With the job at Lilliena’s completed, Connor and Sunnie had started down the blossom-laden streets back towards the Star Building on the other side of the exclusive housing area. Those that had antagonised him earlier on in the late morning were long gone, and the bustle of the outer city was dying down in preparation for the early evening. Down this street in particular, lamplighters were still in existance, adding to the soft romanticism of the area itself. The rest of the city mostly relied on electricity-powered streetlamps, but certain sections still held a firm grip on the past. Sunnie liked this sort of nostalgic feel of history – something he had a fascination for since a very early age.
“D’ya have someplace t’ stay the night, Sunnie?” Connor was asking him.
“I...actually hadn’t thought of that...”
It was the truth – Riverland trials usually only lasted one day and by early evening the scrolls were handed out to those successful ones. Bigg City’s rituals apparently lasted a week or two, so the tree panda realised he had not planned that far ahead.
“I didn’t get that far,” he admitted shyly.
Connor chuckled, “That’s cool. Pretty sure you can use the guest room we have. It’s a couple doors down from my room.”
“You sure?” Sunnie asked quietly. “Yer mates might not appreciate me bein’ near...”
After the fracas with Rebecca, Connor knew Sunnie’s confidence was still rather shaken. He had, by choice, wilfully ignored his teammates’ reaction at the breakfast table that morning. The feelings on Riverlanders was not brilliant amongst the cityfolk, but Connor was determined, very determined, to show that those feelings were misguided and wrong.
“They can get over it,” Connor replied firmly.
Sunnie said nothing to combat this; he was still worried as they headed through a shortcut Connor knew and were soon back in the still-hustling section of the city. The hedgehog suddenly snapped his fingers.
“We have to meet with Mackenzie!” Connor said suddenly. “I almost forgot! He wanted to talk about my next lessons...”
“Where do we have ta meet ‘im?”
“’Round near th’ National. That’s a couple miles that way.”
Sunnie was a little tired, but said nothing about it. He nodded.
“Alright,” Connor grinned. “Let’s go!”
Charleston had left early, his fur slightly ruffled from the wolf’s scathing commentary on his often pristine, dirty work-hating ethics, leaving the canine to his remaining duties alone – just the way Mac liked it.
He did do a lot of thinking as he tried to finish off his work. He thought back on Charleston’s less-than-dignified first arrival. His family lineage, as he had dug deeply into (and been rewarded by an openly clawed palm to his cheek), displayed a very fractured ordeal. The cat rarely spoke of the events that had brought him to the Star Team, and Thomas was barely open on the subject either. Jones had shrugged it off as secretive behaviour between best mates, telling Mac perhaps pursuing the information would lead to less than helpful results.
The wolf had duly ignored the warnings.
For what it was worth, Charleston, as uppity, as pompous and unbearable he acted, was a damned good worker, and a hard worker at that. He had carefully kept an eye on both Thomas and the cat over a long period of time. There were some very deep lines of friendship there that he couldn’t find the means to properly explain. Often the cat was exasperated by the raccoon’s consistent poised, happy outlook on life, despite the often unfortunate circumstances it threw at him especially, but despite the harsh commentary, and the disdainful attitude he had, Charleston cared very deeply for his friend.
Further digging revealed that Charleston was not an only child, and even further delving into the subject revealed a rather disgraceful end to his part in the Keyves Lineage. Charleston had reacted badly against him when he made mention of a singular name that had made the cat fly into an almost-uncontrollable rage – Moira. He instinctively reached for the scarred grooves just under his right cheekfur, duly noting that had Charleston aimed any lower and had Thomas not walked into the kitchen when he had…
He shook the thought from his head.
I should nary be the one apologisin’ to the cat for my wee indiscretions, he thought grimly. I just wanted a better idea o’ his mood swings, is all...
That didn’t help the situation in the slightest, he realised, reaching for another large plank of wood from the pile; sizing it up carefully, glancing back at the ongoing masonry repairs on the side wall of the National Bank to the dimensions of this block of wood.
“Nae…’tis too short for the job,” he muttered to himself.
Mackenzie was full of secrets himself – Upper Highland ones, the Riverlanders’ second most-hated county besides Bigg City. He had come from a moderately lavish background, one more content to the silver spoon in their maws than by getting there through hard work and effort. He had been raised with all the values of a hard-working canid, a mutt about town, as they had once put his title as. Jack and Jill of all trades, master and mistress of few, they had said about his folks – good, hard-working, honest people, never to be listening into the gossip of the streets. Mackenzie had escaped the upper-crustness of his parents’ abode, though it had not been by their choice, more like a fruit of their labour at a very early age. He had travelled around, shedding his old skin as it were, taking on jobs, building up his strength and his knowledge until finally he had wound up on the docksides of Bigg City – a dockside welder at one point, working under the careful instruction of Lucky and Gypsy, owners and proprietors of Lucky’s Yard. His years into working at Lucky’s had eventually led him straight to Captain Star’s side...despite his obvious flaw in getting along with that darned cat.
Had Mackenzie actually been paying more attention to his surroundings instead of his thoughts, he would have realised the very obvious danger he was in. On the workmen’s structure above him crept three silent figures, all feline. Further inspection in the dying light of the day would have revealed that the felines were Xavier Corlette, Oscar Mariott and Gyrus Bodhisattva – the Zero Gang’s leader and his two craftiest cats.
“Xavier, this is crazy!” Oscar whispered as they nimbly leapt onto the solid floor of the roof. “If Mackenzie sees us...!”
“Shut up!” hissed the older cat, baring his claws. “Cap’n left ME in charge, brat! You do as I say!”
Gyrus smirked, “Yer so devious, boss! Droppin’ the lower levels of the canopy on that stupid dog like this, that’s just awesome on so many levels!”
Xavier relished the praise from Gyrus, grinning cruelly. “Been teachin’ that brat how ta fight, ‘e has,” the cat sneered softly. “This is ample payback!”
Xavier looked over the edge, duly noting Mackenzie’s position.
“Gyrus, get over to th’ right side, Oscar, stay here and wait for my signal. When I give it, cut those ropes quick as y’ dare.”
“He’ll be crushed...” Oscar whispered, earning him a vicious glare from his leader.
“Quit yer bitchin’!” hissed Xavier. “That dog could survive a buildin’ collapse on ‘is arse! I want ‘im OUT of the picture, ya hear?! And don’t you damned well screw this one up, Oscar!”
Xavier planted a sharp claw into the younger calico cat’s chest.
“The cellar’s awful cold this time o’ year at night...”
Oscar’s ears pinned back immediately and he whimpered under his breath as he darted for his position, his tail hanging close between his legs. Gyrus snickered under his breath, which Xavier caught on to, turning his steely glare onto the other kit.
“And as for you, unless you wanna join ‘im, I suggest you do the damned same!”
Gyrus gulped as he took his place; Xavier could be a real mean bastard when he wanted something to go right. The alleycat waited for the right moment before he selected a piece of stone, chipped off from an accidental blow to the shelf edge when the workmen had been setting up the canopy earlier in the day. Mackenzie was blissfully unaware of the three cats’ presence on the roof above him, still deep in thought over his mistreatment of Charleston.
I really should go an’ apologise to the cat. I didn’t mean to dredge up such things...
The next thing Mackenzie knew was that he had hit the ground hard, his thoughts punctuated with reeling from a sharp blow to the back of his head. There was a loud roar in his ears as his paw reached around, feeling the warmth of sticky red blood. He chanced to look up, ears pinning back in utter terror as three of the levels above him came down with speed.
Oh dear gods...!!!!
In a burst of adrenaline, Mackenzie O’Neill dived out of the way, but he was not in time to avoid one of the heavier planks coming down on top of the back of his left leg. He cried out in pain as the dust cloud erupted from the site, billowing up and out of the contained workzone. Xavier, Gyrus and Oscar ran from the scene, darting across the rooftops of the adjoining council building and down its fire escape. Xavier grinned maliciously.
“That’s the hired heavy out of the way,” he chuckled. “And stow yer whimperin’, Oscar! He’s still alive, damn it!”
“Couldn’t you’ve just hit him with th’ rock and be done with it?” the calico pleaded.
Xavier cuffed the kit when they were safely on the ground.
“You watch your mouth, Oscar,” he snarled openly. “Or you’ll be sipping your next meal through a damned straw!”
Oscar nodded plaintively, tearful and frightened of the bigger cat. Gyrus nudged his hero sharply.
“We gotta get while there’s still time, boss.”
“Oh don’t worry. He’s famous fer workin’ through the night. They won’t miss him ‘til morn’s light,” laughed Xavier. “Hop it you two! Don’t wanna see either of ya home ‘til later tonight.”
Oscar scarpered the second Xavier put him down. Gyrus watched his friend go, a slight twinge of concern rising up in him.
“Don’t ya think you were a bit ‘arsh, Xav?” he began.
Xavier shrugged, lighting up one of his cigarettes. “Kid’s easy to manipulate. Threaten ‘im, he does what you will.”
He eyed Gyrus grimly.
“Y’ getting soft on me, Bodhisattva?” he growled.
“No Sir!” Gyrus snapped willfully to attention almost. “It’s just...well...Hygar’s getting’ suspicious again...”
“If the cheetah’s got a damned problem with me beatin’ the royalties outta our pickpocket, he can come to me first,” Xavier tossed a wad of cash in Gyrus’s direction. “Go buy y’self a few girls. You did well t’night.”
“Thanks, Xavier!” Gyrus called as he took off down the same alleyway Oscar had taken moments before.
Xavier smirked, admiring his work in instilling his personality in the younger kit. Gyrus was turning out just fine. He looked back towards the National Bank and smirked.
“Ha. One down...”
He stalked off down the alleyway, taking a drag on his cigarette as his fanged grin glistened in the softening light.
...and one to go!
The last dregs of the sun had hit the horizon line when Connor and Sunnie turned into the street where the National stood. Oddly, the area was dark, and the floodlights that usually came on in the late afternoon were not on.
“What the...?” Connor muttered. “Odd...Mac should still be here...”
“How come there’re no lights?” Sunnie asked.
“There should be. It shouldn’t be this dark…” The hedgehog replied, cautiously approaching the fenceline that cordoned off the workmen’s area.
The older boy squinted against the dying sunlight, trying to make out any shape that looked like the timber wolf. The gate was open, as Connor discovered when he pushed against it. He inclined his head to the dusty ground ahead and Sunnie followed close behind, a hand on Connor’s vest, not wanting to be separated from the older boy for more than a minute. They took tentative steps into the seeping darkness, Connor’s edginess coupled with Sunnie’s nervousness.
“Mac?” Connor called after a while of walking. “Mackenzie!”
Sunnie glanced around as the area began to take on long shadows and scary-looking shapes.
“D’ya think he went home?” he asked quietly.
“He could’ve,” Connor admitted slowly. “But he would have called the Captain and gotten a message to Lilliena while we were with her. He never just ups and goes. He’s not Charleston...”
“Mackenzie?” Sunnie called out, echoing his friend’s concerns. “Mackenzie?”
“Mac!” Connor called, worry and slight panic tinting the older boy’s voice. “MAC!”
A pain-filled groan filled the boys’ ears from a pile of rubble and wreckage just ahead of them.
“...C-C--Connor?...” the voice whimpered. “...ha...hah...is that you...?”
“MACKENZIE!” the hedgehog cried.
He darted forward, Sunnie’s grip of his vest torn asunder, to the heaped rubble, under which lay an injured timber wolf. His left leg was pinned under the mound of broken wood and stone masonry and an angry wound was visible on the back of his head.
“Oh Mac!” Connor cried. “How did this---?!”
“Never mind how!” the canid growled, his fangs gritted from the sharp pains shooting up his immobilised leg. “Go and get Red...and Walt...as quick as you can...I cannae move on my own...”
Without having Connor ask, Sunnie draped his tail over Mackenzie’s shivering form, kneeling beside the injured wolf, trying to keep him steady, and at least a bit warmer in the chill of the early evening. Though he was scared of the growing dark surrounding them, he was more scared for the badly injured Star Team member beside him. Connor took off in a near blind, yet still coherent, state of panic, his footsteps echoing down the alleyway, fading into the darkness. Mackenzie coughed hard, Sunnie trying to keep him steady, trying to avoid further injury to his immobile leg.
“Damn...” the wolf growled. “I should ‘ave been paying attention...”
Sunnie said nothing. He curled his tail further around Mackenzie’s still-heaving body, trying to keep him warm. Mac’s paw was covered in drying blood from his head wound. Sunnie ignored his own slightly shivering form and put his fangs to the sleeve of his long-sleeved windcheater. Mackenzie heard the tearing of cloth moments later, feeling the makeshift pad press gently but firmly against the still-bleeding wound. His adrenaline-fuelled quick breaths slowed, his panic and worry soothed by the actions of this younger boy.
“Ye shouldna done that,” the big wolf rumbled quietly. “Ye ruined yer sweater.”
“Better that than ‘avin’ y’ bleed like this...” Sunnie replied softly.
“Heh.” Mackenzie couldn’t help but chuckle. “Yer a good kid. What do they call ye?”
“Sunnie, Sir,” the tree panda replied earnestly.
“Heh, ye can drop th’ sir thing,” the wolf smiled weakly. “I’m Mac, but I guessed from th’ voice I heard, you knew that already.”
The sharp hooting of an owl making its rounds through the city made Sunnie start slightly, his ears pinning back at the haunting cry. Mackenzie felt him flinch and realised that the boy seemed almost terrified of the growing darkness around them. He shifted, groaning painfully as he did so, and put a shaky paw on the younger boy’s arm.
“Scared?” he asked softly.
“A little,” Sunnie admitted sadly.
“It’s nothing t’ be ashamed of, laddie,” Mackenzie replied. “I can say I’m too keen bein’ out here either.”
He smiled gently.
“But then, I’m no’ exactly alone out here and that makes all the difference.”
Sunnie smiled weakly. The sound of a car approached the gates ahead of them and a call from an elderly voice shattered the silence of the darkness.
“Over here, Walt...” Mackenzie called back. “Th’ one trapped under this pile of rubble, heh heh...ow...”
“Damn it all! Someone get the lights on around here!”
“I’m already on it, Walter!” Red’s deep voice almost echoed in the silence.
Mackenzie could hear the armadillo fumbling around, small torch in his maw, at the entanglement of wires making up the lighting rig around the external gates. His ears pinned back gingerly, the echo pounding in his head and worsening his growing headache.
“Gosh darn it all! Why’d they have to go an’ jury rig such an appalling system?!” Red’s annoyance was obvious.
“How are they coming, Red?” Walter called.
“Dang blammit! Flamin’ red, green and black wiring! I keep tellin’ ‘em it’s a real safety hazard around these traps!”
Mackenzie squeezed Sunnie’s arm gently, “Best shield yer eyes. Those spotlights are unforgiving bastards…”
Sunnie did as he was told, just as Red’s tinkering brought them on full blast. He could hear Connor’s hurried footsteps towards them as his eyes adjusted to the sharp glare.
“Do the other Stars know?”
“Jones, Charlie and Thom are all up and waitin’ for us back at their base, bur aye!”
“Good, good!” the elderly hawk approached them as Red appeared from the opposite end of the fenceline. “Red, give us a hand! There’s a lot of stone pinning him down!”
“I’m on it, old man! Don’tcha worry, eh?”
Sunnie caught sight of Red as he sized up the rubble pinning Mac’s leg to the ground. The huge armadillo towered over the pair of them, six feet nine of muscle and sheer strength. Connor took his place opposite Sunnie and Walt took up the space at Mac’s shoulders as Red mounted up behind the large stone pinning Mac down.
“Yer real lucky, Mac,” Red grinned grimly. “Had these planks given way, you’d be lookin’ at a wheelchair...”
“You’re a real peach, Red.”
“I try!” the armadillo grinned.
“Red, you’re not really helping...” Walt admonished as both Connor and Sunnie looked worriedly at the big fellow. “On three...”
“THREE!” Red roared, yanking back the stone pinning Mac’s leg.
Walter, Connor and Sunnie helped yank Mac out of the way of the huge stone. The wolf snarled in pain but held steady against their combined efforts. Red dropped the stone as the old hawk surveyed the damage.
“Bleeding seems rather superficial, but I can’t really tell. Red, we need to get him to my practice...and for that, we need to move him.”
“Ain’t that unwise?”
“It is,” Walter looked down at Mackenzie’s slightly worried eyes. “But we have little choice right now.”
“Alright. Connor, you an’ yer pal get into th’ back of Walt’s car. Walt, you drive. I’ll get Mac in th’ back with the kids.”
“Don’t drop me, eh?” Mackenzie was surprisingly sardonic.
“Wouldn’t dream of it. I’d only do that if you mistook me for a woman again.”
“You get drunk for the first time since your teenage years and no one will let you forget it...”
“You told me I looked good in my kilt.”
“You were wearing a kilt?!”
Connor tried to keep a straight face despite his worry for his friend, but he couldn’t help but snicker – a little too loudly, he realised, as Mackenzie shot him a glare.
“Very funny, Connor.”
“I thought it was,” the hedgehog offered unhelpfully.
It was the longest and most painful drive Mackenzie had ever been on, but somehow, the youngsters made it that much easier to cope with.
He was beyond the point of calmly handling this like the leader he was.
Upon hearing of Mackenzie’s accident and how severe his injuries were at first glance, his thoughts immediately turned to tomorrow night’s Magistrate’s Ball, in which Mac was meant to be the designated official escort of Lady Lorianna. Jones ran his feathered fingers through what remained of his once-tufty hair, staring down at the polished cedar wood of his workdesk in his bedroom. This couldn’t have happened at a worse time. In less than twenty four hours, the team was expected to be decked out in their best as The Duchess’s escorts for the evening.
Never before had Jones felt as desperate as he did now.
He paced the floor, wondering how it was he would find another escort for Lorianna on such short notice. Mac’s leg was badly broken and he would be off work for some time. He had not bothered alerting Captain Star of the fiasco they now had to deal with, the older man’s drowned sorrows were awash in the dark brown of the copious amounts of beer he had consumed whilst on his ‘business meeting’ earlier that day. He had come home feeling for the knob of the door and Jones had made every effort to not say what he dearly wanted to say. He had aided the stumbling, hiccuping, cursing drunkard up to his room to sleep it all off. And less than half an hour later, the phone had rung – Red McTaggerty, the resident rescue chief – had explained about Mackenzie’s unfortunate accident.
Walter and Red, along with Connor and the new boy, Sunnie River’ynn had helped Mackenzie to his room, where the old hawk had taken Jones aside and explained the nature of the accident. Mackenzie was still coming down off the surge of shock and adrenaline that had jolted his system, and by moving him in the way they had, the break was anything less than clean. Jones had thumped the wall in a rare display of frustration, the older hawk trying vainly to help him keep his composure. He had been rather snappy with Connor as the boy served up some dinner for Sunnie and himself. The hedgehog had said little, only to remind him that he was being as unreasonable as the Captain was when he was hung over, taking Sunnie down the hall along with their plates of food to his bedroom and closing the door with a small amount of force.
Jones rubbed his forehead as Red bid he and Walter goodnight, returning to his cityside patrol. Walter laid a feathered hand on his shoulder.
“You mustn’t blame yourself, Jones,” he admonished slightly. “This is just an unfortunate circumstance...”
“One with dire consequences!” Jones snapped back. “Margreaves is going to go spare!”
“Since when have you ever listened to a word that old Kodiak has said to you and the lads?”
“That’s beside the damnable point, Walt!”
Walter was quiet for a moment as Jones leaned his head against the hallway wall.
“He’s drunk again, isn’t he?”
Jones gave a slight nod, his eyes glancing upstairs only briefly.
“I had hoped that an abstinence from alcohol would do him some good. Those pills I prescribed were quite strong. Have any of them been taken at all?”
“No. I found the box in the bin this morning. It was still sealed.”
“One cannot account for another’s lack of morality in situations like this,” Walter continued. “He obviously has a great deal of faith in you, Mackenzie and Orion to carry on when he is...ah...indisposed as such.”
“How much were those pills, Walt?”
“I don’t think we should be discussing costs…”
“Walt,” Jones’s voice hardened. “How much?”
“About a good triple of what your standard rate of pay is, old friend.”
“I knew it. That bloody fool will be drinking himself to his father’s grave if he doesn’t watch it!”
“I have considered that, several times, but it is not my place to force such things onto him.” Walt soothed his friend gently. “Perhaps, sooner rather than later, there will be a consequence to shift his manner of behaviour? We can but hope.”
“Yes...I suppose so.”
“Professor?” Thomas’s voice broke through their quiet conversation.
Standing beside him, equal parts concern and irritation, was Charleston. Jones sighed, gesturing to the kitchen.
“Where’s Mac?” Thomas asked worriedly.
“Get in the kitchen, the both of ye,” Jones snapped irritably. “I’ll explain shortly!”
Charleston shot the old bird an angry glare as he and Thomas did as they were told. Walter patted his friend’s shoulder.
“You know, Mac’s asking for you. I think he has something to say about this turn of events.”
“...What do I say to him? That I’m not scared this will all go to hell?”
“If you stay panicked instead of focused then it very well may go down that road.”
Jones glanced down the hallway towards Connor’s room, “...I was too harsh on him.”
“Focus, old friend, focus. Connor will come ‘round as soon as you’re thinking straight again,” Walt soothed. “Although...that riverlander’s comment was uncalled for.”
Jones flinched slightly. He knew Walt was right.
“I’m not thinking correctly, old friend.”
“In a situation like this, no one can blame you, Oliver,” Walt continued, using his friend’s first name. “Go on. You and Mac have a good and just friendship. It’ll help ease your stresses. I’ll talk to Charleston and Thomas on your behalf.”
“Thank you, old friend.”
“My pleasure. Now, don’t delay, you old coot.”
Jones headed upstairs and knocked gently on Mackenzie’s door. The wolf called a response and as he entered, Mac gestured to the nearby chair.
“Come on, Jones, we both know what the situation at hand is,” he rumbled.
“Mac, this couldn’t come at a worse time...”
Mac held up his paw, silencing the old owl for a moment. “I know. It’s my fault in its entirety, I was honestly not payin’ attention to my surroundings like I should’ve been.”
“What on earth was it that garnered your attention so badly??”
“Charleston?” Jones was genuinely surprised at first, then grew stern. “You didn’t take heed of my warnings, did ye?”
“Mackenzie, I warned you that Charleston was very edgy about his family life…”
“Aye, I realised that a little late, I admit.”
“Yes...after Thomas had to pull him off of you,” the old bird frowned.
“For what it’s worth, we were both in an argumentative mood that day.”
“You’re probably very lucky you didn’t wake the Captain on that day.”
“Aye, probably,” Mac’s voice grew quieter. “I did nae mean to hurt him, Jones.”
“Charleston will talk when he’s ready to do so...and not before,” he frowned at the shamed timber wolf. “Forcing him to was not the best of your ideas, Mac.”
“I realise that now, Jones.”
“After he put your tailend in a sling.”
“Yes, well...we both know he may have a decisive temper, but he lacks the spine to go any further.”
“Your scars say otherwise,” Jones spoke quietly. “...What are we to do about Lorianna?”
“...I...hadn’t gotten that far in planning, really.”
“Good. Neither have I.”
There was a brief moment of silence between the two older members of the Star Team.
“Margreaves is going to have a fit,” Jones finally remarked.
“Aye, ‘e would at a time like this,” Mac agreed. “But honestly, how bad could it be?”
“He’s expecting five guardians for her, Mac.”
“You’ve got five.”
“With you incapacitated, we only have four.”
“What about the boy?” Mac asked, silently regretting his tone at the sight of the shadowed look on Jones’s face.
“You’ve got to be pulling my beak, Mackenzie,” Jones spoke firmly. “A Riverlander amongst a City Team? Do you have any idea how badly that will reflect upon the Lady Lorianna’s guests? How badly it will reflect upon us?”
“You’re starting to sound identical to Margreaves.”
“Am I? I’m not the one claiming the cityfolk are his enemies!” Jones snapped.
“Have you actually heard the boy say that?”
“He’s thinking of it!”
“Jones...ye never struck me as the hatemongering type...”
“Hatemongering?!” the bird nearly shrieked. “Have you forgotten about the civil war we’re almost in with those...those peasants?!”
“Keep ye tone down, ye old basketcase,” Mackenzie growled, baring his fangs. “Ye ain’t winning no points with Connor with that attitude.”
“And what on earth are you doing?” Jones retaliated. “When last I looked, you and Riverlanders didn’t mix either!”
Mackenzie looked pensive for a moment, “Jones...that boy could have left me to the elements and gone with Connor to get help. But ye know what?”
Jones’s expression didn’t change. “What?”
“He stayed put. Even though he was afraid o’ th’ darkness creepin’ in, he stayed with me. He kept me warm, even ripped the sleeve of his windcheater to stop m’ head wound from bleedin’ so much.”
“He did what?”
“Ye heard me.”
“But...no riverlander...” Jones stammered.
“No Riverlander elder would have given a halfways damn about me,” Mackenzie finished the old bird’s thoughts. “But th’ lad, Sunnie? He’s a youngster, probably been taught from day one t’ respect his elders and such. We’ve not exactly been all that welcoming and yet still he respects us.”
“...I still do not trust him, Mackenzie.”
“Well, I do.”
Jones’s expression may have been blank, but Mackenzie could see the incredulousness rising in his eyes.
“Ye may think that it’s far too soon to be callin’ th’ boy out on issues of trustin’ ‘im, but ‘e well and truly kept me sane out there, both ‘im and Connor,” Mackenzie replied firmly. “And I don’t know if ye’ve noticed this, but Connor’s a lot more open on displaying his feelings to the team. Take offense all ye like, Jones, but th’ kid’s here with us ‘til week’s end. Ye are gonna have t’ find some way around these petty issues o’ yours.”
“Petty issues of mine?!” Jones snapped angrily. “Here you are being as much a hypocrite as our own damned Captain…”
“I’m not th’ one who’s drunk off his damned maw every night, Jones.”
“And your point is? You’re not thinking rationally here!”
“I am as sound of mind as I’ve ever been, you damned pre-bird,” the wolf snarled, fangs gleaming. “And if ye aren’t going t’ accept th’ new boy as one of our own in the time that he’s here with us, then that’s your problem. I for one ‘ave accepted the boy. It’s about time someone other than Connor did.”
“Out with ye!” Mackenzie growled angrily. “Don’t come back into my room until yer ready to accept change, Jones!”
Jones stormed out of Mackenzie’s room, furious with the turn of events. Mackenzie lay back, listening as Jones’s tired, angry footsteps echoed down the upper hallway and faded into his own room, the door slamming behind him. Mackenzie sighed doubtfully – expecting the old bird to change was next to nigh impossible. He could only hope that neither Connor nor Sunnie had overheard or were affected by their arguing.
The murmurings made his ear twitch uncomfortably. His eyes fluttered open and adjusted to the blackness of his room. Where was he? And then he remembered; the guest room just down the hall from Connor’s bedroom, in the Star Team HQ. He blinked, sight clearing and hearing drawn to the hushed voices from a room just down from where he lay in bed.
“With Mac out...trouble...Margreaves...”
Sunnie knew from the harshness of the voices’ tones that he was being talked about. Part of him wanted to just reach for the pillow and drown out the voices, but the other half morbidly wanted to know what was being said about him. He crept out of bed, taking all due care to not make the floorboards underfoot creak loud enough for them to hear, and pressed his ear against the door.
“I can’t believe that old wolf trusts the young one...” came a snappy response.
“Aye, you and me both, Charleston.”
Sunnie recognised the voice as belonging to the old bird, Professor Jones, Connor’s mentor.
“What does Captain Star think?” A posh-sounding voice asked.
There was a brief pause, most likely realisation, Sunnie thought.
“I shouldn’t have asked at all, should I?”
“Drunk again,” came Jones’s sharp retort. “If it’s not port, it’s champers...and if the champers isn’t strong enough to his liking, it’s the whiskey.”
“Someone’s got to do something about old Gomez...”
“He’s the best drinks maker in the city. There is no way to sway him. You know what his day job is.”
“From the frying pan to the fire,” Charleston agreed. “The philistine should know better than to ply our Captain with those damnable bottles.”
“He’s oblivious, Charleston. He always has been.”
“What made him think of journalism as a side career to being a booze hound anyway?”
“Better money during the day I suppose,” Jones replied. “Besides...I’d rather he be in our faces rather than getting picked up by Red all the time.”
“Mmm, I can’t really say either is very appealing, old man.”
“Heh, well, at least Captain Star is asleep. I’d rather he be in dreamland than up and ranting.”
“Something on your mind, Charleston?”
“There’s a lot of...heresay...going about, Jones.”
It was the way Charleston said it that made Sunnie flinch as though he had been caned.
“Connor seems to be rather...protective...nowadays.”
“Hmph, I can’t say my experiences have been...well...in the past.”
“Neither have mine. Mac seems to think the Elder Riverlanders are the ones to avoid.”
“And Mackenzie would know this how?” Charleston’s voice took on a sharper tone.
“I’m not sure. He said I was being petty at having something against the boy.”
“You’re suspicious. Aren’t we all?”
“Yes, well, species-wise, you have reason to be fiercely suspicious. I’m a University Lecturer, Charleston – I have to be open with my students, regardless of birthplace.”
“But you have your likes and dislikes and your reasonings, do you not?”
“I do...” the bird trailed off a moment.
If Sunnie had had any sense, he would have gone back to bed and ignored the conversation as it unfolded. Unfortunately, the boy remained at the doorway, listening to Charleston and Jones talk.
“I...can’t say I think the boy is...right...for the team.”
Sunnie felt as though Jones had gut-punched him. He closed his eyes, ears pinning back further as the cat and the bird continued their conversation. He couldn’t move as more of their hurtful words permeated the darkness.
“Have you taken a good look at him, Charleston?”
“Can’t say I have.”
“He’s scrawny! Vulnerable! Do you honestly think he’d be even a match for one of Zero’s bully boys?” Jones was off again on his tirade. “We’d be running a babysitting service, not a crew of lads ready for anything!”
Charleston snorted, chuckling, “Can’t say Connor wasn’t along those ideals when he first started...”
“He had Orion to back him up, Charleston.”
“That IS true...”
“Orion taught him how to defend himself, Mac taught him offensive, you taught him elegance, I taught him wisdom and Thomas...er...”
“Thomas is Thomas, old man.”
“I can’t argue there. But I can’t even stand being near the Riverlander boy. I can’t explain it any better than that. He just...isn’t a Star. Not to me.”
“When you get these feelings old man, you’re usually spot on about them...although...” Charleston began, but was interrupted.
“I should be open, accepting, willing to compromise. Hah! As if Captain Star feels the boy is right for us,” Jones snorted. “He was probably drunk when he put up those posters, given the fact one wound up on a post somewhere in hicksville.”
“You’re an angry drunk yourself, Jones,” the cat murmured.
“I’m not nearly as drunk as he happens to be, cat.”
“I can’t say you’re not acting it,” there was a soft chink of a glass on the table. “One small nip of sherry is enough to have you bounding off the walls.”
“I can handle my liquor just fine, Charleston.”
“Mm, quite. So...will the boy be accompanying us with Lady Lorianna?”
“Good heavens, no!” Jones snapped incredulously. “Have you lost your mind?!”
“Jones...” there was a softer tone to the cat’s voice. “Connor will not appreciate you doing that.”
“Oh...and I suppose you’re the boy’s guardian now?”
“I just think barring the Riverlander boy altogether is a bit extreme.”
“One minute you’re agreeing with me on getting rid of him and the next you’re supporting him? Whose side are you on, Charleston?”
“There are no sides in the Star Team, Jones...” the cat’s voice had a dangerous edge to it. “I’m merely saying unless you want Orion at your throat again...”
“That boy is about as impulsive as his brother, and there’s a twenty year age gap between them!”
“You were Orion’s mentor first, I know that.”
“I just...feel...as if we’re judging this a little early...that’s all.”
“You’re not the most apt Riverlanders supporter, Charleston. I never took you for a fool.”
“Now see here, old man,” there was a distinctive snarl emanating from the cat’s throat. “My loyalties lie with the Star Team – nobody else!”
“Does that include Riverlanders?” Jones sneered. “Wasn’t it you who said we had to keep our breeding lines pure?”
“If you think that for one minute…”
“Oh I do!”
“Look here, bird!”
“No! I think you’re full of it!”
“The only one of us who’s full of it would be the bird who’s unable to hold his liquor at all!” Charleston snapped angrily. “If you think that for one minute I’m going to argue with an old man, you’ve got another thing coming!”
“Oh! Do I?!”
“You do! I’m not supporting the Riverlander, nor will I ever support his kind! You’re just hearing bits and pieces and saying what you know I didn’t say!”
“Go to bed, Jones," Charleston's voice had a sharp tone of finality, ending the argument as quickly as it had begun. "You’re no better than our drunkard Captain.”
Silence entered the conversation for only a moment, before the bird snatched up his glass and stormed off down the hallway. Sunnie took several quiet, faltering steps backwards, feeling for the bedside behind him, listening to the claws on the floorboards as they stalked past his closed bedroom door. He sat down once the sounds had dissipated into the darkness, staring miserably at the floor.
What am I doing here?, he wondered sadly. I’m...I’m causing fights all around me. First Connor and his Captain, and now the rest of his teammates...
Sunnie felt the tears building in his eyes as he slipped back under the covers, pulling them up, wishing he had just pulled the pillow over his ears and gone back to sleep. He had overheard the real feelings of the old bird and the cat, though he couldn’t really be sure if the feline was even supporting his arrival here or not. The heated conversation and eventuating argument had blurred that considerably.
He sniffled, the sound muffled by the quilt cover, as he closed his eyes, trying to build his confidence back up and get some sleep in the process.
He had a very restless night.