“Hey, Kirk, what’s this?” Kevin asks, holding up the thin tome he’s just found in one of the kitchen nook bookcases. It would seem weird for anybody but Kirk Lazarus to have reading material shoved in between the rice cooker and the spare bottle of Cuervo Gold. The movie poster from Satan’s Alley splashed out brightly on the front, a little black box declaring now a major motion picture!
“That, old boy, appears to be some kind of manuscript, although the design of the cover is unfamiliar. Some new printing method perhaps?”
He rolls his eyes, but tries to think of something clever to retort with. He can’t. Shit.
“Perhaps,” he says instead, playing half-heartedly along, somewhat distracted by his discovery. There’s a book for Satan’s Alley? How did he not know there was a book? He’s been pouring over slash fanfic since it came out - well, since it came out, but not since Kirk asked him out on that first maybe-date, that would just be weird. How did he miss the book for it?
“Still, a mystery I must investigate,” he declares from kitchen, where he’s making them both yet another drink. “Don’t you agree?”
Kevin shrugs, even though he knows Kirk can’t see it, and settles back down into one of the stools with both book and bottle. “Not everything’s a mystery that must be solved, Sherlock.”
Kirk smiles at him and holds out his hand, clearing gesturing for it. His knuckles are all busted up from the underground boxing match they’d left just over an hour ago. He’s also got a black eye, and some bruises that are clearly rising under his sweat-drenched t-shirt. It’s making him look rather roguish. Kevin can’t figure out what it is about this man. Everything he does just makes him sexier.
“Hand over the liquor, darling,” he orders drily, “and we’ll see what else we can investigate tonight.”
“Are you coming on to me?” Kevin asks, trying not to just throw himself at the Aussie actor - which is really, really hard not to do, but really, really embarrassing when he does. He lays the book aside, sliding the bottle across the smooth-polished granite, dodging stray ice cubes as he does so. There’s a mess of margarita ingredients everywhere. Kirk likes to do everything from scratch. “Cause that wasn’t a very good line, Kirk.”
“Not my best, I will admit. But you’re giving me so very little to work with,” he replies, and starts measuring out what looks like twice the advisable amount of tequila into the pitcher. “I don’t know why you’re so displeased with me. I won the fight.”
Kevin’s not sure if Kirk’s flirting with him or not.
Kirk is getting geared up to play Sherlock Holmes in some big steampunk blockbluster right now, so it’s hard to tell what’s the actor underneath, and what’s the character he’s pulling on. Evidently, somewhere along the way, Guy Ritchey made the mistake - Kevin feels like he could have warned against this - of giving Kirk complete control of the character of Holmes. So Kirk’s decided that, in additional to being some kind of action hero, Sherlock has some kind of weird, gay, bromance... thing for Watson. He keep saying it’s completely supported by canon, but there’s no fucking way that Kirk’s ever actually read a Sherlock Holmes story.
Or that Jude Law’s going to be okay with this.
Ought to be interesting. Kevin just hopes he gets invited to the set during filming, if only to get some validation that nobody else is quite as good as dealing with these little method-acting mood swings as Kirk says he is. Not that he didn’t get enough of it to thoroughly jade him forever during the Tropic Thunder shoot - not to mention a unique perspective on exactly why Kirk is so good at it. Or why it’s so goddamn irritating sometimes.
Normally, he’d feel bad about thinking that about his old idol. Except Kirk told him one night, when very, very drunk, that that was the first time anybody had ever called him on his shit. It’s what I find so adorable about you, Kevin. He’d taken it as a compliment, although with Kirk, it’s sometimes a little hard to tell what the hell’s going on.
Like right now. Seeing the star of the film he was only sort-of involved with doing a completely insane jive accent in blackface is different, he’s discovering, than watching it from the man who’s inexplicably taken him on three dates, and had sex with him maybe four times. If what happened at Speedman’s forty-third birthday party last week counts as sex. Or if tonight counts as a date. Does it? Kevin’s still not really sure...
Shit, what was he thinking about?
Kirk. English accent. Method acting. Drinking. Flirting. Sexy...
“Are you okay, Kevin?” Kirk asks, and that’s really Kirk. Native, sexy, Aussie Kirk, watching him with calm blue eyes, tinged with just the slightest hint of worry.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea for you to be drinking right after receiving a couple of blows to the head like that...”
It’s Kirk’s turn to roll his eyes. “Not the first time I’ve ever been in a fight, kiddo,” he says, and pours him a glass of freshly made margarita. “You think I’d step into the ring like that if I didn’t know what I was doing?”
“I think Sherlock probably wouldn’t, sure,” he concedes.
“Sherlock’s gone for the night,” Kirk promises, and gets himself a glass that ends up holding at least three times the amount of tequila goodness that Kevin’s. “I feel like mindless violence may be the theme of the evening now, though.”
Kevin smiles ruefully. “You wanna watch your Scorcher Blu-ray, and I can, uhh, bore you with pop culture trivia?”
“Crikey fuck, do I own that piece of shit?” Kevin nods - he did a complete inventory of Kirk’s collection his first time over here, for that Oscars after-party, just for inspiration - and Kirk grins wide. “Poor hapless bastard,” he chuckles, and whisks them both away to the movie den.
Kevin takes some pride that he knows Kirk well enough at this point to know that he means Tugg, not him.
He takes the rest of the margarita pitcher. He also takes the book.
Why does Kirk even have this thing, anyway?
Kirk falls asleep halfway through the movie. Right at the part where it gets exciting, when Tugg’s character is headed into Antarctica to challenge the evil global conglomerate that’s been profiting off the destruction of the planet. Right before all the shooting starts up in earnest.
He looks over at the older actor, sprawled out on his belly, snoring merrily away, and just reaches over him for the book.
Kirk tends to pass out at inopportune times. Apparently even more so when the night’s activities consist of Kevin watching him participating in bare-knuckle boxing and taco-truck tacos after. It’s okay, though, Kevin knows. Kirk will be up in an hour or two, probably demanding role-play sex, with Kevin being Watson. Kevin doesn’t have an issue with any of that.
Besides, Satan’s Alley is one of his favorite films. The one that gave him the courage to start questioning himself a few years ago when it hit the festival circuit. The one whose slash fandom he started poking around in, the first time Kirk kissed him.
No way you’re as hot as that bondage AU, book, he silently dares the thing, and puts the movie on mute.
The streets of Dublin were cold in the falling darkness, gloomy, despite the season. A light drizzle had begun, coating even the lamplight from a hundred shuttered windows in a gray, dreary haze. Father Kurt O’Malley pulled his his hood further up against the weather, a knot growing in his stomach with every soft clop of his horse’s hooves on the dirt streets, growing as he approached nearer and nearer the distant spires of the cathedral, his nervous amplified by he knew not what.
Perhaps it is only the weather, he told himself. This time of the year, Easter past, the time of plantings not yet come, the sun not yet truly emerged from its winter cloak, was a lonely one out on the lonely stretches of Eire’s hinterland coasts, where his own humble parish stood, washed by the storms of gray northern seas.
Most of the people of his district were god-fearing, good, Christian people, but Father O’Malley had long ago accepted that many of his mother’s tribe still practiced the Old Ways, regardless of how hard he toiled to redeem them. And for them, this was the season when he was called to their homes to baptize against the Fair Folk stealing babies from their cradles, for the blessing of lambs in their folds, never failing to remind him that his faith was the alien...
The weather, he thought to himself as he steered his mount - itself a gift from one of his parish, and a comfort on his long journey - across the wide, muddy green in front of the cathedral, turning up a narrow street just beside. Towards the rectory. Where his cardinal would be waiting for him. Away with the gloomy musings. The weather is all that is wrong with you.
He wished he could believe that.
But this feeling, this strange mix of anxiety and fear and anticipation, had been simmering in him since he had received the Cardinal’s summons nearly three weeks ago. Since reading those words on the letter delivered by the courier, the big fat red seal reminding him of everything he had lost in his move to the countryside.
Father O’Malley, we have a task with which to charge you that is of upmost importance to our benefactor, the Baron Athenry. Proceed at your earliest convenience to our seat in Dublin in order to receive our command...
It had been the Cardinal who had served as confessor and mentor to him when he had been but a young man first in the service of the Church. It had been the Cardinal who supported and guided him through the turmoil of his own traitorous emotions. And it had been the Cardinal who had granted him his plea for his quiet, solitary posting of the past eight years. Father O’Malley had thought the man quite content to leave him where he was, a distant memory, a forgotten miscalculation.
And now, summoned to Dublin...for some task he knew nothing of...
It filled the mere parish priest with dread.
“The weather,” he told himself firmly, and soldiered on, until he reached the carven oak doors of the rectory, flung open as if in greeting and a hunched, hooded man seated on the first inside step.
Father O’Malley started a bit at the sight of that dark figure there, framed back against the weak, sputtering light of an oil lamp in the little entrance-way. Why, he wasn’t sure. Was this some kind of spirit, he wondered suddenly, a wraith wandered in from the darkness of the hills...
And then the hood was pushed back and a dark, youthful head came up, and that strange feeling reached a crescendo in Father O’Malley.
And suddenly, he knew what it was that awaited him here.
Not a spirit or a wraith or anything of the sort. No. It was a young man, perhaps twenty or twenty-two, dark-haired and pale-skinned, elegant, with glancing, arrogant eyes and a slight curve to his thin lips that all instantly marked him as pure Norman aristocracy. And the priest felt his heart jump ahead in its rhythm at the sight. He was, he...
But those were dangerous thoughts, long ago buried, and he was not willing to let them resurface now. The season, David. You shall be home soon enough, he reminded himself, and you are not as weak as you once were.
So he pushed it aside again,
“Are you Father O’Malley?” the young priest asked, cutting through his thoughts and fixing him with those dark eyes. He sounded almost irritated to be making the inquiry. “Late of Coleraine?”
The priest shook his head, and tried to focus on arrogance he heard in the youth’s voice, rather than the beauty of its sound. “I am west even of there, my parish practically within Ui Neill...”
“The Cardinal has me waiting for you, father,” the young brother continued, interrupting before he could finish his sentence. “He has had me waiting all day.”
It shook Father O’Malley, the accusation there, but then he reminded himself he was back in the realm proper of the feudal lords and such things were not so uncommon or rude as it might have been in his own small village. Civilization he thought wryly to himself, and dismounted, wrapping his reins into his hand, trying to think of what to say in reply to that.
“Father?” the lad asked, that tone approaching impudence.
Patience, he told himself, and nodded back. “I am sorry my late arrival has inconvenienced you so, Brother...”
“Wiliam,” the young man replied, rising to his feet and, retrieving the small oil lamp from its table, bid the priest to follow. “My name is Wiliam, Father.”
It did not escape the older man’s notice that the younger had not asked his own name, but as he did not feel like starting an argument at this late hour, he let it go. “Well, is there a place where I may put my horse for the evening?” he asked instead, ruffling a hand back through his own night-damp blonde locks that, with his pale eyes and heavier bone structure, marked his own blood Gaelic, sure as anything. “I do believe she is as tired as I...”
The young brother set his jaw, as if to some unpleasant task, but held out his hand. “I shall take her to the stables for you, Father. The Cardinal bid you come straight away.”
Father O’Malley nodded again, and passed the reins. “If they can spare her a ration of oats, I would be eternally grateful to the stablemaster.” He shook off his own hood, heavy with the evening damp, and folded his arms up inside the wide sleeves of his robe. “It is a hard road from the north, and longer than I had anticipated.”
“Of course,” he said, curt, and made no move towards the stable, nor indication of any kind of respect.
It was rude, and disrespectful, but the young man had to be a noble of some kind, and likely believed himself entitled to his arrogance. So that cutting little comment, Father O’Malley knew, was likely all he was going to get from the young man that night, so he nodded and thanked him, heard the soft nicker from his horse as he walked away, and made his way into the building, to his old mentor’s chambers.
Unsure of what to expect.
The Cardinal’s chambers were what he remembered them to be - a serene space of warm graystone and flickering candlelight, unadorned and furnished but barely, the remnants of a day’s fire gently licking the remainder of the day’s wood. The room was chilly, but not entirely uncomfortable. So typical of his Cardinal, the sort of priest who like as not wore a hair shirt beneath the rich robes of office. But not a sight of him yet.
“Brother David!” a dark-robed figure called out happily, rising from a chair by the door, arms open to embrace him. “Brother, it has been a long time, has it not?”
“Calum,” he answered somewhat nervously, instantly recognizing his old friend and fellow foundling, another of the lost boys the Cardinal, in his younger days, had taken in from the cold. They had grown up together in this place, and this man had been, in fact, one of the reasons Father O’Malley had left. The intensity of the feelings he’d once had... but it was all long gone, he realized with relief, as none of the old untoward lust washed through him at the other priest’s embrace. “It is good to see you.”
“It has been far too long, my brother. Nearly fifteen years this fall, has it not?”
“Almost sixteen now,” Father O’Malley corrected gently.
“Sixteen years. Without so much as a letter...”
“If I could afford the vellum, I would.”
“Ah yes, I suppose you are living the life of poverty that our Lord has prescribed for us, up there in the wild north,” his old classmate chided gently, and then sobered, a pensive look on his face. “I never did understand why the Cardinal sent you to that place.”
Father O’Malley tried to smile back, tried to cover up his own growing nervousness. He did not for one moment think that Calum did not know why he had been sent here, even though the two of them had never spoken of it. Sixteen years was a long time to be away from the bright lights of civilization, but not long enough for him to have erased that sickness of his soul, and he still could not understand the Cardinal’s lagress in allowing him mere exile. If any hint of what lay in his heart were to escape, even now...
“Why has he called me back?”
“Some task he wishes to assign to you. A brat of a noble, recently taken the Vows, already breaking them hand over fist,” and Father Calum lowered his voice. “There have been rumors of scandal following him all the way from the de Bermingham estates in London. I suspect his family threw him in here to be rid of him, but he is nothing but a...”
“Calum, my son,” an old, familiar voice called, echoing though the chamber. “Is that our David come at last?”
“The Cardinal has been very ill the past few months. I have been attending to him, but the doctors say there is little hope,” Calum whispered to him, and then called back, louder. “Yes, Father, he is here.”
“My son, come here so I may get a better look at you. My eyes are not what they used to be.”
Calum gave him another quick hug, and smiled at him, and slipped from the room.
Alone now, Father O’Malley approached what he had, at first blush, thought only to be a pile of furs on a divan near the hearth, not worthy of note, besides the obvious incongruency with the rest of the space. But there was a man under those furs, one whose face was gaunt and wasted, but whose eyes remained bright, shining in the firelight.
“Father,” he said reverently, and knelt to kiss his hand.
“My son, dear David,” the so-familiar voice said, its excitement spread thick with the sound of long illness. “Come, come. Sit.”
Father O’Malley lowered himself into the chair opposite, trying not to stare, suddenly grieved by how poorly the old Cardinal looked. “Father, it is good to see you again,” he answered honestly.
“As is it you,” the old priest replied with a nod. “But come, come, my son, now is not the time to talk pleasantries. I am afraid I am already up far past my bedtime,” and he smiled.
Father O’Malley smiled back, and nodded. “Certainly, Father. I heard you had a task for me...”
“Indeed,” the old Cardinal said, and laid a hand on his shoulder. “One that you are perfectly suited for. A young priest, whom I wish to entrust to your tutelage.”
“Mine?” he said, unable to keep the surprise from his voice, and his mind began racing. Recalled to Dublin, for such a task? Training a lad? Training him in what? For what? And he felt his heart begin to pound as he remembered the youth from the courtyard, his reaction to him, those old urges. Everything he had endeavored so hard to leave behind, being thrown back into his lap. Surely God would not be this cruel... “Why mine, your grace?”
“I have always held you in highest regard, my dear David,” the Cardinal continued. “And your parish is well-suited to this task. It is one of the furthest we have, on the border of the Gaelic lands themselves, as I understand it. How do those northern lands treat you?”
“It is a hard life,” he answered honestly, and tried to find some reason, some good reason, why he could not accept this task. “One not suited, perhaps, to some young man of the city.”
“He needs to learn humility, how to serve others, why others are worthy of being served,” the Cardinal said gently. “I expect that your parish on the northern coast will teach him that.”
“You wish me to teach him how to humble himself before God,” Father O’Malley nodded,a and then smiled. “And how to clean up his own horse’s shit.”
“Your wit has not dulled, I see,” his old mentor smiled, and began to chuckle, and then started coughing as the humors seized up in his chest. Father O’Malley dropped to his side, holding his back, pressing a cloth from the little side table to his mouth. When the fit passed, when the Cardinal’s eyes had clouded with tears, that cloth was flecked with blood.
“Father...” the parish priest said helplessly, staring at the cloth.
His old mentor just shook his head and gestured for the cup of water. Father O’Malley placed the cloth down and handed up the cup, desperation rumbling through him at the sight of how sick the Cardinal must be.
He took a few sips, and then handed the cup back, shaking his head. “It is nothing, my son. The doctors with their leeches and potions cannot stay the illness brought on this long winter, but it is no matter.”
“No matter? Father, what about...”
A withered old hand, so weak where before it had always been so strong, touched his head. “My life flows from me to God, like water from a river back to the sea. It is nothing to mourn. I have no regrets.”
Father O’Malley felt his own emotions rise up, and tried to push them back down. He eased up to sit on the edge of the Cardinal’s cushion, troubled. “But Father, surely there are people here who need you...”
“There are good priests here ready to take up the Lord’s work,” the Cardinal replied, pulling his covering up around his chest a little further. “I count you as one of them, David. I have known you were special, ever since I found you in the ruins of your village, the little lad you were. God spared you for a purpose.”
Father O’Malley closed his eyes against those memories, of the Norman raid, of the death that had fallen around him, how his mother had hid him in a basket in a storeroom, how he had stayed there for nearly a day, until this man with his kind eyes had reached out for him and whispered in his own language that he would be alright...
“Father,” he said then, reaching out for the old Cardinal’s hand, squeezing it as hard as he dared, holding on as he said what had to be said, “you cannot give me this task. You know what temptations I’ve had. If I should fail with this lad, if I betray your trust in me... I shall never forgive myself.” The last came out in a whisper, his shame welling to the surface again.
For a moment, the Cardinal was silent, the only sound in the room the crackling of the dying fire in the hearth, and then...
Then the Cardinal began chuckling again.
“Oh, oh my son. Do you not see? That is why I wish you to take this lad. You have overcome so much in your life, conquered your temptations and your desires, put yourself in God’s hands. You will show him to do the same.”
“Look at me, David,” the old priest said firmly then, using the Christian name that he himself had placed on the priest when he was but a lad, and tugged at his hand. “Look at me.”
Father O’Malley, shame rushing through him, only barely pulled his eyes up, and wished, right then, that the floor would open up and swallow him. So great was the love for him he saw in his old mentor’s face...
“You will not disappoint me in this,” he said confidently, so much strength in his failing voice. “I shall pray every day for you, as I have since the time you left us. Do you understand my words, my son? You will not be alone.”
Father O’Malley let his head drop, overcome with far too many things, too many things to put into words. “Father...”
That wizened hand touched his head again. “You will take him back with you tomorrow. This is the word of your Cardinal. Do you accept?”
“Tomorrow?” he asked, startled. “But I have only just arrived. I was looking forward to visiting with you. And since I find you so ill, might I delay a fortnight or so, so we might...”
“Tomorrow,” his old mentor confirmed with a serious smile.
It was that smile that meant the conversation was over, no more discussion on the matter to be had, so Father O’Malley did the only thing he could do in the situation; bowed his head, kissed the Cardinal’s ring, and withdrew from the chamber, heart heavy in chest.There was no escape from the groundswell of emotion in him, no relief, and he felt as if he might come all undone.
The young brother was waiting outside the door with Father Calum when Father O’Malley emerged, back into the twilight of the hall, a shade of fear in his eyes, Caum glaring at him, and the priest realized that this was the one that was meant to go with him.
He only hoped that explained his earlier attitude.
“I have come to show you to your room, Father,” Wiliam said, and he seemed smaller than he had been out in the courtyard. “And Father... did the Cardinal say...”
“We shall leave in the morning,” Father O’Malley said. “I trust you are prepared for the journey.”
The brother didn’t say anything, and the priest did not speak to his new charge again, merely nodded to his old friend, and tried not to think of anything else.
He fell heavily on his bed, fingers fumbling on his belt for his rosary, needing the comfort of those touch-smoothed beads. The priest felt flush with shame, thinking of his impure thoughts about the lad outside, beautiful, with the old Cardinal near on his deathbed, a man who’s trusted him with so great a task...
These thoughts you speak of, David, he heard then, the old Cardinal whispering in his mind, as if he was that same, scared young seminarian again, confessing the deepest of unwanted urges, do you wish to act on them?
Father O’Malley forced himself to calm, to reach for the thick, heavy rosary on his belt, to remember what he’d said then - I want to be what God calls me to be, father - and what the Cardinal had said in reply.
Then pray for His deliverance from these unholy whisperings from Lucifer, and pay them no more heed.
He’d tried then, as he tried at that moment, rosary pressed to his lips in benefaction. Perhaps this was only a test, he realized, a test of his faith and conviction, aft ≤er all the long years in his self-imposed solitude on the northern coast. And he’d grown in those years, grown in both faith and conviction...
He would not make the same mistakes again, give into those thoughts, wonder, ponder, hope...
He would not. He could get through this. God would give him the strength to leave dead things long buried, and things would be as they should be.
Fingering the first bead of the rosary, the Lord’s Prayer on his lips, Father O’Malley slipped to his knees on the cold stone floor.
He still had to say the whole thing twice before his soul was settled enough to sleep.
The next morning, he rose before dawn and went out to one of the hills behind the town, one where the ruins of some old pagan stone circle still stood undisturbed, a place he had come as a younger man, back in the days before he knew what he was to do with his life, when he was still caught between the world he was raised in, and the world his mother had birthed him into.
He wondered that morning, standing on the edge of that circle, if that was the source of his dysfunction. If he was cursed with these thoughts because his parentage had been Gaelic, pagan, because his mother had practiced the Old Ways...
In his heart, Father O’Malley knew that his baptism protected him from her crimes against God, that whatever lay in his heart had come to be through his sins alone, but still he knelt there, morning dew soaking the brown wool of his habit, the grief in his heart unsettling.
In the silence of the morning, Father O’Malley knew the truth; he had been running from this thing too long. Ignoring, instead of confronting, as the Cardinal had once asked him to do.
He had not expected to return to Dublin. Not after the things he had confessed to that man. Never again. And now there he was, having some spoiled brat thrust upon him, interrupting his solitude, ruining the sanctuary of his northern parish.
It was without much joy that the priest joined the rest of the rectory for prayers, his soul unsettled by all that was to come. And a rich meal that left Father O’Malley’s belly grumbling in protest, he went out to the stables to ensure that all was being cared for properly.
But instead of his borrowed, black mare being saddled and readied for him, he found a liveried lad leading out a pair of tall, proud roans in fresh tack.
“Where is my mare?” he asked the lad, more than a little surprised, and just a little bit angry. “Is she not being prepared?”
“That nag? Father, surely we can do better than that.”
He turned at the sound of that voice, booming through the stables, only to be greeted by the sight of a broad-shouldered giant of man, wrapped in velvets and silks, and even from all those paces away, Father O’Malley could smell the perfume.
And he had another of those sudden sinking sensations, deep in his gut.
The priest had already put some thought to this lad he had acquired, what to do with him, what his problems might be. One simple vicar would not be recalled from so far a post, for so mean a task as training a young upstart brother, especially one of noble blood, without damned good reason.
Which was something he was going to have to figure out, the moment he got the lad alone. There was no honesty here in Dublin. Too many politics. Too much corruption. A kingdom of man and man alone. Suddenly nauseated by it all, Father O’Malley wanted nothing more than to leave.
“She is a goodly horse, I am certain,” the priest said, bowing only as far as tradition demanded to the bedecked Norman lord, “but mine came from one of my flock. I had hoped to return her to her owners.”
The nobleman smiled indulgently, as if it was amusing to him to have somebody question his generosity. “Then they will have a better one.”
“You would find, milord, that the Gael is very particular about his horses. Mine would not take kindly to having a different one returned to him,” Father O’Malley replied evenly.
That smile faded. “You refuse my gift?”
“I only wish to keep my promises to the people I minister to,” he replied carefully, honest as he dared.
The priest felt a wave of unvoiced disapproval, and held his breath for a moment, but the noble just brushed past him, away, back towards the stable doors, roaring orders to the lads as he went. Father O’Malley sagged against a stall, eyes shut, a hand tangling back in his long blonde hair, the other searching for the comfort of his rosary. God give me strength, he prayed, and then roused himself to make sure that his mare was properly groomed and tacked.
Half a glass later, after he’d ensured that everything was prepared to his satisfaction, Father O’Malley reemerged into the courtyard to find that nobleman talking to a robed figure in a far corner. The young brother was hunched over a heavy purse in his hands, as if miserable, the nobleman gesticulating wildly at him, and even from his far vantage point, the displeasure was clear to see. Some kinsman, Father O’Malley realized, irrevokably angry at him.
Oh yes, there was more to the story of Wiliam, he knew, than what he’d been told. Some unknown end.
And at that, he suddenly felt like a voyeur, watching a scene unfold that he had no business witnessing. So instead of watching, the priest turned to the stable lad who was chasing after him with freshly loaded saddlebags, and tried to put his mind to the useful task of tracing the route back north.
All too soon, though, the lad in his fine-woven wool robes was striding over, hands jammed into his sleeves, a distinctly angry expression on his face. A groom handed him the reins to his own mount. Sadness was written in that liveried lad’s eyes, and he reached out as if to touch, but Wiliam only smacked him away, snatching the reins away with disdain.
Father O’Malley just watched him, torn between wanting this lad to behave himself, to act with the decorum that his position demanded, and relieved he clearly intended to do exactly the opposite. It was so much better to see him like this. An unrepentant brat. Made it so much easier to not think about him... to not wonder about...
God forgive me my sins...
“So, are we to leave or are we not?” the lad snapped, and Father O’Malley looked up to see him already swung up into the saddle. The stable lad beside him had a smile on his face ,like he was trying to say something, but the find little lordling had all his contempt focused plainly on the priest. “I hear it is quite the distance to this parish of yours.”
“Of ours,” Father O’Malley corrected, determined to do his duty here, even if this lad was not. “And it is about a week’s ride to the north.”
“Fantastic,” the dark-haired lad sneered.
Making it easier, the older priest reminded himself, and just nodded back. “Then let’s away, Brother Wiliam. As soon as you hand over the purse your father has given us for the journey, we shall leave.”
The lad looked a little shaken at that, as if he did not expect that level of perception from some simple country vicar, and Father O’Malley allowed himelf a small smirk of victory as Wiliam struggled to collect his arrogance back around him.
“I would suggest that you not fight me on this,” the older priest said gently, placing a hand on the younger’s mount, holding out his other. “You have been placed in my care, Brother Wiliam. I intend to make good on my end of the arrangement, but I must have your trust.”
“It is not about trust,” he replied instantly.
“Shall we make it about avarice, then?” Father O’Malley shot back, a tad firmer than before. “For I shall not abide one of my priests failing to avoid his vow of chastity, no matter what manner of riches he was born into.”
Wiliam - for the first time since they met - looks uncertain at this, off-balance, as if he was not quite sure what to do with himself in the face of a challenge like that. But at length he nodded, and handed over to Father O’Malley the beautifully crafted little satchel. “You are wrong about that man,” he said. “It is my eldest brother. My father would not deign to set foot on this wretched little island, but makes Richard manage the estates here in his place.”
“And the rest of your family is in London?”
“Then why are you not there?”
Some kind of old grief passed over the lad’s face, right before his expression hardened into scowl. “I will not be spoken to like this by the pastor of some shithole peasant parish!” he snapped, lapsing into a sulk.
Nobility, the priest thought without much enthusiasm, and swung up onto his own mare, hoping his own confusion about the whole sordid situation was not showing on his face.
“Come on then,” he said without even looking over. “We have a long ride yet back to our shithole peasant parish. Best get it underway.”
The noble was watching from some upper-story window as the pair of them left the courtyard, though, and that feeling of nervousness returned with a vengeance to Father O’Malley’s stomach.
He did not point the brother out to the lad. For better or worse, Wiliam was his responsibility now, he knew. And whether or not the lad knew it himself, whatever his life had been before today was now gone. Forever.
Father O’Malley fervently hoped, however, that the same would not be true for him.
Be constant, he reminded himself, and got back to the task of guiding them out of the gray morass of Dublin.
The journey north, back home, was both longer and shorter than Father O’Malley remembered the trip south as being.
The first few days of muddy but maintained roads soon gave way to dreary moorlands, drenched in late autumn fog. The large, ordered Norman towns became small villages of stone, gray as the land around, solitary inns, one last monastery before the sounds of the pounding northern surf signalled the final approach to home.
They talked little on the road, only a few words about necessary things passing between them at first. But the lad began to loosen up, if only a little bit, by the third or fourth day, answering a few question over their frugal supper at the inn, when he looked so miserable at the prospect of thin stew and hard bread that the older priest had to ask.
“Not accustomed to hardship, are you, Brother Wiliam?”
He sighed, ripping his small loaf into small pieces, setting them adrift in the liquid of his bowl. “You did meet my brother. I assume you would know the answer to that.”
“Yes I did... but who was he? We were never properly introduced.”
The young man looked up in surprise, dark hair hanging loose around his brow. “He is the Baron Athenry, Richard di Bermingham, son of the Lord of Bermingham in London, one of the most powerful men in the kingdom. You did not recognize him?”
He simply shrugged in reply. “I have been up in the north a long time.”
“They told me that,” he replied, and his voice sounded brittle as ill-forged steel on a cold day. “I was the youngest of our brood. The sixth to be born, and last, as my life took that of my mother.”
It was the first real emotion the lad had yet shown, the first little chink in the armor, and it could not go unanswered. “I am sorry,” Father O’Malley told him quietly, and reached over to lay his hand atop the young man’s. He could allow himself so much, could he not, to sooth the pain he heard in the lad? “Is that why you chose the priesthood?”
“It is the only place where a younger son can make a name for himself...”
“But there are other reasons?” Father O’Malley urged softly.
Wiliam seemed to harden up then, at those gentle, well-intentioned words, and pushed away from the table. “This is a temporary arrangement between you and I, Father, one set up at the behest of the Cardinal. Do not think that you are to be my confessor or my friend,” he snapped, harsh, and stormed off, up to the room they’d been let for the night.
Father O’Malley watched him go, heart heavy. Oh God, he prayed silently, help me with this task you’ve set before me. And then set about finishing their supper. No point, he knew, in wasting good food.
Still, he was feeling a bit better about having the young priest under his supervision. Lots of prayer, lots of labor, and a good deal of hardship in the coming winter would more than likely set him on the correct path. And more thankfully, it made it easier not to slip into the covers next to him in the bed they shared each night - only one place had the luxury of offering them separate rooms - and not be haunted by those unwelcome thoughts...
Father O’Malley was glad when they set out on the seventh morning to the smell of sea spray in their nostrils in the chill October morning, and was nearly delirious with relief when they rounded the final hill, down into the gentle slope of the valley where hed made his home for these years past.
When Brother Wiliam pulled his horse up at the top of the hill, dead stopped.
“What the hell is that?” he snapped, pointing at the ramshackle little church. “Please tell me that is not your...”
“St. Mathias,” Father O’Malley replied mildly, pulling along side, and couldn’t help but smile a little at the young man’s reaction. “And you are correct. It is not mine, but ours.”
Wiliam just settled deeper into his cowl, anger in his eyes, and the older priest found himself chuckling all the way back down to his front doors.
The parish church had been built before his time, perhaps forty or fifty years before, when the Normans were expanding into this part of the country, and had had grand plans of a great presence than what they currently enjoyed.
It was done in the latest Romanesque style, with vaulted ceilings and pointed windows, and the space of the church was surprisingly bright for how heavy it seemed from the outside. The rest of it was little more than a simple cloister, a single square that opened into a grassy little area where snow piled high in the winters. Kitchen, storeroom, vestibule, chapel and its tabernacle for meditation and prayer, sleeping quarters, the tiny personal library, a small barn for the dairy cow and his chickens and the cat who knew better than to bother anything but the mice... all of the most basic sort, utterly simple.
But it had been perhaps too grand for the sleepy region of sheep-herders and fishermen, and the stained glass had been finished too hastily, some niches left without their saints, the plaster frescoes in the nave undone. The stone had weathered quickly in the storms off the northern seas that the structure overlooked, and the moss had grown thick in places along the shelter of the walls.
It was the way Father O’Malley preferred it, the way he had found it, three months after the death of its former priest, and had only committed himself to the most basic of repairs and upkeep in the near twenty-years since then.
Brother Wiliam, however, seemed horrified by it all, and spoke not a word as Father O’Malley showed him about.
“We shall take the horses to the village in the morning,” the older priest told the younger, after the impromptu tour had concluded and the sun was falling behind the western hills. They were in the kitchen, Wiliam seated at the rough wooden table in the middle of it all, where Father O’Malley usually took his meals, Father O’Malley working on stoking a fire in the kitchen’s large hearth. Normally he left this fire burning day and night, for ease and also for warmth, which would begin to become a problem here in the next few months. “It’s only about a mile walk from where we are now, but it is best done in the daylight. There are a few steep hills where...”
“Why so far?”
The first thing he was going to correct, Father O’Malley decided, was that distressing habit of interrupting his elders. “The village was planned to be closer to the church, and the church closer to the village, but the area around here is poor-suited to farming and the settlers moved west for better soil. This was after they broke ground here, of course, and...”
“Never mind,” the young priest sighed, and looked about. “It is not a very bright space, is it?”
“You may find candles in that cupboard there,” Father O’Malley told him, pointing, and turning back to his little pile of tinder and kindling, working his flint with an expert touch. “In a moment, I shall have this going, and you may light them.”
“No buts, Wiliam,” the priest told his new charge briskly. “You are far from the world of comforts and servants. I would suggest that you accept this, and then make yourself useful.” The fire sprang into life, and he smiled, blowing on it, urging that infant flame higher. “Come on, young man, come get a light.”
He looked back over his shoulder at Wiliam, who was glowering in an almost humorous fashion - Father O’Malley couldn’t say with certainty that he had ever seen anyone glower before - but slid off the bench and came over. The older priest held out the small box of sticks to him, and he took a few gingerly.
“You know how to use one of there?” he asked.
“I am not an incompetent,” the young man snapped back.
Father O’Malley just chuckled, and got back to the task of building that fire up as Brother Wiliam grumbled his way through his search for candles.
Perhaps, he hoped fervently, perhaps this would not be so bad after all.
Until he remembered that he only had the one bed that they would have to share.
The realization, along with Wiliam’ continued surly attitude, put a bit of a dampener on the rest of the evening.
“I have changed my mind about taking the horses back to town after Mass this morning,” he announced as they were finishing their meal of fresh apples and local ale.
Brother Wiliam looked up, a bit of a hopeful expression on his face. “What do you mean?”
“I mean that I shall let Aine...”
“The lass, the one who has been coming by to care for the animals take the beasts back with her instead. You and I have far too much to discuss.”
He opened his mouth to protest, and Father O’Mally reached across the table and put a finger against it, silencing him.
“And the first thing you and I shall discuss, my dear brother, after she milks the cow, are your horrendous manners.”
The young man went all to glowering again. “My manners are fine. I will have you know my father employed the best tutors from France...”
“I have no doubt he did,” Father O’Malley agreed, and went for his ale again. “But there are more important things to learn in life than the latest dances from the French court.”
It would have been almost fun, watching the way Brother Wiliam struggled to keep himself silent after hearing that, except for the priest’s certainty that some old hurt underlay all of this murderously rude behavior.
No matter, he tried to tell himself.
Mass was an unpleasant affair that morning, no solace in the familiar, soothing rituals at all. Father O’Malley could feel the lad’s eyes on him the entire time, watching him, questioning him, judging it all somehow. But the parish was assembled, come in from all corners of the countryside, and he performed his duties to them as best he could, still remembering his Cardinal’s words to him.
You will not be alone in this...
After the simple daily Mass had been sung, he introduced Wiliam to the congregation - our new brother, come to us all the way from Dublin. Father O’Malley was not such a fool, though, as to see all of those smiles and hear all of those greetings as encouraging. It was plain as day that the lad was a Norman, in a region of Eire where near everyone had at least some Gaelic blood in them. His own shared heritage, in fact, had been the whole key to the success of his ministry here; people trusted him, for they saw him as one of them. How they would react to the lad, Father O’Malley hadn’t yet considered.
“I should think we will accept him,” Aine told the priest later, her Gaelic thick and sweet as honey. They were both in the barn, reacquainting her with her family’s horse, Father O’Malley giving her a few coins for the care and feeding of the Dublin mount. She was a young thing, barely fifteen, one of the first babies in this village he had baptized, and she slipped around the huge animals like some kind of sprite. “Norman noble or not.”
“Norman nobility?” he replied to her in kind. "You can see that?"
“It is written, plain as day on his face,” the lass said as she buckled the halter back on her own animal. “You can always tell them from us ordinary folk. They carry their arrogance all the way from France.” And then she blanched a bit. “But I mean no disrespect, Father.”
“We are equal in the eyes of the Lord,” he told her softly, half-chiding.
She just smiled, like he’d said something amusing - as if she knew far too well how absurd such a statement sounded - and offered the Norman horse a handful of oats from her pocket. “Aye, Father, I know.”
He smiled at her and told her to get on about her business, and as the barn doors opened, there was Brother Wiliam. Just watching them. Watching her lead his horse away with a strange expression on his face. He looked so...
Be constant, Father O’Malley ordered himself firmly, and dropped a hand to thumb the smooth-worn beads of the rosary hanging from his belt. God help me...
“So, Father, what was it you wished to speak with me about?”
And suddenly, Father O’Malley found his thoughts racing, his palms sweating. What did he say? What did he say to this lad? How? How could he possibly...
“Have you ever mucked a stall before?” he asked hastily, trying to cover up his own nervousness. The lad’s eyes narrowed, and he just shook his head. “No, I...”
“Lovely,” he said, and handed him the pitchfork from off its hook on the cold stone wall. “Then now is the perfect time to learn. When you’ve finished with that, we have much to do to make sure everything is ready for the coming... Brother Wiliam? Something you wish to say?”
The lad’s jaw clenched and his fingers tightened around the worn handle the priest had given him, but he just shook his head. “No, Father.”
“Good lad,” he said, and retreated to the safety of the small chapel, where he lit a few candles, and dropped to his knees in prayer. To stay like that until Wiliam came and told him he was done, and he sent the lad off with more tasks to accomplish until the next period of prayers, and then on and on through the day, putting it off every time the lad showed back up, and asked him what it was they were to speak of.
And laying in bed much later, listening to the lad snuffle his way down in dreams beside him on the other side of the thin straw pallet, Father O’Malley realized that they never had that conversation.
Not that he knew what to say in the first place.
It was a simple life, one that Father O’Malley had lived in solitary comfort for many a year now, undisturbed and untouched. He longed for his solitude again, every time the lad complained of boredom or of the isolation out here on the northern coasts. Why must it be so far away from everything? or how can you live like this, so alone or shall everything always be this similar he asked near every day, or so it seemed, and Father O’Malley had no answers for him. Never did.
At least, none he wanted to give voice to.
So he sent the lad to pray when he asked, and wandered down to the crashing waves on the cliffs, staring out over the gray roil of the ocean, trying to empty his mind of all the memories, all the old feelings, that merely being around this lad had brought back. The ones that had begun to churn in him again.
It was such an evening for Father O’Malley, one where the darkness brought back all those dark thought, that he found himself out watching the sea, the rough surf falling all to silver under the setting sun, pondering.
He looked up to the sight of Wiliam standing awkwardly a few feet away, his thumbs through his rope belt, clasping at the rough material like it was a lifeline back to shore.
“Yes?” the priest replied carefully.
Wiliam seemed to take as an invitation to sit, and folded his legs under him and braced himself up on his arms behind him. His hood was down, his black hair suddenly shining in the dying rays of the sun, breaking free from the raft of clouds that covered the horizon. He glowed at times, this lad, so beautiful, and Father O’Malley couldn’t stand to look at him.
“May we talk?”
“Certainly,” Father O’Malley replied slowly. There was a flicker of interest and the priest was encouraged to hear it. There was a good man in this arrogant young noble somewhere, a good man he had only seen glimpses of so far, but was beginning to find himself longing into the light. As mad as the very notion was, he was finding himself, more so every day, with every sudden, small flash such as this, needing to meet that beautiful lad underneath...
And the very prospect of that, of that kind of emotion, something that he knew instinctively transcended any obligation to his Cardinal or his Church, was terrifying to him.
From out of the corner of his eye, he saw Wiliam nod. “I, ahh... I know that I must be a burden on your contemplative life,” he began, voice quiet but arrogant still, “and I myself would rather not be here, but here I am nonetheless.”
“Yes...” Where might this be going?
“You are treating me with no respect as to my station or my birth. You...”
And the priest sighed, held up a hand against that. Nobles. “What is your complaint, Brother Wiliam?”
“I...” and the young man faltered, as if he was suddenly unsure of himself. “Why do we not talk? Why do you pay me no heed at all? Why am I here, if you will not so much as acknowledge my presence?”
Father O’Malley thought about that for a moment, gathered himself, tried to find a reason beyond I do not trust myself. “The Cardinal sent you to me to learn humility, Wiliam,” he says softly, letting the words fall into the gathering dusk. “Sent you to this place, this lonely place, to learn to humble yourself before God. And here you speak to me of your birthright.” He snorted a little. Normans. “I suppose you would rather be in Dublin, amongst the finery of your family’s wealth, rather than here in the hinterlands. But that is not the life God lays out for us, no matter what manner of life you were accustomed to seeing priests lead in the capitol.”
“Your Cardinal, in all his wisdom, threw me out of the capitol,” Wiliam sighed then, playing with a rock in his hand, plucked still damp from the new green of the grass. “My father was not pleased with the decision. Nor the fact,” he added, his eyes pulling out over the sea, “that he was not informed as to why.”
“No man’s life is truly his own, and for us, it is perhaps even less so,” Father O’Malley nodded back. He has asked me to look after you, and I do not intend to disappoint him.”
But whatever was opening up between them slammed shut then once again. the wrong thing said, or the wrong nerve touched. “So you choose to not speak to me?” he snapped, accusatory. “Do I disgust you so, Father? Is it that?”
Father O’Malley just looked at him, disappointed in himself that he had not yet found the courage to reach out, to pull the young noble out of his own pride, to learn whatever pain it was that he carried that made him act so, and undo it for him. Perhaps it is just the time of year, he told himself, and pushed up to his feet.
“Come, Wiliam,” he said, offering his hand to the young man.
And Wiliam just nodded, and let himself be pulled up, stumbling forward, falling into the priest. Who caught him, steadied him for a moment, and had to look away as wiry young fingers held fast to his arms.
“Supper is not going to prepare itself,” he offered, half desperate, those evil urges of his rising to the surface, called up to the touch of the hands on his arms as a compass’ point is called to the north. And he let go, quick as he dared, trying to give it no more heed.
However, explaining the young lordling that his superiors had saddled him with was a far more difficult task.
The women of the area, the ones who had converted to Christianity themselves, or who still practiced the Old Ways, had always found it somewhat humorous that he was not allowed to take a lover of his own. But men become so undone without, they’d giggle, when he haltingly tried to explain it to them. That cannot be a good thing to put your body through.
Father O’Malley knew the official explanations, remembered the conversations in his youth about curbing such passions, but he’d never felt anything for a woman, not in body or soul, and he was more than lost on how to explain such things. Especially since his own urges were so unnatural as they were, a sin, and dealt with in an entirely different manner. He’d eventually had to settle for a lame excuse of this is how our priests choose to serve our God, it is our way of committing ourselves to Him, which had, after a few years, been grudgingly accepted.
But despite that, the women seemed to find Wiliam endlessly fascinating, or perhaps an easier target, or something else he did not understand. Wiliam did not speak the local Gaelic dialect, and they spoke only a smattering of his, and the villagers seemed to find something about his refined Dublin accent to be quite appealing and mysterious to them. They would try to flirt with him, catch him after Mass and smile, or try to get his attention on those few occasions when Father O’Malley had to go into town for whatever reason. He was good enough to rebuff their attentions, but it gave Father O’Malley some additional cause for concern.
He’d been trying to figure young Wiliam out himself, after his comment of a fortnight ago, the your Cardinal, in all his wisdom, threw me out jab. The Cardinal was a good and decent man. Surely there was a good reason why he had committed the son of a noble - a young man who, by right and influence, would rise to the higher echelons of the Church someday himself - to such a corner of the world as his. And the priest had feared that perhaps there was some scandal back in Dublin that was to be avoided. A pregnant girl, or some other indecent kind of sexual behavior.
All wild speculation though, Father O’Malley knew, and not befitting. So he kept it inside and thought about it when he could, but the revelation that finally brought the truth to the surface was not of his own make.
It was a few days after their conversation overlooking the sea, on the return from a trip to one of the wind-swept homesteads that marked the green countryside. They had been out ministering to one of the parish, the grandfather of the girl who had cared for the grounds while Father O’Malley had been about his business to Dublin.
The old man was much revered by the people of the parish, and had been one of the first to convert to Christianity when the Church had come here, nearly sixty years before. He had been too weak to come to Mass for the past few days, a worrisome turn of events, and Father O’Malley felt the need to go visit. So he’d roused Wiliam from his idle, sullen contemplation of some old manuscript and taken him along.
Father O’Malley loved this part of his vocation best of all, being able to visit with the families, tell the children a few choice stories from the lives of the saints and the deeds of the angels, listen to the worries of their parents, perhaps share a small meal or a song or two. The old grandfather had been strong and loud and proud as usual, his family boisterous and noisy, but it was clear from his coughing and shaking hands that something was quite wrong. It reminded Father O’Malley quite strongly of his own dear Cardinal, and how the man was dying. But he kept those concerns to himself, and smiled and joked with the family, and administered Communion to the grandfather, and felt Wiliam’ disapproving eyes on him the entire time.
Wiliam still seemed unusually subdued now, on their way home. He hadn’t spoke in hours. His passions normally ran so wild, Father O’Malley had a hard time understanding why he was so quiet now. Was it another of his strange moods? Had he been offended, a lord’s son spending the afternoon in a smoky, low-ceiling farmhouse, interest lost to the Gaelic that had been spoken all the while? It would be time for prayers when they reached the church, but Father O’Malley had the most uncomfortable sensation that Wiliam would derive no benefit from it.
He still had so far to go to reach this young man, and the visit today had reminded him uncomfortably of the Cardinal, and his blessed father’s faith in him.
He had to reach Wiliam somehow. He had to find a way to turn him into that good, humble priest that the Cardinal wished him to be. But he could not do that without the young man’s trust, without some base of friendship.
So he suggested instead a game of chess. “I’ll even open a small cask of the better ale for it,” he told Wiliam. “I think we have both had enough solemnity for one day, would you not agree?”
Wiliam just smiled the first genuine smile the priest had seen on him yet.
Two turns of the hourglass later, and nearly the entire cask of ale, Wiliam had won the first round, Father O’Malley the second, and they had both agreed upon a third to settle the score.
Wiliam looked down in agony as the priest palmed his second rook clean off the board, over to the little graveyard of black pieces growing far faster than his own white. “You’re very good at this,” the young brothe conceded, and pushed back on the chair legs in the tight little library. “It puzzles me. Surely you have no one out here to play with?”
Father O’Malley smiled back. “The Cardinal taught me well, and I had much practice with the other brothers when I was still in seminary.” He reached out for his own cup, settled a little ways away from the graveyard of pieces.
It was good ale, this, a local home brew that the family took much deserved pride in. One of the nicer points of being so far from the Seat in Dublin was that he had the freedom to accept the required tithes in whatever form his parishioners could give. If they occasionally gave ale, or grain, or livestock, well, that was fine. Usually, he tried to give such things away to those who needed them more, but more often than not, he ended up keeping almost his entirely yearly tithe of that one ale for himself. It was something he sometimes felt guilty for, but now that he had somebody to share it with, perhaps it would not be quite so selfish. In fact, it was quite pleasant that evening, a warmth suffusing him from the company and the conversation and the drink. He felt light-headed, happy, as he had not in many a year.
“You did not learn at home?” Wiliam asked, clealry considering his next move a bit more carefully.
“No, no, I... I was raised there in Dublin. In the church.”
Those young eyes turned up to him. “What do you mean?”
“I... I was orphaned very young. The Cardinal found me when he was but a young priest himself, and took me in,” he replied, not mentioning any of the other details - the burning of his village, his mother’s status as a slave to the lord there, his own heritage as a Gael. “I was fortunate. God granted me my life through him.”
“And so you became a priest in turn?”
Wiliam nodded, and looked away again, over to the flicker of the candles in their sconces, the quiet pattering mist of rain beyond the doorway. “Sometimes I wish I had no family,”
he murmured, quiet. “It seems a nice thing to be a man with no expectations upon him, no name to live up to, nobody there to disappoint...”
“Perhaps we merely wish for what we do not have, Wiliam,” the priest replied in kind. “I often wish that I had grown up with my mother still alive.”
The lad pulled his eyes back, and shook his head, looking a little surprised. “No, no, I did not mean I would wish for their deaths. But my father sent me to my brother here, from London, and my brother...”
“He forced you into this life, did he not?” Father O’Malley surmised, a bit more direct that he normally would have been, but it was clear that the lad was in a talking mood and whether his tongue had been loosened by the ale or the sobering reality of the day or what have you, he desperately wanted, right then, to take advantage of it. To make that connection.
“Yes, in a sense,” Wiliam replied, and his fingers strayed towards one of his black pawns. “The youngest of six, I had no prospects for making a career for myself anywhere else. And...” and he stammered to a stop then, still looking down at the board. “And I suppose I did not think it would be such a sacrifice at the time I took the Holy Orders.”
“Oh?” And the priest realized that it would like as not be different for a lordling like this, than it was for commoners such as himself. Even in the Church, the stations of mankind still held much sway. Wiliam had likely thought it would be no hardship on him, and aside from this rather odd forary into the hinterlands
He nodded back, and, taking his cup, finished his ale in one long pull. “Is it a struggle for you, Father? To be out here alone, with... with no-one? No woman to be with?”
Father O’Malley just blinked, wondering if he’d heard that right. Wondering how in all of creation he could answer it. He had felt the urge before, back when he was young, in seminary, when he was living so closely with Calum, when he first started to notice his thoughts turning to men, to that man... “No,” he said. “No, I suppose... I suppose I did not consider it to be such a sacrifice.”
“Many do. Despite the vows.”
“I meant my vows, and I have never had the desire to break them for a woman,” he said firmly. “Although... although I know what a challenge it can be, to resist those temptations that call to you.”
Hard curiosity stole over the young brother’s features, and Father O’Malley was suddenly aware of those piercing hawk-like eyes boring into him. It cut like iron, intense, so at odds with the whining brat he so often saw, and something about it sent a tremor through the priest, the likes of which he had not felt for many a year. He felt as if the young man was casting some kind of fairy spell over him...
“I have felt...I... I know this pain of which you speak,” he began, caught up in it all, and stammered to a stop.
“What do you mean by such a thing?” Wiliam prompted quietly, voice low, practically ordering a continuation of his answer.
The priest, shaken by what had almost left his mouth, took another sip of ale - tasteless now, and bitter - to clear his suddenly dry throat, and tried to think of something to offer, something to say. Some little thing to gloss over it all again, bury it before it could surface. He could think of nothing, nothing at all, but he had to say something, something, anything besides that shame seeking to escape him now...
So he reached out to the miserable youth, covering his hand with his own, feeling it fist up around the ebony chess piece. “Wiliam... you must accept that this is your life, if you are to find any kind of happiness in it.
Wiliam looked at him then, and as if coming to some kind of decision, smiled a sweeter smile than Father O’Malley had seen on him yet. He nodded back, and turned his hand up into the priest’s, fingers gentle against his palm, an unexpected sensation that sent a wave of that old, unwanted lust clean through him. Oh sweet mother Mary...
But the young brother did nothing but hold his hand, not speaking at all. Father O’Malley barely had the reins on his own composure, so he sat there silently for a little while longer, finishing his ale, staring at the bottom of the cup, wishing for some deliverance from this all.
Why do this to me, God? Why this test? Why this? What I done to so displease you? Why can I not receive forgiveness for my sins...
Father O’Malley wished he had the strength to reach out, to breach that wall between them that now seemed higher than before, but he feared himself a coward in that moment, for he could do little but sit by the chessboard, saying nothing.
At length, Wiliam just squeezed his hand before releasing it, and stood, a smile on his lips, but that couldn’t be right, could it? “I suppose I’ll away to bed then, father,” he said. “Will you join me?”
“No,” Father O’Malley found it in himself to say. “No, Wiliam, not right now.”
He stayed there as Wiliam left, the cool night air swirling into the space he vacated, feeling torn for reasons he could not fathom, watching the candles burning down. Fiinally he stirred himself, but instead of going to bed, he made his way, barefoot now over the cold stone, to the small chapel. Lighting a few of the cluster of candles, he bowed his head, asking for forgiveness, asking for deliverance, asking for his desires to be washed away.
But he longed, he realized as he knelt there in the darkness, for a kind word, a kind touch, the comfort of another human being. So long in his solitude, the voluntary chill of hs heart, to be brought so forcefully out of it, to have another human dropped into it all like this, to be reminded of all he had long ago consented to surrender, a need aching in his chest, one he could not comprehend...
Nothing came, none of the relief that normally washed over him at such times, with such requests, and he found himself screaming, roaring it all up at the heavens until finally he collapsed back on the flagstone, head between his hands, mind empty, devoid of any answers at all.
The morning after the chess game, Wiliam roused him from the hard floor of the chapel where he had fallen asleep, and mentioned sheepishly that it was time for morning prayers.
“First time I have heard the word prayers roll off your lips so easily, my son,” Father O’Malley observed as he pulled himself to his feet, the vertabre of his spine cracking in protest. “But come, light the candles and we shall begin.”
Wiliam just smiled and nodded, and while there was something about it that did not quite set right with the priest - the cant of those young shoulders, or the tilt of his mouth. But it was progress, he told himself firmly, and he was not going to smother any spark of that.
Your work with him seems to be paying off now, at least, he thought to himself that afternoon as he retreated to the tiny chapel - needing to beg release from this temptation that tortured him increasingly ever so over the past three weeks. He seems to be doing better.
It was true, the priest felt, as he passed his small brand over the wicks of the tallow candles that filled the small space with flickering light against the failing day outside, staining the glass of the windows all to red. Wiliam had been to show more interest in the affairs of the little parish, however quiet and subdued they were. He smiled at their first baptism together, the babe’s chubby little hand gripping so tight to his fingers the mother had to pry him off, and he even asked about perhaps some Gaelic lessons, so I might not feel so useless when they come ‘round looking for you.
He still balked at certain things, Father O’Malley reflected - he disliked milking the cow and always made a mess when he tried, he was still hesitant about going into the village, no matter how he complained about their isolation, he was not too comfortable with the necessary ministry to those who lay sick, and sometimes he would vanish entirely from the house where they were meant to be working. Father O’Malley could not tell if this was the aversion of a spoiled lordling or the discomfort of a young priest who did not know all the rituals properly and by heart, but it remained the one thing Wiliam did not do willingly. So the priest felt his hope was justified.
And Wiliam was far more friendly, too. Where before, there had only been scowls and scathing remarks, there was gentle agreement and quiet questions about this thing or that. He begged for another chess night, and then another, and before a fortnight was out, Father O’Malley found himself breaking out the board more often than not. He enjoyed those nights, warmed by their conversation about all things, great and small, and although he feared himself, feared becoming too close to the lad, there was an undeniable comfort in the presence of a brother in his life. One he was beginning to accept, and one he might have found some joy in, if not for his own fears.
Father O’Malley shook the brand out, looking around - he had lit far too many, perhaps, but he found the glow of them a balm on his restless heart - and feeling satisfied with it, sank to his knees on the cold stone in front of the small shrine. He crossed himself and fingered the beads of his chunky rosary on his rough belt of sisal rope, seeking to pull it out, to say it, to find some peace in the patterns...
But he could not that evening, and somehow, with the sickness lingering in his soul, he felt it would not be appropriate. So he left his beads where they were, and instead simply whispered his thoughts in the quiet stone space to the Lord.
I know I must be imagining things, Father in Heave, but please, please lift this from me...
It seemed sometimes that Brother Wiliam sat a little too close to him in prayers, stand a little too close to him while preparing a meal or studying some manuscript, slept a little too close to him at night - the priest kept reminding himself that for his own peace of mind, he really ought to have a second bed made, but it seemed an unreasonable waste of money that might go to helping the poor of the parish.
The lad would bump him or brush him or touch him, negligible at first, but over the course of a few mere weeks minor contact became more noticeable, a hand on his arm that stayed a little too long, a cheek on his shoulder, a body rolling against his in the night a bit too easily. And sometimes their conversation strayed back into that strange territory from the first of their chess night, of Wiliam offering little tidbits of his own life, and smiled eagerly at those from Father O’Malley, who never had anything to give that compared to the damask-draped childhood of this young man.
It is all so strange, Father. I feel at time like a shallow-bottomed river fishing boat caught in the wild North Sea waves...
This past month or so had all done nothing to help that old tormenting lust of his, which pounded against the walls of his heart with every touch, every smile, every little Father that sounded sweeter than it ever had before, rolling off his tongue the way it did. and he found himself desperately praying for it to end...
The whole thing was maddening. And Father O’Malley hated the rift forming in him as his guilt and shame and unnatural need tore at him. It was so difficult to hide it, too, the way those innocent little comments and gestures and touches affected him so, and more than once, he found himself flustered, lost for words, while the lad just smiled wider and asked him if something was wrong. Yes, he wanted to scream at him some days, yes, you are the thing that is wrong here. But how could he say such a thing? How could he take his anger out in such a way on the man who was blameless, just to assuage his own guilty conscience? Wiliam was innocent in all of this. Wasn’t he? He had to be, just had to be...
Wiliam has to be innocent, Father, for it is I with the affliction, my affliction alone. I do not know what sin, what trespass against You I have commited to be so cursed, but please, please Father...
But just then, as if God Himself was mocking him, Father O’Malley heard the rustling sounds of approaching robes, and felt his heart fall to his feet.
Father O’Malley tried not to react as he heard the young man’s kneeler hit the floor right next to him, as he eased himself down with a quiet little good afternoon, Father.
“Good afternoon, brother,” he muttered quietly, feeling that desperation rising in him again. Oh, Wiliam was so close, too close. He tried to stay focused on his prayers, on God, on the candles burning silently in front of him, on anything but the proximity, the warmth he could almost feel, even through the heavy weight of his habit. The heat in himself, gathering, pooling...
And then, just when he felt like he couldn’t stand another moment of it, he felt a tug at his belt. His rosary, being pulled away, tugged by Wiliam - had to be, couldn’t be...
He couldn’t breath, could hardly think, his prayer in tatters, echoing back in on itself through the dark space of his mind, Father, please, please, lift this obscene lust from me, as Wiliam’ hand continued on its quest. Soft fingers brushed his hip, and even through his thick garment, he could feel the touch on his body like fire. Closer, around, closer, sneaking around his hip...
Gasping as Wiliam jerked on the beads ever so slightly, firmer, giving no quarter, Father O’Malley pulled himself out of his fugue long enough to slip a hand down, to push the brother’s away. But that only seemed to encourage it, and he sucked air as Wiliam slipped his fingers between his own, the beads caught between their palms, grinding closer.
He could feel himself shaking now, eyes shut, lips only barely holding back another gasp. Father, take this from me... “B-Brother Wiliam, you should not...”
The young man laughed - a beautiful laugh, the priest thought wildly - and touched his cheek with a flat hand, sending another tremor clean through him as his head was pulled around. Wiliam was smiling, that same strange little smile of his that Father O’Malley had been seeing more of lately. He’d thought it smug, but there seemed something within it now, something more vulnerable, perhaps, deeper...
Whatever else it was, though, it was the thing that brought him back to himself, and he unfroze himself enough to shake the young man’s hand loose from his own. To shoot off the floor. To back away. Wiliam was still smiling that smile, and Father O’Malley could hear his own heart hammering a retreat in his ears, his blood flooded with unfamiliar fire, and by all the saints, he wanted it, wanted it more than anything he’d ever felt before...
You cannot, he admonished himself, trying to steady himself. God, give me the strength not to corrupt this young man as I am corrupted.
Wiliam stood, too, graceful and smooth as an otter, and whatever depth of emotion had been in that smile decayed now into a soft tease. “Perhaps we should attend to supper, Father?” he asked, so innocently.
Unable to unstick any words from himself right then, Father O’Malley just nodded back, and turned to leave the small chapel, one last prayer radiating out, sudden and unwanted and not at all what his Lord would want to listen to from him.
Father, just once, please...
He couldn’t ignore the fact that Wiliam had reached out for him first, had touched him first, had had that look on his face... could it have been satisfaction? Why would he need such satisfaction? And it was not as if it had stopped with that. Last night he had woken up with the young man clinging to him, with some hardness in his groin pressed burning to the priest’s own leg. When he’d woken Wiliam up, he had been greeted by a soft hand on his chest and a soft, lustful smile in those dark eyes. As if he wants me, he’d thought when he saw it, or knows I want him...
Despite never before truly understanding the need for self-flagellation, but Father O’Malley was beginning to wonder if that was not the best way to address this problem within himself. He feared his own evil had somehow rubbed off on his young charge, that he had somehow infected him as if with some plague of the heart.
But he soon realized how very wrong he was about it all.
How very, very wrong.
It was a cold day, a torturous week after Wiliam’s unrepentant behavior in the chapel. Aine’s grandfather had taken a turn for the worse. She showed up, soaked from the rain, worried, babbling about how he had taken ill in the night, and could not now be woken.
The priest had given her what assurance he could, gathered the younger priest up from his contemplation of some manuscript, avoiding his hands - he seemed to always touch these days - and headed up through the light rain to the farmhouse to see what comfort he could render.
The old man was in a bad way, Father O’Malley realized from the moment he set foot inside. The family was quiet, gathered around the bed, talking softly. The mother rose and embraced him, her grief weakening her voice as she babbled to him in Gaelic about what the problem was. A fever yesterday, vomiting this morning, so like, so like...
“I understand, I understand,” he soothed, and spoke a word to Wiliam in Latin.
“He is soon to die, then?” the young priest asked in kind.
“Yes, but not yet.”
This was a fever, Father O’Malley knew, that could yet be broken. He was no doctor himself, but the apothecary arts had been a fascination of his back when he was still living in Dublin, and between
Wiliam back to the church for the necessary supplies along with the family’s oldest son, a fine little lad of fifteen, to help him carry it all.
“It is good you have another priest with you now,” the lady of the house told him as they waited for their return, changing the subject from the matter of her children and her husband’s herds, where Father O’Malley had kept it for the last hour or so, trying to keep her mind off . She had her youngest in her lap, holding the child as he slept, her elder daughter playing dolls with the younger, sparing their grandfather a glance every few minutes. They had all calmed down once he’d come. “You were so alone out there. We worried about you.”
“A priest’s life is often a lonely one,” he answered her, and stretched his hands out towards the fire. It felt good - it was a chill, damp day outside. “I am accustomed to it.”
“Aye, but it cannot be good for a man to be so alone, without another to love him,” she replied. “Priest or not.”
Wiliam does not love me, he almost said, but held it back, letting the sudden pain of it burn down inside of him, starved of air. “He’s not here to be my companion, you know. Merely... merely for training.”
“That’s a shame. You could do with a companion, Father,” she said quietly, still rocking her child. “It is not good for a man to be alone like you are. You do so much for the people here. We just want to see you happy.”
There was something in the phrasing of it, he knew, something awkward in the Gaelic that he couldn’t quite catch, some kind of implication. And Father O’Malley meant to ask about it, almost did, but just then, the door to the small home banged open and there was a bedraggled pair of young men with the things he needed to help break the fever - - and he resolved to ask after he had completed this more pressing task first.
But there was something about Wiliam - the way he was looking at the younger lad, perhaps, or the way he was holding himself, how he had a hand on the small of the other’s back as the other struggled with his own grief, how he was smiling...
And a cold realization washed over him.
It was a game to this one. All but a game...
“Father?” Wiliam asked, offering the box they’d fetched, still smiling. “We fetched what you required.
God help me heal this man, he prayed quickly, feeling a surge of anger towards his young charge all of a sudden, fury at him, for treating such a sin with such levity as this, for touching a young man in his parish like that. There was nothing he could feel except for his own anger, his own guilt, his own foolishness, for thinking, even for a moment, that Wiliam had actually wanted him.
You are becoming a weak, old fool, he admonished himself, and took the small oil-skin wrapped crate away from Wiliam. “Thank you,” he said, hearing the ice in his voice. “You can go back to the church now.”
“Go and stay there until I return,” he snapped, hushed but harsh, suddenly exhausted, worn out by his very presence. “If you wish to play games with me and my emotions, I suppose I cannot stop you. But I will not see you doing the same to any of this parish, do you understand? I will not have you attempting to seduce their sons while their fathers claw their way out of that well of death!”
He was aware of the mother’s eyes on him at that moment, no doubt trying to understand what the older priest was hissing to the other in Norman French, or that look of pure horror that had come across WIliam’s features, and Father O’Malley felt his own cheeks growing red as the lad stumbled ungracefully out.
For the rest of the afternoon and well on into evening, through his ministrations and prayers, as the old man’s fever broke and neighbors came over , through the rain and cold of the walk home, all he could feel was his own anger.
An anger that evaporated the moment he step foot in the church, and saw the sight that greeted him upon his return.
Wiliam was sitting in the middle of the floor, right under the weak light of the window-rimmed nave, all hunched in on himself in a pile of miserable-looking brown wool. He was still soaked from the walk outside, water pooling on the gray stone around him. his brown hair was plastered down to his skull, and even from the door, Father O’Malley could see that he was shivering.
Guilt of an entirely new kind clawed at him - had he misjudged, had he been too harsh? - and seeing no other course he might take, swallowed what little pride he had, and strode purposefully up towards Wiliam.
The young man gave no indication that he’s heard, and Father O’Malley took it slow, sitting down next to him, not quite close enough to touch, not quite out of range.
He had no idea what to say. For a long while, neither of them spoke.
But Wiliam ran a hand across his face, seemingly burying himself in his sleeve, and then tore it away again, looking more distraught than the older priest had yet seen him. “The Cardinal did not tell you why he sent me here, did he?” he asked, breaking the silence that had descended upon them, somehow challenging and retreating at once. “Sent me here in my shame...”
Father O’Malley frowned - had his old mentor lied to him about something? He did not think such a thing possible. “No,” he replied, neutral as he could manage. “No, he did not. But Wiliam, I do not think it important for you to...”
“I have never felt the desire to break my vows for a woman, either,” he said, interrupting quickly, cutting the older priest off. There was something almost smoldering in his eyes at the words. “Never.”
For a moment, it seemed incomprehensible. And then the cold, harsh truth of the situation washed over Father O’Malley then, like a waves across the pebbles of the shore. The Cardinal had lied to him - had not told him the full story, the most important thing, what he truly wanted his to do with the young man. You will show him to do the same...
The Cardinal meant for him to help this lad overcome what tormented him. But how was he to do that, Father O’Malley wondered desperately, when he could not even overcome it in himself?
But the worst of it was that some part of his soul, that deep and hated part of it, that little voice of Lucifer, cried out inside of him, whispering to him cruel lies, your Cardinal was giving you a gift, he does not want you to be alone, you do not have to torment yourself, just reach out and take him...
“Father?” Wiliam said, and his face had fallen. “Father, I am sorry, it was wrong of me, but I thought you already knew why I had been sent here. I thought... I thought you understood me.” He huffed. “I thought we understood each other.”
Catching himself before he could tip headlong into that endless pit of despair, Father O’Malley nodded back. “I did not know until today, until I saw the way you were looking at the lad.”
“I should not have done that,” the younger priest admitted, and bowed his head a little more.
“Nor should you have made a game out of me,” the elder pushed, afraid he would not have the courage to say it later.
“I did not mean...” he began, some story, some lie, ready to come out. But then glancing over at Father, Wiliam blanched a little. “Perhaps I was just lonely. But I thought... I thought you were interested. The way you look at me sometimes, it is as if....”
“I am not some stableboy back in Dublin,” Father O’Malley retorted, uninterested in his lies, in his attempts to cover up his own culpability. “Not some foolish lad for some foolish lordling to toy with.”
A humorless smile passed over Wiliam’s face. “Stableboy...” he started, and heaved a heavy sigh. “That is why I am here, you know. One of the other brothers caught me in the stable with the lad gifted to the seminary by my father for my service there. It had never been an issue before, when I was at home,” he said quietly, the emotion embodied so in his fist echoed nowhere in his words. “But the Cardinal, he said he was sending me to someone who could help...”
“I understand,” Father O’Malley whispered back, his voice almost cracking. And there was no avoiding it, he supposed, and sighed. “Believe me, I do.” he said. His voice sounded weak and feeble to him, but at the same time, it seemed a relief to finally give voice to it. “I have felt it myself.”
“Then I was not wrong, at least,” the younger man said, but only seemed to dig further into himself. “I thought... I thought you might understand.”
“Yes, Wiliam, I understand how... how difficult it can be.”
Wiliam just blinked, and shook his head. But all these years, alone in this place...”
“Penance,” he said quietly. “For the sins of my thoughts.”
“Do you think that is what I must do here? Some kind of penance, as if I need to atone for what I am?”
“If you broke your vows...”
“Vows forced on me by my family, vows I never wanted to take,” he snapped, and turned his eyes back up to the crucifix over the alter, the arrogance collapsing a bit, his voice softening as he spoke again. “I am a God-fearing man, Father, but I do not believe I should have to sacrifice everything I am to serve Him.”
“Everything you are?” Father O’Malley repeated, confused by that turn of phrase. “What do you mean, everything you are?”
“I have always been this way, ever since I can remember. Even in boyhood, I remember looking at my friends, thinking to myself that he was beautiful, that I would like to kiss him.” He shrugged. “If this desire is innate, inborn, then surely I am as my Creator intended me to be, nothing less than that.”
The older priest felt something lock up in his chest at those words. He had never dared think such a thing about himself, never dared even try to believe that perhaps, perhaps, perhaps...
“Wiliam, I cannot help you if you insist on thinking...”
“Who said I wanted help?” he interrupted sharply, and his voice shook with conviction. “Has your solitude stopped you from feeling the way you do? Has your penance dulled these thoughts within you? Father,” and he edged closer then, one of his hands resting down on top of the priest’s own, “has hiding from this your whole life brought you a moment of peace?”
He tried to answer, tried to say yes, but he could not, and he was forced to concede the point. “No, I cannot say that it has. But lust, Wiliam, is of Lucifer...”
“... and love comes only from God,” Wiliam finished for him, oddly intense again. “Is that not what the Bible says? That all love is...is of God?”
“I... I have never loved another man,” he replied slowly, thoroughly conflicted now, thinking of Calum, of those nights he had spent awake on his pallet next to his friend, a heat burning in his loins, a desire consuming his heart. There had been none of that heat in so many years. It was cold in this place, so very cold, and Wiliam was here, and like him, and so very, very warm...
“N-n-neither have I,” the young priest replied, his teeth rattling a little now as the unfamiliar chill of the rain began to overwhelm, and looked back up at the alter. “But I believe that it is po-possible.”
There were too many things Father O’Malley wanted to say - so many admonishments, so many questions - for him to respond to that at all, and he just closed his eyes against the image of Chirst on his cross above them, feeling that somehow, in some way he did not quite understand, he was failing Him.
And Father O’Malley could have stayed there in that silence forever, isolated from the entire world, even the lad sitting at his side, if given his choice. But Wiliam was properly shivering now, true bone-rattling tremors, and his skin had gone waxy, and the older priest had no intention of letting him suffer so.
“Come, Wiliam,” he said, standing, pulling the young man to his feet. “Let’s get that cold out of you, shall we?”
The lad just nodded back.
Father O’Malley bundled him off into bed, stripping the wet garments off him, drying him as best he could before getting him down between the blankets of the soft pallet. Wiliam pulled them up around him, his nails blue against the pale material, and the priest found himself sitting down on the edge of the bed, touching that wet head. “Feel better?” he asked softly.
“It... it would b-better if you’d join me.”
“I told you, Wiliam, I have no desire to be a pawn in your amusements.”
“W-what... what if it w-wasn’t a game? W-what if I have j-just... just never met anyone like myself before, a-a-and I w-wanted...”
You can have him, you can... that voice in his mind whispered to him again, and Father O’Malley gritted his teeth, tried to ignore it. “A few moments of earthly peace means little when weighed against the scales of heaven,” he replied, using the same words that the Cardinal used to give him, when he was still a young man and fighting these things himself. “Warm up, Wiliam, get some rest, and we can talk more about this in the morning.”
Another nod, and those eyes slid shut, and Father O’Malley felt like he could finally breathe again.
He went about his chores for the evening - surprisingly, the lad had actually fed the animals - and said the evening prayers and had a bite of cheese and bread for supper, his stomach too upset to handle much of a meal. Through it all, a great disquiet grew in him, prodding and poking at his defenses, tormenting and taunting. It was almost more than he could bear, rising to a crescendo as he went back to their little sleeping chambers, and he found himself paused at the door, nipped by the cold of the rainy night, wondering if he should just sleep in the barn instead...
But everything in him fell quiet when he opened the door and held up his sputtering candle to see Wiliam dug deep into the blankets, sound asleep, still shivering.
It was a pathetic sight, pathetic for a young man who was never pathetic, and it tugged at him, pulled him right in, and he laid the candle on the rough little bedside table as he undressed and laid his clothes and rosary carefully aside, and eased in beside him.
The bed was just wide enough for the two of them to not touch if he did not wish it, but that night, Father O’Malley pulled Wiliam close to himself, feeling the chill of the other man’s skin, and wrapped himself carefully around him, his chest to the young man’s back, top arm around cold shoulders.
Wiliam muttered something, lost in some dream, and turned around, right into him. Father O’Malley forced himself to stay calm, to hold on. This was a more difficult position to be in, for he could see every line and contour of the young man’s features, the typical casual arrogance softened out by sleep. Elegant, finely-bred, beautiful...
He sat up to blow out the candle, and settled back down in the darkness, listening to the rain beat on the roof, feeling Wiliam’s breath huff in gentle rhythm across his chest.
Could it be, my Lord? he asked the night in the stillness of his own mind. Could it be that You intended me to be this way?
There was no answer.
Father O’Malley was almost glad for that.
On one hand, it was far too difficult a thing to hold - what would the lad ask him, how could he answer, what was he to do, if not help as the Cardinal wanted? And it seemed so unnecessary, for the lad’s behavior had truly picked up now, he had truly stopped sulking and moping about, he had truly begun showing interest in the parish, and he had stopped trying to touch him every time they were in the same room together. So it was pointless wasn’t it, he told himself, to try to broach the subject again?
Yet if he was being honest with himself about the matter, truly reaching into his heart of hearts for the answer, Father O’Malley knew he was afraid. Not of the lad, but of himself. Afraid that Wiliam might tell him more about how it was part of God’s plan for him that they were how they were. Afraid of hearing it, of letting himself believe in it...
It was too horrible - and beautiful - a thought to be allowed.
But it was of no matter, the priest told himself, watching Wiliam working along side the other young men of the parish. It was nice to see him taking an interest, especially if he was truly as lonely here as he claimed he was. And perhaps there was truth to that. Wiliam was, after all, far more interested in the Gaelic lessons Father O’Malley had offered him than those of the Bible. And he was making use of what he’d already learned now, the others correcting his pronunciation and offering him new words and laughing when he got something right. They were up above the village, on one of the tall, rolling hills that overlooked the entire area, building the massive pyre that was to be the focus of the night’s festivities.
It had never bothered Father O’Malley, the way his people treated St. John’s Day - certainly they came dutifully to Mass every year for the memorial of the saint, but it was the traditional bonfire that held the most pull for them, the merriment it brought, the singing and dancing and drinking, the one day of the year, it seemed, when everyone came together to celebrate. It was a hold-over from the Old Ways, from the ways of his mother and her people, of his times before Dublin and the Church. It was the one night of the year that Father O’Malley felt connected to that past, the one night he did not begrudge its place in his life. It felt primordial and honest and wild and true, the Midsummer bonfire, something from the dawn of mankind that would be missed, if ever lost...
“And what are you thinking about now?” Wiliam’s teasing voice interrupted, the young man’s eyes practically sparkling as he plopped down on the green sward next to the older priest. “That an old, stuck in his ways man priest such as yourself does not belong at such revelry?”
He looked over at the lad, thinking about that for a moment. It was true. He normally only stayed for the lighting, and then went back to St. Mathias’. There was a separation he’d always worked hard to maintain, a distance between himself and everyone else. A habitual, ingrained defense against the world, for the world against him.
Funny. He hadn’t thought about it in weeks. Hadn’t felt the need for it. Not since Wiliam had showed up and forced his way in...
“I thought you would like to see it.”
“I do. We should come to their festivals more often.” And Wiliam got a strange, soft look on his face. “It seems like you are enjoying yourself, for a change.”
“Aye, I suppose I was,” Father O’Malley replied, a little stiffer than her meant to, and waved his hand at the activity of the hill. “All this... reminds me of home, I suppose. I have memories of these fires from when I was a little boy.”
“You are a Celt?” And the younger priest cocked an eyebrow.
By all the saints, the lad looked delicious right then, a lock of sweaty hair falling across his pale brow, his cheeks bright with exertion. Father O’Malley felt a shot of heat run through him at the thought of it, that unwanted fire once more in his blood, and he had to look away.
“Yes. On my mother’s side. My father, I never knew. I was born in a little village south of here. It was a pleasant enough place, pleasant enough until...” he began, and then stopped, not wanting into get into the gore and the pain of his founding. “But it is all in the past now, Wiliam. I am who I am.”
“A man of God?” Those eyes were still bright, curious again as they often were.
That seemed to satisfy the young man, and he just nodded, processing the information. “I know you told me this was a Gaelic tradition, but what is it for?”
“Oh, many things, I would think,” he replied, just relieved they were off that subject. “I do not rightly recall the old pagan origins, young as I was. But there is always something nice about a good fire, is there not?”
“I suppose. It is a primal thing,” Wiliam agreed slowly, and Father O’Malley realized that the young man was watching him, an expression on that handsome face that he had not seen yet.
“Indeed,” he nodded back, uncomfortable again, unable to determine exactly what it was about Wiliam that left him so off-balance, that made him ache inside as he did right then. His desires had never had any specific focus before, had always been of a general, fantastical nature.
This was much harder to ignore.
So he didn’t say anything more about the fire or his past or any of the rest of it, just forced a weak smile, and told Wiliam he ought to go help with the finishing touches. He looked almost hurt at the suggestion, but Father O’Malley shooed him along anyway, heading back down the hill to where the people were gathering to watch the lighting, where the tents and smaller fires had been set up for festivities, and tried to ignore the faint knaw of guilt in his gut at continuously pushing him away.
You could have him...
“Begone,” he muttered to himself, right before he was accosted by a few of the village girls handing out cups of mead to everyone who had assembled, smiling and shouting at him. He took one gratefully, and retreated a little ways back to his usual spot, out of the way of the main body of the crowd.
As the sun dipped below the horizon, and an expectant hush fell over the crowd, the youth chosen for the lighting this year was making his way up the hill, torch in hand, flowers twined through his hair, the girls throwing more petals in his path and cheering him on, Wiliam came up beside him, a cup in his hand as well.
“Is this it, then?” He sounded almost disappointed.
Father O’Malley just chuckled, and allowed himself to lay a hand on the young man’s shoulder. “Just watch.”
Wiliam smiled at him, a soft little smile, like he was grateful for something here, but before he could say anything, a cheer went up from the crowd.
The young man had gained the top of the hill, waving the torch high, and then touching it deep into the dry tinder at the heart of the pyre, just as the sun dipped below the horizon.
Everyone burst into loud applause, and the sound of drums carried up over the top of the crowd’s heads, and Father O’Malley felt his heart jump at the start of those rhythms he remembered from his ladhood.
Wiliam just looked at him for a moment more, and held up his cup. “Cheers, Father,” he said softly.
“Cheers, brother,” he replied, and as he clinked his cup in, Father O’Malley could have sworn something passed between them...
As the young villager came back down in the hill in the failing light, a flute had joined the drums. Casks of ale were being breached, songs were rising in the air, a dance was struck up between the smaller fires being lit, and smoke was rising up against the perfect night sky.
“So what do we men of God normally do now?” Wiliam asked, a tease in his voice, that same sparkle in his eyes, one that made Father O’Malley catch his breath. By Mary and all the saints, he truly was a beautiful man...
Quite enough of that, the priest warned himself, and tried not to think about it. Instead, buying a little time, he drained his cup, and put his arm around Wiliam, and pulled him close. “We should go home, lad.”
Wiliam just smiled, finished his own mead, and grabbed the front of his elder’s habit, tugging him towards one of the tents. “We should have another drink first, Father. I would not wish to appear unfriendly to our parishioners.”
And he said it was such sincere, amused passion in his voice, that Father O’Malley could not help but laugh, and follow the lad away.
The evening descended from there into a swirl of light, of noise and mirth, of rising voices and the inky darkness overhead and the sight of Wiliam dancing along with the villagers, fluid and sensual, the beat of the drums and the trill of the flutes wild, primal, driving it all higher, higher, higher, until he was falling, and the only thing there to catch him was the touch of Wiliam’s warm hands to his cheek, Wiliam’s warm lips to his own, cold and cracked, and from there, it all vanished into dreams.
And then it came back to him, the feel of grass under him, a warm body over him, a soft touch on his cheek, glittering eyes staring down into his own, lips on his...
I have never met anyone like you before, Father...
Confused as to what had happened, petrified over what he might have done, the priest ran a hand over his face, trying to think. What had happened last night at the bonfire?
What did they do?
Oh God... he started to pray, crossing himself, but before he could formulate any kind of plea, a hand was laid down on his heart, and fear coursed through his body as he looked up.
Right into a pair of warm brown eyes.
“I thought you Gaels held your drink better than that,” Wiliam said, merry, happy, so close. So very, very close...
Father O’Malley swallowed, heart falling. He failed, he failed himself, he failed his God... “B-Brother Wiliam. What...”
“You near fell asleep at the bonfire. I brought you home,” he replied, and gestured around the darkened chamber, lit only by the flicker of one solitary candle.
He stared, those pieces trying to come together in his mind, his better sense rejecting it, not wanting it, wanting it desperately, desire burning in him now...
Wiliam must have recognized it, because his smile changed from its soft contours into something more sensual, more predatory, and he sat down on the edge of the bed in the space hollowed by Father O’Malley’s hip.
“What happened?” he repeated, truly afraid now, the words coming out in but a whisper.
“We kissed, Father. I daresay you enjoyed it,” Wiliam whispered back to him. “And you enjoy everything I would show you, if you would but let me.” His hand stroked down the older priest’s bare chest, slow, causing that fire already smoldering under his skin to burst into life. He leaned in, his lips grazing the shell of the older priest’s ear. “I could not help myself, you needed it so it. You need it still, I believe.”
God, God, please...
“Would you let me, Father? Would you let me kiss you again?”
“Wi-Wiliam, I...” he began, and rolled over to face this incubus, his refusal on the tip of his tongue, ready to be deployed against this assault on his immortal soul itself. “Wiliam, we cannot...”
“We can,” came the tormenting reply, speaking to the darkest, deepest corner of the older man, cutting through everything else, blockig it out entirely. “We can do anything we please. Let me show you your true self...”
He could not say no. For he was worn out. Weary to the bone. Exhausted from the life-long fight against his own nature, against the desire ever lurking in his heart, from the aching emptiness within him, never filled, always hungry, desires unfed and untended to, barely spoken, never acknowledged but in rejection. And here was one who felt as he did, who desired as he did, who saw and understood and knew him, who accepted him without hesitation, who would not turn him away for what he was but instead welcomed him with open arms...
Wiliam grinned, triumphant, certain, and swung a leg up on the bed, straddling him, running both hands possessively down his chest, habit bunched up around his legs, pale legs bare. “I knew I was not wrong about you, Father,” he murmured in a low voice, dipping to kiss the older man once more.
Father O’Malley gasped into that young mouth, savoring every little sensation of their lips against each other, of the flick of Wiliam’s tongue against his teeth, of soft hands in his own messy hair. It was heady and full, unlike anything he’d ever experienced before, anything he’d dared let himself imagine, and while his better sense told him it was only the barest fraction of what they might do here together tonight, it seemed almost more than he could bear.
His own hands scrambled for purchase as Wiliam ground down into him, as the kiss turned rough, and he found himself brushing skin, fingertips wandering up the smooth backs of the young priest’s legs, under the fine wool of his habit, higher...
Wiliam made some eager little noise, and tossed his head back, settling back down over Father O’Malley’s hips, rubbing circles over his chest, thumbs coming closer and closer to the nubs of his nipples. The older man just held on, staring up, mesmerized by the glow in those dark eyes, the heat in him beginning to pool in his cock, rushing down, down, down...
“Hard for me,” Wiliam practically purred, and bucked down against him, dragging his own rock-hard shaft across his, heedless of the blankets and clothing still between them. Father O’Malley felt something run through him, some white-hot shot of pleasure, and reached for the young man’s belt, hardly aware of what he was saying, what he was thinking, just needing more...
Wiliam caught his hand, kissing him again, undoing it, casting it aside. Dimly, the older priest felt the rough rope belt come away, heard the clatter of rosary beads hitting the stone floor, but he did not care about any of that right now. He needed more, needed so much more...
“Let me see you,” he groaned in between Wiliam’s biting, delicious kisses. “I need to see you...”
Somehow, between them, between the need for contact, more contact, they drug Wiliam’s habit up off over his head, cast away with the beads. And Father O’Malley thought his heart might burst at the sight of Wiliam on top of him, naked, pale, a beautiful body bared for him and him alone, dark hair touseled and unruly from their exertions already, his ruddy-red cock engorged, hot, wonderful across his belly, a wane, secretive little smile on his lips, honest hope glowing in the depths of his dark eyes, everything about him a gift...
You were made for this, he heard that distant part of his mind whisper to him, but instead of pushing it away, as he always had, he embraced it now. Pushed up, rose up to his knees, ran a bold hand down the younger man’s swollen cock, hearing a groan answer his own at the touch of silky-smooth skin, and he dared a glance up at the source of it.
Wiliam was flushed clear down to his collarbones, his eyes half-shut, his lower lip caught against his teeth. He moaned again as Father O’Malley stroked his hand carefully up that burning length, and shifted. Ptiching forward on his knees, the younger dragged the elder forcefully into another kiss, one hand in the older priest’s fair locks, the other ghosting across his cock. His fingers caught the droplet of wetness, gathering at the tip, stroking it up, the added slick taking the friction away, making it the most glorious thing Father O’Malley thought he had ever felt.
“More,” he begged, falling out of the kiss, his forehead to the young man’s shoulder, lost in the sensation of that hand on his cock. He didn’t care how wanton it made him sound, how whorish, how pathetic. This, this, was what he’d been denying himself for so long, and needed it, needed it like air, needed to feel it all, in case he hadn’t the courage to try to claim himself again. He felt loosed, undone from his own body, floating in the pleasure of it all. “By the saints, brother, more...”
“Shh, Father,” Wiliam chided gently, fingers twining through his hair, fingers twisting round his cock. He kissed his cheek, kissed him on the mouth, bit lightly at his ear. “Shh. I shall...”
His fingers left his cock for a moment, encouraging Father O’Malley’s hand on his own, and reached across the bed, bring back some little jar he’d secreted under his pillow. Father O’Malley recognized it as one of his fats from his apothecary kit, and gave him a questioning look.
Wiliam just smiled in return, and kissed him again. Gentle, it was, but his eyes were smoldering with lust, and he laid his hand back on the older priest’s chest, pushing him down. “Lay back for me, Father, and I shall show you yourself.”
Uncertain of himself again, Father O’Malley let himself be guided down, his cock painfully heavy now against this belly, pushed up still a bit on his elbows as he watched Wiliam dig out a small palmful of sweet-smelling ungent, as Wiliam stroked a hot line up the inside of his thigh with the knuckles of his his free hand, pushing it outward, moving into the space created. The priest felt so lost, so utterly ignorant, his body nearly undone already with the sensation of it all, wanting more, not knowing what at all to do...
“Stroke yourself for me,” Wiliam offered, leaning in close, encasing Father O’Malley’s balls in warmed slickness, urging his hands down to his cock. “Hold nothing back.”
He curled his fingers around his own cock, feeling the younger man’s hand guiding his, that heat in his belly gathering thicker now. He gasped. “Wiliam...”
“Shh. I know, Father, I know...”
And before he could formulate anything further, that slick was pulled back across the tender skin behind his cock and balls, a finger circling that tight ring of muscle, and he cried out a little as he was breached, his hand squeezing down on his cock in response He’d never imagined, never thought...
Then Wiliam was kissing him again, Wiliam was stroking him again, and Father O’Malley could feel nothing but that finger inside of him, first one, now two, turning and twisting, pushing, questing, questing for something... no, that point, that pinpoint of sensation that roared through him now. There was something growing in him, some whiteness, a wave of pur elight, getting nearer and deeper and bigger and more, so much more. He reached out for it instinctively, his hand speeding up on his cock, only barely hearing Wiliam’s pleased murmuring in his ear, only barely hearing his own cries as his fist was flooded with musky-smelling warm, as his mind was flooded with light...
“So beautiful, Father,” Wiliam whispered in his ear, and pulled his fingers loose, spreading wide even as he struggled to come back to the surface from the sensation that had claimed him. “So sweet...”
And he felt himself rolled over, sweat running freely from his forehead onto the blankets, heart pounding in his ears, the echoes of that light shaking him still. A kiss was pressed to the back of his neck, Wiliam’s weight laid over him, another I shall whispered in his ear, and then, slowly but without hesitation or mercy, something huge and hot and heavy drove up inside of him, hands on his hips, teeth on his skin, and he lost himself completely.
From there, Father O'Malley wasn't sure what came over him, or Wiliam, or what transpired between them. His head was still swimming from the strong drink of the festival, his mind still reverberating back to him the drumbeats and the feral songs. Or perhaps that was echoed solely in the way Wiliam was moving over him, moving with him, in the push of his hips and the writhe of his hands, in the pulsating of his cock buried so deep inside of him that the elder priest thought his heart itself might be pierced clean through.
The gasping in his ear was wild, the open-mouthed kisses littered across his neck and shoulders and back fierce, and the sensation of it all quickly claimed the priest's better senses, his whole body crying out for more, more, more, not knowing what it demanded, demanding it all the same. His cock was heavy again, or so he believed, Wiliam’s hand on it, squeezing and pulling roughly, his own hips driving back into every forward thrust into him. Father O’Malley heard himself moaning as that light filled him again, as an entirely new kind of heat rushed through him, warming the frigid wasteland of his soul, Wiliam crying out, and he fell.
Found. Finally, finally found.
Father O’Malley came back to himself in the chill and the damp of the gray pre-dawn, a new morning leaking under the door to their little chamber. Wiliam’s body was pressed again his own under the covers, his feet pushed between the older priest’s, one sleep-heavy arm draped possessively over his chest. The blankets were fallen, draped around his lean hips, setting off the lightness of his skin, the strength in his wiry frame so on display...
For a moment, he was confused - how had this happened, why was he not reflexively pushing it away, what contentment was it now that he felt, what confusion, what hope?
He dipped his head and pushed a lock of hair away from the sleeping lad’s face - so innocent, this one, in his slumber - and inhaled deeply. The air around them was thick with the scent of the bonfire, of sweat and male musk. It was that which carried the memory of the evening back to him, and the priest felt his cheeks heat as he remembered what they had done together, what Wiliam had said to him, how he had cried out, that light at the climax of it...
Surely, Lord, such a thing cannot be wrong, he thought silently, idly brushing soft, thoughtful fingers through that dark cap of hair. Nothing evil could be so filled with Light, which comes only from You...
“Good morning, Father,” Wiliam murmured to him.
And he must have blushed, or blanched, or some such thing, because the young man’s face tightened, his happiness falling away, his eyes narrowing. “You... you do not regret last night, do you?”
“I...” he began, and unable to find the words to express the confusion, the fear, the sheer ecstasy he felt at the memory of the night’s exertions, fell silent for a moment. The young man merely reached out in response to stroke his fingers through his hair, against his scalp, and the older of the pair felt himself calming again, the maelstrom of questions, of concerns, of fear, settling in him once again. He had no idea what he was feeling.
They laid there like that together, just for a little while, until he found voice to give to his scattered mind.
“Do you truly believe that this was the way God intended us, dear Wiliam?”
“By all my ancestors in heaven, yes.” Those young eyes were burning with certainty. “I will not entertain any suggestion to the contrary.”
Father O’Malley just nodded back, uncertain, not knowing if this was sin or not. If Wiliam truly wanted him or not, or if he was simply the most convenient man the lad had at his disposal.
Could this not be real? he asked himself. Can I not trust this, at least for now?
Wiliam, for his part, did not speak either, but merely wrapped his arms back around him, lifting his chin up with two fingers to kiss him anew, and Father O’Malley welcomed him in.
With everything he had.
Hoping that perhaps this broiling confusion deep in his gut would away. By all the saints in heaven, he loved the feel of this, of Wiliam against him, Wiliam’s lips on his own... and such a thing could not be evil, could it?
Must it be evil, Lord?
They lay like that together for a while, just touching, kissing gently, the all-consuming, violent passion of the night before replaced with something softer, gentler, yet no less needful. But eventually, with the light growing to dawn outside the shuttered window, beyond the cracks in the door, the demands of the morning overtook the demands of his body, and Father O’Malley laid a finger on his new lover’s lips and bade him stop, we have much to do.
“As you say, Father,” Wiliam replied, and his eyes were still sparkling.
Father O’Malley only wished he could feel so clear.
It wasn’t noticeable, wasn’t overt or obvious in any way. Father O’Malley found that perplexing that first day, as he had expected... something, anything, some terrible consequence for his actions. He had sinned, he had committed grievous offense against God, breaking his vows, his own personal promises to never give into the basest desires of his inmost heart. But the sun dawned warm and familiar, the green land still smelled of growing things, the candles still burned for him in the church, the Latin of morning Mass still rolled off his tongue, sweet and comforting as always.
He had broken nothing through his actions. All that had been true of him yesterday was true of him still. The world yet went on.
Same as it always had.
Except it was different, and he couldn’t put his finger on exactly what it was that had shifted, what had shed its skin and become something new.
Wiliam, perhaps, was the easiest answer to his question. The older priest had a few moments panic before breakfast, torturing himself with the sudden thought that this was still a game for the younger, that what had transpired between them had been nothing more than a diversion - Wiliam had, after all, little reason to pursue some kind of romance with him, or so it seemed. But that thought had been driven clean from his mind by the way the lad acted, the way he was, so much like the young men of his parish when they came to ask if he might perform a marriage for them on some upcoming, sunny day. Always subtle, the way they were then, but always excited, giddy, glowing... changed.
And the lad had changed. Just like the world had. The same, yet not. His smile seemed permanently affixed from that morning on, a happy, sweet little smile, one that grew whenever their gaze caught on each other’s. He laughed more, he touched more, he stopped Father O’Malley after Mass and kissed him as he slipped the green vestments off his shoulders.
And Father O’Malley, despite his own ambivalence over what had passed between them the night before, couldn’t help himself from smiling, either. From touching, from kissing. From pulling Wiliam to him while they were preparing supper that night together, wrapping his arms around his waist, pressing his lips reverently to the younger man’s pulse, breathing the reassuring scent of him in deep.
Wiliam just sighed and laid a hand on his hip, holding them both still. “Are you alright, Father?” he asked quietly. “You have been in a fugue all day. I feel as though I misjudged what was there...”
“I feel as if I am drowning,” he confessed softly, loving the feel of this, hating himself for it. “I... I have never... I never knew before...”
“Do you hate me?” came the whispered reply, tinged with guilt. “Should I have let you be? Never acknowledged what was there, what you felt for me and what I felt for you?”
Father O’Malley closed his eyes and gripped harder, fingers digging in to the younger priest’s habit. “Yes,” he murmured, knowing it was true, but ran a hand into Wiliam’s fine chestnut hair, tipping his head back, brushing their lips together, that horrible, beautiful warmth surging through him anew. “Yes, my sweet lad, you should have let me be.”
“You could never be anything but a good man, Father. This is no evil,” Wiliam murmured back, and kissed him harder.
They did not couple again that night, not as they had after the bonfire, but instead curled up around each other, fingertips exploring, mapping the contours of each other’s skins in the chill air of the cold northern seas, lips moving, things whispered through the darkness, glowing like embers, and Father O’Malley could not remember a time when he had felt more content.
Or could have, if only he could accept the peace of it fully.
They talked more, over those long, pleasant days that followed Midsummer’s Eve. Just as Father O’Malley had wished they could talk from the first. But the walls between them - Wiliam’s anger, his own fear - had been well and truly torn down now, tumbled to dust like the defenses of Jerico itself, both of them exposed to the other.
Wiliam spoke of his family, of his father, of his father’s power and responsibilities, of the feasts he used to throw, and the depths of anger he would sink to. He spoke of his sisters, beautiful girls married off so young to men so much older than they, cementing alliances, rewarding his father’s friends, all three of them eternally angry at him, blaming him for the death of their mother. He spoke of his brothers, of the ambitions they held, of the politics of the capitol that they had all had to play from the tender years of boyhood.
He spoke of his father’s disappointment, of his brothers’ disregard, of his sisters’ hatred, of his own vows to never allow himself to be dragged down by them. He spoke of his own pain at being the youngest, of being denied a future and an inheritance, of how he’d always known he’d have to make his own way in the world. How that had scared him as a child, and how he had tried to embrace it once he came of age.
“You are the first one to see me as anything more than vermin, Father,” he said quietly one evening as they sat on one of the bluffs, overlooking the sea, the waves foaming white on the dark rocks below. “To everyone else, I am worthless but for what power I might earn for the family here in the Church.”
“You are no longer beholden to those people,” Father O’Malley replied, disquieted by the pain he heard. “You are a man of God, Wiliam, one pledged to a different path, a different kingdom, a better purpose than earthly politics.”
“Perhaps,” Wiliam shrugged, and tossed a small stone over the edge to fall to the ocean below. “This is the first place I have felt any sense of that.”
“Many are corrupt in Dublin. You do not have to be.”
“Perhaps I will never return to Dublin. Perhaps I will stay here with you in this place.” He was sitting against the sunset, his body framed by the fading rays of the dying sun, his dark hair glowing bright, his face in shadow. “Do you think the Cardinal would allow me to stay with you?” And he looked over his shoulder, smiling at the older priest. “You could tell him you have not yet cured me of my desire for men.”
Father O’Malley forced himself to smile back, to keep his tone light and happy, despite the sudden flutter of guilt those words brought to him. Was he failing his Cardinal? But then, was he not failing himself? All that was growing between them...
“I daresay I am doing just the opposite of that. Being here has only seemed to strengthen it.”
Wiliam chuckled. “It must be that there is some man here worth desiring.”
And his heart leaped again, straight into his throat, so high and so fast, he did not feel as if he could speak. So he stood instead, brushing a few stray strands on wet grass from his habit, and held out a hand to his lover. “It... it is getting late, Wiliam. We should go say the evening prayers.”
Taking his hand, letting himself be pulled to his feet, Wiliam held on as they walked back to the church.
Father O’Malley talked. It was a hard thing to do, to talk about himself, to open those gates of his own soul, long rusted shut from his isolation here in the Irish hinterlands. His conversations with his parishioners consisted of their lives, of their joys and sadnesses, of their sins and their redemptions. He had given no thought to himself at all, in all the time he had been here, and in so doing, now, with Wiliam, he came to understand how desperately lonely he had been.
And once he discovered that in himself, he found his life spilling out through his words, like water from a spring.
He spoke about his mother, about those half-remembered days with her. She had been a slave of some wealthy Gaelic noble, scrubbing his floors, warming his bed, cooking his food, sucking his cock. She had tried to protect him from all of that, tried to preserve for her son what innocence could be found amongst their people, but he had known. There was no shame in it for him as a child, for she was a slave, and he was a slave, and slaves were for such things. He spoke of the Normans, of the men who’d come and slaughtered them all, of how is mother had hidden him, how it had been a full day before the killing stopped, and the young priest had pulled him from the fear and given him a new home. He spoke of his love for the people who had given him a new life, a new name, who had taken in him and never brought up his heritage as a negative.
He spoke of the first time he had known of his own sickness, of his twisted desires, of his yearning for men. Of how scared he had been that day in the baths when it first hit him, terrified that somebody would see how hard he was, his own desperation to calm his cock. Of how hard it had been to conceal it from the object his affections seemed to center on, on his fellow founding Calum, of how scared he’d been his friend would reject him if he but knew. Of his shame when the Cardinal - still then only a common priest - had spoken to him of it. Of how it had only grown in his heart, taken root like a fungus, never budging, no matter how hard he prayed, no matter how his mentor tried to help him...
“You have nothing to be ashamed of,” Wiliam whispered to him in the calm of their bedchamber, one hand enticingly close, laying on the jut of his hipbone. “Have I not shown you that yet, Father? That you are as God made you?”
“Perhaps,” he whispered, unwilling to break the peace of the night that surrounded them, staring up at the candlelight dancing through the dark beams of the ceiling. “Perhaps there is nothing to be ashamed of. My mother’s people never condemned it...”
“We should run away then, go join some tribe in the hills, be together as we ought to be,’ Wiliam replied, sounding almost serious, and the thought of his proper Norman noble, living amongst the rough-hewn world of the Gael was enough to get Father O’Malley laughing.
“You would not like that world, sweet Wil,” he chuckled. “There are no comforts there...”
“There are few comforts here and I have done well enough,” he answered, indignant, eyes flashing as he pushed himself up over the top of the older man. “Have I not?”
Father O’Malley smiled at him, feeling that strange contentment in his heart expand, pushing everything else away, and ran a hand around the back of his neck, holding him even as he shifted over him, straddling him, their half-hard cocks rubbing against one another’s. “Aye, lad, you have done well here. Grown in ways I could not have hoped for when I first met you.”
The young man’s face shifted, concerned now. “Am I so awful as that?”
“Was,” Father O’Malley corrected, and laid his other hand on the round rise of Wiliam’s arse, naked on his thighs. “I have seen you change much in the past three months, my sweet lad.”
That seemed to calm him, and he made the soft, pleased little noise he often did when they were in bed together like this, settling down, draping himself across the older man’s chest. “We could run away together, live like that, leave all this behind,” he whispered.
“We would need to see your Gaelic much improved,” the elder replied, stroking the soft skin of his lower back now.
“Mmm,” Wiliam sighed, and kissed his shoulder lazily. “What would you call me, in you Gaelic? I would imagine I could not stay Wiliam de Bermingham...”
“Indeed, no,” Father O’Malley agreed, playing along, thinking of what would fit. “We could name you Éanne...”
“What does that mean?”
“It means your soul is free, free as the birds of the sky,” he replied, and kissed his cheek, stroked his hair. “Which it is, Wil. So brave you are...”
Wiliam pulled back then, tossing his head a bit, elbows planted on either side of the older priest’s head. He had a pensive look on his handsome face. “And what of you, Father? What would I call you in our escape?”
“Fionnan,” he answered, dragging the half-forgotten words up from the depths of his memory. “That was what my... my mother used to call me. You... you could use it again, if we were back among the tribes.”
“Fionnan,” the young man repeated slowly, and nodded, solemn as if he had been given some great gift. “That means... white?” He smiled then, obviously proud at catching the root of the word.
“Or fair,” Father O’Malley confirmed, assaulted suddenly by the memory of her. He could never remember her face, not in all his dreams, but her touch he could clearly recall, the sweet scent of her hair, the sound of her voice, singing him to sleep in their rough bed with sweet half-notes, the stories she told him... “I will grant you, my mother was not the most creative of women, naming her child after his hair...”
“It fits you better than David O’Malley,” Wiliam said with his usual finality, as if deciding something, and rolled his hips down, dragging his heavy cock over Father O’Malley’s own, kissing him, and in yearning up to meet him, the elder quite forget about any conversation at all.
Except that the lad took to calling him Fionnan from time to time, after that, and he hardly minded at all.
Not everything that passed between them in those heady days was so heavy as all that, though. Wiliam was so young, and there was something about him that made Father O’Malley feel young as well, young like he had not felt even when he was a mere boy in Dublin. No, this was a kind of freedom they claimed for themselves, a wildness that seemed natural as breathing. Wiliam always had a new game to play, something new to teach or show, and Father O’Malley had so many questions, so many things he wanted to learn about without knowing what those things were. He felt like a starved man let in to some feast, the magic of the Fair Folk spreading out before him a vast banquet of delicacies he had never before imagined.
Wiliam’s knowledge of intimacy between two men was not endless, although it was quite comprehensive. He’d flushed beet red when asked about how he had gathered his knowledge, and only said that what was between them was not the same as what he had done before.
“So I am not like one of your stable boys, then?” Father O’Malley asked him one night as they were laying in bed together, both of them sated, the salty taste of the younger man’s seed still lingering on his tongue. It was his first time trying that act, one that for some reason, Wiliam had been slightly reticent to show him, but he had found it pleasurable enough. Odd, but pleasurable, for the lad had seemed to enjoy it, still recovering, skin flushed from exertion.
He didn’t answer the question right away, though, and it hung in the still air between them, leaving Father O’Malley to wonder if he had done something wrong. This was all so new, so strange, and he had found himself wondering, more than once in the weeks since it had started, if Wiliam was merely using him as he no doubt had used those boys back in Dublin, like the one he had slapped away the morning they left...
“You are so much more than that,” he replied at length, pushing up on an elbow, eyes bright as ever in the candlelight, sated and pensive at the same time. “I... I have never met anyone like you before. Someone like me, I mean, and yet...”
The older man huffed a small, relieved breath at that, and lifted a hand to caress a soft, heated cheek. “I know, Wil. I had believed I was the only one outside Sodom who had such...”
“Do not call it evil again, Fionnan,” his young lover interrupted, quite serious, eyes suddenly hard. “Of all the things you are, evil is not one of them.”
“And neither are you, my sweet lad,” he murmured back, and lifted to kiss him, and groaned as Wiliam’s hand found his own yet-unsatisfied cock.
So the summer worn on, much as every summer had before it. The spring lambs grew up, the crops rose tall in the fields, the rains came less frequently, the broad green leaves of the trees rustled in the warm winds. The people of his parish tended to it all, came to Mass with smiles on their faces, came to him with simple problems, simple sins with simple solutions. The aristocratic pallor of Wiliam’s skin darkened a bit, sun-kissed by his uncomplaining labors on their own fields, on their own travels through the district, tending to those who needed it. His laughter replaced the silence of the stone rooms, his smile warmed the places that had always before seemed cold. They used the light of the long days for chess games, or conversation, or simply sitting together and studying the words of the philosophers and saints who had come before. In the nights, they coupled together in the darkness, coming together, learning each other, learning themselves, so uneven, so perfect, the nights between them were filled with laughter.
It was all pleasant, more pleasant than things had been in a lifelong. Father O’Malley had not expected any of it, not the way this thing had begun, not with everything he had always believed about the inherent evils in the act. It was a vast joy to learn that it could be otherwise. That he could be happy in this. That, after all these years alone, there might be some peace for his tortured soul. That he might not be damned for it all...
Yet, as surely as the days grew incrementally shorter with every new sunset, as certain as the cold of winter to come, as the slaughter of the spring lambs and the harvest of the summer grain, Father O’Malley knew things would change. Between them. For them. That this, whatever it was, would not last forever, would not forever be as it was now. And although he tried to promise himself that it would not change the way he felt about Wiliam, would not shake his devotion to the lad in any way, he knew that they would not always be together here, in the hinterlands, happy, free, unencumbered by the condemnation of others.
Sooner or later, he knew, it would end.
And then what was he to do? When his Wiliam was gone, and he was alone, with nothing but his sins, the violation of his vows, the hypocrisy of his acts? Did he have any right to continue to minister to the people of this district, if he had broken the promises he’d made to God in the name of service to them? Had he thrown his entire existence away, damned himself for some fleeting pleasure of the flesh?
He did not know.
He could not yet accept it in himself, no matter how wonderful it all was.
And it ate at him, a thorn in his mind, as the long, warm days of summer began to fade into rain and fog once again.
It was on such a gray day, one that had seen them playing chess long into the afternoon and going to bed early, Wiliam tired in that way that only leisure could produce, that Father O’Malley finally found the eternal questions overspilling the new-found happiness, a desperate need for answers pounding in his mind. So he slipped from bed, threw his habit back on, and padded barefoot on the cold stone to the small chapel.
Father O’Malley went through the motions - lit candles, knelt, crossed himself, quieted his heart, tried to put himself in the presence of the Lord. But he was too troubled, too full of too many other things, and instead of prayer, he found himself instead descending into memory, a single thought dragging like a dead thing across the halls of thought.
He would be so ashamed of me.
The man who he had found dying in Dublin, a man who had saved him and raised him and cared for him, when nobody else ever had.
The man who had agreed to let him come here.
Father O’Malley still remembered that conversation, that day when he’d gone to his mentor and told him he could no longer control himself, that he was too sick to be allowed to stay, that he was not worthy of being around the others, of carrying through the plans everyone seemed to have for him. The Cardinal had pursed his lips, and shaken his head.
Do you believe I would condemn you? he heard then, the word echoing out of the past, clear as any true spoken word. My son, my dear David, my little Fionnan, I could never hate you. I would never speak to your immortal soul. That is business between you and God alone...
But Father, surely...
Perhaps it is a sin, what you feel in yourself. But you cannot run from it forever, my boy, even if I do let you go.
What else am I to do, Father? It burns me...
You must find your peace with yourself, overcome what you feel now. You must not always be so miserable, the Cardinal had said, and Father O’Malley could almost feel it, his mentor embracing him as he had when he was still a young boy, holding him as tears leaked down his cheeks, falling to splash on the stone of the floor. You must resolve yourself to all the things that you are, and find it in your own heart to accept yourself. Even if that does not mean you continue in this life...
He shook his head, unsure where any of this was coming from, if it was some fevered rational of his own mind, if it was some dream. Father, all I have ever wished to be is a priest.
Aye, my boy, I know. I know, the Cardinal said, releasing him, moving away. I know. You may have your transfer. I have a parish in mind, St Mathias’, back amongst your own people, lonely, far to the north...
Sounds perfect, Father...
But you must promise me something before leaving, my son.
Anything, Father, Father O’Malley heard himself say again, and he smiled a joyless smile to himself now, remembering how eager he had been, how desperate for an answer, practically begging it from the man who had always been able to answer any questions he had before.
But the Cardinal was not there to supply him with the answer that night, and Father O’Malley rolled his eyes up to the ceiling, speaking them aloud to himself.
“You will leave your condemnation to God alone, and be the good man you are between now and kingdom come,” he muttered, heart heavy. Even the Cardinal - his mentor, his brother, his father - had believed him to be a damned thing...
But then he remembered what Wiliam had told him, what Wiliam believed. That men such as them were as God intended them to be, that they had been made by Him to be as they were, that there was no shame in their nature...
“You made me!” he yelled at the ceiling, leaping to his feet, suddenly furious, overwhelmed with all the months, the years, of frustration, of fearing himself, of fearing what others might do if they found him out. “Why can’t you unmake me!”
The sound of his scream reverberated around the small chapel, echoing off the stone, but the silence soon overcame it, and he crumpled to his knees once again, desperately weary.
Send me a sign, Father he prayed then, head bowed, heart empty, letting the silent words wing their way to the heavens. Help me understand myself better...
Wiliam was awake when he returned to their chamber, sitting up in bed, hands open and rubbing his knees through the covers. “Are you alright?” he asked, concern in his voice. “You were gone...”
“I am sorry, my lad,” he apologized quietly and, stripping his habit from himself, hanging it up on its peg, padded back over to the bed. “I had need...”
“...to pray,” Wiliam smiled back, and welcomed him back under the blankets with sleep-soft hands, curling his warm body against the older priest’s. “What for this time? One of the villagers, perhaps?”
“For myself,” he murmured in reply, closing his eyes, savoring the feel of that young body pressed to his. By the saints, it felt right. It all felt so right. How could something this good be as evil as he thought it? “For clarity.”
Wiliam just huffed a little noise into the crook of his neck, and snuggled closer, on his belly now, arm thrown over Father O’Malley’s chest. “You are a good man, Fionnan, a better man that I have ever known before. What could possibly not be clear for you?” he breathed.
“How I feel about you, brother,” the older priest whispered back.
An open-mouthed kiss was laid to his shoulder, and Wiliam made that noise he always did, right as he was dropping off to sleep. “I know how you feel about me, and I you. Everything, pure as rain...”
Shaken by those quiet words, Father O’Malley just kissed the top of his head, eyes shut, emotions he didn’t understand boiling up inside of him again. Could he still call himself a priest? Did he even want to, if giving up Wiliam would be the price of his redemption? “Go to sleep, sweet Wil,” he replied in near-silence. “We can talk about it tomorrow.”
“No need,” Wiliam whispered back, and make a soft little sound that almost sounded like a laugh. “I already know.”
He passed a hand over his face, befuddled by it for a moment, and then shot up as he recognized the voice.
And he instantly knew what was wrong.
He roused Wiliam and threw on his own habit, bidding him follow with everything we need for the Last Rites, and opened up to the sobbing girl.
“Grandfather...” she cried brokenly, and grabbed his hand.
This time, unlike the rainy afternoon almost two months ago, there was nothing he could do to pull the old man back from the brink. The moss-chinked stone farmhouse smelled of death already, even though the old man was still breathing, despite the presence of the healer from the next village over, the one who still practiced the Old Ways, whom his parish members still called in times of grave concern. But there was nothing she was going to be able to do, Father O’Malley knew.
God had marked this day.
And he had a moment of sheer panic that, fallen now as he was, he wouldn’t be able to redeem whatever sins lay still on the old man’s soul. That as a result of his own broken vows, this man would be damned...
He bit it down. They still needed him, and whatever he could give. The old man was beyond his reach, but the family was already in grief, and he comforted them as best he could, until Wiliam showed up with a small box of what he needed for the sacrament.
“It will be today then?” he asked in Latin, as Father O’Malley replaced his vestments.
“It will,” he replied in kind, and at the fallen look on the younger man’s face - something, the priest knew, would not have been there when first they met. So much had changed... “Have you ever performed this rite before?”
He shook his head, and, glancing back over at the huddle of family by the bedside, dared to cover the older man’s hand with his own. “No, Father.”
“This is nothing more than those baptisms we have done this year, my sweet boy, brought full circle,” he said, taking strength from that touch for just a moment to assuage his own grief, and then moving away from it. “All part of life.”
Wiliam’s eyes were clouded, but he nodded and let Father O’Malley away.
He noticed Aine’s mother watching them as he came over to the bedside, a weak little smile on her lips, but whatever she had noticed, whatever she was thinking, was inconsequential at the moment.
Of all the sacraments he had performed in his time as priest of St Mathias’ parish, the last rites were the hardest of all. It was supposed to be a joyous time, death, of return to God, of leaving the suffering of this earth, and the people in his tiny corner of the world led hard, rough lives. But it was always so difficult watching any of them die, much less having to be the rock of strength for the ones left behind, that Father O’Malley had never found much joy in the affair.
The farmhouse filled with the dusty-sweet smoke of the incense, the Latin of the prayers hung heavy in the dark beams of the ceiling, and by the time Father O’Malley touched the host to the old grandfather’s head, his soul life had already fled from the farmhouse.
The priest shut the now-sightless eyes, and finished his work, adding in whisper a quick prayer for the dead - first in Latin, and then his own translation of the words in Gaelic, the daughter of the deceased reaching out a withered hand to pat his, too overcome with emotion to speak, her husband holding her shoulders with field-rough hands, the children crying.
Afterward, after Wiliam and the father had left for the village, to fetch the people that needed to be fetched for a funeral on the morrow, after Aine had organized her younger siblings into a tight knot, comforting them as they cried, Father O’Malley found himself alone with the mother of the household, her smile tight and wane. But in the middle of his usual comforting lines, she shook her head, and stopped him.
“Aine told me what she saw this morning,” she said softly, through her tears, and reached out, squeezed his hand. “The way the two of you were.”
And red-hot fear coursed through him. “I do not know what your daughter thinks she...”
“I see it too,” she said, cutting him off, smiling a little more. “You look at each other in such a way... the way my husband used to look at me, when I was still a pretty young lass. You have been happier than I have ever seen you, since he arrived. You love him.”
“I love all in our parish...”
She nodded. “Of course. But Father, there is no shame in loving him more.”
Father O’Malley felt like he was falling, like he was slipping away from all his life, into a bottomless pit from which he would not return. “Just because the Gaelic nature allows for such pairings does not mean God would...”
“You love him,” she repeated, and smiled again, looking back to her children, to hear dead father, tears in her eyes. Her hand was like iron around his. “You deserve to love him. Such a thing can only bring you closer to God, not further, yes?”
But she only rose, and embraced him, slow and soft, and went back to her children, and said no more about it.
On the way back to St. Mathias’, after all else had been tended to, as the shadows were beginning to vanish under thick, gathering clouds, Wiliam striding quietly alongside him, his thoughts tumbled and rolled against one another like stones in a river. The family, Wiliam’s words, the memories of the Cardinal, his own fears, his own guilt, all the things that had once been so clear that no longer were...
When they arrived back at the church, Wiliam declared that he was hungry, having missed both breakfast and the noon meal, and pulled them both into the chill kitchen. Father O’Malley fell heavily to the bench of the small table where they normally took their meals while the young man stoked the embers in the hearth, adding small pieces of wood, bits of kindling, until the fire took root once more.
“That feels better, does it not?” he asked, stirring the flames into life. “It is quite cold here, even in the summer, is it not?”
“The summer is failing, my lad,” Father O’Malley replied. The family had forced a few loaves of good, hearty bread n them before they had left, sitting in their little bag on the table now, smelling delicious, but he was not hungry. He felt empty, vacant, a void ripped in him. “You shall have to get used to it.”
“Is winter very harsh here?” And he sat down opposite to the older priest, reaching for one of the loaves and breaking off a large piece, splitting it in two, offering him half. He smiled. “I suppose I shall find out in due course.”
Father O’Malley huffed a humorless laugh. “And to think, only a few months ago, you would have done anything to leave this windswept hinterland.”
“Yes, I would have,” he replied, and sighed. “Father... today...”
“It is a hard sacrament to administer,” he nodded back. “One of the hardest. Death...”
“The family needed you there. It is as much to give comfort to them, as it was to the dying man, was it not?”
“Perhaps more. It is always harder on the ones left behind. The departed... they are with God. We, here on this earth, are still fallen.”
Wiliam nodded thoughtfully at that, and bit off a small piece of bread, chewing thoughtfully. “I would not have known all of this, about being a priest, had I stayed in Dublin. The church there, everything everyone ever told me...”
“Politics,” Father O’Malley agreed. “All about power and position.”
“I feel guilty, Father,” Wiliam said, hasty, cheeks flushing, “for the guilt I have made you feel. I never intended to take you away from...from any of this. From your life, your parish...”
“You have not,” the older priest said, wanting only to erase that pained burden he heard in the younger’s words, and suddenly realized it was true. That... “Before you... before you I was dead. You, my darling, brought me back to life.”
Wiliam looked up, something shocked in his face. “You give so much of yourself, Father. I am nothing like you. I... I give nobody anything...”
“You gave me myself,” he replied, cutting all that off, rising, going around to his side of the table, running a hand gently through his hair, cupping the back of his lover’s head. “You gave me yourself.”
Those dark eyes softened, widened, and Wiliam shook his head as he dropped that bread back on the table, stood up himself, wrapped soft fingers around the older man’s wrist, closing the distance between them, kissing him slow and easy. “Come to bed,” he whispered in his ear, pressing another soft kiss to the delicate skin just below. “Please. I have need of you.”
They had held the funeral that day, two days after the death of Aine’s grandfather.. Enough time for a coffin to be made and a grave dug and all the other preparations completed. It had been the typical sombre affair it always was, the loneliest part of the work he did amongst these people. But today, today he had had Wiliam standing by his side as the men from the village filled in the grave, and after they had left, the young priest slipped their hands together, and kissed him.
“I think I am beginning to understand what you mean,” he’d admitted, staring down at the pile of fresh-turned earth. “About what it means, this life of ours.”
“That is good, Wiliam.”
“I would still leave it for you,” he’d whispered, and clung to Father O’Malley’s arm, like a scared child. “If you would have me.”
“I would have you, my Éanne,” he’d replied.
“But that would take you away from here, and all the people you love,” the young brother had said, with not a little regret in his voice, and left him to his thoughts in the little wind-swept graveyard.
He’d come up to the bluffs instead of staying there, come up to watch the sea crash on the rocks, to hear the calls of the migrating birds, to watch the foam rise and the sun move across the sky, and think.
Think on all of that.
It was clear to him that he could not be both a priest and a lover. His thoughts turned more often than not to Wiliam, his prayers so focused on what was between them, his dreams filled with the lad’s smile, all of it taking him away from his ministry, from God Himself, perhaps, if he was being truly honest. Not that this was evil - he refused to believe that so beautiful a thing could be so evil - but rather that it was a distraction, something else filling up his heart and his mind, yielding no room for anything else.
He knew he had to choose. Wiliam or the Church. The Church or Wiliam. And he loved them both, loved them both so much that it was hard to tell which should be priority, which came first in his heart. So the choice lay between his nature and his duty, his own desires and what others might need from him...
“Lord,” he whispered softly into the wind off the sea, like a child talking to his father, more honest a prayer than he’d uttered in years, “Lord, please, I do not know what to do. I cannot make this decision. Please, please, sen me a sign...”
But there was no answer. There never seemed to be any answer any more. He missed the simplicity of belief he had possessed as a child at times like this, when everything had been so easy, so basic. When God had been love and the Church had been the pure earthly expression of that, before the hard work and the loneliness and the politics and the rot of humanity had sunk in to everything...
But just then, before he could loose another plea, movement to the east caught his eye, and he turned towards it, his eyes picking up the traces of maroon and gold silks fluttering over the green sward, a small party approaching on horseback.
For a moment, it didn’t make sense.
And then it clicked together.
And his heart plummeted to his feet.
As he made his way back down to the cloisters at St Mathias’, the sound of harsh argument was already rising into the afternoon.
Wiliam, he thought desperately, and hurried on.
“... do not care what kind of sway he holds at court, he cannot simply recall me to Dublin!”
“You do the family no good here, brother...”
“I was not thrown into the Church to do the family good, Richard!”
“Father has his dreams for all of us, Wiliam...”
“His dreams have never included me...”
“Think of how this looks to him! It is not fitting to have the Lord Bermingham’s son languishing here in some shit hole of a parish on the edge of the Hiberian wilderness...”
“This place is no shit hole!”
Father O’Malley rounded the corner at those point around the front of the church, witnessing the little party of men he had seen from the bluff gathered there. A few liveried servants, a brother in a rough brown habit, and that nobleman, the one from the day they left Dublin, Wiliam’s brother...
And Wiliam, face flushed red with fury, anguish clear in the cant of his body, obviously trying to hide how very much this was affecting him, only partially succeeding.
He felt a wave of despair, but tamped it down. Perhaps, perhaps this was yet salvageable...
“My children!” he called loudly, announcing his presence in the most conspicuous way possible. “What seems to be the problem here?”
“My father...” Wiliam began heatedly.
“The Cardinal, your superior,” his brother corrected arrogantly.
“... has decreed that I am to leave this place and return to Dublin. He has sent my brother here to ensure that it happens.” And he stared at the nobleman, who looks so much like him, and yet so different. Father O’Malley was reminded, in that moment, of what Wiliam had been like when first they’d met, that wild, out-of-control, furious brat of a boy. How far he’d come in only a season or so. How far he still could come, towards being that good man, the one that the priest knew was lurking in there, the one who’d been emerging more and more...
“David,” the priest along with the small party said, interjecting up over the top of the anger thickening in the air, coming over with a large document in hand. “I fear things have gotten out of hand unnecessarily.”
“Brother Calum,” he said, hoping his voice did not sound as weak as he felt right now. The world was beginning to tilt. He felt lightheaded, scared. So, so scared. What a fool I have been, he found himself thinking suddenly, to think that we could keep something, that the world would not find us, even here...
“Perhaps we can step in to your study, review the order from the Cardinal,” his old friend said gently, reaching out to squeeze his shoulder. “Come.”
The document has large and heavy, the seal with the Papal keys unmistakable in the yellow wax as Calum popped it open with a small knife, slightly heated from one of the candles. The handwriting was large and spidery...
“It does not look like his,” Father O’Malley swallowed, trying to make sense of the Latin, his brain not quite processing it at the moment.
“That is because our Cardinal has passed on to the next world, my brother.”
He closed his eyes at the news, grief beating out from his heart. “I had feared he would not last the summer.”
“He died only a few weeks ago, and some priest of noble blood has since replaced him. A man with connections, David..”
David. It sounded so strange to his ears. He had never really liked the name, but he had cherished it, because the Cardinal, the man he’d loved as a father, had given it to him. But now with so many months of another man he loved using a different name, his true name, the Christian title grated on his ears. “His successor is moving fast, recalling Wiliam so soon,” the priest said, trying not to focus on anything but the immediate problem.
“The rumor is that his sister is married to the lord’s second son, his own brother a retainer to the king in London. Connected, my brother. You cannot escape those things so easily, even here...”
“So de Bermingham gets what he wants,” Father O’Malley sighed, and looked back down at the document. The language was unmistakable. It was an official order of the Church. It could not be disobeyed. “And we lose a promising young priest to the politics of the Pale...”
“Do you truly think Wiliam could be a good priest, David? A young, spoiled man like that, living his life by the Vows, in poverty and chastity?”
There was something about the way his old friend said the word chastity that gave Father O’Malley pause. “What do you mean by that?”
Brother Calum just sighed. “I told you, brother, there were rumors of his behavior. Rumors that his father had thrown him out for things he had done, that the Cardinal sent him here to avoid further speculation on...”
“The Cardinal sent him to me to...”
“I know why the Cardinal sent him here, David,” and Calum reached out, took the letter away, a strange expression on his face that Father O’Malley instantly took to be anger. “As I know why he sent you here, all those years ago.”
It took a moment for the meaning in those words to hit him. And then the bottom fell out of Father O'Malley's word, his body going cold, clammy sweat collecting in shock weakened palms.
“I... I spoke those things to him under the seal of confession...”
“I did not need the Cardinal to tell me, David.” His eyes were hard. “But we shared much in boyhood, and you did not hide it well.”
He sat down hard, his knees nearly giving way on him, under the weight of all of that which was coming out. “Is this why you have come, Calem? To threaten me with such accusations?”
“I am here to help you, my brother. I have prayed for you. To give you fair warning, to keep you from doing something foolish for something so fleeting as this young man’s affections...”
“You do not know him...”
“But I know you, David.
Do you really think it would be a good idea for you to keep him here?” the other priest asked, low and pointed.
The world was still trying to pitch him off, the accusation, the raw hatred in his old friend’s voice clear now, and Father O’Malley had to steady himself on the edge of the table against it. He was such a fool, a fool, to think he could outrun any of this. “Stop, please...”
“I have never judged you for it, brother, for I know... I know you never acted upon it back when ...when we were together in Dublin, you and I. I have prayed for you so many times...”
“Calum, you know I would never...”
But his friend held up a hand against his protestations, and kept going. “... but the man who protected you once from Church scrutiny is gone now. If you challenge this order, just to keep one here who has been rumored to sodomize stableboys for sport, I cannot... I cannot assure you that that scrutiny will not come back. Hard. On you both. And you know what kind of punishments are inflicted upon sodomites. Especially those who are not protected by personal patronage any longer.”
“Please,” his old friend said, urgent now, “please, my brother. I respect you for the life you have lived, but for your own sake, let the boy go. He is not worth you.”
“You are wrong about him, brother,” Father O’Malley said quietly, dropping his face into his hands, his shame washing over him, unable to hide the way he was shaking, how it was crushing him. Losing his lover, his friend, his father... and was this the sign God had sent him? Could this not be it? Could the Lord be speaking to him right now, telling him that this was wrong? “You are wrong,” he persisted. “He is a good man, and he can be a good priest, if we but give him the same chances that were given to us.” He winced a little, but had to say it. “The same chances that were given to me.”
Calum softened a little, but did not smile. The air around them was heavy with all that had been said. Father O'Malley had never felt further from anyone, as he did from his old friend in that moment. Everything, you have lost everything...
“I do believe," the other priest said at length, standing away from him now, "if anyone could turn him around, it would be you.”
“Look after him for me, please. Promise me that.”
“I will,” he promised, and nodded again, holding out a hand to gesture away. “Shall we go stop the argument?”
Father O’Malley simply nodded, and pushed outside, and strode out of the cloisters, back to where Wiliam has half in tears from rage, he and his brother screaming at each other now, the servants holding the horses looking near-frantic.
“Stop,” he snapped, inserting himself square between them, grabbing his lover by the neck of his habit and hauling him back, keeping all the gentleness they had shared these past few months out of his actions. He could not show it, could not betray this young man now, despite what must be done...
“Brother Wiliam, stop this shameful scene!”
Those dark eyes - those dark eyes that he so loved, that he knew so intimately - were clouded with rage, teared thick with pain. “F-Father O’Malley, I will not simply leave this... this task that was set out for me, simply because the Lord Bermingham has some damned whim to bring me back under his wing!”
“This order is signed by the Cardinal, and binding,” he replied softly, trying his hardest to remain unmoved by the emotion he heard in his boy. “We may not simply change them to suit ourselves.”
“It has been decided, Brother Wiliam. Let it go,” he said sharply, and turned back to the rest of the little party, ignoring his lover’s grief as best he could. Ignoring the way young man crumbled back against the gray stone of the church wall with hollow eyes. “You are all welcome to stay the night if you wish. You may start out again in the morning.”
“I think my brother would be more comfortable in the inn back in...”
“Silence, Wiliam. You think I have never camped in less than ideal conditions? I am no wilting flower, such as you,” and the Baron fixed his younger brother with a nasty look, but nodded. “Those terms are acceptable. We shall gratefully accept your hospitality, Father O’Malley.”
“Of course,” he nodded, and felt something, deep in his breast, shatter apart.
Dinner was a simple affair of bread, stew and ale, Richard a loud and boisterous presence, telling stories and talking up over the top of everyone else with the ease of a man who was not used to being disobeyed. It was a thoroughly unpleasant experience, with Calum giving him sympathetic looks every so often and Wiliam becoming more and more withdrawn the longer it went on for. Father O’Malley was relieved when it was over.
It was a bit of a scramble later, finding places for everyone to sleep. Richard took their chamber, of course, and the servants, after they had fetched back Wiliam’s horse from the village, the hayloft of the little barn, and Caum had seemed to make a special point of ensuring that Wiliam slept on a pallet in his room, away from Father O’Malley. He felt a great deal of guilt over that, every moment, every close encounter he’d ever had, every urge he’d ever felt, every thought he’d tried to ignore turning over in his mind that night, laying sleepless on a thin blanket in the tiny library.
Calem had gone so far as to ask him if he wanted confession. Please, brother, when we are gone and you are alone, there will be nobody here to hear your sins, to absolve you...
But he could not confess. To the breaking of the Holy Orders, his vows? Perhaps. That truly had been a sin. To what he felt for Wiliam, what they had done together, all they had shared, his feelings for the lad... those he could not recant. Never. Not any more. If he was to live the rest of his life now alone, without his love, that was one thing. Denying that he had felt it, that it was real, that it was something pure, of God, was entirely another.
And he knew, in his heart of hearts, it was far, far too late for him to lock away everything he had learned about himself, and go forward as if it had never happened at all.
It was far into the night, long after everyone must have gone to sleep, that he heard the door creak open and moonlight pour onto the floor, and he wasn’t surprised by that in the slightest.
“Wiliam,” he breathed, sitting up as that lean form he knew so well padded towards him. “Wiliam, lad, you should not...”
“My brother drank half our ale this night, I doubt he will wake any time soon,” he said with a sniff, and sat down next to him on the thin pad. “And Father Calum is out cold as well.”
“Hang them all,” he snapped, quiet, and pressed himself against the older priest’s side. “Hang everything and everyone else but you and I.”
He was shivering, Father O’Malley could tell, and like as not, not just from the cold. He wrapped an arm around his shoulders and pulled him close, kissing his cheek, running a comforting hand up into his hair.
“I have to leave with them tomorrow,” the young priest said, laying his cheek down on the elder’s shoulder. “There is nothing you can do, is there?”
“I am sorry, darling."
"I had thought you and I safe here...
"But the world found us again, did it not?" He kissed the crown of that dark head. "I suppose, in a way, it was never going to last."
“We could run away, Fionnan, you and I, could we not?”
It was so quiet, so earnest... but Father O’Malley had been asking himself about that too, about the choice he was faced with here, and he already knew the answer. “You say this is your family’s doing, and I believe you. But if your father is able to reach us here, do you not think he could reach you elsewhere in Eire? That he might not have alliances with the Gaelic lords, that he would hunt you down and drag you back to Dublin or London in disgrace? Caught living amongst the blue-painted barbarians, living with some fallen man as I would be...”
“Hush, my son. We cannot.”
His lad only hugged closer, breath hot on his throat, coming in uneven little gasps. “I do not want to leave you behind.”
Father O’Malley closed his eyes, his own grief rising high and fast. “I shall be with you,” he whispered, remembering the words the Cardinal had once spoken to him. “I shall not leave you, even though we be far apart.”
“You remember when I said I did not know if one man could love another?”
He nodded. “But you believed it so.”
“I know it to be so now,” he whispered, and pushed back, enough so that they could face one another. A hand, pale in the weak light through the thin glass windows, touched his face, a thumb tracing the lower edge of his cheekbone. “I know how my heart yearns for yours.”
“And mine yours, my love,” Father O’Malley whispered back, feeling his own eyes gathering with moisture. “And I you.”
Wiliam closed his eyes, but surged up nonetheless, fully into his arms, against his chest, pushing him back, pushing him down, kissing him as if they would never kiss again.
Which, Father O’Malley thought with not a small amount of desperation, they never would.
They made love that night, slow and sweet. It was not playful, not exploratory, nothing new or adventurous, just the two of them memorizing the other, every inch of skin, every imperfection, every scar, every hollow, every little sound, every sweet shiver of pleasure, every barely-held cry of ecstasy. His fingertips wandered and his lips wandered and he inhaled deep the scent of their love. He tried to remember every tiny detail, every moment, for it would never come again. Not ever again. And they writhed against each other, Wiliam inside of him, Wiliam all around him, both of them working into the cracks of the other until there seemed no distinction between where one of them began and the other ended.
Neither of them slept that night, too consumed in one another to care about such trifling needs of the flesh, and when the gray light of dawn began creeping under the doorway, Father O’Malley knew that this life they had been building together, the one he had so hoped he could somehow keep, was shattered beyond repair.
“I love you,” he whispered to his lad. “Be strong.”
“I love you,” Wiliam replied in kind, and kissed the space right over his heart, laying a hand there, as if in benediction. “Never forget me?”
“Aye, lad. Nor me, you,” he promised.
There was one last kiss. And then the world called them away.
Father O’Malley tried to be as gracious, as indifferent as he could, to the questioning glances of Father Calum and the arrogant orders of Wiliam’s brother, all through prayers and the preparation of a simple breakfast and the necessary arrangements for leaving. But his heart was breaking, some vital part of him ebbing away, and he did not want to have to keep that off his face, did not want to have to hide himself...
We do our duty, he told himself. How could you ever have forgotten that?
But in that moment, he could not bring himself to care.
Not about anything, anything other than who - what - he was losing now.
He said goodbye as gracefully as he could, daring even to give Wiliam one last hug, whispering one last, never forget the good man that you are in his ear before he had to join the party, mount his own horse. Calum was staring daggers in him, but he waved goodbye to his old friend, and tried to comfort himself with the fact that Wiliam was going back to a better place, that Dublin suited him better, that his family would likely see him sent to the Vatican University for study, that he might someday be an influential man. That he would know the true love of Christ, the true work of their Lord, in his heart...
But nothing helped. Nothing would. He just felt empty. Lost. Hollowed out. And for that, he knew, there was no remedy but Wiliam.
And he was being taken from him.
Riding away from St. Mathias’, out across the green sward, Wiliam was unreadable. Stoic. Cold as iron in the wintertime, not speaking, not so much as even looking at any of the men who had come for him, his mouth set in a thin, unhappy line as if it would never again take a different shape. As if he would never smile again, never speak again, never laugh or cry out in pleasure or love again. His eyes met Father O’Malley’s as he rode past, revealing nothing, saying everything. But his mount’s hooves churned the grass, the party swept him up, and the world took him away.
Father O’Malley went to the top of the bluffs, hood pulled up over his pale locks against the chill breeze, to give himself more time to watch them leave. The party was a bright flourish against the fading summer greens, smaller and smaller, fading into the distance, too far for him to tell which one was still Wiliam. Then they rounded a long hill, into the light fog that was still clinging to the land there, and vanished forever.
Wiliam. Vanished. Returned to the mists. Like some sprite out of his mother’s stories.
Father O’Malley stayed at the crest of the hill for a while longer, still staring after the path his lover had taken, taken away from him, feeling emptier than he ever had in his life, or perhaps aware of his own emptiness for the first time in his life. He did not know which. He did not know what he felt.
Only the smallest shred of hope that one day, one day, he might be whole once again.
Father... he prayed.
But there was no answer. Part of him feared there would be no answer, ever again.
Hope, Fionnan, he heard Wiliam’s voice echo in his mind, the words coming to him as if in a dream. There is always hope. Perhaps one day I may return to you, we may be together as we ought to be...
“Perhaps,” he sighed, and knew that later, he would take comfort in those words, later he might find his peace in them, later there might even be truth in them, but for now, he could not summon any but the blackest of sorrows.
The priest headed down the hill to his parish, to his church, to his duties and his chores and his solitude, leaving his heart on the grassy bluff overlooking the sea, overlooking the path that had carried his love away.
He did not look back again.
“I own the book?” Kirk says, taking the skinny paperback away from Kevin, squinting at the cover. “There is a book?”
“Like half your movies are adapted from books,” Kevin says, and can’t help but wonder why it is that even reeking of sweat and liquor, just woken up from a two hour nap, hair and clothes all messed up, Kirk is still so goddamn sexy. Why? It’s not fucking fair...
“Are they?” he asks. It never ceases to amaze, what the man’s amazed at.
Kirk nods, like this is really an important piece of information that needs time to digest - or maybe he’s just drunk, it’s hard to tell. “Is it ay good?”
Kevin shrugs. “I mean, it captures most of the same themes as the movie, except I think the movie did a better job of expanding on certain elements, and let’s face it, Tobey MacGuire was...”
“Oh, he was a little minx for most of it,” Kirk says, and grins at him in a really unnerving way.
“...err, right. But I mean, the sensuality’s all there, but it’s definitely one of those things that comes across more strongly in visual form, unless of course you’re talking about fangirls, who all seem to just glob on to any movie you do and make this huge fandom and write all kinds of sexual things about...”
Kirk stops him with that look. The one they’ve both agreed means it’s time for him to shut up and calm the geek-talk down. “Fangirls?”
“Yeah, you know, they write slash. It’s all over the Internet, almost every movie ever made seems to have something for it, but your movies especially seem to draw big fandoms. I’d bet that Sherlock Holmes is going to have a huge following, mostly because you’re hot and Jude Law’s hot and there already seems to be a lot of, err, slashiness that you’re building in and seeing as how that fandom’s been around since at least the early days of the twentieth century...” He stops again, more from Kirk’s silence than anything else, and looks over at his former co-star, who’s wearing an expression of absolute confusion. “What?”
With a fond little sigh of exasperation, Kirk slides a hand up into his hair, fingers massaging his scalp gently. “You are so cute when you’re geeking out, Sandusky, you know that?”
He can’t help the blush that comes over his cheeks, or how it gets hotter once Kirk starts laughing at him. “Come on, Kirk, most actors don’t know about that stuff...”
“What? I google myself sometimes,” he replies easily, still smiling, fingers still working. Fuck, it’s hard to think when he’s doing that... “You think I’ve never stumbled onto fan-fiction about Father O’Malley and young Brother Wiliam before?”
“Umm...” Kevin really doesn’t want to think about Kirk reading some of the stories he’s read with him in them. Oh god, he’s thinking about them. And is he getting hard? Fuck, he’s getting hard...
Kirk chuckles, low and throaty this time, and pulls him closer, accent dropping back into that incredibly racist jive thing he did on Tropic Thunder. “Or Osirus and Brooklyn?”
“Oh god,” he stammers. “Kirk...”
But the older - much better, far sexier, more famous, way out of his league - actor just slides a very, very suggestive hand up Kevin’s thigh, resting it right over the growing hardness there, leaning in, biting at his neck. Oh yeah, he’s going to have hickies tomorrow morning. “You wanna go to bed for this next part, babe? Because I don’t especially want to ruin another couch.”
As Kirk pulls him to his feet, arm around his waist to steady him - despite the fact that Kirk’s had at least three times as much as him tonight - and leads him upstairs to the master bedroom, Kevin really has no idea why Kirk wants him at all.
But maybe it doesn’t matter. Kirk Lazarus tends to do what he wants, and Kevin is more than willing to allow that, allow the man anything.
Not like he could stop him if he wanted to.
Not the man who’s got his phone numbers on speed dial. The man who backed him for a role in the upcoming X-man reboot that Marvel’s doing - the one we’re not going to fuck up like Fox Studios did, jesus christ. The man who kissed him after the after party that one time, and told him he genuinely enjoys being with him, that he wants this to be more than everyone’s-gay-once-in-a-while kind of thing.
Aww fuck, Kevin wonders. Does this make them lovers now?
And did he just use the word lovers in his own internal monologue?
Has to be the book. Nobody uses those kind of words in real life...
Kirk stops them at the threshold of the door, kisses him up against the wall, presses every square inch of their bodies together, renders him half-senseless before letting him go.
Smiling at him with that same shy, uncertain little smile Kevin remembers from the movie. From Satan’s Alley. Father O’Malley’s smile...
“You want to try out a different kind of role-playing?” he offers quietly, kissing the shell of Kevin’s ear.
And goddamn if he doesn’t almost come in his pants on the spot. The thought of Kirk taking the bottom role in bed with him... “I, uhh... oh, jeez...”
Kirk kisses him again, soft and hesitant. “And after we’re done, we can get my laptop and find that fic where the two of them get back together and go fight ninjas and shit in Japan.”
Kevin grins back, only just schooling himself down from launching into another monologue about how that one currently has fifty-thousand hits on AO3 and seems to be getting mostly positive reviews and how the writer really went out of her way to make sure that the historical details were painfully accurate - more accurate than the book, anyway - even if it does have a section in it where Wiliam shows up in drag, which is actually pretty fantastic and wait, oh, that does have historical precedent if they're talking about Japan...
Not the time, Sandusky, he tells himself firmly, and moves into the space that Kirk’s leaving between them now, backing up, moving away, so in character, so deliciously in character...
“Let me show you your true self, Father,” he whispers, hoping like hell he sounds as seductive as Tobey did in the movie.
Kirk gives him one more wink, and then melts back against the wall for him.
Sure, Kevin tells himself, dating the craziest actor in the business sometimes has its perks.