“My daddy says you’re a bastard, that you were made from sin.” Arthur grips the damp wood of the bench beneath him, lets the Mississippi heat roll over him. “What does that mean?”
Merlin doesn’t look at Arthur, just stares across the field and into the trees, nose wrinkled in a pained expression. “That’s a really mean thing to call someone, ‘specially if you’re a pastor. Means I got no father.” Arthur swallows and stares guiltily at his feet. He is, after all, an extension of his dad. “He died. My daddy, he died before he could marry my mother, I don’t think it’s fair to call her a sinner.”
Arthur lets his legs swing from the bench, just off the ground and wipes some of the country dust off of Merlin’s cheek. “Nah, I don’t think she is. My daddy just doesn’t know.”
“I don’t think God is as angry as Pastor Uther says.” Merlin helps Arthur off of the bench, “Want to play in the river before the sun goes down?”
Arthur is glad for the subject change and the chance to play with his new friend. He nods his head and then two nine year old boys dart across the dirt road. Uther had told Arthur after mass that he shouldn’t associate himself with ‘that Emrys boy’ and Arthur couldn’t understand how someone who went to their church every Sunday could be a bad person. Merlin made him laugh, was always polite and even sat with his hands tucked underneath his thighs so that he wouldn’t fidget with the hymns like Arthur did. He had funny ears and was missing one of his front teeth and always stood whenever a lady was getting up or coming back to the pews.
When they were both fourteen, Merlin stands in the rain outside of Arthur’s home for over an hour. Uther had opened the door when he had knocked, only to slam it back in Merlin’s face. Finally, Arthur had come climbing ungracefully out of his shuttered window, still unable to get a hang of his growing limbs.
“You stayed. Thanks” Arthur squints at Merlin through the onslaught of rain and can barely make out the freckles on the bridge of his nose.
“Are you kidding me? I love standing in the rain while your father promises eternal damnation on me.” Merlin rolls his eyes and Arthur follows him over the flooded roads. “Coppers got a new shed built out by the crossroads, says it’s hidden away from the –well, real coppers.”
Arthur laughs and pushes his soaking hair out of his face. “You never seen it?”
Merlin throws him a wry grin, the dimple in his right cheek coming out. “Nah, but William has. Thinks he’s shining out there.”
“You hang out with some real good folks, Merlin.” Arthur teases.
“I hang out with you.” Merlin shoots back and Arthur laughs again.
“Like I said.”
“You know what they say about preacher's kids, biggest heathens out of the lot of us.” Now that they’ve made it into the woods, the rain doesn’t seem so torrential. “Over in Prospect the preacher’s daughter is having her second kid from a different man.”
Arthur bumps his shoulder into Merlin’s, “You talk a awful lot of shit. Or is that William again?”
Merlin reaches out to help pull Arthur up the muddy bank, “William.”
Eventually they do get to Copper’s shed, and find that yes, he is making moonshine in it. They situate themselves among the crates inside and Merlin shrugs off his waterlogged jacket and shirt. Arthur swallows and tries to ignore the tight feeling in his stomach at the sight of Merlin’s bare skin, tipping his soggy hat a little bit over his eyes. “Vivian tried to kiss me behind the church house last weekend.” Arthur blurts out.
Merlin raises an eyebrow and runs his hands through his hair, throwing it into disarray. “Well that’s not very ladylike is it?” He grins. “What did you do? Did you kiss her back?”
Arthur shakes his head, “Nah, she’s too forward. Have you ever kissed a girl?”
Merlin looks uncomfortable and chews at his bottom lip. “I don’t really like the girls around here like everyone else does. I don’t understand it, is that strange?”
“ ‘S probably a good thing. Won’t be getting in trouble like the rest of us since you have no urges.” Arthur smiles at him but it’s strained.
Merlin shakes his head and moves closer to Arthur, presses his nose timidly against Arthur’s cheek. His breath is ragged and warm on Arthur’s face and Arthur keeps his hands fisted in his lap. The gentle press of lips against his makes his eyes flutter shut involuntarily and he lets Merlin kiss at him gently before he suddenly becomes awash with fear and pushes Merlin away. “You can’t –you can’t be like that, Merlin.” His eyes are wide and he wipes his mouth on the back of his hand. Merlin curls up, wraps his arms around his knees and looks sad. “That’s not you, you’re just confused, you just lost sight of things. I won’t tell no one what happened, I promise.”
Arthur licks his lips and then shoves Merlin a little. “Come on, let’s go see if Copper’s left any whiskey around.”
Hunith is in town to sell her crops the first time Arthur comes over and Merlin lets him into his house, into his bed, into his body. They’re seventeen and tears collect in the corners of Merlin’s eyes as Arthur holds himself, trembling above him. Arthur wipes them away with his thumb, kisses the bridge of his nose, still freckled from the sun and asks him if it hurts real bad.
“Mmnnn” Merlin shakes his head against the pillow and keeps his grip tight on Arthur’s shoulders. “Just a lot, that’s all.”
Arthur leans across the bed slowly, careful not to push into Merlin anymore and tips some more oil onto his fingers, spreading it around the place where they are connected. He eases in a little more and Merlin relaxes some, letting out a small groan that is starting to sound more like pleasure than pain. “If it makes any difference, you feel really good.” Arthur offers a shaky smile and Merlin lets out a short laugh.
“It actually feels a little nice now. A little.” Merlin adjusts his legs, letting them fall open a little more so that he’s not bracing Arthur’s hips with his knees. Arthur pulls out and then roots himself back inside and Merlin digs his heels into the scratchy mattress with a groan. With each thrust, Merlin moves his hands further down Arthur’s back until he’s pulling at his hips, urging him in deeper and faster. Arthur leans down, kisses Merlin wetly, biting at his bottom lip and dipping his tongue into his mouth.
“I don’t understand how loving you can be a sin.” Arthur says breathlessly against his mouth as he reaches between them to wrap his hand around Merlin’s leaking prick. Merlin cries out and buries his fingers into Arthur’s hair.
“I think we’re different.” Merlin gasps, “I think God understands what we have.”
Arthur closes his eyes and smiles against the side of Merlin’s face, nodding. The rhythm of his hips falters and he pushes himself as deep as he can into Merlin when he comes, hot and messy inside of him. He buries his face into Merlin’s neck as he strokes him lazily until Merlin gives a short yelp and spills over Arthur’s hand and onto his stomach.
They wrap themselves up in Merlin’s thin sheet, dirty from sex and sweat and the sticky summer air and share sweet, slow kisses. Merlin is sore and his legs feel cramped but he’s happy as he pushes Arthur’s sweaty bangs off of his forehead and tells him shyly, “I love you more than anything, I wish everyone could understand that.”
“I understand that.” Arthur promises him and wraps his arms tightly around Merlin’s waist.
In the fall, Merlin drags piles of wood up onto the porch, covered in dirt and sweat and Hunith comes out with a glass of water for him. She watches her son sadly and puts her hand on his cheek. “What’s wrong, mama?” Merlin’s much taller than her by now, eighteen and losing his childish features.
“I get so worried about you.” Hunith admits, wiping her hands off on her apron,
Merlin wrinkles his nose, confused and glances at the ax stuck in the wood, “Why? I’ve been cuttin’ up wood for you since I could pick up that damn thing.”
Hunith laughs but shakes her head. “I ain’t worried about the ax, I’m worried about this town, these simple people.”
“I don’t understand.” Merlin sits down in the rocking chair, the one with the missing plank so that Hunith can have the good one.
“It’s Arthur. I want you to be careful with him.” Hunith rubs at the bridge of her nose tiredly, “I want you to be careful what people see with you two.”
Merlin’s blood runs cold, his stomach feeling heavy inside of him. “Arthur is my friend, we’re friends.” He explains, unconvincing in the way his voice shakes.
The rocker creaks as Hunith pushes against the porch with one foot, “Don’t lie to me, child, I saw you kissing him in the truck this morning.” Her mouth is set in a thin line and she wrings her hands in her skirt. “Merlin, I don’t want to judge you, I love you. Now, I don’t understand what you are feeling, and I know you would never do something blasphemous just because. Please, just explain this to me.”
Merlin is silent as he chokes on the words he wants to say, running first through a list of lies and excuses that could explain the kissing, but his mother is watching him patiently and his eyes are starting to burn. “I –I love him.” He says it quietly and it comes out on a choked sob, “I know it’s not right, I know, but it won’t go away and he makes me so happy. And I make him happy too.”
He doesn’t notice the tears on his face until Hunith crosses the porch and wraps her arms around him, stroking the back of his head and whispering, “My sweet, sweet boy.”
“Arthur says we won’t go to hell because we love each other too much.” He says weakly into his mothers shoulder.
Hunith smiles at that, even though her eyes are watery and tired looking. “No, I don’t suppose you two will.”
The sound of footsteps on the gravel outside of the window has Hunith reaching for her shotgun in the dark and shoving her boots on roughly as she bolts out of the house. She follows the sound to the back of their farm and cocks the gun when she turns the corner, placing the barrel right against Arthur Pendragon’s forehead.
“Arthur?” She lowers the gun and takes in Arthur’s wide blue eyes, pack slung across his shoulder. She sighs and turns around to see Merlin predictably standing behind her like a scared animal. “You takin’ my son away from me?” She looks back at Arthur.
He takes his hat off and holds it in both of his hands, ever the gentleman even standing in Hunith’s garden in the middle of the night. “My daddy knows, Ms. Emrys. He’s gonna get the whole congregation up here tomorrow morning, says they’re gonna hang him.” Arthur’s words are choked sounding.
Hunith sobs and almost falls to her knees if not for Merlin rushing to hold her up. Merlin shushes her, telling her that Arthur is going to keep him safe, that they’re going to start their lives over in the northeast, tell everyone they’re brothers so no one thinks it’s funny, just two men living together. “You can come with us, Ms. Emrys, you won’t ever have to work again.”
Pulling herself to her feet, Hunith takes a deep breath and kisses her sons hand, then Arthur’s. “You leave, boys. I will come when I’m ready.”
In the morning, Uther is pounding on Hunith’s door before the sun has fully risen and the wood frame begins to splinter. Hunith greets him with her shotgun. “Wha’d’you want, Pendragon?”
Uther has the good sense not to attack the armed woman and motions for what appears to be the rest of town, to step away from the porch. “We’re here for that heathen son of yours.”
“My son ain’t no heathen.” Hunith pulls the hammer back on her gun.
“He certainly is! Put the devil in my son, he did, and now he’s stolen him away during the night.” Uther starts to turn an alarming shade of red.
Hunith lets her arm drop to her side, shotgun no longer in Uther’s face. She plays the role of worried mother and tells him, “Well that makes two of us. Woke up this morning and Merlin was gone. Even took the dog with him.”
Uther argues with Hunith until he grows tired and leaves her alone to sit at her dining room table and stare into her cup of tea.
In the winter Hunith receives a letter with an address to a home in Maine and a train ticket, and she packs what little things she owns and the roll of money underneath her floorboard.
The weather is kinder by the sea, the air salty, and Merlin’s hair is just a little bit longer. He tells her that Arthur is a fisherman now –works on a boat with two men named Lancelot and Gwaine and they are all friends now –and Merlin has taken up playing piano in a jazz band that plays near the docks and he makes more money than Arthur when the men come back from sea.
Hunith still doesn’t understand the way Merlin and Arthur speak to each other in soft voices in front of the fire, or how Arthur presses a kiss to Merlin’s temple when he leaves in the morning for work. She feels uncomfortable and blushes when she catches the more heated kisses when they think they’re alone in the kitchen and Merlin keeps his hands on Arthur’s hips.
And then she gets it when Arthur comes home one night after a storm, smelling like salt water and rust while Merlin waits in a chair by the door, still wearing his vest and bowtie from the speakeasy. Arthur doesn’t even get his coat off before Merlin is in his arms, twisting his fingers into Arthur’s wet hair and telling him how happy he is to see him –that he was so scared, needs him so much –and then Hunith gets it.
That night, in bed, Merlin tells Arthur that he’s glad they left the south when Arthur twists them up in the sheets and kisses him down his chest. Arthur grins and looks carefully at Merlin’s face, and he can still see the freckles on his nose.