It wouldn't have been so bad, really, if it had just been Dakin with Scripps at the pub that night. Scripps had long experience dealing with Dakin's notions, and anyway, Scripps was the only one of the Sheffield lads that Dakin really bothered keeping up with at Oxford. Whatever scrap they got into, Scripps could at least rest assured that the tale of it likely wouldn't make its way back home unless he was the one telling it.
But he'd let himself forget Dakin's love of an audience, damn him, and of course, of course Dakin had to wait for one of the highly infrequent Cutlers' mini-reunions to spring it on him. Thank God the Cambridge lads weren't around; if Timms had been there, Scripps never would have lived it down.
"Right," Dakin said, draining his drink. His voice had an ominous ring of decisiveness about it. Scripps had learned to be very wary of that tone. That way madness lay. Also occasionally stern talkings-to from the College Proctors, and once, memorably, a phone call at half two in the morning with a chagrined request for bail money. Judging by the expressions on the others' faces, he was not alone in his misgivings. "It's time we finally relieved you of the terrible burden of your virginity."
It took Scripps far longer than it should have to parse that sentence. He groaned, resting his forehead against the pub table, while Posner rolled his eyes and Akthar and Rudge hooted with laughter. "Dakin..."
"You are a month shy of being an Oxford University graduate," Dakin pressed on. "A man of letters. A man of the world. Therefore, you must also become a man."
"I really don't think--"
"No, the trouble is, you think quite a bit too much," Dakin said severely. "You and your sodding journals. No good ever came of overscrupulous attentions to one's diary, Scripps."
"--that manhood is in any way determined by the popping of one's cherry," Scripps continued, talking over him loudly. "I'm doing just fine."
Dakin arched an eyebrow. "You're a ticking time bomb, Scrippsy. It was bad enough when we were still at school, but this is getting ridiculous. Who d'you think is somehow benefiting from this prolonged chastity? Is Christ's continuing goodwill toward man dependent upon unresolved sexual tension these days?"
"It's nothing to do with--"
"I have read the Old Testament, you know. Some of those holy men had wives enough to constitute harems, the randy old foxes. And don't tell me times have changed since, we all know the history of Rome is riddled with fiddling cardinals. Are you claiming you're somehow better than them?"
"We all ought to strive to be better than that," Scripps said, "but that's not the point."
"Saving yourself for marriage, then?" Dakin asked. He regarded Scripps shrewdly, and Scripps's stomach sank a bit. When he so chose, Dakin could be far too perceptive for his own good. "Somehow, I don't think you're the sort."
Even Rudge had stopped laughing, watching the interplay between them as though it were a tennis match, a frown creasing his brow. Scripps's palms felt clammy. "What, to save myself?"
"To marry," Dakin said. "Though you'd be quite the catch, I'm sure."
"Dakin," Akthar said warningly. He pressed his hand to Scripps's elbow, though whether in support or restraint, Scripps couldn't tell.
Dakin ignored him, mouth twisted in a mocking smile that fell on just the wrong side of friendly. "You've got most of the female librarians in the Bodleian half in love with you, not to mention whats-her-name, the ginger two rooms down from you last year, I still see her lurking about whenever you go out. But you've never said one word about any of them."
"Some of us are capable of discretion." Akthar's tone was disparaging, but his dark eyes were concerned. "I know this is hard for you to grasp, Dakin, but not everyone is interested in sharing all the lurid details of our conquests. What's it matter, anyway?"
"I'm just saying, he needn't be so squeamish about the whole thing," Dakin said, leaning back in his booth with a smirk. "Leviticus aside, there's no reason Scripps shouldn't allow himself a bit of fun every now and then. It's not like any of us would judge him for it."
Rudge still hadn't quite caught on, but Posner visibly flinched. Damn. "Just leave it, Stu," Scripps said wearily. "That has nothing to do with it."
"For God's sake, Dakin, he's not queer!" Posner burst out, red-faced. "Just because he doesn't chase after every bit of skirt in Oxford--"
"He fancied me at school," Dakin said, in a perfectly calm and reasonable tone that made Scripps want to hit him in the face. "Not the way you did, Posner, but still. It's not like I couldn't tell."
Posner rolled his eyes so hard it was a wonder he didn't break something. "You think everyone fancies you, that doesn't mean anything."
"Well, they generally do." Dakin smirked again, insufferable bastard. "But that doesn't mean I'm wrong. Am I, Scrippsy?"
"Fuck right off," Scripps said levelly, folding his arms across his chest. "And why are you suddenly so interested in my sex life? Offering to do the job yourself, are you?"
Dakin shrugged with deliberate insouciance. He'd never backed down from a challenge in his life. "Could do, yeah, if you've no other takers. You're one of my best mates, after all. I don't mind lending a helping hand."
Akthar's blunt fingernails were really digging into the soft skin around Scripps's elbow at this point, like he thought Scripps actually might start throwing punches. Stupid of him to worry. Scripps wasn't Lockwood or Rudge, always raring for a fight; nor Crowther, who'd been the biggest of them for a long time and would sometimes feel it necessary to remind you of that fact. The worst Scripps would do was write a scathing critique of you in his journal that night. He'd never been much of a man of action.
"Some mate," Scripps said, knowing that the tips of his ears were probably bright red by this point, glad the pub was too dimly lit for it to show. He shoved his half-empty pint glass across the table away from him, and shook Akthar off. "Leave off, Adil, I'm done for the night."
He stalked out the back door of the pub, letting it slam shut behind him. The night air felt blessedly cool on his flaming cheeks. He leaned back against the rough stone wall and closed his eyes, breathing deeply.
Dakin could just go fuck himself, anyway.
It was about God, sure, but not the way the others seemed to assume. Scripps didn't think of his body as some kind of temple or any of that rot, he wasn't saving himself for anyone or anything in particular, and frankly, he didn't think God gave a toss about whether or not he wanked. That wasn't the point. It was just...a sort of space he had carved out for himself, really. A private vow taken, his own personal sacrament. A way of saying -- look, I know I'm not perfect, I know we're all sinners, but I also know you forgive us all our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us, and this is my way of showing that I'm trying, I really am. He certainly didn't think chastity was somehow more noble than temperance or charity or any of the other seven virtues. But as a teenaged male, he'd figured it would be the hardest one to work toward, so that was the one he'd chosen. It wouldn't count if it wasn't a struggle. It wasn't like he thought he was torturing himself or anything stupid like that, but it gave him something concrete to focus on, to fight against, and that...kept his head clear, in a way. Grounded him, at a time when he'd desperately needed it. It was hard to explain.
And then it just became a habit, like anything can. It wasn't a struggle anymore. Which meant it no longer meant anything to keep to it. Really, the only reason Scripps was still a virgin now was because he just hadn't cared to do anything about it. He sometimes sort of fancied girls. And he fancied boys more. Mostly, though, he didn't much fancy anyone, so what difference did it make?
The really irritating part was that if Dakin had gone about it a different way, Scripps might well have considered taking him up on his offer. It was only sex, after all. It wasn't anything sacred.
He didn't bother opening his eyes. "Leave it, Posner."
Footsteps scuffed against cobblestones, and he could feel Posner settle in beside him, shoulders not quite touching. He was always somehow surprised that he and Posner were of a height. Pos always seemed so much smaller than the rest of them, all skinny legs and knobby elbows and eyes too large for his thin face. He'd finally sprouted up somewhere around their last year at Cutlers', but even now, several years later, he hadn't really filled out his lanky frame.
"Dakin's a twat," Posner said, the righteous indignation still burning. "Even if you were gay, he'd have no right to out you like that, but anyway, we all know you're not, so really he's just a complete twat."
Scripps huffed out a breath, and decided, to hell with it. It wasn't even worth writing down. "I am, though. More or less."
Silence fell heavily between them. Somewhere out on the main street, Scripps could hear someone singing drunkenly. It sounded like the bastard spawn of a sea shanty and Yankee Doodle Dandy. Scripps idly tried to provide the piano accompaniment in his head, but the chord progressions were completely unsalvageable.
"You're having me on," Posner finally said, unsteadily. "Aren't you?"
"Not much point in lying about it, is there?"
A hand suddenly clutched at his wrist, painfully tight. "Would you bloody look at me, Scripps? I'm not having this conversation if you won't even--"
"Why exactly does it need to be a conversation?" Scripps asked. But he did open his eyes. Posner's face was very pale even in the relative darkness of the alleyway, his gaze far too bright. He looked furious -- which was rich, coming from him. They'd all known Posner was queer practically since infant school. He wasn't the one who'd just been...outed.
Scripps really didn't like that terminology. It wasn't as though he'd ever been "in" anything. It just had never seemed important enough to mention.
This was not how he'd wanted Posner to find out, though. Not that he'd ever consciously thought about it, but -- not like this, with Dakin jokingly propositioning him in front of their old school friends. Not with Posner's longstanding unrequited thing for Dakin still hanging between them. That had been rather cruel of Dakin, if unintentionally so. Damn it all to hell.
"Is this the reason for that stupid vow of chastity, or whatever it is?" Posner demanded, voice high and thin. "Because you think it's a sin?"
It took Scripps's brain a few moments to catch up, because -- what?
"Christ, Scripps, you've been my best mate since primary school -- is this really what you've always thought of me?"
Oh. Oh. "Oh, for God's sake, Pos," Scripps snapped, exasperated. "Don't be ridiculous. There is absolutely nothing wrong with your shagging men. Or pining after them from afar, or whatever you bloody want to do with them. There's nothing wrong with any of it, or you." He twisted his wrist in Posner's grip until he could clasp his hand. "Come on, Posner, you're the last person I'd expect to think that I'd ever -- exactly what sort of religion d'you think I practice, anyway?"
Posner's eyes are wide and uncertain. "I don't -- it's faith, isn't it, it's not something I'd ask you to be able to quantify--"
"So where did all this come from all of a sudden?"
"Because suddenly you're gay!" Posner half-shouted, still grasping his hand hard. "You're like me -- and apparently you have been all these years, and you've never once said, never so much as hinted -- God, do you know what it would have meant to me, to know I wasn't alone?" He finally seemed to realize that he was still holding on to Scripps, and yanked away, hugging himself tightly instead. "You were my best friend. Sometimes I thought maybe you were my only friend, when the others..." He shook his head angrily. "You could have told me. You know you could have."
Scripps clenched his hands into fists at his sides. "It had nothing to do with you! Not everything is all about you, Posner. Christ, all my life, it's always been about your constant dramas, or Dakin's, or the both of you together -- for once, this is something that's just me, all right, so stop acting so bloody offended!"
"But that's what friends do, Scripps, they share with one another. If your Church hadn't left you so bloody repressed--"
"I am not repressed! But even if I were, it's just 'cause that's me, it's not anything I was somehow brainwashed into."
"Yes, well, sorry for jumping to conclusions, but it's not like the Church has been so terribly welcoming of us deviants," Posner said bitterly. "Though I'll give it this much, at least I know you're already comfortable on your knees."
The silence that followed was very loud indeed.
Posner seemed to regret it at once, clapping a hand over his mouth as he blanched. "Shit. Shit. Scripps, I am so sorry, I didn't mean--"
"I know you didn't." Scripps leaned back against the wall again, staring up at what little he could see of the sky between the rooftops. There were no stars tonight, hidden behind a thick veil of clouds. He abruptly felt very tired, and cold. Hell of a night.
"Scripps?" Posner sounded very small, and almost frightened. "Please, I'm sorry."
"'Owe no man any thing, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law," Scripps said quietly, hands in his pockets. "'And if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. Love worketh no ill to his neighbour: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.'" He met Posner's eyes again, offering him a crooked half-smile. "That's what I choose to believe, anyway. It's really all just poetry in the end."
"Only more important."
"All poetry's important," Scripps said. "Didn't you learn anything from Hector?"
Posner returned his smile. It was tentative still, but it was something.
The next morning was Sunday; Scripps hadn't gotten nearly enough sleep, but he didn't mind dragging himself out of bed for the Eucharist service. The habit was pretty deeply ingrained in him, anyway. The day was still overcast, but warm, and the air smelled of spring. There were worse ways to start the day. At least he hadn't drank enough last night to have a hangover.
He sat in the back of St. Mary's, where no one would pay him much mind. The sermon itself hardly registered -- something out of Acts, he thought later, but couldn't for the life of him remember the passage, or the discussion. He mostly just let the sound of the words wash over him, a steady, peaceful drone, as he stared up at the stained glass windows and thought about poetry, and faith, and the cold, clear air in the alleyway last night.
With distance, he knew Dakin's offer had been well-intentioned, if far askew of any reasonable person's definition of the term. Comfort zones were anathema to Dakin; he couldn't help but push. He didn't mean to be cruel. And it wasn't as if Scripps had somehow lost anything from the outing -- Akthar had already guessed as much; Rudge wouldn't care one way or the other. Posner -- well, they'd work through it. Funny, how Pos hadn't seemed hurt by Dakin's proposition at all; just by Scripps. He hadn't even noticed Dakin's offer as such. That was new. Or maybe it wasn't, maybe he'd been drifting away from his Dakin worship for years now, and Scripps just hadn't noticed, because "Posner is in love with Dakin" was such an established fact in the dynamics of their friendship that he'd never even considered the possibility...
He didn't realize the service had ended until people were filing past him out of the chapel.
Posner was waiting for him just outside in Radcliffe Square, his bike propped up against the fence, and for a moment the memories from Sheffield were so strong they nearly took Scripps's breath away. Posner had always known the schedule of church services better than most of the actual Anglicans in town, and unfailingly found Scripps there -- even after the random weekday services that even Scripps hadn't really planned on attending beforehand. It had been an uncanny talent of his.
They'd stopped meeting up so regularly sometime during their first term at Oxford; it had been at least a year since Posner had last sought him out after church. But he was here now.
Somehow, Scripps wasn't surprised.
"How was the weekly check-in with God?" Posner asked. The heavy weight of his anger from the night before seemed to have lifted, leaving only his usual sardonic humor.
"The usual." Scripps looked him over, considering. "What's up, Pos?"
Posner shrugged. "Nothing much. Only I was on my way to find lunch, and saw that church was letting out, so I thought I might as well see if you'd like to join me."
It might well be true -- Posner's college wasn't far from St. Mary's, and cutting through the square sort of made sense if one was on one's way to the shops on High Street. But something in Posner's studied nonchalance gave the game away. He'd always been a shit liar.
"And anyway," Posner went on, speaking a little too quickly now, "I haven't had much time for poetry lately, what with exams and my thesis and all, but I thought maybe--"
"'And Ruth said, Intreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee,'" Scripps quoted, running his hand along the worn handlebars of Posner's bike. "'For whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God: Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried: the Lord do so to me, and more also, if ought but death part thee and me.'"
Posner had stepped in closer, almost involuntarily; he quirked an eyebrow at Scripps. An uncertain smile played across his lips. "That's...pretty?"
"She's saying that to Naomi, by the way," Scripps said, unable to maintain his gaze. "It's pretty much the most powerful declaration of love in the Bible, and it's between two women. So, I mean, I'm not -- repressed. Not like that. The hellfire and damnation bits some people like to quote, that's not my faith. Because there's also Ruth and Naomi, and David and Jonathan, and -- look, this is ridiculous, I'm not trying to prove anything to you, I'm just saying. You and Dakin seem to think there's some kind of contradiction here, with me, and there's just not. Not the way I see it. All right?" He wiped his sweaty hands on his trousers, letting out a shaky breath. "Christ, it's a lot easier when I can just write it down."
Posner laughed, a short, nervous huff of air. "Yeah, okay," he said. "All right." He took a deep breath, then took another step in, chin raised defiantly, and reached out to tug gently on the belt loop of Scripps's trousers. "Want to get lunch with me?"
You're jealous, aren't you? Dakin had asked him once, what felt like a lifetime ago; No, not of the sex, Scripps had told him them. Just of your being up for it.
Dakin always had been the catalyst for action for all of them, hadn't he?
"Sure," Scripps told Posner, trying on a smile. It felt right, somehow. "I'd like that."
He wasn't sure what was supposed to come next -- but lunch, lunch he could handle. They'd work the rest of it out as they went along.
It took nearly a week for Dakin to ring him, which was entirely unsurprising. "Look, Akthar says I'm meant to apologize," Dakin said, not quite grudgingly. "You knew I didn't mean any harm by it, right?"
That wasn't actually an apology, but Scripps knew it was the best he was likely to get. It was Dakin, after all. "Yeah, of course."
"I was serious, though. I've been thinking, and there's this second-year in my college who'd definitely be up for it -- he's all tall and muscled and what have you, I could put in a good word for you if you'd like--"
Scripps flopped back on his couch, pinching the bridge of his nose, torn between laughing and tossing the phone across the room. "Stu..."
"Or my other offer still stands, so long as you know it'd only be a one-time deal--"
"Oh, my God, that's Dakin, isn't it," Posner said, shoving in beside Scripps on the couch. "You tell that self-important twat that he can just--"
Scripps slapped his hand across Posner's mouth, which Posner of course licked, the shirty bastard; this quickly degenerated into an all-out scuffle for the phone. Scripps had the weight advantage, not to mention years of playing footy against people like Rudge and Lockwood. But Posner was more inclined to fight dirty.
"Sorry, Dakin," Scripps said, "got to go, but seriously, mate, thanks for the offer, but it's really not necessary. Really."
Posner drove his bony elbow into Scripps's ribs and grabbed the phone while Scripps was still wheezing. "So fuck off, Dakin," he said triumphantly, and rang off.
"Ow," Scripps said, rubbing his side. "What the hell, you need to eat more, that was sodding sharp," and Posner just grinned and pushed him back down into the cushions, knowing full well that Scripps would gladly forgive him his trespasses -- oh trespass sweetly urged, give me my sin again.
Except that was Shakespeare, wasn't it, not the Bible -- but just as holy, just as right.