"Right, then, I'm ready." Arthur set his mouth and punched his fist into his other palm.
Merlin leaned away. "D'you even know what you're doing, Art?"
Arthur pointed one finger at him. "I've told you, it's Arthur now. I'll punch you in the face, I've done it before."
Merlin raised both hands. "Okay, okay. Arthur. Do you—"
"God, Merlin, how hard can it be? We've both got lips, haven't we? Honestly, I don't even know why you're so keen on this. Girls are gross."
Merlin snorted. "Yeah. That's why you went stupid over Viv on Monday. 'Cause she's gross."
Arthur's cheeks pinked up. He gestured aimlessly. "Alright, she's not gross. Lord, I don't know! I just think… it'd be a useful thing to know how to do."
Merlin nodded. He couldn't argue with that.
"Okay, then. Now, you—" Arthur took hold of his shoulders and walked him a couple feet to the right. "Stand here. Hang on a sec." He craned his neck, peeking under the low-hanging leaves of the tree— a strange double-trunk that spindled up and over to arc back toward the earth. It was summer, and the branches were full, creating a nice dusky ceiling overhead.
Merlin fidgeted. "Come on, Arthur, if it gets much darker—"
"Alright already!" Arthur shushed him. "Just making sure no one sees."
"Right." Merlin nodded, shuddering at the mere thought.
Arthur faced him, leveling a baleful glare. "Now, you. Hold still this time, yeah? I don't fancy another cracked tooth."
Merlin blushed and smacked Arthur hard on the shoulder. "Wasn't all my fault, prat, you're the one who counted too fast!"
"Fine," Arthur hissed. "Shh, anyway. And don't move. I'll do it."
Merlin nodded and planted his feet. He couldn't help shutting his eyes; watching Arthur zoom in would make his ears all red. He might even squeak, and then there'd be no end to the teasing. Hands settled on his shoulders, and Merlin felt Arthur step up close.
"Okay, Merlin?" Arthur whispered. "Here we go."
The first one was tiny. Quick. It still made Merlin's ears flame, but he was gratified to see Arthur's face redden, too.
Arthur huffed, shrugging his shoulders. "Don't know what all the fuss is about, do you?"
Merlin let out a sharp, grateful sigh. "Really, really don't."
They looked at each other and burst into laughter.
Two weeks later, Arthur leaned into the aisle and whispered under the sharp reprimands poor Eoin was getting at the front of class. "My cousin Lance is over this week."
"Yep," Merlin managed out the side of his mouth.
Arthur's eyes flicked to the side and back. "And he told me about this other thing."
He turned his head and found Arthur staring at him, one eyebrow raised pointedly. Merlin raised his own eyebrow back, satisfied that he could still do it better than Arthur could. Arthur's eyes did that nervous flick again, and his hand crept up until Arthur brushed his fingers vaguely against his lips.
"Oh!" Merlin exclaimed.
It was Arthur's book tumbling to the floor— nudged violently by Arthur's bony elbow, no less— that saved Merlin from a severe dressing down by Ms. Somers.
It involved tongues and it was—
"Kind of disgusting," Arthur said, making a face. He looked like he was at a complete loss, nose scrunched, lower lip jutting out.
"Yeah." Merlin wiped his mouth with his sleeve.
"But Lance swore by it." Arthur looked this way and that, as if the answer to this conundrum would just appear under the bough of leaves. Merlin shrugged helplessly.
"Maybe it only works when you're… older or something."
Arthur pushed him, rolling his eyes. Merlin blushed.
"Or maybe we're just doing it wrong," he tried instead.
Arthur looked up at him, then at his mouth, then back to Merlin's face again. "You think?"
"Dunno." He looked around their leafy hideaway. "I mean, maybe we just need practice. Can't be something you just pick up, right? I mean, I guess it could. I picked up Mario Sunshine right away, and you've always been good at roller blades—"
"Merlin, shut up."
Arthur rubbed a hand over his mouth, looking like his father did, only more freckly. And funnier. "Okay. We'll give it another go, then."
It really didn't hurt at all. And for once, Merlin could hold it over Arthur that he was absolutely, positively, completely and utterly right.
"Nothing. Shut up. You're getting good at this."
"I said, shut up, Merlin. I have to be home in fifteen minutes."
It was easy to bring up new ideas. Arthur had a lot of them, thanks to his older cousins, and Merlin… well, Merlin did what he did best: he observed. It was gross trying to analyze his mum and dad's kisses, so he paid attention to the A-Level students who came into his mum's bookshop, and snuck around in the public library— clearly, empty rows of bookshelves made for prime snogging space. He wasn't sure why. Sadly, Arthur didn't have any ideas about that either.
"You'd think they'd sneeze all over each other."
"I know, right?"
A lot of their sessions started with Arthur's Alright, got this thing I want to try and ended when one of them thought to check his watch (usually Merlin, because Arthur liked to pretend he didn't care what time tea was these days). They'd stop by the ice cream cart on the corner where the park dumped out into the road and buy themselves popsicles— Merlin's idea after the time his mother frowned at him and asked if he'd been punched in the mouth at school. Then they'd split up, going their separate ways home, where they'd email each other after dinner about what worked and what they thought could be fixed, technique-wise.
Merlin was getting to know the taste of Arthur's mouth. He could tell when Arthur smiled during a kiss, or frowned, when he darted backward after doing something he thought was too aggressive, eyes wide and begging for Merlin's opinion.
School ended, and Arthur went to visit his cousins in Yorkshire for the summer. Merlin mowed lawns and trimmed hedges, and by the time class was about to start up again, he'd saved up for and purchased his very own skateboard, which he took straight to Arthur's house the evening Arthur got home.
Arthur's hair was shorter and he had even more freckles. He was also taller than Merlin, and thus had farther to fall when the skateboard zipped out from under him. Merlin thought that was fantastic.
It was still light out, the air soft and sweet with blooms, by the time they stretched out on the front lawn, the skateboard between them. Arthur told him about Lance's job working the checkouts at Tesco and how much money he was saving to tour Europe after A-Levels. Lance had a girlfriend, apparently, named Gwen, and she was incredibly nice.
"She always took my side when Lance and Kai teased me," Arthur said smugly. "All I had to do was pout at her."
Merlin stared up at the sky, trying to work his next words into nonchalance. "Hope they didn't snog all the time. Would've grossed me out."
He could practically hear the face Arthur made. "Ew, yeah. It was pretty annoying."
Merlin looked over at Arthur. "So. See anyone you felt like snogging?"
Arthur glanced at him, then turned back to face the sky. Shrugged. "Saw a few girls at a music festival we went to."
Merlin waited, but Arthur didn't say anything else. Merlin could feel his face heating, and was glad it was getting on toward dusk. "Wanna…"
Arthur frowned. "Wanna what?"
Merlin swallowed. "Wanna keep practicing then? So we're ready. For, you know, when."
Arthur shifted, cocking on elbow under his head. Merlin saw him blink twice. "Nah. Think we're good, you know?"
Merlin had to remind himself to answer. "Yeah. Probably are."
Arthur was right; they had managed a lot over the last month of school. It made sense to stop. Only Merlin's stomach felt a little funny after Arthur's pronouncement, like he'd eaten something he shouldn't have.
Merlin had always been sure it would take an avalanche caused by a tornado of biblical proportions, coupled with an earthquake that split their city right down the middle to break through his and Arthur's friendship.
In the end, it was as simple as separate schools. Uther Pendragon packed Arthur off to the ritzy independent prep school on the west side of town, and Merlin sent in a portfolio for the art school in the suburbs.
Still, they hung out until Arthur joined the rugby team and had to stay for after-school practices every day.
Date: 23 March 2006
Subject: (no subject)
hey. happy 16th, Arthur. hope you got cake in italy.
like your new email. bet your dad loves it too.
Date: 12 April 2006
Subject: RE:(no subject)
Rome was boiling. Had cake, but it was lemon. Sucks.
Way too easy to take the piss out of Dad.
Date: 18 May 2006
Subject: this weekend
wanna go see the pogues? playing at the stadium by the river. my buddy will's sick. he gave me his tickets.
Date: 21 May 2006
Subject: RE: this weekend
Arg, I'd love to, but I can't. Morgana's friends are taking me down to London.
Will Campbell, who always had paint and dried clay all over his trousers, helped Merlin cultivate his grungy artist look by 'accidentally' slopping various media onto Merlin's clothes whenever he could. He tried to submit Merlin as his first project during summer classes, and made the tutor laugh so hard that she slipped against her easel and got orange paint all down her back. Will was into Pollock, Dali, and the ceramics of Shoko Koike, and was thus very hard to predict.
Merlin exchanged mobile numbers and email addresses with Will during the second week of class. After that, Will showed up at Merlin's house at least once a week to watch Never Mind the Buzzcocks and toss crisps all over Merlin's room. Merlin kept the remote handy, nudging the volume up when he heard his dad's car pull in from his trips out of town so Will wouldn't hear his parents arguing.
At the end of the summer, Merlin's dad was up in Scotland overseeing the foundation of a nature preserve, and Hunith threw a barbecue in their backyard to break up the monotony.
"Merlin, come down, help me get the plates and cups out, will you?"
Merlin, just finished reading Will's apology for suddenly not being able to come, had to stab at the delete button twice before he banished the text. "Be down in a tick, Mum."
He helped carry covered bowls of food onto the patio, and nearly dropped the ginger and sesame coleslaw when his mother announced that she'd invited the Pendragons.
"Arthur's coming?" he queried, staring carefully down at the bowl in his hands.
"Don't know, really," Hunith answered absently. "I expect so."
Merlin had to go upstairs and sit down. For the first time in ages, he questioned the legitimacy of his painter's jeans and spattered hoodie. But he couldn't sit still. He stood in front of the mirror and tried to figure out why his stomach felt so jittery. He wet his lips and shifted back and forth, dismayed at the fit of his clothing, at the way his hair just… well, it was hair.
He hadn't seen Arthur in a few months. Sure, he'd talked to him online. No big deal. But he'd seen Arthur's Facebook photos, all of a lean, athletic guy with a wide smile, surrounded by people. The thought of Arthur face to face with him again, in the backyard where they'd played footie and drowned his mother's flower beds with the hose and buried Morgana's new make-up kits… it was somehow more. Too much. Merlin scrubbed a hand through his hair and then cursed himself for messing it up even more.
For fuck's sake. It was just Arthur.
"Merlin! I'm starting the grill!"
In the end, he kept his jeans but switched out his hoodie for a plain black polo, and pulled on his newest pair of Converse. He could hear people moving along the side of the house, going straight back to the yard. He took the stairs slowly, not sure if he wanted to be outside, comfortably sitting at the table when Arthur arrived, or if he wanted to make a late, noticeable entrance. He ended up at the door when the buzzer rang, greeting confused guests and directing them around the side. When he finally made it to the kitchen, he got stuck pulling extra plastic cups and cutlery out of drawers he hadn't even known existed. His mother headed outside with what he'd unearthed, and Merlin got off the floor, brushed off his jeans, and saw Arthur.
He stood outside, half in the sunlight, tall and easy in tan trousers and a striped button-down shirt. Merlin's insides gave a sideways jerk, and then a flop as Arthur shook his head, flicking hair out of his eyes. Merlin was glad he wasn't holding anything because he would have dropped it when Arthur's laugh reached his ears, full and genuine, a response to whatever the person next to him had said.
Merlin remembered that laugh. That particular one, right there, and with it, a whole host of other things. Hands on his shoulders, hands shoving his shoulders, green shadows twisting lazily, the sweet tang of orange popsicle in his mouth, and directly under that… Arthur's taste.
Oh god. Like Merlin had last kissed him yesterday. It was all right there, over his tongue, against his lips. Merlin's insides flooded with heat so unexpected that he couldn't move. It curled sweetly up through him, and before he knew it, he was smiling. Couldn't articulate why just yet, but he could feel it coming like a slow-moving wave.
Arthur turned a little and smiled, reaching a hand out, and someone took it. A girl stepped into view in front of the glass doors, thin and pretty with strawberry blonde hair in a ponytail. Arthur tugged her in, said something, and then kissed her on the mouth, and the wrenching in Merlin's stomach completed itself with an abrupt fall.
It was then that the wave finally hit, right then. Merlin could define it all, too much of it, and he no longer wanted to know because knowing was even worse. Knowing all of it, all of this. All of himself. He felt nauseated, like his legs were bending in all the wrong ways.
"Merlin?" His mother stepped through the door, brow furrowed. "Aren't you coming outside?"
He shook his head. "No, I'm…" Cleared his throat. "Mum, I'm not feeling too well. Think I'll just…" He thumbed over his shoulder at the stairs.
Hunith's brow creased further. "Are you alright? I can make you a pot of tea and a hot water bottle. Or some soup?"
He was going to choke. "No, it's okay. I'll just… I think I just need sleep."
He was already turning when she nodded. He barely remembered his climb up the stairs.
He might have slept. At any rate, he was in bed by the time the fog lifted, and it was dark outside. His computer blinked at him from the desk. Merlin stumbled over to it, thirsty and hungry and miserable, and found a new email.
Date: 5 August 2006
Subject: (no subject)
Hey, missed you at the barbecue. Hope you feel better soon.
His hunger vanished as quickly as he'd become aware of it. Merlin got back into bed and fell asleep.
He'd never used Arthur in any of his fantasies. At first, Merlin was confused about those fantasies in general, and then it just felt too weird to picture his best childhood friend in the role of getting him off. Like some sort of betrayal or dirty secret. And now, having a clearer idea what he felt, he couldn't even do that; he kept seeing strawberry blonde hair and a sweet smile pressed against Arthur's.
It made him feel sick.
Merlin turned sixteen on a rainy weekday in October, and went to the pub that didn't care about IDs with Will, Val, Tessa, and a girl named Freya who was one of Will's friends. He managed a greater number of pints than he'd planned, but cared less and less with each empty glass. Freya smiled and laughed a lot, but was also somehow shy, and Merlin came home with a vague impression of liking her, but not remembering much of what she'd said. In general, he was glad of finally not being able to think. About anything.
His mother was still up, sitting in the kitchen in her bathrobe, chin in her hand. She was looking out the window; the tea in front of her no longer steamed. She started when Merlin came in to get water.
"Have a good time, honey?" Her voice sounded rusty. Merlin shuffled to the sink, trying and failing to analyze the odd lilt to her words.
"It was fine. I had fun."
Hunith made an affirming sound and stirred at her tea. She went back to looking out the window. A few seconds later, Merlin bid her a wobbly goodnight and headed upstairs before his legs actually gave out.
They waited two weeks after his birthday, and then sat Merlin down and said they had something to tell him. Fifteen minutes later, Merlin retreated to his bedroom, feeling like he'd been shoved over the handrail of the stairs.
Getting a divorce.
The tears came so suddenly that Merlin knocked into his desk on his way to the bed, and ended up hunched over in his chair, staring blearily at his blank computer screen. Trying to stop the heaving of his shoulders. The hole inside was huge and dark. Ugly. He couldn't see the bottom, and it just wracked his body harder, building until he didn't recognize the sounds he was making as his own. His father was gone too much, they'd grown apart… Fallen out of love… Merlin could barely breathe, and a sliver of panic joined the fray, confusion and anger and utter helplessness all a tangled knot tumbling down into that hole.
This wasn't his life. Surely it wasn't.
At some point, he got his phone out of his pocket and thought about who he could call. Will, maybe. But he'd only known Will for a few months. Will wasn't… He just… Merlin's fingers slipped and he nearly dropped his phone. Will would probably come over. Sympathize, and listen to him rant, whenever he felt up to ranting. But he wouldn't understand it, not completely. Will wouldn't remember how happy Merlin's parents used to be. How much was being torn out from under Merlin. How perfect it had all been, and how wrong it all was now. Merlin couldn't even fathom the questions lying in wait. Would he have to move? What would his mother take, and what would his father end up with? Would he have to choose between the two of them?
He typed in Will's number with his thumb, and it felt wrong. There was really only one person that Merlin felt he could turn to with this.
He wasn't thinking so much as doing when he booted up his computer and logged into Yahoo. It was like he was removed from his body, watching himself as his fingers tripped over the keys, as he typed and hit send. Hearing every breath, tasting salt as it slid into his mouth.
His head was a mass of pain afterward, beating between his eyes. He felt shuddery and sick, completely drained. He stared at his computer until he couldn't remember if he'd actually sent the email or just dreamed it, and then he was too tired to think about it at all.
A day later, Arthur knocked on his doorframe before entering the room. "Hey."
Merlin felt a swift rush of relief, of pleasure. It was followed immediately by amorphous despair. He opened his mouth, but found he had nothing worth saying and closed it again.
Arthur sat down on the edge of Merlin's bed and glanced at him sidelong. He kept looking away and then back again, as if he had to keep reminding himself to meet Merlin's eyes. Merlin watched him dully.
"I'm so sorry," Arthur said finally.
Merlin nodded, still waiting for… whatever. He should be feeling something, he knew. Only there was nothing. Just a tight bundle in the middle of his chest, and he didn't know what it was made of this time.
He should feel glad that Arthur was here. Happy, even. Arthur hadn't needed to come, but their friendship of years ago still stretched between them sturdily enough that he had anyway. There was no relief, though, no sense of gratefulness or… joy, really.
"When did they tell you?"
Merlin dredged it up out of his thoughts. "Yesterday. Two weeks after my birthday."
He saw Arthur startle, just a little bit. It took Merlin a moment to realize that it wasn't because of the timing, but rather because Arthur had forgotten his birthday.
The timing of it apparently provoked anger. "That's a shit thing to do," Arthur muttered.
Merlin nodded, feeling oddly full and empty at the same time. "Thought they'd…"
"Yeah," Arthur said on a sigh. "They'd stay together forever."
The first spark of something flared and died away: Arthur could still read him well enough to finish his thought.
For some reason, the knowledge made Merlin vaguely angry.
"How're… How're you doing?" Arthur answered himself immediately. "Of course, you're not— I mean. Yeah, stupid question."
Merlin wanted to explain himself, why he'd emailed Arthur in the first place after so long. But he didn't even know the answer to that. He stared at Arthur, trying to pull something out of the abyss that was his mind. Track pants and a t-shirt with the name of his school across the front. Worn trainers. Arthur looked fresh, clean and fit in spite of his casual dress. And Arthur was meeting his eyes calmly now, as if they'd never been apart, as if he could see right inside Merlin.
God. Arthur had so many freckles. And they weren't Merlin's, they'd never been Merlin's. They never would be.
Merlin tried to look into Arthur, too, and couldn't decode anything. The heated emotion continued to build in slow, small rivulets, pooling and sloshing. "I'm. I kind of hate them both."
Arthur nodded. "Don't blame you. I kind of hate them both."
Merlin barely bit down on a retort he'd had no idea he was going to make. He blinked, suddenly focused inward, shocked by what was going on inside. As he had for the past night, he tried to channel the anger, picturing his mum's face, the resigned look in his dad's eyes. But nothing shifted. Nothing slipped into place. His gut continued to roil uneasily.
"Any idea what they're going to do?"
Merlin shook his head. "I haven't exactly… talked to them. You know. Since."
Arthur nodded. His eyes fixed on one of Merlin's Placebo posters. "Seems like everyone's getting divorced."
It was an unexpected detour, and Merlin grabbed hold of it with both hands. "Yeah. Yes. I have a couple friends at school who…"
"Me, too. Sophia's parents are divorced. She's only got her dad. But Merlin, she's doing alright. It'll get easier."
Merlin felt the stutter in his limbs. The thing inside twisted up a little tighter. "Sophia?"
Arthur shifted. "She's… We're dating. I brought her to meet you at the barbecue, but you weren't feeling well. She was bummed."
And Arthur wasn't? Merlin swallowed hard. His jaw hurt from clenching. The loss of that day was still painful, covered over by the mess that was his parents, but not gone at all.
"She doesn't even know me," he said, too quickly. Arthur looked up.
"Well… no. But she'd understand what you're going through, is all."
Merlin stood up so fast he knocked his knee on the desk. "No. She wouldn't."
Arthur frowned at him. "Merlin—"
"She doesn't know a thing about me!" he snapped. "She doesn't know me or my parents, or what I'm feeling. The shit I'm going through!"
He'd thought the ache was for his parents; he'd been so convinced, so torn up over it. But shouting at Arthur was causing the release in his chest, venting the heat out of his body in endless waves. Merlin felt horrible, and vindicated, and out of control. He felt like Arthur had stabbed him weeks ago, maybe years ago, and was back, twisting the blade over and over again.
"Merlin, calm down." Arthur stood, too, one hand raised between them. "I didn't mean to—"
"Well, what did you mean?" All the blame for himself was totally gone; Merlin felt like he was skidding away, losing the path and everything he recognized. "What could you possible know about what I'm going through anyway? Your parents never got divorced out of the fucking blue!"
A tremor shivered across Arthur's face, and it shot a leaden satisfaction straight into Merlin's belly. Until he saw Arthur's eyes dull. They hardened, like sea-blue resin. His nostrils flared, and Arthur's hand clenched so hard his knuckles went white.
"No, they didn't. My mother just died."
He strode past Merlin, out of his room, and Merlin was left standing there, fuming with a fury he couldn't exorcise.
Merlin waited three days before calling Will, and then spent an entire Saturday not really watching the television while Will guffawed and kicked back on his rug, and asked him what he thought of Freya.
Merlin looked up from his easel, and found Mrs. Hart at his elbow. Her gaze traced over his painting for a few seconds, and then she smiled at him. "Could you step outside for a moment? I'd like to talk to you."
Merlin placed his brush in the small bucket of water between his and Will's work stations and followed her out. Mrs. Hart shut the door, then turned to face him in the corridor. She tilted her head.
"Merlin, is everything alright?"
"I…what?" Merlin blinked. "Yeah. Everything's fine."
She nodded uncertainly. "I've just noticed over the past month that your work has become… darker. Still vibrant and evocative, but less color, less… Well, less you."
Merlin felt his face heat. "I've just been going through some stuff. At home."
She reached out and touched his arm. "Alright. Well, if you ever want to talk about it, get things off your chest, my office is always open."
It made his eyes burn. Even more so when Merlin knew that talking about his parents' impending divorce wouldn't help.
Merlin kept Arthur from his thoughts as best he could. Whenever the image of his face made an appearance, usually when Merlin was least prepared to handle it, it overturned something so jagged in his belly that Merlin had to shut it off, cold turkey. He couldn't even imagine exploring that pain, working through all its facets. He could see that it was larger, larger than even he'd imagined.
He suspected there was guilt layered in, but couldn't let it linger long enough to see. Couldn't face it without feeling like he was drowning.
It wasn't until after holidays that Freya stopped Merlin in the halls and shyly said hello. Merlin was deep in his head, trying to cope with the newest holes in his house, the familiar easy chair and coffee machine that his father had taken with him to his flat in the next neighborhood over; trying to guess at what might disappear next so that he could start detaching himself early. When Freya asked if he wanted to go for coffee sometime, Merlin said yes almost automatically.
He saw an escape from his daily struggle and he took it.
Turned out that Freya really was nice. And sweet. Witty, but reserved. Her outlook on the world reminded Merlin a lot of how his had been before he'd been totally uprooted. It was nice to get back to it, to see things without the film of his dismay mucking them up.
She liked a lot of the same movies, so it became their thing: catching a flick once every other week, sometimes with Will and Tessa, sometimes just by themselves. Afterward, they hit some restaurant at the mall and spent hours picking the movies apart, snickering at the idiotic bits and gushing over the parts they liked.
One Saturday, Merlin went through the entire outing and the meal afterward, and then realized he hadn't been sad once. He'd been too busy laughing. Freya's smile was open and honest, her eyes bright with humor. She took a bite of a chip and caught her lower lip between her teeth. Something gave a little flip in Merlin's chest.
She kissed him for the first time two weeks later.
The movie's run was waning and they'd already seen it before, but had liked it enough to come back. They practically had the theatre to themselves, save for four or five die-hards in the front rows who were tossing popcorn and jeering at the romantic plot devices. He heard Freya take a breath, and felt her move in the seat next to him. When he turned his head, she was facing him, her hand on the armrest.
"I think…" she whispered. Merlin leaned closer to hear, and then he just knew. His heart beat picked up, juddering through his chest. He waited as she bent forward, breathing softly against his lips. She smelled good, like lilacs.
The first touch made his heart thud, but then Merlin remembered what to do. The feeling of her mouth wasn't totally new. He knew this. He kissed her back lightly, looked into her eyes for a second, and then kissed her again.
It was slow. Nice. Merlin's pulse calmed right down.
Afterward, Merlin laced his fingers through Freya's and frowned at the screen. Surely the kiss shouldn't have calmed him down. Then again, Freya wasn't exactly bouncing in her seat. He remembered needing practice with— needing practice, and thought that he'd like to try it again with Freya. Give it a little more time. See what developed.
He guessed they were officially dating when kissing became a regular thing. They didn't see much in the way of the movies anymore, but dinner after was still a riot. Merlin spent the time tossing chips at Freya and snagging them from her plate in return, and waited until he was home, on his back in bed, to wonder at the way they kissed.
It wasn't bad. Freya was good at it, as far as Merlin could tell: not too overbearing or tentative. She seemed to get him, and from the way she responded, he thought he understood her, too. The problem was that Merlin didn't think he should be able to analyze their make out sessions this thoroughly.
Shouldn't he be swept away by it? Shouldn't he have trouble focusing while kissing his girlfriend?
A little traitorous part of his brain was of the opinion that Arthur and Sophia were never this capable of analyzing their trysts.
He'd made such a habit of banishing Arthur from his mind that he managed it easily.
The school year came to an end, and Merlin made preparations to switch to the new school for his A-Levels. They started a little earlier, so his summer would be cramped. But Merlin didn't like having a lot of time to sit and think anymore, so it was just as well. He spent his days with Freya and Will, and tried not to analyze, especially not how relieved he was that Freya wasn't pushing things. He could go along with not pressuring her into the next step much more easily when he ignored his own misgivings.
It didn't even occur to Merlin that there was only one school offering A-Levels in the city until he looked up from his book at lunch and saw Arthur leaning against a wall across the courtyard with a sandwich in his hand.
It was a good thing he wasn't eating at the time, because Merlin choked and nearly threw up what he had managed. As if all the emotions he'd hidden from over the past year had swamped him all at once, and Merlin found himself making his way out of the lunch quad toward the bathrooms on unsteady legs, his lunch and book behind him in the grass next to a disconcerted Freya.
The next day, Merlin came back to school collected, his limbs thrumming with a new resonance. He knew what to expect this time; he wasn't going to be blindsided again. Of course Arthur would come to this school. Of course they'd share some classes: all the kids who weren't planning on university hadn't enrolled. His classmates were the ones who decided to stay on, who probably had specific uni requirements on their minds, and were making a go at it.
He'd just have to deal with it. Accept it.
Strange that all he felt when he passed Arthur in the halls— locked eyes with him for one stinging second before Arthur looked away— was a wash of shame and sadness. Merlin searched for the anger carefully. But it wasn't there. It had snuffed itself out in that first tumultuous flood.
Merlin left for the day feeling more confused and depressed than ever.
He hadn't meant for it to happen. At all.
They were sitting on a bench in the quad, and Freya laughed and kissed him, winding her arms around his neck and tilting her head into it. Merlin was just responding, trying not to smile and ruin the moment, when someone dropped a book and Merlin and Freya broke apart. Merlin found Arthur, standing in the middle of the walkway behind Freya, his English book flopped open on the ground, both hands at his sides. He stared at them, blue eyes wide, freckles standing out against his skin. Merlin watched Arthur's cheeks flush, and then Arthur jerked his head to the side, breaking eye contact. The guy with him asked what was wrong, but Arthur just bent over, scooped up his book, and strode down the walkway, shoulders higher than before.
"Who was that?" Freya asked curiously, gazing after him.
A guy I used to know.
Friend of my family's.
I have no idea.
What came out was, "That's Arthur."
He tried to feel angry again, though he wasn't sure why. Instead, all he felt was a different kind of misery.
Over getting caught? For putting that look on Arthur's face? For reacting at all?
He wasn't sure.
They had four classes together, and passed each other in the halls regularly. Arthur never once met his eyes, but Merlin had the distinct impression that he was being watched when his back was turned.
One afternoon, Arthur entered the lunch quad munching on an apple, texting intently with one hand, and Merlin pulled his arm from around Freya's waist. And then wondered why.
"Do you maybe… Merlin?"
Merlin looked up at Freya across the library table and found her fingering a lock of her hair. It was a couple days after his seventeenth birthday— Will had trucked them all out to the theme park in the next county and gotten everyone sick on candy floss, then tied balloons all over Merlin's clothing and hair— and there was a set of exams coming up.
Freya's eyes flicked down, and then up to meet his again. "I was wondering if you… You know, now that we've been together for a while."
He had an uneasy feeling he knew where she was headed. "If I what?"
She reached across the table and took his hand in hers. "I mean that I'm ready. If you are."
The librarian shushed them noisily as she passed, and Freya blushed and pulled her hand away. Merlin went back to his book, determined not to meet her eyes.
It wasn't her, it was him. Truly.
It still sounded stupid.
Kissing Freya didn't make Merlin want to put his hand down her shirt or up her skirt. It made him a little lightheaded, but the fact was that he was still too there to lose himself. He thought through it every time, learning his way around what she liked until he could do it every time, learning from the way she kissed him.
Merlin hadn't even tried to picture Freya while wanking, mostly because he didn't wank. Hadn't ever since… Well, it had been a while. He'd associated it with so many bad feelings, so much self-loathing and outward anger, that he didn't care much about it.
He liked the way Freya smelled. He loved her smile, the sound of her laughter, and thought her quite possibly the prettiest girl he'd ever known. But she didn't turn him on. Not like that.
Late that night, he wondered if secretly he did know exactly why he'd never thought of Freya in order to get himself off. If it was because he knew who would get him off and had been in too much pain to face it.