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careful fear and dead devotion

Chapter Text

Jason breathes in the cool air, the sound of his footsteps echoing on the tiled floor beneath him. The sun is still bright outside, the weather chilly, from what Jason remembers when he first arrived. The old brick walls and vaulted ceiling are enough for the old creaky heating system to lose the temperature battle and for the room to maintain a level of cold that only diminishes once the churchgoers arrive and the lit candles have begun to pool with wax.

It has been a little under two months since Jason, newly introduced into the priesthood, found his place in this small town Church after a drive that put his old truck out of business just on the move alone. He grew up in a town similar to this one and while he never would have expected to be doing what he does now (least of all his dad, he thinks with a concealed snort), he’s happy.

Just last week he was assigned additional times in the early weekday afternoons, but he started his time here with Saturday evening Mass and it’s still Jason’s favorite. He’s gotten to know a number of regulars and they’ve all been welcoming from the start.

He smoothes out his robe as the first of these regulars file in; a few begin to pull at their tightly wrapped thin scarves while others move to sit down in their usual spots.

Mrs. Nylund and her husband bundle up together in the front, as they always do, followed by Mr. Reid—Sam, he had asked to be called—along with his two children. Jason isn’t going to argue it, but he’s willing to bet that the children would rather spend their Saturdays anywhere but here. But then again, like, Ms. Vega, who has a Sunday morning business to attend to, and a couple others with morning obligations, Saturday evening Mass fulfills the expected Holy Mass otherwise completed on Sundays.

While Jason may feel compelled to remind everyone that Sundays should be days of rest with families, he’s never been one for telling people how to live their lives. Apart from urging them to live by God’s favor, Jason reminds himself with a smile.

Evening Mass is also typically a gathering of those who just finished work for the day and want to sleep in the next day—Jason can’t begrudge them that. If anything, he’s grateful they even show up.
Apart from Mr. Reid’s children, the only other people who Jason would expect are at an age where they would prefer Saturday evenings with friends, are two young women in their early twenties whom Jason spoke to once where they—Amy and Gabriella—explained were not morning people as reasons for their Saturday appearances.
Jason’s eyes pass over to the next two bodies who walk through the front doors: Mrs. Taylor and her son.

And there he is reminded of one more person who Jason would be hard pressed to believe doesn’t have a lineup of Saturday evening plans to pick from: Zack.
Jason was briefly introduced to Zack and his mother during his second week. Mrs. Taylor had bounded up to Jason after Mass, introducing herself in accented English before she had gestured to her son in what he would find out was Mandarin Chinese. Jason had caught his first glimpse of that crooked grin when Zack shook his hand and told Jason that both he and his mother enjoyed his Mass and would be looking forward every Saturday for the next ones.

Jason hasn’t spoken to Zack since; at least, not directly. Mrs. Taylor has come up to him twice more, using Zack as a means of translation of the words she has trouble saying herself, “She understands a hell of a lot more than she speaks,” Zack had once said, as explanation before he had been swatted on the arm by his mother in a chastise which Zack followed up by word of apology and a smile “forgive me, I meant to say ‘heck of a lot’.”

Jason isn’t sure, but it’s likely that Zack’s reasons for coming every Saturday evening has to do with his mother. They seem to have a close relationship, which Jason admires, but lately, there’s been something unsettling about the way Zack’s eyes never leave Jason’s face during Mass. There is no malice in those eyes—Jason can’t quite allow himself to describe just how opposite of an emotion he’s seen in them, even in the privacy of his own thoughts.

The sound of a door closing pulls Jason from those thoughts and he discretely looks down at the watch he wears high on his wrist. Just shy of 5:29 PM. He makes his way to the lectern, pulling the silk ribboned bookmark from its place on the open Old Testament and smiles warmly at everyone seated before he begins.

**

6:28 PM

The room feels several degrees warmer despite the later hour now. Two older people are sitting in different pews, their heads bowed, as Jason makes his way to the booth against the wall.
For two hours at a time, Jason sits in the confessional booth at the same time on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays and waits silently for someone to enter. There are times when no one does. Typically, people do not feel compelled to confess more than two or three times a year—if at all. Most don’t believe they do anything sinful enough to call for confession even on a monthly basis. And in a town like this one, that means Jason is mostly greeted with two hours of time alone to his thoughts.

Several minutes pass in silence. Jason had heard the sound of the church door open and close once within that time but he didn’t know if it was someone coming in or leaving.

But then a rustling beside him has Jason carefully sliding the cover of the grate beside his face open before he places his hands on his lap. “When you are ready,” he says lightly.

He hears the person’s mouth open before they speak and Jason is surprised to find the voice closer than he expects it, but steadily keeps his face downturned and facing away.

“Should I… that is, am I suppose to say the whole ‘Forgive me Father’ thing?”

The voice—male—sounds familiar but Jason can’t place it and he shouldn’t try, “It’s not required” he says instead.

His eyebrows furrow at the tell-tale sound of the other person licking their lips and… they must be pressed against the grate, Jason thinks to himself.

“Okay,” An intake of breath “Forgive me Father for I have sinned… my last confession was, well, I’ve never done this if you didn’t already figure that out from my earlier question.”

Jason stays quiet.

“I uh… well to start off, a few times I talked back to my mom, stolen candy from a store, I skipped school a lot in high school, drank things other than holy wine, used my fair share of curse words, you know, the works,”

Jason holds back a smile, ready to ask about trust in his faith before he is interrupted
“But there’s… well, there’s one thing that’s bigger than all of that. And see, the thing is, Father, that it’s been consuming a big part of my life at the moment”

Jason’s shoulder’s straighten and his fingers clasp together, “go on,” he says by way of encouragement.

A swallow.

“I find myself with urges… in the primal sense. For someone I could get into a whole heap of trouble over.”

Jason pauses. It’s not that he’s shying away from the confession, but something is still prickling at the back of his neck in trying to place that voice. He pulls back from it, “My son, these thoughts can be managed. You are not the first nor would you be the last to—“

“But Father,” the voice interrupts and this time Jason does jump when he hears a hand carefully being placed against the grate.“You don’t understand. When I see them, I just… I can’t help wanting to touch them even if… it would be taboo.”

Several breaths pass. Jason feels—well, he’s not sure how he feels but something about this has him uncomfortable. The term taboo leaving a lingering tightness in his throat “These… ,” he begins, feebly attempting to square his shoulders “…urges you feel are not foreign to God’s children. Many crave touch for various reasons that may be misinterpreted.”

Jason’s ears prickle at the huffed laugh he hears. “No Father, I’m not misinterpreting what type of touch I crave… My urge is to know how it feels to drown in their skin.” Another pause and the next words come out in a type of whisper, “I— I want to hear the passion they have when they speak to an audience, within the privacy of a bedroom with only myself as their congregation on my knees.”

Unnerved, Jason feels his heart accelerating slightly. This. This feels like something he shouldn’t be hearing. Like a confession and declaration rolled into one and Jason doesn’t know why, but he feels as if he should stop this. Now. He finally turns to the grate, hears an intake of breath that he tries not to mimic, “This sin—this urge you feel… Our lord tests us during every step in our path of life. We must all learn to resist our urges on these impure thoughts. Lust—“

“Yes” the word is drawn out, “lust is what I feel, Father. A type of lust that consumes me whenever I am near them.”

Jason turns away again, feels his pulse can be heard in the small space around himself, “Lust can be controlled, my son. If not physically, then mentally. Temperance is a heavenly virtue His children can use in order to make peace with opposing desires,” Jason continues on at the slightest movement beside him, where he feels exposed even though he knows only minimal outlines can be made out in the booth through the grate from either side “I ask you, my son, to practice temperance so that you may grow stronger than than those dark desires. I— I can provide you with penance for your sins in hopes that it may help you. Will you, would you like to say a prayer of contrition?”
This feels unorthodox. He would be chastised for forcing a close to the confession, but at this moment, it feels like something he must do. He must keep this person from saying more than they already have.

Several seconds pass in silence and Jason feels a cold sweat on the back of his neck, “my son?”

“What penance would you suggest, Father?”

“I ask that you pray one Hail Mary for each sin you have confessed here today. Your battle and test of strength will be enough for you to show God that you wish to serve in His image.”

Another silent beat and then, “Thank you, Father. I hope to exercise my faith under your guidance. Yes, I would make an Act of Contrition.”
There is something about how the words are said that has Jason questioning the sincerity. It’s as if the other person is more resigned to Jason’s refusal to listen to the confession rather than taking heed of the gravity of the sin. And so Jason finds himself only half listening to the scripted words he’s learned by heart when it’s spoken through the grate,
“My God, I am sorry for my sins with all my heart. In choosing to do wrong and failing to do good, I have sinned against You, whom I should love above all things. I—“ a tired sigh, “I firmly intend, with the help of Your grace, to sin no more and to avoid whatever leads me to sin. Our Savior, Jesus Christ, suffered and died for us. In His name, O Lord, have mercy.”

Through reflex, Jason responds with his prayer of absolution: “God the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of His Son, has reconciled the world to Himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins. Through the ministry of the Church, may God give you pardon and peace. I absolve you from your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

“Amen” he hears.

“God has forgiven your sins. Go in peace” Jason replies, finding himself tilting his head back against the wall of the booth.

“Thanks be to God” comes from a slightly longer distance from the grate, for which Jason feels ridiculously grateful for. He waits to hear and see the light shine in from the open door beside him but all he hears is quiet breathing in the darkness. He wonders if the penitent requires Jason to let him know he can step out now but the voice speaks out again, “One last question, if I may, Father?”

Jason once again feels as if he is stepping into a dangerous path before he resigns himself to answer, “Of course.”

The voice moves close to the grate, “Is it true that for a man of the cloth—as yourself, specifically let’s say—the promise of celibacy is technically a matter of tradition and Church law rather than forbidden?”

He’s not sure whether it’s bile or saliva that feels lodged in his throat, but Jason is unable to answer because somehow he knows now who he’s been speaking to. And suddenly all he can imagine are those eyes that stared at him just a little over an hour earlier as they have been for the past few weeks.

“Father?”

Jason can’t move. His palms feel damp against his lap and he prays for strength as he pinches his eyes shut and allows himself to focus on the pressure behind his head to ground him, “Is there a reason for this question?” Jason isn’t sure if it came out as harsh as he felt it did but he can’t hear over the pounding in his ears.

If it was, Zack—and God help him, Jason knows that’s who this is—doesn’t comment on it or seem bothered by it when he hums in thought, “Curiosity. Is that another sin?”

Jason shakes his head and then remembers—hopes—that Zack can’t see him, “No. Not when placed with officiating under service to God and a faith to do good.”

“Is that the answer to both questions or just this one?”

“From a theological perspective, priests serve to emulate Christ and He never—but it is not unheard of for priests to marry. It is not a Church doctrine, no.” Jason turns his face away, opposite the grate, searching for a tether in the darkness that meets him.

“That’s not really a yes or no answer.” Zack points out

“It is the best I can do,” Jason responds and then closes his eyes again, “If you come back tomorrow, you may find your question more suitably answered by Father Schiff. I’m not—he may be better fit to give you the answers your seek. Not me.”

Zack hums again, “I think I can satisfy myself with your answer,” Jason shudders slightly for a reason he won’t think on. “Thank you, Father. I believe I have some prayers to attend to.”

Jason doesn’t answer and a second later his eyes open and he catches a line of light shadowing the grate’s pattern against the booth’s wall as the door opens and then closes.
He stays there until he hears the Church door open and then close before his body sags and he presses the heels of his hands against his eyes with a strained sigh.

His eyes have adjusted enough to where he can see the face of his watch. He has just under an hour and a half left to wait until he can leave and he’s never been so nervous to be alone with his thoughts as he sends what may be a selfish prayer to have someone else come in with hopes of absolution for one of their sins.

**

The next few days pass by without incident for Jason. By Thursday afternoon service, he welcomes a couple who are hoping to discuss marriage preparation. Jason is both touched that he is chosen by the couple over Father Schiff who has served this Church for a much longer time, but he cannot deny that he isn’t also a little bit nervous for it.

The couple, in their mid-thirties, seem like a lovely pair and Jason tells them as much. The husband-to-be, Frank, tells Jason that he is a baptized non-Catholic but is willing to make the declaration and promise for a dispensation to be granted so they can marry under the Church.
The wife-to-be, Karen, also specifies, with hesitant but determined air, that they hope to hyphenate their surnames post-marriage, to which Jason smiles, assuring the couple that the traditional taking of a husband’s last name is not addressed in the Bible; rather it is a cultural custom so that decision is of no consequence. He pauses for a second before he leans forward slightly, “But if I may say, it would do society well to change this tradition to accept both surnames in order to encompass full marital union, in my opinion”

Both couples smile at him and turn to one another. They seem to be communicating something between themselves. A nod and an answering nod have them turning back to Jason, their hands coming together to clasp between them. “There’s something else we wanted to disclose to you before we can safely move on.”

Jason relaxes his posture as much as he can to make them feel comfortable, “Of course, please,” he says, gesturing for them to continue.

“We…well, we have a… what might be called a cohabiting relationship. In all senses of the word.”

“Ah,” Jason says, the prickling feeling he had on Saturday when Zack asked him about celibacy, returning now as his thoughts take him back to the dark booth, the almost warmer air that had felt so constrictive.

“We’re sorry, Father. If you don’t feel comfortable continuing we can make arrangements elsewhere...”

Jason blinks away his thoughts, finds the couple staring at him with a look of dismay, “hmm?” he asks before their comment catches up to him, “Oh! No, please, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to make you think—Really, I’m sorry. Thank you for telling me but that doesn’t change my willingness to accompany you through your marriage.”

The couple seem reluctant to relax but they smile at Jason and he mentally berates himself the slip. “Naturally, I hope you will also understand that I cannot ignore this aspect of your relationship. You know well enough where the Church stands on this issue—regardless of how common it may be these days. However, just because I cannot ignore it, under God’s judgement, it also doesn’t mean anything will change… apart from my addressing certain… ah, aspects of the preparation for the Sacrament of Marriage, but I ask you both to focus on your understandings of the meaning of sacrament and the commitment to marriage” Jason smiles again, shakes his head, “at your own disclosure, of course.”
He clears his throat, “Also, it would be amiss for me to not suggest or even encourage separating or living chastely until the vows take place if only to provide you each with an altered perspective on your relationship and allowing yourselves to make an unfiltered decision on your marriage”

Frank sits forward, “Yeah, uh, actually we talked about this… the well, living apart thing. We have been thinking of getting a new place seeing as I moved into Karen’s and we want to start a whole new life together after the marriage. So we’re both sorta going to be staying with family while we look for a place. Guess it kinda works out, huh Padre?”

Jason chuckles, “well, it’s certainly something.”

From there, the couple and Jason finalize a few last points and they agree on a date for their next meeting.

After they’ve left with a warm handshake to each, Jason looks at the time and notes that it’s time for him to take his place in the confessional booth.

He hasn’t thought about Zack during the past week, which he was grateful for, but now as he sits in the dark space, his mind wanders back to him and flushes when he thinks about why he was reminded of him today.

Jason spent about four years in seminary before he was ordained just shy of age requirement. Another almost four years before that he received his theology degree. In all those years, Jason can’t say he was ever bothered or thought about a need for intimacy. This isn’t to say that Jason didn’t understand attraction—he did and does, but his choice in joining the priesthood always appealed him more. He knows that things aren’t as strict as some may believe for those in his profession. He wasn’t lying when he told Zack that marriage wasn’t unheard of for a priest.

But the practice of celibacy. That was an act of trust and faith to God.

The thing is, what Zack was asking—what he… what Jason felt like he was insinuating wasn’t an act between a man and woman. Jason is proud to say that Father Schiff has not been silent on the fact that he welcomes all of God’s children regardless of their orientation. The concept of sexual orientation has always been an open one, to Jason. One cannot deny another human who they choose to love. So no, the issue isn’t with the sex or gender between consenting parties. The issue was who Zack desired.
Jason feels temporarily lightheaded with the thought. He hasn’t allowed himself to truly consider it and he can argue to himself that he doesn’t have proof of it, but—He closes his eyes, places his head back against the wall behind him to ground himself again. He thinks of those eyes that follow him every Saturday evening. Thinks of the sharp intake of breath when he had turned his face to the grate. That is where the danger lies, Jason thinks as he places his fingers over the upturned wrist of his other hand; it lies in the way his pulse quickens at the unrealized covet.

His thoughts are once again dissolved when he hears a shuffling beside him. Jason brushes his hands down his robe unnecessarily before sliding the grate, silently thanking God when what greets him is the voice of a woman.

**

When Saturday rolls around, Jason feels a thrumming under his skin as he arrives at Church earlier than usual. He splashes water on his face inside and looks himself in the mirror for several seconds, letting the water cascade down his face before he sighs and dries his hands.

After pulling on his robe, he smoothes down his hair, secures the band on his wristwatch concealed at the sleeve, and sits in wait.

**

5:00 PM.

Jason stands from his seat. He had been praying, he realizes. He feels more at peace for it.

The nave is empty still as Jason walks to the altar table, making his routine check of the lit candles. When he was younger and his parents brought him to church, he would like dipping his fingers in the wax sometimes. Just enough to coat the tip of his index or ring finger so as to only feel the slightest bit of heat. He would carry the coated and dried wax on his finger through the car ride home. In his room he would pop the mold off, stare at the indentation of his fingernail and whorl patterns from the print of his finger and then discard it when his parents called him down to eat.

He feels a little like that now. Like every passing thought of Zack is him merely dipping close to the heat to examine but not enough to do more than that.

Walking over to the small alcove where a statue of the Virgin Mary sits, Jason gets that childish urge to dip his finger in the large, glassed candle at her feet but instead, he rearranges the small bed of roses.

5:10 PM and people have begun to file in. Mrs. Nylund and her husband, Sam and his children. One by one, until Jason steels himself to look towards the stained glass windows from what he can see of the transept. He feels it like a prickle on his skin when Mrs. Taylor and Zack walk in. He knows it’s because Zack is looking towards him.

After the doors have closed, Jason’s eyes have unwittingly sought Zack’s out and his heart pounds when he notices that yes, those eyes are already on his. Jason is sure something must show on his face because Zack’s eyes sharpen in fascination. Jason is left wondering whether Zack knows that he’s figured out he was the one in the confessional a week ago.

A sneeze from the front pew tears Jason’s eyes away, and he joins in with the murmured “bless you’s” that come from the others before he moves to the lecturn and places his hand on the Testament, almost beseeching support from the thin paper.

Jason loses track of how many times his eyes have to dance away from Zack’s. While he’s thankful that he keeps a steady voice and dictation throughout, he can tell from the broadening smirk on Zack’s face that the rest of him is not quite as unfaltering.

By the end, the offerings of Eucharist are placed on the altar and Jason begins the prayer.

Jason knew to expect to see Zack stepping in line behind his mother for Communion. Why wouldn’t he? He undertook confession and while Jason could argue that Zack seems unrepentant in that regard, he does not feel at place to deny him the rite, all things considered.

One by one, Jason repeats the proverb with anticipation.

Mrs. Taylor stands before him, resting her stacked hands in front of her, palm up to receive the offering. Instinctively, Jason licks his lips after she walks away and he looks up, catching Zack’s eye “The body of Christ,” Jason says.

“Amen,” Zack replies before he kneels and opens his mouth, his tongue peeking out even as his eyes smile for him.

Jason hopes his hand doesn’t shake as he lowers the Holy Eucharist on Zack’s tongue and he pretends he didn’t feel the heat of his mouth before he pulls his hand away.

After the Communion Rite is ended with its prayer, Jason moves to the Church entrance to provide statements of farewell as he regularly tries to do.
Mr. and Mrs. Nylund have Jason caught up on a story about the videos they received from their grandchildren and how in the videos, they used something called ‘filters’ that had animated bunny ears appearing over their heads as “the darndest thing.” Jason laughs with them and then bids them goodbye and a thanks when he’s given a Tupperware container from Mr. Nylund as he explains that he was proud to have made lasagna for the first time in his life and wanted to share it. As they walk away, Mrs. Nylund tells Jason that had she known her husband could be such a wonderful cook, she would’ve married him the first time he asked instead of the second.

When Jason turns back after laughing, he’s met with Mrs. Taylor’s smiling face and Zack’s smirking one just beside her’s.

“Mrs. Taylor,” Jason greets, “Zack” he adds with a nod.

“Father Scott, thank you for another wonderful Mass” Mrs. Taylor says, taking Jason’s hand between hers in a warm shake, “I tell Zack I always in peace after hearing you and I see Zack, he more,” she pauses, turns to Zack and says something in Mandarin Chinese and turns expectantly back to Jason.
“She means to say that I’m more…hmm” the hum sends a wave of memory through Jason but he stands patiently, “enthralled or interested since you’ve taken over Saturday evening Mass.”

“Ah,” Jason replies, avoiding the sparkle in Zack’s eyes and instead smiles and nods at Mrs. Taylor, “I’m glad and grateful that you share your time here.”

She nods back, satisfied and then, “You should come have dinner one day. I will make big meal. Me and Zack.”

“What a wonderful idea” Zack adds.

Jason just continues to smile at Mrs. Taylor “Thank you for the offer, Mrs. Taylor, but I wouldn’t want to impose on you and I do actually have an obligation to stay here at the Church for a few hours more—“

“Oh, you wouldn’t impose,” Zack interrupts, “We would both love to have you over and surely you have at least one night off.”

“Well.” Jason concludes, forcing himself to regard Zack fully and feels a tightness in his gut for it. “I’ll get back to you both on that, how about that?”

“Yes, yes,” Mrs. Taylor says, blissfully and innocently unaware of the strain Jason feels standing in front of and looking at Zack who has casually rested his hand on his mother’s shoulder.

With another nod, Jason’s eyes catch another person standing a ways behind Zack and his mother, patiently waiting to speak to Jason.
“Ah, I hope you don’t mind” he says, gesturing to the older woman behind them.

“Oh! no, no, please. Thank you again, Father Scott. We will see you next Saturday or you let Zack know when you like to come to dinner, yes? We will make big meal.”

“Of course.” Jason says, smiling warmly and then biting his tongue when Zack holds his hand out to shake, “Yes, please do let me know.”

Jason’s hand feels aflame at the squeeze he receives when he holds his own hand out and tries to neutralize his expression when he feels Zack’s thumb swipe back and forth, briefly against his, although Zack keeps his eyes steady before they both walk away.

Jason hopes the heat he feels on his cheeks isn’t visible above the surface, but he doesn’t hold his breath on that hope if Zack’s smirk had been any indication.