The lights go up, and here we are.
Merlin tells himself, Just sing. Just sing, don't look at him. There's air in your lungs and love in your heart and that's all you need for this song, for any song.
And then, taking a deep breath and taking his cue, he tells himself,You should never have agreed to this.
All the great performances come from somewhere that hurts, though. And he's sitting on their high-school stage, so this isn't exactly going to be a 'great performance' but at least he'll be able to sing it like he means it, for all the same reasons that he really should never have agreed to this.
Arthur is Merlin's oldest friend. He tells himself, Y ou can't feel like this about him. Merlin may be singing lyrics that sum this whole thing up, this whole stupid disaster that is their friendship-gone-wrong, but Arthur wrote them, and Merlin is forced to admit that it wasn't for him. Gwen's in the audience right now, and Merlin has to sing Arthur's words to her. Merlin is Arthur's voice today. That was the point of this whole exercise, wasn't it?
Arthur keeps his head down and his fingers moving. He wrote this song in one night, in the three hours after midnight, still wearing his going-out clothes and with the buzz of a bourbon in the back of his throat, the taste of Merlin's skin over the top of it.
His dad banged on the wall that separated their rooms, told him to shut up and go to sleep, because it was a school night, but Arthur's a musician and he had a stupid decision rolling around his head. What else was he going to do?
The thing is, it should never have been like this.
He should have done something, but Gwen did it first. So Arthur began the term with a breakup, and Merlin, who Arthur should hate but can't, who Arthur should have stopped jamming with but couldn't, thinks the song he's singing right now is about her. And Arthur can't bear to correct him.
Merlin could lose himself in this chorus, but he knows he mustn't. It doesn't matter how much he wants to turn his head and sing it to Arthur, how much he wants to mean it, he can't.
Instead he sings it and concentrates on every word, and every word reminds him of what it felt like to have Arthur's hips under his hands, the surprise of Arthur's mouth against his, how hungry he was for it, how he forgot, forgot that Arthur's his friend and Gwen's his friend and that there was no way he could have done or should have done what he did, no matter how much he'd wanted to.
But he did it. And now he has to live with the consequences.
It breaks Arthur's heart that Merlin thinks this song is about Gwen. It breaks his heart a little that Gwen in the audience might think it as well. Yes, he made a mistake, but it wasn't breaking up with Gwen, or kissing Merlin. It was doing those things in the wrong order, and too late.
Merlin's voice is perfect for this song, and the voice of Arthur's music teacher in the back of his head is giving them points for this collaboration, for the way Arthur's guitar and Merlin's singing meld so well. The thing is, these lyrics were never meant to see the light of day, this melody has never been anything more than a persistent earworm, but then Miss Morstan saw the piece of paper with hasty tab scratched on it flutter out of the back of one of Arthur's notebooks, and well, she's the music teacher, and this is technically an assignment.
Arthur sneaks a peek at Merlin though, sideways back along the body of his guitar, and Merlin is leaning forward, towards the audience, and his hands are clasped around the microphone. He's got his eyes closed, lashes sweeping down, and the way he's singing, the way he looks like he's bleeding into every word …
It's wrong, but there's something painfully right about seeing Merlin sing this song. After all, these words were all for him in the first place.
The thing is, Merlin loves this song. He's loved it since Arthur shamefacedly, with prompting from Miss Morstan, showed it to him.
'I think you two would make a really good impression with this,' she gushed over Arthur's shoulder. 'It really plays to both of your strengths - Arthur, it's a beautiful piece of writing, much better than some of the other things you've given me to mark, and it shows off your fingerpicking. And Merlin, it's right in your range, and it'll give you an opportunity to build a rapport with the audience. It's a real love song, they'll connect with it, with both of you, if you play it right.'
When she'd fussed off to see to Vivian, Mithian and Elena, who were squabbling again, Arthur had shrugged and tried to take the piece of paper back. 'It's just a stupid thing,' he says. 'We can do one of your songs, if you like - I can set your lyrics and it'll be better than this.' It was the first thing he'd said to Merlin in two weeks, since that party.
And Merlin meant to agree, to go along with whatever he wanted just to keep this fragile peace between them, but his eyes had caught on the words, on the melody that curves and swoops up and down the staff, and he'd been sold.
'No,' he'd said. 'No - let's do this one.'
When he'd first sung it though, and heard the whole of it, and realised, he'd regretted that decision. But now, spot-lit and with Arthur's music thrumming up through the stage and the soles of his shoes, he's glad.
Even if Arthur thinks he's just doing this because he couldn't change partners, even if Arthur thinks he's just doing this for a grade, he's glad he can say these things out loud.
Now that Arthur's looked, he can't look away. He doesn't need to see where he's placing his fingers, anyway - if his calluses weren't so thick he'd have played this one 'til his fingers bled long ago. Merlin's got him mesmerised.
This is why you should have done the right thing, Arthur tells himself, changing down and thumbing his bass-line without a break. If you'd just been honest, then Gwen would never have had to be hurt like that, and Merlin … Merlin wouldn't have either. You hurt them both.
Arthur can see Miss Morstan and her marking sheets in the front row. She's smiling and nodding. So Arthur's dishonesty may at least have gained him a good mark in Music.
It's not really worth it, actually, because against the music teacher's smile Arthur has to set the way Merlin's throat works when he takes a breath, the controlled break of his voice on Arthur's stupid lyrics of this stupid love song he wrote too late, and the knowledge that Gwen will either realise what the words mean, or that she won't, and he doesn't know which is worse.
This whole performance is a lie, really.
Merlin lets the last note trail, and then he has to open his eyes, has to take in the lights and the surroundings and the clapping. And then he has to look at Arthur, because it would be odd to ignore him, after that.
The way Arthur's looking at him takes his breath away.
Arthur's Takamine has ferocious sustain. He doesn't dare even breathe while the last note dies away, and he's looking at Merlin anyway and that's almost rendering him unable to breathe.
Now or never, Pendragon, he tells himself. You wrote this song because you had something to say. Are you going to let it all be for nothing? Are you going to let it be a lie?
Thank God there's a guitar stand handy, because no, Arthur can't let it be a lie, not any longer. He puts the Takamine down and stands up. Merlin does likewise, like he thinks they're going to take a bow, and Arthur lays his hand on Merlin's shoulder before he can do it.
'I wrote that for you, you know,' Arthur says roughly. 'Every word, every note.'
Merlin's mouth tastes better without bourbon and guilt.
It's the best decision Arthur has ever made.
'I sang it for you,' Merlin whispers into Arthur's hair, in the ringing silence just the audience goes mad.