To be out in a storm like this meant you were one of three things – inherently crazy, inherently stupid or it was because you had to do your job like everyone else did. This was the sort of storm that sent children crying for Mommy and Daddy in the middle of the night, or waking up to sodden sheets due to the whipcrack effect the lightning had on rousing youngsters from their deep sleep. This was the sort of storm that either brought magnificent wonder to those children whose fascination for the sparking anger erupting from the darkness above overruled their fear for it or envoked feelings of remorse, fear, pity and brutal anguish – closure to a bright, happy day that had been so full of life and promise and hope.
The latter was the reason for this night.
It seemed a fitting end for the events that had sealed his fate. For so long he had dreamed, envisioned and worshipped an ideal he was sure was to be his future. He had ignored those he trusted, those he loved to chase a dream they said would only end in tears for him. Everyone else had believed his youth was his trapdoor, they had measured his success to a young boy in a cape trying to take a leap off a high roof and forgetting he didn’t possess wings. They were waiting for him to fall, to land hard, to remind him that he wasn’t as invincible as he thought he was. He had been angry, upset, he was ashamed to be from the riverlands – ashamed that he hadn’t been born someone else – someone else who was perfectly capable of proving to the naysayers he could be better than they saw him to be. They were waiting for him to fail. He was waiting for someone to notice him, notice his skills. And he feared the outcome if he couldn’t support their ideals well enough.
Beneath all this childish bravado and invincibility lay a rising fear, and shame, that he was never going to be good enough for anyone. Many times he’d been handed a black-ribboned service contract and told, whilst his willingness to learn and enthusiasm was absolute, he was simply far too young to aide the other adults. He had been teased, mercilessly, about every single one of his failures. It had gotten to him. The last contract had stated for him to ‘wait a few more years, then we’ll see’. It had been one of the last straws he had left. He had walked slowly home, letting the service contract slip from his tired paws, drifting away on the sharp breeze that snuck through the thickness of the crowd. He ignored everything and anyone, a small splash of colour in a sea of grey and black suits and coats. To him, these constant setbacks were becoming a high wall, one he was sure he wouldn’t be able to make it over if these black ribbons kept coming at him thick and fast. He knew better. He knew he wouldn’t be staying here for long. He knew quite simply he was born to wear those colours, and he would be damned if he didn’t find some way to prove it.
He didn’t know at the time that he was already damned either way.
He had thought that by encountering his hero, he would become better at what he knew he could do. He would become stronger by simply knowing someone who knew the territory. For all his childish naivety, his dream had begun to knit together, had begun its slow climb up that mountain. He was welcomed, accepted, and had earned others’ friendships by simply being himself. But over his head hung a dark cloud – suspicion and annoyance from the older members of the Star Team. He couldn’t help his birthright any more than he could help his unusual fur colours. To them he was an irreverent outsider to an exclusive club. To them he was just a trialling recruit, nothing more in their eyes. He had been eager, perhaps too eager in the end, to see the shove coming from somewhere he had not expected. He had been fine one minute, saluting the arrival of HRH The Duchess Lorianna with the utmost respect and then moving with the others in the Star Team to block off the ecstatic media, and then the next he’d been off and running, hearing the anger erupt far behind him, and the jeers, taunts and laughter from a crowd who found the event hilarious.
It seemed nothing he ever wanted turned out right.
Perhaps, he thought miserably, it was his own stupid bravado that always rose up and claimed things he was trying so hard to do correctly? He winced at his injuries, trying to ignore the feeling of helplessness when he’d been confronted by the angry Captain. He had snuck into the Star Pier, trying to retrieve his star pendant that he’d tucked away in a drawer in the guest room he was staying in – thinking he would no longer need its comfort, or its warmth and weight around his neck as he triumphed over his naysayers – when the hand that gripped violently at his arm had snaked through the darkness, latching onto him with fury. He had cried out, startled and frightened to come face-to-face with the face of the man he’d let down, that he’d humiliated in so few seconds. The Captain’s breath stank of stale whiskey, his eyes burning with hatred as he began his angry tirade. He had flinched at the onslaught, tears he had denied himself the ease of crying rolling down his cheeks under his closed, frightened eyes. The Captain had ignored his pleas to explain himself, to try and ease the burden of having screwed up so badly on his first day, half walking, half dragging him to the door. As he reached it, there was a pause. To the tree panda it felt like time had ceased around him, ground to a halt as he heard the words the Captain had wanted to say to him from the moment he’d shown up.
Nothing he had ever experienced had hurt as much as those few words.
He had hit the gravel walkway with some force, small but sharp pebbles tearing angry scratches into his arms and legs that bled after some deliberation; trembling as the Captain repeated those words, those angry stabs of vicious hatred one more time before slamming the door on his small form. There had been no other time in his life that Sunnie River’ynn had felt so alone. He had gotten slowly to his knees as the Captain’s dark and heavy footsteps faded away down the hallways beyond the door, staring at the white and blueish greys of the gravel path, watching small drops of water – his tears – drip down from his muzzlefur. For all he had tried to do, he couldn’t help but weep, sobs shaking through his defeated form. He pushed himself up from the mixed colours of the ground, ignoring the pinpricks of hurt that tremored through him as he did so. He didn’t look back as he began to walk away, he kept his head low, his tail dragging so low to the ground, he was sweeping up smaller bits of stone and debris.
For some strange reason, he had turned back to the Star Pier, slinking low against the wall of the building, edging along its length towards the lowest sill of the place. He saw that the ruby-coloured drapes were drawn, but there was a part of the cornerstone of the window glass that he could peek through. He saw the Star Team, laughing, joking, reading and enjoying each other’s company by the bright crackling logs of the fireplace. His eyes lowered, blue stippling with clear as his tears welled up. Absently, he had opened his left paw to see what it was that was causing him to hurt so suddenly. Small drops of blood had formed from pinpricks where he had gripped the star pendant he’d fashioned as a reminder of his dreams whilst he watched the Stars. Somewhere inside of him, the bright, happy glint that had been so visible in his eyes sparked up once more, and then faded completely, disappearing amongst the black depths. This dream was gone, and it was all his fault. Nothing could make this situation any worse than it had ended up to be, he thought, as he turned away from the window, shivering as the day’s events replayed in his head. The first drops of clear, icy heaven had landed lightly on his pendant, followed by more of them. Sunnie closed his eyes and threw the pendant away from him, disappearing into the rising fog and darkened city streets as the rain bucketed down in thick sheets, hard and fast.
He had spoken too soon.
He had run through the almost deserted cityscape, ignoring the rush of cars speeding home and splashing him from flooded potholes of the road, not knowing, nor caring, where it was he would end up. The river was miniscule in comparison to this place, and as he ran through the roar of the rain, he heard nothing except the slow, deliberate beat of his heart, reminding him he was still alive, still breathing and still bloody responsible for this entire fiasco.
He had wanted to be known, wanted to be heard, wanted to be told that he had been appreciated, at least for his assistance if nothing else. He had earned nothing but bruises and scratches for his trouble. He had nothing but an empty heart to show for his efforts. He squeezed his paws, trying to ball his fists in an effort to raise his head from its lowest position, to say that he had tried and it would have been terrible if he had let his chance slip away into the night. He met cold moisture, not the hard strength he was trying to pull from out of nowhere, drops of rain dripping down and meeting the glistening pools and puddles below his feet. His head remained low, his tears leaving darkened trails down his cheeks.
It would have been better if he had let someone older than him, someone more experienced, better tempered and skilled to have taken his place.
He was thoroughly lost now; thoroughly lost and alone.
He was not inherently scared of bears, but there was something about Margreaves that had intimidated him completely. He had tried to be respectful in his fear and nervousness when The Duchess had made her appearance from out of the limousine, but the way the bear regarded him, in his cold, gruff mannerism, Sunnie could not help but feel as if the first impression he’d given this consort guard was one of being too small and stupid to know what he was doing. The vicious roar that had emitted from Margreaves’s throat when Lorianna had fallen had caused him to run away in the first place. The severity of the situation had hit him later after he’d managed to escape the Music Hall. In his panic, he had forgotten to check his bearings from the roof and now he was hopelessly lost in the city.
Sodden and cold, the tree panda hunkered down next to a waste crate, curling his wet tail tight around him. He ignored the beat of the rain around him as it began to pour down harder from the sky, thinking back upon his mistakes, his accident, and the new friends he’d chanced to make that day. They would never forgive him for this – never forgive him for making Captain Star look like such a fool – and they would certainly chase him off if he tried to approach them. And Tennie Connor – what would he think about all of this?
Thinking about his hero, his newest and best friend, thinking about getting to know him, being accepted by him as his first real friend his own age too… Sunnie could stand it no longer. He broke down and wept as the steadily-increasing roar of the heavy rain thundered around him. He had blown his first, last and only chance at proving himself to be worth something to somebody. Now he understood why nobody believed he could achieve such a dream. Now he knew why it was he was simply just Sunnie River’ynn, the loser from the riverlands. Now he knew why the dream was just that – a stupid dream.
Now he knew.
Tennie had never liked the abandoned docks. As a much younger hedgehog, he had always been in fear of the ‘monsters’ that lived there. As he had grown older, he had learned the bone-chilling howls came from the stray dogs, who, in his imagination, were very much like hellhounds. He made his way around the old derelict buildings, keeping his ears and his eyes open for any sound and any sight of Sunnie. Margreaves was right – being out alone in rain like this with no protection and no shelter would mean coming down with a dangerous illness very quickly. Over the steady beat of the rain and the moaning sound of the wind as it echoed through the old buildings, Tennie took to calling out Sunnie’s name, listening for any response, any at all, from the silence of the place.
Sunnie had left his hiding place some time before Tennie’s arrival, wandering around aimlessly, shivering violently as the cold and the rain whipped around him. None of the buildings’ interiors were dry enough for him to take shelter in, and he was slowing down, exhausted from his adrenaline and misery-fuelled run from Councillor Margeaves. He was too tired, too ashamed, the memory of the Duchess’s accident making him sicker with every step he took. He leaned against what he thought was a wall, but it was a few badly propped up planks and they toppled over, taking the weakened tree panda with them. The noise echoed through the docksides, reaching the ears of the hedgehog searching for him on the opposite side. Tennie strained his ears for the sound of the stray dogs, the whining sound that usually accompanied a collapse of bits of the old docks, but he heard nothing of the sort.
With a start, Tennie realised the collapse he’d heard had nothing to do with the dogs, but everything to do with his missing friend.
Sunnie pushed himself up slowly, his ears pinning back as his entire body trembled under his waterlogged weight. What remained of his adrenaline helped him stand, his head still spinning from the fall. He winced, blood forming under the sharp splinters he received when he used one of the planks to boost him upwards. He didn’t want to go on like this. He felt tears form against his closed eyes, wondering if he would ever run out of them.
It was at that moment that Sunnie heard something – a worried call of his name echoing from behind him. A worried voice belonging to his hero, Tennie Connor Hedgehog.
Forgetting his pain, his illness and his sorrows, Sunnie bolted, another surge of adrenaline pushing him forward into the rain-soaked shadows, fear coursing through him. Why was Tennie here? Why was he calling his name? Why was he trying to find him? In his panic, Sunnie’s imagination ran off with him. He believed Tennie Connor had brought the other Stars along with him. Over the rain, he could not distinguish emotions properly, and Tennie sounded angry. Fearing being caught and set upon by the other Stars, Sunnie took the nearest alleyway at top speed, his footsteps echoing across the docksides. Tennie heard them and followed the sound as best he could. He could tell that the sound of his voice had frightened Sunnie, if his panicked footsteps were anything to go by.
Sunnie kept running, eyes blinded by tears, ignoring the warning signs against taking this section of the docksides at speed in the wet weather. Forgetting safety in his panic, he charged down the wet stairwells, trying to put some safe distance between him and Tennie Connor Hedgehog.
He admired Tennie so much, worshipped him in fact. Prayed and hoped and dreamed and wished to be just like him some day. He had wanted to be loved and adored just like him. Wanted to be respected and admired by his younger fans, just like Tennie was. He had wanted to be heard. He had wanted to know if he was truly worth something. He had simply wanted something real – a family – so that he wouldn’t have to wonder what that sort of thing felt like anymore.
Through his tearful run, he choked out, more to himself than to Tennie, that he was sorry – so very, very sorry that he had ruined the Star Team’s reputation in the way he had. Somewhere between this admittal and the step Sunnie’s right foot missed in his haste, Tennie’s worried voice echoed through the tree panda’s mind as he fell down the few remaining stairs. He landed directly on that foot, the sickening crack sending a spike of pain throughout his already-weakened body and coming to a skidding halt some feet away. The rain continued its driving beat as Sunnie lay, helpless and badly injured, further away from the help he so desperately needed.
Sunnie ignored the pain shooting through him, his head swimming with thoughts that threatened to drown him in their tumultuous urgency. He didn’t move from the spot where he’d landed hard, though he was still alive and conscious of his injury. The heavens opened up above him, dumping the last swelling dregs of the storm’s power over Bigg City, and Sunnie stared at the rising sheet and steam of the rain’s force, eyes half-lidded and tears still continuing their slow flow down his muzzle.
He thought back on the eve of the day, twenty four hours prior to the events he was living through now, when he had been so full of life. So full of eagerness and ability, wanting to show the world around him that he was going to make it big in this city and prove the riverlands had something to say above the roar of dissent from the crowds here. How had it all turned out so badly, he wondered, his ears hearing nothing but the dull thudding sound of the rain around him and the blood rushing through his head. He closed his eyes, a sob escaping his lips. How did this all transpire so quickly, and so badly, in such a short amount of time?
His mind slipped away, back to the early hours in the morning, that morning in fact, when things had been looking so smooth and fantastic for him.
“How could I have been so stupid to think I was worth something...?”
Sunnie’s thoughts faded to the thunderous rhythm of the rain...