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It Takes Two To Tandem

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“No.”

“Will –”

“No.”

“Come on!”

No.

“It’s just this one time, Will.”

Will is stretched out on the bleachers, squinting against the sun and decidedly not taking part in the game of rugby unfolding on the grass below. He flops around until he can glare at Merlin, narrowing his eyes as he keeps Merlin’s gaze with a serious expression before he says, “For fuck’s sake, Merlin. No.”

Merlin hugs his knees to his chest and peers out over the pitch where the players on the school’s rugby team are yelling over each other in an attempt to co-ordinate whatever it is they do. Rugby has never been anything Merlin understands or cares about. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with rugby specifically. Merlin doesn’t discriminate – he hates all sports equally, which is why it still beats him why he spends so many of his afternoons hanging around near the pitch.

Well, it’s because of Will, obviously. Will lies around on the bleachers hoping to cash in on the female attention the players get, always hovering near Gwen and her group of friends – the ones who always show up to snicker delightedly at all the male sweating going on. Incidentally, the male sweating is the only thing Merlin, too, fancies about sport.

“Can’t you just do it alone?” Will asks just as the team takes a break, milling up into the bleachers.

Merlin sighs as he sways to the side to let one of the players pass him. “It’s a tandem bike.” It seems like they’ve had this discussion a hundred times and it’s not the first time Merlin wonders what he thought he’d use a tandem bike for when he tends to do everything alone.

“Look, mate,” Will says, looking mildly guilty for the first time since Merlin started bringing up the bike he found at the yard sale he’d gone to with his uncle Gaius, “I know you like these kind of things, yeah? But it’s social suicide, right, if someone sees me. None of those girls over there are going to have a go with me if I go around riding bikes with other blokes.”

Biting the inside of his lip, Merlin doesn’t meet Will’s look of almost-guilt. It’s been like this for a while, really, so Merlin should be used to it – and he is. It’s been at least two years since Will had started getting very aware of how much he wants to hang around with the girls and they’re sixteen after all. Merlin has no illusions about what other sixteen year olds are into and he knows they don’t fall arse over teakettle in love with tandem bikes that they spend several weeks fixing and painting until they look good as new – or at least charmingly vintage. He knows all of that, but sometimes he wonders why he’s always the one who has to bend.

The silence that stretches between them is broken when Gwaine shows up, kicking harmlessly in the direction of Will’s stomach, making him hunch in on himself in protection with an indignant “Hey!” on his lips. Gwaine laughs as he sits down on the bench above Will, opening the lid on his water bottle with grass-stained fingers.

“Percy’s having another thing on Saturday,” he says, tapping his feet against Will’s side. “Told me to pass it on.”

“Oh, Jesus,” Will says between breathless huffs of laughter. “Last week’s was mental. Pendragon thought the pool table was the garden and tried to take a piss on it.”

Gwaine huffs and his skin glistens in the sunlight, the sweaty shirt clinging to his upper body and Merlin has to look away because it’s all a bit too much. Hugging his knees even tighter to himself, he looks down between the benches, trying to count all the pennies people have dropped.

“Fuck, don’t even mention it, I’m still pissed off. Had to drag him home and get him to bed without The Bull finding out.”

Will laughs wildly. “Just get him back on the weekend, mate.”

“I plan on it,” Gwaine says and then Merlin feels the burn of his gaze. Slightly panicked, he wonders if he should look up or just ignore it. “I never see you around the parties.”

“Merlin’s not one for drinking.”

The truth is Merlin has never really had a chance to find out if he’s one for drinking since he’s never been invited. He looks up and casts a fleeting glance at Will, trying not to resent him for never bothering to ask.

“Yeah,” Merlin says, cringing inwardly at his inability to think of anything else. This is the first time Gwaine has directed anything in his direction since primary school, so he hadn’t exactly been prepared for being addressed.

“Well, have you ever gone?”

“No.”

“Then how do you know you’re not one for drinking?”

“I don’t know,” Merlin says truthfully, trying not to look as sad about it as he feels. As Merlin locks eyes with Gwaine, his heart speeds up in anticipation. In that second he thinks Gwaine might be about to invite him, or at least give him a flippant “Well, come check it out, then.”

Will’s misplaced sense of protection cuts off anything Gwaine might’ve been about to say. “Leave him be, Gwaine. It’s not his thing.”

Merlin looks away, trying to soothe the sharp sting of disappointment. He knows Will is just trying to look out for him in his own strange way. It’s always been like that, perhaps because Merlin had always seemed like an easy target and Will may just have been the reason he never did get picked on at school. But sometimes Will just doesn’t get it.

“Yeah, well. Crap, break’s over,” Gwaine says, nearly pushing Will off the bench as he jumps past.

“See,” Will says, squinting up at Merlin, “I saved you from Gwaine’s evil clutches, so stop harassing me about the bike.”

“Yeah,” Merlin says, looking over at the mess of limbs on the pitch. “Alright.”

***

It had been propped up behind a crate and a bookshelf at the yard sale. There was rust all over the handlebars and the paint had faded into a pale pink that might, at some point, have been red. It was well-used and for some reason that attracted Merlin to it more than anything else. Running a finger over the tear in one of the leather seats, he imagined the trips it had taken, the people it had carried – all the stories it could tell. It felt like a well of possibilities and he wanted it, smiling softly as his hands ran across a dragon emblem on the metal.

“That must have been a beauty once,” his uncle Gaius said when he found Merlin crouched by the tandem bike in the corner.

Merlin looked up, still smiling for no apparent reason. “Do you think it’d be hard to fix?”

“Well,” Gaius said, reaching out and pressing his hand to one pair of the pedals. They went around with slight difficulty, but Gaius looked pleased. “It doesn’t seem broken beyond repair. We would need some new parts and some paint, but I do think we could fix it. I would help you, of course.”

And Gaius did help, showing him how to assemble the new parts and fix what wasn’t being renewed, until Merlin had learned enough to tinker with it himself. Merlin had spent hours over the weekends changing the seats and the chains, removing the rust that had gathered on the metal over the years. It had been painted a sharp, cheerful red that Merlin figured it may have been when it was first new. The dragon emblem had been polished as Merlin ran his finger along it, the detail in it fascinating him.

He gazes at it where it’s propped up against the wall of their garage, the new coat of paint shining with the reflection of the lights in the ceiling. It’s been ready to use for three weeks, but it hasn’t been outside since he started fixing it. The fondness Merlin had felt for the bike from the moment he saw it has been muddled with some resentment as it slowly grew to become a physical reminder of his miniscule circle of friends. When Will says no to something, that’s the end of it, really. Merlin has never been one to really resent his lack of friends because he’s always liked his own company, but lately it’s been bothering him more than he’s used to. He feels as if there’s a reason he bought the bike even though he knew it was a bike for two, and it wasn’t to drive around his neighbourhood alone so he could become “that weird kid who rides a tandem bike alone.”

He lets out a slight sigh as he leaves the bike behind for yet another day and climbs the steps up from the garage into the hallway of their house. Trying not to stare out the window at the balmy spring day outside, he moves slowly around the kitchen trying to throw together some leftovers for dinner. Unlike the people spending their Sunday lounging outside on their lawns, his mum is working a shift at the hospital, leaving Merlin to sort out himself. It’s another thing he’s quite used to and he manages alright.

A complete racket outside makes him look up from his half-eaten dinner just as the front door bangs open and for a moment he thinks someone might be stupid enough to think they have something worth stealing. But then Will stands in the doorway to the kitchen, Gwaine peeking in over his shoulder with a grin.

“Merlin!” Gwaine exclaims as if they’re old mates. “Just the man I wanted to see. There’s... Hey! You get back here, you little shit!”

Merlin stares at Gwaine as he disappears from the doorway before his eyes flicker nervously to Will.

“Come on,” Will says, and Merlin sits rooted to his chair for only a moment before he follows, trailing behind Will out into the afternoon sun.

There isn’t anything in Merlin’s life leading up to this moment that has prepared him for what’s happening on the lawn outside his house. Gwaine has Arthur Pendragon in a headlock, the two of them entangled on the grass in what seems to be an impromptu wrestling match. And yes, it might be horrifyingly close to a fantasy Merlin has entertained once or twice. He blushes furiously, but it’s impossible to look away from the two most popular guys in school wrestling outside on his own lawn.

“Uhm, Will?” Merlin squeaks, feeling on edge and very much out of his comfort zone.

Will’s answer is cut short when Arthur growls, using his strength to push Gwaine onto his back even as Gwaine manages to keep his arm looped around Arthur’s neck.

“Fuck off, Gwaine,” Arthur shouts while aiming his elbow at anything he can reach. “I’m not riding around town with Dumbo here on his nerd bike.”

“For fuck’s sake,” Gwaine manages to wheeze before Will reaches over and pulls Arthur out of Gwaine’s grip with surprising strength.

“Now you bloody listen here,” Will says, pushing his face so close to Arthur’s that it elicits a flinch. “I said you could use Merlin’s bike for your bet, but not if you’re coming here to be a dick. The bet was Gwaine’s idea; Merlin didn’t ask to be graced by His Royal Prattishness.”

Arthur twists himself out of Will’s grip, straightening his t-shirt with a shaking hand as he hisses his reply. “It’s not like I asked to be here either.”

The bickering continues endlessly until Merlin just can’t take it anymore. The humiliation burns uncomfortably in his stomach as he slowly realises riding his bike is being used as some sort of punishment and public embarrassment for Arthur, the self-proclaimed king of Camelot Sixth Form College.

“Shut up!” Merlin shouts as his anger spills over, unfurling rapidly in his chest. “All of you. You can all fuck off.”

All three of them are stunned into silence and being the centre of attention makes Merlin flush slightly, but he’s too angry to let it get to him.

“Merlin,” Will says softly as he grips his arm, stopping him from going inside. “I’m sorry. I just figured it’d be a way for you to get what you wanted too.”

“Yeah, this is exactly what I want,” Merlin says, his voice raw. “To be used as public humiliation. It’s fucking brilliant.”

Gwaine steps up, his hand rubbing at the back of his neck, “Shit, mate. I didn’t mean it like that and Arthur here is just being an overdramatic git. He lost a bet last night at the party and I thought this would just be fun, is all.”

“Come on, Merlin.” Will claps a hand on his shoulder. “You know I’m not getting up on that thing if you paid me. This may be your only shot to try it out.”

The sad realisation that Will is right makes his anger deflate leaving him with a slow churn of discomfort instead. He would rather ride the bike with someone who actually wants to, but the truth of it is that he doesn’t think he’ll find anyone like that. It says a lot about how much he wants to test it out that he finds himself pushing it carefully out of the garage towards the other three, wilfully ignoring the pout on Arthur’s lips.

“Oh, god,” Arthur says, looking helplessly at Gwaine. “You said five minutes yeah?”

“Yeah, five minutes is all I’m asking, so stop whining.”

Will rolls his eyes. “Just get on and shut up. And if I find out you’ve been calling him names again, you better watch your back, Pendragon.”

“Jesus, I’ll be nice to your boyfriend, Williamson, just shut up.”

Reaching for the bike, Arthur manages to awkwardly climb over the metal bar until he’s straddling the bike and grabbing onto the handlebars before Merlin manages to find enough courage to speak up.

“Hey, why do you get to steer?” he asks, frowning. “It’s my bike.”

“Well, if I’m being forced to do this, I’m definitely not being the one with my head in your arse.”

“What? You’re not supposed to bend over, get your head out of the gutter,” Merlin snaps back and he hears Gwaine and Will burst out laughing behind him.

“I’m steering this thing or I’m not doing it,” Arthur says, not budging from his place. “Take your pick.”

Merlin takes a deep breath before climbing into the back seat, supporting his weight on one leg while keeping the other ready on the pedal.

“Are y- urnf.” Merlin lands face first into Arthur’s back as the bike jerks forwards. “Wait up, you git, we need to start at the same time!”

He hears Arthur huff in the alarming way that runs in the family, according to word of mouth (probably the very reason they call his father The Bull), and Merlin grits his teeth, trying not to think too much about the fact that this is hardly the virgin voyage he’d imagined for his bike.

“I’ll count to three and then we go at the same time, yeah?”

Merlin thinks it might be a slight miracle that they get going. They wobble dangerously and Merlin cries out, telling Arthur to actually steer since he kicked up such a fuss about it, but then it somehow works. They find a rhythm as Arthur leads them down the street and around a curve until Gwaine and Will can no longer see them. Gwaine and Will probably don’t see much through their tears of laughter anyway.

Closing his eyes for a moment, Merlin tries to forget that it’s Arthur Pendragon sitting in front of him. He tries to imagine biking through the streets with someone who wants to be there and if he keeps his mind on that, it’s all rather wonderful. There’s a slight breeze in his hair and the bike is gleaming wonderfully red in the sun as he presses his feet to the pedals rhythmically. And maybe, when he thinks about it, it’s a little bit extraordinary that Arthur of all people is doing this with him. Before this, they had barely even talked and here they are. Well, they still aren’t talking, but it feels strangely close.

The easy feeling in Merlin’s chest disappears completely when Arthur begins pedalling faster, cutting the corners more and more abruptly. They rush down the streets, moving in a circle back towards Merlin’s house, coming back from the opposite direction. Anger prickles across Merlin’s skin, making him push against Arthur’s back in warning.

“Slow down, Arthur!” he says, not even bothering to think of a rude nickname.

“Why?” Arthur asks over his shoulder. “Come on, this is actually fun!”

“It’s not like a regular bike, the turns you’re doing are too abrupt it’s-”

He doesn’t get any further before he finds himself in a heap of limbs and metal among rubbish bins and what definitely looks like a fence. There’s a sharp ache in his knee and he groans, trying to separate up from down. He’s only just managed to get himself up from under the bike when Gwaine and Will come running around the corner, coming to an abrupt halt next to them.

“Fuck,” Gwaine says, reaching out to pull Arthur up from the pavement. “What happened?”

Merlin looks at Arthur out of the corner of his eyes, opening his mouth to rudely tell Arthur to go to hell for being such a dick. Something stops him and he doesn’t know what, exactly. Instead, he hunches down next to his bike and ignores them, looking at the way the front wheel twists into a wobbly mess. He runs his hand over it, following the circle before he runs a hand along the metal, finding several scratches in his new paint. Biting his lip, he stares at it and ignores the agitated conversation going on around him.

He gingerly lifts the bike up from the ground and heads back towards his house with difficulty as the front wheel keeps snagging, causing the bike to come to a jerky stop every so often. Even though he doesn’t acknowledge them, he can hear the others following him.

Gwaine and Arthur leave without a word in his direction, but Will stops and looks at him as Merlin pushes the bike into the garage.

“Hey, Merlin,” he says, making Merlin look up and meet his eyes reluctantly. “I didn’t think... well, I thought he’d be a good sport about it. I’m sorry about your bike.”

“Yeah,” Merlin says, heading back into the garage. “Me too.”

***
Merlin drums his fingers against the back of the book as he reads, curling up into the corner of his bed where he’s propped all of his blankets and pillows into a comfortable little nest of sorts. He’s been almost completely engrossed in the book for hours, but he can suddenly hear his mum moving about downstairs. He burrows into the wall of blankets and pillows as he turns the page and listens to the familiar sounds coming from the kitchen.

He’s almost tuned out everything again when there’s a slight tap on his door and his mum slides it open, smiling softly. “Have you had dinner already?”

“Yeah, I made some right after school. Do you want me to find something for you?”

She waves dismissively. “I’ll find something in the fridge, don’t worry.” Her expression changes and she looks at him searchingly and when she smiles tentatively at him, he frowns. “There’s someone at the door for you.”

“What?”

“There’s a boy asking for you downstairs.”

“A boy?” he parrots, feeling ridiculous. He just can’t quite wrap his head around the words. If it was Will, he wouldn’t be asking; he’d just come bounding up the stairs like the unmannerly knob he is. And that’s about the extent of boys that Merlin talks to on any regular basis.

When his mum looks at him exasperatedly, he finally drags himself out of bed and leaves the book spread open on the bed. He jogs down the stairs only to come to an abrupt halt in front of the open front door.

“Uhm,” he says, putting a hand against the wall for support. “Hi.”

Arthur Pendragon stands in his doorway looking horrifically awkward. His eyes shift about the room, settling on anything but Merlin.

“I’ve been waiting,” Arthur says and then seems to wince as soon as the words are out.

“Uh, yeah, I actually just found out you’re here,” Merlin points out. “You didn’t exactly schedule this.”

“I’m really rubbish at this.”

“At what?” Merlin asks, genuinely confused.

He can see his mum hovering near the entrance to the kitchen and he throws a look over his shoulder, making her scurry back inside. She makes a point out of banging the cupboard doors.

Arthur looks pained and for a moment Merlin wonders if he somehow got himself hurt and needs help, but then Arthur rubs the back of his neck and mutters something that is impossible to catch.

“Sorry?” Merlin prompts.

Ididn’tmeantoruinyourbike.”

“Oh.” Merlin wrings his hands slightly, not sure what to do with them. “I know you didn’t, really.”

This doesn’t seem to calm Arthur at all. If anything, he seems more nervous than ever as he shifts his weight from one foot to the other.

“It’s fine,” Merlin lies.

“It’s not.”

Merlin gives a one-shouldered shrug, not knowing what else to say.

There’s a moment of awkward silence before Arthur suddenly ducks out of view and Merlin frowns, stretching his neck to see where he went. He’s there again, suddenly, with a blush rising in his cheeks.

“Look, the guys at the shop said this should work,” Arthur says, holding a wheel out in front of him. “I don’t know if it does, but you can try. And if it doesn’t I’ll buy another one.”

Merlin just stares at it, unable to understand what’s happening and when he just stands there, Arthur pushes the wheel against him and says, “Take it.”

Looking down at the wheel in awe, Merlin doesn’t dare look up at Arthur hovering in the open doorway. “I’ll need help putting it on.”

“I’ll help,” Arthur says before Merlin’s words are barely out of his mouth. “I’ll help you fix whatever.”

At that Merlin looks up at him, studying the tight line of Arthur’s jaw and the way his shoulders slump awkwardly as he burrow his hands into his pockets. It’s only then he understands that Arthur Pendragon, of all people, feels guilty.

“It’s in the garage,” he says, mostly just to say anything, and Arthur nods silently, following him down the stairs leading from the hallway.

“You haven’t tried to fix it.”

Merlin looks over at the bike, standing where he left it after their failed bike ride.

“No.”

“Why not?”

Merlin shrugs. “What’s the point? I won’t be able to use it.”

“Your mum could ride with you, yeah?”

“Not really,” Merlin says, squatting down next to the twisted front wheel, attempting to loosen the screws the way his Uncle Gaius had shown him. “She has a problem with her hip.”

There is no answer, but Merlin feels Arthur’s gaze prickle against his neck as he fumbles slightly with the screws. When he looks back over his shoulder, Arthur is leaning his hip against the workbench as he watches him with arms crossed over his chest.

“Well, it would be stupid to give it up now,” Arthur says, managing to make it sound a bit more like an insult than encouragement.

“More like it’d be realistic.”

Merlin still doesn’t stop what he’s doing. He removes the old, broken wheel and pushes the new one in place. A knot he’s been ignoring in his chest loosens a little as he throws the broken wheel in the general direction of the rubbish bin.

“Hold this?” he asks and Arthur moves to hold the wheel in place as Merlin tightens the screws.

The process brings Arthur’s face closer than it’s ever been and Merlin can’t help but sneak a glance in his direction. It makes his fingers falter slightly as Arthur licks his lip in concentration. He allows himself a moment to linger on his lips – full and almost a touch too wide. They’re slightly chapped and Merlin has to fight the urge to lean in and run the tip of his tongue against them. The thought of how Arthur would react to that shakes him out of it and he forces himself to get the wheel in place to get some distance between them before he cracks.

Merlin moves and hovers awkwardly by the back wheel, pretending to inspect it even though he knows it’s fine.

“Where’s the paint?”

Frowning, Merlin continues his pretend inspection, his fingers tracing the length of one of the spokes. “Under the bench. Why?”

“Well, you haven’t fixed the scratches,” Arthur says and Merlin can hear him move to the other end of the room.

He can’t quite stop himself from throwing a look over his shoulder, unable to even process the fact that Arthur is here helping him fix his bike. It’s not even that Arthur is doing much, exactly, but the truth is that Merlin had decided to let it stay in the garage untouched until it was buried in boxes and tools and storage from the house. Arthur has really helped more than he probably intended to.

They don’t talk much as they settle down shoulder to shoulder with spray cans in hand. The result isn’t as smooth as it was, but the scratches mostly fade. There’s a dent on the metal under the handle bars, but Arthur says it’s barely noticeable, and besides it only shows that it’s been used, doesn’t it? Merlin nods at this, almost liking the idea that there’s a little mark from their disastrous trip on the bike, as if it’s a little badge of honour.

Arthur hovers a bit awkwardly by the door when Merlin follows him out. A heavy silence settles between them as none of them seem to figure out what to say. It feels like they should say something worthwhile like “I’m sorry” and “Thank you,” but Merlin suspects Pendragons don’t apologise often and the “Thank you” seems to lodge in his own throat.

“How are you getting home?” Merlin asks instead, aiming for nonchalant.

“Walking. Why, did you have a bike to offer me?”

The teasing smile that spreads across Arthur’s face is the first smile Arthur has ever directed at Merlin, and it makes Merlin swallow desperately against his dry throat.

“In your dreams,” he manages to croak, making Arthur’s smile widen for the slightest of moments before he turns and sets off down the road without a backward glance.

***
Wednesdays are exhausting. Not only is the weekend still disappointingly far away, but Merlin spends an hour after school tutoring Owain who really couldn’t care less about English literature and spends most of the time just doodling. There’s been ridiculously little progress made, and Merlin’s not quite sure how he’s supposed to be helping when Owain barely listens to a word he says.

Stopping by his locker on his way from the tutoring session, he wonders if Will’s waited for him down by the pitch or if he’ll have to walk home alone. He unloads several of his books into the locker and puts his math book into his backpack, knowing he has homework that needs to be done before tomorrow.

He hurries down the hallway, eager to get out of there, when a door springs open suddenly and someone yanks him into an empty classroom. Merlin has never been popular, but he’s never been bullied either. Invisible is really the best description of what his role at school has been so far, but for a moment he worries that someone’s noticed him enough to figure out that he’s worth picking on. There’s a hand clamping over his mouth and he struggles slightly until he meets the shockingly blue eyes staring intently at him. He relaxes immediately but glares at Arthur as fiercely as he can possibly manage, hoping to convey exactly how terrified he’d been.

“Shut up,” Arthur says, quite unnecessarily. “Listen. This doesn’t leave this classroom. Ever.”

Merlin raises his eyebrows at that, but nods slowly under Arthur’s hand. He’s starting to become ridiculously aware of the fact that Arthur’s palm is still pressed over his mouth and his lips are really only a miniscule movement away from kissing the soft skin. He swallows heavily, moving his head from side to side in an attempt to shake Arthur off, but Arthur just tightens his hold and Merlin has to bite back a really embarrassing whimper.

There’s a heavy silence for a while as Arthur seems to fight whatever words he’s trying to say and Merlin notices that Arthur’s hair is wet, clinging to his forehead and the nape of his neck in a way that Merlin finds really hard to ignore. Arthur must’ve been at footie practise before he came here. Closing his eyes, Merlin tries to ignore the way Arthur smells pleasantly of some sort of shower gel. This is about to get really awkward really fast.

“Look. It’s... well. Riding your stupid, nerdy bike was fun, okay?” Arthur says suddenly in a rush of breath that nearly makes his words tangle together. It’s like he’s trying to swallow them as they pour out. “Before we crashed and all. Which was stupid, I know. But I thought it was fun. And I’ll ride it with you.”

“Shut up,” Merlin says disbelievingly into Arthur’s hand, his words muffled.

Arthur releases him quickly at that, his eyes widening slightly.

“I’ll ride it with you,” he repeats, looking so embarrassed about it that Merlin wonders why he even bothers in the first place. “But only if you don’t tell a single soul.”

“I won’t.”

Merlin’s fingertips prickle with the slight adrenaline rush. It’s a really strange thing to get an adrenaline rush from, but fuck: Merlin has never had anyone wanting to spend time with him that isn’t immediate family or Will – nor have any of them ever been gorgeous or willing to ride his tandem bike.

“I’ll seriously kill you if you do. Worse than kill you, actually.”

Rolling his eyes, Merlin tries to pretend that he can’t still feel the touch of Arthur’s hand over his mouth.

“Yeah, fine, I’ll sleep with the fishes or whatever,” Merlin says, unable to keep from smiling at Arthur’s melodrama. “I’ll try to keep myself out of the watery grave.”

Pursing his lips together as if dealing with Merlin is a horribly painful thing Arthur sighs and takes off without a word. It seems to be a habit by now.

***
“Seriously, Merlin, the least you could do is try to pedal,” Arthur says, huffing behind Merlin as they creep slowly uphill.

Merlin rolls his eyes for what feels like the nine hundredth time since he started interacting with Arthur. “Sod off, I’m pedalling more than you. And I weigh about half of you, so.”

“Are you calling me fat?”

Arthur sounds so indignant that Merlin bursts out laughing, which is pretty impractical since he’s already out of breath. They’re both pressing their weight down into the pedals, trying to keep a steady rhythm. All in all, it’s working a lot better than their first attempt at riding the bike, perhaps especially because Merlin adamantly refused to let Arthur steer it again. Arthur only argued for a few seconds before he gave in, probably realising that his track record is pretty awful.

They just barely make it to the top of the hill without having to jump off and walk. They’re too out of breath to keep any conversation, but it doesn’t really matter. There’s something really comfortable and close about biking together, adjusting their rhythms to each other and breathing heavily almost in sync. They’ve never had a lot to talk about, so Merlin is really just happy that their silence is a comfortable one. It doesn’t feel like they need to say anything as long as they keep pedalling, riding smoothly along the road now that it’s all straight ahead.

There’s no mishap. There’s not even a real argument. It goes beyond any expectations Merlin may have had. When the road curves and slopes downward Merlin smiles into the wind, letting the bike pick up speed until they’re hurtling down the hill with the wind rustling through their hair. Laughter bubbles in Merlin’s throat and he hears Arthur’s answering laugh carried away by the wind.

***
Merlin looks at him, bemused, when Arthur stops by his table at lunch, his hoodie pulled down over his face as if no one would recognise him in it when he’s been wearing the hoodie all semester. Pausing with his sandwich in hand, Merlin looks at Arthur with raised eyebrows. A piece of paper is slipped onto the table, but Merlin doesn’t take it. Instead, he inches his eyebrows even higher in a silent question.

“It’s a map,” Arthur says out of the corner of his mouth, “of the routes we can take.”

“Please tell me you’re kidding.”

“The streets marked in red are off limits because my mates may be there for different reasons.”

“You’re kidding right?”

“You do realise my social life would be in ruins if this got out, right?” Arthur asks from underneath the hood and Merlin thinks he’s got to be attending the most melodramatic high school in all of Britain.

Merlin rolls his eyes. “Yeah, I’ve heard rumours about the effect tandem bikes have on social lives.”

When Arthur slinks off to find his footie mates, Merlin wonders if no one has ever taught him that saying goodbye to people is common courtesy. He slides the folded paper down into his backpack just as Will flops down in the opposite chair, leaning back until he’s almost horizontal.

“Was that Pendragon?” he asks, closing his eyes as he folds his hands over his stomach.

Merlin makes a noncommittal sound. “Something about algebra homework.”

“I didn’t know he even knew algebra existed.”

“He’s not that bad, Will,” Merlin says before he can catch itself and blushes furiously when Will opens his eyes and looks at him with a disbelieving expression.

“He ruined your bike.”

“Well, yeah,” Merlin says, desperately trying to think of a way to change the subject. “I don’t think it was on purpose.”

Will raises an eyebrow. “He says your ears are a crime against the human anatomy.”

“He says what?”

“And that you dress as if you just pick clothes at random in the dark.”

“Fine,” Merlin says in a clipped voice, clenching his jaw in irritation. “He’s a prat, is that what you wanted to hear? Great to know you guys talk about me behind my back.”

“You know I don’t do that.”

“It sounds like you do.”

Will doesn’t look at him and there are splotches of red on his cheeks that speak more than any words could. Merlin’s gaze drops to his food and he loses his appetite as he’s once again reminded that the only friend he has in the world has plenty of other friends who don’t really see Merlin in any favourable light (if they see him at all).

“Merlin,” Will starts, but Merlin really, really doesn’t want to hear it.

“So your cousin coming to visit this weekend, then?” Merlin says loudly over Will’s attempt to speak.

Will’s shoulders slump slightly and he sighs. “Yeah, he’s staying the weekend. Won’t be able to hang out.”

“S’ok,” Merlin says quietly and for once he means it.

***
Despite himself, Merlin has actually studied the map Arthur gave him. He doesn’t really know why he hasn’t just thrown it away, but he does realise that if anyone sees them biking together the whole thing will definitely stop. And even though he feels kind of unsure about Arthur right now, he really doesn’t want it all to stop, if only because he gets to use his bike regularly.

He meets Arthur at the street corner they’d picked as a meeting point last time, walking next to the bike as he pushes it along. There’s a cold wind in the air and he’s wearing a warmer jacket than usual. He feels slightly self-conscious about it since he’s had it for years and it’s well worn. Arthur doesn’t seem to look twice at it, however, as he greets him with a slight smile.

“Want to bike to the beach?” Merlin asks, having memorised a route that avoids all of Arthur’s red streets.

Arthur, too, is wearing a jacket, but it looks expensive, almost unused and it makes his skin look golden.

“Don’t you think someone from school might be there?”

Merlin shakes his head. “In this wind? I really doubt it.”

“Alright, let’s go.” Arthur nods after a moment’s hesitation.

They’ve really gotten the start of it down now: Merlin straddles the bike and holds the brakes in as Arthur sits down at the back, keeping his feet on the pedals. Counting down, they both set off steadily and Merlin grins at the easy start. The route he’s planned is longer than necessary, but he’s not about to piss Arthur off by driving in front of his mates’ houses even if a part of Merlin really wants to. Not only does he want to see their faces, but in a way he wants to punish Arthur for being a bit of a prat about everything. His desire to keep biking trumps all of it, though, and they wind through the streets in an elaborate attempt to deflect attention from themselves.

The wind whips around their ears as they ride, making any conversation near impossible. Merlin spends the time taking in their surroundings as they pedal down towards the beach. The trip only takes about half an hour and when they reach the beach it’s nearly abandoned, save for an old couple walking a dog and a family with two kids hovering near the edge of the water.

“Want a break?” Merlin asks over his shoulder, but he’s fully intending to take one no matter what answer he gets.

Arthur makes it easier by agreeing and they lock the bike to a nearby bike stand before they head down towards a set of benches.

They sit in silence, looking out across the water. Arthur is leaning back against the bench, his arms draped across the back of it. He looks peaceful and content as his eyes closes against the wind. The strange, churning feeling Merlin’s felt since the talk with Will returns even through the simple happiness of the moment. He feels as though the questions he’s wanted to ask are burning a hole in his throat.

“Arthur, uhm,” he starts, his mouth dry. “You not wanting to be seen... Is it about the bike or is it about... well, me?”

Arthur starts and looks with Merlin with bewildered eyes.

“Of course it’s about the bike.”

Merlin doesn’t think there’s anything ‘of course’ about it. He knows he’s not at the top of any sort of social ladder at school so it’s hardly an unreasonable question.

He shrugs, trying to look unaffected. “I’ve heard I have ears that are a crime against the human anatomy.”

If he expected any reaction at all, it isn’t the way Arthur winces and nearly hunches in on himself.

“Merlin,” he says his eyes so wide that Merlin might be tempted to call them puppy-dog eyes. “I didn’t... I didn’t know you when I said that.”

“Oh. Well. Okay.” Merlin shifts a bit awkwardly.

“I shouldn’t have said it anyway, but, well. I haven’t... not after we started biking.”

“Okay,” Merlin says again, pushing his knees up to his chest and rests his hands on them, rubbing the denim with his thumb.

Arthur purses his lip and looks back over his shoulder. “It really is that fucking ridiculous bike.”

“You love that ridiculous bike,” Merlin tells him, trying to push back a smile.

“Shut up.”

“You want to stroke it and give it little kisses.”

“Merlin, I swear to god.”

“You want to marry it and have little tandem bike babies.”

Merlin’s arms windmill wildly when Arthur pushes him off the bench.

***
“What are you doing?” Merlin mutters out of the corner of his mouth when Arthur slips into the seat next to him.

Will doesn’t do English A-levels and the seat next to him is nearly always empty unless someone’s been forced to sit there for group activities. They get a few odd stares as Arthur unpacks his things, but strangely enough the walls of the school remain intact.

“Sitting,” Arthur replies, looking up at the blackboard as if they do this every class.

“Yes, thanks, I know that. But you always sit with Vivian.”

“So?”

Merlin throws a look over at Vivian sitting two rows back and winces a little. “Well, for one she might kill me. My only hope for survival is that she has no clue who I am.”

“Of course she knows who you are,” Arthur says in a mock reassuring tone, patting his arm distractedly.

“Great.”

They fall silent as their teacher goes through their homework, but Merlin is distracted and keeps throwing glances at Arthur, unable to ignore the fact that they’re sitting together. It’s giving him way too detailed views of the strong, prominent jaw and the full lips that kind of, sort of, haunt Merlin on a daily basis. Arthur really does have a profile that Merlin has a strange, overpowering urge to paint (except he can’t even draw stickmen).

“Seriously, Arthur,” he whispers after it’s been announced that they’re working in pairs for the rest of the lesson. “What are you doing?”

“Proving that I’m not ashamed to be seen with you,” Arthur answers simply, actually smiling a little as he turns to face Merlin, his book propped open in his lap.

“Oh.” Merlin looks down at his desk, his cheeks hot. He grips his pen tightly. “Thanks.” His voice is embarrassingly soft.

“Now, will you stop listening to Williamson? He’s a fuckwit.”

***
They continue to bike together every Saturday through June and into July. Somewhere along the way the companionable silence is broken by conversation. Merlin starts planning routes without steep hills just to make sure they don’t have to stop talking because they’re out of breath. Arthur talks about his sister Morgana who ran away from home last year and Merlin... well, he admits that he doesn’t have many friends and even if the pity in Arthur’s tone kills him a little it feels nice to admit it anyway. Sometimes they bring lunch (when Merlin’s mum isn’t home to ask questions) and stop somewhere they know Arthur’s mates aren’t hanging around, sitting around for an hour before they head back again.

It’s a little scary, but Saturday has easily become Merlin’s favourite day of the week and if he stops to think about how much their bike rides mean to him, it’s bound to become a problem. This is why he ignores the large elephant in the room – the elephant that takes the shape of lingering stares, his pulse running uncontrollably and sudden flares of something thrumming at inopportune moments. It’s hard to ignore, but he tries anyway. At least he refuses to acknowledge it by giving it a name, because giving it a name will certainly just make it all much more difficult.

On the second Saturday of July, the sun’s shining so brightly that he’s only wearing a t-shirt even if he knows the air will sting a little against his skin when they start biking faster. The elephant in the room makes itself known just a little bit more when Arthur shows up in a white t-shirt, his skin golden and tan against it and Merlin’s throat goes uncomfortably dry. Merlin tells himself that, really, skin is nothing more than a collection of cells and what is there to be worked up about? In fact, Arthur is really just a cluster of atoms, so clearly Merlin can stop feeling dizzy because of his proximity. Afraid of blurting any of these slightly ridiculous thoughts out loud, Merlin just smiles when Arthur greets him and then they’re off, finding their rhythm with practised ease.

“It’s brilliant, isn’t it?” Arthur says from behind him and Merlin realises he’s missed out on half the conversation.

“What?” he yells back as they follow the curve in the road smoothly.

“Last week of school!”

“Yeah,” Merlin says, not quite able to share the sentiment of it being brilliant. He doesn’t mind summers, as such, they’re just slow and somewhat isolated.

“And next year’s the last year of Sixth Form before we’re all off to university. Fucking insane.”

“Where do you wanna go?” Merlin asks eager to escape the topic of summer.

“Dunno. Not where my dad wants me to go.”

Merlin laughs a little. “So you’re going to base your whole education on being contrary?”

“Fuck yeah.”

An unbidden thought sneaks into in Merlin’s head and he tries to trample it down, ignoring it as best he can. It doesn’t work.

“We should go to Albion,” Merlin yells over his shoulder and then cringes because what is wrong with him?

It’s quiet for a moment and then, “Albion’s supposed to be really good, yeah?”

“That’s what I’ve heard.”

“Yeah, let’s apply to Albion.”

Laughter tumbles out of him before he can stop it. “What are your dad’s feelings on Albion?”

“Hates it,” Arthur yells over the air roaring around their ears and laughs, too. “They’re Avalon’s arch enemy.”

“Sounds perfect to me, then.”

“You know what, Merlin? It’s a deal. We’re applying to Albion.”

It becomes difficult to breathe around the heart lodged in his throat and Merlin grips the handle bars tightly, forcing himself to focus on the road stretching ahead. How did this happen, exactly? Did they just agree to apply to the same university? Merlin doesn’t have any illusions: of course Arthur will get new friends at university, but still. Still.

Arthur starts talking about his plans for the summer. It’s something about pool parties and beach weeks, but Merlin can’t stop thinking about graduating from Camelot Sixth Form College and maybe, just maybe, finding a place at university that fits him better than high school ever did.

The rain hits them out of nowhere. They hadn’t seen the clouds rolling in, but the shower is sudden and violent, leaving them soaked within minutes. Rain trails down Merlin’s back and he shudders against the feeling. He shakes his head, trying to get wet hair out of his field of vision. There’s still rain in his eyes and it becomes difficult to see anything ahead.

“We should go back,” he says, stopping half-way up the little hill they’ve been climbing.

Arthur stops and they both put a leg down to the ground to keep the bike steady. “You don’t think it’ll let up?”

“Even if it does, I’m bloody soaked.”

With difficulty they turn the bike around, the rain coming down even harder, hitting the pavement so hard that the droplets bounce back up on impact. Even though it’s been a hot day, being soaked to the bone is still fucking cold and the added gust of wind they get from speeding downhill doesn’t help at all.

Merlin can’t say how it happens but it must be because the roads are slippery from the rain. All he knows is that suddenly the bike is no longer secure beneath him and the world tilts until his elbow is scraping along the asphalt. Taking in a sharp breath, he curls up trying to stop them from sliding further. They come to a stop quickly, thankfully, and he disentangles himself from the bike, removing his foot out from underneath it before he jumps up and whirls around in slight panic, trying to find out what happened to Arthur.

“Fuck, Arthur. You okay?” he says just moments before he, thank god, finds Arthur standing next to the bike staring right back at him. “Jesus.”

There’s blood running from a cut across Arthur’s knuckles but he seems otherwise fine and relief floods through Merlin, mixing with the adrenaline of the fall. He steps forwards towards Arthur, his eyes drawn to the cut on his hand where the blood is being washed away by the rain. Reaching over, he runs a thumb across it, his hands shaking slightly with the adrenaline that refuses to fade.

“You okay?” he mutters again, as if he’s almost unable to believe it.

His gaze flickers up from the cut to find Arthur just looking at him with an unreadable expression and maybe Merlin should have been able to predict what happens next, but honestly, these things never happen to him, so how could he? He’s just standing still, his thumb still pressed to Arthur’s hand feeling slick with rain under his touch and then the warm press of lips is just there.

Merlin has had a lot of time to wonder what kissing someone feels like. He’s tried to imagine it, kissing the back of his own wrist softly and wondering if it’s anything like that. It’s nothing like that, of course. It’s nothing like anything he’s imagined. Oddly enough, the thing that surprises him the most is that it feels like lips. It’s such a simple truth that he feels like an idiot for never really considering it, but he never did. As Arthur’s mouth opens against his, hot and soft, Merlin’s world narrows to the completely unfamiliar feeling of a touch that isn’t his own.

It’s only after he thinks about kisses and lips that he remembers how the other mouth belongs to Arthur. He sways at the thought, his cold fingers curling into Arthur’s soaked shirt, holding on as if it’ll stop his head from spinning. Fuck. It’s Arthur. Merlin moans helplessly into the kiss and suddenly it’s different. Arthur’s fingers are in his hair, tilting his head back until the angle is all new. And then there’s tongue. There’s tongue and Merlin whimpers, pressing himself into the solid heat of Arthur’s body as he drops all insecurities that may have hovered around at the back of his head, kissing back until there’s no breath left in his chest and no sense left in his mind.

It’s slightly messy. Even though Merlin’s never kissed anyone before, he realises he’s not showing any impressive kissing skills, really, but Merlin doesn’t have it in him to care and it doesn’t seem like Arthur does either. Merlin’s hands trail up along the clammy fabric with Arthur’s skin is warm beneath it until his fingers tangle into wet hair at the nape. His finger runs down towards the collarbone, stopping when he finds pulse beating rapidly under his touch. Arthur may just be a heap of atoms and it’s just cells, like he’s told himself a million times, but it’s a fucking miracle that he’s put together in just this way, feeling this warm and solid and perfect under Merlin’s hands and lips.

It’s strange, but Merlin can feel it when the moment is gone. The urgency bleeds away, Arthur tenses slowly under his fingertips and those nibbling insecurities seep back into his own thoughts. For a moment they both try to make it last, mouthing softly against each other in a more languid, deliberate way, but Merlin can feel Arthur thinking and this kiss laced with too many thoughts and doubts isn’t what he wants to remember.

He pulls away regretfully, his lips prickling. When he manages to focus his eyes, there’s a moment when all he wants to do is pull Arthur back in – he looks unreal with intense red lips, his hair slick with rain and his t-shirt see-through. It’s almost obscene and Merlin feels it deeply: the longing he’s felt stirring even stronger than before now that he knows what he’s missing.

The one thing that stops him from launching himself at Arthur again, wrapping his limbs around him like a monkey, is the way Arthur’s eyes widen with surprise and the look in them that resembles panic. Merlin’s hands slip from Arthur’s t-shirt and he pulls back, watching with heaving breath as Arthur runs a hand through his soaked hair and moves without purpose. Arthur walks a few steps in either direction before he turns again as if he’s forgotten what he was planning to do and Merlin doesn’t know what to do with himself. He doesn’t know what Arthur’s thinking, what he wants or why he kissed Merlin in the first place.

Merlin jolts out of his thoughts when Arthur suddenly fixes his stare back on Merlin. “Is the bike okay?”

“It’s fine,” Merlin says on instinct before he’s even checked. He crouches down next to the bike and gives it a quick check before pulling it back up off the ground. “Just a few scratches.”

The silence is deafening when they walk back with the bike between them. Arthur has a far-away look on his face and Merlin has no clue what to say. He wants to ask about a million things, actually, like “Why did you kiss me?” and “Are you actually gay or was this a mistake?” and “Is this actually a drug-induced hallucination?” Instead he just walks quietly next to Arthur, trying to be so still that Arthur might forget he’s there. When they reach the spot where they usually part ways, Arthur says “goodbye” in a distracted voice and Merlin thinks he liked it better when Arthur just left with a random parting phrase instead of a goodbye that feels so final that Merlin thinks he might just die a little inside.

***
The next week of Merlin’s life is strange for several reasons. First of all he’s never been one to look forward to summer, but suddenly summer break can’t come fast enough. He’s never been so happy to have only one week of school left. Second of all he has never been so relieved to have few friends. Right now he only has Will to ask him what’s up a couple of times a day and he can handle that, but he couldn’t have handled a whole load of people asking him what’s up all the time or he might’ve actually cracked and just spilled everything.

The strangest thing is the silence. Arthur and Merlin have spent more of their lives not talking than they’ve spent it talking and yet the last week of school feels like the most unnatural silence in the world. It’s a different silence. It’s not one of indifference or just a lack of something to fill it with. It’s a deliberate silence, full of aborted attempts at breaking it and unsaid words that make it heavy. The silence isn’t just there as natural as anything. Instead it’s something Merlin is aware of all the time. It’s something he has to struggle to keep in place because he can’t be the first to break it: Mostly because he doesn’t know what to say, but also because this friendship of theirs has always been on Arthur’s terms.

“No, really, Merlin,” Will says over lunch and Merlin recognises that tone. He’s heard it a lot over the past week. “Seriously. What’s up?”

Forcing himself to just look indifferent, he shrugs. “It’s nothing, just end of term nerves.”

“Fuck off. You always nail exams and you know it. You’re never this worked up about end of term.”

“We’re almost at A’s, though. I’m not just breezing through anymore.”

Will isn’t buying it and neither should he, because Merlin never has been overly stressed about exams. “You’ll tell me if someone’s fucking with you right?”

“Yeah, of course,” Merlin says just as Gwaine appears behind Will, clapping a hand down on his shoulder.

“Who’s fucking who?” he asks, grinning.

Will laughs loudly, throwing his head back. “Man, I wish. No, I was asking Merlin here if someone’s fucking with him.”

“And are they?” Gwaine asks with a raised eyebrow at Merlin.

“Nope. Will’s just being an overprotective git.”

“See, nothing to worry about,” Gwaine says and Merlin spots Arthur across the room, making him duck his head immediately, not wanting to be caught looking.

Will shakes his head. “You’re an easy bloke to fool, Gwaine.”

Merlin sneaks another look over at Arthur has he sits down with his usual group of friends, his smiles coming easy as he’s turned towards Lance in conversation. It’s stupid, really. It’s not like this is any different from how they usually are at school, but it seems worse now somehow. Everything’s changed now, at least for Merlin. He rips his napkin into methodically into pieces, trying not to think that maybe nothing’s changed for Arthur.

Gwaine and Will are wrapped in conversation and Merlin tunes in and out, catching bits and pieces here and there about a party in the park, Vivian and Gwaine’s chances with someone or something. Merlin doesn’t really relax until Arthur’s left the cafeteria on Lance’s heels.

***
The music fills the room with waves of sound, the bass making the walls rattle. Merlin jumps, throwing his arms out as he just moves to the beats of it. It’s not dancing, he just moves to it, throwing the energy out into the room because if he doesn’t direct it outwards, it’ll push inwards instead. So far he’s cleaned everything in the house he can think of, baked biscuits from scratch and done all the homework he can without the books that are still in his locker at school. It helps a little to keep from thinking too much, but it doesn’t help quite enough.

Part of the reason Merlin had managed not to corner Arthur at school was that he thought deep down that Arthur would show up for their bike ride, if only so they could talk in private. Of course he hadn’t. Merlin feels like an idiot for thinking he would, because even if Merlin and Arthur never really talk at school, the silence this week had been different and Merlin knew that. He knew it so well, so why had he set himself up for disappointment by standing on the street corner with his bike for thirty minutes like an idiot?

It shouldn’t matter. He’s angry and disappointed and a little sad, because he thought they’d reached something better than that. But he doesn’t need Arthur, or anything, he’s never needed him before so it doesn’t matter.

He doesn’t hear the bedroom door slide open, but he sees his mum pause inside out of the corner of his eyes and he stops jumping, staring guiltily at the speakers that scratch a little with the noise.

“Hey,” she says over the music. “Hey, Bug. What’s wrong?”

Of course, his mum knows him too well – she knows Merlin always has to do things like this when there are too many thoughts. Sometimes it’s easy to forget how well she knows him just because she works so much and they don’t see each other as often as they should.

“Nothing,” he says, shrugging, knowing it’s pointless because he can’t fool her.

“Did someone bother you?”

He swallows, shaking his head. “No, not really. Mum, it doesn’t matter. It’s stupid.” Reaching over, he shuts the music off and the silence is ringing and strange.

“You made biscuits,” she says with a wry smile. “It’s definitely something. Come downstairs, we might as well eat them. I’ll make us cocoa.”

He considers telling her to leave him alone and slam the door like he’s done too many times before, but he pushes the urge down and follows her down the stairs.

“You can tell me,” she says as moves slowly around the kitchen.

Merlin shrugs and looks out the window, feeling a bit like an idiot. “Someone’s ignoring me.”

“Ah,” she says and then stops as if waiting for him to continue, but he doesn’t.

“So, someone’s ignoring you,” she prompts when they’re both sitting by the kitchen table with a mug of cocoa and Merlin’s biscuits on a plate.

Merlin winces, knowing she won’t let it go. “I said it was dumb. It’s nothing, it’s just... We’ve been kind of friends recently and then something happened and he didn’t show up as planned and...I don’t know.” He waves his hand a little as if it helps explain anything at all.

“What happened?”

He sets his eyes on her and she laughs holding her hand up.

“Fine, I won’t ask,” she says, her mouth curling into a smile. He’s almost tempted to say she seems pleased that he has some typical teen drama in his life, like it makes him normal or something. “Have you tried to talk to him?”

“Not really,” Merlin admits, looking down into his mug. “I figured it should be up to him.”

“Well.” She arches an eyebrow at him. “Maybe he’s thinking the same thing you are. So you’re both sitting on your own end thinking it should be up to the other person.”

“You don’t get it,” he mutters, rubbing at the back of his neck. “He’s...not me. And I’m me. It’s kind of been up to him all along.”

She sighs and looks at him with so much exasperation that he almost feels bad, but it’s the truth.

“Listen, Merlin. I know what it’s like being your age; I’m not a complete dinosaur yet. I know you’re not ‘popular’, but that doesn’t mean you need to sit back and let someone else run your friendships. I really think it sounds like your friend could need someone else to step up. Maybe he thinks he messed up and he needs to know he didn’t. Or did he? If so you need to tell him what he did.”

Merlin tries his best to ignore his mum’s advice, because as much as he loves his mum he doesn’t really like being told what to do. But as the evening wears on he thinks maybe she’s right, at least partly. Why should he sit around feeling like shit while he waits for Arthur to figure out if he wants to speak to Merlin or not? Merlin hugs his knee to his chest as he boots their old computer up, humming quietly to himself as the machine takes several minutes to get started. He doesn’t have Arthur’s number and he’s not about to go over to his house uninvited, so that only leaves a Facebook message. And Merlin feels like he can do that, at least.

He tries not to think about the message too much, feeling like he’s just over think it and write too much or too little. He’ll have to go on gut instinct – just say what comes to mind first. Staring at Arthur’s profile picture for a moment, he steels himself as he clicks the message button and hovers his fingers over the keys.

You’re a git for not showing up today. Giving me the silent treatment? What are we, five? I’m cross with you, but if you feel like actually talking, you know where I am.

He feels better for sending it. Even if he insulted Arthur in it, he also feels like the more mature out of the two of them for actually addressing it at all.

***
First week of summer is slower than usual. Merlin’s summer job at his uncle Gaius’ shop doesn’t start in another couple of weeks because his mother had wanted him to have a couple of weeks off to actually have a break. And while that’s a nice thought, the days really do stretch impossibly long even if he hangs out with Will three times during the week. The way time crawls by may, possibly, have something to do with the fact that Arthur hasn’t answered his Facebook message in any way.

There’s been no reply: Arthur hasn’t shown up on his doorstep, there have been no phone calls or even attempts at Morse code. Merlin would’ve taken anything, probably, but it’s been completely silent. But he’s not going to grovel. He’s really not. Kissing was really nice and Merlin would very much like to do it again, but he’s not going to run to Arthur and fall to his knees. Arthur already has too many simpering admirers who embarrass themselves for his attentions and Merlin will not be one of them (at least not overtly).

He stays in on Saturday, trying not to think about the bike in the garage and failing very badly. Curling up in front of the TV, he tries to shut out the world until he’s brought back into it by a sharp knock on the front door. For some reason he’s not at all prepared to find Arthur standing there looking kind of lost, his hands pushed into the pockets of his jeans.

A breathless “Hi” escapes Merlin before he can catch himself and Arthur looks up with a hesitant smile on his face. Merlin doesn’t think he’s ever seen Arthur look quite so unlike himself and it’s both strange and a little bit comforting at the same time.

“Hi,” Arthur says his voice as quiet as his face is soft and Merlin leans against doorway, trying to look very unaffected. “You weren’t out there.”

Merlin looks at him with raised eyebrows. “I didn’t really fancy standing out there alone like an idiot again.”

“Ah.” Arthur digs his hands deeper into his pockets and his gaze slips away from Merlin, flickering around nervously. “That was...it wasn’t nice of me.”

“No, it wasn’t.”

“It’s just,” Arthur says before he stops mid-sentence and starts again. “I’ve never done that.”

“What? Kissed in the rain?”

Merlin can’t really stop himself from being just a little bit difficult. He feels like he deserves it. It earns him a glare from Arthur that might have made him shrink a few weeks ago, but now he just smiles crookedly in reply.

“No, kissed a bloke, if you have to know.”

“Oh, so being gay just got sprung on you?”

Arthur rolls his eyes then, looking much more like himself. “Of course not. I’m not an idiot. I’ve just never wanted to take it outside my head before, if you know what I mean?”

Merlin doesn’t really know what he means because Merlin’s never considered anything but boys, but he can still see how it’d make Arthur panic if he’s been trying to keep it inside his head (even if Merlin thinks that seems like a terrible idea in the first place.)

“Yeah, fine. But that doesn’t mean you can be an arse about it,” Merlin says, tilting his chin up. “I’ve never done that either.”

“What, kissed in the rain?” Arthur repeats, his lip curling slightly upwards.

Merlin looks down and shrugs. “Kissed anyone, actually.”

It’s quiet and Merlin forces himself to look up again, searching for a reaction in Arthur’s expression. The look on Arthur’s face isn’t anything Merlin can really read and Merlin has just enough time to start feeling embarrassed. He opens his mouth to speak again, trying to cover up the moment with something else – anything else – but he’s stopped by Arthur lunging forwards, cupping Merlin’s face in his hands and crushing their lips together in a kiss with absolutely no finesse. Letting out a surprised sound, Merlin’s hands press down on Arthur’s shoulders to steady himself as he’s pushed back by the force of Arthur’s kiss. He laughs into it, running his fingers through the hair at the nape of Arthur’s neck until the desperation bleeds out of the touch of his lips.

Arthur pulls away slightly, his face still so close that Merlin can feel his breath across his own cheek. “Let’s go biking.”

“Not until you’ve apologised properly.”

Arthur frowns. “That’s what I’ve been doing.”

“Really,” Merlin says, not entirely able to keep the amusement out of his voice. “That’s a pretty shoddy attempt. I didn’t even hear the appropriate word used once.”

Rolling his eyes, Arthur leans in and presses his lips to the corner of Merlin’s smile. “Sorry.”

Merlin throws his head back and laughs, a little bit giddy with the relief from the tension that has dissolved between them. “Jesus, you’re shit at that.”

“I know,” Arthur whines, letting his head drop down onto Merlin’s shoulder. “Let’s just bike?”

“Fine.” Merlin disentangles himself from Arthur to slip into his shoes. “You always get what you want, don’t you?”

Arthur shrugs, but his grin is really badly disguised when he throws a look over his shoulder as he walks down towards the garage. Knowing his mum will be back early from work Merlin leaves a quick scribbled note on the pad by the door and heads out after Arthur to find him waiting in the driveway by the bike.

“Come on, get up,” Merlin says, gesturing towards the back seat. “You’re the one who’s been nagging about going.”

When Arthur doesn’t move, Merlin frowns and looks at the way Arthur grips the handlebars.

“No,” he blurts as soon as he realises what’s going on. “The last time you steered we were nearly killed by rubbish bins.”

“We were far from killed, Merlin,” Arthur says, squaring his jaw. “Besides, I already apologised for that and I’m not stupid enough to do it again.”

It’s a bit too easy to pass up. “I’m pretty sure your stupidity knows no bounds.”

“You’re going to be a pest now that you’ve gotten in my pants, aren’t you?”

“Well,” Merlin says, smirking, “I haven’t actually gotten in your pants yet, but yes, I do plan to be a pest.”

Biting back a laugh, Merlin raises his chin in a challenge and Arthur looks at him with what attempts to be a very serious expression, but there’s a quiver in his lip that he can’t disguise and his eyes are crinkling at the corners.

“Merlin,” he says in a low voice, looking at him intently. Merlin is ashamed to say that his bones kind of liquefy. “Trust me.”

His lips pursing into a tight line, Merlin closes his eyes and sighs, inwardly mocking himself for being so easily manipulated. Pathetic. He swings himself up into the back seat and releases another heavy breath. “I really hate you.”

He opens his eyes just in time to see Arthur beaming at him in a way that makes his chest feel a little tight with the overwhelming feeling of “oh god, I really don’t hate you” and then Arthur pats his arm lightly.

“Welcome to life with Arthur Pendragon. I have it on good authority that all my friends agree with you on that,” Arthur says, straddling the bike and holding the brakes in so Merlin can rest his feet on the pedals. “Be careful what you wish for, Merlin.”

“Can I go back on it?”

Arthur counts down and they start off smoothly. It only takes a few seconds for Arthur to adjust to the steering again and Merlin stops holding his breath when they round the first bend.

“No, you can’t,” Arthur answers finally and he sounds unbearably smug about it.

Now that Arthur’s back is turned, Merlin allows himself to smile into the breeze that ruffles his hair. He looks at the line of Arthur’s back, his muscles moving under the red t-shirt. Merlin inclines his head and studies the way Arthur’s thighs move rhythmically as they pedal. Well, that’s certainly nice and—

“You utter bastard,” he says loudly, forgetting to pedal in the midst of his sudden realisation. “You’ve been ogling my arse this entire time, haven’t you?”

Arthur laughs so hard that they nearly tumble headfirst into a ditch and Merlin clutches onto the handlebars until his knuckles whiten.

“Of course I have,” Arthur says his voice breathless with laughter. “Why did you think I snapped and snogged you in the middle of the road?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Merlin says dryly. “I thought maybe you’d found out that I’m a smart, nice guy who was worth taking a chance on.”

“No, it was pretty much your arse.”

“Oh, god,” Merlin moans, trying to sound very, very affronted. “We’re built on a lie.”

Arthur chortles and Merlin can see his shoulders shaking. “Shut up, Merlin.”

And Merlin does end up shutting up, spending the time looking around, secretly enjoying having Arthur decide the direction for once. This way Merlin can just sit back and take in the feeling of warm sun on his bare arms and think about how he’d like to nibble on the back of Arthur’s neck. He wonders if this is what Arthur’s been doing all these weeks. It’s hard to imagine that Arthur may see him the same way he sees Arthur – that he looks at Merlin thinking about the things he’d like to do, that Merlin somehow makes his heart beat faster and his fingers prickle with the need to touch.

It’s a bit surreal for him to think about, because he’s really just Merlin and he’s been feeling intimidated by Arthur for years. Intimidated and turned on in equal measure, really, but it’s different now that Arthur’s no longer just a hot guy from school. Now Arthur is just Arthur and everything that brings with it, which really just makes Merlin want so much stronger that it’s almost a little bit terrifying.

When Arthur leads them into sharp turn, Merlin starts paying attention to where they are and he reaches up to push a hand to Arthur’s back. “Where are we going?”

Either Arthur doesn’t hear him or he’s pretending not to. Merlin’s pretty sure this is the street Percy lives on and therefore a very, very red zone on Arthur’s map of places to avoid.

“You’re on a red street,” Merlin says louder this time.

“I know.”

Merlin stops pedalling starting to wonder why Arthur had been so adamant about sitting at the front with full control of the handle bars.

Arthur looks back over his shoulder for a brief second. “Don’t freak out, okay? We’re going to the park.”

“To the park?” Merlin repeats distantly, still trying to puzzle the pieces together.

“You know, it’d help if you pedalled, you lazy sod.”

Merlin forces his legs to start obeying him again and he looks up the road, the entrance to the park becoming visible up ahead.

“Gwaine and Percy’s party is in the park,” he says, feeling like a bit of an idiot for stating the obvious.

“I wasn’t about to go to the start of summer party without you, actually, so you’ll just have to come,” Arthur says and his voice is muffled, but it’s clear enough for Merlin to hear exactly what he’s saying.

“Okay.” Merlin hates how his voice shakes. “We can hide the bike before we get inside the park. I’m sure the bushes will be a good place and no one will find it if we hide it –”

Arthur makes an impatient sound and cuts him off. “Merlin! We’re not hiding the bike.”

“We’re not?” Merlin asks his palms sweating as he clutches the handles.

Maybe Merlin spoke too quietly because Arthur doesn’t answer him. Instead they bike in silence through the gates and into the pathways of the park, Arthur apparently knowing exactly where they’re going and Merlin figures he’s probably done this before. Merlin definitely has not done this before and he thinks this might just be the day he makes a complete idiot of himself.

He hears them before he sees them, their loud chatter heard easily in the quiet area. The sounds quiet gradually as they come closer and he realises they must all be looking at them, although all he can see is Arthur’s back and he’s suddenly very grateful for that.

“Sweet ride, Pendragon!” someone shouts and the chatter explodes again, interspersed with laughter, making Merlin hunch down behind Arthur, his ears burning in that way he hates.

“Yeah, it’s pretty amazing, isn’t it?” Arthur calls back with no trace of irony.

When Arthur swings himself off, Merlin finds himself facing the crowd and he curses Arthur under his breath for just throwing him into this. But Arthur’s looking at him with a soft smile and expectant eyes and Merlin realises that Arthur might just be making a grand gesture of sorts. Yeah, it’s definitely some sort of grand gesture because Arthur just rode into their class’ start of summer party on a tandem bike.

“Merlin!” someone yells and Merlin looks away from Arthur, confused to hear his name yelled with so much enthusiasm. The voice belongs to Gwaine and Merlin’s still confused. “Great to see you, mate.”

“Oh, yeah,” Merlin says. No other words seem to be willing to come out right so he picks at random. “Hey, Gwaine. I hope it’s okay...that I’m here, I mean.”

Gwaine comes up and clamps a hand on his shoulder as Merlin clambers down from the bike with absolutely none of Arthur’s grace. “Don’t be daft, Merlin, of course it’s okay. I’m pretty sure I invited you myself.”

“Uh, I don’t think –” Merlin’s dragged along with Gwaine’s arms around his shoulders.

“Of course I did,” Gwaine says, widening his eyes at Merlin slightly and Merlin realises that maybe he should stop protesting because Gwaine might just be trying to help. He realises this largely because a lot of the people in front of him are eyeing him warily. He doesn’t miss the grateful look Arthur sends in Gwaine’s direction either.

Merlin looks back to find Arthur securing the bike against a tree and he tries to soak up some of Arthur’s confidence, wondering where he gets it from – if he’s just born with it like someone’s born with a talent for drawing.

***
Gwaine had pushed a beer into his hand and they soon learned that Merlin was a bit of a lightweight. By the time Will showed up an hour later looking genuinely happy to see Merlin sitting on the picnic blanket nursing his second beer, Merlin felt an exhilarating buzzing in his head and his smile was just a touch too wide. The more time passes, the more at ease he feels as well, realising that no one’s going to tell him to fuck off home because he doesn’t belong.

He’s even alright when Arthur moves from his side, heading off to another group of people who’d waved him over. Merlin manages to let him go without letting his gaze linger too long. Instead, he focuses on Elena telling the group he’s sitting with about the time she might have met a famous actor (probably) and made a fool of herself. He laughs along, loudly, because it feels right and he doesn’t care that his laugh is wild and unhinged even at his most sober moments.

Will nudges him with his shoulder just as Gwen and Lance slip down to join the group, their hands interlinked. Merlin idly wonders when that happened. Not that he’s often the first one to know things, but he’s got a pretty good overview. Will nudges him again and he turns, smiling a bit dizzily at him and Will laughs, shaking his head.

“You’re having fun,” Will observes, resting his arms over his bent knees.

“Yeah,” Merlin says a bit breathlessly. “Yeah, I am.”

Will looks away for a moment, taking a slow sip from his bottle.

“I’m sorry I never asked you before,” he says quietly, muffling his words as if to keep the others out of their conversation. “I thought you didn’t want to.”

“I wanted to,” Merlin admits even though he shouldn’t have because Will’s face falls a little. “But it’s fine, Will, really. You’re not a mind reader.”

Clinking their bottles together, Will gives a slight smile. “Well, from now on you’ll have to beg me to let you have a quiet night in.”

Merlin laughs brightly at that, punching Will lightly in the shoulder and for the first time in ages he feels like they’re really friends on equal grounds again and not just friends because Will feels he has to be.

“Merlin, that’s your bike, right?” Gwen says suddenly, and nodding her head towards it.

He’s momentarily shaken because he’s never exchanged as much as a word with Gwen, but he forces himself out of it and nods. “Yeah, it is.”

“It’s really cool,” she says, her smile warm. “My granddad used to have a tandem bike, I’ve always loved them.”

“Thanks.” Merlin doesn’t think he can manage to convey just how thankful he is in that single word, but he tries. He really does. “I’ve been fixing it up myself. It’s been a lot of fun actually.”

It’s crazy, really. Gwen is nicer than he’s ever expected and he finds himself talking easily with her, his laugh coming quickly as she gestures animatedly when she talks. He doesn’t even mind that, at one point, he looks up to find Cenred pointing at him and laughing loudly with Morgause. He doesn’t even care a little, because at that moment Arthur stumbles down next to him, his smile wide and his cheeks flushed and it’s breathtaking. Arthur leans into him and Merlin smiles at the feeling of Arthur’s breath brushing against his ear.

“You having a good time?” Arthur whispers. “If you’re not, just say the word and we’ll leave.”

“I’m having a great time,” he says back in a hushed voice. “Thanks.”

“No problem.” Arthur’s lips press lightly against his earlobe in a barely noticeable kiss.

Merlin can’t even stop himself from blushing, which is a bit mortifying, but then again they’re all flushed from the beer and the fresh air anyway. He sees Will looking at them and damn if Will doesn’t pick the worst moments to start being observant.

“Arthur!” Gwen says insistently and they both look up at her.

“Guinevere!” he yells back, laughing.

“Tell Lance that he can’t say no to the scholarship at Avalon,” she says, poking her boyfriend in the chest. “It’d be stupid! Right? You can just waste something like that away.”

“I don’t know,” Arthur says, raising his eyebrow at Lance. “I’m thinking I’ll go to Albion instead. Seems much better.”

“What, really?” Gwen asks, looking between Lance and Arthur with a putout expression.

Lance laughs, struggling to keep himself sitting upright when Gwen pushes him. “I told you, Gwen. You should just give up and come with us to Albion.”

As he’s watching Gwen and Lance push at each other, laughing, Merlin feels Arthur’s leg knocking softly against his and he looks up. Arthur grins, leaving his thigh pushed up against Merlin’s and Merlin nudges back, hiding his smile into the bottle of beer.

“You know what? Fuck you guys,” Will says loudly. “I’m going to go to fucking Avalon to get away from all of you and your moony eyes.” He flops back onto the grass, spilling beer all over himself in the process, sending his friends into a fit of laughter that seems to never end.