Alright kids, here it is: The riveting conclusion of Of Wolves and Foxes. I hope everyone has thought it well worth it to stick with it, and I appreciate the comments and reviews. I really doubt I'll have the opportunity to write anything else after this for a long time.

Take care everyone!

CHAPTER 24

"Neon Frontier Command, this is the reconnaissance ship Vista. Do you copy?"

"Roger that Vista. Reading you loud and clear."

"Long range tracking has reported a large concentration of military class vessels in Sector November Two-Nine. Are there any scheduled maneuvers for today, command?"

"Send the sensor data now, Vista."

"Transmitting now."

The channel was quiet for several long minutes before a new voice broke the silence. "Vista, this is the Security and Surveillance Office at the command station. Have you made any contact with these ships, either personal or electronic?"

"That's a negative, Frontier."

There was a deep sigh. "Good. Remain out of near sensor range and continue monitoring their motions with long-range scanners. Report any developments to this office immediately."

"Understood, Frontier. Vista out."


Captain Reginald Palsy, commander of the ILS Mourning Son, made little effort to disguise his disapproval of his commanders' actions. Or rather, inactions. His broad, square muzzle had been pulled in a perpetual frown for days now. He was sitting calmly in Admiral Royce's office, his arms folded across his chest just enough to give a subtle air of derisiveness. Military personnel of all ranks quickly develop their ability to broadcast attitude without being insubordinate, and even senior officers rarely prove to be exceptions.

The Second Fleet had been hanging in space, suspended in time for over a week. News had arrived earlier that day through back channels that reported the near destruction of the Third Fleet. The fleet was captured and Admiral Schneider and his senior staff—those that survived—had been placed under arrest, pending trial for treason. Now it was Royce and his followers that were on the run: A fleet without port, warriors without a nation. So here they huddled like rats on a sinking ship, clinging to a vain thread of hope that all was not lost.

Admiral Royce was angry as well, his nostrils flared and temper stretched thin. Captain Palsy found himself taking pleasure in that fact, if nothing else.

"He specifically disregarded my orders, the worthless fool," hissed Royce through gritted teeth. "He was not to wage a war on his own, damn it," he snarled to Admiral Philips, who nodded slowly and deliberately.

"The strength of their reinforcement wasn't something we anticipated," he said smoothly, to which Royce snorted scornfully.

"That doesn't excuse the recklessness. He attacked a force too strong to justify the risk, and look what he's done! Our effective fighting strength has been severely decreased because of it."

No, thought Palsy. It's been crippled. Their second largest fleet was in imperial paws, cutting their total resources by a good twenty percent. And what was more, news of the major loss would discourage their unit commanders from fighting on. How many had already surrendered under promises of mercy? Palsy could never know so long as the Second Fleet was under strict communications silence.

"Sir," he ventured, "perhaps if we attempt to communicate with one of the republican commanders in the reserve fleets we can—"

"No!" shouted Royce slapping his desk with a palm so hard he winced visibly at the pain. "There will be no external transmissions until we receive word from the Ursans. We can't risk detection without support."

Palsy's frown deepening into a sour scowl that made Royce bristle. The captain was well aware of the situation. They were still technically in Lupine space, straddling an imaginary boundary established by on old treaty between the great wolf and bear empires decades before. Admiral Royce had sent envoys to the Ursan ministry under orders to all but beg for aid in this fight against Emperor Charles. Palsy already knew that none would come. The bears were isolationists by nature, refusing to get involved in any way with Lupine affairs, be they internal or external. He was sure that Royce new this. But the fool was beholden to dragging this out as long as possible.

Admiral Philips' opinion on the matter had remained cryptic at best throughout this little chat, saying only what needed to be said and little else. Palsy was certain the white wolf felt the same as he did, tired of pretending there was a snowball's chance in hell that something more could be done to prevent disaster. Philip's detachment angered the captain to no end.

"Admiral Royce, the crew is starting to grumble and ask questions, and we can't continue feeding them the same lies."

"So," was the admiral's blatantly uncaring response. "They'll wait another week if I order it."

"Respectfully…sir," Palsy growled, far more boldly than he knew he should have, "we cannot. Morale is low, the communications blackout has raised suspicions that we're failing. Fresh supplies are short and we have exactly zero avenues of resupply. My command crew is demanding explanations that I cannot give them, and I know for a fact the fleet commanders are doing the same." He glared expectantly at Admiral Philips, the fleet commander, who glared right back at him and said nothing.

Palsy huffed, as did Royce. "As far as the crew is concerned, captain, the emperor is dead. It is their duty to the new republic to bear adversity like wolves, not like pups," snapped Admiral Royce, stray particles of saliva dotting his desktop.

By now Reginald Palsy was beyond the realm of patience…or discretion. "Sir, with all due respect, the emperor is very much alive and very much in control. I believed in our cause as much as you do, but the war is over. We are floundering in space with nothing left to die for but an empty dream. And I don't intend to ignore my responsibility to protect the lives of my crew, especially over a failed cause."

Captain Palsy might was well have punched the admiral in the jaw. Samuel Royce fumed, his paws curling into tight fists as a feral growl escaped from somewhere deep in his chest. "I wouldn't make insubordination a habit, if I were you, captain," his snarling breath dripping with venom. "If you refuse to obey my orders I will replace you with someone who will."

There was a long silence as the two wolves stared each other down. Captain Palsy was about to offer a resentful apology when the quiet was interrupted by the whine of a blaring siren.

"Attention: All crew to general quarters! This is not a drill! Repeat: All crew to general quarters!"

Without hesitation the highly trained and experienced wolves jumped from Royce's office and ran the short distance to the command bridge, dodging crew members as they did. Captain Palsy wasted no time in barking to the bridge crew for reports and issuing orders in the same breath.

Group Commander Bufort, the Mourning Son's executive officer, stood from the captain's command post. "The Xavier jumped in only moments before, sir," he said, taking up his own designated position. "She's hanging off starboard about two hundred clicks."

"And her fleet?"

"They're not on scopes, sir."

Palsy was no fool. He knew the First Fleet would not be far from its flagship, least of all now. "Tactical. What's her status?"

"She's in a stand-down condition, sir. I'm not reading any weapons or shield activity."

The captain frowned incredulously. There was only one logical reason why her commander would fly into an enemy fleet unaccompanied and ill-prepared for war. He intended to talk.

"Commander, raise shields but keep weapons on standby," Palsy commanded. "Commander Bufort, open a channel."

"Aye, sir."

Admiral Royce stepped forward. "You're not going to attack them, captain? Their shields are down!"

Captain Palsy, not about to let the admiral run his bridge, cautioned the officer with an angry scowl.

"Rebel ship Mourning Son. This is the ILS Xavier, Captain Morrison speaking. You are ordered to stand down and prepare to be boarded by imperial troops. Your cooperation will be seen as a gesture of good faith to His Majesty Emperor Charles."

Palsy, still watching Admiral Royce with a cautious eye, said loudly, "This is Captain Palsy, commander of the RLS Mourning Son. I know very well you are not here to make a cordial offer of terms, Captain Morrison. We are in no mood to play games with you, or the emperor."

There was a long pause before a simple, "Very well, Palsy," was heard over the intercom and the sensor array started to scream.

"Sir, ships are starting to materialize on all sides. Dozens of them. They've surrounded the fleet, sir!"

Royce rounded on Admiral Philips. "Order the fleet into defensive action, admiral!"

Captain Palsy slammed his fist on the transmission kill-switch at his station, silencing their connection with the Xavier. "No!" he barked so loudly that Philips actually stopped in his tracks. "Disregard that order, Admiral Philips!"

Royce pushed his way up to Palsy, showering the captain with spittle as he screamed in his face, "What makes you think you can issue an admiral orders, captain?"

"We're done here, sir," matching Royce's snarl with a growl of his own. "The war is over!"

"Not until I say it's over. I said raise shields and charge weapons!"

The tactical officer hesitated, looking from his captain to the admiral. Palsy didn't wait for the young officer to make up his mind and jumped at Royce with such speed the admiral had no time to reach for his sidearm before Palsy had unsheathed it and leveled the pistol at its owner's chest. Royce glared daggers at him, but didn't move.

"Admiral Royce, under title seven of the Naval Martial Directive I am hereby relieving you of your command. Security! Escort the admiral to his quarters. He's now under house arrest."

A pair of marines from the rear of the bridge looked indecisively toward one another and in a brief moment a silent agreement was passed between them. They stepped up to Admiral Royce, one on each side, the tallest of them putting a firm paw on his shoulder.

"Sir, you're going to have to come with us," Lance Corporal Burns said in a deep voice. "We can do this the easy way—"

With a howl, Royce brushed off the marine's paw and swung madly at him with a hard left hook. The marine expertly deflected the blow, using the admiral's momentum to knock him off balance as his partner, Private Novak, shoved a stun-gun into his unprotected side. A zap and a scream left the large, muscular wolf on the decking whimpering like a child. Every eye on the bridge was wide as they watched the marines half walked, half drag Royce into the hallway, a faint stench of urine following close behind him.

From the corner of his eye Palsy caught movement. "Freeze, Philips!"

The white wolf's paw hovered an inch from the grip of his pistol that hung at his hip. Admiral Philips' lips pulled back threateningly, his jagged fangs flashing as white as his fur. Slowly, his paw retreated and Palsy stepped up to disarm him.

Motioning to his engineering officer to come near he pressed Philips' weapon into his paws. "If he moves…shoot him." The officer nodded. "Commander Bufort, get another security detail down here ASAP to escort Admiral Philips to the brig."

"Aye, sir."

Breathing deeply, Captain Palsy holstered his pistol and moved to his station. Pressing buttons he simultaneously gave directions to the executive officer to hail the Xavier.

"They're requesting a response, sir."

"Wait one," he said, opening the fleet-wide network. "Fleet call, fleet call. This is Captain Reg Palsy. I have relieved Admirals Philips and Royce of their duties and have assumed command of the Second Fleet. All units are ordered to stand down. I repeat: Stand down."

Palsy pointed to his XO. The commander nodding.

"Xavier, I apologize for the delay. We had an issue with command authority."

"Captain Palsy, this is Admiral Scott Banks. I wish to speak directly with Admiral Royce."

"Admiral Royce has been relieved of his command, sir. As of now I am the fleet commander." The door to the command bridge hissed open and another pair of marines marched in, securing Philips' under both arms. Captain Palsy matched the white wolf's hateful glare measure for measure as he was escorted off the bridge, saying, "I've placed Admiral Philips and Admiral Royce under arrest for willful endangerment…and suspicion of treason."

When Admiral Banks spoke next, Palsy could feel his distrust and suspicion through the transmission. "I see. Then tell me, captain, what you intend to do."

Palsy took a long look around his bridge. Every member of his command staff watched him expectantly, hanging on his word. Muting the intercom, he let a heavy sigh pass through his lungs.

"I think we all feel the same about dying for the preservation of our society. I know I am new to this ship, but I do not doubt that each of you would willingly sacrifice your lives for your fellow Lupines. Otherwise you would not be here." Several heads nodded; others seemed confused. "I will not ask you to die for a lie. Emperor Charles is not dead. In fact, it was Admiral Royce himself that attempted to murder him in cold blood. I know because I was part of the conspiracy. They are not the traitors to the empire," he said shamefully. "We are."

Eyes widened in surprise and some hackles rose in anger. Captain Palsy looked down at his paws, tossing the pistol to the floor. Its dull echo reverberated around the quiet deck. He may have been a traitor, but he was a damn fine commander, and nobody under his command was going to die to protect his disgrace.

Restoring the channel he asked, "Admiral Banks, are you still there?"

The reply was quick and irritated. "Yes, captain?"

Nodding resignedly, Palsy brushed a paw across his forehead and groaned. "The fleet is yours, Admiral," the defeated wolf said evenly.


The two marines that escorted Royce through the upper decks of the Mourning Son soon found themselves dealing with an uncooperative captive. The furious wolf pulled sharply at the tight grips they each held at Royce's elbows, the admiral's wrists cuffed together behind his back.

"Palsy can't do this! He's no right to take my command from me like this."

"According to regulations," retorted Private Novak, "He can. And he did…sir."

"You're making a fatal mistake," Royce growled angrily before pulling his weight sharply forward, breaking Novak's grip on his arm.

Lance Corporal Burns, easily bigger than the prisoner by a sizable measure, barked furiously and jerked Royce's cuffed arms up sharply. The unnatural twist to his shoulders made the admiral groan. He submitted reluctantly, flashing a toothy sneer at his captor who simply glared in reply. The three wolves reached the admiral's personal quarters without further issue. Pressing Royce's chest flat against the wall of the hallway, Corporal Burns instructed his partner to search the room for weapons. Finding none, Novak deactivated the cuffs and pushed Royce inside, sealing the door behind him.

Pressing a paw to the controls the giant wolf said gruffly, "Manual security override, authorization Lance Corporal Burns."

"Door locked."

The two Marines assumed positions outside in the hallway as Burns made a quick call, informing his superiors of the situation. They would send replacements in no more than two hours.

"I never thought I'd be arresting an admiral, least of all him," muttered Novak, adjusting his lithe frame casually from one boot to another.

His partner shrugged, a light grin pulling at the corners of his muzzle. "No, I guess not. But I never liked him anyway."

Inside his quarters Royce rubbed his wrists, howling vengefully into the empty room. His enemies had won over him! Out-maneuvered and out-manipulated him at every turn. He was a disgrace now, a prisoner of the emperor. He'd be made to stand trial for all the empire to see, ridiculed, mocked, and humiliated. He would not allow it! He was Admiral Samuel Royce, gods damn it! He would submit to nobody like a beaten pup so long as he lived.

Rounding a corner and trotting into his bedroom he leaned over a short dresser and removed a mirror from the wall. This he dropped to the floor, ignoring the sudden sound of shattering glass. He cared only for what was behind it: a small lockbox set into the wall. Pressing an access code into the digital lock he flung the hatch open and dug frantically inside. From papers and small boxes of valuable mementos his paw finally closed around cold metal. Breathing deeply he pulled a small pistol slowly from the depths and stared at it long and hard.

There was no way in hell they would take him alive.


Sarah had mixed feelings about her newest duty position at the Rehab Center. Sure, there were many aspects she loved, like working to help her fellow refugees. But others she wasn't thrilled about, namely the many hours of staff meetings that came with the job. Master Ergasia, director of occupational skills and education, had almost instantly taken a liking to her, though Sarah wondered secretly if it was little more than professional curiosity. She treated her like some kind of novelty to be studied…or exploited, and Sarah was quickly appointed a counselor. Every day she would interview refugees transferred from medical to the "academy," as they called it, and was profoundly amazed from the first day she had began.

The academy was huge and not unlike the universities she'd seen on the telenet at home. There were classrooms, dining facilities, dormitories, and every service and amenity necessary for their students—thousands of them! An assistant to Master Ergasia had given her an initial tour of the school when she first arrived several days before. Daunted by the scale of everything she had asked her guide how exactly they had managed to pay for all this. He simply laughed as if it was the funniest thing he'd ever heard.

As they walked the grounds casually, a warm sun shining peacefully down on them, the fox described for her just how the education process worked. Refugees were first interviewed and analyzed for background information, such as skills and previous education. This was primarily where Sarah would be working—Master Ergasia had been adamant about stressing how invaluable she expected Sarah to be in this field. Once they knew a little more about what career path an individual patient would be better suited to follow they were sent to class.

"It's unfortunate to think that most of them will probably be stuck doing menial labor for the rest of their lives," the guide said. She seemed to remember his name was Pernathius, but she was too embarrassed to ask. "The simple fact is that most are not capable of handling highly skilled professions in technology or medicine, or things along those lines. We're keeping an eye out for promising students, though. Our hope is that their descendants will meld perfectly into society, but we really don't expect this generation to have an easy time doing so."

Sarah nodded solemnly.

Following counseling they would be taught to read and write Vulpine through a psycho-kinetic interface similar in theory to the link she'd shared with Bothos. Sarah shivered at the thought. When Pernathius told her to step into the contraption so she could "experience the gift of literacy," she almost screamed.

"Are you serious?"

The fox smiled and assured her there was nothing to fear. It was very safe. Steeling every ounce of resolve she had she eventually submitted to the treatment, allowing Pernathius to sit her in a soft chair, slip a crown over her head, and adjust a small screen to eye level. In total, it took less than twenty minutes of flashing lights and nauseating mental assaults that left her head spinning. When she was finished he instructed her to write the entire Vulpine alphabet—all thirty seven characters—on a board, which she did so without a second thought. The amazement didn't end there. He removed the translator chip she still had attached to her temple below the ear and was given a list of words, followed by a paragraph.

"Read," he said simply.

And she did, from top to bottom with very little difficulty. When she was finished she looked up, shock and amazement showing brightly on her face. He grinned, a flick of his ear telling her she did well.

"Sarah, good much!" he said as he reach up to replace the translator. "Work speak in while."

She stared at him curiously, and his smile only broadened as he finished setting the small chip to her head. He laughed again.

"Thought you would be confused, Sarah. I probably should have told you that this only teaches literacy and basic vocabulary," he pointed to the device behind him. "It won't help much with diction and speech. As with any language, things like grammar and syntax are a little less simple to learn, but you will in time."

In the days that followed, the vixen was briefed and trained on proper interview etiquette and techniques, learning what to look for and how to interpret responses to even the simplest questions. But she dove right into it with all four paws and quickly became a favorite with the staff. She could speak Lupine fluently and unassisted, making her unique among the staff. What helped far more than language, she knew, was her ability to relate to her patients and their culture, understand their past pains, and offer hope for the future. This aspect of the job she loved more than she ever believed she would. At first she worked with a supervisor hanging over her shoulder, but after only a week she was approved to be alone with them. It was difficult at times, especially when a particularly problematic case came before her.

Earlier that day she had been interviewing a pretty young vixen with a particularly distrustful air about her, and Sarah was launched into one of the more emotional sides of counseling. Her master had been a depraved wolf that abused the fourteen year old on a constant basis in a sexual matter. The interview inevitably broke down half-way through with the young vixen crying piteously, overwhelmed by the stress of the meeting and strange new environments. Sarah tried desperately to console her, but in the end the counseling session was never fully completed.

"I fell like I failed," she told Master Ergasia afterward as she submitted her report.

The aging fox frowned and shook her head, saddened by the unfortunate interaction. "These things happen, Sarah dear. It's never easy to look someone like this in the eye and believe there's anything that can bring them hope and happiness. It just takes time…and maybe more direct methods."

Sarah remained depressed after that for the rest of the day; half-blaming herself, half-blaming the wolf bastard that would stoop so low. She was still in a funk after work as she rested quietly in her small apartment provided for her on the academy grounds. The poor young vixen had upset her greatly…so small and vulnerable, in need of support and guidance beyond what Sarah knew she could give her. She was alone, and may have always been so throughout her short life.

"Poor creature," she sighed.

Her thoughts turned to Scott. She hadn't seen her beloved wolf in a week and a half. She wondered how he was going, if he was alright, and if he was thinking about her. Sarah kept him in her thoughts and prayers often, lamenting how she had no way of knowing when—and if—she would ever see him again. She wished she could say with confidence that it was a sure thing; that he'd come back to her again, alive and well. But there was always that painful doubt in the back of her mind, one that Jessica once lived with whenever Scott was deployed to distant reaches and unknown missions.

Sarah was rudely jolted to reality when her door chime rang out loudly. Irked, but curious, she stood and opened her door. She was surprised to find Ionious standing in the hallway.

"Ionious? What are you doing here?"

He chuckled. "It's good to see you too, Sarah."

The vixen shook her head. "I'm sorry, Ionious. I'm glad to see you after so long. Would you like to come in?"

The fox held up a paw dismissively. "No, no. That's alright. Actually, I came here because Scott Banks asked me to show you someone."

His smile seemed to brighten at the statement, confusing Sarah. "Scott? Someone?" So he was alright. That much was a relief. But why would he want to send Ionious to introduce someone to her?

"That's right," he said. "You'll need to come with me, though." She followed him to the end of the apartment complex's long corridor and to the lift, listening to the old fox as he talked. "Scott told me the young fellow was rescued from a ship several days ago. When they brought them to our Center we rushed him through the medical examinations and ran a few tests."

"Is he okay?"

Ionious nodded. "As far as we can tell he's perfectly healthy, though a bit scarred emotionally. A very shy sort. I suppose that's not very unusual. But he did talk fondly of Scott."

Sarah shook her head, lengthening her stride to keep up with him as they stepped into the main lobby. "I'm sorry, Ionious, but why do you need me to counsel him."

He stopped suddenly, turning his nose toward her. "I don't need you to counsel him, Sarah. Not specifically, anyway. I brought him here because Nudge is your son. We checked your DNA. It's unmistakable."

"My son," she mouthed, her voice below a whisper. "How could it…how could Scott have…" She shook her head disbelievingly. How many years had it been? Fifteen…at least. There must have been a mistake. "Where is he," she found herself saying quietly.

He led her around a corner into a nook that was set apart from the main lobby, a more private space set aside for holding less formal meetings or doing one's work in quiet. There were two foxes there, one Sarah instantly recognized. Bothos was standing behind the second, a much younger red fox sitting slightly hunched, his paws fidgeting nervously. When Bothos saw Ionious and Sarah he put a paw on the child's shoulder and pointed toward them with the other. The young fox turned his head quickly, his ears falling back as his eyes widened a little and his tongue flicked out to lick his nose. He gasped sharply when his stare fell on Sarah, and the vixen saw recognition dawn in that young face. He stood up timidly, his tail hanging lifeless to the floor.

Sarah approached slowly, cautiously. Suddenly her mouth felt dry, her paws numb to the touch. She glanced sidelong to Ionious, the fox understanding her apprehensiveness easily.

"It's absolutely real, Sarah. Nudge is your son."

Liking her dried lips she looked back to the shy creature before her, now just out of arms reach. He looked up to her, trembling slightly. She was at a complete loss for words as she stared down at him. He was a handsome young fox; an attentive, intelligent sort of light to him. Her eyes watered, stinging with salty tears: He was just as she'd imagined he would be.

Uncomfortable and worried, Nudge whimpered lightly. "Mother?"

The sudden brake in silence broke the tension and Sarah fell roughly to her knees, pulling her child into a tight hug as tears fell freely from her cheeks. Nudge returned the embrace, nuzzling happily into his mother's cheek fur with his own, not caring that it was wet. This must have been what love felt like. Even though he'd never met her before now he felt safe in her arms, like she'd do anything in her power to keep him from harm.

"I'm so sorry, Nudge," she said over and over again. "I'm not going to let you go again."

Looking up without breaking the hug—she wasn't sure she could pry the youth off of her if she wanted to—she regarded Ionious with a soulful smile.

"Do you know anything about my daughter," she asked hopefully.

His own smile faded a little. "No, I'm afraid I don't."

She nodded, disappointed but filled with renewed hope. "Thank you so much," she said.

Ionious shook his head. "Don't think me. Thank Scott. Without him it may have been weeks before we matched the DNA samples. By the way, he wanted us to give you this."

Bothos stepped up and handed Ionious a computer pad, how passed it to Sarah. The vixen had to reluctantly free one paw to take it.

"What is it?"

"I don't know. He said it's private. Just press your paw to the screen and it should open for you."

She nodded. Mother and child eventually released one another. Ionious and Bothos left the pair together after saying final goodbyes and wishing them both the best, but not before Bothos gave her a special flick of his ear.

"It looks like you'll be needing a family suit from now on, Sarah. I'm very happy for you. Please take care of yourself, okay?"

Without saying much to the other, mother and son walked unhurriedly to Sarah's apartment. She asked if Nudge was hungry, to which the youth shook his head with a deep yawn. The vixen put him in her bed, watching quietly as he quickly fell asleep in the warm, soft blankets. She didn't want to leave something she'd lost once before, a part of her afraid that he'd disappear if she left him alone.

Taking the computer tablet into the living room she tapped the screen and the thing flashed to life. It was a letter, written by paw in Scott's unmistakable scrawl.

My Dearest Sarah,

If you're reading this it means that the child Nudge is your son. I asked Ionious to confirm this for me, and I have every reason to believe he'll do everything he can. I sincerely hope that it's true. After fifteen years you deserve to know what's become of your son and daughter. Nudge seems like a nice young fox. Intelligent, too. Just like his mother. He needs your love and affection, even more than I do.

I'm afraid that your daughter was not so fortunate, Sarah. I was informed quite a few years ago that she had died of a childhood illness that was never truly identified. I wanted to tell you. I know now that it was wrong not to. Jessica and I never wanted to hurt you, and we knew that you feared for them terribly. How could we have tortured you further? I hope you can forgive me.

I miss you terribly, Sarah. I'd love to promise you I'd see you soon, that I'd hold you close to me and tell you I'd be yours forever. But I can't. Our people come from very different places, and we each have very different duties we cannot abandon. I wish with every breath that our lives could be lived happily together, but I can't say that they will. I can't abandon my command. Not when so many rely on me to end this war. And if you came with me you'd never be respected as you deserve. I will not have you freed from slavery only to bring you right back into it. I love you too much to let that happen. Nudge needs you to protect him now.

I will try and come back to you, Sarah, if even for a while. Believe me when I tell you I'll do everything that I can, even if it takes ages. I love you, Sarah, with all my heart and soul.

Scott

With shaking paws, Sarah set the tablet aside and drew her knees to her chest, fighting the urge to whimper and moan. She knew that if she started she wouldn't be able to stop. She hugged herself tightly, the embrace proving to be a poor substitute for the soft warmth of the creature she desperately longed for. Her heart was torn between joy and sorrow, hope and despair, as she feared her requited love may never return. How did Jessica live with this sickening dread every time Scott deployed? The vixen remembered consoling her friend often, but never truly appreciated her sorrow until now. It was heart-wrenching.

Picking herself up, she padded softly into her bedroom, hugging herself tightly. By the time she was sitting beside her sleeping son, she was sobbing. She scratched Nudge's soft ears lightly with a caring paw and the youth sighed contentedly in his sleep. He was so peaceful, so beautiful in her eyes, and—for reasons that couldn't be explained—she felt connected to him, like she'd known him for years.

"I love you, Nudge," she whispered, planting a loving kiss to his little nose. "Thank you, Scott," she said softly to the wolf that had brought her son back to her. Now all she wanted was for him to bring himself to her.


Scott walked at the lead of an armed Marine escort, curving his way authoritatively through the bowels of the Mourning Son. The wolf knew he struck an imposing figure as he marched very purposefully. Ship's personnel would virtually trip over themselves to get out of his way. Maybe it was the patrol that followed close behind him rather than the rank on his shoulder. Regardless of the reason, Scott couldn't help but feel a little hypocritical. When he was a junior officer years ago he both feared and loathed the influence and arrogance of admiral officers, taking every opportunity to stay as far away from them as possible. Now, years later, he wasn't just an admiral, but the First Fleet admiral, no less. There was one thing that he realized from this position, too: An admiral didn't have to try being intimidating. It just sort of happened that way, and Scott realized that he didn't like it.

Reginald Palsy trailed just behind him, his military uniform and rank striped from him. He was certain the only reason he wasn't in chains was because of his earlier concession to surrender without bloodshed. Admiral Banks had spoken to him privately shortly after arriving, and Palsy had insisted on his honor that except for a few select leaders, the crew was not involved in any treasonous conspiracies. Against his better judgment, Admiral Banks had determined to trust his word, however conditional that trust would be. All command authority he had would be revoked, his freedoms limited to the crew decks if not under escort, for the duration of their voyage. Following its conclusion he would be turned over to imperial investigators for trial. Palsy had agreed quickly to the conditions, knowing he could never get a better arrangement.

Looking over his shoulder, Palsy was reminded of that. The former admiral Philips, paws bound, was roughly shoved forward by a Marine. For a moment the two disgraced wolves made eye contact, Philips icy stare glaring with silent hatred before he looked away, defiant even in his captivity. Palsy couldn't say he felt any sympathy for him.

As Scott neared Samuel Royce's quarters, the two guards standing watch snapped to attention and saluted crisply.

Scott returned the salute, asking, "How long has it been since you've seen him, corporal?"

"Approximately forty minutes, sir," said Burns smartly, his eyes planted firmly forward and chin high.

"Go ahead and bring him out, Marines."

"Yes, sir!"

Lance Corporal Burns unlocked the door and Private Novak stepped quickly inside. A faint but peculiar scent poured into the hallway as they did so, one that Scott recognized instantly. Death. A scent had hoped to forget. It took only a moment for the Marine to return, his face shocked and tense.

"Sir, Admiral Royce is…um…he must have—"

Scott pushed his way into the room, his gaze instantly falling on a computer desk that faced him from the far corner. There was Royce, slumped limply over the top, his head and shoulders covered in blood that dripped dully onto the carpet. A crimson pattern dotted the wall behind in a grotesque display of a desperate fool's final act, a pistol clutched loosely in one lifeless paw. Scott growled angrily. Gods damn that wolf! Turning he leveled a dangerous glare at Private Novak, who dipped his neck submissively in shame. Scott shook his head and trudged into the hallway.

"It seems that Admiral Royce has killed himself," he said bluntly. Palsy and Philips exchanged surprised glances. Stepping up to Philips, Scott scowled. "Your boss has blown his brains all over government property, Mr. Philips. Sergeant, kindly removed his cuffs and get him a mop."

Philips' eyes widened and he opened his muzzle to protest indignantly, but was silenced by a hard shove. Scott watched as he disappeared into the quarters, pinched the bridge of his nose tiredly, then snorted ironically as a thought occurred to him. A member of his staff asked what was so funny.

"Royce probably just saved the imperial government a lot of money, admiral. Too bad so much information died with him. Too bad…I'll call Imperial Command myself and tell them what happened. I'm sure the emperor will be very disappointed."

And he was. Emperor Charles spent several minutes snarling angrily as Scott listened, quietly nodding into the video feed. "I wanted him alive, admiral. We still don't know exactly how far this conspiracy extended, and Royce (damn that dog to hell!) buried it so deeply that not even his closest accomplices knew exactly who was doing what. He was the key. And now his brains are splattered across a wall! How could this happen?"

"Royce apparently kept a pistol in his quarter's lockbox. The security detail that placed him under house arrest either failed to search it or didn't know it was there. I should have ordered him into the brig immediately. I take full responsibility for this, Your Highness."

The emperor sighed heavily, shaking his head. "Don't be ridiculous, admiral," he said after a second. "The bastard is dead. I suppose I should be grateful for that, at least. You recovered an entire fleet…in one piece, without firing a shot. That's far better than I ever could have asked. I owe you a great deal, Admiral Banks."

The praise filled the wolf with pride, but he bowed humbly. "I wasn't alone in that, sir," he said. "But I thank you."

Charles smiled. "You make a terrible admiral, my friend. You're far too modest."

Scott laughed a little cynically. "I guess I'll have to work on that."

"Don't bother, Scott, because I'm firing you."

Scott rocked back like he'd been slapped in the face. "Fired, sir," he asked, a sudden sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. The emperor looked about ready to explode with laughter at seeing his reaction, a rare and brief reminder that, although emperor, Charles was still young. Scott didn't appreciate it in the least.

"Relax, Scott," he said warmly. "I have a different kind of job in mind for you. That is…if you want it."

Scott squinted hard, his ears perked up, intrigued. "What kind of job, sire?"


"I'm pretty sure this one is hers," said Bothos with a deep yawn that showed off rows of sharp little teeth. "I haven't been over for a visit since they moved her and her son to a larger apartment just the other day. If it's not theirs, it'll make for one terribly embarrassing mistake, I think."

There was a sly smile on his drooping face, and his companion felt guilty for bringing him out at this late hour.

"I really appreciate you doing this for me, Bothos," said Scott. "I know it's late…"

The fox waved a dismissive paw, only to bring it up to his nose to stifle another yawn. "It's nothing, really, Mr. Ambassador. I'm sure either Ionious or I will need to call in a favor in the future."

Scott nodded, grinning happily. "Consider it a big IOU then." He stuck out a big paw and Bothos took it, wincing sharply as Scott squeezed it just a little too tightly. "Sorry."

The fox gave his paw a functions check, finding everything okay. "Well, I won't keep you any longer. I know you're dying to see each other."

There was a knowing gleam in the fox's eye. Scott nodded, glancing to the apartment door, a look of agonizingly suppressed desire and enormous longing in his grey face. Bothos said his farewell as he turned to leave. The wolf didn't hear it, his attention focused elsewhere entirely. He pressed the call button with a shaking paw, a little white light on a small status panel flicking on. Scott stared nervously at it for an incalculable length of time that dragged painfully on, and his doubts started to quickly mount.

What if this wasn't her apartment? What if she wasn't home right now? What if—

The solid door melted away and disappeared suddenly, and as the wolf looked down into a pair of blurry amber eyes his weary mind was silenced. Her soft, black-tipped ears were canted back slightly, eyes only half-opened and heavy lidded. He had probably woken her. It was the middle of the night, after all.

"Sarah," he said softly, the name so light on his breath he was sure she didn't hear him.

But her ears perked up suddenly, and the vixen looked up, a cutely confused expression on her soft features. He loved the way the velvety bridge of her nose creased as she squinted. But it smoothed out quickly as her brow rose in surprise, her lips parting as she gasped.

"Scott?"

He grinned like a fool, his arms opening wide as Sarah jumped into him, wrapping her arms around his neck and holding on tightly. She whimpered and whined softly into his ear, lovingly rubbing the soft fur along his neck and under his chin with her muzzle as his paws traced slow circles on her back and shoulders. Scott breathed in her sweet, earthy scent; the welcoming sensation of smell, the press of her warm fur against his, intoxicating to his mind.

"I missed you so much," he whispered into her long ear, easily picking the small creature up in his arms and carrying her into the living room. The door closed behind them, protecting them from prying eyes. This was there time together.

"Oh gods, Scott," she cried. "I don't think I can let you go ever again."

He licked the top of her head tenderly, her ears falling back as he did so, her breath becoming short and raspy

"You won't have to…for a little while, at least." She looked up at him, searching his clear blue eyes. "I've been appointed the Lupine ambassador to Vulpa, so I'll be living on your home planet for a few years, I hope."

Sarah smiled, her face so calm and at peace. "That's not long enough…but I'll take it for now."

Scott caressed her cheek with a paw and she closed her eyes, nuzzling its soft leathery pads. "Is Nudge here," he asked, his eyes scanning the room as if expecting to see him.

She nodded, her lips starting to tremble as a tear formed at the corner of her eye. "He's asleep right now," she said, voice cracking with emotion. "He's so beautiful, Scott. I just…wish I knew how to be a mother at all."

"Don't worry about it, Sarah. I know you'll be a great mother. Besides, he seems like a good creature to me."

"He is, Scott. He is. But he's had a really hard life. I can tell he has…so shy and quiet." Then her chin fell a little. "I don't think he should see us like this. Not yet, at least. I don't think he'd understand."

The wolf frowned. "No, I suppose not."

He lifted her chin to his and brushed her cheek with the back of a paw. She sighed and purred contentedly at his touch, rubbing his broad nose with hers. A sly grin forming on her lips when she pulled back.

"We'll just be sure not to wake him then," she said seductively. Her sidelong smirk widened and her full, bushy tail swishing alluringly behind her. Reaching up she took his paw in hers, dropping it from her face and insistently pulling him deeper into the warm confines of the apartment. "Tonight will be for us. Only us."

Scott stared at her in shock as he followed her without arguing, the vixen's lustful display catching him off guard. He'd never seen Sarah behave like this before; so forward and domineering. It was…exciting. His tail wagged uncontrollably under its own mind as logic and reason quickly gave way to urges more primal in nature. Stopping abruptly in his tracks, the vixen was jerked to a halt, her paws still firmly clasped around his.

"What's wrong," she asked, suddenly worried.

The wolf sneered down at her, a shallow growl escaping his throat as he grabbed her around the waist, hoisting the vixen into his arms like a cub. Sarah yipped in surprise, then clasped a paw to her muzzle, her eyes straying to a near door. Nudge's bedroom. Scott smirked like an unruly child caught in the act of a mischievous caper. Sarah giggled playfully, wrapping a paw around his shoulder for stability and curled up to plant a long, wet lick under his chin and nipped the soft flesh with her teeth before leaning back, a single ear canted coyly to the side. In a long, solitary silence their eyes saw only the other's gazing lovingly back. In that long moment they shared a mutual connection, the wolf and the fox knowing without any doubt in their souls what the other wanted.

Scott took a gliding step forward, his attention never wavering from the beautiful creature cradled in his arms. "I'm ready to love again," he whispered, his breath tickling the sensitive hairs in her ear. "I love you so much, Sarah."

Her small button nose touched his, the coolness contrasting wonderfully with the warm of their bodies.

"I love you too, wolfy. Tonight, I'm all yours."

The wolf smirked at hearing the cute pet name. Jessica used to call him that. Somewhere in his mind's eye he thought he could see his late wife smiling happily, content in knowing her lvoe was ready to live again, even if for someone else. Scott knew he could never forget her, his mate, the mother of his child, even if unborn. He could accept that. Life was about having something, someone, to live for. Sarah. Nudge. This was what he had forgotten years ago. And now, as he prepared to give himself to the vixen he loved so dearly, he was whole again.

"No, Sarah," he spoke softly, shaking his head. "I'm yours, just as you're mine. Every night. Every day. No matter what happens."

Nuzzling and rubbing, their passions mounting, the fox and the wolf found the low bed, seemingly without sight.


EPILOGUE

Three months following the restoration of the Lupine Empire

Nudge leaned over a data pad, tracing the words with a claw as he read them aloud slowly. Occasionally, he'd squint down at the screen, pausing to work out the more difficult or less familiar words and syllables.

"To date the in-vest—vestigations…investigations have given a broken but redable…no, readable picture of the plot to over—throw the imperial government. Trials have been continuing at a steady pass…erg!...pace as ordered by the Mini—Ministry of Justice in the hopes of better under—standing the scop…scope of the con…conspa…"

Scott looked up from a daily State Department briefing the Lupine capitol had sent to him. Leaning over a second copy of the news reports the young fox was reading from, he scanned the page and quickly found where Nudge was reading.

"Conspiracy," he said. "Do you know what that means, Nudge?"

Nudge chewed his lower lip as he looked up, dwarfed by Scott's tall desk from his fox-sized chair. "I think so," he said, his tone indicating he wasn't very sure. "It's kinda like when people try to hide something bad from other people…isn't it?"

Scott smiled and nodded. "You're certainly improving quickly, Nudge. I'm very impressed."

The little fox's tail wagged happily, thrilled to receive praise. "I'm much better at Vulpine."

"You're better than I am, that's for sure. It's always easier to learn knew things when you're young and have the energy. Old creatures like me just don't have it in us anymore."

Nudge giggled, but stopped as a question he'd been wanting to ask for a while had finally worked its way to the surface.

"Why do I have to learn Lupine? Everybody else at my school doesn't."

Scott leaned back, folding his paws across his chest as he considered the best answer the question deserved. "Well, Nudge…do you remember what it was like being a slave?"

The fox nodded a little. "Yeah."

"You know how your masters wouldn't let you read or learn anything about the universe on your own? All they wanted you to know was what they told you so they could control you. If you can learn things for yourself and do things on your own, there's almost no limit to what you can do if you put your mind to it."

A slight tilt of his head indicated that Nudge was still a little confused, but he thought it over for a moment and bobbed his head.

"I guess that makes sense," he said, looking down at the data pad in his paws. "If I know something other people don't…then it means I can do something they can't."

Scott beamed brightly. The last several months had seen a dramatic change in the young fox. He knew Nudge was a smart kit. He and Sarah had been pleasantly surprised at just how much he'd grown, and quickly. He was more confident in himself, more eager to learn and meet new creatures.

"Nudge, you know that your mother, Uncle John, and I care about you a lot, right?" The fox nodded, somewhat shyly. "We want to make sure your future is as strong as it can be. So many foxes never had that opportunity, you know. Your mother and Uncle John were very lucky."

He nodded quickly, and Scott realized he was probably tired of hearing it so often from his family. Nudge turned his attention back to the data pad and started reading again.

"The Emperor publicly an-ounced yesterday the natural conc—concept-sion of his first child, a male, dis-pelling any rumors that he was unable to produce a legitiminimate…"

"Legitimate."

"…legitimate hare to the thrown."

Scott laughed. "That's heir, Nudge…not hare."

"Oh…"

"You're doing great, Nudge. Just keep with it. It's hard but there's unfortunately no psycho-something-ruther for Lupine yet. Got to learn it the old-fashioned way."

Scott's secretary poked her head into his office, wrapping her knuckle against the doorframe lightly. Scott and Nudge looked up from their work and the female wolf gave the young fox a warm smile. Nudge nodded to the kindly wolf, a little flick to his tail tip. Ambassador Banks' staff had grown accustomed to him coming and going frequently. Strangely, nobody had actually asked Scott why he favored the fox so much. He'd just as soon rather they didn't.

"Excuse me, sir," she said quietly, as if believing it would be less of a disturbance if she kept her voice down. "There's a fox here to see you. A Mr. John Banks?"

"Good. See him in, Cathy."

"Alright, sir. And your meeting is still scheduled for eleven o'clock."

"Thank you."

The secretary nodded and left. Looking to his young charge, Scott recognized an all-too curious perk to Nudge's ears and smirked.

"I have a meeting in half an hour, so I asked your Uncle John to watch you until you're mom is off work. I think he's going to give you a tour of his ship. Or something like that."

His tail wagged excitedly, his bushy appendage seemingly too big for his body, as was usually the case for young Vulpines. He'd grow into it soon enough. John walked in, smiling from ear to ear as he shook Scott's paw warmly and patted his nephew's head.

"Hey Nudge," he said. "How are the lessons going?"

"Good," he said cheerfully, glancing at Scott.

"He's been improving very quickly," the wolf confirmed, and Nudge looked down modestly, the complement making him a little embarrassed. Scott smirked. "So John, how is engineering school treating you?"

The fox slumped his shoulders forward, his tongue lolled out expressively. "Like a piece of meat," he said jokingly, before righting himself again. "But it's definitely worth it. I've never learned so much in my life. I love it."

Scott smiled proudly. "Well that's great, John. I'm glad to hear that."

After another minute of small talk, John wished his old friend good luck with his meeting and asked Nudge if he was ready to go. Shaking his head, the young fox hopped down from his chair and scampered around Scott's desk, giving the big wolf a warm hug. Scott happily returned it.

"Stay out of trouble, Nudge," he said softly, suddenly concerned that the young creature wouldn't be safe without him to watch over him. Scott wondering if this was a fatherly impulse he was feeling. He'd never had the privilege of knowing before.

The foxes left and all too quickly his office was silent. Scott packed his briefcase with the reports and files he'd need for his meeting. Vulpine and Lupine delegates were coming together to discuss terms and conditions of peace and trade treaties between their two people, a process that was sure to be very long, very delicate, and potentially very heated. The inherent friction between fox and wolf had made Scott's first three months on the job very difficult and stressful. But he would survive. He was no stranger to hard work.

Taking a precious moment to himself he sat back in his high-backed chair and sighed. In the calm of the late morning he could feel a comfortable warmth on the back of his neck as the bright Vulpine sun flooded in from above. Turning, he stared impassively out his office window across the cityscape of the Vulpine capitol, its alien architecture and behavior only now beginning to gain some familiarity. It wasn't exactly home. A farm still waited patiently for him on Triticum, largely unattended except for a housekeeping service that went there twice a month to make sure it hadn't become overgrown with weeds or burned to the ground. Oddly, the wolf didn't mind as much as he thought he would. A house was just a house. A farm just a farm, like many others. It was here, on this strange world, that his family lived and thrived, and he knew he would trade anything he had to keep hold of this life he was currently living.

Nudge was growing quickly, by any standard, and Scott didn't want to miss any of it. The poor youth's father was still unaccounted for, and may never be found. Even if he was, the wolf doubted—somewhat bitterly—that he could be trusted to know what was best for his estranged son. He knew the burden was heavy and painful for Sarah. He could see it in her eyes whenever they discussed such things, usually when they were together and alone. Wrapped in each other's loving arms he would promise to do whatever he could for the both of them. And he meant every word; not just for their sake, but his as well. He'd lost a mate and a son once before. Perhaps this was his chance to start over again.

The wolf glanced briefly at his watch and stood. He didn't especially look forward to this summit. And yet, Scott couldn't keep from smiling to himself as he hefted his briefcase in one paw, turning his computer to stand-by with the other. If this job meant being near the creatures he loved, then by the gods he was happy to do it.

Here, he had what he'd once lost. Here, he was happy and loved.

Here, he was home.