A/N: This is a bit less cheerful than the things that have come before. (And yeah, I know those were pretty angsty in places. :P) This one's based on someone I used to know, and to him, I owe my eternal gratitude.


Ross gave the cart a hard shove, hearing the echo of the hard plastic wheels on cold cement as he distantly hoped the computer monitor balanced on top wouldn't fall off. Four months, and he still couldn't believe this counted as a class: fucking around in the halls and playing with computers for five hours a week. He was still amused that a group of six 13-year-olds knew more about computers than nearly all of the teachers at the school and were, by and large, the go-to crowd for any technical problems that arose. He glanced down at his white collared shirt and dark blue corduroys. "If only I had glasses," Ross thought, "the nerd image would be complete." Wrinkling his nose in distaste, he caught up to the cart with the busted computer monitor.

"Dead?" asked Mr. Kurihara as Ross pushed the cart through the door of the computer lab. In Ross's mind, he saw himself tossing the screen unceremoniously onto a heap of useless computer parts, making it shatter and explode in a blaze of dying glory that 8th grade boys couldn't help but love.

Instead, he answered simply, "Yeah, it's dead." He wheeled the cart to the back of the room and unloaded the monitor onto the counter. Ross walked back to the front of the computer lab, watching Arun and Darren playing some MMORPG for lack of anything better to do. The artificial sounds of knights and mythical beasts doing battle erupted from their workstations in bursts. "Glad you two are working hard," he mumbled.

"'Sup," they muttered in uninterested unison. Theresa, Mohammed, and Aiden were probably out on the only other jobs that came in today, leaving Darren, Arun, and now Ross with nothing to do. That meant another 45 minutes of free time.

"Anything else need to be done?" Ross asked Mr. Kurihara, just to be safe.

"I don't think so," he answered. "Go ahead and relax for a while."

"Not so much relaxing," Ross thought, jumping in front of a computer and pulling up a word processor to finish (or start, for that matter) the English essay he'd been putting off. He wasn't able to get past the introduction when the sound of an unladen computer cart coming through the door captured Ross's attention.

His eyes snapped up and immediately fluttered shut in exasperation. Ross lowered himself in his chair, trying to hide behind the computer but knowing it was futile.

"Did it work this time?" Mr. Kurihara inquired.

"Yeah, I was able to get the OS running," Aiden answered. Ross involuntarily sunk a little lower in his chair, this time melting more than trying to hide. "I got all her stuff installed, and the Internet is set up. She should be good to go now." Mr. Kurihara nodded his thanks. "Anything else?"

"Nope, no further instructions."

"Cool."

Ross squeezed his eyes shut, hoping and praying that Aiden wasn't going to—

"Hey, Ross," Aiden said, sitting down in the chair next to Ross.

"Hey," Ross returned meekly.

"What's that?"

Ross kept his eyes resolutely fixed on the essay in front of him. "It's an essay for Giancarlo's class." Ross was in the advanced studies program, so Aiden was in a different English class even though they were in the same grade.

"Ah."

"Yeah."

Ross continued typing uncomfortably. He knew Aiden was watching him. He felt guilty for avoiding his friend, but today was one of his Bad Days. He didn't think he could deal with Aiden today. Not on top of everything else.

A minute or two passed in tense (at least for Ross) silence before Mr. Kurihara's voice called out to them.

"Hey, guys, Ms. Fits needs a replacement again. A PC. Who wants to go?" As Ross expected, no one jumped up to volunteer. Ms. Fits ran the intro computer class on campus, and her computers were always breaking because she underestimated her students' abilities to figure out electronics and get into trouble. As if her computer problems weren't enough of a headache, she wasn't the most pleasant person to be around, either. Working with "those damn hellions," as Ross called them, couldn't put anyone in too great a mood, but Ms. Fits took it to a whole new level. She even looked menacing; despite her name, there was nothing about her that fit. She looked like she had to be poured into her clothes every morning, and she had eyes that seemed to suggest that she could kill you with a thought if you moved the wrong way.

However, Ross decided to take advantage of the opportunity to escape Aiden. "I'll go," he called out, nearly jumping out of his seat to grab a computer and a cart.

"Thanks, Ross," Mr. Kurihara said almost apologetically. "Are you okay on your own?"

"Yeah, I just have to take out the old one and put this one in, right?"

Mr. Kurihara nodded. "Aiden, how about you go with him?" Ross's heart tore in half as one part plummeted to the ground in despair and the other part took to the sky.

"No problem," Aiden replied, coolly walking over to help Ross lift the computer onto the cart.

"I've got it," Ross said, trying to move faster so Aiden didn't have a chance to do anything. But Aiden got to him before Ross could get the computer onto the cart, and he reached out to take half of the computer's weight. Ross sighed in acquiescence and tried to shift his hands around the cold, textured metal. Before he realized it, Aiden's hand was brushing against his. Ross dropped the computer like it was burning him.

"Yeah, I can tell you've got it," Aiden said, catching the computer just in time. The two glanced over to Mr. Kurihara, who hadn't seen the incident. Bittersweet relief washed over Ross.

"Thanks," he muttered, still avoiding making eye contact. Aiden finished loading the computer onto the cart and started pushing it out the door. Ross followed a few steps behind.

The cool, crisp January air hardly fazed Ross as he left the heated comfort of the computer lab, his attention was so fixed elsewhere. He held his hand in his pocket, trying to forget how Aiden's hand felt against his. "Fuck, fuck, fuck," he repeated in his head, trudging along through the heavy morning fog that had rolled in overnight off the nearby ocean.

At last, he let his eyes come up to grace the back of Aiden's body. His buzzed, spiked brown-blond hair dissolved into golden skin at his neck. His well-defined back stood out clearly even through the loose fabric of his white shirt. Ross had no trouble whatsoever imagining that back without the shirt; showers after gym class were one of the curses and blessings of being an 8th grader. Ross had to avoid looking directly at Aiden like he was the sun, knowing he was going to be scarred for life if he did. The one time he came close, his eyes fell on Aiden's perfectly sculpted torso and chest. "I didn't think you could have muscles like that at 13," he'd thought to himself, lamenting his own scrawny appearance and hoping it would change in time. Ross's eyes fell lower, past Aiden's neck, past his back, down to his...

"FUCK," he yelled out loud. His voice reverberated in the empty hallway. He glanced around, making sure all the classroom doors were shut – which they were. Aiden had stopped and turned around.

"Are you okay?" he asked, clearly worried. Ross was caught off-guard and found himself staring straight into Aiden's brilliant green eyes.

"Yeah," Ross answered quickly. "Sorry. I tripped." He tried to force the blush out of his cheeks, knowing it would give him away, but to Aiden's credit, no remark was made. Aiden only nodded and continued down the hall. Ross took a few deep breaths to steady himself before running to catch up.

They walked down the hall in silence, headed toward the completely opposite side of the school, all the way across the quad. Ross supposed there were worse fates; he just couldn't think of any at the moment.

Because it was during a class period, the halls were wonderfully empty. Ross was surprised to see a bleach-blond head turn a corner in front of him. It took only a couple seconds of wondering who it could be before Ross's eyes widened and looked around for refuge.

He found it in a bathroom a couple steps to his left. He leaped inside and pressed himself against a wall, hoping and praying that he was safe.

Ross tried to count the seconds in his head, wondering what would be sufficient. He didn't want Aiden to wonder where he'd gone, but he certainly didn't want to run into Sam, either. The last time Sam caught Ross alone... Ross closed his eyes and took a deep breath, his hand going to his stomach. The bruise had only just faded.

"This is the boys' bathroom," a voice spat from the doorway.

"Thanks, God, for always hearing my prayers," Ross thought sarcastically. He opened his eyes to see Sam standing in the doorway glaring at him. He pressed himself further back into the corner. Why hadn't he just hidden inside the stall at first? Now he'd have to make a dash for it. He was fast, but Sam had proven in the past that he was faster. Ross eyed the distance and knew he wouldn't make it.

"What the fuck are you doing here, fag? The girls' bathroom is around the corner."

Ross felt his hands become fists, and he clenched his teeth in unbridled anger. "I'm not a fag, asshole." He knew calling Sam an asshole was a bad idea, but he didn't see many ways the situation could become much worse.

"What did you call me, faggot?" Sam advanced toward Ross, face contorted in disgust and rage. "What did you just call me?"

"I called you an asshole," Ross answered defiantly. "Leave me the fuck alone." He steeled himself and made to leave, but Sam's hand stopped him.

"Oh, no you don't." Sam pushed Ross back against the wall, slamming him as hard as he could. Ross couldn't help but scold himself; Sam was so much shorter than he was. Why was he so much weaker than Sam? What was wrong with him? "I told you I'd better not fucking see you around here again."

Ross rolled his eyes. "I go to school here, too."

"Then get the fuck out!" Sam punctuated his sentence by shoving Ross against the wall again. "Or I'll take you out." He spat in Ross's face.

"What the fuck was that?" came Aiden's voice from the doorway. "Get off him."

"You're standing up for this bitch?" Sam asked.

"Just leave him alone, Sam." Aiden walked quickly over to Ross's side and pulled Sam's arm off him.

Sam stepped back and walked out of the bathroom. "You're a fag, too," he called over his shoulder.

Aiden sighed and put his hand on Ross's shoulder. Ross was too shaken to be fazed by Aiden's hand at this point. "Are you okay?" Aiden asked sincerely. Ross could only nod shakily.

"Thanks," he said softly. He took a breath and walked over to the sink to wash Sam's spit off of his face. "Fucking gross."

"I don't know why he picks on you so much," Aiden said.

"He's your friend," Ross said coldly. "Maybe you could just ask him." As soon as the words were out, Ross regretted it. Aiden had just stood up for him. Aiden, one of the most popular kids at school, just stood up for him, while the rest of them chose to treat him like Sam did. Ross had no idea why Aiden had ever wanted to be friends with him, but he was glad for it.

"He's an asshole," Aiden said flatly, ignoring (or perhaps not caring about) what Ross had just said. He handed Ross a paper towel to dry his face. "I'm sorry he did that."

"Not your fault," Ross sighed. "Thank you. I was afraid he was going to..."

"I know. I'm sorry." Aiden looked like he wanted to say something else but thought better of it. "Come on. Ms. Fits'll get pissed if we don't get her computer over there." Ross nodded and quit the bathroom with Aiden.

They resumed the walk to the other side of the school, Ross now at Aiden's side. The silence was amiable but not completely comfortable, either. When they got to Ms. Fits's room, they set up her new computer without saying a word to each other. It wasn't until they were halfway back to the computer lab that Aiden at last broke the silence.

"You're not afraid of me, are you?"

Ross almost laughed. "Afraid of you? Of course not. You just got Sam off my ass back there." He paused. "You always stand up for me."

"They shouldn't treat you like that." Aiden sounded regretful and annoyed at the same time. Ross wondered why Aiden cared so much. Silence fell once more, but Aiden spoke again after only a few seconds.

"Can I ask you something?"

Ross already didn't like this. "I guess."

"Are you gay?"

The two immediately stopped walking. Ross opened his mouth to yell at Aiden, but before he got the chance, Aiden continued in a rush. "I'm not asking so I can make fun of you, and I swear, I'm not going to tell anyone if you say yes. I was just wondering. Everybody says so, and... Well, it's not for them to decide. I wanted to hear it straight from your mouth."

Ross's words caught in his throat. Aiden didn't make sense to him. He was one of the popular kids. He was Sam's friend. At the same time, he was Ross's friend. He stood up for Ross, even if it meant going against his other friends. He didn't know it, but he was the object of every idle daydream Ross had had for the last few months. None of it added up. And here he was, asking honestly if Ross was gay. Ross knew he meant it when he said he wasn't going to throw it around like the other kids did in the halls, at lunch, in class... Ross knew Aiden wasn't going to judge him. Aiden was asking him as his friend. And Ross had no idea what to say.

"I'm not gay," he thought. "I can't be gay. I don't like Aiden. He's just a friend. I don't like guys. I have a crush on Simone, right? No. No, no, no, nonononono. I'm not gay."

That's what came out: "No. I'm not gay."

Even as the words issued forth from his lips, Ross felt himself wanting to cry. "You just gave me a way out," he wanted to say. "You just offered me the chance to say everything I've been wanting to say to you for months. You just asked me. You, of all people. But I can't. I'm just not ready yet. Even if I am..."

Aiden nodded, casting his eyes down toward the gray cement. "Okay." He continued pushing the cart toward the computer lab. Ross stood there, staring speechlessly at Aiden's receding figure.

At long last, he smiled and ran to catch up with Aiden again.