"We may live in changing times," says the preacher, warming to a familiar theme, "but will not be lured into the snares of the secular lifestyle. The news media and the politicians want to tell there are no consequences, no limits. You can go ahead and live your life without Jesus!"
"No!" says a man's voice, which turns out to be Morris, oh, big surprise there.
"But that's what they want you and your children to believe!" Uther answers from the pulpit. "There's no end to wicked and wanton behavior we're being asked to accept. What we know to be uncommon and unnatural, for them is nothing more than 'diversity'. That tell us it's just fine for a man to live in sin with another man…"
A murmur of disapproval rises from the pews. Arthur keeps quiet but doesn't try to hide his discomfort – the look on his face will be interpreted as concern, which works well enough.
"... Or marry two different women, if that's their will. Marry a sheep, or goat – as long as they love each other."
Now the complaints mix with wild laughter, and Arthur allows himself to grin and shake his head. Those crazy liberals.
"Well let tell you, my friends, I am a farmer like my father and grandfather before me. I am a husband and father too, and in my household, on my farm, we do not treat our animals that way, and for one simple reason. The Bible condemns it."
"That's right," says Katrina.
"Our God condemns it. And when we live our life according to His word, we will not be tricked or tempted by Satan's promises. We are faithful, Lord!"
"We are faithful," Arthur breathes along with half the congregation, while others say "Amen" or react however the spirit moves them. There's a script, but it's a flexible one, and Arthur knows the part of the preacher's son well enough that he can move through it without having to think.
He knows the rhythm of the service and knows he's almost through the worst of it now. There will be four more minutes of Uther at the pulpit, anger and scorn building to a climax followed by a short, hushed prayer for strength in the face of a hostile world. Helen will sing at the offering today, Agravaine will lead the closing prayer, and they'll all sing one more song before Uther's final blessing. Ten minutes of smiling, chatting, and shaking hands on the way out of the sanctuary, then coffee and egg casserole and more conversation in the Fellowship Hall.
Arthur already prayed for strength in the face of a hostile family and community in his room this morning, as he does every Sunday. Lately he's really starting to think it's paying off.
He's relieved enough at the end of the service that he's in a genuinely good mood as he make the rounds, shaking hands and thanking people for coming. It's important to make sure everyone feels welcome – well, everyone who agrees with Uther's teachings anyway. It helps put them at ease to see Arthur smiling, to think that for all the harshness in Uther's sermons, his family loves him and is happy.
Lying is a sin, Arthur knows. A sin he truly believes is wrong and feels really bad about, unlike most of the supposed sins his father preaches about. Arthur and Lancelot have gone back and forth about the morality of supporting what Uther is doing – he's sure there are some other secret baby queers in the congregation who could use his support more. But right now he thinks Morgana's got the right take: he has one more year of this crap to get through before he can go off to college and get the hell out of the South. He wants to get through that year with as few shouting matches as possible, and preferably without getting disowned.
Today's not bad, as Sundays go, because he ends up at a table with Leon. Leon's probably the closest thing Arthur has to a friend around here. Up until last year when he graduated, he was also the closest thing Arthur had to competition at school, both in sports and in academics. When he took off for college in Blacksburg Arthur was about as lonely as he'd ever been. Things are a lot better now, but it's still cool that Leon's home for the summer, and that today they can sit together and talk baseball and organic farming instead of discussing the sermon, so half an hour goes by before Arthur feels the need to get up and get a minute to himself – he usually takes a break about fifteen minutes into this breakfast. In the bathroom he checks his phone. Sure enough, there's a text from Morgana, twenty minutes old:
"I knew it! If the Bible didn't forbid it everyone in your family would totes be fucking goats."
"You are truly a role model for the gay youth," Arthur texts back, and Morgana answers within seconds,
"You know I got your back babe. Everything cool?"
"No sweat. FT in an hour?"
"Can't wait. Enjoy your grits or wtvr."
When Arthur started posting to the LGBT teen forum last September, he was near the end of his rope. School was hell but weekends at home with his father and stepmother were worse, and he didn't know how many more Sunday mornings he could get through.
That was where he met Lancelot, a fellow Christian gay kid, but one who lives on the other side of the country and goes to a church where one of the pastors is gay and the whole congregation is proud of that. He and Arthur pray together sometimes, but after a few tries Lancelot admitted it was difficult for him to watch Uther's sermons on the webcast. Not because of technical difficulties and not because it was six AM in Oregon, but because the speech was so hurtful. He'd keep doing it, he pledged, for Arthur's sake, but Morgana said she was more than happy to take over. Arthur thinks he owes both of them his continued survival.
It's weird because they're all the same age. But Arthur feels like his being stuck on a farm in the Virginia mountains is like being held back in the remedial classes of his crappy rural school. Lancelot's at an intermediate level because his family's supportive but he's still shy as hell. Morgana is socially daring and sexually experienced, most definitely Advanced Gay, at least for a seventeen-year-old.
So now, even though Sunday mornings are still a trial, he kind of loves them because he's already anticipating the hour he'll spend with her on FaceTime, taking apart everything Uther's just said and Arthur's pretended to agree with.
When they were first getting started, these sessions involved a lot of religious argument and usually some tears. Morgana was raised by her lesbian aunts after her parents died when she was a baby, and they're exactly the kind of godless big city liberal elites Uther rants about every Sunday (and fairly often at dinner during the week). She's never felt threatened by what she sees of him, but it took her some work to get familiar enough with the belief system Arthur had grown up with that she could help talk him down from the stress of sitting through a sermon. Gradually she learned to take Arthur's faith and his doubts more seriously, and over the same months he started learning to laugh at things that used to make him choke.
At this point, most of what his father says just glides over him. He's learned to smile and nod through the hate with the secret pride of a fabulous fairy who's just biding his time before he comes out of his shell. They've talked about all going to school together, maybe in New York, where Morgana and her girlfriend Gwen are now. Maybe out West, in some little college town where it'll be easier to afford the rent. They haven't figured everything out yet, but Arthur's confident. His grades and test scores are the best of anyone in town, as his father has always insisted they must be. It's only July but Arthur's already got a draft of his real application essay, the one about the real Arthur, and his real friends are helping him make it better. He's also working on a the cover version that he'll share with his father and the guidance counselor, about how hard work and traditional values have brought him success and he can't wait to continue on the same path.
Arthur's got a plan, and the online gay mafia's going to help him carry it out.
By the following Saturday, Merlin the fucking farmhand has shot Arthur's perfect plan to hell.
Because ever since Wednesday afternoon, when Arthur walked into the smokehouse only to drop his bag of tools and whimper at the sight of this man's broad, sweat-soaked torso, he has not, in any way, been biding his time. Ever since Merlin called him (a stranger! the boss's son!) sugar, in some wild backcountry drawl that sounds nothing like anyone Arthur has ever met, nothing anyone says has glided over him. Merlin looked Arthur up and down and licked his lips, and Arthur forgot how to talk. Merlin said they'd better get back to work, but why didn't they meet up at his room in Macy's boarding house, Saturday night at nine, and since then next year, college, graduation, any notion at all of the future beyond Saturday night at nine may as well not exist.
On Thursday he called Lancelot, who just kept saying "But that's so awesome!" in a way that made Arthur wonder why he'd ever thought Lancelot understood anything at all.
On Friday picked up his phone, thinking he was going to call Morgana and dreading how much she was going to laugh, and he saw a text from Leon: "Feel like hanging out after church Sunday?"
And before he could think too much about it wrote back, "Sunday's pretty busy. Want to come over tomorrow?"
Because the Internet was far too cheerful for his nerves, but if he didn't have someone to talk to he'd probably spend the whole day trying on outfits and thinking about how easy or embarrassing they'd be to take off. (As it was he only spent the first eight hours of the day doing that.)
"So I think I um ... I might have a date tonight," he says after they've said all there is to say about the new addition Katrina put on the house this spring and they're sitting alone in Arthur's room.
"Yeah? Congratulations." Leon smiles like he's really happy for Arthur, as well as amused. "No wonder you're so damn jumpy."
"Yeah? Yeah, I guess so, I haven't ... there hasn't been a lot of that. You know, small town, everybody knows everybody, and half of them are taking advice about dating from my dad so ... I always kinda figured I'd wait till I got to college."
Leon nods. He dated a couple girls in high school but broke things off when he left for Tech. Arthur doesn't know if he's gotten into anything serious since then.
"And now there's someone who's not from around here," Arthur plunges on, kind of amazed that he hasn't had to use any gendered pronouns yet. He keeps expecting Leon to ask for a name but instead he says,
"And you're wondering how your folks are gonna react, if you're seeing someone who's not part of the church."
"Right," says Arthur, relieved that he's still not technically lying. "Not part of any church, I'm pretty sure. So he might not be too happy but I'm ... I'm pretty excited."
Leon's quiet for a few moments, and then says, "Leaving town really changes your perspective. I mean, I'm still only two hours away, right? Come back every couple weeks and go to church with my mom just like always. But town doesn't look the same anymore, and church doesn't feel the same. It's sorta like studying ag after growing up on a farm. Things that used to seem natural, ideas I never would've questioned, they're just not the same anymore. And, don't take this the wrong way, Arthur, but trusting your daddy to say how I'm supposed to live my life and be right with the Lord, I guess that's one of them."
Arthur actually bites his tongue to stop himself from telling Leon everything. It would feel so good to have it all out with someone else who really knows what it's like to live here, and what it's like to look at it from outside. But Arthur can't afford to get carried away. He doesn't know what crosses the lines of what Leon still thinks is unnatural, what's likely to make him report back to his mother, or even his pastor.
"Sometimes I feel like I already left," Arthur says, instead of everything else he'd like to say. "Most of the time it's like I can't wait to get away. Only right now I really want to be here, see what happens tonight."
Leon smiles. "Do your folks know you're going out tonight?"
He shakes his head.
"Well listen, if you need an alibi, we can tell him you're coming to my place."
"No problem, say you want to try out the X-Box. I'll make sure my mom knows what to say if they call."
"I am gonna tell them," Arthur says seriously. "I just ... I don't really know what this is yet."
"Maybe after you've been on your own for a while it'll be easier. You see some things at school, man. I mean, my roommate, this guy Gwaine?" He whistles, high and appreciative. "If your dad knew half of what he gets up to at parties, he'd have material for another year's worth of sermons."
Arthur laughs, more relaxed than he's felt in a long time, except with Morgana or Lance. He's known Leon since he was five and never been so tempted to trust him before. "He never seems to run out of ideas, though, does he?"
"I guess not. Hey, Arthur, I mean it. Count on me if you need anything – a cover story, ride home, rescue from a horrible date, whatever. Though I hope you're planning to show up on time tomorrow morning. That'd be a hard one to explain."
"Thanks, man, that means a lot."
"Okay," says Leon, "enough of this trivial stuff. Show me what you're wearing tonight."
Arthur's gotten so used to air conditioning – at home, at church, at school, in the car – at first he doesn't understand why he's sweating so much. He's not used to it, really, except when he's working outside, And, okay, so there's the gorgeous dude, who's shirtless again. (Do people without air conditioning walk around half naked all summer long, or is Merlin just uniquely fearless? Should Arthur try being like them? Like him?) Merlin leaned back against the door as soon as Arthur walked in, his hands back behind his head, his smile relaxed and eager. And there's the twin bed that takes up most of the room. Arthur thinks he can smell the sweat that's soaked through the sheets, but maybe that's just his own nerves. There's a ceiling fan circling slow, and a few noises drifting in through the window. He thinks he hears a woman's laughter and wonders if he knows her.
"It ain't much to look at, I know," Merlin says cheerfully. "The advantage is, ain't nobody around to be staring as us, either. And I got the feeling that might be important to you, Mr. Pendragon, sir."
Arthur blushes, nods, swallows.
"Anyway, all I really wanna look at is you."
"Yeah." Arthur decides not to be embarrassed. So yeah, he's been staring, but he's not the only one. Staring is to be expected. He's never really allowed himself to look before, except for a few pictures on the Internet. He's never been this close, inches away from all that salty skin, seconds away from tasting it.
"Arthur Pendragon, I believe you are the prettiest young man I ever laid eyes on. Would you mind terribly much if I gave you a kiss?"
Arthur slowly shakes his head and then, thinking of a long conversation with Morgana a few months back, makes himself vocalize, "Please, Merlin, I – I want to touch you."
And that wasn't so hard. Merlin moves towards him easily, no hesitation and no sudden moves before his hands are framing Arthur's face, and his lips are on his, warm and chaste at first. Arthur's the one to open his mouth, and then it's real, a real kiss, a real live gay kiss and he was never sure exactly what to expect but it's not strange, it's as it should be. After a few seconds Merlin ends the kiss but still stands close, the shape of his body long and hard against Arthur's, and says a quiet, "Thank you."
Arthur nods, takes a moment to breathe. "People don't know about me. Most people around here, I mean. How did you know?"
Merlin purses his lips. "Nothing I can put my finger on, really. I travel around a lot, one place to another, wherever I can find a job. There's always someone like us around. Reckon it gets easier to spot 'em with practice."
"I'm glad you spotted me."
"So am I." Merlin moves his hands gently down to Arthur's hips, almost like they're about to dance. He takes another little kiss, a taste. "Seems like you ain't traveled as much."
"Um, we go on vacations. Not really long ones though. It's hard to get away from the farm in the summer and at Christmas there's church –"
"But you're not used to finding the gay kids in all the towns you stop in and asking them out, are you?"
"Finding the –? Oh, I mean, no. I haven't. And here I wouldn't, I can't."
"You can, though. Makes sense you'd be nervous, if you haven't done much of this before. You gotta forgive me if I've been too forward, I just saw something delicious and I asked for it. But I think you're doing everything just right, Arthur. At least, I'm having a real good time so far, what about you?"
"I am," Arthur says quickly. "I – I'm really fucking hot for you, okay, I kind of can't wait to suck your cock –"
Merlin waggles an eyebrow.
"It's all I've been able to think of since that day in the barn. But this is so weird! I don't even know anything about you! I mean, where are you from, and how old are you? You can't be more than a couple years older than me so how come you're out on your own like this, and how can you make enough to survive, and how come you're not scared of my father or, or anything?"
"Hmm, well, might take a little time to explain all that. What say we sit down and have a chat, and then you can decide if you still feel like sucking my cock. I'd sure be sad to see you leave without getting to see a little more of you ..." He glances at Arthur's neck, the open collar of his shirt. "But maybe that's something to save for another visit."
Arthur exhales slowly in relief and says, "Thanks, I'd like that. But also ... it is pretty hot in here." (And maybe Arthur should be more like them. Maybe Arthur can be fearless.) As long as I get the pleasure of looking at you while we talk, there's no reason you shouldn't get the same." He starts unbuttoning his shirt, and Merlin grins and helps him with the rest. They giggle and kiss some more as they sit down on the bed, Arthur leaning against Merlin's chest. A few minutes ago he felt ready to explode with want, with a tension that had been building for the last three days. He still wants Merlin now, but he wants to savor this giddy closeness a little more before he tries everything there is to try.
"So I have pretty much no idea what was in my dad's sermon today,"
"But Arthur," Morgana moans over the phone, "you know how much I look forward to Biblical exegesis!"
Arthur looks out over the church parking lot and laughs long and loud. It's hot out here, but easier to breathe than inside. It feels amazing to be able to breathe.
"You're a beast anyway for not answering my texts, but I'm glad you called. To what do I owe the honor of being greeted with your actual voice before you've even had breakfast with the old ladies?"
"I don't know. Felt bad for not answering your texts, I guess, wanted to hear your voice. And I don't feel like hiding in the bathroom and pretending I don't have any friends today."
"I hope we're still on for a video chat later. I couldn't tell from the webcast whether you really had a giant hickey on your neck or if that was just weird lighting and wishful thinking on my part."
"No, that's real." Arthur chuckles. "I thought about wearing a high collar, even borrowing some of Katrina's makeup to cover it up and then I thought, how absurd is this? I'll put on makeup when I feel like femming it up sometime." Probably after he moves out, though Merlin told him about a drag show in Roanoke that sounds like a riot. There's a lot he never thought to explore before. "For now I just want to look like me."
"You look fucking great, Arthur. Your face was just a tiny circle on my screen but I could tell you were happier than I'd ever seen you in there. You still should have answered my texts..."
"I should have."
"But once I saw you I knew you were okay. So when do I get all the details, now or this afternoon?"
"You may not get all the details, Morgana."
"Ohh, that's what you think," she says, laughing. "So you'll tell me about your date later. Quick check-in on the homefront – have there been any confrontations?"
"Not yet, but I haven't talked to him today. He goes in early. Katrina gave me some funny looks in the car but didn't say anything."
"Do you feel like –"
"It's coming, yeah."
"'Cause you look different."
"Yeah, and Merlin works on the farm and we might not be able to keep our hands off each other. We might get caught tomorrow for all I know."
"You sound very calm. Do you know what you'll do?"
"Not really. It might be really scary, I don't know. It might just be something we all live with for a year, or I might be knocking on your door in a couple days, or staying in the boarding house or ... I really don't know."
"But you'll be okay."
"I'm pretty sure I will! When I think about what Merlin's been through and how wonderful he turned out, I feel like I've got it pretty easy."
"You're very brave, Arthur Pendragon."
"Thanks. I feel like I'm ready to be now."
When Arthur goes back inside he finds he can still breathe. Leon's table is full but they smile at each other with some kind of understanding. Arthur goes to sit with Helen, her husband, and their two little girls. They've never really talked much, but she's a born performer, so maybe they have more in common than he thought.
Arthur's got more friends than he knew, real ones and potential allies, and he's going to see Merlin again tomorrow. His face flushes hot in the air-conditioned room.
The online gay mafia's got his back, he's known that for a while now. He's not used to thinking that if somebody tries to push him down, there could be a safe place to fall right here in Virginia.