—caller coming in from south of London. Hello, Drea, you’re on with Dragon’s Lonely Hearts, how can I help you tonight?
It’s just my boyfriend, he’s been so cold lately and—
“Christ, Morgana, listening to this drivel again? I don’t know how you stand it.”
Morgana sniffs and turns the volume up, slapping his hand away when he tries to go for the control. “I am driving, so I pick the music.”
“This isn’t music, this is some bloke torturing people’s life stories out of them for a nation to hear and occasionally playing a tune.” Arthur gestures at the radio and goes back to staring out the window. He’s glad to be getting back to the city but catching a ride with his half-sister instead of taking public transport wasn’t his wisest plan.
Doesn’t sound to me like he’s cheating on you, Drea, but—
“He isn’t torturing them,” Morgana snaps. Arthur is especially sorry that he chose to drive down with her when she’s in an even worse mood than usual due to their father refusing to donate to the charity she runs. “He’s listening. Something that you obviously don’t know how to understand or do, but this show really helps people.”
“Because they pay callers and write scripts and he’s just got the kind of voice that comes across well over the radio.” Arthur rolls his eyes when she does a particularly vicious lane-change without bothering to signal. “Come on, Morgana, you know how these things work, you’ve done enough advertising.”
“He is not a fake, and I know that because—” Morgana stops, cheeks going pink.
Arthur can’t help laughing, even though he knows Morgana will get her revenge eventually. “Oh my God, you’ve called him, haven’t you?” She grips the steering wheel tight, and he keeps laughing, drowning out the man on the radio trying to be soothing while the girl sniffles. “You have! You called Dragon’s Lonely Hearts like the Billy No-Mates you are.”
“It’s no secret that I didn’t have a good time of it after Aglain,” Morgana says between her teeth, “and I’m not ashamed of looking for help because he did help. So you can shut up about it.”
It takes a second, but he manages to gulp back the laughter that wants to continue. He knows better than to tease Morgana about anything related to Aglain, so apparently that means Dragon’s Lonely Hearts is not to be mocked in her presence. At least not quite so seriously. “Not as if he’s a real therapist or anything, though,” he points out, unwilling to capitulate completely.
Morgana shrugs. “Does he need to be?”
—really hope my advice helps, Drea, says the radio show host softly. I know it must have been hard to hear, but from where I’m sitting that’s what it sounds like.
No, it’s okay. I sort of knew it already, you know? And thanks, Dragon, I knew you’d help.
Thank you, Drea. Okay, everyone, let’s have a little break and listen to some music before our next call. First up is—
“Well, I suppose they aren’t paying him or anything,” Arthur allows.
“My God, you’re mercenary. I always forget that about you.” He just raises his eyebrows, since Morgana is the one who spends her life putting a bottom line on everything, even if it is for pandas or irrigation or whatever the hell her catchall charity is supporting this week. “Speaking of mercenary, has Vivian hit the three-month wall yet?”
Arthur blinks at the abrupt change of subject while the strains of something cheerful and indie and entirely forgettable fill the car. “The what? I’m still with Vivian, yes, if that’s what you’re asking, although I’ve had less time to see her lately with the new account at work.” And she’s taken to looking longingly in the windows of jewelry stores whenever they pass them, but Arthur’s definitely not telling Morgana that.
“The three-month wall, Arthur, I know you aren’t self-aware but you are meant to be good at analyzing patterns, aren’t you? It’s the point of economics courses, I would think.” He just lets her rattle on, since this is obviously vengeance for mocking her pet radio host. “Surely you’ve realized that almost no one you date ever lasts more than three months before they become ‘more of a good friend, really,’ or ‘footie’s all we’ve got in common’ or ‘well, she’s a crazy bitch, it’s not my fault I’ve only just figured that out.’”
“You can’t be denying that Sophia was a crazy bitch.”
Morgana pauses. “Point. But still. You can’t be that deep into denial.”
Arthur takes an uncomfortable few seconds to think over his past relationships, the ones that lasted more than two weeks. And Leon, Elena, Percival, and Mithian are all good friends but Morgana’s right, none of them lasted much more than three months before he realized they were acting more like friends who occasionally fucked than anything else. “Nonsense,” he says firmly, because it’s never wise to let on that Morgana might be right.
She laughs anyway and takes the turn for his flat. “That just means you’ve realized I’m right. Tell you what, Arthur, you might be a candidate for Dragon’s Lonely Hearts yourself.”
This is Dragon’s Lonely Hearts, if you’re just tuning in, and we’ve got a caller on the line. Gilli, I’ve heard you’re feeling a bit lonely tonight, so I thought we might talk you up to the ladies listening out there tonight, or maybe the gents …
Dragon’s Lonely Hearts, everyone knows, is on from ten till two on Friday and Saturday nights, and is hosted by the Dragon, a mysterious figure who doesn’t talk much about himself but took the airwaves by storm a year ago when he first got his show. He helps the lovelorn, the recently broken up, the pining, the eternally single, and miraculously, actually seems to help. He’s popular with the twenty-somethings of the city, hops right over their disillusionment with life after university and gets them smiling. He’s famous for getting calls from singles and making them talk themselves up until someone else calls the show up wanting a date, and then he screens the dates, and while Arthur is skeptical of this, apparently these set-ups nearly always end well.
Arthur finds none of this out because he actually cares.
Most of it he finds out because Morgana, annoyed with him for a myriad of reasons (but then, when isn’t she annoyed with him?), brings the show up at a pub night and it turns out that everyone listens to it when they stay in at the weekend. They all blather on about it for ages, including Vivian, who he can generally count on to be on his side, and Arthur just rolls his eyes and waits for the conversation to roll around to something he actually cares about.
(The breakup with Vivian four days later, incidentally, has nothing to do with this discussion, no matter what Morgana claims. It has everything to do, however, with Vivian’s habit of telling him what sort of ring she wants and leaving wedding magazines around his flat.)
Some of it he finds out because of his weekly phone call with his father, who is gearing up for his next political campaign and wonders if he ought to pay for ad spots on the programme, considering its popularity. Arthur firmly puts paid to that idea, since he suspects the audience of Dragon’s Lonely Hearts is quite liberal and wouldn’t appreciate Uther’s philosophies.
The rest of it he finds out when he and Mithian go out for lunch and she cheerfully slips in a story about a friend of hers who got set up on a date through the show and how her boyfriend proposed this past weekend. “You should put your name in,” she says, probably just because she knows it annoys him.
“I don’t exactly have trouble getting dates,” he says, tapping a few keys on his phone. It isn’t that there’s any urgent business, considering he’s a glorified accountant and likes it that way, but if he pretends he’s busy Mithian is the only one of his female friends who might actually leave him alone instead of badgering him.
“Yes,” she says dryly. “I know. Vivian called me in tears last night, you know.”
“I never promised to marry her, or even insinuated that I might.”
Mithian sighs and blows on her soup to cool it. “I’m not trying to put you on the defensive, Arthur, and God knows I think you and Vivian would kill each other within the year if you moved in together, let alone got married. I just think that sometimes you need to do things that you haven’t planned out to the last second, printed, and signed in triplicate.”
“I’m not boring,” he feels the need to point out. He needs to say it to Morgana at least twice a week, but he usually doesn’t need to with Mithian.
“You aren’t, you just plan things too much. You’ve got this plan for who you’ll marry, men and women both, and don’t try to tell me that there aren’t patterns, and maybe someone might last more than a season if you’re surprised, you know?” Mithian shrugs. “This isn’t an intervention, Arthur, honestly, and I’m not going to call in the show on your behalf or something stupid like that. You should just do something. Try speed-dating, maybe.”
“It’s efficient. One would think the idea would appeal.” She arches an eyebrow and smiles.
Arthur gives in and laughs. “Perhaps it does, but don’t go signing me up or anything. It’s a bit gauche to be dating someone new this soon, after all.”
“Of course you care about being gauche.” She rolls her eyes. “And put down your phone, Arthur, I know when you’re pretending to look busy.”
When he does, she makes a great point of changing the subject, and Arthur assumes that’s all he’ll hear about Dragon’s Lonely Hearts for a while, that it’s one of those odd things that seems like it’s everywhere for a few weeks before fading into obscurity again, like the time when all of his friends ended up talking to him about ducks completely by chance within the same week. He’ll hear Morgana mention it once in a while or see an advert on the Tube, like he’s starting to notice sometimes, and that will be the end of it.
Because Arthur’s life never quite works out the way he plans, this is not the case.
Instead, two Fridays later, frustrated with the world and his friends and especially his father, Arthur finds himself in the gym in his building around midnight, working off his frustration with the radio playing softly because his iPod isn’t charged and he was too impatient to wait for it. The system is playing Dragon’s Lonely Hearts, because of course it is, and Arthur mostly manages to tune out everything but the music until he recognizes a voice.
It’s just, Vivian is saying, I knew he didn’t do long term, and that he’s friends with all his exes, but I thought I would be different, you know? She sniffles. I thought he loved me!
Arthur feels a pang of guilt, since he knew Vivian was more invested than he but he’d thought that after a few weeks she would at least be feeling a bit better. In what ways did you stand out from the pattern? the Dragon asks gently.
He … I … she splutters, and Arthur winces and slows down with his weights to listen. Arthur was just … I was the only one he wasn’t good friends with before he dated! she manages triumphantly at last. I mean, we were acquainted through our fathers, but he’s been friends with all the others for ages.
I mean, says the Dragon with more patience than Arthur would have in his position, do you know if he treated you any different from the others? Took you anywhere special, introduced you to family members he didn’t the others …?
A pause, and a sniffle. Arthur gives up all pretence of pretending to work out, feeling both outraged and wretchedly guilty. I suppose not, Vivian says quietly at last. I wasn’t around while he was dating any of them, but I can’t think of anything like that.
Well. It sounds like the Dragon takes a deep breath from the crackle of the speakers. You sound like an intelligent woman, Viv, so you know this already, but I’ll say it anyway: if someone doesn’t change their previous behavior, then they’ll never change the way their relationships end. This bloke—Arthur, right? This bloke clearly has a pattern that’s working for him, and if he’s doing things the same way he’s always done, then sure as anything, he’ll end it the way he’s always done as well.
That right there, what sounds like a clear dismissal of Arthur on a radio show that Morgana is undoubtedly listening to, tips him over the edge into anger, and he slams out of the gym and up to his apartment to get his phone and give this arsehole a piece of his mind with the sounds of some woman singing about how to be insensitive chasing him on.
By the time Arthur gets up to his flat, he’s managed to talk himself down at least a bit, enough that he doesn’t grab for his mobile the second he’s in the door. This Dragon doesn’t know Arthur’s side of the story, how hard Vivian was pushing to get married after three months and how Arthur never knows quite what he’s looking for and never ends up satisfied no matter how hard he tries, and perhaps he’d dislike Arthur on his own merits, but Arthur can’t blame him for putting him in a box based on Vivian’s tearful words.
When he does check his phone, after a few deep breaths and a swig out of a bottle of cider, he’s got texts from nearly all of his friends. He only bothers reading Morgana’s, since hers is undoubtedly going to be the worst, and puts up with having to scoll down several times through all the HAHAHA to get to I could almost feel sorry for you if it weren’t true.
Arthur fully intends to make himself a cup of tea and sulk in his bedroom with a film or whatever’s on the BBC, but his phone goes off before he can. It isn’t Morgana, who he would have just ignored, but Mithian, who’s probably just calling to check in and be kind. If he blows her off, she’ll probably keep calling until he answers, so he sighs and flips open his phone. “What? I heard Vivian’s call while I was working out, if that’s what you’re calling to tell me.”
“I need you to not freak out,” she says, and he winces preemptively, “but I need you to turn on your radio again, because you may as well be prepared.”
“What, has Elena called in now? Or Leon, or Percival?”
Mithian sighs. “Arthur. Do you really think any of us would? Just turn it on.”
He has to go to his bedroom for the only radio in his flat, the one he keeps tuned to the news to wake up to in the mornings, and fiddles with the dial until he hits the station where Dragon’s Lonely Hearts is still playing. “What have I missed?” he asks.
“A woman called in to talk about men like you,” she says, but under it he hears —and I have never met a man like that who wasn’t a terrible user in some strange woman’s voice.
Neither have I, to be honest, says the Dragon, laughing a little, putting Arthur’s hackles right up. I do always have to keep in mind that I’m only hearing one side of the story, but someone who breaks up after three months nearly every time, who usually only dates his friends … well, that’s a sign of someone just looking for convenience, really, not love.
“Excuse me, please,” Arthur chokes out, and hangs up because he can’t listen to this knowing Mithian’s listening as well, not when he’ll be wondering the whole time if she felt like that when he ended it and has always just been too polite to say so. She rings back immediately, of course, he wouldn’t expect anything different, but he just silences his phone and keeps listening.
And the thing is that men like this Arthur bloke, they’ll never change, the woman is saying. Someday he’ll marry some woman and get divorced a year later because she isn’t enough for him either. I had a boyfriend like that once, and if you’re still listening, Vivian, you’re well shot of him!
The Dragon (and really, Arthur can’t keep thinking of him like that, what sort of fucking name is the Dragon) makes a noise halfway between a laugh and an attempt to shush her. Only one side of the story, remember?
Bollocks. You know as well as I do that this Arthur is an arsehole.
That gets her a nervous laugh. Maybe, yeah. You never know, right? Anyway, thank you so much for your call, and let’s have a bit of music before we have our next caller?
Arthur snaps his radio off before whatever song condemning him comes on next and is looking up the station’s phone number on his mobile before he can think better of it, ignoring the increasing texts and missed calls from Mithian, Morgana, and occasionally Leon. He calls, jaw tight and feeling more humiliated than he can remember in ages.
A cheerful woman answers the phone. “You’ve reached Dragon’s Lonely Hearts, can I get your name please?”
“Arthur,” he says as calmly as he can manage.
There’s a pause. “Oh, shit,” she says quietly, and then in a much less cheerful and more timid voice she says “Are you going to sue us?”
“I am not. But I would like to say that I don’t appreciate my friends texting me to let me know that people are talking about me on a radio show and making assumptions about my character that I can’t defend against.”
Another pause, and then the woman says brightly “I’ll put you through!” in a tone that Arthur recognizes from the workplace, that of someone who doesn’t want to deal with whatever problem’s been dumped in her lap, and suddenly he’s hearing what must be the end of the song playing on the radio and someone counting down quietly to prepare to go on the air.
Arthur thinks about hanging up, but before he can manage to do it the song ends and he hears the Dragon say “That was Kate Nash, and this is Dragon’s Lonely Hearts, and we seem to have a caller on the line. Hello there, who have we got?”
There’s still time to hang up, to not have Morgana and Mithian and everyone else when the gossip gets to them looking at him disappointed and amused in the morning, but he trusts his ability not to lose his temper in such a public forum, at least more than he already has. “Arthur,” he says, because he might as well.
After a second, there’s the distinct sound of someone sucking in a breath. “That’s … quite a coincidence,” the Dragon says weakly.
“Actually, it’s not.” He sighs. “Look, I’m not on here to shout at you, I’m not that much of an arsehole, but I don’t appreciate the entire city of London making assumptions about my personal life. That’s all I’ve got to—”
“No!” They both pause, at that. “No, this is brilliant, actually,” the Dragon continues, barreling on, though it’s clear he has no idea at all what he’s doing. “Obviously some listeners are having trouble figuring out how someone falls into a relationship pattern like the one Vivian mentioned earlier, so perhaps you can give us the other side of the story.”
He refuses to assassinate Vivian’s character as his was assassinated. “There’s very little to say about the other side of the story, I’m afraid. I get in relationships that I believe will work out, and if they don’t seem to be satisfying both of us I end them.”
There’s a stunned little silence at that. “Well of course they aren’t satisfying, if that’s the attitude you go in with!”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Look, you called up pissed off and with every right, but if you want my advice … if you get into a relationship because you ‘think it would work out,’ then you aren’t getting into it for the right reasons. You didn’t mention attraction, or infatuation, or anything else like that. No wonder you’ve found all your relationships unsatisfying, if you go in expecting that at best they’ll ‘work out.’ You should date people because you’re crazy about them, or think you could be, not because you’re hoping for satisfaction.”
Arthur breathes in so he won’t shout. It’s one thing hearing he needs more spontaneity in his relationships from Morgana and Mithian; it’s another entirely to hear it from a stranger, especially not one who sounds as if he’s barely out of university, if that. “You have no right to sit in a studio and judge people you’ve never met and who don’t ask for your advice. You know nothing about me and you aren’t saying anything you couldn’t get out of a university counseling textbook or a romantic film, so I’m going to guess you don’t know much about love either.”
“Wow. Wow, okay. Obviously I know nothing about you but you know everything about me. You know, you aren’t the first to call my advice trite, or say I don’t know what I’m talking about, but I guarantee you that what I lack in credentials I more than make up for in personal experience. I’ve dated every kind of arsehole out there, ones that cheated, ones that lied, ones who saw me as a step on a ladder, married one that—no, you know what, I’m sorry, everyone, that was overshare. Arthur, I apologize for offending you so with my advice. Let’s have some music, shall we, and when we come back let’s have a new problem, or is anyone out there lonely tonight? I’d love to do a date auction.”
A second later, before Arthur can muster a response, or the apology he knows with a horrible certainty that he ought to give, he hears the beginning strains of Lily Allen singing “Fuck You” and then a click as the line cuts out.
He knows Morgana and Mithian and maybe the rest of his friends will be calling him incessantly by now and that he should pick up the phone and deal with them because it will only be worse in the morning, but instead he thinks of the way the Dragon’s voice shook with something that wasn’t quite anger when Arthur pushed him, and how much he just reminded himself of his father at his worst, and turns his phone off and goes to take a shower instead.
Arthur knows it’s Morgana pounding on his door the next morning almost before he wakes up. She’s got a certain way of knocking, especially when she’s annoyed, that has struck fear into his heart since she moved in with them when he was fourteen. And, he admits to himself as he remembers why his stomach is clenched with guilt, she’s got every reason to be annoyed.
“You’ve got a fucking key!” he yells anyway, on principle, because even if he was a complete arsehole last night he was also an arsehole to a strange radio show host that Morgana should not be sympathizing with over her own half-brother.
“Yes, but I’m angry with you!” she shouts back, and Arthur levers himself out of bed to stagger to the door before his neighbors start complaining, which they’ve been known to do when Morgana’s in a mood. Really, she does nothing but ruin his life, it’s a wonder he loves her so much.
The door isn’t even all the way unlocked before she’s bursting through it, far too professionally dressed for a Saturday morning, narrowing her eyes at him the second she sees him. “Anything you have to say,” Arthur starts preemptively as he stumbles towards his kitchen for coffee, “I can guarantee that I have already thought about myself at least twice, and probably worded more strongly. I may not be a good person, Morgana, but at least I’m self-aware.”
“You are a good person. It’s why I want to kill you this morning.”
“Couldn’t you have sent Mithian, or Leon? Percival, even. They’re much better at making sense in this sort of situation.”
Morgana grabs his arm just before he makes it to the refrigerator. “Stop deflecting. I wouldn’t like you so much if you didn’t know what you’d done was wrong, Arthur, so I’m glad you’re feeling guilty. My question is what you intend to do about it.”
“What on earth can I do about it?” He shrugs and starts his coffeemaker up, making sure there’s enough for two. “Do you want toast?” She nods, but never looks away from him. “If you’re asking me to call and apologize, believe me, I’ve considered it, but they’ve undoubtedly got caller ID and already have my number blocked, and using someone else’s phone feels dishonest.”
“My God, I sometimes think you were born five hundred years too late, with your ridiculous chivalry. There are other ways to apologize. The show’s bound to have e-mail, or if you want to continue acting Shakespearean you can always write to the show in the post, care of the radio station. He reads fan mail aloud on air sometimes, when he gets an especially good one.”
That feels right, in a way—of course it does, Morgana knows him better than anyone. He’s always found it easiest expressing his thoughts on paper, where he has time to think them through and get past his first impulses, which are nearly always defensive. “Maybe I will.”
“Don’t say maybe, Arthur, you’ll waffle long enough to talk yourself out of it, and you hit a button last night. I’ve listened to this show a lot, and people have been awful to him, but I’ve never heard him lose his cool like that. This matters.”
He puts the toast down in the toaster and starts rummaging for jam for hers and honey for his. “Didn’t I say I knew that? I’ll write a damn letter, Morgana, though if he’s smart he won’t bother reading it. I wouldn’t, if I were him.”
She smiles and goes to hover over his coffeemaker. “Neither would I. Let’s hope he’s a better person than either of us, then, and don’t let it stop you writing.” She tosses a look over her shoulder. “If you do write him and post it, I’ll tell the others never to mention it again, and we can all forget it happened.”
Arthur considers asking if he really thinks their friends will drop it just like that, but Morgana has powers that he knows not of and sometimes it’s best just not to ask, so he leaves it. “I’ll write him, but you don’t get to read it.”
After a second’s consideration, she nods. He puts the toast down a second time automatically because his toaster never manages it right the first time and turns around to watch her, because she’s obviously got something else on her mind. Sure enough, the coffee isn’t even ready before she speaks again. “Now that that’s over with, are you okay?”
“Other than feeling like a complete git and wishing I had the excuse of being drunk for that phone call, you mean?”
Morgana puts her hands on her hips. “I mean that I was listening last night, and even though it was by accident, he managed to press every one of your buttons and did it while you knew people you cared about were listening as well. You may have deliberately gone for the throat just like you always do, but that doesn’t mean you weren’t hurt as well.”
For all Morgana’s the only one of his friends who dares ask him questions like this and expects answers, she’s the hardest one to answer. “I’ve been told a few too many times lately that I need to do something spontaneous, or get invested, or something else like that,” he admits. She knows that already, since caution is something they both picked up from Uther, in different ways.
“I don’t know why any of them are still friends with me.” She raises her eyebrows and he turns around to butter their toast as the coffeemaker goes off and she starts pouring. “You I understand, since I never actually dated you, thank God, Uther would have had a heart attack when he found out, but the rest of them? As last night illuminated so clearly, I’m not a very good boyfriend, and after Leon and Elena, Percival and Mithian had to know …”
He’s still turned away so he’s not prepared for the smack on the back of his head that comes next. “Yes. They knew you. And they know you. Did it never occur to you that it takes two people to make a relationship? Percival was finishing his education when he took up with you, he knew his life was in flux and he knew it would probably end and I never saw him weeping into his pillow or anything, can you imagine? And Mithian wanted it to work because she knew it would be good if you could manage anything more than affection for each other, but neither of you could, and she got on with things. Feel free to beat yourself up for what you said to the Dragon, but that doesn’t mean he was right about everything.”
“I thought he was the be-all and end-all of relationship advice,” he snaps, even though he knows he shouldn’t.
Morgana sighs and hands him his coffee cup, and he turns back around. “Don’t be a bastard, Arthur, it doesn’t actually suit you. I’m trying to be comforting through my great annoyance and you know I’m shit at it. Be grateful.”
“I am.” Arthur starts eating his breakfast and Morgana seems to realize that that’s the end of the subject as far as he’s concerned.
“Good. Now, eat your breakfast and put on something presentable and then we’re going out for a walk, and perhaps you’re going to buy me something nice because I’m your favorite sister and you’re annoying and rude.”
That means he’ll be required to buy her something frivolous and expensive, but he doesn’t mind very much. “If I bought you something every time I was annoying and rude I would be broke,” he points out instead.
Morgana just laughs and toasts him with her coffee mug.
Dear Dragon Christ that’s a stupid name To whom it may
I wouldn’t read this if I were you. I wouldn’t blame you if you don’t. I’m afraid I said some unforgivable things the other night and I won’t try to make excuses for them.
Even though you were an arsehole as well and I doubt I’ll ever get an I lashed out, and you didn’t deserve it. At least not as much as you got.
My sincerest apologies, whether you accept them or not, for everything I said. I should never have called in the first place
but really what can you expect when you run a popular relationship show and people call in to complain using real names.
It’s not much of a letter with all his offended pride edited out and he knows it, but he posts it on Monday anyway, before he can talk himself out of it. He sends it without a return address, something he knows Morgana would disapprove of if she knew, but he doesn’t want anyone to feel obligated to answer and it’s best not to have his full name attached anyway.
After that, Arthur goes about pretending the whole thing never happened, aided and abetted by his friends, who seem to be obeying Morgana’s edict never to speak of it (with the exception of Elena, who mentions it completely by accident on Tuesday night, but Elena’s never been the most adroit of his friends so he doesn’t mind very much). Mithian gives him frequent worried looks and Leon and Percival drag him out for a pickup game of rugby, which they generally only do when he’s been fighting with his father, but at least they don’t mention it.
That, of course, lasts until Friday night, when Mithian texts him Turn your radio on now, don’t ask questions, you know which station.
For all of half a second, he thinks about ignoring the text, pretending he’s in the shower or the gym or even out, though he almost never goes out of a weekend unless Morgana drags him or Elena begs him when he’s single. Then he goes to the bedroom and flicks the radio on, searching through the stations for the Dragon’s voice.
—sent me a letter, like I said earlier, he’s saying when Arthur gets there. And I get the impression this someone isn’t a regular listener, which is why I’ve given a bit of time here. But if you’re listening, out there, and I hope you are—apology accepted and no hard feelings, mate. I suspect neither of us was at our best.
Arthur knows that chances are huge he’s the one the Dragon is calling out to, so he doesn’t bother trying to fool himself that he’s surprised about that. He is surprised, though, that it got mentioned at all. If he were working on the show, he would have read the letter, snorted, thrown it away, and never mentioned or thought about it again.
So here’s a song to make up for the last one, the Dragon continues, and then we’ll hopefully have another caller on the line. Where are you all tonight? With that, a song starts in, one that Arthur doesn’t recognize but which seems to be about becoming friends. He allows himself a second of laughter before his phone goes off with another text.
It’s Morgana, of course, because she wouldn’t be herself if she didn’t gloat. Isn’t it nice knowing that there are people nicer than you in the world?
Nicer than you, too he texts back, and listens to the rest of the song in silence before he flips the radio off. There. Closure, for both of them, for a night when Arthur certainly hadn’t been at his best and he suspects the other man wasn’t either. This will be the end of it, and it will be something Morgana teases him about and Mithian worries about until the next thing comes along, a disaster of a date for Elena or a promotion at work for Leon or Percival stringing more than two sentences together at once.
That blissful supposition lasts until about two o’clock the next afternoon, while Arthur is trying to mock up a budget for a project the company is trying to weasel out of starting, and Mithian calls him. “Hello,” he says, expecting a dinner invitation or something similar.
“I owe Morgana pair of shoes for being the one allowed to make this phone call,” she says instead of anything comforting.
“Her ability to extort things out of all of us is frankly worrying,” says Arthur automatically, because it is. He’s pretty sure Leon’s the one who paid for her long weekend in Spain last summer, but nobody can get a straight answer on how or why. “What, was I insulted again last night after I stopped listening?”
“No, but you’re all over the fan sites this morning, apparently.”
Arthur takes an uncharitable second to curse Vivian roundly for calling the damn show and getting him involved in the first place, and then a more realistic one cursing himself for getting offended and calling. “Why am I all over the fan sites? And why the hell does a weekend radio show have fan sites? It can’t possibly be that popular.”
“It really can,” she says apologetically. “And apparently people thought it was mysterious last night when he didn’t say a name while responding to your message, so now there’s all sorts of speculation about who it is and what the apology was for. A lot of them seem to be assuming it’s something to do with his real life and that’s why he didn’t say it was Arthur, but a few have mentioned your call.”
As long as no one comes looking for him, he can at least keep ignoring it. “Thank you for informing me. It doesn’t make much of a difference at this point, but I do wish they’d leave it alone.”
“Secretly you just want to be out in the country somewhere keeping bees, don’t you,” she says, but she sounds more fond than mocking, so he lets it pass. “People on the internet never leave anything alone, you know that. They’ll get tired of speculating eventually, though, so hopefully neither you nor the Dragon does anything provoking until he’s got another call they feel like chatting about.”
“As long as I don’t have to do anything about it, it’s none of my business,” he says firmly.
“No, you don’t. Honestly, I wouldn’t have even told you if Morgana hadn’t threatened to tell you. I don’t even want to know how she found out about it.”
Arthur decides not to mention the fact that Morgana apparently called the show once after Aglain, and that she might be a bit more than a casual fan. She knows where he sleeps, and she has a spare key she’s not afraid to use when she isn’t delighting at waking him up by knocking at ridiculous hours. “Morgana’s methods are best known to herself,” he says instead. “I for one really don’t want to know. Anyway, thank you for telling me, and hopefully this will all blow over soon. I can’t imagine that some random arsehole insulting a radio host and then being forgiven will exactly capture the public’s attention.”
“I suppose not,” says Mithian. “Now, do you want to come over for dinner tonight? I was thinking sushi and a marathon of The Office.”
“Sounds lovely, I’ll be over at six,” says Arthur, and hangs up.
The next Friday, he ends up in his building’s gym again. Elena’s on yet another date that will undoubtedly turn into a disaster, Percival is on call in case it turns into a real disaster, Mithian’s out with other friends, and Morgana’s dragged Leon along as her date to some charity gala, so he’s on his own and feels more like spending some time working out than finding someone to go out with.
Dragon’s Lonely Hearts is on again, and even though he’s the only one in the gym Arthur doesn’t bother to change the station, or go back to his flat to get his iPod. He works through one of the infamous date auctions, several soppy stories, and one round of the Dragon giving advice to a broken-hearted girl in a tone of voice that’s getting way too familiar, and after the next song he gets a surprise.
This past week, the show has got more fan mail in the post than it has in the entire year I’ve been on the air, says the Dragon. Don’t get me wrong, it’s neat, I like it, but you lot know I can’t write you all back and still get my coursework done, right? But most of you were asking about one thing, so I may as well give you all an answer at once.
Somehow, Morgana is behind this, just like Morgana is behind everything embarrassing that happens in Arthur’s life. He just hasn’t figured out how she’s behind it yet.
The response to the apology was a special case, and it’s nothing to do with all you nosy listeners—you’re far too invested in my life, by the by, none of you even know who I am! So feel free to keep writing me letters, I love getting them, but there’s really no big mystery to do with the upstanding gent who apologized to me.
Arthur has to respect him for sounding sincere about calling Arthur an “upstanding gent” or all things, given their interaction to date.
Although really, save some trees! The show’s got e-mail as well, Dragon’s Lonely Hearts at Camelot Radio dot com, and you’re more likely to get a personal response there. He laughs. Maybe I should be deliberately mysterious more often, if it gets my fans so excited. Maybe then I’ll get more listeners and they’ll give me more money. Right, then, I’ll cop to it, the apology was from a man who’d asked me out and now we’re making mad passionate love when I’m not on air.
Arthur almost falls off his treadmill. None of his friends are ever going to let him forget this, even though anyone with sense knows the Dragon is taking the piss out of his listeners for being nosy. “Shit,” he whispers, and turns the speed down in case he gets any more new information dumped on him.
So, in honor of Mr. Right for Now, let’s have some music, shall we? Marvin Gaye seems appropriate for the occasion.
For one horrified, mortified second, Arthur thinks he’s going to hear the immortal opening riff for “Let’s Get it On,” but it turns out to be “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” instead. Morgana won’t ever let him forget it either way, but at least this way it will be slightly easier to take.
He finishes his workout while carefully not paying attention to any of the calls that come in, though they don’t seem to be talking about the supposed “Mr. Right for Now” from what he can hear, and goes back to his flat to run through the shower. When he gets out, he thinks for a second about ignoring his phone, which he knows will have something on it from at least one of his friends by now, but he sighs and goes to face the music anyway.
Congrats on your radio boyfriend. Cannot decide if that is more or less lame than having an internet boyfriend, Percival has sent, because everyone thinks he’s an adorable gentle giant but he has a mean streak.
Elena’s is a simple oh my god, your LIFE, which means she’s probably already ended her date and he likely ought to call her to commiserate.
Instead, he sends her a quick how did the date go? and Percival I’m his imaginary fake boyfriend, I’d say he’s the lame one before stowing his phone and taking out a book to read. He does have work he brought home for the weekend, but all his friends look at him as if he’s terribly sad when he spends Friday nights working so he generally tries not to.
Morgana calls at one, just as Arthur’s almost figured out who the murderer in his mystery is (at least seventy pages before the detective, but at least it’s a night’s entertainment), and he considers not answering before remembering that Morgana will know he’s still awake by whatever means she uses to find these things out and just call back until he answers. Someday he’ll figure out where the bug that must be in his flat is. “Haven’t you found some innocent doctor without borders who won’t suspect you’re secretly a praying mantis until the last moment?”
“I was out with Leon, I couldn’t abandon him,” Morgana points out.
“Why not? You abandon me at that sort of thing all the time.”
She sighs as if Arthur is very, very tiresome. “Yes, but Leon isn’t my brother.”
Arthur spares a moment to worry on Leon’s behalf. “So are you calling to tell me that you’re deflowering Leon, then?”
“As if I could.” Morgana snorts. “No, I’m calling to ask why I wasn’t informed that you’re shagging my favorite radio host.”
He looks at his clock automatically, but there’s still no way that she left the party any more than half an hour ago. “Where do you get your information? It’s faulty, for one thing, and for another, you are extremely overinvested in this radio host’s life.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Arthur, I know you’re not actually shagging him, but you do have to admit, this is all hilarious. I’ve been listening to the show on my way home and all the callers keep trying to needle him for more information about you, they seem to think he’s trying to double-bluff us or something. He keeps getting all flustered about it, so I’ve decided you should call in and pretend to be his boyfriend.”
“No,” says Arthur, before she can get attached to the idea.
“Well, of course you wouldn’t, but you should. All the fans would go quite mad.”
“They would recognize my voice and warn him off of me,” Arthur corrects. “I doubt the fans have a particularly rosy opinion of me, which you would know, since you apparently read the fansites.”
Morgana hums quietly. “Some of them weren’t fond of you, but a few did defend you, and none of those few were me, actually. Seems you’ve got someone out there on your side, Mr. Right for Now.” Before Arthur can answer that properly, she speaks again. “Now, we’ve reached Leon’s place and he’s fallen asleep, so I’m going to hang up. You go back to reading your mystery, and I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”
“By the way, the victim’s masseuse did it,” Morgana says, and hangs up.
Arthur looks down at his book, which Morgana didn’t lend him and shouldn’t know he has, but which does in fact contain a suspicious-acting masseuse, and can’t help laughing.
Arthur gets out of work two hours early on Wednesday when a meeting gets rescheduled unexpectedly, so he goes down the street to drink coffee and leaf through a magazine in a café he goes to sometimes.
Because all his friends apparently have radar tracking on him, Elena shows up fifteen minutes later with a stack of newspaper clippings and a serious expression on her face. “How do you all find me all the time?” he asks before he can stop himself.
“I stopped by your office and one of your co-workers said you’d got out early, so of course you came here,” says Elena, and dumps the clippings on the table. Arthur decides he needs to vary his routine a bit if he’s getting this predictable. “Anyway, you are very lucky that Morgana is a workaholic because chances are she doesn’t know about this yet. This way you can prepare yourself.”
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that this has something to do with Dragon’s Lonely Hearts. Arthur resists the urge to bury his face in his hands. “I’m beginning to suspect I don’t want to hear this.”
“So, I was looking through the personals this morning—”
“Oh God, Ellie, no. I won’t date anyone who wrote to the paper, and neither will you, I thought you learned your lesson after Craigslist.”
Elena just shakes her head and fans them out in front of him. “Yes, but they’re looking for you.”
Arthur counts to five before reaching out to look at the ads. They seem at first glance to be from three different papers, seven ads total, and they all have the horrid tacky little titles that always come with personal ads, like the people who arrange them are trying desperately to be clever. “Seeking an Upstanding Gent,” says one, and “Looking for Mr. Right-for-Now” another, the others falling along similar lines. The Dragon himself would just address Arthur directly, somehow, so it’s got to be the fans. “You have got to be kidding me,” he mutters. “Morgana is behind this somehow.”
Elena eyes him. “You are extremely paranoid where Morgana is concerned, you know.”
“You try growing up with her and see how paranoid you get, and anyway, I know she’s on the fansites for the damn show, she probably encouraged them all.” All of them are single males searching for a single male with various veiled references to Dragon’s Lonely Hearts stuck in them, probably not enough for the papers to notice unless there were a lot of ads. “I don’t know what this is all about, since the Dragon made it quite clear that nothing was going on, but it’s getting ridiculous, and I suspect I’m going to have to lecture all of you so you won’t turn me in.”
“Turn you in.” Elena snorts. “It’s not as if you’ve committed murder, but I wasn’t going to call in and say ‘oh, I know this upstanding gent, you wouldn’t happen to want to meet him for a drink, would you?’ or anything else like that, because I’m not stupid.”
“But you are a romantic.”
She shrugs. “And you’re a pragmatist, it’s why we get on so well but never should have tried dating.” She takes her mobile out of her pocket. “I’m also a romantic who gets internet on her phone and knows how to use it, so let’s see if we can’t figure out what all this is about.”
“This sounds like a terrible idea.”
“That’s why you keep me around, for my terrible ideas. They actually get you moving.” She taps a few keys and makes a pleased noise. “There we go, first hit’s the biggest fansite, let’s check out the forum.”
“Shush.” A few more taps. “All sorts of threads theorizing about who the upstanding gent is, that seems to be the favorite for you rather than Mr. Right for Now, apparently the Dragon’s used that phrase quite a bit with some of his callers and this distinguishes you.”
Arthur gives up and puts his face in his hands. “I don’t want to know any of this.”
“Yes, you do.” Elena gives another little snort. “The prevailing theory seems to be that he isn’t dating you, but he’d like to, and that’s why all the adverts are in the papers, they think they’re doing him a favor, or that it’s like the whole Sherlock thing. Can’t figure out if it’s a show of support or an attempt to deliver you on a silver platter, though.”
“The silver platter, definitely,” he tells his palms. “Morgana, remember? She’d like to serve me up roasted with an apple in my mouth.”
This time Elena laughs right out, probably loud enough to disturb the other patrons of the café. “You just called yourself a pig. I feel like I should record this moment for posterity.”
“If you tell Morgana, I will tell Mithian that you were looking through the personals and then she and Leon will stage an intervention,” says Arthur, and lifts his face again. Elena is still staring at the screen on her phone. “In the meantime, this will all blow over, hopefully the show won’t mention me any longer and the fans will move on to something more interesting.”
Elena bites her lip. “This is the most interesting … well, I don’t listen too much, that’s more Morgana, but when I do listen, he doesn’t talk about himself much, you know? The Dragon. I mean, you listen and you get the edges of things, you can sort of tell when he’s speaking from experience and sometimes he’ll bring his friends up, but first when you called to harangue him about Vivian and then when he let slip about coursework while talking about your apology, that’s more information than anyone else gets out of him. So you’re interesting.”
“Lovely. I make a radio personality known for keeping his life private annoyed enough to let things slip, that’s certainly a point in my favor.”
“You’re terribly grouchy today.” She collects the newspaper clippings again. “Maybe Mithian and I can start making a scrapbook of all this, we’ll take it out at your wedding and talk about that time you had an imaginary romance with a radio host.”
Arthur manages a smile. “And who exactly, in this fantasy of yours, am I marrying? I’m on a bit of a hiatus after Vivian, if you hadn’t noticed.”
Elena grins in return. “Oh, maybe you’ll marry the Dragon, then it can be the scrapbook of the story of your relationship.”
“Never going to happen. Even if, by some freak of chance, we were to meet and not want to kill each other, I would never date him—and, more to the point, he would never date me.”
“Whatever you say,” says Elena, voice full of doubt, and finally has the mercy to change the subject to the man she met at a meeting this afternoon and how she really thinks perhaps this one won’t turn out to be a disaster.
Arthur flicks on Dragon’s Lonely Hearts around midnight that Friday, after two days of merciless teasing from Morgana, concerned looks from Mithian and Leon, and Elena and Percival’s all-too-transparent attempts at avoiding the subject. They all went out for dinner, as they try to at least a few times a month, and now that he’s home he’s too restless to sleep, too lazy to work out, and out of books he hasn’t read three times in his flat. Listening to the radio and surfing the internet on his laptop is about all he can think of to do.
He doesn’t know what he’s expecting—maybe to hear his name, or the words “Mr. Right for Now,” since Morgana’s taken to calling him that and he knows the rest of them think it’s funny. He knows intellectually that the show isn’t about him, but it seems lately like it is, so it’s odd when he listens for an hour and there isn’t even a hint of mentioning him, unless the Dragon told them all to leave him his privacy in the first two hours of the show. Instead, there seems to be some sort of theme show going on, about cheating and whether it’s always a sign of the end of a relationship, and Arthur mostly tunes it out and just keeps his attention on the sounds of the voices until something catches his attention.
It’s an older woman, by the sound of her voice, who’s called in, and she’s been talking about how she’s been happily married for twenty years and is working through it even though her husband cheated on her last year after they went through a hard time. If you love someone enough, and they love you and they’re sorry enough, it doesn’t matter in the long run. Your upstanding gent apologized to you and you forgave him. How’s that any different?
Arthur winces and sits up straight. The Dragon laughs, a little awkwardly. Well, it’s not quite the same. My upstanding gent and I haven’t even met, for one—it was just a piece of fan mail, remember? And for another thing, I haven’t made a secret of the fact that I’ve been cheated on before, and a lot of the answer to that sort of question depends on history. Things that are okay with one person aren’t for another because of whatever they’ve been through. So I wouldn’t stay if he cheated on me, no.
The call moves on from there and Arthur tunes the rest of it out and tries not to think of what the reaction to that is going to be. It shouldn’t be too bad, except for some teasing from his friends and maybe a flutter of activity on the fansites.
Of course, just as he’s relaxing, with only a half hour left to go in the show and getting tired enough that he’s thinking about flicking it off for sleep, it comes up again. Well, a hypothetical example, says the man who’s called in. Say it was you and your upstanding gent.
Really hypothetical, then, says the Dragon, wry as anything. Don’t think I don’t know that you people are gossiping about me, and I will say again that I’ve never even met him.
Like I said, hypothetical, you’re dating this upstanding gent and you’re both madly in love and say he, uh, met a celebrity when he was young. Like, Benedict Cumberbatch or something, and you made a joke that if they meet again he should go for it. And then, you know, the opportunity comes up and she—he—takes it seriously, I mean, have you got a leg to stand on?
Arthur snorts, since his friends are always teasing him for his crush on Sherlock Holmes, and waits to hear how the Dragon reacts. Oh, mate, this doesn’t sound good, but it’s always a question if the other person knows it’s a joke he says after a second. If this upstanding gent of mine just saw this celebrity in a club or something and got off with him without informing me, then yeah, that’s cheating and unacceptable, but if we talked it out and I said yes—not that I would, that’s a separate question and up to the specific couple—then by most definitions it would be okay. I think the question you need to be asking yourself is just how serious that conversation you had was, back in the day.
There’s a pause. I guess she might have taken it more seriously than I thought.
The Dragon makes a concerned noise. The best thing you can do, it sounds like, is talk to her, tell her it’s not okay if she’s still planning or try to work it out in retrospect, if you still want to be with her, which it sounds like you do.
Arthur listens to the rest of the awkward chat and half-expects his mobile to start going off as the next song plays, but nobody texts to laugh at him so he just sits about and waits for the last segment of the show, since it’s closing in on two o’clock, when the show finishes. There are a few more short calls, just people calling in to tell stories, and then in the last five minutes of the show, when Arthur’s across the room pulling on his pajamas, he comes up again.
So, apparently this is a thing that’s going to be coming up now, so I’d like to apologize in advance to my upstanding gent for my fans. You probably aren’t listening, but I figured it was worth saying. And all of you out there, no more of these personal ads, yeah? I spit tea all over the place when I opened up my paper the other day, and seriously, you lot, my friends will never let me hear the end of it if you collectively make a boyfriend up for me.
He rambles on for a few more minutes, wrapping up the show, and Arthur looks at his laptop. Part of him wants to e-mail the show, if only to commiserate since they’re both apparently catching grief from their friends about all of this, but—well. If he were the Dragon he wouldn’t want to hear another word out of Arthur, but the Dragon’s addressing him on air, so maybe he would want an e-mail. And as long as it doesn’t get mentioned on air, Morgana will never hear about it.
Before he can overthink it, he makes a new e-mail account with the handle an.upstanding.gentleman because he’s never claimed to be very nice, and types in the show’s e-mail address and writes a quick message: Nice to know I’m not the only one getting the piss taken out of him for this whole situation.
He sends it and immediately shuts his laptop down for the night, not wanting to see it if he gets a return message instantly. He sleeps through his alarm in the morning and only wakes up when Morgana texts him (for the third time, as he sees when he fumbles for his phone) to say You realize this will actually never end now, I hope, and I am going to laugh forever.
Arthur ignores the text in favor of levering himself out of bed and opening his computer. He’s meant to be going out with Elena and Mithian so Elena can meet her latest disaster-in-the-making, and he wants to get some work done beforehand, but he ends up going directly to his new e-mail account instead. There’s a message in it, from the show’s e-mail account. He takes a deep breath and opens it, because if it hadn’t been two in the morning he wouldn’t have sent the message but that’s no reason to hide.
Yes, you’re all very funny, the message reads. I hope you know this is the fourth e-mail I’ve had from a similar address this morning, and I’m glad you’re all interested in the show but that doesn’t change the fact that there’s nothing going on.
Believe me, I know that better than anyone. Like I said, my friends won’t let me forget it. And I apologize for not realizing that of course other people are going to get involved. This actually is Arthur, unless you’ve got a different upstanding gentleman in your life at the moment.
It’s another few hours, during which he has breakfast, goes to the gym, and gets some work done, before he checks that account again. There’s another e-mail waiting from Dragon’s Lonely Hearts, and he opens it up. Oh, shit. You aren’t writing to say you’re going to sue or something, are you? This really isn’t something I thought would get this out of control.
Arthur winces. Clearly he’s still an ogre of some sort as far as the Dragon is concerned. He spends longer than he would admit to anyone composing his response this time, trying to sound as friendly as possible. No, don’t worry about it, I just messaged because we’re in the same boat and you addressed me directly, so it would have been impolite not to return the favor. It’s fine—my sister’s a fan, and she says nobody’s sussed out it’s me yet, so I doubt I’ll have fans pounding down my door asking if I’m dating you.
He doesn’t check again until he’s getting ready to leave to pick up Mithian and Elena, and there are no messages waiting for him.
“So what do you think it will be this time?” Arthur asks as Mithian takes a sip from her drink. “Wife locked in the attic, Elena looks just like his mum …”
Mithian bites down on a smile and turns towards the dance floor, where Elena is dancing with abandon next to a man in far too much leather who looks as if he probably owns a motorbike. “Neither. He’s a free spirit, she can’t expect commitment because nothing can hold him down. Possibly with the added bonus of borrowing money from her.”
“I’ll buy the free spirit, but not the borrowing money. Leather is expensive.”
“I don’t really want to ask how you know that.”
“I’m Morgana’s brother, so no, you don’t.”
Mithian makes a face. “Thanks for that, that was the exact mental image I needed to make this night even more painful.”
Arthur clinks his glass against hers in apology and swivels his bar stool so he won’t get a crick in his neck keeping an eye on Elena. “You don’t have to stay, you can go out on the pull. Much as it feels like it sometimes, it doesn’t take two people to supervise Elena’s dates.”
“It wouldn’t even take one if she weren’t such an arsehole magnet, it’s amazing, and I figured you would be the one pulling tonight. It’s been a few weeks since Vivian, and normally I wouldn’t think you’d move on that fast but you’ve been restless.”
He shrugs. “The whole thing with the radio has been messing with my head a bit, so I’m taking a bit of time off from pulling. Leaving you free for it, even.”
“If I find someone interesting, maybe. Honestly, right now I can’t be bothered.” Out on the dance floor, the possible biker leans to whisper something in Elena’s ear. “Now he’s telling her that she’s obviously got a spirit that can’t be tamed, he just loves the uninhibited way she dances.” Obviously it was something complimentary, since Elena starts dancing closer. “And now he’s probably talking about how she first caught his eye wherever they met—where did they meet?”
“Some vegetarian sandwich shop, though he doesn’t look the sort. Do you think we’re going to have to rescue her tonight?”
“No, it’s a first date and you know Elena.”
“Old-fashioned,” Arthur agrees, and knocks back the rest of his drink. “We should probably dance, I’m feeling horribly like a chaperone at a school do.”
“When I finish my drink.”
Arthur watches the dance floor while Elena’s admirer works them a bit deeper into the crowd of bodies. “I e-mailed the radio show,” he says after a few minutes of listening to the music pound.
Mithian fumbles what’s left of her drink and nearly spills it. “You what? Why?”
“Irrational impulse. They kept talking about me.”
“Irrational impulse my arse, Arthur, the only irrational thing you’ve done in the last five years is call the show up in the first place. Did you insult him again?”
Arthur looks at his lap so he can school his face. “Nice to know you think so highly of me,” he says as dryly as he can. “No, I didn’t, I commiserated because his listeners won’t let up on him about me and my friends won’t either.”
“Hey.” Mithian leans over far enough to nudge him with her shoulder. “That was uncalled-for, and I’m sorry. I’m glad you e-mailed the show, as long as you weren’t a dick about it.”
“I made a concerted effort not to be. He thought I was a fan impersonating myself, I told him I wasn’t, he asked if I’m suing them, I said no, and that’s the extent of it. Not very exciting.” He pauses. “They were talking about me last night, or I probably wouldn’t have. Apparently the whole city thinks I’m his secret boyfriend—or, well, that whoever’s apology he responded to on air is.”
He knows Mithian is watching him, eyes narrowed, like she always does when he’s done anything at all surprising. He keeps his eyes on the dance floor. “You need another drink,” she decides after a few seconds, and orders him one. “You’ve known all week that all his fans think there’s something mysterious going on, you saw the ads in the papers, and we all know it’s about as real as that ‘Moriarty was real’ graffiti Percival told us about the other day. Why get involved?”
“I have no idea,” he admits, and takes the drink from the bartender. “It was two in the morning. He sounded stressed when they kept bringing it up, I feel stressed when Morgana won’t shut up about it, somehow that translated into sending him a message.”
Mithian just nods, slowly, corners of her lips twitching. “Congratulations, Arthur, I think you’ve finally done something spontaneous that won’t get you scolded by Morgana.”
“Especially since you won’t tell her, right?” Mithian just looks like she wants to laugh. “Right? I don’t want her holding this over my head forever, it was a whim and I imagine the correspondence is finished now.”
“Of course it’s finished. That’s why you have no interest in pulling anyone tonight.”
“Unrelated,” interrupts Arthur before she can get started. “Or only related insofar as perhaps he might have been right when he called me out on dating for convenience and that I should wait for someone I can’t be logical about—and again, if you tell Morgana, I’m going to have to kill you.” He drinks more of his drink than is advisable in one go.
Mithian tugs him over and kisses him quickly on the forehead. “You’re my favorite, you know. Now go and have a dance, and I’ll join you in a few minutes, and neither of us will pull unless we fall madly in love at first sight, okay?”
Arthur manages something that he hopes resembles a chuckle. “Okay.”
The dance floor is crowded, since it’s a Saturday night, and Arthur doesn’t bother trying to keep an eye on Elena after the first thirty seconds. She’s generally fine on her own anyway, as long as there’s someone around afterward if things go wrong, so he makes sure his phone is on vibrate and dances, not too long with anyone. Mithian shows up after three or four songs and he mostly stays by her unless they happen to get pulled away from each other.
It’s one before Elena texts them that she’s ready to go, and twenty after by the time they all fight themselves to the door and pick up their coats. “How’d it go?” Arthur asks, since Elena is humming tunelessly to herself. “Do you have another date with Cenred?”
“Yes, he said he didn’t want to push too far tonight, so we’re meeting up during the week sometime for dinner.”
Arthur and Mithian exchange looks, but Arthur does his best to be supportive and tries to give the man the benefit of the doubt. “He sounds lovely,” he manages, and lets her prattle on as they share a cab to Mithian’s flat, and then to Elena’s, and then he’s finally on his own in his own flat just before two in the morning.
He’s exhausted from the dancing, but he takes his time about getting ready for bed and ends up opening his laptop to deal with the last of his energy. There’s an e-mail from his father on his regular account talking about his campaign and some parties that he expects Arthur to attend if possible to be a dutiful son, another from Morgana with links to threads on the Dragon’s Lonely Hearts fansite that he makes a point of not clicking, and a few related to work. He doesn’t bother answering any of them and goes to his other account instead.
Sure enough, there’s another e-mail from the show, timestamped around midnight. Are you listening? Third caller just mentioned you. Sorry you’re catching shit from your friends, but will you hate me more than usual if I admit I’m glad I’m not on my own?
Didn’t listen, he writes back. I hope they didn’t bother you too much, though. I don’t suppose there’s anything we can do now that this is taking off besides wait for it to end, is there?
He finishes checking his Facebook and the news and checks the e-mail one more time before he closes down for the night, surprised to find he’s already got a message. The Dragon must still be at the station wrapping up or something. Not unless you come up with a brilliant plan. And you didn’t answer my question. There are a few lines of space, and then a single M by way of signature, or at least Arthur assumes so.
I don’t hate you, he types quickly, and shuts his computer down for the night.
It isn’t a correspondence, precisely.
Arthur doesn’t tell anyone but Mithian that they’re in contact at all—if quick exchanges of a few lines each on days the show airs really counts as contact, come to that. It’s weekends, to predict how many people will mention it on the show (with bonus statistics on the numbers of fan letters and e-mails from M’s side of things), or commiserating after the more ridiculous calls. Once or twice during the week M (who continues signing his e-mails as such, so Arthur calls him that) sends a quick line as well. Three fan letters claiming to be you today once, or Someone put up signs in a building I was in today that said Seeking an Upstanding Gent with numbers to pull off—it’s the show’s number, of course another day. Arthur, to his surprise, only initiates the conversations once or twice.
The fans don’t seem to be slacking off, and Morgana continues to find it amusing, so Arthur spends a good deal of time dodging her teasing and complaining to Mithian when he isn’t working. He listens to parts of the show whenever he happens to be in his flat while it’s airing, though he misses quite a few because Elena’s boyfriend is into clubbing and she doesn’t like going alone to meet him.
The boyfriend, everyone but Elena agrees, is a complete using bastard even if he does seem unlikely to steal her credit cards and flee to the continent or strongly hint that he wants a threesome on the third date. Still, they’re all holding their breath, and it’s not really a surprise when Cenred breaks it off the day after Elena sleeps with him, two and a half weeks after the night in the club.
That Friday, Mithian and Morgana tow Elena back to Mithian’s flat for a ladies’ night, the lads firmly not invited, and Arthur turns down Leon and Percival’s invitation for an evening at the pub and stays in. It’s been a busy week on work and between meetings Arthur’s behind on the accounts, which is actually what’s meant to be the greater part of his job, so he ignores Morgana’s pitying voice in his head, takes out his file folders, and turns on the radio.
It’s a few hours before Dragon’s Lonely Hearts starts, so Arthur just listens to music in the background and barely notices when ten passes, and then eleven, since it seems to be a quiet night on the show, more music than chatter. He’s noticed that those happen sometimes, for whatever reason, maybe nights when most of the fanbase is out clubbing, so he doesn’t pay much attention to the infrequent callers until, sometime around eleven thirty, M announces a caller.
It seems we’ve got Elena from London on tonight, and she’s hoping I can break a streak of horrible luck with men. Are you ready to call, gents?
Arthur sits up straight so fast he almost knocks his laptop to the floor, then scrambles for his phone and texts Mithian, who might actually listen to him and won’t ask awkward questions about why she’s listening. You were going to get her drunk, why is she drunk and calling radio shows? ABORT MISSION.
Hello, am I on? says Elena’s voice from his radio. She doesn’t sound drunk and even if she has been drinking she has an iron constitution, but then again she’s also very good at acting sober. He hopes it’s just too early in the night for her to be more than buzzed so she won’t be mortified in the morning.
Yes, hello, Elena, this is Dragon’s Lonely Hearts. I hear you’ve been having shit luck with men lately?
Elena laughs. If by lately you mean always, then yes.
Arthur’s phone buzzes with a text from Mithian. shut up oh my god i have had too much schnapps for this. He gives serious consideration to e-mailing M to give him the heads-up that his current caller might not be able to consent to dates before he gets another text. she has had considerably less schnapps, stop freaking out.
So what’s the problem? M asks.
God, I don’t know! My friends call me an arsehole magnet. If he’s a cheater or a felon or a user I am apparently irresistible, and I guess I just like to give them the benefit of the doubt.
M makes a thoughtful sound. Sounds like me a few years ago, to be honest. I could tell you stories—well, no I couldn’t, but sounds like you can imagine them, Elena. And I’m not going to tell you to stop being an optimist, but I am going to tell you to listen to your friends, because that’s what I eventually had to figure out how to do, and I’ll bet your friends are more than willing to tell you.
Oh, they definitely are. They are fine, upstanding people. Arthur is going to kill her. And Morgana, because he recognizes the muffled giggle in the background.
There’s a pause, but M sounds perfectly normal when he answers, and Arthur relaxes. He probably just thinks Elena’s needling him like the rest of his fans. Then listen to them. I could give you more advice, but you told my lovely producer that you’re on for a date auction, so why don’t you tell the nice people a bit about yourself? No identifying details, I’m sure you know the drill if you’ve listened to the show before. And to my listeners out there—as I’m sure you’re aware, arseholes need not apply.
Right, okay then. I’m Elena, friends call me Ellie, twenty-something, I live and work here in the city, at a vet clinic. I like animals—ride horses whenever I can although it isn’t often these days—and Arsenal and tennis. Should I say more?
Maybe a bit.
Arthur listens to Elena ramble on about herself for a little longer, increasingly assured that she isn’t drunk since her diction isn’t careful enough for that. And like I said, she winds up, I have lovely friends, if you date me you’ll probably spend quite a bit of time with them.
Yes, the upstanding ones, says M, and Arthur already knows this is going to be one of the calls mentioned in their e-mail later.
I know him, you know, Elena adds in a conspiratorial whisper, and either Morgana is prodding her to do it or he’s misjudged her level of cruelty.
Right! M says brightly, before she can add anything else. I think that’s enough information to be going on with, don’t you? Okay, gents, if you’d like a date with the lovely Elena give the station a call and we’ll put you through one by one until there’s a good match.
Arthur sits through three calls from men who sound perfectly lovely, if a bit dull for Ellie, which has always been a bit of a problem. The fourth one …
Hello, Ellie, I’m Gwaine, comes the new voice when M asks for the next caller, a bit rough and Irish.
Oh, shit, M whispers, but covers it over so quickly Arthur thinks he might have imagined it. Good evening, Gwaine, welcome to Dragon’s Lonely Hearts, and what makes you want to date our lovely Elena?
I’m an animal lover myself, though I haven’t any pets in my flat unless you count a rather lonely goldfish, and I’m certainly a sports fan. Can’t say I’m all for Arsenal, but no woman’s perfect and if she knows when a player’s offsides she’s a fair sight better than many a woman I’ve dated.
That gets Elena talking, offended, and within five minutes she’s giggling and he’s flirting gamely and M’s given up all pretense of mediating. Arthur’s staring at his radio, because he doesn’t trust it yet but he thinks this Gwaine might be adventurous enough to capture Ellie’s attention without being a complete bastard, and that’s nothing short of a miracle.
Okay, you two, says M with a laugh after a few more minutes, you can keep flirting on the private line, okay? Exchange contact details and let me have my show back. Good luck with this one, Elena, I can already tell he’s going to be a handful.
That’s what I’m hoping for, Elena answers, and Arthur’s sure he hears Morgana and Mithian giggle in the background.
M laughs. I’m sure he’s glad to hear it. Now, let’s have a song for the lovebirds, and sorry to all you unlucky gents who missed out on Elena.
With that, Arthur hears the start of some horribly cheesy song he hasn’t heard since the 90s, one Morgana and Mithian must be laughing over, and he sits staring between his laptop and his mobile, not quite sure what to do.
His e-mail answers it for him, a new message showing up before the song’s been playing for a minute. Arthur opens it immediately. Is she actually a friend of yours?
I may actually sue you if he breaks her heart, he sends by way of answer.
It’s almost one before he gets an answer, even though the show doesn’t get any more callers than usual, and most of them teasing M about helping the upstanding gent’s friends. He’s a friend of mine, if it helps. I don’t think he’ll hurt her.
Arthur thinks of Elena saying whoever dates her will spend time around her friends and Gwaine assuring her that his group of friends is much the same, and swallows down the ball of panic and hope before he can analyze it too closely.
He doesn’t know what to say in return, and ignores the way M sounds distracted for the last hour of the show when Arthur doesn’t e-mail back.
They don’t talk about it. Arthur e-mails M the next morning and just talks about the other callers who got excited after Elena dropping him into the conversation, throwing in a few mentions that Morgana texted him sometime before he woke up, and M e-mails back just the same as always, not a word about Elena or Gwaine, at least not more than he would say about any other caller.
Saturday night, after an afternoon of footie in the park with Leon and Percival, Arthur listens to the show but pays more attention to his phone, since Elena is off on her date with Gwaine and told them all that none of them are allowed to come along (Arthur’s on duty, though, and she’ll call if things do go wrong, so he feels better about leaving her than he would otherwise). At any rate, it’s a normal night on the show, or at least what he’s come to think of as normal since he started listening to it, and he barely pays any attention until sometime around eleven-thirty, just after he gets Elena’s text saying she’s on her way home and it went perfectly, stop worrying.
It’s impossible to tell if you’re compatible with someone meeting them in a club, you might as well just advertise you’re going out to get shagged, a woman is saying despairingly on air. How are you supposed to make a connection that way? And I’m not asking for a date auction, it’s more that my friends have been asking about me still being single and I’ve been explaining that you can’t really meet anyone.
M laughs. It’s the endless question in my profession—how do you meet people? And the thing is that the answer is different for everyone, so everyone who gives blanket advice sounds like a fraud. You can make a connection clubbing, though I’ll own it’s hard, or through friends, or through chance meetings. It all depends on whether you’re looking the right way. If you go to a club expecting a shag, you’ll get a shag, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be only that. I met my nicest boyfriend clubbing.
Well, I certainly haven’t so far.
So maybe the club scene isn’t your place for doing that. My upstanding gent hates picking people up at clubs, it’s all a matter of where you feel most comfortable, like I said. There’s a second of dead air, and Arthur turns to stare at the radio even though he knows it won’t change what he heard, M spouting off something he barely mentioned in passing on the radio. Attached to the word “my.” So it’s a matter of finding a place where you’re confident and keeping your mind open, M continues rapidly, even though Arthur is already expecting endless texts from his friends.
The rest of the call goes like normal, M giving the caller advice on how to meet men, and then the music starts playing and Arthur barely has to wait thirty seconds before his e-mail pings. Sorry, shit, I’m so sorry is all that’s in the message.
It’s really fine, Arthur sends quickly. It’s nothing incriminating, and my friends might let me forget about it in a few million years.
Yeah, but mine won’t he gets in return before the music ends and M is back and chatting with someone else who has pulling problems.
Within five minutes, all of Arthur’s friends have texted or called him, all of them delighted and curious except for Mithian, who mostly sounds suspicious. “You are being careful, aren’t you?” she asks when he picks up the phone for her.
“Aren’t you the one always telling me to be more spontaneous? But yes, I am, and he’s already e-mailed to apologize for dragging me into it all again.”
Mithian sighs her dissatisfaction, but she doesn’t press further.
The next few days are busy with work, peppered with his friends dragging him out occasionally to see the sunlight and make sure he isn’t sleeping in the audience and with e-mails from M, who still isn’t talking about their increased connection but seems equal parts guilty and amused at how much mail he’s got over a simple possessive. Arthur sends him nuggets from Morgana’s summaries of fan speculation as well, and for the first time the e-mails get to be more than a few lines long, sometimes rambling on for a few paragraphs and branching out into subjects that aren’t quite related to the radio show and Arthur’s strange place in it.
He finds out M’s name completely by accident on Thursday.
There’s a theater having an old movie festival that’s playing Charlie Chaplin, and since Arthur and Elena are the only ones who want to see it they meet for dinner beforehand. Elena, predictably enough, spends nearly the whole time chattering about Gwaine, who she saw Monday and Tuesday as well as Saturday.
“His friends sound lovely too,” she says after exhausting the topics of his career (construction management) and his family (posher than he likes to let on), and Arthur almost drops his fork. He knows he should stop her, let her know that one of the friends is the Dragon from the radio and he probably wouldn’t want Arthur to know more about him, but he lets her go on instead. “There’s Gwen, she works in broadcasting and she’s married to Lance, who’s a social worker, apparently they’re the nicest people you’ll ever meet, so I’m a bit scared to introduce them to you lot. He’s friends with Gwen’s brother Elyan as well, apparently he’s not around as much, though, has some sort of job where he travels a lot—Gwaine calls him an international man of mystery, so I don’t really know what he does. But mostly he talks about Freya and Merlin, apparently he’s known them for ages.”
Merlin. Of course his name’s Merlin, on top of everything else, and it even makes sense with the name he chose for himself. Arthur debates, for a second, just asking Elena for whatever information he can get, since Arthur mentions his life in his e-mails but Merlin never does his except around the very edges, but he stops himself. It seems dishonorable. “I’ll look forward to meeting them all at your and Gwaine’s inevitable wedding,” he says instead.
“Shut up,” she says, going red. “He’s just nice, okay? And we’ve got a lot in common, and I really do want everyone to get along. He says he wants to meet all of you, some time.”
Arthur does his best to keep his tone neutral. “Do you talk about us, then?”
“Of course I do.” She bites her lip. “I sort of … I mean, he asked. He sort of knows about the whole deal with the radio, and how you’re Arthur from that one call and the upstanding gent, and he laughed quite a lot about it but I don’t think he’ll mention it to you, he at least promised he wouldn’t.”
“Lovely.” He tries hard not to grimace. “I’m going to be infamous with them all within days.” If he isn’t already, though he doesn’t know if M’s—Merlin’s—friends know that Arthur is the upstanding gent.
“If they spread it around or are jerks about it, they aren’t worth it,” she says, loyal as ever, and he toasts her with his glass of water, since he hasn’t got wine to do it with. “But I don’t think they will, they all sound like such nice people. Apparently Lance and Gwen volunteer for all sorts of things when they aren’t working, and Freya teachers primary school, and—”
He knows the next word out of her mouth is going to be “Merlin,” and he cuts it off. “We’re all going to be heartbroken when you abandon us for these do-gooders, you know. Leon might even pine.”
“Oh, fuck off,” she says, but she’s grinning. “As if I could leave you lot, you’d all turn into robots within the week.”
“Your faith in us is inspiring,” he says, and lets her change the subject to something innocuous for the rest of dinner before going off to the movies.
When he gets home, there’s an e-mail from Merlin waiting for him, him being embarrassed that the higher-ups at the station have told him to keep doing what he’s doing as he’s gaining listeners by the day, and he types out a quick response before adding on to the end. The least he can do is stay honest. Elena was talking about Gwaine at dinner, and talking about his friends, and she mentioned your real name—unless your initial isn’t actually M, in which case it’s a toss-up which one you are, but I thought you ought to know. I stopped her before she could say anything else about you, I know you like your privacy, but … well, like I said. I figured I would tell you.
Merlin must be at his computer, because Arthur gets a reply less than fifteen minutes later. Thanks for telling me. I don’t mind—I figured when Gwaine called in that we’re going to meet someday, and he’s been teasing me about you. I trust you not to tell the whole world you know the Dragon, so it’s fine. It really is. You keep reacting like you expect me to hate you and I don’t, I promise. There are a few lines of space, and then the signoff—this time it says Merlin instead of M.
Arthur spends the whole time he’s getting ready for bed smiling.
Friday night, Morgana announces that Arthur cannot be allowed to spend another weekend shut away in his flat like a hermit. “You are coming to the club with us,” she says when she shows up at his door, with a coat on over something sparkly and far too scanty for his comfort. “You will not be spending another Friday sitting about pining over the radio, especially not if you aren’t going to do something about it. It’s quite clear that he’d like to hear from you again.”
Arthur doesn’t bother arguing, and he’s almost through getting ready to go out when he realizes that Morgana somehow hasn’t figured out that Arthur is in regular contact with her favorite radio host. He certainly hasn’t told her that Elena’s Gwaine knows someone named Merlin who happens to be the Dragon, much less that he’s e-mailing back and forth with him almost daily now. While she bustles around his kitchen keeping up a running commentary on his preening habits and how he isn’t allowed to become a sad shut-in before the age of thirty, he types out a quick e-mail to Merlin and hopes she won’t come peer over his shoulder to hurry him up. Won’t be listening to the show tonight, hope the callers behave. Let me know if there’s anything I ought to know about.
“I will drag you out naked,” Morgana shouts, which must be terribly pleasant for his neighbors, and Arthur sends the message without bothering to sign it and shuts his laptop.
“I’m dressed, I just had to do something quickly,” he says, and comes out of his bedroom before she comes after him.
Morgana has her hands planted on her hips and an all-too-familiar expression on her face. “You’re hiding something. If you’re dating someone without telling us, I’m going to have to exact revenge.”
Arthur rolls his eyes and grabs his coat. “I’m not dating anyone.”
“Good, then maybe you’ll pull tonight. You’ve been moping around more than usual lately and it’s been ages since Vivian.”
“I hate pulling at clubs,” he says automatically, and Morgana freezes. “What?”
She points at him, eyes wide. “You sneaky bastard! You’re still in contact with him?”
“You know with whom, Arthur, don’t deflect. You’re in contact with the Dragon! I figured when he kept mentioning the upstanding gent it was the radio equivalent of a boyfriend in Canada and you were convenient after the apology thing, but no, you’ve been talking to him! Without telling me!”
“You’re getting paranoid,” says Arthur, even though he knows it’s a lost cause at this point.
Morgana narrows her eyes. “You’re a terrible liar, you know. And you can keep lying however much you want, but I will figure it out.” Arthur grabs his keys and ushers her out of his flat, but she turns around and smiles at him. “He called you his.”
“Hallucinating,” he says, and proceeds to spend the rest of the way to the club ignoring her increasingly gleeful sallies. At least she hasn’t figured out that Elena’s Gwaine is friends with the Dragon, because then none of them would ever hear the end of it.
When they get to the club, Leon and Mithian are saving them all a table, Percival is off chatting someone up, and Elena’s on the dance floor with a man with shaggy dark hair and the wits to hold Elena’s hands while they dance so he doesn’t get injured. Arthur almost trips over his own feet, because from all accounts he looks a lot like Gwaine and Arthur certainly isn’t prepared to meet him yet. Morgana gives him a suspicious, sideways look, and drags him over to their table. “Arthur is being tiresome, Mithian, you deal with him. Leon, you’re buying me a drink.”
Arthur sits down and barely has a chance to exchange a wince with Mithian before Elena comes trotting up to the table, dark-haired man in tow. “Arthur! Where did Morgana go? I wanted to introduce you both at once.”
“She’s with Leon at the bar,” says Arthur, and holds his hand out for a shake. “You must be Gwaine, I’ve heard so much about you.”
Gwaine’s smile widens out into a grin. “It’s a pleasure, I’m sure I’ve heard just as much about you.”
“Shut up, I don’t talk about them that much,” says Elena, swatting him on the arm (a bit harder than necessary, judging by Gwaine’s wince). “I’m going to get Morgana over here before she disappears to flirt with someone, you just stay put.” She looks at Arthur. “Be nice.”
He doesn’t bother saying “I’m always nice” because everyone at the table, probably including Gwaine, knows that it’s a lie. He settles on “Tell her if she pulls she’s paying for my taxi home” and waves her off.
It takes Gwaine all of five seconds to turn on him with a shit-eating grin that Arthur knows he’s going to start hating within the next ten minutes. “We were hoping to make this into an occasion for more of our friends to meet, but most of my friends are busy.”
“Busy?” asks Mithian, and tugs Arthur down to sit properly next to her. He just barely manages not to elbow her even though she should know better.
Gwaine sits down as well. “Merlin and Gwen both work weekend nights, so they’re right out, Lance apparently pines when he goes out without Gwen, Elyan’s in Italy for the next week, and Freya told me I should just get to know you all first.”
“Working weekend nights? Are they students, then?” Mithian asks, and Arthur realizes belatedly that she’s trying to pump Gwaine for information on his behalf and has to resist clapping his hand over her mouth to shut her up.
It seems that Gwaine, even though he must know what’s going on, is perfectly willing to be interrogated. “Gwen’s just got strange work hours sometimes, but yeah, Merlin’s a psychology student during the weeks.”
Mithian raises her eyebrows. “Graduate work?”
That shuts Gwaine’s face right down. “No, he’s almost graduated, though. He had a bit of a gap after A-levels, is all.”
Arthur thinks of Merlin mentioning a husband that first night they argued on the radio and decides he doesn’t want to hear any more of that from Gwaine. “We’ll all have to meet some other time, then,” he says firmly. “If you’re planning on sticking around a while longer, I suspect it’s inevitable.”
Gwaine turns around to look for Elena and smiles when he sees her, which takes Arthur at least a bit off his guard. “I’ll be sticking around, yeah.”
“God help us,” Mithian mutters, just as Elena and Morgana return to the table without their drinks, which probably means they’ve abandoned Leon to wait for them and likely pay for them.
It’s a surprisingly good night, after that. Morgana keeps giving Arthur suspicious looks, but she doesn’t ask in front of anyone else and spends most of her time on the dance floor so it doesn’t matter as much. Gwaine seems nearly as besotted with Elena as she is with him, to Arthur’s pleasant surprise, and Gwaine’s only obnoxious when he’s talking to Arthur. Gwaine also seems to get on well with Percival and Leon, and Mithian, once she stops asking pointed questions about his friends, seems to warm up to him as well.
They stay out past two, later than Arthur’s stayed out in months and at least an hour after he starts yawning, and then all drift towards the door at once, only starting to split off to cabs and walks to the station once they have their coats. Gwaine catches Arthur’s arm while Elena is saying goodbye to Percival, arguing vaguely about the DJ inside. “He asked me to give you his number.”
Arthur doesn’t bother asking who “he” is. “Thanks.”
Gwaine pulls a slip of paper out of his pocket and holds on to it for a second. “If you’re a fuckwit about all of this, I will hunt you down and break your nose, understood?”
“As long as you understand the same about Elena,” Arthur replies, and takes the paper out of Gwaine’s hand.
“If you lads are quite finished posturing,” interrupts Morgana from behind them, and stares at the string of digits on the paper in Arthur’s hand when she catches sight of it. “What on earth is that?”
Arthur rolls his eyes and puts the paper in his pocket. “Proof that we’re having an illicit affair. Leave it, Morgana.”
She glares but she doesn’t ask, by some miracle, and since he hasn’t had a drink in hours lets him drive her back to her flat before calling a cab back to his. He texts Merlin from the backseat. Gwaine gave me your number. Hope he wasn’t just joking about you asking him to give it to me. –A.
It only takes a minute for his phone to go off. He wasn’t. Hope you had a good night, I spent the whole show fending off questions about what you would think of various things. Before Arthur can type out a response, his phone goes again. For future reference, you think speed-dating is a terrible idea but don’t mind dating websites, and you think it’s important for your friends to like anyone you date.
Arthur laughs and ignores the look the cabbie gives him. Right on all counts, but I’m beginning to feel like I should be on call while you’re on air just to be sure you aren’t defaming me.
He’s out of the cab and on his way up to his flat by the time his phone goes again. Maybe you should be.
Saturday night, it takes all of twenty minutes into the show before someone mentions him.
And he blows hot and cold, all the time, a man is complaining, words just slurred enough that Arthur suspects he’s drunk. I imagine it’s how your upstanding gent must feel. First he apologizes, then you claim you aren’t in contact, now you know all about his opinions on everything, the poor thing must be confused. Honestly, if he weren’t the man of my bloody dreams I’d be done by now.
Arthur laughs and sends a text over the sound of Merlin gently bringing the subject back around, even though Merlin probably has his phone off for the duration of the show. Don’t worry, I’m not confused.
To his surprise, thirty seconds later, Merlin interrupts his continued attempts to get the man to stop using Arthur as a metaphor for his own love life. My upstanding gent says he isn’t confused, he says, easy as that. But thanks for worrying about my problems. Now, how about we get back to yours?
The man laughs. I like you. He’d like you too, he’s good at deflecting.
Oh, and why would he need to? Merlin asks, and the subject turns properly.
Arthur gets a text from Morgana a minute later. I WILL FIGURE IT OUT.
Watch your blood pressure, he returns, and keeps listening to the show even though Morgana texts him again after thirty seconds and then calls him when he ignores her.
For the rest of the show, Arthur reads the latest mystery he’s picked up and keeps one ear on anything he needs to be involved in. He ends up texting Merlin three more times with answers to questions that callers pose for them, and Merlin reads the answers out every time, sounding like he’s smiling, and starts conversations whenever the music is playing. Once, he sounds a bit startled when the music stops and Arthur gets a text ten seconds later, the last part of it obviously rushed. You should just call in, Merlin sends at the end of the night. It would save me having to play translation service.
You underestimate your fans. They’d recognize my voice and call en masse to tell you to stay away from me.
They’re less forgiving than you are, I would imagine. I was awful that night.
There’s a pause. You aren’t awful now. Before Arthur can begin to think of a way to respond to that, another message comes through. Gwen’s scolding me for not paying attention and I’ve got to get home. Go to bed, Arthur.
Shit shit shit, he texts Mithian, without really expecting an answer, and puts down his phone for the night.
The next day he wakes up late to find he’s missed three texts and a call from Mithian, five texts from Morgana, and a voicemail from Elena. Arthur decides Morgana and Mithian can both wait, since he already knows what they both likely had to say, and goes to Elena’s. “Arthur! It’s almost nine, you can’t be asleep, are you at the gym again? Anyway, Gwaine and I are trying to arrange a time for all our friends to meet, we’ve been talking about when we’re all most likely to be free and I didn’t tell you because I know you, and you aren’t allowed to magically find other plans. Anyway, dinner Wednesday night? I know you’d rather do a weekend, but two of his friends can’t, so … anyway, call me.”
Arthur blinks at his phone but doesn’t bother replaying the message. He’s not good enough at self-delusion to pretend that message says anything but what it does, and when he thumbs through his texts one of Morgana’s and one of Mithian’s mention Elena’s attempts at arranging a meeting. Mithian’s more worried about it, but then again, she’s the only one who knows.
He texts Merlin instead of bothering with any of them. Elena and Gwaine are trying to arrange a meeting for all of us. Should one of us give it a miss?
It takes Merlin nearly an hour to get back to him, during which time he’s ended up talking to all three of them—Elena to give a mostly-noncommittal promise to be there, Morgana to deflect her continued attempts at interrogation since it’s nice to see her unable to figure something out for once, and Mithian to complain about what a tangle his life has turned into. I’m ready. You’re the one I’m worried about. I’ll stay away if you’d rather not do this yet.
Arthur wants to ask a hundred questions—are they on the same page? As far as Arthur’s concerned, this has turned into a backwards sort of courtship, one he’s more off-balance in than any he’s been involved in before, but even though Merlin implies Arthur’s his boyfriend on air there’s no guarantee he feels the same way, especially after their first interaction. He doesn’t ask any of them. I’m ready.
This time, Merlin texts back almost immediately. Good, Gwaine says you’re fit.
And that, Arthur decides, is as clear an answer as he’s going to get without asking directly. He sends back a quick It isn’t fair that you get information about me and I don’t get the same and goes about his Sunday routine, going to the gym and cooking something properly for dinner and preparing all his papers for work in the morning before taking out a book to read.
Merlin doesn’t text him back until Arthur’s getting ready for bed, not properly tired since he slept in and not looking forward to staring at his ceiling for ages. You’ll have a chance to ask me all you like on Wednesday, I promise.
Monday and Tuesday, Arthur barely has a chance to think about Elena’s dinner, even though she’s chattering about it all over Facebook and Mithian keeps calling to make sure he’s okay and Morgana keeps threatening to break into his flat and torture him into telling her all his secrets, since someone in his department made an accounting error for one of their biggest clients and now the client is demanding an audit of all their extensive files. It falls to Arthur even though he’s supposed to be beyond that sort of thing, since he’s the only one patient enough to go through it all properly, and by the time he surfaces from the last of the paperwork Tuesday night he gives serious thought to canceling Wednesday just because he’ll fall asleep over dinner.
Instead, even though it’s past midnight, he texts Merlin. For the record, I don’t always look like a zombie.
Glad to hear it, he gets with almost no hesitation. Although you’ll have to tell me why you feel the need to assure me of that.
By lunchtime the next day, Arthur’s changed between the tie he wore to work and the emergency tie he keeps in a drawer three times, until a co-worker’s raised eyebrows make him settle on one. Mid-afternoon, he gives up on his own rules at work and takes out his mobile to text Merlin. See you tonight?
Merlin’s response takes under ten seconds to get to him. Tonight.
Arthur runs into Mithian on his way to Elena’s favorite diner, and she immediately stops him, suppressing a smile. “You can’t wear a tie to eat chicken and terrible chips, Arthur, even if your Merlin is going to be there. Come here.”
“He’s not my anything,” Arthur argues, but he lets Mithian tow him forward to unknot his tie and unbutton the top button on his shirt.
“Oh, but you’re his upstanding gent, aren’t you?” She stows his tie in her handbag. “Are you going to be okay?”
“Yes, mother, it’ll be fine. If we turn out to hate each other after all, at least there will be plenty of others around as a buffer.”
She rolls her eyes. “See if I ever try to be sympathetic again, if this is the response it gets me. Come on, Mr. Right-for-Now, let’s go.”
Elena, Gwaine, and a man Arthur doesn’t recognize are the only ones in the diner when they get there, and Arthur tenses up until Gwaine introduces him as Elyan, the one who travels a lot. Together, they push together all the tables they can, Arthur and Mithian making small talk with Elyan while Elena and Gwaine flirt, and sit down to wait for the others. Morgana’s next, as overdressed as Arthur since she undoubtedly stayed late at work like he did, followed a few minutes later by Percival.
The next ones in are a dark-haired pair, the girl little and the man lanky, and he could be Lance but by the way he looks around … “Oh good, we aren’t the last ones,” he says when he gets close enough, and his voice is huskier in person but that doesn’t mean Arthur doesn’t recognize it. Morgana starts, and he looks over at her. “You must be Morgana, Gwaine said you’re the only dark-haired one. I’m Merlin.”
“I’m Freya,” says the girl, looking between Morgana and Merlin and smiling. “It’s good to meet you all, Gwaine’s told us all about you.”
Arthur’s too frozen to think of what to say, but luckily Elena and Gwaine pick up the slack on introductions—and later on he’ll kill Elena for “And this one’s Arthur, you can tell because he’s the only one who isn’t unreasonably tall” even if it does make Merlin grin, bright and sudden—and Mithian’s quick enough to get up to greet Freya, and then Leon as he comes in, leaving the spot next to Arthur open for Merlin to fill.
Merlin sits down as the last of his friends come in, and Arthur waits until Mithian and Morgana are both distracted being polite to look in their direction. “Good to meet you.”
“You too.” Merlin smiles, and Arthur’s imagined him looking like many things, but never this. He may not be Arthur’s usual type, but … he brushes his hand against Arthur’s wrist under the table. “So how are we handling this?”
“Mithian knows and Morgana will figure it out when she hears you talk more, but I’m not sure about the others. It’s more up to you—you seem to like to keep your lives separate, and you’ve only just met everyone. It’s your choice.”
“I think,” Merlin starts, smile going a little more secretive, and Arthur’s about to lean closer to listen when they’re interrupted by the waitress asking what they want to drink and then by the general conversation, everyone sketching out the outlines of their lives. Arthur can’t help but wonder how boring his life sounds, doing math and organization for a living compared to Elyan’s travels or Freya’s teaching career or Gwen and Lance’s habit of scheduling their yearly vacations to do charity work. When he looks at Merlin to go next, though, he’s smiling, and he nudges his foot against Arthur’s ankle when he catches him looking. “My turn?” he says when Arthur’s finished. “Not very exciting, really. I’m most of the way through a degree in psychology, and on the weekends I host a radio show.”
“Oh my God,” says Morgana, while Elyan chokes on his drink and the rest of Merlin’s friends stare at him like they’re surprised he mentioned it, and that gets the rest of Arthur’s friends to catch on. “You sneak!” she continues while the waitress hovers near their table with a tray full of drinks, pointing at Arthur.
“Oh good, we can order,” says Arthur, and the waitress takes the opportunity to step forward and start distributing drinks and taking orders over the sounds of Morgana making outraged noises, Gwaine laughing, and everyone else trying to put all the pieces properly together. He makes a note to give her an amazing tip, since none of it seems to faze her in the least.
Morgana finally gets her moment when the waitress walks away. Normally if she were that angry, he would be nervous for his possessions or the peace of the gathering, if not for his person, but Merlin grins and he can’t bring himself to do more than raise his eyebrows and wait for the tirade. “I’m going to kill you,” she informs him. “Slowly, and with knives.”
“That’s her way of showing affection,” Arthur assures Gwen and Lance, who are wearing identical alarmed expressions.
Morgana ignores him to turn to Merlin. “You, I’m pleased to meet, I’m a great fan of the show, and I am so sorry that you’ve somehow been saddled with my brother.”
“Well, in all fairness, I’ve saddled myself with him.” Gwaine, from farther down the table, snorts. Merlin doesn’t bother looking at him. Or at Arthur, for that matter, though their feet are still pressed together. “Shut up, Gwaine.”
“Won’t,” says Gwaine. “You’re hogging all the attention, this is meant to be mine and Elena’s awkward introductory dinner, you and Arthur get your own.”
“They’ve had a whole radio show,” says Elyan, and from there, the conversation somehow miraculously moves on. Morgana is too well-bred to make a scene, Elena’s too busy giggling to scold Arthur, and Leon and Percival are still looking stunned, and he knows he’ll be having interesting conversations with all of them in the near future, but for the moment, at least, he’s safe.
“You’re being quiet,” Merlin observes five minutes later, about the time Leon, Percival, and Lance get into a spirited debate about something cricket-related.
“Sorry. Still wrapping my head around things, a bit.” Like the fact that Merlin seems to like him for no discernible reason, and that Arthur, for once, has no idea what to do next. “Besides, it’s hard to talk over the din. I suspect everyone’s going to get along terrifyingly well.”
“Yeah.” There’s a pause, and Merlin laughs. “You’d think this would be less awkward. We’ve been talking for weeks, now.”
“It’s a bit different, face-to-face. Especially with an audience. I suppose if we were smarter we would have decided to do this on our own first.”
“I thought about asking, but you were being skittish.”
Arthur almost spits out the sip of water he’s just taken. “Skittish? I was no such thing!”
“You were, being all gentlemanly and thinking I hated you.”
“I thought no such thing,” he lies, even though he’s still not certain what made Merlin forgive him after that ignominious beginning.
“Pants on fire,” Merlin says cheerfully, and their conversation is interrupted by the return of the waitress with all the chips and mozzarella sticks and other appetizers that half the table seems to have ordered. Sometime during the conversation, Elyan catches Merlin’s attention and Leon catches Arthur’s and they don’t continue their private discussion all through eating the main part of the meal.
“Getting dessert?” Arthur asks him when the waitress comes back to start taking plates away and get orders from those who’ve been listening to Elena’s raptures about the diner’s pie.
Merlin tilts his head and then grins. “I don’t think so. Are you?” Arthur shakes his head. “Then I think—”
“For God’s sake, would the two of you get out of here? You’re making me ill,” Gwaine calls down the table, and Arthur realizes just how close they’re leaning together and how neither of them have moved their feet all night.
“You should talk,” says Merlin, nodding at Elena where she’s sitting halfway on Gwaine’s lap. “When are you two getting married?”
“Oi, you don’t get to be smug.” Gwaine is pretty obviously trying to scowl, but his grin breaks through it. “Playing footsie with Mr. Right-for-Now under the table all night, and don’t think I haven’t noticed.”
Arthur rapidly snatches his foot back at then even though it gets the whole table looking at them, and luckily Merlin looks more amused than offended. “Fine, we’ll be off, then,” he says after a look at Arthur. “Freya, you fine to get home on your own?” She just nods, grinning into her plate. “Arthur?”
“Well, if we’re being kicked out,” he says, and puts enough money on the table to cover his meal and a very good tip for the waitress, who’s doing a very bad job of pretending not to watch them from the other side of the diner. “Shall we?”
Merlin gets up as well, holding out his arm for Arthur to take in a way that should look far more ridiculous than it does. “May as well leave in style.” He nods a quick goodbye around the table, since everyone’s grinning at them except Morgana, who gives him a look that promises endless haranguing later, and takes Merlin’s arm to head out.
When they get to the street and out of sight, Merlin drops his arm and turns about to face him. “So, what do you say? Shall we have a walk? I don’t know this area very well, but I’m betting you do.”
“A walk sounds lovely,” says Arthur. He considers holding out his hand to see if Merlin would grab onto it, but instead he shoves his hands in his pockets and starts down the street towards the nearest park, Merlin catching up a second later to walk with his shoulder bumping Arthur’s.
“Okay, no,” Merlin says the second they walk into the park, just as Arthur opens his mouth to ask what sort of classes Merlin is taking this term, for lack of any better conversation. “If this is too weird, then just tell me, please stop making small talk.”
“It isn’t small talk, it’s getting to know you,” Arthur objects, mostly on principle, since they both know he’s avoiding.
“Hey.” Merlin catches his arm and turns him around until they’re looking at each other. Arthur resists the urge to fidget. “We know each other. Would you stop freaking out?”
“I am doing no such—”
Merlin snorts, but he’s smiling. “Psych major doesn’t mean telepath, contrary to popular belief, but like I said, I know you. I’m betting this is the look you got on your face every time you sent one of those apologetic e-mails. I don’t hold grudges, okay? I thought we’d been over that.”
“We have been.”
“Then is it a not-interested thing?” Arthur just blinks at him, and Merlin’s smile dims a bit. “I … we are on the same page with where this has been going, right?”
That, Arthur can answer, or at least he can when he forces the words out of his throat. “Yes. Sorry. I’m just …”
Merlin nudges his shoulder. “Don’t hurt yourself. Why don’t we walk a bit and you stop making painful small talk and we’ll stop freaking out?”
“You aren’t freaking out,” Arthur points out, because he’s rather nettled at how easily Merlin seems to be taking to meeting him while Arthur is still scrambling for purchase, but he obediently starts walking anyway, and takes his hands out of his pockets.
The path is wide enough for them to walk side by side and still leave space for anyone walking in the opposite direction, and Merlin doesn’t take his hand, but he does stand close enough that they’ll probably spend half the walk stepping on each other’s shoes if they fall out of step. “That’s because I have had some really terrible dates in my time,” Merlin says once they’ve got properly started. “I’m like Elena being an arsehole magnet, remember? You being shy doesn’t even make my top twenty worst dates.”
Arthur can’t help objecting to that. “I’m not shy! I’m just … adjusting to the change.”
“You spent half of dinner looking like I was outraging your maiden virtue.”
“I looked like no such thing, I was just wondering who plays footsie anymore. We aren’t fifteen.”
Merlin beams at him. “There you are.” Arthur raises his eyebrows. “I was afraid I was going to have to piss you off properly before you’d loosen up. Look, I know this is awful, first-date chemistry alongside month-of-dating knowing each other, but we’re going to have to soldier on.”
“A month of dating?”
“What did you think we were doing?” Arthur opens his mouth and closes it again without bothering to come up with a proper answer to that question. He supposes that if it’s understood you’re spending most of your Friday and Saturday nights for a month in contact with someone, there’s a strong case for their being some sort of relationship, and what they have doesn’t feel quite like a frienship. “Exactly,” says Merlin, as if he’s followed Arthur’s whole train of thought. “So we feel as if we ought to be telling our first date stories but we know each other a bit well for that.”
“It isn’t as if we’ve exchanged too many personal stories. I don’t know your first date stories, and I’m relatively sure you don’t know mine unless Gwaine’s been pumping Elena for unfair amounts of information.”
“That wouldn’t be any fun.” They get passed by a cyclist and Merlin takes his arm again as they squeeze together. “Tell me a first date story, then.”
Arthur thinks for a minute and ends up telling him about the time Morgana dared him to try on one of her dresses and his father came home at an inopportune moment, and Merlin laughs and tells him about how he and Gwaine met Freya in secondary school when she caught them making trouble and scolded them before telling them how to make trouble better. By the time they’ve finished, they’ve walked a circuit of the park and have started another, since Arthur doesn’t really have anywhere else to take the date that won’t look like moving too fast and it isn’t getting dark yet.
After that, they talk about their lives, how Merlin would rather be a radio show host than a psychiatrist and the station is trying to figure out how to bring him on for more hours once he graduates, and how Arthur really does like squaring up accounts for a living and never intends to go into politics like his father would prefer. Arthur’s phone goes off three times with missed calls from Morgana and one text from Mithian (Have successfully neutralized Morgana for time being. She says you owe her a pony. You owe me drinks. So many drinks), and Merlin’s goes off twice.
“Our friends are never, ever going to leave us alone,” Arthur says after the second time.
“No, probably not. All far too invested in each other’s lives.” He grins at Arthur. “That’s what comes of dating your friends, you know.”
Arthur groans. “Can we not? I am not up to your professional opinion tonight, Dragon. We can talk about what a stupid pseudonym that is, if you like, though.”
“Yeah, on second thought, let’s not have the ex conversation.” Merlin looks down at their feet and Arthur remembers the husband and the gap between A-levels and high school and squeezes his arm in apology. That’s a story for another time. “And the name is Gwaine’s fault. Everything embarrassing in my life is Gwaine’s fault on some level, he’s even the one who told me to accept your apology on air when I was fretting about not having a return address.”
“And that’s embarrassing?”
Merlin bumps his hip into Arthur’s, throwing them both off stride. “The fan response is. You’re the one who keeps sending me links to the fansite, I could have been happy not knowing just how excited some of them got about it all.”
“Now that we’re … doing whatever it is we’re doing, you should mention it on air. Or not, actually, I feel like you’d be responsible for half your fans ending up in A&E with heart palpitations.”
“Doing whatever we’re doing?” Merlin grins. “Dating, I think, unless you have any particular objections. Maybe in a while we can slap the boyfriend label on it.”
Normally Arthur thinks this sort of thing through endlessly, draws up lists of pros and cons and wonders if the relationship would work out and how bad the damage would be if it happened to end badly. He can’t quite bring himself to do that with Merlin, not knowing that Merlin’s got some ideas about his history and especially not with him smiling and managing to look up through his lashes even though they’re the same height. “You said the first time we talked,” Arthur blurts, even though he’d promised himself he wouldn’t bring it up unless Merlin did, “that you would never date anyone you didn’t think you could be crazy about.”
“I did say that, didn’t I?” Merlin halts abruptly and keeps a tight grip on Arthur’s arm so he has no choice but to stop. “I’m going to kiss you now,” says Merlin, pulls him closer, and does.
His lips are a little cold from the evening air and he tastes a bit like the grease from the diner, but Arthur imagines he does too and it doesn’t matter much, when Merlin’s mouth is so soft and his hands come up to either side of Arthur’s face as if to hold him there, though Arthur has no plans to go anywhere. It doesn’t last long, since it’s getting chilly fast now that they aren’t still walking and there are people around, but Arthur dives in for one last little taste after Merlin pulls away. “I’m not going to invite you back to my place for coffee,” he whispers, and Merlin laughs, hiding his face in Arthur’s shoulder, probably because he thinks Arthur is ruining the romance or something. “I’ve got to work in the morning, there was an awful explosion at work earlier in the week and I’m behind because of it, and I want to have time with you when we finally decide to do that, even if we have been dating for a month unbeknownst to me.”
Merlin’s stopped laughing, but he doesn’t straighten up, just turns his head far enough to press a fleeting kiss above the collar of Arthur’s jacket. “You’re sort of a prince,” he says quietly. “And I’ll let you out of dragging me to your flat, which is probably much larger and neater than mine, as long as you promise to call me soon.”
“We’ll be talking on Friday for your show, anyway.”
“Before then.” Merlin finally straightens up and it occurs to Arthur that even if they aren’t still kissing they’ve managed to get tangled up. He unwraps his arms from Merlin’s waist and lets Merlin catch his hand before they can get too far apart. “I’m liable to pine, otherwise.”
“You could always call me,” Arthur points out.
Merlin grins and squeezes his hand. “Maybe I will. Now come on, walk me to the park entrance, at least, I’m betting we’ve got to go in opposite directions to get home from there.”
“I live quite close to here.” He twines their fingers closer together. “You should call me when you get home safe, just so I won’t worry.”
“Just so you won’t worry,” Merlin agrees, and can’t seem to wipe the smile off his face for the rest of their walk.
“So this is where the magic happens.”
The room the show broadcasts from is small, just a few chairs that don’t match and a lot of equipment that Merlin barely bothers touching, with a large glass wall that shows Gwen setting up on the other side of it, putting on headphones and getting the phone lines ready. It’s all clean and surprisingly homey, but then Arthur’s only seen places like this in the movies, and they nearly always make them look disreputable. He should have known beforehand that anything Gwen is involved in could never be disreputable.
Merlin ushers him towards one of the chairs (the one without wheels, which isn’t fair, but Arthur isn’t going to mention that because they’ve known each other in person for nearly a month but he doesn’t think that’s enough time for his whining about not getting the good chair to be endearing). “You were expecting more glamour?”
“Less, actually.” Merlin’s just dropping his bag on the floor so Arthur follows suit. “There’s a distinct lack of roaches in the corners, and nobody is stoned.”
“The night intern might be stoned,” says Merlin, head tilted to the side. “He’s always eating crisps. Also, you aren’t allowed to watch movies with radio stations in them anymore.”
“Well, it’s not as if I’m disappointed that the station isn’t on a boat.”
On the other side of the soundproof glass, Gwen flicks a switch and her voice starts coming out of one of the speakers. “If you two do this all night, we’re never going to have to worry about the ratings again. Merlin, you all set with the music library?”
“Not yet.” Arthur takes that as his cue to sit quietly like a good guest while Merlin and Gwen run through their well-worn pre-show routine. Since it’s still ten minutes to show time, he grabs his latest novel out of his bag and gets through a few pages before Merlin interrupts him with a hand waving in Arthur’s line of sight, standing close. “Five minutes to air, you’ve still got time to bail if you’d rather go sit with Gwen in the other room, I haven’t warned the listeners that you’re meant to be here, after all.”
He shrugs. “It’ll be interesting. And you asked.”
Merlin bends down to lean his forehead against Arthur’s. “You’re the best, you know.”
“Window’s still glass, boys,” says Gwen over the speaker, but she sounds amused. “Headphones on, this is your five-minute warning.”
Arthur takes the headset that Merlin proffers and tries not to grin at how ridiculous they both look when he catches sight of their reflections in the glass. Merlin collapses into his chair and then wheels it close enough that he can hook an ankle around Arthur’s out of Gwen’s line of sight. “Just be yourself, don’t worry about them recognizing your voice—you’ll sound different on our good microphones than you did over a phone connection. I’ll introduce you, and Gwen will screen carefully tonight so nobody will bother you too much.”
“I’m not a fragile flower,” Arthur feels the need to point out, and Merlin rolls his eyes before they lapse into silence for the next few minutes, until Gwen gives them a heads up and starts feeding the sound of the last song the show before Merlin’s is playing, then counts down until Merlin’s cue.
It’s amazing how fast Merlin straightens up and slips into hosting mode, although he keeps his leg tangled with Arthur’s. “Hello, everyone, and welcome to Dragon’s Lonely Hearts on this lovely Saturday night. We’ve got a special show for you tonight, because there’s a guest in the studio for the first time, our very own upstanding gent. Want to say hello?”
“Hello,” says Arthur, resisting the urge to wave because no one can actually see him. “It’s good to be here.”
“See, isn’t he nice? Anyway, as I think some of you on the fansites—don’t think I don’t know about those, my mother googles the show on a regular basis, please don’t say anything to upset her—anyway, some of you have figured out in the past month that the upstanding gent and I have been dating properly, and he’s kind enough to come in since I asked.”
And because Morgana threatened him with dismemberment if he backed out, but he’s not stupid enough to say that on air. She would be smug forever. They’ve discussed this bit some, so he chimes in. “I won’t pretend to give relationship advice like the Dragon, since he’ll be the first to tell you that I’m difficult, but—”
“But he is here to provide company and support and other such things. And if you want his opinion on something you can ask, but nothing invasive or we’ll be kicking you off the air and playing ‘Love Shack’ on repeat for the rest of the night.”
“And nobody deserves the B-52s,” says Arthur, and watches Gwen muffle a laugh into her hand on the other side of the glass.
Merlin just smirks at him. “It says a lot about you that you know the name of the band.” Before Arthur can answer, he smoothly continues with his opening chat. “And I won’t make this a theme episode, but I thought given the current company if anyone from the past that I’ve set up on date auctions wanted to call in and tell me how you’re getting on, if you’re still getting on, I’d be glad to hear from you. Other than that, we’ll be doing our usual show, but first let’s have a song to get us in the mood.” The music starts, and Merlin switches their microphones off before turning to Arthur. “There, that wasn’t so bad, was it?”
“Not bad at all,” Arthur assures him. “I don’t think I’d want to do it for a living, but it’s no worse than having to give a presentation at work.”
“Go team enthusiasm,” says Merlin, but he’s grinning so he isn’t bothered. Merlin is never afraid to say when he’s bothered.
The show seems to go quite quickly from there. The first few callers are all women and all far more interested in talking about Arthur and Merlin’s relationship than talking about their own love lives, and Merlin laughs them off with just enough information that they leave satisfied but don’t get anything close to the whole story. Although he does flagrantly denounce Arthur’s character by saying that he needed a lot of wooing and Arthur has to retaliate by informing all and sundry that the great Dragon spent their first proper date blushing like a schoolgirl. Gwen spends most of her time when she isn’t juggling incoming calls alternately smiling tolerantly at them and texting someone, probably Morgana, who she’s become inexplicably thick as thieves with in the past month.
After the first few, they do get some serious callers. A woman named Isolde calls in with her boyfriend Tristan (Seriously? Arthur mouths in Merlin’s direction, and just gets a grin in return) to talk about their upcoming wedding—apparently she was Merlin’s first date auction. There are a few more stories like that, or others who end up calling in to reminisce about how Merlin helped them with their problems. After an hour, Gwaine and Elena call in because they are awful people, and Elena spends the whole time half-collapsed in giggles while Gwaine talks seriously about how they’re soul mates and Arthur and Merlin just turn off their microphones except to keep him from veering off into X-rated territory so they can laugh helplessly.
After the first hour or so, it turns into a more normal show, starting with a girl calling in and asking how young is too young to be in a serious relationship, leading to a long discussion that has Merlin getting up from his chair and pacing silently back and forth in the tiny studio, Arthur shuffling out of his way and occasionally interjecting an opinion when Merlin asks him for one. From there, it’s easy enough to fall into a rhythm, giving his viewpoint when asked and otherwise watching Merlin, barely paying attention to the book he’s got open on his lap. Merlin paces on the more difficult calls and always bites his lip before he says anything, face screwed up while he thinks through his plan of attack. He and Gwen keep up a steady game of hangman through the glass whenever there’s music playing.
Sometime around quarter after one, Arthur starts yawning, used to listening to Merlin’s show right as he’s going to bed on the weekends, and before he knows it, he’s dozed off, the sound of Merlin arguing good-naturedly with someone over the proper etiquette of approaching someone you’ve got a crush on filtering in.
He isn’t aware of much else until he hears Merlin saying “—five minutes left, and as some of you might have noticed, my upstanding gent has been quiet for a while now. This is because he’s fallen asleep, the daft thing, but I suppose that’s what comes of being a businessman by day. So, since it’s been a special show—and I’ll bet you’re all hoping I can talk him into coming in again every once in a while—I’ll sign off for the night with one last song for him. Thank you all for listening, as always, and this is the Dragon saying good night to you. I’ll be back again next Friday at ten.”
There’s a little instrumental beginning, and then a woman starts crooning Stars shining bright above you and Arthur can’t help smiling. A second later, he hears the sound of Merlin wheeling closer and then feels Merlin whispering hot into his ear. “Microphone’s off.”
Arthur blinks his eyes open obligingly. “Sorry, I’m a rotten cohost. You couldn’t have a show that ends at a decent hour?”
“Afraid not.” Merlin stands, then grabs Arthur’s hand and tries to tug him up, probably intending to do some sort of stupid dance to the sound of the woman crooning for them to dream a little dream of me if he knows Merlin at all. Arthur drags him down into his lap instead. “Am I a prisoner?” Merlin inquires.
“Absolutely. Until I can bring myself to move, at least.” He stretches his neck out and lets Merlin nuzzle at his hair even though Gwen is watching and looking like she wants to lunge for her camera phone.
“And then you’ll come and sleep at my place.”
“Yes, I will,” says Arthur, even though he’s not spent the night at Merlin’s flat yet. Tonight means something, in an odd sort of way, and it seems fitting to cap it off like this.
Sweet dreams till sunbeams find you, the woman sings, and Arthur holds on until the end of the song.