Arthur wasn’t sure how he had gotten himself into this predicament, but Merlin was to blame. One moment he was single, and now he was on a blind date with one of Merlin’s friends from university. Arthur knew Merlin thought he was doing Arthur a favour, but what he felt right now was not gratitude, but sheer excruciating awkwardness from sitting in silence with a girl he barely knew while other people in the restaurant chatted happily all around them.
His date, a curly-haired brunette with large, chocolate-coloured eyes named Gwen, had been very quiet for the past minute. Under normal circumstances, a minute would have been fleeting, but when one was with a person they barely knew, it felt awkward if conversation wasn’t flowing. Arthur felt like he should probably say something, maybe ask Gwen a bit about herself, but he wasn’t sure where to start. He opened his mouth, the beginning of a question just starting to form on his lips, but just then, Gwen said hurriedly, “Sorry, I’m just going to pop to the loo for a second; would you give me a minute?”
And with that, she was gone, her skirt swaying as she moved between the tables. Arthur bit his lip in frustration, leaned forward and put his head in his hands, setting his elbows on the table. Why on earth had he even agreed to this?
Oh God, she wasn’t going to escape from the loos, was she?
Suddenly grasped by panic, Arthur got up in a hurry, almost toppling the table as he forgot to pull out his chair. He tried to get to the loo as quickly as he could without knocking anything else over, and succeeded in catching up with Gwen just as she was about to go into the ladies’.
“Gwen!” he called, and she turned, surprised to see that he had followed her. “Gwen, I’m really sorry, please don’t leave, it’s all my fault.”
For a moment, confusion was written all over Gwen’s face. Then she exclaimed, “Oh!” To Arthur’s surprise, she giggled. “Did you think I was trying to get out of here? Oh gosh. Don’t worry, I wouldn’t do that; I barely know you, but I’m not that cruel.”
“Oh,” Arthur said, caught off guard. “I thought…”
“No, I understand,” said Gwen, smiling. “I know you haven’t dated anyone in a while, so I was expecting things to be a bit slow.” She paused, then bit her lip. “I do really need to go though…”
“Right,” Arthur said, stepping back. “Okay. Have fun…in the loo.” His last sentence trailed off, and he mentally berated himself for his stupidity. Gwen just giggled, then turned away, pushed open the ladies’ door and disappeared inside.
Relieved, Arthur returned to the table and sank into his seat. Taking out his phone, he opened his texts and sent one to Merlin: Going well so far. Thought she was going to scarper for a moment there, but she was just going to the loo.
Merlin’s reply came a minute later. Idiot. Have more faith.
Arthur jumped at Gwen’s voice, and looked up so quickly he almost gave himself whiplash. He stuffed his phone in his pocket. “Oh, um – ”
“You look like I just caught you texting some other girl,” she teased, smoothing her skirt down as she sat. Then her expression changed when Arthur didn’t react. “You…weren’t texting some other girl, were you?” she said, looking worried.
“No, a boy actually,” Arthur replied, and then backtracked when Gwen’s mouth formed an O of surprise and he realised the double meaning of what he had just said. “No! Not like that! I mean, he’s just a friend.”
Gwen’s face went from surprised to relieved, and she smiled at him again, but Arthur, inexplicably, still felt on edge. “Just a friend,” he repeated, unsure of whom he was reassuring with this information.
Just then, their food arrived. Both of them used this as a momentary distraction and tucked in.
“So, tell me more about yourself,” said Gwen after a few minutes.
Arthur quickly put down his knife and fork and looked at her. Girls liked it if you gave them your undivided attention, right? Besides, it was probably rude if he just kept concentrating on his food while she talked. And what if she finished talking, and he was supposed to reply, but he had food in his mouth? What then?
Instead of looking pleased at his attention to her, however, Gwen looked slightly thrown off. “Um…maybe talk about your family?” she tried. “Or you can pick. Whatever you like. Let’s get to know each other a bit better. That was the point of this, right?”
Arthur looked at her, wide-eyed. He felt his mouth open and close, and he must have looked a bit like a fish because no words came out.
Gwen’s face softened. “It’s alright,” she said, and reached across the table so that she could grasp his hand. Arthur looked down, realising belatedly that his fingers had been unconsciously tapping out a frantic beat on the table. The surprise must have shown on his face, because she added with a smile, “You know, Arthur, you’re far more jittery than any of the dates I’ve gone out with.” She patted his hand. “You’re pretty good-looking, you know. There’s no need to be so nervous.”
Her face was so kind that the anxiety in Arthur’s chest dissipated slightly, and he swallowed. “No, it’s just – this date was a bit of a surprise,” he confessed. “I only knew of your existence and that I was going to be going on a date with you an hour before I arrived here.”
Now it was Gwen’s turn to look surprised. “Wait, what? But…we’ve been messaging each other for ages!”
Arthur stared at her. “No, we haven’t,” he said shortly. “You’re friends with Merlin, right? He said you’re one of his mates from university.”
Gwen frowned. “I don’t know anyone named Merlin,” she said.
Arthur was now very, very confused.
“So…” Gwen continued. “If it wasn’t you I was talking to, who the hell have I been messaging all this time online?”
“Hold on,” said Arthur. “That wasn’t me. Someone’s been impersonating as me.” He shook his head. “What the hell is going on?”
And then it clicked.
“Oh my god, that bastard,” Arthur said with feeling, and without another word, he stood up, walked away from the table, took out his phone, and called Merlin. As it rang, he chanced a look at Gwen, who was still sitting at the table and looking expectantly towards him, though not without some trepidation in her expression.
“Merlin, what the fuck did you do?”
“Arthur, I’m not sure what you – ”
“Don’t play coy with me, I know you did it,” Arthur interrupted. “Don’t fucking lie to me and tell me what’s going on!”
“Arthur, don’t shout,” Gwen pleaded. Arthur had no idea when she had gotten out of her seat, but she was next to him now, pulling at his arm. “People are looking at us…”
Arthur waved a hand dismissively in her direction. He saw her step away, her face twisting at the insulting gesture, but he paid no mind to it. “You had no right,” he continued to Merlin. “You had no bloody right!”
“Arthur, don’t screw this up. I thought you’d be more grateful than this. Go and talk to her.”
Arthur spluttered and made to yell at Merlin some more, but the line went dead. Unable to do anything, and too proud to call Merlin back, Arthur could do nothing but fume at the screen.
“Look,” Gwen said, hesitantly, “it doesn’t matter. We’re here now, so we might as well make the most of it…”
“I made a rule for myself ages ago that I would never be desperate enough to resort to online dating,” Arthur said, turning towards her. “It’s stupid, and a waste of time, and there are so many creepy people on there that you never know who’s a troll.”
Gwen’s mouth fell open. “Excuse me?” she said, her voice slightly higher than usual. “I’ll have you know that not everyone who goes on dating sites are just looking for a shag. I’m certainly not. And there are plenty of success stories of couples who have gotten into long-term relationships after meeting online. Your judgement is simply unfair. I came here to get to know you better and see if we were a good match. I guess we’re not.”
“I don’t care,” Arthur said. He wasn’t sure why he was suddenly being so spiteful, but what Merlin did was simply wrong. Besides, the evening was going to shit anyway; how much worse could he make it? “This…this goes against my morals.”
He knew it was coming before it happened. Gwen strode up to him, her expression livid, and slapped him hard across the face. “You absolute pig,” she spat. “I’m leaving.”
And she did. The other people in the restaurant stared after her as she stormed out, looking between her and Arthur with mixed expressions of pity and amusement.
Arthur ran his hands through his hair and swore. A waiter approached him, saying, “Sir, may I escort you back to – ”
“No, I’m going,” said Arthur irritably. He fished a fifty-pound note out of his pocket and thrust it at the waiter, not caring that it was far more than what the meal was worth. He simply didn’t care anymore. “Keep the change. Good evening.”
Arthur entered his and Merlin’s shared flat in an extremely bad mood. Apart from the fact that he had just had a terrible date, the Tube train was a bitch. Honestly, the least they could do was not lie about the ‘minor delays’ on the Circle line being minor.
Merlin was lying across the sofa, but sat up and swung his legs to the floor as soon as Arthur walked in. “You’re back early,” he said, nonchalant.
“Merlin Emerson,” Arthur intoned slowly, enunciating his words with as much steel in his voice as he could possibly inject in to it. “What. The fuck. Did you think you were doing.”
“I was trying to help!”
“Help? Help what? I was doing fine on my own, and then you decided you would pretend you were me and set up an online dating profile! I thought you said she was a friend from uni!”
“She,” Merlin said, sounding slightly annoyed, “has a name, and is a perfectly lovely person. Besides, there weren’t any girls in my English class who were interested.”
“Yeah, but you could have fucking told me first!”
“Okay, okay.” Merlin held up his hands. “What happened?”
“She walked out on me,” Arthur said shortly.
“Oh. What did you do?”
Arthur looked at him incredulously. “Why are you assuming that it’s my fault?”
“Because it usually is,” Merlin said. “It was, wasn’t it?”
Arthur had too much pride to admit that it had indeed been his fault, that it had been his irrationality and prejudice that had caused Gwen to flare up in anger and leave, but Merlin figured it out anyway from his expression. “Please don’t tell me you were a stuck-up prat about online dating.”
Arthur stayed silent.
“Oh god. You did.” Merlin covered his face with his hands. “Why didn’t you do what any normal person would have done and get on with it?”
“Because she told me we’d been messaging online for weeks when we hadn’t!” Arthur took off his coat and threw it over a chair. “What did you even tell her?”
“Liar.” Arthur was fuming. “What was it, Merlin? I know she knows I haven’t dated anyone in a while; she said as much. What else does she know? What image has she conjured up of me from what you said?” He strode over to the sofa and sat down with a heavy sigh. “Fuck, Merlin, you know I’d only disappoint her.”
Merlin looked at him, his eyebrows drawn together. “That’s not true.”
They were silent for a few seconds.
“Merlin, why did you ever think it would be a good idea to set me up on a date?” Arthur asked tiredly, the anger gone from his voice.
Merlin looked down at his lap. “I thought you were lonely.”
Arthur felt strangely touched by this statement, but he still had one more thing to say. “Merlin…”
Arthur looked at him. “You know I’m not actually into girls, right?”
Merlin stared at him.
“So, for all your good intentions, it never would have worked out anyway.” Arthur sighed and closed his eyes. “I ended it with Elena because I realised what we hadn’t wasn’t really romantic, and since then, I’ve set my sights on someone else.”
A few seconds dragged before Merlin spoke again, his voice almost a whisper. “Some…someone else?”
He looked so wide-eyed with surprise that Arthur couldn’t help but smile. “Idiot,” he said, fondly.
Taking a breath, Arthur moved closer to Merlin on the sofa. “I was furious at you just now, but I haven’t told you all the reasons,” he said. “I was angry partly because of the fact that you had lied to me, and that you pretended to be me in order to get me a date. That was out of line.”
Merlin nodded, and looked as if he wanted to apologise, but Arthur held up a hand to shush him. “But I also want to explain,” he said slowly, “that I was only angry because…”
Arthur stopped and took a deep breath; his other hand gripped the edge of the sofa, as if for support. Beside him, Merlin was completely still.
“So, this took me a long time to realise, and once I did I tried to lie to myself that it wasn’t true. And then you told me you’d set up with someone else, and it just made everything more difficult, so I got frustrated and acted like an absolute dick to Gwen. I probably should apologise to her, if she hasn’t blocked me online yet.”
Merlin chuckled, but still didn’t say anything.
“But, er…I’ve realised that I actually care quite a bit about you, even though it doesn’t seem like it half the time. Which I’m sorry about, and yes, you did just hear me apologise. Um. Yeah. I think I might love you, so I would appreciate it if you stopped trying to find me a date, because you’re sort of the only person I want to do that with.”
Merlin’s mouth parted with a slight intake of breath, and Arthur watched his expression, not knowing what to think. After all, he had just poured his heart out to him, and he wasn’t sure what kind of reaction he was expecting. Suddenly, he began to imagine what would happen next: Merlin laughing it off like his confession had been a joke, or reacting horribly and deciding that Arthur had complicated things too much for them to even be friends anymore.
Instead, Merlin just shook his head and laughed. “You complete, utter prat,” he said, and to Arthur’s surprise, leaned over and kissed him.