Join The Rebellion!
By, Foxmerc
Edited, JPB and JJC

[Author's note: This is the sequel to "Shattered Past, Hero's Vengeance", and many references to it are made in this story. In order to understand the plot, it is highly recommended that you read that first. Thank you for reading, and enjoy! --Foxmerc]

Blood Feud

Chapter One   |   Chapter Two   |   Chapter Three   |   Chapter Four   |  Chapter Five
Chapter Six   |   Chapter Seven   |   Chapter Eight   |  Chapter Nine   |   Chapter Ten


 Fox McCloud would remember the time surrounding what came to be called the ‘Overlord Incident’ as some of the best and worst times of his life. He saw that love could bloom amidst the strife and chaos of war, and that scars, while never fully healed, can be mended. The destruction of StarWolf and the Overlord facility brought peace to his life, while Vicenzia “Vixy” Hohleran brought spirit and love. Fox hadn’t felt as good since before the deaths of his parents.
 Four months have passed since the destruction of Overlord, and StarFox has been blessed with a break in large assignments. They live comfortably off the large reward from the Overlord incident, and Fox and Vixy grow closer every day.
 But evil never rests. Over the light of victory looms the darkness of the enemy. Being a publicly-acclaimed hero is a double-edged sword; you are one of the most respected and liked among your allies, but the most hated and hunted among your enemies. Fortunately, even a hero may turn to his allies in a time of need. Unless…

Two years before the destruction of Overlord.
Venom-controlled section of Fortuna City.
1653 hours

 Fox McCloud sat on the bare wood floor of the abandoned apartment building’s second floor and shivered as a sharp wind howled through the broken window, bringing with it a flurry of snowflakes. He was freezing, even in the stolen Venom arctic camouflage uniform he was disguised in. Hugging himself tighter, he muttered into his headset, “Damn, Stefan, how do you stand living down here?”
 Stefan Chuzie, leader of the mercenary team IceStorm, chuckled and replied in his rumbling voice, “You get used to it. Don’t blame me, I didn’t ask for Pepper to put us working together on this. I could’ve easily handled it myself.”
 Fox laughed and grimaced as another strong wind bit at his face. “You can’t shoot worth crap, Stefan. Just give me the go ahead, and I’ll handle the rest.”
 Fox heard the black jaguar mumble something about where Fox could shove his shooting skill, but ignored it. They had bigger things to worry about. “Slippy, is the extraction zone secure?”
 “All clear, guys. Warming up the engine now,” came the response. Fox sat back and tried to ignore the cold. He wished Peppy and Falco were here instead of Stefan, but they were both on vacation, and this was a last-minute assignment. Fox had done other jobs with IceStorm, but he preferred his own people.
 “Get ready, Fox,” Stefan’s voice rumbled through Fox’s headset. “The meeting’s about to start.”
 Fox stood up, stretching his stiff, frozen joints, and picked up the sniper rifle that lay on the floor. He uncapped the scope, kneeled at the broken window, and rested the rifle on the window sill, pointed at the municipal building a hundred yards away across the city square.
 “In position.”
 “Ok,” Stefan continued from his position on the ground level. “The guy you’re supposed to assassinate is a three-star general.”
 Fox looked through the scope at the round table through the latticed window at the target building. Eight Venom officers sat around it, talking, drinking, pointing at one thing or another. Fox scanned the group quickly.
 “Stefan, there’s four three-stars. Any more description?”
 “Hold on.” Fox could hear the rustling of papers as Stefan went through his intelligence file from Pepper. “Ok, he’s a sixty-three year old gray ferret. See him?”
 Fox scanned the group again, his scope bouncing everywhere from his shivering. “Ok, I see him, but he keeps walking around. Gonna be a tough shot, especially in this weather.”
 “Well,” came Stefan’s response, covered with almost tangible bitterness. “Pepper decided to give the great Fox McCloud the job of shooting, so it’s on your ass now. Take the shot.”
 Fox took a few deep breaths and put his eye to the scope. The general had stopped and was talking to sitting officer over his shoulder. Fox put the crosshairs on his chest, trying desperately to control his shivering. He started pulling the trigger, slowly.
 Deep breath, pulling the trigger a bit more…

 Another deep breath, a bit more…

 Fox held his last breath and pulled the trigger the rest if the way. The loud crack of the rifle shattered the serenity of the snowy afternoon, and the officers in the meeting jumped up and looked around. Fox zoomed in and saw the officer was still standing, the window wasn’t even broken.
Dammit, I missed!
 Fox aimed again and fired. He KNEW he had aimed perfectly, but again, the glass remained undamaged, and the officer was still standing. But Fox noticed something. He hadn’t even hit the building.
 Fox froze, a sudden chill running down his spine and not from the cold this time. He ducked back into the apartment and fired three quick shots at the wall next to him. They didn’t leave a mark.
 Fox dropped the useless rifle and unholstered his blaster, wondering how the hell he got blanks in his gun. He remembered arriving on Fortuna in the dropship and meeting with Stefan at the landing zone. Stefan gave him the rifle…
 Fox spun around to face the door and came muzzle-to-muzzle with a chrome blaster. The hand that held the blaster belonged to Stefan, who was grinning triumphantly at Fox. Slippy’s voice rang in Fox’s head. “Fox! Stefan! Is anyone there? What’s going on? Fox!”
 “Keep the engine running, Slip,” Fox replied in a low voice, keeping his eyes glued to Stefan’s.
 Stefan laughed. “I don’t think you’ll be going anywhere, McCloud. I’m sorry it had to end like this, but Venom paid me a lot more to keep the general alive than Pepper did to kill him. Hey, I go where the money is. I also get a special bonus if I bring you to the general, dead or alive. Drop the gun.”
 Fox dropped his blaster, his heart pounding and mind spinning.
 “Smart move, Fox. Like you said, I may not be a great shot, but even I can hit you from a foot away. Turn and face the wall.”
 Things were getting desperate. Fox decided he had to make a move. He knew Stefan was a horrible shot and decided to exploit it. He started to turn to the wall, but swung back, his left hand grabbing Stefan’s wrist. The jaguar got a shot off well after Fox’s head was out of the way. Fox spun and kicked Stefan back through the doorway. He was about to go after him when he saw that Stefan had somehow held onto his gun and was standing back up, a look of rage on his face.
 Fox frantically looked for his blaster, but it had been kicked during the scuffle into the hallway. Instead, he grabbed the sniper rifle and ran for the window. Stefan had recovered and was firing at him, but his aim was as bad as Fox had prayed for. Fox sprinted across the room, lasers splintering the wooden walls and shattering the remaining glass of the windows, and jumped through the window.
 A snow bank along the wall broke Fox’s fall, and he quickly recovered, sprinting across the square, where dozens of civilians ran at the sound of the gunfire. Soldiers were now rushing out of the municipal building, pointing and running at the apartment building. Fox started to panic, looking around for anything he could use to get to the extraction zone a mile or two away where Slippy was still (hopefully) waiting.
 In the parking lot of the municipal building was a row of flatbed trucks, some of which had mounted machine guns on the back. Fox was running out of ideas and decided to take the one forming in his head. He sprinted over to the nearest one and smashed the driver’s side window, unlocking the door. He saw the keys were still in the ignition and breathed a sigh of relief.
 The relief quickly turned to fear again as Fox saw Stefan rushing out of the apartment building, a line of soldiers with him. Fox grabbed a passing civilian and threw him against the truck, aiming the rifle at his head. The male tiger looked about ready to wet himself, but Fox remained harsh. “Drive this truck to Midland Park as fast as it will go, and if you make any wrong moves I decorate the windshield with your brains, got it?!”
 ‘Hurry up, or I’ll scare you with a really loud bang!’ It was all Fox could do to keep a straight face.
 The terrified man nodded and slinked behind the wheel. Fox slung the rifle and hopped on the back, charging the machine gun. He heard the ignition start and the truck began to move. The energy bar on the gun reached full, and Fox swiveled it towards the apartment.
 Fox grinned at Stefan’s surprised look and fired at the group forming outside the building. Stefan dove back into the building as the lasers cut through the ranks of soldiers. Some fired back, but most ran for cover. The truck left the parking lot and began to accelerate down the main road.
 Seconds later, the civilian behind the wheel yelled out to him, “Uh, S-Sir? There’s s-something up ahead!” Fox turned and saw two trucks blocking the road, soldiers lined up in front. He swung the gun around and fired over the hood of his truck. “Get your head down!” Fox yelled, hoping the civilian would obey. The soldiers fired back, but were scattering.
 Fox took advantage of the moment to aim and fire off a burst at the fuel tank of the right truck. The explosion rocked Fox’s truck, throwing him down and blowing the other truck off the road.
 “Go!” Fox yelled, regaining his stance and praying the driver was still alive. “Don’t stop for anything!”
 The truck lurched forward and accelerated between the burning remains. Fox fired off a few bursts at the remaining soldiers and watched as it disappeared into the hazy distance of the falling snow.
 A minute later, they passed a sign that read, “Welcome to Midland Park”, and Fox sighed with relief and sat down, breathing heavily. The truck moved along through the snow-covered paths, and Fox heard the hum of a ship’s engine. Slippy’s dropship was in the center of the park, as planned, and he ran to the truck.
 “Fox! What the hell happened? Where’s Stefan?”
 Fox hopped off the truck and said impatiently, “Long story, come on, we gotta get away from here.” He unslung the useless rifle and threw it to the ground. That made him remember the driver. He ran over to the smashed drivers-side window and saw the civilian staring straight ahead, breathing hard.
 “You alright?” Fox asked in a gentle tone. The civilian nodded slowly. Fox put his hand on his shoulder, which seemed to snap him out of it. He looked at Fox.
 “Thanks for your help. Sorry about back there, but things were getting rough. The best thing for you to do right now is to ditch this truck and take some side roads back to the city. You never saw me, ok?”
 The civilian nodded again, faster. Fox decided he’d e alright and walked over to Slippy. “Come on, let’s get the hell outta here.”

Two Proposals, Two Plots
Four months after the destruction of Overlord
Great Fox, recreation room
2134 hours

 Falco slammed the door of the rec room’s refrigerator and turned to Peppy and Slippy, who were hunched over a chess game, concentrating intently. “Where the hell are those two? We have no food, and they said they’d be back an hour ago.”
 Peppy and Slippy shrugged absently, still staring at the chess board. They had been at the game for an hour and a half, and made Falco turn the TV off so they could concentrate. This made him hungry AND bored, so Falco had waited for Fox and Vixy to get back from shopping and was running out of patience.
 Falco gave up trying to get a response and collapsed into an armchair, watching his two friends play what he considered the most boring game ever made. “Will you two hurry up? I’d like to watch TV before the end of this century.”
 Falco thought he was finally going to get a response, but at that moment the door slid open. Fox and Vixy walked, carrying plastic bags and whispering and laughing to each other. Falco sprung up.
 “Where’d you go, the dark side of Venom? You shoulda been back an hour ago, I’m starving.”
 “I know, I know, sorry,” Fox said, putting the bags on the ground. “It was getting late, we stopped for dinner.”
 “I’ll make you something, Falco,” Vixy said, picking up the bags Fox put down. “I have to put these things away anyway.”
 Peppy shot a glance over to them. “That dress looks great on you, Vixy.”
 Vixy smiled. “Thanks, Peppy.” She looked at Fox and ran a finger under his muzzle. In a lower voice, she said, “Why don’t you come to my room later and I’ll show you how good it looks off me,” and walked off.
 Fox looked after her, grinning. Falco came up behind him and smacked him in the back of the head. “Snap out of it, lover. Will you tell these two to take the game somewhere else?”
 Fox shoved his hands in the pockets of his green jumpsuit and looked at the white carpeted floor, ignoring Falco. “Guy’s, I need to ask you something.” When Peppy and Slippy still stared at the board, Fox raised his voice. “Something IMPORTANT!”
 Peppy and Slippy snapped their heads towards him while Falco leaned against the sofa. “Sorry, Fox,” Peppy said. “What is it?”
 Fox looked at the floor again and rocked from foot to foot. “Well, I, uh… I was wondering if I could… spend some of the money from our last job.”
 “On what?” Slippy asked.
 “Uh… something for Vixy.”
 “Fox, you’ve taken her to probably every restaurant in the galaxy,” Peppy said, sitting back. “What could you possibly want the money for this time?”
 Fox looked at the floor and said in a low voice, “A ring.”
 His three friends looked at him, their mouths hanging open. The next second, Fox was on the floor, Falco’s hands gripping his jacket lapels. Peppy and Slippy hovered over him, laughing.
 “You’re actually gonna ask?! You’re gonna propose?!” Falco yelled.
 “Sssshhhhhh!” Fox hissed. “Shut up, moron! Yes, yes, I’m going to ask. Get off me!”
 They heard the door slide open and Vixy’s gray head poked in. “Falco, I have something for…” She saw them staring at her, all piled on Fox. She shook her head and smiled. “Don’t beat him up too much, he’s mine. Falco, I made something if you want, it’s in the kitchen.” She disappeared back through the door.
 Fox stood up and Peppy threw his arms around him. “Fox, I’m so happy for you! You two make a great couple. Go ahead, take any money you need.”
 Fox smiled and brushed himself off. “Thanks guys. I’m gonna go get changed and plan this out. Don’t tell her anything, and keep it down if you talk about it.” He started walking away when Falco said, “So who’s the best man gonna be?”
 Fox turned around and saw them looking anxiously at him. ‘Dammit, I have to choose a best man.
 “Uh…well…I guess….uh…” He turned and sprinted out of the room, muffled laughter following him.

     * * *

The same night
Blizzard, IceStorm’s mothership
2246 hours

 The tenseness hung thick in the air of the dimly lit meeting room on Blizzard’s third deck. Stefan Chuzie’s staff of five trusted lieutenants sat at the black ovular table, staring at their leader. They knew of his wrath when he was angry and prayed that they would leave the room alive.
 The black jaguar stood with his back to the table, staring out the window at the endless space. He was clothed, as were all the officers, in IceStorm’s uniform of a dark blue jumpsuit, black boots, and a black jacket, and carried his custom chrome blaster, which he was fingering, much to the discomfort of his staff.
 “Gentlemen,” he finally rumbled. “Can any of you tell me why none of us are sitting on a beach sipping margaritas right now?”
 None dared speak, which Stefan expected, so he continued in his strangely calm tone. “It’s because we are running short of money. And can any of you tell me why we’re short of money?” Again, silence.
 Stefan whirled around and slammed a piece of paper down on the table, making the officers jump. “This is why!” He yelled, his rage filling the room like an explosion. The officers looked and saw it was an old newspaper clipping with the heading, “StarFox Averts Mass Destruction” with a picture under it of Fox McCloud climbing off a dropship with a gray vixen.
 “Collins, would you be so kind as to remind the other officers how much money was riding on Overlord?” Stefan said, leaning on the table, scowling at the weasel.
 Collins hurriedly leafed through the folder in front of him, sweat beading on his brow. “Uh… well, sir… about two-hundred-thousand.”
 “Two…hundred…thousand,” Stefan said, emphasizing each word. He took his seat at the head of the table and leaned back. “And who knows what other jobs would’ve been needed after its completion? We would have been in the clear financially for years. And who do we have to blame for this?”
 “STARFOX!” Stefan yelled, pounding the table again. “That damn group has been the thorn in my side for years, and it’s time for it to end. If we are to move forward with any more jobs, Fox McCloud and his team must be taken out first.”
 There were nods from around the table, and Collins spoke up again. “Sir, we have one-hundred fifty-three people in IceStorm as of now, spread all over the galaxy. If we muster together, I’m sure we could take an assault on StarFox. There are only four of them, after all.”
 Stefan leaned back again. “Yes, Collins, we could take the four of them. But then what? Everyone allied with Corneria would be after us for killing their beloved saviors. Could we hold off the entire Cornerian army? No, no, this requires that StarFox has no help from anywhere.” He swiveled his chair around and stared out the window once again. The officers sighed and sat back, glad that they didn’t have to see the look in his eyes.
 “You are all dismissed.”
 The tenseness tainting the room evaporated as the officers moved quickly and quietly out of the room, each breathing a sigh of relief when they passed the doorframe.
 Stefan stared at the emptiness of space for over an hour, fingering his whiskers and thinking hard. None of this would’ve happened if he had just killed Fox on Fortuna when he had the chance…
A spark of a plan began to form in Stefan’s head. As the details of the plan became clearer, a grin spread over his muzzle.
It’s perfect! It HAS to work!

Shattered Peace
Four days later
Great Fox, Fox’s room
0934 hours

  Fox lay under the single sheet on his bed, smiling at the sleeping vixen snuggled against him. He loved her, and she had told him that she felt the same way. He glanced over at his dresser where the gold ring was hidden under his t-shirts and thought about when to propose. He felt nervous, like trying to put off studying for a final back in the Academy. However, he also felt anxious, like having a secret that he wanted to tell so badly.
 ‘You better think about this. You’re about to ask someone to spend the rest of her life with you. That’s a major commitment. What if she says no? God, I’ll feel like a complete moron. What if this isn’t love? You’ve been without it for so long…
 Fox sighed and looked up at his bookshelf above the dresser, where he kept his most treasured belongings. In the center were three identical framed medals with “Decoration of Distinguished Service” engraved on the wood setting. One was his father’s, for his part in the initial banishment of Andross. The other two were Fox’s, one for his part in the Lylat War, the other for his part in the destruction of Overlord. It was the highest award a non-military person could receive, all three presented by General Pepper.
 The yearbooks from Fox’s time in the Academy were up there, as well an antique bullet-firing pistol in a glass case that belonged to his great-grandfather, and numerous pictured of him, his parents, his friends, the team, and newspaper clippings. The most recent clipping was headed “StarFox Averts Mass Destruction” and has a picture of him climbing off a dropship with Vixy after they had returned to Corneria.
 Fox continued to look over the contents of the shelf, listening to Vixy’s rhythmic breathing. His eyes stopped on a picture of him and his parents when they were on vacation in pre-polluted Zoness. Little Fox, no more than seven or eight, was standing in the middle with James and Vixy (his mother) kissing over his head.
 That picture held Fox’s eyes for a long time. He remembered how his parents acted, teasing each other, laughing, and always there for each other and Fox. It was the same way he and Vixy were together. They joked and teased a lot, but Fox knew he would do anything for her. He had already faced his worst fears and singularly infiltrated one of the largest facilities ever built, risking an encounter with Wolf O’Donnell who made Fox’s life a living hell for two and a half weeks. He hadn’t done it for revenge. He had done it for her.
 ‘Tonight. I’ll ask her tonight.
 With that settled, Fox lightly kissed her head and joined her in sleep.

     * * *

Later that night
Great Fox, recreation room
1956 hours

 The team had noticed that their leader was jittery all through dinner that night, strumming his fingers on the table, rolling his napkin into a ball and squeezing it. Their suspicions were confirmed as Fox leaned forward after Vixy had cleared the dishes. His voice was thankfully muffled further by the television.
 “Guys, I’m gonna do it. Now. Wish me luck.”
 Falco gave him a playful punch on the shoulder and Peppy squeezed his hand. Wishes of luck were given and Fox stood up, his knees shaking, and sauntered over to the sink where Vixy was rinsing off the dishes and putting them in the washer. He gave a nervous glance over his shoulder to see the team looking at him anxiously.
 With a deep breath, Fox walked the rest of the way and gave a gentle tug on Vixy’s tail, then leaning on the counter, smiling nervously. She looked at him and grinned. “Hey, Foxy. What’s up?”
 “Rrrrg, you know I hate that name,” Fox said, reaching in his pocket and feeling the velvet jewelry box.
 “I know, that’s why I do it,” Vixy replied, giving him a peck on the cheek and returning to the dishes. Fox’s heart pounded in his chest.
 “Uh, Vixy, I need to ask you something. Something important.”
 “Sure,” she said, taking off the rubber gloves and tossing them on the edge of the sink.
 'This is it, Fox. This is the moment.'
 Fox opened his mouth to ask, but was interrupted as the 8’o’clock news blared on the TV with a story that caught all five of them by surprise.
 “Our top story this hour, just in from Corneria City,” the female raccoon said, glancing at the papers in front of her. “An act of betrayal and murder that shocked those who witnessed it. Fox McCloud, leader of the mercenary team StarFox and two-time recipient of the Decoration of Distinguished Service for his acts of valor and heroism for the Lylat system, tonight turned on Corneria and murdered General Monagi of the Cornerian Army. He then fled the scene and fired on pursuing soldiers from his ship with no regard for civilians in the way. Casualties have been estimated at forty dead and over one-hundred wounded.”
 Fox stared at the screen, mouth open and eyes wide. “WHAT?!”
 The screen showed a clip taken from a news camera at the scene. Monagi was standing at the podium with other generals, including Pepper, sitting in a row behind. It was a press conference on the steps of the capital building in downtown Corneria City. The scene continued until three lasers cut in from off-screen, all hitting Monagi in the chest. The camera shook a bit, then swung around to show a red fox in the exact same uniform Fox wears running down the sidewalk. He fired off the rest of the clip at pursuing guards then dropped the empty blaster and disappeared behind a building. Moments later, an Arwing with the StarFox logo and exactly the same design as StarFox’s banked around the building, firing into the crowd of panicked civilians, then bolting up into the blue sky.
 The shot cut off back to the raccoon. “We’ve just received word that General Pepper of the Cornerian Army is about to make a statement.”
 The screen changed to show Pepper, looking tired and still shocked, standing at another podium with the Cornerian flag on the front. Camera flashes went off from around the room as he cleared his throat and spoke.
 “It has been confirmed that the assassin is indeed Fox McCloud. Fingerprints were found on the gun he dropped, and the Arwing matches the custom design made for StarFox. This comes as a great shock to all of us, military and civilian alike, especially so soon after his valor in the Overlord Incident. He was a personal friend of mine, and to many others in the army, and it hurts us greatly that he has turned on us. But we must remember that he is not military, but a mercenary with no allegiance. It is now assumed that he works for Venom. However, the army sees this as a great threat, and, despite his past record, must now be taken in.” It was obvious to all watching that it hurt him to say the last sentence.
 Fox quickly reached out and switched the TV off. He turned and stared blankly at his team, who returned the stare.
 “What the HELL is going on?!”
 Peppy stood up. “I don’t get it, you were FRAMED? How? By who? The blaster had your prints and the fox flew away in a StarFox Arwing? That’s impossible!”
 Fox shook his head, still shocked at how the night turned from proposing to Vixy to being a fugitive of Corneria, his home. Vixy put her hand on his shoulder. “What do we do now? Should we talk to Pepper, try to explain?”
 Fox nodded. “Yeah, we…” He was interrupted by ringing of the phone in the rec room.
 “Looks like he decided to talk to us first. Come on.” They all walked together and stood in front of the phone’s screen.  Fox took a deep breath and hit the receive button. Pepper’s face, still tired, but this time also angry instead of shocked.
 “McCloud! What the FUCK have you done?! Do you have ANY IDEA what the people here are feeling?! We TRUSTED you! How could you do this? After all you’ve done for Corneria. Oh, good God, I’m glad your father’s not alive to see what you’ve done with his name and the name of StarFox.”
 For some reason, it hurt Fox to hear that, even though he knew he hadn’t done anything. Probably just the shock of hearing it from a good friend.
 “General, wait, just listen to me, let me explain. I didn’t do this…”
 “Forget it, Fox. You can’t talk your way out of this. As much as I was praying this wasn’t true, there’s too much hard evidence to ignore. The blaster with your prints on it, same make and model I know you use. The Arwing, your team owns the only ones of its kind in existence.” His face softened into an expression between sorrow and disappointment. “You were a good friend, but so was General Monagi. Christ Fox, you sat at the same table with him, planned out the offensive against Overlord with him. How could you so this?”
 Slippy stepped forward. “Fox couldn’t have done this; he was with us all day”
 Pepper shook his head. “Of course you would say that, as I expect the rest of you would. I’m sorry Fox, but we have to bring you in. Please don’t make this difficult and possibly get yourself killed. We have an army detachment heading to you now. Go with them and I’ll see that you get a fair trial. With your history of service to Corneria, you should be able to avoid the death penalty.”
 Fox stared at the screen, not believing what he was hearing. ‘I’m being hunted by Corneria. By my friend, and the friend of my father.’ He bowed his head and thought about what to do. If he surrendered, he would be tried for treason and fifty counts of murder. No matter what Pepper said, that’s death penalty material. Not to mention the name of StarFox would be dragged in the mud…
 Fox raised his head. ‘I won’t let that happen. Before I this ends, I’m gonna find whoever did this and restore StarFox’s name. Peppy entrusted this team’s leadership to me, and I’ll be damned if I let him or my father down.
 “Sorry, General. I’m innocent, and I have to prove it before I come in.” With that, Fox reached up and cut the connection before Pepper could respond.

Great Fox, recreation room
2313 hours

 After the team had gotten over the initial shock of abrupt end of their peace, they sat down around the dining table and thought the situation through. ROB’s voice cut in every few minutes with the same message.
 “Cornerian transport ship requests immediate compliance with demands.”
 “ROB, tell them we’re not dropping the shields so go the fuck away!” Fox yelled, then rested his head on his hands and looked down at t he table. After a few moments he continued.
 “Alright, we need to get somewhere safe, because that ship will call for the cavalry soon. We can think this through once we’re clear. The question is, who can we trust? Venom’s out to get us, Corneria’s out to get us, all Corneria’s allies are out to get us. Any ideas?”
 “What about Emayn?” Vixy said hopefully. “After all you’ve done for the island, there’s no way they’d turn you in.”
 Peppy shook his head. “No good, the Cornerian army is still investigating the ruins from the Overlord relay tower that was going to be built there.”
 Fox sighed and sat back. “There are only two people besides you guys that I would trust in this situation, and one of them was Pepper. So he’s out of the question.”
 “Who’s the other one?” Slippy asked.
 Instead of answering, Fox stood up and walked to the comm. on the wall. “ROB, set a course for Katina, and hyperdrive it so we lose the Cornerian ship. Contact William Grey of the air force station there through closed channel and tell him we’re coming.” ROB gave the affirmative and Fox rejoined his friends.
 “I’ve known Bill almost my whole life, he’ll help us.”
 Falco leaned back and folded his arms across his chest. “That’s what you thought about Pepper.”
 There was nothing Fox could say to that. Instead he stood up and stretched. “Everyone get some sleep, we’ll go down and see Bill in the morning.”
 Everyone nodded and walked off to their quarters, but Fox gestured for Vixy to hang back. He gripped her shoulders and looked her in the eye.
 “Vixy, this could get really ugly, not to mention you might also be charged for helping me if we’re caught. We can drop you in Emayn or somewhere safe until this is over.”
 Vixy responded by pulling him forward and giving him a long, passionate kiss. “Forget it, you need all the help and support you can get in this, and I won’t leave you. I’ll never leave you.”
 She gave him a kiss on the cheek and walked off to her room.

A Friend’s Help
The next day
Great Fox, Fox’s room
0822 hours

 Peppy opened the door to Fox’s room to make sure he was awake and found him putting on his jacket and looking in the mirror. He turned at the sound of the door.
 “Hey Fox, you almost ready?”
 “Yeah, I just…uh….can I talk to you for a minute?”
 “Sure,” Peppy replied, closing the door behind him and sitting on the side of Fox’s bed. Fox finished rolling up his sleeves and sat down next to Peppy, looking down at the carpet.
 “Things kinda happened fast last night. Too fast. I was acting out of split-second instinct because of the…well, shock of the whole thing. This is really, really bad. I just…well…did I do the right thing? I mean, I’ve known you my whole life, and you’ve been like a father to me. You took me in when I was orphaned, you helped me through my parents’ deaths, and you gave me the lead position for the team. I know I can always turn to you, and I need you’re help now, when the whole…GALAXY is against us. Am I doing the right thing?”
 Peppy noticed that halfway through Fox’s talk, his eyes began to get watery. He was under a lot of stress, and it hurt Peppy to think that a man his age, no more than a kid, would have to deal with this kind of pressure. It once again proved that Fox had his father’s spirit inside him, the spirit to be strong in the face of adversity and take up a burden that few could bear.
 Peppy curled his arm around Fox’s shoulder and gently hugged the way a father would console his son after the boy had lost a little league game. “Fox, I’ve told you before what happened on Venom, to me and James. But I never told you what our last words were to each other. When he was shot during our escape attempt, we only had a few seconds before the guards would be on top of us.” He looked over and saw that, while he wasn’t sobbing, the tears were flowing freely now. But he should know the whole story, so Peppy continued. “He gripped my hand hard and shoved something into it. It was that picture on your bookshelf of your mother. He then said to me in a voice as strong as ever, ‘You’re my best friend, Peppy. Promise me you’ll take care of Fox. I entrust him to you. Give him this and tell him his parents will always love him and be with him’. Then his hand went limp… But Fox, he didn’t have to ask for my promise to look after you. I’ve always thought of you as my own. While you see me as a father, I see you as my son.” Peppy stopped because he too was starting to get choked up. Fox hugged Peppy and the old hare hugged right back.
 “It never goes away does it?” Fox whispered in a strained voice. “I wish he was here”
 “I know Fox, I know,” Peppy whispered back, hugging Fox tighter. He then pulled away and looked him in the eye. “But I see him every time I look at you. You’re father would be so proud to see you now. Yes, you made the right decision. An injustice has been done, and we’ll all be right with you until it’s fixed. And you have a very special girl out there who loves you and is sticking with you through all this. Just concentrate on the situation and remember that we’re all here for you.”
 Fox nodded and wiped his eyes. He gave one last glance at the picture of his mother and stood up, a look of determination on his face. “Alright, let’s get down there.”

     * * *

Room 212, Parkview Hotel, downtown Katina City
1037 hours

 The hotel room wasn’t the best Fox had seen, but this wasn’t the time to worry about accommodations. The five of them lounged around the small room, Falco and Vixy sitting on one bed, Slippy and Peppy on the other, and Fox pacing in front of the door. He looked at his watch for what seemed like the hundredth time in twenty minutes and said, “Ten-thirty was the meeting time right? Are we in the right room?”
 “This is it, Fox,” Peppy said gently. “He’s ten minutes late, it’s not that bad.”
 Fox returned to his pacing and was about to check his watch thirty seconds later when there was a knock at the door. He bolted over and put his hand on the knob. “Who is it?”
 “Frickin pizza delivery, open up.”
 Fox grinned and opened the door, revealing a grey dog that was his best friend since he could remember. Bill Grey rolled his eyes and walked in, quivkly closing the door behind him.
 “Damn, man,” he said, embracing Fox. “I missed you, haven’t seen you forever.”
 Fox returned the hug. “Wish it could be under happier circumstances.”
 Bill stepped back and nodded. He looked over Fox’s shoulder and waved. “Hey guys, what’s happenin’” He received a greeting from the team, and his eyebrows rose as he saw Vixy. He walked over and took her hand. “You wouldn’t happen to be the infamous Vixy Hohleran that Fox has told me so much about?”
 Vixy smiled. “Yes, and Fox has said a lot about you too. Nice to finally meet his best friend from the Academy.”
 Bill raised her hand and kissed it. “Very nice to meet you.”
 Falco turned away and muffled laughter as Fox rolled his eyes and pulled Bill away. “Zip your pants up, we have work to do.”
 “I know,” Bill’s face suddenly turned grim. He pulled Fox over to the side and put a hand on his shoulder. “Listen man, I’m gonna stand behind you no matter what, but I have to know, and I’m only gonna ask you once and whatever you say, I’ll believe it. Did you do it?”
 Bill nodded. “Didn’t think so. Cuz the news freaked the hell outta me when I saw it. Hell, it sent a shock through the whole base.”
 “Heh. Freaked us out too, believe me.”
 “I’ll bet, man.” He turned and addressed everyone in the room. “Alright, listen up guys…and gals. Your robot-pilot-thing sent me the message, so I was able to get this room ahead of time. Everyone in the galaxy knows your faces, so I recommend you spend most of your time on the Great Fox and we’ll use this room as a meeting place. I’m doing my best to look into this, and I’ll inform you of anything that comes up. In the meantime, keep your heads down, alright?”
 Everyone nodded, then Falco sat up and spoke. “Hey Bill, you know that if they find out you’re helping us, you’ll be arrested also, right?”
 Bill shrugged. “I know that Fox didn’t do it, and you guys come above everything else. Alright, I gotta get back to the base, Fox has my number. You guys need anything, don’t hesitate to call. I suggest you hang out here for a while, then head out one by one. I’ll be back in a few hours.”
 “Hey, thanks man,” Fox said. Bill just smiled and gave him a playful punch in the shoulder.
 “I’ll catch you later.”

     * * *

Later that day
Room 212, Parkview Hotel, downtown Katina City
1604 hours

 “I don’t get it,” Fox said, staring out the hotel room’s dusty window at the busy street below. “Why is it called Parkview if there’s no park in view?”
 Bill laughed from his slouched position on the desk chair, his feet up on the bed. “Thinking about the important things over there, eh?”
 Fox smiled and turned from his vigil at the window, sitting on the bed across from Bill. “Where did the time go, man? Seems like only yesterday you and I were at the Academy, not a care in the world. Not any to compare with this anyway.”
 Bill bowed his head. “I hear you. You’ve had it rough, Fox, but that doesn’t mean life is all work no play. We’re just past that carefree stage, and you’re having a bad few months. Just concentrate on finishing this situation, then you and I can have a guy’s night out and get wasted at every damn club in town.”
 Fox laughed. “Yeah, I can always count on that with you.” He closed his eyes and grinned. “Remember that one Christmas Eve that you and I were having a snowball fight in your backyard and I didn’t think Dad was going to make it home for the holidays. Then he showed up and I was so happy. We were….wow, eight years old.”
 Bill grinned. “Yeah, I always kicked your ass in snowball fights.”
 “The hell you did, Willy.”
 Bill picked up the pad of paper on the desk and threw it at Fox, hitting him in the chest. “Don’t call me that, Foxy.”
 Fox rolled his eyes. “Very original, get some new material. Also, it’s taken, Vixy calls me that.”
 Bill sat up and leaned forward, grinning again. “Yeah, you two seem…close. Anything serious? You were kinda vague in your letters.”
 Fox took the jewelry case out of his pocket, held it up, then replaced it. “I was going to propose to her the second the news came on and declared me a traitor.”
 Bill’s mouth dropped open. “No WAY! Damn, that’s some bad luck, man. Well, if I were you, I’d wait till after this whole thing’s over to do it. Seems awkward now. Congratulations in advance, though.”
 “Thanks. You told me you were seeing someone. What’s her name? Emma?”
 Bill grinned and nodded. “Yeah, I really like her a lot, we’re great together. She might be the one, ya know? Speaking of which…” Bill looked at his watch and stood up. “I’m meeting her for dinner at five, so I’m gonna get going. You still have another fifteen minutes before it’s your turn to head out, but don’t doze off. Wouldn’t be good to spend the night here, in case a maid comes in or something and sees you.”
 “Alright, thanks man. Good luck with Emma.”
 Bill gave him a thumbs up and walked out.

 Fox sat slouched in the chair Bill had occupied with his feet up the same way, strumming his fingers on the desk and checking his watch. He didn’t like being away from the Great Fox and his team for this long, but his time to leave was only five minutes away.
 At one minute away, he decided it was close enough and stood up as there came a knock on the door. Fox rolled his eyes and walked over to the door. “What’s the matter Bill, she dump you…?” Fox’s voice trailed off as he opened the door and stared down the barrel of an assault rifle. A huge bear, towering at least seven inches over Fox and dressed in a strangely familiar blue and black uniform, grinned and pulled the trigger.
 Fox snapped to his senses and ducked as the bear pulled the trigger. The laser flew over Fox’s head, shattering the window across the room. He shoved the rifle over and drove his right elbow into the bear’s gut, but he hit rock-solid muscle. The mystery guest laughed and swung the butt of the rifle around, connecting with Fox’s head and sending him to the ground. The impact made Fox’s vision blurry and his temples throb, and he shook his head while fumbling for his blaster in the thigh holster.
 His vision finally cleared to show the bear walking slowly across the room, the rifle pointed at Fox. Fox desperately tried to pull his gun free, but it was caught on something. Instead, he swung his right leg around and fired the blaster from inside the holster. The laser ran parallel to his leg, singeing his pants, and hit the bear’s leg just above the knee. He roared and fell to the ground, dropping the rifle and clutching the wound.
 Fox hopped up, and bent over to pick up the rifle when a shadow fell across the room. He froze and looked at the doorway to see a black wolf in the same uniform as the bear, pointing a pistol at Fox’s head. Fox closed his eyes and raised his hands as if to shield himself. He then heard the shot…
 But he didn’t feel any pain. Fox slowly opened his eyes to see Bill standing in the doorway, holding out a smoking blaster. The wolf lay face-down on the floor, half his head blown off. Bill lowered the gun. “Good thing I forgot my wallet, man.” Fox looked over, and there it was, still on the desk.
 He let out a deep breath, then pounded the desk with his fist. “I just can’t catch a fucking break!” He was about to kick the remains of the wolf when he heard a low groan and remembered the bear. Yanking his blaster free, Fox stormed over and knelt down. He grabbed the bear’s collar and shoved the pistol under his chin, pointed up.
 “Who the hell are you?! Who sent you?! Answer me before I blow your goddamn head out that window.”
 The bear just narrowed his eyes and muttered in a deep voice, “I won’t tell you anything.”
 “Hey, Fox…” Bill’s voice drifted over from behind him. Fox turned to see Bill searching the wolf’s corpse and holding up the limp right arm. “What’s this insignia? Never seen it.”
 Fox looked on the bear’s right arm and saw the same emblem. It consisted of four blue spiked pointed inwards on a white backdrop. Fox knew it from somewhere….but where…
 “Looks like a bunch of icicles in snow…” Bill muttered, studying the emblem.
 “That’s it!” Fox yelled, startling Bill and making him fall back. “IceStorm! Stefan, you piece of shit.”
 Bill recovered and looked blankly at his friend. “IceStorm? Stefan? What’s going on?”
 “I’ll explain later.” Fox hopped up and started for the door. “We have to get to the Great Fox, come on.”
 “Wait,” Bill said, glancing at the bear. “What about him?”
 Fox stopped and grimaced. He wasn’t in the mood to deal with it. He turned and fired a single laser that that hit the bear in the head, splattering the back wall with blood. Fox then holstered the blaster and continued out the door, not hesitating a moment. Bill looked after him for a second then stood up. “Sorry, boys,” he said to the corpses. “That’s what you get when you fuck with a man too much.” He then turned and followed his friend out.

Flight 173
That night
Great Fox, recreation room
2034 hours

 Bill sighed and munched on a chip from the bag on the dining table. “Guy’s, we’ve been at this for hours, and we can’t get any solid reasoning. Maybe it was just a coincidence that IceStorm attacked you there. Maybe they just followed you there.”
 The team, Vixy, and Bill were sitting around the table, trying to see if the attack had any connection to the framing and having no luck. Fox sighed and leaned back in his chair, rubbing his eyes. “Listen, it HAS to be connected, it’s too much of a coincidence. Alright, let me tell the story again, and just blurt out anything at all that sounds weird.”
 Fox recapped the story of his mission on Fortuna with Stefan, saying every little detail he could think of. “… so then I spun around and Stefan was right there, holding a gun pointed at me. He said something like how he wasn’t that bad a shot and to drop my gun. So I did, then he…” Fox snapped his head up, seeing a wide-eyed Falco, who had obviously also seen it. They both jumped up and shouted together, “The gun!”
 Finally, the splinter in Fox’s mind, the missing link, popped into place. He saw the secure conference room again, where the generals plotted the attack on Overlord. General Monagi was explaining the purpose of the facility to him. And that one line… “Your job in Emayn was not a new thing. We had been getting reports from at least seven other towns across the galaxy that Venom troops had suddenly invaded with what seemed like no reason. They even hired mercenary teams, some of which you know; IceStorm, headed by Stefan Chuzie from Fortuna for one.”
 “What?” Slippy said. “What about it?”
 Fox raised his hands to shush the group and started pacing excitedly around the table. “Alright, alright, I think I have it. I KNEW it was all connected somehow. Tell me how this sounds.”
 “I remember in the briefing with the generals before the attack on Overlord, Monagi said that Venom had hired out mercenary groups to help establish the relay towers. He said we knew of one of them, IceStorm. With me so far?” He received nods and rapt attention from around the table.
 “Alright, so Stefan and IceStorm lost out on a load of money from the destruction of Overlord. So he figures, ‘Let’s waste these annoyances once and for all’. But he’s not a dumb guy, he knows that if he out-right attacks us, we’ll be martyrs and then he’ll be crushed by the enraged allies. So what’s the best way to get us?”
 “To make us the bad guys,” Peppy said, nodding slowly, beginning to understand. “That way, he’ll have us isolated and he might even be seen as the hero when he kills us.”
 “Exactly. And look, they have all the resources to do it. The blaster with my fingerprints on it, they could’ve easily made a fake uniform, and they have over a hundred members, I’m sure there’s a red fox in there somewhere.”
 “But what about the Arwing?” Slippy asked. “My father designed that model custom for StarFox, there aren’t any others like it in the galaxy.”
 “I’m pretty sure I can answer that. I went to that news station’s website and downloaded the video clip of that story. Let me see if I’m right.”
 Fox ran to his room and got the disk with the video clip on it. He popped it into the dining room’s viewscreen and played it until the Arwing boosted around the building, then paused it.
 “Look. The landing gear is just retracting, and the forward skid is delayed. The back skids are already up. Peppy, do you remember who always had that problem and refused to take the time to fix it?”
 “Oh, my God.” Peppy breathed, leaning back. “Of course, Pigma. It’s Pigma’s ship.”
 “Right. It was stored away all this time, and after Andross fell, the warehouses were probably all but forgotten. Stefan just did a little research and dug it up.”
 “Ok,” Falco said. “So they fly there with Pigma’s Arwing, shoot the general with your gun, drop it, massacre some civilians, and voila: we’re the bad guys. That’s actually a really good plan. Hell, it worked, didn’t it?”
 “So what do we do now?” Vixy asked, gripping Fox’s hand. “You can’t attack them, there’s too many.”
 “I know,” Fox said, squeezing her hand back. “And the evidence we have still isn’t hard enough to prove our innocence. We have to get that Arwing. Slippy, can you scan recent radio messages around Fortuna? If we find their base there, that’s probably where the Arwing is. I don’t think they’d keep it on Blizzard, it’s too noticeable.”
 “I’ll get right on it.” The frog ran away excitedly.
 “Ok, everyone else get some rest. Bill, can you stay with us tonight?”
 “Sure, man. I’ll take a leave from the base, say an emergency came up.”
 Fox nodded. “Alright, that’s it. Pray Slippy finds something.”
 Everyone went their separate ways. Fox leaned over and whispered to Bill, “Hey, thanks for saving my ass back there.”
 “No prob, man. Now that we see what we’re up against, watch your back.” He walked off to the guest room, giving a quick glance at Vixy’s behind and winking at Fox.
 Fox rolled his eyes and walked off to his room some sleep.

     * * *

The next morning
Great Fox, Fox’s room
0803 hours

 A gentle shake on his shoulder pulled Fox from his dreamless sleep the next morning. He slowly opened his eyes to see the only thing that could make the day seem somewhat promising; Vixy, sitting on the bed.
 “Rise and shine, Foxy.” She said, smiling. “Slippy found something you might be interested in. Poor guy was up all night apparently.”
 “Well, this day’s starting out alright so far. Wanna hop in here with me and make it even better?” Fox’s hand slowly crept up her blouse.
 Vixy gave him a playful slap on his muzzle and headed for the door. “I think there’s more important work to be done, and it involves having your pants on. Hurry, Slippy’s going to keel over from exhaustion any minute now.”
 Fox smiled and climbed out of bed when she was gone. Just being around her made Fox feel better, like he could take on anything. That was a special feeling he only felt around his father.
 After Fox was showered and dressed, he headed into the rec room where Peppy was hunched over the chess board with, much to Fox’s surprise, Falco on the other side. Bill was watching from over his shoulder. Peppy picked up one of his white pawns and placed it with a triumphant flourish next to Falco’s black king.
 Bill laughed as Falco slammed the arm of his chair with his fist and sat back, folding his arms the way he always did when he was pissed. “I hate this damn game! It’s so boring, and I always lose.”
 Fox grinned and walked over to Vixy, who was pouring a cup of coffee from the machine. He gave her a kiss and took the steaming mug she held out. “Where’s the hacker?”
 At that moment, Slippy trudged into the room, looking like a zombie. He was reading a piece of printer paper and nearly walked straight into the chair Falco was sitting in. Fox walked over and put a hand on his shoulder.
 “Damn, man, you ok? I didn’t mean you had to stay up all night and do this.” Fox took a sip from the mug and handed the rest to Slippy, who looked like he sure as hell needed it more.
 “I know, but I found an encrypted message that was sent out from a ship to Fortuna last night. The code was hard, professional stuff, but I wanted to crack it. I finally did, but I don’t know what the message means. Here, thought you might want to take a look.” He handed the paper to Fox then collapsed onto a chair and closed his eyes, taking a sip from the mug now and then.
 Fox read the printed paper aloud. “Scramble PD and JM, TLA 173 neutralize, weaken SF further, strengthen CA resolve.”
 “What the hell does that mean?” Falco asked, looking over with a confused expression. Fox shrugged and studied the paper again.
 Vixy came up behind Fox and looked at the paper. “Well, the last part is pretty obvious. Weaken StarFox further, strengthen Cornerian Army resolve. It’s a plan to frame you guys again, I think, to get the Cornerian Army after us harder.”
 That got the team’s attention, even Slippy’s, and they were all huddled around their leader, studying the paper.
 “Well, the term ‘scramble’ is usually used for air forces, for short notice alerts to take off,” Peppy offered.
 “And TLA,” Bill said, rubbing his muzzle. “The only thing I can think of is Trans-Lylat Airways. Hell, I hear about it every day, Emma’s a pilot for them and has a flight today. TLA flight 173 maybe? What are they gonna do, hijack it?”
 “No, it says neutralize.” Falco said. “They’re gonna destroy a frickin civilian airliner. Cowards.”
 Fox nodded. “So they’re gonna use the Arwing again to shoot down an airliner. But there are two initials…”
 “James McCloud!” Peppy yelled out, startling his team. “PD and JM, Pigma Dengar and James McCloud. They have BOTH Arwings!”
 “Shit,” Fox muttered. He walked to the comm. on the wall and said into it, “ROB, track Trans-Lylat Airways flight 173 and see where it is.”
 Fox turned back to the group. “If they’re going to shoot it down, it’ll be done over a city so there are plenty of eye-witnesses.”
 “Sir, flight 173 about to enter Corneria airspace, destination: Corneria City.”
 “Alright, upload the coordinates and flight data to my Arwing.” ROB gave the affirmative and Fox jogged to the door. “I’ll go defend the airliner, you guys stay here in case IceStorm tries a direct attack after this fails.”
 The team gave affirmatives, and Peppy said, “Fox, you’ll be in Cornerian territory, so haul your ass outta there once the ship is safe, or you’ll have the whole air force on you.”
 Fox nodded and ran for the hanger.
 Bill was about to sit down when he remembered what he had said. “Hell, I hear about it everyday, Emma’s a pilot for them and has a flight today.”
 Wondering if he was just being paranoid, he walked over to the comm. and said, “ROB, out of curiosity, where did flight 173 leave from?”

     * * *

Near Corneria City
0927 hours

 Fox boosted through the clouds over his home planet as fast as his Arwing would go, the coordinates flashing on his display getting closer. Finally his vision was cleared of clouds and he could see the oblong civilian airliner flying towards Corneria, which was a scant twenty minutes away in the distance. Fox checked his radar and saw no sign of any other fighter craft.
 As Fox neared the ship, a female voice sounded over his comm. “This is TLA flight 173, we have you on our radar. Please identfify yourself.”
 Fox couldn’t help but chuckle. ‘Surprise!’ . There was no sense in trying to fake it though, they’d recognize his voice. He took a deep breath and said, “This is Fox McCloud of StarFox.”
 There was silence, and Fox guessed the flight crew was wetting their pants about now, hoping the heartless bastard didn’t shoot them down. Finally, the same female voice responded, “Please, we’re only carrying civilians, don’t attack.”
 Fox rolled his eyes. He was getting tired of this. “What’s your name, pilot?”
 “Uh, Captain Aldon. Emma Aldon.”
 ‘Emma…couldn’t be.
 She continued, “Please, don’t…”
 “Captain Aldon, for the next minute, shut the hell up and listen to me. I’m not here to shoot you down, but there are two Arwings heading here with just that in mind.” Fox was close to the ship now. He slowly pulled up parallel to the cockpit and could just make out the silhouettes of the flight crew inside. All were huddled around the window, presumably looking at him.
 “Listen to me, Emma. When those fighters get here, I’m going to hold them off for as long as I can, but I don’t know if I can take two Arwings.” Fox contemplated the next part, and decided it was necessary. “I need you to contact the Cornerian Air Force base in the city and tell them you’re under attack, in case I can’t handle them. You still with me?”
 “Alright. I need you keep a cool head during this whole thing. You might see some fighting, but whatever you do, do NOT deviate from the course. Fly in a straight line. Swerving won’t mess up their aim much, and it might get me disoriented. As hard as it may sound, I need you to trust me. Ok?”
 “Ok. I guess I have no choice.”
 Fox was hoping for a more positive response, but that would have to do. He leaned his head back and closed his eyes, trying to calm himself for the upcoming fight. Two Arwings wouldn’t be easy to take down, assuming they had at least semi-competent pilots. And one of them was his father’s…
 Fox shook his head. It’s not his anymore. If anything, he should be happy to destroy the person desecrating it.
 His thoughts were interrupted by a low beeping from his display. He looked and saw two dots heading towards them. Just as he was about to tell the pilot to get ready, her voice came over, sounding a bit panicky. “Mr. McCloud, we have two ships on radar heading for us, starboard side.”
 “Alright,” Fox said, taking a deep breath. “Just remember what I said and stay calm. Did you contact the base?”
 “Yes, they’re sending some ships up immediately.”
 “Good,” ‘For you. Not for me’. “Alright, here we go.”
 With a quick thumbs up to the cockpit, Fox broke away and took a position between the airliner and the dots coming at them from the right. Fox saw them in the distance, coming up fast, and steeled himself.
 “Sir, we have another Arwing on radar, with the airliner,” came a voice in Fox’s comm., followed by another voice. “I have him on visual also, sir.”
 “What?!” yelled a third, more familiar voice. “An Arwing, are you sure.”
 Fox spoke. “Stefan, you bastard. You couldn’t handle a straight fight, so you had to frame me. Well, we know it, and we’re going to fix it.”
 “Well, well, long time no see, Fox. It’s just business, old pal, and you’re hurting ours. Nothing personal. Even if you do defend that ship, it won’t change anything. After all, you still killed a general and about fifty civilians.”
 Fox growled He could feel himself getting angry and tried to keep it under control. “We’ll see, you son of a bitch, I’ll come get you later. I have a couple Arwings to shoot down right now.” With that, he flicked off his comm. and boosted towards the two fighters.
 Fox decided it would be better to keep his comm. on in case the airliner had anything to report, so he flicked it back on to hear Stefan’s voice. “—the target. I repeat, stay on the target, do NOT engage McCloud.”
 “Uh, what if he engages us, Sir?” one of the pilots asked nervously.
 “Your mission is destruction of that airliner at all costs! If that ship gets away, then I’ll kill you if he doesn’t. Am I clear?”
 “Yes, Sir.”
 The Arwings split formation and boosted past Fox on either side. Fox pulled a hard turn and chased after the left one. They were almost within firing range of the airliner.
 Fox locked onto the Arwing and fired a volley of twin blue lasers. The first few hit the ship, then the pilot barrel rolled and swerved away. Fox let him go and looked around for the second Arwing.
 “I’m hit! Shields at 30 percent! Sir, he’s not letting us get close enough to the target.”
 “Rrrrg, Arwing Two, you’re still at full shields, engage McCloud. Arwing One, stay on the target.”
 “Yes, Sir.”
 Fox was still looking around for the second Arwing when it found him. A hail of lasers fell from above, pounding Fox’s ship. He pulled hard on the stick, banking right, and saw his shields were at 60 percent.
 “Almost in range, just keep him off me for a few more seconds.”
 Fox swung his ship around and saw the first Arwing flying straight for the airliner. He boosted towards it, approaching it from its starboard and swerving to avoid the lasers from Two.
 “Not today, fucker,” Fox muttered, locking onto the imposter.
 “Two, he’s on me! I need cover, get---“
 The Arwing exploded as Fox’s lasers cut through the hull. He let out a whoop and sped through the smoke left behind as the wreckage fell to the ocean below. His victory was cut short as another volley of lasers impacted his ship, reducing his shields to 30 percent.
 “Sir, One is down!”
 “DAMMIT!” Stefan yelled. “Take him out! Kill him!”
 Fox was starting to get worried. His shields were at thirty and the fake’s was still at one hundred.
 “I’m within range of the target, going in.”
 Fox looked and saw that he had gotten to close to the airliner. The Arwing flew ahead of the ship and U-turned, coming straight at the cockpit.
 “Fox!” yelled Emma. “Fox, he’s coming right at us!”
 “Shit,” Fox muttered. He swung around and approached the airliner from behind. “Emma, dive, now! Do it!”
 The nose of the airliner dipped sharply down and the lasers fired by the Arwing just nicked the tail as the ship dove towards the ground. Fox was ready and fired a bomb straight ahead.
 The explosion blinded and deafened Fox for a moment, but all but vaporized the fake Arwing. “Yes!” shouted. “Better luck next time, Stefan!”
 “McCloud! You…” Fox flicked off the all-receive and changed the frequency to immediate-area.
 “Captain Aldon, are you ok? Is the ship stable?”
 “Yes, we’re fine,” she replied, almost laughing with relief. “The passengers are a bit shaken, and the flight crew is half-deaf, but we’re ok. Thank you so much, Mr. McCloud.”
 “By any chance, did you record the conversation between me and the pilots?”
 “No, we didn’t hear anything the whole time.”
 “Shit,” Fox said, pounding the side of his Arwing. “Alright, well---“ He was cut off by another transmission from an unfamiliar voice.
 “Fox  McCloud, this is the Cornerian Air Force. You are demanded to shut down all weapons systems and be escorted to our base. Failure to comply will be seen as hostile and you will be fired upon. What is your response?”
 Fox looked and saw that Corneria City was only a few miles away, and a squad of eight fighters was flying out of it towards him. He looked at his shields and saw that the close range of the bomb’s explosion lowered them to only five percent. He couldn’t last out in the open for long. His only chance was to lose them in the city.
 “Come and get me,” he said in what he hoped was an intimidating voice and boosted straight through the formation of Cornerian fighters, diving into the city.
 “This is Echo Squad command, all fighters pursue suspect. Do NOT, I repeat, do NOT fire in the city. Wait until target leaves the friendly zone then engage.”
 The lead pilot received nervous affirmatives from his wingmen. Fox could tell that they were none too happy about a potential dogfight with Fox McCloud, and hoped their nervousness would make them give up the chase sooner.
 Fox knew the city like the back of hand and looped around buildings as fast as his Arwing would go, praying none of the pursuing ships would crash.
 “This is Four, I’ve lost him. Does anyone have a visual?”
 “Me and Two are still on him. Three through Eight, disengage and circle the perimeter of the city in case he tries to leave.”
 Sweat beaded on Fox’s brow as he narrowly missed slamming into a skyscraper. He couldn’t keep this up forever, those two were pretty good pilots. He frantically tried to think of a way out when he saw the main highway beneath him. The highway…
 Of course! Fox and his team followed the main highway through the city when they defended the city during the first battle of the war. The highway led out to the ravine where they had taken down commanding officer. Falco’s voice played back in his mind.
 ‘Follow me, Fox!”
 “Falco! Where ya going?’
 “I found the target, try to keep up!
 Fox boosted down and flew parallel to the highway. Let them follow, as long as they couldn’t fire, Fox only had to hold out until the ravine.
 “This is One, he’s leaving the main city. Preparing to engage.”
 Fox cursed under his breath, but stayed on course, the trees and rock walls a blur outside his canopy. Finally, off his right, he saw the waterfall. He boosted past it and pulled up in a sharp U-turn.
 “Damn, he’s heading back into the city! All fighters intercept at the ravine!”
 Just as the two fighters pulled into their U-turns, Fox banked hard left and flew into the waterfall, praying the tunnel hadn’t collapsed since the war. Luck was with him, and he breathed a sigh of relief as the water splashed over his canopy to reveal an open tunnel. He quickly landed on the rock and cut the engine.
 “What the… this is Two, he’s gone, the ravine is clear. Anyone have a visual?”
 “Negative, Two. He’s gone from radar also. What the hell?”
 “Keep searching!”

    * *  *

Great Fox, hangar
1226 hours

 The second Fox’s feet hit the metal floor of the Great Fox’s hangar, Bill’s hands were gripping his shoulders, a horrified look on his face.
 “Is the ship alright?! Is it?!”
 “Yes, yes, it’s fine. Bill, it’s alright, calm down.”
 His friend’s expression melted to relief and he hugged Fox hard. “God, thank you, man. I was scared as hell.”
 Fox saw what had happened and hugged him back. “That was your Emma, wasn’t it? The pilot?”
 “Yeah,” Bill replied, releasing Fox and stepping back. “As soon as I heard, I was gonna get down there and help, but the military had already blockaded the city. You think IceStorm knew?”
 Fox shrugged. “They probably knew you were helping me from those two guys on Katina. I know how you feel, man. I couldn’t stand it if Vixy was in danger because of this.”
 Bill nodded as the rest of the team entered the hangar, asking about the situation. Fox told them the story from the introduction to Emma to the waterfall. After he was done, he leaned on the wall and shook his head.
 “You alright, Fox?” Slippy asked.
 “No, I’m not. I’m pissed as hell. I go down there and take on two damn Arwings and save a hundred civilians, and the thanks I get is a chase through Corneria City, then sitting in a cave for an hour until they leave. Stefan was right, nothing changed. Not only that, but half our damn evidence blew up and sank to the bottom of the ocean.”
 The hangar was silent as the realization sunk in. They were now further than ever from proving Fox’s innocence, with no clear path to take.
 “Maybe when Emma tells them what happened…” Bill said hopefully.
 Fox shrugged. “Possibly, but---“ He was interrupted as Vixy burst into the hangar, nearly knocking Peppy over.
 “Guys, it’s on the news! Hurry, come here!”
 They all ran to the rec room where the TV on the wall showed the same raccoon who had tagged Fox a traitor not too long ago. It showed her standing in front of the airliner that would be occupying the bottom of the ocean, had it not been for that same traitor.
 “We now come to you live from the Corneria City Spaceport, where it appears that TLA flight 173 from Katina was the subject of another attempted act of terrorism from declared traitor Fox McCloud and his team. According to surveillance and reports from Cornerian Air Force pilots, three Arwings, all fitting the description of StarFox’s custom models, attacked the civilian airliner near Corneria City. Military aircraft arrived to find the airliner badly damaged from a bomb blast and two of the Arwings gone, presumably spooked away by the approaching Cornerian forces. The pilot remaining behind was identified as McCloud himself and was chased through the city in a daring escape. While McCloud did manage to escape, this attack leaves no doubt among the military leaders that StarFox has indeed turned against Corneria. General Pepper was unavailable for questioning, however he---“
 The raccoon was cut off as, with a roar of rage, Fox’s fist slammed into the screen, shattering the glass and spewing a shower of sparks. The team recoiled and stared wide-eyed at this unusual reaction from their leader. Breathing deeply, Fox leaned against the wall, his right hand bleeding, and bowed his head.
 “God DAMMIT!” he shouted and punched the wall. Vixy quietly walked over and gently placed a hand on his shoulder. “Fox…”
 Fox roughly shrugged her hand off and turned away, covering his face with his hands. He suddenly regretted doing that, but he was too angry to even think about apologizing. “Not now…I…just…not now.”
 They all watched as Fox stormed off, blood dripping from his hand. Vixy turned away and bowed her head, eyes clenched shut and a single tear rolling down her muzzle. “I hate seeing him like this, having to put up with this. After all he’s done for this galaxy, and they’re all blinded so easily.” She shook her head and followed after Fox to her room.
 Bill walked over and crouched by the smashed TV as the team started talking about what they should do. “Damn,” he muttered, studying the damage. “Does he always do stuff like this when he’s pissed?”
 “Only on days he’s wanted for terrorism,” Falco replied from the table.
 Bill shook his head and stood up. “The girl’s right. This is bullshit.”
 “Well, we’ve established that already,” Peppy said in an irritated tone. “The thing we have to figure out is where to go from here. Fox was right, we needed those Arwings as evidence. We can’t use that decoded message, they’d say we just wrote it.”
 “We’re out of options,” Falco said. “I say we just go attack IceStorm head on, I’m tired of those assholes screwing with us.”
 “Well,” Peppy said sarcastically. “That sounds like a very well thought out tactic, Falco, but even if we did feel like taking on a hundred ships, we don’t know where the base or mothership are. For now, I say we just wait for Fox to recover, then think things through.”

Necessary Risk
Later that night
Great Fox, Vixy’s room
2243 hours

 Vixy was sitting on the side of her bed kicking off her shoes when there was a gentle knock on her door. She knew who it was before the door opened and looked up.
 “Vixy?” Fox said in a near whisper, leaning halfway into the room. “Can I come in?”
 “Sure,” Vixy said in an equally low tone, patting the bed beside her. Fox slowly walked in, closing the door behind him, and taking the offered seat next to Vixy. The vixen took the hand of the man she loves and noticed the bandage around it.
 “Is the cut deep?”
 “Huh? Oh, that. No, it’s alright, doesn’t need stitches or anything.” He cleared his throat and looked down. “Listen, I’m sorry for shrugging you off before. I know you were trying to help. It’s just, well…”
 “Oh, Fox,” Vixy put her head on his shoulder. “Don’t worry about it. I know how hard this must be on you. I also see how you could lose hope now that it seems, well, impossible to prove anything. But I know you, I know you don’t give up and I know you have courage. Right now, you may not feel it, but courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is that little voice you hear at the end of a rough day that says, ‘I’ll try again tomorrow’.”
 Fox noticed she was looking at a picture of her father on her bedside table. She continued in a lower voice. “I kept that in mind after my father’s death. I never knew my mother, and my father never told me what happened to her. We both have that one thing in common, Fox. Our fathers were both killed by Venom.” She straightened herself and looked at Fox through watery eyes. “But I didn’t have to grow up fast and take his place in a war, as you had to. You’ve done extraordinary things, Fox, and I know you’ll see this through to the end, and succeed. I love you, and no matter what, you won’t go through this alone.”
 They embraced, and Fox held her tight, not wanting to let go ever. “I love you so much, Vixy. Thank you. Thank you for everything. I swear, I’ll never let anything bring us apart.”
 Vixy smiled and Fox felt the magic of her presence again. He felt all his worries evaporate and all he cared about was living in that moment with her. Finally, she wiped her eyes and stood up. “Now go get some sleep. And here…” she turned to a pad on her bedside table and wrote something. She then ripped off the paper, folded it and stuck it in Fox’s jumpsuit breast pocket. “Read that and keep it close whenever you feel down.”
 He gave her a kiss and walked out t he door.
 Back in his room, Fox closed the door and took out the note, reading Vixy’s curved script in the dim light.


   Something my father told me after the first battle on Emayn. It stuck with me and I always remember it.

   “People are like stained glass windows. Sure, they sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in, their true beauty is revealed only if there is a light from within.”

  I know you’ll succeed, Fox.

      Forever your love,

    * * *

The next morning
Great Fox, recreation room
0934 hours

 The team wasn’t sure how their leader’s mood would be the next morning and was relieved when he came into the rec room and said, “Hey, I was thinking a lot late last night and I might have an idea.” He sat with his team and Bill at the table and Vixy brought him over a cup of coffee with a kiss and joined them.
 “Oh, yeah?” Bill said, leaning back. “What’s that?”
 Falco and Slippy stopped fighting over the napkin that each claimed was theirs and turned to Fox while Peppy rolled his eyes. Fox took a sip of the coffee and began.
 “Alright, not only do we not have any hard evidence, but there’s no hard evidence to get. The Arwings are totaled and Corneria already has the gun. So, the only way to set things right is to get a confession from Stefan himself. To make him spill the beans.”
 Falco snorted. “Brilliant, Fox, but how exactly do you want to do that? Just call him and say, ‘excuse me, can you just say that you framed me? I swear I’m not recording this’.”
 “The only way to do it is if we get him in person.” Fox continued, ignoring Falco’s sarcasm. “I think it’s time we stopped running and brought the fight to them. Otherwise we just wait for them to frame us again, and if they don’t kill us first, the Cornerian Army is bound to find us eventually. We have to end this.”
 There were hesitant nods around the table. They knew it too, but sure as hell weren’t looking for a fight with a group the size of IceStorm. Fox saw this and continued.
 “I’m not talking about a head-on fight. We can think about how to attack later. For now, we have to find out where their base is. Can you do it Slippy?”
 Slippy shook his head. “No, I can only intercept radio signals, I can’t pinpoint where they come from. And they’re smart, they never mention the location of the base in all the messages I’ve intercepted.”
 “Wait a minute,” Peppy said, leaning forward. “We worked with them once, right? And Corneria hired them. That means all their information, including size and base of operations, is in the Army’s database. Can you hack into it?”
 Slippy shook his head again. “Nope. The database is closed area. It can only be accessed from terminals in the base belonging to high-ranking personnel. Generals, namely.”
 Everyone’s heart sunk at that, and they all leaned back again. Except for Fox.
  “Well, I guess that’s our next destination then.”
 He received confused looks from around the table and Bill laughed. “What are you talking about, man? You wanna walk into the Cornerian Army base and just ask to use a General’s computer?”
 “Something like that.”
 Slippy looked wide-eyed at Fox. “Fox, I’ve seen the blueprints of that building. You know that place like the back of your hand probably. Security is insane, there’re armed guards patrolling the corridors, cameras, infrared lasers in the vents, card-access doors, and the entire army down on your back at the slightest alarm. And that’s all assuming you somehow get INTO the base. You have the most infamous face in the galaxy right now.”
 Fox nodded. “We do have one advantage, though. It’s the last place they’d look for me.”
 Falco laughed and shook his head. “You’re crazy. There’s no way this is gonna work. Infiltrate the Cornerian Army base, it’s insane. Too insane even for me.”
 Fox stood up and leaned on the table. “Well, it’s our only option. So we should stop talking about how impossible it is and start planning it. It’s a big risk, but a necessary one. Slippy, call up the blueprint on the armory viewscreen. Let’s go, we’ll talk there.”

     * * *

Hours later
Great Fox, armory
1326 hours

 Fox rubbed his strained eyes and turned back to the viewscreen where the blueprints of the Cornerian Army base in Corneria City glowed. His team, Vixy, and Bill were leaning on whatever furniture they could find, looking equally as exhausted.
 “Alright,” Fox said. “Let’s go over the plan one more time and try to find a weakness in it. This has to be perfect or we’re screwed.”
 “We know that a civilian supply truck arrives every day at nine AM and unloads at the docking bay here.” He pointed to a section on the first floor and continued. “Peppy and I will intercept that truck before it reaches the base, and he’ll change into the driver’s clothes while I hop in back. When we get to the loading bay, Peppy will distract the guards and I should be able to get through the door and into the base, here. After that, I need to avoid the guards and cameras. Doesn’t look too bad according to this. I can use that card-hacker I used in Overlord; it should work on these readers also. I know the way to Pepper’s office by heart, so that’s the terminal I’m going to access.”
 “During all this, Slippy and Falco are in the dropship awaiting my signal that I’m done. When you hear that, Slippy pilots the dropship over the roof while Falco, assuming his aim is good…”
 Falco snorted and rolled his eyes.
 “…will snipe the roof guards around the door. Once I get the signal that all guards are down, I haul ass to the roof where you two pick me up and we’re off, picking up Peppy at the rendezvous location outside the city. During this, Bill will escort the unarmed dropship and distract any fighters that decide to give us a chase. That’s it, then we get back here and pop champagne at a job well done. And remember, we’ll all be using tranquilizer guns. The dosage in the darts will put a guard out for hours. There will be NO KILLING under any circumstances.”
 Peppy stood up and paced in front of the blueprint. “I don’t know, Fox. We’re counting on a lot of luck here. One false move will bring the whole thing down.”
 “I know, but it’s all we have. This can work if we do it right.”
 “Hang on a sec,” Bill said, squinting at the blueprint. “Pepper’s office is in the middle of that corridor. Every general has two bodyguards that stand outside the door and escort him at all times. Dude, no matter how good your aim is, you won’t get off two darts before one of them notices something’s up and makes some noise. If Pepper hears noise, he’ll probably call for help.”
 Fox nodded. “Not to mention we’d like to get this done without anyone knowing it was us. Hmmm. We need another man. We need someone to either get Pepper out of his office or distract the guards.”
 “What if you got to an intercom system and made an announcement for Pepper?” Slippy offered.
 Fox shook his head. “No good, all announcements are made from a female controller in the security room, which also has two guards at the door.”
 The room was silent as the weary team tried to think of a solution. They were so close to a good plan, all they needed was to get Pepper out of his office. What would seem like a simple task made so hard.
 “What about me?” Vixy said after a few minutes.
 “No way,” Fox said, shaking his head. “I’m sorry, but you don’t have the training to do this, and we need someone to stay with the ship. Not to mention I’d be a wreck the whole mission worrying about you.”
 Vixy reluctantly accepted this and leaned back against the wall. After a few more minutes, Fox sighed and said, “It won’t work then, we have to start from scratch. If we---“
 “Wait,” Falco cut in, standing up. “I may have an idea.”

     * * *

The next day
Great Fox, hangar
1402 hours

 Falco had been more irritable than normal the whole day, and Fox could tell he was nervous about seeing Katt Monroe again. While he had never told anyone the whole story about their relationship, the team could guess what happened from their radio chatter on Zoness during the war. All Falco had told them was that the two of them had a ‘little thing’ once, but then they separated. Fox smiled whenever he thought about Falco in a serious relationship, it just didn’t seem his style. This meeting would be funny to watch.
 The whole group went to the hangar after they received the alert that a single ship identifying itself as the Cat’s Paw is approaching the ship. They hung around the door, Falco towards the back of the group, and waited until a bright pink diamond-shaped fighter roared into the hangar and landed next to Bill’s ship. Fox smiled at the gaudiness of the ship as the pilot, a pink cat in a black tank-top and jeans, hopped out and walked over to them.
 Fox held out his hand and said, “Katt Monroe, nice to see you again. Thanks for coming on such short notice.”
 Katt ignored his hand and gave him a kiss on the side of his muzzle. “Well, look at you, tiger. You’re even cuter in person.” Fox blushed slightly and stepped aside as she walked past him to the group. He gave a quick shrug at Vixy, who was giving him an annoyed look.
 “Katt, this is Vixy Hohleran, a recent addition to out little family up here. You know everyone else.”
 Katt shook hands with Vixy, who was smiling contemptuously. “I’m with Fox.”
 “Don’t worry, honey, I’m not trying to steal him. There’s someone else here I’d like to say hello to, though.” She turned and looked to the group. Falco reluctantly stepped forward with an embarrassed look that the hotshot avian was seldom seen with.
 “Hi, Katt,” He said quietly. “It’s been a while.”
 “Hi, Falco.”
 There was an awkward silence, which Fox finally broke by saying, “Meet us in the rec room when you’re ready.” He then gave a suggestive nod towards the door to the others and they left, leaving Falco and Katt looking at each other in the bright light of the hanger.
 The feline finally broke the silence. “I’m sorry I left so quickly after Zoness and Sector Z. I really would’ve liked to talk to you again. It was awkward though, and you know I hate awkward situations. Like this, kinda.”
 “Why’d you ever have to leave at all?” Falco asked, still avoiding her eyes. “I thought we had something serious going at the Academy. Then you just left.”
 “I left probably because it was getting serious, and I wasn’t ready for it. Falco, I like you, but I wasn’t ready for a commitment. And I don’t think you are either.”
 Falco sighed and glanced towards the door. “Yeah, I know, but I see Fox and Vixy in there and I wonder if it could’ve worked out the same way with us.”
 Katt gently gripped Falco’s beak and gave him a kiss. “I don’t think it would’ve. I’ll always be your friend, though, and I think it’s best we leave it at that. I’ll be there to get your back when you need it.”
 Falco rolled his eyes and grumbled, “I don’t need anyone to get my back.”
 Katt rolled her eyes right back and headed for the door. “Yep, same old Falco. Come on, let’s go see what your boss needs me for.”

    * * *

Great Fox, recreation room
1418 hours

 Katt walked slowly into the rec room, looking around and admiring the furnishings, with Falco trailing behind. Fox and the others stood up from the seats they were in while they waited and walked over.
 “Well, I guess you’re wondering why I asked you to come here,” Fox started. “Well, we have---“
 “Hang on a sec,” Katt cut in, raising her hands. “Before we get started on that, what’s the story? I’ve been tracking your little terror spree on the news, pretty surprising. What’s going on?”
 “I was framed, by a mercenary team called IceStorm. Their leader has a little grudge against me since Overlord.”
 “Oh, yeah,” Katt nodded. “I saw the whole story about Overlord, congrats on the medal. Not that it matters now.”
 Fox shrugged. “Well, in any case, we’re trying to clear my name, but I don’t know the location of their base. So we’re breaking into… somewhere to get it, and we need another man. Er, woman.”
 “Breaking into where,” Katt asked suspiciously, slitting her eyes.
 “Well, uh… why don’t I just show you the plan?”
 “Fair enough. Lead on.”

 Fifteen minutes later, Katt sat back in one of the armory’s chairs and grinned. “You guys are crazy, you know that?”
 Fox’s heart sank. The whole plan was based on getting Pepper out of his office, and Katt was their only chance. If she didn’t accept, the plan was off.
 “It’ll work if we all do our parts smoothly. All you have to do is come in the back of the truck and sneak in with me. The security control room is only a few halls away, and you can handle a few guards. We need you for this, Katt.”
 “Listen, hon, you’re talking about breaking into a general’s office in a high-security base. This isn’t like stealing a candy bar from the corner store.”
 “It looks a lot harder than I think it actually is. Alright, listen, it’s your decision. Just know that with or without you, I’m going in there. I have no other choice. Your help would be greatly appreciated.”
 There were a few moments of silence, then Falco said from the back of the room, “I’m going with him also, no matter what.”
 “Same here,” said Peppy.
 “Me too!” from Slippy.
 “Damn straight,” from Bill.
 Vixy gave him a kiss on his cheek and said, “I would too, if he’d let me.”
 Fox smiled and kissed her back. He felt the camaraderie from his team, and it made him feel that he wasn’t alone on this whole ordeal. It strengthened his resolve to end it.
 Katt sighed and shook her head. “Well, I can’t let y’all go and get slaughtered by yourselves now, can I? Besides, someone has to watch after Falco.” This received a scoff from the back of the room. “When do we leave?”
 Fox smiled and internally cheered. He saw the team breathe a collective sigh of relief. Bill clapped Slippy on the back, which sent the frog stumbling forward.
 “Tomorrow,” Fox said, turning back to the blueprints, the blue glow highlighting his face. “We do it tomorrow.”

The next morning
Outskirts of Corneria City
0853 hours

 The heavy rain pounded the metal roof of the truck, drowning out Fox’s thoughts as he sat in the back amidst miscellaneous supplies, Katt opposite him. The truck shook and vibrated as it crawled through the streets of Corneria City towards their objective. Fox ran over the plan in his head again and took a few deep breaths to calm himself.
 “How much longer, Peppy?” he called up to the driver’s seat, taking out his tranquilizer pistol to check the darts.
 “Few minutes, I’d say. Get ready, and don’t forget to wait until I have the guard out of sight.”
 Fox replaced the tranquilizer gun in his thigh holster and took out his standard blaster, which was secured in a shoulder holster under his jacket. Bill suggested he take a real heater in case anything funny with IceStorm happened. Fox grinned as he remembered Bill’s exact words. ‘If I were you, I wouldn’t even go to take a piss without taking a gun. You never know.’
 Fox flipped the safety off and replaced it as Katt finished checking her dart gun and said, “You know, hon, you look cuter in a truck driver’s uniform. Maybe you should’ve done that for a living.”
 Fox chuckled as Peppy grumbled, “Believe me, when we go on little jaunts like this, I wish I did.”
 Fox leaned against a box of dried fruit and listened to the rain pelting the roof like machine gun fire. After a minute, he nudged Katt’s foot to get her attention and said, “Don’t forget the change, you’re not coming to the roof with me. The control room is closer to the loading bay, so make your way back to the truck after you make the announcement and drive off with Peppy.”
 Katt rolled her eyes. “I know, you don’t have to tell me things a million times.”
 Fox could definitely see why she and Falco had something going. He shrugged and said, “I just don’t want any mess-ups. Better to be sure.”
 “Well, don’t worry about me. You have the hardest part, so take care of your own hide.” She then shook her head and added, “Can’t believe we’re doing this.”
 Fox couldn’t believe it either, but for a different reason. His whole life, he had just walked through the front doors, receiving a nod of greeting from the guard. He had been welcome there, they were his allies and friends in there. Now, he was returning to that same place, and the only way in was to sneak like a thief. The same people who would greet him in the corridors would now shoot at him.
 That train of thought was abruptly derailed as Peppy called back from the cab, “Alright, it’s in sight, another minute. Good luck you two.”
 Katt scoffed and stood up. “Save the luck for the people who need it, sweetie.”
 Fox rolled his eyes and stood up also. The truck began to slow down and it made a right turn, creeping the rest of the way to the loading bay. Peppy backed the truck up to the concrete platform, cut the ignition, and got out.
 Fox and Katt hid behind some crates as the hare opened the back doors, trying to look busy as he waited for the guard to say something. Finally, the canine guard walked up behind him, peering into the truck.
 “Hey, who’re you? Where’s the regular driver?”
 “Oh, he called in sick today, I’m the replacement.”
 The guard eyed him suspiciously and peered around the back of the truck again. Fox started to get a little worried. Maybe it wasn’t such a great plan after all. He had counted on the guards buying their stories.
 “Where are your work orders?” the guard finally said.
 Peppy patted down his pockets and replied, “Oh, they must be in the cab. I’ll be right back with them.”
 “No, I think I’ll come with you.” The guard said, following Peppy out to the front of the truck. Fox breathed a sigh of relief; this was their chance. He made eye contact with Katt and pointed out the back. She nodded back. Slowly and carefully, Fox moved to the back of the truck, searching the ground before each step for anything that could make noise. He could faintly hear Peppy making small talk about the weather, keeping the guard distracted.
 As the two stepped out onto the concrete, Fox was suddenly thankful for the rain; it helped to cover up any sounds they made. The concrete was dusty, and it crunched slightly with every step, but that sound couldn’t compare with the pounding of the rain on the pavement and the truck. As the duo neared the door, they could see Peppy leaning in the passenger’s side door, presumably checking the glove box. The guard was facing him, back to them. If he so much as glanced over his shoulder…
 Fox silently pulled out his tranquilizer pistol and aimed it at the guard as he sidestepped to the door. He glanced over and saw that Katt had done the same. Seeing her be somewhat cautious made him feel a little better.
 They finally reached the metal door, and Katt crouched with her gun still aimed at the guard while Fox slowly pulled down on the handle. It creaked and clicked, making Fox’s heart skip a beat, but the guard hadn’t noticed. He pulled it down the rest of the way and pushed the door open.
 They slipped in and Fox silently clicked the door shut, breathing a sigh of relief. They were inside the base’s storage room and were surrounded by crates of various supplies much like the ones back in the truck. The room was empty of guards for the moment, but that could change.
 Fox turned to Katt and said, “Alright, you know where to go from here. From my time being here, you could go for over a minute without seeing anyone else in a corridor. The first floor around the security room usually isn’t too busy anyway, you just really have to worry about the guards outside it. I’ll be waiting for that announcement.”
 Katt nodded and headed for the door inside. “Take care of yourself, tiger. I won’t be there to bail you out if things get rough.”
 Fox scoffed and followed her to the door. He put his ear to the door and listened for any movement out in the corridor. After a few seconds of silence, he gently pulled the door open and peeked out. No one. He gave a nod and they both moved out in separate directions.

    * * *

 ‘This is crazy,’ Katt thought as she slowly walked down the brightly lit metallic corridor. ‘Piece of cake for me, but that fox is gonna get himself killed.’
 As she reached the corner going into a right turn, she flattened herself against the wall and peeked around it. The security room was just down the hall, two bored-looking feline guards flanking the door. It was too far away for Katt to get two good shots in, and she couldn’t sneak up the bare hallway before she’d be noticed.
 She got back behind the wall and leaned against it, thinking of the best way to get the guards down. ‘Feline guards…’
 Katt grinned and stuck the tranquilizer pistol in her pants behind her. “Time for nature to work its magic,” she whispered to herself as she straightened out her hair. She made sure the pistol was easily reachable. If they didn’t fall for this, she’d need it in a hurry.
 She took a deep breath and stepped around the corner, walking down the hall with her hands on her hips. The guards glanced in her direction then snapped their heads back and stared at her. “Hey, boys,” she said in a soothing, sexy voice. “I heard you were lonely up here. Thought I’d keep you company.”
 ‘Just a little closer. Come on, guys, keep thinking with that area two feet under your muzzles.
 “I, uh…” the left guard stammered. “You’re, uh… not really supposed to be over here.”
 “Awwwww, you’re no fun.” Katt replied, still walking forward. “You don’t tell, I don’t tell.”
 ‘Little closer…'
 “Ma’am, could we see your clearance?” the right guard said, who seemed more in control of his hormones.
 “Of course, sugar.” Katt walked slightly past the left guard, reaching into her pocket. With swift precision, she swung her right fist around and knocked the left guard to the ground before he knew what hit him. She then spun around and kicked the surprised right guard in the face, knocking him against the wall and to the ground.
 “Hey, what was that?” came a female voice from inside the security room. “Is everything alright?”
 Katt yanked the security card off the unconscious right guard and slid it through the reader, opening the door. Inside the small room was a female wolf with sergeant’s stripes on her shoulder boards. She jumped up from her chair with shock and reached for a pistol under the desk. Katt fired a dart into her back and she crumpled onto the floor without a sound.
 She put a dart into the two guards just to be sure and dragged them into the security room. The numerous consoles and monitors filled the dim room with flickering light. Katt sat in the operator’s chair and looked around for the intercom system. She found a button marked “Main Comm” and figured it was the best choice.
 ‘Here we go, Foxy. Hope you’re ready.’
 Katt cleared her throat and tried to imitate the voice of the operator as best she could.
 “General Pepper, please report to secure conference room D. General Pepper to secure conference room D. Thank you.”
 Katt stood up and peeked out into the hallway. No one suspected anything so far. ‘Alright, your show now, Fox.’ She held the pistol ready and made her way back down the hall towards the loading bay.

     * * *

 The only sounds Fox could hear in the second floor corridor were the overhead lights softly buzzing and the pounding of his own heart in his ears. He slowly walked towards the secure sector, hugging the wall, gun pointed straight ahead. At a left turn corner, he peeked around the side to see a guard walking away from him down the hall. Easy shot.
 Fox lined up the shot and was about to fire when he heard someone shout, “Hey, you!” back from where he came. He snapped his head around and saw a guard staring wide-eyed at him. Before he could raise his rifle, Fox hopped back behind the corner and shot him in the chest, the dart taking immediate effect. He crumpled to the ground without a sound.
 The little scuffle got the attention of Fox’s first target and he heard footsteps running in his direction. Fox flattened against the wall and brought the pistol to his right shoulder, listening carefully. When the footsteps sounded right next to him, he whipped the pistol out, the butt slamming against the forehead of the guard. The victim landed on hard on his back, almost flipping over, and lay still.
 Fox shot the one he hit just to be sure and dragged them both into a nearby storage closet. He jogged the rest of the way down the hall with no encounter and stopped at the door to a staircase leading to the third floor, the one with Pepper’s office. It has a card reader next to it, which was no problem. Fox took the small decoder out of his pocket, stuck it on the reader, and started the scan.
 ‘The last time I used this was to get into the bowels of Overlord. Now I’m using it to get into Pepper’s office.
 Fox chuckled nervously and shook his head. No time to be thinking of anything but the mission. He stared down the hall, ready to fire at anyone coming around the corner, while he listened to the soft beeps and clicks of the decoder. After a few minutes, it gave a high beep signaling success and the reader’s light sent from red to green. Fox slipped the decoder back into his pocket and entered the stairwell.
 He softly mounted the two flights to the door leading to the third floor corridor. Pepper’s office was only one turn and no more than twenty feet from there. Fox listened at the door and could faintly hear two guards having a conversation.
 “So she told me not to call again. I don’t get it, I thought we had something going.”
 The other guard sighed. “Women. Sometimes they just drop you just like that. Hell, happened to me twice before I met Nevine.”
 “Yeah, how’s that going?”
 “Great, man. I think I’m gonna ask the big question soon. Got a ring picked out and everything. Believe me, that wasn’t easy on my paycheck. I have weekend leave on Friday, gonna pick it up then.”
 Fox heard a very faint mechanical voice, then the first guard said, “Yes, sir.”
 “Shit man, I have to go, front door guard needs a relief. I’ll catch ya later.”
 “Ok, and don’t worry bout getting dumped. You’ll find the right one soon.”
 “Hey,” the first guard replied, his footsteps retreating down the hall. “It’s me man, how could they resist.”
 Fox rolled his eyes and backed away from the door. He decided to wait for the announcement, give Pepper a chance to get off the floor, then move in. He knew Pepper used the stairs instead of the elevator, because it was closer, so he would get behind the door and hope they didn’t swing it open all the way.
 Fox assumed his position behind the door and kept the gun aimed down the stairs as he waited for the announcement. After a few minutes, he began to get worried. It shouldn’t be taking her this long.
 Fox was contemplating whether or not to go check on her when the intercom beeped and the announcement was made.
 “General Pepper, please report to secure conference room D. General Pepper to secure conference room D. Thank you.”
 Fox grinned. It wasn’t a bad imitation, just sounded like the controller had a cold. No one seemed to notice, and Fox flattened himself against the wall as best he could.
 After a few seconds, he could hear the three sets of footsteps that would be Pepper and his two guards. Fox jumped slightly as the door swung open, nearly slamming him in the muzzle. He turned his head sideways, and held his breath. Pepper and his guards walked down the stairs, the general mumbling about all these damn meetings he’s had lately. Fox silently slipped around and through the door before it clicked shut.
 He turned and was about to let his breath out when he stopped dead in his tracks. He was inches away from a guard, presumably the one that had been comforting his sexually frustrated friend. His back was to the door as he stared at a painting on the opposite wall. Fox slowly backed up and aimed his gun at the soldier’s back. A shot couldn’t get much easier then this.
 But no dart came out. Fox pulled the trigger again, but nothing happened. He checked the barrel and saw it was jammed. If he tried to un-jam it, it would make too much noise.
 ‘Can’t anything ever just go my way?!
 Fox cursed silently and thought about what to do. The guard could turn around any minute, and Fox wasn’t going to use the blaster unless he really had to. Instead, he retreated down the hall, slowly, taking each step carefully, and finally let his breath out when he rounded the corner.
 After he caught his breath, Fox cleared the jammed dart and walked the twenty feet to Pepper’s door, now unguarded. He thought he’d have to use the decoder again, but the door was surprisingly unlocked. The ornate door opened without a creak, and Fox slipped in.
 It felt odd to be in Pepper’s office like this, but odd had been Fox’s main feeling that day. He looked at the chairs in front of the desk, the right one being Fox’s choice whenever he met with the general. Pepper’s desk cluttered as usual, with two pictures, one of his daughter, whom Fox had met briefly once, and one of his wife. His ribbons and medals were in a large display case mounted on the wall behind his large leather chair.
 Fox holstered the gun and sat in Pepper’s chair, turning the console’s monitor on. The screen flashed on and Fox tried to remember the detailed instructions Slippy had given him on where to find the files. After a few minutes of typing and clicking, Fox slipped a disk from his pocket into the computer’s drive and copied the “Non-military Associates Locations” file to it. When the status bar reached full, Fox pocketed the disk and closed the files he had opened.
 He stood up and was about to leave when he noticed another picture frame, to the right of the monitor. Fox never knew it was there, hidden by the monitor. It lay face down on the desk, which piqued Fox’s curiosity. He reached out and lifted the ornate frame. The glass was cracked, as if Pepper had slammed it down hard.
 It was a picture of Pepper, James, and Fox. Fox was in his Academy uniform, standing between the two adults. He recognized the picture, because he too had a copy of it. It was opening day his final year at the Academy, the year his father died. Pepper had it on his desk this whole time…
 Fox stood the picture upright and leaned on the desk. He didn’t know what to think about Pepper. He considered him a good friend, and was shocked when he didn’t believe him about Monagi’s assassination. The shock turned quickly to anger. But was it really his fault? There was a lot of direct evidence.
 Fox shook his head again and cleared his thoughts. He had to stop these side-thoughts and concentrate on getting out of here. Pepper would catch on that something was wrong when he saw that the conference room was empty. With his work done, Fox walked quickly over to the door, reaching once again for his tranquilizer pistol.
 He swung the door open and his heart skipped a beat as he came muzzle to muzzle with a gray canine guard, the same one who was looking at the painting earlier. He had his fist up as if he was about to knock on the door and an equally as shocked expression on his face. If this was part of some movie Fox was watching, he’d probably laugh at how they both looked standing there. ‘I’m sorry, the general’s not in right now, may I take a message?
 But this was very real, and the guard was quicker than Fox. Before he could react, he was kicked back into the room and the guard sprinted down the hall. “Shit!” Fox cursed, regaining his footing and sprinting after the guard. If he got to an alarm…
 The guard hit a button on the wall and turned back just as Fox slammed his fist into his face. The alarm sounded and an automatic voice said over the intercom, “Attention all military personnel, alarm activated on third floor, east wing. All able guards respond.”
 “DAMMIT!” Fox cursed and pounded the wall. He was about to put a dart in the guard when he heard voices and running coming from the stairwell. His escape route was cut off. Instead, he grabbed the shaken guard in a tight chokehold with his left arm and traded the tranquilizer gun for his blaster. As a squad of guards rounded the corner, Fox shoved the blaster against his shield’s head and yelled, “Stop! One more step and you scrape your comrade’s brains from the wall. The guards stopped, aiming their rifles at the duo.
 Fox’s hostage started breathing faster and he squirmed in the firm chokehold. Fox pulled it tighter and the squirming subsided. He wasn’t sure what to do now, except maybe try to talk his way out of it. Before he could say anything, the ranking guard said, “Let him go, McCloud. There’s no way out, just surrender so we can all walk out of here instead of get carried out.”
 “You mean so YOU can walk out of here,” Fox replied, trying to stall so he could think. “How far will I get? To a cell and eventually the death sentence. Might as well end it here.”
 The guard obviously opted out of any hostage negotiation lessons in his training. He didn’t seem to have anything to say to that. Instead, he spoke in a low voice into his headset, which Fox couldn’t hear clearly. The four other guards with him kept their rifles trained on Fox, looking nervous. Every soldier hated guard duty because of the boredom, but today was turning out not to be just another day at the office.
 Fox was about to try moving back some more when he heard voices from around the corner where the guards were.
 “Sir, I wouldn’t advise going out there, you’d be too exposed,” said an unfamiliar voice, probably a guard.
 “Thank you, sergeant, but I think I can handle this. Stand down.” Fox recognized that as the voice of his longtime friend.
 General Pepper walked around the corner, attired in his usual red uniform, and stood in front of the guards as if there was no danger whatsoever. He looked at Fox with an unreadable expression, and Fox stared right back. It was an awkward moment for all present. No one thought this situation would happen between them and McCloud.
 “What are you doing here, Fox? Usually, you try to stay away from those trying to find you.”
 “I was in the neighborhood, thought I’d swing by and say hello to everyone,” Fox replied, trying to keep his voice even. He was starting to panic.
 “Fox, please. I don’t want to see any unnecessary death here. Just let him go, drop the gun, and we can end this peacefully.”
 “Pepper, just listen to me. I didn’t do this, I didn’t do anything the news has said. IceStorm framed me, it was all planned out to turn you against me. And that incident with the airliner, I was there to defend it from them. None of this---“
 “Fox, there’s no use telling me this. I can’t just release you on what you say.”
 “Just give me forty-eight hours, I can get evidence,” Fox said, almost pleading. The gun was starting to shake in his hand from tenseness. Pepper shook his head, almost sadly.
 “Fox, I can’t grant that kind of request.” He took a stop forward. “Please, just let him go and come with me.”
 “Stay back, dammit!” Fox said, taking a step backwards with the hostage. A look of dejection came over Pepper’s old face.
 “Look at this, Fox. Can you believe it’s come to this? Your father and I were friends years before you were even a thought. I held you as a baby, for God’s sake. We were all so proud of you at the Academy. I felt it my responsibility to take care of you after your father’s death, and I tried to---“
 “Take care of me?!” Fox yelled, startling everyone. His rage at Pepper and all those who didn’t believe him flowed out at once. “You don’t give a shit about me! You send me to do the army’s dirty work no matter what the danger! You cared about me SO MUCH that you did everything in your power to help me when I was captured at Overlord, right? I endured a living HELL for two and a half weeks, and finally had to get MYSELF out of there!”
 “I thought you were the one person I could turn to for help through this. After all I’ve done for you, and all I’ve done for this whole Goddamn galaxy, it all turns against me just like that! Well, fuck you, with or without your help, I’m going to clear my name! I want my life back!”
 Fox was out of breath from his outburst and breathed deeply, his eyes still full of rage. The hostage was clearly more nervous than ever and started shaking in Fox’s grip. Pepper looked dumbfounded, and just stared at Fox. Finally, he gathered his wits and managed to say, “I…Fox…it doesn’t even matter what I believe. I’m not in charge of this. It’s the will of the police and the army that you be brought in, and I have to do my job.”
 “Well, I’m not coming in until I can prove I’m innocent,” Fox replied, calming himself down. He glanced over his shoulder to see if anyone had somehow gotten behind him and noticed the large window at the end of the hall. It was the only exit he could get to. An idea started forming in his head, and he jerked his head down to his shoulder, hitting the button on his headset.
 “Slippy, it’s me,” he said in a low voice, hoping Pepper and the guards couldn’t hear.
 “Fox! What’s going on, we heard the alarm sound, we’re worried as hell out here.”
 “Listen, things have gotten a little rough. Forget meeting on the roof, I need you to meet me by a window on the third floor.”
 “Um, ok, sure. How will I find it?”
 Fox quickly aimed the gun behind him and fired four shots down the hall, the lasers shattering the window. “The window’s shattered. Just circle until you find it. Be ready to leave in a hurry.”
 “Gotcha, Fox.”
 Fox slowly backed up, pulling the quivering guard with him like a nervous dance partner. Pepper and his guards followed, obviously not sure what he was planning.
 “Fox,” Pepper said, looking confused. “You know we’re on the third floor, right?”
 Fox nodded, feeling relieved, sure he was going to make it. “I’m not jumping. Been great talking with you guys, but I gotta jet. I’ll be back when I have the evidence. And give this guy some extra hazard pay,” he added tapping the gun against the guard’s head lightly.
 Before anyone could reply, Fox heard the loud humming of the dropship’s engine and rain started blowing into the hallway through the shattered window. The metal hull appeared, and the side door slid open to reveal Falco, staring wide-eyed at the scene in the hallway. “Very subtle, Fox, good job!” he yelled, barely audible over the rain and engine.
 Fox whispered to the guard, “Good luck with the proposal, make sure your not watching the news while you do it.” He then pushed the guard hard into the group and jumped out the window.
 His depth perception was slightly off, and he was just able to grab the inside of the door before slipping out, seeing the street of Corneria City three stories down. He looked up, rain blurring his vision, and grabbed Falco’s outstretched hand. His friend hauled him into the ship and slid the door shut just as the guards reached the window. “We got him, go!” Falco yelled.
 Slippy gunned the engine and the ship swooped away from the building. Fox lay on the floor of the dropship, wiping his eyes clear and catching his breath.
 “Damn, man, what happened?” Falco asked, sitting next to his soaked, exhausted friend.
 “I’ll tell you later,” Fox said, sitting up. He pulled the disk out of his pocket to make sure it was still there. “We got what we came for, mission complete, just barely. Let’s get Peppy and Katt and get the hell off this planet.”

Great Fox, hangar
1348 hours

 Fox was dozing off in the back of the dropship as it neared the silver silhouette of the Great Fox. The adrenaline had worn off and left him in an exhausted, shocked state. Every muscle ached, especially his left arm, which had held the guard in a headlock for so long. He had spent most of the trip thinking about what he had done…and what he had said. Most of the horrible things he had accused Pepper of were exaggerated by the tenseness of the moment. Seeing that picture, face down, on Pepper’s desk had shaken him up more than he thought.
 The sudden jerk as the ship landed snapped Fox out of his thoughts. Falco slid the door open, bright light flooding into the dark cavern of the ship, and hopped out followed by Katt and Peppy. Fox sluggishly followed after and fell ungracefully to the deck. He was rubbing his eyes, trying to wake himself up, when he felt a gentle hand on his shoulder. He opened his eyes and all his aches and grievances evaporated as he saw Vixy. She hugged him tight, and he returned the gesture just as passionately. As he had thought before, in her room, she had that special gift. She always made him feel better, no matter what had happened.
 “You just missed yourself on the news,” she said, pulling gently away.
 “Let me guess,” Fox said, grinning. “That bastard terrorist McCloud broke into Cornerian Army headquarters, presumably to steal important documents and sell them to Venom, and escaped.”
 Vixy laughed. “Not too far off. Doesn’t matter though, you got the file, this whole thing will be over soon. Oh, something else the news said…”
She turned to Bill, who was just hopping out of his ship’s cockpit. “They identified your ship, Bill. Your face, name, rank, everything was flashing across every news station.”
 “Aw, shit!” Bill growled, ripping off his helmet. “Guess I’ll be staying on the ship a little longer then.”
 “Makes me wonder why Corneria hasn’t tried attacking us yet,” Fox said. “They could easily find our location.”
 “That was on the news too, actually. The reporter said the army is hesitant to try an open assault because of your ‘skill with an Arwing’.”
 “Fox!” Slippy yelled, climbing down from the dropship’s cockpit. “Do you have the disk?”
 “Yeah, here.” Fox took the disk from his pocket and tossed it to Slippy, who jogged off with it.
 “Alright, hotshot, time for the details. How did you end up with a Cornerian soldier at gunpoint?” Falco said, crossing his arms in front of him. Peppy, Bill, and Katt also looked at him expectantly.
 “Alright, alright. Can we sit down somewhere at least?”
 They all moved to the rec room and slumped wearily in the couches and chairs in the middle. Fox sat in on the soft cushion and enjoyed the relaxation for a moment before beginning. He recounted his entire story from his split with Katt. The only things he omitted from the debrief were the things he said to Pepper and his discovery of the picture.
 “Alright,” Falco said after his friend had finished. “So what the hell took you so long? You shoulda been out of there ten minutes before the encounter with Pepper happened.”
 “I…got distracted,” Fox said carefully.
 “By what?” Peppy asked.
 “Something I saw in Pepper’s office.”
 “What?” Peppy asked again, slitting his eyes.
 “Something,” Fox repeated in a stern voice, staring Peppy straight in the eye. “What does it matter, we accomplished the mission.”
 Peppy shrugged and stood down. He knew Fox wouldn’t talk about something if he didn’t want to. Before anyone could inquire further, Katt stood up and stretched. “Well guys and gals, I think this is where I ride off into the sunset. I think I’m still in the clear, no one at that base would’ve recognized me.”
 “You sure?” Fox asked. “We could still use your help.”
 “I know, tiger, but I didn’t think I’d be out here even this long. I left some unfinished business back home.” She walked over and gave Fox a quick kiss on the side of his muzzle, again with Vixy’s disproving glare on her. “You’ll do fine. After that stunt at the base, I have no doubt you’ll see this through.”
 Lastly, she walked over to Falco and gave him a longer, more passionate kiss on his beak. “Keep in touch, Falco. I missed you.”
 Falco nodded and looked down as Katt left the rec room with a final wave. Moments later, they heard the faint hum of her ship as it bolted out into space.
 Fox stood up and yawned. “Our little trip to town wore me out, so I’m gonna go take a quick nap. If Slippy finds anything, wake me up.”
 “Will do, man,” Bill said, standing up also. “I better call Emma and tell her what’s going on.” They both left the room, leaving Peppy and Falco alone. Peppy leaned back and glanced at the chess board on the table, then at Falco. The avian noticed this and shook his head.
 “No way, don’t even think about it.”

     * * *

At the same time
Blizzard, conference room
1334 hours

 A black fist slammed on the long table in the dimly lit conference room. The fist belonged to Stefan, who didn’t look as if he had called the meeting to praise the officers. He glared at the fidgeting officers around the table with a growl, looking ready to rip apart the first one who even glanced at him wrong.
 “How is it you managed to fuck up EVERY PART of this damn job?!” he shouted down the table. “First, our two men couldn’t even kill him when he was alone and completely unsuspecting on Katina! Then, our two supposed ‘top pilots’, flying Arwings, couldn’t even take down a civilian ship! And what do we have now?!”
 He flicked on the viewscreen at the other end of the room where he had recorded the recent breaking news story on Fox’s break-in on Corneria. The officers became increasingly nervous as they watched what had happened. They knew what Stefan was seeing.
 The angry jaguar turned the screen off after the story was done and continued. “Why would Fox go waltzing into the headquarters of the army hunting him?! You all know damn well why. Fox knew it was us that set him up, and what’s the only way to prove his innocence? He didn’t know where our base was, but he does now thanks to your incompetence!”
 With a final growl, he turned away from the nervous staff and stared into space. It always calmed him down to stare into the black emptiness of space. It helped him think clearer, to have no distractions. All he could think about was that he was out of options. Either he attacked StarFox head on or wait for them to attack him in perhaps a more subtle way.
 “Collins,” he said without turning around. The weasel snapped his head to look at him, his heart skipping a beat. “How many able personnel do we now have in total?”
 “Uh…one-hundred forty-nine, sir.”
 “Before this all happened, you said we should muster our forces and attack them head on. Well, it seems that is our only choice now. We must kill them before they come after us and prove their innocence.” He turned around to face the table again. “Send out the message for every member of Ice Storm to gather at our base on Fortuna. From there we assign squads and attack the Great Fox. Now listen carefully.”
 Stefan leaned back and continued. “We will not be able to hold out long enough to actually destroy the Great Fox, not with them defending it and the sparse number of ships we have. Instead, all fighters will escort troop transports to the ship’s hangar. This will push Fox and his team back into their ship to defend it from our strike teams. They may dominate a fight in Arwings, but they can’t hold out on foot. Not only will this destroy StarFox, but we can sell or use the Great Fox to gain back some lost money. Is this clear?” There were nods from around the table.
 “Good,” Stefan said, leaning forward, slitting his eyes. “Because if this fails, the last thing any of you will see will be the barrel of my gun.”
 Stefan waited a moment, enjoying the looks of terror that crept onto the officers’ faces, then said, “Dismissed.”

     * * *

Two days later
Great Fox, rec room
1402 hours

 The team’s patience was on the edge. No one could seem to do anything but stare at the rec room’s door, waiting for Slippy to bring some shred of hope. If there was nothing in that file, they were out of options. Peppy and Vixy were playing chess, Peppy’s favorite game, after a few failed attempts at getting Falco to play. Fox’s love was proving to be a better match than the hare had anticipated.
 Fox was leaning against the bar, his tail twitching from side to side as if keeping time, waiting for something. Just as he began contemplating a drink, the door slid open and Slippy ran in holding a piece of paper. Everyone jumped up, demanding to know if he found anything.
 “Guys, guys, let me talk. Sheesh. Ok, here it is.” He held up the piece of paper and said, “First of all, it took this long because it had heavier encryption than I thought it would and I had to run each code through the hundreds of associates in here. But it paid off. The good news is that IceStorm was in the file and we have their last known locations.”
 “So what’s the bad news?” Fox asked, fearing another sudden spike of hell in this nightmare.
 “Not too bad. It’s just that they have three known bases, and we don’t know which they’re in. The first one is their main base on Fortuna, presumably where the Arwings were kept. The second location is their mothership, Blizzard. It usually hangs out around Fortuna and Sector X. A little side note on that, Blizzard is exactly the same model as the Great Fox. My father built it for them back when they were good allies with Corneria. So if we’re planning on going in there, we already know the layout. Anyway, the third location…” He stopped and started to giggle. “You’re not going to believe this.”
 “Try us,” Falco said, rolling his eyes. After the crap they’d seen in the past week, nothing would surprise them.
 “Well,” Slippy continued. “Their third location actually isn’t confirmed yet. Local police have been investigating it, but it’s not a definite yet. It appears a hotel and casino right in Corneria City is a front for their third base. I know, it sounds weird, but that’s what it says. It’s assumed they use it because of their growing number of members, and there are plenty of rooms there.”
 “Alright then,” Fox said. “Which one do we hit?”
 Peppy shrugged and replied, “Well, if our objective is to find Stefan and make him talk, I’d say we hit Blizzard. I would think he’d keep himself mobile, and we already know the layout of the ship, as Slippy said.”
 Falco shook his head. “Uh-uh. First of all, even if you find Stefan, he won’t talk. If he talks, he’s dead anyway from Corneria. I think we should hit the base on Fortuna. Stefan might be there also, and if he’s not there’s still bound to be some left-over stuff from when they had the Arwings.”
 “You guys are doing this all wrong,” Vixy sighed. “You shouldn’t hit anything until you know for sure which one he’s in. If you hit the wrong one, he’ll catch on and you’ll never find him.”
 Fox nodded and turned to Bill. “What do you think?”
 “I agree with your girl there. We should keep tabs on the bases and find out which he’s in, which would probably be the one with the most activity.”
 “Alright then, settled. As much as I hate to wait on this any more, we shouldn’t go into this blind. Slippy, launch a few probes and get some recon of the bases.”

 It was only an hour later, a few minutes after Vixy declared checkmate on a stunned Peppy, when Slippy burst into the room and said excitedly, “Guys! I think something’s happening!”
 “Already?” Fox asked. “What is it?”
 Slippy handed over a bunch of pictures taken by a probe over the Fortuna base, and the team huddled around Fox to look.
 “Holy crap,” Bill breathed, expressing what was on everyone’s mind. “Look at the platform, there must be over sixty fighters there. A few dropships too.”
 “Yeah,” Falco said, squinting at the picture. “And double that many people walking around. Looks like they’re preparing for a war or something.”
 “Or preparing to start one…” Fox muttered. “Slippy, when were these taken?”
 “Half hour ago, I guess. Why?”
 Fox dropped the pictures and his hand went to his comm. “ROB, activate the long-range scanners immediately. Inform us if anything comes within range.” He received the affirmative and turned to his team. “Ok, this thing going on at the base may be for another job they’re doing, but we have to take every precaution. Go make sure your Arwings are fully prepped, Bill, you handle your ship. Stay on full alert.”
 The team could see the possibility of what was happening and nodded. They might be meeting Stefan a little sooner than they thought. Only he would bring his entire army with him.

     * * *

Great Fox, rec room
1736 hours

 The team’s fear was realized hours later. They had been busy setting up every defense system on the ship and making sure the Arwings were in top condition. After Fox was sure everything was ready, he told everyone to relax and get some rest. They might need it.
 No one could find rest, however. Usually, StarFox was on the offensive, and they could attack when they wanted to. This was different. There was nothing worse than waiting hours on end for an army of unknown size and power to attack you, possibly with the power to destroy the ship. Those hours of waiting finally ended, for better or worse, with the sounding of ROB’s voice over the intercom.
 “Alert, unidentified ships detected on course with the Great Fox, hostile intent.”
 Fox grimaced and said, “How many ships?”
 “Sixty-eight fighter class, three troop transport class.”
 “Troop transports?” Fox mumbled confusedly. “ROB, make an announcement for everyone to meet in the rec room.”
 The announcement was made and everyone met within a minute. Fox could see they were as edgy as he was about the upcoming fight. 68 ships was a lot to handle for five pilots.
 “Alright guys, you heard the announcement. Looks like Stefan gave up on subtlety. We fight in standard formation, and defend the Great Fox at all costs. I don’t know why they brought both fighters and dropships, but if the dropships look like they’re going for the hangar, take out as many fighters as possible and retreat back inside. We’re gonna have to play this one by ear.”
 “Give me something to do,” Vixy said. “This is my home too, I want to help defend it.”
 A knot formed in Fox’s stomach. He didn’t want to put Vixy in any more danger than she already was. “Alright, um… go to the security control room and lock the door behind you. Keep an track of the monitors and tell us if you see anything enter the hangar.”
 Vixy seemed satisfied with that and nodded.
 “Alright then,” Fox concluded. “Let’s go.” He turned away to go to the hangar, then stopped short, Peppy bumping into him. He turned back to Vixy and fidgeted with the ring in his pocket, which he had carried around everywhere since the day this nightmare began. He wanted to wait until this was over, but it was too unsure of a fight. He had to do it…
 “Vixy,” he said softly, walking over to her. His heart started racing again with those old doubts, the possibility of a negative answer. “I, uh…I wanted to wait on this, but I’m not sure what’s going to happen out there. I just wanted to ask you…well…” With one move, he crouched to one knee and held the ring box up to her. His mouth opened to say the words, but he couldn’t get them out. Finally, he managed, “Will…will you marry me?”
 Vixy’s mouth dropped open and her eyes widened in surprise. “Fox…are you…oh, my God…”
 Fox stood back up just as Vixy threw herself into his arms and held him tight. “Yes! Of course I will!”
 Fox smiled, letting his breath out, and held her close. A weight lifted from his heart, and he felt happier than he had ever remembered. He wanted to stay like that forever, holding her, thinking about their future, engulfed in her love. But he was harshly brought back to the present by ROB’s voice again.
 “Hostile ships closing, five minutes until firing distance.”
 Fox gently and hesitantly pulled away and handed her the ring. “Here, hold onto that. We have to go do this. I love you.”
 Vixy gave him a kiss and said, “I love you too. Good luck.”
 As the team walked to the hangar, he received congratulations from everyone and Peppy looked like he even shed a tear. As much as Fox wanted to stay with Vixy, he cleared his mind and concentrated on the upcoming battle. He had to focus to make sure there was even a Great Fox to come home to.

Tragedy on the Great Fox
Minutes later
Space near Great Fox
1751 hours

 The usual adrenaline rush that accompanied the boost into space from the hangar was intensified by the anxiety of the upcoming fight. Fox took a few deep breaths and felt himself become one with the Arwing. A lesson his father had taught him was to envision the Arwing as his own body and control it as such. That way, you are not trying to control a hunk of metal. It then becomes a form of martial arts. While he didn’t flaunt it, Fox knew that he was one of the best pilots in the galaxy, and he owed a good portion of his success to mastering that lesson.
 “Report in,” Fox said when he saw all the fighters had left the hangar.
 “Falco here, I’m good.”
 “This is Peppy, everything’s ok.”
 “Slippy here, all systems operational.”
 “Bill, lookin’ good.”
 “It’s me,” said Vixy. “Can everyone hear me?” She received affirmatives from the team.
 “Ok,” Fox continued. “Forget about escort positions, we’ll try to engage them as far away from the Great Fox as possible. Vixy, keep an eye on those dropships and tell us when they near the hangar. ROB, if we have to retreat back inside, use the ship’s main gun to keep the fighter’s busy. Alright, let’s take it to em’.”
 The team set up in the standard diamond-shaped formation with Bill trailing in the back. In the distance, they could barely make out the silhouettes of the approaching attackers. Fox knew that the team had faced off against worse odds before, but that was against inferior ships while on the offensive. According to the recon pictures Slippy took, over half of the fighters were a model similar to StarWolf’s first ships. While not the best, they were certainly better than standard fighters.
 As the ships neared, Fox began picking up radio chatter shrouded in static. After a few minutes, a message finally became audible. And Fox knew the voice all too well.
 “—ission. I say again, if any member of StarFox can hear me, recognize this transmission.”
 Fox flicked his com to the public channel. “Stefan. What do you want?”
 “Ah, Fox, good,” came the icy reply. “I want to make an offer. As you can see, we outnumber you pretty significantly, but I’m not all bad. I’ll give you a chance to surrender. We’ll turn you over to Corneria and we can avoid further bloodshed. Otherwise, this region of space will become your cold, dark grave. The choice is yours.”
 As the fighters neared firing range, Fox didn’t even have to think. He vowed he wouldn’t give up until his name was clear, and he stuck to it. His answer to Stefan’s proposal flew out of his Arwing in the form of a volley of lasers. They ripped the wing off the nearest dark blue fighter, causing it to lose control and crash into the fighter next to it, both disappearing in a ball of flame.
 “You can’t get me that easy, Stefan. Bring it on.” Fox barrel rolled through the clump of incoming fighters, causing them to turn away while his team broke formation and engaged. The ensuing battle continued like any other, each pilot concentrating on one fighter at a time. Fox’s constant glimpses of the Great Fox, their home, reminded him of the battle at Sector Z, the only other time the Great Fox had been the target for the enemy.
 “Fox,” Vixy’s voice cut in through the radio chatter. “The dropships have fighter escorts, and it looks like they’re heading for the hangar.”
 “Ok,” Fox replied, firing another round of lasers to finish off the fighter he was chasing. “Slippy and Falco, follow me, we’ll try to take out the dropships. Peppy and Bill, keep the others busy.”
 When Fox linked up with his two teammates, they darted through the storm of lasers and explosions towards the three large ships. As they neared it, Fox could see that it had at least fifteen fighters clustered around it, all of which turned and engaged them.
 “Oh, shit…” Falco muttered as the ships fired on them. The hail of lasers rocked the ships, causing them to pull away. Fox checked and saw his shields were knocked down to sixty percent. “You two ok?”
 “Forty,” Falco muttered.
 “I’m at twenty,” Slippy said, panic shaking his voice.
 “Slippy, get back to the ship,” Fox said, looking back at the dropships where the fighters had resumed their escort. Fox was surprised at their discipline and coordination. There was no way they were going to get near those ships. “Peppy, Bill, how’s it coming over there.”
 “We took out a good number, man,” Bill said, sounding calm and in control as always. “But the fight’s starting to show. My shields are at fifty.”
 “Mine too.” Peppy added.
 Fox growled under his breath as he shot down another fighter and jerked the stick hard to avoid colliding with it’s buddy. “ROB, how many fighters are left?”
 After a moment, the verdict came back. “Thirty-four fighters and three troop transports.”
 Fox shook his head. A little over half remaining and they were too heavily damaged to hold off the rest.
 “Dropships are a few minutes out from the hangar!” Vixy cut in, sounding panicky. Fox could see it now. They put the elite pilots at escort duty and the rest for cannon fodder to distract them. They were planning on taking over the ship, not destroying it.
 “Everyone retreat back to the Great Fox, they’re going to infiltrate it. Meet in the armory. ROB, cover us and take down as many as possible with the main gun.”
 Fox received the affirmative from his team and covered their retreat, taking a few more fighters down. When the last Arwing disappeared inside the hangar, he turned and boosted to it himself, avoiding the pursuing ships as best he could. By time he reached the safety of the hangar, his shields were at a heart-stopping four percent.
 He landed his ship as usual and sprinted to the hangar door. After it slid shut behind him, he unholstered his blaster and shot the access panel next to the door, shielding his eyes from the rain of sparks. That would buy them a few minutes while IceStorm cut the door down.
 He sprinted to the armory where his team, Vixy, and Bill were waiting anxiously. Fox himself was beyond anxious, he was downright scared. Three dropships at ten people per ship, that’s…
 “Thirty troops. They’ll be here any minute, and we weren’t fully prepared for this. We’ll have to improvise this as we go. Don’t forget, they know the layout of the ship, so they’ll check the usual hiding places. We’ll split up and cover the main accesses into the ship. Slippy, Falco, and Peppy, you take the hallway from the rec room to the hangar. Bill and I will take the rear access to the hangar. Vixy, get back to the security room and lock it behind you. There’s no way in unless you unlock it from inside. Ok, load up and get to it. And guys…watch out for each other and don’t give up.”
 The team nodded and turned to the weapon racks. Fox got himself a rifle from the rack and shoved a few mags in his pockets. He slung it over his shoulder and took a pistol from the rack, handing it to Vixy.
 Vixy took it and checked the clip. Fox had taught her a lot about firearms in her time on the ship. She looked nothing like the timid girl who almost threw up after killing a man in their escape from Overlord. She actually looked comfortable with it, which made Fox feel slightly better.
 “If anyone tries to get in that room besides one of us, don’t hesitate.”
 Vixy nodded, swallowing hard. She may have been better at handling this, but she was far from a combat veteran. Fox looked at his team expertly preparing as they had dozens of times, then at her, and felt a wave of sadness. She shouldn’t have to go through this. “I love you,” he said, giving her a kiss.
 “I love you too. Please, be careful.”
 Fox managed a weak smile and turned to his team. Everyone was finishing up their preparations and forming in the center again as ROB’s voice sounded on the intercom.
 “Three hostile ships have landed in the hangar.”
 “Alright, let’s move,” Fox said. He noticed Slippy and always laughed at the site of him holding a rifle, seeing as it was over half his height. There was no humor in it this time; their lives rode on their use of these weapons.
 “Good luck.”

     * * *

Great Fox
1903 hours

 Just as Fox and Bill reached their defense positions, there was a loud thump that echoed ominously through the metal corridors, followed by a dead silence. The quiet before the storm. IceStorm had breached the hangar’s locked door.
 The duo’s defense was located at the intersection of a three-way corridor. The vertical line of the T led to the repair docks of the hangar, while the cap of the T led to the elevator on one side and another hallway to the storage rooms on the other. Fox hid behind the storage-side wall, Bill behind the elevator-side, both ready to pop out and shoot down towards the hangar door.
 “You think Stefan’s on board?” Bill asked, leaning against the wall.
 “How are you so sure?”
 “Well,” Fox replied, sneaking a quick peek down the corridor at the closed hangar door. “First of all, he’s not a pilot. He would’ve had to come in a dropship. Also, there’s no way he’d let his men have all the fun of killing me.”
 “Yeah, true. But—“
 He was cut off as Vixy’s voice sounded in his headset. “Fox, Bill, it looks like there’s a few headed your way. Four…no wait, five, maybe more.”
 “Ok, thanks,” Fox replied.
 “So how do we do this?” Bill asked, checking the mag on his rifle. “Just pop out and waste ‘em?”
 “Not much else we can do. We’ll alternate, one of us will fire then the other will while the first reloads, ok?”
 Bill nodded. “Ok, I’ll go first.”
 “No way, my ship, I’ll go first. I’ve gotten you in this deep enough.”
 “Forget it, you’re engaged, I go first.”
 “You have a girl too, and you already saved my ass once. I go first.”
 “Fox, I’m going first!”
 “Forget it, I am!”
 Bill raised his eyebrows and put up a fist in the familiar signal for Rocks, Paper, Scissors. It was how they had always settled little disputes back in the Academy. Fox rolled his eyes and put up his fist. He knew Bill could never resist scissors and kept his fist the rock after three pumps.
 “Ha!” he said as Bill pounded the wall. “Just be ready to pop out when I’m done, we’ll be fine. When I---“
 He was cut off by a sharp hiss from down the corridor. He peeked around the corner and saw a current of blue sparks shooting out from the side of the door. They were cutting through the lock. Fox gave a quick glance at Bill, who flattened himself around the corner against the wall.
 Fox himself crouched, taking as much cover as he could from the corner while aiming his rifle straight at the weakening door. His steady, controlled breathing made the sight bob slightly, as if counting down the time, intensifying his anxiety of the unknown outcome of the approaching fight.
 The sparks and hissing stopped and Fox held his breath, steadying the gun. The door slid open, revealing a dark figure with numerous others behind him. The figure was clothed all in dark blue and black and moved quickly into the hall, his rifle aimed down the hall…right at Fox.
 Suddenly, Fox felt a hard shove and was pushed roughly back behind his corner, landing on his side. He sat up, wondering what happened, and heard the deafening rattle of an assault rifle on full auto. Bill was crouching and firing down the hall, his face sporadically  illuminated by the red lasers. Some of the returning lasers were coming too close to him for Fox’s comfort.
 “Dammit, you moron!” Fox shouted over the noise, hopping to his feet and recovering his rifle. Fox was anything but mad, though. That move had surprised him; chances are Bill saved his life…again. “Do you have a death wish?!”
 “I told you I was going first!” he shouted back. “Just get ready, I’m almost out!”
 Fox flattened against the wall and waited. A few seconds later, Bill shouted, “I’m out, two down!” and ducked behind the wall. Fox took a deep breath and spun around the corner, gun pointed straight ahead. To his surprise, there was nothing in the corridor except two prone bodies…and a black object flying in the air towards them. Fox’s reflexes kicked in this time and he caught the object as it flew by him. He immediately knew what it was from it’s shape and weight, and his eyes widened.
 “Grenade!” he shouted and threw it back down the corridor, ducking back behind the wall. Fox felt the explosion more then he heard it, being half deaf from the gunfire already. The residual smoke wafted down the hall, making him and Bill coughed.
 “Nice catch, man!” Bill shouted between coughs. “Why couldn’t you ever do that on the baseball team back in school?”
 Fox couldn’t think of a comeback and was coughing too much to say one anyway. After it had subsided, IceStorm resumed firing down the hall. Fox snuck a quick peek and saw that four of them were crowing around the doorway. A laser struck the wall next to him, making him jerk his head back around the corner.
 “Forget it, we can’t keep this up,” Fox said. “Use a grenade, if we keep popping out, we’ll get hit.”
 “Me? I thought you brought grenades.”
 “I thought you brought ‘em.”
 Bill shook his head and coughed a final time. Pangs of panic began to hit Fox as he looked around the corridor. They couldn’t keep this up for long. He pointed to Bill’s side and shouted, “Hey, we can use that!”
 Bill looked where he was pointing and raised his eyebrows. “A fire extinguisher? What the hell you wanna do, give ‘em a cold?”
 Fox rolled hi eyes. “No, we can use it as an explosive.”
 “Will that work?” Bill asked, grabbing the red container from the wall. “I thought that only worked in movies.”
 “It’s CO2, right? It’ll explode if shot.”
 Bill shrugged. “Worth a try I guess.”
 Fox dropped the rifle and took out his pistol, which he was more accurate with. He took a quick peak around the corner and saw that the four remaining mercenaries were now in the corridor, moving towards them. “Just toss it down there and I’ll shoot it.”
 “What, in mid-air? What kinda marksman do you think you are?”
 “Just do it, throw high.”
 Bill gripped the metal cylinder by the nozzle and wound back. “Ready?”
 Fox nodded and readied the pistol.
 Bill spun around the corner and heaved the extinguisher with a powerful under-hand throw. At the same time, Fox popped out and aimed over the heads of the soldiers. As soon as he saw the flash of red enter his sight, he fired off one laser. The red disappeared in a huge ball of white foam and a loud explosion.
 “Ah, shit!” Bill shouted, though it sounded muffled and far away to Fox. He shook his head, trying to clear the ringing in ears and looked at the result of his work. As he had expected, the explosion wasn’t incendiary, the explosion simply turned the metal container into pieces of deadly shrapnel. The corridor was covered in white foam, and the four mercenaries lay prone, metal shards sticking out of numerous places. Fox remembered Bill’s yell and looked over.
 “Damn, you alright, man?” he said, crouching by his friend. Bill had a small shard in his right shoulder and blood soaked through his flight suit. “This is gonna hurt a bit.” Before he could protest, Fox yanked the shrapnel out, causing a yelp from Bill, and pushed on the wound.
 “It’s alright, it’s not too deep. Just keep pressure on it and we’ll get you to the infirmary.”
 “Yeah, I’m ok,” Bill grumbled. He nodded towards the dead mercenaries. “Better than them anyway.”
 Fox chuckled and sat back against the wall. His chuckle turned into a laugh and soon Bill joined him until tears streamed down their cheeks from laughing so hard. The relief at still being alive flooded out.
 When Fox was back in control, he wiped his eyes and flicked his headset on. “How’s everything coming with you guys?”
 Peppy responded, sounding out of breath. “Good over here. Eleven confirmed kills…” there was a short pause and a burst of gunfire from his end. “Twelve. I think they’re pulling back. Falco was grazed by a laser, but that’s as bad as our casualty’s are. You ok?”
 “Yeah, six down here. Bill had a run-in with some shrapnel, but it’s ok.”
 Peppy sighed and continued panting. “I’m getting too old for this.”
 Fox chuckled and said, “You ok, Vixy?”
 “Yeah, I’m here. From the looks of it, I’d say they’re retreating. They seem to be heading back towards the hangar.”
 Fox let out a long breath of relief. Everything was going to be ok. “Great, we got ‘em on the run. Everyone meet up and we---“
 “Oh, no,” Vixy’s voice cut in. “Fox, someone’s at the door. I see sparks, and---“ There was silence then Fox heard a loud thump followed by several gunshots. “Fox! FOX!”
 Fox’s heart leapt to his throat. “Vixy, are you ok? Vixy?!”
 “Oh, God. Peppy, take Falco and Slippy and meet in the repair hangar hallway, I’m going to check out the security room.”
 Fox turned to Bill. “Bill…”
 “Forget it, man, don’t worry about me. Go, hurry!”
 Panic squeezing his heart and fear fueling his movements, Fox turned and sprinted towards the security room, praying for the safety of his fiancé.

     * * *

Great Fox
1936 hours

 Fox slowly moved towards the entrance to the security room, gun pointed ahead. Smoke lingered in the air over the cut-down metal door and two soldiers in IceStorm uniforms lay sprawled on it, smoldering laser wounds on their torsos. He hesitated at the open doorframe, not wanting to look in for fear of finding another corpse.
 He took a deep breath and popped into the room. The glow of the numerous security monitors lit the empty room and reflected off a blaster on the ground. Fox saw that it was the same model he had give Vixy, and it was still smoking lightly. She was still alive, but that didn’t comfort Fox much. She was in IceStorm’s hands.
 Fox figured they’d be heading for the hangar and ran down the corridor towards the rec room, which was connected to the only corridor leading to the hangar. As he neared it he slowed down and readied his gun. The door slid open and Fox came face to face with what he had feared.
 Stefan stood in the center of the room, where the team had been relaxing just hours ago. He was slowly backing towards the hangar door, and head-locked in front of him was a very frightened looking gray vixen. Stefan saw Fox and brought his silver blaster to Vixy’s head.
 “Not another step, Fox, or she gets it.”
 Vixy looked wide-eyed at Fox, futilely pulling at Stefan’s tight grip. Fox’s mind went blank and he started to sweat. He was terrified of the situation, not for his own life, but because one of the only lights in his life was under Stefan’s gun.
 “Fox…” Vixy said in a shaky voice that wrenched Fox’s heart to hear.
 “Stefan,” Fox said in as steady a voice as he could muster. “This is between you and me, let her go.”
 “Wrong, Fox. This is between my team and your team, and she’s part of your time, isn’t she? But I know she’s more than just a teammate to you. After all, you single-handedly infiltrated Overlord to rescue her. Well, now it’s come to this. You should’ve just surrendered, Fox.”
 “Is this about money, Stefan? You were pissed I lost you the payment from Venom for Overlord. If it’ll end this whole thing, name a price. Just please, let her go.”
 “Money?” Stefan said, backing up a bit more. “Money is only part of it. Lylat can’t have both of us, Fox. As long as you’re around, you’ll continue to fuck up everything I work for. Sorry, but I can’t let that happen.”
 Fox kept pace with his steps until Stefan’s back was against the door. “So what do we do then? Just keep fighting until one of us is dead? Fine, then so be it. But she’s not a fighter Stefan.”
 The jaguar nodded towards the corridor Fox came from. “My two dead men back there would say differently. A girl with looks and shooting skill, nice catch, Fox. But it ends here. I’d love to stay and chat some more, but my ship is waiting. And it looks like there’s not enough room for another.” He shook his head in mocking thoughtfulness. “What to do, what to do.”
 “This is what you get when you fuck with me, Fox! If you two have any last words, you better say ‘em now.”
 Fox’s heart skipped a beat as he dropped his gun and ran forward. “Stefan! No!”
 Stefan released his headlock and pushed Vixy forward. Fox thought he was letting her go and relief flooded him.
 Then he heard a sharp crack.
 What happened next took all of five seconds, but it would replay slowly in Fox’s dreams for years. Fox reached out towards Vixy as she stumbled forward, reaching out for him. Her body heaved forward as a red beam of pure death ripped through her torso, just under her rib cage, barely missing Fox and spraying her blood on him. Fox could only stare in horror as Stefan ran through the door, leaving Vixy to stumble for a few seconds, clutching her chest with look of shock on her face, then fall backwards onto the white carpet, a spreading pool of blood under her.
 Fox’s trance snapped and he felt like he had been shot as well. Frantically, he ran over and fell to his knees by Vixy, propping her up slightly in his arms. He could feel the blood running out of the wound in her back and began to feel choked up as he realized what was happening. She was dying in his arms.
 “Vixy?” Fox said in a shaky voice, tears streaming down his cheeks, mingling with the blood…Vixy’s blood. He felt as if his life was being ripped from him, everything he loved was being taken from him. She opened her eyes and looked at him with a weak stare.
 “Fox…” she said in a low voice, almost a whisper. Blood ran down the corner of her mouth as she spoke. “Fox…is…is it…bad?”
 Fox’s heart felt like it was being literally crushed. He gripped her hand tight, trying as much to comfort himself as her. Even a fully stocked hospital probably couldn’t save her.
 “You’ll be fine,” Fox replied, the tears flowing harder.
 Vixy slowly raised her other hand and squeezed Fox’s. Fox could tears forming in her eyes, beginning to run down the side of her face. She knew also. She knew this was it.
 “Oh, God, Vixy…” Fox said weakly, his voice breaking. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. This is my fault. God, I’m so sorry…”
 “No…” Vixy whispered her voice shaky from crying and weakness. She opened her closed hand, and in it was the ring, the little circle of gold that signified so much, so much happiness, so much love.
 “Fox…” she continued, sobbing harder, her entire body quaking with the effort. “I…I would’ve stayed with…you…through anything. Why…why did this ha…have to…happen? Oh…God…”
 Fox didn’t have an answer. He just knelt next to her, praying that it was all a nightmare he would wake up from. He squeezed her hand harder and gave her a final kiss. “I love you. Vixy…I’m so sorry…I love you…”
 Vixy gently caressed his face as her eyelids began to flicker.
 “I…love you too…Fox…”
 Vixy’s right hand went limp in Fox’s grip and her left hand fell to the floor, the ring bouncing out and rolling a short way before falling over on the bloodstained carpet. Her eyes slowly closed as her head leaned to the side, letting out a final breath.
 Fox stared at her, not believing what he was seeing. The woman whom he had met in Emayn, who had been full of such energy and determination. The kind, loving vixen whom he had always shared his feelings with, who had always been there when he was down, who had always made him feel that he wasn’t alone, that he was loved. That woman, the woman he loved, who was going to be his wife, had died in his arms.
 She was dead.
 “Vixy!” Fox embraced the limp body of his fiancé and cried uncontrollably into her shoulder, the blood still running down her back. “VIXY! NO! Please, God, NO! I’M SORRY! VIXY!”

Shattered Dreams
Two days later
Great Fox, recreation  room
1428 hours

 Peppy quietly closed the door to Fox’s room and walked back to the rec room where the team waited for his report. Their leader had been quiet, almost zombie-like, ever since they found him with Vixy’s body. He rarely ate or spoke, just sat on his bed staring at his shelves filled with pictures and memories. The others had feared that it may be a permanent effect, but Peppy assured them that it was just shock. Fox had been the same way after his parents had died.
 “How is he?” Slippy asked as Peppy entered the room, eyes avoiding the large rust-colored spot in the rug where they had tried to clean the bloodstain.
 “No change yet,” Peppy sighed, slumping down onto the couch. “I swear, I can’t believe how much crap he’s had to take in his life. His parents brutally murdered, the burden of war on him at the age of eighteen, enduring torture at the hands of his most hated enemy, then his fiancé shot right in front of him. And he’s always come out on top, which is amazing. I’m starting to have second thoughts as too whether he’ll make it through this.”
 “Well, how the hell are we gonna know?” Falco said irritably. “You’re right, the only time I’ve ever seen him like this was when his parents died, but that was only for a couple days. How long will he be like this?”
 Peppy shrugged. “No way to tell. The only thing I think we can do is let him work it out. I doubt if any of us will be much help.”
 “Well,” Falco said. “I think one of should be in here at all times in case he tries some crazy shit like he did in Emayn, remember? Wouldn’t surprise me if he just blindly went after Stefan.”
 Of course they all remembered. After Wolf had made Fox out to be the bad guy to the townspeople, he just left in the middle of the night and took basically the entire Venom force on in a rescue attempt on the hostages taken. It was a miracle he hadn’t been killed, though he had been seriously wounded. There was a chance he would run off in search of revenge, and probably without much regard for his own life.

     * * *

Great Fox, recreation room
0114 hours

 Falco’s eyes snapped open as he was awakened by a loud crash, like glass breaking. He sat up in the couch and looked around in the dark, trying to remember where he was. He realized he was still in the rec room, and cursed himself for falling asleep on his watch. A low moan caught his attention coming from the same direction as the crashing sound. He flicked on the light and looked for the source of the noise.
 The bar in the rec room, though fully stocked, was not usually used. The team drank only for special occasions or celebrations, and Fox seldom drank for any occasions at all, at least on the Great Fox. His view was that he should always be clear-minded in case something came up, which was a good point. That early morning as Falco looked at him sitting at the bar, he looked anything but clear-minded.
 Falco slowly walked over and saw that his head was down on the wood counter, his right hand clutching a shot glass full of brown liquid. A two-thirds full bottle of whiskey stood next to the glass, a pool of its contents surrounding it on the bar where Fox had apparently missed the glass. As Falco neared him, Fox slowly raised his head and downed the entire glass of whiskey in one gulp, then shakily put his head back down.
 Falco took another step forward and glass crunched under his boots, where the remains of a shot glass were spread. Fox probably dropped it off the bar in his condition. The sound roused his friend and he slowly turned his head to look at him with dull eyes. Falco didn’t like the look at all.
 “Hey ‘re, buddy,” Fox mumbled in a slurred voice. “Wha’ ya doin’ up this late?”
 “Fox, are you ok? Was that bottle full when you came out here?”
 Fox moved his shoulders slightly, which could be passed off as a shrug. “I’m a’ight. Ne’re beddur. Wha’ bottle? Oh, that…” He grabbed the bottle and poured another full glass, most of it spilling onto the table in his shaky hand. “Ya wa’ some? Plenny here.” He started giggling into the counter for a few seconds, then gulped down the whiskey.
 Falco shuddered. His father had been an alcoholic, and he was anything but giggly when he was drunk. He definitely didn’t like seeing his friend like this and he knew he had to make Fox stop.
 “No, Fox, listen. Don’t you think you’ve had enough? Come on, I’ll take you back to your room.” He moved towards Fox, ready to steer clear in case he threw up in his direction. Fox mumbled something into the table and knocked over the bottle as he reached for it again. It rolled off the bar and smashed on the tile surrounding the wood counter. Fox giggled a little more and slumped back down.
 Falco carefully put an arm around Fox and helped him up, supporting most of his weight. “Come on man, you’ll be ok. Just get some sleep, ok?”
 Fox put his arm around Falco’s shoulder and slowly dragged his feet along the carpet, mumbling and swaying. They were almost to the door when Fox stopped dead in his tracks, making Falco almost fall over.
 “What is it? Come on, man, the door’s…” Falco cut short as he saw where Fox’s glazed and vacant eyes were staring: the circular reddish-brown stain ten feet away on the carpet. Fox suddenly fell to his hands and knees, his head down, and Falco could hear him sobbing.
 “Her…her blood…” Fox stammered in between sobs, his voice slightly clearer than it had been. “Her…blood…it…it…it was…all…OVER ME. And…she was…she was…dead…she said…’I love you’…then…she was DEAD. Her blood…her blood…” He stopped trying to talk and cried into the carpet.
 Falco crouched down next to his friend and put a hand on his shoulder. There wasn’t enough alcohol in the entire galaxy to drown out the pain Fox was feeling. He couldn’t imagine how Fox was feeling, and he hoped he never had to, let alone three times.
 He sat there, trying to think of a way to comfort Fox, but not seeing any possibilities. There was no such thing as comfort in this bad a situation, as Falco had learned back at the Academy when Fox’s parents had died. Fox just brooded for a few days, then seemed normal again, if not a bit more serious. But this was more than brooding. As far as Falco could remember, Fox had been drunk only once in his life, and it was for fun, not to drown pain.
 Eventually, the sobbing subsided and Falco was able to help Fox up again and support him the rest of the way to his room. Hoping the sleep would sober him up, Falco left him snoring in his bed and made his way back to the rec room, in case Fox woke up and felt like another round. It wasn’t long before he again fell asleep on the couch.

     * * *

Great Fox, recreation room
1256 hours

 “I’m telling you, he shoulda been out by now,” Peppy said, glancing at the wall clock for the umpteenth time that hour. Since Vixy’s death, Fox had been seen about three times a day, if that. One of those times was always in the morning, and Peppy was still too concerned about Fox’s condition not to worry.”
 “I told you, he’s probably still knocked out from last night,” Falco replied from the couch where he was watching TV with Slippy. Bill was still off in his room. “It even surprised ME how much he drank.”
 “And he wouldn’t be like that if someone had stayed awake during his watch.”
 Falco rolled his eyes and stood up. “Ok, ok, I fucked up, I get it. Fine, if it’ll make you feel better, I’ll go check on him. Ok?”
 He left the room and walked towards Fox’s quarters, suddenly seeing why Peppy so worried. Falco had left Fox on his back, which wasn’t smart. If Fox was as wasted as he looked, he could’ve choked on his vomit. And if we woke up with a bad hangover, he might try something stupid. Falco had taken Fox’s blaster from his room when he dropped him off early that morning. One of the many lessons he had learned growing up in his household headed by an abusive father was to never let a drunk person have access to a weapon.
 As Falco neared Fox’s door, he heard a faint clicking sound coming from inside the room. He couldn’t identify the sound and tried to think of what could make it. Slowly he opened the door and looked into the dimly lit room.
 Fox sat on the edge of his bed, his left side to the door. Falco could see an empty glass case on the floor and remembered that Fox had kept an antique bullet-firing gun in one up one his shelf. He saw it on the bed next to Fox, with his friend looking down at something in his hands. A few seconds later the clicking stopped and Fox dropped a handful of bullets beside the gun on the bed.
 Fox’s movements were purposeful, not at all like the drunken randomness from earlier. Falco looked on in silence, either not understanding what Fox was thinking, or not wanting to believe. Fox picked up one of the bullets from the pile and held it up in front of his face, staring at it as if contemplating whether it really existed. Slowly he lowered it and clicked it into the clip in his hand.
 Falco snapped awake as Fox picked up the clip and slammed it into the pistol. He stared at the pistol, taking deep breaths, and, with one swift move, clenched his eyes shut and brought the pistol under the back of his muzzle, pointed upwards.
 “No! Fox!” Falco dove into the room and tackled his friend, knocking his arm away as he pulled the trigger. The loud crack made his ears ring as he and Fox fell to the ground in a heap. After hopping to his feet, Falco picked up a dazed-looking Fox by his jacket lapels and slammed him against the wall.
 “What the hell were you thinking?!” he yelled in Fox’s face. “You were about to blow your fuckin’ brains out! Do you realize that?!”
 Fox looked genuinely surprised as he stared at Falco, then at the gun in his hand. He dropped the gun as if it had suddenly become very hot and slowly shook his head, whispering, “Oh, my God…”
 Fox embraced Falco and softly cried on his shoulder. Falco hugged him back, finding himself in the unfamiliar role of the comforter for the second time that day.
 “It’s ok, man,” he said gently, patting him on the back. “You won’t do any good dead. She wouldn’t want it like this. We’re here for you.”
 Falco heard running footsteps from out in the hallway then Peppy’s voice. “What the hell was that? Was that a gunshot?”
 Falco shook his head and mouthed, “Not now” to him. Peppy saw Fox’s condition, then the gun and pile of bullets. Falco guessed he pieced together what happened, because he muttered, “Oh, God” and backed out of the room. None of them had even considered that Fox would kill himself. Falco knew everyone had their limit before they decided that life wasn’t worth living. Some of these people succeeded in suicide, but some, a small number that he had seen, rebounded and instead succeeded in living a normal, happy life. It was only a question of which path Fox would choose, and only he could decide.


Great Fox, Fox’s quarters
1541 hours


   Something my father told me after the first battle on Emayn. It stuck with me and I always remember it.

   “People are like stained glass windows. Sure, they sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in, their true beauty is revealed only if there is a light from within.”

  I know you’ll succeed, Fox.

      Forever your love,

 Fox slowly reread the note over and over again, the note Vixy had given to him in her room what seemed like a century ago. She had been there for him when he had felt the pressures of the situation pushing on him. That night, in her room, she had made everything better. But she wasn’t there this time, and she would never be there again. Fox was alone.
 Fox swallowed back fresh tears and folded the note back up. He was still shocked from his whole episode with Falco. He knew what he was doing when he put the gun to his head, but it somehow felt unreal, like it was a dream that he would wake up from if he pulled the trigger. Falco had saved his life, and all thoughts of suicide were wiped from his mind. He knew it was for real. His friend was right, he couldn’t do any good dead, and it wasn’t what Vixy would’ve wanted.
 After he had composed himself, Fox finally convinced his team that he was fine, that he was thinking clearly. He gave in and let them take anything they considered dangerous from his room, and only then let him be alone. Fox loved his team, but he just needed time to think, and hoped they understood that. Time to think, and time to plot.
 Surprisingly, Fox hadn’t even thought about Stefan until that day. After reading Vixy’s note a few more times, the jaguar was all he could think of. His hatred had been repressed by grief, but now that Fox was under control of his pain, his rage surfaced. He hadn’t felt such hatred towards someone for a long time. Not even Wolf O’Donnell reached this level. The sole owner of the level had been Andross.
 Fox realized he was shaking and took a few deep breaths to calm himself down. He knew what he had to do, and he also knew his team wouldn’t go along with it, not in the condition they thought him to be in. It couldn’t wait any longer. Even if revenge was not an issue, they were still at war with IceStorm. Fox just wanted it over once and for all.

 ‘I know you’ll succeed, Fox.’
 ‘Forever your love.’
 ‘Forever your love…’

 With a clear goal in mind, Fox felt at peace. He folded the note and replaced it on his shelf, then lay back on the bed. He needed to get some sleep. It was going to be a long night.

Last Resort
The next morning
Great Fox, recreation room
0942 hours

 “Guys, what the hell is this?” Bill entered the rec room waving a piece of paper in the air. “I went in to check on Fox and this was on his bed.”
 Peppy’s heart skipped a beat as his first thought was that it was a suicide note. He jumped up and grabbed it from Bill as the others huddled around him to read it.

 Left for a vacation in Corneria City. 276-487-9103.


 “Vacation?” Slippy said in a surprised tone. “Why would he just leave without telling us?”
 Peppy shrugged. “Not only that, but he wouldn’t go to Corneria City. He’ll be seen there.”
 “Well, he isn’t exactly in the best frame of mind,” Bill replied, taking the note back. “What about this number? Looks like a phone number. Should we call it?”
 Falco shrugged. “Why not?”
 “Don’t use visual, only voice,” Peppy said. “We’re still wanted, remember.”
 “How could I forget?” Bill mumbled, walking over to the phone on the wall. He picked up the receiver used for voice-only calls and punched in the number from the note.
 “Hi…oh, sorry, wrong number.” He hung up the receiver and turned to the others. “Looks like he really just went on vacation. It’s a hotel in the city, Corneria Grand. He’s taking a hell of a risk for a vacation.”
 Peppy nodded. “Yeah, well he---“
 “Wait!” Slippy shouted, sprinting out of the room.
 “What the hell was that all about?” Falco said, receiving a shrug from Peppy and Bill. A few minutes later, Slippy returned with a panicked look on his face.
 “Guys! Remember when I was talking about the IceStorm bases and I said that a hotel in Corneria City was a suspected front for one of them?”
 Peppy’s jaw dropped along with Falco’s and Bill’s. “Oh, no…don’t tell me.”
 “Yeah, the name is Corneria Grand. He’s going after Stefan.”
 “But how could Fox know?” Falco asked. “You never told us the name.”
 “Well, I never said anything because I didn’t think it really meant anything, but when I went to my computer this morning, the record showed that someone logged on really early this morning, around four AM. I thought it was just a glitch.”
 Bill shook his head in amazement. “Damn man, does he usually do shit like this?”
 “Actually, yeah, he does,” Peppy said. “On Emayn, he ran off in almost the same way, just leaving us a note. Dammit, we should’ve seen this coming.”
 “So what do we do now?” Slippy asked.
 “What else?” Peppy said, heading towards the door. “We go after him.”

     * * *

Cornerian Army Headquarters, Corneria City, General Pepper’s office
1107 hours

 General Pepper stood at his desk, about to head down to the base’s cafeteria for lunch when the viewscreen rang. Cursing his luck, he hit the receive button and was greeted by a blank screen and what sounded like traffic in the background.
 “Hello? This is General Pepper, who is this?”
 “It’s me.”
 Pepper was surprised as he heard Fox McCloud on the other end. “Fox? Where are you calling from?”
 “I’m on a cell phone in Corneria City. Listen to me, I want to end this. Now. You know the Corneria Grand hotel?”
 “It’s a front for IceStorm. They---“
 “How do you know that?” Pepper asked, not sure where the conversation was heading. “It’s classified.”
 “I know, I have your files. That’s what I was there for when we had our little run-in. Listen to me, IceStorm framed me, and they recently tried an attack on the Great Fox. I don’t care if you believe me now, but I can prove it. You want me, now you know where to get me. I’m heading there now.”
 “Wait, you’re going there alone? Fox, that’s suicide. If they really have it out for you, you won’t be able to get in. According to our investigations, everyone who works there is a part of IceStorm.”
 “I know, but it’s the only way to end this.”
 “Fox,” Pepper said in a calm tone, the same way he had tried to talk Fox into releasing the hostage in their confrontation. “Don’t do this. It doesn’t matter what happened, I don’t want to see you dead. Think of your team. Think of Vixy. She---“
 “Vixy’s dead,” Fox cut in with a low voice. “I’m doing this as much for her as I am for me.”
 Pepper was stunned into silence, and finally managed, “God, I’m sorry Fox. How did it happen?”
 “Stefan,” he replied in a distant voice. “I’ll tell you all about it over coffee someday, but just get a force over here now.”
 Pepper was about to reply with another attempt to convince him to back off when he heard a click and the traffic noise vanished. He sighed and switched off the receiver, sitting back down in his chair. After a few minutes of thought he punched in the number for the control room.
 “Control room,” came the female voice.
 “This is General Pepper. Announce for the Strike Team One’s commander to meet me in conference room A, urgent.”

     * * *

Corneria City
1116 hours

 Fox watched Stefan walk in the front door of the Corneria Grand hotel as he clicked off the cell phone and tossed it on the passenger seat of the stolen car. He could see the entire front of the thirty-floor hotel from his parking space across the street and made the call when he saw Stefan’s chauffeured car pull up under the covered area by the front door. The valet and bellboys looked nervous by his presence, which suggested that Pepper was right in saying all the staff was IceStorm.
 Fox knew Stefan would head for the thirtieth floor. All floors except the twenty-eighth and above were actual hotel rooms. The top three were IceStorm facilities with Stefan’s office on the thirtieth. All Fox had to do is get to the elevator in the lobby, preferably unnoticed, and ride to the top. His only target was Stefan, he didn’t care about the others.
 A shudder ran through Fox’s body as he remembered his last moments with Vixy. And the blood…so much blood. He shook his head hard, concentrating instead on the front of the hotel. He had to get to Stefan before the Cornerian strike team did, and get him to talk. Then finish him.
 Fox took out his pistol, checking the clip and flicking the safety off. He’d have the element of surprise on the valet and bellboys, and the only other staff in the lobby should be the concierge at the front desk. He had dealt with worse.
 With a deep breath, Fox holstered the gun and started up the car. The hotel loomed over him as he drove over and under the “Corneria Grand” sign, pulling to a stop at the front door to his right. He casually got out of the car and tossed the keys to the shocked canine valet on the other side”
 “Here, take care of this for me, will you?” he said in a conversational tone. The valet grabbed for a gun under his jacket, but Fox was prepared and shot him in the chest. He turned on the two bellboys and dropped one before the other returned fire, forcing him to duck behind the car.
 Fox peaked around the front of the car and saw another bellboy rushing out the front door to help the other. Seeing two bellboys with guns made Fox grin, despite the danger. “Any other day, this might seem odd,” he muttered to himself, ducking back behind the car. He waited until he heard the click of a pistol clip release and popped up, shooting them as they reloaded.
 Fox jogged to the front door, grabbing on the dead bellboys’ pistol in his left hand, and entered. The concierge at the front desk was ready for him and fired off three rounds at him. He rolled to the side on the thick carpet, the lasers just missing him and shattering the glass on the front doors. Fox fired from where he lay with both pistols and dropped the concierge.
 Fox hopped to his feet as the twenty or so civilians in the lobby screamed and ran towards the door. A detail Fox had forgotten was the civilians. He looked around, spotting a fire alarm on the nearby wall, and pulled it. A loud resonating alarm went off, accompanied by red flashers on the walls. The stairwell doors opened as confused-looking people exited into the lobby and saw the ruthless, heartless traitor Fox McCloud, as if to emphasize that they should leave immediately.
 After the flood of people had thinned, Fox jogged towards the elevator, but was stopped by a voice from behind the front desk. He whirled around and aimed, but there was no one there except the lifeless body of the concierge. The voice was coming from a radio on his belt.
 “What’s going on down there? Why did the alarm go off? Is anyone there? Answer me!” then after a few seconds of silence, “We’re sending a squad down.”
 “Shit,” Fox mumbled and ran to the elevator. He pushed the call button and saw, to his dismay, that it was a cylindrical glass elevator. He kept hitting the button frantically, as if it would make the elevator go faster and eyed the stairwell. It finally arrived and Fox hopped in, hitting the ‘30’ button just as the stairwell door swung open and five people in IceStorm uniforms rushed out.
 Fox hit the floor of the elevator and covered his head as the soldiers spotted him and fired, shattering the glass around him. He fired his entire clip back down at them blindly, not daring to expose his head, and the firing ceased as they lost a clear shot.
 Fox slowly stood up and reloaded as the elevator neared the top. He pointed it forward and, after a musical ding and the doors sliding open, stepped out. As the doors closed, he heard a commotion from down in the lobby, followed by more shooting. “Looks like the cavalry arrived,” Fox muttered as the doors snapped shut. He had to get to Stefan quickly.
 The hallway looked like any other in the hotel, but each room belonged to an IceStorm member. The halls were deserted, thanks to either the fire alarm or the fight downstairs, but Stefan was no fighter. He would still be in his office, leaving the fight to his men. Fox tried to remember the building’s blueprint from Pepper’s file and moved towards the office.
 The eerie silence continued as Fox crept down the red-carpeted hallway, the trigger of his blaster already pulled back halfway. He finally reached a heavy wooden door marked “Manager” and put his ear to it.
 “The Cornerian army?! What are you talking about?!” Fox recognized Stefan’s voice. Another person in the room nervously answered him.
 “I don’t know, sir, that’s the report from downstairs. They say someone got on an elevator, then the Cornerian strike team showed up at the door. They think they got the guy in the elevator.”
 “Well, why don’t you go find out for sure? I’m not paying you to think! And get my shuttle ready on the roof.”
 “Yes, sir.”
 Fox slid to the side as the soldier opened the door and walked down the hall. After he turned the corner, Fox took a deep breath and popped into the room. Stefan was just walking around his big wooden desk in the middle of the red carpet when he looked up with a surprised expression.
 “Don’t move,” Fox said harshly, aiming his gun at Stefan’s head. The sight of him brought Fox’s blood to a boil with rage again, but he repressed it. He needed the confession first.
 “Fox,” Stefan said with a sigh. “I should’ve known. How the hell do you know about this place?”
 “Why did you kill Vixy?” Fox demanded, ignoring his question. “You didn’t have to.”
 Stefan slit his eyes and scowled. “Why not? As I said, we were at war, and she was a member of your team.”
 “You know damn well she wasn’t!” Fox shouted, his attempts at controlling his anger becoming increasingly difficult. “She was a damn civilian, she was no fighter!”
 “What does it matter now?” Stefan replied in a calm voice, which angered Fox even more for some reason. “I know why you’re here, so just kill me and get it over with. You won’t make it out alive if you do, though, if my men don’t get you the Cornerian soldiers will.”
 “I need to know something first, something that’s been bothering me. Why did you frame me? It would’ve been easier to wait until I was alone to kill me, or even just an outright attack.”
 Stefan laughed and shook his head. “Oh, Fox, you’d never understand. You’ve always been well off, always been the hero. You don’t know what it’s like to be on the defeated side, to have your enemy higher than you. Framing you was a stroke of genius! I had to make them HATE you, only then could I kill you and your damn team. You have no idea of the satisfaction I felt from blowing that whore to hell.”
 Fox’s rage broke his repressive barriers and he fired. His hand was shaking so bad that his two shots hit Stefan in his left leg and right shoulder, and he fell to the ground with a yell of pain. Fox took deep, raspy breaths and tried to settle his aim through the red haze of anger. He was about to pull the trigger again when he heard a voice from behind.
 “Freeze! Hands up, now!”
 The haze disappeared and Fox’s grasp on the trigger relaxed. He began to breathe normally again, knowing that he couldn’t let his anger take over again. The Cornerian soldiers behind him wouldn’t hesitate to drop him if he fired on Stefan. Slowly he raised his hands over his head.
 “Drop the gun!”
 Fox let the pistol dangle from his finger by the trigger guard, then dropped it with a soft thud on the carpet. He slowly turned around to see four black-clad soldiers aiming their rifles at him, Pepper standing behind them.
 Fox slowly reached for his inside jacket pocket and the soldier’s tensed. Fox raised his eyebrows questioningly at Pepper, and the general nodded. Fox reached in nad pulled out a small metallic object, which everyone in the room, including the groaning Stefan on the floor, squinted to see. It was a recorder.
 Fox pushed the rewind button, then stopped it after a few seconds and played it. The muffled voices of Fox and Stefan broke the silence.
 ‘---hell do you know about this place?’
 ‘Why did you kill Vixy? You didn’t have to.’
 ‘Why not? As I said, we were at war, and she was a member of your team.’
 ‘You know damn well she wasn’t! She was a damn civilian, she was no fighter.’
 ‘What does it matter now? I know why you’re here, so just kill me and get it over with. You won’t make it out alive if you do, though, if my men don’t get you the Cornerian soldiers will.’
 ‘I need to know something first, something that’s been bothering me. Why did you frame me? It would’ve been easier to wait until I was alone to kill me, or even just an outright attack.’
 ‘Oh, Fox, you’d never understand. You’ve always been well off, always been the hero. You don’t know what it’s like to be on the defeated side, to have your enemy higher than you. Framing you was a stroke of genius! I had to make them HATE you, only then could I kill you and your damn team. You have no idea of the satisfaction I felt from blowing that whore to hell.’
 Fox stopped the recorder and tossed it to Pepper, who caught it awkwardly, a stunned look on his face. Fox walked over to Stefan, crouched beside him and grabbed him roughly by his lapels.
 “I’m not going to kill you,” he growled, his muzzle an inch from Stefan’s. “That’s too good for you. Instead, you’re going to spend the rest of your life rotting away in a cell, knowing that Fox McCloud beat you again, and you failed.” He let go of the moaning jaguar and turned to Pepper.
 “And she’d still be alive if you had just believed me, and helped me! You never even gave me a chance!” He walked past Pepper, the soldiers standing aside, and turned to him long enough to say almost in a whisper, “I never want to talk to you again,” then walk out.
 Pepper stood in silence for a moment, staring at the recorder in his hand, then pointed to Stefan. “Take him away.”
 Pepper was relieved that Fox was not guilty, but felt terrible at the way he treated him. He never even considered what Fox had done in the past, not to mention their friendship. He was completely fooled, just as the rest of the galaxy was, and now he had to pay for it with the loss of their friendship.
 “Sir,” one of the soldiers said. “The guards at the front door say that the rest of StarFox just showed and request orders.”
 “Let them go,” Pepper said, relieved that he was finally able to say it. “Let them all go, they’re innocent.”

Three days later
Cornerian Army Headquarters, Corneria City, General Pepper’s office
1341 hours

 It was a cold, rainy day when Pepper went in for work that morning, and it reflected his mood perfectly. He hadn’t been able to get back into routine since that day in the hotel, and the investigations into IceStorm’s activities have turned up little. He stared at his desk, deep in thought, when there was the familiar two knocks on his door, one of the guards.
 “What?” Pepper grumbled.
 The door opened and a guard popped his head in. “Sir, there’s someone here to see you.”
 “Well, who is it?”
 “Fox McCloud, sir.”
 Pepper’s eyes widened in surprise. He remembered the last thing Fox had said to him in the hotel, that he never wanted to talk to him again. Pepper couldn’t blame him either.
 “Let him in.”
 The guard disappeared back into the corridor and the door opened wider as Fox walked in, looking a little embarrassed, and closed the door behind him. “Hi.”
 “Hi, Fox,” Pepper replied awkwardly. “Take a seat.”
 Fox sat in the right chair and glanced over his shoulder. “The guard on the left kept looking at me weird.”
 Pepper chuckled. “I believe it. He’s the one you used as a shield.”
 Fox grinned nervously. “Oh,” He fidgeted a bit more, then continued. “Listen, I just wanted to stop by to apologize for what I said. I know how bad it looked from the evidence, I can’t blame you for what you thought.”
 Pepper shook his head. “No, I should’ve listened. I should’ve at least given you a chance. We were friends, Fox, and I should’ve seen it.”
 Fox shrugged. “Well, it doesn’t really matter now, it’s over. We both made our mistakes. I just want to move on, leave this in the past. I was just angry, I shouldn’t have said those things out there in the corridor.”
 Pepper nodded. “Listen, about Vixy…”
 “Forget it,” Fox cut in. “She’s dead because of me, because of my job, and I have to live with that. I know how my father felt, he had to live with it too.”
 “I’m sorry, Fox. I know you were going to propose.”
 “I did…she said yes…” his voice trailed off. An awkward silence followed for a few moments, then Fox stood up. “Well, I’ll get going. I just wanted to apologize, and StarFox is still open for business if something comes up.”
 Pepper stood also. “You might just get something soon. We’re digging through everything in that hotel, and something might surface about Venom.”
 “Good,” Fox extended his hand and Pepper slowly took it. They shook hands for the first time since what seemed like an eternity ago, and Fox turned for the door.
 “Where are you off to now?” Pepper asked after him. “The military’s formal public apology was all over the news, so you’re in the clear again.”
 “Back to business as usual, I guess,” Fox replied, opening the door. “The war’s not over yet, not yet. Venom’s forces are still out there, and I made a promise that I wouldn’t stop until they’re gone. For now though,” he turned up his collar in preparation for heading out into the rain. “I have a third grave to visit.”
 He closed the door and headed to the exit of the base. It felt good to be able to walk through the base again instead of sneaking around and avoiding his old friends. As he walked out the front door, rain pounding on the streets and soaking him immediately, he thought back to what he had said.
 It’s not over.
 Not yet.

To be continued...

                [Special thanks to JPB and JJC for their support and input and pointing out those errors that my spellcheck somehow misses =P
                 Also, special thanks to Kryssie for her moral support through those tough spots and writer's block, inspiring me even when she doesn't know it =)
                   It was a long story, and you all made it possible.]

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