It's been nearly three years since that first endless summer they spent together in Sheffield. Irwin's managed to persuade Dakin to take a break from studying and they're sat on the roof contemplating the summer ahead - Dakin having commandeered the nicest room in the flat precisely because of its easy access to the roof. They talk the evening away as the ashtray between them steadily fills up and the bottle of wine empties. Everything as it should be. Until, that is, there's a lull in the conversation that they both let hang in the air for a little too long, and Irwin - nervous, Dakin belatedly realises - fusses with his glasses before he asks the dreaded question.
"So… what do you think you want to do after you graduate?"
Dakin groans. "Oh, God. Not you too."
"It's all anyone wants to know lately. What my plans are, whether I've got a job lined up yet, et cetera."
In his third year, Dakin quickly learned that being a finalist meant he was suddenly expected to know what to do with the rest of his life. Until then, he'd taken the university experience in his stride, only vaguely aware that each stride had brought him closer to the edge of the precipice he now finds himself staring down. The route hitherto mapped out for him - A-Levels, entrance exams, degree - is nearing uncharted territory, and the way ahead is unclear. It doesn't help that both of his flatmates know exactly what they're doing - Rudge has a job at his dad's firm all lined up, and Scripps hasn't wavered once since he made his mind up aged six that he was going to be a writer. Frankly, he thinks, it isn't fair of either of them - part of him wonders if they're doing it on purpose to make him look bad.
But thankfully when winter gave way to spring, he could simply focus on exams instead. He was thankful for the distraction from graduation and the future and impending life-changing career decisions - and if burying his head in a book didn't work, he found an abundance of sex and alcohol usually did the trick. If Irwin wasn't around to facilitate the former, there were plenty more willing participants, but he kept his promise and didn't fall for any of them - not even the ones he liked enough to sleep with more than once. He assumed things would continue in a similar vein - and maybe that was his mistake, but their arrangement worked, at least for Dakin - and Irwin never said anything to suggest otherwise.
"That's not what I meant. I know you must be sick of being asked those sorts of questions - I was exactly the same at your age. No, what I was getting at was - what do you want to do with regards to… us?"
Dakin shrugs. "More of the same?"
Irwin appears to consider the possibility for a moment. "Yes - or… Look, it's just an idea, but - I'm thinking of quitting the school at the end of the year. Teaching was only ever meant to be a temporary thing, and - I want the time to work on my book."
The book - of course. Irwin's been chipping away at this book for the last three years, and from what he gathers it's a continuation of his undergraduate research - not that he's allowed to read more than the occasional extract. What he has read has been typically witty and incisive - and probably the most fun he's had reading about monasteries (though he may be a touch biased, naturally). His attempts to persuade him to show it to a publisher have, however, been fruitless - Irwin insists it isn't ready, that it needs to be perfect before anyone else can read it.
"Anyway," he continues, "there wouldn't really be any reason for me to stay in Sheffield, so - what do you think about London?"
"You know I'll come visit you wherever," Dakin reassures him with a quick kiss.
"Yes. Or - and again, it's just a thought, but… how would you feel about - maybe - moving in together?"
And there it is - a lifeboat, something to cling to - but something in him stops him from reaching out and taking it.
"Oh. We've never, um - talked about that before..."
"I know. I thought we might talk about it now? But - like I said, just a thought. I don't need an answer right away. I'm just putting it out there."
"Yeah, I think I just - need some time to think about it."
It should be a relief - to know that whatever happens, Tom isn't going anywhere. Since the beginning of the year, all he's wanted has been a little clarity, a little certainty. He knows he should be relieved - wills himself to feel it, even - but all he feels is the trappings of domesticity closing in around him. Next it'll be mortgages and pensions and spending weekends looking at paint samples - and if there's one thing that scares him more than graduating, it's growing up.
He drains what's left in his glass and climbs back in through his bedroom window, leaving Irwin staring out across the skyline.
"Let's just go to the pub, yeah?" Dakin calls out after him. "I said we'd meet the others at nine."
The White Horse is as busy as it ever is on a Friday night - even with exams looming, Oxford's best and brightest come in their droves to drink away their evenings and their troubles. By the time Dakin and Irwin arrive, it's rammed - but Rudge and Scripps, reliable as ever, came early to reserve their usual table.
"Oi - you two - over here!" Rudge barks at them, straining to be heard above the crowd.
Dakin elbows his way through the sea of students, clearing the way for Irwin, who's swallowed his pride for once and is leaning heavily on his walking stick. He knows his crap leg must be really giving him grief if he's using it in public - usually he flat-out refuses to be seen with it unless he's in agony. If the roles were reversed, Dakin thinks to himself, he'd take it everywhere - the stick has infinite (currently untapped) potential as a weapon, particularly in crowded pubs where one's flatmates insist that the best table is right at the back.
Rudge is sat next to his latest conquest, and Scripps next to a mate from the Christian Union whose name Dakin's never bothered to learn.
"Perfect timing," Scripps says with a shit-eating grin. "It's Pete's round."
Rudge rolls his eyes and begrudgingly takes their orders - a beer for Irwin, and for Dakin a rum and Coke (a double, naturally) - as they take their seats next to Christian Union Bloke.
Initially it had taken the rest of the Cutlers' lot a while to get used to Irwin's presence - and vice versa. The first few visits, he'd been scared to even leave the bedroom in case anyone saw him - and Dakin's reminders that everyone would hear them shagging anyway had been less than helpful. These days, though, more often than not he'll come into the kitchen to find Tom - sans glasses, wearing one of Stu's shirts - chatting to Don or Pete over a cup of their horrible instant coffee he only ever pretends to drink. As luck would have it, it turns out the three of them share a common interest - taking the piss out of Stuart Dakin. He lets them too, if only because it's a relief to see them getting along.
Tonight, however, the mood is altogether different. Rudge returns with the drinks and the rest of them make idle small talk while Dakin sits in silence, his earlier conversation with Irwin casting a shadow over the evening no matter how hard he tries to forget or how much he drinks. Usually, it's hell being in public with him, unable to kiss or even touch, but he finds himself feeling grateful for an excuse to put a little distance between them.
Under the table, Irwin's hand brushes his - and on any other night it would feel electric, illicit, a promise of what's to come, but tonight it only irritates him. When he turns to look at him, Irwin asks, barely audibly, if he's alright, the look in his eyes pleading for reassurance - and Dakin knows he really means "are we alright".
He manages a mumbled "I'm fine" and gives his hand a quick squeeze, but he's not even fooling himself anymore - their cramped little booth seems to be getting smaller by the minute and he needs some air (and another drink). He's not usually the claustrophobic type but imagines this must be what it feels like - and he insists on buying the next round, just to get away. Without so much as a look back, he stumbles off to the bar - alone.