Standing shoulder to shoulder at the door, Edward wondered if, in John's mind, they were at the threshold of some sort of den of iniquity.
That couldn't be true, of course, he'd been very open to the idea of meeting Tom. Still, this whole idea gave Edward reason to pause--two parts of his life long kept separate, now suddenly colliding.
John had been terribly quiet, that night Edward had first come out to him and George, his two closest friends. As expected, George had been a whirlwind of encouraging comments and questions. Edward had imagined it would go over well with him (he did have his pair of beloved aunts, after all), but it was a relief to experience it all the same.
"Ed, I can't believe I never suspected, all this time! Just goes to show you can't really stereotype people, I suppose. You're probably the most macho out of the three of us, if it really came down to it. Rugged horseman and all that. God, I hope I've never said anything, you know, inadvertently offensive?"
Edward shook his head, smiling into his beer. "No. No, I don't think you have."
"And here I kept saying," continued George, buzzed and red-cheeked, "that some phenomenal woman would come around and finally make an honest man of our Edward. I was right...just except for it being a bloke. D'you've any pictures of him? You'd snag a handsome one, I'm sure. We should buy another round, to celebrate!"
John had been much more subdued. "I'm happy for you," he said, with a hand on Edward's shoulder, as they had waited for a cab. The glowing red of a neon sign in the pub's window reflected back at them from the puddle at their feet.
"So, you don't think I'm living in sin, or something like that, do you?" he tried his best to make it sound like a jest, but he was sure John could still hear the tension strung through it.
John pursed his lips, a series of inscrutable emotions crossing his face in the blink of an eye. "Edward, you know I..." He was rarely at a loss for words. "The church's stance has...evolved, over time. It's still evolving." Edward had known that this had been a source of controversy and debate in John's own congregation. "More importantly, you're my friend and I want you to be happy, content. I'm in no place to judge you about your own...personal business."
Edward could read between the lines, and he suspected there was some element of "love the sinner, hate the sin" simmering underneath it. Regardless, this was far better than what he had expected from John. He honestly didn't know what he would do if their friendship had ended there and then. Along with George, the three of them had been thick as thieves for the past ten or so years, ever since they had roomed together at university.
On the way home, he couldn't help but think of that one night on the tube, a couple years ago, when he and John had been returning from the cinema. It stuck out in his memory like a pin stuck into a map. Two women sitting across from them began to grow affectionate, giving each other a few pecks on the mouth between a whispered exchange Edward couldn't hear, before one put her arm around her short haired companion and closed her eyes, trying to find sleep in her embrace. The whole display had been quite chaste, compared to some of the things you see on the tube.
"Really, there's a time and a place. Children could see that," John had bristled under his breath. Edward had burned in embarrassment, and in his own shame, but it seemed the two women, thankfully, hadn't heard.
"I think my friend John might be gay," was the first thing he said, when he called Tom that night, after the pub.
"What?" Tom sounded endearingly muddled over the phone. Edward hoped he hadn't woken him from sleep. His boyfriend was nothing short of a workaholic, and deserved any shut-eye he could possibly muster. "What do you-- I thought he was the pastor, the one that you described as 'possibly, mildly homophobic,' quote-unquote. Unless I'm getting him and George mixed up?"
"No, you're not. He took it super well, by the way, George did. Pleased as punch. He wants me to bring you to one of his recitals."
"Ed, love, that's fantastic. I'd like that very much. But what makes you think that? About John?"
"I dunno, it's just," he switched his phone from one hand to the other, lying back on the sofa in his flat. "something I've been thinking, for a while. Like, for example, I don't think we've ever talked about women, just the two of us. Not the way blokes typically do. Only when George is there, you know. He's almost never had a girlfriend, in the time I've known him, and we've always just chalked it up to the religious thing. But, he's not a Catholic priest, for God's sake--it's not like he's not allowed to get married. Or even just get a lay. I just wonder if, growing up as conservatively as he did..." he trailed off.
There had been other things, too.
Tom made a thoughtful noise over the phone. He was a good listener, and Edward knew he was considering the notion carefully. "I mean, I've never met him, obviously, so I can't give my own assessment, so to speak. It could be. I don't think you should say anything though, not directly. I think asking him straight out would probably be the worst thing you could do."
"I'm sure you're right. You know, it might be good if we all went out for coffee or something. The three of us. Just low-key. I could completely be on the wrong track with this, but it might do him some good to see us together...to just see us as, as normal I guess. Either way."
"You're a good friend," Tom had told him, stifling a yawn before telling Edward he loved him and wishing him goodnight. Edward had paced for a while, after the phone line had gone quiet, before finally going to bed.
It wasn't Tom, but his flatmate Will, who answered the door that day, about a month later, when Edward and John had come over for lunch.
"Hey," said Will, "Tom'll just be a second. You know him, fixing his hair or something." Edward had met him a few times before, albeit briefly.
Surprising even himself, he reached up to give Tom's flatmate a quick, friendly hug. "How have you been doing, Will?" He supposed it was his boyfriend's influence, making him more comfortable with these sorts of gestures. "Tom told me a bit about...the whole thing with Neil."
Glancing at John, then back at Edward, Will inclined his head thoughtfully. He took up most of the door frame, all long, gangly limbs and thick tortoise-shell glasses. He dressed a bit like a librarian. Edward supposed he could be considered handsome by the right person, in that overly-sharp, angled kind of way--though he didn't hold a candle to Tom, that was for sure.
"Um, I'm doing alright--it's kind of you to ask. Though, I'd rather not get into it."
He and Tom knew each other from when they both worked at the same museum, and had been flatmates for some temporary stretch of time before Edward and Tom had met. Apparently, Will had just broken up with his fiancee--"an abusive, rat-faced bastard," in Tom's own words--and moved back in with Tom while looking for his own place.
Edward's boyfriend was an infinitely patient man, but it sounded like some of Will's more grating habits that had come out in full force after his nasty break-up, like compulsively over-cleaning the flat, moping about, and becoming short and snappish with Tom, were slowly driving him up the wall. Though, in person, Will didn't seem quite as neurotic as Tom laid him out to be.
"Of course, of course. This is my mate John, by the way. John, this is Will."
John's made a point of offering his hand for a handshake, possibly to avoid an embrace.
"Nice to meet you."
Edward noticed the subtle once-over Will gave him before accepting it, like the sort of dry appraisal one might give to an over-priced piece of art. "Hi."
Tom appeared beside Will's shoulder. "Oh, you're here! Come in."
They all shuffled into the flat's main room. Edward wondered what John thought, if anything, when Tom kissed Edward soundly on the mouth in greeting. He didn't have a chance to witness much of a response, as Tom had wrapped the man in a tight hug right after.
"It's so good to finally meet one of Ed's oldest friends," said Tom, beaming serenely, hands still at John's elbows.
Beyond all possible belief, the lunch was actually going well. It shouldn't have been a surprise--Tom had the sort of charming disposition that could win over anybody.
"So, Edward tells me you've just recently been ordained," said Tom warmly, setting down his cup.
The four of them were sat on two matching sofas, set opposite each other in the small sitting room, a picture-perfect spread of tea and sandwiches on the coffee table. Out of habit, Edward had slung his arm across the back of the seat, hand grazing Tom's far shoulder. Tom's flatmate sat next to John, one leg primly over the other, with a sizable space between them.
Now smattered again with Will's possessions, the flat was an odd mixture of Tom's conservative, traditional-leaning decor, and Will's motley collection of contemporary art. There had been a large book of Robert Mapplethorpe photographs on one side table, that Edward prayed John didn't get the idea to peruse.
"Yes. Yes I have," John beamed.
"How does one go about that?" To his credit, Tom sounded genuinely interested.
"Well, I first I went to university for a degree in theology, where I ment Edward, of course. And then I decided to go to divinity school--that's also called seminary--where you obtain a Master's degree in, well, divinity. And that took some time, because I was also working as a church administrator, which I quite enjoyed because you have to utilize a lot of maths. But after divinity school is when you can actually begin the ordination process..."
On one hand, Edward was genuinely proud of his friend and all that he had accomplished in his career, even if he didn't share John's spiritual zeal, on the other, he had heard this all before, and was slowly dying of boredom. Will didn't look particularly impressed either.
"Was there a plate of biscuits on the kitchen counter?" Edward murmured to Tom, mostly looking for an excuse to stretch his legs.
"Mmh hm. Could you fetch them, actually?"
He lingered in the kitchen a moment, helping himself to a warm, buttery biscuit, and then a second. They seemed to be homemade, and though Edward wasn't surprised Tom would go to the effort, he was touched all the same.
When he returned with the plate in hand, it seemed a terse argument had erupted between John and Will. Fantastic.
"-says man shall not lie with man, doesn't it? Well, doesn't that make you a hypocrite to accept your friend's relationship? To sit here with your tea and ask oh, so how did you two meet?" It seemed he had caught Will mid-sentiment.
"Just because something's written out in the bible," John countered, "doesn't necessarily mean it should be taken for it's most explicit meaning. We don't follow everything that's laid out in scripture..."
"Who decides, then, what gets followed, and what's discarded? You? Sounds rather arbitrary."
"Maybe to someone with out the experience of faith-"
Oh, you shouldn't assume that so fast. I grew up in the church. I was a, a delightful god-fearing boy." Will smiled bitterly. "Sung in the choir and believed every word--until I grew up, and they made it very, very clear that people like me were not invited to the kingdom of heaven." His last few words were laced with particular sarcastic venom.
Things...have changed," said John, weakly. The tips of his ears were red.
"Well, the damage has certainly been done. And not just towards me."
Edward was about to intervene, when Tom beat him to it. "Will, for God's sake. Can't we have one afternoon without you snapping at somebody? John is our guest! I should have asked you to go a fucking film, or something."
His voice was stern enough that it seemed to have taken everyone for a surprise. It was a small wonder that his cup hadn't cracked the moment he set it down. Edward's eyes darted from his lover to his friend, then to the man next to him.
"It's okay," John said finally, "It's fine." He half-turned towards Will, something like dry electricity still crackling through the air, "You're more than entitled to your opinion. And I'm, I'm glad to hear them. What kind of world would it be if we all felt the same about everything?"
The tension in Will's bony shoulders sagged. He took off his glasses, pinching and rubbing the thin bridge of his nose before replacing them. "Thank you. This isn't any kind of excuse but, I just had about the worst month of my entire life. And I've been a little... Yes, let's agree to disagree."
Edward set down the plate he had nearly forgotten he had been holding, a sort of meager peace offering. He wasn't sure if casual conversation could be salvaged again.
Tom pushed the plate towards John, "Please, have a biscuit." The minister complied.
Still standing, Edward groped awkwardly for something to say. This had all been his idea, after all. He glanced to the packed shelf with the turntable on the far wall.
"You know, I've been thinking of getting into record collecting. You've sure got a lot of vinyl here, between the two of you. I'm guessing some of these are yours, Will. Some of them look quite old." He gestured to a couple of crates he couldn't remember having been at the flat previously.
Will nodded. If he was taken aback by this change in course, he did his best not to show it. "Yeah. I've had some of those ten, fifteen years. Longer."
"Do you mind if I-"
"Not at all. Put something on, if you like."
At the front of one crate, Edward spotted a familiar album. He plucked Madonna's True Blue from its place, displaying it for the trio. "John, isn't this what you're always making George and I listen to when we go on our road trips?"
Tom stifled a hysterical sort of laugh. "Really?"
"It's one of her best albums," John replied matter-of-factly. "Probably my favorite."
"I would have taken you more for a Like a Prayer type," said Will wryly.
"Oh, that's quite good, too," John shot back, a hint of a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth.
"She's a tad overrated, if you ask me," Tom interrupted, "Now, Kylie Minogue-"
"Here he goes again." Will rolled his eyes fondly, taking a biscuit from the plate.
Edward let out a small breath of relief. He set a record down on the turn table, carefully setting down the needle.
Before they eventually left, He watched as John dug his business card out of his wallet and held it out for Will. "Just in case ou ever wanted to discuss anything...spiritual."
Will took it with a cautious nod.
"You know, all the funky-looking art in their flat made me think of that one art class we took together, where everything I did was terrible," said Edward, as the two of them stood alone in the lift. "Ages ago. Do you remember that?"
John pursed his lips. "No. Not really."
It had been Christmas Eve, the last the three of them would share together at uni before they graduated, even if that was still months away. Along with John and George he had been watching movies on the second-hand telly in their shared common room for the past few hours, steadily sipping the spiked egg nog they had managed to concoct. They had even managed to find a small decorative pine tree, about knee-height, which sat with a smattering of wrapped gifts on a table in the corner.
George was the first to go to bed, citing his early mass the nest morning--miraculously, the night had passed so far without any of his and john's good-spirited religious debates, the booze probably being an important factor--leaving Edward and John together with the low din of the television and the warmth of the care-worn quilt slung across the sofa.
"You could open one of your gifts you know, George and I did," said John, after a long lull in their conversation. When Edward looked at him, he had an easy, lazy sort of smile on his face. A welcome sight, thought Edward, considering how stressed John had seemed about something lately, probably his heavy course load.
"Yeah, alright." Reluctant to the comfort of the couch, he got up and shuffled over to their tree.
"The one with the nativity print paper--that's from me ."
"Ah, of course." He said dryly, barely hiding his fondness. He brought it back over, shaking it and holding it to his ear for comic effect.
John rolled his eyes, as if he was dealing with a child. "It won't make any noise."
"Just checking." He purposely bumped John's shoulder as he sat back down, pulling his side of the quilt back in the process. Despite the thick socks one of his sister's had sent him (Catherine--practical as usual) his feet were still bloody cold.
Methodically, he divested the gift of its wrapping, revealing a leather bound volume.
"A sketchbook. Well, you could use it for more than sketching. The paper's thick enough for watercolors."
Edward nearly groaned. That semester they had enrolled in a watercolor painting class together, both of them in need of one last arts credit. John, with years of hobbyist painting under his belt, had soon become the instructor's favorite pupil. Edward, meanwhile, had completed assignment after assignment with broad, clumsy strokes, colors bleeding into each other until they became a great muddy mess.
"You did say you wanted to practice more."
"You've got me there," Edward chuckled. He grazed a finger across the soft cover of the sketchbook. "It is very nice."
His friend grinned, scooting slightly closer. "Open it."
On the first page he found a beautiful watercolor rendering of a band of galloping horses in a sunlit field, each swipe of color applied with masterful precision. In the corner, the piece was signed and dated. Happy Christmas, John.
Edward shook his head. "That's amazing. Really. John, I don't know what to say." The wristwatch Edward had bought for him seemed practically impersonal in comparison.
When he glanced up, John's face was close enough to his that he could smell the cloves and cognac from their drinks on his breath. Then John was kissing him.
It took him a solid moment to realize that Edward was not kissing back. He extracted himself, spluttering and wide-eyed, almost as if he hadn't been the one to initiate it.
Edward could feel a lingering, wet slickness across his own lips. John's hand was still at his bicep, and he resisted the urge to shake it off in panic. "I'm really sorry, I don't...I mean I'm not- I don't see you that way, John. You're my friend."
"I think I've had too much egg nog. I'm going to bed." He left without another word.
Edward tried to gently bring it up again the next day, if only to reassure John that nothing had changed in their friendship. John had feigned ignorance, claiming he couldn't remember half of the night, that he didn't know what the hell Edward was on about. Edward had taken a north-bound train at noon, bringing him home in time for Christmas dinner with his family. He tried his best to put the entire incident out of his mind.