Chapter 6: An Interesting Agreement

"Well, what do you think, General?" Amber asked, looking over at the canine. They had returned to the commander’s office, and were currently discussing the new arrivals.

"You know what I think," General Pepper replied, sitting at his desk. He fingered the test results that lay before him nervously, his eyes locked on the cheetah’s face. "Those three had excellent marks on their tests. I really believe that they would be a great assistance to us. However…" His gaze flicked over to Peppy, who was sitting beside Amber with his arms folded across his chest. "From what you reported about them earlier, Peppy, I’m not all that certain that we could convince them to join the military."

"I don’t think that Fox would be all that hard to convince," Peppy reminded him, a frown coming over his face as he added, "However, as for his two friends…Miss Falco doesn’t seem all as interested in the service as she is in flying an Arwing against Andross, and Slippy, while he would probably follow Fox anywhere he goes, would have a difficult time dealing with the stresses of serving under another’s command."

"Yes, Rabbi can be quite difficult to follow," Amber agreed. Seeing Peppy’s expression, she quickly amended, "Oh, I’m not saying that she’s not a good leader, it’s just that…"

"It’s okay, Amber," Peppy interrupted, shaking his head. "I understand where you’re coming from. I know that she can be…difficult. It’s nice to be reminded of that sometimes."

"I would try to assign Fox as the leader of the squad," General Pepper said, "but if I did that, everyone would assume that he had gotten the position because of his father…" He raised up his hands to show his helplessness, and the three sighed and looked downcast.

"Perhaps…perhaps there is a way that they could both be leaders," Peppy said at length. General Pepper and Amber looked over at the rabbit, and he asked, "Do you remember how I told you that Fox mentioned that he didn’t want to drag his friends into military service?" When they both nodded, he continued, "Well, I was thinking about the current team that we have, and I remembered that Miss Monroe said something similar back when we were trying to recruit her. She wanted to fight against Andross, but wasn’t all that thrilled by the idea of becoming an ‘army grunt,’ as she called it. So…"

"You think we should offer Fox and his friends the same deal?" Amber asked, her bronze eyes lighting up. The general sat up, a slow smile spreading across his muzzle as he looked at the rabbit.

"Bingo," Peppy told her, grinning. "We offer them free room and board, supply them with a few Arwings and maintenance, say we’ll pay them sixty-four bits per Venomian ship, and there you have it —a solution to our little problem. They get to fight without feeling tied down, and the alliance gains three new allies in our battle."

"Brilliant!" Amber exclaimed, and the cheetah actually started clapping. Peppy seemed to be awfully proud of his idea, and the rabbit leaned back in his chair, grinning.

"It sounds nice in theory, Peppy," General Pepper spoke up, "but there might be one small problem with it." Both Amber and Peppy stared at him, and the canine sighed as he asked, "How do you think Rabbi will react to this?"

The cheetah and the rabbit exchanged glances.

* * *

Rabbi Hare marched up the hallway, the heels of her metallic boots clicking a sharp, staccato rhythm against the hard floor. Whatever the general had summoned her for must be important, she told herself as she made her way to his office, considering the way he sounded over the private com-link. Does he have a new mission for me? Or…

Rabbi grimaced as she realized the far more likely cause. Those silly kids that Peppy brought in yesterday, the same three that he keeps insisting will make good pilots. I bet the general wants to inform me that they’ve been assigned to my unit. Well, he can just forget it! I don’t care how lucky that bird was during her test; those three will never make decent pilots! I’m having enough trouble with that bratty child Sable to deal with them!

The rabbit’s frown grew deeper as she thought of the ferret, and her tight march became more of a stomp as she continued down the hallways, making her way toward General Pepper’s office. Sable was a child in her eyes, and would always be nothing more than a child. Never mind that the girl was seventeen, more like seventeen and two-thirds to be a bit more precise; never mind that she was an extremely talented Arwing pilot with great reflexes and an eagerness to help fight; never mind that she had been skilled enough to blow Rabbi herself out of the sky during her test much in the same way that the bird had. She was still an immature child; a little whelp with a boyish build and a bubbly personality that grated on Rabbi’s last nerve, and in the rabbit’s mind that de-regulated the ferret to the status of snot-nosed brat.

Rabbi’s mind was still whirling with dark thoughts about Sable and the trio of little upstarts when she reached the general’s door, and it took all of her self-restraint and discipline as an officer and commander to keep from banging on the door with her clenched fist. Instead, she knocked demurely on the metal surface, and waited for it to slide open.

The first detail that she noticed was that Peppy was there. Rabbi immediately made a point of ignoring him, and the elder rabbit sighed to himself and looked anywhere but in her direction. She saluted General Pepper, eyes locked on him. Amber saluted Rabbi stiffly; the cheetah apparently not all too thrilled by having to give her such formality. Not paying any attention to her either, Rabbi instead looked at General Pepper, trying to read his expression.

She could see it in his eyes. They are going to make those three pilots! Rabbi stewed silently, although she managed out to let her outrage show on the outside. She forced a smile and said through clenched teeth, "You wanted to see me, sir?"

"Yes…Rabbi, do you remember the three that we tested earlier today?"

Oh God, here it comes. "Yes General," she said, keeping her voice even.

"Well, I was discussing their results with Peppy and Amber, and we believe that they would be a great asset in our fight against Andross."

Yeah, right. "Will you be assigning them to my team, then?" Don’t scream until later, don’t scream until later…

"Well…not exactly…" General Pepper shifted slightly in his seat, wondering why this girl sometimes could make him so uncomfortable. He certainly had her attention now, at any rate; her pink eyes were suddenly locked onto his face, as if searching for something.

"We believe that they would be more comfortable working as a sort of mercenary team," Peppy informed her, unable to meet his daughter’s piercing gaze. "I’m certain that you remember the contract we entered with Miss Monroe to have her join your team… Well, we think it would be best if we had a similar agreement with Fox and his two friends. I believe that it would be a better way to gain their services, instead of trying to force them into becoming part of the military."

"Is that right…" Rabbi mused.

"Of course, they would be a completely separate unit from your own," Amber informed her. "Mister McCloud would command his two friends, while you would continue to lead your own team. Would that be satisfactory with you?"

Rabbi said nothing at first, her pink eyes narrowed into thoughtful slits. At length she said, "Yes…but you should make certain that there is someone a little more experienced with them. High scores in the simulation don’t necessarily mean that they’ll be able to fight immediately. Someone should be with them, someone who has at least a little bit of experience who can show them the ropes and help them along."

"Do you think that Katt should be assigned to their team?" General Pepper asked. He was stunned when the female rabbit shook her head violently.

"No…I have the perfect candidate in mind…"

* * *

"Yes! My level went up!" Sable cheered as a triumphant melody played on her television’s speakers. She pumped her arms in the air, whooping as she quickly saved her game to a new file.

A sharp rapping on her door caused her head to turn. "Good thing I just saved," she commented as she switched off her video game system. The ferret attempted to pick her way through the clutter on her floor, but ended up yelping as her toe collided painfully with something hard hidden beneath a bedsheet. She stumbled to one side, and her shoulder banged into her desk, causing the mountain of papers piled there to start collapsing.

"Oh no, hold on, hold on," she stammered, hastily trying to push the papers back into place. The rapping echoed through the room again, and she gave up on that, letting the mountain cascade to the floor as she hopped over to the door. Nudging her feet into her metal boots, she yanked open the door and shouted, "What?"

"Uh…General Pepper wishes to see you in his office," a very startled looking lupine told her. As Sable yelped and slammed the door shut in his face, the wolf could hear her crashing around inside as she struggled to make herself presentable. After a few moments, the door was flung roughly open again and the ferret burst out, running in the direction of the canine commander’s office. The lupine cadet shook his head and grinned as the door automatically slid shut on its own. Sable may hold a higher rank than he did, but she still apparently had the same fear of General Pepper’s wrath that many cadets like the wolf possessed. Laughing to himself, the lupine walked back to his own bunker.

* * *

"So why did you to bring me here, Miss…"

"My name’s Fara Phoenix," Fara told the vulpine, a slight smile on her face. "This restaurant happens to have a fantastic reputation. All of my girlfriends say that the food here is terrific. I thought I’d treat you to a meal, since you’re new here and all."

"Really? That’s really nice of you," Fox said, his eyes lighting up. Suddenly he frowned, and he asked, "But shouldn’t we have brought the others with us too?"

"No, Katt told me that she’d already made plans with Falco for the rest of the day, and Sable said that she’s going to take Slippy to one of her favorite pizza places later. It’s all taken care of."

"Oh. Okay…" Fox said, letting Fara lead him to a table next to a window. He stared out of the window, admiring the view, and Fara sat across from him. It took a few moments, but Fox eventually realized that the vixen was gazing at him, and he felt his cheeks redden as he asked, "What? What’s wrong?"

"Oh, nothing," Fara replied, her soft green eyes shining as she giggled. Fox stared at the vixen, not certain just what to think. He had absolutely no clue as to why this girl was acting so strange…Still, he couldn’t help but notice the way that the sunlight that streamed through the window made her fur glow with an almost golden tint.

"Now you’re the one staring," she whispered softly, verdant eyes twinkling with laughter. Fox flushed even redder and hastily looked down at the table.

"Why…why hasn’t anyone come to take our order yet or something?" he stammered.

"Sometimes this place is so busy, that it takes a long time," Fara replied. She leaned forward, resting her chin in her cupped paws as she added softly, "But I don’t mind waiting. Do you?"

"Uhh…" Fox was beginning to wonder if his face would ever return to its normal shade. Fara gazed deeply into his eyes, her own still sparkling merrily.

"Sometimes things take a long time. And sometimes they can happen in an instant. Things like making a new friend…finding what you’ve been looking for…and even falling in love. Do you think that it’s possible to meet somebody special just like that?"

Fox stared at Fara, his eyes wide. He opened his mouth to reply…

And an announcement blared over Fara’s com-link.

"Fara? It’s Katt. General Pepper just contacted me and said that he needs Fox and his friends in his office ASAP. Get your tail over here!"

"Perfect timing, Katt," Fara muttered under her breath. Getting to her feet, she smiled apologetically at Fox and said, "Looks like I’ll have to try this again later. I’ll take you to the general’s office."

She took the vulpine’s paw and led him out of the restaurant, struggling not to show her disappointment. Fox followed her in a sort of stupor, trying to figure out just what she had meant by ‘trying this again later.’

* * *

Katt and Falco were the first ones to arrive, oddly enough. The feline was not particularly happy about the fact that she’d had to postpone her all-afternoon shopping spree with her friend; the avian was secretly thanking the powers above for granting her a reprieve from the endless walking from store to store. General Pepper, Amber, Peppy, and Rabbi were all still in the office, and the cheetah motioned for the two new arrivals to take a seat while they waited for the others.

A few moments after Bill arrived with Slippy, Sable all but burst into the room, panting hard as she sprinted in. Between gasping for air, the ferret nervously glanced toward the stunned general and asked if she was late. Smiling slightly, the canine quickly assured her that she was on time, and the girl sighed with relief as she flung herself into a chair. Rabbi rolled her eyes in disgust, although she made certain that no one was paying any attention to her before she did.

Fara finally brought Fox into the office, still steaming a little bit about being interrupted. As the two vulpines found seats, General Pepper exchanged glances with Peppy and Amber, then got to his feet. The canine cleared his throat, and everyone in the room looked at him.

"Ahem, well now, I’m certain that you all have at least some idea of why I called all of you here," he started, scanning the faces before him. "As you all know, we tested three promising new pilots earlier today, and I got the results a few hours ago." He paused for a moment, then said, "Fox, Falco, Slippy, I’m very pleased to announce that all of you got exceptionally high marks."

Slippy and Fox sighed with relief, while Falco just nodded expectantly, not looking the least bit surprised by the statement.

"Now, I have been informed that you three are not particularly taken with the idea of joining the military, but would still like to help in the fight against Andross. Therefore, I have a bit of a proposition for you three."

Nervously, Fox watched the general’s face, hoping to figure out what he was getting to. The canine took a deep breath, then said, "Fox McCloud. Would you and your companions be willing to allow the Cornerian Alliance to hire you as mercenaries?"

"What?" Fox asked, stunned.

"We’re offering you the chance to pilot your own little team against Andross, without having to join up with our military," the canine commander continued. "Miss Monroe can tell you more about the deal, since she signed up under one herself; however, to summarize it, we will give you free room and board, your own Arwings, and all the basic maintenance and other essentials that you need. In addition, we will pay you sixty-four bits for each Venomian ship that you destroy. It’s really a very good deal both ways; you get to fight against Andross without feeling tied to the military, and we gain three new allies in our war effort."

"Well…I…" Fox started to stammer.

"We do have one other slight stipulation, however," Rabbi interrupted, getting to her feet. All eyes turned to her, and she said, "We feel that it would be wise if we assigned an experienced pilot to your team. Once they join up with you, we will consider them to be a mercenary as well, and treat them as such. Their presence on the team would be intended merely to help you less experienced pilots early on. Do you understand this?"

"Yes…I guess so…" Fox said. His gaze flickered over to Bill as he asked, "Who do you have in mind?"

Rabbi actually smiled slightly, and she looked straight at her intended choice and said, "I believe that the best choice would be Miss Sable Lightfoot."

The ferret gasped and nearly tumbled out of her seat. All eyes swung to stare at her, and Sable glanced around at everybody, her bright blue eyes widened into orbs as she squeaked, "Me?"

"It does make sense, when you think about it," Rabbi went on, her cold pink eyes fixed on the ferret. "You are the newest member of the current Arwing team, and the one who is most likely to adjust well to being on a different team. You will be able to adapt to being under Mister McCloud’s command faster than the others would be. Do you not feel that you are capable of this change?"

Sable snapped her mouth shut, and her blue eyes glittered as she shot a nasty look in the female rabbit’s direction. The look didn’t last long, however, and she quickly nodded her head as she replied, "I feel that I am very capable of adjusting to this change. In fact, I really look forward to it, commander."

Rabbi didn’t miss the implication in the last word, but she ignored it. As if she cared what this boy-child thought about her.

General Pepper coughed, gaining everyone’s attention. The canine looked over at where Fox was sitting as he said, "Well, I’m glad to see that you’re willing, Lightfoot, but we haven’t got a confirmation yet. Mister McCloud, are you interested in our offer?"

"I…" Fox’s voice trailed off awkwardly and he glanced at the others gathered in the room. All eyes were focused on him and his friends. "It’s…not entirely my decision…"

"Well, I, for one, am willing to take it," Falco interrupted, and all eyes turned to where the avian was leaning against the wall. She raised her head, and everyone could see how her blue-green eyes glittered intensely as she said, "It’s not the best you can offer, but it still sounds fair enough to me. I’m more than willing to take down Andross, by myself if I have to, and your offer interests me. I’ll accept it."

"Falco…all right then, I trust your judgement," Fox decided aloud. Looking over at Slippy, he asked, "If you don’t feel like accepting it, Slippy…"

"H-h-hey, where you two go, I go," Slippy replied, smiling a lopsided smile. He hoped he sounded braver than he felt.

"Then I guess it’s settled," Fox said, getting to his feet. Glancing over at General Pepper, he took a deep breath and said, "General, we accept your offer."

The canine commander nodded, a rare grin spreading over his face. Sable let out a whoop of excitement, and she glanced around at the others, beaming. Katt grinned and slapped the ferret a high-five. Bill walked over and shook Fox’s hand, tipping his sunglasses at a disinterested Falco.

"I hope this isn’t a decision you regret later," Peppy said under his breath, watching the joyful conversations from a corner. He smiled, but he couldn’t help remembering a scene similar to this one, back when he, Pigma, and James had first formed the Starfox team…

To be continued…