Mutt gradually learned to read and write and even added his name to Bill's table. He worked in the bookstore, just cleaning at first, but soon was sorting and shelving. After a few months, he was even recommending books to customers. They loved his enthusiasm and cheerfulness and business grew.
Gunther's stories became more enthralling as Mutt joined the telling and they acted out parts together. More children came and some parents even offered donations, but Gunther had what he needed and spent the money on the children.
Gunther took the time to teach Mutt everything he thought the young fox should know, but old habits are hard to break. When he found Mutt stealing from trash or leftovers at restaurants, like he had done with Billy, the old wolf showed him how to talk to people and how to manage money to buy the things he needed.
“Did you and Billy ever visit food banks or soup kitchens?”
“Sometimes, but we had to be careful.”
“Why did you need to be careful?”
“So they wouldn't put us in jail.”
“They wouldn't put you in jail for asking for food; they're there to help you.”
“We went to one and they were really nice at first, but then they separated us and took me to a room and started asking me a lot of questions I didn't know. Then they left me alone and Billy came in and we left before they came back. He said they were calling the Guard and we were in trouble because we didn't know where our parents were and they weren't going to give us any food without them and maybe even lock us up.”
“They were probably hoping to help you find your parents.”
“But we didn't have any.”
“The Guard would have taken you to people that could have found homes for you.”
“That would be nice. Then we could have had a family together.”
“If they could find someone that would take both of you.”
“You mean we would have been separated?”
“Probably, unfortunately. Not many families would be willing to take on two children at once, especially such different species.”
“Then I'm glad we left. Billy was right. … but …” Mutt's ears drooped and he looked at his paws.
“What's wrong?” The old wolf tried to console the young fox.
“If Billy had a family, we wouldn't have been in that barn and he wouldn't have gotten shot and he wouldn't have died.” The tears came anyway, “We should have found families; even if I never saw him again, at least he'd still be alive.”
Gunther held his young friend and sighed as he tried to think of some way to comfort him. “You had a lot of good times while you were with him. Just remember those and be glad for them. Don't worry about what could have been, because then you would have missed all those adventures and I wouldn't get to hear your stories.”
“If I had a family, I wouldn't have met you?
“Oh, we might have. You could have been walking down the street and found me just the way you did. You never know what the Fates may have planned. So, keep looking forward, that's the only way time flows.”
Mutt hugged the old wolf, “I'm glad I found you, but I keep thinking about Billy.”
“It's important not to forget him completely, but Frank and I can help keep you busy, so you don't feel so sad.”
Mutt smiled and hugged Gunther again.
“Now go find Frank, so he can put you to work.”
The fox jumped up and hurried off to the bookstore.
However, after work and story time and lessons, when there was nothing left to do for the day, Mutt remembered Billy. As much as things were better now, he missed his prickly friend. He tried to hide his crying from his wolf mentor, but the shelter in the alley that they shared was small.
Finally, Gunther had an idea and one night, he interrupted the flood of memories; putting his paw on his young friend's arm, the old wolf spoke softly, “Mutt”
The fox tried to clean his face quickly before he turned around.
“Tell me about Billy.”
Mutt was confused, “I've told you.”
“You've told me things you did together. Tell me who he was.”
Mutt rolled over and sat up, trying to put his thoughts together, “He was my friend.”
“He was more than that, wasn't he?”
“He took care of me and taught me things and protected me and made me better...”
“That sounds like family.”
“But he was a porcupine and I'm a fox.”
“And I'm a wolf. Family isn't just the genetics that started you. It's the people that help you grow.”
“You've helped me grow a lot.”
The old wolf smiled, “And you've taught me some things, too.”
“So, we're family?”
“Yes, I'd be happy to call you family, Mutt.”
The fox drooped and looked at the ground.
“Are you going to die, too?”
Gunther pulled him close and sighed, “Everyone has to die sometime and I've put it off for a long time. I'm hoping to avoid it for many years to come, but eventually, I won't have a choice.”
Mutt sobbed into the wolf's shirt, “Why does my family keep dying? I don't want to lose you, too.”
The old wolf stroked the young fox's neck soothingly, “No one can live forever. We just have to enjoy the time we have together and remember the ones that go before us.”
“I'll never forget Billy, or you.”
Gunther lightly scritched behind his ears.“Why don't you write down your stories, so you can share them and more people can remember Billy?”
“I'm not good enough for that.”
“You don't have to be good, just write down what you remember and I can help you find the words.”
“Can I write about you, too?”
“You can write about anything you want. Frank can help us put it in a book”
“And books never forget.”
“That's right, books never forget.”
From then on, every night, Gunther helped Mutt write down everything he could remember doing with Billy. The old wolf recorded everything faithfully, though he took the time to discuss some things that weren't quite civil.
“You know now that you shouldn't steal from people, right?”
“We only took things that nobody wanted.”
“When people put things in the trash, they expect it to go to recycling or the dump.”
“Well, we were recycling things.”
The wolf chuckled, “Yes, you were, but you should still ask first. Some people are afraid that you could find something in their trash that could hurt them or you and some people like helping others and asking would give them a chance to do more for you.”
“Billy knew who we should ask and who we shouldn't. He said I shouldn't try, because I say the wrong things.”
Gunther stroked the sullen fox's neck, “You're honest, but it's raw. Most people like their truth cooked down to just what is relevant to the moment. That doesn't mean you lie or hide anything; you just focus on what you're trying to say, like the moral from a story.”
“What story has a moral that lets me have some food?”
The wolf laughed as his own stomach grumbled, “The one where you're hungry. Come on, let's go see if Bill is busy.”
They walked down to the deli and found the bobcat hurriedly scrubbing tables.
“How's it going, Bill?”
The cat smiled up at them as he continued cleaning, “Well, Chi's sick, so we're scrambling a bit to keep up today.”
“Is she alright?”
“She's fine, just a mite off.”
“Do you need any help?”
“You just missed the rush.” He finished wiping the last table and stuffed the rag in his apron. “What can I get for you two?”
“I'll take my usual.”
“And for our fox friend?”
“You like surprises.”
Mutt nodded, “I like yours.”
“Well, I've got something new that seems to be pretty popular: chicken chips.”
“Fresh chicken medallions pressed with seasoning, then flash fried without breading and baked crisp and you can pick a sauce to dip them in.”
“Sounds delicious.” Mutt licked his lips.
Gunther chuckled, “You do know how to please our fox.”
“Everything he makes is delicious.”
“I can't argue with that.”
“Oh, I just spare you my worst disasters. I'll get started on your sandwich and your chips.” Bill smiled and headed for the kitchen.
Mutt leaned over the table to whisper, “Does he really make disasters?”
Gunther smiled, “Oh, everyone makes mistakes, but I expect Bill's are at least still edible.”
“Not all of them.” An old gray cat leaned around Gunther to set glasses of water in front of both patrons. “One of his attempts to perfect the chips had the whole place filled with smoke. Fortunately, nobody was here, yet.”
“Ah, the lovely Juliet graces us with her dulcet voice. How fares the fair feline this day?”
She sighed as she placed two utensil bundles on the table. “Not so fair this week. Eldon passed on Sunday.”
“Your husband?” Gunther caught her paw and held it tenderly. “My deepest condolences. I hope he went peacefully.”
She put her other paw on his and tried to keep her voice even, “He just fell asleep in his chair while watching one of his old movies.” Her breath stuttered and Gunther stood up to wrap his arms around her. She broke down in tears on his shoulder and hugged him tight.
“You shouldn't be working; you need time to grieve.”
“I can't. Bill needs the help and I just don't want to be alone, especially at home.” She pushed back to scowl at him, “I was doing just fine until you showed up.”
“I'm sorry, my sweet. We'll leave.”
“No, it's too late.” She smiled at him with tears in her eyes, “I loved my husband, endlessly, but you … you were my only what if. If only I were twenty years younger and more bold.”
“You look amazing for a hundred.”
She smirked, “Well, how do I look for seventy-eight?”
She scoffed and wiped away a tear, “Well, still too old for you.”
“Juliet, I'm eighty-four.”
The cat gasped and her tail straightened, then she shook her head. “Gunther, no.”
“I flew two wars, fifty years apart, and was alive for the first one. I've seen a few decades.”
“You just don't look it.”
“Not all this gray is the color with which I was born.”
She smiled ashamedly, “Neither is mine.”
“No, you are a shimmering silver.”
“Which makes you platinum.” She sighed and laid her head on his shoulder again. “I wish I could live two lives, once for Eldon and one with you.”
“We still have time.”
“I don't have the energy left for another relationship.”
He pushed her back to see her face, “Chase me with your alluring voice. Catch me with your beguiling smile. Make love to me with your joyous laugh. We're both old enough that lustful passions have matured into a more meaningful embrace. But first, take the time to mourn your husband. Give him the farewell and memorial he deserves. I'll never take his memory from you.”
She shook her head, “How are you still single?”
Gunther looked away for a moment as his tail and face sagged, then smiled at her, “I was simply waiting for my Juliet.”
She chuckled as she looked into his eyes, “Wherefore art thou not Romeo?”
“I can be, for you.”
She stared at him for a moment, then closed her eyes and pushed away, “I … I need to clean up.” She pulled out a rag, then stuffed it back in her apron as she hurried to the kitchen.
Gunther stared at the door as he sat down with a sigh. He noticed Mutt watching him and smiled, “Never pass up an opportunity to tell a woman she's beautiful, especially if she's not feeling it.”
“Is she your Dulcinea?”
The wolf thought a moment, then smiled. “Yes, I suppose she is. You liked those stories, did you?”
The door opened and a bear walked in. Gunther glanced up to smile at him.
“Hey, Gunther, long time no see. Who's your friend?”
The wolf got up again to offer his paw, “Quio. Back in town? How's your life?”
Quio yanked his old friend into a hug, then stood him up again, “Well, Kia left me, but I should have expected it. She was talking about babies and wanted one of her own. We're still friends, but she's got a raccoon guy now; no babies, yet.”
“I'm sorry to hear that. It seemed that she loved you completely.”
“Still does. She just wants a natural child from a father she chose. He's a good guy and when it finally works, we'll be back together. I'm not giving up on her.”
“I hope it works out for you soon. You two deserve to be happy together.” Gunther patted his friend's shoulder, “Now, I'd like to introduce you to my young friend here, Mutt.”
The fox perked when he heard his name, then stood up to join them and offered his paw.
The large morph took the smaller paw in his own, “Nice to meet you, Mutt.”
Mutt suddenly found himself three feet forward and surrounded by bear as the friendly morph hugged him, then set him back on his feet.
“You're Gunther approved, so you've got to be good.” He examined the fox carefully, “Hmm, you don't look like a Mutt.”
“I'm a fox.”
“I can see that, but I can't just call you Fox.”
The wolf stepped in, “Quio gives his friends new names. He decided I was Gunther instead of Daijen.”
“And it worked well for you, didn't it?”
“You made sure it stuck. Though he never picked one for himself.”
“Why mess with perfection? Besides, picking your own name is pretentious and usually inaccurate. You need somebody that knows you to find just the right fit.”
“If I'm not Mutt, who am I?”
Gunther ruffled the fox's ears, “Don't worry, you're still you, but maybe it's time to choose a more respectable name for yourself.”
“Yeah, mutt is a derogatory word for mixed breed, no offense,” the bear held up a paw, “and best I can tell, you're as fox as they come.”
Gunther chuckled, “So what do you call a fox?”
“That's just it. I always have trouble with foxes; they're just so plain and he doesn't have any markings or socks. He's not even wearing anything to help.” The flustered bear gestured emptily.
Gunther examined the naked fox, “He has a point. We should find something suitable for you to wear, to help you express yourself.”
Mutt looked at Gunther's blue uniform pants and white shirt and the bear's baggy dackers and flannie, then down at his own bare body and shrugged.
Quio smacked Gunther's shoulder with the back of his large paw and laughed, “Well, we always looked good in uniform; maybe he should join the Guard.”
The old wolf rubbed his arm, “Somehow I don't think he would fit in well there. Maybe something simpler, like pants and a t-shirt.”
“I think he looks just fine as he is.” Bill smiled at Mutt as he set down two plates of food. “He's got great color. Why cover it up? Anyway, here's your roast beef and your chicken chips. Enjoy.” He looked up at the bear with a smile, “Welcome to my deli; I'm Bill. What can I get for you?”
Gunther stepped back with a smile, “Bill, this is Quio. We flew together ten years ago.”
“Oh, were you combat?” The bobcat offered his paw to the larger morph.
“Look out, Bill.” Mutt tried to warn him.
“No, I flew evacuation runs with Gunther, here.” The bear chuckled, then took the cat's whole arm and yanked him close. “You know, you look like a Bill.” He sniffed, then noticed the startled morph's odd tail. “Yep, Double Bill, the mealmaker. DB BC.” He smacked Bill's back, then released him with a laugh. “Nice to meet you, DB.”
Bill straightened himself and eyed the bear nervously, “Ah, well, you, uh, did good work there. Gunther saved my life and I bet you saved more than a few yourself.”
“Twenty-one runs from Perrin to Perth in my Savi, before they stopped us; over six hundred out and took two in.”
“Yeah, couple Guard that got injured, then needed to rejoin their troop. Dunno what happened to them.”
“Well, you did your part. What can I get for you?”
“I'm just looking for a quick bite. Give me two of those Super Meat Combos, double the meat and put everything on them. You got any anchovies?”
Mutt sat down to enjoy his lunch and Gunther joined him.
“Don't take anything he said too personally. You're fine the way you are, but we can look at some things for you to wear, if you're interested.”
Mutt shrugged and they continued eating., then Juliet walked up and put her paw on Gunther's shoulder. When he looked up at her, she smiled nervously at him. “I'm sorry for walking away like that. I'm just … scared.”
He started to get up, but she kept her paw on his shoulder to keep him down as she fidgeted with the rag hanging out of her apron.
“I was scared when Eldon was alive and I had … thoughts about you, but I turned them around and focused on him. Now that he's gone, I'm scared of being alone, but I'm even more scared of what could happen if I entertain those old thoughts; what that would mean for Eldon.”
“Juliet, nothing can…”
She slammed the rag on the table, “Just … Oh, why do I feel like a nervous little girl talking to you? You're not…” She grunted in frustration and headed for the kitchen.
Gunther grabbed the rag from the table and hurried to catch her. “Juliet, Mutt said something that made me think about some things. I may be delusional to live the way I do, but it makes me happy. The world is a difficult place; with many reasons to be unhappy, but I choose to see you as my Dulcinea. You had many happy years with Eldon, survived difficult trials together, and you feel his absence greatly, but you still have a choice. You can take this dirty dish rag and mourn him in your own time, or your can bless this silken scarf and I can help you honor his legacy”
She stared at the rag in his paw with her tail curled tightly behind her. She glanced at Mutt, then at Gunther, then settled back on the rag. Finally, she put her paw on his and took a breath, “Gunther, … I'm just not ready. I …” She looked up to his eyes and froze. “… I'm sorry.” She took the rag and started to turn away, but stopped. Giving in to herself, she wrapped her paw around his muzzle and kissed his lips, then walked away before he could react.
The old wolf stood for a moment, staring at the kitchen door, until a large paw hit his back.
“Never thought I'd see you get turned down. All the females swooning over you, and even some males, and you kept turning them away. You should have told me you had a thing for gray cats; I'd've found you one.”
Gunther looked up at his friend. “It's not the cat; it's the person.” He patted the bear's belly and walked around him to return to the table and his meal.
Mutt smiled, “Don't worry, Aldonza didn't understand at first, either.”
The old wolf chuckled, “I don't think Quixote quite fits our story, but you're right, she needs some time.”
They finished their meal and Quio said goodbye as he took his sandwiches and left, then Juliet returned to collect their dishes. Without looking at either of them, she paused, “Ask me again next week” then she hurried to the kitchen with their plates.
“What did she mean?” Mutt licked some sauce from the back of his finger.
Gunther noticed a neatly folded clean rag on the table and took it as he stood up with a smile, “It means it's time for us to go for now. Let's go have a chat with Frank about our day.”
Mutt waved to Bill as they left and headed back to the bookstore. They waited as Frank talked with a customer. When they finished, the rabbit smiled bashfully at Gunther as she passed, clutching her book to her chest.
“What are you two up to today? Hey Mutt, the inbox got a boost this morning.”
The fox smiled and hurried around the counter to grab the crate of books and started running them to shelves around the store.
“He sure likes his work.”
“He's an eager fox. Speaking of, I ran into an old friend today and he asked about Mutt's name. It got me thinking that we should help him develop his identity: clothes, a more fitting name.”
“He's already a unique character.” Frank watched Mutt sit down under a table to read one of the books he was supposed to be shelving.
“And he needs a name as unique as he is.”
“Your name is pretty unique.”
Gunther chuckled, “So, is he a Gunther or a Daijen?”
Frank smirked, “Yeah, neither quite fit. Maybe something literary?”
“Quixote doesn't fit him very well, either.”
“And he has only read the abbreviated version, based on the play. I didn't want to overwhelm him with the original. … Hey Mutt! What are you reading?”
The fox popped up and hit his head under the table, then grabbed the edge and ducked around it as he hurried back to the counter to give Frank the book.
“Renard duGaul by Dale Josephs, classic.” The man looked to the wolf, “It's a series published about a hundred years ago about morphs in chivalric times. It took many elements from Amadis duGaula, the inspiration for Cervantes' Don Quixote, but went in a completely different direction, keeping the hero more cleanly heroic.”
Mutt smiled, “I liked the picture.”
Frank showed Gunther the cover with a red fox morph in armor on a horse accepting a flower from a vixen in a dress.
“You like stories about knights.”
Mutt nodded, “They help people.”
“Do you like to help people?”
The fox nodded again, then drooped as he thought about Billy, “When I can.”
“Well, you help me a lot.”
Gunther put his paw on Mutt's shoulder, “And me.”
Mutt smiled, “Am I a knight?”
“I think you've done enough deeds; you just need to find some royalty to dub you.”
“Like the innkeeper?”
“Well, that was…”
“You're the king of this castle, right? I have an idea; I'll be right back.” Gunther smirked at Frank, then gave Mutt a wink as he left.
Mutt looked excitedly to Frank as he clung to the edge of the counter, “Can you make me a knight?”
The man glared at the door as the wolf's tail disappeared through it, then tried to think of a way to distract the fox. “Well, … I think, … first you need a name.”
“Like when Alonso Quicksano became Don Quixote?”
“Quixano. Yes … like that. Something that says you're not just any fox, or mutt.”
“I don't think I want to be Mutt anymore.”
“Who do you want to be?”
“I don't know. I want to be a knight, like that.” The fox pointed to the book.
Frank looked at the book in his hand. “Renard is just another word for fox … Quixote and Amadis may be too archaic … Don?”
As Mutt thought about it, the door opened again and they watched Gunther come in carrying a coat as he did something inside it. When he reached the counter, he finished up and held it toward frank with a white thread stretched out, “Would you mind?”
“Oh.” The man reached under the counter for a pair of scissors and snipped the thread free.
“Now,” Gunther shook his old blue uniform coat straight and held it up with the tails dangling below, “since I have experience in being a king and took you into my home as my only subject, by virtue of your deeds and the stories you have shared with me, and barring any objection from the other king present…”
Frank smiled and held up his hands innocently.
“…I hereby offer you, in simple ceremony, your new name and uniform.” he swung the coat around the fox and helped him put his arms in the sleeves.
“But this is your coat.”
Gunther brushed and tugged on the coat to make it hang right on the smaller fox. “Now it is yours. It even has your name in it. Look inside on the pocket.”
Mutt opened the coat and saw gold letters in the black lining:
White letters had been hastily added, changing the name. “Du gawl McPhereson?”
“DuGaul, just like the knights, and McPhereson, because you are part of my family.”
The fox sprung forward and hugged his friend as he started to cry.
Frank chuckled, “I think that means he likes it.”
“I hope so.”
“I do like it.”
“Well, DuGaul, check the outer pocket.”
DuGaul stepped away to feel the coat and stuff his paws into the pockets. He pulled out a hard, blue pouch.
Gunther smiled and gestured for him to continue.
The fox popped the snap and slid three small tubes into his paw. “What is it?”
“It's a recorder. It makes music, like a flute.” The wolf took the pieces and put them together, “The big piece goes on the big end and the small piece goes on the small end, then you blow gently into the big end.”
Mutt watched, fascinated, as Gunther put the instrument to his lips and played a somber melody, then offered it back to him with a smile. He took it and blew into the big end, producing a breathy, choppy whistle.
“Make sure you close your lips completely, so all the air goes into the recorder.”
Mutt tried again and blew harder, this time making a loud, shrill squeak that made all of them, even the human, wince.
Gunther chuckled, “It's a start. Put it away for now and we can practice with it outside, where we won't disturb Frank's customers.”
The man looked around at his empty bookstore, “You're not…”
The door opened and a badger walked in.
“Time to get back to work, DuGaul.” The wolf smiled and patted the fox's shoulder, then headed out, with a nod and smile to the customer as he passed.