The reverend sees the way Rhett watches Link.
The protective glint in his eye, the safe-harboring as if he could be a better Shepherd than the Lord. So he calls him into his office during youth group.
The rice is typically reserved for weddings, but the reverend doesn't hesitate to pour it out over the hardwood in his office, off to the side near the wall. When the McLaughlin boy joins him, wary and bug-eyed, the reverend is seated and clasps his hands on his desk.
"Hi." Rhett glances around, standing near the door and refusing to come in any further. "Can I... help you...? Reverend?"
Reverend smiles and licks his teeth. "Rhett. Are you familiar with Leviticus?"
Rhett squints, shuffling from foot to foot. "Parts of it."
"I see. I was wondering if you wouldn't mind telling me about the nature of you and young Link Neal's relationship?" Reverend sits back, eyeing Rhett with a hollow smile. "You're very close."
Rhett's lungs constrict. He swallows, and the reverend's eyes dip to watch it like a hawk. "Yeah, I guess. He's my best friend."
"Is that all?"
The question is a challenge. A dare to come out into the open so that he can swoop down. "Yes," Rhett presses, face hardening to a scowl.
"I see. I think, my child, that you could benefit from some self-reflection." He gestures to the rice. "Kneel."
Rhett locks eyes on the scattered seeds for the first time, frozen. Leaving would be admission he can't afford. Outburst would be even worse. Silently, Rhett treks over and lowers down onto his knees, ignoring the instant numbness and pain as he faces the wall.
"What do you think? Twenty minutes, to consider your relationship with..." Reverend pauses, then supplies the last word. "God?"
Rhett doesn't let his limp show until he's out of the office. The door closes behind him and he all but falls against the wall to catch himself, tears burning hot in his eyes at the unbelievable pain. He can't feel his feet, feels like his kneecaps have burned off. For someone who prided himself in high pain tolerance, he was ashamed at how twenty minutes of kneeling on rice had done him in.
He needed to get away. Get outside to be alone and rest.
So he does. He finds a spot in cool shade out by the church's storage shed, leaned against the side of it and inspecting the horrific patterns carved into the skin of his legs. The last thing he expects is for Link to come out of the emergency exit door, looking around in a daze before his eyes lock onto Rhett and he breaks into a jog.
"Link, go back inside," Rhett begs, covering his knees. "Go back to the group."
Link arrives at his side and crouches, squinting at him in the bright sun. "Are you in trouble? You were gone for a long time. Told everyone I had to use the bathroom."
"I'm fine," Rhett insists, glancing over Link's shoulder at the church. He's grateful that most of the windows are too warped to see through, but... still. He can envision it too easily--the reverend appearing at the door, beckoning Link, Link being forced to kneel and endure this torture as well--because of him .
"I don't want you to get in trouble. Go back inside."
"What happened to your legs?" Link asks, now distracted by Rhett's unwavering grip. "Lemme see."
"No. Link, seriously, don't--"
But Link fights him, wrestles to reveal the markings as silent tears of shame slip from Rhett's eyes.
"Oh, my god." Link's eyes widen to perfect circles. "Shit, he made you kneel? "
"Link." Rhett glares up at him, shitless and pleading despite the intensity of his gaze. "Go. Back. Inside."
Link swallows. "Are you still gonna meet me after?"
Rhett stares off into the distance, at the trees swaying in the breeze and grass rustling.
The way Link's voice cracks is too much, and guilt hits him. Rhett sighs and buries his head in his hands. "...The creek, this afternoon."
"Okay.” Link hesitates. “Can you walk, are you gonna get there okay?" He's too perfect a picture of love and concern. It's too much, and too dangerous here.
"Leave me alone. Get out of here... for your own good."
Link waits at the creek for a long time. Twenty minutes pass, and then forty. At an hour, Rhett finally shows, and Link lurches to a stand from his rock-skipping perch and runs to meet him. He's walking weird, and Link winces at the sight.
"Rhett, is everything oka--"
"We have to break up, Link."
Rhett leans back against a tree and can't meet Link's eyes, can't look at his face for the reaction there.
"I... what?" The echo is soft, almost too quiet to register as a word.
"I can't see you anymore. I'm sorry."
Link stands stock still, arms limp as he stares at Rhett. "We... we were together?"
"Or whatever you call it," Rhett spits, wanting this to be over with. "We can't do this shit anymore. Sneaking off to fool around, holding hands in church--it's too risky."
"Rhett," Link's voice breaks, and Rhett fastens his gaze to the ground, stalwart. "I'm so sorry you got hurt today because of me."
"It's not--I don't give a shit about that, Link. It's the fact that it's going to happen to you. You know what happened when I went home? Why I'm late?" Link shakes his head, something only Rhett can see from his periphery. "My folks chewed me out. Reverend talked to 'em. Now you tell me," he swallowed, words thick and painful to get out, "How your parents would react to having the reverend approach them like that?"
Link's quiet for a moment, undoubtedly trying to envision the fury of his stepfather with a belt. Or worse, with no weapon other than his knuckles. Rhett grimaces at being the one forcing him to imagine it.
"We can't. I'm not risking your safety and well-being."
Rhett's not supposed to find out.
Everyone knows except for him, and when he finally hears, he's the last domino in the community. He can't run like he used to--not after the nerve damage from the Sunday two months ago--but he tears through the backwoods, following the path he knows by heart, could trace in his sleep to a place he hasn't been in weeks. At the edge of the clearing, he sees him. The brunette is seated on the same fallen tree, straddling it between his legs and staring up at the clouds in the sky as they drift lazily by. Rhett tries to control his breathing--looks from here for any signs of what he now knows, but there's nothing obvious. He swallows, bracing himself.
True to his old self, Link startles and whips his head around, wide eyes on Rhett. He smiles--just for a second, the same warmth that made Rhett’s head fuzzy--then seems to remember their circumstances and forces it away, sitting up straight. "Hey."
Rhett treads over to him carefully, like the meadow is full of landmines. "How are you?" he tries. It's lame, but there's nothing else to say that doesn't sound accusing or confrontative.
"I'm alive. That's what you wanted to hear, right? Why you're here?" Link's words aren't harsh. In fact, they're empty. Knowing. Rhett stops a few feet away and shields his vision from the sun, getting a good look at the boy above him.
Link's eyes have bags underneath. His hair is shaggier than usual, skin grayer. But he's the same boy Rhett became infatuated with, and Rhett’s heart skips a beat at the sight of him looking worse for wear.
"What happened?" Rhett murmurs, trying not to sound as concerned as he feels.
"Tried to kill myself," Link states. He says it simply, as if everyone in town already knows--because everyone in town already does know, and had been hiding it from Rhett. He was the last.
Rhett shakes his head, unable to process the words even if they're true. "Why?"
"You thought things would get better if you left. But I don't think they were going to work out either way."
"Link, what are you talking about?"
"I grieved over losing you. Losing what we had. My parents noticed. They couldn't ground me, 'cause I was already in my room all day anyways." Link's eyes grow glassy and distant. "They wanted to help. I know that's why they're doing it."
"Doing what?" Rhett's scared at how little sense Link is making, at how he can't piece the puzzle together yet.
Link smiles sadly. "I'm going to a camp next week. Tried to kill myself after they told me. Stomach rejected the pills though, and they found me. So now I have to go.” A bird chirps in the distance, careless and free. “No way out."
Rhett's jaw is slack, blood turned to ice as he listens to the effects of his decision. He starts shaking his head, keeps shaking his head. "You--you don't have to go. They can't make you."
"Actually they can. Still seventeen." Link’s gaze drifts listlessly to Rhett's. "How was your birthday, by the way? I hope it was nice."
Rhett's throat is closing up. He can't respond. Somehow, he'd narrowly avoided the same fate as Link, and the fact that the word 'fate' popped into his head to describe it was perhaps most terrifying of all.
"You don't have to go."
"Yes, I do."
"You'll be able to handle it. You're strong."
"At least until I can find a necktie there, sure."
"Link!!" The terrified bellow doesn't rattle the brunette in the slightest. He blinks down at Rhett, perplexed.
"I'm sorry. I know you care about what happens to me. It's why you ended things. Can't blame you. I don't, by the way. I don't blame anyone." Link slides from the tree, landing heavy on his feet in the parched grass.
Rhett wants to hug him, wants to gather him up and kiss the life back into his shell of a person with as much fervency as he can muster.
"Blame those sick fucks, trying to change who you are!" Rhett insists, voice breaking wet.
Link shoves his hands in his pockets. "No point. It's gonna be okay. Yeah? There wasn't a happy ending for me, I think. Not planted where I was…” Link flashes another smile that doesn’t reach his eyes. “Where we were. Promise me you won't forget about me, though?"
Rhett panics. Wrings his fingers up into his hair, pulling before slamming his palms down to his thighs. "Stop talkin' like that!! You're strong enough to get through this!"
"I'm really, really not," Link mumbles, a hint of something there from the old him, lined in laughter and honesty. "Don't worry 'bout me."
"I miss you, by the way."
Rhett's speechless, can't find the words as Link spins on his feel and starts off into the meadow. Over his shoulder, he says, "If you'll excuse me, I've got a date with a semi trailer. Bye, Rhett."
Rhett can't control his next actions. Fueled by the terrifying parting words, he breaks into a run after Link, and the boy barely has time to turn and throw his hands up before Rhett tackles him into the grass, sending them rolling. When they level out, Link's eyes are wide and Rhett's lost somewhere between a snarl and a sob.
"No! That's not how this goes. You think this is a game?! You think I'm gonna sit by and watch someone smother out your flame--least of all, you?! " His hands wrench into Link's shirt and pull their faces close together, a bleeding scrape running red on Rhett's forehead. "No. You don't get to deprive yourself of showing this entire town what fuckin' monsters they are, and how happy you’ll be once you get out of here. That's a satisfaction you need to live to fulfill."
Rhett hesitates, sitting back on his heels and heaving breaths as he stares down at Link. "And I wanna live it with you."
Link blinks rapidly, and Rhett can't help but think he looks more awake than he's seemed since he first saw him. "What are you saying?"
"I might not have my own car, but I have my license. And the keys to my dad's truck." Rhett searches Link's eyes eagerly, looking for that familiar spark. "We can be across state lines by nightfall if we leave now."
"Rhett," Link breaths, grimacing up at him. "You don't wanna do this. Some grand gesture? Save it for someone worth breaking outta here with. Not for me."
"Link..." Rhett bites his lip and bends down, collecting Link in his arms and clutching him to his chest desperately. Link's arms hang useless at his sides, unsure of what to do. "I am so sorry I left you. I fuckin' caused this."
"Only I did. I wanted to keep you safe, but nothing's ever simple in this shit-hole town, is it? So I'm gonna fix it. Is there anything you need from home?" he asks swiftly, pulling back to look at Link. To show him in his face how determined he was.
Link's eyes roam Rhett's features, and a small smile tugs the corners of his lips. It’s the most beautiful thing Rhett’s seen in months. "No."
"Good." When Rhett kisses him, it's with more passion than either of them have dared to harbor in their lives. It's deep and sheltering and the feeling of other halves finding each other in darkness. Link melts into it, wraps Rhett in his arms, and Rhett doubles down at the encouragement, bowing deep over Link's body.
When they break, Rhett pants, "Can you stand? Truck's just back towards the road."
As much as he wants to, Rhett can't speed. He's essentially kidnapping Link, so being pulled over by the cops isn’t an option. Thus, Rhett keeps their pace steady on the interstate, keeps the radio turned low so they can still speak. Not that they have, but if they wanted to.
The windows are rolled down and hot blasts of summer air whip Link's hair as the sun sets and the first stars appear in the sky. When they pass the state line sign, Rhett points, but Link doesn't respond. Rhett glances over, seeking some sort of acknowledgment, but Link's eyes are closed and he's got a peaceful smile on his face, head relaxed back against the headrest.
Rhett's chest fills with warmth and he reaches over to take Link's hand, tangling their fingers together. Link's eyes flutter open and he stares down at their grasp for a few moments before bringing the back of Rhett's hand to his mouth and planting a kiss there. Rhett's eyes burn with love. He pulls Link's hand to his lips to mimic the action, and Link blinks owlishly and settles into his cloth seat, hugging their held hands like a stuffed animal as he drifts off into a sleep more restful than he's gotten in months.