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***

The last notes of Merlin’s guitar faded out and there was a long pause.

“Well,” Gwen said, smiling encouragingly and twirling her drumstick. “That wasn’t too bad.”

Merlin sighed and then coughed, his throat dry from unaccustomed singing.

“I keep telling you we should have Morgana sing,” he said, hoarsely.

“Morgana sounds like a chorus of cats,” Gwen said, cheerfully.

“Hey,” Morgana said, glaring at Gwen, but not too hard, because it was absolutely true.

“Like a chorus of cats being murdered,” Will said, and Morgana glared at him a little harder.

“Yeah, but if it was Morgana, no one would care,” Merlin said.

“Let’s see if we can rearrange the second verse and make it a little less...” Morgana searched for a word. “...A little lower.”

It probably would be better in a lower key, although that blatantly wasn’t their biggest problem. Merlin had written the song for a female voice, though, with Freya in mind as the singer originally, as she had been for the last two years of them being a band, and then after she’d moved last month, Sophia had joined them and been singing it.

However, Sophia had stormed out last week, after slapping Will and ripping up Merlin’s latest song. No one had tried to stop her, because she was a heinous bitch, but it had left them a lead singer short with the talent show coming up next in less than two weeks.

Merlin couldn’t really sing well, but he could, at least, carry a tune, which was more than any of the other three could do.

When he thought of singing in front of a crowd he got all flushed and sweaty, and begged them to have Morgana sing, but in his heart he really was quite serious about the band, and didn’t feel that hoping the audience didn’t notice you sounded terrible because the lead singer was just that smoking hot, was really the way to the Brits and Grammys of the future.

“OK,” he sighed, taking off his guitar and picking up his music and a pen. “Let’s try and change it.”

“Make it lower, mate,” Will advised, idly picking out a few notes on his keyboard as he spoke. “You’re not really a girl, despite your shirt.”

“Sounds bloody awful,” Arthur called, startling Merlin, as he walked past the open door.

He probably hadn’t even heard them, because they’d been talking rather than practicing for the last five minutes, but then again, that was what he always said.

Morgana made a rude gesture towards her stepbrother without even looking up, like she always did, and the others completely ignored him, like they always did.

“He’s bloody right this time, though,” Merlin muttered to Morgana when Arthur was out of earshot.

“Merlin!” Morgana said, slapping him gently around the head. “Think about what you’re saying! Arthur is never right.”

***

Merlin left them arguing about whether Morgana had been too fast or Will had been too slow (both were, in fact, true) and went to get a drink.

Morgana’s house was huge. It still boggled Merlin’s mind that when Morgana had expressed an interest in music years ago, her stepfather had outfitted a room for her to practice in (not quite a studio. Yet.) It was as far away from Uther’s office as possible, and even that was pretty mind-blowing. In Merlin’s house there was in the same room or in the next room, there was no other wing for noisy hobbies.

Merlin had known Morgana for the best part of two years now, since he started the band formally and decided they needed a bass player and Gwen, who had lived on the same street as Merlin and Will all their lives and whose father was Uther’s groundskeeper (groundskeeper, a simple gardener just wouldn’t do), had suggested Morgana and he still wasn’t really used to the casual displays of ridiculous wealth.

He’d known of her before then, though, of course, since he started at Albion Academy on a music scholarship four years ago, because everybody knew the Pendragons.

Arthur was in the kitchen, swigging from a bottle of water straight out of the fridge. He was in his football gear, and sweaty and a little bit muddy. It hadn’t been formal school practice (or else he’d have showered and changed at school. And Merlin knew practice was on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Just because this was something everybody knew. Not that he’d ever watched.) so he’d probably just been having a kick about with Gwaine, Lance, Elyan and Leon.

“Given up?” he asked, when he saw Merlin. “Probably for the best.”

Merlin stuck a finger up at him.

“Just getting a drink.” Merlin motioned to the fridge.

Arthur just smiled and crouched back down in front of it, blocking the way.

“Hmm, but I’m not finished here. Maybe I should make a sandwich,” he drawled slowly. “What have we got in here, I wonder?” He paused to make a thinking face.

“Don’t strain yourself,” Merlin said, shortly. He knew there’d be at least three dinners in there, which the housekeeper would have left for the Pendragons to heat up. Only Sundays required family meals, to Morgana’s relief, as Uther was rarely home before nine anyway. “And get out of the way.”

“Hmm, chicken perhaps? Maybe salmon? Oh, brie and cranberries... What do you fancy?” Arthur mused, ignoring him.

“Don’t make me punch you in the face,” Merlin said.

Arthur snorted.

“Don’t make me get Morgana to come and punch you in the face,” Merlin amended, and Arthur laughed.

“Fine,” he said, straightening up. He picked something out of the fridge and closed the door.

“Here,” he said, throwing something to Merlin as he walked past him with his water.

Merlin caught it reflexively. It was an apple juice. His favourite.

***

It was almost impossible not to like Gwaine. Even though he deliberately hit Merlin around the head with his bag every time he swung by to sit behind him in English Lit, he did it with such a friendly grin, Merlin just rolled his eyes.

“Coming to Morgana’s party on Friday, Merlin?” he asked cheerfully.

Merlin nodded.

“Great, it’s gonna be awesome,” Gwaine said, happily and predictably. Gwaine was always confident anything involving alcohol was going to be awesome.

“I’m surprised you’re going, though?” Merlin said. It was almost impossible not to like Gwaine, but Morgana managed it on principle. She didn’t like any of Arthur’s friends, not even Lance. And Lance was the nicest person Merlin had ever met – what he was doing being friends with Arthur was one of life’s great mysteries.

Gwaine shrugged. “Well, it’s at Arthur’s, isn’t it? So while I didn’t get a formal engraved invite or anything...”

Right. Merlin definitely wasn’t going to be the one to tell Morgana that Arthur’s friends were crashing her birthday party.

Were there formal engraved invites?” Lance asked, from where he sat next to Gwaine.

Merlin and Gwaine exchanged a look. Sometimes Lance wasn’t quite in touch with reality.

“Nah, mate,” Gwaine said. “Facebook probably.”

“Oh.” Lance looked a little disappointed. “I bet Gwen could have designed her something really lovely.”

Gwen had doodled a picture of the band playing on a volcano with dragons flying around them on Merlin’s book a while back, and Lance had decided this was a work of art of the highest quality.

“She’s probably going to do a ‘happy birthday’ sign,” Merlin offered, which cheered Lance up.

“Will it have dragons on?” Arthur asked from where he sat in front of Merlin. “Or maybe harpies?”

Merlin was unsure how he got to be sitting in the middle of Arthur and his friends in this class. He suspected on the first day Gwaine had been hung over when he’d come in, saw a vaguely familiar face from where they’d all seen each other at Arthur and Morgana’s and just sat by it, and under the unspoken but unbreakable rules of classrooms everywhere, once you’d sat there you had to stay for the whole year.

“No, they decided that instead of pictures of Morgana throughout the years for her birthday, they’d put up ones of you instead. I hear there are some lovely ones of you in the bath. When you were little. Well, littleer.”

Gwaine laughed and slapped Merlin on the back. Merlin tried not to wince – Gwaine was built like a tank.

“Not much to see there, right mate?” Gwaine said, with a grin. “Not even now.”

“Fuck you all,” Arthur said, without heat. “I look great in the bath. People would pay for pictures of me in the bath.”

This was unfortunately true. Merlin just shrugged and picked up his book. They’d just finished Hamlet, and were starting Romeo and Juliet today.

He kept flicking through it while the teacher handed back their last assignments.

“Great work, Merlin,” she said smiling at him as she put the essay on his desk with a large ‘A’ in red ink on the top.

English was Merlin’s second favourite subject. He was at Albion on a music scholarship, but his love of language saw him in good stead in this class as well as for song writing.

“You must try harder, Arthur,” Mrs Burns said, however, as she dropped Arthur’s essay on his desk, and Merlin could see the large, red ‘C-’ on it.

“Yeah,” Gwaine said, waving his own essay in the air, with a large ‘F’ proudly on display. “You need to try a lot harder if you really want to underachieve like me.”

“Yeah,” Arthur said, with a grin, but Merlin could see the back of his neck and the tips of his ears growing red.

Arthur Pendragon didn’t like not being good at anything.

***

“No,” Merlin said. “Absolutely not.”

“Come on, Merlin,” Morgana said sternly. “I got it especially for you.”

“Oh, thank you,” Merlin said, with massive insincerity. “Just what I always wanted.”

“You really do need to get over your fear of singing in public, Merlin,” Gwen said, earnestly.

“Yeah,” Will continued, “and everyone will be much too drunk to even know if you’re shit or not, so it’s a really good time.”

“I am not singing karaoke,” Merlin said, for roughly the hundredth time that evening, since he’d arrived at Morgana’s party and discovered a karaoke machine and stage set up in the garden.

“Yes, you are,” Morgana said, bleakly. “If you can’t do this there’s absolutely no hope of you getting up in front of the whole school for the talent show.”

“Yeah, I’ve been thinking, maybe we could just do an instrumental...”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Morgana continued. “If there is a talent scout there, he’s not going to be impressed by an instrumental band. Look, wait a few more songs and then you’ll be drunker and everyone else will be drunker and it’ll be fine.”

She pressed a can of beer into his hand encouragingly.

Merlin chugged a few mouthfuls. He was a horrible lightweight and one can would probably be enough.

“You can’t be any worse than those idiots,” Will said.

And that, at least, was true. There was still a significant amount of clapping and cheering for the guys standing up on the stage singing ‘Livin’ on a Prayer,’ but that was probably only because Gwaine had taken his shirt off.

It certainly wasn’t because he or Elyan could sing because that most definitely was not the case. They made Morgana sound good.

Leon and Arthur were booing from the front of the crowd, heckling loudly.

“Think you can do better, Pendragon?” Gwaine yelled, mid-song, sticking his fingers up.

Arthur laughed and swung himself up onto the stage. It was probably the most graceful leap up onto a karaoke stage anyone had ever made, because anyone drunk enough to try to get up to do karaoke really ought not have that level of coordination, but that was Arthur Pendragon’s life for you.

Arthur threw his arms around Gwaine and Elyan and joined them singing.

Merlin stared.

Arthur drew the eye – everyone knew that, and he didn’t need to be on the stage to do so – but the rigged-up spot light caught his hair, making it shine gold, and made his white shirt look transparent.

And he could sing.

His voice was clear, and strong, easily lifting above Gwaine and Elyan’s even though they both were really shouting rather than singing, and he was in tune – frankly no mean feat with Gwaine yelling very loudly and very, very off-key less than an inch from his ear.

Merlin stared a little bit longer before turning to look at Morgana, who was staring too.

She turned slowly to look at him.

“What?” Will asked after a moment, noticing something was going on. “What?”

He looked at the stage.

“Oh shit.”

***

“He won’t do it,” Will said, next morning.

They’d been arguing all last night where the four of them had slept over in Morgana’s room and still hadn’t come to a decision about whether or not they wanted Arthur to sing for them.

Will was the most vehemently opposed, depressed enough to not even try and get a look down Morgana’s pyjama top, and was falling back on the argument that all this was academic anyway, because there was no way Arthur Pendragon was singing in a high school indie band.

“We don’t know unless we ask,” Gwen said, reasonably.

Gwen had been the most in favour, reasonably stating he’d only have to learn one song and it was only for two weeks until the talent show and then they could just find someone else, and he did have a very nice voice.

“He’ll do it if we want him to,” Morgana said, grimly. “I’ve lived with him since we were six; I’ve got enough blackmail material on him to get him to do the hula naked.”

Morgana, like Merlin, couldn’t seem to make up her mind whether she wanted him or not, seemingly persuaded by both Gwen and Will and then back again.

“Yeah, but doesn’t he have just as much on you?” Will countered. “And Merlin, come on mate. You don’t want him in your band. You hate him!”

Merlin blinked away the mental image of a naked, hula-ing Arthur.

“That’s true, I do hate him,” Merlin agreed.

“Oh, you don’t,” Gwen said, who was too nice to really understand the pleasures of a good honest grudge. “You just don’t know him very well.”

“I know him well enough. You know he pushed me into a locker? I had to have stitches!”

“That was four years ago, Merlin, and I know he apologised.”

“Only because the Headmaster made him,” Merlin said, “and I’m scarred! Physically scarred!”

It was under Merlin’s hair, where he’d unluckily hit his head on the corner of a locker when Arthur had pushed past him in the first week of school. It had been massively humiliating, as he’d passed out and had to have stitches in his head which meant he’d have to had his head shaved in his first week at a new school.

And even though you couldn’t see it now under all Merlin’s hair, what about later? When Merlin was eighty and bald everyone was going to be able to see where Arthur Pendragon had scarred him.

“Well, then, he owes you one, doesn’t he?” Gwen said, easily. “And he really is a very good singer.”

He really was.

After ‘Livin’ on a Prayer’ they’d stayed on stage due to popular demand (again, Merlin was going with Gwaine’s shirtlessness as the cause) and done, not a word of a lie, ‘My Heart Will Go On.’

Well, Arthur had done it, because Gwaine and Elyan had been laughing too much to get more than a few words out, but Arthur had sung it all, clear and in tune, voice throbbing with insincere emotion as he’d got down on his knees and serenaded Leon and Lance, who’d got up on stage to do a Kate-and-Leo-King-of-the-World impression. (Merlin was probably not the only one who’d thought Lance had made a very pretty Kate Winslet.)

“And do remember, Merlin, the other option is you singing lead. On stage. In front of all the school. Just you.” Gwen smiled sweetly.

“We might be able to find someone else?” Merlin said hopefully.

“The auditions we held after Freya were a nightmare, Merlin, you know that. Sophia was the only one who was half-decent, and we’ve only got two weeks, now,” Morgana said, apparently swinging to Gwen’s side of the argument.

“Was Sophia really that much of a heinous bitch?” Merlin asked, desperately.

“YES,” the other three said in one voice, and Merlin sighed.

***

“What?” Arthur said, blankly, staring up at them all from the kitchen table where he was nursing a cup of tea and a bacon sandwich.

“You sang very well last night,” Morgana said, clearly trying not to sound grudging.

“I sang ‘My Heart Will Go On,’” Arthur said, still looking blank. “With Gwaine.”

“Yes, well.” Merlin coughed, awkwardly. “You, er, rose above the material.”

Arthur blinked at them.

“Seriously?”

They all nodded. They’d all gone to ask him, in the end. Gwen had persuaded Morgana that just asking him was probably going to be more effective than blackmail, and had volunteered to go and ask him with her when Morgana had looked like she’d rather drink bleach.

Then, of course, Will and Merlin had reluctantly realised they ought to man up and support her as well, and so a contingent of four had approached a startled Arthur to ask him to sing with them at the talent show.

“You need to do something for the talent show, anyway. You know it’s mandatory for this year. Did you have anything planned?” Gwen asked.

Arthur shrugged, which Merlin took to mean he and Gwaine were going to take a ball up on stage, kick it around for a few minutes, and get lots of cheers and rapturous applause, because he was Arthur Pendragon.

“So, you’re asking me to join your band?”

“No!” Morgana said, with perhaps slightly insulting speed. “Just to learn a song to sing at the talent show, that’s all, because there isn’t time to find someone else. It’s important to us, and, uh, I’d owe you a favour.”

Arthur’s face took on a smug expression, and he drawled, “Reeeeaaally.”

Merlin could see where Gwen stood on Morgana’s foot casually to stop her from telling him to forget it.

“Seriously, though, don’t you all hate me?” Arthur asked, bluntly. He waved a hand at all of them, but caught Merlin’s eye.

“Of course not,” Gwen said at the same time as Merlin coughed and said, “Hate is such a strong word.”

Will didn’t say anything at all, which was probably for the best.

Arthur took a few thoughtful sips of tea, probably to draw out the suspense before refusing, the git.

“OK,” he said after a moment. “I’ll do it...”

“Really?!” Merlin couldn’t believe it.

“But you," he pointed at Morgana, “will owe me a big favour, and you,"he gestured at Merlin who froze, “can help me with English Lit.”

“What?”

“Done!” Gwen said, happily.

***

They didn’t practice that first day, because everyone was just a little bit too hung over, but on Sunday they began.

“I can’t read music,” Arthur said, glancing at the sheet in front of him, which had notes and lyrics.

“That’s OK,” Merlin said. “We’ll play it for you with me singing so you get the tune first and go from there.”

“Why do you need me if you can sing?” Arthur asked.

Merlin didn’t really feel like explaining to Arthur the varied and manifest ways in which Arthur’s voice was better. “I have to play,” he said vaguely, pulling his guitar on.

They played through the song – it was definitely Merlin’s favourite. Merlin thought they had a pretty good chance of winning the talent show with it, and, maybe, just maybe, if the rumours of a talent scout from Camelot records being there were true. Well...

Arthur sang it after they’d played it twice for him. His voice was, perhaps unsurprisingly, even better when he wasn’t drunk and accompanied by Gwaine, and he managed to stay on time and mostly in tune even on just the first run through.

“Good, that’s good,” Merlin said absently, already thinking. “Maybe if we change the third line of the chorus, I think it will suit his voice better if we went down at the end, and just up for the final refrain.”

He plucked out the melody again quickly, making the changes, before scribbling amendments on his sheet.

“OK, yes, let’s go A, G, D for the last three notes,” he told them, and the others made a note.

Arthur was looking at them with a slight frown.

“You wanna just change it like that?” he asked.

“Er, well, yes,” Merlin said. “It’ll sound better.”

“Won’t people be expecting it to be like the original?”

“What original?”

“I don’t know, whatever...” Arthur stopped suddenly. “Oh, wait. You lot wrote this?”

“Yes?” Merlin said, frowning.

“Oh, I just...” Arthur shrugged. “I thought it was a cover.”

“Oh no!” Gwen said, proudly. “This isn’t a cover. Merlin wrote this. He writes all our songs.”

“Really?” Arthur said, raising his eyebrows.

Merlin felt unaccountably embarrassed, and shrugged.

“Music scholarship,” he explained.

“We’ve practiced in this house for the last two years,” Will said, rolling his eyes. “Have you ever heard us play any covers?”

“No,” Arthur replied, with a slow grin, “but I figured that’s just because you were playing some obscure indie shit I didn’t know.”

“No,” Merlin said, slightly flushed, “we write our own obscure indie shit. Now shut up and listen.”

***

“Can’t your father just get you a tutor?” Merlin asked, pulling out his folders.

“Why would he when you’re right here?” Arthur said, sitting down next to Merlin at the kitchen table.

They’d practiced for a couple of hours, getting better and better as they went, and had recorded their last attempt so Arthur could listen to it on his iPhone to get more familiar. When they’d finished, Gwen, Morgana and Will had gone off to get lunch, cheerfully sacrificing Merlin to Arthur for English Lit homework.

“Have you read it?” Merlin asked, putting his copy of Romeo and Juliet on the table.

“Of course,” Arthur said, sounding a bit offended.

“Well, what did you think of it?”

“It was OK.”

Merlin sighed. He knew Arthur wasn’t stupid. Arthur was, in fact, top of the class in math and near the top in all his classes except English.

“Just, ‘OK’? You realise this is one of the most famous literary works of all time?”

“It just feels dated to me,” Arthur said, shrugging.

“Dated? Why, because they’re sending letters, not texting on their iPhones? It’s about love. That never gets old.”

“That’s not love,” Arthur said. “Half an hour ago he was in love with someone else!”

“You can use Rosaline to contrast with Juliet, or to see how she prepared him for real love,” Merlin suggested.

“Real love? He saw her for three seconds before deciding he was in love with her based on her face, and then they’re married after they’ve only exchanged a few words.”

“Yeah, but they’re pretty awesome words, though,” Merlin said. “The language is incredible. Shakespeare shows their love is something beautiful to be cherished and protected through the language itself. It’s powerful enough to create its own force.”

After a moment, Arthur said quietly, “Your songs have great lyrics.”

Merlin flushed a little. “I don’t think you can really compare them to Shakespeare,” he said, ignoring the flush of pleasure.

“Maybe not,” Arthur said, but he looked really serious, “but your lyrics are beautiful, and they feel... real to me. Genuine.”

Merlin was sure his face was as red as Arthur’s shirt. He could probably only get redder if Arthur ever found out that just maybe one, OK possibly two, definitely no more than three, of Merlin’s songs were just possibly actually about Arthur.

“Well, you’ve only heard the best one,” Merlin said, shrugging. “We picked the best one for the talent show, of course.”

“No, I’ve heard them all, you idiot. You’ve been practicing here for two years. They’re really good.”

“You listened?” Merlin said, surprised.

“Well,” Arthur said, looking a little embarrassed. “The house is big, but it’s not soundproof, you know. I could hardly have avoided hearing it.”

“You listened!” Merlin crowed. “You like my indie shit!”

“I...” Arthur drew in an indignant breath, than stopped, breathing out again. “Yeah, actually, I do.”

There was an awkward silence.

“Actually,” Arthur said, “I, uh, tried to find a couple of them? I wrote down some of the lyrics and googled them trying to find out who they were by.”

“Really?” Merlin grinned, manically. “You could’ve just asked.”

“I’d never give Morgana the satisfaction,” Arthur said, smiling back. “I’ve always hated indie and she’s always loved it.”

“Well, it’s good to expand your tastes,” Merlin said, patting Arthur mock-consolingly on the arm.

“Well, tastes change, don’t they?” Arthur said, suddenly oddly intent. “That’s why Romeo and Juliet seems wrong to me. They just met each other and that’s it. Love doesn’t work like that – you might not even notice them at first. You might walk right by them, not even see them, push right by them, and they might not be your taste at all, but when you get to know them, that changes. You change.”

Merlin remembered Arthur pushing him into a locker in the first week of school.

“Some changes in taste are a bit more radical than dance to indie music,” Merlin said, slowly.

“Yeah.”

Another long pause and Merlin fiddled with his sleeve. It got awkward enough that Merlin was about to blurt out something about Friar Lawrence to fill the silence when Arthur interrupted it.

“Do you, uh, like indie music?” Arthur asked.

“Well, I write it.” Merlin couldn’t help but laugh. “But if it’s a metaphor for boys...”

Arthur flushed, but didn’t look away.

Merlin took a deep breath. “... then. Yeah.”

Arthur bit his lip.

“You weren’t dating Freya?” he asked.

Merlin shook his head. “For about three minutes a few years ago,” he said. “But we soon realised that wasn’t going to work.”

“So, she was your Rosaline?”

Merlin snorted. “I guess.”

There was a long moment before Arthur laughed, suddenly.

Merlin paled – Arthur was laughing at him.

“Sorry,” Arthur said, with a stifled snort of laughter. “It’s just... there’s definitely a line there about me being your Romeo, but I just don’t think I can pull it off.”

“Nobody’s smooth enough to pull that off, I don’t think,” Merlin said, with a laugh, but his heart beat a little bit faster because Arthur was moving forward for a kiss.

And then the front door slammed as Uther returned home from a round of golf.

***

Of the band, only Morgana and, of course now Arthur, went to Merlin’s school. While Merlin usually regretted this – had regretted the absence of Will and Gwen deeply, in fact, because for the first two years at Albion Academy he’d only been friends with Freya, until Gwen had introduced him to Morgana – he was quite pleased today, because Morgana was the one he was least likely to crack and tell that, oh. By the way? He’d nearly kissed Arthur yesterday.

He hadn’t seen Arthur that morning, but he might see him at lunch. For the past year or so, Arthur and his friends had usually sat next to Merlin and Morgana.

But when Arthur came in, he didn’t go to his usual table. He came into the cafeteria with Sophia, and sat down with her and her friends.

And Merlin didn’t see him again for the rest of the day.

***

Merlin, like all true Englishmen, believed firmly in the power of tea.

He sat in his kitchen nursing a large mug. Tea made everything better. OK, it was probably a little too much to expect a hot beverage to make Arthur less of a prat, but right now Merlin would even settle for less attractive so he could go the rest of the next two weeks (the rest of his life) not thinking about kissing him.

Merlin stared down at the mug of tea.

The mug of tea did not appear to be taking any positive action.

“Oh, come on. Just throw me a bone. How about a spot? A really big spot right on the end of his stuck up nose?”

No response.

Merlin sighed, and looked away. “You’re no bloody hel... Jesus fucking Christ!”

There was a head lurking outside his kitchen window. It was Arthur.

Arthur’s (noticeably spot free) face became apologetic as Merlin had jumped up out of his seat in shock.

“What the fuck are you doing here?” Merlin yelled.

Arthur pointed to the front door and moved away from the window towards it.

Right.

“You know what would have been better?” Arthur said, as Merlin opened the door.

“You not giving me a heart attack? What the fuck are you doing here?”

“You having a balcony,” Arthur continued, ignoring Merlin. “Then I could have serenaded you, like Romeo. It would have had a nice symmetry, don’t you think? Instead I think I’ve ripped my jacket on the bush out there, and taken ten years off your life.”

Merlin stared at him. He looked a little embarrassed – Merlin could tell by the way he was slightly flushed, but his shoulders were stiff and he had his chin up, like he did when he didn’t make good grades in English Lit.

“Romeo didn’t serenade Juliet,” Merlin said finally, stepping back to let Arthur into his house.

Arthur’s shoulders relaxed as he walked through.

“Yeah, but you like my singing,” Arthur said as he walked past Merlin.

That was true.

“It’s the only reason to put up with you,” Merlin said, which sadly wasn’t true, shutting the door and following Arthur into the kitchen.

Arthur was standing there a little awkwardly, hands in his pockets, looking around.

He looked out of place in Merlin’s tiny kitchen, but Merlin refused to be embarrassed by his home, even if his house would fit into Arthur’s ten times over. His mum worked hard to keep this roof over their heads – was working now, and would be working at her second job later. Merlin would never be embarrassed by her and what she’d given him.

“You want a cup of tea?” Merlin asked, channelling his mother in her absence.

“Yes, please,” Arthur said, sounding more polite than Merlin had ever heard him.

They were silent for a moment as Merlin put the kettle on.

“So. What are you doing here?” Merlin asked, brusquely, eyes very firmly on the tea.

“I..” Arthur seemed a little taken aback by Merlin’s tone. “I came for some more English tutoring?” he said, but it sounded more like a question.

“Is that a metaphor, too?” Merlin asked, throwing the teabags away with more force than strictly necessary.

Arthur laughed.

“Maybe.”

Merlin didn’t laugh.

“I didn’t see you around school today,” he said instead, completely failing at being casual.

Arthur raised his eyebrows. “Miss me, did you?”

“Lunch didn’t seem quite the same without you complaining about the food from next to us like you have for the past year.”

“I’ve only been braving the lunch hall food to sit near you, you know?”

Merlin felt his righteous indignation deflate slightly.

“Really?”

“Well, I certainly don't go to the cafeteria for the haute cuisine.”

“You’re such a snob,” Merlin said, smiling slightly. Then he remembered something and stopped smiling. “Did Sophia share your views on the mystery meat?”

“Sophia doesn’t share my views on anything,” Arthur said. “She was telling me how selfless I was to join your little band to help out my sister.”

“She said that?” Merlin gritted his teeth. “God, what a...”

“...heinous bitch.” Arthur finished with him.

“So why sit with her at lunch?”

Arthur looked a little uncomfortable. “I wanted to talk to you alone before sitting with Morgana. She can see through me like glass and maybe you didn’t want them to know.”

“It is embarrassing to have nearly kissed an enormous prat like you,” Merlin agreed.

“I agree. To have gotten that close to perfection and failed to convert? Very embarrassing for you,” Arthur said, moving closer.

Merlin shook his head. “Delusional.”

“Really?” Arthur said, and he pushed up into Merlin’s space, gripping his school tie and pulling Merlin towards him for a kiss.

Well, maybe not.

***
Epilogue
***

Morgana could see through Arthur like glass, and so there was a lot of mocking the next day. Gwen was thrilled for them, and Will... came round eventually.

Arthur’s friends discovered they were going out two weeks later, when Arthur kissed Merlin in front of them when celebrating their talent show victory. Gwaine and Leon collected £50 each off of Lance and Elyan.

Uther was told a few months after that, when the band set off on their first tour supporting a local band. Despite Arthur’s protests that of course his father liked Merlin, Merlin never quite got over the impulse to check his food for poison when they went to Uther’s for dinner.

The rest of the world found out two years later, when TMZ broke the gay scandal about the biggest band in the world with a grainy picture of Arthur kissing Merlin up against a wall. And if a few thousand people didn’t buy their next platinum-selling album because of it, well. They weren’t missed.

***

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