"Hey! Hey, freak! You dropped your stupid hat!"

"No, don't give it back! Give it to me! Ooo…Lookit me! I'm a queer who likes to try on dresses and go to tea parties!"

"That's great! Lemme try it on!"

Maxwell didn't even bother turning around. It was pointless trying to get anything back from the jocks, especially when they had decided you would be their prime target for torment. Even the cat-hat wasn't worth it. He should have known better; he should have never bothered with said hat. Every one already thought he was weird enough.

The brown-haired boy turned a corner, trudging slowly down the hall, echoes of jeering laughter still ringing in his ears.

It was like this everyday; Maxwell should have been used to it. He was simply too different to fit in and every one used it against him. He had been teased mercilessly since he moved to Fell in the fifth grade; it was as if every one could somehow tell just by looking at him…

He sighed, stopping at the water fountain to get a drink. Now, nearly five years later, the entire student body of Fell High School seemed to have one mission in life: make Maxwell miserable.

And now, he had lost the cat-hat because of it.

The cat-hat had been Maxwell's most prized possession as long as he could remember. It had been a birthday gift from some one he didn't remember when he was small and he had always treasured it. A sort of deep purple fleece with two large cat ears poking out of the top, the hat had a well-worn, well-loved feel to it. Maxwell had worn the cat-hat every winter since he'd received it, always taking special care to keep it clean and in good health.

He adored that hat.

And he was positive that -even if it somehow survived the terror the jocks would instill upon it- he would never get it back.

Squaring his shoulders and trying not too look as upset as he felt, Maxwell made his way to the lunch line, telling himself it didn't matter. It was only a hat. He was lucky they didn't beat him up again.

Yeah. Right.

---

Lukas was in a hurry. He had stayed after class to talk to one of his teachers and hadn't realized his lunch period was half over. Now he was rushing to get to the lunch room before all the edible food was gone and he was stuck with a hamburger that tasted like a charcoal briquette.

Oh, how Lukas hated high school! The teens of Fell seemed to be nothing more than a common bunch of morons and that was putting it kindly. He often wondered what kind of stellar work he could be doing in a better school district or -as he often dared to dream- even a private school. An intelligent boy and bookworm by nature, Lukas often felt that his brain was being wasted in a school where football and cheerleading were praised more than science and the arts. The marching band had won State Field Band of the Year three years in a row, yet the football team was more widely celebrated and the band members were routinely beaten up. The arts department was wonderful; there were many talented people who watched their art get trashed and vandalized.

And Lukas himself had won the county's Young Fiction Writers Contest, only to be accosted and pounded the day after by the captain of the lacrosse team and his friends.

It made him wonder…What kind of school was this that the teachers turned a blind eye and why were every one's priorities so skewed?

Only when he crashed into some one did Lukas come back to earth. So lost in thought had he been, he hadn't been paying attention to where he was going and he had walked right into…

Oh crap

…The captain of the lacrosse team.

The hall became deathly silent and Lukas prayed for a swift death. The six-foot-five punk turned, glaring down at him, as his friends gawked at him as if he were some unknown form of life. Lukas could feel sweat forming under his bangs as the jocks stared him down, making him fear them by looking imposing. How did he constantly get himself into messes like this?

It was while he was trying to figure out how to get out of said mess when he noticed the hat perched upon the dirty blond hair of Fell High's lacrosse team's number 12. That hat, with its fuzzy black ears, had no earthly business on number 12's head and Lukas knew it. It belonged to that boy…Yeah, that boy. What was his name again? Matt…Mark…Maxwell! The kid that seemed to get beat up more than the entire field band combined and for no real reason. He wasn't a band geek, he wasn't a nerd, he wasn't even all that smart, if the fact he was in none of Lukas' gifted classes was any indication!

But that wasn't important. What was important was the fact that Maxwell would never get his hat back if Lukas didn't do something. He knew from experience that the jocks did not return items they had "borrowed."

But what could he do? He was a scrawny nerd; they were all six-foot-plus lacrosse players.

He didn't stand a chance.

But still, he had to try.

Lukas hadn't run cross country two years ago for nothing.

Before the captain had so much as an inkling that his prey was about to move, Lukas bolted. He darted around the muscle-bound brunet, skittered past a discarded book bag -probably dropped by one of the jocks in favor of tormenting an unsuspecting victim- and reached up, snatching the fuzzy hat off number 12's head.

Then he ran like a hell.

---

Maxwell was leaving the cafeteria. He had been starving when he'd entered and starving he would remain. Not a day went by that he wasn't assaulted in the café; usually it was just taunts and jeers that he could easily enough ignore.

Today, he had been tripped, spilling the entire content of his lunch tray all over the floor and himself.

Suddenly, he didn't feel so hungry any more.

Both looking and feeling dejected, the long-haired teenager trudged down the hall, heading for the bathroom where he would attempt to clean ketchup and apple sauce off his tee-shirt. Trying to clean his shirt was a lost cause, something of which Maxwell was well aware. But he wanted to at least make an attempt to salvage both his clothing and his pride.

En route to the boy's lavatory, Maxwell passed that smart blond boy who was oh-so-cute. He turned his face away, not wanting to be noticed while covered in ketchup and mashed apples. Any other day, he would have thrilled at the sight of the class genius, but he had a shred of pride left that was telling him not to embarrass himself further while coated in his lunch.

So he dropped his gaze to the floor.

A few paces past, Lukas stopped dead in his tracks. Maxwell! The very person he'd been looking for! He turned, still standing in the same spot, watching the other boy plod forlornly down the hall. It didn't seem fair. Having moved to Fell only two years ago, he couldn't figure out just what the scrawny brunet had done to deserve such treatment.

"Maxwell!" He turned back, trotting a few steps towards the retreating figure.

The boy's head jerked up at the sound of his name and he looked slowly over his shoulder, then blushed profusely. The adorable blond boy was talking to him! Oh no…He was a mess!

Lukas closed the distance between them by a few more steps. "Maxwell." He extended an arm to offer the hat, then froze. "…What happened to you?"

Blue-violet eyes lowered to the floor again. "I tripped."

"Oh." Lukas bit his lip, unsure what to say or do. "Um…I've got your hat…" He raised his arm again, holding out the ball of fluffy fabric.

Maxwell's head lifted again and he looked excitedly at Lukas. "My hat?! Oh, thank you!" He took the proffered accessory, smiling brightly, "I was afraid they'd destroy it. Thanks so much!" He started forward to crush the thin blond in a hug, then stopped mid-tracks, suddenly remembering the food staining his shirt. "I'd better go clean up." A sheepish grin crossed his face. "Thanks again!"

"No problem." Lukas found the ability to smile back, then watched as Maxwell bounded off down the hall in the direction of the bathroom. Once the brunet was out of sight, he turned and headed back towards the cafeteria. That's the end of that.

But it was only the beginning…