It was swelteringly hot in Erhenrang Hall. This was, as Genly understood, very unusual. Enough so that, as his gaze roamed distractedly around the lecture hall-cum-auditorium, the substantial crowd in the audience more resembled a diseased thore-tree, wilting and its needles shedding in ragged clumps, than a body of students eager to start a new academic year. The arrival of fall had seen a rapid onset of dry and frigid winds that stirred up the powdery snow that had already fallen like so much frozen sand. The brief fall season was only a harbinger for the months and months of freezing, wet winter that was one of the hallmarks of Gethen University’s campus. Genly had, rather smartly he thought, armored himself up with several layers of cotton, then fleece, then wool before attempting to brave the trek across the campus to Erhenrang, stamping snow from his boots every few feet. What he hadn’t expected was the midday sunshine beaming through the thick glass skylights of Erhenrang Hall paired with the ambitiously powerful heating system. Add in the stifling throng of hundreds of densely packed bodies and it was like sitting inside a Chabe stove.
Now, pressed between two other students, Genly was struggling to remember how much he still dreaded the coming winter, with its infamously record-breaking snowfalls and biting winds, as another fat drop of sweat rolled down his back. He tugged at his thick woolen collar, trying as discreetly as possible to gain any relief. Up on the makeshift stage before him, the student body president, an outwardly urbane third year called Argaven, was methodically delivering functional but rather forgettable welcome speech. Argaven looked self-assured and dignified standing alone on the stage, but Genly was sure they were sweating just as much as everyone in the audience.
With his collar still pulled away from his skin, Genly squirmed in his hard metal chair, trying to be inconspicuous, but desperately hoping to generate even the barest flow of air through his excessive layers. His succumbing caught the attention of the person squeezed in to his left and they shifted in accomodation.
“Sorry,” murmured Genly, “It’s really warm in here.” If he hadn’t been seated in the front row, supposedly a show of esteem, he would have wrestled off his fleece pullover ages ago, heedless of the disruption it caused.
“It is,” his neighbor said, and Genly thought he detected a note of amusement in their response. He wasn’t sure. When it came to Therem Harth rem ir Estraven—“just Estraven is fine,” they told him—Genly was never sure.
He craned his head to the left with the thought that catching a glimpse of Estraven’s face might help him decide either way. The idea of attempting to joke only to have Estraven frown disapprovingly at him filled Genly with a peculiar rush of anxiety.
While the majority of the packed together students, Genly himself included, were visibly flagging in the heat, Estraven was persevering through, apparently, sheer force of will alone. They had a fine sheen of sweat across their forehead and down the sides of their face, but wore a tranquil expression, their chin ever so slightly turned up so that the beams of sunlight falling in through the window all but glowed off their cheekbones and highlighted the line of their steeply sloping brow. Estraven could have been a perfectly carved ice sculpture, smooth and frozen in place, had Genly not suddenly felt the hot press of their thigh against his as Estraven settled back in their seat. As if sensing Genly’s desire to say something further, Estraven’s dark eyes moved from the stage to look at Genly curiously.
Genly quickly turned back to Argaven, who was still speaking in a measured, plodding rhythm about the spirit of academic achievement, that most noble and sublime pursuit. He hadn’t been able to read anything from Estraven if, indeed, there had been anything for him to read into at all. Faking an itch, he wiped the sweat about to roll off his temple and tried to ignore the feeling of Estraven’s leg against his own.
“—And, on behalf of the student council and Gethen University,” Argaven was saying, “I would like to officially welcome a very honored visitor from Terran State, Genry Ai.”
Genly jolted back to the present, blinking in surprise. There was a polite smattering of applause from the students, although Genly saw a number of them sneaking the opportunity to eagerly fan themselves with flapping hands. His first instinct was to sink lower in his chair, no matter the damage the hard metal would do to his spine, but Estraven nudged him gently with an elbow, prompting him to awkwardly stand and face the crowd. Stiffly, Genly approximated a courteous smile and nodded his head in respectful acknowledgment toward his sudden audience. He wouldn’t normally be so reticentp—he was here for the very purpose of making a strong impression—but he hadn’t expected to be put on the spot. Argaven might have told him ahead of time that they planned to all but parade him before the entire student body, he griped silently.
Argaven continued, “I would also like to thank my vice president, the wonderful Therem Harth rem ir Estraven for all their hard work in inaugurating the student exchange program between Gethen University and Terran State.” Their tone changed then, from steady and practiced to a sort of coy glee, as if they had been waiting an agonizingly long time to share this particular tidbit. “From the very beginning, Estraven was the foremost champion of this...enlightening cultural exchange, no doubt as part of their dedication to fostering diverse relationships on this campus. Gethen truly has Estraven to thank for near single-handedly seeing to fruition the ambitious endeavor of bringing new minds to study at Gethen University alongside our very own students.”
Genly’s eyebrows raised involuntarily. That was the most ringing endorsement he had ever heard Argaven give about anything. Genly expected any number of reactions from Estraven: contented pride, demure humility, maybe even a genuine smile, something Genly had yet to glimpse. What he hadn’t expected was for the student council vice president to suddenly go rigid beside him, becoming the statue of ice Genly had unconsciously compared them to. Genly looked to see what was wrong and what he saw confused him. He had only known Estraven for a fortnight, yet they were the most even-keeled person he had ever met. He hadn’t ever seen them break out into a grin, but he had also never seen them properly scowl.
Now, sitting leg to leg with them, Genly saw Estraven’s eyes widen and their jaw clench. It was an expression of profound dismay and Genly couldn’t for the life of him understand what had prompted it. Did Estraven disagree with Argaven? A selfish thought occurred to Genly. Was Estraven secretly upset that Genly was here as a part of their program? His palms felt sweaty and he ran them over the fabric of his pants. Estraven stared determinedly forward as Argaven kept speaking.
“I’m looking forward to being on this journey of learning alongside all of you.” Argaven smiled beatifically. “Have an excellent Year One, everyone.”
Afterward, Genly was standing before a rickety folding table lined with paper cups of hot orsh, his fleece sweater stripped off the moment he could do so without drawing attention or accidentally smacking Estraven with a flailing arm. In one hand, he clutched a program brochure, vigorously fanning himself with it, and in the other he held a cup of orsh, wishing there had been an iced option. Estraven had been distracted since the speech had ended, though their expression had returned to its usual collected poise. Without thinking, Genly fetched another cup of orsh and pressed it into Estraven’s hands.
Estraven blinked. “Ah, thank you.”
“That—Argaven really had a lot to say about the student exchange program, didn’t they?” Genly said casually. Internally, he groaned. What kind of lead in was that? “I really have to make the Dean’s list now,” he added, covering up his awkwardness by taking a mouthful of orsh, his other hand still waving the brochure.
Estraven looked at him over the rim of their own still steaming paper cup. “Well, they certainly gave me...all the credit for overseeing it, which is unexpected to say the least. It really is way too hot for this,” they said suddenly.
“Sorry, you don’t have to—”
Estraven leaned in toward Genly, bringing their faces less than a foot apart, close enough that the slight breeze from Genly’s flapping brochure wafted over them both.
Their eyes slid closed briefly. “Oh, that’s nice. I was melting there.”
Genly couldn’t think of a single thing to say.
Sloshing orsh from his cup, Genly turned to see empty air. He dropped his gaze six inches and found Pemmer Harge rem ir Tibe’s decidedly sharp grin bearing down (up?) on him. The brochure fan stilled in his hand.
“Tibe,” Estraven said mildly, drawing back away from Genly at what Genly was sure was a reasonable pace, definitely.
“Good to see you, Estraven, and good to see you’re keeping Genry close.” Tibe’s smile didn’t slip an inch. “Although, it makes sense after hearing how invested you were in having someone from Terran State come here to Gethen.”
The landmark nature of Genly’s transfer to Gethen University had provoked a not altogether unsurprisingly number negative reactions in people from both schools. Mostly from staff who were set in their ways and administrators that had a vested interest in upholding their school’s curated public image rather than from any students. Genly had navigated those choppy waters by merit of being obstinate enough to ignore the more toxic naysayers and headstrong enough to push forward in spite of them. But, even all of that experience, he had never encountered someone so obviously opposed to Genly’s presence, yet entirely unwilling to let things proceed without their direct involvement as Tibe. This manifested as an apparent compulsion to make Genly’s time at Gethen as difficult as it could possibly be. Genly didn’t really know why they bothered.
A week ago, Genly had made the mistake of asking Tibe where the student union island was, only to find himself, an hour later, pacing the circumference of the entire campus in the freezing cold, squinting at the cramped handwriting on the map Tibe had insisted on drawing for him, no closer to finding his destination. When Genly had mentioned to Estraven how lost he had gotten, they had looked surprised then pointed to where the sloped roof of the student union was clearly visible from their common room window.
In the present, Estraven responded to Tibe with a bland smile of their own. “Terran State reached out and I thought it was a unique opportunity. I couldn’t have done it without the support of the University,” they added pointedly.
“Of course.” Tibe’s eyes gleamed. “And, thank Meshe you got into the Karhide Hall dorms, Genry.”
“You don’t even know how lucky you got dodging Orgoreyn Hall,” Tibe barreled on, “They’re all econ and business majors over there, horrible. You’re far too open minded to throw in that lot, I can tell that much.”
Feeling very much thrown off, Genly muttered a politely noncommittal acceptance of Tibe’s compliment. He didn’t bother telling them his dorm placement had been by complete chance.
“Anyway, I really should get going,” Tibe pronounced, “I’d ask you both to get lunch with me, but I’m meeting with Argaven. Some student council thing they wanted to talk with me about.” They continued, looking slyly at Estraven, “I’m sure you’ve already had a meeting about it, I’m just catching up.” They turned on a heel, waving to someone across the room, Genly couldn’t tell if it was Argaven or not. “Take care now!” And they were gone.
Estraven took a long sip of orsh, seemingly in no rush to fill the hole in conversation Tibe had left behind, despite the silence growing increasingly fraught with each second.
“Sounds like something really important,” Genly ventured, watching for Estraven’s reaction. He may have been out of his element but he wasn’t an idiot. Estraven relationship with Tibe was about as amiable as Genly’s, except they had known Tibe for years not weeks.
“I wouldn’t know,” said Estraven and abruptly set their cup down on a table, the paper bending and caving slightly with the force. “I haven’t met with Argaven.”
Genly mentally winced. He had no desire to blunder into the internal dramas of Gethen University’s student council. He really just wanted to be a student in good standing, to prove the student exchange program was worth continuing.
“Do you want to get lunch with me?” Estraven asked, their dark eyes still not revealing what truly lay behind that composed demeanor. “At the Corner Red? I think I may have some things to to tell you about.”
A beam of sun broke from behind a cloud, illuminating where the two of them stood with a wash of yellow light and Genly found he couldn’t refuse. “Sure,” he said. It seemed Gethen University wasn’t going to allow him to get away that easy.