Michael couldn't sleep. Again. Every time he closed his eyes, the whispers eased, but the images started, half-remembered, distant,and only half-felt: like a television program he saw once.
The whispers made him mad, but the images--he'd stay awake forever, if he had to, to avoid the pictures in his head.
So here he was, the middle of the night again, wandering the halls. He found the chapel comforting. The whispers didn't follow him as much there, but he felt ill. The image of the Lady, staring down with compassion hurt almost as much as Sister Ruth's accusing eyes. The vague and persistent feeling that he didn't deserve her forgiveness, when he couldn't even remember what he needed to be forgiven for.
There was only one place, one person who kept the whispers away.
You think he would let you stay, if he knew what you were?
Michael hadn't intended to come, not consciously. Father Jacob had been busy, and Michael knew he distracted him enough from his duties during the day. The hallways were stifling tonight, though, pushing in on him as badly as the walls of his room, as the ornately carved altar, as his own forgotten life.
He'd hate you for what you've done.
Michael knocked softly, hoping he'd be heard and welcomed in. Hoping Father Jacob would sleep through it and not wake until morning.
The one good thing about wanting conflicting things: you always got your wish.
The door opened quickly to reveal a semi-awake Jacob, obviously tired and dressed for bed, but not yet sleep-rumpled, standing there looking quizzically, but kindly at him. "Michael? Is everything alright?"
You think he'll smile at you when he knows who you are?
Michael almost sobbed, but swallowed the feeling down. He might not remember who he was, but he was not a child come to his parents' room after a nightmare.
"I..." But he couldn't think of anything more to say, his brain freezing, even as the whispers died away, almost into silence.
We'll make sure he knows. Everything.
Jacob smiled softly at him, standing back and gesturing him inside. "Don't worry, you didn't wake me," he said, as Michael came inside. Jacob closed the door quietly behind him. "I don't get much sleep these days, anyway, I'm afraid."
"I don't want to bother you," Michael insisted, because he felt he had to, even as he walked in and Father Jacob closed the door behind him.
"A friend stopping by is never a bother," Jacob said, as if he was someone who'd shown up on a sunny day to chat, rather than the sad thing he was, knocking on his bedroom door in the middle of the night.
Michael looked around, at the bed and the chair and desk, anywhere but at the priest. It wasn't as if he'd had a plan, other than to stay awake. His eyes caught the open journal sitting on the desk.
"What are you working on?" he asked, knowing it was rude, but not latching on to anything that would lead to him not having to talk about himself or the voices again.
Father Jacob chuckled as he watched Michael pick up the book. "What, you think all that preaching I do is improv? I'd never make it in Footlights, I'm sorry to say."
Michael looked down, reading out loud, "'If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.' Is that Mother Theresa?"
Jacob shook his head. "The Dalai Lama, actually."
"I would have thought you'd quote from your own religious leaders, in a sermon," Michael said, not quite making it a question.
Jacob laughed outright this time. "You think I believe Catholics have cornered the market on compassion? Quite the contrary," he said, a little dry humor slipping through. "Did you know," he asked, moving to sit on the bed, "that the Quran has 114 books, all but one of them beginning 'In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful'?"
Michael moved and sat on the edge of the bed, making himself sit closer to the foot, away from Jacob. He'd invaded his space enough. "I...hadn't ever thought about it." He looked back down at the journal and read more. "'It's a strange thought, seeking our own happiness by showing mercy to others. There's a part of me that rejects the idea as almost selfish: compassion should be solely for the benefit of the one I'm being compassionate toward, not for my own gain.' Are you trying to talk them out of being compassionate or into it?"
"'I'm not confused, I'm just well mixed.'" Michael must have looked at him strangely, since Jacob laughed again, leaning back against the headboard. "Robert Frost. But I think I'll save that for another homily."
Michael really couldn't think of anything to say to that, so just sat there staring at the book. He didn't realize he was stroking the pages until Jacob spoke again.
"We could get you a journal for yourself," he said quietly, as if trying not to startle a skittish animal. "It might be good for you, shake free some memories."
Suddenly, Michael couldn't sit still; he got up and walked to the desk to put the journal back down. The thought of remembering was both something he wanted and feared in equal measure. The idea of writing anything filled him with an almost complete revulsion he couldn't explain.
"I need..." he began and stopped himself. The buzzing was coming back slightly, louder, but indistinct, like flies over a rotting body. He jerked his hands in an aborted move, and walked back to the bed, sitting down again, though the need to move was still in him. But the noise in his head lowered slightly, the closer he was to Jacob.
"Please," Michael said, not knowing what he was asking for, just knowing he needed something, something to quiet the buzz of flies that the whispers had disappeared into. Make me feel human, he wanted to say. Make me whole, but a whole new person, one who isn't afraid of who he is. He knew he couldn't ask that, that it wasn't something anyone, even Jacob, could give him, but desperately wanting it nonetheless. "I need--" he started again, and stopped. Again. He felt stupid and frustrated and desperate.
Jacob sat patiently, looking as if he had nothing he would rather do than sit there all night. It made Michael want to cry more than anything else since he invaded Jacob's room.
"I need to feel clean," he finally burst out, not even knowing he was going to say it until it was there in the air between them, like a living thing. He reached his hand up to Jacob's hair; Jacob's head felt like the only solid thing around him, as if he'd abruptly stopped before hitting the ground after falling for ages. It felt like a reverse benediction. "I need," he begged.
"Michael--" Jacob said, not reprovingly, not quite confused, but not encouraging, either. But he didn't say anything more, so Michael leaned closer.
"I need," he said again before he bent finally close enough to kiss Jacob.
For a moment, Jacob did not respond, and Michael closed his eyes, not moving his mouth forward or away, just blocking out everything but the touch and taste of Jacob, waiting to be pushed away, rebuked, rejected, just as he deserved, just as he expected every day. Then Jacob's mouth opened, a small sigh escaping from his lips into Michael's mouth, and Michael wanted to sing and cry at the same time.
Michael couldn't remember the last time he'd been touched with affection. What that woman, the woman who had known him Before, had done had nothing to do with affection. This was comfort, though. Was this what love felt like? Was this compassion?
Jacob tasted of coffee and whiskey and the remains of his dinner, but underneath that was something fresher, sweeter, like crisp apples in the spring or a brook running over rocks.
"There," Michael said into Jacob's mouth, surging up for more, grasping his head and deepening the kiss. That was what he'd been searching for: something clean and pure and whole.
Everything he wasn't.
Then Jacob pulled his head away, still gently, still with a kindness that broke Michael's heart. "Michael, no," he said. He brushed his hand against Michael's face, not pulling away completely.
Michael looked aside, pulling away from the fingers. "I'm sorry," he whispered, and tried to get up. Of course: he had been about to spoil the one good, pure thing near him.
Jacob surprised him again, though. "Wait," Jacob said, and turned Michael's face back around.
"I didn't mean... I don't want to--spoil you..." Michael tried to get out, afraid to look him in the face.
"That's not," Jacob began, but apparently the ability to speak in complete sentences had left him, as well, because he stopped and sighed. "You can't spoil me, Michael," he finally said. "I know my saints, and I'm certainly not one." This time there was a touch of humor.
"I know the church says this" a gesture between them was all Michael could manage, even without looking Father Jacob in the eye, "is wrong."
Jacob didn't sigh this time, but he seemed close to it. "God made sex, Michael," he said, touching his face again and making Michael meet his gaze. Michael thought he would break apart if Jacob let him go. "If the first sin of Man was pride, the second sin was shame."
That made Michael pause for a moment, and maybe he made a sound, since Jacob smiled at him again.
"He asked them 'Who told you you were naked?', not 'Why are you naked?'," he explained.
Michael would have thought this was the strangest rejection in history, but Jacob kept touching him; it didn't feel at all like rejection. He was aware enough for the first time in several minutes that there were no noises, no voices, no buzzing, and hadn't been since he first touched Jacob.
Jacob's hand moved on his arm, almost petting him, and Michael tried not to purr.
"But I made a vow," Jacob continued, almost to himself it seemed, firmly, reminding. "I wouldn't be the person you think I am if I threw that away."
Michael did sigh, and gathered himself to stand again. Jacob beat him to it, standing them both up, but not letting Michael go.
"I'll leave you to get some sleep," Michael said, trying to move away. "I'm..."
Jacob still didn't let him go, but leaned down to pull the covers back from the top of the bed and sitting back down, pulling Michael with him.
"Lie down," Jacob ordered, and Michael obeyed, stiffly, uncertainly, rolling onto his side. Jacob let go of him for a moment to pull off his own shoes and turn out the bedside light.
Filthy, the voice said, coming back with the buzz of flies loud like the thrum of electrical current. Defiling the one good thing--
Everything went quiet again, instantly, as Jacob lay down next to him, curled against his back.
"I'm sorry," Michael whispered into the night, not sure which thing to apologize for first, but knowing he should, even as he breathed gratefully for the reprieve.
"For what?" Jacob asked, sounding amused as he usually did. "For needing someone? For needing comfort? That is definitely no sin."
He sounded so certain. There is good in you. Jacob had told him that, too. He didn't know if he'd believe it, outside of this room with the buzz of the flies and the Other voice back in his ears, but here and now, he clung to it. He grasped at it as desperately as he had at Jacob, earlier.
Here, though, in the dark, in the blessed quiet with Jacob's breath on his neck, and Jacob's warmth seeping into his back through both of their clothes, as he tumbled into sleep for the first time in days, he could almost believe it.
"No man has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us." 1 John 4:12