Leo's eyes zoned fixedly into the mix of milk and cereal in his bowl and he chomped down on the spoon he'd just set into his mouth. The cereal tasted unpleasant and slightly off, but that may well have been the taste of guilt putting him off his food.
Normally, he would insist that breakfast was by far the most important meal of the day. He would make sure to eat a good bowl of cereal, a couple of slices of toast and have a long glass of iced juice before he set out for the day.
Today was different. His mother was looking across the littered table with a slightly hurt look on her face, piercing Leonard's radiant calm with her gaze, making him feel completely awful; as though by growing up he was causing her harm. It made every bite just that much harder to swallow.
Finally Leo deposited his spoon in the empty bowl, the cardboard cornflakes on their way down his oesophagus. Just two slices of toast to go. He didn't exactly judge his chances at getting through them without running into trouble with the Spanish Inquisition as being good, but he would try and remain calm, at least.
He reached up and took his glass of juice, bringing it to his lips and sipping on it delicately, trying to show just how unhurried he was. She couldn't fluster him. Not this time. He reached his hand over the toaster, just as the toast popped up, and seized it in mid air before setting it down on his plate, going straight to buttering it.
His mother continued to glare over her soggy crisped rice.
Leo calmly set the knife down and tapped a few grains of salt on his toast before bringing the slice to his lips and biting down on it, chewing unflustered on the coarse bread.
"That is a disgusting habit, Leonard. You put too much salt on your food."
With a modicum of calm, Leo lifted his eyes to his mother. She only used his full name when she was angry with him, and Leo knew as well as she did that the salt was not what she was angry about. He chewed a little more of his piece of toast off, and let it rest on his fingertips while he ran it through the gauntlet of his teeth, and finally sent it after his cereal.
As soon as the second piece of toast was on his plate, his mother finally settled on what she'd been furiously refusing to ask all morning. "Where were you last night?"
Leo let his knife pause for just a second as he considered the question, the butter melting into the hot surface of the toast. He didn't leave it for long though. He liked his toast perfect – and that meant warm, at the very least. He ran the knife the rest of the way across the surface, and when he was done set it down steadily, before replying levelly:
"I stayed at a friend's house last night."
"You could have phoned me!" She exclaimed, bitterly, slamming her spoon down on the chequered tablecloth. Leo flinched and glanced up, realising just now that she had barely touched her breakfast, and that the rice had practically melted in their creamy covering.
He picked up his toast and brought it to his lips, replying just before biting into it. "They don't have a phone."
His mother countered with a glare. "Do you really think I believe that? This is the city, Leo. Everyone has a phone – and even if they haven't, there'll be a telephone box round the corner."
Leo chewed steadily on his toast, choosing not to reply to her until he had finished eating. "They didn't have a phone," he stressed, when the first bite of toast was gone. "And I didn't have any change."
"So you didn't ask for some?" She reeled, leaning herself slightly over the table. Leo noticed that her face was almost as red as her hair, and several pale freckles were beginning to be more noticeable by the second. He chomped down another quarter of the piece of toast.
"No. It would have been rude."
"Would it have been as rude as not phoning your mother?" She snarled, and Leo simply shrugged through his mouthful of bread. He reached over and took his orange, washing away what was left of his breakfast and dragging himself to his feet as he finished it.
Looking appalled his mother sank back into her chair and watched him as he mopped his lips with his sleeve and grabbed his bag off the chair next to her.
"Goodbye mum. See you after school."
She was too aghast to say anything as he swept out the door, and she sat there for a few minutes longer, watching him briefly as he passed the outset window of the little terraced house and started off down the street at a brisk walk.
Leo was relieved to be out of that situation, even if it was just for the duration of school. His mother could be very difficult at times. Especially, he realised, since they'd moved to the city.
It had been a long time ago now, when he was just getting to college age. As a gangly child – too fast growing for his legs to keep up, and with thick, straight red hair and green eyes burning with hidden intensity, he had lived in a village with his mother, in a beautiful period farm house overlooking most of the small settlement. He'd gone to the small rustic primary school there and when he got older, gone to his secondary school on a very unreliable bus.
His life there had been very different, he recalled, as he made his way towards the coach stop that would take him straight to his most recent school. He'd had his own pony, for a start, a creature he'd have trusted his life with, but had had to sell on moving to the city.
Beyond that there was the vegetable garden. Tending it had been one of his many hobbies, and getting in the many different roots and fruits at the perfect time had been a talent he'd perfected as time went on.
But the education wasn't an excellent one. Towards his important exams at the end of his final school year, he studied like a hound on a scent and ended up passing with flying colours, to his immense relief.
Not that it helped – there were no schools local enough to take him. So his mother had decided to move closer.
So they'd sold up their beautiful farm house to a man who wanted to knock down the stable block to build a modern villa. Espoir, the pony, had been sold to a riding school, where his mouth would become insensitive to directions, being pulled on by talent less youths and kicked in the side when he didn't feel their directions.
And now they lived here, in the residential area of the city, in a house barely big enough for the two of them, with the paint on the fore all but weathered away, and a garden half concreted over, and what soil there was too stony to grow any kind of vegetables in.
They'd had a fantastic view before, but now there were only more houses and the high wall of their fruitless garden. During the day smog tended to block out the sunlight – and during the night, a hazy glow of night pollution made the stars completely invisible.
Leo wondered, as he slowed down, whether his education was really worth it. Now he was a tall youth, with long red hair and still sharp green eyes. He was still gangly, much to his irritation, since he'd spent a lot of his time trying to buff up. It irritated him sometimes that after all the riding, the walking, the exercise, he was still as thin and to all outward appearances; weak; as he had been when he was just five years old.
He lifted his eyes just in time to see the coach rounding the corner and took a step back from the edge of the pavement nervously.
But after last night, he didn't want to go back.
In the village there hadn't been anyone his age. No friends and more importantly, no girls. Here, he at least knew some people. The coach ground noisily to a halt beside him, roaring like some rainforest beast and rocking slightly on its suspension. The door hissed and clicked open, and he stepped up into the musty smell of sleepy people in a confined space.
Immediately someone greeted him from half way down the coach, and he made his way over and climbed onto the seat next to his friend.
"Heard about you and Michaela, Leo," said the other, with a broad grin.
Leo flushed ever so slightly and lowered his head. "Well, you know…"
"I do know!" exclaimed his friend. "I got told the whole story. Sorry I couldn't make it, had work, you know."
"I didn't know you worked, Zack," Leo replied, steadily.
"Oh yeah – it's just part-time - down at the corner shop. A little bit of income to keep myself - parents wanting rent and stuff - Ridiculous really."
Leo stretched his fingers in front of him and leant back in his seat slightly.
Zack finally gave him a glance. "So what did you end up telling your mother?"
"I didn't," Leo replied with a glance towards Zack that silenced him adequately.
The rest of the trip was in complete, tense silence, and when they arrived at the sixth form college, Zack and Leo grumbled and pushed like everyone else on the coach. They streamed out like cows from a livestock lorry, falling over each other as they went, and then pooling out as soon as they got into the fresh air outside.
"So," Zack said after a short while. "Are you going to ask her out?"
Leo lifted his eyes. He hadn't expected his friend to continue speaking at all – no less about what they had already been talking about. "Well…well I don't know." He sucked in on his lower lip, feeling his cheeks burning.
"You don't know about asking her out? Are you that much a farm boy?"
Shooting him a lethal look, Leo lifted his jaw defiantly. "I know about dates, Zack. I'm not a complete retard."
Zack gave him a thump with one fist and then pointed with his other hand. "There she is now. It's your big break, Leo."
Leo looked up. Yes, she was there; Michaela…but that didn't mean he was going over to her. "At lunch time," he said firmly. "It's far too early to contemplate how I'm going to say it."
Shaking his head, Zack let Leo turn away from Michaela and walk in the direction of the maths block. He watched as Leo glanced back over his shoulder at the departing blonde.
"Lunch time then, but no later," Zack said firmly. "I'll hold you to that, Leo."
After registration, Leo spent half an hour doing little more than just making sure that all his homework was done and double checking his answers. It was difficult, because he had to concentrate over the irritating bustle of those too lazy to use school time for work.
Then it was time to go. Their straight faced form teacher departed to be replaced with a saggy faced man with a lazy eye. He seemed to watch them at all times, and many of the students made fun of him, but Leo respected him. Despite his disability, he was a sharp mathematician, and more than capable of doing his job. Not to mention that out of every teacher in the school, he was the one that most effectively kept the students quiet.
Leo was the first on his feet, and when the teacher sat down, he sat down too. Homework was handed in, and the rest of the lesson went smoothly.
So did the other lessons leading up to lunch, leading up to Leo's deadline. At one point he walked past Michaela in the hallway, but he was in a hurry to get to class.
When the bell rang for lunch, he went to escape, but Zack was already there, and he looped his arm hurriedly around Leo's and gave him a little tug in the direction of the lunch hall.
"I've changed my mind," Leo said sharply, fighting slightly against Zack's grip for just a second, but then giving up and falling into step beside him. "Fine, have it your way."
The hall was large and noisy, full of people of a similar age to his own and slightly older. They sat at small tables dotted around the hall, every one trying to talk over the next, and Leo automatically noticed the blonde head of Michaela sitting at one of the closer tables.
"There she is," Zack said, pulling on his arm, and Leo found himself pushed quite firmly against the end of the table, to the giggles of the girls that Michaela was with.
Rubbing the back of his neck with his palm, Leo simply looked down at Michaela, surrounded by her friends, and coloured. Michaela looked at him expectantly.
"Don't get shy on me now, pal," Zack hissed in his ear, and Leo summoned up his courage and lifted his chin defiantly.
"I…" he began. "I was wondering if you were…you know, busy this weekend?"
Michaela seemed completely unflustered. She gave one of her friends a pointed 'I told you so look', then returned his gaze to Leo. "I'm busy on Sunday, but tomorrow's possible."
Leo looked at her, and then realised that that was a good thing. He let out his breath and relaxed obviously. "That's great, I guess."
"You guess?" All the tenseness suddenly snapped back in around him and he flushed.
"No! It's great. So…maybe we can meet outside Sounds Perfect at six?" Sounds Perfect was where he frequently met up with his friends; a little music shop at one end of the high street, just beside the skate park.
She nodded, and Leo stood there, with a bright, stupid grin plastered on his face. Eventually Zack had to pull him back, and they went to join the massive queue of irritated people waiting for their lunch.
Leo bounced from one foot to the other, grinning from ear to ear, and Zack could only shake his head. "Look at you…you look like a shark showing your teeth like that!"
"She said yes!" Leo yipped, turning his eyes on Zack. "She said yes, and I have a date! What am I going to wear?"
Zack opened his mouth to say something and ended up laughing instead. "Wear? Dude, you don't have to worry about things like that. You're the guy, remember? All you need to do is turn up."
Leo stared at him bewildered, but at that moment the queue moved and they were swept up against the counter. It was only then that Leo realised just how hungry he was. The heaps of food laid out before him tortured him, and he did a few quick sums to work out just how much food he could get out of his dinner tab.