Sometimes it was all too much to bear. Sitting there in the classroom, knowing he was different. Knowing that he’d never fit in, not really.
He watched Gwaine slide back in his chair, turning with an easy grin to his friends, laughing at some joke. It was only a matter of time before that joke became Merlin. When they found out what he was, what he liked, what he wanted.
Gwaine was bloody gorgeous. The way he would just flick that perfect hair back carelessly, that rakish grin, the sound of his voice… everything about him. Merlin had crushed on Gwaine for years. Which wasn’t unusual, half the class had crushed on him too. The female half. Gwaine just lapped up all the attention. He’d probably dated most of them, and Merlin had just watched. Because Merlin wasn’t natural or right, not like Gwaine. And he’d never want to date those girls.
Gwaine glanced round, and Merlin quickly lowered his gaze, his face burning. Gwaine probably wouldn’t laugh at him, he was better than that which was one of the reasons Merlin adored him. But he wouldn’t reciprocate either, he’d probably keep his distance after that, and if the wrong member of his circle of friends realised the truth then they’d make Merlin’s life hell.
Sometimes Merlin thought his life already was hell. It was the feeling of isolation that did it, the fact that he didn’t know a single other person like himself. His female friends liked men too, but that wasn’t the same. That didn’t make them feel different, make them feel alone. He glanced over at Gwen. She didn’t sit with him any more, preferring to share a desk with Lance. He couldn’t blame her for that, he’d probably want to as well if Lance looked at him the way he looked at Gwen.
He didn’t know how it started.
It was just one little cut at first. High on his arm, easily covered by his shirt sleeves. Tiny little thing and he wasn’t even sure why he did it. It made him feel better, as if by releasing the blood it would take away all the bad feelings inside of him. There was the pain too. He deserved that pain, he thought, for how very wrong he was inside. He thought of Gwaine’s face, smiling and carefree, and brought the knife up again.
It was easy enough to hide it afterwards because it was winter when he started. Long sleeves didn’t look out of place. He wasn’t good at sport, wasn’t on any of the teams so there was little opportunity for anyone to see him in short sleeves. Just the PE lessons, and he was good enough at getting out of those. Forging notes from his mother was easy enough. She’d never know about it. And at night he’d sit in his room and slice just deep enough to bleed, making shallow cuts, trying to bring the hurt out, trying to stop the ache in his heart.
Just one person could change it all. But there was nobody, and Gwaine sailed on through his life, perfect and oblivious.
Winter faded into spring, and the days grew longer. Soon, Merlin knew, it would be harder to hide. The loneliness, the sense of isolation wasn’t going away.
On the first day of summer term there was a new boy, sitting with Gwaine’s entourage. He was blond and fit and Merlin knew he was going to be straight and way out of his league anyway.
Merlin tugged his sleeves down, more out of habit than anything else. The weather was getting warmer but he was still careful enough. As long as he could get out of games, nobody ever saw his arms. He looked down, sliding past the laughing group. They still hadn’t laughed at him. Not yet. He knew it would come, one day.
New boy fitted in. New boy went to lunch with the popular kids. New boy sat with Gwaine or Percival, and got on the football team without any trouble.
Merlin wished he could be like that. But he knew, even if he moved schools, he wouldn’t be able to fit in anywhere else either.
At least then he wouldn’t have to watch Gwaine flirting with everything that moved.
It was exactly two weeks later when things changed.
There was a flyer, up on the notice board. Cenred and Valiant were standing in front of it, laughing at whatever it said. Cenred was every bit as handsome as Gwaine, but it was only skin deep. The cruel streak killed any chance of attraction.
“Gay boy, I knew it!”
Merlin cringed inwardly and tried to move away, keep hidden. But Cenred had seen him, was grinning unkindly.
“And here's another one! This is yours.” Cenred had ripped the flyer from the notice board, crumpled it up and threw it at Merlin’s feet.
Merlin turned, head down, and almost collided with the new boy coming up behind him.
“Sorry,” Merlin muttered, and tried to get past. The new boy, Arthur, caught his arm.
It hurt, of course, he couldn’t help wincing as he pulled free. Arthur regarded him for a moment, with what looked like concern.
“Are you okay?” Arthur asked.
“Two of them! Watch your back, Val,” Cenred sneered.
Arthur looked across at them, and laughed scornfully. “It’s got to be an improvement on his front! But really, you don’t have to worry.” He bent down and picked up the flyer, handing the crumpled ball to Merlin.
“It’s not mine…” Merlin began but nobody was listening. Valiant took a threatening step towards Arthur, who held his ground.
“You two seem pretty close,” Arthur commented. “Perhaps you’d like to come to the first meeting?”
And of course, that was when Valiant hit him.
Merlin sat in the classroom, by himself as usual. He still had the flyer. After Arthur, Cenred and Valiant had been marched off to the headmaster for fighting, he’d smoothed it out and read it.
It was for a proposed LGBT-Straight Alliance group at the school. He’d heard of these being set up in the States, but it didn’t seem to have taken off as well in the UK. There were a couple of contact names at the bottom, Gwaine and Arthur amongst them.
It killed the little bit of hope that had been blossoming on seeing Arthur’s anti-homophobic stance. Of course he’d stand up with Gwaine and try to do the right thing. Another well-meaning person who just didn’t have a clue. Merlin could see himself sitting there in the initial meeting, alone, an oddity. And, worse, confirming himself as such. He couldn’t do it. He wouldn’t.
A shadow fell across his desk and he looked up. Arthur was standing there, a bruise starting to darken one side of his face, but otherwise just as perfect-looking as ever. Arthur nodded towards the flyer.
“You going to join us?”
Merlin shook his head, and pushed the flyer away. Arthur seemed to take that as a cue to lean closer. The classroom was filling up now. Merlin shifted nervously in his seat, hating confrontation.
“I used to hate myself,” Arthur whispered. “Thought I was alone, thought nobody would ever understand. Someone set a group like this up in my last school and it really helped. I wanted to pay it forward.”
There were tiny, faint lines on Arthur’s forearm, scars that were barely noticeable, long since healed. To the untrained eye it might have been passed off as a sports injury, a fall, a fight, even drugs, but Merlin knew that wasn’t it. He took back the flyer, and gave Arthur a tentative smile.
Arthur smiled back at him, and settled down in the empty seat next to Merlin. He had the bluest eyes Merlin had ever seen.
Gwaine leaned back in his chair, stretching out, tossing back his hair.
Merlin didn’t notice.