On Broken Wings

The light snow flurries breezed through the urban, developed streets of downtown Corneria, coating the city in a thin layer of snow that served to add a rich, white element to its appearance while remaining mostly harmless to its pedestrians and drivers. The city's old clock tower could be seen above the numerous smaller buildings that bordered the long avenue that—for good reason—was less traveled than normal. Although the clock had stood in the central square of Corneria City for more than three hundred years, it seldom erred in its sole purpose, which was to provide the time of day to the citizens of Corneria City. At the moment, it read 10:40 PM.

In the midst of the falling snow, a tall lupine figure limped along the slippery sidewalk with a crutch under his right arm and a cast hidden under his clothes on his right leg. His thick fur served to protect him from the chilly weather, but it did nothing to ease the pain in his broken leg or the humiliation of having lost his 'wings', as pilots called them. The snow began to build up on his cybernetic left eye, causing him to spit on the ground in anger and wipe it away until his vision was no longer obstructed. Fuming, he pushed on, motivated by the hopes of drowning his disappointment in a tall mug of some holiday concoction at one of the few establishments that had elected to remain open on Christmas Eve.

Sadly, even that would be disappointing; as he had already spent most of his money simply trying to survive after living through what would have been a fatal crash for most people. His Wolfen fighter was destroyed beyond all repair, one of his crew members was dead at the hands of Star Fox, and unlike the Cornerian-based mercenary team, he had no way of maintaining any kind of medical 'safety net' for injuries such as his own. Finding a livable job was nearly impossible for him given his record, and the only reason the Cornerian police or the local militia refrained from hauling him off to prison was because of the benevolence that he had exhibited during the Aparoid conflict.

He dug through the deep pockets of his faded gray trench coat and removed a small credit chip. "Pathetic," he mumbled to himself as he read the digitalized number '10' on the back of the metallic device that was no larger than a flash drive. Simultaneously, he fingered through the pocket on the opposite side of the coat and touched the cold metal surface of his handgun. It was one of the old ballistic-round revolvers that held six shots, as opposed to the highly advanced (and illegal for him) military weaponry that he once possessed. Nevertheless, it would be enough to finish the job after he had spent the last of his money and downed his drink at the bar, which began to come into sight on the right side of the street. The dim, yellow lights offered a warm—if somewhat underwhelming—welcome as he stepped up to the heavy, metallic door and heaved it open with his unoccupied left hand.

The sights, sounds, and smells of the old bar immediately overwhelmed his senses. Laugher and jubilant camaraderie filled the room, making him feel even more miserable about his condition as he shuffled across the floor, his crutch thumping on the wooden surface with every other step he took. The bar itself was not heavily occupied or staffed by any means. Most of the establishment's normal patrons were at home with their loved ones or families, preparing for the excitement of the next day. Several open spots remained at the bar, which was manned by a solitary husky.

Fingering his credit chip, Wolf slid onto one of the bar stools and took a quick glance at the patrons around him. None of them seemed to even notice him. Perhaps that was a good thing. Two seats to his left sat a voluptuous red vixen who—like him—wore a cybernetic eye. She sat next to a dull-furred vulpine, conversing with him and occasionally laughing at his humorous statements. Wolf began to take an interest in her, but when he noticed the small, diamond-encrusted band on the vixen's finger, he sneered in disappointment and quickly directed his attention elsewhere. Most of the other denizens of the old bar were in high spirits, excited about the day ahead of them. Many of them announced to their friends what they would do with their families, their wives, or their significant others on Christmas day. The only dark spirit in the room belonged to Wolf. For him, this was the last taste of joy he would ever experience before he stepped into an abandoned alley and pulled out his handgun to bring his hateful existence to a merciful end.

He fondled his revolver inside his coat pocket for several seconds, feeling the cold, forged steel on his fingertips before the husky bartender stopped in front of him and asked, "What can I get for you tonight?"

"What can I get for 10 credits?" he asked in return.

The bartender scratched his muzzle for a matter of seconds and mentally took stock of his options, which were admittedly limited to cheap draft beers and low-quality wines. The husky glanced at Wolf, knowing exactly who he was and what had happened to him to bring him to the deplorable state that he was in. "I'll tell you what, pal—your drink is on me. I might as well give you something nice with Christmas just an hour away. There's a special kind of hard cider that I serve this time of year. Folks here say they like it. Would you care for a taste?"

"Sure, why not?" Wolf scoffed, leaning forward on the bar and looking at his credit chip once again. 10 credits, and nothing more. While the bartender retreated into the area behind the bar to fill up a mug of holiday cider for his unfortunate guest, Wolf reflected on how far he had fallen. His team was gone, his reputation was shattered, he was broke and homeless, and worst of all—the way he saw it—no one wanted him. He cursed himself for his past as an outlaw; a career that never attracted the thanks or the admiration of the public. For all of his years in Star Wolf, he had possessed everything he had ever wanted—or so he thought. Money, respect, power…none of those things mattered when it all came crashing down.

With everything he prided himself on stripped away, he realized that he had no one he could genuinely trust as a close friend. Sure—Panther and Leon may have considered themselves friends of Wolf, but in his eyes, they had been somewhat distant in reality. Leon always preferred to keep to himself when he wasn't on a job with Star Wolf; and perhaps it was for the better. Leon was not known as a social person or a mentally sane one, for that matter. On the other hand, Panther was usually off accosting some attractive female, leaving Wolf to himself the vast majority of the time. He would have said that he liked it that way, but he knew that any attempt to rationalize his loneliness was merely a form of denial.

In a matter of moments, the bartender returned and placed Wolf's mug of 'holiday cheer' in front of him. He nodded his head at the forsaken lupine before he set to work cleaning up the bar space where a particularly messy patron had spilled his drink.

In a hospital emergency room, thirty minutes earlier…

The beeping sound emanating from the heart rate monitor slowly increased in speed, becoming more rapid with every second that passed. Medical personnel swarmed around the bedridden fennec whose strength and will to live were gradually fading away.

"Stay with us, sir!" the head doctor shouted, pressing firmly on the elderly vulpine's chest in hopes of stabilizing his weakening heart. The beeping from the nearby machine continued to grow louder as the blips on the screen became less discernible with every heartbeat.

"We're going to lose him! NO!"

Outside the emergency room, a younger fennec vixen sat alone on a white bench in the hallway. She held her head in her hands, hoping and praying that her ailing father would live through the sickness that had plagued him for the last two weeks. He had bravely faced the illness up until this point, but this time, it seemed like it was determined to take his life for good.

Since her father had been rushed into the emergency room, Fara had waited on the unsupportive bench. It had been nearly two hours since she had seen her father for the last time. When the door to the ER opened and a feline nurse stepped into the hallway, Fara immediately shot a fiery glance her way and gritted her teeth in fearful anticipation of what she had to say.

The nurse's downcast expression told her everything she needed to know. "I'm sorry, Miss Phoenix. He didn't make it."

The vixen screamed hysterically and sobbed without restraint, pounding the bench with her fists and yelling, "No! Why did he have to die?!"

The nurse approached her and kneeled at her side. "I'm sorry, Miss Phoenix. We did everything we could to help him. It looks like the disease was just too much for him to handle this time. Fara continued to cry while the nurse caringly patted her on the shoulder and asked her, "Would you like to see him before you leave?"

"Yes," Fara whimpered, standing up with what seemed like an inordinate amount of effort on her part. Giving her short white skirt a quick tug to partially smoothen out the wrinkles that had developed in the fabric, she followed the nurse into the ER, which normally remained off-limits to the general public. The only reason the nurse had offered Fara a chance that most never would have been able to attain was because her father had been the CEO of the enormous Space Dynamics corporation responsible for building most of the Cornerian Army's vehicles and a good portion of Corneria City's transportation infrastructure.

Fara followed the nurse through the white door with a sign that read 'Hospital Personnel Only' in boldface print flanked by a yellow background. She knew that she would likely be reprimanded for entering the restricted area despite the nurse's authorization—which, in actuality, failed to qualify as such in the eyes of the hospital's higher-ups. The thought crossed her mind, but she shoved it aside and focused on the more important aspect of her situation. Her father had died, and this would be the last time she would see him before he was sent to the mortuary to be prepared for his funeral.

The feline nurse led her through the quiet, white-painted area where several equally white partitions had been set up—not necessarily to hide the dead bodies of other doomed emergency patients, but rather to keep the area from appearing disorganized and cluttered. The three other doctors surrounding the deceased fennec glared at Fara, displeased that she had been allowed into the emergency ward. The head doctor—a large badger—scowled, but he held his peace, knowing that Fara could have been considered an important heiress by many.

Shirking his contempt for the unwanted guest, the doctor pointed to Fara's father and explained, "I'm sorry, Miss Phoenix. There was nothing we could do to save him this time."

Fara wanted nothing more than to grab the doctor by the collar and strangle him, all while yelling, "You bastard! It's all your fault that he died!" However, she knew better than to do that. Her reserve in and of itself was a testament to how the now-departed Phoenix had raised his daughter. Although a bit rough around the edges, she retained a small part of the polish that her father possessed in ways that she would never understand.

She looked over her father's silent form, locked in an eternal sleep from which he would never depart. His facial expression bore a trace of the pain and anguish that he had felt in his last moments of life, but for the most part, it remained neutral to most emotions—both happy and sad alike. "Just like him," thought Fara, "He never let his emotions get to him."

Brushing aside the two other doctors beside the medical bed, she stood next to her father and stroked his long ear and his forehead, which still retained their warmth. In a matter of hours, the majority of his body heat would dissipate forever; but as it was, Fara felt comforted in feeling a final tinge of life from him before she was forced to carry on without him. It was not to say that she was incapable of doing such, however. Fara had celebrated her thirtieth birthday only a matter of weeks prior to her final moments with her father and was more than capable of providing for herself.

Regardless of that fact, she felt indescribably lonely without him. As a widower, the elder Phoenix had never missed a chance to spent time with his daughter, who had reminded him of his own departed wife. While a social woman by nature, Fara had never been one for relationships; and without her father to provide friendly company to her, she had very few people in her life that she genuinely wanted to be around.

She took one last look at her father and patted his head one more time before she lowered her head and trudged out of the room. Her spirit felt broken by the passing of her only remaining parent; and the loneliness that began to overwhelm her locked its spectral arms around her heart, instilling her with the icy chill of fear and uncertainty that her father had always been around to help her with.

She entered the nearest elevator and rode it down to the base floor, ignoring each individual she came into contact with. She refused to lock eyes with anyone for fear that her despair would be visible. She attempted to remain strong in spite of her loss, but all she wanted to do was to drop to her knees and cry in anguish. Being the only daughter of a prominent and well-known Cornerian businessman had its shortcomings, one of which was the constant attention by the media, the other local business leaders, and some of those who would have best been avoided. An overt show of emotions in such a highly-trafficked area would likely result in unwanted media exposure that she desperately wished to avoid.

So, with her tears bravely restrained, Fara stepped through the hospital's sliding glass doors and into the icy winter night. She instinctively tugged at the thick, beige coat that covered her from her neck to her knees and buried her face in the faux fur that lined her garment's neck area. The short skirt that she wore under her coat did her no favors in keeping her legs warm. Her bare shins absorbed the frigid air and broadcasted the chills to the rest of her body, negating the warming effects of her fluffy coat.

"Anyplace warm," she begged, internally. "Somewhere with a hot fireplace and a warm cup of something soothing." She stood just outside the hospital, looking out at the parking lot where she had parked her car after arriving in the midst of her father's health trauma. Many thoughts ran through her mind, but one stood out from the others. She vaguely remembered one particular place where she had met her father on Christmas Eve more than five years ago. Tears leapt to her eyes, but she restrained herself once again before deciding that in memory of her departed father, she would pay a visit to the bar that remained open until the second the clock struck midnight and ushered in the holiday.

Finding a suitable place to park in downtown Corneria City was normally a frustrating, tedious, and even dangerous affair. However, such was not the case tonight. With most of the city's citizens home with their families and friends, the streets remained uncannily quiet in the final hour before Christmas day. Having found a suitable parking space on the side of a street marked "Jameson-Lowell Avenue," Fara climbed out of her car and braced herself for the icy blast of winter air that held no sympathy for anyone, whether rich, poor, young or old. Her heeled shoes made traversing the slippery sidewalk a challenge, but she managed to reach the door to the old city bar without humiliating herself—even though very few people would have seen it if she had done so.

The fennec pried open the door to the bar and stepped inside. The warmth coming from the antiquated fireplace on the far left wall left an immediate impression on her and shattered the cold that enveloped her body. She faintly remembered the establishment from the last time she had been here, although she very clearly recalled who she had been with at the time.

The memory of her father tugged at her heart as she shuffled over to the bar area and reviewed her seating options. Three bar stools were available—two on the extreme left side of the short bar, and one between a merry, talkative squirrel couple and a lone wolf whose haggard, wounded form was the perfect epitome of misery. She eyed the left two seats but cringed when she saw the husky bartender pull out multiple rags in order to clean up a sizeable spill on the bar where she had planned to sit. Upon closer examination, she realized that the spill was not merely limited to the wooden surface. Rather, it also extended to the seat itself, covering the vinyl surface with a sticky, moist ooze. "Disgusting," she groused to herself. Having decided that sitting in someone's spilled beer was not a viable option, she reluctantly took a seat on the stool next to the wounded lupine, who sat sipping on a hot mug of holiday cider.

His cybernetic eye tipped off his identity to Fara, who felt the need to lean away from him—or better yet, simply back away and try to find a table where she could sit by herself. She put her feet on the ground and began to stand up, but before she could leave, the bartender shot over to her position at the bar and asked her, "What can I get for you, sweetheart?"

She decidedly hated being called that. With a displeased frown, she motioned towards Wolf and asked the bartender, "What's he having?"

"Ah, the special hot cider we serve this time of year," the husky replied. "I can't recommend it enough. Personally, I'd serve it all year round if I had the choice, but the boss says…"

"…I'll take it," Fara growled in response. In her state of grief, it felt good to shut him up. She was in no mood for aimless chatter, and the noise of the bar was already overwhelming enough for her.

Taken aback by the fennec's interruption, the bartender complied and said, "Alright—I'll have it out to you in just a bit."

Fara leaned back as far as was possible on her backless bar stool. She attempted to free her mind of the pain that refused to leave her, but the only guaranteed remedy for it was time—and a lot of it. The memories she had shared with her father would not depart from her mind anytime soon, although at the moment, she wished they would. But that was part of the reason she was here. Alcohol had a way of releasing even the most riveting of tensions, or so they said. Fara genuinely hoped that was the case tonight, because as she saw it, Christmas day would be even more miserable than Christmas Eve.

The voice of the wolf next to her snapped her out of her introversion. "Thanks for shutting that guy up. I'm already sick of hearing him ramble on about 'Holiday Cheer' and all that crap."

Fara uneasily replied, "Uh, thanks."

She intended to keep her words with her neighbor at the bar to a minimum, but her intentions were pushed aside when Wolf commented, "Horrible night, isn't it?"

"Yeah…" Fara sighed. "I usually love this time of year, but now…now I just want to punch anyone who tries to wish me a 'Merry Christmas.' Sure—I guess you can't blame them, but they wouldn't be so happy if they just lost their dad."

"Hmph. I hated my dad," Wolf snorted. "Good riddance to him, I say."

Fara had heard about the acts of cruelty that Wolf had been part of in the years past, but in her frustration, she dared to challenge him. "Oh, come on—what don't you hate?" she sardonically remarked.

The lupine turned towards her and growled, "I don't completely hate you yet. Maybe you should shut your mouth before I change my mind, Big Ears."

Wolf's cavalier remark incensed Fara. With fire in her eyes, she bared her teeth and snarled, "Do you know who I am?" Wolf shook his head with a smile, enraging Fara even more. "Well, I'll tell you who I am then! I'm the heir of the Space Dynamics Corporation! You know, the company that built the Arwings that shot you and your pathetic crew down."

Wolf raised his eyebrows. "It wasn't smart of you to say that," he smirked as he slid a rusty knife out of his right pants pocket.

"And why not?" Fara retorted, still fuming.

Wolf held the knife where Fara could see it and replied, "Because I could hold this knife to your throat, drag you out of this bar, and hold you hostage until someone at your company pays me enough so that I can get my life back together."

Fara glanced at Wolf's crutch and chuckled. "With a broken leg? I don't think so."

"Or I could just kill you outright."

Fara rolled her eyes and pulled a black plastic device out of her overcoat. "Do you know what this is? This is a high-voltage self-defense device—except that this one is modified to put out more than three times the shocking power that the original could. Very lethal."

"And very illegal," Wolf remarked in return.

"Don't you go bureaucratic on me now," Fara snapped. "It's a wonder the cops haven't hauled your sorry butt off to prison by now. Actually, I know why—because leaving you on the streets is a much better punishment than taking you somewhere where you get a bed, a place to work out, a place to meet people like yourself—and to top it all off, a place where you get free food."

"It took you that long to figure that out?" Wolf mocked. "Maybe you should get your head out of your panty drawer and start thinking like the corporate drone that you said you were."

Fara stared wide-eyed at Wolf in disbelief of what he had just said. "Care to repeat that?"

Wolf grinned and succinctly answered, "No."

"Good choice."

In a matter of seconds, the husky bartender returned to Fara's spot at the bar and placed her mug of hot cider in front of her. "How much is it for that?" Fara asked.

The bartender waved his hand and replied, "Nah—you don't have to pay me for it. It's on the house tonight."

"Well, um… thanks," Fara murmured, gripping her mug by its handle and sipping the scalding hot beverage that felt perfect to her cold body. She sighed in delight and took several more cautious sips as the minutes rolled past. When she had mostly drained her mug, she glanced to her right and observed the large antique clock that hung on the nearby wall.

11:20 PM.

"I really should be getting home," she thought to herself. "Once I finish this drink, I'll get out of here." She redirected her attention to her mug and took another swig of the peppermint-flavored drink just as Wolf finished his and brought his drinking glass to rest on the wooden surface of the bar. The instant the glass touched the wood, Fara perceived a somber change come over him. He slouched forward at the bar and stared blankly at its worn, wooden surface. When he dug his hands into his coat pockets, Fara deduced that he was either touching or holding something that he had hidden there.

Wolf began to rise from his seat, but for reasons unknown to either him or Fara, he found himself unable to commit to it. He regressed to his former position, silently sulking and brooding over the thoughts that he wished to share with himself and himself alone. He glanced up at his empty drinking glass and sighed. He had decided what he would do long before he had set foot in the bar, but now that the time to end it had come, he couldn't bring himself to do it.

Above the noise of the crowded barroom, Fara felt a prompt—a silent voice—telling her to ask the lupine what troubled him. "No! Why should I care about him?" she asked herself.

She staunchly refused to acquiesce to her subconscious prompting, but when she picked up her glass to take another sip of her holiday cider, she heard the voice say, "You're not the only one who's lost everything that you thought was important."

The fennec shuddered at the thought, but she knew that there was no way out of it. She had to strike up a conversation with him whether he liked it or not. Taking a deep breath, she asked the lupine, "Is something wrong?"

Wolf angrily turned to look at her and snarled, "Why do you care?" but the sadness in his eyes sent out an urgent message for help. Although Fara was not the most sensitive of people, she had seen that same expression before and knew what it meant. Bravely determined to hold her ground, she replied, "Don't lie—something's bothering you."

"I suppose it would if your world went to Hell like mine did," Wolf growled, showing his teeth to the fennec. "But I'll bet you wouldn't know what that's like."

"Try me," Fara mumbled. "If I were you, I wouldn't blow off the one person with the power to pick you out of the gutter."

Wolf's good eye widened for a moment, but it quickly returned to its normal, aggressive state. "Don't play games with me, Big Ears. I know you're bluffing."

"The name's Fara," the fennec harshly retorted. "And I was considering it."

Wolf was quick with a reply. "Alright, Fara—if you want to help me out, why don't you just hand over a couple million credits? That would be a good start."

Fara shook her head. "Money isn't going to fix your problems." She looked down and muttered, "I've learned that from experience."

"Then what can?" Wolf snapped.

Fara gave him no response. Instead, she picked up her mostly-empty mug and gulped the remainder of its contents before banging it down on the bar loudly enough to attract the attention of nearly all the other patrons sitting at the bar. Very reluctantly, she forced herself to look into Wolf's strong, yet sad eye and said, "I'm not really sure, but whatever you need, I need it too. This bar is going to close soon, and I'm going to go home for the night. Where are you going after this?"

"Nowhere," he muttered, unwilling to speak the truth of what he intended to do when the clock struck midnight.

The fennec glanced down at the bar for a moment and bit her lip. She had an idea that the forlorn lupine would most likely benefit from, but it wasn't something that she particularly wanted to do. However, in spite of her wary predisposition towards the former mercenary, she found that she enjoyed talking with him, if only because it helped to take her mind off the loss of her father.

She took another look at the clock and saw that only fifteen minutes remained until Christmas day. Following that, she glanced at Wolf with her peripheral vision and saw the disappointment and misery written on his battle-scarred face. She knew what she needed to do. It was only a matter of convincing herself to do it.

Turning to Wolf, Fara stuttered, "W…wolf?"

The lupine glared at her and replied, "What now?"

"I'd like to make you an offer."

"I'm listening," Wolf muttered, "Although if you really wanted to help me, you'd be giving me enough money to get off this rock."

Fara frowned and replied, "Sorry, but that's not going to happen. In exactly one minute, I'm going to get up and leave. You can either come with me, or you can stay here and rot."

Wolf cocked a curious eyebrow. "You're asking me to come with you? Why?"

Fara returned an uneasy, faint smile and admitted, "I don't know why, but I like talking to you. If you come with me, I promise that you won't regret it."

"And if I don't?"

"Then it's your loss," Fara replied. "So, what's it going to be? The clock is ticking, and you've only got thirty seconds to decide before my offer leaves with me."

Wolf growled and brought his hand to his muzzle, which he scratched for twenty of the remaining thirty seconds while he pondered his choice. With only five seconds remaining until her offer expired, the fennec began to stand up. She ran her fingers through her tail and buttoned her coat as she prepared to leave. As she stepped onto the main floor, she looked at Wolf one last time before she began to leave the building.

"Wait—I'll do it!" Wolf yelled over the noise inside the bar.

Fara stopped in her tracks and slowly turned around until she stood facing Wolf, who awkwardly clambered off his bar stool and placed his crutch under his right arm. "Are you sure?" she asked.

"Yeah," Wolf grunted. "I've got nothing left to lose, so I might as well."

"Alright then—come on. My car isn't parked too far from here."

Fara opened the heavy wooden door and held it for Wolf as he hobbled out of the bar into the icy air outside. The cold affected him very little due to his heavy lupine build, but Fara was visibly shivering in spite of the thick, layered coat that she wore. Still, out of courtesy for her wounded guest, she walked slowly towards her car. When her black coupe came into view, she wanted nothing more than to dive into her drivers' seat and turn on the heat; but she forced herself to open the passenger side door for Wolf and help him in, crutch and all. The small car barely held his large frame, even with the seat shoved as far back as it would go and his crutch awkwardly positioned in the virtually nonexistent back seat so that it crossed over into the area where he sat.

After tightly—but comfortably—shutting Wolf inside the vehicle, Fara walked around the hood and opened her door before dropping into the driver's seat and turning the key in the ignition. The car's engine roared to life, bringing with it the welcome sensation of heat blowing through the air conditioning units. The warmth seemed to bring a sense of relaxation to Wolf, although Fara visibly basked in the heat radiating through the cabin. Her species was built for high temperatures, and the wintry weather that covered Corneria City was more than she cared to deal with.

After warming herself enough, Fara shifted her car into drive and pulled out of her curbside parking space. Largely uninhibited by city traffic, she made excellent progress towards her goal of reaching her family's manor house, which stood in the wealthiest development that Corneria City had to offer. Wolf had very little knowledge of the part of Corneria City where Fara was taking him, but he said very little during the trip and allowed his uncommonly gracious host to take him wherever she pleased.

The crowded, modern architecture of Corneria's downtown area began to change to reflect a more 'sophisticated' air that came with the increase in residual value of the buildings that occupied the district where Fara kept her house. The straight, urban streets belonging to the city became winding, twisting suburban roads flanked by stone walls that added a rustic ambience to Corneria City's upper district. Above the ribbons and wreaths that embellished the street lights and signs in the area, a large Christmas tree stood in the middle of rounded courtyard, behind a fountain that had been winterized and drained of water.

"Hold on," said Fara. "I want to stop here for a little bit."

Wolf grunted, explaining without words that he didn't particularly care about Fara deciding to stop in the parking area around three hundred feet in front of the oversized tree that almost defied the limits of how large a Christmas tree could be. Presents littered the area around its base, while large, crystalline ornaments dangled from every branch. The tree itself was topped with an ornate white star that cast its light on the courtyard below it.

As they approached the elaborate holiday-themed area, Fara slowed her vehicle and pulled into a parking space that offered a clear view of the tree and the panorama that surrounded it. When all motion had ceased, she turned off the engine and leaned back in her seat. "I remember coming here when I was young," she wistfully explained, not expecting Wolf to offer a comment. "My mom and dad would take me here to put our gifts under the tree. It was something this community did every year."

"Who got the presents?" Wolf asked, as if they were placed there for ceremonial purposes akin to a sacrifice of some kind.

Fara replied, "They were given to the homeless children of Corneria City as a way of showing that somebody loved them and cared about them."

Wolf sighed and shook his head. It was rare that he showed any kind of emotion, but in his childhood, very few had ever given him the light of day. "Hmph. That would have been nice."

"What do you mean?" asked Fara. "Did you never get any Christmas presents?"

The lupine swallowed a flood of emotions that overwhelmed his mind at the memory of his childhood, which he wished would disappear into the void forever. "One time," he replied. "My aunt gave me a model of a Cornerian space fighter when I was six. My dad smashed it a week later and then threw it away. He told me it was something that didn't belong in my life."

Fara's countenance softened; and as she looked at Wolf, she thought she saw a tear slide down his face. The anger that he held towards his father—long since deceased—still burned inside of him, possibly even acting as the motivation for the violence and mistrust that followed him wherever he went, whether it was Venom, Sargasso, or Corneria. She could picture Wolf's hated father figure breaking his only gift and tossing it into the trash as if the kindness and thoughtfulness that went into its purchase were without value.

Wolf continued, "Not too long after that, I heard that my aunt died. She was the only person who really cared about me. After that point, I couldn't live the same way anymore. I didn't want anything to do with my mom or dad, but I stuck it out until I was old enough to leave and survive on my own. I'm sure you know the rest."

"I do," Fara weakly replied. "Sorry about your childhood."

Wolf rolled his eyes and laughed, "Yeah, like you can do anything about it."

Fara looked down at her lap while she thought about Wolf and what she had already learned about him. What she was unaware of was that he had told her far more about himself than he had to those that he considered friends. She deduced that his entire mercenary lifestyle had initially been created as a way to spite his father and his disapproval of Wolf's interests. For years, she had heard about Wolf and his team, but she had never known about what his life had been like before his rise to prominence and subsequent fall from infamy into irrelevance.

Most of all, though, she felt his pain that came as a result of being unloved throughout his life. His rejection as a child had extended into his teenage years, and then in turn, his adulthood. Infamy and aggression seemed to satisfy him; but in reality, they merely acted as a mask that concealed the heart of his aggressive tendencies. For several minutes, Fara thought about her options with him, knowing that she had to do something to show that someone cared about him in spite of his past sins and mistakes.

Without a word, she reignited her vehicle's engine and reversed out of the parking lot before turning onto the street that led to the development where the Phoenix family kept their residence. As the family's only surviving heir, Fara had the sprawling manor to herself. She could handle being completely alone for periods at a time; but eventually, the loneliness would eventually become too much for her to handle. Her thoughts drifted back to her father for a moment; but shortly, they shifted to the lupine seated next to her.

Her father would have wanted this.

A left turn into the ritzy development and a two-mile drive up the narrow residential street brought Fara and Wolf to the ornate, black gate of Phoenix Manor. The fennec slowed her vehicle and approached the gate, which opened in response to the estate owner's gate opener that she kept on her car's sun visor. The stone driveway sent vibrations up the car's suspension, although it was not completely uncomfortable. In spite of the wintry temperatures, the grass on both sides of the driveway was as green as most yards in the peak of spring.

Wolf's good eye widened as he took in the appearance of the stately manor house that Fara called home. However, he was only able to observe it for a matter of seconds before Fara pulled into her large, multicar garage. Remembering Wolf's injuries, the fennec climbed out of her seat and opened Wolf's door for him, helping him to his feet and pulling his crutch out of the back seat. She led the way into the house itself, which remained dark in the final minutes of Christmas Eve until she flipped on the lights, revealing an assortment of antique furniture that would have made a collector drool.

"The bedrooms are this way," Fara explained, pointing up a large staircase towards the second story. "Take your pick, although my bedroom and the master suite are off limits."

"Thanks," Wolf replied. "Really—you didn't have to do this."

Fara leaned up against the staircase railing and smiled. "I know, but it's Christmas, and I couldn't stand to spend it alone. Have a good night, Wolf—and one more thing…"

"…Merry Christmas."

With that, Fara walked down the hall towards her bedroom, which was positioned on the first floor as opposed to the second, where the guest suites were kept. The warm lighting coming from the living room lamps illuminated the living room and most of the staircase, allowing Wolf to climb the stairs with some difficulty. Once at the top, he scouted out each of the guest bedrooms until he decided on one facing the street that ran in front of the house's front gate. With Fara locked away in her room and the house otherwise empty, Wolf closed the door and undressed, throwing his unkempt clothing on the floor beside the large, luxurious bed before climbing in and falling asleep almost immediately.

That night, he slept deeply, although a loud mechanical noise temporarily interrupted his slumber as the clock struck five. Due to his tired state, he shrugged it off as an inconsequential sound; but if he had paid more attention to it, he would have been able to discern its origin.

The next morning, he awakened and climbed out of bed. The clock on the nearby nightstand indicated the time as being 8:30 in the morning—not late at all by Wolf's standards. Noticing a bathroom affixed to his room, he happily strode in and experienced the first real shower that he taken in more than two weeks. It felt indescribably good to wash the filth and contaminants out of his fur. When he had finished, he felt like a completely different person. The clothes that he had carelessly thrown on the floor were as filthy as he had been before his morning wash, but as they were all that he had, he was forced to don them again before he headed downstairs in time to find Fara sitting at the black kitchen table with her legs crossed and her face buried in a crossword puzzle.

Upon hearing Wolf enter the room, the vixen looked up and jovially said, "Good morning, Wolf."

"Morning," Wolf grunted in return. "You don't happen to have any beer around here, do you?"

"Really? This early?" Fara chided. "And no—I don't have any of that here. Personally, I think that crap tastes like urine—literally."

Wolf laughed, "Well, it was worth a shot." He paused for a moment and then took a seat across from the fennec at the table. "Listen," he said, "Thanks again for letting me stay here. I owe you one."

"You don't owe me anything," Fara replied. "Think of it as my Christmas gift to you. Come to think of it, I have one more thing for you, actually."

Wolf's ears perked up. "What's that?"

"Follow me," Fara said with a smile.

The fennec led Wolf through the many halls and corridors of Phoenix Manor until they came to the looming, oversized front doors that towered over the floor in front of it. Placing her hand on the latch and unlocking the huge door, she turned to Wolf and told him, "Don't ever try to pay me back for this."

"Okay…" he uneasily replied.

Fara grasped the latch and pulled the door open, revealing the front yard and the one item that sat upon it—the full-sized, combat-ready version of the model that Wolf's loving aunt had given to him when he was no more than a pup. The advanced combat fighter sported a teal-over-white paint scheme poignantly accented with a pair of large red ribbons, one on each wing. "No—you can't be serious," Wolf gasped. "How did you know?"

Fara turned to face him with an understanding smile and explained, "Believe it or not, I used to be a kid too. I remember playing with my own model of this fighter when I was little; and I took a lucky guess that it was the same one you had." The vixen's expression turned somber as she spoke, "There's another reason why I'm giving this to you, Wolf. I want you to take your life back. Go—get out of here and do what you were meant to do."

Taking his crutch under his arm, Wolf hobbled down the manor's front steps and approached the fighter, keeping his back turned to prevent Fara from seeing the tears that sprang to his functional eye as he pulled the oversized ribbon off the fighter's left wing and looked over its sleek hull. He regretted having told Fara that giving him money would have been the only way to be of assistance to him, because this was infinitely better in every way.

Wiping the moisture away from his eye, he turned around to face Fara; and in a weak voice tinged with an unnatural amount of emotion, he replied, "Thanks, but if you don't mind, I think I'd rather stay here with you for a while. After all, you did say that you didn't want to be alone on Christmas."

Fara tightened her lip and mused on the decision that Wolf had forced her to make. It was not as if his persona had changed overnight. He was still very much the rogue mercenary that she had heard about in days gone by; although after last night, she had begun to understand why he had made the decisions that he had. She didn't fully trust him in her family's age-old residence; but to his credit, he had acted responsibly ever since he had set foot into the building.

As she leaned against her manor's oversized door frame, a smile broke out on her face. "If that's what you want, you're more than welcome to stay here for a while." She paused and then added, "Just don't break anything."

"I think I can manage that, Big Ears," Wolf replied, taking one more look at his gift before limping back towards the main entry door.

"I told you—the name's Fara."


I know some of you have been waiting to see what I would put out for the Christmas contest, especially since I mentioned to some of you that it would be a fluff-free entry. Hopefully you enjoyed reading it. I'll be the first to admit that it was a breath of fresh air for me to write something other than Fox x Krystal material.