At the front of the classroom, Mrs. Cotton adjusted her red plastic spectacles and rapped the wooden pointer against the chalkboard. The class came to attention relatively quickly, for tenth graders, though the four rows of rabbits in the front straightened their posture and ears much more quickly than the motley back rows.
In the back right corner, closest to the window and farthest from the teacher, Gideon Grey also sat upright, but not because the teacher had asked him to. He loved the first day of school, a day of challenges, a chance to restore order to kits who'd become accustomed to the freedom of summer, who'd forgotten maybe that there were predators at this school. And this year he'd grown almost eight inches and put on more muscle working on his dad's harvester, so he'd been pleased to find that he towered over the bunnies more than ever.
Even more than the little bunnies, though, Gideon wanted to know what had happened to the other predators over the summer. Those were the ones who really needed lessons, reminders that they'd been born with claws and teeth and that it was a waste to use them on stinking carrots all the time. So many of the predators just wanted to play nice with the bunnies, ignoring centuries of natural…what did Travis call it?
"As you can see," Mrs. Cotton said, "many of you have begun to grow into your adult sizes over the summer. This will go on for the next few years, until you've grown up completely."
Most of the preds in his class Gideon recognized, but there was a tall, lanky cat in a green shirt with a collar and a vest over it sitting across the classroom, and he couldn't place that one. He sniffed the air. Cougar? Cougar. But the only cougar in their class was that little runt Catmull, and this guy was over a foot taller. It couldn't be him. But if it wasn't, then where was Catmull?
"It does mean that we're going to reseat some of you to put the taller ones in the back and the shorter ones in front. The last two rows of desks are larger, to accommodate our larger classmates, and I see many of you already figured that out, but let's change just a couple things. Mr. Slink, will you please come up to the empty desk in the front row?"
Beside Gideon, Travis sank down in his chair as though if Mrs. Cotton didn't see him, she'd forget about him. "Tough luck," Gideon muttered to him.
The weasel looked pathetically up at him from the huge chair of the desk he could barely see over. "This sucks eggs," he whispered.
"Shoulda thought of that before you decided to be a weasel," Gideon said.
"Don't throw nothin' at me," Travis said, sliding out of his seat and sulking his way to the front of the room.
"And Mr. Grey, will you please trade places with Mr. Catmull?"
Gideon's triangular ears snapped upright. The tall cougar got up from his desk without complaint, and now he saw the headphones in his ears. Yeah, that was Catmull. "Can't he just sit there?" he asked, pointing to the desk Travis had recently vacated.
"You'll have plenty of room at his desk," Mrs. Cotton said. "Foxes sit in the second to last row."
Gideon scowled as Catmull came to his desk. "Yeah, but it already smells like loser," he said, pushing past the cougar and over to the vacated desk. It was smaller than the one he'd just left, and he had to inhale to get all of his muscular bulk into the chair. When he exhaled, his stomach pressed into the edge of the desk. He worked himself around in the desk, and the whole thing clattered as he jerked it a couple inches across the floor, trying to get comfortable.
The rabbit at the front of the room adjusted her spectacles and looked up. "Is there a problem, Mr. Grey?"
"No," he growled.
But half the rabbits had already turned to look at him, and the one sitting right in front of him, a guy Gideon had had to teach multiple lessons to, called out, "He's too fat to fit in the desk, Mrs. Cotton."
The fox narrowed his eyes and growled deeper, but the rabbit, what was his name? Alford, that was it. What a dumb name. Alford had this smug smile on his face. And now he heard murmurs of "fat fox, fat fox" making their way through the bunnies in the room.
"I'll move back there," Bobby Catmull called from the back row. "I fit in that desk okay."
Oh, what was that? Pointing out that a big cougar was thinner than a fox? Gideon clenched his teeth.
"That won't be necessary. Mr. Grey, you can move to the empty desk in the back row."
The one Travis had vacated. He pushed himself out of the humiliating desk as Alford said, "That desk smells like loser, too."
Gideon fixed the rabbit with a glare that made his ears wilt, and tromped back to Travis's desk. He slid in and slumped back, ignoring the rest of Mrs. Cotton's announcements. All right, his agenda for the day was set. First Alford, and then…he glanced sideways. The cougar was tapping on the desk with his soft paws. Then Catmull.
Gideon and Travis caught up with Alford in the line at the cafeteria. By now they had their routine down: Gideon stood nearby, drawing the bunny's attention, and then Travis shoved Alford into the fox.
"Hey!" Gideon shoved Alford back, much harder, and Travis tangled up his feet so that the bunny fell down. "What the hell was that? You think you can push me around?"
"No, no." Alford's eyes were wide. "Someone pushed me!"
He started to get up, but Gideon stepped forward, deliberately bringing his weight down on the rabbit's foot and ankle. "Sure," he said, pretending like he didn't realize what he was doing. "That's a good excuse."
"Owww!" Alford yelled and wriggled.
A teacher was making her way over. Gideon ground his foot into the rabbit's ankle one more time and then stepped back. "Oh, sorry," he said. "Guess I don't realize how heavy I am."
Tears collected in the rabbit's eyes as he struggled to get to his feet. Gideon held out his paw to help Alford up.
The rabbit looked around, but his friends had all drawn away. He grabbed Gideon's paw and got back upright, though Gideon noted that he couldn't put all his weight on one foot.
Mrs. Hopper arrived just then. "What's going on?"
"Nothin'," Gideon said.
She looked at Alford. "Are you okay?"
The rabbit looked at Gideon, clearly weighing his options. Gideon kept his smile fixed. If Alford wanted to tell on him, that was fine; there would be more lessons later.
"I'm fine," Alford said.
Mrs. Hopper looked between the two of them. "All right," she said. "I've got my eye on you, Gideon."
Lunch tasted particularly good that day.
Catmull was harder to track down. Gideon had seen him at lunch, but all the way on the other side of the cafeteria, with a few bunnies and a sheep. Didn't even hang out with other preds. And Catmull wasn't in their afternoon classes, and at free period he wasn't in the study room with them.
So Gideon asked to go to the lav, and made his way through the empty halls of the school sniffing at doors. Halfway down the second hallway, music floated to his ears, a slow melody that shivered its way to his chest. It sounded almost like someone was crying, but in music.
He drew closer to it as he sniffed each door, and once he paused to listen to it before remembering that he needed to get back to free period before it ended. And as it happened, when he finally caught cougar scent on a door, that was the door the music was coming from.
Figured. He opened the door and walked in.
The small room he'd walked into held a half-dozen chairs of different sizes arranged in a semicircle with music stands in front of them. The walls had pictures of old bunnies and sheet music and a lot of other crap that Gideon didn't pay attention to, because sitting in the largest chair lowering a violin from his chin was Bobby Catmull, the only person in the room.
"Oh gosh," he said, "I'm sorry, but the soundproofed room was busy, and I really need to practice. Was it bothering you?"
"No," Gideon said, and almost told him to keep playing. Then he remembered why he was here. "You bothered me."
"What?" The cougar set the violin and bow in his lap, his brown eyes wide. "Gosh, Gid, I'm real sorry. What'd I do?"
"You called me fat." The fox bunched his paws into fists and took a step forward.
"I didn't mean to."
"You said…you know what, never mind. You just gotta know your place." That this cougar was bigger than ever, bigger than anyone else in the school, and he was such a little prissy sop, that bugged the hell out of Gideon. But something was wrong. He knew what he should be doing, like he was watching a movie on TV where you know the hero's going to deck the bad guy. He should be picking up that stupid violin and smashing it. And yet the part of him that knew he should be doing that was missing the part of him that wanted to.
Was it just the music? It had been pretty, sure, but it was like the classical music his grandmother had used to make him listen to. It was boring.
He took another step, right up next to Catmull. Even seated, the cougar could almost look him in the eye. Gideon reached down and grabbed the violin, and the cougar let go quickly, didn't even fight. What a loser.
"Gid, please. It cost a lot of money…I worked all summer for it."
"What, cleaning bunny houses?"
Catmull blinked. "Well, yeah. Yard work…stuff like that."
"We're preds," Gideon said. The violin looked like it would smash up pretty good. But now the part of him that wanted to do things wasn't just missing, it was resisting. He wanted to give the violin back to Catmull. But what kind of message would that send?
"I know. I went to Pred Club all summer. Didn't you?"
"Pssht." He'd wanted to, actually, but his dad said that all they did was sit around and talk all the time, and that's what the prey wanted them doing, just talking.
"It was fun. You should come sometime."
Catmull shifted in his chair and then Gideon realized what it was that was different: it was his scent. It wasn't just cougar, it was something more.
Trust your nose, his father had taught him.
"That's for sissies," Gideon said. He shoved the violin back at Catmull and stomped out of the room.
Back in free period, the teacher told him to keep his trips to the lav under fifteen minutes in the future, and Gideon told him that he would once the cafeteria started serving food that didn't make him sit on the can forever. That got some giggles from the class, and usually getting a laugh would put Gideon in a pretty good mood the rest of the day. Instead he brooded over Bobby Catmull and his scent and what it meant.
Like the music, it was strange and he didn't understand its effect on him. Gideon might not be the brightest student, but he didn't want for curiosity. So the next day, in homeroom, he decided he would really focus on getting the cougar's scent and figuring out what was different about it. He just had to come up with a way to do it that didn't make him look like a spaz.
So when Catmull sat in the desk next to him, Gideon yawned, stretched, leaned over, and pretended he was trying to see around the bobcat in front of him. He took a deep breath through his nose, closing his eyes to focus, and when he opened them he found himself face to face with the big brown eyes of a cougar. "Hi," Catmull said.
"Hey." Gideon drew back into his chair. The guy was smiling, but still looming over him.
"Hey look, I, uh, I got somethin' for ya." The cougar held out a slim book.
Gideon stared at it and didn't reach out. "What is it?"
"I just wanted to say I'm sure sorry for callin' ya, well, whatever. I sure didn' mean to, but if you heard it then I musta said it somehow." He held out the book again. "So this is to say I'm sorry."
The fox put his paw out slowly and grasped the book. He turned it over to look at the cover. "Ten Easy Piano Lessons?"
"Yeah." Bobby smiled. "Remember like a couple years ago when I was playing piano and you said you wished you could play piano too?" He pointed. "That book's real helpful."
Gideon had no memory whatsoever of that, but it sounded like something he might've said if there weren't a lot of other people around. "I don't really have time for this," he said.
Bobby's smile didn't waver. "Uh, if you want, I could talk to Mr. Silflay and see if you could have free period to work on it."
The fox started to say, "Nah," but then Bobby went on. "And I could help you with it."
"Okay," Gideon blurted out, and what the hell was that? The part of him that knew what he should do was screaming at him and punching the part that just wanted to do things. Hang out with this loser in free period? Did he want to get shoved down to the bottom of the class in respect? But the part of him that had said, "Sure," was smugly impervious to the punches, kind of like when he'd tried to hit the tree behind his house.
So that's how he found himself sitting in a room with a piano, the cougar next to him on the bench, trying to work out the connection between his fingers, the keys on the piano, and the music. Partly it was hard because his fingers wouldn't do what he wanted at exactly the right times, which was frustrating, but partly it was hard because he kept inhaling Bobby's scent. After their first session, Gideon walked out of the room flushed and confused, practically vibrating with energy, and he'd walked past a rabbit getting books out of his locker and had pushed the guy into the locker and slammed the door. He didn't even register who it was, but that loosened his chest up and helped him calm down.
This pattern repeated itself over the next few days; if Gideon wasn't confused at how much he wanted to be next to Bobby, he was afraid that Bobby would find out how bad he was at music and stop the lessons. And he hated depending on someone else like this. At least he managed to not hit someone after that first day; he knew that too much bullying would bring the attention of the principal down on him, and with that would come detentions and other, worse consequences.
But whether it was the lack of a physical outlet or just the repetition, after two weeks, the confusion was worse than ever. And every day he was afraid that Bobby would give up on him, or that someone would find out what he was doing. The delicate balance between his Should side, which let him strut through the hallways, and his Want side, which brought him to sit next to this cougar, was too much for him to navigate day in and day out.
So in the third week of his lessons, he walked into the room at the beginning of free period and dropped the Ten Easy Piano Lessons book on the floor. "I'm done," he said.
Bobby got up from the piano, and he looked stricken, the way he'd looked when Gideon was about to break his violin. "Don't give up," he said.
"I'm-I'm bad at this and you're wasting your time. You should be doing your violin or somethin', not this. I'm doin' this to help you."
Bobby bent to pick up the book. "I know it's frustrating in the beginning, but you're getting better, you really are. You can't just learn to play overnight."
"I can't learn to play, period."
Bobby came up to him, pushing the book at his chest. "Trust me," he said. "I was as bad as you once."
Hearing him confirm that Gideon was bad, even though he meant it well, tightened the fox's chest and muscles. "Yeah," he said, "I suck."
"The point is I got better. You can too. You just have to work at it a little."
"I can't finish nothing," Gideon muttered. He wanted to escape, but Bobby was close, the book was pressing into his chest, and he wanted to grab the book or the cougar or maybe both as much as he wanted to run away. His tail bristled out but he couldn't make his feet move.
"Who told you that?" Bobby's breath tickled his whiskers.
Gideon grabbed the cougar and kissed him right on the lips, and it was fantastic, better than stepping on Alford's ankle or pushing bunnies into lockers or anything. And it wasn't about forcing Bobby; Gideon's heart raced and he wanted the other boy's breath, the softness of his lips and the hardness of the fangs behind them, the intimacy of being joined to him. For a moment, the Want side of him was in complete control.
And then Should reasserted itself, and he broke the kiss and stepped back, realizing what he'd just done. "Oh, shit," he breathed. "Goddammit." Bobby was staring at him, tongue just showing between his parted lips. "Hey," Gideon said roughly, "don't you fuckin' dare tell any—"
Bobby grabbed the back of his head and pulled him close, kissing him back, and this time wrapped his arms around the fox as well. Gideon made a noise in his throat and then hugged the cougar back, the warmth and smell of him all he could sense, from those soft lips and the warm sweetness of his breath to the lean, skinny body against him and all around him and the long ropy tail flicking against his legs.
"Oh my god," Bobby said when they finally broke apart. "I'm so glad you wanted to do that too."
"Wuh..." Gideon tried to make sense of what had just happened. "You wanted to kiss me?"
"For like a week now." Bobby grinned. "But I was afraid you'd punch me in the mouth. And then I couldn't hold the violin." He tapped his chin.
"I wouldn't punch you," Gideon said as the Should part of his mind slunk back and pretended to be very busy with something else.
"You did last year. And, uh, the year before."
"Yeah." The memories were of a shorter cougar, one who'd gotten in his way or was singing some dumb song or something, not this Bobby Catmull who was helping him learn to play piano and whose scent raised his temperature ten degrees. And the memories were of a Gideon Grey who was king of the school, not this fox standing here with his body going haywire and a cougar giving him a goofy smile. "Should" raised its head again. "Look, I, uh, I gotta go."
And before the cougar could kiss him again or even grab him, Gideon darted out the door and into the empty hallway.
He spent the rest of the free period in the lav. At first he stood staring at himself in the mirror, and then Jimmy Lepus came in and stood there just inside the door for like a full minute, eyes like basketballs, until Gideon growled at him, "What's wrong with you?" and then he took off.
Gideon was pretty sure the bunny'd peed his pants, so that cheered him up a bit. That was who he was: the big bad fox. That was familiar, that was a role he knew how to live. All this "kissing Bobby Catmull" stuff was something else.
But then in the hall going to math class Travis got on his case again about what he was doing in free period, and this time he said Bobby Catmull had come around the free period room and said he was looking for Gideon. "Is he the one you been spendin' free period with? You said you was doin' extra work for Mr. Carver in woodshop."
"I don't know why he wanted me," Gideon said. "Leave me be."
"He sure seemed upset." Travis picked at his teeth. "I thought maybe he got on your bad side."
"I told you I don't know anything about it."
And Travis, who knew his friend's warning signs better than anyone, wisely dropped the subject.
In homeroom the next day, Gideon sat stiffly in his chair and stared straight ahead, ignoring Bobby's whispered hisses until they got too loud and the bobcat in front of them turned around to see what was going on. Then Gideon snarled at him to mind his business and he leaned over to Bobby. "I'm done with piano," he said. "It ain't me. And...and I ain't no good at it."
"You could get better," Bobby whispered.
"Nah. I'm me." He puffed out his chest and tapped it.
"Is it...is it me?"
The cougar looked like he was going to break out into tears there in homeroom. Gideon leaned farther over and jabbed his shoulder with a finger. "Yeah, it's you," he said.
Bobby didn't burst out into tears, but he turned to stare out the window and his shoulders shook a couple times. What was confusing was that Gideon had gotten what he'd wanted, and yet he felt like crying himself.
The bobcat in front of him turned around again, and this time Gideon reached forward to smack his head. "Mind your business, I said!"
He got a warning for that. But that was just the start. Over the next week, every time he thought about Bobby Catmull or saw the cougar's slumped shoulders, he got sad, or he thought about the cougar's lips and heartbeat. Either one made him angry, and then he pushed down a smaller animal, or dumped someone's books, or shoved someone into a locker. That these things happened without reason and more often than usual brought them to the notice of the principal, Arlen Hopps, who gave Gideon three days detention and a warning.
Three days of detention meant less time he could work at home and that got him a beating from his dad. "Whatever's wrong with you, son, you better fix it fast," his dad warned him.
All right then. Gideon knew what was wrong with him and knew that there was only one way to fix it. So his next free period, he asked to go to the lav, and then headed for the music room. But Bobby wasn't there, nor was he in the piano room. So Gideon sniffed around the school, and couldn't find a trace of the cougar anywhere. Weird. And frustrating.
He was stomping his way back when he passed one of the emergency exit doors, and the sharp smell of cigarette smoke filtered in. A moment later he heard a thick cough. That was just perfect. Someone was gonna get a beating, and not only would they deserve it for polluting the air, they wouldn't be able to report him because they'd get in trouble for smoking.
He slammed open the door and yelled, "All right, put that out now!"
A tall shape jumped, and a lit cigarette fluttered to the ground, still smoking. Bobby Catmull stared down at him. "Gideon?"
"Bobby? What the-what are you doing?" The fox stared at the cigarette.
"I was smoking." The cougar put his paws on his hips. "I do that sometimes." He coughed again. "I just need a bit of practice."
Gideon might not have been bright when it came to books, but he spotted exactly what Bobby was doing, because he'd done it himself years ago when Kenny Rosette was king of the school. He ground out the cigarette under his foot and had a short internal conversation: Okay, all that stuff I Should do? That don't apply where he's concerned. Got it?
The Should part of his mind snorted and wanted to know what he'd do if people found out he was palling around with Loser Cougar.
They'll deal with it because I'll tell them to.
Well. Should had way more important things to worry about than some dumb cougar, and if Want wanted to waste its time with him, that was Gideon's lookout.
With that settled, Gideon folded his arms and looked up at Bobby, whose pretend-fierce expression wavered. "All right, listen here," Gideon said. "I figure I might not be completely hopeless at piano. Maybe." The way the cougar's eyes lit up made it hard for him to suppress a smile. "But I ain't gonna take lessons from some cat whose breath smells like a fireplace."
"Oh yeah!" Bobby nodded. "I mean, I guess I could give it up. If it really bothers you."
"All right," Gideon said. "Glad we got that sorted."
He started to go back in, but the cougar grabbed his paw and glanced around the empty schoolyard. "There's nobody around."
"I know," the fox said. He liked the feel of the large soft paw around his fingers. "But your breath still stinks."
"Can you teach me how to clean it?"
The fox smiled. "Oh sure," he said. "I had my mouth washed out with all kinds of stuff. Come on."
And paw in paw, the two of them went back inside.