It wasn’t meant to end like this...
He ignored the frantic splashes of water from the puddles his feet tore through as he ran from the home he thought he’d become a part of, ignored the shudders of pain that travelled up his leg, sending frantic thoughts to his brain to slow the hell down or he’d do himself a much worse injury than having the Captain fling that bottle of whiskey at him. He was drunk, and not thinking straight, but the bruises appearing on his arms said everything about the brute force the man really had, drunken rage or not. What hurt worse was the fact Captain Star had called him those names. It hurt enough to have the citizens of this place call him that, but from a Captain he had hoped to serve? Sunnie felt his soul turn inside out, recoiling from the vicious hatred Star had flung at him verbally.
It wasn’t supposed to go like this, his mind screamed at him, I shouldn’t have come! I’m hated so much for being who I am!
Sunnie didn’t realise where it was he was running to, nor did he care, and nor did it occur to him to open his eyes until the very last second…when he was only a few feet away from the massive wall of uniformed creatures that stretched into the haze of the rain.
He’d run blindly into a patrol of the Royal Guard.
Sunnie’s breath caught in his throat as the hulking form of the Kodiak Bear, Hector Margreaves, turned on him, eyes ablaze with unbridled fury. His features broke into a cruel grin as Sunnie backed away, fear etched into his eyes.
“Well, well, well! Look who it is!” Hector smirked wildly, ready for a hunt. “If it isn’t the little traitor in question!”
Oh Goddess..., Sunnie’s mind screamed at him. It’s him! Margreaves! Goddess help me!!
Hector ran his tongue across his gleaming fangs. It was pure irony that the boy had run right into them without giving them a challenge! But, he mused, eyes narrowing, where was the fun in that? He smiled toothily at the rain-soaked, trembling boy. Sunnie backed up, mind awash with panic, dread and unadulterated fear. The look in the bear’s eyes reminded him of the gaze of an alpha wolf, crazed with bloodlust and hunger. Hector raised a massive paw, signalling to the guards as they dropped into defensive stances, chuckling cruelly.
“Not yet, boys. Where’s the fun in simply overpowering him?”
“Your orders, Sir?” the guard closest to him asked.
“Hold back...for now.”
Hector smirked at Sunnie.
“Start running Riverlander,” he laughed. “One minute is all I’m giving you!”
The bear needent have even said it – Sunnie was off like a prey species running from a pack of starving wolves. Hector waited until the boy had disappeared into the haze, before nodding to his guardsmen, who took off after the traitorous child, yelling for justice for their injured Duchess. He stood off to the side, watching his pack tear off after the boy, grinning to himself. Putting his hands in his pockets, his fingers idly hit against something smooth and glass-like. His hand gripped the object and pulled it out, examining it against the icy droplets of the pouring rain. Margreaves realised it was the syringe, and still contained within it was a small dosage of the green liquid, the serum he’d given to Lorianna via a shot in the back. Alice had told the alleycat that it was a sedative, a very powerful sedative. The bear idly held the syringe up to his eye level, thinking carefully. There was just enough serum left...
Hector pulled out his handkerchief and wrapped the syringe up carefully, before eyeing the haze that the traitor and his guards had disappeared into. It was doable, he realised, but only if he got to the boy first.
Smirking with anticipation, the old bear made for his car.
“We are so screwed...”
“Jones, shut up!”
Connor sat on a bench at the back of the holding cell, head in his hands, trying for the most part to ignore his squabbling teammates. Sunnie had vanished before the Royal Guard had been upon them, arresting them and leading them from the nobility-surrounded Ballroom in iron chains. Maximillian had been terribly rough with the others but surprisingly gentle with him – no doubt an act of kindness made out of Margreaves’ eyesight. Fortunately the older cat had the sense to ride with him, rather than with the others. Nothing had been said for the first ten minutes of the journey towards the prison, until Maximillian had shut, and surprisingly locked, the communications window between him and the driver.
He had been brief and slightly blunt with him, only enough for Connor to ascertain that Maximillian was unnerved by the suddeness and speed of the accident. Though he had only been employed under Margreaves’ service for a few months at best, Max had confided in Connor that something was amiss in the Heirarchy, and that, as a Royal Guard, he could only act with Margreaves’ interests in mind. But Connor, he pointed out, was outside of the bear’s authority, and therefore exempt from his hawkeyed rules and regulations. Unlike his other teammates, still led inside in chains, Max had opted to unlock Connor’s under the premise the boy wouldn’t try to run. Thusly, the hedgehog boy had kept his end of the bargain, remaining quietly calm and poised as the feline led them to the holding cell, Charleston hissing and spitting the entirety of the time.
Now though, Max had left them to the jeering of the others in his team of guardsmen as they readied their number to guard the injured Duchess, and under the strain of the whole event, Jones had cracked a little further into insanity. The cat had whispered to Connor that he would try to have them off safely home before Charleston took out a few occulars before he had locked the door. But the other cat had been gone an awful long time, and Jones was getting more and more unbearable with his panicked mutters and cries.
“Someone shut him up...” Charleston growled, claws streaking against the metallic bars.
“Well I would, Keyves, but I’d rather not have to deal with him screaming I hit him tomorrow,” Thomas replied.
“At the rate we’re going, tomorrow’s a moot point!”
“So very, very screwed...”
Thomas eyed Connor, sitting alone in the back of them. The boy hadn’t said a word since the ordeal unfolded, and Sunnie was still missing. Knowing the argument they’d had mere moments before Lorianna’s bonechilling scream had erupted from the dancefloor would still be on his mind, Thomas idly strode past Connor, running a hand through his headfur. It was a feeble gesture the raccoon realised, but every little would honestly help in the here and now.
Connor didn’t even look up.
Charleston meanwhile had grabbed Jones by his lapels and was smacking him about with a paw, trying to get him to snap out of his panic-induced state. Strangely enough, Thomas amusingly pictured Orion doing the same thing had he been here suffering through all of this with them. But, the raccoon also reasoned, Orion would be much worse a leader in Sunnie’s case. Secretly he was glad Connor’s older brother was away. The sound of jangling keys alerted the Star Team to Maximillian’s returning form. Charleston stopped his angry face-slapping tirade enough for the other feline to say that they were free to go. Charleston eyed his friend angrily.
“Under what conditions?” the cougar retorted.
Maximillian sighed in defeat. “You’re confined to your headquarters until further notice.”
“This is our city too, damn it!” Charleston spat. “We’ll go where we like in it!”
“Under the orders of His Lordship, you’re not to disobey.”
“No. Lord Margreaves.”
“WHAT?!?” Charleston cried in disbelief.
“Until Her Ladyship awakens, all power of leadership is bestowed upon the Commander of her Royal Guard,” the cat replied, holding the cell door open. “With Lord Andrew removed from power, he is, rightfully, the next in line.”
“This is all complete bull...” Charleston began, the words on his lips.
“Don’t finish the sentence, Keyves,” Thomas warned, putting his hands on his pal’s shoulders. “Let’s just get outta here in one piece...”
Charleston grabbed Jones by an arm and half-dragged, half-walked him out of the cell, casting a grim glare at Max as they stalked past. Thomas was next, putting a hand on the other cat’s shoulder and whispering an apology. Connor trailed out last, head down, not meeting the cat’s eyes. He followed them after locking the cell, having organised to drive them home from the back way to avoid the media dogs converging outside, waiting to tear them into more shreds for the vultures in power to feast upon. It hadn’t been easy wrangling the car with the heavily-tinted windows, but the cat figured he’d pay for that later when Margreaves got back from whatever the hell he was up to.
Connor rode in front with Max, whilst the whole situation sunk in with Charleston, Jones and Thomas in the back. The silence was deafening, save for the heavy beat of the rain washing the car as it sped through the darkened streets. Max tried to concentrate on the road but knew that it was almost impossible to do so.
“I’m sorry, guys,” he began. “Nothing about this mess makes any sense. Not even to me.”
He could see Charleston staring off out the window in the reflection of the mirror, Jones seated next to him, fingers streaked through his headfeathers. Thomas nodded idly, eyes closed. Connor looked up at him, eyes pale and the faint shine of tears building in them. Max ran a hand through the younger boy’s headfur before returning to the steering wheel, taking the last set of lights before the Star Team HQ. He stopped the car in the driveway and waited for the older boys to leave the car before he spoke to Connor.
“Keep your head up, kiddo,” the cat whispered in his ear. “I don’t believe any of this was Sunnie’s fault. Keep the faith. He’ll turn up...”
Max knew that the last part was complete bunk, especially in regards to his CO, but it honestly couldn’t hurt to build up whatever shreds of confidence Connor had left. The hedgehog boy exited the car without another word, leaving the cat in a thoughtless silence. All he could do was return to his post now, and pray that this whole mess would blow over seamlessly.
The other Stars were in the kitchen when Connor closed the front door, mind awash with thoughts of Sunnie, of the accident with the Duchess, and of his fight with the younger boy. As he trudged towards his room, heart heavy with grief, he saw Jones emptying several bottles into the sink in the kitchen – alcohol he realised – and slumped sound asleep on the table was their drunken Captain.
“God be merciful,” he heard Thomas curse loudly. “Drunk again!”
“Out like a light, too,” Charleston was growling. “Idiot.”
“For the best I suppose,” the old owl sighed. “Better he not wake up and see us coming home escorted by Max.”
“Oh yeah? And who promised to take action against his drunken follies?” Connor said the words before he could honestly stop himself.
Truth was, he was tired of this - tired of waking up to hear his Captain retching into the toilet bowl at all hours of the night and early morning. To hear him drunkenly yelling at no one and everyone within reach of him, shadows on the wall or not. To be called by Orion’s name at every interval, to be accused of not being his real leader, to be reminded of his failure to stay by his brother’s side when it came to the Princess Alice...oh gods, Connor was tired of the empty promises and hollowness that always seemed to spill out of his older mates’ mouths.
Jones may not have had any visible ears, but even Connor could see his headfeathers play back at his commentary. He’d struck a chord in the old bird, one that hummed dangerously in the cold room. Charleston rolled his eyes and snorted huffily.
“Yeah. And who was it that promised to keep the Riverlander trash out of trouble?” he retorted.
“Sunnie is NOT Riverlander trash!” Connor surprised himself with the unbridled fury he displayed towards Charleston. “You’re the trash in this outfit, feline! You moan about everything and everyone! You never shut up!”
“Connor!” Jones admonished angrily.
“Hey guys, come on, calm down!” Thomas tried to diffuse the situation as quickly as he dared to.
“Oh shut up, Thomas!” Charleston reacted angrily to the raccoon’s intrusion. “Peacemaker you aren’t!”
“That was uncalled for...” the raccoon gritted his fangs. “Far as I know, Connor’s right. You are a whiny arsehole at the worst of times!”
“Thomas, stop it!” Jones growled.
“Oh, go to hell, old man!” Thomas winced at the fury in his tone. “Since when have you actually done anything to calm anyone down? You’re too busy plying that slob with the alcohol in the first place!”
Jones flinched openly. Connor was smirking. Charleston dug his claws into the table.
“You idiot, Marlesbury!” the cat’s hackles were rising up. “Jones ain’t the one who started this!”
“Yeah, I know!” the raccoon retorted. “You’re the idiot who encouraged him to start it in the first place!”
“I was not!”
“Who’s the one who told Orion to tell Jones to start having social drinks with him!” Connor pointed an accusing finger at their still-sleeping Captain. “You’re Orion’s second-in-command, you jerk! You’re the one who started this and are laying fault to everyone else!”
“You shut up right now, Connor!” Charleston snarled openly, displaying sharp white fangs.
“Or what?” Connor snapped back defiantly. “You’ll hit me? Great display of authority there, Charlie!”
“Shut your muzzle or I’m going to take out more than just your tongue!”
“Over my dead body!” Thomas met Charleston’s nose. “You touch Connor and I’ll tear you limb from limb, Keyves!”
“Get the hell out of my face, Marlesbury!”
“Or what? You’ll tear my muzzle open like you did to Mac?!”
“Don’t shut up and we’ll see how far I can split your d**ned lip!”
“Just try it, you obstinate jackass!”
“Oh that’s it, you philestine!”
Jones pried the raccoon and the cougar apart, using his elbow to keep Charleston away and his hand forcing Thomas’s shoulder back.
“That’s enough!” the old owl repeated more forecfully. “I will not have a fight breaking out in here!”
“Same old, same old,” Connor grumbled. “Can’t admit they’re right, can you, old man?”
“Connor,” Jones’s voice was almost a hiss. “Be quiet!”
Jones halted, eyes ablaze with fury. “What did you say to me?”
“I said no.” Connor repeated more firmly.
“Connor Hedgehog, you are dangerously close to a whipping...”
“I bet Orion would say you’d crossed the line.”
“Leave your brother, our leader, out of this, you little brat!” Jones snapped. “You and that blasted little Riverlands snot were joined at the hip until tonight! He played you for a damnable little sap, Connor!”
“...shut up about Sunnie...”
“Unbelievable,” Jones let out a wry chuckle. “You fell for his bloody cute little act, didn’t you? Those Riverlanders are slime, Connor! They steal our money, our jobs, our contracts! Are you that blind you can’t even see what he was even after?!”
“SHUT UP ABOUT SUNNIE!”
Jones barely reacted to the slap Connor gave him. He grabbed the boy’s hand, yanking him close to him.
“Shut up, Connor, or I’ll...!”
“You’ll what? Take my eye out like Charlie here just threatened to?”
Charleston flinched quietly. Hitting kids was not in his agenda, and even threatening to do it made him feel like he belonged with Xavier and his bully boys. At the way his ears pinned back, Connor couldn’t help but feel a sick sense of pride at finally getting to the bigger cat.
“Connor, I will not warn you again,,,” Jones growled, tightening his grip on Connor’s arm.
“Warn me about what?! Taking the fall for your damnable mistakes, old man?!” Connor was barely aware of anything else other than his anger. “Taking the fall for the rest of you as if I never mattered at all?! Teaching me ta fight because you can’t save yourselves from yer own damned pratfalls?!”
Something about all their yelling, all their accusations and hatred for each other and for him and Sunnie broke the dam of emotions Connor had been bottling up for years. He lashed out with his other paw, claws unsheathed, catching Jones by complete surprise. Four bloody red snarls appeared as quickly as Connor had made the strike against the old bird’s cheek. Teetering off-balance, Jones stumbled back into Thomas and Charleston, who steadied their friend as his trembling fingers rested upon the bleeding, feathers staining with crimson. Tears had entered Jones’s eyes, both from the anger, the shock of the strike and the realisation that it had been Connor, Orion’s younger brother, who had hit him.
“Connor...!” the voice of disbelief belonged to both Thomas and Charleston.
“You...bastards,” the younger hedgehog spat, muzzle awash with the pale fluid of tears. “You spiteful...hating...cruel...”
The word caught in Connor’s throat.
“You’ve always hated me...hated me for that bitch Alice that has all of you by the balls...like damnable puppets!” Connor was trembling, alive with rage. “This bastard that leads us is always drunk and passed out...because of you lot! You don’t do anything to stop him! You don’t do anything to stop him from cussing me out like I’m the cause of all this!”
“Connor...” Jones’s voice was barely audible, eyes travelling from his still-bleeding wound to the hedgehog boy.
“You’re a coward, Thomas!” Connor continued, not bothering to hide the fact he was crying. “You think just because you play tea parties with my brother and Charleston everything’s gonna be alright all the time! WELL IT’S NOT!”
Thomas flinched and inadventently let go of Jones’s arm. Jones stumbled forward, landing on his knees heavily. Charleston knelt beside the fallen bird.
“Jones...” he began, only to be pushed away by a dismissive hand.
“I’m fine,” the owl replied tersely.
“And you...” Connor met eyes with the cat. “You’re a hatemongerer, Charleston! A filthy liar too!”
“You think I don’t know?!” Connor cried angrily. “You think I don’t know why Sunnie was crying last night?!”
At this, both Jones and Charleston cringed, remembering their hate-fuelled conversation the night before over one too many sherries. Sunnie had been the one who overheard them, and Connor knew.
“Connor, I...” Charleston started, but caught a swift smack in the muzzle from Connor’s closed fist.
“You lying bully!” Connor yelled, fists swinging at the cat. “I don’t care if you attack me for no darn good reason other than to make yourself look bigger in the eyes of my brother, but with Sunnie…YOU HAVE NO RIGHT!”
Charleston instictively raised his arms to shield himself, crying out in pain as Connor struck the softer part of his arms. The boy could clearly defend himself! The cat pinned his ears back, whimpering.
“Connor, please stop!” he cried.
“Jealous hating bastard!” Connor continued, still crying, still throwing punches. “I hate you! I HATE YOU! I HATE YOU!!!”
“Connor!” Thomas’s voice cut across the din.
When Sunnie crossed his mind in this onslaught, Connor could bear it no longer. What if Sunnie had been present, watching this whole mess unfold? What if he blamed himself for starting all of this? Connor pictured himself trying to explain, seeing his friend’s frightened eyes as he bolted for the door and ran out into the pouring rain, disappearing from his sight. He stopped hitting Charleston abruptly, head down, sobbing openly. The cat lowered his arms from their defensive position, guilt crashing like waves into every single pore of his being. Neither he, Jones or Thomas had ever seen Connor cry, not like this. He always seemed to be so damned strong throughout whatever they faced. This was like every single cork holding the dam back had simply given way. The cat reached out for Connor, but the Hedgehog ducked out of his reach.
“...Connor...” Charleston’s voice trembled, thick with unfettered emotion.
“NONE OF YOU ARE ANY BETTER THAN ORION!”
Finally Connor had said it.
The years of having to live up to being in the shadow of the sibling he was supposed to be so close to, and yet was such a black sheep, fighting for his attention against Charleston, against Jones. Being expected to deal with their parents’ deaths, with having Orion tell him he hated him, and never apologise for that moment. Having to cope with his own brother excluding him from his life and replacing him with a cabaret broad...
Then dealing with Alice, protecting Lord Carrelsby’s daughter from that swine of a swan, and then being blamed and told he would never become leader of the Star Team, his dream to walk in his brother’s footsteps...
And having these guys...Jones, Charleston, even Thomas – sweet loving kind and always there Thomas – turn on him because of something that had happened with Sunnie...
And Sunnie. The fight they’d had tonight. The split second where it had all gone horrifically wrong. It was the single feather that made the whole structure he’d built around himself come crashing down.
“...I HATE ALL OF YOU!”
The only thing the cat, raccoon and owl heard were the footsteps, and crunching sounds of something – glass underfoot? – and the reverberating slam of Connor’s bedroom door, wincing at the force of it, of hearing the boy crying his heart out. The trio remained in shamed silence, broken only by the short sigh of someone standing on the stairs – Mackenzie, still in crutches. He had been awoken by all the yelling and had appeared, bearing witness to the entirety of the ordeal. To his credit, he couldn’t meet their eyes, and they couldn’t meet his. The Star Team’s silence was only broken by the barely audible sobs from Connor’s room...and the drunken mutterings from someone whose head barely rested on the kitchen table.
Their ears pricked up, Jones, Charleston and Thomas turning towards their Captain.
“What did he just say?” Charleston asked, his ears pinning back.
Jones got up, ignoring his wound for the moment, tipping the Captain’s head towards them.
“What did you say, Sir?” he asked as the others gathered around them. Mackenzie limped down the hallway, eyeing Connor’s closed bedroom door further down at first, then to the carpeted floor outside the guest room where Sunnie had slept.
“...dnnnnable...rivrrrrrrlnderrr...” Star mumbled, eyes flickering open but totally unfocused. “...bssstrrrd...”
“Come again, Captain?” Jones pressed.
“...whhhhhssssssskyyyy!” Star’s hand groped at the table’s surface, Thomas pulling the half-empty bottle well out of his reach. “Mmmm dnnnammddd whhhssskyyyy!”
“Oh no you don’t,” Thomas muttered.
“Agreed,” Charleston nodded.
“...Hey, laddies?” Mac’s voice called from outside the kitchen.
“What is it, Mac?”
“Ye’d better come here and have a look...”
Jones made it to where Mac was standing first. The wolf pointed one of his crutches down to the carpet, which was strewn with small slivers of glass. Jones knelt carefully, his feathered fingers brushing over them.
“It’s one of ‘is bottles, innit?” Mac asked quietly, even though he was already sick to the stomach with a swell of sweating realisation.
Oh god, he didn’t...
Jones didn’t say a word, but got up from the hallway carpet and pushed open the door to the guest room and turned on the light. Glinting dangerously in the brightness were larger pieces of glass on the hardwood floor, but these were tainted with red. A sickenly familiar shade of red. Charleston joined Jones and Mac in the hallway, noticing that Jones’s fists were clenched tightly by his sides and his breathing was steady, exhaling angrily. Mac looked as if he was going to collapse, leg in plaster already or not.
“That son of a bitch,” Jones’s voice was a hoarse whisper.
“What the-?” Charleston began, only to see what Jones was staring at. “...Oh God.”
“Oh gods, laddie,” Mac breathed. “That’s what he was raving aboot t’night.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I ‘eard ‘im get up,” Mac went on, turning slightly pale, resting his heavy weight on his crutches. “He was ranting and ravin’ summat shocking. ‘Eard him break the glass to th’ liquor cabinet, headin’ downstairs an’ all. It went quiet fer a bit, and then he started up full force. I yelled at ‘im t’ shut up...”
Mackenzie met Jones’s worried eyes.
“It must’ve been th’ river kid...he must’ve come back ‘ere...Star was all up in the air, ‘eard the bottle breakin’...”
“He dragged the boy through the shards,” Jones closed his eyes in fury. “’Couldn’t get to one of us, so he used the boy as his damned...! Of all the-!”
The owl stormed back towards the kitchen, grabbing Star by the lapel of his collar and hauling him up to his level. Star teetered unsteadily on his feet, grinning stupidly at the old bird. Thomas was just finishing up with the disposal of what remained of the whiskey, and turned only just in time to see them.
“WHERE IS HE, YOU BASTARD?!” Jones yelled at his Captain angrily. “WHAT DID YOU DO WITH HIM?”
“...heeheeheeeee...” Star giggled. “...flllt sssssssso gudd...”
“Jones! What in the hell-?” Thomas began.
Charleston answered his question, raising the largest shard of glass he’d found in the guest room stained almost completely red into Thomas’s view. Both of the raccoon’s hands went to his mouth in shock. He turned to his laughing Captain, about ready to take his head off in fury.
“...stpppidddd chlllld,” Star went on, oblivious to Jones’s fury. “...phnneclll seddd...”
Jones had had enough. He gripped the Captain and half walked, half dragged him out of the kitchen and up the stairs.
“Thomas, get rid of every single drop of alcohol in this HQ! Mac, call Sally and Lilliena and tell them we need some damage control back here!”
“Charleston, get Connor out of his room!”
“...he’s not going to want to speak to me...”
“I don’t care! Get him out of there!” Jones snapped, hauling the still-giggling Captain up to the topmost level. “I’m going to lock the Captain in his room! Damnable idiot is no use to us until he sobers up the hard way!”
Charleston did as he was asked, carefully avoiding the bloodstained glass slivers before reaching Connor’s bedroom door. He glanced down the hallway, noting the shadow of Thomas in the kitchen light and the disappearing, hobbling tail of Mackenzie into the study where the phone was located. He raised a closed fist to the wooden door but knocked only softly enough for himself to hear.
“C...Connor?” Charleston began quietly. “Connor, I...”
Charleston realised that whatever apology he had on his lips sounded hollow and futile, even to him. The boy had said everything he had done in so few terms, yelled it out so strongly that he was still flinching from the sting of it all. If Connor had backhanded him across the nose, even that would hurt less than the words he had said.
It was true, the cat leaned his forehead against the cold wood, eyes closed in rememberence. He had confided and fed Orion so many lies in regards to Connor and his abilities, been led to sign over every hope and dream the boy had to that swan woman he was forced at every given interval to refer to as His Princess. With a start whose force rivalled the fury behind Connor’s fists, Charleston realised Alice had been playing them, turning them against Connor, turning the littler boy into their damned scapegoat. He balled his fists angrily. He had dropped his guard against that scheming bitch, let her play him like a good, obedient little pet, yanking him along on a short leash, just like she did Orion!
Oh gods, Connor’s brother! The brother Charleston had played second fiddle to!
The leadership had been his once, and he had reacted in such jealousy to Orion’s intrusion. Acted so much like the spiteful, hating bully Connor had called him. He had weaselled his way into the chain of command, cunningly maneuvered Orion to follow his every word as his second, as his only advisory counsel. He had fed Orion his own personal hate for Connor, building it up until the older hedgehog had severed whatever remained of any ties between them. Charleston knew whatever sorry-sounding words that came out of him would be no way of apologising for physically turning brother against brother. And he had been part of the whole problem. Part of the problem that had rendered Connor blind with hate and weak as a kitten in the same breath. The cat ran his fingers through his headfur. Connor had every bloody right to hate his guts. He deserved it and he knew it.
“Connor?” Charleston’s voice sounded tired, weak. “Connor, please, can we talk...?”
Charleston opened the door, surprised only slightly to find it unlocked. The room was dark, and rain spattered into the room from the wide open window, lightning illuminating the water drops as they cascaded in sheets across the rug. Charleston’s breath caught in his throat and he fumbled for the light switch. Connor’s bed was still neatly made, but his closet and the drawers where he kept his emergency supplies were wide open, rummaged about roughly, shirts and other various items of clothing strewn about the floor. His backpack too was gone. The cat realised with a start that Connor’s dress uniform was not on the bed. There was a banging sound coming from outside, and as he approached the window, he could see, lit up by the flashes of lightning, that the back gate was swinging in the wind, unlocked and not properly pulled shut. A cold shiver ran down Charleston’s spine.
Connor had gone out to look for Sunnie.
The cat wasted no time and bolted out of Connor’s bedroom. Jones was locking Star’s bedroom door when Charleston literally leapt up the stairs, four at a time towards him.
“WHAT?!” the old owl cried. “WHAT DO YOU MEAN BY ‘GONE’?!”
“Backpack of medical supplies and still in his dress uniform GONE!” Charleston panted, chest heaving.
“GUYS! GET DOWNSTAIRS NOO!” came Mac’s frantic voice from the study downstairs.
Charleston, Jones and Thomas joined Mac in the study, where, upon Lilliena’s request down the phoneline, the TV monitor was turned on, blaring a Citywide Lockdown Alert.
“Authorities have placed Bigg City in Total Lockdown following the tragic events at the Magistrates Ballroom earlier tonight. The City Duchess, Lady Lorianna, is in a critical condition in Bigg City Memorial. Her spokesperson had refused to comment further on her declining condition. Authorities are searching for a Riverlands Traitor identified as Lawrence Dalborough Junior, son of wineries mogul Lawrence Dalborough Senior – he answers to the middle name of ‘Sunshine’. Anyone with information in regards to the location of this wanted criminal should contact Commander Hector Margreaves of the Royal Heirarchy Guard and will be eligible for a reward…”
“They’re crucifying him, lads…” Mac breathed weakly.
“This just in, we’ve received word that the Police Helicopter has spotted the Riverlander heading southbound towards the Old Docksides. We await news of an arrest. In other news, The Star Team have been placed under house arrest for their affiliation with Lawrence Dalborough Junior, a supposed trainee member they took on recently. If any of them are seen outside of their HQ, please contact Commander Margreaves…”
“...and us as well!” Charleston growled softly.
Jones ran his hand through his headfeathers. “Merciful heavens...if someone catches sight of Connor running about out there...”
“So what do we do?!” Thomas panicked.
“...we can’t do anything,” the owl sighed. “If any of us go out after Connor, we’ll be damning the team to a hole we won’t be able to climb out of! The media are making Sunnie look like he’s blown up the Palace or something! The more we try to alleviate the situation or argue with them, the more we’ll look like the bad guys!”
“So we do nothing?!”
“Mac, are Sally and Lilliena on their way?”
“Lilliena only,” Mac replied. “Sally’s not answering her phone.”
“If she saw that report, I don’t think I blame her for not answering,” Thomas spoke softly. “She probably thinks we’re the ones who told the media.”
There was a brief silence between the four boys at this.
“This is a mess, isn’t it,” Jones remarked offhandedly. “If Star was sober, he’d go mad.”
“If he ever bothered to be sober in the first place.”
“I tried t’ call Puffa, but it seems he’s not due back home until past three.”
“So...we’re on our own then?”
Mac turned off the monitor, sighing in visible disgust. “Aye laddie, we’re on our own. Betcha anything Xavier will be having a field day at our expense.”
“I hope Connor finds Sunnie,” Charleston spoke, breaking the silence. “I hope he finds him first and not that pig of a Kodiak.”
There were quiet murmurs of agreement amongst the others.
“When Star wakes up, I want first crack at him.”
“Wait in line, Charlie,” Jones retorted. “I have first dibs on his sorry carcass!”
Thomas was quiet for a moment, before feeling Mackenzie’s gentle stare resting on him. With Captain Star out of action and now confined to his room to sleep off the effects of the booze, he knew what Mac was telling him to do. He took a deep breath, picking at his shirt sleeves diffidently.
“...I have a confession to make...” the raccoon began softly.
Jones and Charleston looked up at their colleague, faced etched with concern.
“Seems to be the night for it,” Jones raised a half-smile. “Seems to me honestly like we need it...”
Charleston’s gaze turned from the blackened monitor and rested on Thomas’s form. He noticed that most of his friend’s weight had shifted uneasily to his right, and that he was gingerly leaning one knee against the back of the couch, as if he was completely unbalanced. Somewhere in the back of his mind, a terrible thought rose from the depths of his conscience.
No...god please no...not Thomas...nonononono...no...
“Well...what Star did to Sunnie, with th’ bottle and all...” his worried, frightened eyes met Mac’s, and without a word, the wolf seemed to silently encourage him to continue. “...it’s not......well it’s not new...”
“What do you mean by ‘not new’, Thomas?” Charleston asked, even though his mind was aflame with frantic pleas for it to not be the truth.
Thomas gingerly unbuttoned his shirt, revealing angry, purplish-green welts covering nearly his entire ribcage. Jones gasped. Mackenzie simply stared at the raccoon with sad, worried eyes. Charleston was on his feet, practically vaulting over the couch to Thomas, gripping his best friend’s shoulders. Thomas couldn’t look up at the cat, sick with shame.
“How...” the feline began, eyes filled with rage. “How long?!”
“...he went for Connor...first time...” Thomas’s voice was only a whisper. “I...came between them...”
“Thomas, look at me!” Charleston ordered, claws digging into his friend’s soft fur. “How long?”
“Charlie...” Mackenzie’s voice was surprisingly gentle. “Go easy on ‘im, laddie...”
Charleston’s hands trembled along with Thomas’s entire body. Jones had reached their side, his own hand covering one of the cat’s, eyes alight with worry. Thomas was still trembling and not from the icy chill that had fallen across the entire room.
“Thomas!” Charleston winced at the severity of his tone.
Thomas’s eyes met Charleston’s, filled with unshed tears.
“...th’ last seven years...”
Nothing on the earth had ever shaken the Star Team to their core, to the depths of their souls. Not the threat of takedown from the Zero Boys. Not the Princess Alice’s chokehold. Not even the death of Admiral Star had pushed them so far to the gaping abyss and over its edge.
Not until now.
“I cannot believe you.”
The words hung like a death knell in the hedgehog’s mind, clouding his every thought as his head lay nestled amongst the soft featherdown of his pillow.
These words, they shouldn’t bother him; they should not have such an impact on him so as to forget everything he was saying and thinking of saying next. But there was something in Marlena’s voice, something cold, forceful and blunt that had smacked him so hard upside the head that they were on infinite repeat in his mind. What had he been talking about that had gotten her so angry at him? What the hell had he said tonight that had made her act this way?
“I can believe someone of my own Council. I could believe someone I once had ties with and to. But you...?”
He placed his hands behind his head, staring up at the ceiling, watching the shadows of the trees outside dart across and dance some moonlit dance in the wind outside. He flinched, remembering her last two words. It was almost as if she was admonishing him as if he were a spoilt child.
“How could you say that about your own?”
Prior to the birthday boy’s blowing out of the candles on his massive four hundred pound chocolate cake, he had been engaging some of the nobility in polite conversation. He’d had a couple of drinks, but then again, so had Frederich and most of the others in the guard. He had loosened his collar, so to speak, whetting his appetite on the delicious snacks and pleasantries exchanged by the ladies especially. He wasn’t afraid to admit that when Lilliena was far out of reach, he enjoyed the naughty flirtation of other single females. True, he was engaged to be married, but that didn’t stop him. Quite frankly, it didn’t stop him at all.
He hadn’t been aware of Marlena’s eyes on him from the balcony above him, overhearing his every word, not until she glided towards him, face neutral but eyes shining with unbridled fury. The conversation between him and the gaggle of young ladies ceased in mere seconds; they dispersed, disappearing out of his eyesight at the mere presence of the regal old doe, dressed in those beautiful silks of the eastern regions of the world far beyond Bigg City’s borderlines. He had asked her if there was something wrong. He had not been prepared for the severity of the slap she gave him in response.
“How dare you!”
His hand went to his cheek, still feeling the dull sting of the mark she had made on him, fingers trembling. Marlena was well over his years, but had still smacked him with the brutal force of a scorned young lady.
“Of all the stupid, unworthy, unforgivable reasons to hate your own blood!”
And then...Orion remembered the conversation he’d had with Lady DeMuir, and it hit him with the force of an out of control freight train. He had been snidely remarking about Connor, his brother, and the bloodline he was ashamed to admit was his own. Under the spell of the wine and his damnable bittersweet memories, up had come the sick swell of personal setbacks and flaws and hatreds for the kid brother who, in his words, had purposely held him back from achieving everything he set out to do.
“If I was your mother, I would hate you for the rest of my life for saying such hurtful things about your own brother!”
He had stared at her with sharply-focused eyes, blinking against the heady fragrance of the still-full wineglass he held in his hand. There was something glistening in the soft light, and those gentle eyes were hard with an unrestrained rage.
“You disappoint me, Orion Hercules Hedgehog!”
She had dismissed him from the ballroom, ordering Fred to take him to his guest room, and in her words ‘sober him up’. She had returned to the party, face aglow with spirit, adoration and love as her father had joyously thanked everyone for the delightful birthday bash and for coming to celebrate his 60th year. To his credit, Frederich had said nothing else but to take Orion to his room and locked the door from the outside. Orion had viciously retorted that Marlena could not do this to someone of his stature, but his colleague had said nothing in reply. Now he lay awake, the clock on the wall showing ten minutes to twelve o’ clock, midnight, unable to leave his room to even attempt a bid of apology.
But what honestly was he apologising for?
Orion’s ears lay flat against his head, his eyes ablaze with anger. There was nothing Connor didn’t deserve out of him, that unruly brat he had been forced to take care of, as stated in their parents’ will. If he had had any sense when he’d returned to his schooling, he’d have left Connor in an orphanage and gotten the hell on with his life!
Which is what he’d intended the first time Connor had been suspended from school, but the costly price of keeping Connor in that school and him having no time to educate him otherwise with exams piling up on his shoulder had forced his hand. They never spoke about him being escorted home by the Principal, his class teacher or the counsellor. That blasted Wombat had tried to sit him down to explain Connor’s behaviour, but Orion had dismissively rejected her claims that he should be more understanding towards him and their current situation.
The magnitude of it hadn’t hit him until he’d graduated.
Midway through the ceremony, he’d been pulled to the side, out of line, by his mentor, Professor Lionsdale. There had been trouble at Connor’s primary school. He didn’t know the details, probably had thought Orion had already known and was reacting as any good brother would, but he was to pick Connor up immediately, regardless of the ceremony taking place. He had promised Orion a private ceremony, with the Dean, his other scholars and him. Orion had left the grounds smarting with rage.
Immediately upon arrival, the Principal, a darling Peahen by the name of Corrine, had pulled Orion aside. She explained Connor had come between a group of bullies, one of whom was the local police chief’s son, and had broken someone’s jaw. All Orion had heard from her gentle explanation was that Connor had gotten involved and started the whole affair, choosing not to hear the rest of her words, pushing past her into the office. The only other thing he had heard from Corrine was the fact she had been forced to expell Connor instead to keep the peace.
Connor was sitting there on the chair, arms crossed, eye bruised slightly, blood caked on his lips, but looking every bit the ferocity and kindness of their mother, Madeleine. Why had the thought of their mother entered his mind at that point, he didn’t know nor care. In two quick strides, he was over to Connor and roughly hauling him up by his arm, eyes ablaze with everything he thought of him, his hate, his fury, whatever other emotions joined the mix. Strangely, all Orion had seen in Connor’s eyes was defiancy. Corrine had let Orion drag Connor out, her feathered fingers sweeping past the younger boy’s cheek, a look of gentle understanding towards him. She couldn’t help but feel she had damned Connor to an older brother who was trying far too hard to be their father.
Orion had said little on the drive home, Connor seated uncomfortably in the back seat. His graduation, everything he had worked for in that Naval Academy…Connor knew how much it meant to him to graduate highest of his class, damn it! The only thing he could think of was how much he hated the brat in the back of the car. If he’d had any sense, he’d have shoved him in the boot. Of course, Orion thought grimly, that would really go down well if anyone had seen him do that. And Corrine would have benched him one if she’d seen it. Strangely, Orion found this image appealing, helping to soothe the rising volcanic rage in his system.
He would go out tonight, damn the little son of a bitch to hell. He would enjoy his graduation by not coming home for the next couple of days. There was enough food in the fridge to last that amount of time, and his severence pay from the university would arrive after that. Orion had every intention of attending Louis’s graduation party, a swinging single’s bar almost, every species of single lady available to the coinesseur’s eye. And Louis’s cousin, Frankfurt, had promised delightful entertainment – a cabaret girls troupe direct from Bigg City – one Orion had heard of in passing tell. There was no point hiring a babysitter. More money he couldn’t spend. Connor would be fine limping about the apartment.
He had taken the stairs up to the apartment, three at a time – he usually did this when he was enraged. Connor deliberately took his time, every slow step raising another notch of anger in Orion. He all but kicked the door open when the lock chose to jam on the key again. He went to the kitchen and poured himself a whiskey shot, noting that Connor closed the door with quiet efficiency. He had barely heard that, but clearly heard the rustle of the bedsheets across the room. Oh no he bloody didn’t...
Orion remembered the fight they’d had, everything that had been bottling up for the last year and a half since burying their parents. It still made him wince only slightly. Everything he’d said had been true. The way Connor was, he was a molly-coddled little bastard who had no idea of the real world. No wonder their father had taken him under his wings, and had left him to their mother. He hadn’t left the house until he was sure Connor was good and sobbing from his onslaught, not feeling the least bit guilty about it. He had slammed the front door with an extreme amount of force, not caring about the looks he got from the neighbours. Nosy bastards, they were.
He had caught Frankfurt on his way to the party, catching a lift with the coyote boy. Louis had already left with the majority of the girls. He’d asked about Connor, but the hedgehog had lied that Connor was asleep and he’d left a note. Frank has said nothing further on the matter, instead raving about this beautiful Venus-like chunk of woman Louis had found on a short performance tour around town.
“Dude, this woman is HOT,” the coyote had been panting eagerly. “So HOT the polar ice caps are meltin’, bud! And she’s SINGLE! Even better!”
“You say that about every woman you’ve banged, Frank,” Orion laughed.
“No one’s ever gotten CLOSE to the bedroom with this chick, man!” Frank retorted. “She is so smokin’, steam looks COOL!”
Frank had wolf-whistled some attractive ladies standing on the corner as they passed, winking comically.
“Care to see if this uniform unbuttons as easy, baby?” he grinned.
“Frank!” Orion smirked.
One of the girls, a short but rather hot-looking penguin gal stepped up to the car, smiling demurely.
“I’d rather take a run on your buddy,” she smiled. “Here’s my number, handsome. Call me.”
Orion caught the card she flicked at him, leaving Frank’s amorous charms wilting in his lap.
“Aw c’moooon! What’s so great about a hedgehog?!” he demanded.
“He’s got a spine!”
Frank drove off huffily to her girlfriends’ laughter, Orion staring in interest at the card as he tucked it into his jacket pocket.
“Well, that was easy,” he grinned.
“I don’t know a thing about your charm, dude, but you better bottle it and sell it to me.”
“Dude, that penguin chick was way outta your league!”
“Short girls do it better, man.”
“Right height, huh?”
“You know what I mean!”
“So where’s this bash at, anyway?”
“Other side of town, old Markinson’s place.”
“The mansion?” Orion remembered the death of the old man who owned it – earlier on in the year he’d died banging some broad at the controls of his private jet. “How’d Louis get that?”
“He didn’t. This Lilliena broad and her troupe were gonna perform there. Louis worked his way in, got us tickets.”
“Worked his way in, huh?”
“Louis is bangin’ some chick on her troupe, bud. She’s gorgeous. Sucks like a hoover too.”
“I take it you bore witness to this? Spill the juicy!”
“Came home from doing the groceries to find him spread-eagled on the couch with her right between his screws. She was still in her troupe outfit.”
“I take it you got a piece of that?”
“I wish. She left me with a rager and left Louis drooling.”
“Whuff, I tell ya what, she’ll be there tonight. You gotta see the spread of them goils, Herc!”
“Judging by what you’ve just said about one of them, I’ll certainly be watching!”
They pulled up to the mansion, its grounds already swarming with naval boys and scantily-clad ladies. Garrett met them, on his arms were two rabbit chicks.
“Hey guys, welcome to Heaven!” the fox grinned.
“Hey, Garry,” Orion greeted. “Sooo...gonna introduce us?”
“There ‘ere’s Sherrilicious, and this is Berrilicious,” the fox was clearly having fun. “Ladies, my budsmen...Commander Orion Hercules Hedgehog and Lieutenant Commander Frankfurt Leonode.”
“Hi, fellahs!” the twin rabbits winked.
“Getcher kit off guys, pool party in the back!”
“I didn’t bring anything to swim in...”
Orion began, before Frank shoved a towel and some swim trunks into his hands, winking with an open-muzzled grin.
“You come prepared, man. Now do as the man says!”
“When in Rome,” Orion had grinned.
“Do as the scantily-clad swimsuited wet women…oh boy there he is!” Frank pointed to a still-dripping wet Louis with a sexy-looking tigress woman hung on his shoulder like a sweater. Orion couldn’t help but let his eyes travel down the sleek curvature of this cabaret girl. For all the matted fur on his buddy’s mane, he looked every bit a gentleman as the girl ran her tongue across his flickering ear. Lou was in paradise.
“Be still our raging hormones...”
“Oh, Frank!” Louis cried, grinning. “Glad you could make it, Herc!”
“Who’s this little smokin’ number?”
The Tigress took charge, stepping up to Orion’s chest, running her claws lightly down his dress shirt.
“I’m Charlotte DeBrowski,” she purred expertly. “Delighted to meet ya, Commander Hedgehog.”
“Been telling Charlie all ‘bout you, fellah!” Lou smirked. “How, for all that muscle and sweating hotness, yer still single!”
“I know a few goils in the troupe who would loooove to take a run on you,” Charlotte’s delicate baby blue eyes were making Orion sweat under his uniform. “We’re performin’ at the pool’s stage t’night. Come join us, baby boy.”
Frank let out a sharp breath and Orion realised he’d been holding his own breath the second this cat had come up to him in that seductive way of hers.
Ah hope that’s not a pistol in yoah pocket,” Charlotte’s tail expertly rubbed against the front of Orion’s dress pants, eliciting a gasp from him. “I’d better start running fer th’ hills, huh, Louie?”
“Oh babe, he’s harmless when you tie him down!”
She cast a come-hither glance at the hedgehog and coyote over her shoulder. “If you think ah’m a catch, y’all ain’t seen nuttin’ yet!”
“My catch, sure. Their catch, ehhhh, the other ladies might do a number on ‘em,” Louis waved dismissively. “See you fellahs at the poolside.”
Frank had just about collapsed from arousal, leaning against Orion’s shoulder. “Dude, I told you she was a babe!”
“Expertly,” Orion adjusted his tie to allow himself to breathe. “Holy...are all the other ladies in this troupe that hot?”
“Buddy, if I told you how hot, you’d set the antarctic aflame.”
“Let’s get changed then,” the hedgehog grinned. “I wanna find out!”
It had only taken them a few minutes to get across the lavish gardens to the massive pool. Set up over the stretch of water was a steady-looking stage and runway, curtains drawn over the main area. The band was heading backstage – a bass player, well two players, short-looking penguin lads – a pianist, a feline – and a drummer, a collie lad – none of whom Orion or Frank recognised. No one seemed to care at all as they stripped to their civvies in a dim part of the garden, but a few of the mingling ladies were whispering and gesturing in their direction. Orion caught the mention of a name – Lilliena La Rahnqe – as they finished changing. There were some real attractive women in the pool already, glistening curvatures, feathers, fur and spikes. An Iguana girl nearby gave him a wink as he and Frank passed. He could see the penguin girl on the other side, living it up in a drinking contest with another couple of the graduates from his class, Lieutenant Douglas O’Hara especially. That collie dog loved his woman like he loved his booze – dark and drunk.
Louis was kissing Charlotte up the arms as she pulled away from him, heading backstage. His armorous puppy-eyed look was met by a batting of eyelashes and a gentle pink tongue running up the brow of his nose. Lou just about melted into a puddle at that gesture, allowing the Tigress to disappear behind the velvet curtains. Orion chuckled as Frank made for his brother, shaking his head in amusement. Frank and Louis had been his buddies since forever, through primary school, high school and now the Academy. They would rue the day Louis had ever found that Tigress, he thought.
“Elderflower whyne? Cigarrettes?”
A voice from somewhere behind Orion made his ears prick up. He recognised it, a dulcet tone with hints of Southern Mayflower sexiness. He turned, only to see the black, white and ruby red tailfeathers of a magpie-red robin cross, weaving elegantly throughout the crowd behind him. Of course she’d be here, he realised. She was working as a waitress these days, and a gig like this would pay big bucks on top of her other job.
“We have sum o’ that lovely Port left behind by Lord Markinson’s estates...” the bird turned, catching sight of the hedgehog standing behind her. “Orion Hedgehog!”
“Sally,” the hedgehog grinned, eyeing her somewhat low-cut choice of attire. “Shoulda known you’d be here!”
“Well, work’s been kinda slow at the Rockin’ Robin,” Sally smirked, pulling at her garter belt. “An’ most o’ the goils have quit. Ah’m th’ only one left ah’ll have y’all know!”
“Must be damned hard keepin’ those hornbills in line.”
“Only y’all would say that ta me and I wouldn’t knock yer block clean off!”
“You know me too well, that’s why!”
“Ha! Ah do!” she grinned cheerily. “So...I see y’alls have met Charlie?”
“Ya huh! I can clearly see she left a lil’ ol’ mark on you, horndoggy!”
Orion embarrassedly adjusted his swimming trunks.
“Y’all dun have ta explain ta me what y’all are doin’ here t’night,” she continued. “Handsome young virile buck about town with no one ta stick it to an’ all...”
She laughed at her friend’s reddened cheeks. “Y’all are still too easy ta embarrass, Orion! Sooo, who’s caught ‘cher eye t’night then?”
“No one yet. Dougie’s gone and taken the first girl that chatted me and Frank up on our way over here.”
Sally looked over to where Dougie was almost passed out on the floor and the penguin gal was still plugging away at the pints.
“Well, she kin sure hold her liquor that one. Seems only fair Dougie tried at least.”
“Anyone else you know around here that might need a long-term boyfriend?”
“You mean a long-term, no-holds-barred, only-when-you-need-it service contract?” she was smirking again. “Buddy, look around y’all! More women around here, less men. Who d’ya think’s keepin’ score?”
“I get the feeling you’re not just here because work demanded you serve tonight?”
“Oh hael no! I’m heah to give a girlfriend o’ mine some support!”
“Girlfriend? Never knew, Sal’...”
“Oh shut up, horndog! Y’all know what ah mean!” Sally wagged a feathered finger at the grinning hedgehog. “Ah oughta shove y’all in the pool fer that one!”
“Dare accepted!” Orion laughed.
“Don’ make me, sugah-hog!” Sally again adjusted her garter belt. “Darn thing keeps slippin’...”
“I don’t think the flamingo lad over there gives a damn.”
Sally inclined her head over to where the lovestruck young man was watching her every move. She smiled sexily and gave him a wink, which caused him to fall off his chair.
“You still got it, Sal’.”
“Oh yeah, sugah. Ah still got it!” she shuffled her hips in kind.
“So what’s this about a girlfriend?” Orion asked, walking with Sally towards the stage.
“Gal pal o’ mine, Lil,” Sally went on. “Been friends with her since she was lead dancer at the Rockin’ Robin. Anyway, her daughter Lilliena’s been learnin’ tha ropes from her, ya know? Sexy lil’ dances, solo performances, that sorta rap? Got ta know her a lil’ bit, we been gal pals evuh since her Momma left th’ club to fly solo international. She’s performin’ t’night and asked me ta come along to give her some company an’ support. This is her first major solo flight, sugah.”
“You’re a good friend, Sal’,” Orion grinned.
“Well, I ain’t one ta talk,” the bird’s voice became hushed. “But she’s been lookin’ fer a man fer god knows how long, sugah. Real nice kinda gal, got a body ta DIE FOR! Sure as th’ nine haels inherited THAT frum her momma!”
“And you’re canvassing for her in this crowd o’ drunks, right?”
“Well, in a mannor o’ speakin’,” Sally went on. “But asides from that, yer th’ only one I ain’t seen cavortin’ thus far.”
“Well, Dougie took my catch, so I’m just out to flirt a bit.”
“...y’all interested in doin’ more than just flirt t’night, honey?”
“Maybe,” Orion shrugged. “Honestly? Don’t know. Just feel like some good company, that’s all.”
“Sounds ta me awful laik y’all need some tender lovin’ ta get y’all off that high horse yer on.”
“And you drew that conclusion how?”
“Orion, babe, ah saw you when you stepped outta Frank’s car. You were ticked off ‘bout somethin’. Ah don’t need to say any more, do ah?”
Orion flinched slightly. “No, you don’t.”
“I’mma kinda thinkin’ you and Lilliena could really hit it off,” Sally continued. “She’s a great gal, only doin’ th’ dancin’ really to get experience at it. She ain’t real too confident ‘bout t’night an’ all...”
“Where are you going with this, Sally?”
“Well...ah kinda told her ah’d introduce y’all to her...”
Orion sighed. “You could have asked me what I thought of that!”
“Yeah, but...you’d’a flipped if I’d just sprung it on ya’ll all dainty laik...”
“So you waited until I was surrounded by all my buddies?”
“Well...yer with me now, ain’tcha?” she grinned. “Yer buddies are off snorting cleavage!”
“...ohhh, alright,” Orion sighed, Sally had backed him into a corner. “You win, Sal’. Introduce me.”
There was a sudden rush of males towards the poolside, some leaping into the water with resounding splashes, cat-calling, cheering and wolf whistling. Others were craning their heads towards the stage, regardless of the women on their arms and on their laps, lips passionately dipping kisses along their muzzles. Tongues had appeared hanging out of the canids’ mouths, and, Orion realised, on most of his buddies’ and classmates’ mouths too.
“What in the hell...?” he asked Sally, confused by the display of raging male hormones.
“Y’all know how ah said ah’d push y’all in th’ pool fer that comment earlier?”
Orion toppled off-balance from Sally’s hefty shove, stepping back as the splash of water from his impact spattered across the stone edge of the pool. The hedgehog surfaced, coughing up water.
“SALLY!” he yelled.
“Now y’all go an’ do me a favah, Orion Hercules Hedgehog!” the little birdy girl laughed. “Go meet mah gal pal!”
Orion debated leaping out and pushing Sally into the pool just to call it break even, but was interrupted by the lights around the poolside dimming and a large spotlight training on the middle of the velvet curtains. The chatter and howling of the males around him hushed and fell silent. The water rippling around them was the only sound in the whole garden. Sally adjusted her garter belt, waiting for her friend’s solo song
“You had plenty money, nine to twenty two...”
The curtains were parted by a slender white-furred leg ending in sharp crystal stiletto heels, saucily draped in a sparkling sequinned dress – red and glittering, colour of burning passion – and the large D-cups of a pair of twins. Orion felt his mouth drop open beyond his control. The cat-calls and howling started up again as the rest of the voluptuous, slender body of a drop dead smoking hot white angora feline followed out of the curtains, headfur styled and draped sassily over one of her soft blue eyes.
“You let other women make a fool of you...” she sang. “Why don’t you do right...like some other men dooooo...”
She sashayed to one end of the stage, rubbing her curved behind down along the polished wood of the stage, angora tail softly flitting from side to side. Those nearest to her about fainted dead away into the water. Her headfur slid down behind her and her eyes demurely stared at whoever was within eyeshot. Frank was one of them, howling long into in the night, cheers erupting from those nearby. Orion swallowed, realising only just that he was almost drooling. Sally was still standing by the poolside nearby, watching her friend perform her number. The cat walked across the stage, tail following her every move, red dress glittering in the spotlight.
“Get outta here...make me some money too...”
Orion leaned towards Sally, the bird leaning towards him, smiling.
“That is your girlfriend?” he asked in total disbelief.
“Yep. And she’s still single. Whatta lucky goil,” Sally leaned closer and closed Orion’s gaping mouth with a soft clack. “Get closer to th’ runway, you lucky so and so!”
Orion found himself doing what Sally had told him, almost completely beyond his control, arriving at the end of the runway and floating there, mesmerised. A doberman boy was on the shoulders of a bulldog further down from him, maw panting up at the angora feline as she came towards them, her eyes looking for all the world like sharp, glinting daggers. She stood in front of them, raising her slender leg and stilettoed heel to the doberman’s cheek, his tongue rolling out of his maw, coated in shiny drool. With a swift kick, she sent him and his buddy back into the water. There were peals of laughter and more howling from Frank and some of the other wolves further down the runway.
“Now if you had prepared twenty years ago...”
Orion felt himself shivering as Lilliena began her soft sashay down the runway, deliberately running those slender legs up each of her shins, her dress hiking up along with it. He kept swallowing, his mouth producing an endless supply of saliva. Everyone else around him though preferred to drool, but Orion still had some proper airs and graces...despite wanting to jump this woman’s bones the first chance he got!
“...you wouldn’t be a’wanderin’ out from door to door...”
She turned towards Frank and the other canids, each of them fighting the other for her attention. A smile pulled at Lilliena’s lips. She did so love the attention from these horndogs, and Frank she recognised as the brother of Louis, Charlotte’s new beau. Char had talked about leaving the coyote with more than just a glimpse of her. She winked deliberately at Frank, who clutched at his chest comically and fell back into the water, pretending to faint. The other lads around him looked on with blind jealousy.
“Why don’tcha do righhhhht...like some other men dooooo?...”
Lilliena could see Sally at the edge of the pool as she approached, smirking with that sassy grin she always had. She was glad her friend had come with the troupe to give her that boost of confidence she always needed before she stepped out onto the stage. She noticed that Sally was pointing a feathered finger towards a drenched black-haired hedgehog at the foot of the runway platform, nodding and raising an eyebrow at him. That must be the boy she was talking about, Lilliena realised, Orion Hedgehog. She continued her sashay down the boardwalk, stopping only to push another wolf’s head down back towards the pool. The wolf stared at her with puppy-eyes and she winked at him sexily, raising her leg against her thigh, watching the amber orbs travel down the length of her body and practically fall over with lust.
“Get outta here...get me some money toooooo...”
Orion only barely realised the white angora was at the end of the runway and the tomcat next to him had her hands trailing down the curvature of his face, eyes almost love-hearted shaped at this tender touch, tongue hanging out with unstoppable lust. Lilliena tweaked his cheekfur as she sang, the cat’s gaze resting on her D-sized twins, cupped lovingly in that sequinned number. Orion closed his eyes, fairly disgusted with himself that he was even thinking of doing the same as the horny tom. Lilliena had pushed him backwards into the pool, his head disappearing under the water with a sharp splash, turning her attentions to Orion himself.
“Get outta here...get me some money toooooo...”
Orion gulped as Lilliena cusped his cheeks, eyes turned directly on hers, her nose at his, still singing that sassy number, lifting himself out of the pool towards her, the beautiful woman ignoring the dripping water from his body onto the stage. Sally had been right about this boy. He didn’t look at her chest, didn’t look anyway along the curvature of her body, he kept his eyes dead on hers. She felt him trembling, and it wasn’t from the lust – being out of the warm water was causing him to shiver. Oh certainly, he had a reaction to her, she could see that in the wetness of his swim trunks, but he didn’t look away, didn’t blink as her gloved fingers trailed down his muzzle towards his shoulders. He was blushing oh-so-cutely at her.
And hell, Lilliena always loved that game.
“Why don’tcha do right...”
She sat before him, avoiding the growing puddle of water, stretching out her long legs, the split in her dress revealing a garter belt that held those beautiful thighs in check. Still Orion kept his eyes on hers, almost forgetting to breathe as she turned on all fours like the feline she was, her tail sliding under his damp neckfur, tickling his cheeks on both sides. She stretched out, throwing her headfur back, staring at Orion with gleaming blue eyes, stretching out the word as her hand darted towards his chestfur.
“...like some other men...”
Lilliena gripped Orion by a handfur of his chestfur, pulling him towards her. As their noses met, her pink tongue darted out and licked him down the bridge of his nose to his glasses. She exhaled, breath filled with arousal, a blush appearing on her own cheeks, and he felt her body’s trembling matching his own. There were groans from those closest to Orion, arousal reaching the highest peak.
In one fluid movement, she let go of his chestfur and was back to her standing position, headfur again draped over her eye. Orion only barely supported his weight on his own arms as that Venus-chunk of woman, as Frank had so eloquently put it, sashayed back up the runway, casting him, and only him, a come-hither glance that left him breathless in the afterglow. She disappeared behind the curtains to the howls, cat-calling and aroused cheers of the males around him. His eyes lowered, still feeling the roughness of her tongue on the bridge of his nose. Out the corner of his eye, he saw Sally smirking as she disappeared into the crowd.
He lowered his shivering form back into the pool, wincing at its chill. That woman... Sally had said she was still single. A beautiful woman like that, whose sex was everything to every man alive in this mansion tonight, was without a boyfriend?
And that come-hither glance she threw him...it was like all time had stopped and it had been just them in that pool, and that stage. Dear Gods, how in the hell was that woman still single?!
Orion wasted no time and made for the pool’s edge, ignoring the chatter and jealousy of the other guys behind him. He had to find Sally fast and drag it out of her. All of it!
After he’d dried off and gotten dressed again, and hunted about the mansion for her, he found the birdy hanging around inside the ballroom, chatting animatedly to some of the other cabaret ladies. One of them, a chameleon girl, wolf-whistled in his direction as he approached.
“Ah’d take a run on that anyday!” she giggled to the others.
“Sally!” Orion called.
“Well, well, if it ain’t mister hotstuff himself!” Sally sounded slightly tipsy he realised. “Sooo, whatcha think o’ our gal pal, huh?”
“You and I need to talk...” Orion ignored the fact he was still flushed from the encounter with the cat.
“Oooohhhh!” the gaggle of girls chorused. “Gonna take her out back, handsome?”
Sally giggled too. “Maybe do me hahrd behind the hedgerows, Orion?”
Orion resisted commenting back, instead grabbing Sally by an arm and dragging her towards the doors. Sally giggled tipsily, waving with her free hand.
“Baiii ladies! See you...maybe later...aftah we’re done!”
Orion felt the blush light up his cheeks as the girls cat-called them. When she was sober, Sally was tolerable. When she was drunk, she was dangerous. She giggled some more before patting his arm, ignoring his embarrassed flush.
“Aww c’mon, sugah-hog, justa bit o’ fun for y’all!” she smiled, cheeks flushed from whatever she’d been drinking. “Ah ain’t drivin’ home t’night, so y’all don’ hafta worry ‘bout lil’ ol’ me!”
At the hedgehog’s silence and his loosened grip on her arm, Sally raised an eyebrow, realising what he was intending to ask her.
“Ohhhh, yer wonderin’ all ‘bout Lil’, ain’tcha?”
“Yes,” Orion replied quietly.
“Well, now, funny y’all should mention...oof!”
In her semi-drunken stupor, Sally missed the stone seat of the outer hallway. Orion sighed as he helped her up.
“If you’re not too drunk to speak to me about her, that is.”
“Sugah-hog, ah’ll have y’all know this’s nuttin’! Ah have been way sloshed more’n this before!”
“Yes,” the hedgehog replied quietly, recalling the incident with a smile. “I know.”
“Oh stop yer worryin’, s’not as if yoah Dean didna appreciate the gesture!”
“About Lilliena, Sal’?”
“Hmm? Oh yeah, yeah, sure sugah,” the femme bird replied, waving her feathered hand dismissively. “Sugah-kitty’s been my galpal since laik forevuh. Her Momma knew mine, only fair I knew her furst, ya know?”
“You’ve said this already...”
“Anyways, by the time she’d ah, filled out if’n ya know what ah mean, them boys were bayin’ fer her tushie evuh since. Nevuh laiked any o’ ‘em, she didna. All aftuh that one lil’ thang she wa’n’t prepared ta give up that easy! She sent a LOT o’ them boys packin’ wit’ more than just six stitches ‘cross th’ maw!”
Sally took a large gulp from her wineglass.
“One guy ah knew from th’ Rockin’ Robin hooked up wit’ her, see, he played that gentlemanly card y’all play y’self,” she hiccuped. “’Scuse that, sugah! Lil’ didna approve and neither did ah, but y’all know how wimmen get. Guy tried ta take advantage o’ her in her own room in her parents’ house with me an’ ‘em downstairs!”
Sally raised a swayin’ fist.
“Ah sent that sumb*tch down th’ stairs, ah did!”
“What happened after that?”
“She threw herself inta learnin’ from her Momma how ta defend herself, started taking trips with her, overseas an’ stuff. Didna see too much o’ Lilliena for a bit. Missed her heaps, ah did.”
“Well, about a couple years back, she and Momma came home. I barely e’en recognised her, Herc! Double D’s nuttin! This was a woman ah’d jump the bones of if ah evuh leaned that way!”
“Maybe if you were drunk enough?” Orion chuckled, leaning against the wall next to the animated Sally.
“...eh...ah prefer Mister Longfellow.”
“Of course you do.”
“Seein’ as though ah hadna seen her ‘round, turned out Lil’ was gonna hand ovuh th’ reigns o’ her cabaret goils ovuh t’ her, retirin’ aftuh her 50th rolled by, and Lilliena was scared ta death of it all happenin’ so fast. Her Momma spoke good thangs ‘bout lil’ ol’ me and Lilliena latched onta me laik a sistuh. Ah love that goil, Herc! Love her so much ah’d do anythin’ fer her!”
“...even find her a man?”
“Sure ‘nuff sugah! I figure aftuh t’night’s performance, she’s hooked on y’all summat special!”
“Sally?” A soft voice called from their left. “What are you doing? Are you tryin’ to tell every darn horndog in this place my life story?”
Orion’s breath caught in his throat and he straightened up off the wall almost immediately. Dressed almost simply in a turtleneck sweater, jeans and boots was the cabaret girl herself, walking purposely towards the drunken birdy.
“Aw, sugah! Y’all know ah’m just stickin’ up fer y’all!” Sally shrugged, giggling. “’Sides...y’all are th’ one who said y’all needed to get laid!”
“SALLY!” Lilliena cried, a blush shooting across her white-furred cheeks instantly.
“Hee, hee, hee!” the birdy was in her element, Orion realised. “Aw, c’mooooon, Lil’!”
Lilliena took Sally by the arm, almost totally oblivious to Orion’s presence right next to her drunken friend.
“Ah’m jus’ tipsy!”
“How much wine did you drink?!”
“A bottle or fer...” Sally held up five feathered fingers, still giggling. “Issa party, Lil’! Lemme have sum fun!”
“Sally!” Lilliena admonished.
“Ahem...you must be Lilliena La Rahnqe?”
Lilliena looked up angrily, and then felt her entire face flush as she looked up into the eyes of the hedgehog she had met at the foot of the runway. She swallowed gingerly, realising that she had interrupted Sally’s conversation with this handsome young naval man. She felt her other hand being lifted by his own to the man’s lips, the kiss as soft and as gentle as the velvet dress she’d been wearing earlier.
“Forgive me,” Orion murmured, slightly embarrassed she realised. “I didn’t mean to interrupt.”
“Oh I...um...I uh...”
Lilliena noticed that her drunken birdy friend was grinning up at her, giggling. She frowned, still blushing.
“I’ll leave you two alone,” the hedgehog continued, coughing slightly. “Goodnight, Sally.”
“Goodnaight ya hunka hunka burning hog-flesh!” she waved, mouth split into a grin.
Lilliena cringed at Sally’s straightforwardness. Sometimes her best friend could be such a nuisance! Gathering her wits and ignoring Sally for a moment, she called out to the departing hedgehog.
“I’m sorry! I...I’m sorry...” Lilliena closed her eyes and sighed. “I didn’t mean to be so rude!”
Orion stopped walking. “It’s quite alright. I guess I was simply...curious as to why you chose to...well...” he adjusted his collar slightly. “...Grab me by the fur and all that earlier...”
“Ah...” Lilliena looked off to the side, still blushing furiously.
“She’s just too embarrassed to ask y’all ta do her hahrd behin’ tha hedgerows!” Sally draped a feathery arm around Lilliena’s neck. “She needs ta git sum, sugah-hog!”
Lilliena’s fur fluffed up and she damned near belted Sally right in the beak for her commentary!
“SALLY! SHUT THE HELL UP!!!” she screamed at her laughing drunken friend.
To his credit, Orion had flushed red himself and had turned away from them, trying to hide his expression. Lilliena found his reaction cute, but didn’t say so.
“I’m sorry about her. She’s rather dangerous when she’s drunk...” he began.
“Tell me about it!” Lilliena raised an eyebrow, fur still fluffed up, looking all the more beautiful in Orion’s eyes every second. “It’s like I can’t even go anywhere an’ enjoy myself without her tryin’ to get me laid!”
“But’cha wanted ta get laid by some hunka hedgehog!” Sally retorted slyly from her prone position on the floor. “And he’s raight here! OW!”
Lilliena brought her boot down on Sally’s tailfeathers. “Will you kindly be quiet?!”
“Naw! I wanna be up when ah hear y’all screamin’ fer him ta do ya hahrd!”
“Ooooooh!” Lilliena was almost ready to strangle her. “SHUT UP SAL’!!!”
Sally continued to giggle at her two friends. Lilliena ran a hand through her headfur, exasperated, and Orion quietly did the same.
“Sorry...is there anywhere we can put her until she sobers up?” he asked
“There’s a bedroom upstairs that the girls are sharing,” Lilliena replied, nodding. “We can set her down there.”
“Alright, I’ll give you a hand...”
“Where we goin’?” Sally asked.
“Just somewhere, Sally,” the feline replied.
“Ooohhh goody! A threesome!” the birdy chirped.
Orion and Lilliena sighed as they carried Sally down the hall towards the stairs at the other end of the ballroom. No one seemed to pay her any attention out of her sexy dress and Lilliena felt glad of it. Strangely, Orion didn’t seem to notice the way her hand rested atop his arm around Sally’s slim build. Sally was falling asleep she realised, but she’d be up and drinking again the moment she woke up. Orion stood back as Lilliena opened the door and carried the snoozing birdy over to the empty couch. He set her down and Lilliena draped a blanket over her friend.
“I don’t understand why she’d drink that much,” she was saying. “It’s not like her at all...”
“Actually,” Orion began. “It is like her. A lot like her.”
“What do you mean?”
“She’s been worse than this. A lot worse than this once.”
Lilliena raised an eyebrow, “Are you serious?”
“Very,” Orion chuckled.
“What did she do?”
“Turned up at the academy hidden in the centre of a five-tiered cake,” Orion went on, laughing at the memory. “She was part of a surprise party for Dean Stanton. Wore something rather similar to her outfit now...”
“Oh my god! She never said anything about that to me!”
“Probably didn’t want to make you think she was a loose woman.”
“Oh, I was already thinking that a long time ago, thank you!” Lilliena laughed, her voice warm. “So how long have you known Sal’?”
“Ever since that night. It’s been years,” Orion chuckled. “She always says I’d make someone happy.” He rolled his eyes skywards and let out a soft sigh. “Never found anyone...”
Lilliena went quiet at this.
The blush was rising on her cheeks again. “What?”
Orion cleared his throat, turning away from the angora feline. “Sorry...I...” He glanced at her, trying to hide his own reddening cheeks. “I’d best go...”
Orion had kissed many a girl before. He’d had flings, as he’d called them, leaving a lot of happy girls in his wake. He was not one for tearful goodbyes, instead choosing to simply say he had enjoyed their time together, leaving many of the women behind him lusting for more of him. He was an excellent lover, his prowess earning him many rapports from his other pals in the academy. But he had been single for a long time, and this beautiful angora behind him was the first he’d stared long and hard into her eyes, feeling her every pulse of blood, her every heartbeat, joining his own.
And of course, like a bumbling idiot he’d said it. Out loud.
He had almost gotten to the doorway, inwardly cursing himself for his slip of the tongue, when he felt her hands on his arm, stopping him from going further. Turning to face her, he opened his mouth to apologise for his stupid remark, but was instead met by her soft lips on his own, her hands cusping his cheekfur, pressing her softness into him. His eyes closed, trembling fingers reaching for her, wrapping around her slender form, pulling her closer to him. Her arms closed around his neck, pulling his head downwards into hers, feeling time around them freeze.
She broke the kiss first, chest heaving into his, eyes alight with lust, arousal and love for this handsome hedgehog boy. He inclined his head slightly against hers, muzzle nuzzling her own in that tender gesture of adoration, eyes half-lidded with the same lust, love and arousal.
“Don’t go, please...” she whispered softly, just loud enough for him to hear. “You’re the first one to not...stare at me like I’m a prize...”
“Well, you’re not,” Orion found himself replying, chest still heaving from the power of her kiss. “You’re beautiful, wonderful, sexy...god help me, all of the above and whatever else He gave you...but...why? Why me?”
“...I’d be lying if I said she didn’t have something to do with it,” the feline’s ear flickered softly in the sleeping Sally’s direction. “She said she loved you like a brother. Said if anyone would treat me right...you would.”
Orion felt embarrassed by this. “No...I’m...just some womanising bastard...like all the other fools here...”
“No you’re not,” she whispered, inclining her head into his. “You could have drooled with lust at me, howled like some of the wolves in the pool, cat-called and told me what you wanted to do to me...but you didn’t. You didn’t even look away from my eyes…”
“I almost did,” he admitted sadly.
“And I’d still have licked you,” she smiled, lighting up her pretty features. “I saw a man, not a boy, in that pool. I saw a man I would gladly give up my career for.”
“...if you’ll have me...that is...”
Orion pressed his lips into hers suddenly, cutting Lilliena off from speaking in that manner. She returned the gesture, holding him close to her. From her prone position on the couch, Sally raised herself up on one arm, watching the twosome, a grin cutting across her beak. About time, she thought, smiling tipsily.
“...and y’all tell me ah cain’t play Cupid,” she snickered softly to herself. “Mah lil’ ol’ feathered tushie ah cain’t...!”
Orion smiled at the glorius memory.
Lilliena had stayed in town, choosing not to return to Bigg City with the other girls, bunking instead with Louis, Frank and Charlotte for a little while longer. He had spent every waking second with her, taking her to the temporary job at the Rockin’ Robin with Sally, who, by all accounts, hadn’t let them ever live it down that she’d shot a Cupid’s arrow at them. But, like all relationships he’d had in the past, Lilliena had to return home at some point, and like any loving boyfriend, he’d tried to delay it for as long as possible.
She had eventually made mention of a struggling team led by a friend of her family’s – a Captain Star – that was on the hunt for a couple of young men, one position was as leader and the other one was for a runner, a messenger boy. The thought occurred to Orion that Connor could easily slot into that position, with a bit of training of course. And the other point his beloved girlfriend had put forth to him was that her parents wanted to meet him as soon as they could come to Bigg City. He had been forced to admit to Lilliena the fact of why she couldn’t meet his parents, quietly explaining the accident to her when they were alone. He made mention that he and Connor were coping…which was where she had demanded to know why he hadn’t even spoken about having a brother to her in the first place...!
Orion hadn’t exactly lied to her. He’d said quite simply he hadn’t wanted her to think that he and Connor were struggling, barely coping with the transition of having parents to not having them at all. Lilliena was, of course, quite angry at him for a while of never talking about Connor, claiming the way he’d done so had implied he didn’t even care about him.
Orion hadn’t said a word about how close to the truth she’d come.
He’d not been present when she’d first met Connor. She had turned up at his doorstep when he was out with Frank, helping Louis and Charlotte move into their new house. Connor had answered the door and she had met him that way. He’d only learned of that meeting when she’d told him a few days later. He had been somewhat apprehensive about her even encountering the younger boy, fearing he’d said something to undermine his relationship with her. But no, Connor kept his silence it seemed, and apart from greeting the angora with a hug everytime he saw her, no vitals about their estranged relationship ever left his mouth. Somewhere deep down though, Orion knew his sudden buddy-buddy act with the younger boy in the face of his girlfriend was going to whip around and bite him in the ass before long.
He had made the announcement about visiting Lilliena’s parents and that they were packing up and moving to an apartment in Bigg City to Connor over dinner a few nights later. To his credit, the boy had simply nodded an acknowledgement and left the matter at that. All throughout packing up their belongings, he and Connor shared few words, the silence permeating between them felt like a gaping wound that refused to close. He had debated trying to fix things with his brother, but it seemed every time he worked up the courage to do something about it, Lilliena would poke her lovely head into his train of thought and derail him.
He had been a nervous wreck meeting Lil and Lawrence, Lilliena’s loving parents. Truth was though, he felt beyond intimidated when she’d sent a limo to pick them up from their new apartment. He half expected her old man to turn up at the front door with a shotgun looking all the world like some big white bastard who didn’t take kindly to new horndogs on his property. Connor however regarded his surroundings with a sort of childlike awe. Orion had taken all due care to ensure that Connor behaved himself.
They had been greeted at the door by the radiant happiness of Lil La Rahnqe, Lilliena’s mother, dressed resplendantly in a crushed velvet gown. She had given both of them hugs, pushing back his shoulders, staring at him with all the loveliness he and Connor had come to cherish and adore, and led them down the lush hallway to the main study where Lawrence was seated, reading the paper in front of the crackling warmth of the fire. The old feline had looked up as Lil approached with them in tow, rising from his seat with the aid of his cane. He shook Orion’s hand warmly and laid a hand on Connor’s head, explaining that Lilliena’s little cousins were staying, and that it didn’t bother them in the slightest if the younger hedgehog joined them out in their spacious backyard. Orion hadn’t been able to stop Connor from being pulled away by a bright younger feline by the name of Cantus, but Lawrence had assured him his nephews were apt company and would keep the boy out of trouble.
He had poured a half-shot of neat whiskey into two glasses, handing one over to Orion, gesturing for him to sit down. He had studied him carefully for a moment, before the gentle tone of his voice had begun to speak.
“I’ve seen many a suitor come here, claim to love Lilliena and then make me want to take them out to the range and have at them like any protective old man would. But you, my boy, you’re different. Different in that there isn’t a thought like that in your head,” Lawrence took a sip from his glass, “I’ve not seen her this happy for a very long time.”
“...I’m...a bit relieved you didn’t greet me at the door with a shotgun, Sir,” he admitted nervously. “I honestly didn’t know what to expect...”
“Ha!” the old fellow laughed uproariously. “That’s why Lil does all the front door greeting and I, the old coot, sit here by the fire polishing the rifle!”
It had loosened the air in the room and soon they were talking like old friends. The conversation turned to the matter of their parents, however. Lil had entered the room at this point and sat on the arm of her husband’s chair.
“Lilliena told us how you and Connor lost your parents,” her voice was soft. “And that you two have moved here without the proper funding in regards to renting your new apartment.”
“Well, it’s been difficult,” he admitted. “But nothing we can’t handle, ma’am.”
“Lil,” she corrected him, “And I’m sure, but the area you’re in is beyond expensive.”
“Yes, maybe it is...but we won’t be unemployed for long,” Orion had wondered where the conversation was going.
“Lil and I don’t mean that, lad,” Lawrence held his wife’s hand. “We purchased the apartment for you both on your behalf.”
“WHAT?!” Orion cried. “That’s...no! We can’t...! I won’t...!”
He had felt Lilliena’s hands on his shoulder a moment later.
“They’re not asking you to accept it, Orion,” she smiled at him, kissing his ear.
Orion lowered his head. Lilliena’s parents were so warm, so kind and accepting of him and Connor. He didn’t understand what he’d done to deserve their love and support. Lil went over and knelt before him, lifting his chin.
“You and Connor have both brought joy into our daughter’s life. I don’t see why we shouldn’t help you.”
“...I...I don’t know how to repay...”
“You don’t,” Lawrence smiled. “And we won’t let you, lad.”
“Thank you,” he had murmured in reply, Lilliena’s arms around him as the first, and last, of the tears he hadn’t shed at their parents’ funerals spilled down his cheeks.
They had risen and absconded to the main dining room together, Lil talking gaily about the visiting family, introducing each of them to him as they came together for the meal. Orion was pleasantly surprised to discover that Lilliena’s younger cousins were being watched by an older adopted cousin of hers, therefore she would take care of the kids as they played outside, including Connor. Fortunately, the older adults made him feel welcome.
It was only after dinner that he excused himself to check on Connor. The backyard was brightly lit up and, standing on the deck, he could see Connor being chased by some of the other kids, outrunning them. At least he was having fun and was out of his hair for a while.
“Don’t worry, I wouldn’t dream of having him eat after he’s been running around out there.”
The voice momentarily startled him, and turning, he saw the cousin in question, seated on the edge of the deck, keeping an eye on the kids.
“Oh, hello,” Orion smiled nervously. “I didn’t see you there.”
“Not surprising,” she smiled in return. “It’s my job to not be easily noticeable.”
“I take it the kid hedgehog’s yours?” she went on, gesturing to Cantus chasing Connor across the lawn. “Thought so. Made him take off his good clothes and put him in some ratty ones whilst he’s running around out there. Keeps ‘em clean...and keeps you from freakin’ out something shocking.”
“Uhh, thanks...I guess.”
She grinned at him. “What’s your name?”
“Orion. Orion Hercules Hedgehog.”
“Ahh, graduated Commander of the 4th Division, Naval Academy, right?”
“You must be wondering how I knew that, huh? Your class made the news as being the only ones to graduate with top marks in goddamned everything.”
Orion flushed with slight embarrassment. “Ah, well, yes...”
“I’m Le Feli,” she continued. “I’ve known the family for a few years, and they kinda adopted me. Feline and all, ya know? You can call me Vee, though.”
“Alright,” Orion nodded. “So, how long have you and Lilliena been cousins?”
“See, that sorta eventuated,” she purred. “We’re a bit more like sisters I guess, even though we work opposing ends of the spectrum.”
“Well, yeah...she’s a cabaret sex symbol and I’m a cat burglar.”
Vee chuckled heartily. “Your little brother thought it was pretty cool when I pulled that gold sovereign out of his ear.”
“So you’re a thief?” Orion replied crossly.
“Cat burglar,” she corrected him. “I test security systems for the police, so I’m on the right side of the law, thank you very much.”
“You’re Lilliena’s new beau. Don’t blame you for thinking wrongly about me.”
“I didn’t mean...” Orion began, but she held up a hand.
“I wanted to have a word with you anyway. Just what are your intentions for my cousin?”
The way she was looking at him, Orion couldn’t tell if she was goading him or being completely serious.
“Your intentions. Do you intend to give her a lesson in leavin’ or are you genuine in your affections, bud?”
“I beg your pardon?! I hardly think that’s any concern of yours!”
“Oh it’s my concern alright,” she backed him up, right to the edge of the deck. “My cousin’s a great gal and she’s been through the wringer since god knows when. If she’s gonna be datin’ a naval boy, I’mma make one thing straight to you, pal!”
Orion gulped. “And that is?”
She grinned up at him, a feral, wall of hard-set fangs right in his face.
“You break her heart...and I’ll take a bite outta yours!”
Orion nodded, understanding her threat perfectly. “I gotcha.”
She let up on the older hedgehog, smirking as he adjusted his collar and wiped his brow. She still had the ol’ one-two verbal punch down-pat. She took a deep breath and returned her attentions to Connor and the other kids.
“So how long have you and the kid been without your parents?”
Orion started, “How did you-?”
“Overheard the parental units talking about it when I arrived. I’m sorry. I realise it’s a personal question, but I’m just trying to understand your situation a bit more.”
“...they’ve been gone for four years.”
Vee was silent, watching Connor run about without a care in the world. When the kid had come out the back, dragged along by Cantus and met her, she had read from his body language that he was carrying a chip on his shoulder. After making that gold coin appear from his ear, she’d won his trust enough to get him to talk, and from the tone of his voice, he was being expected to grow up as of right now.
“And how long have you and him gone without sayin’ you love each other?”
Orion flushed with anger. This calico-mainecoon cross was damned forward.
“That’s none of your concern!” he snapped.
The femme feline eyed him carefully. “I hope not. I’d hate to be the one the kid’ll take down when he gets angry enough...”
The words sent a fresh shiver down Orion’s spine.
Lilliena had said that her adopted cousin was quite blunt at times, and very much spoke reality instead of fantasy. Her words had unnerved him that night, and he had left her to her overseeing duties, returning to the dinner table for wine and desserts. She had ensured Connor was fed, along with the other children, retiring them to the study where most of them fell asleep as the night had worn on. When it came time for them to head for home, Vee had suggested they stay the night, an idea Lilliena readily agreed to. He had retired to his room, along with Lilliena, whilst Vee took care of Connor.
Lilliena had talked briefly about her adopted cousin before he and her slipped into bed. She was barren, never able to bear her own kittens, and her former fiance had left her because of it. She’d been hired by a firm somewhere in the Upper Highlands and now tested security systems. The definition of her job was a cat burglar...of sorts. Watching her dote upon Connor made Lilliena wish that she could help her. Orion made mention that her bluntness had unnerved him somewhat, and Lilliena had tried to alleviate his concerns by snuggling into his back.
He and Connor had returned home the next day, dropped off by Vee, who had insisted on it. He had sat in the back seat, letting Connor do all the talking. The mixed-breed feline seemed to be in her element with his kid brother around. Orion had handed Connor the keys wordlessly and he had bounded up the steps to their new apartment to open the front door. He and Vee had held a firm gaze on the other before he exited the car.
“See you around, cat burglar,” he’d told her.
“I hope not,” had been her terse reply.
Orion had said his feeling was neutral. She had driven off, beeping the horn at Connor who had waved back ecstatically. Last he heard, Vee had returned to her job in the Upper Highlands and had kept well out of contact since then.
His mind wandered to her words about Connor...that she’d hate to be the one he’d take down if he ever got angry enough to do so. What had she been implying, he wondered. The clock on the wall chimed the hour, two o’ clock in the morning. Orion considered getting some sleep, when he heard footsteps outside the door, in the hallway. He heard the key turning in the lock and returned his attentions to the ceiling. Marlena stood in the doorway, holding a candlestick and the keys to the door in her hand. Orion chose to ignore her presence, his fur prickling as she simply stood there, staring at him.
“What is it?” he finally asked her, eyes still staring above him.
“You know I’m right,” she replied quietly. “You’d be asleep if you thought I was wrong.”
The ticking of the clock was the only sound in the cold silence. Marlena set the candlestick down on the chest of drawers and closed the door behind her, her eyes never leaving Orion as he continued to ignore her.
“Why, Orion?” she asked. “Why did you say those things about Connor?”
“He’s your favourite,” the hedgehog snidely replied, ears flicking backwards at the severity of his tone. “Of course you’d take offense to me saying the truth.”
“That’s not what you’re about.”
Orion snorted huffily. “As if slapping me would prove anything either!”
Instantly he regretted his words, for Marlena turned away from him, shaking her head. His eyes flickered in her direction, hoping for a sign from her that said he hadn’t gone too far.
“Mina would have approved,” her response was equally as sharp. “And I swear she probably would have agreed you were acting like a spoiled brat.”
He quietly flinched, averting his eyes to the other side of the bedroom.
“Mina would have smacked you silly for even thinking that about him,” she continued. “He can’t help that he’s still a child!”
“He could help me by acting like an adult!” Orion snapped, getting up, hackles rising in the gloom. “He could help me by not getting into a fight, or picking his targets as blindly as he always does! He could help me if he didn’t get involved with that woman!”
Marlena’s eyes grew cold as she glared at Orion, fists balled at her sides.
“That woman,” she growled softly. “Is the very reason you lie in that bed blaming your brother for your mistakes!”
“HE IS A MISTAKE!” Orion yelled angrily, composure snapping like a twig. “HE HAS ALWAYS BEEN A MISTAKE!”
Marlena closed her eyes, breath sharp, teeth gritted. When she opened them again, Orion was taken by surprise to see the sharp shine of tears in them. He swallowed, realising what he had implied about Connor and opened his mouth to reply but she held up her hand, disgusted by the sight of him.
“Get dressed,” she ordered, her voice as cold as the look in her eyes. “You’re going home.”
“But it’s two in the morning...”
Her last words made him pin his ears back at the sudden brutality of them.
“I don’t want you here anymore.”
Marlena opened the door, picked up the candlestick and left him alone in the darkness again. Orion sat for a few minutes, staring at nothing in particular. Why had he said those things? Why had he called Connor a mistake? The presence of Frederich in the doorway, dressed in his uniform and hand rested atop his sabre told Orion he had pushed things far too far.
“Fred...” he started.
“Get dressed,” was the blunt reply, head inclining downstairs. “Train’s waiting for you. Move it, Commander.”
Orion quietly, and shame-facedly, did as he was told.
Help me! Oh Goddess HELP ME!
Above the roar of the rain and the rumble of the thunder, Sunnie could hear the dull thudding sound of helicopter blades as he darted this way and that, trying to escape the Royal Guard. He could feel the spotlight training on him, felt the rush of blood in his ears as he continued to duck and weave in between the derelict buildings, down sloping ramps and up and over fences and through weeds and clumps of undeterminable bushes. Twice he’d stumbled and landed flat on his face, ignoring the violent pull of the muscles in his bleeding, bruised ankle. Surges of adrenaline pushed him onwards, trying to find a safe place to hide. He could hear the Royal Guard’s breathing on his back, the cacophony of voices crying out for vengeance, his fear threatening to choke him.
Margreaves was hunting him, herding him into this twisted maze of broken down and boarded up old buildings and ruins of the once-thriving port. His taunting echoed in Sunnie’s ears, daggers of hate, slivers of things that were untrue, goading him to run faster into that dark, rainy night. Lightning lit up the sky as he continued to flee, tears coursing down his muzzle, mingling with his rainsoaked fur. The guard outnumbered him a hundred to one, but Sunnie was quick and clever, and despite his panicked state, was clearly superior to them.
Slowly, very slowly, the distance between him and the guard lengthened, away from the helicopter’s searching gaze, enough for him to dart up into a derelict building well out of their sight. The light combed the rainy darkness, but couldn’t see the child anywhere. The closest pack of guards split up and searched the surrounding buildings and small parks, but found nothing. The Riverlander boy had outsmarted them…for now.
“We’re sorry sir!” barked a guard over the radio. “We lost him!”
Margreaves leaned against the roof of his car, paw rubbing his forehead, cigarette held neatly between his large fingers.
“Keep looking, Lieutenant,” he replied. “And don’t call back until you’ve got a mark on him!”
The old Kodiak chucked the handheld radio back inside the car, taking a long drag from his cigarette. The guard could be so da,ned useless at times! Brat was nothing but a child of ten years old...barely able to outgun one of his number. But of course, those incompetents had failed him, even with a chopper.
He snorted the smoke through his nostrils, other hand idly rubbing the handkerchief-wrapped syringe in his pocket. Soon he’d be rid of two birds. Soon he’d have his revenge on those damnable backwards rednecks. Soon he’d be back in a position of power by the side of the swan Princess.
“Soon I’ll crush those damnable Stars under my feet too!”
The old Kodiak still hadn’t learned to talk quietly to himself...for above the alleyway, sitting only just protected from the pouring rain on a fire escape planning his next move, was Connor Hedgehog himself. The old bear continued to mutter and grumble, cursing the guard and their failures as the boy listened in, staying as quiet as he could.
“Bloody fools’d cost me my career if that da,nable woman wakes up prematurely!” Margreaves spat furiously, stubbing out his spent cigarette, his tenth in the last hour. “Calm down, old son...Alice would never go back on her word...”
Connor’s ears pricked up at this. The Princess? What was Margreaves on about? What did she have to do with all of this?
“If she says the dosage is powerful, she means it. Damnit, Roc! Get back on the radio already!”
Dosage? What in the hell?
As if answering his cussing, the radio crackled back into life. Margreaves dove for it, fumbled, then pulled it back up to his ear.
“What is it, Roc?!” the old bear demanded.
“We’ve received a report from the boys at the waterside, sir! They’ve spotted him, heading westbound towards the railway!”
“Box him in,” Connor heard the old Kodiak’s fiendish grin. “Keep your distance, but box that little son of a bitch in! He’s mine!”
The bear got into his car and gunned it away from the curb, splashing a wave of dirty water across the sidewalk. Connor leapt over the side of the fire escape, landing and rolling onto his knees. The young hedgehog realised Margreaves was making this whole mess his personal foxhunt. Sunnie, his best friend, was in great danger.
“The railway,” Connor repeated, quickly adding up a route in his head.
If he took the backstreets past the JazzCat, and towards the parklands, he would get to the station with just enough time to spare and be able to intercept his friend. He wasted no time, pushing up from the sidewalk and bolting across the deserted road, ignoring the sheets of rain that belted down around him. The thunder rolled and a crack of lightning lit up the sky, pinning his ears flat against his head again. Connor hated thunderstorms. Absolutely despised them. He felt a whimper escape his throat as he tried to ignore the crackling above him.
“Sh-sh-shut up!” he cried to the darkness. “Let me find Sunnie! Then you can make me dive under a bed or summat!”
The boy disappeared down another alleyway, with the storm boiling overhead.
Engine 12479 hummed sweetly as she pounded home on the last few miles. Vladimir was shovelling coal, Puffa too busy enjoying the sweet silence of the world around them. Well, he would be enjoying it, if he wasn’t reciting that poem Vladimir despised ever so much.
“And what August vitality in your wide aorta stream…”
“Puffer…” Vladimir frowned. “You be knowink I hate zat poem…”
“…to iron, brick and engine steam…”
Vladimir sighed, leaning back on his shovel. When Puffer got into this reminiscing moodframe, there was absolutely no stopping him. It didn’t exactly help matters that they were on the bridge crossing the wide stretch of the Mortar River. Why this blasted sea-green pea-swill reminded Puffa of the Mississippi, Vladimir had never chanced to ask.
“Old man river, that ol’ man river…”
Now the cat was singing. The wolf brought a hand to his forehead.
“He don’t plant taters, he don’t plant cotton…”
Vladimir busied himself with checking the regulator, but he knew he needent have bothered. She was in fine form tonight, pulling the midnight express return full of sleeping passengers, several goods trucks the mail carts, two of the milk trucks and the guard’s van. They’d made the loop with record time to spare and had enjoyed a late dinner of potatoes and greens cooked in alfoil in her fire. There was no reason to disembark for dinner with the Queen.
“How goes?” the cat finally asked, eyes closed and leaning into the wind.
“Runnink like a charm,” the wolf replied. “You seem to be enjoyink yourself.”
“I love these shifts. Plenty of stuff can go wrong on ‘em, but the silence outside Her Majesty is just plain wonderful. No guard whistles, red flags or complainin’ passengers. All signals be green and we’re on th’ home stretch.”
“The way you talk, it sounds like you be comink home from da war?”
“I might as well be,” Puffa chuckled. “Seems like it’s always a triumphant return home.”
“It needs to be askink. What exactly did the stationmaster want to speak to you for?”
Puffa’s ears went flat.
“Oh that,” he rolled his eyes. “Some rich bastard I had a go at in front of Sarah yesterday. Was sayin’ some bad things about Sunnie.”
“I would haff been half expectink you to say you had punched him.”
“I wish I had, honestly!” Puffa snorted. “Poor kid’s probably gone through hell with all them stuffy inbreds faffing about ‘im.”
“All da same, mein General,” Vladimir replied. “Do you to be thinkink he stands a chance with zat Captain of da Stars?”
“I don’t know, Vlad. I really don’t. Star’s...well...a drunken bastard half the time. Takes after his old man he does. And since that political upheaval with the Riverlander seats, it’s a lot for that poor kid to cope with, y’know? Summat times I wonder what Bigg City’d be really like if all th’ infightin’ jus’ stopped.”
“Will be a long time comink.”
“That too,” Puffa got up upon the coal bunker. “Bothers me a lot that I can’t be around when Connor needs a boost, ya know? Hell, his brother ain’t ‘alf a moron sometimes.”
“I did not wish to be sayink nuttink but I thought...”
“Orion’s many things, Vlad, but in recent times, he’s less of a brother to th’ kid.”
“Well,” the wolf went back to shovelling coal. “I am not to be wishink to argue with you, but zere haff been times recently zat I wonder if Connor is ze bettair leader in comparison?”
“You’re not wrong, Vlad,” Puffa replied. “He is the better leader. By far. And I think they know it and it scares them. It explains why they’re trying to make him grow up fast and forget ‘bout bein’ a kid. I like ‘em, don’t get me wrong, I jus’ wish they’d leave that poor kid alone and let him stay a kid.”
“You will haff no arguments from me, my friend.”
“And Star…well, I still have my doubts that Sunnie will change ‘im. His Daddy had a whole riverlander team, and they were the best in Bigg City. There’s a lot ridin’ on Star at the moment, and ‘e ain’t coping well wit’ th’ transition, bud. His Daddy had seven and ‘e wants seven, but his is all City boys. One Riverlander ain’t gonna tip those odds that easy.”
“Which is to be sayink is da case, is it not?”
“Exactly the case,” Puffa tipped his hat backwards, scratching his headfur with a knuckle. “At least Ten’s latched onta th’ kid. Wasn’t expectin’ anythin’ less from ‘im. He trusts Sunnie wholly an’ completely, an’ that’s the mark o’ somebody who believes in friendship first, rules second. But ah tell ya what for, man, I don’t hold t’ Star bein’ accomodatin’ ta that.”
“Neither me, mein General...eh?”
“What is it, Vlad? Something on the track?”
“Nein...take a look at dat.”
Puffa leaned over his friend’s shoulder, staring at what the wolf was pointing at. A searchlight was combing the expanse of the river below them, mounted upon a police speedboat. Puffa raised an eyebrow. Then more searchlights became visible, patrolling the water like a picket line. Wolf and cat looked at each other in confusion.
“What in the hell?”
“Someone escape from de Gulag, you thinkink?”
“God knows,” the cat shrugged honestly. “But a picket line like that’s kinda oh-tee-tee, don’t ya think?”
“Not unless it were to beink a dangerous criminal.”
“I doubt they’d waste our taxes on that level of extremity, Vlad…”
“Wait...” the wolf’s ear flickered. “Do you hear zat?”
“What?” Puffa craned an ear in the same direction. “All I can hear’s Her Majesty…”
“Nein...It sounds like...”
“...wait...” Puffa interrupted. “I hear it too! Sounds like it’s a...”
A bright spotlight from above them suddenly blinded the twosome, both yelling blue murder. From above them, a helicopter soared out of the night, bearing the emblem of the Bigg City Royal Guard.
“BY ORDER OF THE DUCHESS, STOP THE TRAIN!”
“THIS IS INSANE!” Puffa cried, eyes closed against the blinding light. “WHAT THE HELL’S GOING ON?!”
“STOP THE TRAIN!” the loudspeaker barked again.
“BASTARDS!” Vlad yelled over the din.
“WHAT THE FUR?!” Puffa cried, struggling to reach the controls. “What in God’s name’s gotten into those fools?!”
The chopper moved on ahead of them, sweeping the powerful floodlight over the track ahead. Regaining his focus, Puffa stuck his head out the way, determined to give the idiots in the whirly thing another thing or two...and gasped.
Ahead of them, further down the line, was a picket line of trucks blocking the loop just before they entered the steel and concrete jungle of the Yard’s very entrance. It was surrounded by the Royal Guard. Vladimir’s face paled as he saw the same thing from his side. Both felt the cold chill travelling up their spines.
“At ze speed we are goink...” he began, trailing off.
“Never mind that! Get the emergency brakes on!!!”
Her Majesty’s wheels drew sparks as her brakes flew into action. The massive surge of power in the opposite direction sent sleeping passengers, goods and milk tumbling backwards, amidst screams of panic and shock. The guard had also applied his emergency brakes, but at the speed they were going, it wasn’t going to be enough to stop them in time. Puffa and Vladimir gripped Her Majesty’s controls as she slid violently towards the blockage. The Royal Guard scattered in all directions.
“BRACE!” Vladimir cried. “WE’RE GONNA HIT-!”
There was a splintering crash as Engine 12479 plowed into the picket line of trucks, sending shards of wood shooting like daggers into anything close to them, impaling concrete, steel and trees close to the tracks alike. Puffa and Vladimir were praying, eyes firmly shut against the din, as her locked wheels, squealing brakes and showering sparks sent them careening further down the line, towards the jungle-like entrance of the Railway Yard.
“COME ON OLD GIRL!” Puffa cried above the din. “YOU’RE MADE OF STRONGER STUFF THAN THIS!!!”
Puffa pulled at the brake as hard as he could, Vladimir already having done the same down his side.
“Oh god, please! We’ve never had an accident with Her and I won’t let Her have one because of these bloody idiots!” Puffa screamed. “DAMNIT!”
Somewhere above the cat’s frantic yells, Vladimir’s cussing and the screams of their passengers, Engine 12479 began to slow, the weight of her cargo driving her into the rails. The sparks died down and disappeared. And like some great hand had come down on them, she stopped, jerking heavily forward, slamming both the cat and the wolf against her cabin and her coaches and cargo against her coal bunker. The panicked screams of their passengers became loud, raucous cheering. Drenched with sweat, Vladimir and Puffa panted with exertion, staring up at the groaning, almost panting, engine herself.
“Sweet...merciful...heavens...” Vladimir whispered hoarsely. “Zat was bloody close.”
Puffa didn’t say a word, didn’t even move to wipe the sweat from his eyes. He glared grimly as the chopper made another pass, landing on the tracks just ahead of the hissing train. When he caught sight of the cat that leapt out of the whirling machine, all he saw was a red cape to a bull. Vladimir took a look towards the back of the train, seeing Guardmen Richards waving back at him, nodding with relief.
“It seems, mein General, we just made zat,” he chuckled grimly.
Puffa didn’t answer. Vladimir then heard boots on gravel stone and whipped his head around. The driver of Her Majesty was gone, stalking along the edge of the track towards the Royal Guardman foolish enough to have tried to stop them at that speed.
“...mein gott...” the wolf cussed quietly.
“Ah, Driver Johnson!” came the call, the voice belonging to a relieved Maximillian. “We knew it was you driving tonight, that’s why we stopped you...”
The poor feline idiot didn’t see Puffa’s expression, nor his balled fists, nor his pupil-less eyes. Well...not until his fist connected with his muzzle, that is. Watching from his place still as Fireman, Vladimir winced as he heard the crack of the other cat’s jawbone.
“GIVE ME ONE GOOD REASON WHY I SHOULDN’T RIP YOU APART, YOU IDIOT?!” Puffa roared.
From his prone, bleeding position on the gravel, Maximillian remembered almost instantly why he and Puffa kept their relationship estranged.
“YOU COULD HAVE KILLED EVERYONE ON BOARD!” Puffa leapt for the protesting younger man. “YOU DUMB BASTARD, I’M GOING TO KICK YOUR ASS!”
Vladimir made no move to help Puffa, nor did any of the other guard make any move to stop the furious engine driver from knocking Max’s block off. Max blocked his brother’s furious assault, trying to explain why the Royal Guard had done what they’d did.
“WILL YOU LET ME EXPLAIN?!”
“SHUT YER CAKEHOLE!”
Vladimir absently patted the engine’s cabin, “See, old madam? He be thinkink the world of you even now.”
“I OUGHTA BREAK EVERY BONE IN YER BODY FER THAT STUNT!!!”
“Look I know you care about your engine...”
“I CARE ABOUT THE SAFETY AND WELLBEING OF EVERYONE ON BOARD HER!!!”
Max winced at the ferocity of Puffa’s yelling. Truth was, he’d had better ideas in the past. This stunt however hadn’t been one of them. Puffa landed a few digs to his sternum whilst he was thinking of how to say his next few words. Max noted grimly that there were a few smirks from those under his command. Clearly they thought he was as incapable of leading as Margreaves thought he was too.
“LET ME UP, DAMN YOU!” Maximillian roared, kicking Puffa swiftly off of him. “Will you let me say my piece, for crying out loud?!”
Puffa spat into the gravel. “Make it quick, because you’re going down for that cheap shot!”
“Dammit, brother! Listen to me! Is anyone on your train a Riverlander?”
The way Puffa glared at him, Maximillian wished he had been blessed with more tact.
“What the hell...” the railway cat’s voice was nothing more than a low snarl.
“We have orders to arrest one of their kind,” Max went on quickly. “The boy’s name is Sunshine. He caused the Duchess to break an ankle earlier tonight. Under orders from Commander Margreaves we’re on definitive search and destroy and...”
Puffa’s ears laid flat against his head. Vladimir, who had been heading towards Puffa to try and calm his mate down, stopped dead. He saw Puffa’s tailfur hackle up like a feral beast’s, and, instinctively, backed away from his friend.
“What I mean is-!” Max shook his hands, trying to alleviate the situation.
In a fluid movement, Puffa was off the gravel, had grabbed his brother by the lapels of his uniform and had slammed him up against the chopper, snarling furiously.
“YOU MEAN TO TELL ME MARGREAVES SENT YOU AND YOUR BITCHES OUT TO KILL A CHILD?!”
“I OUGHTA SEVER YER DAMABLE THROAT MYSELF!”
“Vladimir!” Maximillian gasped. “Help...!”
The wolf stood with his arms folded, eyeing the rest of the guardsmen, who had backed up almost as instictively as he had when Puffa had attacked the younger kit.
“Nein,” the wolf replied, shaking his head. “I’d ratheir like to be hearink your reasons for tryink to kill a child.”
“This...isn’t...fair...” Max gasped.
“Isn’t fair...” Puffa repeated, balling his fist. “You are part of the City’s Royal Guard, who swear to protect and serve our City as its greatest defenders, and yet you go witch-hunting after a child of ten?!”
Max braced his stomach for the blow, but caught it across the eye instead. Puffa dropped him, chest heaving.
“YOU RUDDY COWARD!” Puffa screamed, glaring at the other guards. “AND NOT ONE OF YOU MORONS THOUGHT IT WAS WRONG?!”
Max coughed weakly, “We were given our orders...”
“Yeah. SURE you were,” Puffa cracked his knuckles. “Orders that didn’t, in the slightest, appeal to your conscience?!”
The cat shook his head in disgust at his younger brother and spat at his feet.
“Get your goddamned whirly bird the hell off my track, brother,” Puffa stalked towards his engine. “I have passengers to get home and your Commander’s ass to beat the hell out of!”
“Urk...you...wouldn’t...run us over?!” Max cried.
Puffa glared at him. “Watch me.”
“He’s not serious...is he...Captain?” the chopper pilot asked nervously, watching Puffa and Vladimir mount up on the footplate again.
“Take him seriously, Lieutenant,” Max coughed, spitting blood at his feet. “He’s not joking.”
The guardsmen scrambled to get out of the way of the engine and her crew. Max quietly boarded the chopper and the lieutenant lifted them off the track. Vladimir and the guard set about returning the emergency brake to their original positions and reassuring the passengers of their continuing journey home. Puffa patted the old engine’s chassis, thoughts awash with rage. How dare they, he growled. How dare they try and tell him that Sunnie had caused an act of treason!
Puffa eased open the regulator and, with almost a slight cough, Her Majesty began to move, albeit a bit jerkily, given the circumstances of their abrupt halting earlier. Her pistons pumped and her wheels began turning again, easing her heavy train forward. It was only another few miles to the station and the wolf suggested they take it slowly so as not to jolt their passengers any more than was necessary. The cat agreed with a silent nod, mind still firmly set on what Maximillian had said to him.
The journey between the driver and fireman was silent, the normal noises of Her Majesty’s pistons and valves and steam and fire filling the air around them. As the concrete and steel jungle began to appear around them, the wolf coughed quietly.
“Did you believe zat crock of shit he told you?” Vladimir finally asked.
Puffa shook his head. “I don’ want ta believe it.”
“Neither do I, mein General.”
“I don’t want to believe that Margreaves ordered them on a search and destroy. I don’t want to believe that Maximillian obeyed him like an damnable puppy on a lead.”
“If...I may to be askink, Puffer...how long has it been since you and Max have not been talkink?”
“Years,” the cat snorted. “Maybe a couple decades. I didn’t keep track. Who’d want to?” he laughed grimly. “Damnable idiot would take poison for someone if it meant he’d be doing his job!”
Vladimir’s ears flicked backwards. He had never heard Puffa speak this way before.
“And Sunnie...dear gods...” the cat leaned his head against one of the valves. “He’s ten, Vlad. Ten years old! There’s a hundred-something men on a mission to kill him!”
“I know. But vat can we do about it?”
Puffa’s eyes narrowed. “Anything we can. Anything Her Majesty can too. Damn the consequences.”
Vladimir replied with a nod as the rest of their journey continued in silence. Ahead of them on the long stretch of platform were ambulance crews and police. Puffa snorted as Engine 12479 slowed and came to a tired halt at Platform Eighteen-Oh-Three.
“At least he had the courage to call for ‘em, I guess.”
Vladimir didn’t respond with anything other than a sigh. His friend leapt down to the platform and was greeted by Kohler, Harrison and some of the other drivers.
“Man, the Stationmaster’s goin’ mad!” Harrison called up to Puffa. “What the hell happened?!”
“Max,” Vladimir put a hand on the collie’s shoulder. “Don’t be pushink the issue. He’s smartink with what we went through out zere.”
“The Royal Guard stormed the station before any of us knew what was going on!” Kohler explained. “All our trains are delayed. They said something about a manhunt...!”
“Yeah. For a ten year old kid,” Puffa’s voice was hard as stone.
“WHAT?!” came the chorus.
“Kid brother of mine is as brainless as he is loyal.”
“You mean to tell me we’re grounded, with people going mad at Sarah, Chantelle and Leonie, because those dumb bastards are looking for a kid?!” Kohler’s voice was full of indignation.
“Not just any kid,” Puffa’s voice was quiet, deadly, as he led the boys towards the breakroom. “They’re after Sunnie.”
“What? The panda kid you were talkin’ about yesterday?”
“What the hell for?!”
“I don’t know, but I sure as hell am gonna find out...!” Puffa smacked his hand against the ajar door, only to stop dead as the foreboding backside view of a bear in uniform came into his view.
“Attacking a member of my Royal Guard is a federal offense, Driver Johnson,” the malicious grin of Commander Margreaves turned towards the feline. “Arrest him.”
“What the hell?!” Puffa cried.
“Your little exchange with Maximillian was...duly noted,” Magreaves continued as the other drivers were herded out, amidst their cries of protest, and handcuffs were placed on Puffa’s wrists in the struggle. “As was your language. I had no idea you had such problems with how I led my team...”
“You don’t even lead, you fat son of a bitch!” Puffa spat furiously, struggling against the guards that held him fast. “You sit back on your ass and let everyone else take the fall for you!”
“Naïve,” the bear chuckled. “So very, very naïve. I worked just about as hard as your brother did, and now look where I am…”
“Yeah. Eating the feathery bushels of that damnable bitch we’re forced to call our future Queen!”
Margreaves’ expression grew cold and dark. He stepped up to the feline, orbs of fury meeting grinning defiancy.
“’Least my brother ain’t as fat, ain’t as stupid and ain’t as pussy-whipped as you!”
The old bear raised a massive balled fist.
“Oh that’d go down well, wouldn’t it?” Puffa smirked. “Hitting a restrained prisoner just because he got the better of you verbally? That’d be something Lady Lorianna would nail you to a coffin fer, wouldn’t it?”
Margreaves’ lips drew back into a snarl. Puffa’s sly grin remained.
“I could just as easily tell the media you were cavorting with a traitor, Driver.”
“Good luck,” Puffa smirked. “I’ve been here nearly 40 years now. The public knows me inside out. They know Max and I don’t get on well, and haven’t gotten on well since father left Her Majesty to me. Smearing my name will only bring you trouble, you arsehole.”
Margreaves couldn’t tell if Puffa’s threat was exaggerated or serious, but he decided to treat it as the former. Which was, in Puffa’s case, a ruddy mistake.
“The media is an accurate tool when used well...” he started, but was interrupted by Puffa’s laughing.
“Those suckers will crucify anything! Even you...if you give ‘em enough rope, jackass!”
“I know how much you protect that Riverlander trash, feline,” Margreaves’ voice was sly. “How quickly would you lose your job if your Stationmaster confirmed you loved them?”
“Paul? He married a Riverlander!” Puffa continued to goad the old bear. “Tells me you don’t know jack from shit. Hey, get out from under the Princess’s desk sometime! You don’t know what you miss when the real world knocks!”
The door opened with a bang. Puffa’s mouth dropped open when he saw who it was. Maximillian ignored his brother’s look of shock.
“What is it, Captain?” the old bear asked, straightening up.
“The Riverlander, Sir! He’s in the Railyard!” Maximillian continued, panting. “We can’t use the chopper because of all the overhanging power lines.”
Puffa gritted his fangs into a snarl. Margreaves smirked.
“Well now, Driver, it appears I’ve found your leeway at last.”
“You hurt Sunnie and I swear to God...”
“You’ll what?” Margreaves taunted cruelly. “Hit me? Now that would go down well in the face of The Duchess and the media, now, wouldn’t it?”
Margreaves smiled at Maximillian, who was trying to ignore his brother as best he could.
“You’ve done very well indeed, Captain. I believe a promotion is in order once you’ve cornered that damnable trash.”
“Why yes,” Margreaves continued, flashing that triumphant grin at the hissing Puffa. “After all, when Her Ladyship wakes up, she will be thrilled to learn of your dashing heroism in protecting her honor and valor...”
“SHUT UP, YOU SON OF A BITCH!” Puffa roared angrily. “STOP MAKING HER LOOK LIKE YOU, YOU HATEMONGERING BASTARD!”
“Do me the biggest favour in the world and escort your brother to the prison train?” the Kodiak looked like he’d gotten away with the cream. “He will await trial in the morning...providing someone pays the abnormally high amount of zeroes following his bail total.”
“Mark my words, Margreaves...you’ll get yours!” Puffa growled as Max and the other guards led him away.
“That unfortunate consequence, my dear Driver Johnson, has never in my life been true,” the bear chuckled, dismissing his threat with a wave.
The bear waited until Max had closed the door behind them, cocking an ear in Puffa’s direction as he screamed abuse at the younger kitten. He had, on all accounts, confined Sunnie to his doom; the Star Team were under house arrest, unable to leave and prevent the massacre he was going to bring down; Puffa was now under the Royal Guard’s arrest and the railway yards were now their territory to stalk as they damned well pleased; and, according to Roc’s report earlier, the boy was already injured, making him an easy target for what he intended to do.
He exited the breakroom and headed for the Stationmaster’s office. True to her word down the phone, she was already there, with her other...insurances...offering Paul a way out of the mess he was now, inadventently, part of. His presence made her heavies usher the panther out of the building, leaving them alone together.
“I admit I was...concerned...” Margreaves spoke first. “I would not have taken your word for it had you told me of your intentions to be present earlier.”
“Oh pish!” she snorted, sipping at the glass of wine Paul had given her earlier. “I wanted to ensure the job was done right. You cannot fault me for that, surely?”
“I guess I cannot, My Queen.”
“Ahhh, I’m not there yet,” she admired her glittering rings on her hand. “I need a suitor first, and Marlena disposed of.”
“You said you weren’t going to bother with her?”
“See, that’s where you should have known I was lying,” she waved her feathered hand dismissively. “That woman is a thorn that needs removal as soon as possible.”
“Is it because of her ties to the Riverlanders that bothers you so greatly, My Princess?”
“It’s because she has her damnable roots steeped in an unholy amount of their affairs!” the swan woman snapped. “I want that brat’s body on my doorstep before morning’s light!”
“He’s already been cornered in the railyards.”
“Yes...but managed to evade your best,” she sneered, noting the old bear’s wince. “You cannot tell me in good faith I should trust you one hundred percent on a matter this vital?”
“Why else would you be here?” the bear returned the sneer. “It’s because if anyone saw you, your place in the Heirarchy would be finished!”
“Do not be threatening me, Hector,” there was a sharp glint of poison in her cruel eyes. “I can just as easily make your position a thing of the past.”
“Do you want the boy dead or not?” Margreaves retorted.
Silence permeated the room for only a moment.
“I’ll take that as a yes,” the Kodiak smirked, opening the door. “Good morning, My Princess.”
Alice watched the bear depart, before gulping down the rest of the wine. It had gone warm and she winced at its tartness before setting the empty glass down on Paul’s desk.
“He better put an end to that brat,” she hissed as she stalked towards the door herself. “Or I’ll be putting a swift end to him myself...!”
Connor ducked behind the stack of crates as torchlight scanned the area around him. He could hear hurried footsteps crunching the gravel pebbles, splashing through mud and rainwater, voices hushed and angry. He had vaulted over the fenceline, cursing slightly as his jacket had snagged on the barbed wire, tearing somewhat. As good as the dress uniform was against the elements, it was still only waterproofed cloth. Orion was going to kill him for that.
Orion...ha! If that galumphing great idiot was to ever give a half-damn about anyone other than himself and his broad, that is!
Connor felt his ears pin back at the thought. They hadn’t exactly acted like siblings for a pretty long time, had they? He gauged the distance between his position and the next set of crates and darted for them, diving behind them and coming to a stop close to one of the larger patrols. He’d overheard, for the most part, the section where Sunnie had been sighted – it was a click in the direction he was heading where a large subsection ended in some steep stairwells and back down into the twisting alleyways that led back into the derelict docksides. He kept his head down, listening to the muttered curses of the guards. The rain hadn’t yet eased and the thunder and lightning was still raging overhead. For the most part, he’d ignored it, trying to stay focused on not being seen and intercepting Sunnie before Margreaves got to him.
Orion would never even think of doing this for him.
Connor gritted his fangs, remembering the fight he’d had with the others. He should have left a note. Wait...why should he even be caring about what they thought? They were all cowards, every last one of them, running a group of guys who barely gave a half-damn about anything other then themselves, led by a drunken bastard who didn’t give a crock of shit either way!
Beyond his control, Connor felt tears trickle down his cheeks, mingling with his rainsoaked muzzlefur.
Why did they treat him so badly? Why did they treat Sunnie like an intruder? An outcast? It wasn’t as if he was so different from half of them! Connor ran his sleeve across his face, adding more wetness to his already soaked fur. It was so not worth crying over those idiots. If they hated him, then fine! They could hate him for whatever cockaminny reason they could come up with in those ten seconds of decision! But Sunnie...
To think he had fought with his friend mere seconds before the whole kit and kaboodle came crashing down...
He took a level breath and ran across the railyards, leaping up and into a disused freight car, ignoring the torchlight, the patrolling guards and the peal of thunder overhead. On his hands and knees, dripping with rainwater, Connor balled his fist and brought it down with a crack onto the metallic floor of the car. He felt the tears again, and began to sob. Why had he treated Sunnie as if he was stupid? Why had he been so angry with him? What the hell had he done that for anyway?!
He was no better than Captain Star.
Connor raised his throbbing hand to his mouth, muffling his cries. He remembered what Thomas had said to him after he’d been ignoring Sunnie. He remembered how Thomas had come between him and their drunken captain on a night pretty darn similar to this one. He remembered the impact of the captain’s balled fist as it struck the raccoon in the ribcage, and kept on hitting him, right and left. Thomas had, with all his strength, pushed him out of the room, locking the door behind as Star continued his vicious assault. He had run back down to his room, sobbing, pillow over his head as Thomas’s cries echoed throughout the empty HQ – the others away with Lady Marlena Vienna at the time.
He couldn’t even remember what he’d said to even aggravate Star to that point where the booze and his rage combined into that brute of a man.
When the others had returned home, Thomas had lied straight to their faces, saying he’d had an altercation with Xavier, Hygar and Zac. No doubt those alleycats must have been wondering why Orion and the others were so snide with them for the weeks that passed after the event. Thomas had sworn him to the utmost secrecy – he was not to tell a soul what happened. Whenever he was out on a job and Thomas was left alone in the HQ, Connor worried himself sick. What if Captain Star did it again?
It seemed between the late night visits to Gomez’s watering hole and copius empty bottles of booze in the recycling bin, Thomas was getting the snot kicked out of him on a regular basis. So regular in fact it stretched on into years. And still, like a coward, Connor had said nothing! His mind drifted back to the morning he’d come home early after forgetting the cupcakes he’d baked for Sally’s birthday, recalling the spatters of blood that led down the stairs, across the hall to the laundry room. Opening the door, he’d found Thomas, on his knees, extracting pieces of glass from his ribcage. Star had gone at him with a broken bottle this time.
To his credit, Thomas hadn’t been able to look Connor in the eyes.
Connor hadn’t said a word then either. He merely got out the cleaning products and mopped up the crimson spill before Charleston got home. He honestly didn’t understand why he had even done that for Thomas, why he continued to keep his silence about the abuse Star was dealing out whenever he had too much of his damnable mistress. What was the point of saying anything if Thomas didn’t want the abuse to stop? Had he gotten so used to being Star’s punching bag that he was too used to the violent ordeals to stand up for himself?
It had been seven years. Connor knew what the answer was.
Orion would do nothing to stop the abuse. He did nothing to combat anything but his own damned pride!
Like an idiot, Connor realised, despite all their ups and downs and catastrophic personal failures, he still loved him. Still loved the others enough to go to the ends of the earth for them. Yes, even Charleston, even though he never understood what the cat’s personal issue with him was. He liked being the youngest of the team, still liked being able to cheer up his friends on their down days, despite often ending up playing alone because they didn’t have time for him anymore.
Connor didn’t see the world around him in black and white. He saw it in colour, bright, vivacious, beautiful colour that spilled into everything and everyone. He didn’t care about gender, or faction, or creed, but he knew enough of the situation to know others didn’t think the same as he did. They dismissed him as being a child still, not the adult he had grown up to be after he’d been expelled from primary school. Connor remembered Principal Corrine, and the lengths she’d gone to try and protect him from the police chief and his bullying son. In the end, she had been forced to fold, with the threat of losing her job. She was the only thing closest to his mother that he had left. Sally did a great job of trying to be at least a replacement for his lost parent, but Corrine had been everything she was. How he missed that loving warmth in his life.
He took a deep breath, pushed up and off and leapt down the other side of the car, running towards another stretch of trucks. The rumbling thunder aptly covered the sound of his dash over the gravel and muddy dirt. Reaching the truck nearest to him, he ducked underneath it, sliding over the rails on his stomach and rolled over, running towards another pile of crates. Only just in time he ducked to avoid a bright yellow beam of torchlight cutting through the sheet of rainwater. Connor held his breath as the light cut across the crates, listening for the sound of their approach.
When Sunnie had come along, here had his chance been to try and emulate everything she had ever taught him to be, everything Orion had forgotten to follow-through when she was gone. He had been raised primarily by his gregarious and loving mother, and Orion had been raised by their father – two entirely separate brothers doted upon by a single parent each. Not that Connor had ever really cared all that much about the separation at the time.
The Orion he remembered was a loving, kind soul who greeted him with a treat and a promise to go adventuring as soon as his studies were over. The Orion he remembered had pulled him out of school, told a fib to his homeroom teacher and taken him out to the fair for a whole day. He still remembered how he had gotten grounded for an entire year, but had taken a single look at him and his bright eyes and cotton-candy-streaked muzzle and told their parents the whole thing had been completely worth it. His grounding had only lasted a week.
He got Orion into all sorts of trouble and not once had it ever been so bad as for him to tell him he hated him. That day still stuck in Connor’s mind, a dark, black stain that spread across his memories like a smothering cloak. Being told by Corrine that something terrible had happened to his parents, the crying, the panic and the end. The Orion he knew had shattered, replaced by a cold individual who simply shut off his feelings and memories as if it resembled a light switch. They had only told Orion in detail about what had happened, but he’d found out anyway. It was so hard sitting there in his Sunday best, twin white roses in his hand, and not hearing the hushed whispers and gossip of those closest to the family.
In the grief and loneliness, Orion had shut off every emotion that flowed in him. And Connor remembered his look when he had sniffled too loudly – that cold, menacing glare that said ‘don’t you even think of it!’ He had bottled up his grief because of Orion, because of the nobility Orion was trying desperately to live up to. And he’d done it for his older brother out of some misguided sense of love and respect for him.
When Sunnie had come along, all of that grief had come pouring out.
The younger boy had asked him simply what was wrong with him, that he kept going quiet and unresponsive when he talked about his adoptive family as they sat in the parklands before heading home to the Star Team HQ. And kept going with that same question until finally he had been witness to Connor breaking down in grief for his dead parents. And he’d said nothing – simply held him as the grief consumed him. He had told Connor that it wasn’t healthy to bottle up something like that...then had said that his own situation was somewhat similar. His mother too was dead, rumours had flown that his father had killed her, and, he added, his father had tried to kill him as well – which was how the Shoepacks had come to adopt him. The similarities between them had strengthened their friendship, and Connor had seen not someone from an opposing faction, but a friend who, under all circumstances, was more his brother than Orion had ever been.
Which is why, now, he was darting in and out of the derelict freight cars, trucks and old rusting engines, still dressed in the Star Team’s dress uniform, trying to get to his friend before that hatemongering leader of Lady Lorianna’s Royal Guardsmen got to him first. If his own team were just going to squabble amongst themselves and lie about how drunk their Captain got, then he was going to do something about their tarnished rep, even if he had to destroy it first and then rebuild it from the pieces.
Connor heard voices travelling along the length of the platform opposite him and peeked out of his hiding place. To his horror, he saw Puffa being led in chains by Maximillian – whom, to some degree, was still sporting a black eye, a bandaged nose and a split lip. There was a loud whistle as a single carriage and an engine backed down slowly towards it. He ducked lower behind the crates, staying out of sight as Maximillian turned towards Puffa, staring grimly at him.
“I didn’t want to do this, Puffa,” Max was saying, shaking his head. “You left me no choice.”
“More like your mouth was too busy licking Alice’s arse end,” Puffa retorted. “I shoulda hit yer mouth harder!”
“Try to understand where I’m standing, brother!” Max replied hotly. “If I so much as call off the dogs, my arse is on the wire!”
“Why don’t you stop giving a damn about your career and start giving a turkey about what it is you’re gonna hurt in the process!” Puffa snarled back. “We’re already on tenterhooks with the Riverlands, you moronathon! This act on our behalf will start a civil war!”
“And what the hell do you want me to do about it, huh?! I don’t have any more power to help that brat!”
“You’d have power if you weren’t on your knees like some bitch!”
“I am not a bitch!”
“The way you suck up to Margreaves and act as if you’re loyal to the Duchess says everything about you!”
Maximillian winced openly, fists balled at his sides. “TAKE THAT BACK!”
“MAKE ME!” Puffa snarled back. “No of course you can’t! You’re too darn spineless you make a jellyfish look better in that uniform!”
Puffa retracted his statement.
“Oh wait...no...I’m definitely wrong there. A jellyfish has over forty sets of balls. You don’t have even have one.”
Connor stuffed his hand in his mouth to keep from laughing out loud. When Puffa got annoyed, he was as dangerous as Sally could be when she was drunk. The thought crossed his mind of telling Sally she’d go good with Puffa, regardless of the age difference. Maximillian flushed red with anger, but still didn’t hit Puffa back, instead signalling to the guards on the car to take him away, oddly enough, there were ghost-like smiles on their faces. Puffa smirked as they led him aboard.
“See, little brother? Even they think you’re a spineless coward! They know I’m right!”
“Get him out of my sight!” Maximillian fumed.
“Yes, Captain Johnson,” snickered one of the guards, closing the door in his face.
The train pulled away from the platform and Puffa seized one last moment to taunt his brother, sticking his head out the window.
“THAT’S WHY DAD LEFT ME THE ENGINE, SHORT STUFF! YOU AIN’T GOT THE PISTONS TO PROVE YOU CAN DRIVE HER!”
Puffa laughed long and loud as the guards pulled him out of the window and back down into the carriage. Maximillian screamed obscenities at the departing train, his voice drowned out by the engine sound and the rain rattling on the roof above him. Connor watched the younger feline pant from the effort and then run his arm across his eyes, looking away. He saw Maximillian ball his fist and slam it into one of the support pillars and then shake his head.
“WHAT THE HELL AM I DOING?!” he heard the cat scream. “HE’S NOT RIGHT! HE’S NEVER RIGHT!!!”
The cat’s voice trailed away.
“...he’s never right...is he...?”
Connor almost felt sorry for him. He debated whether or not to show himself to Maximillian, but someone else did that for him. He felt the prod of something digging into his lower back and he froze.
“Get up, boy.”
Connor cursed his bad luck. The voice belonged to Margreaves himself.
“I should have known you’d come running when that little brat was involved,” the old bear sneered.
Connor knew if he could get the old bastard angry, he might be able to get some distance from him. He glanced to his left, seeing a gap just big enough for him to squeeze through. Perfect, he thought. Now what could he say that would make the hatemongerer hit him in that direction?
“Shoulda known you were here licking her tailfeathers like the good little commander you are,” Connor retorted, smirking. “Get bored of it yet?”
A second later, the hedgehog found himself a few feet away, smacked by the old bear’s paw. He breathed heavily, knowing he’d come up with a bruise in the morning, but wasted absolutely no time in feeling the pain. Adrenaline surged into his system and he darted into the tiny alleyway just as the old bear reached for him. He cried out as the bear’s claws snagged on his jacket sleeve.
“YOU’RE NOT GOING ANYWHERE, CONNOR!” the bear yelled.
Connor yanked himself in the opposite direction, tearing the jacket sleeve. For some strange reason, his conscience said when Orion found out about that, he’d be grounded for life, but Connor had no time to give a damn about what his brother would think. He’d already insulted the Commander of the Royal Guard. If he didn’t get put in prison for life for that, the uniform could suffer some more! Reaching the other side, Connor wisely ran for his life. The old bear, whilst he was rather morbidly overweight, was still a fast runner. The hedgehog winced as cold rainwater came into contact with his arm. Blossoming under the almost-shredded white dress shirt sleeve was three, long, bloodied scratches. He clenched his arm as he ran, ignoring the pain.
The old bastard nearly had him then.
Margreaves swore loudly as Maximillian came up behind him, shocked and concerned.
“COMMANDER!” he cried.
“DON’T JUST STAND THERE, YOU MISERABLE IDIOT!” the bear roared at him, displaying sharp fangs. “GET AFTER HIM!”
Visibly shaken by Margreaves’ display of fury, Maximillian tore after Connor. But, at the same time, the cat was thinking about this entire mess with Lorianna, with his CO, with the Riverlander and with Puffa. Suddenly Margreaves’s rage didn’t seem quite as understandable...
Margreaves swore as he pulled his arm out of the narrow alley, cursing the splintered wood that peppered his jacket sleeve. He cussed some more, feeling the slivers digging into the soft flesh under his fur. He duly noted however, that, along with the torn sleeve of Connor’s jacket, he had left a mark on the boy – three bloodied ones. He smirked.
That’ll teach the brat to call me names!
Her voice behind him startled his thoughts.
“You handled that well,” she commented dryly. “He got away.”
“Maximillian is on his tail.”
“Wonderful. You sent an incompetent bumbling idiot after the one person who could turn this whole mess into soup.”
“If you don’t mind, My Princess, either get out of my way and let me handle this, or do it yourself!”
She smiled a sweet, sickly smile at him. Margreaves felt himself sweating despite the chill of the rain around them.
“Why Cadet,” she replied, her voice poison. “Did you just insult me?”
Despite himself, Margreaves shivered at being called a cadet. “My Princess, I...”
“That’s better, Commander,” her pleasant voice returned. “Now...see to it you do not fail me...” Over her departing shoulder, she called gaily, “Or you’ll soon see exactly how easy it is to clean the marble floors of the Heirarchy Palace armed with only a potato...”
Margreaves winced as he set off after Maximillian. Alice could certainly be...thorough.
Meanwhile, the cat himself was discovering exactly how fast Connor could be, as he swiftly darted through the railyards, leading the young guardsman on a merry chase. The cat had turned off his radio and pegged it down onto the tracks, deciding against backup. Now he wished he still had the ruddy thing. Connor was giving him a ton of grief.
He slipped, ending up facefirst in the gravel just before the entrance to the old docks. Connor had halted just before the steep steps, not willing to take them at speed. Max shook the gravel off his uniform.
“Stop running, kid,” he told Connor with a low growl. “I ain’t gonna let you get away!”
“Man, Puffa’s right about you being spineless,” Connor shook his head sadly. “I’d be ashamed to have you as my brother too.”
Max lowered his ears slightly.
“Why the hell are you even giving a damn about Sunnie?” he demanded. “What has he done that warrants you getting arrested for?”
Connor stared up at the older man, eyes ablaze with defiancy. Max took a step backwards, not understanding why he’d done so.
“Because he hasn’t abandoned me like everyone else has,” the hedgehog replied. “And I’m not gonna abandon him either...whether you think he’s guilty or not!”
Connor started down the stairs.
The boy’s words reverberated around Maximillian’s head. Somewhere in his conscience, Puffa’s words came back to him with vicious clarity. He was a Royal Guard. He was supposed to be the Lady Lorianna’s consort, her personal guardian, her counsellor and mentor and friend. And what the hell was he doing? He was trying to arrest two children under the age of fifteen for god knows what reason!
He ran a hand through his dripping headfur. Margreaves was his CO, and disobeying him meant a hell would follow in his wake. He’d be polishing every street tile from here to the riverlands...!
But, his conscience whispered, would it really be that bad?
He walked to the crest of the stairs, his eyes darting back to Connor, still gingerly navigating his way down the steep incline. Despite his uniform, despite all those rules and regulations and badges and command tiers, he was still Maximillian Marley Johnson underneath, still the younger brother of Puffa Johnson, driver of Engine 12479, the Queen of the Bigg City Railway.
...Still trying to prove he could be a man like his brother had been for years.
If being a Royal Guard meant arresting children for crimes they didn’t commit, all to appease his CO’s flaring temper and the Princess they were sworn to serve, then he sure as hell didn’t want that hanging over his head like a commander’s cap. Puffa had been right – his own command didn’t even believe he had the spine for the job – as their sniggering faces had clearly displayed to him. He had deserved everything his brother had swung at him earlier on in the night. He’d almost killed everyone on board the train with his childish bravado.
By cripes, he wished Puffa had hit him harder.
He replayed his words in his head and winced, realising it did sound as bad as he’d implied it to be. They were hunting a terrified child across the city, all because his CO had a grudge against the riverlands. Maximillian balled his fists and started down the stairs after Connor. Connor had reached the bottom minutes ago and was attending to the scratches Margreaves had left him, quietly cursing his bad luck. He heard Max’s boots clatter on the ground and looked up, fangs set into a growl.
“Cool it, Connor,” Maximillian raised both hands.
“So what now?” Connor snapped angrily. “You gonna jump me because I’m not ready for you, huh, jerk?”
“No,” the guard replied. “I want you to hit me.”
“You want me to WHAT?”
“Hit me,” Max repeated.
“You must think I’m stupid, Max!” Connor retorted.
“No, I don’t. I want you to hit me hard enough to almost knock me out.”
Max sighed. “I’ll tell Margreaves you jumped me, and I didn’t see where you’d run off to. He’s probably trying to locate me even now. You’re wasting valuable time, kid.”
“Why are you telling me all this?!”
“Just do me a favour and don’t spare anything!” Max growled, dropping into a stance.
Connor sized up the situation immediately and nodded. As Max charged him, he ducked and brought his elbow upwards, connecting with the feline’s chin, then followed through with a ferocious punch to his gullet. Max dropped, coughing weakly as Connor snatched up his backpack and ran. The cat slumped forwards, watching him leave through half-lidded eyes. Well, he’d told the kid not to spare the horses, he mused. Closing his eyes, he felt his stomach protest violently, causing him to retch. Kid had hit him with the hell of a lot of force. Jeez louise, that had hurt something shocking!
He could hear heavy footfalls approaching the stairway’s crest and closed his eyes, forcing himself to continue to vomit, coughing heavily, eyes awash with tears. Margreaves let out a hiss of annoyance at seeing the cat bringing up his stomach.
“What the hell happened?!” he demanded.
“Was...on...stairs,” Maximillian whimpered. “From...behind...”
Margreaves’s eyes scanned the area. It was all derelict buildings and even sharper stairwelled inclines from here on out.
“Was it the Riverlander or the Star brat?!” he accosted the trembling feline.
Maximillian shook his head and Margreaves almost belted him one. He didn’t know who’d hit him, costing valuable seconds at making a possible arrest. The old bear because to cuss loudly, at the situation, at the cat’s failure, at how Alice was going to demote him...and then stopped almost as suddenly as he’d started. Max opened his tear-filled eyes and looked up, eyes widening in disbelief.
Oh no, Max’s conscience screamed at him.
Having taken a wrong turning in the maze of derelict buildings, the riverlander in question had been approaching in their direction. Margreaves turned his attentions directly to the boy and Max struggled to get up to stop his CO from reaching the terrified child. Ignoring the pain in his stomach, the cat tackled into the bear, taking him down before he could reach the tree panda.
“RUN KID! RUN!” the cat cried, digging his claws into Margreaves leg.
Sunnie turned and bolted into the darkness. Margreaves roared and swiped at Max, taking off almost an inch of his headfur. Max sank his fangs into the same bloodied marks his claws had given him. The bear roared in pain.
“WHAT A TIME FOR YOU TO GROW A DAMNABLE SPINE!” the Kodiak snarled, kicking the cat swiftly in the ribs and into the concrete ahead of him.
With his pants still firmly under his fangs, the cat took a section of those with him. Max reeled from the impact, spitting blood, cloth and bear fur out of his maw. “You taste as bitter as you damned well are, you bastard!”
Margreaves winced, cursing from the gaping puncture wounds the cat had given him, then turned his attentions to the disappearing brat. If he lost the child again, Alice would kill him!
“He’s a child, damn you!” Max spat, claws raking the concrete. “Leave him alone!”
“Get out of my face, Maximillian!” Magreaves hissed, wincing at the bleeding wounds.
Maximillian didn’t know where he’d pulled the courage from, but damn the consequences of his actions. He rose with some difficulty and blocked the old bear’s path, preventing him from taking up the chase after Sunnie, claws unsheathed and fangs still marred by the old bear’s blood.
“I won’t let you pass, you son of a bitch,” he snarled. “I’d rather the Star boy got to him first!”
Margreaves ignored the pain and drew himself to his full foreboding height, cracking his knuckles as he did so. Max’s tail dropped low to the ground and he trembled not from cold but from fright. The old bear was twice his height and at least ten times his power. He gulped, blinking the rainwater out of his eyes. He knew he was in serious trouble. Margreaves must have sensed his fear, because his mouth split into a cruel, fanged grin.
“Stand aside, Captain,” he hissed cunningly. “And you’ll keep your commendation, your commander’s badge and your place as Lorianna’s consort.”
Max remembered Puffa’s words – how he’d called him a spineless puppy on a leash, held firmly in place by the old bear’s empty promises of power. His tail flickered and his hackles rose in response to Margreaves’ taunting. No. He would not run away. He would not take Margreaves’s empty promises anymore. He would show his brother that he could be a man.
“Go to hell!” Maximillian snarled.
Margreaves was on him before the cat could react, gripping him by his lapels with a speed he’d never seen before. Max’s throat constricted as he saw the almost feral look in his Commander’s eyes; the old bear was completely crazed. He unsheathed claws that almost resembled the teeth of the biggest whales on earth, running his tongue over his glistening fangs.
“As you wish, Cadet!”
Maximillian’s voice was nothing but a scream as the bear’s claws impacted across the front of his uniform, crimson fluid spurting from the gaping wounds, splattering across the water-covered concrete ground. Across the derelict buildings, Connor, and the still-fleeing Sunnie heard the scream echo above the wind, rain, thunder and lightning.
“...Max...” Connor halted, whispering to the wind. Then he turned and ran off again, silently praying the cat was alright.
Margreaves dropped Maximillian like he was nothing but a discarded doll and took off over his prone, wounded body. Max felt the rain pelting him, eyes focusing and unfocusing, only barely hearing the bear’s hurried steps into the gloom. He had done what he had wanted to do – delay Margreaves long enough for Connor to find Sunnie – but Sunnie had taken a wrong turning. It had been terrible, terrible timing on the boy’s part. The cat coughed, more crimson pattering amongst the raindrops. His fingers grasped the torn steel-thread and cloth reinforcement he’d been wearing underneath his uniform. It was torn, but his chest and ribcage remained intact. Margreaves had only struck him where the reinforcement ended – he could feel the deep, bloody slash in his stomach spilling blood practically everywhere.
He took a single harrowed breath and forced himself up off the floor, arm around his wound, coughing and wheezing from the effort. He estimated that he would probably bleed out if he so much as stayed put. His claws cut grooves into the stairs as he half pushed, half hauled and half crawled his way up the steep incline, arm still pressed firm into his stomach to halt the endless gush of red. He looked back through tear-filled eyes at the abandoned derelict buildings and for a brief moment, thought about giving up, being a man wasn’t as worthwhile as it had seemed at the time, thoughts of going back to his loyal, obedient, leashed self swam before him. Then, like the swift clawed smack Margreaves had given him across his front, he remembered Lorianna, his promise to her, and the fate Margreaves was intending for those two youngsters.
Every other thought left him except the one for getting to the proper authorities and putting an end to his CO’s rampage, and fuelled by nothing more than that and sheer bloodied adrenaline, Captain Maximillian Marley Johnson made for the Main Station.
Margreaves hissed as he brought a handful of his own saliva to the angry punctures. He hadn’t gotten very far, stumbling in a puddle and slamming into the concrete face first due to the wounds. Whether or not that damnable kitten had aimed for it, the fact it hadn’t stopped bleeding made the old bear believe his fangs had nicked an artery. Well, now that bloody cat was bleeding out thanks to his own stupidity and bravado! He had crawled into an alleyway, resting his head against the wall, fingers closing around the still-undamaged syringe in his pocket. He was going to use the rest of the sedative on that blasted troublemaking brat if it was the last ruddy thing he’d ever do!
Ignoring the bolt of pain that travelled up his leg, Margreaves steadied himself against the wall, leaning against it for support. His cursing thoughts were interrupted by the sound of whimpering. Ducking back into the shadows, he saw the tree panda collapse in the middle of the road, crying from exhaustion and pain. Moments later, Connor appeared from the alleyway opposite him, spotting Sunnie as he tried to get to his feet. This was delicious, Margreaves grinned. Now he had them both right where he wanted them!
“SUNNIE!” the hedgehog boy cried, approaching him.
The tree panda started momentarily, adrenaline pushing him forward, but he fell, unable to go any further. Connor ran and slid to his knees beside his fallen friend, but Sunnie pulled away from him, frightened.
“I’m not gonna hurt you!”
“What? Like you did at the Magistrates Ball?!” Sunnie choked out.
Connor pulled back as though Sunnie had struck him. That would have hurt a lot less, he realised. He raised both hands in defeat.
“Please, Sunnie!” he gasped. “I didn’t run all this way just t’ leave you like this!”
The tree panda wouldn’t look at him, tears in freefall down his cheeks. Connor felt like he’d let his friend down. Gingerly, he reached out a hand to the sobbing, injured boy.
“I’m sorry,” the hedgehog told him, voice trembling. “I was an idiot to think you hadn’t remembered my warnings. I was being stupid and I...I thought you were going to leave me like...” His voice trailed off for a few moment, letting his own tears rise to the surface. “Like Orion did...”
Sunnie looked up at Connor tearfully, not knowing whether or not to trust the older boy. He’d run away because of everything else that had happened, but the one thing that stuck fast to him was his fight with Connor. He stared at his friend’s trembling hand, watching those same tears cut trails down the hedgehog’s muzzlefur. Connor had hurt him deeply and he just wasn’t about to let that go that quickly.
“Please...” Connor was sobbing openly now. “I didn’t mean to hurt you. Not like they’ve always done t’ me!”
Still, Sunnie didn’t move, mind trailing back to the events of the last two days. He’d been so happy, happier than he’d ever been in years. He’d spent the first day under the gentle wings of someone so warm and loving that he reminded him of his own lost mother, and Connor had shielded him, or for the most part tried to shield him, from everyone that hated him just for being who he was. He clenched his injured hand for a moment, thinking about his memories of his mother. Connor was so much like her. Did he really want to let that all go to naught? No. His mother was gone and if he let it happen, he’d lose the hedgehog too. He reached for Connor’s hand as the hedgehog lifted his head, tear-filled eyes and a nervous smile greeting him.
“Please, Sunshine...” Connor used his full name. “I ask your forgiveness...”
Connor’s hand closed over Sunnie’s and he pulled his injured friend forward into a hug, stroking his headfur as the younger boy sobbed into his shoulder. It was just as well that Connor had blinked to clear his eyes of his tears, for, approaching out of the opposite alleyway, was Margreaves. The hedgehog boy felt the blood drain from him. Sunnie turned his head from Connor’s shoulder, feeling his friend tense up and his headfur stiffen, and felt the same fear. He clung to his friend, whimpering. Connor tightened his grip on Sunnie.
“You...” the hedgehog boy snarled.
“Isn’t it odd?” Margreaves chuckled to nothing in particular, advancing on the two frightened children. “How good things come to those who wait?”
Connor pushed up off the ground, pulling Sunnie with him. He stood protectively in front of his injured friend, shielding him with both arms. Sunnie clung to Connor’s waist, whimpering and crying.
“One step more, Margreaves!” Connor growled. “Just one!”
“And you’ll what, Connor?” he cackled. “Try and stop me like Maximillian did? Don’t make me laugh, boy!”
He raised his massive paw, unsheathing his huge claws. Connor felt his blood run cold when he saw the dried blood caked on them. Sunnie closed his eyes, tears running down his muzzlefur.
“You...you didn’t...” the hedgehog gasped.
“What a time for that damnable idiot Captain of mine to grow a spine,” Margreaves ignored the boy’s shock, flexing the large white appendages. “Still...he made an interesting corpse.”
“Why are you doing this?!” Connor cried.
“On the food chain, I’m the apex, Connor,” Margreaves hissed. “The alpha. You my boy are part of the scavengers. You fight for your scraps like a bunch of unruly ferals. And when you cross into my territory, it becomes my business.”
“Sunnie did not hit The Duchess deliberately!”
“Truly? Then why has she not yet woken up then, boy?”
Sunnie felt Connor grip his shoulder, a firm affirmation that he did not believe the bear’s words. He buried his head into Connor’s jacket, Lorianna’s scream echoing in his mind.
“Shock and adrenaline can do any number of things on her,” the boy retorted. “It made Max do a number on your leg!”
Margreaves’ eyes narrowed and his mouth set into a tight smile. “And I on your arm. Tell me, how much did that hurt, boy?”
Connor shuddered in response, but rose to meet the bear’s taunt with a grin of his own. “Xavier’s done better, old man!”
Connor hissed through his teeth at Sunnie: “Be ready to run when I tell you!”
“Connor?” Sunnie whimpered, wincing at his friend’s grip on his shoulder.
“WELL I’LL HAVE TO REMEDY THAT, WON’T I?”
Connor shoved Sunnie in one direction and he himself leapt for the other as Margreaves’ massive paw came down, claws cutting sparking grooves in the concrete. Sunnie stumbled, landing on his injured ankle. Connor landed hard, feeling blood bead to the surface where he’d grazed his injured arm against the pavement. Margreaves turned his hulking form on Sunnie, roaring at the frightened boy. Ignoring whatever pain he was feeling, Connor charged at the Kodiak, unsheathing his claws. As Margreaves made a swipe, catching Sunnie on the tail and causing the boy to cry out in pain, Connor leapt for him, digging sharpness into the old bear’s unprotected neckfur.
“RUN SUNSHINE!” Connor cried, clinging on for dear life. “RUN!!!”
As Connor had said the words, Sunnie pushed himself up on sheer adrenaline and ran, ignoring the tearing of muscles in his injured ankle. If Margreaves got to him, he was dead. The bear lashed out, claws snagging on Connor’s jacket. Connor gripped down onto Margreaves’s flesh as tight as he could in response, and as the bear yanked him by his jacket, he sank his fangs into his shoulder, feeling them grate against solid bone like a vice. Connor had a grip on his shoulder for maybe fifteen, twenty seconds before the rich, almost black crimson poured from the wound and the hedgehog boy inadventently let go, gagging from the bloodflow. Margreaves hurled him forward, through a boarded up window in a nearby building, clawed hand gripping the torn flesh and grooved shoulderbone in a feeble attempt to stop the bleeding.
“GOD DAMN YOU, HEDGEHOG!” he roared, taking off after the younger boy.
Connor’s head swam with colourful ponies and rainbows. He lay on the hard floor trying to remember. He tasted acridity in his mouth and he ran his hand over his tongue, trying to be rid of the foul taste. What the hell had just happened? It felt like Xavier had come up from behind him and benched him with a two by four. Repeatedly. Rain drummed on the roof overhead and he pulled his ears down in an attempt to drown out the whirlpool in his head. He noticed his jacket was missing a sleeve and was torn down the back. Orion was definitely gonna kill him for that...
Orion? Why did that name come to mind? He struggled to his knees and then held up his hands, as if on instinct. Fur was trapped under his claws, along with bits of still bleeding flesh. What in the name of God had he just done?
A terrified scream echoed through the deserted dockside. Connor inclined his head towards the sound, everything smacking him upside the head at once. He remembered. He was fighting Margreaves, the Commander of the Royal Guard, to buy his friend some time to get away!
Above the steepest set of stairs leading into the waterfront, Margreaves held the struggling boy by his neckfur and collar, at arm’s length, running a massive claw along his muzzlefur. A whimper escaped Sunnie’s throat as his fangs glinted at him, frightening him even more.
“Oh Goddess...” the boy choked out, trying to claw at the bear’s massive paws.
Margreaves yanked him close to him, close enough to feel the hot breath on his face.
“Scream to your god, boy,” he hissed in Sunnie’s trembling ear cruelly. “No one’s going to save you now.”
The other paw reached into his pocket, revealing the glinting syringe. Sunnie paled as he recognised the sickly green liquid within it. He knew what it was. He knew exactly what Margreaves intended for him and it terrified him.
“I got rid of one bird,” the bear hissed. “Had her plucked in fact.”
“...no...” Sunnie whispered. “Please no!”
“And now...to be rid...of YOU!”
Sunnie cried out as Margreaves stabbed the syringe into his tail, depressing the remaining contents into him; smirking as Sunnie’s eyes closed against his will as the sedative instantly took hold of him, rendering him limp and unconscious. Margreaves tossed the empty syringe down the stairwell without a second thought, and as he held the limp boy in his powerful grip, he smirked, picturing a better fate for the boy.
“When in Rome...” the old bear grinned.
Without a second thought, Margreaves hurled Sunnie down the stairwell. Sunnie’s prone body landed hard, cracking bones, and with a splash hit the water below, staining it red as he lay floating there for a moment before the current began to move his body away. Margreaves chuckled, the current would do the rest of his job for him, dragging him under and drowning him. With Connor out of action, all that remained now was disposing of Maximillian’s body with the Princess’s help. Connor would be unable to prove anything, other than he had attacked the Commander of the Royal Guard and would pay a dear price for doing so. Alice would be very pleased.
“Adieu, Riverlander. ‘Til we meet in hell.” the old bear chuckled, disappearing into the night. The whole event, despite his various injuries, had been so bloody worth it.
Puffa would be rotting in a holding cell by now, and letting him know that Max had been an ‘unfortunate consequence’ of tangling with the Riverlander would be wonderfully delicious. His cackling laughter was overheard by Connor; having decided against running into the bear again, he had opted for the rooftop route. The hedgehog boy’s claws tore grooves into the bricks when he realised Margreaves didn’t have Sunnie with him. As the lightning crashed overhead, Connor saw a limp body floating out into the harbour.
Forgetting everything including his own safety, Connor leapt off the roof’s edge, just avoiding the overhanging awning, landing heavily onto the fire escape, using the railings to leap down its steps five at a time. He forewent the use of the ladder leading to the ground, choosing instead to leap over that railing and ran for the water’s edge, tearing off his jacket and backpack as he did so, tossing them safely under the overhanging awning. The hedgehog hit the end of the dockside and dived directly into the water, ignoring the explosion of iciness that damned near sucked all the air out of him. Connor surfaced, coughing, and swam frantically towards his friend. He pulled at Sunnie’s unconscious form, wrapping an arm around his upper torso and swam one-armed towards the stairwell. It was a miracle that Sunnie hadn’t gone under and ingested any seawater, Connor cried a silent thank you to whoever was watching over them. When his feet hit solid concrete again, he hauled Sunnie ashore and up the stairs to the topmost edge, pressing two fingers to the side of his friend’s throat. He felt only a very faint beat.
“Sunnie!” he cried, cusping his friend’s cheekfur.
The tree panda didn’t respond. Connor swore. What had Margreaves done to him?!
Connor caught sight of something silver glinting on the stairwell quite close to them. He snatched the thing up and realised it was a syringe. Tipping it rightways up, needle to the sky, a single bead of greenish water trickled down its internal cannister. Connor didn’t need an encyclopedia to tell him what that watery substance was.
Margreaves had poisoned his friend.
Connor wasted no time. He tore at his shredded dress shirt sleeve, turning it into a makeshift wrapping for the syringe. Giving no thought to himself and the fact he was soaked to the fur, he wrung Sunnie’s soaked clothes out as much as he possibly could, grabbed his waterproof jacket and threaded Sunnie’s arms through, wrapping him up tightly, using strips of his other shirt sleeve to tie the jacket tight around his friend. He cursed the fact that Margreaves had taken the other sleeve off, but there was nothing he could have done to prevent that loss.
He stripped Sunnie of his soaked sneakers and socks, taking all due care not to injure his broken ankle further. He wound a roll of cotton gauze over the bleeding wound, following that with a roll of bandage. Over that, he pulled a pair of waterproofed socks Maxwell had given him for his last birthday – a joke present from the chuckling otter, but he said maybe one day Connor would find a use for them? The hedgehog raised a grin; he was gonna treat Maxwell to an expensive dinner when he saw him next. With Sunnie safely secure, Connor put on his backpack and scooped his friend up into his arms, cradling him close.
“Hold on, Sunnie,” he whispered. “I’ll getcha outta here or die tryin’...”
When he’d been up on the roof trying to avoid the old bear, he’d been looking for a safe route out of the maze of derelict ruins, to the nearest medical help, which was the team’s own physician, Walter Hawkeye. Walter lived on the outskirts of the city, very close to this area. Connor had only been to his practice once upon a time, back when he and Orion had first arrived in Bigg City, but despite that, he had a pretty good idea of how to get there. And now, he needed to get there without Margreaves or the Royal Guard seeing either of them.
“Now...” Connor closed his eyes, remembering the route he’d mapped out in his head. “This way...!”
Carrying his precious cargo, the hedgehog disappeared into the darkness.
“…Anyone with information in regards to the location of this wanted criminal should contact Commander Hector Margreaves of the Royal Heirarchy Guard and will be eligible for a reward…”
Walter had been unable to sleep, not after his favourite radio channel had turned into this media frenzy courtesy of the Royal Guard. He clicked his tongue in frustration. Nothing on the Classical Music Channel either, just that blasted pre-recorded message the television monitors had been blaring all night too. He turned it off in annoyance, and headed downstairs, past the eerie glinting photographs of family hanging silently on the wall. Walter was a divorced father of four, his ex-wife, a beautiful Fantail Pigeon, but, like any chorus girl, couldn’t sit domesticated for more than a second. He had tolerated her flings, coming home from his visits to the various teams and members of the Heirarchy to find her on their bed banging her latest prize. He had tolerated their presences only enough for them to finish, then he’d make sure the door hit them on the way out.
Thusly so, the old hawk was a sarcastic, cynical bastard at times.
After their horrendous divorce and after she had taken the children with her, Walter had chosen to leave all the photos around. For company, as he put it. Nothing creeped his patients out faster than seeing him have a cane-waving argument with a portrait of his wife hanging on the wall. Fortunately, Walter had several younger doctors for colleagues who tolerated his odd behavioural pattern. That and the love-hate affair he had going on with the Star Team and the Zero Boys. He enjoyed Whalen’s company to some degree, the fine womanising fellow often taking him along to single’s bars when he smelled opportune. Mostly however the hawk let the Captain do the talking, smirking in anticipation for the drenched shirt, slapped cheeks and bigger boyfriends that often put a masterful end to their evenings out.
It was Star however that had garnered his attention in recent years.
His father, the Admiral, rest his soul, had been a heavy, but social drinker. In his later years as the team approached its final eked existance, he had taken to drinking for every square meal a day. One day, in early April, he had been dragged in by a kind-natured doe and his only son Patrick for an emergency stomach pumping. The beautiful soul he had come to learn was a past fling of Chris’s was Marlena, of the House of Vienna. Amara, Chris’s wife, was nowhere to be seen. He had finally wrangled the information he sought from Marlena herself, who had said simply that Amara had packed up and gone. Walter personally chose not to pursue the issue.
In that time, and following Christopher’s unfortunate end, he had gotten to know both Captain Star and Marlena, who had soon risen to a position of high regards in the Heirarchy. Marlena he doted upon, she was simply too likeable to not do so. It was her involvement with the Hedgehog boys’ parents that led him to become their personal physician before long. Walt often liked to joke that he would go to the ends of the earth for the old doe if it meant he didn’t have to part company with her. Marlena had expressed no desire to be married though, that part of her psyche had died within when Amara and Christopher were wed. But, despite that, he and the old doe enjoyed some fine-natured ribbing at the other’s expense whenever they joined company.
Once downstairs, he prepared himself a pot of tea and went into the study to restoke the fire. No point in wasting gas on the heater when he had a perfectly good fireplace to use. As he lit the crumpled newspaper and twigs, his mind went back to his conversation with Jones over the anti-alcohol pills he had given his Captain. They were trying so bloody hard to get that stubborn coot off his mistress’s horse, but from experience with his father, Walt knew it would have to be some much stronger intervention to get that to happen swiftly and decisively. Patrick was just not going to budge an inch if he kept being forced. Walt sat back, enjoying the crackle of the fire. It just seemed to make the room brighter with a lit fire. He inwardly cursed that he hadn’t bought potatoes in a long time. They’d make an apt snack for a moment like this...
Walt didn’t know how long he’d dozed on the rug, but he was startled by the sound of banging at his front door. He glanced at the grandfather clock behind his chair: quarter-past four in the blessed AM. The rain still beat heavily upon the roof, thunder still growling in the distance, and quietly the old bird wondered why the Gods were still using the sky as a bowling alley. The banging continued, faster and more frantically. Walt rubbed his headfeathers slightly, yawning.
“Alright! ALRIGHT!” the hawk called out. “I’M COMING!”
Walt’s thoughts consisted of the being at the door being either the milkman running late, the paperboy with yet the same grazed knee as the last four times, or, heavens forbid, those silly idiots Percival and Hugh having locked their keys inside their car again. The hawk was not physically prepared for the sight that greeted him though – a frantic Connor Hedgehog with an unconscious younger boy in his arms – the fugitive, Sunshine River’ynn. The tear-filled eyes of the teenager said enough. Walter ushered the boy in and slammed the door immediately, locking it behind.
“I didn’t think you were awake,” Connor choked out as Walt took Sunnie from his arms.
“Did anyone see you?!” Walt demanded.
“No, I took the back route from the old docks.”
“What the devil were you doing out there?!”
Walt lay the unconscious youngster by the fire, undoing the knots Connor had tied around the jacket to keep him warm. Walt pressed two fingers to Sunnie’s throat, and his ear to the boy’s chest. He was still breathing, but it was shallow, very shallow.
“He’s still alive,” Walt confirmed. “But just barely! His heart is very weak!”
“He was poisoned…”
Walt snapped his head back to face Connor. “What?”
Connor extracted the syringe from his backpack, unwrapping it in front of Walter.
“Margreaves used this on him...I don’t know what’s in it, but I know it’s gotta be poison.”
“Is there any left in it?” Walt demanded.
At Connor’s nod, Walt instructed him to leave the syringe on the table beside his armchair, get upstairs and find some of his middle son’s dry clothes for both of them, as well as all the blankets he could carry. The more Sunshine stayed in his wet ones, the worse his fever would get, and worse still, Connor could pass an infection onto his friend if he got ill too. Walt made for the medical cabinet, and grabbed everything he could, including an encyclopedia on poisons. The syringe held the key to unlocking whatever had been given to the unconscious youngster.
When Connor had returned with the clothes, Walt carefully instructed him on how to splint his broken ankle and then helped the hedgehog dry, dress and wrap his friend up in blankets. After injecting him with some saline and glucose and a mild sedative to slow the poison’s effects, Walt carried Sunnie up to his master bedroom, slipping the bundled youngster under the warm doona, instructing Connor to keep an eye on the boy whilst he tried to figure out what the poison was. Walt set out a bowl of cold water and some hand towels in case the boy came up with fever. Connor wrapped himself up in two of the blankets and took up a bedside vigil beside his unconscious friend.
“Thank God no one saw you,” Walt told the hedgehog. “There’s an APB out for your entire team, under house arrest! If you’d have been seen, there’d be no telling of the consequences...!”
Connor didn’t seem to be paying attention to his admonishments, shivering slightly, close to breaking down into tears. Walt knew there would be no convincing Connor to get on a chair and keep vigil that way. The way he was, he was barely even aware of anything else except the tree panda. Walt sighed gently and went over to the trembling boy, kneeling before gripping him in an embrace.
“I dread to think what could have happened to this boy if you hadn’t been there, Connor. You more than likely saved his life.”
Connor nodded, tears in freefall down his cheeks.
“I’ve given him some fluids to replace those he’s lost. In the meantime, I’ll be working out exactly what that damnable old bastard injected him with. Yell out if anything happens, Connor.”
At Connor’s nod, the old bird left the bedroom door ajar and hurried off downstairs to examine the contents of the syringe. Connor stared miserably at his unconscious friend, the events replaying in his head like a mantra. He had bought Sunnie precious seconds, but the bear had caught up to him. He silently wished that he had been just that bit little older and stronger to have taken the blow from the bastard and not been as dazed as he was afterwards. He would have been on time to stop the poisoning from ever occurring.
But what was done was done, and Connor knew it. Even if he could turn back the clock, any number of things could have gone wrong if he had the power to do it. He hugged the blankets close around him, shivering, holding Sunnie’s limp hand in his own, trying to keep it warm. Sunnie was ice-cold, and his breathing was still shallow. Beyond his control, the tears he had shed in anger before in his search returned.
“Where were you when I needed you, Orion?” he cried. “Why didn’t you and the others give a damn I was even alive? Why didn’t any of you think of me and how much I was hurting when you picked on me?!”
Connor clutched Sunnie’s hand to his cheek.
“Please...God please...if you’re up there, help me...help Sunnie pull through...”
Whether or not Connor was aware he was somewhere between screaming and whimpering with his words, he was beyond caring.
“I know I’m not the best kid...I know I get into trouble and I don’t mean to!...I just,,,I don’t want to lose my best friend!...Don’t take him from me!...Don’t take him like you did my...my...mom an’ dad!”
Clutching Sunnie’s hand, Connor finally broke down, sobbing into the blankets. He wanted his mother, wanted her to envelop him into her gentle embrace and tell him Sunnie was going to be alright. But he knew, whatever would happen, he would not receive that comfort, nor that assurance. He would have to help Sunnie pull through on his own.
“Please,” he sniffled. “Please don’t take him too...” he felt himself whimpering like a small cub, “...give me the strength to help him...to...to help myself...”
Connor closed his eyes, still holding Sunnie’s hand. It was like this that he drifted off to sleep, exhaustion finally claiming him.
Walt stared at the fluid sitting on the slide under his medical microscope, not willing to believe what it was. He had seen plenty of poisons in his time, the worst having been the experimental drug that had accidentally been included in the composite of some pre-natal medication some twenty years ago, which had rendered many expecting mothers infertile, and in the worst cases, induced miscarriages and stillborns – Walt had hated dealing with those cases. By the time the poison had been discovered and outed, nearly a third of all babies born that year had died from it and the Heirarchy had damned near crumbled under the mass of lawsuits. But this...? This was a deadly composite made of some of the Riverlands’ most toxic plants. In an adult, it would induce a lifeless sleep for at least a week with the only ill effects being a loss of fluids.
In a child however...it was the equivelant of euthanasia thrice over. It would do three horrific things over the course of that timeframe - starve the body of all its oxygen; induce an awful fever that brought on a terrible thirst which, if seen to, would mean the boy would eventually drown in his own tissues; and burst the blood vessels around his vital organs. Sunnie would die a painful, painful death not even fit for a beast of burden.
The sedative he had given the boy would only slow the poison’s effects down. And given the timeframe of when Margreaves had innoculated the boy, he estimated the tree panda had less than 72 hours before he would go into cardiac arrest. Walt stared at the picture of the Nightshade Flower, most likely the base ingredient to this deadly concoction. Walt had little real experience with this dangerous plant, and knew he was completely out of his element in dealing with it. After the lengths Connor had gone through to save the boy’s life from Margreaves, telling him he had no way of treating the poison was out of the question. Connor had risked his life and had come out bruised and limping with the boy in his arms.
Walter closed the book with a dull thud. He was running out of time.
Closing his eyes for a moment, he then remembered something from a day not too long ago. Rising from his desk, he went straight for the phone, dialling a long contact number. He waited impatiently for the person on the other end to pick up. This phone number was not given out lightly, an exceedingly private listing given to only those in strictest confidence that it would not be given to others elsewhere. The old hawk was one of those closely-trusted few.
Seconds later, he heard the reciever go up and an annoyed voice answered.
“What is it?”
“Good morning,” Walt answered.
“Walter?” the voice repeated his name with a hint of confusion.
“Yes, it’s me. I’m sorry if I woke you...?”
“Hmph. Hardly. I’ve been awake for some time. You needent ask who’s guaranteed me an early grave.”
“Quite. I have a problem, my friend.”
“One of your own is in my master bedroom. He’s been poisoned.”
The phone went silent for a moment, “...how is he?”
“In a very bad way,” Walt went on. “I have zero expertise in dealing with this type of poison.”
“Nightshade Flower, and god knows what else mixed in for good measure.”
There was the sound of shocked breathing down the other end of the line, before the voice returned, trying its best to stay calm and focused.
“Two, maybe three hours ago. I don’t think I need to say who did the innoculating.”
The voice grew hard, “No. No need.”
“No doubt you saw the reports?”
“And how,” the voice replied firmly. “I’m very sure a certain featherbrain will be finding the rose bush is a painful place to land after leaping prematurely out the fourth floor window...”
“What do you suggest I do? I can’t do nothing with Connor keeping vigil...”
“...did you say, Connor?”
“I did. The boy saved him from Margreaves, at nearly the cost of his own hide. He’s bruised everywhere, and limping rather heavily on one foot.”
Walt sighed irritably, “I’ve been your physician for as long as I can remember. I’ve been through four guard changes and by far, he’s the worst! I’ll never understand how it is the Heirarchy has gotten away without punishment for this sort of debacle for decades on end!”
“Remind yourself that it is the criminals who are in power, and the cunning moving the pieces of change.”
“I hope you’re right about that,” the hawk replied quietly. “But I’ve not seen results of your game of cat and mouse for decades.”
“I realise it must seem like I am doing nothing, but I am doing everything I possibly can to not have the lords realise I’ve been lighting the fuses behind their backsides...”
“How do I slow the poison?”
“One of my own is making their way to you as we speak, with a double dosage.”
“I hope you’ve ensured to not make him conspicuous on my doorstep?”
“Please. I keep my word always,” there was a tiny touch of merriment in the voice.
“I should know that. I truly should. But I am so, so out of my element here, friend. The boy is fading and all I can do is make him comfortable as the death knell approaches…”
“Do remind yourself I’ve just sent an unruly child to the headmaster.”
“Yes well...we both know that should have come a long time ago.”
“If it had, we would not be having this conversation, and I would never have come into the tug of war with the power players.”
“...again, your logic is flawless. I guess as an old bird, I’m panicking far too much.”
“Hardly, my friend. I’ll have you know I’m scared to death that I’ll wake up tomorrow morning and find that bastard at my doorstep demanding an arrest.”
“I know exactly how you’ll answer him,” Walt chuckled. “What must I do?”
“Get as much glucose into his system. The sugar will break down whatever else was in the composite into manageable sections. Keep him as warm as possible and bathe his forehead with ice water to keep the fever down.”
“...was that a car door slamming just then?”
“Don’t fault me for saying I am not prepared to get involved when the situation becomes a necessity,” the voice crisply responded. “I’m not taking the same train as that fool nephew of mine. I’m heading for the airfield.”
“You amaze me, my dear. You’re about the only person I know of in that damnable pyramid that would drop everything to help someone they’ve only known after the death of a past love.”
A smile was clearly heard in the voice’s reply, “Maybe someday it’ll cross my mind.”
“And what of him?” Walt pressed.
“Leave him to me. Despite everything you may have seen him do, and despite every action of his that has both infuriated and garnered respect from me despite his methods, let me remind you that everyone has a measure of cruelty in them somewhere, Walter.”
“Even you?” he asked.
“He has played this game long enough to know that eventually the bell will toll for him. Rest assured I will be taking this matter into my own hands this time.”
“Don’t make yourself angry just because he’s present...” Walt warned gently. “There’s always the idealism behind the Heirarchy that he’s got a last chance to change,,,”
“In his track record, that may be perfectly true in his pigeon-holed excuse of a world. But he had gone far enough for her. For him. For Faralina’s son.”
Walt winced quietly. He had angered her far too much already. Before he put down the phone, he heard her last words on the matter, and they sent a chill down his spine:
“Everyone under my stature is given as many chances as it takes to change. As many as I garner necessary. And Margreaves is out of last chances.”
The phone went dead.