In Which the Sun Rises

He had not woken up until halfway through the night, this time. He was sleeping more and more, it seemed - but the younglings were content to let him. They had more important things to worry about than one old fox, after all. They had plans to make, Skulks to build, worlds to conquer.

Sprite always managed to swing by to check on him a few times each night, whether he was awake or not. Always, she had that fretting expression on her face that she had worn ever since the depths of winter, though she had tried to hide it. He understood, of course. She loved him dearly, as much as she loved any piece of herself. She was thankful for every moment they had together, but was still all too aware that the number of remaining nights was dwindling. Sooner or later, there would be a night in which he did not stir at all.

But that night had not been tonight. He had woken, in the end, while the moon hung above them, while the stars danced, and while his many charges hunted and trained and planned and played in a way they never could have before, when the Skulk's long shadow hung over their heads.

That was the most important thing - when Sprite was not visiting him, when she was not worrying over the bones jutting beneath his skin or the lack of luster to his coat, she was with them. Her friends. Her family. Her Skulk.

Some night, he would be gone, and she would be okay.

But, again, that night had not been tonight.

Sage lay in the grass on the gentle hill that acted as their barrier between Man and the forest. They had relocated, after the Heat had come and gone. The hill gave them more room for dens, and a cluster of them lay below him now, each holding its own tangle of legs and tails and fur. Whatever time he awoke, this was what he always did - he sat atop his hill, and watched them all come and go, watched them laugh together, watched them share thoughts, watched them tackle each other in those brief bouts of levity when they remembered they were still young and had their entire lives ahead of them.

Through watching, Sage learned many things.

Sage learned that although Riven's leg was improving, it would never be the same. When he wanted to move at any real speed, he had to tuck it up beneath his body, and lope along on the remaining three. When he was still, he used it as a crutch, something to lean on to give the other limbs time to rest. And Sage learned that Sprite did not care - Riven could have four twisted legs and be writhing in the dirt like a worm, it would not change the way she looked at him, as though the sun rose and fell in his eyes. And, to Sage's grudging pleasure, Riven looked at her the same way, as if moonlight spilled from her every word.

Sage learned that Trick and Faun were quieter in their affections, but no less sincere. With them, it was never tumbling in the grasses, or sudden nuzzles and snuggling - it was all quiet touches,shared glances, the slightest twitch of an ear, the smallest hint of a smile. Softer, cooler, but no less meaningful, in a world that would not have tolerated their togetherness mere swipes ago. Just as importantly, though, something new burned in them both - a strength in their convictions, a brightness, as they put their two brilliant heads together and thought through everything their new Skulk would need. Even if the older Skulk turned away, they would be all right.

Sage learned that although Grint had once been one of smiles and jokes, there was a sadness to his expression now, a world-weariness that would never quite vanish. The little fox had lost much, perhaps more than Sage could ever comprehend, but he put on that old smile and jauntiness whenever his vixen was near. And, for her part, Holly lifted him up in her own lively, loving way, reminded him that though he had buried friends and kin in the forest, there was still more waiting for him, down the line.

Sage learned others were not quite so lucky, but bonded in their misfortune. Mote had brought Athor her prey from the beginning, but whereas she had initially been flighty, quick to leave, now she lingered with the quiet male. Often, Sage could tell neither was speaking - they were simply in each other's company, sharing a grief only the two of them could. On other occasions, he could see from their lowered ears and shrunken shoulders that they were speaking of the one they had lost, reminiscing on a little life snuffed too soon. Once or or twice, they both even laughed, over some small joy that had not entirely vanished.

Sage learned still others were finding their strengths, and relishing in them. In those first few days, Kadder had had little to show for her hunting efforts. Even now, she was not perfect, but without the weight of Musk's expectations on her shoulders, she was beginning to show promise under Field's careful tutoring. Cettel, too, was blossoming, finding her paws were geared more towards running unhindered through their territory than sneaking after prey.

Sage learned of the vixen his daughter had become - one beautiful, strong, and with a capacity for love that seemed never-ending. Finally, she was able to bare her true self - she could speak her mind, could boost up those the Skulk would have overlooked, could allow herself to be someone's daughter in a way she never could before. That, perhaps, was the most precious thing - to be reunited with her after all this time, to see her grow in strength and confidence, to know that simply by being alive, he had somehow brought this beautiful creature into existence to light the way for future generations. Sky willing, she would have her own kits, in time - but even if she didn't, the vixens she had trained would be legacy enough.

Sage learned of the shadows the Skulk had left behind, tears that might never be fully mended. Tamber he only saw every few days. Always, her appearances were sporadic and brief. She would hover on the edges of the group, sometimes with a prey offering and sometimes without, acting as much a spectator as he, before it would become too much for her and she would take off again to be alone in her private struggles. Koulder, too, had never quite fit in with the others. He spoke to Trick, to Sprite, and rarely to Faun, but no one else. Riven had approached him once, but there had been a misunderstanding that had nearly shorn away what progress Koulder had made. Sage had smoothed it over, but Riven had not tried again. Koulder spent most of his time either in or near his den - watching the others' lives unfurl, just like Sage.

Most of all, though, Sage learned one very important fact - that whatever happened, whenever he finally drew his last breath, it would be all right. They - all of them, every one - would go on without him. They would build something new. And he would know that he had helped, in some small way. That the Skulk's long night was over, that a new moon was rising, and that though his name would be lost in a generation or two, the story might yet endure.

Storytellers - that was something else Sprite had conceived, an extension to her idea of foxes that went from Skulk to Skulk, sharing knowledge and customs. Foxes that would remember what had come before - the true names of Reynards, the policies each Reynard created, the mistakes of those before and what might be learned from them - and bring that information with them wherever they went, nurturing the Skulk's scattered seeds so that they might together make one powerful forest all foxes could share.

Sage closed his eyes, savoring the thought, just as a chill wind swept through the grass. It stirred up a tightness in his chest that had never quite gone away, even when winter released its jaws on the land and allowed the sun to warm the earth again. Sage coughed quietly, under his breath, but it was still enough to draw Koulder's attention to him from his den, and even Sprite, from where she and Riven lay far below.

In a flash, Sprite was loping up to meet him, her pink nose twitching with worry. "Are you okay? It's still pretty cold out."

As always, he was struck by the strangeness of it - her being the one to worry and fuss over him, instead of the other way around. It felt as though it had only been a few nights ago that she had been a tiny thing tucked up against him, pressed closer than he had ever dared to want. And, as always, he was warmed just by seeing the concern in her eyes.

"I am fine," he assured her. "It will be warmer when the sun is up."

Sprite smiled, though he could tell she did not entirely want to. More than anyone, she understood why he stayed here night after night, just long enough to watch the sun peek up over the horizon and set the clouds ablaze.

"Do you wish to join me, tonight?" he asked. "With the clouds scattered on the horizon, it should be stunning."

Sprite blinked, and then beamed. "Of course. Should I…" She turned, looking down the hill for another golden coat.

"Field is already in the den," Sage said. "I asked. Riven is welcome to come in her place."

Sprite hesitated, then shook her head. "I think he's still kinda intimidated by you, to be honest."

"I am quite the specimen," Sage said dryly, and Sprite laughed.

"You know what I mean. It's not every fox that would walk up to Musk and tell him he's stupid."

Sage chuckled. "I'm not exactly certain that's how it went - and he certainly demonstrated his own courage, that night."

Sprite nodded to herself, and then looked down the slope again. This time, her eyes rested on Koulder - once again lying in the entrance to his den, looking at nothing in particular - and Sage knew what she was going to ask before she spoke it.

"He can come, if he so desires."

Sprite flashed Sage a guilty look. "You're sure? You don't mind?"

"I can hardly begrudge him a bit of company. And I know he won't chatter while I'm trying to enjoy the sight."

Sprite rolled her eyes. "I'm not that bad anymore."

"You never were," Sage admitted. "Go on, ask him. I'll be here."

Sprite bounded down the slope. As always, whenever she came near, Koulder straightened up, ears pricking with interest he quickly disguised. Sage had never been certain why Koulder chose to camouflage his feelings - whether it was an old habit, some lingering fear of Riven, or perhaps consideration for Sprite's own leanings, to avoid any undue pressure on her. Sprite, for her part, never acknowledged the special interest Koulder had in her - she treated him with the same friendliness she did everyone else, albeit with a bit of anxious hovering that was more maternal than romantic.

Sage averted his eyes, turning instead to the east. Gray clouds spotted the horizon, hiding some of the dimming stars, but not all. The sky, too, was beginning to turn a dove's dusty gray, preparing for Pan's ascent.

Pawsteps reached him, but he did not move as the two foxes approached. Koulder settled on his right without a word, but Sprite paused.

"Oh! I forgot to tell Riven what we were doing," she said. "And I'll make double-sure he doesn't want to come. Be right back!"

Sage acknowledged her with a flick of his ear, listening to her jaunty steps receding. He looked to Koulder, but the young tod was sitting with his blind side facing Sage, doubtlessly watching Man's land with his remaining eye. He had Musk's distrust of them, though they'd never had any actual encounters. Thankfully, even during the Heat, no one had been crazed enough to go near them and stir them up.

"So, Koulder," Sage said softly. "Have you felt any better since we last spoke?"

Koulder sat stiff and silent beside him. In the early days, Sage's first assumption had been that Koulder was ignoring him - now, he knew Koulder well enough to understand he was only thinking.

"No," Koulder rumbled at last.

"I'm sorry. I know the thought of returning to the Skulk holds a lot of dread for you. But it won't be long."

Koulder tensed beside him, and Sage gave him a sad smile he couldn't see. "It's all right. I know what you all are waiting on. And we all know I'm not growing any stronger." He allowed a cough to punctuate his words. The winter had taken something from him he could never get back, no matter how much prey Field and Sprite stuffed him with, or how often they worked through the knots in his fur. "Sooner or later, they'll have to go. And you'll have to decide what your path will be."

Koulder's claws dug into the grass. This time, Sage was fairly certain he was not going to receive a response.

That was fine. It gave him a moment to think. His proposal was going to be a strange one, and he was still oddly reluctant, despite the knowledge that he would never really see the outcome either way, and that no one would be harmed by the offering. Koulder would take it, or he would not - the choice would not truly affect any fox but him.

And yet, it was a hard thing to let go of something so dear.

As he was thinking, the cold northern wind came again, raking sharp fangs over his pelt. Again, he shuddered, and this time the cough that clawed its way from his throat was not entirely affected. He ducked his head, as if the feeble grass would be of any use.

Next to him, Koulder stood.

Sage blinked, as Koulder stepped behind Sage and sat down on his other side, a bulwark against the next icy gale.

And, just like that, Sage knew he had made the right choice.

"I've lived in this forest a long time," Sage said, turning his nose eastward again. In the distance, the barest hint of silver belayed the great lake, shrouded by trees. His family's resting place. "I've often thought of myself as its caretaker. Its guardian. Many other foxes have come and gone, but my presence alone meant they rarely lingered. Rarer still were those who thought to truly settle here. We foxes do not share our space well, by nature. The Skulk is something of an aberration, in that respect.

"That will only become more true in the coming years. The Skulk - old or new - will need every inch of this forest to support their training efforts. And there is always the risk of an unruly solitaire attempting to hurt kits that find themselves alone and unprotected."

Sage chanced a glance up at Koulder, but if Koulder saw where Sage was headed, he gave no sign.

"It will be a great undertaking, forging a new Skulk," Sage went on. "One that will require every able-bodied fox, you would think. And yet, there is one detail they've let slip - out of some misplaced respect for me, I imagine.

"When you all leave, I will be gone, and the forest will be empty. Prime territory for any wayward solitaire who happens to stumble upon it."

Again, Koulder's ears pricked - just slightly, this time, but enough to make Sage smile.

"The forest will have its time to heal, just as Sprite and the others intend. But it will be without a guardian, too. Someone who understands it, respects it - and can protect it, if it comes to that." Sage tilted his head to the side, as if thinking. "It would be better if one of them could stay behind…but they are so tightly interwoven. Sometimes I'm not sure where one fox ends and the next begins. It would be difficult for any of them to be on their own for such a length of time.

"Of course, there's hunting to consider, too." Sage faked a careless yawn. "I assume at least one vixen - that other sister of yours - will not be returning to the Skulk. She could probably keep a single tod supplied on her own, if she so chose. But that might take convincing. Trick would have to advocate for whoever stayed behind, I imagine."

Sage looked up again. This time, Koulder's eye was fastened on him. Again, Sage had to smile.

"Forgive me," he said. "I am used to dealing with a particularly wayward little vixen who takes requests better when they are hints. That is not your way, I know. But if you will humor an old fox a moment longer…."

Again, Sage turned eastward. As if on cue, the sky was lightening, turning that faint shade of pink he loved, almost the shade of Sprite's nose. "Sprite will miss you, if you stay. But she will be proud of you, too. She will hope it will give you time to heal, instead of following the rest of them back to reopen old wounds. I won't ask you to decide now. Indeed, you need never tell me your decision. When it's time for that to be made, I will be gone, and it won't matter to me any longer. But I think if there is anyone who might need the peace that roaming this forest alone can bring, it would be you."

Koulder stared down at him a moment longer - and then, he rose to his paws, and turned, just as Sprite trotted back up to them.

"Sorry," she said. "Did I miss it? Are you going somewhere, Koulder?"

Koulder murmured something Sage's old ears couldn't hear, and stepped away, retreating to his den. Sage turned his head, watching him go, and then gave Sprite an appraising look.

"How long were you listening, young lady?"

Sprite ducked her head with embarrassment. "I wasn't listening. You just looked like you were talking about something important."

Sage let her squirm a moment longer, before he relented with a smile. He flicked his brush, beckoning her to his side. "Thank you for giving us a moment together."

"Are you gonna tell me what it was about?"

"No. He can, if he so chooses."

Sprite settled down next to him, resting her head on his shoulder. "He likes you, you know."

"All of you youngsters seem to, for some reason."

Sprite laughed. "Because you're the best, that's why."

"I must have something decent in me, to have made you stick around." Sage nosed her ear.

The sun rose before them, casting the sky in all the colors Sage had hoped for, setting the clouds aflame. The wind picked up again, but it was not so cold now, with his little sunbeam at his side. To their left, they could hear the sounds of foxes rejoining each other in their dens, all the little murmurs and chuckles and sighs as they came back for their long sleep. Riven's head poked out of the entrance he, Sprite, Field, and Sage shared, while Field slept inside, warm and safe. Faun and Trick strolled toward their shared den together, their tails flicking every now and then to brush each other. Holly ran ahead of Grint, tossing a challenge over her shoulder, while Mote led Athor behind them. Cettel danced over the grass, teasing a sleepy Kadder with her tail. Koulder had disappeared into his den, but Sage's old eyes caught the faintest flicker of gray and amber coming over the river, for another one of her brief lingerings.

Beside him, Sprite let out a soft little sigh. "This is it."

"This is what?" Sage asked, yawning as he sank down onto the earth, letting a blade of grass tickle his ear.

"What it means," Sprite said, nestling down beside him. "To be a fox. You remember? It's this." She nodded down to their little collection of foxes, the healed and healing, and then the forest beyond, where the fallen slumbered beneath the earth. "All of it. The good and the bad. The stories that ended too soon and the ones still going. All the foxes who never gave up, who fought for what they believed in, no matter what happened. Pan and Lorelei and the north star and all the forests they brought. This is what it means. And I have to remember it all, so I can tell the little ones…either the Skulk's or ours, next year."

Sage looked at her, his little leaf on the breeze who had found her wings, and felt a dull pang, a faint hint of sorrow surrounded by warmth. Somehow, despite it all, they had survived. They had come through it all stronger than before, ready to make the world anew.

"I think you're right," he said, resting his muzzle on his paws as he gazed toward the rising sun, the wildflowers that spread out before them in an endless carpet. The wind came again, from the darkening clouds in the east marching toward them. Sage let himself close his eyes, drinking it in, feeling that last kernel of tension melt away.

The breeze smelled like spring rain.

AN: Here we are, at the end of all things.

First, thank you for reading. I hope this was a worthwhile conclusion to those of you who had to wait so long. Again, I don't intend on coming back to this account - but if you enjoyed my work, give me a watch anyway, just in case.

I have kicked around the idea of writing a novella or something about the gang's return home, or Koulder's/Tamber's time in Sage's forest while they're gone, but I don't want to commit to anything just yet. Again, if that would interest you, follow this account so you'll know if I do post anything - even if it's another five years from now. :P

I feel like there are probably more things to say, but they escape me at the moment. So I'll just say this - thank you for reading my work. Thank you for being patient. Thank you for leaving me kind words or critique (or even sending me a PM to make sure I'm alive, haha). Good luck with your own work, if you are also a writer - and remember it's never too late to come back to a story you once loved.