At sixteen, Merlin learned two essential things about himself. As is common among teenagers, these truths came by way of humiliation and despair.
It was a warm summer evening, the light casting everything in soft gold. Merlin stood by the back door to the kitchens, watching the kids playing on the outdoor chess board. Not chess, of course, some elaborate game they'd made up themselves; something that had grown in complexity and scope over the past three weeks to the point where everyone wanted to play and no-one could remember the rules.
Merlin's eyes lifted to look beyond, to the path from the playing fields where a bunch of older lads, a bit older than himself, was coming back from knocking a ball around. Merlin's heart skipped a beat as he saw the tallest one, their leader, hove into view. His voice was rich and deep; his body perfectly proportioned and finely muscled; his hair looked ridiculously soft and he had eyes you could drown in.
The footballers joined a group of girls at the picnic benches beyond the play area, and Merlin made up his mind.
He was in love. He'd known that for every single one of the forty seven days that had passed since he first laid eyes on this man. There were only two days left before they'd be separated forever.
Merlin paused to clean his glasses on the corner of his shirt, then popped them back on his nose, wiped his hands on his apron and set off to take a chance.
As he approached the benches the object of his affections looked up, and smiled a little when Merlin cleared his throat and said a hoarse, "Hello."
"I have something to ask you," Merlin said, eyeing the strangers around him nervously. He noticed there was a cake on the bench; he hoped he wasn't interrupting someone's birthday, but there weren't any candles. "Something… personal."
There was a shuffle of conversation around the bench, and people moved away, offering them a measure of privacy.
"It's just," Merlin said, pushing his glasses up his nose. "There's the dance. Tomorrow night. I'd like to ask you to go to it."
"I'm already going," the man of Merlin's dreams said. "Everyone is."
"No. I mean, I want you to go with me."
It hung between them for a moment, time still around them and Merlin's heart pounding, before Merlin added, just to be clear, "because I'm in love with you."
Laughter, incredulous at first but turning quickly cruel, cut through Merlin like a knife and he blinked back sudden tears. In that instant the warm fantasy that had nestled and grown inside him for the past few weeks was shattered, and he realised he'd made an awful, terrible mistake. What followed hurt horribly, but it was the laughter that made Merlin want to curl up and die in a ditch somewhere.
"You're in love with me? You think I'm a nasty little gay boy like you?"
"Do you know who I am?"
I thought I did, thought Merlin, miserably.
"I like girls, you pathetic little poof. You disgust me."
Merlin could think of nothing to say, nothing to do. He stood there, shaking, hating himself and every other fucking thing in the world more than he'd ever thought possible.
"Are you crying? For fuck's sake, don't be such a girl!"
Then he turned and grabbed a handful of cake from the bench, scooped it up and flung it into his Merlin's face with a cold, wet slap of icing and cream and soggy, jam-filled sponge.
In that moment, Merlin knew three things.
He knew what true heartbreak was.
He knew he was so disgusting that no-one would ever want him.
And he knew that he could make cake much, much better than this.
As it turned out, only one of these was true; but that one was enough to change his life forever.