Ch. 1

"I'm hurting

I'm crying

I'm living

I'm fighting

When anger's not enough,

I am fighting for love!"

Venus Hum, "Fighting For Love"

James sat on a fluffy white cloud, picking away at its cotton-candy curls; next to him was an enormous plate of French fries, perfectly crisp, seasoned, and delicious. With the fries was a glass of James' favorite strawberry soda; on his other side lay his best friend, Aiden, with whom he was chatting nonchalantly as he devoured his potato goodness. Aiden smiled, listening intently to James hyper voice, occasionally commenting or using sarcasm as the boy tossed cloud bits into his hair. James was happy.

His pale hand reached down for another fry, but what he found was quite to his horror: the fries were covered in red, thick, tangy, tomatoey ketchup. He frantically wiped his hand on the cloud, leaping away from the platter of food; panicking, he turned toward Aiden... who suddenly just was not there. Soon, the sky went dark, as if the sun had been shut off, and the scent of precipitation filled the air. Realizing too late that the cloud was raining itself into oblivion, he plummeted into the seemingly endless abyss, and with a sudden impact, he hit the ground.

As he righted himself, angry murmuring reached his ears. Clueless to the source, he backed up in the pitch-black darkness, and found himself pressed against a warm, crispy object. He jumped back with a shout, face-to-face with a gargantuan version of his favorite food, which suddenly sprouted a pair of legs and arms, stomping toward him. It roared; horrified, James turned to run, but he was surrounded by more giant French fries. Each one clomped toward him, intent on taking its revenge--

He was no longer in the abyss; instead, he stood in what seemed to be in a grand mansion. The floor was inlaid with marble, stained by blood, and the surrounding walls had imprints of the beings tortured there in former times. In his hand, James tightly clutched a pistol-like gun, made of amethyst; in front of him chained to the wall was Aiden, clothes tattered, wounds bleeding profusely. Tears streaming down his face, James lifted the gun, aiming it carefully. The air shimmered just behind him, and suddenly, shining golden wings sprouted from his back, a silver halo glistening above his head. He pulled the trigger, his unerring aim guiding an amethyst bullet to Aiden's heart.

James awoke with a muffled shriek. Beside him on the floor, Aiden sat up, yawning. He ran his hand through his shortish, jet-black hair, asking groggily: "Jamie, what's going on?" He glanced at James' strawberry-shaped alarm clock, glowing red in the darkness. "It's two in the morning." James' startlingly blue eyes shined with tears as he squeezed his eyes shut in an attempt not to cry. His tiny frame shook with the enormous effort, and soon enough his resolve broke; he whimpered as if he were in physical pain. "Jamie?" questioned Aiden again. "What's happening?"

James managed a deep breath after several moments, using his bedsheets to clean his face. He brushed his straight, strawberry-blond hair from his face, and took another calming, deep breath. "I had a nightmare." Aiden raised an eyebrow. "It was all normal at first, with you and soda and fries, but then, there was, there was ketchup on my fries, and you went poof, and I fell, and giant fries were chasing me, and it would've been okay but it changed and I--" He broke off, choking off a sob and blinking back a new wave of tears. He lowered his voice to just above a whisper, and continued. "I-I-I... you were being tortured, th-then I saw you, a-and I... I shot you..."

Aiden paused, chocolate-colored eyes betraying no sign of panic. "Would you ever shoot me?"

James shook his head emphatically. "Of course not! You're my best friend!"

A smile appeared on Aiden's face, and he playfully pushed James over. "Well, you have nothing to worry about, then!" He heard a muffled squeak as James' head hit his pillow, and laughed. James rolled over, somewhat relieved, and lay down with a huge yawn. "Go back to bed," advised Aiden.

James' only reply was a tiny snore.

Three days later, James rubbed his eyes as he rode in the passenger seat of Aiden's car. "Thanks for giving me a ride," he yawned.

"It's not a problem," answered Aiden. "You know, I wish your sister weren't sick today... I could've annoyed her before we left. Alyssa's so easy to annoy." He chuckled good-naturedly as he turned into the parking lot of Anthony High School, thinking of James' 19-year-old sister. He glanced at James worriedly as he guided the car into the parking space. "Jamie, are you okay? You look exhausted."

James yawned again. "I'm fine." His ice-blue eyes were bloodshot; he had dark circles outlining his eyes, slouching tiredly.

"Bullshit." James looked up at Aiden's use of profanity. "What's going on?"

James blushed and muttered, "I haven't slept since you spent the night, okay? Happy now?" His nose was scrunched, his face pulled in a perfect pout.

"You haven't slept? That was three days ago, Jamie! Why haven't you-- is it about that nightmare?" James' blush went deeper as he yawned a third time; the reddening was answer enough for Aiden. "Jamie! If your parents or Alyssa found out, they'd be pissed! Why haven't you slept?"

The blond sighed, blowing a stray hair out of his pale, round face. "No sleep... I don't wanna, not after that..." He squeezed his eyes shut, trying to chase away the remnants of his nightmare.

"Jamie. You're my best friend. You're not gonna shoot me," Aiden stated forcefully. He playfully punched James and continued: "We have health class next period. You're gonna sleep then, okay? You need your energy, and you know it."

"But-"

"No buts. You're gonna sleep once we're done working."

Furiously, James threw open the car door, making a face akin to that of a petulant child's. "You're not my master!" His eyes flashed in fury as he slammed the door shut, Converse-clad feet stomping away.

Aiden sighed, turning off the ignition. He wearily slung his backpack over his right shoulder and left the car. "Jamie!" he called. "James! James, wait!"

James temporarily froze at the unusual use of his full name. "Leave me alone!" he commanded, turning away from Aiden. The elder boy's longer strides brought him alongside the blond, and he grasped the younger boy's wrist.

Aiden began to speak, but was interrupted by a rude voice blaring across the lot. "Fags!" came the voice. Aiden rolled his eyes, and James unceremoniously gestured in the general direction from where the voice had emanated. Aiden smirked at the younger's reaction, then said, "I'm not trying to baby you, Jamie, but your parents asked me to watch over you, and besides, you're my best friend. Who would I hang out with all the time if you died?"

"Just 'cause the doctors don't know what's wrong with me doesn't mean I'll die!" replied James. "I can take care of--"

"I'll give you a cookie at lunch."

James' eyes widened eagerly at the prospect of the sugary, chewy cookie, and he begged, "Peanut butter?"

Aiden grinned at the easy change in mood. "If you sleep tonight, too, then I'll even get Alyssa to bake you some with chocolate chips, as well."

"Geez, she'll do anything for you!" James exclaimed, being led by Aiden to class. "She certainly seems to love you." Aiden snorted, as if the idea were preposterous. Suddenly, James' eyes narrowed, and he threatened, "Break her heart and I'll castrate you."

"Protective, aren't you?"

"Nah. It's just, it was horrible having to live with her when her last boyfriend broke up with her, freshman year. No cookies, no dinner, or any other food... she didn't even talk as much.

By this time, the two had reached the classroom; from behind them came a wry voice: "Oh, I remember that. She'd nearly murder anyone mentioning his name." There stood a red-haired teen, height somewhere between James' and Aiden's. His hazel eyes surveyed the blond's smaller body, and he snickered, "James, you haven't even grown an inch over the summer."

Scowling, James replied, "I grew a whole centimeter! Just 'cause you're taller than me doesn't mean you can be such a jerkface, Jason Carpenter!" He drew himself to his full five-foot-two-inches-one-centimeter height.

Jason's eyes shined with amusement as he further goaded James. "Not much more mature, either. Using my full name was rude, 'jerkface'." He smirked, and turned to Aiden. "How's your girlfriend?" Aiden suddenly became distant, staring into the distance, not replying. "Aiden?" He tapped twice on Aiden's broad shoulders; the raven-haired teen jumped.

"What did you say?"

"I asked how Alyssa is."

Still distantly, Aiden replied, "She's fine. Getting ready to go back to college, right James?" James nodded slowly, mystified at Aiden's sudden mood swing, seemingly triggered by the word 'girlfriend'. He let out another yawn, and the tallest boy grasped his arm. "Let's go. You need to sleep."

Class passed normally, save for one event that usually would be easily overlooked. The teacher, absent due to a family emergency, was gone and left no substitute; true to his word, James was fast asleep. His chest gently rose and fell as he dreamed of clouds and strawberries; his mouth hung slightly open, with drool beginning to collect in the corner, but instead of being disgusting, it suited the boy. Aiden smiled, inconspicuously brushing a stray hair from the blond's face. Just beyond James sat Jason, who saw Aiden's action; hazel eyes met chocolate, and Jason smiled knowingly, pressing a finger to his lips. Aiden flushed, gave a small nod, and returned to his book.

James' eyes were more alert as he and Aiden approached their usual lunch table. He stretched his arms, still holding his food... a nearby girl in a bright pink miniskirt shoved his arm, causing his pudding cup and fries to go flying, hamburger precariously teetering on the edge of his plate. "Oh, I'm sorry," sneered the girl, voice dripping with false sweetness. "Oh, wait. No I'm not."

Tears of fury sprang to James' eyes as the girl turned away. "My pudding... and my fries...," he whimpered. He glared at the girl's back, drawing himself to his full five-foot-two; neither the girl nor the people at James' table knew what was about to happen. The blond turned the girl around, and exploded, "You're going to apologize, and get me another pudding and fries, now." He snatched the girl's makeup compact from her manicured hand. "Or else this gets tossed in the pool."

The girl glared back at him, and snarled, "You little queer!" She took a step toward him menacingly, but he held his ground. Soon enough, she realized he was serious, and her eyes widened in fright. "You wouldn't dare! I payed a hundred dollars for that designer makeup!"

"I don't care! You purposely knocked over my food! I payed three whole dollars for that, got overcharged, had to wait in line, and I'm starving! Now go get me my food!" The girl eyed her compact and stomped away furiously.

As she left, Jason stared incredulously from his seat at the lunch table. "Damn, James! I never knew you had it in you to be such... well, such a bitch! And, I mean that as a compliement." Aiden and James grinned as the girl approached the table.

"Here's your fucking pudding! Now give me my makeup!" she demanded. James smiled sweetly and thanked her; as he reached across the table to give her the compact, his aquamarine eyes fell on a single packet of ketchup. He leapt back in fright, and the compact went flying; the girl dived for it, bare millimeters too far from it. She shrieked angrily as the makeup hurtled toward the ground-- and was snatched in mid-air by Aiden. He pulled her up and admonished, "You should be nicer." The girl blushed as she looked into his eyes, and he pointedly continued: "I'm taken." The girl looked dejected, and mouthed the word 'faggot' at James as she left; Jason smirked.

James happily munched on the crispy fries.

Aiden drove James home that afternoon. The blond's house was moderately-sized, neither large nor small, big enough for a family of four, with a beautiful oak door inlaid with stained glass; the majority of the house was painted a sandy brown, textured and molded to look like adobe. James burst in happily, running immediately to his room down the hall. The walls of his room were white with the slightest blue tint, adorned with posters of video game characters and movies. He hopped onto his bed, made neatly with red sheets, and grabbed a wireless video game controller, begging Aiden to play; Aiden politely declined in favor of hanging out with Alyssa.

Alyssa's room was completely different from James; instead of posters, the nineteen-year-old's room had dark blue walls, artfully painted with designs meshing together in an effect that was elegant, yet not pretentious. Alyssa herself sat on her bed, reading a women's magazine with evident disgust on her face. She tossed the magazine across the room and looked up at Aiden. "You know, I don't get why people read that trash. At the very least, James' video game magazines have substance other than ads, sex, and makeup advice."

Aiden sat down next to her with a bemused expression. "Why were you reading it, then?

"Someone in my class gave it to me. She thought she could make me into a girly-girl instead of the art and teaching major that I am." She snorted as she continued, "Fat chance. I thought college students were smarter than that; I sure am. By the way, were mom and dad home? I didn't check their room when I came in." Aiden shrugged in response, running a tanned hand through his pitch-black hair distractedly; he stared at the wall between Alyssa's and James' rooms, listening to the sounds of the younger teen's video game through it. "Aiden, are you okay?"

"I'm just worried about James, that's all."

"Worried?" questioned Alyssa.

\"Ever since I spent the night, he hasn't slept, he told me."

"What?!" Alyssa demanded. "Why not?! Why didn't either of you tell me?!"

"I didn't know, myself," interrupted Aiden. "He was yawning this morning, and finally he told me that he hasn't slept. He had a nightmare that night, and he said it was really realistic... it was something about him shooting me. He hasn't slept since."

"Why didn't he tell me?! He needs his rest, the doctors--"

"Can shove it. Millions of dollars are spent trying to cure cancer and other diseases and they can't tell us what's wrong with him? I made James sleep at school, but I promised I'd get you to make some of his favorite cookies for him to do it. He'll be fine, I should think."

Alyssa shook her head, sending ripples through her brown hair, natural-red highlights shimmering. "He's still weak, Aiden! Don't you remember last time he collapsed, from exercising? He didn't wake up for a good week! The doctors want him safe so they can diagnose him!"

"I was worried, Alyssa." Aiden spoke quietly, interrupting her tirade. "You know he loves to sleep. For a dream to make him not want to sleep, it must've felt extremely real to him."

She let out a breath angrily, green eyes flashing dangerously. "If the doctors can't figure out what the hell is wrong with him soon, I'll kill them. We've waited sixteen years and still nothing!"

"I just want him to be okay. The doctors said that chances are whatever's wrong with him won't kill him," reminded Aiden. His brown eyes betrayed his intense worry, but there was something deeper as well.

Alyssa picked up on it immediately, and her expression softened. "You still haven't told him, have you?"

Aiden sighed and shook his head. "I can't. You see how childish he is; he won't understand." His powerful frame slumped defeatedly. "He doesn't even realize why people insult him so much. Besides, he gets teased enough at school; if he understands, he won't accept it. It'd just hurt him more."

"Aiden, don't you see it? He's a lot more mature than people give him credit for." Alyssa paused, scratching at a small splotch of paint on her blue sheets. "He feels the same way, don't you realize? He doesn't say anything, but... it's just so obvious."

"If he doesn't say anything about it, how do you know?!" demanded Aiden. "You're just saying that to be nice, and it doesn't make things any easier!" He slammed his fist into the wall, and heard a loud, surprised squeak from James' room. "Do you know how hard this is, Alyssa? To be different, to be like this, to have to watch from afar all the time, no matter how close you really are?!" He took a breath, calming himself. "I'm sorry for getting so riled up. It's just... it's hard."

Alyssa dismissed the apology. "I understand, Aiden. I can't imagine what it feels like, but it's tearing you up so much. Maybe you really should just tell him." Aiden began to protest, but she continued: "I know you say you can't, but I really do think he feels the same. And, at the very least, you'll get it off your chest."

"But if he doesn't--"

"If he doesn't feel the same, he'll still be your friend. Don't give me any BS about how hard it'll be if he doesn't accept it; you'll make it through. And nothing about mom and dad; you know that I told them at the outset. Now, go play video games with him! You can be near him for a while. I'm here whenever you need me."

Aiden sighed, and took Alyssa's advice.

James beat Aiden at the video game an umpteenth time. "Aideeeeeen! What's going on? I never beat you at this! It's your favorite game!"

Aiden faked a smile and looked at James. "I've not had time to practice, and you've gotten a lot better! You've probably practiced more than I have." His tall frame was stiff with tension; his fake smile wouldn't fool the most naïve of people.

James brushed a stray hair from his face, and his ice-blue eyes pierced Aiden's heart. "Don't lie!" he commanded, his young face giving off a rare air of maturity. "What's wrong with you? You were fine when we got here, and now suddenly you're letting me beat you at a game that I've never been able to understand!"

"It's nothing, Jamie. Really, it's--"

"It's something! I'm not stupid, Aiden. Are you and Alyssa fighting?" James asked with a knowing look. "Did you hit the wall earlier? Is that what that was about? Don't worry, you and Alyssa always make up after you guys fight, remember? It'll all be—"

"It won't be fine, Jamie. It's not a fight, but it won't be fine. I have to go now." With that, he stood, eyes dulled with sadness; he left James sitting alone in his room, nearing tears.

Several minutes later, Alyssa found James sitting in the same position, and hugged him tightly, mentally cursing Aiden unrelentingly. "It's alright," she soothed James, "He's just in a bad mood today. It's nothing to do with you, or me, don't worry." She gently scratched James' back with her well-nails, pacifying the teen.

"He just left," whimpered James. "I asked what was wrong, and I tried to make him know I'm here, and he just left."

"I'll talk to him, I promise. Hey, he said I was supposed to make you cookies. Do you wanna help? It'll cheer you up. C'mon, peanut butter with chocolate chips! And while they bake, we can make chocolate-covered strawberries!"

James wiped his tear-streaked face on his sleeve and nodded.