Chapter One: Flying Fox

As my fellow classmates and schoolmates all swarm around me, trying to stay as far away from me as possible, most of them looking at me like I'm diseased or something, my tail decides that the best place for it is right around the bases of my legs... as much as my life's changed in the last several years (and even the last few days), that's nothing new. I've always been a little bit of a coward (just like any other fox you'll ever meet; I'm not really an exception to the rule), and well...

I didn't ask for this life, but for flock's sake, it's the one I have. If I could've chosen the path that my life was going to take, I wouldn't have chosen this one. I don't want to be here right now, and well, having everyone be afraid of me right off the bat really isn't helping my anxiety in the slightest... and trying to convince myself that I'm going to be okay is taking all of my concentration...

So much of my concentration, even, that I don't notice that some tailhole's pinned my tail down until I find myself faceplanted on the tile, books spread all over, papers in a bomb crater explosion all around me... and my snout's dripping a little blood... this day just can't get any worse, can it?

Actually, you know what, it can, because there are people all over laughing at me... and I wish this was a dream, but if it is, it's more like a nightmare, and this one, well, as much as I have real nightmares, those are nightmares that I can wake up from. These, I can't. This is real life...

I was having a bad enough day already, I woke up late (as much as I'm a diurnal mammal, I'm still a fox, creatures of my species are night owls- not literally), I nearly gave myself a heart attack because I forgot, stupid fox that I am, that coffee was a bad idea and downed half a cup before my heart nearly pounding out of my chest snapped be back to my senses, and then, of course, then, I had to chase down the bus- and I mean run after it as fast as my legs could carry me. I'm not short- seventeen paws, four inches a paw- I think that makes me what humans call five-eight- but hauling tail after the bus wore me out. I caught the darn thing; thankfully, the driver saw me his mirrors... Yeah, let's just say that this sets the bar for awful first days... and I know that this life is the life I have now. My father was killed in action, my mother decided gunpowder and brass made a good breakfast not too long after...

So I'm basically an enormous emotional wreck... yeah, that's me... that's Theodore Aspen... and I really want to do better here, but if my tail gets stepped on just one more time, well… Let's just say that that wouldn't be good for any party involved, whether human or mammal, and, um, leave it at that. I'm really stressed and I don't want to snap... I know my claws are sharp... I need to calm down...

My tail hurts like hell right now, and although I really just want to be able to point a claw-tipped finger at that someone and blame them, say that it was all their fault, I can't...I'm stuck and I have nowhere to turn. Being the lover-not-a-fighter that I am, I tried getting an adult to help... and that didn't go over well... I've already gone down to the principal's already (and he smells like cigar smoke, fitting for a guy with the last name Marlboro), and he made it plenty clear to both me and my lupine best friend Alaina that Earth was humans first, that nobody cared what our problems were, suck it up, you damn pansies, this is Earth, nobody gives a shit about your feelings. His words, not mine. No help gotten there, just a target on my back now... so if I do anything, I'm the one with a snout and fur and tail, not the other way around- If I do anything, I'll... I know that I'd be the one in trouble. It comes with the territory, I suppose, but what can I do? No human's going to believe a fox, after all, so what does that say to any sane mammal?

I'm not the best person to ask (and yes, I'm a person too, by the way) because I'm not entirely sane, but what I do know is that I'm really going to need to keep my muzzle shut, because it's only third period on my first day, and I've already been sent down to the principal's office once already, more times than I'd ever been back at home on Terra. I've heard plenty about human culture, and the principal is supposed to be your pal, so I've been told. As for me, though, I haven't even been able to sniff out a single lick of luck.

I already knew that my education was garbage, even for a military school, and well... I'm coming to realize that the Human Culture two-oh-two classes that I took back at home taught me next to nothing about the fact that it's apparently not acceptable to bare one's teeth at a human... seeing as my mouth's full of rather sharp teeth and my hackles have that annoying habit of puffing right out when I'm ticked off, strategies for keeping ourselves calm were probably the one thing we really needed to know.

So yeah, that's where I've found myself right now... it's been an interesting morning, to say the very least, and I already feel like I've gotten myself into a hole that's a lot harder than I'll ever be able to get out of.

Despite all of this shit that I've been going through, I have my friend Alaina to help me out. We have the same class schedule, which is great, 'cause she's a lot less overwhelmed with new things than I am... That, and well, lucky for he,being a gray wolf apparently doesn't come with the same stereotypes as does being me, your typically scrawny Terran vulpes vulpes, or just a seriously awkward, mostly friendless, and very geeky red fox. Wolves are respected and honored both on Terra and here on Earth...

...and the fox stereotype apparently carries over to here, too, because I see people clutch their books tighter, move over to the far edges of the hallway when they see me. They even go so far as to press themselves into the tile-covered walls, as if they think I'm going to rip their throats out... I would never!

Alaina, on the other paw, yeah, people crowd closer to her, they smile at her... she's pretty, too, so I'm sure that helps. Not that I'm not, but Alaina just, well, she just looks nice.

As for me, well, scorn and distrust, that's all I get... I'm a good mammal, hell, I'd even dare to say that I'm a good person, but I seem to have drawn the short straw in terms of the way humans view my species, and it's just not fair... oh, wait, I've said that already, darn it! The last thing that I need people to do is think that I'm going to complain about everything... that's not what foxes do, we suck the scat up and deal with it, because all that other mammals think we are is a whole species of liars and thieves... and we're not. I'd love to steal some self-respect from some of them, but I can't do that, I have to come up with that all on my own (and it's not like I'm not trying, but... yeah, life sucks, so I usually just turn tail and hide, because that's the good fox thing to do.

I'm on Earth now, though, and I want to be able to make a new life for myself here... and that's got to start with finding some self-esteem somewhere...

But here's the problem: just what the heck am I supposed to do about the fact that I'm a member of a species that everyone always automatically assumes is up to no good? Nothing, that's what, and like I said, it's not fair! I mean, I'm a fox, there's no way to change that, is there?

No, there isn't, and besides, I'm sure that these crazies will warm up to me eventually... well, I hope so... but even if they don't, well, that's nothing new.

Whether or not they actually do, though, that none of that's going to matter if I'm late to third period. If I'm being entirely honest, I think the gods are trying to play with me even more. My next class just so happens to be A and P. Let me just give you a picture here: we had that back on Terra, but that just so happens- sorry, happened- to be mammalian anatomy- foxes, wolves, leopards, the like, but in another unfortunate shortcoming of my education, it just so happens that yep, you guessed it! No human anatomy classes, and I'm going through what our first unit is going to be in real life. Yay, being a teenager sucks, get me the brain bleach please! Oh, well, I suppose, we can't be that different, can we?

A period later (a period that just so had to include the teacher explaining at length what happens when two people really love each other), well, I'm really starting to think that it's a good thing that I haven't had lunch yet (or even breakfast, that's a whole other story). I think I'll never think about myself in the same way. Of course... even just thinking about what I learned today... yech, it's making me start to gag...

I know that I've said it before, but I'll say it again- I had no clue what I was getting into. Maybe I should get one, because I sure as heck didn't think the first day of my new life was going to be quite like this.

Then again, I'm a newbie here and I'm still feeling kind of overwhelmed by all the hustle and bustle... well, lack thereof. Back on Terra, there were more than enough mammals in the halls at pretty much all times so that if I wanted to hide in the throngs like I really, really, really want to do right now, I could. Unfortunately for this here fox, there's no such luck right here, right now. Instead, I'm faced with the fact that I need to keep on trucking through this day, and- ow! Score yet another bruise for my tail, that human was too glued to whatever blue glowing thing he's holding to have seen the darn thing.

Yeah, I need to keep my tail up, regardless of what people are going to think, because, as I was saying, I've just managed to get it stepped on for the tenth? twentieth? time today. I don't know if they said anything about it in my Human Culture classes back on Terra- they probably didn't, and even if they did, I was asleep, just my luck, military school wears on a mammal- although it's considered rude on Terra to keep one's tail up, because then people think that you're that kind of mammal (and I had a few of them in the family, sadly, and they're all dead and gone now, just saying; oh, and no, to make it clear, that's the last thing that I ever want to be doing, pass, thanks, I'm good), here on Earth, keeping my tail up above its usual low droop is turning out to be somewhat of a necessity.

My stomach, from the way that it's grumbling, is telling me that that's also a necessity, because, well, it's that time of day, and oh my gods I'm hungry! I didn't get the chance to eat this morning, I was too darn worried about my first day... worried about nothing, I guess, because I'm fine...

My host parents, the Maranzas, told me that I was going to be fine, but I couldn't find it in myself to believe them... not when I'm also supposed to be taking care of a sleeper here... don't ask me how, I'm a lover, not a fighter, and as far as I know, you can't actually kill an Eater- they're deadly, they're disgusting, their real name, Sturgmen, sounds like somebody just randomly came up with it because they needed a name to put in some crappy science fiction novel and just thought it up off the top of their head... but this is real life.

I'm off track again, damn it... my stomach's starting to get quite ticked off at me for not feeding it. Well, I hope that they have decent food here on Earth, I've heard good things about the pizza from my fellow classmates, who, for all their ignorance in regards to my tail, are actually turning out to be decent people (well, except for those tailholes who keep crimping the darn thing, my tail, that is...).

As soon as the bell rings to tell us that we can go to lunch, I spring forwards out of my seat and dash for the door to leave... only to have the teacher, Mrs. Maple, stop my flight just as I'm about to step out into the hall.

"Can you wait here for just a minute, Theo?" she asks, pointing a finger back at my seat.

Okay, great, I'm so dam busted...

Not daring to complain (my father took care of any desire I'd ever have to do that), I do as I'm told and slump into my chair, chiding myself all the while in my head for screwing up again and, as I feel my ears flatten against my skull in shame, I hate myself. As much as my life's really changed over the course of the last several hours, my self-hatred, drilled into my head through several glass bottles that my mother threw my way when she got drunk... in other words, basically every day... that hasn't gone away. I may be young, but I feel so much older inside my head...

But that doesn't change the fact that I've got myself in a rut now...

Bad fox, I think, knowing this can't go anywhere good but feeling powerless to stop it, Colossal screw up freak fox, just like always. Run away like the mess you are, you flock-up!

"Alright, you win, I'll stay," I say, trying and failing to keep the whimper out of my voice and seriously hating that it's there in the first place. "But, I mean, seriously, I'm not in trouble, am I? I'm not in trouble, please don't let me be in trouble... what did I do wrong, Mrs. Maple?"

"Theo, calm down, you didn't do anything, alright? I just want to let you know something before you go, yeah?"

"And what's that?" I ask, hoping she'll just let me go, I've worked myself up... I don't need to be in trouble again, and I haven't eaten all morning; I'm hungry. Life likes to play games though, and instead of letting me go, she puts a paw- hand, rather, I'm always mixing the two up- on my shoulder, and I'm thankful that she's not angry with me. I really don't need another person rubbed the wrong way by a walking, talking fox (aka me).

For once, I feel like something's going right in my life, and I'm thankful, because all I've been discovering over the course of the past few hours is that all the preparation I've done throughout the last fifteen years of my life has come to nothing... except for my complete inability to save myself pain and frustration... to be a student here on Earth, you have to be able to roll with the punches. That's a little different than ducking out of the way of flying glass bottles... maybe it's just me, but I'm always afraid that something or someone's going to come after me, and I can see just how screwed up of a mammal I am, a fox that's slightly off my rocker.

"Look, Theo, I know it's hard, but please, for your sake, don't let them get you down, alright?" Mrs. Maple asks, giving me the pitying look that my mother would give me after she got over being drunk and then came to realize what she did (Usually hit me with the bottle or aim for my head if I was farther away... thanks for dying, dad, I really miss ya.).

"Look, Theo," Ms. Maple says, and her look disgusts me, I don't want your pity- "I know you're probably not going to want to tell me or not, but I'm a mother, I have two kids of my own- you've had a rough day, haven't you? Your fur's all ruffled up, your tail is sticking straight out behind you, and you look like you're wearing a mink collar," Mrs. Maple says, looking at me with compassionate eyes- bleaugh!

"What's that supposed to mean?" I ask, not seeing any minks and then having to shake my head. It's an expression, I realize, of course I didn't get it... why can't I get it? Oh, that's why- I'm so used to having to take everything literally or probably dying that sarcasm, whoosh, flies right over my head.

"You don't know?" she asks, looking confused.

"No," I say, knowing my tone's dripping with sarcasm, "I don't. Sorry, please, fill me in."

"Here on Earth, Theo," Mrs. Maple says, apparently not getting it, "animals never rose to sentience like they did on the other side of the Bridge."

"Well, yeah, duh," I say, wondering why she'd think that I wouldn't know that. I may not know a whole awful lot of things about human culture, but of freaking course I know that animals never rose to sentience on Earth like they did on Terra, doesn't everyone? "What makes you think I wouldn't know?"

"Here's why, Theo," she says, "on Earth, mammals are killed for their fur, coats, the collars of coats..."

Okay, she's got me there, had no idea about that one...

Noticing the look of absolute horror and disgust on my face, she smiles apologetically. "You didn't know?"

"I guess not, Mrs. Maple," I whimper, any hint of anger gone... Foolish fox. Screwup fox. And you think you can do this? Obviously- and you're wrong, by the way, you do, 'cause you're running away from Terra with your tail tucked between your legs. Real smart, Lieutenant Aspen... real fucking smart.

Feeling foolish for being so arrogant and feeling my hackles rise in bitter anger for the who-knows-how-manyeth time that day, I try to make it up to her, mostly out of a sense of- well, flock it, I have no dam idea what I'm feeling... "No, I didn't know, you're right, I was wrong. Now, if you'll please let me go to lunch? I'm starving..." With that, I snatch my tail up so that way no more idiots will step on it, and try to find my way to the cafeteria. I have no idea where it is, but I can smell it.

I follow my nose until I come to the cafeteria doorway, and go find my way to the end of the line, and I'm almost into the serving line when a gruff baritone voice comes from behind me and over my head... the same guy who stomped my tail earlier, Parker, I think his name was...

"Well, fox, ready to die?"

I turn around and gulp, because Parker's a lot taller than I thought he was, and his arms are- well, huge... and he doesn't look too happy... what the hell did I do wrong, you guys, what did I do wrong?

"Uh...hi?" I manage to yip out. "How are ya?"

Instead of an answer, he picks me up by my arms, and before I can react, I'm sailing through the air. I must really be out of it, because that doesn't quite register until I crash into Alaina's lunch table, snout first, and the drip of blood and the smell of copper it brings floods my mouth and nose...

As I pick myself up, I notice that everyone's staring at me, and I can't fight the fear from my heart.

Oh, sheep dip, I think. Well, I'm flocking screwed.

As if I've summoned him out of thin air (and for all I know that's exactly what he was), the lunch monitor comes over to the table off of which I'm picking myself up, and from the look on his face, I'm going to be the one in trouble, not the asshole who chucked me over here, oh no no, of course not.

Yeah, that seems about right, seeing as this planet just seems to hate me. I can't seem to understand why, though, I don't know what I'm doing wrong.

The lunch monitor doesn't say anything else to me, only points his finger at my battered self, and then points out the door. "You," he says. "Fox. Troublemaker. Get out and I don't want to see you again. I think you know where you need to go."

"But-," I try to protest, but before I can say anything, I gag on the mouthful of blood that I have, and then the monitor cuts me off, adding a glob of spit to the end of the argument, and in that split second I decide that I don't want to risk it... scat, what am I doing wrong here I just want to cry no don't cry you mess-up, you know you're a mess, why do you care now?

I thought this was gonna be easy, that's I was gonna be able to have a new start here, to be able to escape from the shit that was my life back on Terra, but yeah, no, that's not happening.

Instead of trying to fight back (Terran foxes are weaklings, I'm far from an exception), I let my tail drop between my legs, the place where it's spent most of the last as long as I can remember...

It's an endless walk from the cafeteria to the principal's office, and thankfully (not), I already know the way there. Of course, the food that's clinging to my fur and clothes isn't helping anything- each and every single person that I pass by on my journey down the hallway gives me a wide-eyed stare, as if they can't understand why I'm covered in spaghetti sauce and bread crumbs, why I have tears running down my face no don't cry you freak.

I don't understand how they can't show me some sympathy, not with all the pains in the tail that this building seems to be a home for, but whatever. They can go flock themselves, for all I care.

Three minutes later, face burning red, tail starting to cramp from the way it's managing to keep itself wrapped around my legs, I make my way into the principal's office for the second time today, and make my way to the chair right in front of his desk, ears flattened against my skull in shame.

"Well, sit down, Mister Aspen, I don't have all day," he says, gesturing for me to sit down with a sweep of his flabby arm. He smiles sadly, then begins to speak, his fingers drumming the well-worn oak surface of his desk. "What did you do this time? I've already seen you once, and well, if this keeps up, I don't give a damn about the fact that you're an orphan, you can go back to Terra to die, for all I care. Now spill, what did you do?"

"Sir," I begin, feeling my tail start to twitch in frustration, hating this man and wanting to explain myself, speak in my defense, but I know he's not going to listen. He's already made up his mind to hate me, just like the rest of them. Oh, well, I might as well try though...?

"I didn't do anything, sir... please don't shoot the victim... I've had enough crap in my life...sir, foxes don't fly well, but apparently we land in plates of spaghetti and sauce perfectly... and you know what, I actually like spaghetti, thanks for ruining it," I say, gesturing at my sauce-coated self, fighting my instinctive urge to flex my claws... I'm the odd one out, the one who's going to be the simplest mammal on which someone can pin the blame...

"I see," Mister Marlboro says, and I swear that there's a flicker around him, and I see black for a second, and a little red, but then I blink again and it's gone... that's weird...

"Now, come on, Theo says, the drumming of his fingers picking up pace until I can't tell whether or not they're on his desk. "Now, I like you, Theo, I really do, but please, you're not giving me the whole story, are you? I trust you, Theodore, now be honest, or I'll make good on that promise to ship you back...," he says, glaring at me, and I crumble, and he smiles. "That's a good fox. Now come on, tell me the truth, Theodore... I know you bastards are liars, so try really, really, really damn hard, or I won't hesitate to call for a ship. Now, here's the thing, Theodore- the people in this school aren't mean. I know that for a fact, I've served here as their principal for the last three and a half decades."

All I'm asking you to do is be honest with me, Mister Aspen. What did you do, young man, to get yourself covered in spaghetti sauce?"

I sigh, knowing that I've managed to get myself stuck into a situation that's going to be bad any way that it turns out- as I've heard it put, a lose-lose scenario. Well, I'm going to be in trouble if I tell the truth, and to me, that means that I'm going to be in trouble if I lie, too, but this idiot's probably going to believe the lie, with my luck, but at least I'll be out of here, out of this room.

"It was my fault, sir," I fib, trying to get out of here as soon as possible and hating the feeling that settles into my stomach. "I tried to trip him. He pushed in front of me in line, and I tried to push him out of the way." Gods, how obvious of a liar can I be?

"I see," the principal says, fingers now resting unmovingly on the top of the desk. "I was expecting better things from you, Mister Aspen, but I guess I shouldn't be surprised, seeing as that whole planet's full of savages, right? Anyways," he says, laughing while I seethe, fighting my lips back over my teeth, "I don't know what they taught you back at home, Mister Aspen, but such behavior is not allowed on Earth, don't make me say it again, am I understood?" he asks, fingers tap-tap-tapping again, and I nod, so hard, honestly, it feels like my head is gonna come off...

"Detention is in the cafeteria after school, Theo, and I'm going to be expecting to see your face there for the next two weeks. Do you understand that?" Mister Marlboro asks, and I see a little black again, but then nothing...

"Yes, sir," I mumble.

"Good. Now get out of my office, and go get clean."

Five minutes later, I'm standing in the gym's sole locker room, rinsing the last bit of sauce out of my fur. For one, is this school really so poor that they can't afford to give us two locker rooms? Or even shower stalls? I guess so...

I hate the feeling of sodden fur, but what choice do I have, really? I don't want to smell like sauce for the rest of the afternoon, and so here I am, naked and wet, letting the cold water wash the sauce away and trying to let the stress go with it. It feels good, but I can't relax, there's something about what happened with the principal earlier, that black I saw- but I have no idea, and I feel like it's just my anxiety acting up- I hope I'm clean by now...

Noticing the full-length mirrors across the room, I turn the shower off and shake myself dry, and well, I don't like what I see. My fur is all frazzled, looking more like a rusty puffball than its normal reddish orange, and the cream all down my front looks, well, gross... oh, and my ears are still droopy, my tail feels like somebody definitely cracked something in it (I'm gonna pray it's just sprained), and I'm still crying suck it up and deal Theodore. Nobody has two flocks to give what you feel, deal with it...

Now, even though I didn't fight back, that doesn't mean that I couldn't have. I've had six years of training, I'm a lieutenant in the Terran army, I know how to fight... but I'm too much of a coward.

I'm pretty well muscled, even if it doesn't really look it. I'm not like other mammals, I've still managed to stay slim, and my still very damp fur has decided that it wants to cling to me... gods darn it, see, that's the problem with being skinny. I'm soaked to the flesh and absolutely freaking freezing, and what am I supposed to do about that? I don't have much time left, it's nearly the end of lunch...

I want to hug my tail to warm up and dry off, help me calm down, but that would take forever. On the other paw, what options do I have, really? My clothes are soaked, I'm soaked, my ribs are killing me, and I'm running out of time! Crap, I realize as I catch sight of a clock, ticking its way towards the end of the period, five more minutes to go!

At least there's paper towels, right? My fur's going to look like scat, but unless I want to look like a mess, well, flock this scat... I've got bigger problems, I mean, my head is pounding, my nose is still leaking copper, and fuck this... yeah, I know how to curse in human, too, second language of mine that it is...Now, I'm not usually one to swear, but considering that the rest of my clothes are covered in sauce and soaking wet, I think I have the right to right now, and I sure hope nobody walks in on-

"Theo?" comes Alaina's voice from outside the locker room. "Can I come in?"

Tired and frustrated, worn and beat from crying, bleeding, and having tiny panic attacks all day, my brain wonders why there's only one locker room and then automatically says 'yes, why not,' and those are the words that come out of the end of my muzzle before I can stop them. In she walks, only to see me, sopping wet and naked on the bench by the lockers. When she does, her paws go to her muzzle in shock, a small gasp slipping out the end of her mouth. She's covered in sauce, too, and she's lost her top to the trash can, I'm guessing... she's pretty...

"They got you too?" she asks, and I nod.

"Yeah, they did... Here... I see they got you too, isn't the sauce just wonderful?"

"Uh, yeah, they did, the sauce is great, what's not great is having it in my fur, I mean seriously, what the heck is everyone's problem? I want to like Earth, this really isn't a great start...If I'd wanted to be treated like this, I would've stayed in the orphanage... screw this mess," she mutters, spinning the lock to her new gym locker open and yanking out a towel, apparently the school gives a spare set of gym clothes and a nice towel to every student, my locker's got one too...

"Yeah, this really sucks, Alaina, really...," I mutter. Look, I shouldn't be like this, all half-undressed in front of you, and um, I'm sorry I'm not more decent, but the sauce got all over, and tomatoes make my fur itch... must be the acid, and um, Alaina, you've got the darn stuff everywhere, do you want my help getting it out...

"No... but thanks anyway," she says. blushing red and wrapping her arms around her chest... "I like you as family Theo, not otherwise, bro... I hope you understand, I'm not trying to be mean, you know? I don't feel comfortable enough to let you wash me, I mean, no offense... I'm gonna need help getting my clothes from my locker after I'm done, if you don't mind, though?"

"Why the heck would I mind, Alaina? Just let me get my own clothes on first, okay? I mean, unless you really want to see me naked, come on..."

"N-no, I don't," she says, the blush lighting up under the fur on her cheeks glowing even brighter. "Go on, get dressed, I've got no interest in seeing a naked tod... a naked wolf though..."

"What?" I ask, smiling and wondering if I've heard her right... "I think I've got wax in my ears..."

"N- no, you heard me right, Theo, come on, get dressed and don't tell me that you've never thought about kissing a vixen- or a tod, I mean, this is, what, what year is it?"

"Heck if I know- but um, no to the second, definitely to the first..."

"Get dressed, you screwball!" she says, flicking a pawful of water my way, and I stick my tongue out at her just like she's doing to me.

"Get dressed!"

Being the smart fox I am, I do as I'm told as quickly as I can, spinning the combo dial on my locker until it unlocks and snagging my dry set of clothes out with a claw and then stuffing the wet clothes I was wearing into the locker, slam it shut and twist the dial again until I hear the click that means it's shut completely.

I shake off again and tug on my clothes as quickly as possible, Alaina right behind me on my tail as we try to fly all the way across Spaulding High, home of the good old Crimson Tide, whatever the heck that's supposed to be as we try to make it all the way down to the math wing... all the way across the building and up two floors... the elevator doesn't work so then we have to fly up the stairs, leaving us breathless as we skid into number 327, where the small sign on the door says that one Mrs. Bianca Neve should be.. Hopefully we're cleaned up and presentable for Algebra...

Both Alaina and I were expecting a full classroom, but it's empty even though the warning bell just chimed from somewhere overhead...

In fact, there's no one in the room at all, and judging by the fact that the lights have gone off, so I'm going to venture a guess and say that Mrs. Neve hasn't been in to the room in a good long time.

Normally, we'd try to find her, but we're new here, and from the crappy mornings we've had, both of us- well, at least I am- are expecting angry humans... and nobody wants that... we're better than that, we're smarter than that, so instead of going out to look for her, we take our seats at the front of the room and decide to wait. Now, it's not as if we don't know how to do this sort of math, I mean, come on, we've crossed the Bridge between the Two Universes, and besides that, you have to at least know how basic algebra works to have even been considered for the Venturing program... and to have a decent grounding in human...

Then again, as this world just can't help proving to me over and over and over again, humans seem to have a hard time understanding that on our side of the Bridge, it was us animals who rose to sentience, not the apes.

Case in point- we're not the savage idiots that everyone seems to think we are and yet for whatever reason, the powers that be have conspired to place both of us into the most basic math class that Earth's high schools seem to have to offer.

To snap us out of our thoughts, however, the final bell rings, signalling that lunch is over, the next period's finally begun, block three, twelve-thirty in the afternoon, and just as it does, an older woman with her gray hair in a braid behind her- Mrs. Neve, I'm guessing- walks in, then stops dead in her tracks and looks straight at us.

"Well," she says, "when the board told me that we were going to be hosting exchange students... I swear that they never told me that they were going to be animals…"

"I'm sorry they didn't tell you, Mrs. Neve, but we didn't ask to be animals, should we go? Are you going to have any trouble with us? I'm sorry to be snappy, it's been a crap day, so should we stay or go?" Alaina asks her, angrily shoving her paws in her pockets.

"Stay, please!" Mrs. Neve says, waving her hands- yes, that's what they are, not paws, back and forth. "Please stay, I just-... it's been a bad morning for me, too, my son and daughter didn't want to get up this morning..."

"I can really appreciate that, Mrs. Neve," Alaina says, sighing and taking her paws out of her pockets and resting them carefully, cautiously, non-threateningly on her desk. "That was an awful first impression, wasn't it?"

"I've got no right to judge, Alaina...," Mrs. Neve says, smiling. "I'm not mad at you... just surprised to see another fox and wolf..."

"Thanks for not being mad at us, and I'm sorry if nobody told you anything, but we can't exactly help what species we are, ma'am. All we're here to do right now is learn Algebra (again), not cause any trouble, I promise," she says, giving her her best non-threatening smile. "And, um, another wolf and fox, what?"

"It's alright," Mrs. Neve says, "it just surprised me, don't worry... hell, my own son and daughter are like you... Isaac's the wolf, and well, my daughter's a young vixen... I think both of you would like them, honestly... and I can see the question in your eyes, both of you, where is everyone? There is nobody else...

"Pardon me for asking," I say, raising my paw like I've been taught, "but what do you mean by that? Aren't there more of us in this class, or am I wrong again? I mean, it is just algebra, right?"

Mrs. Neve sighs and puts a hand on her forehead in frustration. "There are," she says, sighing again, "but oh my god, a fox, a wolf... you can guess how it went over, right?"

"It wasn't good, was it?" Alaina asks, and instead of answering at first, Mrs. Neve sighs one more time, then looks at us with a look of sadness that neither of us understands until she begins to speak.

"They didn't want to be in class with animals," she says, sighing. "This school, I swear it taught them better and not judge a person.. I even tried to force them into coming, I even threatened them with detention... it's awful, they refused to have anything to do with 'animals."

"Yeah, that doesn't surprise me at all," I say, trying to lick the salt off of my face and failing miserably, just like with everything else. Hell, I've already had one of the worst days of my young life, I'm tired and sore, and I just want to go back to the house... I've put up with enough already today, and now the students with whom I'm supposed to be learning have flat out refused to even see my muzzle just because I'm not human? I'm as smart as they are!

Not. Flocking. Fair, I think as tears start to well in my eyes yet again, and I hate myself for crying, hate it hate it hate it that I can't just jam my emotions back down my throat where they well and truly belong. If there's anything that my father taught me before he went off to war and never came back was that I should never let any mammal see that they got to me. That's been my more-or-less guiding principle ever since.

To be honest, I thought that I had managed to learn to control my emotions better, but the fact that there are now tears making salty tracks down the side of my muzzle at just a slight frustration proves that I was more wrong than I ever thought that I could be, not just about school, not just about this planet, but about myself. Wait, no I wasn't, I already knew I was a flockup with no sense of self-worth.

"What's wrong, Mister Aspen?" Mrs. Neve asks. "You alright?"

"I'm just Theo, Mister Aspen was my father," I say, shuddering at the thought, the memories.

I sigh, pushing back the tears that are trying to spring forth and wiping away the ones that have already come to betray me with one brown-gloved paw. That done, I slump back down to my desk and cover my eyes, hearing a whimper slip through my lips.

"It's okay, Theo," she says, coming over to my desk to place a reassuring paw- sorry, hand- on my paws, and as she does so, I feel an unusual wave of calm come over me as my tail stops flicking back and forth under my desk.

"Oh?" I ask. "What's that supposed to mean,'it's okay'?"

"What do you think that it means?" she retorts. "I mean exactly that, Theo. You know, I bet you've had a rough day, the both of you. Am I right?"

"Um, yeah….?" I say, feeling slightly confused as to why our teacher is taking the conversation in this direction, because in all honesty, I'd rather just let the whole matter drop. However, I get the feeling, based on the look in Alaina's eyes, combined with the set of her ears and the way her white-tipped tail is curled up as if in question, that she wants to know more.

"That's what I thought," she says. "And besides that, I have plenty of experience telling when people are lying, and with mammals, it's even easier. Come on, just tell me, both of you. What happened? I'll wait as long as it takes... doesn't one of you already have detention? No judgement, just wondering?"

"That's me," Alaina says sheepishly. "I got busted earlier for trying to defend myself from the arsehole who was stomping on my tail. I guess humans find bared teeth a little too, oh I don't know, predatory? I mean, I can't help that, I am a wolf after all, but I guess I understand…"

"What did you do, Alaina?" I ask, "You got into trouble, too, gosh darn it, what a hell of a first impression... hoskra! Let me guess, it was for 'threatening another student?'"

Alaina nods, an I sigh...Yeah, that's what I thought, I managed to 'earn' myself a detention for this afternoon for pretty much the exact same reason. "Same here..."

Alaina sighs, her tail starting to twitch nervously under her again. "So not surprised... Let me guess, it was that jerkwad lunch monitor, wasn't it? The guy who gave you the detention?"

At my sheepish smile, she herself smiles. "That's what I thought. I don't know how he's allowed work for the school in any way, shape, or form, the tailhole...gods, I really need to calm the hell down, I'm sorry, Mrs. Neve..."

"Alaina, I get it, I was a teenager once, too... say it, I've no right to judge, alright? Better to get it out..."

"Are you sure?" she asks. "I mean, I don't want to make a bad impression..."

"Bad impression?" Mrs. Neve asks, the wrinkles around her eyes crinkling and her eyes shining behind her glasses... "I have a hyper vixen for a daughter and a rather anxious wolf for a son, I thin you'd be hard pressed to find something that's gonna surprise me anymore. You know what, why don't I have both of them come down to visit during then?

"That sounds great," I say. Maybe we could be friends? God, that sounds so kit-like it's not even funny, but seriously though, I'm lonely.

"I've been homeschooling them on the side, and I'd like to bring them here... you know, I'd love to, but... but I'm somewhat afraid for them, but they'd really like both of you, I can tell that for sure, do darn doubts about that at all... and you know, I can also tell that, no offense meant in the slightest, you two are desperate for friends. Neither of you two really had friends back on Terra, did either of you?"

"Heck, I was too busy trying not to die," I say. "Soldier dad, got the jar of ash. My mom hit the bottle hard, she did me hard with those bottles too... and no, you don't need to call anyone for me, she liked lead for breakfast, I'm just- hic- g- gonna say that and leave it there," I manage to choke out, tears coming to my eyes, and I stuff the feeling back down...

"When would be a good time for us to meet them? They sound like they're wonderful mammals, and yeah, we're kinda desperate for any friends," I say, feeling the heat of my blush light up my cheeks under the tear-stained fur on my cheeks, the emotions which I can't seem to control these days feeling overwhelming. Ever since my having crossed over to this side of the Bridge between our two worlds, my emotions have been even more out of whack than they usually are.

Now, that's not to say that I'm an unstable mammal. In fact, I one had one of my instructors refer to me ask the calmest and most collected mammal that they had ever seen. Of course, then they had to go and ruin in by adding three words: 'for a fox,' which just made me rather teed off, but the sentiment was -and still is true.

Anyways, I've been a little wonky ever since I came to Earth. I don't know what it is, but whatever the case, Mrs. Neve has a point. I'm desperate for any kind of attention, didn't get much of any back on Terra... As long as the attention I get doesn't involve me ending up with a crimp in my tail or spaghetti sauce in my fur, I'm fine with that...

"Theo, are you alright?" Mrs. Neve asks me.. flock, I zoned right out somehow.

"Huh?" I ask, surprised, and then I realize that she's talking to me, and I have no idea where my mind has been.

"What I was trying to ask, Mister Aspen, was if you two would be willing to serve as mentors for them. I don't want them to end up like you, no offense meant, of course."

At that, I feel a sharp spike of indignation flare in my chest, but instead of letting it get to me, I shove it back down into the pit inside of me where most of my frustration goes.

"Of course, Mrs. Neve," I say, and Alaina nods too.

"Sure, I'd love to," she says, "so when would we get to meet them?"

"How about I have them come visit you during your stay in the cafeteria this afternoon? It would certainly make the time pass faster, that I can guarantee, and besides, they need the company, like I said. What do you say?"

I sigh, unsure of what I'll be getting myself into, but I don't suppose that the company of two like mammals is going to hurt anything, is it? No, no it is not.

"Sure," I say, sticking my paw out for Mrs. Neve to shake, which she does. "You have yourself a deal, ma'am. Is there anything else that either Alaina or I could help you with? I mean, there's still fifteen or so minutes left in class, and neither of us has anything to do with ourselves until then, unless, of course, there's going to be a lesson today…"

"No,there's not going to be a lesson for the day, at least not today, Theo. You two've learned Algebra, if I heard right, right?"

"I didn't think that you'd heard what we were saying, Mrs. Neve, ma'am," I say, trying to keep my face as plain and as unrevealing as possible. Conceal, don't feel, don't let it show.

"You'd be surprised to find out what I hear, Mister Aspen," she says. "And you don't need to call me ma'am, Mrs. Neve is just fine. I may not be too young any longer, but ma'am still makes me feel old, but yes, I heard what you were saying earlier. I keep a baby monitor on my desk so that way I can always hear what's going on in my room. You two know how those work, right?"

"Yeah, of course," Alaina says, speaking for the first time in about ten minutes, "my mom and dad used to keep one in my room to keep track of my little brother James when they couldn't be right there in her room, watching over him."

"I see," Mrs. Neve says, then turns to face me, blue-green eyes twinkling with an expression that I can't quite read. "But to answer your earlier question, Theo, the one about a lesson today, the answer to that is no, that there isn't going to be one. I think you two have already mastered that kind of math, haven't you?"

Both of us nod at the same time, smiling, and Mrs. Neve laughs. "That's what I thought... I can't help hearing what goes through that monitor. For now, this period is going to be set aside for planning."

"Okay," Alaina says, "but planning for what?"

"You'll see tomorrow," she says, smiling, "but for right now, relax until the end of the period, and besides, I'll be seeing both of you after school." She pauses for a second, then begins to speak again. "Oh, and if you could, can both of you please bring a pencil and a pad of paper, preferably ruled loose leaf, with you when you report?"

Noticing the look of concern that has etched itself onto Alaina's face, she waves a hand (ha! Got it right that time!) dismissively in her direction. "You're not in trouble this time, Ms. Lupa, don't you get your tail in a twist. No, I want you to plan with me."

"Plan what again?" both of us as at the same time. "Jinx!" we say. "Jinx again! Triple jinx!"

"But seriously, what do we need to plan for?" I ask. "Does it happen to have anything to do with your son and daughter?"

"Yeah, it does," Mrs. Neve says, and Alaina nods.

"That sounds like a good idea to me, Theo," Alaina says. "What do you think about it?"

"Sounds good to me, Alaina," I say, my tail beginning to wag in anticipation no stop it you damn dog.

Okay, can the attitude, Theo, you're fine.

"See you guys later then," Mrs. Neve says, just as the bell rings to signal the end of the period, and both us us head out the door, muzzles held high for the first time that day.