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i. december 22, 2019 (the college boathouses haven’t changed)

 

The college boathouses haven’t changed. Sixteen years after Sol first set eyes on them, they still look like a three-dimensional crash course on architectural styles; piles of glass and wood and brick in various shapes, some square and squat with floor-length windows running the length of the front, others gabled and mullioned, with the college crest on the pediment. Most of them are closed up on this chilly December morning. He has to google the location of the boathouse of his old college, having altogether forgotten where it stands, though he does recognize the building when he sees it, with its walls jutting out on one side like the bow of a ship, providing a v-shaped balcony where people would come out to smoke.

The landscape might be the same, but Sol himself is a far cry from the eighteen year-old who’d cycled straight into the river on a dare during freshers’ week. Back then, he’d only just arrived from Liverpool with a boatload of prejudices against elite universities that no one took seriously, including himself, considering he was about to spend at least three years in Cambridge. The river was the pit he tumbled into when he tried to clear his head after a night spent with the computer science crowd. He looked at the rowers with curiosity, but little envy. More often than not, they would set out for the boathouses around the time he walked back to his room on unsteady legs.

That was during the first year. The second year, he started hanging around a different social circle, and by the third, he’d learned to limit the drinking to nights when he was sure he wouldn’t be called out to row in the morning.

On a Sunday, the Cam is free of college boats and reserved for rowers from the town and beyond, though with the cold and fog there isn’t much traffic, aside from the occasional barge. There are no cyclists or joggers of dog-walkers hurrying along the path on the other side of the river. It’s a strange morning to be meeting someone and a less than usual spot if you’re not about to head inside the boathouse for coffee, though then again, maybe Edward has the keys.

Cornelius used to have a set of them, back in the day. Sol never came to know how he’d obtained them. Petty theft, maybe, though knowing Cornelius it’s more likely that there was some element of manipulation at play. He might have charmed the keys off the coach with an elaborate speech about how he desperately needed to improve his rowing skills. In any case, they’d made good use of the keys - Sol to use the machines during the holidays, when most of the other students had left; Cornelius to fuck his way through the men’s team, secure in the knowledge that most of the guys were way too repressed to talk about it among themselves.

Sol sits down at the river’s edge and pulls out his cigarettes. The water has frosted over right along the concrete ledge, a fine layer of ice that he dislodges with his foot, watching it break apart and float off, blades of grass trapped inside it like fossiles in the making.

It’s hardly the first time that he’s played catch-up with friends from university. Only last night, he’d had a drink or five with Tommy Armitage in London, and it’d been easy and fun and like he never left. But it doesn’t feel like Edward Little and him are going to catch up - it feels like they’re about to walk on ice.

From experience, Sol knows how this will end. They’ll spend too long in the cold; they’ll slip and fall and hurt themselves. Maybe at first it won’t seem like much, but the aches will remain, years after, the aches and the rattle in their lungs with every new cold snap.

 

 

 

 

ii. 2005 (when in Rome)

 

Rowing might be part of the quintessential Cambridge experience, yet the way Sol remembers it, most students only took to it once they’d graduated. Postgrad programmes left more time for extracurricular commitments, and at Cambridge rowing was a commitment on par with the most challenging of PhDs. You didn’t row for fun, or at least, you wouldn’t admit it within earshot of your captain or coach.

At the start of Sol’s third year in Cambridge, he let Cornelius Hickey drag him to the club fair of their college.

“When in Rome,” Cornelius had said, nodding towards a table manned by a guy with short dark hair and a look like whatever he’d heard last had deeply offended him. A sign below the table said ROWING CLUB, but even without the sign, the two blades hung up on the wall would have been a dead giveaway.

“You want to sign up for the rowing club?” Sol had asked, in that tone that he used a lot back then, and which was meant to be open to interpretation. If you wanted to hear amusement, you could. If you wanted to hear mockery, that worked too.

“Why not?” Cornelius shrugged. “It’s a rite of passage in Oxbridge, isn’t it? In fact, I’m pretty sure if you don’t row, you can’t graduate.”

“Bullshit,” Sol scoffed.

And yet, with all the hours that he spent in a computer lab on a weekly basis, the idea of physical exertion was appealing to him.

“Let’s try it out,” he decided.

The guy at the table was the new captain of the men’s team. John Irving was in his third year and desperate to convince you that he had everything under control, to the point where he could swing from welcoming and cheerful to posh and pedantic in the space of one sentence. The sentence in question being:

“It’s great to see people taking an interest in their third year, even though I think rowing should be a mandatory sport as early as middle school. That was the case in the school I went to.”

“It’s only my second year here,” Cornelius replied, pleasant as ever. “I transferred from London last year.”

“A change of scenery, then,” Irving ventured.

“A change of everything,” Cornelius smiled, kicking the charm up a notch. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it made him look like although the corners of his mouth had lifted, his eyes hadn’t yet decided if they wanted to stab or spare you.

This Sol can readily grant Irving: tedious as he may have been, he never fell for any of Cornelius’ tricks.

Sol would be lying if he said that he wasn’t aware of the way Cornelius functioned, even as far back as their second year of uni, when they found themselves in adjoining rooms in that part of the college that housed most of the undergrads. None of Cornelius’ actions were void of meaning. If you couldn’t see the ulterior motive, you needed to look harder - or to wait until it emerged, by which point it was probably too late, and you’d let someone be double-crossed or swindled or plagiarised or, in one particular case, prosecuted for assault and battery.

When it came to rowing, however, Sol had assumed that Cornelius’ intent was merely to further his standing at uni - maybe to rub elbows with the public school gang, the John Irvings and Edward Littles of their college, who had inherited from birth what Cornelius could only hope to achieve by way of hard work or con artistry.

It was only years after Sol had left Cambridge that Cornelius let him in on the truth. At that point, he must have known that the jig was up, and he’d seemed to relish being finally able to open up to Sol, with a slice of a smile and no small amount of malice.

“Oh, Solomon. I suggested we sign up with the boat club so I could keep a tight grip on you.”

 

 

 

 

iii. december 22, 2019 (ffs, Edward)

 

I’ll be in Cambridge next Tuesday, let’s get coffee, he’d written, which must have read as Let’s have sex, because Edward had answered, I’m not sure that’s a good idea.

You’re not sure coffee is a good idea? Sol had written back, somewhat disingenuously.

Edward had returned in September from six months in the Russian Arctic, where he’d been doing whatever geographers do to correlate figures and facts. At some point during the summer, his boyfriend had gone up to join him. Sol had received his fair share of pictures of Edward and Thomas in the tundra, or hanging out at the small meteorological station where Edward was based, or posing at the local fishing museum. Sol’s memories of Thomas Jopson at uni are of a boy who wasn’t as shy as he seemed, the kind of person who knew everything and could be counted upon if you wanted to find out where a specific student was (in the library, where he’d been since 3am, Thomas had brought them tea an hour ago), or why the boat club dinner had actually been cancelled (the coach’s affair with the cox of the women’s boat had come to the Master’s attention). In Edward’s pictures, Thomas’ features had sharpened and he’d grown some stubble, but with the dark hair and the light blue eyes, and all of that fearful symmetry, he still looked like he’d missed his calling, choosing Cambridge over Hollywood.

Edward and Thomas had lost touch after college, but they’d reconnected some time before Edward left for Russia. By now, the both of them must be back in Cambridge.

Thomas used to be part of the same crowd as Edward and Cornelius - Cambridge’s polar fanatics - but Sol would be hard-pressed to say what he’d worked on back then, or what he might be working on now. Edward must have said, but Sol didn’t make much of an effort to remember. It’s the extent of his pettiness, besides - to the extent that he values anything in life, he does value this weird friendship with Edward Little, a relic from their rowing days that somehow survived across time and space, in spite of Cornelius’ scheming and Sol’s stupidity and Edward’s introverted nature, and if preserving what they have means walking a careful circle around what they once had, then at the very least, Sol will give it a try.

It’s what had him write back, seconds after his last message, Ffs, Edward, when I wrote coffee, I meant coffee, as in the beverage, not the innuendo.

Edward hadn’t answered for hours, and then, when Sol had been about to text whomever else he could think of who might still be in Cambridge, he’d finally received a reply.

Can you be at the boathouse at 8?

 

 

 

 

iv. 2005 (so what do I call you?)

 

All the students who’d signed up to the boat club were asked to show up for an erg race the following week, which would decide who rowed on which boat. As there were far more signees than there were seats on the boats, Irving gave a speech reminding everyone that rowing for the college was “a duty not unlike your coursework” and pointing out that any rower who failed to show up regularly (thereby lacking “due commitment”) would likely be kicked off their boat.

Cornelius nudged Sol halfway through the speech, whispering, “Dibs on the captain.”

Sol hadn’t paid much attention to Irving, but he’d noticed the guy beside him, lean and pale in his splash jacket and shorts in the college colours. He had the sort of face that looked like it’d been painted with ink, with large dark eyes under heavy dark eyebrows and a cutting nose and a fine mouth, which only condescended to smile after one of his friends had nudged him in the ribs once or twice.

“Eton, for sure,” Cornelius snorted, following his gaze. “I can see the appeal, though.”

Sol pulled a face - an exercise in self-preservation.

“I don’t have time for pretty boys,” he said.

After the race on the machines, in teams of five and where Sol performed well and Cornelius performed appallingly, their team coming up somewhere in the middle, they stayed on a while longer to cheer for the women and then went along with the flow of students to the back of the boathouse, where the rowing committee had garnished a table with wine and bowls of hummus and carrot sticks.

Sol left Cornelius to the carrot sticks and ventured outside.

The summer had deserted the riverside seemingly overnight, and the concrete slope leading to the water was covered with dead leaves that crunched underfoot. The wind pulled at Sol’s hair and clothes like a child having a tantrum and the air was so cold it felt like he was snorting up particles of ice with every breath. There weren’t many people outside.

The Eton boy from earlier was talking to one of the girls down by the river, wearing only that dark splash jacket though he’d traded the shorts for some dark sweats. He looked well on his way to being frozen, with his hands tucked under his armpits and his whole body keeping up a rhythm of scuffling and vague aimless swaying that served the dual purpose of warming him up and of keeping the girl at bay. Sol waited until she’d drifted off to walk over, digging inside his pocket for his cigarettes. When he offered him one, the Eton boy declined it.

“No thanks,” he said, repressing a shiver. “I couldn’t smoke and take sports seriously.”

Sol gave him a long look. Then he shrugged and lit himself a cigarette anyways.

“Great first impression on both sides,” he drawled.

“I didn’t mean…” The guy shook his head, flustered. “I’m not trying to be a dick. I’m not that good at rowing to begin with, so I’d just be making things more difficult for myself if I started to drink and smoke beyond reason. Of course you’re welcome to do so.”

This entire apology was so clumsy that Sol had to refrain from laughing. Besides, by that point he’d decided that this shy boy was worth a strenuous conversation or two, with his troubled, expressive face and that peculiar brand of aristocratic contempt that he couldn’t have shaken off if he’d wanted to - it lingered in his voice, in his dark gaze, in the arch of his wrists where his sleeves rode up his arms. Sol had had one drink before leaving the boathouse and he could feel it sizzling in his veins, daring him to do something stupid.

“Your captain sure is invested in the sport,” he remarked. When he’d left the boathouse, Irving was pouring over score sheets, writing out hypothetical line-ups for the boats. He was one of the only people in the boathouse to wear an all-in-one. Whether it made him look professional or ridiculous was up for debate.

“Irving has been invested in rowing since he was twelve. But you - you’ve rowed before, haven’t you?”

“No,” Sol said, bemused. “What makes you say that?”

“Well, your…” The Eton boy frowned, making a gesture towards Sol’s body that might have passed off as a compliment if he’d actually used words. “And… your score on the ergs. I had to work hard to get such a split.”

“Did you really ever have to work hard, for anything?” Sol asked.

“I hope you’re as good on the water as you are on the ergs,” the guy said. Sol’s jab had made him blush, which along with his haughty demeanour made it difficult not to be somewhat charmed. “If that’s the case,” he went on, “Irving will want you in the first boat… I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name.”

“Solomon. Yours?”

“Edward,” he mumbled, precisely as Irving appeared on the threshold of the boathouse and vociferated “LITTLE!” in a commanding tone.

“So what do I call you?” Sol asked, the sarcasm seeping through.

“Edward’s fine,” Edward said, bravely squaring his shoulders and looking him in the eye.

“Any tips for a beginner, Edward?”

“Don’t be late for practice,” Edward declared, and with that he turned around and walked back towards the boathouse, without giving Sol the chance to try any of the disastrous come-ons he’d had lined up, and which ranged from How about we get you warmed up? to, I’ll call you “sir” if you ask me nicely, I’ll ride you until you stop being so tense, until that medieval armour of yours falls off and you start looking like a real boy.

 

 

Sol had never tried to make a secret of his sexual preferences; it’s just that it had taken him a while to figure them out. During his first year, he’d dated a girl for a few months, after a group of comp sci guys had bet he wouldn’t dare walk up to her in the college library and ask her out. With all the drinking and partying he eventually made out with another girl and word got back to Flora, who broke up with him at the end of a long shouting match in the reading room where they’d first met. Then there’d been a few other girls, and a young lecturer who ended things at the start of summer, which led him into a drinking binge that ended in another guy’s bed. The other guy had more trouble coping than Sol, who’d gone home for the summer rather surprised but not altogether worried, not about that at any rate. He’d visited Heather and opened up about it and once that was done, he was ready to accept it and move on.

Lots of ground to cover with the new year, twice as many options as he used to think he had, even though that turned out to be the year he met Cornelius, and for as long as Sol hated him - most of that second year, until they came to a sort of truce by the end of it -, most of his energies were deviated in that direction, without him making much of a connection between his sudden disinterest in sex, and his newfound favourite pastime: complaining about his insufferable hallmate.

During the very first week Cornelius had taken someone home, and in the morning, Sol had bumped into them in the kitchen, Cornelius sitting on a table, legs swinging back and forth, his reddish-blond hair still damp from a shower, while William Gibson, a third-year student from Trinity who looked like a starving saint, fed him something from a plate. Sol had stopped in the doorway, eyebrows raised, long enough that William had turned pale and hurried off to find himself some dishes to wash.

“Is there going to be a problem?” Cornelius had asked Sol, managing an impressive degree of defiance given that he was wearing a towel and that there was egg on his chin. He wiped it off with a flick of his nimble fingers.

“Depends,” Sol said. “Do you think you can fuck in silence? The next time you have someone over, I’d like to get some sleep.”

He’d only just met Cornelius, and it made it harder to interpret the look that Cornelius gave him then, although in the following years, it would become as familiar as any of Cornelius’ other quirks, the nail-biting and the reflexive smile to hide a more nuanced reaction, or all those damn sounds that he couldn’t help making when he (when they) had sex.

It was the focused gaze of a cat, secure in the knowledge that he’d just found himself the best of game: a frantic, fast-moving prey.

 

 

 

 

v. december 22, 2019 (circles)

 

Sol flicks the ashes of his cigarette into the river. The sun is taking its sweet time rising above the trees, large and winter-pale. As light begins to filter through the fog, the silent banks turn from grey to a glimmering, silvery green. There’s frost everywhere, including on the grey wool of Sol’s fingerless gloves.

It’s been twenty minutes and maybe he would have left if the cold hadn’t slowly rooted him to the spot, making it more difficult to muster the will to leave than to stay a moment and a cigarette longer. He hasn’t called Edward because he’s not in the mood for excuses, and sometimes the silence is easier. Resentment is easier.

Sol hadn’t had much leisure to contemplate his uni days when he was in Melbourne; lately his life has had a tendency to take off in other directions rather than backwards. On the train coming here, he had this weird thought that should he pay enough of a tribute this time around, should he have the right amount of coffee and scones while staring up at the spires of King’s College, it would help him cut ties for good, leaving cold England behind, moving away in ever-larger circles until Cambridge becomes a dot on a massive map that he’s explored to its farthest reaches.

Sol is no longer sure how he’ll react if Edward arrives - shove him or punch him, grab him by the front of what will no doubt be an expensive coat and shake his uncertainties out of him. His anger is dormant for now, but he’s stocking it and all it needs is a match - any word from Edward will do, Sol’s name the worst of them all. It’s not the boredom of waiting or the discomfort of the wet, cold air that gets on his nerves. Every moment that Edward doesn’t arrive is a moment that his ghost can fill up the space, striding around the bank to keep warm his insubstantial form, blowing icy air down Sol’s neck - plucking the cigarette from his fingers to take a drag as he sits down beside him at the very edge. This phantom isn’t Edward as Sol remembers him from college but as he last saw him in the flesh, three or four years ago at a reunion of the boat club, older and more put together and infinitely more tired.

He’d wanted to shake that version of Edward too, but if memory serves, he’d kissed him instead.

 

 

 

 

vi. 2005 (concussions and comas)

 

When Sol met him, Edward Little was only just beginning to decide what he wanted to do with his life. From the outside, it was easy to believe that he had everything figured out: he had a way of dressing that suited him, in straight lines and dark colours, something like a style, and he looked like he knew more and felt less than he did, because he had a reasonably good poker face and he wasn’t big on talking.

Sol learned to know Edward (whom by that point he’d reverted to calling “Little”, like everybody else) in glimpses and snatches.

They didn’t belong in the same boats, Edward being in the first and Sol in the second, but sometimes they’d run into each other at the boathouse. Sol came to notice the evenings Edward came to train, and the evenings when he came to fight the machines and work himself into a complete collapse, after which he’d lie down on the floor of the boathouse with his hands over his face for a while. Edward didn’t actively engage in talking to a lot of people, but if Irving was around, or Lizzie the captain of the women’s team, or tiny Susanna who was a much better cox than Cornelius, and whose jokes occasionally had the power of making Edward laugh - Edward would sometimes be heard mentioning an article he’d read or some paper he was working on. This led to conversations that would have sounded improbable anywhere but in Cambridge, rambles such as, I’m taking this seminar on spatial theories... You know how Bachelard wrote that inhabited space transcends geographical space? It’s a valid idea when you’re studying urbanism, not just as what constitutes a city, physically, but also as a way of life... How we inhabit cities beyond the structure of the city itself. Invariably, Edward concluded with, I’m not sure I’m explaining this properly.

If he was talking to Lizzie, who was a PhD student at the Faculty of Philosophy, the conversation would pick up, though if it was Irving the talking was often one-sided. Edward and Irving seemed used to this dynamic, where Edward shared a thought or quote or idea and Irving would nod or hum but was often far too engrossed in his erg session, or the redaction of a training plan, or the class readings he’d brought along to the boathouse, to pay proper attention.

It was on one of those evenings that Sol stopped beside Edward on his way to the showers and asked news of the essay on totalitarian architecture that he’d been talking about the week before, and after that they started bumping into each other more often than they used to. If Sol was at the college library when Edward came in, Edward would come to sit at his table. Sol’s library sessions were arranged according to Cornelius’ timetable: if he needed to work, he made sure to head for the library when Cornelius was in class, so he wouldn’t be distracted.

Edward wasn’t Cornelius. He could work in silence for hours; if Sol didn’t say anything, they could go an entire afternoon without exchanging more than a “hello” upon arrival and a “see you” as they left, though the quiet and monotony of library work nurtured its own kind of interactions, offers of coffee and snacks, stomping on each other’s feet under the table until the mumbled apologies stopped and it became a given that Sol would extend his long legs to the right of Edward’s chair and that Edward would use the edge of Sol’s chair to prop up his feet while he read.

(Their nascent friendship hadn’t removed Sol’s desire from the equation; it merely complicated things. At times, Sol felt like he’d swapped a bunch of fun fireworks for a live grenade.)

Over the course of their library sessions, Sol observed the gradual narrowing down of Edward’s focus from industrial cities to the industrial cities of the far north. He also found out that Edward spoke fluent Russian. When he asked him, after Edward had tried to put soviet demographics in words that wouldn’t sail past Sol’s head, why he wanted to study dead places, or at the very least, places that were dying fast, Edward replied that nothing was truly gone that could be recorded.

“That’s what I would like to do, I think. Study records of life in the Arctic. Look at the ways people inhabit an empty and unwelcoming space. It’s really interesting with the Russian Federation because… well, there’s a peculiar mentality there that you don’t really find elsewhere. Francis… Professor Crozier says that every cultural practice in the north is by nature adaptational, influenced by the harsh environment… I must be boring you.”

Sol moved his knee, knocking Edward’s foot off his chair.

“You’re not,” he said. “I can’t say I understand what you’re saying half of the time, because it’s like you’re speaking a different language, but you’re not boring me.”

This was in the winter of their third year. The rowing outings had slowed down, it was raining five days a week, and Edward had caught a monstrous cold. He’d showed up at the library wearing his drenched coat and scarf and Sol had wordlessly handed over the dry, ugly snood his mother had knit him for his birthday.

“You’ve been reading a lot of these, lately,” Edward said, pointing at the pile of medical textbooks on Sol’s side of the table. “But you’re taking computer science, right?”

“Yeah,” Sol said. “With a view to specialise in, uh, neuroimaging in relation to the treatment of TBIs. Traumatic brain injuries.”

Edward blinked.

“Okay.” He looked down at his book, seemingly ready to go back to work, but after a few seconds he looked up again and asked, “Why?”

Sol hesitated, fingers flicking the pages of the book before him.

“When I was in high school. My best mate, he got knocked over during a hockey game. Banged his head on the ice.”

“I’m awfully sorry.” Sol knew what Edward would ask before he could attempt to force out the words: “Is he…”

“Yeah. Yeah, they pulled the plug a year ago. He’d been dead a while I think. We were all in denial. I don’t…” He fidgeted some more, pencil twirling over and under his fingers. There was any number of things he could have said.

I talked to him when he was braindead and so it’s not much of a difference to keep talking to him now. Or, I’m good at what I do so it all turned out for the best, didn’t it? Or, Heather was the toughest son of a bitch I knew, but also the kind of guy who could tell you weren’t doing well from a yard away. He’d wait until you were ready to come out of the locker room and drag you to the bar out front of the rink for a hot chocolate. Or, Real trooper, to the very end, as if Heather had died on the front.

Or, I used to play hockey as well. I used to love it. But now when I step onto the ice my stomach flips over. Cold sweats, I throw up. I even passed out, once. How stupid is that.

And some of it he did tell Edward, eventually, one day or night in Russia with the black-out curtains drawn. Some of it he told Cornelius, spurring a brief phase during which Cornelius was obsessed with concussions and comas.

But that day he only said, “God, he’d have hated rowing. Getting up at 5am to move a blade back and forth.”

Edward tried to suppress a smile.

“Do you?” he asked. “Hate rowing, I mean.”

“Not as much as I thought I would,” Sol grinned, looking at Edward with his red nose and the snood tucked into the collar of his jumper, his books and papers arranged in neat piles in front of him.

When that earned him another smile, Sol made a show of shifting a few inches sideways on the chair. Edward put his feet back up and they went back to work, the silence only broken from time to time by Edward’s sneezes.

 

 

It must have been a few weeks after that conversation, at the end of Michaelmas term during that third year, that Sol slipped up, twice.

The first time by punching Cornelius in the face at the end of a rowing outing. More often than not Cornelius was excessively nice to people, the kind of polite and forthcoming behaviour that had a stickiness to it, like touching the bark of a tree and coming away with resin all over your fingers. But every once in a while he’d get tired of playing nice and some of his real self would shine through (unless it was the opposite of that - a glimpse of the dull and dark beneath the outer sheen) and he’d snap and make some cruel demonstration of wit, usually at the expense of someone else. On this particular day the demonstration revolved around Edward and his Soviet-era cities, something about how Edward was as closed-off and empty and frozen over as the big concrete buildings that he worked on. Edward was too much of a proper English boy to even think of talking back.

Sol could rarely be bothered to talk back, regardless of the situation, and it certainly wasn’t his job to keep Cornelius in check, but he’d delivered the punch all the same, a little frightened by the impulse, by the realisation that he would have done far worse to shield Edward, and the suspicion that in all likelihood Edward would end up hurt anyways, because he was the kind of person who took everything to heart, and who walked around with their own personal black cloud hovering above their head, ready to burst forth with thunder and lightning and rain.

The second slip-up occurred at the boat club’s New Year party, where Sol drank a fair amount and later woke up in Cornelius’ bed.

The easiest way to explain what drew him to Cornelius would be to say that it was simple - to turn a blind eye on Cornelius’ manipulations and his mistreatment of others, to revel in the self-loathing that ensued, rather than to try and deal with it - Sol drew comfort or satisfaction or maybe even pleasure from the knowledge that if he went to knock on Cornelius’ door late at night, Cornelius would open, and if he had someone in, friend or colleague or lover, Sol need only wait in his room and Cornelius would get rid of them to give him priority. It was only later, much later, that Sol considered the fact that Cornelius might have been playing the same tricks on him, and that whenever he left Cornelius’ room, convinced he was doing it of his own free will and in his own due time, William Gibson or Magnus Manson or whomever else was probably waiting down the stairs, ready to be called up.

But it had been the path of least resistance, and one of Sol’s best qualities was also one of his worst flaws: once he’d made a decision, he had a tendency to stick to it, whether the decision was to find a way to fix Heather - a commitment that he upheld long after Heather had died - or to keep this thing with Cornelius going after he’d unwittingly started it, even if the both of them could tell from the moment it began that the sex was an attempt to will the other into submission, and it didn’t matter that Sol was always on top, always the one to fuck Cornelius into the mattress, or to extort vain praise from his grinning mouth, it didn’t matter because regardless of how many times he let himself be taken, abused and abased, by virtue of knowing what Sol needed and of not letting him in on what his intentions were - Cornelius always won.

 

 

 

 

vii. december 22, 2019 (cold hands)

 

Sol is stirred from his lethargy by the sound of a bike hitting the ground, and then by the rushed slap of feet on concrete and Edward’s worried call, “Sol, I’m so utterly sorry…” - for that’s Edward for you, he doesn’t simply apologise, he emphasises, he expiates, as if he’d committed the worst kind of offense, whether he’s failed to answer an email in under 24 hours or to be cheerful at a party he didn’t want to go to, or to be on time at a meeting Sol probably shouldn’t have suggested in the first place.

Edward drops down beside him and puts his gloved hand on Sol’s knee. It’s probably not meant to be ambiguous; Edward has always been like this with the people he cares about, better at communicating his feelings through gestures than words.

“I was worried you’d be gone.”

“You could have called,” Sol points out, gruffly, but though the anger is still here he already knows he won’t act on it. Even with the gloves, Edward’s hand on his leg is cold - Edward’s always had cold hands. It used to be a joke, a way to get no-nonsense Lizzie to yelp in surprise when he touched her arm, and on at least one occasion, during one of Irving’s interminable debriefs at the end of an outing, it’d been a pretext for Sol to rub some life back into Edward’s bluish fingers.

“I texted you,” Edward says. “Didn’t you check your phone?”

Sol hadn’t. A glance at the screen reveals a few messages from Edward, of the I am so so so so sorry variety.

“I wanted to… I needed to talk to Thomas, before I left. I should have done that earlier. I kept delaying it, but I couldn’t come here without…” Edward removes his hand and tucks the both of them between his thighs. When he speaks a cloud of cold air rises from his lips. “I used to think that I could keep this to myself. Not this particular meeting. The whole thing. You. Murmansk and…” He gestures vaguely towards the boathouse behind them. “... the club, all of it. But it didn’t feel right. Not with him. Unfortunately, I’m not sure I went about it the right way…”

“Rousing your boyfriend before 8 on a Sunday to tell him you’re off to meet a guy you used to fuck,” Sol says. “I know Thomas is the patient and understanding kind, but even him would have had a hard time with that one. It was you who decided we should meet at 8 am, Edward.”

“That’s certainly not the way I put it,” Edward frowns. “It wouldn’t be the truth. Come on,” he adds, rising from the ledge. “Get up.”

“Strange choice for a meeting place,” Sol notes, as he gets up and stomps out the drowsiness and the cold. “I’m sure if we scrub the concrete, we’ll find traces of Cornelius’ blood. Irving’s vomit.”

“Going back to places you used to love, it cheapens them, doesn’t it?” Edward muses. “They always look faded, and not quite worthy of your idea of them.”

“Does that reasoning apply to people as well?”

Edward’s smile is wistful.

“You always turn out to be far more frightening than I remembered you. I like the beard, by the way.” It reminds me of Murmansk, he doesn’t need to say, for they both know that he’s thinking it.

Sol isn’t used to letting Edward take the lead, but he’s too numb to put up much of a protest, even or especially when Edward hugs him, a tight, happy embrace like it’s 2006 and they’ve just won a race, his smile cold against Sol’s neck. Edward might not row much anymore but he’s hardly a scarecrow, and yet he feels almost frail in Sol’s arms, like a gust of wind could scatter him.

Perhaps he was wrong, and this Edward isn’t real, but rather the cold turned flesh to haunt him.

“You’ve grown bigger,” Edward mumbles. “How is that even possible? What kind of experiments are you up to, in that lab of yours?”

“You like it.” Turns you on, Sol would have said, ten years ago.

Edward’s laugh is a rare thing, startled and soft.

“I do. Should we go in for a bit? I have the keys.”

“Of course you do.”

“Irving’s,” Edward says. “They never changed the lock, and he never gave them back.”

It’s on the tip of Sol’s tongue to make a comment about how John Irving and Cornelius Hickey aren’t as different as everyone made them out to be. The last thing he wants to do, however, is to put his foot in his mouth and invite another specter at this strange feast.

“Lead the way, Little,” he says.

 

 

 

 

viii. 2007 (you’re rather soft, aren’t you?)

 

Both Cornelius and Sol had signed up for the boat club again at the start of their fourth year. While Cornelius would still be coxing for M1 and M2, Irving and the new coach approached Sol for a seat on the first boat.

Sol weighed the advantages of rowing with Edward against Irving’s insane training schedules and the loss of the camaraderie of the second boat, where he got to set the pace rather than having to play second fiddle to Irving. Eventually, he decided to stay on the second boat, and he compromised (pacified Irving) by agreeing to replace the guys of M1 on occasion.

One morning in January, he was called in because Charles Des Voeux had gone missing after a party.

No one was particularly worried about Charles. Every rower in the first boat had got wasted the night before, and so every one of them, including Sol, had the occasion to build up a steady supply of resentment towards Charles as they put themselves through the motions of rowing to the lock and back with their respective hangovers. When Charles reappeared at dinner and it emerged that he’d really just been sleeping off the binge, he endured a dressing-down from Irving that concluded with him having to clean the boathouse all the way through Lent.

It was also during the party that preceded this hungover outing that Sol and Edward had… not so much “crossed a line” as, drunkenly staggered over it, without quite remembering, in their sodden state, that the line was actually there, unless it was that they chose to stop caring about it. Time never made it any clearer for Sol, what made up his mind in that moment, what led Edward to make up his own, but the tension had never not been there, and if anything it had built up over the past year. Sol figured it was a bit like smoking - abstaining from it was a hell of a lot easier when someone wasn’t lighting a cigarette and setting it right against the corner of your lips.

The party had been a joint event with the Downing boat club, to celebrate the end of the year. Sol had showed up early and drank freely and he’d decided to fuck some guy from Downing to take the edge off - a quick shag that ensured he got enough sleep, far away from the college, so he wouldn’t let himself be pulled into Cornelius’ room again. This on-and-off thing with Cornelius had been going on for a year by then and there were nights when Sol needed it and days when he couldn’t stand it, and other nights, like the night of the social, where he was above all weary, empty and almost frightened by how that felt, by the fact that he was feeling it at all, like a part of him had been hollowed out.

He’d been talking to the guy from Downing, or rather letting him talk, following the natural order of things, feigned interest in the talking and actual interest in the guy’s smile - until the guy suggested they went back to his room.

Sol ran into Edward on his way out, Edward coming in, with Irving of course, Irving who professed to be a teetotaler but who had a bewildering ability to always find his way to the bar, where he’d drink one drink, and start talking about God and boats and the deadline he was going to miss if he didn’t go home straight away to reread for the hundredth time the essay that he’d finished writing two weeks ago.

“You’re leaving?” Edward said.

It’d been the tone that made him stay, how Edward - usually so composed - had made no effort to hide his disappointment.

“You tell me, Little. Am I?”

They’d exchanged a look that had Irving roll his eyes and stalk off towards the makeshift cloakroom.

Sol stayed four more hours. Most of the boat crews spent the night drunkenly dancing, Edward with Irving and Susanna while Sol downed a beer or two with Cornelius and Tommy. At one point, he answered a summons from the Downing guy. They met outside the common room to exchange a few blunt words - it wasn’t like Sol had promised him anything, he’d changed his mind, and when the guy called him an asshole and tried giving him a shove, Sol lifted him several inches off the ground with both hands fisted around the collar of his jacket, and afterwards he’d let the guy trip over himself in his haste to move away, starkly aware that it’d been months since he’d scared someone, or since Cornelius had needed him to scare someone. He went back inside with no regrets or remorse, save a vague thought that he’d need to find someplace else to sleep.

Later on someone, maybe Charles, ordered a round of tequila shots and Sol licked the salt off Edward’s hand and watched with dark amusement as Edward’s tongue swept over his skin. He couldn’t have said for sure, afterwards, that they’d actually drunk the shots - he remembered tasting the salt on Edward’s lips but not the tequila. They found a corner of the room void of the crush of bodies and the faint light of dying glow sticks and Sol kissed Edward and kept up a steady stream of nonsense whenever they broke apart in the hope that it’d keep Edward from saying something reasonable like, This is a terrible idea or We should stop.

Though when Edward finally got a word in what he said was, “I don’t want to be a disappoint-”

“Fucking hell, I knew you’d ruin it,” Sol groaned, but he was almost laughing. “I want you, you want me, does it have to be more complicated than that?”

“You know it is,” Edward protested - though by that point he had a hand on Sol’s hip and the other on his neck, fingers loosely playing with the hair at his nape, and it didn’t look like he wanted to move - Sol could have resumed kissing him and Edward would probably have gone along with it. Sol told himself he was merely testing that theory when he shoved his knee between Edward’s legs - he didn’t try to hide his self-satisfied smile when Edward pushed back against him, his cock hard against Sol’s thigh. When Sol roughly palmed the front of Edward’s trousers, he didn’t even put up a token protest. There was only his quickened breath on Sol’s cheek and the soft sound he made when Sol tightened his grip, almost a whimper.

“Here?” Sol asked, with a dry laugh. “In a room full of people?”

Edward nodded, pulling him closer. Sol removed his hand and let Edward rub himself against his leg, resisting the urge to touch himself or, worse - better - to grab Edward’s wrist and have him do it, God, he’d fantasised about Edward’s hands often enough, but even as drunk as he was, he remained aware of the situation they were in. Eventually they’d be interrupted, be it by someone tripping backwards away from the dance floor or by someone looking for them, Irving or, worse, Cornelius, whom Sol thought had gone off with William but he could be wrong - and this careless, debauched Edward wasn’t a sight Sol wanted to share with anyone else. When Edward’s body went taut in his arms Sol held him through his orgasm, like some perverse hug, Edward gripping his shoulders so hard that Sol knew he’d bear the marks later, and he brushed his knuckles against Edward’s cheek afterwards, a bit unsure how these things were supposed to go, wanting to kiss him again, but it felt like they’d burnt out the wild rush that had brought them here and he didn’t know what to do, how to not make this the thing that undid them both.

“Feeling better?” he asked.

Edward muffled a wet laugh against his neck.

“God, I’m completely wasted.”

Sol joined in with the nervous laughter, relieved that Edward was providing them both with an excuse to sweep this under the rug, later, once they’d sobered up again.

“Hey, come on,” he said, as he felt Edward begin to doze off on his shoulder. “Let’s get you home. Did you leave your coat in the… What?”

Edward was smiling.

“You put up a good show with the brazen attitude, and sometimes getting to you feels like charging a brick wall, but in truth you’re rather soft, aren’t you?”

Sol stared at him in disbelief, unsure whether he should be more outraged by the implication of “softness” or by the fact that Edward could still string up complex sentences after drinking up half the contents of the Downing bar.

“I won’t tell,” Edward assured him, with a kind of slurred insistence that seemed far more in line with his alcohol intake, and he leaned in before Sol had time to convince himself to move away - there was something playful about a drunk Edward, Sol had quickly found out, his kisses had a bite to them, and he licked his bruised lip, pushing Edward away with a hand on his mouth.

“Come back and try this when you’re sober,” he said.

Once he’d retrieved his old parka from a pile of similar winter wear, he went looking for Edward’s coat. Typically, Edward had put it on a hanger - Sol pushed a few hangers back and forth, settled on a coat that looked like the right cut and didn’t question the animalistic impulse that led him to lift the coat to his nose (though he’d been right, it did smell like Edward, whatever that smell was - the smell of Edward’s shampoo maybe, where his hair had brushed against the collar; the smell of his skin).

They walked out under a clear sky, with a moon that looked full though maybe it wasn’t, the streets almost empty save for similarly drunk students. Sol pretended not to hear the first time Edward asked him for a cigarette but he gave in the second time, and he lit one for Edward and one for himself while Edward went to retrieve his bike. Then he held the bike and the cigarettes as Edward walked a drunk girl to a taxi, and at last they set off towards their college.

“You’re right,” Edward said, two or three cigarettes later, somewhere around the market place.

“About what?”

“I can already tell I won’t remember much of this tomorrow. And it’s a crying shame. At least…” He looked at Sol sideways, visibly building up the courage to speak. “... You could call me Edward from now on, yeah? I’m used to everybody calling me Little. It doesn’t mean that I want you to do it. It does feel… ridiculous, when it’s you doing it.”

“Ah,” Sol said, the laughter rumbling through him. “My big win of the evening. If I’d known all I needed to do was let you hump my leg…”

“Solomon.”

Edward’s tone was so blatantly, so nakedly hurt that Sol stumbled in his drunken haste to get around the bike, discarding the unfinished cigarette and shoving the bike down to clatter on the road when Edward tried to hold on to it.

“Hey. Hey. I didn’t mean it like that.” Edward had tensed up like a frightened animal. “Edward. Edward.” Relishing the name as if it had indeed been a hard-won honour to get to use it, and stupid as it might have been, that’s how Sol had felt, like he’d miraculously caught something rare and fragile and had simultaneously dropped it. It didn’t seem like words alone would cut it so he moved on instinct, trying not to think about where he might have picked up those gestures - the soothing touch on the arm as he stepped well into Edward’s space, leaning his forehead against Edward’s temple, the steadying clasp of his hand at the back of Edward’s neck.

(You’ll be alright, Cornelius had said, and then he’d taken a step backwards and onto the ice, letting go of Sol’s hair to tug at his fingers, One step at a time. You can do it. Behind Cornelius a dozen kids at least spun in circles or bowled over as their parents tried to follow, the rink was lit up like a Christmas tree under the cold and cloudy sky, the speakers coughing up pop covers of Christmas carols. Somehow, Sol had bought it, the sollicitude, Cornelius’ willingness to stay close to you, to make it seem as if there was nowhere else he’d rather be than an inch away from your face, listening to you whisper your darkest fears, The ice, the ice, I’m afraid of the ice. He’d thought Cornelius cared, when it’d really been morbid curiosity. A desire to experiment. How far onto the rink can I get him before he snaps? And the answer had been, ten feet. Ten feet before Sol began to skate backwards, feeling like his heart was about to burst out of his mouth.)

“Edward,” he pleaded again, no longer knowing what he was trying to achieve, angry at himself for how weak and worried he sounded.

“Don’t worry.” Edward gave his shoulder an unconvincing pat. “I meant it, I’ll probably have no memory of this in the morning. That’s unfortunate. I liked how you sounded, just now… That undercurrent of fear. Can you pick up the bike, please? I don’t think I can reach down without throwing up.”

 

 

They parted once they were past the college doors, as they reached the yard, with the moon pallid over the roofs and all the windows black and blind, the pavement like an oil slick under their feet, dark and glinting with frost.

“See you when I’m sober,” Edward said.

 

 

The next day Charles didn’t make it to the outing, and when Sol showed up to replace him, sullen and tired, he found an equally sullen and tired team, Edward included.

With every stroke, with his head caught in a vice and the nausea rising along with the water that slapped the sides of the boat, Sol kept thinking, Fair enough. Fair enough. Let’s pretend it never happened.

 

 

 

 

ix. december 22, 2019 (if this is you breaking rules, i like it)

 

In the time since Sol last came to the boathouse, the club has acquired a fancy coffee machine, and armchairs and couches and a rug to spread over the polished concrete of the sitting area. Edward takes care of the coffee while Sol drifts off to look out the windows at the river below. The fog has yet to lift, but the resulting atmosphere isn’t off-putting. On the contrary, it makes it easy to pretend that it’s only the two of them, without much to worry about beyond the immediate concerns of caffeine and warmth. The last time Sol felt that way - like they didn’t have to fear an interruption - it’d been in Russia, over a decade ago.

“Do you know they banned me?” Edward says, over the sound of the coffee maker.

“Hm?”

“The boat club. After we came back from Murmansk.”

Sol turns away from the window. He doesn’t know what he expected - Edward looks as reserved as pretty much always. And yet it must have rankled, at the time.

“You loved rowing,” Sol says, like it needs to be pointed out. “What the hell did you do?”

“I tried to fight Des Voeux while we were out on the water. The boat capsized.”

Edward sets two steaming mugs on the coffee table. Sol appropriates a dusty pink armchair, choosing the one that seems less likely to crumple under his weight. As the heating isn’t on, he’s decided to keep his coat. It feels like they’re in some strange space that’s neither in nor out; when they breathe, the air still turns to mist in front of their mouths. Sol loosens his scarf.

“Des Voeux sprained his wrist,” Edward says. “The others were alright. We both got kicked out of the club.”

“Charles too? That’s harsh.”

“I think some of the college fellows stepped in. Francis, of course. A few others, who knew that Des Voeux hadn’t behaved particularly well during our expedition in the Arctic, and that he’d got off without so much as a warning. I think the head committee came to the conclusion that Des Voeux needed to be punished alongside me, so in the end we were both banned.”

Sol would like to know exactly what happened during this Arctic expedition that would justify Edward flipping over a boat and the nine people in it. Was it Charles who’d shot someone? Had anyone actually been shot, or was that just a rumour? But the few times he’d brought up the subject, mostly in the immediate aftermath, Edward wouldn’t talk about it. After a while, Sol had given up.

“So you’re supposed to be banned, and yet here you are,” he says instead. “And they let you come to that boat club reunion a few years back...”

“Yeah. They do take their banning seriously, Irving had to ask them for a dispensation so I could attend that.”

Sol takes a sip of the scalding coffee.

“If this is you breaking rules, I like it.”

“Ah, speaking of.” Edward looks down at the mug between his hands. “I have a Christmas present for you.”

Sol gawks at him.

“You what?”

“I can show you when you’re done with your coffee.”

“You can show me whatever you want,” Sol says, well-aware that the flippant tone is a way to disguise his surprise, “but I didn’t get you anything.”

“I didn’t expect anything.”

The more Edward tries to shy away from his gaze, the harder Sol looks at him, cataloguing all of Edward’s tells, the ones that haven’t changed, the eyes cast downwards when he’s embarrassed, flicking up every so often to check that he’s not in any real trouble, that open-mouthed intake of breath that belies true panic - and the ones that weren’t there before, like that faint tremor in Edward’s hands even as his entire body remains still, the tension deviated straight down to his fingers. Sol forces his eyes back up.

“At the airport before I left,” he says, “they had those night lights shaped like kangaroos. You know, the kind you put in a kid’s room, when they can’t sleep? Should have got you one of those.”

“I’d have liked that.”

Edward’s smile is unsure, as if he doesn’t know whether Sol is making fun of him or not.

“I bet. How’s your sleep these days?”

“Better,” Edward says, and they leave it at that. He does look marginally less exhausted than the last time Sol saw him at that boat club reunion. And maybe less tired than on the pictures from his recent trip to Russia.

He doesn’t look well-rested though, not by a mile.

“Where’s that gift then?” Sol says, tearing his eyes away from Edward’s shadowed eyes and setting down his mug. “Let’s see it.”

 

 

 

 

x. 2007 (oh my god, Sol, shut up.)

It must have been about two or three months after the party at Downing when Sol’s phone went off at 6am again. He smothered a groan into his pillow, praying that Irving would give up - who else could it be, that early in the morning - but Irving was nothing if not annoyingly persistent.

“Tozer,” Irving said, when Sol finally picked up.

He could hear the others in the background, their voices echoing around the boathouse.

“I’m sorry to wake you up, but Little didn’t show. Would you be willing to sub for him?”

It was only then that Sol grasped the full meaning of Irving’s request - as he drowsily sat up to answer, and saw Edward in the bed beside him, frown present even in sleep, one hand holding Sol’s frayed blanket over his bare shoulder as if he thought someone might pull it off him.

“Yeah,” Sol said, throat dry. “Sure, I’ll sub for Little. Give me twenty to get here, though.”

“Of course!” Irving hurried to say, his voice brimming with the kind of relief that overwhelms, which would have led to a hug with someone else but which, in Irving’s case, would probably have concentrated into a sedate pat on the shoulder as he tried to communicate the depth of his gratitude with a soulful stare. “I don’t know what I’d do without you, Tozer. I’ll talk to the club, we’ll make it up to you. And would you mind terribly… Could you do a detour by Little’s, knock on his door, see if he’s alright? It’s unlike him to miss training, and to do so without warning, on top of it...”

“Yeah.” Sol’s grin was sharp. “I’ll check on him.”

Edward was looking up at him by the time he hung up.

“Rowing,” he said.

“Don’t even think about it,” Sol laughed. Chucking aside his phone, he hopped off the bed and began hunting for his sweats. “I’ll go.”

“What?” Edward sat up, still blinking the sleep out of his eyes, and because they hadn’t woken up enough yet to question the hows and whats and what nows, Sol leaned down to kiss him, sour breath be damned.

“Go back to sleep. I’ll tell Irving you’ve got the flu or something. He’ll buy it. If you’re still in bed when I come back, I’ll join you.”

“I’ll hold you to it,” Edward said, as he let himself fall back upon the pillow.

And Sol had really meant for this to be a beginning - not a goodbye, or an ending, or a parenthesis to be resumed two years later in a faraway country, after months if not years of silence.

 

 

The night before he’d received a text from Edward. This in itself was unusual enough, though the tone of the text was deeply, hilariously Edward, from the solemnity to what Sol could only describe as Edward trying his damnedest best.

I’m not good at this, I don’t know most of the rules and I never make the first move, out of stubborn pride, maybe. But I’m not drunk this time around, and you were right. I want this and I want to remember it. Can I come by?

Sol had pulled a face at his phone and answered, When you say “this”, you mean, what?

After a few seconds, he'd added, Do come by. I want to hear you say it

About five minutes later, Edward was knocking on his door.

“You,” he said, flustered and quite visibly angry that the whole thing was making him angry. “I want -”

At which point Sol put an end to his misery - hauling him in and shutting the door, divesting him of his peacoat and making a point of letting it fall in a careless heap on the floor, kissing Edward’s begrudging mouth until his reserve finally broke and he began to smile.

“You can be such an arse,” Edward said, but he said it breathlessly and with a hand down the front of Sol’s trousers and it didn’t sound in the least like an insult.

The first time Sol slept with Edward, it was clumsy and rushed, in a room Sol would have liked to have the time to clean - “I’ve spent the week at the lab, it’s not like you gave me any warning, let me at least change the bedsheets” - and he did change the sheets while Edward stood by, wishing he could have bought new ones rather than having to use one of his faded sets from Liverpool. Sometimes he liked to show off that he wasn’t from the same world as Edward, and sometimes, it remained an embarrassment that he hadn’t quite outgrown.

Sol had about a dozen ideas of how he’d have wanted this to go, and somehow he forgot all of these in the process of trying to remove Edward’s trousers, and he’d knelt down thinking, if I’m going to kneel for anyone, it might as well be for Edward Little.

It must have been a fairly terrible blowjob, though Edward certainly didn’t let on and it was over in minutes, Edward trying to apologise as Sol wiped his mouth with a reflexive grimace.

Sol’s nervousness didn’t abate once the initial febrility was past, which bothered him to a point where it became hard to hide it. And yet, even this, the gradual inelegant shirking of clothes, the accidental stabbing by way of elbows and knees and the kisses that missed their mark, the fact that it might have become difficult at one point to find Edward’s gaze and hold it, that Sol did more swearing than talking, that for what was without a doubt one of the longest, most excruciating hours of his life, he was far too caught up in the impending fiasco of nothing having gone according to eighteen months’ worth of fantasies to be even vaguely aroused - none of it seemed to bother Edward, let alone deter him.

“This was a bloody mistake,” Sol muttered at one point, only for Edward to roll his eyes.

“Oh my god, Sol, shut up. I’m here...” Edward pulled him down for a kiss, and when Sol finally seemed to respond to that, lukewarm as the response was, he kissed him again. “I’m here and you can deal with it, or you can decide to be an idiot about this and kick me out, but I don’t want to leave.”

Sol realised a few things then: that despite all prior indications to the contrary, Edward was capable of being determined, that his reserve wasn’t inexperience, far from it - and that if Sol let him, he’d set out to find out what Sol liked and give it to him, against Sol’s instincts and better judgement.

 

 

“This is where you have to admit that I didn’t waste all those years in public school,” Edward had said, later that night, as he turned onto his side and stuffed Sol’s spare pillow under his cheek.

Sol reached for his cigarettes. Though he'd taken note of the bitterness of Edward's tone, he wasn't about to comment on it. Edward always spoke of his school years in the same way, as if he expected to be mocked for it and preferred to get ahead of whatever criticism might be levelled at him. How was Eton? Sol had asked him once, and Edward had answered with a detailed account and it was only weeks later, after a talk with Irving, that Sol had come back and confronted him, Didn’t go to Eton, did you?, to which Edward had replied, with an offhanded shrug, Didn’t I? I had it all. The accents and the falsely aloof demeanour and the systemic destruction of any social conscience, the handjobs and the beatings, the old boys network and the fast track to Oxbridge. I’m not going to use the fact that it wasn’t called Eton as a line of defence.

“Give me one?” Edward asked.

“You’re smoking now?” Sol said, some of his usual bite returning, though he tossed him the pack of cigarettes and then the lighter, and he scavenged a jar lid from his bedside table to be used as an ashtray. He knew he wouldn’t feel entirely at ease until they’d had another go at it, drawing it out longer this time, and he had a feeling if he asked Edward if he could fuck him, Edward would say yes and please and probably mean it. But for now it was enough that his body had finally caught up to his brain, and silenced it, with some help from Edward’s hands and mouth and tongue.

He wondered in passing, some time before he fell asleep, whether the urgency would have dissipated in the morning, this imperious and almost paralysing conviction that they must ride out the tension between them and then collapse. In the heat of the moment, it had seemed impossible for it to happen any other way than this, fast and rough and desperate, as if they expected to be brutally pulled apart. Like his untimely bout of nerves, Sol put it down to a long-awaited first time. It would take him a while to understand that it was just the way they were, or rather, the way they were with each other. The sex like a compulsion or a race, the afterglow inescapable, a forced time out, during which their defense mechanisms - Sol’s callousness, Edward’s stoicism and silences - were completely neutralised.

“I’m going to sleep,” Edward mumbled, from a few inches away, where he was hugging Sol’s pillow for dear life. “And then, we’ll do this again.”

Sol hummed in assent. He went on to sleep soundly for a few hours, until he awoke to a light knock on the door, one that he knew well - the Cornelius Hickey equivalent to a booty call, which signaled that he was alone and presumably horny and Sol could (should) come over. Sol remained still until he heard Cornelius’ door open and shut. Then he turned over, blew Edward’s hair out of his mouth, and went back to sleep.

 

 

The next day Irving cornered him after the rowing outing, that is to say, he stood at the entrance of the locker room looking anywhere but at Sol until Sol tried to come out, at which point Irving gave him a pointed look and said, “We need to talk.”

“It’s not like Little to miss practice,” Irving said, once they were both sitting in the empty boathouse with styrofoam cups of coffee on the table between them.

“Yeah, he wasn’t doing well, it happens,” Sol shrugged.

“Do you think I’m a fucking idiot?” Irving snapped.

Sol gazed at him with a flicker of interest. Irving’s outbursts were rarely if ever personal - they were always related to team performance and occasionally to some grand principle like punctuality or courage in the face of dramatic odds (which generally tied back to team performance).

“Your friend Hickey isn’t just a nuisance,” Irving said. “He’s the sort of mushroom that starts growing discreetly enough in the corner of a room until you realise that the only way to get rid of it is to burn the building to the ground. I’m all for the reformation of every bad seed under the sun, but I will not have it happen at the expense of my best friend. Should either of you decide to play with Little, I’ll use whatever means are at my disposal to damage your life beyond repair. Do I need to make myself clearer than that?”

“I’m not responsible for Cornelius,” Sol said, amiably enough. “And I don’t think you, or me, are responsible for Edward.”

“How is that working for you? Refusing to feel responsible for anything or anyone?”

At the time, Sol had thought Irving was being snide, but the remark may well have come from a place of compassion or pity.

 

 

Sol knew that he should have put a clear end to things with Cornelius. He knew that he should have, and also that he couldn’t.

Outwardly, Cornelius would have taken it in stride, probably pretending he couldn’t care less. And then he’d have found a way to get even. Sol had done enough with and for Cornelius, indulged enough, debased himself enough that he had no illusions how disastrous the debacle would be, especially if - when - Cornelius turned his attention to Edward.

Early on, perhaps as soon as Edward knocked on his door that spring, Sol had decided on the outcome of it all: a clean break, a clean slate, with no casualties.

In April of his fourth year, Sol accepted an offer for a PhD in Scotland. It wasn’t that Cambridge had rejected his PhD application, but rather that he hadn’t submitted one. Dr Stanley had referred him to a neuroscientist in Edinburgh who had a lucrative contract in place with a few tech sponsors. All they needed was a PhD candidate willing to study and if possible improve the neuroimaging techniques used to detect mild traumatic brain injuries.

When Sol heard that he had been selected for the PhD, he didn’t tell anyone. Maybe he thought that he’d be able to keep the whole charade going until the very end - avoiding to alienate Cornelius on one side, answering his summons when they came, for a chat or a drink or a bar fight, whatever it was that Cornelius needed done that had once amused him, and on the other, he’d have kept discovering Edward, and maybe, to some extent, discovering himself.

He never knew what happened and never tried to find out. Whether it’d been Irving telling Edward about Cornelius, or (worse), Cornelius seeking Edward out.

Sol had always been one for vocal break-ups. At least it cleared the air and it made sure there were no misunderstandings - it was hard to doubt that a relationship was over when your girlfriend sought you out at the library and shouted it at the top of her lungs, making sure that you and the fifteen or so other students assembled there could testify to the rest of the college that you’d cheated on her, that she’d never speak to you again, and that you were “so fucking full of yourself and also a piece of shit”. Which granted Sol had been, at the time. A piece of shit with extenuating circumstances, but a piece of shit all the same.

The first time Sol and Edward broke up, it wasn’t with a bang. Sol was soon to realise that there was hardly anything that could have been more painful than that - Edward dropping out of his life for two years, taking with him not only his good looks, the steady warmth of his brown eyes, that absurd stamina that came from being young and from rowing five or six hours a week, but also all of his quirks, his talk of icy regions, of migratory flows and seal meat diets and the effect of ice on aging concrete, his sleepy-eyed determination to see an essay or training session through, his kisses like he had a point to prove, or maybe like he needed to prove himself, his tendency to wake up several times during the night and tentatively press a cold hand to Sol’s back to see if maybe, he might be awake too and willing to roll over and fuck him again (invariably, Sol had been asleep, though once he’d been jolted awake by that cold brush of Edward’s fingers along his spine, a quick harsh fuck often seemed like suitable payback).

All that Sol had taken for granted in the two years that he’d known Edward, Edward’s willingness to engage with him, to not only spend time with him but to share his thoughts and studies, to let his hands linger on Sol’s skin - to let his gaze drift towards Sol whenever they were in the same room - all of this Edward pulled back like he’d have tugged back a blanket in the middle of the night, leaving you exposed to the cold. He became the Edward Little that everyone else knew, or thought they knew, a sullen and mostly silent figure, good-looking enough and clever enough no doubt, polite to a fault, but not much of a talker, not someone you’d ever get intimate with.

To know Edward Little, Sol found out suddenly during that hellish spring of his fourth year, had been a privilege, and this privilege had been brutally revoked.

 

 

 

 

xi. december 22, 2019 (something about this is making Edward smile)

 

“You’re kidding me.”

“I thought you’d have figured it out,” Edward says. “When I asked you to meet me at the boathouse…”

“That you wanted us to go rowing? No, Edward, I hadn’t.”

Something about this is making Edward smile, whether it’s Sol’s surprise or his disgruntled tone or the fact that he can’t keep the blasted fondness out of his voice when he says Edward’s name.

Sol’s never rowed one of those two-person boats. As a matter of fact, he hasn’t rowed in years, not since he’d given it a very half-hearted try at his arrival in Melbourne, seven or eight years ago.

“Five minutes ago you were banned from the club and now you want to take a boat out?”

“The boat doesn’t belong to the club. The Fairholmes bought it a few years ago. They let the club use it and in return they can store it here. I’ve taken it out with Lizzie a few times… Do you remember Lizzie? She used to be the captain of the women’s team.”

“Yeah. I take it her and James Fairholme got married, then. Do they know we’re borrowing their boat?”

“Of course. Lizzie says hi. I think James is in Paris for the winter.”

“And you expect me to row that boat wearing jeans?”

“It was something of a foolish idea, I know," Edward says, that small smile flickering out. "I knew the boat was here and I figured you might…”

Sol swears under his breath as he begins to shrug off his coat.

“Take your coat off,” he orders. “And come give me a hand with that boat.”

 

 

 

 

xii. 2009 (someone will get on to you someday, Mr Hickey)

 

Sol had never had much of an interest in the Arctic.

For Edward and Cornelius, the North Pole was an unchangeable parameter of their lives, which influenced and perhaps even governed everything else: their thoughts, their time, their research, their travels, their choice of residence, of friends and colleagues - of partner, in Edward’s case, as Thomas Jopson also lived and breathed for the poles; his work was Arctic or Antarctic-related, penguin-related, something of the sort.

Sol had heard of a Cambridge circle of Arctic specialists long before he’d even met Cornelius or Edward. This crowd gravitated around one particular Fellow from Sol’s college, Irish anthropologist and irascible, drunken-shadow-sulking-at-the-end-of-the-dining-hall Francis Crozier. There were more rumours about Crozier than there were about all his colleagues combined; early on Sol was told stories of when he’d provoked Professor Fitzjames of St James’ College into a boxing match on the college lawn, or of the time Crozier’s dog Neptune, an enormous Newfoundland, had chased the heads of the anthropology department straight into the river, or of the many, many occasions on which a drunk Crozier had offended a guest of the college by refusing to resort to the diplomacy required to ensure that the guest would proceed with their planned donation - until a rumour began to spread that a seat at one end of the students’ tables had been designated in the event that Crozier should appear at an official function.

Crozier had more detractors than he had friends, but Sol knew him to be a caring mentorly figure to the students of the college. He’d experienced it himself when his tutor had left on a research trip and Crozier had filled in for him. With Dr Stanley, Sol was used to spreading out whatever pile of paperwork he hadn’t been able to fill, which Stanley would or would not help him to decrypt, after which Sol would run through a review of whatever scientific reading Stanley had assigned for him. Sol’s first session with Crozier was supposed to run along those lines, except that Crozier had taken one look at the paperwork, snorted, and asked Sol what he’d read recently that might be of interest to discuss over tea.

Sol had stared at Crozier’s wry smile for a moment in silence before he’d ventured, “Trepanning?” And he’d gone home with a lot of unnecessary knowledge of the neolithic era and an essay to write on Hieronymus Bosch’s painting Cutting the Stone.

Sol had pulled out a couple of art books from the college library and used the essay to discuss the evolution and perception over time of various treatments of traumatic brain injuries.

During the following session, they didn’t have time to discuss the essay, Crozier being eager to obtain Sol’s opinion on an article he’d just read about the success rate of hypothermia as a way to treat TBIs. But the professor submitted Sol’s essay to a contest organised by the Fitzwilliam Museum, which rewarded papers that “provided an original perspective on famous artworks”, and Sol won the second prize, a three hundred pound voucher for books that he first used to buy a history of medical practices as a present for Crozier.

At the prize-giving ceremony at the museum, a student from the faculty of art had walked up to Sol and wondered if he might be interested in a joint project about some contemporary artist “whose creative output centres around lobotomy, as a concept and as a surgical practice.”

It was a glimpse into a very different world, which ended abruptly when Dr Stanley returned from his trip to Norway. It had been enough, at any rate, that by the time Sol did begin to mingle with Crozier’s protégés, he was able to understand their attachment to the man.

 

 

Edward and Cornelius were obsessed with the Arctic in very different ways, though on both sides, it went hand in hand with a desire to gain Crozier’s respect. When Cornelius couldn’t obtain this by regular means, he absconded to Canada with most of Crozier’s unpublished research and staged a form of academic coup at a conference of the Canadian Anthropology Society. At the time, Crozier had been about to lead an expedition to the Arctic, and his last-minute departure for the conference left Edward in charge.

Sol had been in Scotland for two years by then and he’d lost touch with most of the Cambridge crowd, so he never heard the whole story. There’d been tensions from the get go, exacerbated by the long journey and the midnight sun. One member of the expedition had got shot and almost died. Everyone had gone home early.

After that fiasco, Edward remained in the Arctic to try and cut his scientific losses. From Canada he travelled to Russia, intending to spend the summer studying his Soviet cities.

Cornelius had started emailing Sol early in June, about some grand hiking trip. It would be a good occasion to get the crew together, he wrote, though Cornelius being Cornelius, he also hid the list of recipients so that none of the people involved knew exactly who was coming until they did show up.

It was a meagre consolation upon arrival to discover that none of the others knew about Cornelius’ conference scheme.

“Come and see me give that talk,” he told them, “and then we’ll head off, hit a national park or two.”

Magnus Manson rightfully pointed out that none of them knew the first thing about anthropology or Inuit culture, which was to be the subject of the two-day symposium Cornelius wanted to drag them to. Sol was tempted to add that he had his doubts about Cornelius’ own knowledge of the subject.

But he’d read Cornelius’ essays, and he knew how good Cornelius was at this, picking up a book, lifting five lines out of four hundred pages, repeating this with four other books until he could spin a ten-thousand word essay out of something he’d read by chance, without any real understanding of the matter at hand. With such methods, Cornelius could obtain excellent grades - it had worked with most lecturers but not Crozier, who’d given Cornelius a passing grade on the thesis he’d handed in at the end of his MPhil, but who’d written at the top, Someone will get on to you someday, Mr Hickey.

“I’m just as clever as him”, Cornelius had said, later, in a flightful tone, but his body told a different story, of ill-repressed irritation and Sol had borne the marks of his nails for weeks, as if a cat had raked its claws down his back.

“I don’t care what the fuck happens at school”, he’d grumbled in the morning. “If you need to take it out on someone, go fuck William or I don’t give a fuck who else. You don’t use me for that.”

“Of course not,” Cornelius had said, with that sober-eyed look that promised a world of deception. He always looked at his most sincere in the morning, when he’d only just woken up and his brain hadn’t started firing up a thousand schemes yet, his pale hands wrapped around a warm cup of tea. Those were the moments when Sol almost liked him, when the light turned Cornelius’ auburn hair a warmer shade, and his thin smile seemed like it might just be genuine.

Of course not. If I was using you, Solomon, I’d like to think that you’d have found out about it, after all this time.

At the conference in Vancouver, where Sol had the dubious honour of sitting beside Cornelius while William and Magnus and Tommy and the rest of the group sat higher up in the room, Sol came face to face with Crozier, who’d sought out Cornelius in the hope, maybe, of delaying the inevitable. Cornelius didn’t listen to Crozier, and their dispute was soon relocated to the stage, where they threw years of research (Crozier) and convincing lies (Cornelius) at each other for the better parts of three hours, thoroughly exhausting the moderator in charge of timing their interventions.

When it came to Sol, Crozier only had a cold glare to spare.

“Don’t you have anywhere better to be, Mr Tozer?”

It seemed superfluous to point out that he’d come here for a bloody hike, that no one ever knew what Cornelius’ plans were ahead of time. It would have been a poor excuse, anyways. There was always something at work with Cornelius. Sol was either too dumb to be aware of it, or he was willing to ignore it, and neither option showed him in a favourable light.

He snuck out during the second day of the conference and boarded a plane back to the UK, wanting to feel as if he’d made some big decision, though he knew that he was running home with his tail between his legs. Cornelius had used him from beginning to end, and eventually he’d decided he’d had enough, and it didn’t make him a better, or a happier person - just, maybe, a little less of a stupid sod.

 

 

(And meanwhile Edward had fled his disastrous expedition and holed up in a flat in Murmansk, and when Sol floated the idea of joining him there, on a whim, a stupid whim that filled his whole body with warmth, Edward’s voice went strange on the phone, the conversation dying out fast, and the moment they hung up, Sol received an email with the link for the visa application, and then a second email that said, I’m not sure I’ve ever wanted anything so much, and then a third, Or anyone.)

 

 

 

xiii. december 22, 2019 (like breathing in snow)

 

The air is mercilessly cold and moist, like breathing in snow. Sol tends to favour practical clothing and his boots and jeans shouldn’t hinder his movements much, but all the same, he won’t be surprised if his blade gets stuck, or they bump into a barge, or they both freeze to death. Edward has lent him a splash jacket that feels a bit too tight around the shoulders and upper arms, but it’ll do to stave off the worst of the wind.

“I haven’t rowed in years,” he warns.

“I’ll go easy on you,” Edward says, as he pulls up his blade and pushes them off.

Sol hadn’t forgotten what rowing was like. There are nights when he dreams of it, the resistance of the water as the blade pushes against it, the boathouse receding fast in the distance and then vanishing entirely as they round a bend in the river, the sound of the seat hitting the end of the rails as it slides back, the shaft of the blade knocking against the gate, and Cornelius’ voice, rising from the stern. Six, down and away! All eight to feather in three. One, two…

Mostly however, it’s just the rhythm of it, repetitive and grounding.

The trees along the bank are leafless and black but the river itself looks alive, the flat of it undulating in the wind, slipping and slapping against the sides of the boat. The water is mercury grey and elsewhere a chilly blue, like some dramatic Arctic filter has been applied over everything. It begins to drizzle soon after they've left the boathouse. The familiarity of the scene is overwhelming, from the landscape to Edward’s back in front of him, the dark jacket, the dark sweats. In summer Sol would have got a better glimpse of his body than this. Edward’s brown hair has grown slightly too long and curls over the collar of his jacket.

Being in front Edward is setting the pace. It’s a taxing rhythm but not one that’s impossible to follow: Edward has always been good at this, asking you for more than you thought you could give without asking too much, so you’ll make more of an effort than you intended to, but you won’t be angry about it, just pleasantly surprised. His coaching went along those lines. He’d cycle along the bank and there was a story about how he once got so distracted by the girls he was coaching that he fell off his bike. Sol had laughed when he’d heard that one. As if Edward was the sort to get distracted by women. He’d been far more at ease with the women’s team than he’d been with the men’s.

Catch, Sol thinks, an old reflex, as the blade slices down into the water.

He never confessed to anyone how much he needed this, how salutary it had been to find something aside from hockey that had the power to clear his head. The agitation was here before Heather’s accident - he’d been brought up in the kind of atmosphere that nurtured it - but it became hard to control after Heather died. It wasn’t the sort of violence that expressed itself in punches, not often at any rate, but rather it sometimes spilled out under the guise of bitterness and mockery. The rowing helped. Being part of a crew, having something to structure his life around that wasn’t a computer screen.

Whatever Cornelius’ motives had been when he’d signed them up for the boat club, they’d had this unintended effect of helping Sol get a grip on his life.

 

 

 

 

xiv. 2008 (this is it, this is what you want to immortalise?)

 

Of Murmansk, Sol remembers the greyness of the light, at dawn and at dusk and most of the time in between, various shades of grey like he was seeing the world through smoke, and the wide avenues, and the rectangular apartment buildings with their hundreds of dark windows. Edward had recently quit some heavy sleeping pills, and as a consequence, he no longer slept. Sometimes he’d collapse for want of energy, and then he’d wake up and resume not-sleeping for another few hours. The skin under his eyes was tender as a bruise. Sol, who was hardly the most talkative person, a step above Edward but not much of a conversationalist, would find himself spinning up stories for hours on end, anything he could think of, hockey games that he’d reenact from beginning to end and lessons on the particulars of computational systems, anything that Edward could listen to out of politeness but that would eventually bore him to, if not death, at least to this state of lethargy that wasn’t quite sleep but during which he might get some measure of rest. The alternative was sex, which worked to some degree, and certainly that was something Edward never tired of, the fucking or even just the physical intimacy. There wasn’t a moment during those three weeks when they were in the same room and further than a foot apart, and later on that was what Sol had to learn to live without, the physical absence of Edward.

He changed phones three, four times after that and he never really kept track of what he lost along the way, but he has a few pictures of Murmansk saved somewhere, low-resolution views of the city, and that one picture of Edward sitting at the kitchen table with a bowl in front of him, kefir soup probably, the ingredients would vary but not much, radish being the main staple, and Edward has the spoon in hand and is looking up with a dubious expression, Really? This is it, this is what you want to immortalise? With the black coal of his eyes and that faint smile, the college crest on the front of his old hoodie.

 

 

Sol had showed up in Murmansk with his phone, a toothbrush, a bag of clothes and a little Russian guidebook. He could introduce himself, say “hello”, “please”, “thank you”, and that one expression Edward had taught him that meant something like, “life’s fucking with me”.

He’d worried that he’d step off the plane and into the kind of cold that he envisioned when he thought of the word “Siberia”, but it was the middle of summer and for the most part, except perhaps in the heart of night, the weather was alright.

“The Arctic,” he’d scoffed one such night, as they huddled under a pile of blankets because the heating had stopped working again. The piping echoed with forlorn howls and moans, as if it were ushering in the wind rather than bringing them water or heat. “A cold boy like you, you’ll never be warm up here.”

Edward looked spent but not altogether unhappy.

“I am.” His voice was thick with sleep. “Right now, I am... I don’t suppose I could… keep you around for that? Like a… a portable heater, for whenever I go north.” The room was dark but Sol could hear the smile in Edward’s voice. “And, you know, the conversation isn’t too bad. You can cook - you’ve got the hang of cabbage and stews by now.”

“Look at us,” Sol drawled. “We’re basically married.”

What will it be like when we come back? he’d wondered. He’d bled himself dry for this trip, not that he’d told Edward so, and it was hard to imagine a way things might work out in their favour.

Better to live in the moment, then, and Edward must have thought and feared the same, for neither of them said a word about what would come next until the day before their flight home, and the moment they did - the moment Edward ventured, “What are your plans?” and Sol answered, “Cornelius called me last night,” the whole thing went up in flames.

 

 

The call had gone like this:

Sol asking, “What do you want?”, with that mocking tone that had always served him so well.

Cornelius hadn’t heard from him since the conference. He hadn’t tried to reach out either.

“Remember when this was good, for us both?” Cornelius said.

Sol was walking home to Edward’s flat and he'd stopped, setting his bag of groceries on the ground.

“Remember the time at the ice rink?” Cornelius said. “You trusted me back then. Couldn’t you trust me now? Come back.”

At the ice rink, Cornelius had worn a fine black coat eerily similar to the type of clothing Irving and Edward favoured, the kind of clothes that could make you look smart provided you knew how to play the part. Cornelius knew how to play the part. Yet that day he’d been playing a different game, slender hand extended towards Sol, the dark cuff riding up and revealing an equally slender wrist, Cornelius’ smile adding to the picture, the portrait of a fragile and loving and caring man.

“I’ll come to you,” Cornelius said. “I can be in Edinburgh on Wednesday. We’ll talk and catch up. You can have me any way you want. Anywhere.”

“We’ll talk,” Sol said.

Cornelius made a thin humming sound and Sol screwed his eyes shut in frustration, knowing full well what Cornelius was thinking about - that first night in Vancouver, after they’d had a general row about the conference and they’d all retreated to their adjoining rooms in the shared flat. Cornelius had crept into Sol's room and Sol had told him to leave, and then he'd told him he could explain himself and leave, and then he'd agreed they could have sex provided Cornelius didn't stay the night, and then he'd woken up to Cornelius in his bed, to Cornelius' knowing smile.

I’ve always found it fascinating, how self-hatred gets you hard, Cornelius had said. The more I piss you off, the better the sex.

“We’ll talk,” Sol repeated, with an edge to his voice now. “That’s it.”

When he hung up he felt hollowed out, brittle, like the dreaded northern cold had finally come to Murmansk, and settled deep inside his bones.

 

 

 

 

xv. december 22, 2019 (you should know that i)

 

By the time they reach Baits Bite Lock, the cold drizzle has become a steady downpour. On the way back they stop for a while under the overpass to watch the rain come down, their breath steaming the air.

“College friendships are odd, aren’t they?” Edward says, without turning around. “It’s ride or die for a year or two, and then you show up at a wedding five years down the line, and maybe you’ll get a text with a picture of the baby when they’re born.”

“That’s because you’re not on Facebook,” Sol says. “It’d be worse if you were.”

“That’s not us, though, is it?” Edward asks, with false lightness.

“Which part? The weddings, the babies, the senseless Facebook updates?”

Edward doesn’t answer. Sol sees him flex his gloved hands above his blade, a tell if he ever saw one. After all this time, it’s a surprise to realise that he's still vulnerable to such displays. Any sign of unease or disappointment or fear on Edward’s part and he starts to feel as rotten and hollow as if he’d kicked some defenceless animal.

He swallows his pride.

“In our case, it’d be row or die,” he says.

At first, Edward remains petrified, though before long his shoulders are shaking with silent laughter.

“That was a pathetic pun,” he declares as he looks back at Sol, the laughter lingering at the corners of his mouth, in the fine lines at the corners of his eyes.

Sol’s never had much of an opinion on Thomas Jopson but in this moment, his jealousy verges on hatred.

There’d come a point, back when he used to hang around Cornelius, when he’d become able to tell the precise moment when Cornelius would fuck someone over, with as much certainty as if he’d seen an arsonist strike a match. It could be something in Cornelius’ behaviour, his cold eyes lighting up, his mouth curving far upwards on both sides like he was a cartoon character, but more often it was a touch, a hand on an arm, on a shoulder or cheek. A parody of caring before he twisted you inside out.

In Sol’s place, Cornelius would lean in and kiss Edward and relish Edward’s fading smile, his sudden panic - he’d -

“Hey.” Edward’s voice is quiet. “Bad jokes aside, you should know that I…”

“We should head back, before we catch our deaths.”

Sol gets back into position, leaning forward with his blade poised above the water. He looks away from Edward’s stricken expression.

“Right,” Edward says, as he gets his features back under control, schooling them into a pretence of cool indifference. When he turns back, his shoulders are drawn. “On three, then.”

 

 

 

 

xvi. 2009 (he set off across the pack ice)

 

On the plane back from Russia, the view was a neon kind of pink, frightfully bright. It was impossible to tell where the cloud cover ended and the sky began. At Sol’s side, Edward kept drifting off and waking up, always with a brutal start that Sol could see coursing through him, from shoulder to toe, as if he’d received an electric shock.

They’d fought in the flat (I never asked you to give up anything for me and certainly not your career, you never told me that you were putting your PhD in jeopardy by coming here, why the hell didn’t you submit that proposal, Sol?) and they’d fought at the airport in Murmansk (You’re a judgemental little fuck you know that? You might think you’re not, but when you share a one-room flat with someone, it’s hard to ignore the side-glances and the sighs) and they’d fought during the lay off in St Petersburg that stretched into a draining five hours, arguing about eating, and drinking, and taking naps, and they’d fought as they took their seats in the plane to London, Edward failing to stow his cabin luggage properly and Sol shoving him aside to do it with a brisk efficiency that was clearly meant as a fuck you. The girl seated next to them spent the last few minutes before take-off carefully edging away from Edward, as if his exhaustion might be contagious.

Edward jolted awake again, feet knocking against the seat in front of him, and Sol turned away from his bleary-eyed contemplation of the burning sky to grumble, “Put your head on my goddamn shoulder, Edward.”

Edward pulled a face but he picked up the jumper in his lap and bunched it up and he fit it between his cheek and Sol’s shoulder. Sol couldn’t have said as Edward’s body sunk slowly into his side if Edward was too tired to fight or if they’d temporarily stumbled upon a shred of intimacy to salvage. Sol’s shoulder couldn’t have been much more comfortable than upright sleep but Edward didn’t move again until the call came on to put on their seatbelts and prepare for landing.

Sol kept looking out at this landscape of clouds that seemed like it could have been lifted out of one of Edward’s books, like it might as well have been ice, the pressure ridges folding onto the pack and the sun glancing off the snow. In that tired, slow-hearted state, somewhere between dreaming and waking, he set off across the pack ice, anxious to find whatever it was that had them all rushing for the poles, but it was only ice and rocks and the ice was melting, and the emptiness had a frightening presence.

Then Edward shifted against his side, his hand settling, unconsciously perhaps, on Sol’s thigh, and the emptiness was filled with Edward’s steady breathing, and the cold retreated as if it had been vanquished by the drowsy warmth of Edward's body, where it lay anchored to his own.

 

 

 

 

xvii. december 22, 2019 (everything can be of use, and by everything he usually meant, everyone)

 

There is nothing remotely enjoyable about the return to the boathouse, with the wind blowing against them and the rain coming down harder with every stroke. Sol doesn’t break form, mostly out of spite, and they get back in record time, without exchanging a word. Sol’s jeans are pasted to his legs and his t-shirt is drenched under the thin jacket. There’s so much water in his eyes it’s a wonder that they’ve managed to keep their course, instead of rowing straight into the bank.

The tension between them is familiar - Sol has identified it by now. It’s the frustration that comes from having created a set-up for something that didn’t, and can’t, happen; the growing realisation that neither of them can deal with the imminent separation; that it’d be easier to just go off without having to acknowledge how long it might be until they see each other again.

The last time they'd seen each other, in the flesh as opposed to the rare facetime call, it was at that boat club reunion three or four years ago, and they’d parted on friendly terms. It had seemed like they’d finally broken a cycle.

Edward is silent, though from his sullen expression, it’s possible that he’s mulling over what he’d like to say. As soon as they step inside the boathouse he goes to retrieve his coat, and in shedding his wet outerwear, which he spreads out over the back of a nearby boat, and in putting the coat back on, despite the shivers and his dripping hair, he seems to regain some of his confidence. There’s little left to do but to emulate him. Sol hangs his dripping wet jacket and t-shirt on one of the racks, gratefully slipping on the thick grey jumper he’d left behind. He’s not in the mood to pretend that he hasn’t noticed the way Edward’s eyes are tracking his movements. There’s something absurd and pointless to it, as if they'd opened a bottle and poured the wine in the glasses and the glasses down the drain.

“Remember when we waited for Irving’s debriefs to end?" Sol asks. "It took ages and he liked to do it outside, for some reason.”

“Yeah. I remember.”

“It could be raining a storm and the boathouse was six feet away but there was no going in until it was done.”

Edward draws closer in the dark alley between the boats. Once again it’s only the two of them, and for the time being the rest is silence, the rest might as well be dead and gone.

“What was it?" Sol wonders. "A boat is a… A unit, eight men united behind one man whose rhythm transmits from blade to blade.”

“There was a bad joke that ran along those lines,” Edward says. “What has... sixteen? Sixteen arms and legs, but only one brain? And you’d answer: a Cambridge boat crew. Or... Weren’t you supposed to answer with your college crew, and then ask it again, but this time you went, what has sixteen arms and legs, and no brain? And then you gave the name of some rival crew.”

“In winter, everyone would be dancing on the spot, trying to keep warm until he got to the end of whatever it was that he was trying to say… I wouldn’t even call it motivational.”

“Philosophical, maybe.”

“With the sweat cooling on us. You were frozen stiff. I’d pull your hands out of your pockets, peel off your gloves and even then, your hands were cold. You’ve got the hands of a dead man,” Sol concludes, not without affection. “Here.”

Seizing Edward’s wrist, he shoves Edward's wet hand under his jumper, in that warm pocket of air between wool and skin, and reins in the ensuing shiver behind clenched teeth. Edward presses the back of his hands against Sol’s stomach, his breath uneven. Droplets fall from his hair onto Sol’s jumper.

“I can’t believe no one ever gave us any shit about this,” Edward says.

“That you know of,” Sol corrects him. “I did shove one or two guys around, over some asshole comment they’d made about you. Didn’t happen often, though. As a rule, people didn’t mess with me.”

“Except Hickey.”

Sol tenses as if Edward had slapped him. Edward pulls his hands free, but he doesn’t move away.

“Don’t,” Sol warns.

“I don’t get it." Edward sounds more confused than annoyed. "Explain it to me?"

“It was ten years ago.”

“Isn’t that enough time that we should be able to talk about it?”

“Edward. Let it lie.”

“This is a conversation I want to have face to face," Edward insists. "Not on the phone and a continent away.”

“Why?” Sol snaps.

“Because you don’t talk about it!” Edward exclaims. “God, people go after me for not… for not sharing. For not talking about myself. But you’re even worse. It’s just that they assume you’ve got nothing to share. Did you talk about this with anyone? The… The guy you were seeing. The one you crossed a desert with.”

“Why would I talk about Cornelius with the men I fuck? Is this something you do? Do you tell Thomas about the ones who had you before he did?” The rest is easier than breathing, as giving in is forever easier than restraint and good conduct - kissing and nuzzling and worrying Edward’s jaw until it gives him access to his neck, licking and biting at the tender skin there. “And when do you do it?” he murmurs. “In bed? How do you put it? I used to like it rough. I used to come back for more, three, four times a night.”

“Don’t.” Edward doesn’t react at once but when he does, it’s to push back at him with both hands. It takes him a couple tries before he manages to clear his throat and resume, in a firmer tone, “don’t you think being rude will get you out of this conversation.”

Sol’s mouth twitches.

“What do you want to hear?”

He couldn’t say who the harshness of his tone is directed at - at himself and his bad decisions, or at Edward and his insistence that this talk will solve anything, or at Cornelius, who continues to wreak havoc in absentia, long after Sol had thought he'd finally got rid of him.

“What do you want to know about? Why I kept going back? Why I thought he was a better option than you? I didn’t and he wasn’t. The way it went with Cornelius… The way he put it back then, and I bet he hasn’t changed… Something like, ‘everything can be of use’, and by everything he usually meant, everyone. You let him in and you were fucked. It didn’t take much. A moment of weakness. It’s someone telling you they’ll take you and the most disgusting, repellent sides of you.”

“I would have,” Edward whispers.

Sol doesn’t doubt him, nor does he doubt the fact that Edward couldn’t have said such a thing ten years ago. Maybe that’s the bottom line, the morality of the tale: that they didn’t know themselves enough back then, and that now that they do, it’s way too late.

“What now?” Edward asks, letting the question fall down at their feet like the heavy weight that it is.

“I fuck off to Australia again,” Sol shrugs. “Like I did last time. Maybe I’ll see you again next winter.”

“I could visit you, maybe?”

Sol laughs.

“Sure, Edward. You and Thomas are welcome in Melbourne. Anytime.”

Edward makes an exasperated sound.

“Are you… Is this goodbye, then?” he asks. “I don’t… I have time. If you have time and you don’t… If I’m going to be seeing you once a year for the foreseeable future, couldn’t we… Get coffee, or something?”

“Get coffee," Sol repeats blandly.

“We don’t have to. If you want to leave I won’t…”

“No.” Sol picks up his t-shirt, balling the wet rag of it between his hands. “No, let’s get coffee. I’m dying to see how we’ll both try and fail to keep a conversation going. You’ll get…”

“Solomon.”

“... You’ll get miffed, I’ll be reminded how much I like you, and taking the train back will feel like I’ve decided to remove a vital organ. We’ve been here before, yeah? Let’s do it.”

 

 

 

 

xviii. 2009 (who’s weak now?)

 

The last time Sol let Cornelius talk to him was in Edinburgh. Cornelius had returned from Vancouver and Sol had only just returned from Russia; it was about a week after all the boards and commissions had expedited their work and Cornelius had been expelled from the University of Cambridge - expelled but not banned, so that he eventually went on to finish his PhD elsewhere and returned to Cambridge on a number of occasions to give talks, but by that point, Sol wasn’t really keeping tabs anymore.

In Edinburgh they met at a beer garden, in public and in the open. Sol didn’t trust Cornelius - he trusted himself even less.

As often, Cornelius had done his best to fit in with his surroundings, in this case the hipsterish, alternative setting of the bar. Since Canada he’d shed his academic costume in favour of a loose linen shirt and cords, and he’d trimmed his beard and gathered his reddish-blond hair in a bun. Unkempt still, but stylishly so. And yet, he still stood out. It would have been difficult to say exactly why. Something to do with his eyes, maybe, or his smile - something, or the lack of something.

“Where have you been?” Cornelius said, in lieu of a greeting, as Sol slumped down on the bench across from him. It wasn’t a reproach, rather a polite question, as if they’d really just parted ways for the summer holidays - as if Sol hadn’t walked out on him halfway across the world and then vanished for more than a month without sending so much as a text message.

“Russia,” Sol said, the return journey weighing heavily on his shoulders, the bitter taste of how this summer had ended or was about to end making him want to gag. He took a swallow of beer and forced it down.

“In Russia,” Cornelius repeated, his surprise only showing in the faint strain of his tight-lipped smile. “With Edward Little?” As the silence stretched and Sol refused to answer, Cornelius shrugged. “I can’t see any other reason why you’d go there. You always did get along, the two of you…”

Something must have transpired in Sol’s gaze, some of the ugliness of the wound he’d been trying to stench with both hands since he’d left Edward at the airport, because Cornelius’ eyes narrowed.

“Are you two fucking? Is it love? Solomon Tozer, who was always ready to laugh at the expense of those weaker than he was… Remember how you used to look at William? He said you laughed with your eyes, that he could almost… hear your contempt, just from the way you looked at him. Well.” Cornelius took a long sip of his beer. “Who’s weak now, hm?”

“Are we done here?”

Sol didn’t even put much force into it. Something was finally giving, some chain that had kept them tied all these years, but if it made him feel lighter, it was the sort of lightness he imagined someone might feel after losing a limb to a particularly nasty form of gangrene.

“Oh, Solomon,” Cornelius sighed. “I suggested we sign up with the boat club so I could keep a tight grip on you. Not so you could go... languish after someone else.”

“For fuck’s sake. You never even liked me.”

Cornelius shook his head.

“That’s not what this is about. It’s about… tides. Pulling and pushing. Standing between the ice floes and waiting for the pressure to rise. What I did like about you was that you had some fighting spirit.”

“I knew better than to start a fight with you.”

“Ah, but you did fight me, once,” Cornelius said. “Don’t you remember? I didn’t think enough of it at the time… You know what,” he added, consideringly. “My money was on Little and Jopson. I honestly thought you didn’t stand a chance. Colour me impressed. The brute and the bore.”

Which was when Sol decided he’d had enough.

“Go fuck yourself, Cornelius,” he said, and left.

 

 

Halfway up the street, he'd turned back and seen Cornelius sitting alone, and it should have felt like a victory but instead it felt like they’d both lost. In order to have this unsatisfying talk, Sol had left Edward in an airport terminal in London looking sad and distant and with the wreckage of so many feverish fights between them that he couldn’t even find the will to clamber over it to try to reach a more even-tempered, more loving and compassionate Edward. He was fairly sure besides that he’d plugged the depths of that compassion when he’d told Edward he would obey Cornelius’ summons.

I’m not about to chase you around the Arctic for the rest of my life, he’d said. What you’re after, you and Cornelius and Crozier, I’ve never wanted that. This place doesn’t want me and I don’t want it. And you won’t give it up. Where does that leave us? Spending an odd week together every other month? I’d lose my mind.

Looking at Edward in that airport, he’d felt as if he’d just rammed a car into a wall and he could see the dent he’d made, the dislodged bricks and the gaps where the mortar had been, the cracks around the sunken point of impact like a misshapen star, reaching outwards until it seemed like the whole structure might collapse.

“Take care of yourself, Edward,” he’d said, his voice hoarse, and god knows he’d never cried once in his adult life, not even that first time he’d visited Heather at the hospital, with the scars on his scalp where they’d stitched him up - not at Heather’s grave years later when they finally decided he was dead and they might as well bury him - but maybe it was payback for those years, those few tears that he rubbed off ferociously on his way down to the train station, fear catching up with him, something coming to life inside him, the faintest stirrings of doubt, the idea that perhaps, this time around, there was something he might have done differently.

 

 

 

 

xix. december 22, 2019 (a warmer kind of hell)

 

The rain has stopped and there are great blue tears in the clouds, a typical if abrupt change in this country where the weather has a tendency to cycle through all four seasons in the span of a day. Sol is still mired in memories. Maybe that’s why the sign for the seasonal ice rink gives him pause, when they come upon it on their way to the town centre, with Edward pushing his bike between them like this is any regular morning circa 2005 and they’re on their way for breakfast after an outing.

“Hey, how much time have you got?” Sol asks. “Do you skate?”

Edward follows his gaze towards the sign.

“I can go around the rink without falling?” he ventures. “I went last week with Sophia… My friend Sophia Cracroft, I told you about her? The one who studies polar bears. She taught me the basics. We could… I suppose we could go, if you wanted?”

Sol couldn’t say what prompted this suggestion but it’s certainly not that he thinks he’ll enjoy it. On some level, it might even be some form of masochistic impulse. Yet once the idea has taken root it becomes impossible to dislodge it. All he can hope for is that the impulse to fight will win over the impulse to flee.

Edward, meanwhile, is not the sort to forget a confession, and though Sol can’t recall the particulars of what he’d told him, he knows he’d shared most of it. How he could spend eight or nine hours on the ice each week, back when he was sixteen or seventeen. How being deprived of his hockey gear had made him feel weak at first, like he could never grow tall enough or put on enough muscle to compensate the loss of that armour. How he was well aware of how stupid his fears must sound.

Edward won’t have forgotten, but he doesn’t bring it up. All the way to the North Pole ice rink, he remains quiet and lost in thought.

 

 

The cold air drifts into the rink through the exposed sides, between the metal beams supporting the fogged-up roof. Sol feels self-conscious - he used to play ice hockey after all, not to ice skate, those were two very different activities to the bullheaded teenager that he’d once been - but it’s hard to take this seriously, or to take oneself seriously, when the rink is full of people in everyday clothing and the one able skater is a girl no-higher than his hip who twirls her way around the ice in defiance of gravity and nausea and of the sign that says, “No acrobatics”.

“I might be sticking to the sides at first,” Edward warns him, as he hobbles on towards the gate on borrowed skates.

Sol answers with a noncommittal grunt, far too focused on the ill-fitting shoes and how they pinch his feet.

“I went climbing with Irving in the Alps last year, in January,” Edward says, for some reason. “There was quite the amount of ice, we wore crampons… But this is different. It’s always different, isn’t it? The ice. When I listen to Thomas talking about polar travel, the ice in Antarctica that can be white slush and then hard crystals that shift and run like sand under your feet, or that squeak like gravel… Here, wait, the edge is a bitch.”

Edward’s gloved hand wraps around Sol’s and he pulls him onto the ice - for a second the world wavers, the bright lights along the rink and the echoing screams of children and adults alike reaching him as through a thick fog.

And then Edward resumes speaking, “But there’s also Tom Hartnell’s stories of glaciers breaking apart in Alaska… Do you remember Hartnell?”

“Yeah, I remember Hartnell,” Sol murmurs, letting go of Edward’s hand, turning around so he can listen to Edward and watch him at the same time, with his cheeks gone red from the cold, and the damp hair that he’s pushed back from his eyes, and the stubborn slant of his mouth. Edward keeps his eyes on his feet and on the ice before him, his dark brows drawn in concentration.

“He told me about… Great sheets of ice sliding into the water, or chunks that fall with a crack like thunder, like the mountain is rubbing off the dead ice, the grey ice, and exposing the blue veins beneath it. And Blanky…” Edward catches his breath as his steps quicken, and he begins to move away from the ledge. “Thomas Blanky... Francis’ glaciologist friend, he has stories of icebergs flipping over in the water... when a side or the other breaks off. The submerged part of the iceberg becomes visible all of a sudden, like you’d pull out a plant and expose the roots. When I sailed on this ice breaker a few months ago, the ice was blue-white, greyish when the light died out, but the sea… the sea was almost always black, the water was far more frightening than the pack. It brings out your… fear or sinking, I suppose, like some sort of suppressed memory of being trapped under... And then for a while you could almost believe that the ice is safe. It’s the ground under your feet, it gives the illusion of stability, until you stumble into a crevasse. ”

Whether it’s the thought of crevasses opening beneath him or the fast pace at which he has been skating, Edward loses his balance, and it causes him to flail for an instant, arms swinging wide, until Sol skates back towards him and steadies him with both hands, the motion easy, a mere reflex, but it makes Edward smile and then laugh as he holds on to Sol’s arms for support.

“You’re doing fine,” he says, startled and so visibly pleased, and he dashes forward and kisses Sol’s shell-shocked face, his hands leaving two icy imprints on Sol’s cheeks. “Sol, you’re doing fine!”

Sol looks around them at the bright glare of the rink, where a group of teenagers are trying to outpace each other in defiance of the other sign by the gate (“No racing”) and a kid in a red duffel is giving the twirling girl a run for her money, and a guy with a dark beard has just fallen down trying to impress his girlfriend. The ice is patterned with whirling grooves, lines coming together into a large map of tentative first steps and rink-wide rivalries and the parallel curves of lovers skating together, parents pulling their children along, the gross interruption of the bearded guy’s erratic attempts at getting up, a spot where he’s smeared the ice with his hands and knees and his jean-clad arse. Sol knows that while he skated with Edward they were faster than the teenagers who are now streaking past in their multicoloured windbreakers, that he completed at least two circuits of the rink skating either sideways or backwards in order to listen to Edward, weaving his way around the other skaters without having to think twice about it. Yet though he knows it he cannot afford to dwell on it, because the moment he stops focusing on Edward’s even-voiced stories, some of the old panic returns.

Heather fell and the boy from the rival team who’d been shadowing him had tripped and crashed over him, a boy bigger than Heather, bigger than Sol, and Sol had rushed over and tried to shove the boy’s large body off Heather, shouting for help - they’d all seen Heather’s head bang hard against the ice, like some dislocated puppet, a motion that wasn’t human but already that of a broken object.

“Edward... Please keep talking.”

“I’ve seen crevasses you could drop buildings into,” Edward says. “Not in the Arctic… In the Alps.” He begins to skate again, at a timid pace. Sol follows him in silence and as they slide past the gate, he forces himself to keep going instead of stumbling out.

“There’s a town in France,” Edward goes on, “that sits under a glacier that has been expected to collapse for decades. The people there know that if the sirens start, they’ll need to leave the town. Nestled as it is in the valley, it would be swallowed by water and ice. This story moved me… I think because of what it implies. Living on borrowed time, knowing that at any moment you could lose everything, and yet the people don’t leave. It’s not inertia or a lack of will. Reminds you of Pompeii, doesn’t it? I read about this village that was going to be submerged to create a dam, I can't remember where it was... They didn't just move the population, they took the whole village apart, every single house, and built it again someplace else. The houses were the same, arranged in the same order, and the streets ran in the same directions. But the villagers couldn’t get used to the transposition… Isn't it because, space is more than the objects we fill it with? We identify a home by the intensity of the light and the smell of the air, the outline of the landscape, lines that might be flat or jagged… The shape and the shade of green of the trees. The kind of animals roaming about. The sound that the wind makes, and we measure the weather from our memories of it, the strongest wind we’ve ever felt coming up a hill, or the worst day of rain, running home from somewhere. It’s the same for that French town I suppose, it’s a life built over generations, with the bones of their ancestors buried nearby. The genius loci, right?”

“We’ve come a long way from your list of the different kinds of ice,” Sol says.

“Wasn’t that the point?” Edward asks, with a cautious smile. “Taking your mind off the ice?”

They slide to a stop by the side of the rink and lean against the guardrail to catch their breath.

“Until next year, then?”

Sol watches the way Edward’s face falls, allows himself to store that memory for later, selfishly, this proof that Edward still cares.

“Come on then,” he grumbles, and drags him forward on his skates for one last embrace, right here on the ice.

In a few days, in a week or two, he’ll be far from all this, back to working on several neuroimaging projects at a research centre where his contract extends for another year or two. Sol isn’t exactly seeing anyone in Melbourne. It would be more accurate to say that he’s been seeing a number of people, over the years and over the past few weeks. Whatever he needs, whether it’s sex or someone to complain to about work or someone to take along on a trek across the Simpson Desert - he knows where to find it.

The issue being that, when he misses Edward, it’s not the idea of him that he misses, the idea of having someone - of being into someone to the point where other people fade away to some extent - what he lacks is Edward himself, dark coats and half-smiles and all, shyness included, cold hands very much expected, buried in his hair or scrabbling at his back, and as he’s come to realise, it’s a hard thing to replace something that you’ve yet to lose. It would be easier if either of them could summon the balls to cut the ties for good.

In such moments, knowing that Edward is as happy as he’s ever likely to be, working on his maps and his little graphs of the far north in a city that he can call home, dating an Arctic scholar with the kind of blue eyes that would put glaciers to shame, with whom he appears to be deeply infatuated, Sol wishes he were a better person, the kind that could say stop and mean it, or at least state the truth, something along the lines of, I’m not over you, you’re not over me, and any pretence to the contrary is laughable.

“I’m going to… I’m going to say two things,” Edward says, drawing back. “No, you’re going to listen to me this time. Two things and you can go. The first is… I’d love to come and see you. We could go and see one of your deserts. What would that be like?”

Sol resumes his earlier stance, leaning against the barrier as if he didn’t have a care in the world, as if Edward’s words were sailing right past him, and not knocking the breath out of him like so many punches.

“Three, four days in a four-wheeler,” he says, after a moment. “I wouldn’t put you through a journey by foot, not the first time... And it’s fun. Charging at the dunes, you’ll scream until your voice breaks. If it’s one of the lesser routes, there won’t be much traffic…” He allows himself a smile. “It’s some real New Age shit, finding yourself in the wilderness and all that… It’d be a warmer kind of hell than your polar travels. Sunsets so bright they’ll stick to your eyelids for hours. Sky burning up, dunes bleeding red. You’ll hear feral camels outside the tent, if you lie awake at night. The stars are so close you could reach out, snatch them up. We’d build fires, sit around them for hours. And then we’d get back to the tent and fuck until you forget about the cold. At the end of the crossing we’d stumble into a pub and drink until we can cope with civilisation again... Yeah, if you ever tire of the Arctic, do come down.”

“Yes.” Edward looks down at the ice and smiles. “To all of this.” Raising his head once more, he draws an unsteady breath. “And the second thing... This has got to stop. Yeah? We’ve got to stop.”

“Ah,” Sol says. And after a quiet breath or two, he adds, “Took you long enough.”

He lets Edward kiss him in farewell, though the moment is somewhat ruined when an old woman on the other side of the rail decides to voice her disapproval at the display, with an old-fashioned slur that has Sol laughing against Edward’s lips, holding on fast to his lapels - and with Edward so close to him, to hell with decency -

“What did you tell him?” he asks, or rather demands to know - “... Thomas. What did you tell him, before you got here?”

Timing was never his strong suit. Edward glares at him, as if Sol had betrayed him and Edward was angry about it, though less about the betrayal than about the fact that he didn’t see it coming. It’s a similar look to the one a younger Edward had given him a long time ago, as they stood together behind the boathouse and Sol made fun of his wealthy upbringing. Why do I even bother with you, the dark stare seems to say. Why is it that I keep coming back for more?

“Things about you that I never got to tell you,” Edward says. “Because you’d think I was a sentimental fool. I used the present tense too much... I said I wouldn’t be long. And that I wouldn’t be ambiguous with you.” He bites his lip. “Was I?”

“No,” Sol says, barricaded behind his mocking smile.

It’s not even a lie. Edward did get to the point in the end, even if it took him four hours to get there.

Afterwards he watches as Edward skates off towards the gate, his dark silhouette cutting through the crowded ice rink.

Once Edward is gone, Sol goes for another circuit of the rink, and then another, and another, until the wind whipping his face has blown most of it away, errant thoughts of charging hockey players across the ice, of Cornelius writing to him some weeks back, a message he’d deleted without reading it but that had set his heart racing - of Edward’s absence like a hole inside him where he could probably fit the entire Russian Federation - of Edward’s presence like a live wire an inch away from his outstretched fingers.

So this is how it used to feel, he thinks, listening to the sound of metal repeatedly striking the ice. For as long as I keep this going and I stay on the ice. Like the world has gone silent and cold at last. Like some goddamn peace of mind.