Tennie Connor Hedgehog was Captain Star’s favourite, and although as a child the boy had played this card extremely well, he had grown up in a short amount of time. He had been unobservant as a youngster of seven, but now that he was fourteen, a year away from his coming-of-age, there were things about his Captain he could no longer ignore.
The night before, he had lay awake, listening to the darkness and the sounds of increasing rantage eminating from the Captain’s room above his own. He often lay awake listening to the silence when he was nervous about things. The Captain had been increasing his intake of alcohol of late, a cruel mistress that taunted and reeled him in and spat him out with a vile taste in everyone’s mouth. He had never been violent with any of them, well, not to the best of Tennie’s knowledge anyway, but there had been times he had cut it very close. Too close in fact. The young hedgehog had never understood the…allure…of alcohol. To him, it was beautiful unless it was touched. It turned pretty things ugly extremely quickly in his mind. He had never wanted to taste the stuff, even during formal occasions. He resolved, once he was leader, to put an end to such a rule of having to drink alcohol even at formal do’s.
The light fixture had swayed gently as the creak of the floorboards above him dipped into the silence. The Captain had been ranting again, slurs of words his ears pinned back at, words he dared not repeat to anyone outside of the Star HQ Building. His mind thought of Tory, Admiral Star’s former leader, the older man he had the pleasure of encountering when he and Orion had been recruited originally. Tory had been helpful, nurturing, welcoming – verily unlike Captain Star had been at coming nose-to-nose with the stoat. It seemed there had been an unexplained section of history between them that neither wished to discuss. Tennie liked Tory, a lot, and the stoat had tried to be as open, as nurturing and as honest as Orion already was. He had chosen to return home due to the attitude Captain Star had shown him – ‘Nothing like his father’, Tory had said – ‘Perhaps had the Admiral learned him what it was that he saw in us, his death would have not been so meaningless?’ The stoat had promised to keep in touch, but many of the letters had been intercepted, as Tennie had foreseen.
He waited on the corner, quietly observing the bustling streets and sidewalks around him, waiting for the lights to change to allow him to cross. His mind drifted back to Tory’s words to him, his last before he departed from the Star Team for good:
The stoat had said that soon his birthright, and his actions, would come under fire from all sides.
The ideal worried Tennie greatly. He had not fully understood Tory’s concerns at the age of seven, and even now at fourteen, he was still wondering what the stoat had meant by that. As he strode purposefully across the greyish black tarmac to the other side of the road, he tucked his paws into his pants pockets as he walked, his mind drifting back to an incident some weeks prior to Xavier’s callous prank on Thomas. Xavier had been part of a fight between some lads his own age and a bit older, riverfolk selling their wares in the marketplace. He had been passing en route to Lilliena’s apartment with a bag of groceries she had asked him to collect on her behalf and had stopped to watch the fight unfold. He knew it was wrong to do so, but curiousity drove him forward to the trio of hyenas, their rhino boss and his lizard companion against the Zero Boys and several others.
There had been copius amounts of yelling, but what struck Tennie the most was the rhino’s reluctance to let his colleagues become involved with Xavier’s senseless attack. Xavier had brutalised, taunted, even gone as far as raking his claws across the rhino’s face, but the big man had been unmovable. Xavier in the end had walked away laughing and jeering with his teammates and the gathered had dissipated, returning to the throng of a crowd of ignorants. Tennie had set his bag of groceries down and assisted the lizard with picking up the unspoiled fruits of their stand. The rhino had smiled at him sadly but allowed him to inspect the scratches the alleycat had left on his cheek.
“You’re a good boy,” he had told him. “Unspoiled by this unfortunate circumstance. A good sign that not everyone is prejudiced against us.”
“I don’t understand why he bothers picking on anyone,” Tennie had recalled himself saying. “Just a mean-spirited bully with no real guts.”
“He is only doing what he was raised to believe. As are we all.”
“Are you sure you folks are alright?”
The rhino had nodded, cusping his cheek gently, “Off with you, lad. The lads and I can handle it from here. It is nice to know not everyone thinks with a black cloud of hatred for us.”
The incident had shaken Tennie to his core, the words of this wonderfully strong man had crossed his mind more than once since it had happened. When Thomas had had the bucket of swill dumped over him at the docksides, the only thing he had felt was rage at Xavier’s laughter. Thomas had looked close to tears and the only thing he had thought of was getting even with the wise-ass. He winced slightly, recalling the blow to the stomach Xavier had given him and the resulting crack of his same shoulder and his screech of pain. The dockside workers had pulled them apart and called for Walter. Captain Star didn’t like him resorting to confrontation, but sometimes, that’s what the situation called for. He shook his head, his thoughts returning to his schedule for this day. First deliveries with Big Tony and Sally, then Puffa’s morning tea and then helping Lilliena unpack her moving boxes.
And where the hell was Sunnie River’ynn, the boy he was supposed to be meeting and working with today?
Tennie sighed as he entered the back loading dock of the JazzCat Café, greeted immediately by Pearl, one of the lounge singers with Lilliena’s Dance Troupe that had taken a second job at the JazzCat Café to help cover her expenditures.
“Mornin’, Star,” she smiled sweetly from her cigarette.
“G’morning, Pearl,” Tennie smiled. “How’s things?”
“Well, bills and things getting’ on top o’ the world,” she sighed, blowing out a puff of smoke. “How’s tricks with you then?”
“Not too bad. Was s’posed to meet up with a newbie this morning, but he ain’t showed up.”
“There’s a newbie sittin’ with Sal’ in Tony’s office. Got roughed up a bit by those Zero Boys, poor kid.”
“Sweet lil’ tree panda kiddo,” Pearl went on, taking a long drag on her cigarette. “Got a lot o’ respect for us gals, definitely won mah heart back there.”
“You wouldn’t know ‘is name, would ya?”
“Sunnie I think he said ‘is name was. Pretty sweet, rolls off the tongue all dainty like.”
“Thanks, Pearl. You’re a doll,” Tennie grinned as he headed inside.
“Ah try, sweet thing, ah try!” she called back, grinning.
Tennie mounted the loading dock, waving to a couple of Big Tony’s loading boys.
“I’ll be right back, fellahs,” he called.
“Take ya time,” one called back. “There ain’t much ta unload today, so we’re sittin’ tight fer a bit.”
The JazzCat wasn’t too busy, Tennie noticed as he walked down the main hallway leading towards Big Tony’s spacious office. Big Tony was a good friend of the Star Team, and he never minded any of them wandering about the back storage rooms and offices. To Tony, his friends could make straight for the kitchen and have a snack on the job. His café was their second home as far as the old doberman went. He could hear Sally’s voice reassuring someone on the other side of the closed office door and he knocked twice.
“What’s up?” Sally called.
Tennie opened the door, “Mornin’ Sal!”
“Tennie!” Sally brightened immediately, smiling at her companion. “Well, sugah, you wanted an introduction…he’s here now!”
Tennie came face to face with a tree panda boy a few years his junior with bright blue eyes and alert, yet slightly nervous features. Sally stood at the same time he did, his long, bushy tail curling back around his legs, low to the ground.
“Tennie, babe, this is Sunnie River’ynn,” she introduced, giggling slightly at Sunnie’s embarrassment at not being able to introduce himself. “Sunnie, Tennie Connor Hedgehog.”
“’Lo, Sir,” Sunnie supplied quietly.
Tennie grinned, equally nervously, “No need fer the Sir, mate. Just Tennie will do.”
“A-alright,” Sunnie replied.
“Well,” Sally smiled. “Betcha the boys out back are waitin’ for you two. I’d best get back to work. I’ll help you boys load the freezer a little later.”
Sunnie tried to keep back his nervous excitement. Here he was standing in the same space as his longtime hero and he almost couldn’t breathe for it. Tennie smiled gently, feeling the crush of nervousness himself.
“So, uh, you’re Sunnie, huh?”
“Yes, Tennie,” Sunnie heard his voice clearly, devoid of any squeak of excitement. “Sorry I didn’t meet ya, I got a little lost and I…”
“That’s cool, I was late anyway. Shall we?” he gestured towards the door.
Four of Tony’s loading dock boys had unloaded the crates of foodstuffs and were prying them open by the time the twosome reached them. Sunnie obediently followed Tennie’s instructions, asking questions whenever he wasn’t sure of something, and after about an hour of intermittant silence, Tennie decided to venture into new ground.
“So, you’re from the riverlands, eh? What’s it like there?”
“It’s beautiful,” Sunnie replied, his eyes shining. “It’s home to my folks and I. Much like this city is yours.”
“Was born here m’self,” Tennie replied. “Well, not main city, outer limits really. My folks died a little while later, so Orion took care o’ me since then.”
“Is he your brother?”
“Yeah. My big brother. There’s a good gap of years between us, heh.”
“Yeah, Dad and Mom waited real late to have me. Guess Orion was their focus for a long time,” Tennie shunted a box of longlife milks on the second shelf of a storage rack nearby. “You have any brothers or sisters?”
“One older brother, Will. Two younger brothers, Baylian Junior and Bernard. And one sister, Bettina.”
“Wow! Large family, huh?”
“Well,” Sunnie continued, handing another box of longlife milk to Tennie, “Baylian, Bettina and Bernard are around two and a half, they’re triplets, and Will’s my older brother.”
“By how many years?”
“About four and a half.”
“Not a bad gap that.”
“Yeah, we tend to hang around each other a lot,” Sunnie chuckled. “Everyone else gives him a wide berth.”
“Well…” Sunnie wondered how he could make it sound better than it was in reality, “He’s…kinda got a love affair with explosives.”
“Uhm…it’s…a little difficult to explain really,” the tree panda chuckled nervously. “He likes to…well…blow stuff up and scare the daylights out of any girl lookin’ ta court him.”
“Oh really?” Tennie grinned. “Sounds like a barrel of fun.”
“Now when you’re ‘is scapegoat!”
“I hear that, and I’ll raise you having to leap into a sheep dip to avoid getting trampled.”
“How’d that happen?”
“Thomas, one of our other guys,” Tennie sighed, jumping down from the platform. “He sorta tripped and released the holding pen a little early.”
“Where was this?”
“Down at the docks, believe it or not,” he laughed. “We had to dip a whole mob of sheep coming down off an export ship, and it was pretty much like chasing after wild horses for a while. Was a whole team effort.”
“Anyway, Thomas gets jumped by a couple ewes, and the next thing I know, there’s a ram with horns the size of a front end of a bus coming at me from out of nowhere.”
“Oh goddess!” Sunnie cracked up. “That must have scared the life out of you!”
“I stank of sheep dip for weeks afterwards,” Tennie cringed, recalling the incident. “Augh, the smell was terrible and nothing would dull it! I took several layers of fur off myself because of it!”
“How about I raise you getting chased up th’ tallest tree in th’ county by an angry mob?”
“Yeah. Will decided to go fishing with dynamite one day…”
“…and he roped you into it, uh?”
“Not quite roped. More like blackmailed,” Sunnie’s ears pinned down slightly. “I kinda broke one of our nearest neighbours’ lawn gnomes and he was awful fond of it, and I swore Will to secrecy.”
Tennie snickered loudly.
“Worst mistake ah ever made!” Sunnie rolled his eyes.
He tore open a cardboard box full of olive oil bottles and began handing them to Tennie to stack on another shelf.
“Do tell!” the hedgehog chuckled, taking the bottles from the tree panda.
“Well, after telling me he was gonna tattle on me, I bit the bullet and helped him haul a few crates o’ the stuff over to th’ lake, only Will had other ideas. He wanted to try an’ take out th’ ol’ granite waterfall on the outer edge…”
“Oh yes. So, since I was a better swimmer, he made me cart the things through the lake rather than around it. And a’fore y’ ask, it woulda taken us a good three hours ta get across the granite boulders surroundin’ it.”
“Hey, wait though…”
“Dynamite doesn’t have waterproofed wicks.”
“Will’s do,” Sunnie sighed. “He found out the pithy bits o’ bark from a local tree up north was waterproof if you treated it right. He replaced a good section o’ Pa’s dynamite stash with ‘em.”
“Yeah. I didna tell ya my bro was a lil’ eccentric.”
“A little? He sounds downright crazy!”
“The river reckons he’s a few candles short of a chandelier, ahem,” Sunnie coughed. “But anyway, so off I go and Will meets me a few hours later with the detonator and this ‘foolproof’ plan that he can move the ol’ granite shoulder underneath this tiny lil’ waterfall and NOT get us neck-deep in trouble with the other lakeside residents.”
“Foolproof?” Tennie was laughing.
“Foolhardy, yer right, I agree wit’ ya,” Sunnie replied. “Anyway, Will takes over and I take a wide berth back to the other side of the lake. And that’s when I notice this strange indentation in the shoulder part of that lil’ waterfall.”
“Yup. Like another smaller waterfall runnin’ underneath th’ mains.”
“Yeah. Uh oh! I was too far away for Will ta hear me as he readied the detonator, but I ran anyway. Will set the whole kit an’ kaboodle off when I was about five minutes from him. He…kinda realised why I’d been yelling at him. Attracted th’ local sheriff an’ his boys and foolishly, I took off into the underbrush, fergettin’ about th’ dogs.”
“Tallest tree in the county, eh?”
“I was up it a’fore I knew anythin’ else!”
“Hahahahahahaaa!!” Tennie wiped away a tear of laughter. “Oh man! I’d’a paid to have been there!”
“Will does it for free,” Sunnie chuckled.
“Heeheeheehahaha. Oh man. Ow, my ribs.”
“Don’t be,” Tennie grinned. “That’s the best laugh I’ve had in ages, seriously!”
Tennie wiped his eyes, suddenly realising that more than a couple hours had passed since their awkward silence to begin with, and now here they were laughing and talking like old friends. It seemed that Sunnie was like any other city boy his age – warm, friendly and had a lot of life experiences, however bad and however funny, under his belt. He smiled, tousling Sunnie’s fringe gently.
“You know, you’re alright, Sunnie.”
Sunnie allowed Tennie his welcoming gesture, grinning back at him. He felt at home here suddenly, in the company of this funny, well-experienced older boy. He gripped Tennie’s arm in the same gesture.
“Yer not too bad y’self, Tennie.”
“Call me Connor,” the hedgehog grinned.
Sally’s voice interrupted them. She was carrying a trio of paper bags loaded to the brim with hot food.
“Oh wow,” she grinned, “The storeroom looks better than it has in ages! Way to go!”
“I heard y’all laughing back here,” she continued, tousling Tennie’s fringe. “It’s great ta see you happy again, Connor. Don’t let that pathetic alleycat try an’ push ya ‘round, a’kay?”
“Xavier? Nah, never, Sal’.”
“Here, some mornin’ tea for the two o’ ya. ‘Tones isn’t back yet, so this third bag’s fer Puffa. He ain’t due out til half past twelve on the afternoon connection, so you boys have plenty o’ time ta reach his feline butt.”
“Want us to tell him you said hi?”
“Oh lawd, he ain’t still coppin’ flak for his friendship with me, is he?”
“And then some,” Tennie smirked.
“If he were a bit younger and more mah type, I’d take his offer up,” Sally grinned. “’Til then, ah’m sure he can find some ol’ filly ta satisfy him.”
“Oh I dunno…”
Tennie neatly darted out of range of her playful slap on his shoulder. Sally grinned, gesturing towards the giggling hedgehog.
“Sunnie, sugah, you reckon you can shut ‘im up on mah behalf when you see Puffa, darlin’?”
“I’ll try, Miss Highmyle,” the tree panda smiled shyly.
“Good. I do not want Puffa tryin’ nuttin’ on me when ‘is shift’s over!”
“Can you blame him?” Tennie was nearing the doorway. “You’re awful cute, Sal’!”
“If you were ten years older, honey. If you were ten years older, I swear!”
Sally sighed, shaking her head. “You be careful there, sugah. He’s a bad influence he is.”
“I kinda like him that way,” Sunnie grinned.
Sally chuckled, hugging Sunnie goodbye, to which he returned it gratefully.
“Thank you for this morning, Miss Highmyle,” he whispered.
Sally ran her feathered fingers through his fringe. She was reluctant to let him go.
“Sal’, Sunnie and I have ta be someplace!”
“You hush up, sugah!” she retorted. “You never used ta complain when I did this to ya when y’all were a kid.”
She let Sunnie go with a reluctant grin.
“Y’all have fun today, ya hear?”
“I will. Thank you.”
“And you nevah stop bein’ you, ya hear?”
Sunnie jogged out after the hedgehog and had stopped a little ways ahead of him when Sally called out again.
“Connor! Back here a sec, fergot ta ask ya something!”
“Wait up a sec, Sunnie.”
Tennie reached the doors of the loading bay where Sally was standing. The bird girl gave him a hug and a kiss on the forehead.
“What was that for---?”
“Y’all be careful today, a’ight? And do look after Sunnie for me, won’t y’?”
“Sal, did I miss something?”
“Tennie,” Sally began carefully, her eyes reflecting worry as she leaned her head against his. “Sunnie’s had it real rough all ‘is life, and I can tell that from miles off. This place can be mighty small-minded at times and he don’t need ta hear that kinda stupidity from those who don’t know him. You treat ‘im well, y’hear? I don’t wanna hear of you two havin’ a fallin’ out o’er somethin’ trivial.”
Tennie closed his eyes, recalling Tory’s warning and now Sally’s. This had to be more than just a coincidence, he realised.
“Tennie, take care o’ him. I’m darned sure he’ll do th’ same for you too.”
Tennie nodded, taking in her words to heart. “Gotta get goin’ Sal.”
“Tell Puffa ah said hi,” she waved him goodbye.
He rejoined Sunnie and the duo headed for the railway station, waving at Sally until they were out of sight. Sally watched them until they disappeared into the crowd, then returned to her duties.
Those two are awful cute together and they’re gettin’ along famously, she thought as she walked back down the hall and into the busy throng of the dings of order bells and callouts to numerical tables. I do ‘ope this bad feelin’ I’m getting’ turns out ta be wrong though...
Sunnie and Tennie remained in Sally’s mind the rest of her shift.
How does the ol’ tune go now?
Cheerful whistling filled the air in Engine Twelve-Four-Seven-Nine as the owner of a long twitchy feline tail shovelled coal into the roaring fire, eyeing up at gauges and meters as the old engine simmered happily on the rails, raring to take yet another long journey up the old forty niner track.
Puffa Johnson was chief railways engineer on the Bigg City Line, and darn proud of it. His family’s bloodlines were steel tracks and clickety-clacks a’running through their veins, and the older feline couldn’t think of any other job he’d prefer to be doing. The Railway had seen some changes over the last few years. Some of the old steamers had been retired, replaced with diesel and electric trains, but 12479 was different. The overhaul she’d had in recent times had ensured her place as Queen on Line 49 and Puffa was rightly proud of her. It had been his grandpappy’s engine and later his father’s. And now the old girl was his, and for the last fifteen years, he’d been shovelling coal, oiling joints, polishing railings and maintaining her old pristine self for her long trips abroad.
‘Cause I’m the son of a son of a son of a Railway Man...
Puffa normally worked this engine alone, but sometimes he had assistance from one of the juniors or the other seniors. Today however he was off that morning, having worked the late night route, and 12479 was in the capable hands of Rory Trelblaine, his assistant engineer. He would later be off to the JazzCat to chat up some of the ladies, and maybe Sally if he could catch her alone. He chuckled, recalling the slap she’d given him last time for his ah, eager suggestion. It was all in good fun though and she’d never raised a hand against him for real. He had often wondered what would have been the outcome if she was his type and vice versa? He’d probably have lost what made her so sweet and sexily adorable had it happened that way.
They says I was concieved in a Railway Van...
Puffa glanced at his pocket watch, noting the time was a quarter to twelve. In forty five minutes, she’d be away and he’d be off for brunch in the company of his favourite kid, Tennie Connor Hedgehog. He smirked, recalling the last “lecture” Captain Star had subjected him to when the boy had taken off on one of the trains alongside him and hadn’t come home for a few hours. Why the old man continued to suppress the boy’s lessening childhood years baffled the feline. Connor was a year away from taking over the Star Team, a year from being in Orion’s shoes. As many lessons as Jones and the others were learning him, Puffa couldn’t help but feel that Tennie was in a forced position of change, and he rather preferred the child to be a child for however long he wanted to be.
‘Cause I’m the son of a son of a son of a Railway Man...
Puffa double-checked the brakes, making sure they were hard-on before he set himself down the steps and over to the massive wheels of his beloved engine. He became aware of the sound of laughter above the hiss of steam. Glancing behind him, he saw his favourite ‘son’ Tennie in the company of another boy, a little younger than him. A tree panda, Puffa realised, a known rarity in the city in general. He grinned as Tennie waved.
“Hey lad, how goes?” he called.
“Morning tea for us, Puffa!” Tennie called back. “How’s Her Majesty this morn?”
“Running with all cylinders cocked and raring to take it straight down th’ ol’ line 49,” the feline chuckled as Tennie hugged him. “How’s th’ Team doin’, eh?”
“Not bad. Jones had somethin’ ta say about our last adventure, though.”
“Was out the door before he got to me.”
“Good lad,” he tousled Tennie’s fringe. “Sooo, who’s yer new pal?”
Sunnie had hung back shyly, Tennie grinned and introduced them.
“Well, pleasure ta meet ya, Sunnie! Name’s Puffa, head engineer of this fine steel and concrete establishment.”
“Oh you needent call me anything o’ th’ sort, Sunnie. I don’t demand respect outta anyone. You have it from the get-go.”
“Sal’ says hi,” Tennie chuckled.
“Oh really now?” the cat grinned. “After the last slap I felt sure she was never gonna speak to me again…”
“She can’t stay mad at you, Puffa.”
“Nor can anyone else, so I hear…barring your teammates o’ course. Now Jones is good at holdin’ a grudge…”
“Th’ Professor thinks you’re a bad influence on me.”
“Pfft, did he look in the mirror lately?” Puffa laughed. “The way he’s been so high-strung lately, it’s a wonder he can teach ‘is class!”
Puffa led them to the worker’s shed just off the siding, opening the door to the raucous laughter of two of the other engineers, Vladimir and Harrison.
“Und den do you know what happened on the midnight shift?”
“No, but yer bound to tell me.”
“Herr womund says the verbotem word!”
“Oh lords, I’d have paid to have been there!”
“Mornin’ lads,” Puffa grinned as he gestured for the two youngsters to pull up a chair. “What’s this I hear about the midnight passenger run, Vlad?”
“Ohk, mornink Puffer,” Vladimir grinned. “Ach, just those damning fools demanding onto a closed train, mein lad.”
“Oh yes, they’re always fun, especially at night when you’re too tired to care. Sunnie, Vladimir Fruehauf and Harrison Quentynn.”
“You’re a new face, now. G’day.”
“Ach, welcome mein friend! Welcome to the engineer’s mess.” Vlad grinned, eyeing Puffa’s brown paper bag. “Now what goodies does mein general have to share with us lowly officeirs?”
“Hands off, Vlad!” Puffa smirked, thwapping his greedy paw away.
“Ach, you mean thing!” Vlad threw up his paws in mock horror.
“Off this morn, are ya, Puffa?” Harrison asked as the boys tucked into their morning tea.
“Well,” Puffa said between mouthfuls of toasted sandwich. “I could stay on, but there’s a certain red, black and white birdy with my name on her lips…”
“Aw, Puffa!” Tennie laughed. “Not while we’re eatin’!”
“You will put up with my simpering that one day Sally will understand what she’s missing for as long as I let you boys hang around!”
“Sunnie, if you make it in, he’s what you gotta put up with.”
“I can live with that,” the tree panda grinned back. “He’s a lot better’n having ta put up with Will sometimes.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment from ye, Sunnie,” Puffa chuckled. “I don’t expect very many folks ta understand my love affair with the Railway, but you’ve been the second person to think of it as an adventure.”
“And who was the first?” Sunnie asked.
“That’d be me,” Tennie grinned.
“Yep, when you boys first arrived here, your brother went nearly half out of his mind when he lost track of you in the crowd. There you were inspectin’ the Queen when she was still just a young Princess finding her way in th’ world. No fear, s’what I remember most ‘bout’cha. Glad ta see it’s never left ya.”
“It never will, Puffa.”
“That’s what I like to hear. So! What’s next on the agenda for you two?”
“Helping Lilliena unpack her moving boxes.”
“Ah, that’s right! She moved out of that tiny apartment she was rentin’, didn’t she?” Puffa gestured grandly. “Lovely gal, that. Yer brother’s a lucky man.”
“Yer just upset you weren’t there first,” Tennie giggled.
“Every man with half a libido is cursin’ your brother!” Harrison laughed. “She is, without doubt, one smmmoooookin’ section of tail!”
“Th’ way you fellahs talk about her is the reason she never batted an eyelid in your direction!”
“Herr Tennie, you cannot fault a man with roving eyes,” Vladimir snickered. “Mein gott, she is beautiful…”
“Onstage or off?”
The laughter echoed around the room. Puffa spoke grandly about the golden age of the railway, whilst Vladimir and Harrison regaled them with tales of the midnight shift – the bordie collie’s last run the evening before with the goods train was one of the best Sunnie had ever heard. He’d not paid much attention to the steamers or diesel engines that roared through the riverland lines, but hearing the stories about them made his mind wander back through his childhood. How awesome was it that Tennie knew these wonderful people, he thought as he ate, noticing Sally had packed him an extra large slice of the marble cake he’d seen sitting out front on the counter. Tennie had the same, but Puffa had been deuced out of his with two large pieces of carrot cake.
“That sinful woman! I don’t weigh that much!” Puffa shrieked in mock horror to the laughter of the others. “Ohhh, she gets it this morning! Screw playing hard ta get!”
“She’s got the hell of a knee, don’t forget…” Harrison grinned, playfully wagging his finger at his boss.
“And very clevair shinbones,” Vladimir agreed.
“I have not, nor never been, knackered by ol’ Sal and I never will be!”
“Oh I dunno,” Sunnie grinned. “If what Connor’s told me is true, she’s done a number on y’ a few times…”
“…what have you been telling him?” Puffa frowned, but his eyes were grinning for him.
“Oh great, get me inta trouble why don’t ya?” Tennie smirked at his friend.
“I’ll have you know that that one time where she did…”
“Oh, so you have been knackered by her, eh?”
“Let me finish…” Puffa began but was drowned out by the laughter. “Bunch o’ comedians, the lot o’ you! As I was saying, it was a winter’s morn and the station had frozen over, and dear ol’ Sal’ had th’ good grace ta be wearin’ heels…”
“Yes, I remember,” Harrison’s tail wagged at the memory. “You and I were on engine 7624 on the morning passenger route down line 68. You poor bastard.”
“And you were a right bastard y’self!” Puffa growled to the other engineer’s laughter. “Y’ stood there on the footplate dyin’ o’ laughter instead o’ helping me!”
“Could you blame me?! You looked like one o’ dem nutcracker things with your expression!”
“I recall this being told after you were sent home, mein general,” Vladimir snickered.
“Oh yeah. Right bunch o’ jerks y’all are!”
“Sal’ was embarrassed to heck for a while. She couldn’t look you in the eye without having to go out back to stop herself from giggling like a poor woman.”
“Poor woman nothing! I couldn’t show my face outside the station fer months!”
“It was a damned good time that Christmas,” Vladimir grinned, earning him a thump on the arm from Puffa.
“Yer a real bunch o’ bastards, teaching this innocent boy all about us,” Puffa muttered into his mug of coffee. “A real bunch o’ somethin’, I tell ya.”
“Oh I don’t know,” Harrison tousled Sunnie’s fringe. “I think this kid’s perfectly capable of making fun of you on his own.”
Sunnie broke his piece of marble cake in half and offered it to the annoyed cat, “Truce, Puffa?”
Puffa grinned, “Truce accepted, Sunnie. Here, take the other slice o’ this. One’s about all I can handle.”
“You runnin’ another midnight shift tonight, Puffa?”
“Yeah, sadly enough. Hence having tea with you fellahs and off home for the rest of the day.”
“So y’ not gonna chat up th’ ladies at the JazzCat then?”
“After recalling that Christmas, I think I’ll leave ‘em be today…”
Tennie and Sunnie exchanged knowing looks, giggling to themselves. Vladimir finished his mug of tea and stood up.
“Well, mein general, Connair, Harreh, mein new friend,” he grinned. “Time for the Twelve Thirty passenger train to Barelsbury. I be driving that old diesel today.”
“Out with Kohler then, are you?”
“Ach, don’t remind me of that impatient assistant! I honestly do not see what you see in him, Puffer.”
“He’s taut, lean, arrogant as hell, but he’s good at what he does, Vlad,” Puffa admonished gently. “Take it easy on ‘im, it’s only his first couple o’ months after passing his exams.”
“You have bettair patience than I do!”
“You german wolves are all th’ same!” Puffa called back as he exited and waved. “All bark, no bite! That’s why he antagonises you!”
“One day you’ll have to pick him up from a siding I’ve left him in!”
“You do that, old friend.”
“I will then!”
“I worry about Kohler though, eh, Puffa?” Harrison replied. “He’s not as open as our other engineers and I’m getting a mite worried.”
“Alright then, if it’s you and Vlad doing the worrying, I’ll chat with him before my shift tonight starts.”
Tennie crumpled his lunch sack, Sunnie doing the same.
“We’d best get going, Puffa,” the hedgehog grinned.
“A’ight,” the cat smiled, getting up with them. “Was nice o’ you boys to come ‘round together. You stayin’ long, Sunnie?”
“I hope to,” he replied. “Tryin’ out fer the Star Team.”
“Oh aye?” Puffa looked to Tennie, who nodded. “I didn’t think yer Cap’n expressed no interest in doing that for a long time, though?”
“Well, good luck and all for that, Sunnie,” Harrison nodded. “Reckon you’ll get in easy. It ain’t hard ta like this ol’ hedgehog boy here.”
“Thanks, Harrison, yer a peach.”
“I try, kid, I try!”
Puffa walked out with them as they waved to the border collie.
“Right, now you boys, here’s my piece o’ advice – get into as much trouble as possible, have fun doin’ it and ignore the poor fools who’ve fergotten how ta be kids. You two’s always got a place here you can run to whatever happens.”
“I already know this, Puffa,” Tennie smiled.
“I know, jus’ reiteratin’ it fer Sunnie here.”
Puffa gave Sunnie a gentle hug, “Yer always welcome here, no matter what, a’ight? I don’t care if you’s from the big blue above us, that ain’t what matters. What’s here…” he pressed his paw to Sunnie’s heart, “and here,” he tapped his forehead gently, “is what counts in my strongest opinion.”
“Thank you, Puffa,” Sunnie smiled at the big cat, returning the hug.
“Right, off wit’ ya both. Yer don’t wanna keep Lilliena waitin’!”
“Bye, Puffa! See ya tomorrow!”
“Thank you, Puffa, g’bye!”
“You take care o’ y’selves, ya hear?” the cat called back, waving. “And don’t mind the ones who don’t matter!”
Puffa grinned, heading up to the office to collect his paycheck. A stern dog, one of the regulars on Vlad’s passenger express train, turned towards him as he entered.
“You shouldn’t encourage those riverfolk,” he sniffed, full of his own self-importance. “They’re not welcome here.”
“Look, Mister,” Puffa turned, perfectly frank with his words, “This ain’t my railway but I work it. I’ll greet who I like with an open door and that’s not up ta you ta judge. You can go around slagging them all ya like, but not in front o’ me. He’s just a kid and people like you, he can do without.”
Puffa collected his check and waved to Sarah, the girl that was serving this uppity old tart.
“You know, if you stopped, looked and listened to yourself speak having not done a day’s work in ya life and relied on daddy’s money ta cart ya this far into the world, maybe you’d realise we’re much richer for our experiences than you y’self are. Good day ta you, sir.”
Puffa closed the door on him before he could utter another word.
Those damned prejudiced fools, the cat thought darkly. We’d all be much better off without ‘em...