Merlin was sitting at his computer with his back to the door, the music turned loud—some sort of hipster indie rock—when Arthur came round with his coursework. Arthur was just about to yell ‘Oi’ and throw something at the chair when a shock ran through him. There were two men on the computer screen touching each other in ways that made Arthur break out in a cold sweat. Merlin’s arm was moving up and down, up and down, up and fucking down. Shit.
Arthur held his breath and started backing away, but Merlin let out a long, soft moan. It sounded . . . odd. It made Arthur’s dick jerk in his pants and now he had to absolutely get the hell out of there because this was Merlin, and he was wanking and had no idea Arthur was standing there like a perverted idiot. The song ended and Arthur could hear what the men were saying to each other. Fuck yeah, oh yeah, take my cock. Fuck. And Merlin let out a whimper just before the next song began. His movements became faster, more frantic, and Arthur’s own prick was getting hard and that was confusing because he did not like men or get aroused by them doing sexual things to each other.
And Merlin did.
What the fuck?
Arthur backed away, and then turned and fled down the hall, heart racing. He didn’t stop at the bottom of the stairs when Merlin’s mum called after him, just ran out of the house and down the street, feet pounding against the pavement and probably undoing months of physio.
He hobbled to a walk as he approached his house, a brick-built semi, typical of those beyond York’s city center. Mr. Tomlin gave him a wave from across the way, but Arthur barely registered it. His mind was still replaying the scene he’d just fled in an endless loop.
“Oh shit,” he said, sitting on the front step to catch his breath, head in hands. His knee was fucking killing him; the doctors had said no running for at least another couple of months, but he’d had to get away.
He could still see Merlin’s hand moving—could hear the noises coming from Merlin’s computer. Fuck, the sounds coming from Merlin.
Men. Merlin liked watching men have sex.
“Arthur?” his sister Morgana called out from behind. “What are you doing? We need to get ready for Aunt Viv’s.”
“Yeah. I know,” he replied, voice croaky. “Don’t get your knickers in a twist.”
“You’re so annoying,” Morgana said. He turned around and rolled his eyes at her. Just turned sixteen, Morgana fancied herself some sort of adult, more mature than Arthur even though Arthur was nearly two years older. She swept her long black hair over her shoulder and frowned at him. “I’m going to finish packing,” she said. “She’s picking us up in twenty minutes. Just rang. So . . .”
“Yeah, yeah, okay.” Arthur stood, gritting his teeth against the pain, and pushed past her into the house. Maybe packing would take his mind off what had just happened.
The morning had started like any other. Merlin had called Arthur and told him he wasn’t feeling well, so Arthur should pick up his coursework and bring it over if it wasn’t too much trouble. It's no bother, Arthur had said, but fuck, Merls, how can you be ill again? He and Merlin were best mates, had been since they were in nappies. According to Aunt Viv, their mothers had been like sisters, had even been pregnant together, which was how Merlin and Arthur had gotten their matched set of names. Hunith and Ygraine had loved the Arthurian legends, but Arthur was just glad he’d ended up with the more normal name of the two. Anyway, as weird as it was, Merlin’s name suited him. He didn’t seem to mind it.
Merlin was always sick—he was allergic to everything on the planet, including chocolate, which Arthur couldn’t understand. How could anyone be allergic to chocolate? Or cheese, for that matter? Arthur, on the other hand, had the constitution of an ox. According to his father, the Chief Constable, the ability to fight off illness ran in the Pendragon genes. Uther Pendragon never got ill, ever, which meant that even when Arthur was sick as a dog, he never stayed home from school.
Not that Merlin even needed to go to school—he already passed one set of ‘A’ levels a whole year early and was taking more, just because. All of their lives they’d seemed opposites, at least to those who didn’t know them well. Merlin preferred books, while Arthur favoured sports. Of course Arthur wasn’t an idiot; he did well when he wanted to. He just rarely wanted to. Merlin was a computer genius—was one of those blokes who could hack into a computer network and take the whole bloody thing down if he felt like it. Arthur had a Facebook that he never updated, but that was about all. He couldn’t be bothered staying inside and playing games when there was a whole world outside—footie practice, friends, parties—unless of course that game was God of War. That one he liked, and Merlin could persuade him to hang round and play for hours until his father would ring and tell Merlin’s mum to send Arthur home. Lately, that had been happening more and more, since Arthur had torn his ACL and been forced to quit his football club.
Arthur had owned the pitch as a centre mid, blessed with an ability to see beyond the immediate play and imagine passes that opposing teams wouldn’t see coming. And he was fast. He’d even dared to imagine a professional career when reality had set in with one bad move in the middle of a match. He’d cut too sharply to the left to avoid an oncoming player, twisted his knee, and heard a devastating pop before he’d gone down, tearing muscle as well as the ligament. His team had lost, and Arthur had earned surgery and four months of physio. It had been a harsh blow, and Merlin was the only one who really understood.
To most people, the two of them couldn’t have been more different. And in a lot of ways they were, but nevertheless Arthur and Merlin were best mates. So why, thought Arthur, remembering the images of the naked men on Merlin’s computer screen, did he suddenly feel like he didn’t know Merlin at all?
It wasn’t that he hated gay people. Arthur wasn’t like his father, who’d been known to make offhand, nasty comments about poofs on occasion. There’d been some recent controversy with an openly gay officer on the force being harassed, and while Chief Constable Pendragon had publicly denounced the behavior of the other officers involved, Arthur suspected he secretly agreed with them. No, Arthur wasn’t like that—he didn’t care one way or the other; people could live their lives the way they wanted.
But Merlin was his best mate . . . and then there was the troubling fact that Arthur himself had become . . . fucking hell, there was no denying he’d got a hard on. Another memory rushed to the surface—he’d been fourteen, wrestling with one of his friends, and the brushing and struggling had coaxed him into half-mast. Of course in those days he got an erection at the slightest breeze, so it hadn’t really bothered him, and he’d hidden it well enough. But now . . .
Arthur paused in his packing and stared at his bed. He and Gwen had fooled around on it just yesterday, and it had been nice. There was absolutely no way he liked blokes. He thought about Gwen, imagined her tits, and decided, yes, they were definitely hot. Other guys thought so, too.
“You ready?” Morgana asked, startling him. “She’s here.”
Arthur nodded, grabbed his jacket from his desk chair, and headed after his sister. It was only then he realised, stomach lurching to his knees, that he’d dropped the coursework on Merlin’s bedroom floor.
When Merlin called fifteen minutes later, they were already headed towards Edinburgh on the A1. Arthur didn’t pick up his mobile.
Aunt Viviane lived in a spacious downtown Edinburgh tenement flat not far from the Royal Mile. Ever since Arthur and Morgana were little, they’d spent a weekend each month with her to allow Uther some time to himself and, Arthur presumed, to give both him and Morgana a mothering influence. Arthur loved Scotland. He loved taking long walks up through Holyrood Park to picnic on Arthur’s Seat, the highest lookout point of the hills. As a kid, he’d thought of it as his own place, named after King Arthur, just as he was. He’d ask Aunt Viv to take him to his hill. One summer week when they were ten, Merlin had come along; they’d spent an entire afternoon running around, annoying tourists, and pretending they lived during the time of the legends, when Arthur was king and Merlin his most trusted advisor.
“But I want to be a knight,” Merlin complained, pouting.
“You can’t be. It’s your destiny to be, like, a wizard.”
“You’re so bossy, Arth.”
“If you don’t want to be the coolest character, it’s up to you.”
“What d’you mean?”
“Well, Merlin was the most powerful sorcerer ever. You can pretend to have magic and stuff. That’s way cooler than being a knight.”
Merlin grinned, convinced, then thrust out his hand. “Bam!”
“What are you doing?”
“You’re dead. I just killed you with my magic.”
“You’re supposed to protect me, not kill me. That’s what the legends say.”
“Maybe if you’d stop being such a bossy arse . . .”
The memories of that weekend sat heavy in his mind as Arthur clutched his mobile and scrolled though the missed calls. Merlin had rung twice more since they’d arrived the day before. At least Merlin knew he was at Viv’s—it was some excuse, at least.
“You’re quiet this visit, Arthur,” Aunt Viv said. Her green eyes, now lined around the edges with age, grew serious as she regarded him. Morgana was out with some local friends, and Arthur and his aunt were watching telly, making comments about the latest reality TV debacles.
“Sorry. Don’t mean to be.”
“Something going on at school? Or with your Da?” Though she’d lived in Scotland for nearly twenty years, Viviane’s voice still held traces of Irish. Arthur often wondered if his mother had sounded the same, if her voice was low and smooth like Viv’s.
Arthur shrugged, torn. He certainly wasn’t going to tell her any of what he’d seen in Merlin’s room, but the prospect of getting it off his chest tempted him. “Just something weird with a mate,” he finally said. It seemed a harmless enough thing to say.
“Ah, I see. You have a falling out?”
“Not really. Just . . . what if you found something out about a friend and it changed everything?”
“Must be a pretty major secret to change everything.”
“Yeah. Well, I don’t know. It’s . . . I don’t know.” He shook his head, feeling stupid he’d brought it up at all.
“You’re very cryptic, lad,” she said with a laugh. “Is this friend Merlin, by any chance?”
Arthur blushed, not able to help himself. He was pretty sure Merlin would murder him if he told anyone, even Viv, though she was one of the most open-minded people Arthur knew.
“It’s just something fuc . . . strange happened. And I don’t know how I feel about it.”
“Merlin’s a good friend of yours. What’s happened? Is he after your Gwen?”
He snorted at the irony. “No. Not at all.”
“You can tell me. I’ve been around, my boy, and obviously I’m not going to blab to your mates.”
Arthur took a deep breath, looked at the phone in his hands. His aunt had always been easy to talk to; most of the time he felt closer to her than he did to his own father. If anyone could help him figure out what to do, it was Viv. “I think Merlin’s gay.”
“Oh,” she said, not as surprised as he’d expected. “He told you that?”
“No, not really. But let’s say I’m almost positive it’s true.”
“And you're bothered?”
“I dunno. It's just . . . he never told me—it’s like a pretty big thing, yeah?”
She nodded, brought her hand to her chin. Arthur wondered if he’d done the right thing by mentioning it because he couldn’t ever remember feeling so uncomfortable.
“So, have you talked about it? Does he know you suspect?” she asked.
Thinking about his overhasty exit from Merlin’s, and the papers he’d dropped, made him grimace. What must Merlin think of him? “Yeah he knows, but no, we haven’t.”
“If he didn’t tell you, you found out by accident, I’m assuming. How does he feel?”
“He’s probably embarrassed or pissed off at me or something. I don’t really know what to do.”
Through the faint afternoon light, Aunt Viv’s hair looked like spun wool, fluffy and gold-red. Arthur took after her and his mother, he’d been told, whereas Morgana had been born dark like their father. Viv smiled and patted his knee.
“Well, let me tell you what I think. You two have been friends forever, and whether or not he likes blokes doesn’t really matter, does it? He’s still the same person, still your mate. And it sounds like maybe Merlin needs your support. It’s not always a kind world for people who are different.” She sounded like she knew what she was talking about from experience.
Arthur nodded. “Yeah, I suppose you’re right.” He didn’t dare tell her about the other, more troubling thing that was bothering him.
“You’re a good lad. I know you’ll do the right thing.”
After lessons on Monday, Arthur caught sight of Merlin in the corridor. He was carrying his trumpet case, walking with a girl from Arthur’s sociology A-level class and a laughing at something she'd said. He looked fine, not at all sad or depressed, and for a moment Arthur wondered if maybe he’d imagined the whole thing. Maybe Merlin didn’t even know he’d been there after all . . . maybe . . . But then Merlin turned, cutting Arthur’s relief short. He gave Arthur an odd look, then turned, shoulders visibly slouched.
All weekend Arthur’d only thought about himself, what the incident had meant for him, and now Merlin was walking away from him like they weren’t even friends anymore. And that just wasn’t true, not if Arthur had anything to say about it. He took off down the hall after Merlin, passing Gwen and Morgana and giving them a wave, promising Gwen he’d ring her later. Morgana rolled her eyes.
“All right, mate?” Arthur said when he caught up. Merlin stopped but didn’t meet his eyes. His lips looked sore and chapped, like he’d been practicing his trumpet all weekend.
“All right.” Merlin kicked at the floor.
Arthur couldn’t figure what to say—probably best to drop the whole thing and pretend it had never happened. “You off now? Wanna walk together?”
Merlin turned his head and wrinkled his nose at what he probably thought was a stupid question. He had a private music tutor on Mondays; of course Arthur knew. Merlin shook his arm, rattling his case for emphasis.
Both of them had stopped and stood caught in a stream of students escaping for the day.
“I phoned you,” Merlin said. His cheeks flushed, which made Arthur’s cheeks flush, remembering.
“Yeah, sorry about that. I was in Edinburgh.”
“So . . . we still mates?”
When Arthur looked back at Merlin, he panicked. They couldn’t talk about this at college. They just couldn’t. But Merlin appeared as awkward as Arthur felt. He stood waiting for Arthur’s answer, holding his trumpet with both hands and looking glum—that kicked puppy look he sometimes got that made Arthur strangely protective.
“Of course. You know that. I’m sorry. I really shouldn’t have . . .”
Sometimes Arthur said stupid things, but Merlin knew how to cut him off before he completely bolloxed things for good.
“I’ve gotta go. If I ring later, will you answer your phone?”
Arthur nodded, happy that Merlin looked slightly less hurt.
“I will. Now go blow them all away.”
Merlin’s eyes widened, though it took Arthur a second to realise what he’d said. He winced. “I didn’t mean it like . . . It’s just . . . you blow the trumpet.”
“You can be such a idiot, you know?”
Arthur didn’t really suppose he could argue with that.
When his mobile rang at half seven, Arthur looked at it for a moment. He took a swig of the beer he’d nicked from the fridge, emboldened by the cold-warm rush of courage before pressing the talk button. It was, after all, only Merlin. Nothing to be afraid of.
“Hey, Merls,” said Arthur.
If someone had asked Arthur how many conversations he’d had with Merlin over the last fifteen years, he wouldn’t have been able to answer. They debated pretty much everything—from the replacement of David Tennant with Matt Smith, to a dissection of the mystery meat in the dining hall, to whether ‘The Only Way Is Essex’ was a good show or crap (they both agreed: crap), to where they were going to uni and what they wanted to be (Arthur had no idea, Merlin did). They talked about everything and nothing, so why was Arthur’s heart hammering when Merlin said, “hello?”
“Yeah, you said that.”
“Did I? Oh good.”
On the other end of the line, Merlin groaned. “Arthur, you’re making this weird.”
“I’m making this weird?”
Sometime over the weekend, Arthur had concluded that it was completely normal he’d been turned on seeing Merlin wank because wanking was wanking, yeah? It had just reminded him of wanking and made him want to do it, too. Made complete and total sense. And it didn’t matter if it was blokes or not on the screen, because he hadn’t really seen what they were doing, not up close. Arthur may be straight and like girls and have no interest in boys and seeing men touch each other, but he certainly didn’t care if Merlin did. He was going to be a supportive friend, no matter what.
“Kinda, yeah. I mean you come into my room without knocking and now you’re being all . . . dodgy. And I’m sorry, but I mean, who does that?”
“I thought you were ill.”
“I was, but my door was closed for a reason.”
“I heard your emo music and worried you might have offed yourself,” Arthur tried. His comment didn’t even earn a chuckle. Why had he just burst in without knocking? Because he always did, that’s why. They’d been barging in on each other since they were old enough to barge.
“For fuck’s sake, you could have knocked. I mean, this is weirder for me than it is for you.”
Arthur stopped himself before he said is it? Is it really weirder for you? Because it’s pretty bloody weird for me! “You’re right. But maybe in the future if things come up you should tell me things so that things don’t get weird.”
“I have no idea what any of that means.”
For some reason, Arthur found himself pacing around his room. He stared hard at his David Bowie poster as he tried to channel the right words to make Merlin not hate him, but also to guilt him for never telling Arthur the truth. They were supposed to be mates after all. If only he were the Thin White Duke. David Bowie wouldn’t have cared if Merlin liked to watch gay porn and wank; in fact, he’d probably have joined in.
“Arthur?” Merlin asked, exasperated.
“Well, I didn’t know you liked blokes, did I? I mean, it’s fine if you do and all; I’m not judging, but honestly, it was a bit of a shock.”
Merlin laughed, but he sounded more angry than happy. “A bit of a shock. Well, imagine what it was like from my end, to turn round with the door open and papers scattered everywhere. For a moment I thought it was my mum, and I almost had a heart attack and died.”
At that, Arthur had to chuckle. Merlin loved to exaggerate, but there really was nothing more embarrassing than a family member walking in on you when you were in flagrante delicto, a term he’d picked up from a romance novel of Morgana’s. His father had once caught him wanking but hadn’t spoken a word about it; he’d simply turned and left the room. Arthur had only been thirteen at the time. They’d avoided each other for a couple of days after, and that was that.
It must be different for Merlin living only with his mum; his bastarding father had left them when Merlin was only ten, just after that summer trip to Edinburgh. Still, the thought of a mother walking in mid-wank was certainly worse than a father.
“Don’t you have a lock?” Arthur asked.
“Actually, no. I don’t.”
“Honestly, I’m sorry. I had no intention of interrupting your . . . private—”
“I really don’t want to talk about this,” said Merlin, cutting him off. “God.”
“I don’t either.”
“You’re upset because I’m gay.”
“You really are, eh?”
“Yeah. I really am. And you’re upset, obviously.”
“No! I’m not upset. I swear.” There were so many thoughts knocking into each other in his head, all of them confusing and unutterable. How had Merlin known he was gay? How had he found the video he was watching? Did he like anyone at school, or someplace else? Did he like girls too, or just boys? Was he a virgin? It had never even crossed Arthur’s mind that Merlin liked blokes. Then again, Merlin had never really dated a girl, except for Freya when they were fifteen, but that had ended when she’d moved to France. Arthur scratched his head and flopped back down on his bed.
“Well, then why are you making a thing of it?” Merlin asked, breaking through the crazy in Arthur’s brain.
“I just . . . why didn’t you tell me before?”
“I haven’t told anyone.” Merlin’s voice was soft. “Except my mum.”
“Oh.” Suddenly he felt terrible for telling Aunt Viv.
“Arthur,” Merlin said, and Arthur realised he’d been too quiet again.
“It really doesn’t matter to me,” he heard himself saying. “Honestly, it doesn’t matter.”
“Really.” Then, remembering what Viviane had said about Merlin needing support, added, “are you . . . okay?”
“Yeah. I’m fine. Being gay isn’t a disease, Arthur.”
“I didn’t think it was. I just . . . wanted to know if you were okay.”
“I’m fine, really,” Merlin said.
“So, how long have you known? That you, you know—”
“That I’m gay?”
“I’ve always known,” Merlin said.
“So, are you gonna tell people?”
“You mean like at Ealdor?”
“Yeah.” For some reason, the thought of people knowing Merlin was gay made Arthur nervous . . . like would they think Arthur was a poof, too? Of course he could never say that to Merlin, so he kept his mouth shut.
Merlin sighed. “I don’t get this whole coming out thing. Straight people aren’t expected to make announcements about whom they like to fuck. What am I supposed to do, wear a rainbow banner? I mean . . . if I wanted to date someone I’d do it. I wouldn’t hide, but I think there’s a bit of a double standard.”
The words came out in a rush, making Arthur’s head spin. He hadn’t ever thought about that—that double standard business—but it made perfect sense. Of course Merlin would’ve come up with something like that. It made Arthur proud, how smart he was. “I guess you’re right.” He couldn’t think of anything else to say, thoughts drifting instead to the idea of Merlin dating someone. Was there anyone he wanted to date?
“Arthur?” Merlin’s voice had gotten high-pitched, worried.
“Yeah. I’m here.”
“I’m afraid you’re going to think of me differently. You’ll go off with Gwaine and Percy and you won’t want me round . . .”
“I would never do that,” Arthur said, injecting vehemence into his tone. “You’re still my best mate. And I admit this is a bit of a shock, but honestly, it’s not all I’m going to think about, all right?”
From his perch on the wall, Bowie approved. Arthur just hoped he wouldn’t prove himself a liar.
“Okay,” Merlin said, though he didn’t sound entirely convinced. “Can we please talk about something else? Something that doesn’t make me want to claw my eyes out?”
“Yeah.” So Arthur did what he did best—he came up with a ridiculous diversion involving the psychology test he’d taken earlier that day, some bollocks about the id and the ego and the superego and Freud’s fear of vagina. Merlin laughed, spurring Arthur on. Soon, it almost felt as if nothing weird at all had occurred.
Towards the end of the conversation, talk turned to Bonfire Night. Arthur and his old footie mates were planning on getting some fireworks and heading over to Gwen’s, and Arthur invited Merlin along, too. It would do him good to be a bit more social. Merlin didn’t seem too keen on the idea, but Arthur promised it wouldn’t be like last year when they’d both gotten so pissed on White Lightening they’d been hungover for days.
Merlin finally agreed, and Arthur hung up feeling pleased. They were the same Merlin and Arthur as always, except one of them was a bit gay.
Arthur was just about to call Gwen up and see if she wanted to come over, when it hit him.
No. Uther could never know.