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.
Easter Egg: Some of the calls to the radio show are cameos from other fandoms, so if you were wondering if some of them were familiar, they were meant to be.</a>