Starfox: Altered Universe

Chapter 3: The Welcoming

The newly constructed cruiser glided over the ground, engines roaring. On the deck of the small craft, Fox McCloud found himself watching the far horizon with a strange mixture of excitement and apprehension. The wind ruffled his fur, unnoticed by the vulpine as his eyes strained for a glimpse of a cityís outline, rising above the surrounding landscape...

"Nervous?" Fox whirled to see Peppy Hare looking back at him from his own seat. The young McCloud felt color spring to his cheeks, and he lowered his gaze hastily, mumbling a reply. He shifted in his seat, suddenly uncomfortable around his fatherís old pal.

~He may have your looks, James, but he sure as hell doesnít have your confidence,~ the old veteran reflected with a mental sigh. The shy-looking vulpine squirming under his gaze bore little resemblance to the commanding young man Peppy had once called friend. For that matter, he barely resembled the happy young cubling the rabbit remembered him as being.

"Y-y-yo, Mister Hare! H-h-how much farther to this b-b-base of yours?"

Turning his gaze back toward the driver, Peppy called out, "Weíre almost there. Keep heading in this direction. And donít call me mister," he added irritably. Slippy shrugged off the reprimand and turned his attention back to steering.

"This base of yours had better be something spectacular," Falco warned the rabbit. The azure avian was struggling to smooth her wind-ruffled feathers with little progress, a fact which was rapidly causing her mood to deteriorate.

"Donít worry, it is," Peppy assured her, grinning. Gesturing to the landscape before the ship, he added, "Just keep your eyes on the horizon."

Grumbling, Falco watched the area where the rabbit had pointed. A few moments later, however, she gasped in shock, causing Fox to glance in the same direction. The vulpine felt his jaw drop open and hang limply as he stared at the massive structure that loomed in front of the craft. A massive combination of stone and steel, the tower had been built into and from the surrounding mountains, yet seemed to dwarf them as it rose above its natural counterparts.

"W-w-whoa..." Slippyís quiet breathing of the word informed his friends that he had seen the impressive building they were approaching. Not that it was all that hard to spot, of course... the immense structure had a way of standing out.

"Not... not all that concerned about being discovered, huh?" Falco asked, a measure of her normal self finally returned. Peppy smirked back at her.

"Andross already knew we were building a new base, so we didnít see too much sense in trying to hide it," he replied. "Not all that bad for being built out of scraps, eh?" he added to Slippy. "See, youíre not the only one who can salvage things and build something incredible."

"I-I-I never said I was," Slippy retorted, nonetheless mesmerized by the sight of the base of the Cornerian Alliance. "H-h-how long did it take to build her?"

"Oh, sheíll still under construction, even now," Peppy told him. "But, as for the main structure... that was finished about seven months after the assault. We needed to get the base up quickly to stand a chance. We keep adding new areas to house all the newest additions to the teams and such."

"L-l-like us?"

"Now hold on a second, Slips," Fox interrupted. "I never confirmed that weíre actually going to join the military or anything..."

"O-o-oh." Slippy turned his gaze back to the road. "S-s-so where do I t-t-take her in, mis... Peppy?"

"Iíll call in for clearance," Peppy said, silently thanking the amphibian for remembering. Walking over to the frogís side, he switched on the communicator and spoke into it. "This is Peppy Hare, requesting clearance to enter. I repeat, this is Peppy Hare..."

***

In his personal chambers, General Pepper paced the floor, nervously chewing on his lollipop as he awaited news about his old friend. Mentally, he berated himself: I never should have let him go on this suicide mission. He might be dead now, for all I know! And all because I let him head out into God knows where to find a boy that is probably dead!

His thoughts were interrupted by a sudden knock on his door. Before he could collect himself, a female cheetah dressed in the normal attire for a communications officer burst into the room, nearly bowling him over in the process. Realizing that she had just run in on a superior, the shapely feline straightened her posture and stiffly saluted the canine, bronze eyes still dancing with some secret glee.

"What is it, Amber?" General Pepper nearly growled the name. The force of her entry had made him drop his lollipop. The sweet was forgotten, however, as she grinned up at him, marched over to his communicator, and flicked it on. A familiar voice crackled to life over the radio, and the general felt his eyes widen into orbs.

"This is Peppy Hare, reporting into Corneria Base. I have completed my mission, repeat, mission accomplished! Requesting permission to dock a small cruiser into base..."

"Well, commander?" Amber asked teasingly, arching an eyebrow at the canine, a smile still on her lips. General Pepper swirled to look at the officer, a rare grin on his face.

"Give him clearance, of course!" he demanded. The cheetah gave him a quick salute, turning to leave, but he called something else after her. "And broadcast his message on all frequencies as well! I know a few good pilots who would love to know heís okay!"

***

Sable Lightfoot flipped through the sketches scattered over her cluttered desk with a growing sense of agitation. Too many projects to do in too little time, just like always. Normally, the curious young ferret would have loved working on one of her ideas: she liked exploring and discovering new concepts, new ways of doing things. But this was just too much, and on top of being the newest on the Arwing team...

With a sudden, impulsive scream, she thrust her paws under the huge stack and flung the whole mess into the air, letting the sketches fall around her in a shower of papers. One of the pages flitted too close to her nose, and she snapped at it, catching it in her mouth. Removing it, she recognized it as a portrait she had sketched of Peppy Hare, a few days earlier. The sight of the veteran smiling serenely on the paper caused her foul mood to vanish, and tears sprang to her eyes as she wondered what had happened to her eldest friend.

A voice boomed over the intercom, causing her to drop the picture. Whirling to stare at the speaker, Sable nearly shrieked with joy. "Itís HIM! Heís okay!"

***

In her own private chambers, Rabbiís ears also pricked up as the familiar voice came onto the speaker, repeating his request for clearance. After a moment, however, she simply reached over and flicked off the communicator, throwing the room back into silence. The annoying noise gone, she turned back to her reading.

***

Not far away, another spacecraft had picked up on the signal. The Venomian commander allowed a sadistic grin to cross his face before he gave the order to pursue the tiny ship. His hunch was proving correct after all...

One of his subordinates reluctantly approached him. Keeping just beyond armís length, he relayed a question several of the fighters were asking: should they attempt to capture the tiny vehicle or just blow it away?

"Whichever is more convenient," the lizard hissed, waving one hand dismissively. The lowly warrior gulped and promptly retreated, relaying the order to his fellow soldiers. The captain leaned backward in his chair and relaxed. It didnít matter to him whether Andross wanted the rabbit dead or alive: either way, heíd be pleased to know that the escapee had been taken care of. Perhaps there might even be a promotion in store for him after this...

***

"Theyíve given us permission to land," Peppy told the trio, although there had been no doubt in his mind that he would receive it. As he passed on the instructions to Slippy, the amphibian swung the small ship around, preparing. In the back, Fox and Falco gazed up at the imposing building, then exchanged glances.

"Looks like this is it, Foxy," the avian commented. "Just remember not to let yourself get too dazzled with the alliance. Iím not going to let you drag us into a bad deal."

"Y...yeah, donít worry," Fox replied, more to assure himself than her. He stared back up at the Cornerian Allianceís base, wondering how he was going to figure out his next move.

A shadow at the corner of his vision made him turn in surprise, still looking into the sky. His breath caught in his throat, and he managed to squeak, "Uh, guys...?"

Falco followed his gaze, and gasped, "What in the heck... Hey, Peppy, weíve got a little problem back here!"

"Huh?" Both Peppy and Slippy glanced behind them. The rabbitís eyes widened, and Slippy choked off a scream. Realizing that he was still gripping the communicator, Peppy whirled around and shouted into it, "Alert! A Venomian cruiser has entered Cornerian airspace! We could use a little help out here!"

***

The lizard commander snarled triumphantly as he spotted the miniature cruiser below his own. Turning to his crew, he bellowed, "All units attack!"

***

"Weíve got a distress signal!" Amber yelled to her fellow officers. "Give out the order: all Arwings scramble!" As the call echoed through the base, the cheetah threw a worried glance in General Pepperís direction. The canine had slowly leaned forward in his seat, paws tightening their stranglehold on the sides of his chair. A grim look marred the face that seconds before had been grinning.

***

Sable had practically exploded from her room the second Peppyís tone had changed from excited to fearful. The ferret sprinted down the hallways toward her Arwing, pausing only to bang upon a certain doorway and scream at its occupant, "Címon, move it, commander!" Without waiting to see if her shouts had roused the rabbit, she turned and bolted down toward the launching area, nearly slamming into one of the mechanics there. Vaulting into her fighterís cockpit, she gave the system a quick, customary once-over before securing her flight goggles over her suddenly serious eyes. Her Arwingís G-Diffuser whined as her ship shot out of the base.

"All aircraft check in," a stern female voice commanded, following with, "Rabbi here, all systems go."

"Glad you could join me, commander," Sable teased. "Sable here, no problems."

"This is Bill, checking in."

"Katt here, checking in."

"This is Fara, all clear. Presence of Venomian ship confirmed."

"Right then, letís move out, team!" Rabbi commanded, swinging her Arwing toward the Venomian cruiser.

***

"F-F-Fox, you C-C-CANíT!"

"Slippyís right, itís madness!" Peppy reached out and grabbed the young vulpineís shoulder. "Let the military handle this! Theyíll be sending their ships..."

"We may not have the time!" Fox insisted, shaking off the veteranís paw and climbing onto his airbike. Checking his blaster, he added, "We donít know how long itíll take them to get here, and I can buy us time. Donít worry, Iíll be careful." With that, he switched on the bikeís engine and took off before Peppy could say anything else.

Falco watched him depart with an angry frown. Swinging into her own airbike, she took off after him, muttering, "If he thinks heís taking all the fun for himself, heís got another thing coming!"

Peppy turned just in time to see her depart the ship, unable to do anything except watch in shock. Next to him, Slippy stared at his friends as they flew off to intercept the approaching fighters, then turned frightened eyes to the rabbit.

"T-t-theyíll be okay, r-r-right?"

Peppy couldnít think of anything to say to the amphibian. Watching the two airbikes blankly, he murmured a prayer for the safety of their drivers.

***

"Falco? What are you doing here? Get back to the ship!" Fox ordered the second he noticed the avian behind him. Ignoring his frantic command, Falco concentrated on taking out a Firebird that swooped toward the distracted vulpine. Fox turned back in time to see the twisted hunk of smoldering metal drop harmlessly to the ground.

"Just watch your own tail, Fox," she told him. Fox could only nod in reply. Turning around, the vulpine began to target the enemy fighters before they could return fire. As the two fired upon their assailants, they kept swerving and dodging to avoid being locked onto.

***

"What in the name of Andross is going on here?" demanded the Venomian commander, seeing several of his fighters drop seconds after launching. Below him, his crew quivered with apprehension, and one of the lowly troops carefully approached him.

"Uh... a couple of airbikes came from the ship, and are flying near the launching area," he squeaked. "They seem to be taking out most of our fighters as they come out."

"WHAT?" The commander whirled on the soldier, eyes seeming to glow with rage. "How could you weaklings let this happen?" The officer cowered away, stammering wildly as his superior lunged for his neck.

"Well, s-s-sir, they D-D-DO have b-b-bazookas..." he started lamely, trying to protect his own health. His words were cut off as huge, muscular hands wrapped around his throat, and his legs dangled in midair as the enraged captain lifted his squirming body. A sharp snap echoed through the suddenly silent control room, and the remaining crew members shrunk away from their commander as he released the unfortunateís body, letting it slump to the cold floor. Indifferent to its presence at his feet, the captain spun to glare at his subordinates, who stared back at him with the same expression a mouse might use when watching a cat who had cornered it.

"What are you fools looking at?" he roared. "Get to your posts, and GET RID OF THOSE TWO!" Settling back into his chair, he added in a quieter tone, "And somebody clean up this trash," giving the corpse before him a kick.

The surviving members spun scrambled back to their stations, resuming their posts with an exaggerated attentiveness and energy. At the same time, they began to argue quietly among themselves about just who would tell their commander that a small squadron of Arwings had emerged from the base and were heading their way...

***

"Rabbi, somethingís wrong with the Venmies!"

Rabbi stared at the Venomian cruiser, a little surprised. "I see what you mean, Monroe," she replied, keeping her confusion out of her voice. "It looks as though theyíre having trouble dispatching all of their forces."

"I wonder why," Fara said, watching the enemyís flying fortress with interest. Something strange was definitely happening near the launching areas: she could just barely make out what appeared to be explosions peppering the area. "Looks like the guys weíre supposed to rescue took matters into their own hands."

"Heh, is that so? Guess a whole lot hasnít changed in six years," Bill commented, more to himself than to his team.

"This is no joke," Rabbi scolded. "We need to get over there and assist them in their retreat NOW. Thereís no way they can hold them off for long."

"Commander, youíre speaking my language," Sable laughed, swinging ahead of her teammates. The G-Diffuser in her Arwing whined as she zoomed ahead of the others, speeding toward the enemy warship. Within moments, she had reached firing distance, and a squad of fighters raced to meet her.

"Aw, donít go to any trouble for little old me," she taunted before opening fire. Nine Venomians fell for nine shots fired. A fierce grin spread across the ferretís muzzle, and she swooped down toward the launching area, quipping, "Next?"

***

"Falco, behind you!" Fox aimed quickly and shot down the fighter trailing the avian. She swerved away from the explosion and brought her airbike alongside his.

"Thereís too many of them getting out!" she swore.

"I know! Head back to the ship!"

"Not without you!" and Falcoís eyes narrowed with resolve. The vulpine sighed; there was no way heíd be able to argue the point with her. Theyíd both have to pull out, and pray they didnít get a laser in the tail before they got back to the cruiser.

"Okay, weíll try it. On three, we make a break for it. One... Two... Thre-"

Foxís voice was drowned out in the sudden whine of a strange aircraftís engine. The gleaming fighter tore through the air over their heads and began firing at the Venomians. The vulpine and avian stared in utter awe as the new ship weaved through the enemyís fire, its own lasers flashing out. Both knew instantly what it was: both had been raised seeing the same sort of ship almost everyday. Yet they were both spellbound by the sight: an Arwing...

"A-a-are you guys o-o-okay?"

Fox blinked once and stared down at the amphibian: he didnít even remember returning to the deck, yet here he was, standing next to his friend. He must have landed without thinking about it, he realized with a start. Glancing behind him, he could see Peppy, watching him with intense concern, and behind the rabbit was Falco. The avian was staring back at the battle rapidly fading into the distance behind them, watching as more Arwings swooped into the fray. Fox understood what she was thinking about.

"Are they going to be okay?" he asked Peppy, pointing back toward the battle. The veteran glanced back, then grinned at the vulpine.

"Oh, theyíll be fine," he assured him. "Theyíve handled bigger forces than that. Right not, letís concentrate on landing this contraption, eh?"

"R-r-right," and Slippy guided the ship around, following the rabbitís instructions. Fox gazed back at the Venomian cruiser, hoping for another glimpse of the Arwings.

***

"YEEEEEHAAA!" Sable trilled as she U-turned and blasted a fighter trying to tail her. The explosion reflected off of her goggles, unnoticed by the ferret as she swept after another fighter she had just spotted.

"Lightfoot!" Rabbiís strict voice cut into her giddy mood like a knife. "Your previous action was completely reckless! Racing into a confrontation with enemy forces without permission! What do you have to say for yourself?"

"Lay off her, Rabbi," Bill scolded. "Sheís just doing her job."

"Yeah," Katt added as she blasted a squadron of Venomians coming toward the small group. "Let the kid have a little fun, and letís concentrate on taking out the enemy, hmm?"

"Yes... youíre right, Monroe," Rabbi admitted slowly. "You guard my six while I eliminate the guidance system." Her Arwing broke away from the others and swooped toward the cruiser, Kattís ship directly behind her.

***

"Where the hell did those Arwings come from?" the lizard commander swore, staring out of the observation window at the conflict outside. Beneath his station, his crew shrank away from his wrath.

Suddenly an Arwing appeared directly in front of the window, racing toward them. The captainís eyes widened as he spotted the space fighter. Stumbling backward from the portal, he raised one scaly hand helplessly as the Arwingís lasers glowed.

"N-NOOOOO!" His scream rose into a wail as white-hot destruction seared into the window, piercing the chamber. The death-cries of the commander and his crew combined into one howl, lost in the roar of the beam of light.

***

Inside the cockpit, Rabbi watched her lasers tear into the command central with a grim satisfaction. As she turned her back on the devastation she had caused, she switched on her comchannel and said, "Mission accomplished. Give me your status."

"Fara here. Looks like those guys made it back to base," the vixen observed.

"Thatís good," Bill sighed with an obvious relief. Katt, Sable and Fara echoed the sentiment: Rabbi remained silent.

"If everybodyís fine, letís head back to base," was all she said in reply. Sable resisted the urge to snap at her commander, and instead raced after her teammates as they flew in tight formation back to the tower. She had more important things on her mind than starting another confrontation with Rabbi.

***

Slippy guided the small ship into the docking area with a practiced ease. As he shut down its engines and let it slow to a halt, Fox surveyed the surrounding area with wide eyes. His heart had begun to pound against his ribs again, and the vulpine took a deep breath, trying to calm himself.

"Still nervous?" a voice at his ear inquired. Fox nearly leaped out of the cruiser, and whirled to see Peppy at his side. The veteran pilot smiled knowingly at him, and put a reassuring paw on the vulpineís shoulder. "Donít get so upset. I know youíll like the people here. Theyíll be very happy to meet you and your friends."

Fox didnít reply, but he silently filed away the information in the back of his mind. Privately, he prayed that his fatherís old friend was right. Quickly gathering the few things he had thought to bring along, and after watching Falco trick Slippy into carrying most of her stuff, the vulpine followed Peppy off of the ship.

General Pepper was waiting at the bottom of the ramp for them, Amber standing at full attention on his right. Watching Peppy closely as he disembarked, the canine resisted the urge to throw his arms around the rabbit and cry about how worried he had been. But that was conduct unsuitable for an officer of his rank, and he simply saluted his friend instead, relying on the expression in his eyes to tell the rabbit how he felt. Peppy returned the salute, his eyes seeming to dance despite his stiff posture.

I have completed my mission, General Pepper," he told the canine as he lowered his paw. "May I reintroduce to you the only son of my commander James, Fox McCloud." As he said this, he stepped aside and gestured almost grandly to a young vulpine descending the ramp behind him. Fox glanced at the rabbit with some astonishment, then caught sight of the canine commander and froze. The general stared at the boy as if he was seeing a ghost: the young vulpineís features were so eerily similar to those of the late James McCloudís as if to be a mirror image of the elder fox. The only noticeable difference was the slightly reddish tone of the younger oneís fur, and the almost frightened expression on the boyís face as he gaped at the canine.

"Whatís the matter, boy?" General Pepper asked, both put off and slightly amused at the young vulpineís uncertainty. "I donít bite or anything of the sort." He seemed to relax a little at that, and managed a sort of wistful half-smile in return. Pepper was privately deciding whether or not to offer the vulpine a lollipop when he noticed that the boy was not the only new arrival at the base. A female avian and a squat amphibian were standing just behind the fox, watching him intently. There was something vaguely familiar about the features of both, and while he assumed that the blue-feathered falcon was probably the fosterling James had looked after, he couldnít quite place the toadís face...

"This young lady is Falco Lombardi," Peppy was saying, "and the amphibian is called Slippy Toad."

"Toad?" Pepper asked, even as Slippy was turning to stare at the rabbit.

"H-h-how did you know my last n-n-name?" he stammered. Peppy just grinned back at him.

"Youíll find out soon enough," he told him in a vaguely teasing tone. "I have to take you to meet somebody later."

As Slippy stared up at the veteran pilot, trying to figure out what he meant, General Pepper took advantage of the distraction to regain his composure. Beside him, Amber managed to recover and whispered to him, "Did he say Falco Lombardi?" putting an emphasis on the last name. Pepper gathered his wits enough to nod in reply.

"James took her in after her familyís massacre," he replied, not bothering to mention just who had committed the crime. "I doubt she remembers them, though: she was only five at the time... At any rate, itís best you not mention her last name to anyone."

Amber said nothing, merely nodding in reply. General Pepper turned back to the trio of new arrivals and was about to extend his welcome when he heard the sound of someone running toward the group. He knew instantly who was coming, and stifled a grin as he whispered to Peppy, "Brace yourself."

Before the rabbit could answer, the breath was knocked out of him by the impact of Sable Lightfoot all but thrusting herself into his arms. The ferret made no pretense of rank, instead bursting into tears as she clung to her eldest friend and sobbed out her relief. Fox and his two friends stared at the seventeen-year-old in shock, obviously more than a little taken aback by her sudden appearance. Peppy looked just as stunned, yet managed to smile down at the girl and hug her in return. Amber laughed quietly, while the general reflected on the strange quirk of fate that allowed a young pilot to give Peppy the same sort of greeting Pepper himself had longed to give his friend.

"Peppy... I thought that Iíd lost you," Sable finally managed to choke out the words as she gently disengaged herself from the rabbit. She beamed up at him, laughing despite the tears brimming in her bright blue eyes. Seeing Fox and the others standing there as if for the first time, the ferret swung around and grinned at the new arrivals.

"Oh! I havenít seen you three around here before!" she said brightly, as though she hadnít been crying her eyes out seconds before. "Howíre ya doing? You must be Fox McCloud and his friends, right? Did you come after hearing about all the trouble here? Iím sure Peppy told you all about the Arwings and our plans to overthrow Andross. Hope you decide to help, but then I canít make you want to do anything, can I?" She giggled wildly at this, with Fox, Falco and Slippy staring blankly at her.

"Oh, thatís right, I havenít introduced myself!" Grinning, Sable reached out and took Foxís limp paw in her own, shaking it. "My name is Sable Lightfoot. You might remember me from a few years back; Billyís adopted sis? No?" The ferretís face fell for a fraction of a second, then she immediately brightened, saying, "Oh well, never mind, youíll know me soon enough. After all," she smiled even wider and stuck out her tongue teasingly, "Iím an Arwing pilot too! Or maybe I should wait until after youíve decided to join to say that? Oh well."

This went on, while Fox just stared at the ferret with an increasing sense of disbelief. He felt a paw close over his shoulder, and turned to see the somehow familiar face of a gray-furred canine smiling at him. The memories came back more swiftly for the vulpine this time, however, and he heard his own voice cry out, "Bill? Itís really you? I thought you were dead!"

"Same to you, Foxy," Bill Grey replied mildly, then the two old friends realized that they were laughing in unison. Within minutes, they were talking to each other as if nothing had changed, exchanging stories of what had happened to themselves during the intervening years as if only six days had gone by since they had seen each other last, instead of six years. Watching the conversation with a sense of disbelief, Falco and Slippy glanced at one another.

"Falco? Falco, is that you?"

"Huh?" Falco turned to see a pink feline staring at her from a few feet away. "Katt!" she exclaimed, shocked. Katt Monroe laughed and ran up to the avian.

"You havenít changed a bit in six years!" the feline grinned, "Just as beautiful as ever!" Falco smiled in reply, then the two females began talking to each other just as Fox and Bill were, laughing and giggling, while Slippy stared in amazement. The amphibian shifted slightly, suddenly feeling left out. Seemed like everybody had someone from their past to help them feel right at home... save for him.

"Whatís wrong?" he heard a female voice ask. Looking up, Slippy saw the female cheetah who had been standing next to the general smiling at him. Sighing, the amphibian mechanic looked away.

Amber knew what was wrong. Pulling Sable to one side, she instructed the ferret, "Why donít you take him to see the engineering specialists? Iím certain heíll enjoy seeing all the new gadgets there."

"Sure," Sable beamed up at the cheetah, then bounced over to Slippy and grabbed his hand. As the ferret led the surprised frog away, Amber laughed quietly to herself. There was no doubt in her mind that the girl would realize the real reason sheíd been told to take the amphibian to the machines the moment she saw Beltino there. Glancing over at General Pepper, she felt a flush of pride when the canine nodded over at her, silently complimenting her on her work. A job well done, indeed...

***

Peppy silently detached himself from the others as old friendships were rekindled once more. Those loud, joyous voices somehow only caused his head to ache, and besides, the one person he wanted to see most was nowhere in sight. He crept out of the room, nobody noticing his departure. After a few moments of searching, he found the individual he wanted checking her Arwing for damage in a nearby room. Entering silently, he watched her work for a moment before clearing his throat.

"Rabbi..."

At the sound of her name, the tan-furred rabbitís head shot up, pink eyes flickering briefly with surprise, then narrowing in recognition. Peppy slowly walked toward her, heart sinking as he noticed the carefully neutral expression she had schooled her features into.

"Yes sir?" The voice was as firmly controlled as the face.

"I just wanted to tell you... how thankful I am that you came to help earlier..." Peppy began, although he longed to say more.

"There is no need for thanks. My team and I vowed to protect all Cornerian citizens in need of assistance whenever possible. It was a matter of duty, nothing more." With that, she tried to slip out of the room, but Peppy caught her arm as she strode by.

"Is that all?" Peppy gazed intently at the younger rabbit, seeing how her avoided his eyes. "Is that all you have to say to me?" Still only silence. "Rabbi, Iím your father! Canít you at least treat me that way?"

When she refused to answer, the veteran pilot pulled her into his arms. Rabbi held herself stiffly in his embrace, refusing to react. Finally, he relaxed his hold, and the female rabbit broke free from his grasp and dashed into the darkness of the hall. Peppy watched her fade into the shadows, her retreating figure blurred by the tears that misted in his sad old eyes.

"Your mother would have been proud of you," he whispered to the empty doorway, suddenly looking extremely old.

To be continued...