The chapel was dark and silent, save for a thin sliver of moonlight pouring in through the stained glass above the pulpit. You wrapped your arms around yourself, your anxiety seemingly surrounding you from all sides. Nightmares had plagued you all week, but tonight the dreams had been the worst. You’d awoken drenched in your own sweat, unable to speak or scream. The air in the Sibling dormitory seemed far too exposed, far too open. The sounds of Siblings indulging in a few favorite sins from the rooms around you spurred you into motion.
You’d run to the only place you could think of that you would feel safe—the confessional booth. It reminded you of the closet you’d hidden in as a child when your mother and her boyfriend were fighting. You loved the feeling of being closed in, but having only a small wardrobe in your dorm room meant you didn’t have a small space to close yourself in.
You also liked the confessional booth because it reminded you that while your body was surrounded and safe, your soul was free. You were allowed, encouraged even, to confess the things you dared not utter. No shame or judgment could touch you there. You’d even bared your soul there, telling whomever was on the other side whatever it was that haunted you.
No one would be there now, of course, given that Mass had ended hours ago. It was also a weekend, and none of the Papas ever stayed for confession longer than an hour on weekends. Not that it mattered anyways. As much as you loved speaking to the Papas, you always felt most understood by Cardinal Copia. He always gave the best advice, and over the course of your time at the Abbey, you had built a rapport with him that was unlike what you had with anyone else. It seemed that you could truly connect with him, and for that you were grateful. Not that he knew who you were, but that did not matter.
You’d taken to going to confessional only on nights that he was on duty, waiting until all the other Siblings had gone first. You sometimes felt guilty for taking so much of his time, but he never made you feel as though he was too tired to hear your confession, giving you ample time as well as what seemed like thoughtful responses to your inner turmoil. It truly felt like he cared.
He would not be here now, however. The confession box was blissfully empty. You closed yourself in there now, running your hands against the velvet cushion on the small bench inside. You brought a hand to your mouth, sinking your teeth into your fist and letting out a quiet scream into your knuckles. Tears poured down your cheeks as images from your nightmares flashed through your mind. You buried your face in the blanket you’d brought with you before threading the fingers of your other hand into your hair. Soft sobs wracked your body, each sound swallowed by the wood of the confessional around you.
Unbeknownst to you, in the booth next to you, Cardinal Copia’s eyes snapped open when he heard you close the door. He wasn’t sure how long he had been dozing in the confessional, but the chapel around him was shrouded in darkness. He yawned, rubbing the sleep from his eyes and moving to stand from the cramped position he’d been in for Satanas knew how long.
Soft whimpers coming from the cubicle next to him caused him to freeze. He listened, trying to determine whether someone was crying or experiencing pleasure. He quite hoped it was the latter, though the thought of it caused a faint blush to creep across his face. However, a Sibling indulging in sin next to him meant he could sneak from the chapel and back to his rooms. If it was someone crying however, he couldn’t very well leave without making sure the person was alright.
He winced as he heard a sniffle coming from the person, followed by a familiar sigh.
“Sorella?” He asked, hoping he would not startle you.
You jumped at the sound of his voice coming through the small window between the two sides of the confessional. You held your breath, hoping to stop the tears slipping down your cheeks.
“Cardinal?” You replied, your voice sounding nasal from the congestion in your face. You were mortified, the Cardinal being the last person you wanted to find you in here. Despite the amount of time you’d spent pouring your heart out to him in confession, he had never heard or seen you cry, and you were hoping to keep it that way.
“Sorella, would you like to talk about it?” His voice was gentle and soothing, though sounding rough and sleepy. Had he been sleeping in here? You smiled a little at the thought and began wiping the tears from your cheeks with the back of your hand.
“That’s alright, Your Dark Eminence, I should let you get to bed,” your voice shook as you fought to keep your composure.
“It is alright, cara. You are distressed, and I cannot leave you to your thoughts like this.”
“No, please, Cardinal. I--” you stopped, unable to form an excuse.
“We can speak unofficially if you like. Maybe get some tea?”
“No!” You exclaimed, dreading the thought of him seeing you like this with your eyes and face red from crying. Your lashes were wet, and you knew your hair looked a fright from how you were pulling it before. You were also in your pajamas and felt suddenly as if you were naked. You bit your lip again, tears threatening to fall again. You slammed the lock on the door closed with a loud “click”.
Copia rubbed a hand over his face. He had come to care for you considerably over the last several months. He loved seeing your smile around the Abbey, and had greatly enjoyed your casual conversations during the times you happened to run into each other in the library or the corridors. That care for you had deepened as he spent many hours hearing your confession. Hearing you speak about your deepest secrets and struggles had given him a glimpse into your very soul, and the view was one he cherished. It pained him greatly now to see you in such distress, unable to do anything to comfort you.
“Tesoro, please. You are not afraid of me, are you?”
“No,” you replied, unable to keep the pain out of your voice. “Of course not.”
“Then please, allow me to help you. I will not judge. You should know that by now, yes?” His words were soft and pleading.
“Of course, Cardinal.” Of course you knew. But his judgment was not what you were afraid of. Prior to tonight, every one of your confessions had been controlled. You had prepared yourself for what you would be sharing with him. You had already meted out your allotted emotions. You were fairly certain you would not completely fall apart during confessional. You could show your emotions a bit, and then pick yourself up and carry on with your day.
Tonight, however, you had no idea how much would come out if you let your walls down with him now. You were afraid you would fall completely apart and frighten him off. There would be no one but yourself to pick up the pieces and you would have lost a friend as well.
“Cara, please. I promise, everything will be okay, yes?” His voice sounded so warm, so genuine, you could almost believe that what he was saying was true. You bit down on your lip, tasting blood, as you pondered the situation.
“Do I need to fetch Papa? Or someone else?” He asked softly, disappointment evident in his voice.
“No!” You exclaimed. The last thing you needed was to get Papa or, Satan forbid, Sister Imperator involved. “Please, I don’t want anyone to see me like this.”
“Like what, Sorella? I don’t understand. Please, let me help you.”
A choked sob escaped you, your shoulders slumping in defeat. You slowly lifted the lock on the confession box, resolving yourself to wait for Copia to open the door. You did not have to wait long. You heard him scramble out of the booth next to you. The door swung open, and he ducked his head into the small space with you.
“Do you want me to come in, or do you want to come out?” He asked. You scooted closer to the wall, making space for him to squeeze in next to you. It was a tight fit, and the closeness would have made you blush had it not been for the fact that you were so close to a full meltdown. As it was, the pressure from being squished between Copia and the wall of the little closet was serving to help you calm already. Maybe this wouldn’t be as bad as you feared.
“Sister?” Copia prodded gently, hoping you would speak. You let out a deep, shuddering breath.
“It’s stupid, really,” you told him finally. “More nightmares, and I couldn’t get back to sleep and the noise was just too much. I just needed it to be quiet. I’m sorry for worrying you.”
“Don’t do that, Sorella. Don’t minimize your pain for my sake.”
“I’m fine, Cardinal, really.” You dug your fingers into your thigh in an effort to keep control of your emotions.
“A moment ago you were having a full blown panic attack. You’re not fine, and you don’t have to pretend with me.” His voice was firm, which surprised you, but you could still hear the kindness and concern there. He reached out and pulled your hand away from your leg and grasped it firmly in his. The sensation was overwhelming, but not unwelcome.
“I just don’t know how long I can keep this all up,” you whispered.
“Keep what up, cara?”
“The facade that I belong here.” Your voice was so small that Copia barely heard you. He squeezed your hand to try to relieve some of the pressure your words put on his heart.
“You do belong here, dolcezza,” he replied. “Why would you ever think that you don’t? Has someone been cruel to you?”
“No, but it’s the same everywhere I go. No matter how hard I try, I never feel like I truly fit anywhere. I can tell everyone looks at me and sees me as being different. They don’t see me as one of them. I have felt unwelcome and uncomfortable everywhere my whole life,” Tears sprang to your eyes as images of your life flashed through your mind. All of the bullying, all of the strange looks you’d received from family and strangers alike. The people who had vanished any time you had let down even one of the many walls you had constructed to survive.
“And even though I understand why now, and I’ve accepted myself as I am, it doesn’t make the pain of always feeling like an outsider stop. I’m terrified that this feeling will never, ever go away.”
Copia wrapped his arms around you, pulling you close to his chest.
“This is okay?” He asked. You mumbled a brief affirmative, hiding your face against him to hide the tears that were already making their way down your cheeks.
“I am so sorry that you’ve ever been made to feel like an outcast. I know all too well the pain you speak of. But then I remember that our Lord was the first outcast, and it helps me feel closer to Him. He cherishes those who do not fit the standard mold. He values them for their strangeness.” He squeezes your shoulder at this and you snuggle in deeper. “You are so wanted here, cara. Lucifer cherishes your existence. The congregation here cares for you, even if they aren’t sure how to show it. I care for you, and if I have to remind you every day that you belong here, I’m glad to do it.”
The dam broke then, and you choked on your own breath as you sobbed into his chest.
“That’s it, cara mia. Let it out, I’ve got you,” he whispered into your hair as he rubbed soothing circles between your shoulders.
You so desperately wanted to stop, to pull yourself together, but you couldn’t. Between holding it back for so long and the Cardinal, with his soft words and warm embrace, the grief of never feeling safe anywhere finally broke within you and it poured out of you with abandon. You gripped the front of his cassock tightly, trying to ground yourself in some way.
He continued to hold you, rocking you in his arms and whispering calming words as your body shook with the exertion of crying. Finally, when your eyes had no more tears left to cry and your body was completely exhausted, you stilled in his arms. A deep, shuddering sigh left you, and the Cardinal tightened his grip on you.
“You’re going to be alright, Sorella.”
“I’m sorry,” you finally whispered into his chest as you pulled away from him.
“None of that, now. You needed to let all that out. You cannot survive, carrying the weight of what others put on you around like that.”
“But your cassock, Cardinal,” you began to protest, but soon felt his gloved fingers press against your lips to silence you.
“It will wash, no?” He smiled down at you before reaching his other gloved hand up to brush away some lingering tears. “It is late, and you are exhausted, dolce. Come, we must get you back to your room. Do not try to fight me. I may look like cooked spaghetti, but I am stronger than I appear.”
You giggled at this, and a small snort escaped you, causing you to blush furiously. The Cardinal opened the door to the confessional, nearly tumbling out. He gained his footing, and offered a hand to you to help you out of the small space. You took it gratefully, noticing exhaustion settling into all of your muscles. All of your lack of sleep had been building up, and now that you had exerted the last of your energy having an absolute breakdown, it had all come crashing over you.
You stumbled a little, having tripped over the bottom of your blanket. Copia reached out to steady you, his arms coming around you again. He pulled your blanket up around your shoulders, gathering the loose fabric and tucking it into your hand. You stared up at him, a little dazed by his closeness and his touch. Now that you weren’t distraught, you could appreciate his warmth now. His two-toned gaze met yours, and you recognized a certain softness there. Your blush deepened and you were glad for the darkness. Surely your face matched the color of his crimson cassock by now!
“Thank you, Cardinal,” you whispered, breaking the spell. He released you with a small, awkward smile.
“Shall we?” He extended his arm to you, and you took it, careful not to drag your blanket on the ground behind you. Together, you left the chapel and made your way to the Sibling dormitories. The Abbey was quiet now, all of the other Siblings finally having made it to a bed, whether it be their own or another.
It was peaceful, and you weren’t sure if it was because it was finally silent or if it was because you were in the company of the Cardinal. You were too tired to put too much thought into it, but if it weren’t for the fact that you were completely shattered, you would love to spend more time wandering the silent halls with the man next to you. As it was, you were glad when you reached your room.
“Well, this is me,” you told the Cardinal as you came to a stop. “Thank you, again.”
“No need to thank me, Sorella.” He shrugged, bringing a hand up to rub the back of his neck. “Now, go get some rest. Drink some water, too, please. I don’t want you getting dehydrated.”
You nodded, reaching to open your door now. “Good night, Cardinal. Sleep well.”
“Sweet dreams, cara.” He replied before leaning in to press the gentlest of kisses to your forehead. He waited for you to go inside and lock the door.
You obeyed his request immediately, taking several long pulls from the water bottle on your night stand. You rubbed your eyes, feeling a slight stiffness from the tears that had since dried on your lashes. A yawn forced you to take a deep breath as you slipped back under the covers.
For the first time in months, you felt totally relaxed, your soul quiet. Eyelids fluttering shut, you drifted off to sleep with a glimmer of hope blooming in your chest.