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.