Second part of the last chapter that I currently have written.
The last time Yukiomaru was so at ease, he couldn't even remember. Most of the years in his short life were spent training and drilling to be the best. That had left little room for the little fox to relax or even take a moment to enjoy life.
Snow fell heavily over the mountain, which forced many of the hikers to settle down for the night. Yukiomaru was between Tang and Jun and another half dozen hikers who were seeking shelter from the storm. In the middle of the group burned a bright and warm fire.
"I was up here last year swimming in one of the frozen lakes," said one of the hikers, an otter. Yukiomaru listened to the otter's story with an unusual amount of curiosity. "I've caught and released most of the challenging fish in the lake but I've been unable to get my paws on the biggest one. It took me swimming in circles before taking me through an obstacle course on the bottom of the lake. I almost had it but then it swam in through a hole in a rock and hid in there."
"It's not too cold for you?" asked Jun, his curiosity also invested in the story. "Being in the snow is one thing but being in a frozen lake would be unbearable for me."
"I like it," answered the brown and white otter. "I suppose it's an otter thing. It would seem that this fish has a thing for playing with me while I try to catch it too. I'm back this year to try to catch the fish again but this snowstorm has me staying here for the night."
"Do you not it when it snows?" asked Yukiomaru. Personally he was delighted by the snowstorm, which is why he sat near the edge of the rock enclosure near the snow. When training, the only snow he's been exposed to was snow meant to be an obstacle to handicap. This peaceful storm was completely different.
"I do like it but it makes it harder to navigate my way up this mountain," answered the otter, smiling at the fox. "If you're out in nature, you really must learn to respect it because it is a dangerous place if you make one mistake."
I know that all too well, thought Yukiomaru. Some of his training missions weren't much easier than the ones the wolf pack on Drach'n Breath had to go through.
"Do you not have your parents with you, fox?" asked one of the other hikers, not unkindly.
"He's with us," Tang answered for him. "We're heading up to a cabin to spend a few days there. Our parents are meeting us there tomorrow but they'll be flying in instead."
"Are they pilots?" asked the same hiker.
"No," replied Tang. "They're both more politicians than anything."
"That's a shame," said the panda. She continued to tell them about her profession. "I own a couple ships that carries shipments between the planets. During my last shipment, my ship was hit by a small meteorite and we lost one of our containers that fell somewhere around this mountain. I'm up here to locate and retrieve the container but I only have a couple days to do it because I'm joining the UDAS fleets next week."
"You're joining the fleets too?" questioned the otter. He seemed surprised. "Two of my friends are joining the military and I hear lots of my coworkers back in the city have decided to sign up as well. Am I missing out on something?"
"Other than the war that's soon to come?" questioned the panda.
The martens and Yukiomaru kept their maws shut but listened in with curiosity while they started to discuss the reports about the alien races that they've heard about. The other hikers got involved but none of them realized that the three pups sitting next to them were the discoverers of those alien races.
"I don't feel any obligation," defended the panda. "The military is going to train me as a pilot, and that'll help my trade routes and avoid other meteorites once the war is over. Besides, I'd rather take the fight to the Creepers rather than have them bring it to us."
"Isn't that actively going out an searching for a fight then?" questioned a beaver.
"The Creeper advance is only being slowed down by another civilization's entire armada so we'll have to face them eventually."
While the adults continued to discuss about the war effort, the stockpile of wood started to deplete and the fire dying down. Outside the snow was still falling at a steady and heavy rate but Yukiomaru volunteered to go out and find more firewood.
"I'll go with you," offered Jun, standing up with the fox.
"And I'll watch over the both of you," Tang said and also stood.
One of the adults objected, claiming that they shouldn't allow pups to wander out in a storm alone but Tang easily convinced them that they'd be fine. The three pups walked out into the snow and soon the light from the dying fire was out of range.
With his eyes closed and facing up toward the sky, Yukiomaru walked casually through the snow. Every time he opened his eyes, everything was covered in the white and harmless powder. It gave a stillness to mountain, quieted everything down to the point where the only thing the fox could hear was the breathing of the pups and their paws tracking in the snow.
"Have you ever been out when it's snowing before?" Jun asked, obviously noticing the fox's enjoyment.
"Not really," Yukiomaru answered, smiling back at the trailing marten. "It's really quiet and peaceful out like all the animals are hiding and huddling together in their shelters, even if the snow is completely harmless."
The peacefulness of the setting was almost contagious but it was a welcome change in pace. It was almost as if the unsightly worries and burdens that Yukiomaru carried were covered in a layer of snow like the trees around him, allowing his spirits to lift and swell.
"It always reminds me of those desserts that they cover in powdered sugar or something," commented Jun, still trailing behind the fox. A moment of silence passed before he questioned Yukiomaru about gathering some more firewood. "We should probably gather some up and head back before the fire burns out."
"They still have an hour's worth of wood," mentioned Tang, walking beside her brother.
Yukiomaru wasn't walking along any visible trail but he quickly came across a ledge that dropped only a few meters but the view from there covered most of the mountainside below them. Intrigued, he crouched on a nearby rock and looked at the snow fall over everything for as far as he could see.
"Wow, this is a great view," said Yukiomaru. "I wonder how far we could see if there wasn't a storm right now."
"Don't get too close to the edge, Yukiomaru," warned Tang, while she focused on gathering dry wood. "I don't want to be responsible for allowing you to kill yourself when you have a fleet to go back to commanding soon enough."
"I'm an arctic fox," replied Yukiomaru. His gaze remained overlooking the snowing mountain but he obliged by scooting back half a meter. "I'm naturally built to be on ice and snow. Don't worry, I won't throw myself off the mountainside."
With a forceful and cold impact, the fox's attention was quickly diverted to behind him. Jun stood there grinning before pointing at his innocent sister who was still gathering firewood in her arms. Yukiomaru smiled mischievously, slowly scooping snow in his paws before he quickly attempted to throw it at the marten. The force of the throw broke up the snowball and only a few flakes fell short of the marten.
"You can't throw them like you'd throw a rock," claimed Jun, laughing at the younger fox. He threw another snowball at him but Yukiomaru easily deflected it with a paw, but not without being showered by the flakes.
"Then I'll pack this one tighter," claimed Yukiomaru, darting behind a nearby tree that was away from the edge. He scooped up the snow and firmly packed it together before throwing it at the marten who covered behind his sister.
"Hey!" she yelled, dropping the bundle of firewood she had gathered. Jun laughed.
"Don't get caught in the crosshairs, Tang," he said.
Yukiomaru giggled lightly when Tang chased after her brother.
"I'll show you 'get caught in the crosshairs,'" she declared. Jun hid behind a tree but Tang knelt down to scoop up some snow.
"I didn't throw the snowball," complained the marten. "It was Yukiomaru."
"He'll get his soon enough," Tang boasted, throwing the snowball at Jun who dodged it.
"Help Yuki," requested her brother. Jun attempted to run to Yukiomaru for cover but the fox greeted him with a snowball and laughter.
Within a minute, each of them were hiding behind the trees exchanging several snowball throws. For an hour, they played the game by forming and breaking alliances at a very fast pace. At the end of the game, the martens were almost as white as Yukiomaru but they were all covered in a dusting of snow.
The bundle of firewood was gathered once again and they were heading back to the natural shelter where they left the other hikers.
"I'll know next time not to trust having you on my team, Jun," said Tang. She suffered a branch-full of snow falling on her after they had teamed up against the fox.
"It was Yukiomaru's plan," defended Jun, smiling.
"It was not," Yukiomaru replied. He quickly realized that the marten was jesting with him though and gave him a playful shove with his shoulder.
They quickly reached the shelter and by that time only hot embers were left of the fire. Some of the hikers went to sleep but the others were still talking quietly among themselves.
"Sorry for taking so long," Tang apologized quietly. She placed the pile of wood next to the fire setting the pile of wood next to the fire and threw a few fresh logs on the hot embers. A minute later, flames were licking at the logs.
"That's okay," said the panda pilot. "We were going to turn in soon anyway. You three should do the same. The snow will stop and clear up sometime tonight so you can head out once the sun comes up."
Following her advice, Yukiomaru lied down with Jun near the fire. Instead of watching the flames dance around the logs, the young fox found himself more interested in watching the snow fall around them in the darkness. His eyelids grew heavy and the last thing Yukiomaru remembered that night was the peaceful serenity he felt.
"Your son is exceptionally talented," the uniformed fox claimed. He stood in the living room of his home. Yukiomaru could only watch with tears in his eyes while his parents listened to the fox had to say. "With the proper tools and training, he could become the best we've ever seen. Yukiomaru would be a prodigy that'd rival even Pilot Sky."
"We can't just give our child to you," his mother objected. Her red eyes suggested that she's been crying too. "He's our son! Even if he's a the child prodigy you say he is, it doesn't change the fact that he's my son."
"He'll be well cared for," continued the uniformed fox. "If he enters this program, he'll be set for life and once he turns the age of twenty, he can choose what he wants to do. The kit will be more prepared to go on any path he chooses than if he were with the richest family here."
"At the age of twenty?" repeated his mother. "Sky was killed when he was sixteen."
"There's a good chance that Yukiomaru won't even be enlisted into any serious position until after he reaches his twentieth birthday."
"I love my son," she muttered quietly, her gaze dropping to the floor. "He's just a year old; he's so innocent. All he wants to do is play in the snow. He doesn't want anything to do with your program."
"No, he probably doesn't right now. It will be hard on him for the first few weeks but he'll adjust. Yukiomaru has shown great capacity for adapting to a new environment and solving problems that come his way."
"Will we be able to see him?" she asked, looking hopefully up at the fox.
"Not until his twentieth birthday," answered the fox. Yukiomaru's mother's gaze was once again dropped. "This is similar to the orphan program. The children who come out of those programs lead very successful lives. Your kit will be receiving more attention and focus than the orphans; once he comes out of the program, he'll accomplish the impossible and you both will be so proud of him."
"We're proud of him now," defended Yukiomaru's father, finally speaking. "He's a brilliant kit and will easily become more successful than both of us, or even you General, even without your help."
"I'm here to remind you both that this is a great opportunity for your son," continued the General. "I'm risking my job by telling you two this but we don't need your son for combatting pirates. We've come to realize that there are greater threats far beyond the Black Line."
"What do you mean?" questioned Yukiomaru's father.
"You know what I'm implying," the General said seriously. He looked directly at Yukiomaru before returning his gaze to the parents. "I'll be going now. You know our offer will continue to stand. We hope you'll come to a decision soon."
"Yuki," exclaimed his mother after she followed the General's gaze. She jumped from the couch and ran over to her son, grabbing him in a tight embrace. "You should be sleeping."
Tears still filled his eyes but he didn't not sob or cry, but instead glared at the General fox who had invaded their home. His parents attempted to shield him from the dozens of visits from top military and government officials but Yukiomaru, even at his age, knew full well that they were trying to take him away. The door shut with a bump.
Yukiomaru opened his eyes but only had the glowing embers to look at. Groggily he rolled on his back and stared up at the sky. It was now clear of clouds and bright auras danced across the sky.
That couldn't have been a dream. Why am I thinking about that now?
Even without the clouds being present, small flakes still slowly drifted down very lightly. Yukiomaru sat up with his thoughts preventing him from quickly falling back asleep. His tail flickered at the tip.
I know my parents gave me up but I haven't thought on that in years.
Around him the others were sleeping, but Yukiomaru stood and silently stepped away from the glowing embers. With the last remnants of the storm still falling, easily reached the ledge to the cliff that he found with Jun and Tang.
Leaning back on his paws, he looked up at the colorful display of auras.
Did they know about the possibility of alien contact before that signal was detected by Tang's ship? What did the General mean by greater threats?
With dozens of questions rolling through his mind, only one truly bothered him more than the most. Why am I dreaming about my parents now?
Yukiomaru had no idea how long it would be until sunrise but he sat on the edge of the cliff for at least a couple hours and the auras still danced as bright as ever.
"Yuki?" He turned and saw Jun standing near one of the trees. He looked exhausted but did his best not to appear that way. "Are you okay?"
"I'm fine," Yukiomaru answered, turning his gaze back toward the sky. He listened to the marten approach and sit next to him. "When did you join your ship to go study the alien signal?"
"I was only out there for maybe four months before you came and picked us up," answered Jun. He inhaled and exhaled slowly in a long and tired yawn. "Tang was there for another eight months before me."
"Did you miss your parents after you left, or any of your friends?" questioned Yukiomaru. Not once did he take his gaze off the sky.
"My friends were all older than me so they were all going to different schools around that time," Jun answered patiently. "I did miss my parents but they were often gone on business. My sister had been gone for a few months already so I saw it as an opportunity to be with her."
"Yelena has been the closest thing I've had to a friend all my life," admitted Yukiomaru. "Now she's mothering me because she wants me to update her everyday on what we're doing." The fox smiled at the thought but the smile quickly faded. "She's protected me since the academy and I helped her get her promotion but we've always been together under orders. We have protocols to follow when around each other. It's different when I'm with you and your family."
"We're civilians," said Jun. "There are no protocols that you're required to follow in order to maintain a chain of command."
"There are no protocols," muttered Yukiomaru.
Jun remained silent, and turned his gaze upwards at the sky too. The auras danced from red, to green, to yellow, and several shades in between before changing the pattern randomly.
"Yes, Yukiomaru?" The marten turned to the arctic fox but his gaze wasn't met.
"Are we friends?" the fox asked.
Jun grinned. He turned his gaze back toward the sky. "Yes, Yukiomaru."
Silence passed between them. Yukiomaru's smile didn't fade this time, and he felt a tear form and roll into his fur.
Five minutes passed before they both saw a shoot star streak across the sky.
"You know," said Jun quietly. "It's probably Frawstsky by now. I brought something for you."
A new light source finally brought Yukiomaru's gaze down from the sky. Jun held a lit Frawstsky candle in his paw, supported by a fox paw shaped candlestick.
"Remember Frawstsky, friend," Jun said with a friendly smile.
"Remember Frawstsky," Yukiomaru returned the greeting before accepting the candle. It was very simple gift but Yukiomaru couldn't ask for anything more.
Jun leaned in and hugged Yukiomaru before standing back up. "Come on, let's go get some sleep."
Yukiomaru nodded and followed the marten back to the camp, his pathway illuminated by the candlelight.