Divine lay on the cold stone for what seemed like hours. He’d fallen, drained from his punishment, the whip falling from his numbed fingers. He had reached up, then, made one last hash mark on the yellowed, chipping paint with a blood-slick finger and his body had finally given up on him. His arm fell limply into the cradle of his waist and he groaned softly. There was the familiar sickening burn and bone-deep itch as his torn skin knit itself back together. He would finish the set of lashes once he’d rested.
It was then that he heard, just behind him, the sound of the door squeaking open, hinge catching on paint that had been dripped and dried there and letting out a shriek of protest, making Cesar aware of the new arrival.
“You shouldn’t be here, Christopher.”
There’s a sharp, in-drawn breath but no answer, not for almost a minute. ”I know,” he says hesitantly, but there’s an underlying edge of defiance to his words in spite of his anxiousness. ”But I thought — I just thought that —”
“Deacon Jim would be… most displeased if he found you here,” Cesar muttered, husky voice soft as he pushed himself into a sitting position.
“W-what are you — what are you doing?” Christopher asked, words shot through with a mix of horror and wonder as he saw the flocks of hash marks counting out his cycles of whippings. ”I-is that — is that your blood?”
“Yes,” Cesar replied, keeping his back to the priest. Not as if he hadn’t seen everything already - more than everything - but now that he was awake, it was different. Cesar wasn’t sure why - it just was.
“Why do you do this to yourself?” Christopher was shaking his head as Cesar glanced at him over his shoulder, eyes tracking the marks on the wall. ”Why isn’t what you do enough? Why does there have to be more? Why does there have to be this?”
“What I do on the street every night and what I do here… those things have nothing to do with each other, Father,” Cesar said, looking away again and bowing his head. ”But there’s — there’s no way I can say… make you understand. There are no words for this.”
“I worry… for you,” Christopher whispered, as though it was a secret, his voice only just barely reaching Cesar where he sat no more than five feet from him on the floor. ”Going out every night, night after night, and coming ho — coming back to the mission, torn to shreds. Deacon Jim said that I would grow accustomed to it but I — I’m not. Every time you return, it’s a new disaster, a new heart-attack, another sleepless night lying in bed praying for you.”
“I never asked for your prayers, Father,” Cesar said, head still hanging limply between his shoulders.
“You don’t have to ask, if I give them of my own choosing, Cesar.”
Drawing in a deep lungful of air, Cesar allowed it to straighten his back and square his shoulders for him, setting his body to rights for him. There was a fresh sheen of perspiration on his skin from the healing and with the damp outside, he was starting to feel the chill.
“Let me help you,” Christopher said, feet scuffing on the concrete as he moved close, coming to stand just behind him. His hand settling birdlike light on the crown of his head and something in Cesar’s chest felt as though it might split in two and he found himself hunching forward again, shoulders slumped. ”Please? I can get you something to eat. Perhaps a cup of tea? Tell me what I can do, Cesar. Please?”
“You should go, now, Father,” he said, swallowing around the knot at the back of his throat. ”You shouldn’t be playing nursemaid to a bruiser like me. You’re better than that.”
“And if I don’t wish to be better?” Christopher challenged and there was that tone again, so eager to be coaxed into rebellion if given only half the chance.
“Ahh, but I know you are,” Cesar replied, drawing his knees up to his chest and wrapping his arms snugly around them. ”Goodnight, Father Christopher.”
The hand that had been resting on the crown of his head finally lifted away and there were uncertain footsteps shuffling off toward the door. There were a few beats of silence and Cesar could feel the man’s eyes boring into his back, studying the smudges of blood that had been left behind by his punishment — the injuries healed but the blood was left behind, why was that? — and then the door snicked shut behind him.