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Title: Recompense Delight
Fandom: Doubt (film)
Pairing: Sister Aloysius/Sister James
Rating: M
Disclaimer: I have no rights where Doubt is concerned. John Patrick Shanley wrote Doubt and his words humble me.
Summary: Three things I know: Nun angst != angsty fanfic. Narrating is my favorite thing in the world. This story makes me nervous.
Author's Note: Some months ago, I participated in a drabble-prompting meme and discovered that I am incapable of writing drabble-length fic inspired by Doubt. After responding to the prompts indirectly with a short fic, I have finally written something with the specific prompts in mind. Please note: this story (in three sections, all complete and posted under the cut) is unrelated to the short fic. [ profile] pin_drop prompted the first section, [ profile] somniesperus prompted the second, and [ profile] la_fono prompted the third. So, once again, it's with pleasure that I dedicate a Doubt story to the three of you. Many thanks for the excellent prompts.

I. (Quiet, Handwritten)

The Church is difficult, but it is good. It has a cleanliness that Sister James cannot attribute to other difficult things, like the loneliness of her school days, the damp weakness of her brother Samuel’s sickbed, the hollow place the war carved in her father.

The parish school employs a janitor, but everyday, when her last class ends, Sister James sponges the blackboard clean herself. She smiles as she works, thinking of the layers of knowledge that have accumulated there, and how tomorrow is a chance to fill the board again.

The Church is rigid, but she can stand up straight. Its mission is vast, but she knows she can be of service. Best of all, she is one of many: since joining the order she has not so much as eaten a meal alone. And even as she prays and sleeps, God is with her. He is gentle, she thinks. Steady. As essential to her life as her own heartbeat.

This afternoon, as she watches the last student file out of the classroom, she knows He will never leave her. Still, she has changed. In a matter of days, she has become a suspicious woman. Her heart is occupied with dark things.

She worries about Donald Miller, and prays for his well-being. She first mentioned her observations to Sister Aloysius because she wanted someone to take care of him, because she knew she would never forgive herself if something was wrong and she hadn’t spoken up. But now that she’s done so, her suspicions—no, her concerns—have become real. They’ve become the slight but unmistakable presence of tears in Sister Aloysius’ eyes, the firm set of her jaw. They’ve become Father Flynn’s indignant bluster. They taste like sugar cubes. They sound like a story. Like a lie.

She finds herself wondering in spite of herself what exactly has happened, and she knows she wonders this for reasons beyond the sake of Donald Miller’s safety. She is actively curious. At night, tense with fear, she imagines unspeakably awful things, and convinces herself in the morning that they are not real. She watches, rapt, as Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn interact, likening their conversations to—not to a tennis match, but something tougher. To wrestling.

Today is a Friday, and Sister James is exhausted. She does not immediately move to tidy her classroom, but slumps slightly in her chair and pulls out a book. Right now, she doesn’t feel like one of many at all, and is grateful for a few moments alone.

It comes as a surprise when Sister Aloysius walks into the classroom a few minutes later, takes a look at the book’s spine, and says, “You shouldn’t be reading that.”

The book is actually a play: The Importance of Being Earnest. Sister James half expects Aloysius to make a teasing comment next, maybe something about how she is far too earnest already, but she doesn’t.

Sister James shuts the book, taking a mental note of the page number. Sister Aloysius already has a say in how she conducts her classroom and disciplines her students, in how she prays, in what she talks about at dinner—if there is to be any talking at all. The sisters dine particularly early now that the days have shortened, leaving only a small window of time after classes for her to collect herself, and now Sister Aloysius is going to take issue with how she spends this time, too? “I’m sorry, Sister,” James says. “But why?”

“It’s Wilde,” Aloysius replies. “He was a—” She blushes, not all over her face but at the apples of her cheeks, and screws up her mouth in…not disgust, exactly, but displeasure.

Sister James remains surprised, but now she understands. She has no idea what to say, so she opens a desk drawer and sticks the book inside, catching the way Aloysius cranes her neck as if curious about the drawer’s other contents.

On Monday, minutes before her first class, James rummages in her desk for a pen and comes across the volume. She opens it guiltily, and realizes a mid-sized piece of plain white paper marks the exact page where she left off.

Romans 1: 26-27 -- For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature: And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompense of their error which was meet, it says.

She instantly recognizes the spidery, inky script. It’s the same handwriting that appears on her teaching evaluations. She tries to put the passage out of her mind, but gets another note the next day.

1 Corinthians 6: 9-11 -- Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, Nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God.

And such were some of you: but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God.

This one is loose in the desk, because Sister James has taken the book and hidden it in her room. She grips the paper so tightly it shakes, and realizes she is very, very angry.

If this week is the same week Sister Aloysius starts staring at her with some frequency and intensity, she tells herself she doesn’t notice, and tries to meet her eye only when absolutely necessary.

She does notice, of course. She takes in the wise, almost taunting little smiles aimed in her direction. Other times, she senses that a quiet joke has been made for her benefit, but does not laugh, not when Leviticus 18:22 -- Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination has just shown up in her desk drawer that morning.

All the same, Sister James lacks objectivity, and deplores this quality in herself. She stacks Aloysius’ notes in a box her brother découpaged for her years ago, filing them away like love letters.

She watches the wrestling with wonder. She stands up to Sister Aloysius, finally saying all the things she’s wanted to say about fear and mistrust and the old ways, and finds that immediately after saying them, she is no longer sure if she still believes in them at all.

II. (Love)

After they make their cold way in from the courtyard, Sister James learns that Sister Aloysius’ room, unlike her own, has a sink. She watches as Aloysius splashes water onto her face without taking off her bonnet first. She presses a towel to her eyes and cheeks and then they stand, purposeless, in the middle of her spare white room. It occurs to James that even after bearing witness to Aloysius’ deepest doubts and being privy to confessions she’s certain no clergyman will ever hear, she has not been invited to stay.

Her instinct is to leave immediately, and perhaps to meekly wish Aloysius well on the way out. Her instinct, in other words, is to do something nice. In a burst of inspiration, she realizes she is having this thought because she is nice. Sister Aloysius can be kind, but she is not a nice person. Maybe, Sister James thinks, she would appreciate some harshness.

She moves to the closed door, and pauses before opening it. “I want something better from you,” she hears her voice say, nervous but clear. “From the scriptures. Something you actually like—or actually believe in.” This tactic is risky, hinging as it does on the truth of James’ belief that the scriptures, so far, have been a game. There’s a question in the pieces of paper, and she wants to know how best to answer. The most ruthless thing she can think of in this raw moment is to demand more of Aloysius’ heart.

Aloysius opens her mouth to speak, but no sound comes out. She looks angry, but this may be left over from the crying and all the years of having her own harsh things to say.

James gets Psalm 125 next, and for days after, more Psalms. She wonders if Sister Aloysius has chosen to share her favorites, or if she’s picked them with only Sister James’ spiritual benefit in mind. She starts arriving to her classroom a few minutes earlier than normal, so she can take time to read and ponder before she has to teach. She tells herself she is satisfied with this private introspection; the sisters all so are busy welcoming Father O’Malley to his new home that it would be impossible to expect additional spiritual engagement from anyone. She notices that dinnertimes pass without so much as a word from Aloysius as to the content of Father O’Malley’s sermons, and freezes up whenever she considers introducing a topic of her own.

A week and a half after their conversation in the courtyard, the Psalms stop and something new begins.

Song of Songs 8: 13 -- Thou that dwellest in the gardens, the companions hearken to thy voice: Cause me to hear it.

At the end of the page, cramped between bold brackets, Aloysius has added

[Read the rest.]

Sister James feels this one pulse in her stomach, and when work is over she rushes back to her room to read. She’s sure she must have at least glanced at the chapter before, but she doesn’t remember it like this. This chapter is all about breasts and sandals and pomegranates and sapphires and myrrh. Her stomach jumps again, and she catches herself thinking, But she only knows about my face. She gasps. It is obvious, now, as it should have been from the moment she finished studying Psalm 125, that all along she has believed that Sister Aloysius has chosen the texts as a means of speaking directly to her.

That evening, walking up a flight of stairs, she practically runs into Sister Aloysius, who is making her way in the opposite direction with a tea cozy. Aloysius looks annoyed, but says, “I’m taking this to Sister Veronica. She’s sick in bed. Will you come?”

They stand in silence and watch Veronica sleeping as night falls outside. The tea, which sits untouched on the nightstand, is less vital than her rest. After several minutes, Aloysius asks quietly, “You read it?” She continues to stare straight ahead.

“Yes,” Sister James replies, and she feels a finger steal inside her sleeve and run down her left arm. The fingernail swirls against the creases of her wrist and the palm of her hand, back and forth. She controls herself: she does not breathe more quickly, she does not take in more air, she keeps her arm perfectly still rather than jerking it away. Completely unexpectedly, the words “erogenous zone” leap into her mind. It’s a magazine phrase, cheap and far away, but it presses against her brain like a blackened rubber stamp. She cannot recall why she’s familiar with the concept. What magazine, if a publication is in fact the source of this knowledge? What year? Wherever the term comes from, it is disquieting that Aloysius seems to have found proof of one on her first try.

The touches continue—brief and always between wrists and fingers, in the handing off of a casserole dish or a document—but the scriptures stop for three days. On the morning of the fourth day, she tells herself not to hope as she pulls open the desk drawer, but inside rests a substantial stack of pages bound together with a piece of twine. It’s the entire book of Esther.

She thumbs the pages between each class; smiles at her troublemakers; teaches extremely well; and stays late to clean the blackboard, neaten the rows of desks, and think. Somehow, she knows to expect Sister Aloysius eventually, but still starts when she sees her figure standing at the door to her classroom.

Once inside, Aloysius takes a sharp breath, but James is first to speak. “Thank you,” she says. She is referring to Esther alone. The effort it must have taken to copy the ten chapters has made James sure, for the first time, that she’s been given the words that Aloysius loves. She sees now that the initial scriptures were tests, the Psalms were instructive, Song of Songs let Aloysius touch her without having to come up with an excuse, and that Esther was a personal gift. She also sees that Aloysius has wrists of her own, and before she can stop herself she strides toward her and encircles one with the fingers of her left hand, stroking it with her right. Sister Aloysius swallows. “Stop that.”

“No,” Sister James says slowly. “Not unless—not unless you really want me to.”

There is no way to prepare for what Aloysius says next. “Do you want to go to Hell with me?”

Finally, Sister James is ready to laugh at one of her jokes, but before the sound loosens itself from her throat she realizes that the question is legitimate. “Yes,” she whispers immediately. She is already burning up.

“Do you want to start tonight?”

“Yes,” Sister James says, almost certain, and almost is enough to get her to Aloysius’ room after everyone is asleep. It’s enough to put them in the same bed, frightened and unpracticed and in love.

“Do not confess this,” Aloysius says, emphatic even though the words are muffled by James’ still-clothed shoulder. “It’ll only ruin us sooner,” she adds, and sets off in search of James’ body.

Until this moment, Sister James has always thought of Confession as a sort of routing system to God, but now she envisions the Confessor stealing her thoughts and using them for harm, blocking them so they never go up to Him at all. “I won’t,” she mumbles, already lost and found.

Sister James has no idea how much time has passed when she opens her eyes and realizes the room is dark where before a lamp had glowed against more skin than she’d ever seen. She hears the squeal of a faucet.

As Aloysius washes James off her hands she says sharply, “See how messy this is?” As usual, she’s talking about two things at once.

All James can think of us is how much better she feels, how calm, afloat on foreign pleasures. Listening to Aloysius talk about the mess pinpricks some of her relief. But then Aloysius dries her hands and leans over the bed. Her face looms, barely visible in the dark, and her voice is much softer when she says, “Come on. You should wash.” Her hands find the hem of James’ nightgown, and she pulls gently at the fabric in order to cover her up.

James is sure she won’t be able to sleep well here, but finds herself wrong when she jerks awake hours later. Sister Aloysius, unused to an actual physical presence invading her unconsciousness, wakes up right away.

“I should go back,” Sister James whispers.

“No,” Aloysius says, and throws an arm around James’ waist. “Sneaking around is for people who are doing something wrong.”

James grins and stays, but in the morning—the real morning, the one that seems deafening with the noise of the other sisters stirring—they both seem to reconsider. James scrambles out of bed, adjusting and readjusting her nightgown a half dozen times. “How will I leave?”

Aloysius’ eyes dart around the room before settling on a bottle of cough syrup that looks like it has survived a decade or more thanks to seldom use. James grabs the bottle and thinks in a split-second of a lie. “Thank you for the medicine, Sister,” she cries in a loud voice as she opens the door. She doesn’t look at Aloysius as she leaves, staring instead at the bottle clutched to her chest as she attempts to walk rather than run down the hall. Halfway to her room, it occurs to her she should have tried to sound hoarse.

She sets the medicine down on her shelf and blushes every time she sees it, which is often. She cherishes it. Her life takes on a selfish joy and a selfish dread.

III. (Why)

The weeks stack up, and nothing ruins them. Still, there’s a silent “yet” at the end of that sentence, and they both feel its presence. They ration the amount of time they spend together, deliberately misinterpreting the laws of probability and hoping for the best. They decide it would be wise for James to start going back to her room earlier than she did on the first morning, and they quit talking about right and wrong and hell. They’re both reasonable women, but Sister James is surprised by how difficult it is to limit their nights to one per week or even less, to censor, calculate and plan. No quantity of fear can stop her from thinking she needs this.

She wants Sister Aloysius more strongly at certain points in the month. There’s a three or four day stretch that for years felt blank and hot and is now alarmingly particular, tied to one body. The specificity is distracting. She wonders if it’s the same for Aloysius or, really, for anyone, but suspects that it is not. Sometimes they sit side by side on one of the couches in the blue sitting room, reading quietly, by themselves or with two or three other nuns. In these moments, James remembers the idea of another word, the shape of it, the first letter, but not the word itself. The word is “sublimation,” and if she could remember it, it would be exactly right.

Even in the safety of the blue room with its big windows and lamplight, they don’t speak much of personal things that exist beyond the realm of the parish. They don’t talk about their families except briefly, for practical reasons—Samuel’s health, and whether or not she should make another visit to her former home. Aloysius never takes trips. Any friendships either had with people outside the parish have long fallen away. Their lives are here, and that focus—that deliberate, careful choosing—is what makes this vocation work.

As Sister James knows well by now, words are often divided into outside and inside. Their meaning changes depending on where one is. She never says “sex” out loud. No matter what she’s thinking, when it comes to this she tries to avoid using any nouns or verbs at all. Still, sex is from the outside, and now that it has crept in she finds herself staring at Sister Aloysius and wanting to use the vocabulary of family, of crossing state lines, of what she ate as a child, which movies she liked, the vacation in 1957 to see an aunt in Detroit. She wants to know things that shouldn’t matter, like how many years there are between them. If, when Sister Aloysius was married, she loved her husband more than God.

Once, on a cold night in early March, they plan for eleven but Sister James arrives at 10:50 and blurts, “Before I took my vows my mother sat me down and said she’d always had a wish for me. She wanted to know if I was certain of my decision to—” She cuts herself off abruptly and laughs almost hysterically, a little too loudly for the time of night. She wants to cry or jump or kiss, anything strange. Sister Aloysius, still wearing her habit, does not rise from her writing desk, but her head snaps up. Their eyes meet and catch the dim lamplight. “I realized just now, ah…you’re just about everything she hoped for me.” Another peal of laughter, one that threatens to break the rest of her sentences apart. “You’re a Democrat. You’ve got—a steady job. You’re—Catholic.”

Sister Aloysius looks incredulous, and Sister James braces herself for being sent away. She wishes that, just once, she could make Aloysius laugh. That Sister Aloysius, so adept at creating tension, could be the one to snap it in two. This does not happen, but she isn’t banished either. She stands behind the desk chair and kneads her fingers into Aloysius’ shoulders. “I’m sorry,” she whispers.

“Don’t be,” Aloysius says quickly, and later, in bed, keeps her eyes closed as they struggle to take off her heavy clothing. On an ordinary day, it’s easy to undress. Despite all the fabric, their garb is simple. Tonight it isn’t, and Aloysius trembles with every touch.

Sister James isn’t actually all that sorry. Guilty, maybe, but the sensation does not amaze her, or make her feel sick. This and all related guilt have become feelings she’d prefer not to live without.

Even as Father Flynn fades from James’ mind, she uses his departure as a way to mark their time. Four months after he leaves, she discovers the extent to which he does not feel gone to Sister Aloysius. It is April, and something about the sound of birds and the sharp sweet air makes James crave the night all day long. In the kitchen that morning, in the middle of the crowd of nuns bringing their breakfast dishes into the small white room, she raises her eyebrows at Aloysius, who nods. Suddenly and dangerously, the plan is in place. They don’t even have to talk about “what time” anymore, or “which room.” That night, on the dark walk from her room to Aloysius’, she’s only slightly embarrassed to realize that her nipples are already tight against her nightgown, that she’s a little wet. She wants to get Aloysius to the same place as quickly as possible, and pulls her close immediately, the door behind her and Aloysius before her.

She’s shocked when Aloysius backs away, and is ashamed to hear her say “Please, not yet.”

“There’s something I want to tell you,” she continues, and she proceeds to sit in her desk chair, gesturing for James to take the bed.

With her mouth angry and her eyes intent, she talks about the Church. She makes up phrases like “patriarchal immunity,” and explains in hushed tones about how Fathers look out for Fathers and no one else. For a long time, she speaks bitterly about Father Flynn and his promotion, but she does not cry. “You see, this is what we’re up against,” she says. “What we work to preserve, to instill in these children, is so close to the thing we must fight. I think you assume it’s over, now that he’s gone away. It isn’t.”

Finally, she crosses the short distance to the bed and sits next to Sister James, peering at her sharply. “Do you understand what I’ve told you?” She pauses. “I’m not asking if you agree with me. Only if you understand.”

Sister James nods. “I do. I understand.” She isn’t lying, though she decides not to mention how unnerving it is to watch Aloysius teeter on the edge of what sounds like unbelief.

“Good. Your mother would not be pleased, would she?” Sister Aloysius says wryly, and the outrageous understatement makes them grin at each other. “Will you touch me now?”

James’ heart thrills at the word “touch.” It’s a solid word, a real word, not vague at all when accompanied by that smile. It crosses outside and in. She complies by lying down, pulling Aloysius flush against her, kissing the back of her neck while she reaches under the stiff white fabric of her nightgown. She realizes with a start that Aloysius’ body has been ready for a while, perhaps for much of the conversation.

Tonight, Aloysius does not pretend that the sweat and the mess and their muffled voices are anything accidental. “More,” she says as a request to Sister James, and she says it again about the things she does, like an entreaty to herself.

It is a long time before they are spent. They always take themselves clear to that point; this pleasure is not a luxury, and there is no saving of anything for tomorrow night. When they are done, Sister Aloysius sits up, and Sister James moves too, scooting in directly behind her and reaching around her torso so they can hold hands. “Pray with me,” Aloysius says. James expects to hear a recited prayer, but for several minutes the only sound in the room is their breathing, like breeze from a gentle God.

She has only just settled into the imperfect silence when Aloysius says “Amen.”
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