Chapter 1: 1967 - 1975
It was always cold. Ice glazed the windows, double- triple thick, and crept under the front door, flexing shiny black fingers across the floor.
Henrik’s earliest memories were cold. His narrow childhood bed, blankets crackling with starch, waking to the ghost of a fire under the mantle. His father’s knife scraping across his breakfast plate, dissecting dark toast and cold fish, and his mother cradling her coffee til it cooled, drinking it down in one. By the time his memories crystallised she had stopped coming to the table at all.
Ice was freezing the blood in Elizabet Hanssen’s veins. No matter how high her son built the fire, how many blankets he brought, how close he held her. Henrik watched the ice take her, infecting her with its coldness. In his secret, evil thoughts he imagined his father injecting the black water of the fjord into her pale arm, watching it spread through the spidery veins and arteries, coating her from the inside out. His mothers suffering was connected to his father in a way Henrik could not understand, shot through her like magma through the core of a volcano.
Something was haunting the Lövborg house. A spectre that hid behind Elizabet’s eyes and in the dark corners of Anders’ study, piled high with strange medical texts in German and English and Swedish.
Henrik entombed himself in books. He read Dickens in translation at 9, fascinated by the flashes of warmth in the desperate poverty and gloomy morality. The Brontës infected his dreams with bleak moorlands, ghosts, and doomed romances. He lay in the dark, grasping at some distant idea of love and suffering, how they twined together like thorns, that he didn’t fully understand. He tore a painting by Bramwell, a spikey sketch of a dying man, from the back of his mothers copy of Wuthering Heights and hid it folded under his bedpost in shame. Elizabet never opened the book again, and he found the picture years later when he left for boarding school. It ripped as he pulled it from beneath the wooden bedpost and he threw it in the fire.
Once he had worked through his mothers books, Henrik borrowed paperbacks from the school library. The first time he cried since he left his mothers arms was when he read the whole of Eugene Onegin in the original Russian, labouring with a Russian-Swedish dictionary. When he mentioned it at dinner his father looked at him without pride, and told him to focus on science, not literature.
Sometimes Henrik felt that he was immuring himself in a wall of novels; only the tell tale beat of his mothers heart was enough to draw him out. He loved her in a passionate distraction, sitting by her in the garden and sharing no words. The cold wind snatched away their breath and Henrik thought about taking Elizabet’s hand, stroking between her fingers, crushing their fine bones together, never letting go.
When his mother walked into the lake it took Henrik weeks to feel her loss as something real. He sat on the same garden bench, wrapped himself in her blankets, and felt the same cold breeze through the window.
They all hid in their own ways; Henrik in his studies, his books, his dreams of escape, Anders in the strange and secretive medical books in his study, and Elizabet under the sheet ice of the lake, waiting for the spring melt to be pulled out, drowned and monstrous.
‘We have excellent sports facilities - the rugby pitches you drove past on the way in of course, and just to your left is the swimming pool. We’ve sent boys to national and international championships in many sports.’
‘My son is not here for sports, he is here to become a doctor.’
The schoolmaster bowed his head deferentially and Henrik scuffed his feet in a minor rebellion. England so far was less Dickens and more Waugh, an author who he had discarded after one book as ludicrous and shallow.
Ice had chipped off of the heart of Anders Lövborg and into his son. Henrik lay on his hard dormitory bed, listening to then breathing of the other boys around him, and whispered his own name into the darkness. Henrik Lövborg. It twisted on his tongue and made him feel sick.
It was always hot. Sticky drying blood and steaming wounds. The blinding heat of metal against his hip, sweaty hands holding him down. His head aching with tears as Maria held a cloth to the brand on his skin.
Maria called him Tyger— tyger-tyger she said, smiling as if he really had brightened the night. When they first took him into the theatre, before they cut down into him, she squeezed his hand. The last thing he saw before the doors swung closed was the big man, the one who organised everything and put his hands on her, smacking the side of her head.
The light in the theatre burned his eyes and the blades sparkled and switched against each other. He pretended that the pain was just heat, the hottest heat. He turned his head and saw anther boy sleeping on the table beside him. How could anyone sleep through this. Two large, heavy hands, warm and wide, cradled his head, lifted it with such tenderness and slammed it down onto the table and everything went black.
After the third time he was in theatre Maria showed him the parents. His scars were hot, stitches pulling every time he moved, but he peeked through the door anyway. They were different but the same every time. Tall men and women, hand-wringing in expensive suits. They watched as their children were taken away to the theatre. No-one watched the children on the other side, the children who screamed or cried or followed in catatonic silence.
They called him a fighter, some even started calling him Tyger, but it sounded wrong and unsafe in their mouths. They said he was a rare type. Maria taught him to watch and listen, gave him towels and buckets to carry, taught him to learn everything. Make yourself useful she said. He saw how parts of people could be moved into other people, how skin could be sewn up like torn clothes. He saw the squirming beat of little hearts and how two children could turn into one.
The men said strange, important sounding things- your donors name was John A., we have to keep the surname private, patient anonymity, you see—-his name was John B., yes we’ll pass on your letter to the parents—-John C. is healing up nicely. A very successful operation—-John D.—-John F. - all the way back round to A. Even if they were girls. Maria said they called them all John so no-one ever found out where they came from.
He asked Maria if it was bad that so many children died. She said that the dead ones were lucky, that they could do far worse things that kill you. He thought of the men who sometimes came round and leered at him, at the the children, and how she always kept one hand on his shoulder and glared at anyone who came close. Or of the times when she crept through to the room where he slept with the other children, the ones who would be dead soon, who weren’t rare types, and she cried and held him and he saw black and purple marks on her skin and emptiness in her eyes. He thought he understood that some things were worse than being killed.
‘Let me tell you a secret, Tyger. I’m going to have a baby.’
He felt his heart stutter. Babies were the worst. Their little mouths held so many screams and all of their parts could fit on one tray. But Maria was smiling in the vacant, loose way she did when the big man had been giving her drinks and tablets and kisses instead of hitting her. She squeezed him tight and stroked his hair and asked if he would like a brother or a sister.
He found her two weeks later at the bottom of the stairs, bleeding from between her legs. Towels, bucket, blood. It was the same as the theatre except that there were no hot lights. He helped her remember how to walk and they carried on as if the baby had never existed.
You’re up, rare type, we need that heart were the last words the big man ever said to him, slapping him on the chest as he carried clean metal dishes into the theatre. They left that night, slipping out when he was snoring. Maria dragged him by the hand and he kept his eyes closed until she pushed him into a corner and told him to wait here.
The sun had risen again before he crawled out of the dark corner and found himself in a rattling train carriage, surrounded by boxes and suitcases. Someone was shouting at him, and then touching him gently, and then carrying him.
They asked him his name and he said John so that no-one would find out where he came from.
‘I got Oxford and Imperial but father won’t be happy unless I get Cambridge too.’
‘Oh yeah, I know, my parents were both Cambridge, and my brother went to Edinburgh, so I have to get Cambridge. What about you, Henrik?’
Henrik looked up from his book, pulling his mind up from Jules Verne’s ocean floor, surfacing in his seat at the long breakfast table. The boys were all looking at him expectantly, perfectly symmetrical faces inherited from model mothers and tweed jackets from country uncles. He ran his response through his mind quickly, checking for tough syllables that would trip his accent. He was mostly confident in his new accent after so many years in England but he still liked to make sure there would be no mistakes.
‘My father wants me to go home but I got Oxford and Edinburgh, and I’m still hoping for Boston.’
‘Blimey, wish I had the guts for that. Father would kill me if I applied out of Britain, he still calls America the colonies,’ the red haired boy to Henrik’s left said. The conversation changed, flowed, rushing past Henrik’s ears as he ducked his head back down into the seabed of his book.
Henrik made his weekly phone call to his father that evening. He had been putting it off, reading, had even engaged in a brief conversation with some of the boys, but his creeping guilt forced him to the pay phones. The letter had arrived that afternoon, the thick brown envelope with his acceptance papers and a strange looking international postage mark.
The dial tone was reminiscent of funeral knells in his ear.
The silence stretched. It had always been excruciating, his father’s accent, the faint sounds of the house reminded him of his mother, of the phone call he had received that first spring when his father had called to inform him that her body had finally been recovered. He had felt sorry for her. The black embrace of the frozen lake was warmer than her husbands arms.
‘Boston,’ he said it without thinking and his father’s only reaction was a sharp breath in. Henrik could feel the cold air against his own teeth.
‘Very well. Send the financial details to me. I shall be away on a research trip this summer, but I imagine you have other plans.’
Henrik nodded, then remembered to use his voice. They spoke briefly about his studies and touched on Anders’ research without discussing any of the subject matter. When Henrik hung up he imagined he could already feel the warmth of the American sun on his face, and the heavy pile of the Boston snow at his back.
Shoulder — chest — face. John counted the hits, tensing his body at each fistfall. He panted, tasting blood, watching as the other boy pulled away, angry that John wasn’t fighting back.
It was impractical, getting himself beaten up like this, but he had only been cleared by the adolescent mental health department a couple of weeks ago, so self inflicted wounds were out of the question. John watched the other boy storm off, still seething at John’s insults. He would probably be back, giving John more to work with.
He slumped down against the wall of the alley, and pulled his shirt down over his shoulder. A light graze of blood was already beading up from under his skin, the capillaries all split. He watched the red drops gather in his collarbone, there was not quite enough liquid for them to spill over, so they sat on his skin like dew. He was disappointed, had been hoping for a broken arm. He had made all the right moves; the brush up against his future attacker, coy flirting, all dilly boy posing, igniting the boundary between gay panic and homophobic rage that set these young men off. Usually he either got a beating or a shag, either of which was fine with him.
The beatings let him practise his stitching and bone setting and the shags were good for clearing his head, and sometimes earned him a few quid - he took the rough and the tumble and used them both to get closer to his goal.
Manchester, Boston, York, Aberdeen.
All four universities had accepted him, but Boston was the one he needed. It was away from this country, this continent. He had the grades thanks to hours spent in the school library avoiding kickings from boys with homes to avoid. He even had the money thanks to hundreds of pitiful letters sent out to every charity and welfare fund and bleeding heart old biddy with a fortune in the country. It hadn’t been hard really, to make himself sound pathetically fundable. No-one had wanted to adopt the strange scarred boy who told such horrible stories about scalpels and blood and dead children, but they all wanted to be part of his success story. Something to share over afternoon tea, scones and allusions. All he needed now was the plane ticket.
At night, surrounded by the hot breath of the other boys, mostly younger now, in the home, he held his acceptance letter to his chest like a teddy bear. He read it every morning, his eyes gleefully tracing the shape of the name: John Gaskell. He always thought of her then, Doctor Gaskell, touching the scars on his chest with cool gloved fingers and telling him in a soft voice all of the names of the medical equipment. Every other doctor had tried to push him away from the sharp edges and silver but she indulged him until he was finally discharged. He thought of - Her - also, when it was too late to stop his thoughts. Thought of Her holding his hand, telling him to wait here. He saw the shape of her mouth around the word Tyger and hand to force his nails into recent stitches, gouging the skin apart to stop from crying.
Henrik took a deep breath, practising the name once more in his head, trying to push the natural instinct towards his father’s name down. His desk partner had barely looked up at him but he introduced himself anyway.
‘Henrik Hanssen,’ he forced a tight smile.
‘John, uh— Gaskell.’
‘Are you sure?’ he asked lightly, hoping it came out as a gentle joke.
John Gaskell was too focused on the professor to notice Henrik’s awkward teasing.
‘Yeah—‘ he sounded northern, like the scholarship boys from school. They kept to themselves mostly, not ostracised exactly, but not included. He looked different from them though. There was no patched jacket, no second hand dress trousers, no pretence. John was wearing a baggy t-shirt and a fairly unnecessary shirt over the top. His jeans were worn soft as though he had lived and slept in them for years. He was small but held himself with a tough confidence Henrik recognised from Dickensian criminals.
The professor cleared her throat and the chatter of introductions faded away. She began to speak in a twangy accent about the course structure, and Henrik glanced at John once more. He was writing in some kind of made-up short hand, printing initials instead of full medical terms, clearly familiar with them. Henrik picked up his own pencil and began to take notes.
It took John to the end of the lecture to properly look at his new partner, and he immediately cursed his luck at being paired with the softest, weediest looking posh kid he had ever met. The boy - Henrik Hanssen - was tall and long limbed and impossibly pale. His clipped, received pronunciation was completely wrong for that strange, cold name. There was an earnestness in his eyes though, and he was the first non-American John had met. He was definitely more likely to shag than punch, but John ignored that thought and spoke instead, starling Henrik, who had been turning to leave.
‘What building you in?’
Henrik frowned and John sighed and tried again.
‘Dorm. What dorm building do you stay in?’
This time his new partner brightened and John couldn’t help but follow him out of the lecture theatre, annoyingly enchanted by his sudden enthusiasm as he described the red brick building and that apparently reminded him of his school, and where they turned out to both live. The first year rooms were organised alphabetically so they were even on the same floor. When they reached the front door of the building John stopped, suddenly nervous. He didn’t want Henrik to leave, wanted to keep talking, catching the loose ends of the conversation that he already felt were being snatched from him. Henrik intrigued him. The slips of his accent, his dark soft curls.
‘Listen, do you wanna get a drink or something? I don’t really know anyone here and—‘
‘I’d love to.’
‘So why Boston? It’s a long way from Sweden.’
‘That’s why,’ replied Henrik, surprising himself with his own candidness, ‘I wanted to get away from my father, and his house, and his— plans.’
He squinted up at the ceiling of his bedroom, trying to remember through an alcohol haze how they had ended up in here. John had been walking close to him, sheltering from the light rain, but that must have been outside—
‘What were his plans? Inherit the family business? Famous footballer maybe?’ John prodded his side and a flash of heat went through Henrik’s body, ‘you’re a bit skinny, mind.’
Henrik forced a laugh.
‘He wanted me to become a doctor.’
John propped himself up on one elbow and stared down at Henrik.
‘How the hell is this escaping his plans?’ he looked angry and Henrik squirmed a little.
‘It was important to him that I went back to Sweden. He sent me to England to be properly educated but— I came here instead.’
John flopped back down beside him, closer now.
‘Yeah you’re a right rebel, you, going to the wrong prestigious university,’ he snorted, then laughed and rubbed the back of his head on the carpet. Henrik smiled, glad the tension had passed.
‘What about you? Why Boston? Why medicine?’
John sighed quietly, and Henrik recognised the silence of someone practising what to say. When John found his words they were quiet and still hesitant.
‘I wanted to understand things. How people fit together. How—what you can do to them. Boston was just a place to do that. Well— it’s a place away. Away from, you know.’
‘Family?’ Henrik matched John’s soft voice, feeling the importance of the moment.
‘Not family. I didn’t— live with my family. It’s just somewhere new. Somewhere far away from everything.’
John made it to his own bed as the daylight was staring to come in pale spears through the window. He yanked the curtains shut and threw himself onto his bed, trying not to think about how much he had wanted to stay. Henrik had fallen asleep on the floor, his head tilted towards John, and John had watched him sleep for a while, fascinated by the tension as it left his face. He had wanted to sleep there beside Henrik, but he knew how fragile these memories were. Waking up together always ruined it. The darkness and the drink hid him, hid his scars and his desperation to stay, always. He shook himself. This was how he always felt after sex, but he and Henrik hadn’t even touched beyond a bumping of shoulders and a few casual gestures.
Wrapping himself in his sheets, John tried to harden himself, to pack tough scar tissue around his memories of the night. That was only way to keep them safe. He remembered Her without using her name, the face of every boy he’d fumbled around in the dark with was carefully gauzed over with the face of one of he boys who had hit him instead. But Henrik kept cutting through, a clean precise incision. John’s last thought as sleep eased him into unconsciousness was that if he couldn’t protect himself from Henrik he would surely bleed out.
couple of things: henriks school is vaguely rugby but generally unimportant, i’m absolutely making his mother being under the ice all winter up for dramatic effect, and i’m very nearly out of medical metaphors to use so i have no idea how i’m going to describe their emotions next!
Chapter 3: 1986
get it boys
The sky was too big, the mountains too high, the air too sharp in John's lungs. Henrik made sense here - all height and stretched out limbs and icy skin - but John felt as lost in the empty rooms of Henrik's childhood home as he did in the echoing space of Henrik's heart.
John had been swept up in the idea of going home with Henrik and all the intimacy that entailed, that he had overlooked the fact that they would have to actually be in each other's company for days, weeks, without classes and bars and other people to distract them. He had spent the last few weeks of the semester carefully avoiding Henrik, working obsessively. He found that the work was getting easier and easier, and appealed to his impressed professors for further study recommendations that kept him in the library for hours. They collided in drunken nights to down enough cheap vodka mixers that one of them shoved the other a little too gently and they could tumble into bed without having to make any complicated decisions about who had initiated and what they would do in the morning. It was schoolboy stuff to John, all hands and hips, friction doing most of the work. Henrik let him use his mouth sometimes, but made no attempt to reciprocate and was uncomfortable with kissing afterwards, so usually they hid their bodies from themselves under the covers and groped blindly until they fell asleep. John often woke up with bruises on his hips, and he fitted his own fingers to them, delighted. It was only awkward for a few mornings. The remarkable adaptability of the human mind meant that even Henrik got over it after a while.
Sweden though, that would be different. Henrik had made it clear that there was nothing, nowhere, and no-one to see - they had only come here because Henrik's father was out of the country - but John didn't really understand that until he saw the imposing house, visible from miles away due to all the nothingness around it. He often felt small beside Henrik, secretly delighted in it when it meant he could curl up half on top of him, but this place introduced him to a new kind of smallness. He had always been attracted to the deep, romantic, generational sadness in Henrik, had rather liked the way it contrasted with the choppy, messy immediacy of his own pain - but this place made the dimensions within Henrik so vast. He had a history here, one that stretched back beyond John, beyond Henrik himself. There were depths in him that a whole lifetime could not unravel, parts of his psyche drawn from mysterious long-dead relatives, their influence bearing down on him through his father, his grandfather, his distant ancestors. Henrik was attached to this place and that made him unfathomable. John, who had been snatched from whatever place may have shaped him, removed from all but the most inbuilt, un-nurtured hereditary traits, was a shallow stream to Henrik's slow moving glacier.
John found himself cursing the whole nature vs. nurture debate. As he tossed and turned in the guest room Henrik had so cruelly shown him to that first night, too tired from the journey to drink into each other's arms, he tried to decode his own mind, to figure out if he was angry at Henrik for having so much familial history to take for granted, or just angry that he had history without John.
'I want to show you something.'
John looked up from his textbook in surprise. They had been quietly studying on opposite sides of the the room for almost two hours and the silence, laced with the crackling fire and the musty smell of old books, had lulled him into a daze that Henrik's words cut through sharply.
'Uhh-okay,' he set down his book and eased himself to his feet, hopping over on pins and needles legs to the desk where Henrik was sitting. The fact that the house had a library with multiple work stations and endless medical texts had been part of Henrik's reasoning for them heading over there for the three weeks of the spring break. John leaned heavily beside Henrik, wiggling his toes against the stabbing pain of inertia in his soles.
'What is it,' he peered down at the book Henrik was reading, but it appeared to be a meteorological guide rather than a medical book. Henrik suddenly seemed to notice that he was there and grinned up at him, disarming John completely.
'I meant-- I want to take you somewhere not--' Henrik laughed out loud and John tried to scowl but failed. He leaned against the desk and waited for Henrik to stop laughing.
'I want to show you the northern lights,' he finally said, 'I've been looking up the weather conditions we'd need, look, and the radio said it would be clear tomorrow.'
There was a smile in Henrik's voice and a curious keenness in his word choice. He wanted to show John, to take him somewhere. John grinned and nudged him with his hip. Neither of them picked up their textbooks again that day, choosing instead to crack into Henrik's fathers extensive alcohol supplies, spread across three cupboards. They carried their hoard back to the library as it was the only warm room, and spent hours sampling spirits and competing to find the most complicated medical term in the old books.
John won, of course.
He flopped down on the leather sofa after a crowing victory lap of the shelves and pushed his head into Henrik's lap, purring into his hands.
'You grew up with all these books here and I still win,' he smirked.
'I was too busy reading literature,' Henrik replied. He seemed too woozy and warm to be annoyed, but was apparently unwilling to let John mock him too harshly. He scratched at John's hair and bent to kiss his nose.
They fell asleep like that, Henrik stretched between the sofa and a footstool and John curled into his lap.
Great arches of green light vaulted across the sky, and somehow this smallness wasn't so scary.
It was more beautiful than anything John had ever seen, flashes of blue appearing through drawn away curtains of light, occasional streaks of purple that rippled in and out of existence, the stars just visible like specks of dust in sunlight. He was breathless with delight, out of his mind for the first time he could remember, only aware of himself in snatches, when the wind caught his hair or Henrik bumped against him, both unsteady from looking up at the sky.
They were on a hilltop, just the two of them in miles of emptiness, the house behind them with dim lights like a boat on an open sea, and the whole colour palette of the northern lights dancing above them. John liked that name better than the scientific aurora borealis and had cut off Henrik when he tried to explain about particles and charges and atmospheric layers. None of that interested John as much as seeing it, feeling that the green dust paths might flow all the way down to him, connect him to the sky.
It made sense that Henrik came from here, the ice and the deep fjords and the silence, but this finally explained his delicate beauty. John was so caught on the way the country had shaped Henrik that he didn't notice Henrik himself stepping behind him until he was swaddled in two long arms and felt the sharp jut of a chin digging into the back of his head. He leaned back, smug that Henrik had chosen him, from the whole world, to stand here and share this. He tilted his head further back to lean against Henrik's shoulder with eyes wide open.
Henrik quietly closed his bedroom door behind him. He tried not to think about John's hand in his, John's head leaning against his shoulder. John's eyes shining green and blue and golden under the shimmering lights. The air felt heavy around him as he moved forward, towards John. This was different. They were sober, painfully in focus, every movement jerking a reactive motion out of the other - Henrik's step driving John backwards, John's shrugging off his coat making Henrik pull his own tighter around him. It was unbearable, and Henrik was fundamentally designed to hide from uncomfortable situations, so he moved to the cupboard, his sudden stride making John freeze to the spot, and pulled out a bottle of vodka, the best hiding place he knew.
'Do you want a drink?' he said.
It felt like cowardice and he cursed his own weakness. John seemed to be considering it, chewing on his lip. Henrik itched to tell him to stop, that it would make his lips all chapped and sore, but then John stepped forward into Henrik's space, which was worse, and better. And worse. It was like having a blanket whipped away from you in the middle of the night, like being found first in hide-and-seek, like being packed up halfway through term and shipped off to another school without the chance to say goodbye to your friends, to Maja, to your mothers grave.
They weren't lovers. They weren't friends exactly - there had been too many drunken nights of fumbling around in the dark for that, too many breathless whimpers against throats and sticky, hungover mornings. They were somewhere in between, somewhere uncomfortable and insecure that made Henrik anxious and John edgy.
But when John kissed him, his bitten lips were soft after all.
Henrik liked puzzles. He liked solving things, seeing how things fitted together, working out the cause and effect. He knew that people were different from puzzles, but still generally found it easier to understand that parts of them that resembled puzzles. Experiences that lead to beliefs and opinions, quirks of character absorbed from family and friends, actions and their consequences.
Trauma was the problem. It made people do things for reasons they couldn't understand, compelled them to act in ways that were out of character and unexplainable even to themselves. Henrik understood the general patchwork of John's personality - his pride, his neediness, his lust, his victimhood - but the existence of that unknown trauma sometimes unbalanced it all. At first he thought it was like part of John was missing, but the more he considered it, the more it seemed like something had been hacked off. There was a brutality to John, something that stirred when they set themselves in competition; a bloodthirsty need to be better, to win, to be above everyone else. He let Henrik repay him in bruises and bite marks in the dark. That was the other side of his brutality. The submission, the masochism. It had a worrying edge to it that Henrik knew he should be monitoring, but the hedonistic rush of having John under him, needing something from him, submitting to him, was stronger than his concern.
Sometimes he thought that John might be doing something evil to him, trying to change him, make him crueller. But then they would get drunk and talk about films and poetry and helping people and which pizza place was the best in Boston and everything seemed normal again. That was John's true talent; layering everyday conversations with a thousand meanings and insinuations. Maybe he had done it tonight to get Henrik into bed.
The moonlight flowed like water across John's torso. He had pushed the covers back in his restless sleep and turned his face to the window, letting shadows pool under his eyelashes. He looked like Saint Sebastian lashed to the tree, strange scars snaking around his body, drawing in Henrik's eyes and his fingers. This was the best look he had ever got, usually they were under blankets and behind blackout blinds, and the sight of it brought stinging tears to his eyes. Whatever cruelties John had within him had been left behind when he had been cut open.
The days passed slowly as the country emerged from Winter. Henrik found that reacquainting himself with his childhood home was less painful than he had expected. He took John on long walks, holding hands like teenagers, showed him the lake where his mother had drowned herself, the church where the funeral had taken place. They had taken a taxi out to the house but discovered a set of keys for Henrik's fathers car and stole it to take day trips, shocked at the continued existence of towns and cities and people.
Something was dead in one of the spare rooms and it started to rot as it defrosted, so they had a drinking competition to see who had to remove it. Henrik was half blind when he finally pushed open the door and discovered some kind of seabird that had flown in the window, the glass fallen out of a rotten frame. He tossed it through the empty space where the window had been and they left it exposed on the grass.
John was desperate to get into Henrik's fathers study as soon as he figured out who he was. His curiosity annoyed Henrik, he seemed more caught up in what medical marvels could be in there than he did in the story of why Henrik had changed his name. He wasn't used to sharing John's attention with anyone else.
Every time Henrik passed the study door he thought of the dead bird's brittle, exposed bones.
'Tickets, passport--suitcases by the door,' Henrik was muttering to himself as John lounged on the bed looking irritatingly endeared. They still had a whole day before they had to leave, but they had planned to use it to take a walk back to one of their favourite spots, and hopefully catch the Northern Lights again, so Henrik was stressing about packing up already.
'You look cute when you're on the verge of a mental breakdown,' said John. Henrik glared at him and he blew a kiss.
'My father can't know that we were here.'
John shrugged and reached for his cigarettes. Henrik's eyes flashed in rage.
'Don't you dare light that, you know he'll smell it!'
Silence. The house even stopped it's creaking. He had never yelled at John like that before. Or anyone really. John dropped the cigarettes and cautiously got to his feet, approaching a wild animal, palms open in supplication.
'I'm sorry,' he placed his hands flat on Henrik's chest and craned up to kiss his jaw. Henrik sighed and they melted together.
'John--' his own apology was kissed away, his anger taken inside John, where it was safe to rage itself into nothing. They moved across the room, onto the bed, Henrik undressing John, kissing the long scar at the bottom of his ribs, the shorter, rougher one that slid beneath his waistband, the angular burn that he had tried to find in strange old books of runes and police reports about cults. It always seemed so natural when John did this, folding to his knees easily without lanky limbs to get in the way. Henrik knew pretty much what to do with his mouth, and the whine from somewhere above his head suggested he was doing it quite well. Wrapped up in John's pleasure like that it was almost forgivable that he stopped listening to the houses groans, the wind against the walls, the crunch of gravel on the drive.
The dead birds feathers stirred in the wind, a mimicry of life, like nerves twitching with electricity, like a frozen, drowned body softening in the spring. Anders Lövberg, stinging from the insult of his residency being cut short, stalked the corridors of his own house, knowing his son was there, genetically drawn to him. Henrik, feeling the ancestral tug in his wrists and ankles, looked up from John's body, weak with release, young and scarred and untethered from his own past. He needed to hide that precious sight from his fathers eyes, throwing clothes at John, watching as he struggled wide-eyed back into his underwear, his jeans.
They were both standing when the door opened, Henrik's hand pulling away from John's at the last moment and hanging cold at his side.