Owen’s breath was warm against her neck, and Laura could hardly mistake what was happening as he pressed himself against her. She wanted to laugh at the phrases he was whispering in her ear—did lads ever read girly blogs?—but the music was soaking through her pores and she didn’t care to humiliate him openly and there was something rather sweet about his fumbling, not that she wanted to encourage him, but the air was thick and heavy hard to breathe no it was her body that was so light and smoky and insubstantial and she could smell his sandalwood cologne a scent she’d always liked and they were floating on the languid chords hardly moving swaying really and she would stop just now the music would stop he would stop he would he

Laura glanced up to see Zach staring at her with his sardonic grin. Owen disappeared. The club disappeared. There was only Zach, leaning against a wall in his black jeans, his arms crossed and his mouth uptilted. Unlike his eyes.

The music stopped. Laura heard Owen mutter something behind her, but she’d already moved away from him. Heads were turning towards Zach now, and for some reason the band hadn’t pitched into another number, which left a silence to fill, a silence which was being stretched and pulled and shaped into a receptacle for their spit, their dirty wads of gum.

‘What’s he doing here?’

‘It’s bad enough we’ve got to put up with his sort at school.’

‘Dirty mulac pervert.’

‘Somebody better get rid of the freak.’

‘My sister told me they can fuck for hours.’

‘They ought to be kept in pens.’

‘Do you see those eyes?’

‘Thinks he can muck around with one of our girls, does he?’

‘Teach him a lesson.’

‘Auger cunt.’

‘*I* wouldn’t mind, not if he uses a nice thick cocksock.’

Close up, Zach smelled fresh, like newly fallen snow. He didn’t take his eyes off her nor did he smile, but he had a way of listening that she’d never encountered before. He paid attention. Everybody else was busy with their own thoughts/reactions/arguments, or impatient for you to finish so that they could get a chance to centre-stage, or simply in a rush to be somewhere else. But Zach focused on your words as if they were nourishment, or even the oxygen without which his cells would soon starve. Were they all like him?

‘It was just a dance,’ Laura said.

Zach said nothing.

‘Were you looking for me?’

His eyes flicked past her—temperature dropping, the first gusts, visibility impaired, icy track ahead. She turned her head. Owen and some of his mates. Zach uncrossed his arms and stood taller, away from the wall. His legs were incredibly long, she thought. Dark-clad limbs that might bend but not snap in the wind.

‘Is there a problem, Laura?’ Owen asked.

Nice, she thought. It’s *nice* to protect your date.

‘Of course not,’ she said.

Tim and Derek closed ranks.

‘You’d better be going,’ Derek said.

Zach regarded him with the same mild interest he might afford a household pet which had begun to speak, but not quite mastered the intricacies of English grammar.

‘Did you hear what he said, mate?’ Tim added after a short silence.

Zach spoke for the first time. ‘I’m not your mate.’

‘Listen, transfuck, do we have spell it out for you? Like in the toilet?’ Tim said.

Owen raised a hand. ‘This is a private club, Zach,’ he said, his voice conciliatory. ‘There are lots of places where augers can go. Don’t make trouble.’

Laura winced at Owen’s casual use of the word. In school he wouldn’t have got away with it, at least not if there’d been a teacher nearby. And the worst was, he wasn’t being deliberatively provocative or nasty. It’s just what they all said.

‘What do you think, Laura?’ Zach was watching her with the same intensity with which he’d listened to her talk about her family.

The narrow path was slippery with ice, a jagged rockface on one side and a steep precipice on the other. Laura shivered, she wasn’t used to such hard climbs.

‘Nothing to do with Laura,’ Owen said.

Zach lifted an eyebrow and waited.

‘I—I guess—’ Laura dropped her eyes. Better know what you’re doin’, girl.

‘Fuck you too,’ Zach said very softly, but not softly enough.

Tim stepped in close, balled his hand, and with a loud ‘fucking auger cunt’, slammed his fist into Zach’s solar plexus. Zach grunted softly and sagged for a moment against the wall, then straightened. His eyes never left Laura’s.

Smiling broadly, Tim directed a vicious punch to Zach’s jaw, which cracked his head round into the plaster. This time he gasped and closed his eyes.

‘No!’ Laura cried, and would have darted forward, but Owen took her arm and shook his head in warning.

Zach licked his lips. Slowly he opened his eyes, slowly he twisted his head back again, his attention entirely focused on Laura. She could see a bubble of blood at the corner of his mouth, which with agonising sluggishness beaded, then trickled down his chin and hung trembling for a fraction of a second before dripping onto the floor. Laura suddenly understood he would stand there taking it till he collapsed. So long as she witnessed the attack.

‘Enough, Timmy,’ she said. ‘He’s not worth it. Someone will ring the police, and there’ll be a lot of unpleasant questions. Come on, let’s have a drink, these devis leave a foul taste in my mouth. And the band’s about to crank up again.’

She leaned over and kissed Tim on the cheek. ‘Thanks,’ she said.

Then she turned away, her arm hooked through Owen’s, and was gone. Downhill always seemed easier.

Chapter Four