
Orion was trembling, shaking with rage. Sally took a deeper breath.
“Don’ make me gut-punch y’, Orion Hercules Hedgehog. Ah’m savin’ that fer the drunkard upstairs. It ain’t fer y’all.”
Orion sat back down slowly, before letting out a soft sob. “Why did you tell me this? That she intends to…?”
“So y’all can make sum fucken’ amends a’fore ah have ta get my feathered tushy involved all o’er again.”
Sally had done him a favour he realised, going behind Lilliena’s back in the way she had. Dredging all this hurt up from the depths however, he wasn’t sure whether to thank her or kill her. Sally put her damp feathered hand on Orion’s and rubbed it gently.
“Now that we all’ve established the root of the wound,” she went on softly, “You’re up, kitty!”
“Oh great,” Charleston muttered.
“Ah know y’all ain’t been as fractured as Orion, sugah’kitty, but a truth-teller y’all ain’t!” Sally went on, glaring at him. “An’ no word outta you, coon-boy!” she growled at Thomas, who shrank back slightly. “Ah’ll get to y’all when all of yer mates are outta the boondocks!”
Somehow, that declaration coming from Sally’s mouth in the confines of the kitchen didn’t make Mac, Jones and Charleston any less worried for their own safety at both her barrels. Orion had somehow gotten off easier, having gone first.
“Yer no nobleman,” Sally began, but was cut off by the cat.
“We’ve established that!” he snapped. “I’m a liar and a thief! Satisfied?”
“Aww hell naw! Ah’m jus’ getting’ started!” Sally retorted. “So when did y’all think ya got off easy bein’ the conscience on Orion’s shoulder?”
Charleston’s ears pulled down immediately. “What…?”
“Let me start this all frum th’ beginning, sugah’kitty. Ya’ll were next in line. Orion showed up with Connor. That quickly became yer domain of hissy-spitty.”
Charleston to his credit couldn’t look at Orion.
“Whatta cockfight there wuz between you an’ Cap’n Star, h-uh? Sally went on, arms folded across her chest. “You were gonna be leader, and now here y’all were takin’ a backseat to all th’ power. Arrogance asides, y’all musta been one livid kitty when Star tol’ ya you’d be running point under Orion? If ah remember rightly y’all told ‘im that there was no way in th’ nine hells you were gonna accept ‘im. And then alla sudden, this attitude o’ yours disappeared. Ah don’t think ah need to say anythin’ about whut wuz goin’ on in that ‘ead o’ yours?”
Orion stared at Charleston with new understanding in his eyes. The cat however had run a hand through his headfur, trying to avoid seeing his leader’s eyes on him.
“Connor saw straight through yer lil’ act, didn’t he? He knew summat was suss about y’all. And y’all knew he was onto ya. It was th’ way he treated ya, nothin’ less than th’ proper respect y’all commanded, weren’t it? He knew his place, and yet he pissed ya off summat shockin’.”
“I didn’t like the kid. Now are you satisfied?” Charleston retorted.
“Didn’t laik him enough but went as far as ruinin’ his laif?”
“I…” Charleston gripped his collar gingerly, his ears played back flat against his head.
“It musta been such a silver platter moment when Alice called ya both and Star into her office, h-uh?” Sally frowned. “Couldna happened better’n y’all planned!”
“That isn’t what I intended!” Charleston snapped, fangs bared, his chair screeching back against the tiles. “Not at all! I wanted to scare the boy, not ruin him!!”
“So where was th’ understanding then?” Sally continued, ignoring his display of force. “You hovered o’er ‘is shoulder an’ encouraged ‘im to sign Connor’s shot at th’ leadership o’ this team away.”
The cat looked utterly defeated. “I…I don’t know what I was doing,” he offered weakly. “It seemed like a good idea at the time, I…”
“You discussed it wit’ someone else sittin’ at this table if ah remember raightly?”
Jones had the good grace to flinch openly behind Charleston.
“And he said it wuz what?”
“…a bad idea…” Charleston and Jones spoke together softly.
“Fer th’ next in line fer the leadership, sure as hell wuz a swansong moment there, wa’n’t it?”
“…He would have told everyone that I wasn’t a…”
“Nobleman? Let me tell y’all summat, sugah’kitty…y’all never acted laik one in mah eyes.”
Charleston offered no response to this, merely sat back down trying to avoid the others’ gazes.
“Dun ‘urt me fer sayin’ this, Charlie,” Sally frowned slightly. “But you an’ sugah’hog ‘ere are deeper in this doo-doo than y’all both think! Both o’ y’all’re as guilty as th’ other! You both hate a kid o’ fourteen cuz he ends up bein’ smarter than either o’ ya! He saw straight through th’ BOTH o’ ya!” Sally tapped her heel on the floor, sighing gently. “An’ fer reasons ah dun even unnerstand, he STILL respects and loves th’ bloody hells outta ya both!”
Cat and hedgehog offered no words to this, both looking decidedly sorry for themselves. Sally rapped her fingers against the table, shaking her head at the two grown men.
“Yer both tools, ah hope y’all know that!”
Orion and Charleston winced.
“Crystal,” Orion mumbled.
“Heard that loud and clear,” Charleston muttered.
“Ah’m gonna ask this, even though ah know ahm gonna regret it. Which one o’ you tools kept encouragin’ Star ta drink th’ hard stuff?!” Sally demanded. “Which one ‘tween you and sugah’hog kept up th’ whole family affair?!”
Charleston and Orion glanced at each other, both trying hard not to cast their eyes in the Professor’s direction. Sally however saw straight through them.
“A’ight. None o’ that. Ah know which one o’ y’all did it, and they’re th’ same feather type that ah happen ta be…”
“Now hold on just a second here!” Jones protested. “I wasn’t the one who turned him onto the drink in the first place!!”
“Ah’m aware o’ that,” Sally folded her arms again. “But y’all had every chance ta stop it a’fore it got to this point!”
“…!” Jones found he had absolutely no retort for her.
“Now that we alls have th’ second set o’ issues in stone,” Sally glanced at Charleston, who nodded gently, before averting his gaze. “Yer turn, Professor!”
Jones had the good grace to gulp loudly. Sally couldn’t help but feel a small spark of triumph at cornering the old bird in such a manner.
“Yer a University Professor. A Major in more’n one social, economical and political subject. In short, y’all teach yer students ethics, and ah have gotta ask, where th’ HELL were YOURS in alla this mess?!” she yelled.
“I was thinking about our team!” Jones snapped back, standing up in anger. “I’m the go-to idiot that has to keep this ship from bloody sinking all the damned time! I am not responsible for the harebrained decision to bring a godsdamned Riverlander into a fleet that doesn’t need the fucking political bullshit attached to it! Ethics be damned, that boy didn’t belong here!!”
Orion shot Jones a look of fury, to which the old bird rolled his eyes.
“Oh don’t you dare give me that look, Orion!” he snapped. “ You told me to keep OUR team SAFE, first and foremost!”
“And you bloody well didn’t!” Orion growled back, rising out of his chair. “You lost Connor AND Sunshine!”
“I lost them?!” Jones snarled. “You’re our damnable leader! The idiot whose problems caused Connor to run away and defy orders in the process! If anyone’s to blame for a lack of goddamned ethics, boy, it’s YOU!”
“What was all that bullshit about Sunshine not belonging here?” Charleston had entered the argument before Orion could reply, rising to stare down the old owl. “You told me, drunk as a skunk, that he belonged here about as much as Connor did. Which was not at all.”
“You stay out of this, Charleston!”
“Sunshine OVERHEARD us, Jones!” Charleston growled. “Connor didn’t disobey orders to stay because he WANTED to! You and I forced him INTO that!”
“YOU forced him more like!” Jones snapped. “Sit down, Charleston! The adults are talking!”
“You were drunk?!” Orion snapped.
“Tipsy!” Jones retorted.
“Off his face,” the cat added. “We had a fight about that too!”
“My drinking is not under scrutiny here!”
“Sure as hell’s a good time to say it!” Charleston remarked. “That boy was crying listening to us ranting for a good chunk of the night!” The cat’s ears pinned back remorsefully, remembering how he had failed to make amends even then. “I should have apologised then instead of making that poor kid believe we both hated him!”
“Look who grew a spine!” Jones threw up his hands. “A little late for that with the boy dead, isn’t it?!”
A cold chill settled over the kitchen as Jones said it. Sally wouldn’t even look at him. Charleston and Orion stared at him accusingly, enraged. Mackenzie and Thomas didn’t say a word. Jones gripped his tie nervously, trying to come up with a suitable set of words to save his hide.
“You son of a bitch,” Orion growled low. “I thought we agreed Sunshine was still alive!”
Jones forgot about trying to salvage the situation, “Oh, use your spiny head, Orion! Against the Kodiak?! YOU don’t even fare well in a fight with him!”
“We agreed,” Charleston’s ears were flat against his head. “To not refer to Sunshine as deceased.”
“Why am I so inherently surprised by two incompetent leadership figures telling me the exact opposite of what they goddamned think?!”
“Old man, you know as well as I do that the reason Star’s still drinking is because of YOU!” the cat spat back. “You’re the one who stocks his liquor cabinet! You’re the one responsible for Star dragging Sunshine through the glass! You’re the one who was supposed to use his damned brains and call an end to his drunken rampages!!”
“Where the hell were you two when I TRIED doing that, eh?!” Jones fired back. “You encouraged him to socialise, Charleston! And you,” he pointed at Orion. “You were too busy buried in your bitch’s cleavage to give a damn!!”
“I encouraged him to socialise WITHOUT the alcohol! I wasn’t the one putting the fucking glass in his hands, NOR was I the idiot topping his glass up!!”
“When ya’all’re quite fucken finished,” Sally spoke with an icy tone. “Professor, y’all didn’t answer mah question.”
Orion, Charleston and Jones fell silent. All could see the tears in Sally’s eyes at the mentioning of Sunshine’s death. The hedgehog and the cat sat back down slowly, but Jones remained standing. Not for long, Orion and Charleston both mused.
“Ah asked, Professor, where th’ hell yer ethics were,” Sally’s voice was ice cold.
“And I told you where…”
“Y’all said nothin’,” she growled. “Y’all started a verbal brawl between yer past leader an’ yer current one, but all y’all did was skirted about th’ bush.”
“Sally, I have taught Royals…” Jones began, but she cut him off.
“Of all th’ cockeyed bastards sittin’ a’fore me, y’all are the worst one ‘ere. Ye know ye’re at fault, and ye know ye ‘ave NO excuse fer it.”
“I am NOT at fault, thank you very much!”
“Ye’re attacking Charlie and Orion for faults y’all had a hand in.”
“An’ th’ worst part o’ this izzat yer the worst sumbitch ah’ve ever laid eyes on. Ya reckon Sunshine was trouble a’fore he’d even gotten a chance to show you whut he wuz good at jus’ ‘cuz he wuz a Riverlander…and yet yer best mate ‘ere at this very table is an Upper Highlander.”
All eyes fell on Mackenzie, seated directly behind the Professor. The wolf was glaring at Jones’s back, fangs set into a growl, claws tapping the tabletop.
“Ah’m askin’ again, Jones. Where are yer ethics, h-uh?”
“G’wan laddie,” Mackenzie told Jones. “Answer ‘er. I’m interested to know, me’self.”
Jones gripped his tie almost into a chokehold. “I…er…Mac, I…”
The wolf stared levelly at the owl. “Ye hypocrite.”
“You’re one to talk!” Jones retorted, finding his voice. “Wasn’t it you who told me Riverlanders and Upper Highlanders were two separate factions for the same reasons we are?!”
“Ah love ‘ow it is ye assumed tha’,” Mac replied dryly. “What ye didna let me explain is tha’ only difference between us is a dang-blasted RIVER.”
“Ah really enjoy chattin’ to ye, old man. Right no’ however ah think ah’d rather roast ye…”
“Seconded,” Charleston agreed.
“Thirded,” Orion put in.
“You can’t be serious?!” Jones cried, staring at his teammates incredulously. “Thomas! You don’t share this opinion, do you?!”
Sally kept her eyes closed. When Lilliena had told her about what had happened to Thomas, an injury Charleston had inflicted, she had wanted to gut the cat into kibble. However, Jones had dragged Thomas into this mess, and she was certain her raccoon friend had more scorching to do to the old owl himself.
“You’re really asking me that question, Jones?” Thomas looked at him, gesturing to his broken arm and stitches. “Now?!”
Jones felt immediately like he had just done a triple dive into his own soup pot.
“You want my opinion?! I THINK YOU’RE ALL BASTARDS!!” Thomas snapped.
Mackenzie started to stand up to try and diffuse the situation, but Thomas shot him a cold look that kept him in his seat. His icy glare turned to Jones.
“You really think I didn’t see your intentions for giving Cap’n Star the means to an end? I was there, remember, Jones? Or were you too busy pandering your own selfish ego to give a turkey at the time?!”
Jones was pertinent enough to slink back down into his seat.
“You thought that if Cap’n Star got drunk enough, he’d wean himself off. I got news for you, ya jerk! I’m proof it’s not fucking working!!”
Thomas was trembling with rage.
“Your divine intervention comes in the form of Hector Margreaves! We’re on death row, or haven’t you goddamned noticed? You’re here flinging insults at everyone else when you don’t have the balls to admit you’re the holder of the biggest part of this problem!!”
“Shut up! Just SHUT UP!” Thomas was crying. “You started the Captain off like this! Charleston, you’re the reason he can’t bloody stop drinking! Mac, you stood by and did nothing! Orion, you ignored the goddamned problem was happening!! The lot of you left Connor at the mercy of a Captain who doesn’t have the bone in his freakin’ body!!”
The raccoon ran his good hand across his eyes, trying to stem tears that wouldn’t stop coming.
“I’m not innocent either. I let Star do this to me…in the hopes one of you would listen. I should have said something, but I didn’t. I learned not to say a word by learning from YOUR examples.”
The only sound at that table was the raccoon’s sniffling.
“And you dare to point fingers at each other in here, in our headquarters, when we’re here to find a damned solution that doesn’t involve us burying two of our own…? No. I refuse to stand here and do nothing, but I can’t go out there because I don’t have the balls to without the rest of you with me! I SAID IT, ALRIGHT?! I’M A FUCKING COWARD!” He stared at Sally with tearful eyes. “That’s what you wanted to hear, isn’t it Sal’?! You wanted me to say it on behalf of us all!”
Sally shook her head softly as she went towards him, “No, sugah’coon. Ah didn’t. Ah came here ta get to th’ bottom o’ all o’ this, and ah got more than ah bargained fer.” Her feathered hand cusped his cheek as he sobbed.
She turned to face the other Stars, noting that despite their shame and sadness, they were all a little more aware of themselves now, more aware of feeling, of emotions, of the dang-blasted idiocy she had seen outta them for years.
“It’s ah start,” Sally proclaimed, startling the others. “It ain’t a very big start, but it’s whut it is. This ain’t ovuh, no’ by a long shot…Connor is still missin’, and ah’m dang sure he’s got ‘is own brand o’ words ta be speakin’ ta each o’ y’all in turn.”
Orion’s ears flattened. “I know. He’s not going to be happy with us when he gets back here.”
“An’ whut ‘bout you, Orion?” Sally asked, hand on her hip. “Are you gonna be happy wit’ ‘im?”
The leader of the Star Team shook his head, “Honestly? I’m not happy with how he took off, Sally, but he’s been through enough for me to know he’s going to need me to shut up and listen instead of telling him what he’s done wrong…without anyone’s objections to the contrary. I’ve been a horrible brother, less than even the word, and I owe it to Connor to start being who he remembers when I was in my teens. I know it’s not going to be easy, and earning his forgiveness and trust again is going to take me the rest of my life…but this is not his fault anymore than it is Sunshine’s.”
“I see. Whut’s yer take on all o’ this now, Jones?”
“I didn’t do my job in the first place, which is why we’re all here now,” the old owl replied, rubbing his temples. “I’m a hypocrite, and make no mistake, I know I am. I’m an old fool who can’t follow his own advice. But I’m not going to lecture Connor, or try to picture that boy where Margreaves claims he is. I don’t want to go there, I don’t even want to see what I’m seeing in my head. I’m not the victim here. The children are the victims of my idiocy, of our idiocy…and whatever Connor says to me on the matter, I’m not going to object anymore.”
“I should ‘ave understood better,” the wolf replied. “Instead ah was so self-centered on my own injuries to care anything about Connor or Sunnie, an’ so self-centered on spoilin’ for a fight with you, Charleston, to care any which way about anythin’ else. Ah was no more part o’ this team then than ah am now. Connor can disrespect me any which way he chooses. Ah wasn’t the best mentor ta him by no means, an’ I was no good friend to any of ye either. I got a lot ta fix, and ah’ll be starting right now.”
“Connor’s got every right to hate my guts,” the cat was wiping away tears. “Every bit of all I did to hinder him was self-serving and useless. I’m the one who took away his right to be leader of this team…and took away his every right to be the better man than both of us ever will be.”
“That’s agreed,” murmured Orion.
“I’m not hoping for a quick solution, Sally, or his forgiveness straight off the bat. I’m going to work my damndest to get his respect back, even if it kills me.”
“I just…I want us to go back to the way it was,” the raccoon replied shakily. “Before we got to this point, before…before we led Cap’n Star down this path. Before we let ourselves down. I want to stop Connor being ashamed of me, being ashamed of how much of a coward I really am. I just want him home, Sally, where I know he’s going to be safe this time around.”
“Don’ we all, sugah’coon,” Sally sighed gently. “Ah hope that all o’ whut ah jus’ ‘eard starts stickin’.”
“What about Captain Star?” Charleston pointed to the ceiling. “Weren’t you saving a punch or two for him, Sally?”
Sally raised her eyes upwards. “Ah wuz, but ah’m under th’ impression if’n he slept through all o’ mah rantin’ and yer yellin’ and fightin’ down heah it’ll take more’n me punchin’ ‘im ta wake ‘im up.”
There was a gentle, collective chuckle.
“We be needin’ a divine sorta intervention, y’all. He ain’t gonna quit if’n he’s forced inta it…”
“Yes, we know,” Jones muttered. “We tried pills from Walter. He stopped taking them after the first dose.”
“Stubborn as a burleh mule,” Sally tutted. “Reminds me o’ Cap’n Zero tryin’ ta give up showgals.”
“Speaking of him,” Mackenzie interrupted. “Why haven’t we heard anything of Zero lately? He would have been all over this mess like maple syrup…”
“He would be if’n he wasn’t plum outta town, so ah heard. Some coastal resort owned by one o’ his shady partners.”
“Wine, women and song,” Orion muttered. “Not surprised somehow.”
“Well, let’s all be kinda thankful he ain’t heah to rub it in yoah faces, eh? Ah dread ta think whut Xavier and his clowns are gonna say ta me when they allsa see me next.”
“This house arrest order is one giant joke,” Jones muttered. “It’s Margreaves’s excuse until he locates Connor…which I honestly hope he doesn’t do.”
“Ya’ll an’ us both, Jonesy.”
“Sally, you’re shivering.”
Sure enough, the birdy was trembling with cold. All that ferocity striding through the rain and then lecturing the boys had taken the adrenaline-fuelled wind out of her sails. She grinned slightly.
“Comes from bein’ mad as hell at’cha,” she chuckled.
“C’mon, Sally, I’ll get you a towel,” Charleston smiled. “You’ll get sick if you keep standing there shivering like that.”
“Oh, awright…but after ah’m dry an’ all, let’s try an’ find a way outta this house arrest o’ yours, eh?”
Orion quietly appreciated Sally’s spirit, even through the worst of theirs so far, but the mood in the kitchen still felt grim and foreboding despite the cleared air between them. He could only hope, and pray silently, that Connor and Sunshine were safe and in one piece. He would never forgive himself if they weren’t…
Connor opened his eyes, realising that in all his efforts to stay awake, he had drifted off to sleep for quite some time. The lamplight from the bedside table was on and a blanket was draped over him, no doubt by Marlena or Walter. His ears pricked up, listening for any sound from outside the closed bedroom door, but apart from the rain still hitting the windows from the outside, Lady Vienna and Walter had left him alone with Sunnie. He grasped at his mother’s brooch, still pinned to his collar, realising for the first time in a very long time, he’d fallen asleep and not had a nightmare. He stretched gingerly as he sat up, pulling his knees to his chest, taking deep, clear breaths and focusing on his thoughts. His neck ached, his own fault really, he really should have pulled the armchair closer to the bed and slept in that instead.
Thoughts drifted to Orion and the others, and Connor forewent the thoughts of feeling sorry for himself for not sleeping properly. For all the reasons he had fought with his brother over the disappearance of this brooch pinned to his lapel, it all seemed to pale with what the Lady Vienna had told him. She had been the one who had taken the brooch, stolen it, but at the same time prevented it from being stolen by some Naval officer. She had kept it safe all this time, not realising what it had done to him and Orion until now. It was all he had of his mother, barring the pendant he always wore, another of her personal effects retrieved from the accident. He had wanted to ask what had happened, but after Marlena had mentioned the Navy’s involvement, he had chosen not to. Knowing what the Navy were capable of, and what they were so adept at hiding, he was better off not knowing how his parents’ lives had been cut short. He had been a messenger boy for the Navy once, a contract Orion had cut mercifully short after the rumors that had been spread about them. It had been the last act of mercy Orion had shown him in a very long time.
Connor was still angry at the way he had been treated, make no mistake of that, but now having his mother’s spirit safely with him seemed to soothe whatever else he was feeling about the whole affair. Mostly, he had wanted to be left alone with his thoughts and he had gotten just that, but to be ignored, hated and treated as if he was no more a part of the Star Team than he had ever been was not what he had wanted to feel. When Sunnie had come along, he had been having his own secret thoughts about running away, skipping town and following whatever road awaited him beyond the horizon. What Sunnie had done was ground him firmly in place, even helped some of that despair rise to the surface for however brief a time he had let his true emotions appear, all the while never knowing that they had been carefully nudged into the other’s directions by means of a promise made between their parents.
Despite feeling a bit like a puppet on strings, Connor did not regret meeting, knowing and for that matter loving Sunnie like he was his own brother. If anything, knowing of the promise had strengthened his resolve to protect him ever further.
Connor rubbed the back of his neck gently, the blankets behind him shifting slightly to accommodate him. There were other things he was angry about.
Mackenzie for not teaching him how to roll with the punches from Xavier better. Jones for always being too damned busy to acknowledge his existance. Charleston for carrying a grudge against him still for god knows what reason. Thomas for being so cowardly about the abuse the Captain had been doing to him for all this time. Captain Star for being a raving, noticeable drunkard, and Orion for never being the approachable older sibling he had grown up wanting to become. He sighed to himself, the soft rush of air ruffling his sleeves. No, it wasn’t just Thomas who was a coward in that respect. He lacked the spine to confront them individually and explain how he felt, too. He somehow wished to have that sense of self-worth where he could show how he really felt without worrying about the uprising that would follow his outburst. Speaking of, he winced slightly, he’d probably cop it for running off after Sunnie and not having called to let them know he and Sunnie were both in one piece, sorta…
The blankets behind him shifted slightly and not because of his movement.
Connor’s ear flickered and he immediately looked over his shoulder, not daring to hope. Sunnie’s long tail was moving underneath the blankets, the first sign of life from his friend in well over two days. The teenager started, throwing the blanket off himself and leaping to his feet, standing over the tree panda, heart beating ever faster. The tree panda’s hand that was draped over his stomach began to move, fingers trying to grip the covering blankets. Sunnie’s eyes twitched gently, before they cracked open painfully slowly, squinting in the dim light of the bedroom. Connor’s breath caught in his throat, eyes glassy with unshed tears. Sunnie’s head turned, and he blinked ever so slowly, his eyes trying to focus on the hazy figure that stood over him. Sunnie blinked again, quicker this time, staring up into the tearful face of an older figure leaning over him, a face he recognised. Sunnie tried to swallow but found his mouth drier than a desert.
“C…Connor…?” his voice was barely coherent.
Connor felt his tears coming, realising he hadn’t breathed for several tense seconds. He leant his forehead to Sunnie’s, sobbing in quiet relief, one arm around the pillows and the other gripping his friend’s hand gently.
“M’so sorry,” the older hedgehog choked out. “Margreaves got to you…poisoned you…I wasn’t quick enough…”
He felt Sunnie weakly grip his other hand.
“S’no’…yer fault…how… how long…was…ah out?” Sunnie coughed harshly.
“Two days,” Connor replied, trying to regain his composure. “You’re at Walt’s practice. I brought you here.”
Connor wasted no time. He left Sunnie’s side only to pour a glass of water from the jug nearby, and, ever so gently, tilted his friend’s head forward to drink it. Sunnie swallowed small gulps, feeling the cool relief pour down his throat. Connor didn’t force too much water down. He was no doctor, but after such an ordeal, too much too soon was a bad thing. He remembered that from his own bouts with fever.
“Better?” he ventured softly.
Sunnie nodded weakly. “Thanks, Connor,” his voice had that warmth again.
“Do you…remember…what happened?”
Sunnie’s eyes lowered, trying to think back. “The bear,” he began softly.
“Yeah…” he replied. “I…I knew tha’ fluid…tha’ shade o’ green…s’Nigh’shade Flower…”
“S’no easy…t’ come by. Grows…up in th’…borderlines, highlan’ territory,” Sunnie went on quietly. “Wuz…only evah used…to settle disputes.”
Connor didn’t need to go any further with his questions. The cold chill that ran up his spine told him that Margreaves had been trying to settle an old dispute between Bigg City and the Riverlands by killing his friend. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, thanking the Gods that Sunnie hadn’t perished to that poison. He brushed Sunnie’s sweat-soaked headfur out of his eyes.
“You came so close,” he whispered.
“Ah feel like ah did,” Sunnie raised a small grin. “Like ah got hit wit’ a fallin’ buildin’.”
Despite the severity of the situation, Connor felt himself laugh even though his tears were still coming. Sunnie made the mistake of trying to pull both his knees up and hissed in pain suddenly, and the hedgehog’s eyes averted to his wounded ankle sticking up as Walt had set the splint to be. The tree panda gripped his friend’s hand sharply.
“Aw gaw…” Sunnie sniffled. “Tha’ hurts!”
“You broke it badly,” Connor soothed. “An’ Margreaves didn’t help.”
“So…ah…won’t be walkin’ fer a while?”
“Nope,” Connor raised a half-smile. “You’re stuck with me ferryin’ ya ‘round for a bit.”
“Ah don’ wanna burden ya.”
Connor chuckled, “What, like ya think I’m bothered by that? We’re friends for life, remember?”
Connor watched Sunnie’s eyes fill with tears. “Ah put y’ through ‘ell…”
“That’s what mates do. We go through hell and we come out fighting.”
Despite the pain Sunnie was feeling from his ankle, he twisted around slightly, reached upwards and seized Connor in a fierce hug. Connor returned it as carefully as he could manage, keeping an eye out on his friend’s injured ankle.
“This is killing you,” Connor whispered.
“Ah’ll live,” Sunnie replied, sniffling softly. “Ah scared th’ hell outta y’ an’ ah’m so sorry…”
“Shh,” Connor rubbed his back gently, before gripping Sunnie’s shoulders and staring at him. “Just shut up, a’ight? I was the one who got mad at you. I’m the one who put you through hell and high water. I’m the one who didn’t protect you better. I’m the one who’s sorry, Sunnie. It shouldn’t be you. This is my fault.”
“But…yer no’ th’ one who broke Lorianna’s ankle! Tha’ was ME!”
Connor’s voice was low, “I refuse to believe you tripped her. I refuse to believe that that bitch of a swan didn’t have summat to do with it. She played you and the rest o’ us for saps, Sunshine. She pinned this on you, and I’m going to make her pay for that any way I can.”
“Now that’s the Connor Hedgehog I know and love ever so dearly.”
Lady Marlena Vienna stood in the doorway, her arms folded across her chest, a warm smile on her face. She walked over to the bed with a rustling of silk, before seating herself close by to the two youngsters.
“Welcome back, little one,” she smiled, running her hand through Sunnie’s headfur. “You had us all very worried you weren’t going to make it.”
“Ah feel…ah know y’…from somewhere…” Sunnie began, his voice a little shy.
Marlena smiled softly, “A long time ago, we did meet at least once or twice. I don’t hold much ground on your remembering much of that day though. You were still in your mother’s arms at the time.”
Connor interrupted with a soft cough. “I should call the other guys, My Lady. I really should let them know Sunnie and I are alright…”
“That’s why I came upstairs actually,” Marlena replied. “Walter and I have been discussing what to do next over tea, and we’re both in agreement you both cannot stay here until you’re fully recovered without drawing suspicions from the Princess and her Consort.”
At the mention of Margreaves, Connor’s ears pinned back flat against his head.
“Yes, Connor, I agree. I don’t like talking about him either, but if he gets wind that you are still alive, Sunshine, there will be dire consequences for both you and Connor.”
“What?” Connor replied, shocked. “What do you mean by if’n he hears Sunnie’s still alive?!”
“Margreaves made an announcement that Sunnie had been killed by the Royal Guard two nights ago,” Marlena continued. “I have very little doubt he didn’t personally bring the news to your teammates, Connor.”
Connor and Sunnie stared at each other, the gravity of the situation at hand starting to hit them.
“But if he did that…and if I called home…then…”
“Connor, listen to me and listen well. Your teammates talk ever louder when they are made angry, and Margreaves was very adamant that he had an arrest on sight order made out for you as well. The gravity of this is that he believes Sunnie is dead and that you still elude him. If he makes with a door to door search, which he will very soon I gather, if he finds both of you here, there will no stopping him from charging you with everything he can come up with.”
“Then…” Connor protectively held Sunnie close to him. “What can we do…?”
“You hold the most ground in the presence of your teammates and Captain,” Marlena continued. “Now I know you have your own issues with being under their roof as it is, but if Margreaves catches you here, you have no grounds for protection, and I will not be able to come between him and you both. If he attacks you under their protection, he will be in direct violation of the Bigg City Code of Honor. I doubt he would want to risk my personal ire in the situation as I was the one who wrote that code to begin with.”
“So…we have to go home?”
Marlena took a deep breath. “I am throwing you both in the deep end and I ask your forgiveness for it. But I cannot ensure your safety if you stay here a moment longer.”
Connor winced, thinking back on the fight he’d had with the others. Part of him wanted to not risk a confrontation with them, but at that moment, with Sunnie in his arms, this was a situation where he wouldn’t win if he didn’t shut up and listen to what Lady Vienna was telling him. He had hurt the old bear, badly, and if what she was saying was true, and he didn’t doubt it, Margreaves would cost him ever more dearly than he had already attempted to.
“Connor?” she asked.
“I’ll do it,” Connor replied. “I know what awaits me at home, but I don’t want to lose what I’ve already fought for, and won.” He squeezed Sunnie gently. “I don’t know how they’re going to react, My Lady…”
“You both have shown remarkable unwavering courage in the face of the odds stacked against you,” Marlena spoke firmly. “I am asking that you show the same for me one more time.”
Connor and Sunnie both nodded once, with finality. Marlena nodded back.
“My darling boys,” she spoke quietly, hands on their heads. “Sunnie, your Riverlands heritage is what is at stake here. With you and your father dead, the Princess was looking to start a full-flown war within your community, taking over where I held no ground for decades, and very possibly leading Bigg City into the fiasco as well. With you still alive, she will do everything possible to ensure she doesn’t miss a second time…and that, Connor, is where your involvement with Sunnie threw the spanner into her carefully laid plans. Your brotherhood with him is what the Princess is looking to exploit now by turning your team and you against each other trying to protect him or turn him over to her and her Guard. If Margreaves finds you here together, they will have killed two birds with one stone and civil war would most likely follow. With your decision to go back and fix what has happened between you and your friends, we now have a much better chance of putting a stop to that altogether.”
“Is this why you wanted to become part of the Heirarchy?” Connor blurted out before he could stop himself.
“Yes and no,” Marlean replied honestly. “I knew the Princess was a smear tactician, but no, I did not realise until a few days ago that she was planning on starting a civil war with the Riverlands. I was blind to the idea that she would even have the feathered behind to go that far. It’s no secret she hates Riverlanders, Connor.”
“Why does she hate us so much? Hate me so much she wants me dead?” Sunnie asked.
“Your father was amongst the original Council who called for an end to the infighting amongst Cityfolk and Riverlanders. He was the last piece of the puzzle that had plagued her for years, trying to find and eliminate all those that could have stood an inkling of getting in her way in the future. When she found out about you, Sunnie, she hunted you down and could never find you. And Lawrence, to his credit, never told her you were still alive.”
“Th’ Shoepacks,” Sunnie began.
“Too far out of her juresdiction,” Marlena smiled. “If she went searching as far as you ended up, she would have violated several agreements made between the Lower Riverlands and the Upper Highlands. I doubt truly that she would have wanted flat out suspicion hanging over her and her actions, however normal they appeared to be in her eyes.”
“So if they…hadna…found me…”
“Chances being what they were in the early days of her power gain, you would have ended up in her clutches, yes.”
“Did she…was she the one…who convinced m’ father to…to…” Sunnie couldn’t finish the sentence, sniffling.
“Sadly no,” Marlena hand strayed to Sunnie’s cheek. “That was all your father’s doing. I’m sorry.”
Sunnie let out a small sob, before nodding slowly. “Thank you.”
“Walter and I will be taking you both home. Frederich is…indisposed at current. With Lorianna under the same poison, and Maximillian…”
“Max!” Connor cried, remembering the cat’s scream. “Is he alright?!”
“He is in hospital. Moira Keyves saved his life last night.”
At this, Connor raised an eyebrow. He knew that surname well, but the name wasn’t familiar.
“Moira? As in Moira Cougar? The Seamstress to Lady Lorianna?” the boy replied. “Her surname is Keyves?!”
Inwardly, Marlena slapped herself upside the head for letting that secret slip out.
“It’s…a long story, Connor,” her voice was tinged with some annoyance. “You’re better off not knowing nor telling anything to Charleston…”
“I’m more surprised that uptight idiot HAS siblings given his attitude problem with me,” Connor muttered between gritted teeth.
Marlena sighed sharply. “He is not to know, Connor. Are we clear on that?”
Connor sighed, rolling his eyes. It explained a lot, but he would never admit that, least of all to the cougar in question. “Yes, My Lady.”
“Good. As I was saying, Maximillian is in a critical condition and Moira will instead be the one to ensure Lorianna is given her dosage of the antidote. Margreaves and the Princess I am sure are off celebrating somewhere, no doubt at her estate, so Moira will have a clear passageway to her. I have however been assured that Frederich will accompany her to ensure no other issues crop up. Do rest assured that Fred will update me on Max’s condition as time goes on. I understand he is critical but stable.”
Connor breathed a sigh of relief, “He bought me time to get away from Margreaves.”
Marlena stored this bit of information away.
“I will let you know when he comes to.”
“Now, Walt and I will be accompanying you both inside. I have plans for your Captain, and his…problems,” Marlena refrained from saying what she dearly wanted to say in regards to Patrick’s drinking. “Sally was on her way over when I spoke to Fred last.”
At this, Connor cringed. “Was she, y’know, tipsy or rather?”
“Well, looks like we’ll have an easy road of it then, Sunnie,” Connor muttered to his friend. “Sally’s…not cool when she’s angry and tipsy. The guys have it worse than we do.”
“I have no doubt Sally went over there to ‘plum knock sum o’ that thar sense’ into your friends,” Marlena imitated the feathered femme. “I’ll also hedge any bets she’ll be the one answering the door, which will make things ever easier, and quicker.”
“Why d’ya think that?” Sunnie asked, not understanding that well.
“Sally letting anyone outta her sights will be a miracle in itself,” Connor chuckled.
Walter knocked on the bedroom door behind them. “I’ve packed the car, My Lady Vienna. The rain’s eased for the moment, but the sun’s going down rather rapidly, and if I heard the radio correctly…”
“He’s announced the search, I take it?”
“Starting from Eight tonight, yes.”
“Then we have no time to lose,” Marlena stated briskly.
Connor rose from the side of the bed where he’d been kneeling. This was moving far faster than he wanted it to be going, but he knew he couldn’t simply just stay here and hope Walter could save them. He had promised Lady Vienna he would be brave for him and Sunnie one more time. Now was that time. He watched as she gathered Sunnie gently into her arms and followed them downstairs towards Walter’s garage where his car was kept. He noticed the extra parcels of silk and sutures and had to chuckle, despite the fact butterflies were smacking themselves across his insides.
Walter was definitely no stranger to the Star Team’s spats…
Moira was no stranger to walking amongst the Royal Guard, a proud dignified cougar woman who never wavered by the side of Lady Lorianna, The Duchess. But amongst the double-guarded halls, she couldn’t help but feel worried. Frederich was following behind her, but even his presence did little to comfort her. Just as he had said however, Lord Margreaves was notably absent, a guard at the gates she knew well having told her the Princess had called him to her estate on rather “private business”. It had taken all her strength not to give him a firm, disgusted look before she headed past him.
Tucked away inside her sleeve was the silver case that Frederich had given her, containing the antidote to whatever Margreaves had injected her with. From what the other feline had told her, it was Nightshade Flower, the same compound that had poisoned Sunshine, the boy that Margreaves claimed was dead. She had stored the information on the tree panda’s survival away, making careful note that whatever Lady Vienna was up to, secrecy was the key to the matter.
Frederich had explained as he dropped her off a few streets before the gates that adults poisoned with this compound simply took on the guise of being unconscious, children however suffered much, much worse. She refrained from asking how much Sunshine had suffered at the bear’s hands, for fear of angering herself more than she had already. He said Lorianna’s recovery would be slow, perhaps a day or two before the effects completely left her. No doubt this would be enough time for the next stage of Lady Vienna’s plan, and as he had stated, she would be returned to Maximillian’s side as he recovered. Moira was grateful for this reason alone.
As she climbed the stairs leading to Lorianna’s room, she heard voices carry. Just as Frederich had suspected, there were more than four guards outside the Lady’s room, and as she made her way towards them, her tail low and flicking in annoyance, two of the nearest, Harley O’Malley and Joseph O’Rourke, pointed their weapons at her.
“Halt!” Harley growled. “State your business!”
“Oh, let’s not go through this formality again, Harley,” Moira growled, hands on her hips. “The front gate was bad enough! You know exactly who I am, and why I’m here…I’m here to collect my things from Lady Lorianna’s room!”
“Forgive us, Lady Cougar, but under no circumstances are you allowed in there.”
Moira hissed through her gritted fangs. “I am not in the mood for senseless drabble, least of all from you and the boys, Harley! I’ve already had enough of a time from Commander Margreaves, of whom I have permission to be here, mind!” She pressed her nose up against the young lion’s. “Let me in, Lieutenant! I’m not going to ask politely again!”
“M’Lady, we cannot let you pass!”
“Balderdash!” Moira snapped, baring her fangs. “I have the Commander’s permission to collect my bag and leave!”
Frederich let himself smile. Moira’s temper reminded him very much of old Charleston, Orion’s second in command. Of course, he would never tell that to Moira, least of all before either of them had a chance to mend burned bridges. He gave a slight cough as he appeared on the stairs behind them.
“Is there a problem here, Lieutenant?”
“C-Commander O’Farrell!” Harley cried as he and the others snapped immediately to attention. “S-S-SIR! What are you doing back so early?!”
Moira turned to Frederich, her tail twitching in great annoyance. “These blasted imbeciles of yours won’t let me retrieve my personal effects!”
Harley swallowed, “We were given explicit orders, Commander, I…”
“Really? From whom?”
“C-Commander Margreaves, Sir.”
Frederich glanced impassively down at Moira, who frowned and folded her arms, before returning his stern gaze to Harley.
“Is Commander Margreaves present?”
“N-No, sir. He’s with the Princess.”
“Very well then, if you will not allow her entry, I’ll have to phone the Commander and disturb him to receive clearance,” Frederich shrugged. “Although, Lieutenant, the last person to disturb him whilst he was in court with the Princess Alice paid for it with the jobs of him and his team. But, if you’re that certain you wish to risk his ire, then…”
Frederich took his radio from his belt and began to walk away. Moira kept as annoyed as she could stand, but the look on the lion’s face was trying her every ability to be angry. Joseph, Donavon and Robert stared at Harley worriedly. The lion’s tail twitched nervously.
“Ah…Commander!” he called. “Wh-what did you mean exactly?”
“Hmm?” Frederich looked over his shoulder, radio tuning in his hand. “What, Lieutenant?”
“About…losing one’s job, and his er…team, Sir?”
“Oh that was all a mishap in regards to disturbing Her Majesty and her Consort as they ah…holidayed,” Frederich sounded so blasé. “Commander Margreaves all but kicked Harrison, Douglas, Marvin and Donald out on their ears and threw away the key. Most unfortunate, especially since I do believe it was you and th’ lads right here, right now, who took their places. Ah, finally. Do excuse me, lads.”
Moira had to do everything she could from bursting into laughter at Harley’s almost-green face. He lunged forward suddenly, his forehead beading with sweat.
“Commander! No need! Please!” he pulled Fred’s hand down from his mouth. “It’s all a misunderstanding, Sir! Truly!”
Frederich tilted his head, studying Harley for a brief moment, before clicking off the radio.
“Is Lady Moira allowed her small respite without interference then, Lieutenant?”
“Yes, Commander!” Harley and the others saluted smartly, grateful the crisis had been narrowly averted.
“Very well,” Frederich returned the salute. “I would like a word with the four of you downstairs, if you please. In regards to this matter.”
At the way Frederich’s fangs were locked together and the annoyed tone of his voice, Harley and the others saw there was no point in arguing. They filed past the Commander, heading downstairs as he followed. A quick glance behind him as he began his descent told him Moira had wasted no more time and was already in Lorianna’s room, closing the door behind her. She pressed her ear to the door, hearing Frederich’s lecture fading away, and made her move.
Lorianna looked so peaceful in her dreamless sleep, the only sign of life was the soft rise and fall of her chest, and the beading of sweat upon her brow; and that leg cast, Moira cringed, remembering Margreaves’s explanation for it. Moira reached into her sleeve and withdrew the case, opening it to reveal the syringe. With all haste, she sat at the side of the bed, reached over and took the Duchess’s wrist. She pressed the needle to it, counting the steady beat, before sliding it in all the way, counting the beats again and then depressing the syringe’s entire contents.
The cougar drew back, realising she hadn’t taken a breath for the matter of seconds the operation had taken. With the operation done, she lifted Lorianna’s wrist to her mouth and licked it to clot any blood from where the syringe had gone in, then replaced it back onto the blankets covering her stomach. She dropped the syringe back into the case, slid it back into her sleeve and collected her things, her heart pounding. She crossed the room to the door and cast a glance back to Lorianna, hoping that her actions had been enough, before opening the door and closing it behind her. She alighted the stairs slowly so as not to draw suspicion and became visible to Frederich and the guards within moments.
“Ah, Lady Moira,” Frederich smiled gently, his lecture clearly over. “I trust you have everything now?”
Moira smiled sweetly, “Yes, Commander, thanks to you.”
Harley’s ears flattened at this, but he was silenced by Frederich’s hard stare. He squared his shoulders, saluted the Commander, and then he and his team wordlessly filed past the cougar femme, clearly annoyed at being undermined by Commander O’Farrell. Moira felt light-headed and the ginger tom sensed it. As they made for Frederich’s car, Aloysius, one of the only non-felines employed by Lady Lorianna, looked at Frederich questioningly from his post. It was not uncommon for Frederich to have the Midas touch with the ladies, he mused, but this was Lady Moira Cougar, a femme with a killer right hook. It must have been his sly look that told the cat what his badger friend was thinking.
“I’m dropping the Lady home, Aloysius,” Frederich called out to him with a wave. “With the weather as ghastly as this, it’s not fair for a lady to be walking and then be caught out in it.”
“Quite, Commander,” the badger nodded in agreement, his conscience eased by the words. “Fair journey, M’Lady Cougar,” he tipped two fingers to her.
“Fair journey, Aloysius,” Moira replied in a voice she hoped was steady.
Once Frederich’s car had started up, cleared the estate’s gates and was some distance down the road, only then did Moira breathe properly again. Frederich chuckled.
“So, how was your first mission as an agent of the Lady Vienna’s house?”
Moira instinctively punched his shoulder as he laughed. “I don’t know how in the world you do it, you clod!” she cried, colour returning to her cheeks. “The entire thing took…took seconds! And I’m still shaking!!”
Frederich smiled, they would make it to the hospital long before Margreaves closed off the roads. “I was hoping to get a chance to speak with you after all was said and done.”
“In regards to your brother, actually.”
Moira’s ears pinned flat against her head and a soft growl emitted from her throat. Frederich sighed.
“Lady Vienna will get involved if you’re not careful, Moira.”
“I need time,” the cougar femme spoke softly. “After what Max told me last night, I just need some time to think.”
“No offense my dear, but you’ve had almost a decade to do that.”
“Of all the people I’ve known and met here Fred, everyone wants to help me and Charleston work out our issues. I appreciate the thought, but forcing either of us won’t have the effect you want.”
“Be serious with me. How close were you to speaking to Charleston instead of Marlena?”
Moira looked away, “About ten seconds.”
“I put down the phone without saying anything.
Frederich tutted softly. “Is there any vertebrae in you, honestly?”
Moira shot him a dirty look. “I took his sight, Frederich.”
“It hasn’t slowed him down in the slightest, Moira. If anything, he’s used that monocle of his to charm his way through the ladies.”
“I suppose I have you to thank for that?”
Frederich’s ears flattened at the quip, “Alright, ouch. I’m not that big on flirting, I’ll have you know....”
“And chatting me up when I was first employed wasn’t any part of your womanising intentions?”
The ginger tom snorted. Moira had him there.
“If I so much as flirted with Lady Lorianna in Lord Andrew’s presence, he’d have had my head!”
“So I was sloppy seconds?” Moira was grinning as she spoke.
“Far from it!” Frederich grinned. “A beautiful femme like yourself sloppy seconds? Perish the thought!”
“Thank you,” Frederich grinned.
Moira averted her gaze for a moment, thinking hard about telling the Commander about this, especially with Maximillian incarcerated.
“Fred?” she asked, her voice a little tentative.
“Yes, My Lady Cougar?”
“If ah…I saw something…that was a little worrying…for my place in the tier of Lorianna’s estate…would I be able to speak with you on the matter?”
Frederich raised an eyebrow, wondering where this was going. “Of course, Moira.”
Moira pressed both her index fingers together rather nervously and averted her eyes, a slight blush forming on her cheeks.
“What is it?” he asked, concerned.
“Well,” the cougar femme began. “It was late, and the evening before the Magistrates Ball, and well…I left some of my sewing equipment in Lorianna’s room, where I was making her gown?”
“Yes, go on?”
“I…ah…saw something…” she blushed ever harder. “I don’t think I was meant to see it, actually, ah…Lady Lorianna was uhm…somewhat…in ah…a state of fluster…her uhm, well…” she cleared her throat, finding it surprisingly dry. “With…ah…Lieutenant Commander Johnson…in the same room…helping her.”
“How is that anything wrong? He’s always supposed to be with her, regardless of her moods,” Frederich replied. “He is her Royal Guardian…”
Bless him, Moira thought flatly, rolling her eyes. Sweet AND clueless when it comes to femme felines…
“No, no,” Moira continued, her voice flat. “As in…with…Lady Lorianna. During her heat,” she laid heavy emphasis on the word. “It was going rather beyond kissing, Fred.”
Frederich’s eyes widened and he stared first at the road ahead, and then directly at Moira, before pulling over to the side of the road and stopping the car. The Commander’s voice seemed to have left him entirely, and his hands flailed about for a few seconds before it returned.
“Maximillian!” Frederich stated shrilly, not quite sure if he had heard right. “You caught Lorianna locking lips with him? During her heat?! As in…physically locked together?!”
Moira stared at him, wondering if she should punch him out of his stupor or let him babble a few minutes longer. “Yes, Fred.”
“Guh—I don’t…I can’t…No way has he…?!” the ginger tom struggled to find the words, before smacking himself in the forehead. “Damn that bastard! He cost me the bet!!”
Moira blinked. That wasn’t quite the reaction she thought Frederich would have.
“Bet?!” she demanded.
“Hang it all, yes!!” Frederich growled, fingers tapping on the steering wheel in annoyance. “Marlena told me Lorianna had something going on with Max, and I’m an idiot, I said I hadn’t seen anything out of the ordinary! She bet me several expensive dinners on my behalf that there was something there!!”
Moira could only see a brand new side of Lady Marlena Vienna at this, rather than sympathy for Frederich’s stupidity of betting against his Ladyship. The ginger tom looked exasperated.
“I’m going to kill him when he comes to.”
“Not if I can help it,” Moira grinned.
“Oh yes, laugh, just laugh,” Frederich grumbled as he started the car again. “You’re not the one paying for this through both nostrils.”
“You’re a Royal Guard,” Moira replied, giggling. “And you bet against the woman you’re sworn to protect? How many years have you served as her Guardian, Fred?”
“Just shy of two decades.”
“And you still haven’t learned to tell when she’s right?”
“Ugh…I am going to ignore that quip of yours, Moira.”
“Be my guest,” the cougar femme continued to giggle. “But I am going to remind you of your bad decisions for the rest of this trip.”
“No you won’t,” Frederich’s ears pinned back. “Not unless you’d like to walk to the hospital.”
“I did that last night, thank you,” the smile was still in her voice. “And besides, Lady Vienna won’t really take too kindly to you dumping me on a corner in the rain!”
“What she doesn’t know…” Fred threatened, but there was a playfulness to his voice.
“How did you not see it?!”
“Be quiet, Moira,” Frederich retorted.
“I mean, Max is see-through almost!”
“I said, be quiet, Moira…”
Frederich sighed as she kept up her assault as the hospital loomed into view. Moira was one thing, he realised, Marlena was going to be a completely different ballgame when she found out she’d won the bet…
Marlena had instructed Walter to take the backroads back to the Star Team HQ, well aware that the Royal Guard would be locking down the main roads within a short period of time if they hesitated. Walter kept to the speed limit to avoid being noticed.
During the journey, she chanced a glance in the rear view mirror at the sight of her two charges in the back seat. Sunnie was wrapped in blankets and dozing on Connor’s lap, still feeling the effects of the antidote coursing through him. Connor’s was stroking his friend’s headfur absently, whilst he himself stared out of the window, watching the cloud cover stretch over the city once more and the cold drizzle that the weather reports had stated would return cascade down. He did not meet her eyes. Marlena did not force the issue that would await them at the Star Team HQ when they arrived. Connor had much to think about, and she knew he was still angry. Their long journey passed in silence.
Sally had busied herself making coffee and dinner for the boys, calling Big Tony to let him know of the situation. Verily unlike the Doberman, he had given her time off, telling her that until this mess was all over, she would still be paid but he didn’t want to see her turn up for work until then. He had put the phone down on his end before she could utter a protest.
Lilliena had shown up a little later after that, having woken and found her birdy friend missing. True to her feelings on the whole affair, Lilliena ignored Orion’s presence and the hedgehog was doing the same, even at the same dinner table. Sally couldn’t help but feel partly responsible for their cold behaviour towards one another. She had left the kitchen after finding the cold silence between the kitty and the sugah’hog stifling, though it seemed to do little to faze the other still-recovering boys. She sipped her mug of coffee quietly in the confines of the living room, away from the others, deciding against turning on the television for fear of making herself more angry at how far south the situation had turned.
She heard a car pull up outside in the driveway a few moments later, and against her better judgement pulled back the curtain with a finger, brow furrowed. Sally was expecting trouble in the form of Margreaves when she saw the black car, but was surprised to see Lady Marlena Vienna step out of the front passenger seat, and Walter appear from the driver’s side. She set down her mug on table beside the window, wondering what on earth had possessed Lady Vienna to visit, especially after she’d sent Orion home in such disgrace…until she saw the back passenger side door open and the team’s missing young hedgehog appeared. Sally let out a shrill squeak before bolting from the living room towards the front door. Upon hearing the noise, Lilliena appeared at the kitchen’s entrance, a questioning look on her face. The other boys looked towards the door, also concerned.
“What the hell, Sally?” the angora asked.
“It’s Connor!” the birdy cried, quickly unlocking the front door.
Marlena inclined her head to the frantic sound of the front door opening as Walter gathered Sunnie into his arms, taking care to mind for his injured ankle, now set into a heavy plaster cast. Connor stayed nearby until the old hawk had him securely in his grasp. Sally appeared first, followed closely by Lilliena as they ran towards the ensemble. Back in the kitchen, Orion and the others looked at each other, feeling the chokehold of nervousness surround them. The moment they’d dreaded about was here at last. Marlena acknowledged the ladies with a simple nod as they ran towards them. She looked to Connor, who didn’t hesitate towards them.
“Oh lil’ sugah’hog!!”
Sally and Lilliena enveloped Connor into their arms, weeping with relief. Lilliena looked back at Marlena, eyes filled with tears, before alighting on the form in Walter’s arms, swathed in blankets.
“Oh gods…Sunshine!!” she gasped.
Sally looked up at this statement from her friend, eyes widening in shock, her arms still around Connor. Marlena chose to interrupt.
“The boys have been through enough,” she stated simply. “They desperately need to rest. I trust now that they are home, the two of you will ensure this?”
Sally and Lilliena nodded in unison immediately, Lilliena nuzzled Sunshine gently as Walter allowed her to, but he didn’t stir.
“What’s wrong?” she asked, her voice high with worry. “Why isn’t he…?”
“The Kodiak poisoned him. The antidote has been administered, but he is still extremely weak.”
Lilliena sniffled, hand over her mouth, blinking back tears as best she could. Connor clung to Sally, feeling himself beginning to tear up at the mention of Margreaves’ name. Sally felt herself bristle in anger. That bear was cruisin’ fer a real bruisin’.
“What about you?” Sally gasped, nuzzling Connor’s headfur. “Did he hurt you, Connor?!”
“A little…” the hedgehog replied, his voice soft.
“The boy resting in your room, Connor?” Walter asked quietly.
Connor nodded in affirmation. “I can sleep in my sleeping bag for the time being.”
Walter began moving towards the front door, carrying his precious cargo, Lilliena with him every step of the way. Marlena followed, Connor and Sally beside her.
“I brought them home because Margreaves was on the prowl, Miss Highmyle,” she explained quietly. “If he were to find them under Walter’s roof, there would be no stopping him from hurting them again.”
“Ah unnerstand, M’Lady,” the feathered femme nodded, ruffling Connor’s headfur in quiet relief and kissing his forehead. “I get’cha.”
“I’m also here with Walter, for the time being, to patch up the other Stars, and to see about taking care of their Captain.”
“Yeah, good luck wit’ tha’,” Sally commented dryly. “He slept through th’ whole fiasco thrice ovuh.”
“That makes the job easier somewhat.”
“Ah sure hope so.”
As they entered, the boys were standing at the entrance to the kitchen, looking decidedly torn between utmost relief and terrible guilt at the appearance of Walter, Lilliena and Sunshine. When Connor appeared in the doorway with Sally and Lady Vienna, they did everything possible to avoid the old doe’s cold glare. Connor ignored their presence as best he could, though he halted at Orion’s whisper for only a second before following Walter into his room to help Sunnie settle in. Sally wiped at her eyes with the back of her hands, trying to stem her tears. Marlena cast her eyes long and hard over every member of the sorry sight before her. They had obviously started a few scuffles between them over the situation, though, she was questioning the still-healing clawmarks over Orion’s eye. No doubt Lilliena had made her feelings on the matter heard in the only way she knew how to. Sally glanced at the old doe, fearing of what that look of hers meant for the boys.
“They alls been through enough, ah think, M’Lady,” she offered quietly.
Marlena considered Sally’s words for a moment, taking in their various injuries and what the little birdy powerhouse had drilled into them firstly, before shaking her head.
“Not in my books they haven’t,” she replied, raising an eyebrow at Orion especially. “Connor needs you, Miss Highmyle. Permit him that comfort.”
Sally’s headfeathers drooped slightly at the tone in Lady Vienna’s voice as she called her by her proper title, but she didn’t hesitate by the old doe’s side a second longer. There was something very cold and very ruthless about Lady Vienna suddenly. Sally felt it pertinent to not be within range of that kitchen, and decided to warn Lilliena of the same fact. Once she had disappeared down the hall into Connor’s room, Orion started to speak, but Marlena held up her hand, her teeth gritted.
“Not another word,” she growled quietly. “Lest you wish me to slap you harder?”
“I can explain…” the older hedgehog tried to get the words out.
Marlena balled her fist, and brought her other palm across Orion’s wounded cheek. Orion yelped at the stinging pain.
“I should have absolutely no words for you, your team and your combined actions against Connor and Sunshine,” she snapped, her voice low. “And yet, here I am, lecturing the five of you like unruly children!”
“If you would just let me…” Orion whimpered.
“I have let you enough,” Marlena replied snippily. “I gave you nearly half a decade to work out your differences with your brother, and still you cannot look him in the eye. I am through listening, Orion. Get to your rooms. I’ll speak to each of you in turn.”
Marlena continued to stand in the doorway, her arms folded, as Charleston, Professor Jones, Thomas and Mackenzie filed out, looking decidedly just like she had described earlier – unruly children. As Orion started to move, she reached out and grabbed his sleeve.
“Not you,” she spoke icily. “Sit down.”
Orion mercifully did as he was told.
“You are lucky Sunshine and Connor are as resilient as they are. Because if they weren’t, you and your crew would be held personally responsible for the events that would follow your abject failures,” she went on, brow furrowed in fury. “Princess Alice played you all for saps, and had she succeeded in killing Sunshine and harming Connor, even I would have been powerless to stop her from declaring war on the capitol.”
Orion’s eyes went wide as the gravity of the situation became crystal clear.
“Alice already removed three key seats that belonged to Riverlands representatives within the Heirarchy shortly before all of this eventuated in the way it has. They considered this an act of betrayal, a not so subtle middle finger to them after all they had done to ensure our peace treaties were met. I spent months within the Eldar Council soothing tempers, only to learn that a key figure in the upper tier of the Council was murdered in what was entirely suspicious circumstances. That councillor was Sunshine’s father, Lawrence. He was the last bastion of protection of their agreements with us on a whole…no matter how much he deserved to die for what he did to his wife and what he was doing to his son…and with his death, the Princess stood to gain complete control over both our factions by seizing the deed to his property,” Marlena went on, her arms still folded. “But when she learned Lawrence had a son, and there was possibility he was still alive, she went beserk trying to find him in the most subtle way possible. It did her no good, because Sunshine had been adopted far out of her juresdiction. Luckily.”
Orion’s ears had been pinned flat against his head the entire time. He glanced up at her slowly.
“And what about the deed? The land?” he ventured softly.
“His estate sits directly on the borderline between Bigg City and the Lower Riverlands, and his land stretches as far as over the borderline with the Upper Highlands. Yes, Orion, she would have dragged them into this debacle too. With no hesitation. A three-way civil war re-enactment with live ammunition. And Alice would be playing all three sides against one another.”
“The boy is a…the…” Orion tried to speak, but found his mouth devoid of the ability to.
“The boy has a name, Orion,” she growled. “And it’s about time you started calling him by it.”
Orion had the good grace to flinch at this. “I thought he was dead, My Lady!”
“And you believed that bear straight off the ballast,” she pressed three fingers to her forehead.
“What was I supposed to think?!” he cried.
Marlena’s eyes narrowed, “My god, and you told me Connor hadn’t half a brain…”
The old doe snorted quietly.
“I did tell you to ignore the media, and like a brainless cub, you followed it down to the letter. Like Frederich would have done. Like any of the Royal Guard would have done. Yet…every other time I gave you that order…you ignored me.”
Orion opened his mouth to speak, but fell silent again.
“Why this…of every other time previous…did you listen?”
“You were serious this time,” the hedgehog began, but realised what he was implying.
Marlena felt her brow furrow with anger. “And every other time, I wasn’t?”
Orion swallowed, trying to come up with something, anything, that would save his ass from putting both feet into his mouth. His mind was a completely blank slate as she leaned into his face, eyes narrowed at him.
“You have never listened properly to authority, Orion Hercules Hedgehog. Ten years in the Navy, four years as the leader of this crew, and your reputation for bending the rules has been paramount all the way,” she spoke snippily. “Of all the admirals you served under in that Academy, most wanted to plant their boots so hard up your tailend if they spit, it would come out of your mouth. But they didn’t. Your personality was so inherently likeable most kept their grievances to themselves, and many an admiral’s daughter found you to be the same way.”
“…this isn’t about my conquests, M’Lady…”
“No it’s not, that’s why I’m drilling it into you twice.”
Orion cringed, but said nothing.
“I did not appreciate what you said to me about Connor that night.”
“However true it was?” Orion let the comment slip before he could stop himself.
“True in your angry mind or true to your present?”
The hedgehog fell silent and did not meet her eyes.
“I understand well, godson,” she placed heavy emphasis on the word, noting Orion’s ears flicker at the title but remain pinned pinned back. “You were in a place you didn’t want to be. You had every opportune going for you. And with your parents’s deaths all that was wrenched away from you. I understand your anger moreso than you will ever know. But treating Connor as the cause of their deaths, and then blaming him for the loss of your mother’s personal effects was your doing. And for the last four years you have continued to blame him, and not the real problem.”
Orion glared up at her. “You are my godmother?” he seemed to spit the word in disgust at her. “Did you feed Connor that same b-.”
“Enough,” Marlena growled, seizing his ear in a tight grip. “Had Alice found out when you first set foot in the Heirarchy, you would have been cleaning toilets armed with half a potato. Your leadership here was because Admiral Star and several of your mentors owed me a favour. I had hoped perhaps you and Lilliena would never be, given the fact you’re both cheating wenches, but out of respect for the La Rahnqes, I let the matter be!”
She gripped his ear tighter, causing him to whimper softly.
“I stayed out of your lives. I stayed out because I feared what Alice would do to you if I so much as came straight out and said it. I felt you were old enough to look after Connor as his brother, instead you tried so hard to be something you weren’t. A Leader and a father…not a leader and a brother, as you had once been. Had you actually asked about the whereabouts of your mother’s brooch, the cause of all of this mess, you’d have learned it was in my possession! But no…your first instinct was to blame Connor for, of all things, losing it!”
Marlena duly noted the tears building in Orion’s eyes, partly from her lecture and partly from the beads of blood forming under her nails as she gripped his ear.
“And instead of apologising, as brothers are accustomed to doing, regardless of the age gap between them, you used your anger against him in Alice’s court,” she spat the words out. “It was not Charleston, nor Captain Star who whispered in your ear to sign away his life, his dream to be just like you, Orion Hercules Hedgehog. That was you and you alone.”
She released his ear in disgust, ignoring the trailing blood drops.
“I am wasting my breath,” she snapped. “Even now, when confronted by what your actions have wrought, the near-death of someone you were called upon to train and raise in your team’s image, you still blame Connor, even when it has become to clear to all present in this building that he is a far better example of leadership than you will ever be in the thirty six years of your existance!”
Marlena drew a shaky breath, shaking her head.
“I am ashamed of what you have become, Orion. Not a leader, not a man, but a child trying to prove he is the best ever by acting like his arrogance will save him when all is said and done.”
He flinched as she added, “A pathetic child I am ashamed to call my godson.”
Silence filled the room moments later. Marlena wiped away tears that had started in her eyes, trying to compose herself.
“You have exactly ten seconds to tell me why I shouldn’t strip you of every part of your leadership right here, right now.”
“…because I have no excuse,” Orion offered weakly a few seconds in. “I don’t have any excuse for my actions, nor for what I’ve become, nor for what I’m doing or have done in the past.”
She frowned at him, fingers twitching in annoyance, before reaching forward and gripping his chin roughly and staring at him in the eye. Orion stared back, eyes glassy with tears.
“If these are crocodile tears, so help you, I will tear your life apart,” she warned. “You have much to atone for, and much to answer for, Orion Hercules Hedgehog, and I don’t accept what you’ve just told me as your final answer on this whole affair. Shut up and listen to me. You are balancing on a dangerous precipice where your entire team could topple off the edge at any second. The only thing stopping that is the way Connor has conducted himself in your absence and failure to lead. He is only fourteen. You are thirty six. And yet we both know who the better leader is. You’d better suck it up and start doing, instead of sitting back and hoping it all goes right, because you are too close to losing everything for that to happen. I can only help you godson, when you start helping yourself.”
Orion nodded in her grip, tears that had threatened slowly trailing down his cheeks.
“You are going to lose nearly all of it before you win back some of it, Orion,” Marlena went on, her voice soft. “I can only hang back and watch for now. What happens next is all your doing.”
“Lilliena…” Orion’s voice was barely a whisper.
“I stand by my previous judgement,” she replied, her voice still soft. “With no regrets. If you are meant to be, you will prove it to who matters most.”
“…does he want to end this…?”
“What he went through yesterday I fear not even you, in whatever state of anger you possess, would have wished that upon him,” Marlena continued. “And Margreaves hurt him, both physical and mental, and you weren’t there for him.”
Orion lowered his eyes, tears still flowing. “I should have been.”
Marlena turned away. “It’s not me you should be telling that to, Orion. I have Charleston to see to.”
Orion remained seated at the kitchen table as the Lady Vienna made her way up the stairs to Charleston’s room. What did she mean by Margreaves hurting Connor physically, he wondered, as he rose from his seat, feeling older than he had ever done for quite some time. If Margreaves had injured Connor, he hadn’t seen it as he’d walked past the kitchen before. But, he reasoned, he hadn’t been looking for any injury, he had only felt the boiling mix of emotions battering his insides. He made his way slowly down the hall, trying to think of something, anything he could say to make things right between himself and Connor, but his mind was completely blank. There was no apology he could give that didn’t sound half-hearted and pathetic. Just as he reached Connor’s bedroom, Lilliena appeared from the doorway, looking just as old and just as exhausted as he was. She pulled the door closed behind her, hearing it click before they met eyes. Orion stared at her, feeling the cold for the first time as she stared up at him. Wordlessly, he lifted a hand to her cheek, wiping away stray tears that had begun to fall again. He leaned to her forehead, trying to find the words, just as she lifted her own hand and removed his from hers, looking away from him. She took a deep breath, her eyes closed, his eyes searching for the love he believed they still shared, wishing he had never said the words he’d screamed at her, trying to find the spine to say he was sorry. Her hands were trembling as they took his hand and dropped her engagement ring into his palm and closed his fingers over it.
Orion didn’t reply, merely closed his eyes and ran his other hand through his headfur, sobbing as she made her way past him, hand over her mouth, crying all the way to the front door. He heard it slam behind him, echoing throughout the lower levels of the HQ, and in his ears. He had nobody but himself to blame for this result. Sally appeared next through the door of Connor’s room and upon seeing Orion and his clenched hand, sighed and shook her head at him as she closed the door behind her.
“Ah’m so sorry, sugah’hog.” Sally whispered as she put a hand on his shoulder. “Ah’m goin’ aftuh her and ah’ll make sure she don’t do nuthin’ stupid.”
“We’ve both done enough of it, Sally,” Orion’s voice was very soft.
“Ah’d say it, but y’all don’ wanna hear it raight now.”
“Hang in there, sugah. It gets worse a’fore it gets better, raight?”
Marlena’s words echoed in Orion’s head. All he could do was nod once in agreement as Sally skittered down the hallway to the front door, and exited equally as loudly.
“LIL!” he heard her cry. “GOD DANGIT SUGAH’KITTY, Y’ALL WAIT UP!!”
Orion leant against the wall, sobbing quietly, finding his legs weakened from the moment that had just passed him by. He opened his hand as slowly as he dared to, finding the glittering diamond engagement ring exactly where Lilliena had left it. What had happened to Connor and Sunshine had forced her to this point, and their fight before had not helped matters either. He debated going back to the kitchen and breaking things, feeling sorry for himself all the more, but he had gotten up with one purpose in mind.
Lilliena be damned. She could wait.
He pocketed the ring. He could deal with feeling sorry for their lost love later. He straightened up, running his hand through his headfur, before walking purposefully to Connor’s bedroom door. He knocked once, before turning the doorknob and opening the door. Walter looked up as he finished stitching Connor’s arm, the young hedgehog avoiding Orion’s gaze.
“We should really take a look at that eye of yours, Orion,” the old hawk spoke. “It’ll get infected if we don’t stitch it.”
“It’s fine,” Orion replied in a voice he hoped sounded steady. “Could you leave us alone for a bit, Walter?”
The old hawk adjusted his spectacles, before casting a glance at Connor, then back at Orion. He rose from his place on the bedside next to the sleeping Sunnie, as he pulled down Connor’s sleeve gently, taking care to avoid irritating the now-closed gashes further. The younger hedgehog pulled at his sleeve out of habit, and Orion noticed this, frowning ever so slightly. It was probably the most attention he had paid Connor in a very long time, Walter mused.
Walter picked up his bag and inclined his head to Orion’s before he left the room, “I’m sorry about Lilliena.”
“So am I,” Orion replied, his voice tinged with what sounded like anger. “Can’t be helped.”
“It could have done, old son. It could have done.”
Orion watched the old Hawk ascend the stairs towards the others’ rooms before turning his attentions back to Connor. He stepped into his brother’s bedroom and closed the door gently, making careful note not to make any further sounds that would wake the sleeping tree panda in his bed. Connor was unrepentent in the tone of his voice as he turned and glared at Orion.
“What do you want?”
Orion felt his ears pin back slightly, “To talk, Connor.”
Connor blinked, his eyes still angry. “That’s rich,” he snorted. “After how many years you actually want to talk…which somehow doesn’t involve you yelling at me for god knows what over god knows where, who and how?”
Orion took a deep breath before he responded. He would only make the situation worse if he got angry.
At this Connor’s ears pricked forward slightly, searching for the lie he thought would be obvious to find. Orion took this brief moment of silence as means to continue.
“How’s Sunshine?” he asked.
“What do you care?” Connor retorted.
“I do care, Connor.”
“Right, right,” the teenager waved his hand dismissively. “Leadership thing. I get it. Same old story.”
Orion faltered slightly. He deserved that more than Connor knew.
Connor blinked. “You’re what?”
“I’m sorry,” Orion repeated. “Nothing I’ve done has helped us, leadership or not.”
Having concentrated on looking after Sunnie for all this time, having cradled him as he cried and suffered the agony of having been poisoned, something in Orion’s words brought nothing but boiling rage to the surface. To hell with his bullshit, Connor thought, his eyes blazing with fury.
“Don’t you dare give ME any of your shit!” Connor stood up and rounded on Orion viciously. “Don’t you DARE! For years you’ve lied to me! You used me as a focus point for you turning into the Princess’s bitch! You lied about me to everyone you know, including Lilliena! And I bet now you blame the breakdown of your engagement on Sunnie and me!”
Orion raised both his hands in defeat, but Connor wasn’t buying into it.
“You lied to me! You used me! And you think apologising to me is worth something?! Who are you trying to FOOL, Orion?!”
“LIAR!” Connor spat, his ears pinned back. “How long did you let Cap’n Star drink himself to this point? How long have you ignored the fact he’s an abusive bastard when you’re not around?! You told yourself and the other idiots in our team that he wasn’t capable of doing harm to ANYONE!”
Connor pointed directly to Sunnie, who lay semi-conscious on his bed, shivering despite the blankets on him.
“The Cap’n dragged Sunnie through the broken shards of his bottle of whiskey! He left bruises on him not even YOU would have the guts to inflict on ANYONE! He threw him out of here so forcefully he made ‘im fracture his ankle! All because you did NOTHING to stop him drinking!”
Tears coursed down Connor’s cheeks out of pure rage.
“And you let Thomas get hurt too,” his voice faltered. “For seven years he protected me from ‘im...and he swore me t’ silence thinking you’d step in and put a stop to it!”
Orion’s ears were pinned back as far as they could go, tears had begun their own slow trail down his cheeks from under his closed eyes. His head was bowed, cowering from the onslaught of truth.
“You promised me we’d be leaders together...” the hedgehog’s voice dropped to nothing but a trembling, tearful whisper. “You lied t’ me with a straight face...and like an idiot I believed ya. I believed you when you said I’d amount t’ nothin’. I believed you when you said Lilliena was the only thing you wanted in yer life. I loved you. I loved you so dearly and you used me as the front fer all of your hates and blames.”
Orion couldn’t find the words to reply, he bit his lip, trying to hold back the tears.
“I hate you.”
The three words he had screamed at Connor numerous times over the course of his young life, without any thought to their impact...and now here they were thrown back at him with all the force of a Sherman tank. Orion felt all the warmth drain from him as he took in the sight of Connor, his eyes closed, but his expression caught between hatred and sorrow.
“I never thought I could say those words, but I hate you!” Connor’s voice was choking on his sobs. “You wiped your hands clean of me the day Momma’s brooch went missing. You wiped me from everything in your life. You told me I wasn’t your brother...well you’re not mine either! Sunnie’s done a damned better job than you EVER have and it only took one day for him to do that! He didn’t tell me to man up and act like you! He hugged me and told me to just let it out before it hurt me any further than it had! He didn’t judge me for not being a leader, he didn’t judge me like you and Charleston and Jones and Mac did!”
“Connor...please...please let me explain...please!” Orion was almost choking on his sobs.
“Connor...please...please let me explain...please!” Orion was almost choking on his sobs.
“You and the guys saw ONLY the fact Sunnie’s a Riverlander! If he was a city kid, you’d have goddamned had second thoughts that what happened was his fault! You blamed him for something someone else caused! And when he ran away thinking us Stars wanted to kill him, he ran right into Margreaves!!”
Orion’s mouth exploded with pain. He cried out and dropped to the floor. Connor stood over him, chest heaving, the imprint of his front fangs on the boy’s knuckles, swelling with sudden blood. He felt the acrid taste of blood in his mouth, the looseness of three of his front fangs from that punch. The other thought that hit him was that he had never thought Connor would have the stomach to lash out at him in this way. His hand shook as he brought it to his mouth, feeling the crimson spilling over his lips. He didn’t think his ears could pin back any farther than they already had.
“A Kill On Sight order...” Connor panted. “And none of you thought any different. Screw the fact Sunnie’s only a kid! All you wanted was justice for an accident he didn’t even cause! And then Margreaves has the gall to try to KILL him because of you lot!”
The events of the previous night raced through Connor’s head. All the anxiety, the pain, the crushing fear in Sunnie’s eyes when he finally caught up to the sobbing, injured tree panda. The fear of god wasn’t even a close description to the paleness of Sunnie’s eyes. And then being confronted with Margreaves, being sent flying after trying to protect his little friend. And then finding him floating lifeless in the sea...
“...I had to run crying to Walter...and Lady Vienna...before ANYONE would listen t’ me that my best friend was innocent. I almost watched Sunnie die because of you and the guys,” Connor’s voice went from a tearful whisper to a openly enraged snarl. “And now you think that apologising to me, after all that’s happened in our lives, I’m just going to roll over and treat you like the big brother you haven’t been to me for years?! FUCK YOU, ORION! You deserve whatever Lilliena gave you! You deserve that punch and SO MUCH MORE from me!”
Orion whimpered, turning his eyes up to look at his brother, hoping that everything was out of his system. But no...it wasn’t. Connor’s eyes reflected the same cold rage he’d had on those many days that the boy had gotten into trouble, the same ice was now reflected back on him a thousandfold.
“...Connor...” the older man choked out. “I am so sorry...I am so, so sorry! Please...please let me explain myself...”
“The same way you let the others let Sunnie explain himself after his accident? The same way you let our drunken Captain continue on with his abusive tendancies?” Connor coldly retorted. “You come one step near Sunnie, I will fucking gut you like a trout.”
Orion watched as the sudden shift in personality come over his little brother the moment Sunnie’s voice permeated the iciness of the room. Connor’s anger vanished in a split second, and he rushed to the younger boy’s side. Sunnie weakly reached out to him, enveloping him in a gentle hug. The hedgehog boy relaxed instantly from this gesture, leaning his head against the tree panda’s own, nuzzling him. The Riverlander boy’s eyes opened, and focused on Orion as he shakily got to his feet. His eyes were full of pain, and the horrible gut-churning feeling of pure fear. Orion took a faltering step backwards, now aware of just how much hurt he had forced Connor to bottle up over the years. Whatever amount it was, Sunnie felt too, and the look he was giving him reflected it all straight back onto him. Connor’s eyes opened, and just as fast as his compassion for Sunnie had appeared, there returned the cold, enraged look on his face.
“Get out of my room, you son of a bitch,” Connor spat, tightening his grip on his trembling friend.
Orion meekly complied without a word. As he closed the door to Connor’s room, trying to block out the words he had spat in his fury, he felt the cold chill rising up his spine and the breathless, burdening feeling of realisation.
He’d not only lost Lilliena, and all the happiness she stood for in his life. He’d lost Connor as well...and that tore him to shreds worse than losing her...