ON MY third Tuesday at school, I made a friend. Richard Montrose was a small, mousey-haired boy, whom I recognized from my English and history classes. He was a year younger than most of the others. He didn't say very much, but was always being complimented by the teachers. Which of course made him the perfect target for bullies.

Since I didn't take part in games on the quad, I spent most of my lunch breaks strolling around, or in the computer room on the third floor of the building at the rear of the school. That's where I was when I heard sounds of a scuffle outside and went to investigate I found Richard pinned to the wall by Smickey Martin - the guy who'd called me an asswipe on my first day at school - and three of his pals. Smickey was rooting through the younger boy's pockets. "You know you have to pay, Monty," he laughed. "If we don't take yer money, someone else will. Better the devil you know than the devil you don't."

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"Please, Smickey," Richard sobbed. "Not this week. I have to buy a new atlas."

"Should have taken more care of your old one," Smickey snickered.

"You're the one who ripped it up, you..." Richard was on the point of calling Smickey something awful, but drew up short.

Smickey paused threateningly. "Wot was you gonna call me, Monty?"

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"Nothing," Richard gasped, truly frightened now.

"Yes, you was," Smickey snarled. "Hold him, boys. I'm gonna teach him a-"

"You'll teach him nothing," I said quietly from behind.

Smickey turned swiftly. When he saw me, he laughed. "Little Darrsy Horston," he chuckled. "Wot are you doing here?" I didn't answer, only stared coldly at him. "Better run along, Horsty," Smickey said. "We ain't come after you for money yet - but that's not to say we won't!"

"You won't get anything from me," I told him. "And you won't get anything from Richard in future either. Or anyone else."

"Oh?" His eyes narrowed. "Them's awful big words, Horsty. If you take 'em back quick, I might forget you said em.

I stepped forward calmly, relishing the chance to put this bully in his place. Smickey frowned - he hadn't been expecting an open challenge - then grinned, grabbed Richard's left arm and swung him towards me. I stepped aside as Richard cried out - I was fully focused on Smickey - but then I heard him collide with something hard. Glancing back, I saw that he'd slammed into the banisters of the stairs and was toppling over - about to fall head first to the floor three storeys below!

I threw myself backwards and snatched for Richard's feet. I missed his left foot but got a couple of fingers on his right ankle just before he disappeared over the side of the handrail. Gripping the fabric of his school trousers hard, I grunted as the weight of his body jerked me roughly against the banisters. There was a ripping sound, and I feared his trousers would tear and I'd lose him. But the material held, and as he hung over the railings, whimpering, I hauled him back up and set him on his feet.

When Richard was safe, I turned to deal with Smickey Martin and the rest, but they'd scattered like the cowards they were. "So much for that lot," I muttered, then asked Richard if he was OK. He nodded feebly but said nothing. I left him where he was and returned to the soft hum of the computer room.

Moments later, Richard appeared in the doorway. He was still shaking, but he was smiling also. "You saved my life," he said. I shrugged and stared at the screen as though immersed in it. Richard waited a few seconds, then said, "Thanks."

"No problem." I glanced up at him. "Three floors isn't that big a fall. You'd probably only have broken a few bones."

"I don't think so," Richard said. "I was going nose-down, like a plane." He sat beside me and studied the screen. "Creating a screen saver?"

"Yes."

"I know where to find some really good scenes from sci-fi and horror movies. Want me to show you?"

I nodded. "That'd be cool."

Smiling, his fingers flew over the keyboard and soon we were discussing school and homework and computers, and the rest of the lunch break whizzed by.

Richard swapped seats in English and history in order to sit beside me, and let me copy from his notes - he had his own shorthand system which allowed him to jot down everything that was said in class. He also started spending most of his breaks and lunches with me. He pulled me out of the computer room and introduced me to other friends of his. They didn't exactly welcome me with open arms, but at least I had a few people to talk to now.

It was fun hanging out, discussing TV, comics, music, books and (of course!) girls. Harkat and me - Harkat and I - had TV sets in our rooms at the hotel, and I started watching a few programmes at night. Most of the stuff my new friends enjoyed was formulaic and tedious, but I pretended to enthuse about it like they did.

The week passed swiftly and before I knew it I was facing another weekend. For the first time I was mildly disappointed to have two free days on my hands - Richard would be away at his grandparents' - but cheered up at the thought of spending them with Debbie.

I'd been thinking a lot about Debbie, and the bond between us. We'd been very close as teenagers, and I now felt closer to her than ever. I knew there were obstacles - especially my appearance - but having spent so much time with her, I now believed we could overcome those obstacles and pick up where we'd left off thirteen years before.

That Friday night, I summoned all my courage as we were sitting together on the couch, leant over and tried to kiss Debbie. She looked surprised, and pushed me away lightly, laughing uneasily. When I tried to kiss her again, her surprise turned to icy anger and she shoved me away firmly. "No!" she snapped.

"Why not?" I retorted, upset.

"I'm your teacher," Debbie said, standing. "You're my student. It wouldn't be right."

"I don't want to be your student," I growled, standing up beside her. "I want to be your boyfriend."

I leant forward to kiss her again, but before I could, she slapped me hard. I blinked and stared at her, stunned. She slapped me again, softer this time. She was trembling and there were tears in her eyes.

"Debbie," I groaned, "I didn't mean to-"

"I want you to leave now," Debbie said. I took a couple of steps back, then halted. I opened my mouth to protest. "No," Debbie said. "Don't say anything. Just go, please."

Nodding miserably, I turned my back on her and walked to the door. I paused with my fingers on the handle and spoke to her without looking back. "I only wanted to be closer to you. I didn't mean any harm."

After short silence Debbie sighed and said, "I know."

I risked a quick look back - Debbie had her arms crossed over her chest and was gazing down at the floor. She was close to crying. "Does this change things between us?" I asked.

"I don't know," she answered honestly. She glanced up at me and I could see confusion mingled in her eyes with the tears. "Let's leave it for a couple of days. We'll talk about this on Monday. I need to think it over."

"OK." I opened the door, took a step out, then said very quickly, "You might not want to hear this, but I love you, Debbie. I love you more than anybody else in the world." Before she could reply, I shut the door and slunk away down the stairs like a downtrodden rat.

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