Warning: This is not going to be in the same vein as You Know What I Mean. Different types of angst, and probably a lot more happiness. A lot less blood, too. The biggest change, however, is a bigger cast of characters- which you can check out, with profiles, at:

http : geocities amateur (underscore) imaginationist / Home . html

Watch for those spaces! Beware of spoilers, though. Yes, this will be an illustrated story, of sorts. Here's the deal. You contact me in your reviews with pictures or scenes you'd like to see drawn, and I'll see if I can do them to your satisfaction. Otherwise I'll just post what I draw as the story progresses, which may or may not match what's actually going on.

A.I.

Chapter 1

God, thought Jude, I really hate this song.

I really, REALLY hate this song.

Words do not describe how much I hate this song.

"Don't you just love this song, Julian?" said his mother, cheerfully, banging on the steering wheel with one hand.

"Yeah, sure," said Jude, and looked out the window. Rows of houses. Suburbia. Miles and miles of it. Kids playing with fire hydrants, a swing on an oak tree. Any minute now, he predicted, they'd pass a woman carrying kittens in a little woven basket, and a grandmother putting an apple pie out on a window sill to cool. He was mildly sickened.

"Cheer up, sourpuss! Almost there!" His mother reached over and chucked his chin. He winced.

"Yeah, whatever," he said, and slouched further down in his seat.

"So we'll spend today unpacking. Just getting stuff ready, playing house, you know? And then," his mother hated silence so she kept talking, in the same brightness-incarnate voice, "you'll start school tomorrow. St Thaddeus's is a great place- you read the brochures, right? Yeah. So much stuff! Man, I wish my school had offered all that. You're going to love it there, Julian."

It was always like this, thought Jude. Trailed his fingers across the window of the car. She started out so happy, for like two weeks, and then things started going wrong and she fell out of love with the place, wherever it was, and he had to pick up the pieces.

"Sure," he said, and heard his voice coming out weary. "Sure."

"""""""""""

"Oh, for Christ's sake."

Alex hopped off his skateboard and sat down on the edge of the fountain, flipping it over to examine the wheels. It was a cold, overcast day. The wind in the park was picking up, he noted, flicking his hair out of his eyes. Should have brought his hoodie.

"Still stuffed?" asked Conrad, languidly. Alex half-looked up at him. He'd been leaning on the edge of the fountain, looking into the water with that bored, shut-off expression on his face that he wore most of the time.

He was biting the ends of his hair again. Alex reached out and flicked at the strand.

"Quit that. You'll end up with hairballs or something."

Obediently Conrad spat out the grey-blonde, black-tipped tendril. He didn't show any emotion at being told off. He never did. He was like a pane of glass, or an ice sculpture, thought Alex, who got poetic whenever he stared at Conrad, his pale eyes. Unbelievably beautiful, totally frictionless.

"This board's going to kill me," he said, automatically. It was a long habit of his. Ever since he'd started looking at Conrad and going 'oh god' in his head, he'd immediately changed the subject. Since this had been about eighteen months ago, and they saw each other basically every day, that shaped up for a lot of subject changes.

Conrad turned to put his face to the wind. It blew his long hair out of his eyes. "So get a new one," he said, impassively.

"With what money?"

Conrad closed one eye and looked at him seriously. "Win the lottery," he said.

"Psh. Yeah." Alex grinned with one side of his mouth. "Like you're my lucky charm or something?"

"You could talk to Dom."

"I don't trust Dom's money. Don't know where it's been."

Alex bent over his board again, rubbed his arms to keep them warm so he could probe out the problem. It was really irritating him. The lack of balance wasn't normal- made it hard to skate properly, feel completely comfortable. He could sense Conrad watching him, which bugged him too. Bad enough he had to deal with the fact that the guy haunted his dreams.

"What?" he said, looking up quickly to catch him out. As per usual, his best friend didn't look at all embarrassed at being caught staring.

"You're cold," he said, matter-of-factly.

"Cold nothing." Alex bared his teeth. "You know me. I'm tough."

This got a half-smile, which made Alex's insides melt. As usual. "You're tough like I'm Elvis. Idiot. Why didn't you bring a hoodie?"

This was a long sentence, for Conrad. "I didn't think it'd be this cold," said Alex, truthfully.

"No shit. You want to go home?"

"What?"

"You'll get ill."

"Quit fussing, woman, I've got a board to fix."

The insult didn't even flick Conrad. He made a non-committal noise and turned his head back to the wind.

"Why do you do that?" asked Alex, after a few seconds, looking up from the board again. He really was irritated. He wasn't in the mood for Conrad to make his heart go in knots today, and whenever he did that facing-the-wind thing it was like there was a midget in his chest doing backflips.

"Do what?" Conrad asked, turning his head so that half of the shoulder-blade-length bundle of dirty white-blonde hair tumbled over his cheekbone. Alex was temporarily struck dumb. Which, of course, only made him angrier. God, I'm such a fuckup, he thought to himself.

"Go looking in the wind like a lookout on a ship or something," he said, recovering so fast that his voice was sharper than he meant it to be. Conrad just looked at him for a few seconds.

"Makes me feel awake," he said, shortly, after a bit, and did it again, shutting his eyes. Alex half-grinned to himself. Contrary bastard.

"Pretty boy," he said, teasingly.

"Half-breed," responded Conrad, lightly, without opening his eyes.

Heh. Game on. "Albino."

"Nerd."

"Vampire."

"Fangirl."

"Author," Alex said, half-laughing.

Conrad turned his head to look at him sharply. "Fuck you," he said.

"Down, boy." Alex poked at the axle of the skateboard, then looked up at him again, smiling. "I win." Conrad's calm exterior was always ruffled about the true origins of his first name. If he hadn't reacted to that last one, Alex would have called him Heart of Darkness. Or possibly Kurtz. He knew exactly what it took to push Conrad's buttons. Well, nearly all of them.

"Mmm." Conrad smiled and turned his head to the breeze again. "Cheap shot. Very cheap shot."

"Oh, excuse me, fangirl?"

"Don't deny your true nature."

"Yeah, right. I worry about you, my friend, I do."

"Sure you do," said Conrad, dismissively.

I do, thought Alex. I do. He deliberately looked elsewhere so as not to drag his eyes, again, over the thinness of Conrad's fingers, the translucent thinness of his skin. Conrad's delicacy nagged at him, and had even before he had started getting crazy, stupid longings to keep him warm.

Something caught his thus-redirected attention- movement, on the other side of the park. He looked closer, and laughed. "You want cold? Check it out."

A guy was getting out of a sedan that had just pulled up, rubbing his hands to keep warm. Pretty far away, but Alex could see he was blonde, their age, and wearing a T-shirt that practically showed the skin beneath, the material was so thin. It blew around in the breeze.

"Man, tourists. So stupid. Why isn't he wearing a coat?"

"Don't," said Conrad, sharply.

"Mmmm?" Alex was caught off guard.

"Don't be cruel. He looks lost." Conrad's voice was quiet, but it had a metal edge. Alex looked at him, curiously. Normally he never descended to the level of commenting on other mere mortals.

He had to say he was right, though. The boy did look lost. He was standing there, rubbing his thin arms with his hands and looking around as if searching for something. The grey sky was reflected in the windows of the car, so Alex couldn't see who was driving.

Now he was scrutinising the map of the area that had been put up on a pole in the car park. If he was lost, Alex couldn't blame him. The outskirts of this town were a maze.

Conrad was regarding the boy through cool grey eyes. Alex felt a surge of jealousy, which was totally irrational all things considered, and couldn't retrain himself.

"If you like him so much, why don't you go talk to him?"

It's official, thought Alex, scathingly, in the ensuing silence. I am the biggest idiot on the planet. What am I, four? Honestly.

"No," said Conrad, shortly. "You."

"What?"

Alex was taken aback, but Conrad didn't appear to care.

"You go," he said. "You're sweet when people need help."

It doesn't mean ANYTHING, Alex said to the sharp rise in his blood flow at these words, which were delivered, as usual, with the emotional nuance of a bullet- flatly neutral, stated with the air of a fact. So he thinks I'm sweet. I've been his best friend since seventh grade, he can think what he wants.

It did, however, take a conscious effort not to blush.

"Sweet?" he said, instead. Cocky, confident smile. Banter between friends.

"On certain occasions." Conrad nodded towards the boy, who was still looking at the map, head cocked on one side. "Go."

"Fine. Guard the board with your life, pretty boy."

Conrad didn't reply. Alex sighed through his nose, got up and sauntered towards the boy. Close up, he looked a bit younger than them, actually. He was medium height, but he had the sort of face Alex saw in art classes- on angels, when they looked up at God. As if he were unable to stop being hopeful. The blonde hair didn't help the overwhelming air of innocence.

"Hey- you all right?" he said, standing a few feet away from him, hands in pockets.

The boy, who didn't seem to have seen him, actually jumped. Then he blushed a vivid shade of pink. Alex restrained the urge to laugh.

"Sorry," he said, instead. "Didn't mean to startle you. You lost?"

There was a short pause while the boy scrutinised him. Alex let himself be judged. He didn't think he looked overtly threatening. True, the lip ring was a bit of a negative on the trustworthiness scale, but otherwise he gave the impression of slightly eccentric normality, right? He gave the kid an easy smile, tried to make him less jittery.

"Yes," said the boy, after a while, slightly hesitantly. His voice was very soft, kind of shy.

"OK. Where are you supposed to be?"

The boy rubbed the side of his arm, seemed to be trying to remember. "Westlake Street?" he said, with the quiet air of a question.

Alex laughed. "Man, are YOU lost."

"Oh- sorry."

"I'm kidding." God, was this boy uptight. Then again, he was being approached by a guy with a lip ring in a deserted park. Not really conducive to being friendly. "You're really close. Here. You see that street down there? Big oak tree on the corner, green sedan parked by the corner?" He pointed. The boy's eyes followed his arm- huge, stupidly blue eyes. Alex wondered what Conrad would look like with eyes like that- but grey eyes suited him better, he decided.

He realised the boy was waiting for him to continue his instructions. "So that's Park Street. You go down there, Westlake Street's third on the left."

"Oh. OK. Um- thanks." The boy rubbed his arm again. Nervous twitch, something like that. Alex waved a hand dismissively.

"No problem. You moving here, or just visiting?"

"Moving," said the kid. Slightly hopelessly. Like he'd really rather be visiting.

"OK. So I might see you around, then. What's your name?"

"Jude."

God, poor guy, must get so many Beatles jokes. Alex resisted the temptation to make one himself.

"Cool. I'm Alex. Anything else you want to know?"

"Nah, I'm fine. Thanks, though."

He wants to get away, thought Alex. Most definitely.

"Good luck, then. Bye, Jude." He raised a hand and gave him a grin.

"Bye, Alex," said the boy, cautiously. Didn't move. All right, I'll move first, then, thought Alex, and started to walk away. The boy's suspicion didn't irritate him. Very little ever irritated Alex, except, perhaps, on occasion, for himself regarding Conrad.

"Where'd he want to go?" said the boy in question, when Alex reached the fountain again. He was turning Alex's board over and over in his hands. Alex took it from him, gently.

"Westlake. Hey, it's freezing. You up for pizza?"

"Sure."

""""""""""

"That boy looked nice," said Jude's mum, as he got back into the car. "Did he give you directions?"

"Mmmm. Apparently Westlake's down there, third on the left." Jude pointed to the street, rejoicing inwardly at the car's warmth. He'd long ago given up on trying to interfere with his mother's packing, which had meant, this time, that she'd bundled all his jackets and sweaters away into a box in the back of the car before he could grab one for the trip.

It could be worse, though. One time she'd packed all his shoes.

"OK." She started the car again. "So did he have a name?"

"Who? Oh. Alex."

Jude was being short with her. He was still annoyed that she'd lost the directions to their new house. This was all her idea, after all.

"That's a nice name. You should have stayed and talked to him for a little while, Julian. It's good for you to make friends, you know."

Well, that's kind of difficult, thought Jude, considering that you make us move every four months or so. I can't even hold down a pen pal, let alone a friendship- or a proper relationship. Now that's a laugh.

"Julian? Sweetheart? Did you hear what I said?"

"Yeah, sorry, I'm just- tired. Can we get there, please?"

"Oh. OK. Which street did you say?"

Sighing, Jude repeated the directions. Then he stared out of the window. He could see Alex in the distance. He was with somebody- a girl, probably, with all that long white hair. Maybe it was a trick of the light, but it looked dark at the ends. Very skinny, too. He watched as Alex skateboarded to the edge of the park, the girl following slowly, brushing her hair from her face. Then his mother revved forwards, and they moved out of sight.

Maybe this time will be different, he thought, looking over at her, but he already knew.

""""""""""""

NO, Alex and Jude will not be a couple. Do not review saying they'd be cute together, it's WRONG.

An additional warning: there will be frequent joking references to Alex's Chinese heritage throughout this story. If you think that's insulting, don't read it. Every mock-insult Alex will be called has previously been an affectionate nickname held for my friend Qi, who insisted they be included. Yes, even 'half-breed'. Here's the thing, in case you missed it- we're not being serious. We tend to find that making fun of discrimination is as effective as shouting out against it. Ridicule is the only true weapon of mass destruction.

Besides, I'm Irish, I skipped a grade, and I have blue hair. There is not a single name in the book I have not been called. No, that is not an invitation for you to be a smart-ass and try to find one I haven't heard- because trust me, I have. And I have already gotten bored with it. Do not bother.

With that in mind- review!