Arthur would have to send Morgana some flowers.
He’d spent the last week subjecting her to a barrage of abusive texts (his sister was far too smart to pick up the phone to him) since she’d emailed him the link to the new dating website account she’d set up in his name.
Arthur did not need help finding a date. He was just going through a slight dry spell, that was all. And if it was a dry spell that had just crossed the one year mark, that was hardly any of Morgana’s business. Maybe he wanted to prioritise other, more important things over his love-life. Like his career. Or his cookery skills. Or his high score on FIFA 15.
Okay, maybe he did need a bit of help. It didn’t mean he couldn’t be completely resentful about it, at least until a message pinged up on his profile from a certain Merlin Emrys.
Unlike most of the other messages he’d received so far, this one was neither embarrassingly sexual nor vaguely unsettling. It simply read ‘Hi, liked your profile, sounds like we share a few interests. I think you live quite nearby if you ever fancy a drink?’
It was a little dry, maybe, but Arthur would take dry over that message from AnalDestroyer5 extolling the virtues of rimming any day. And Merlin’s profile picture was extremely cute. They messaged back and forth for a while before arranging to go out for dinner at an Italian chain in the centre of town.
He still wasn’t willing to let Morgana off the hook, but by the time Merlin had showed up (blue shirt, black jeans, million dollar smile) and they’d talked non-stop for nearly three hours (Star Wars vs Star Trek, the upcoming election, the continuing hotness of David Bowie), he had to concede that he owed her a least a dozen roses. Merlin was… kind of brilliant. Funny and quirky and smart. He was quite shy at first, but as the evening wore on he proved to be quick with a comeback. Arthur knew he could be sharp sometimes, that it tended to put more sensitive types off, but Merlin returned every tease with a quip of his own. He had even, Arthur hated to admit it, gotten the best of him several times.
Arthur hadn’t come prepared to meet someone so engaging, so challenging; someone that made his heart beat a little faster. He’d assumed internet dating was for fruitcakes and lonely losers but Merlin was clearly neither. He mentioned this at one point, tongue loosened slightly by wine and Merlin’s face fell. Arthur didn’t quite get why there was no returning volley but it was the only awkward moment in an otherwise perfect evening.
They lingered in the restaurant for so long that almost everyone was gone. Merlin looked around and gave him a rueful smile.
“I guess we should ask for the bill.”
Arthur didn’t want the night to end just yet.
“Yeah, and then maybe we could…” Arthur paused, giving Merlin an intent look. “My place isn’t far from here if you fancied a nightcap?”
Merlin blushed slightly but he leant in across the table.
“Trying to get me back to yours on the first date? What do you take me for?”
“I could tell you what I’d like to take you for,” Arthur said shamelessly, and Merlin’s blush deepened.
“I suppose I could come back for one drink. But no funny business.”
“Not even slightly funny business? Like, mildly amusing business?”
“Nope,” Merlin said, eyes sparkling. “If you want to get down to even vaguely droll business you’ll have to take me out a few more times.”
“I can do that,” Arthur said. “I can definitely do that.”
He meant it, too. He came on the date thinking that even if there was no long-term spark, he might get a quick fumble out of it. But he’d suddenly rather see Merlin again, get to know him better, learn a few more of his secrets before he took him to bed.
Two dozen roses, he decided, watching the candlelight play across Merlin’s face. Morgana had done well this time.
When the bill finally arrived Arthur immediately offered to pay, brooking no arguments about it.
“I invited you! It’s etiquette, look it up.”
Merlin eventually relented.
“Fine, but I got sent a coupon on my email, at least let me use that.”
Arthur conceded the point and waited for him show his phone to the waitress before throwing down the required amount plus an extremely generous tip (half out of guilt for staying so long, half hoping to impress Merlin with his largess). The waitress flushed with pleasure.
“Thanks very much! Oh and, happy birthday!”
That last part was directed at Merlin, whose ears immediately reddened. He got to his feet rather abruptly.
“What?” Arthur said, thoroughly confused. “Is it your birthday?”
Merlin didn’t seem to hear, he was fiddling with the buttons on his coat.
“How did the waitress know?” Arthur asked, and then suddenly remembered that chains sometimes sent out discount vouchers to use on your birthday. He’d gotten one only two months before from this very restaurant. That must have been what Merlin showed her.
Merlin didn’t answer that either, he was already walking fast towards the door and Arthur grabbed his coat to follow him.
“Hey, how come you didn’t say it was your birthday?” Arthur said when they were out on the street. Merlin wasn’t looking at him, and Arthur wondered if he was missing something.
“It’s not a big deal,” he said and a thought occurred to Arthur. Perhaps Merlin hadn’t wanted him to know because he was too polite to tell Arthur that meeting up on his birthday wasn’t particularly convenient.
Arthur had said in the email he was quite busy at the moment, and Thursday was one of his only free nights for a while… he could have smacked himself.
“Merlin, we didn’t have to meet tonight if you already had birthday plans! I only suggested tonight because it worked for me, you should’ve said.”
“It’s fine,” Merlin said but from the tightness of his lips it clearly wasn’t. Arthur felt terrible.
“Don’t tell me I kept you away from a party or something?”
“Did I make you ditch your friends for-”
“God, Arthur, just stop! I didn’t have plans, there was no party, there was no anything because I don’t… I don’t have any friends, alright?”
The silence that followed was painful. Merlin’s face was flushed with humiliation and Arthur didn’t know what to say for a few moments.
“I’m sure you have-”
“No, I don’t, okay? We moved around a lot when I was a kid and the friends I did have I lost touch with. And at uni I wasn’t… I wasn’t very happy and I didn’t socialise much. And now I work from home, so I never really meet anyone.”
“But you… you must have family…” Arthur said weakly.
“I’m an only child and my dad left when I was little. My mum died just before I went to uni, hence why I wasn’t very happy there. It was… it was just the two of us, really.”
Merlin’s gaze was firmly locked on the ground, hands clenched into fists.
“I only joined that stupid website to get some practice with socialising, I didn’t think anyone would actually want to date me. You were right earlier Arthur, what was it you said? It’s for lonely losers? Yep, that’s pretty much me.”
“How else would you describe someone who doesn’t even have a friend to call on his birthday? I think this is the first one I’ve had in five years that I didn’t spend completely alone.”
Merlin’s eyes were bright with tears and there was nothing Arthur wanted more than to wipe them away. He moved forward but Merlin held his hand up.
“Don’t. Don’t pity me. Just… I’m gonna go now. Thank you for dinner. It was really nice to meet you.”
There was a note of finality in his tone that suggested they would not be meeting again. Before Arthur could even form a reply, Merlin turned on his heel and walked away.
Arthur just stood there. It was a lot to process, the way the witty, clever man he’d spent the night with had suddenly been replaced by someone so hurt and vulnerable in the space of mere minutes. Arthur felt terrible for dredging all that stuff to the surface, but not as terrible as he felt about the fact that Merlin had been alone for so long. He couldn’t even imagine what that was like, he’d always been surrounded by people; had taken it for granted, in fact. The thought of kind, compassionate Merlin sitting alone on his past four birthdays broke Arthur’s heart.
Then what are you doing, moron? said a voice in his head that sounded suspiciously like Morgana’s. Go after him!
Arthur instantly broke into a run, even though Merlin had barely gotten to the end of the street yet. He was hunched into his coat, a forlorn figure against the night sky.
“Hey! Merlin, wait!”
The other man turned slowly, as if expecting a trick of some kind as Arthur jogged up.
“I don’t pity you,” Arthur said straightaway.
“You don’t have to talk to me because you feel bad-”
“I’m not. Don’t get me wrong, I do feel bad, because it sucks that someone as awesome as you isn’t surrounded by friends to tell you how great you are whenever you forget it. But I’m talking to you because I like you and I fancy you and I want to continue our date.”
Merlin looked torn between wariness and hope.
“Were you not listening to how pathetic I am?”
“You’re not pathetic,” Arthur said firmly. “So you’ve had bad luck with friendships. So what? I have too many bloody friends. Can’t stand half of them.”
Merlin half-smiled before his face dropped again.
“It’s pretty pathetic to always be alone on your birthday.”
“I’m sorry, does it look like you’re alone? Or does it look like you’re in the company of an extremely handsome and incredibly stylish gentleman who’s just treated you to a gourmet meal and now wants to take you back to his flat for a glass of smooth whiskey and a night of passionate sex?”
Merlin really did smile this time.
“There might be a couple of exaggerations in that sentence.”
“Alright, so it wasn’t a gourmet meal. I stand by every other adjective however, particularly ‘handsome’.”
Merlin laughed, and Arthur stepped towards him.
“Fine, we can put the passionate sex on hold. I remember you said no funny business.”
“I did,” Merlin said solemnly. “But I could perhaps allow some faintly comic business, just this once.”
Arthur didn’t need a written invitation. He brought his lips to Merlin’s, entwining one hand in his hair while the other settled on his back. Merlin’s lips were warm, responsive. Wonderful. Oh, Arthur could fall for this man.
He might have accidentally said that out loud when they broke apart but it was a happy accident, because then Merlin took him by the hand and told him to lead the way to his flat.
They never got around to the smooth whiskey in the end, but all in all Arthur deemed it a birthday to remember.
Arthur did end up buying Morgana a ridiculously huge bunch of flowers but he didn’t send them to her. He presented them in person a week later at the belated birthday party he’d thrown for Merlin at his flat. A party where Lance had clapped Merlin on the back and engaged him in a forty minute discussion on Breaking Bad. Where Elyan had found out Merlin used to row as a teen, and invited him to join him on the river next weekend. Where Gwen had made Merlin promise to come into the café she worked at so she could fatten him up with cream cakes. Where Gwaine had snagged Merlin for his partner in Pictionary and then spent the whole time making fun of Arthur’s squiggly drawings until Merlin had collapsed in laughter.
A party where Arthur had slow danced with Merlin to Ella Fitzgerald in the kitchen, when everyone else had gone home or passed out drunk. And traced the lines of Merlin’s happy, sleepy face. And pulled him close to his chest and whispered all manner of sentimental things, intoxicated by the music and the wine and the warm body pressed up against him.
Things like, “you’re lovely.” And “I’m so glad I met you.”
And “I’ll never let you feel alone again.”