Arthur was never, ever going to do anything kind for anyone, ever again. Some things were beyond the call of friendship. And he was the Prince of Wales. He shouldn’t have to be kind, or even nice. He was quite sure his father wouldn’t ever have been when he was crown prince. Certainly the now King Uther wouldn’t have been seen dead in a place like the one Arthur was sitting in.
It was a bingo hall.
Arthur Pendragon, decorated RAF captain, heir to the throne, university graduate and all-round VIP was sitting in a bingo hall. About to play bingo. Across the aisle, a little old lady was sitting with a glass of what looked suspiciously like gin, doing her knitting. At the next table down, two women had set out an industrial-sized pack of bingo markers and what looked as if it might be some sort of lucky mascot. Or, perhaps they brought a moth-eaten plushie cat with them everywhere. They also seemed to have bought a massive stack of bingo cards. Not that Arthur’s own stack was inconsiderable. There was a confusion of different types of card in the pile that the bloke behind the counter had handed over and Arthur really had no idea what he was supposed to do with them.
Lance was still at the bar. Arthur wished he’d hurry back. There was a woman four tables down who’d dressed up as if she was going to a questionable night club, and she had started smiling over at Arthur in a manner that was far too friendly for his liking. Her attire looked particularly ludicrous given that the table opposite hosted a woman in a salmon-pink onesie.
“Gonna make this a night to remember…” started to blast out from the speakers near the stage. Oh yes, definitely. No matter how much Arthur wanted to forget it, he had a horrible feeling that night was going to be seared on his brain forever.
Lance was showing no signs of coming back. Understandably, as the only reason that the pair of them were there was that Lance was besotted with Gwen, the pretty girl who ran the bar, and he’d begged for moral support. He didn’t seem to actually need it as he’d dumped Arthur at the table and then gone straight over there, supposedly to buy them drinks. Arthur could see him leaning over the bar, smiling stupidly at Gwen. Arthur had already met her once. She was very pretty and had seemed rather sweet. She had also spent the whole time smiling back at Lance, obviously just as interested as he was. Arthur had a horrible feeling that he was going to spend most of the evening sitting there by himself. Playing bingo.
At least nobody realised it was him. He’d come in disguise and nobody would ever know…
“You do realise that you’re indoors?”
Arthur looked up, startled.
A tall, skinny man in jeans and T-shirt was standing beside him, looking down at him in amusement. The T-shirt declared ‘I’ve got balls’ with a row of brightly coloured balls spelling out the word ‘bingo’ underneath.
“You’re indoors,” the man repeated. “People don’t usually wear sunglasses inside. It’s not that bright.”
“Apparently it’s not the only thing,” Arthur muttered. “Did you want something?”
The man smiled. “You’re new.”
“Yes. My friend fancies your barmaid. I owed him a favour. So, here I am.”
The man’s smile widened, and then to Arthur’s horror he sat down opposite. “Aw, you’re Lance’s mate? I’m Merlin, Gwen’s flatmate. She never shuts up about him.”
Actually, Merlin was rather attractive. He had gorgeous blue eyes, and a shock of dark hair. Arthur thought he might lose himself in that smile if he wasn’t careful. But still, he was in a bingo hall. He wasn’t there to pull.
“And you know what? He’s bodyguard to that prat, Prince Arthur!”
He definitely wasn’t there to pull. And Merlin definitely wasn’t that attractive after all. Arthur smoothed his hand self-consciously over the dark wig he was wearing, making sure it was still in place. “Lance says the prince is a decent sort.”
Merlin snorted contemptuously. “Haven’t you seen the pictures in the papers of him falling in the gutter after a night out? Throwing up in the back of his limo?”
“No. Did you want something?” Arthur repeated.
“Oh… yes. I’m supposed to help any new people, tell them what to do.”
“I think I can manage to stamp a few bingo cards without any help, Mer-lin,” Arthur told him as haughtily as he could. “Run along and help that little old lady with her knitting.”
Merlin frowned at him, then shrugged and got to his feet. “No need to be such a prat about it. I was only doing my job.”
Right. Arthur was fairly sure Merlin’s job description didn’t include insulting the heir to the throne. But he couldn’t really say that without risking giving himself away. And if the paparazzi ever found out that he was in a bingo hall, actually about to play bingo… The humiliation didn’t bear thinking about.
“You run along and do your job then,” Arthur advised. “No need to bother me again until you bring round my winnings later.”
Merlin looked for a moment as if he was about to say something in reply. But he must have thought better of it. Perhaps he valued his job? At any rate he turned away and a moment later Arthur could hear him greeting the lady who was knitting.
“Hi Alice… is that for your granddaughter?”
Arthur tuned out. What kind of a person had a job helping people to stamp a bingo card? Merlin seemed to be some sort of meet and greet. Wait… he lived with Gwen? That meant if Lance got together with the girl then Arthur might have to spend time in Merlin’s company again in the future. Unless he sacked Lance. That might be an option. How dare he say that Arthur was a prat! Arthur was the prince. Arthur decided to ignore Merlin. He wished Lance would hurry up and get back with his drink. He really needed it after his conversation with Merlin. But Lance was showing no sign of returning. He was… ugh! Gwen had let him behind the bar and now they were kissing. There was no chance of Arthur getting that drink any time soon. Suddenly the screen over the stage lit up with what looked like a giant bingo card, and the lights got, if possible, even brighter.
There was a bored-looking young man up on the stage, talking into the microphone, but he was being drowned out by the music. Arthur watched, amused, as he flicked a few switches without any noticeable effect. Defeated, the man then looked around worriedly until he spotted Merlin.
Merlin was holding up the plushie cat and chatting to the two ladies at that table. Like Alice, they seemed perfectly happy with him. But then he probably hadn’t called them prats. Arthur was very justified in his dislike. Particularly as Merlin had smiled at him so disarmingly, and briefly fooled Arthur into thinking him attractive and even shaggable. It was unforgivable.
“Merlin!” the young man up on the stage called, then gestured at the microphone, shook his head and shrugged, obviously trying to communicate that the thing wasn’t working. It was unlikely that Merlin with his balls T-shirt was going to be able to fix it, so Arthur stayed where he was, hoping that there was going to be an opportunity to point out how hopeless Merlin was and then to fix it himself. He’d done quite a lot of comms work in the RAF (because that was considered safer than anything else, much to Arthur’s annoyance) and knew he could fix it in a moment, even though the thing was clearly an antique.
Merlin was bending over. He wore those jeans well, Arthur couldn’t help noticing. Very well. Merlin’s arse was a pleasing sight on an otherwise truly dire evening. It was a shame the owner of said arse was so irritating. The young man up on the stage seemed to be admiring it as well, though as far as Arthur could see it was unrequited admiration.
Annoyingly, not only because Arthur had been looking forward to helping out and showing Merlin just how it was done, Merlin immediately straightened up and spoke into the microphone.
“Sorry about that everyone. Mordred hadn’t plugged it in. Everyone ready? We’ll start the table top games for your warm-up.”
Arthur could think of a few warm-up games. He smirked to himself, then realised Alice had noticed him staring. She was smiling at him over her knitting.
“Merlin’s a lovely lad,” she purred. “Just needs someone who appreciates that.”
Arthur certainly didn’t appreciate it. He pretended not to have heard, and busied himself looking through the pile of bingo cards, then glaring over at Lance. His friend was apparently now testing how long he and Gwen could kiss without coming up for air.
Alice, and most of the other punters, had picked up the plastic bingo boards that were slotted into the side of each table. Arthur picked one up, curious. It had little black plastic shutters over the numbers that slid back and forth easily. It also had something gross congealed in one corner that looked as if it might have been the remains of someone’s lunch. He put it back into its slot quickly, grimacing.
The young man who wasn’t Merlin, Mordred apparently, was talking over the microphone. He was saying something about a line, and then started reeling off numbers. The room had gone far quieter, although there were people over at the hot food place on the far side of the hall, and a few at the bar. The rather handsome man from the hot food stall had briefly stepped in to help Gwen, which was just as well. The man had hair that was so swishy it wouldn’t look out of place on a shampoo commercial and had a wicked smile. Still, Arthur wasn’t there to pull. Annoyed at being abandoned, Arthur texted Lance.
“Where’s my drink?”
Lance didn’t even glance at his phone, the traitor. He and Gwen did finally break apart a few moments later when Merlin wandered over, leaned across the bar and said something to them. Whatever it was, it made them all laugh. In fact, they all looked over at him, still laughing. That was very wrong. Nobody laughed at Arthur. He glared at them, and mimed drinking to Lance. At least Lance looked guilty. Sure enough, a few minutes later he returned with their drinks.
“Sorry, bit of a queue.”
Arthur didn’t even dignify that one with a response.
“Did Merlin show you what to do?” Lance continued. “He said they’re going to start the main games in a minute.”
“It’s bingo,” Arthur said drily. “I think I can manage. Actually, as you’ve snogged Gwen now, can we go?”
Lance grinned as if Arthur had made a huge joke, and settled down in the seat opposite him. He shuffled through his bingo cards and put a small square one on top. Actually, that looked far too efficient. As if he knew what he was doing. As if…
“You’ve been here before.”
Lance looked up guiltily just for a moment, before doing his best to look completely innocent. “Nonsense.”
Arthur wasn’t fooled. “You didn’t need me to come along at all.”
“Oh, I did. It’s a long time to sit here and wait for Gwen to finish her shift. Last time I was in here this woman came and sat at the next table and kept… offering things.”
“Coffee, chips, her dabber, a blow job… it escalated as the evening went on.”
Arthur raised an eyebrow and looked around worriedly. “Which one?”
“She’s not here tonight. We’re safe.”
Arthur risked a glance at the over-dressed woman a few tables down. She smiled far too brightly at him, all teeth and bright red lipstick. Predatory, she was definitely eyeing them with interest. There were also two girls (who couldn’t have been more than twenty-five, so he wondered what the hell they were doing at bingo?) past her who kept glancing over and giggling to one another. Arthur wasn’t sure if those two fancied Lance and himself or just liked the idea of them together. Possibly it was both. Or, horror of horrors, they might have recognised him. He slumped down in his seat as much as he could, and Lance looked up worriedly.
“Bored. I’d like to leave now.”
“You can’t. You promised. And what kind of king-to-be breaks his promises? Besides, this is a once in a lifetime opportunity to do something new, something ordinary, something…”
“Amazingly dull and boring,” Arthur finished for him. “Seriously, Lance, can’t we go and sit in a pub and wait there for Gwen to finish her shift?”
“It’s character-building,” Lance insisted.
Lance was quite annoying, Arthur decided. He was completely loyal and the best friend Arthur had ever had. He also didn’t pander to Arthur at all and often was the one actually doing the ordering around, though he covered it up by pretending to make kindly suggestions. That was the sort of thing that usually happened on one of their social nights when Lance didn’t approve of what Arthur was doing. Arthur wasn’t even sure if he loved or hated it. He wasn’t going to do anything about it though, in case his father decided to sack Lance and replace him with some stuffy, boring, serious shirt who never let Arthur do anything fun, ever.
Still, at least Arthur wouldn’t be sitting in a bingo hall with whoever it was. Or maybe he would, as bingo wasn’t fun at all.
“And shhh,” Lance urged. “Mordred’s finished, almost time to start.”
Lance actually looked quite enthusiastic at the prospect, beaming happily at Arthur. Well, if that was what love did to you, then Arthur hoped that he would stay forever single and sane. He rolled his eyes, but Lance just smiled back. Sickening. Arthur looked away and saw that the annoying Merlin character was hurrying back up to the stage, almost tripping over his own feet when he reached the small flight of steps that led up to it.
Mordred, Arthur noted, was gazing at Merlin with much the same expression Lance got when he looked at Gwen. Typical. It wasn’t even Valentine’s Day and Arthur was surrounded by happy couples. Although in Merlin and Mordred’s case the affection seemed to be one-sided. Merlin was only giving Mordred the same very friendly smile he gave everyone else.
Merlin skipped up to the mike and took over. Mordred, who had been a bit bland in his delivery of various numbers, stepped back and let him. In contrast to Mordred, Merlin was a burst of energy.
“Oh my god!” Arthur couldn’t help exclaiming. Because everyone in there was so used to Merlin that they all called back Evening Merlin! Even Lance did, then looked at Arthur a little sheepishly. As well he might. Arthur wasn’t going to let him forget this evening. Ever.
“Are we all ready to win?”
Oh, he was just too cheery for words. Arthur eyed the exit longingly. When he was king he was going to ban bingo clubs, he’d already decided. And cute, slightly hyper, bingo callers.
“Merlin’s very popular,” Lance offered, as if that was some kind of excuse for the whole experience.
Yes, he was. Mordred looked as if he’d like to eat Merlin for breakfast. Or, you know, any time of day or night. Arthur didn’t really blame him, although Merlin was of course far too excitable for Arthur. Definitely. And annoying. He tried to remember that. Not attractive at all. The Night to Remember music started blaring out again. Arthur supposed he’d be horribly ear wormed for days on that one.
“Right, usual house contest starts now. For anyone new, or wearing sunglasses,” - Merlin grinned at Arthur, who tried to look as dignified as possible - “this is a unique competition we have just for this club. Look at your table number. I’m going to play our theme a lot. We all count how many times it plays. The person sitting at the table with the closest number is the winner…” He tapped a button and the theme rang out again. “That’s number four, in case of any doubt.”
Arthur had heard it far too many times already. He glanced at the table number. They were on number 33 and there were far more than thirty-three tables. Oh no. Arthur didn’t think he could cope with hearing it at least thirty more times.
“It’s a special contest Merlin thought up,” Lance told him. “It’s his favourite song or the company theme or something.”
Merlin dropped a notch further in Arthur’s estimation.
“What’s tonight’s prize?” someone yelled. That was followed by a chorus of suggestions, none of which seemed to involve money, strangely enough.
“Pint of beer!”
“Kiss from the caller!”
“Kiss from the barmaid!”
“Kiss from both of them!”
“Oh my god!” Arthur hissed. “What the hell is this place?”
Lance just laughed. “It turned out to only be a bar of chocolate last time,” he admitted. “Merlin just encourages the teasing.” Then he joined in. “Date with the barmaid!”
“What if you don’t win?” Arthur warned.
Lance shrugged. “It’s fixed.”
“Excellent idea from the handsome gent in aisle two!” Merlin yelled. “Me and Gwen are feeling sad and solo at the moment.”
Mordred muttered something grumpily and Merlin patted him on the shoulder consolingly. “And Mordred is too!”
Mordred glared at him. Arthur guessed that whatever Mordred had just said had been a private attempt at flirting with Merlin. Merlin obviously was not interested, but was trying to let him see that gently.
“So, tonight’s prize is letting one of us take you for a drink afterwards. Your choice as to which one. Or all three of us!”
“And me!” the swishy-haired hot food guy called.
There was a lot of cat-calling and laughter at that. Mordred looked grumpier than ever. And Arthur, who suspected Lance was highly likely to win, cringed at the thought of twenty-nine more plays of that awful song.
“I’m sure this isn’t very professional,” Arthur complained. “And Mordred doesn’t look very happy.”
“Mordred fancies Merlin, has done for ages. He’d be jealous if a little old lady got to go for a drink with him. But it’s just a laugh. I might pick Merlin and Gwen just for the hell of it.”
“You won’t though.”
“No,” Lance was gazing adoringly over at Gwen again. God, it was nauseating how sweet they were.
The song played out again, and many people shouted out “Five!”
Merlin looked delighted. “Oh, you’re on form tonight!”
Arthur thought he might have died and gone to hell. And hell was a bingo club…
“Let’s get on with the main event,” Merlin continued happily. “First game, as always, is Americano.”
“Coffee?” Arthur whispered. “That explains why he’s so hyper.”
Lance waved a small square card at him from his own pile. “American bingo. Four corners or a line.”
Arthur couldn’t even find his little card. He shuffled through the papers noisily, until Lance reached across and pulled it out of the pile.
“Did you just tut?” Arthur demanded. “You did, didn’t you?”
“That was me,” Alice told him from across the aisle. “And take off those sunglasses young man, you look silly.”
Arthur actually couldn’t see the card very well but he wasn’t going to give in after that. Also, he did feel that he had a good reason for wearing them.
“Eyes down,” Merlin called. “Except Mr Sunglasses over there, as he probably can’t see anything.”
Damn. When he was king, Arthur wasn’t just going to shut all bingo halls, he was going to send all bingo callers to the Tower. Well, maybe not all. But Merlin was definitely heading there. Defiantly, he peered at his card. Then he realised something.
“I need a pen!” he hissed.
Silently, Lance handed him one. It was a biro. Arthur marked the edge of his card experimentally. He couldn’t see the mark he’d made. He looked across at Lance, who was holding a large purple dabber. Doubtless Gwen had procured it for him. “I need one of those.”
Lance sighed and handed it over, taking the pen.
“First number… two little ducks… 22!” Merlin cried.
“Ducks?” Arthur queried, and was promptly shushed by most of the nearby tables.
“Just cross off 22 on your card if it’s there, Mr Sunglasses,” Merlin called. People sniggered.
Arthur really loathed Merlin.
“Three and six, 36.”
Arthur was still looking for 22. He found it, then couldn’t get the top off his dabber. He pulled extra hard, and suddenly it flew across the room, narrowly missing the plushie cat women. Heads turned. People frowned. Arthur cringed.
“Tin hats are available from reception,” Merlin called. People laughed. “And sunglasses are removable.” More laughter. They bloody loved Merlin in there. Arthur scowled at him, but he couldn’t remove his glasses now that everyone was looking at him. Worse, when he looked over at Lance (hoping for support because, after all, this was all Lance’s fault), he found his friend was trying to hide a smirk.
“Shut up!” Arthur hissed.
Lance just shook his head, obviously unable to speak in case he burst out laughing, and mimed zipping his mouth… his still smirking mouth… shut.
“Last number was 36,” Merlin continued. “Eyes down… next number… four and two, 42.”
Arthur couldn’t remember what the number before 36 was. But he wasn’t going to ask Merlin, so he just tapped the dabber on a blank square. He couldn’t see 36.
“One and nine, 19.”
Well that was far too quick. Arthur looked around, confused, but nobody else appeared to be having trouble. There had definitely been a four in it… He dabbed at 14. That would have to do. Then what was it? 18? 19? There was a loud shushing from behind him
“You’re muttering,” Lance whispered. “Stop it.”
“It’s too fast. How can all the old dears keep up?”
The so-called old dears were whippet-alert, their hands flying over what seemed in many cases to be more than one card.
“On its own, just like me, number 3.”
Arthur wasn’t surprised Merlin was on his own. Even if he did have the most adorable smile, he was also possibly the most annoying man ever to walk the earth. And there wasn’t a number 3 on Arthur’s card.
“27… 2… 31…” It went on. Far, far too fast. And then someone yelled out, “Here!”
Merlin skipped down the steps and jogged over to a lady two rows over who was eagerly waving her little card at him, while the theme played over the tannoy and everyone shouted, “Six!”
“That was rubbish,” Arthur grumbled.
Lance peered at Arthur’s card. “You nearly got a line. Except I’m sure those aren’t the right numbers.”
“That Merlin went too fast. Anyway, was that it? Can we go?”
“No. Plenty more cards to fill in. Anyway, Gwen is thrilled you’re here and says you must come over to say hello in the break. She’ll be discreet, of course.”
Gwen was nice and Arthur didn’t want to upset her. But he really wasn’t having fun.
“Well done to Sue, who’s won ten pounds!” Merlin yelled as he jogged back up to the stage. He had to be quite fit. But Arthur wasn’t going to notice that. “Next up, it’s the Purple Pages!”
At least Arthur could find that one. A bright purple sheet with six cards on it. He pulled it out and peered at it. “Do we start with the first one?” he asked Lance.
“All six together.”
“All of them? At once?”
Lance sighed. “Look, it’s easy. The first column has numbers up to 10, and there’s only one of each. So you just look up and down the column for the number that’s been called. And watch out for lines. You should’ve let Merlin show you. Merlin’s really nice. You’ll like him when you get to know him. He’s Gwen’s flatmate.”
Arthur vaguely recalled Merlin mentioning that. Which meant their paths would cross again.
“He hates the monarchy.”
“He thinks I’m a prat!”
Lance didn’t say anything, but suddenly got very interested in his bingo card.
“Eyes down. We’re looking for a single line first of all,” Merlin called.
At first it was every bit as awful and difficult to follow the numbers as Arthur had expected. But then he got the hang of it. Not on the purple card, nor the yellow sheet that followed, and he got really lost when Merlin started broadcasting on some national thing and apparently they were all linked up to every bingo club in the country or something. That was particularly fast and stressful, but it was over quickly.
And then they had the lucky stars ticket booklet. That one Arthur actually kept up with, and on the third page he suddenly realised…
“Wait! I’ve got a line! Bingo!” Arthur looked towards the stage very smugly.
Merlin rolled his eyes. “I’m very pleased for you, but we’re looking for a full house.”
There was a mixture of laughter and tutting. Most of the laughter was coming from Lance, who was definitely sacked at the end of this, Arthur decided. And from Gwen, who clearly wasn’t as nice as Arthur had at first thought. That Mordred was laughing as well, although Arthur got the feeling it was more an excuse to suck up to Merlin. The two women with the moth-eaten plushie cat didn’t seem to think it was funny, though. They were looking daggers at him for interrupting the game. Arthur ducked his head. Bingo playing was evidently more dangerous than he had thought.
Someone way across on the other side of the room won, and Arthur decided he wasn’t going to risk calling again, even when he was fairly sure he’d got the winning line a few cards later. And that damn theme was playing again. They’d had a break, which had caused several more bursts of the thing. The count was up to twenty-seven, and the unused card pile was getting very low.
There was a second break before the last two cards were played. Apparently they were the ‘lates’ and some people didn’t bother with them. It was 8.30. Not what Arthur would call particularly late.
“I’ll get another drink,” Lance offered as the theme burst out for the 28th time. He was on his feet and halfway to the bar before Arthur could say anything. The same thing had happened during the previous break. Then he’d remembered Gwen wanted to say hello to Arthur and had come back to fetch him.
Not wanting to join the cosy couple at the bar again, Arthur headed for the loo. At least the ordeal was almost over, and Merlin hadn’t been teasing him quite so much in the second half.
Arthur found a cubicle that didn’t look too disgusting, closed the toilet lid and sat down. Grateful for the excuse, he pulled off the hot, itchy wig and shook out his blond locks. The wig had been a horrible idea, but at least it had allowed him to walk around unmolested. He took out his phone and started texting. His friend Leon would probably be up for a drink once Arthur escaped the bingo ordeal. And he wasn’t seeing anyone so Arthur wouldn’t have to play third wheel.
Suddenly he heard the door to the toilets burst open and people come in, arguing with each other.
“I’m sorry, but no.”
That sounded like Merlin.
“Why not? What’s wrong with me?” Arthur didn’t recognise the second voice, it sounded low and angry.
“Nothing! I like you, as a friend. Don’t let’s spoil that, eh?”
“We’d be better as a couple.”
“Or it would ruin a wonderful partnership. Anyway, I’m not looking for a relationship right now.”
The other man said something Arthur didn’t catch, but he’d guessed it was Mordred out there with Merlin. Arthur wondered if he should make his presence known.
“No,” Merlin replied to whatever it was Mordred had said.
“You were flirting with that idiot in the sunglasses.”
Ah. Arthur decided to stay where he was and hope they were too busy arguing to notice that one of the cubicles was occupied. He hurriedly switched his phone to silent, just in case Leon texted back.
“Banter, Mordred. It’s what I do with everyone. It’s my job.”
“Like hell. We’re heading for a win on their table number.”
“For Gwen. She’s completely smitten with Lance. Anyway, I can’t even see Mr Sunglasses’ face.”
“Those forearms are probably enough.”
Arthur couldn’t help preening a little at the compliment. Well, he did work out. Perhaps Merlin wasn’t so annoying after all.
Merlin sighed heavily. “I’m not flirting with anyone, Mordred. I told you, I’m not looking for anything but friendship from anyone right now.”
“But you said earlier the prize was a date!” Mordred’s voice was getting higher, raised as he obviously became more agitated. Arthur wasn’t quite sure what to do. If he alerted them to his presence they’d know he’d been listening.
“A drink, that’s all. And it’s for Gwen. Please, Mordred, leave it. We have to work together.”
“Not if I say you’ve been harassing me.”
“You heard. I’ll say you’ve been coming onto me. They’ll sack you, especially if I tell them about your little secret too.”
Arthur was appalled, but kept silent. Quietly he switched on the recorder on his phone, guessing that Merlin might need a witness. The man was annoying, but nobody deserved that sort of treatment just for refusing to date someone.
“Nobody would believe you. Gwen knows me, she knows you’ve been pestering me.”
“They’d believe me about the magic, I’ve got proof.”
Magic. Merlin was a magic user. It was illegal to work in any sort of gambling institution if you had magic, too much of a liability for any insurance company to take on.
“I’ve never used magic here and you know it.”
“I know you fix the in-house game, the one with the theme.”
“Not with magic. That’s just pressing a button. And I’m not the only one here with magic, am I? I told you about that in confidence, Mordred, because you were alone and frightened with your own magic. I thought you needed a friend. This is how you pay me back?”
There was silence for a moment, and then Arthur thought he heard a stifled sob from the other side of the door.
“I’m still telling about the harassment!”
Arthur had heard enough. As a member of the royal family, blackmail was something he’d been threatened with on a number of occasions. He hated it above almost everything. He shuffled his feet noisily, and then pulled the flush and opened the door.
Mordred and Merlin both stared at him, Mordred in horror, Merlin in relief. Although their expressions quickly morphed into almost identical looks of shock.
Belatedly Arthur realised that he was still holding his wig and glasses. “Ah.”
Merlin recovered faster than Mordred. “Wow! Sorry about that. I wouldn’t have been trying to get you to take the disguise off if I’d realised.”
“You’re Prince Arthur,” Mordred said slowly. His face was red and blotchy. Despite what he’d just heard, Arthur couldn’t help feeling a little sympathetic. But only a very little.
“Yes. Lance is my bodyguard and my friend. He won’t be pleased to hear you were trying to blackmail his girlfriend’s flatmate.”
Mordred glared at him. “The monarchy should be abolished anyway. Waste of money. I’m paying for your lifestyle!”
“Thank you,” Arthur said as coldly as he could. He wondered how Mordred would enjoy spending his entire life in a goldfish bowl simply because of an accident of birth. Even if he relinquished his claim to the throne, the media would never, ever let him lead a normal life. He looked at Merlin, who was still looking a bit stunned, and waggled his phone. “I recorded most of the conversation. I’m happy to be a witness if you want to press charges.”
“What?” Mordred gasped. “It was just a bit of banter!”
“Sounded like blackmail to me,” Arthur corrected. “Pretty disgusting.” He looked at Merlin. “What do you want to do?”
Merlin shook his head. “No charges,” he sighed. “But I’m sorry Mordred. I can’t risk you trying that with anyone else. Clear out your things and go. I’ll make sure you’re paid for today and have a good reference.”
“I’m sacked?” Mordred asked incredulously. “I didn’t do anything!”
That was a bit rich considering what Arthur had just heard him threaten. To remind him, Arthur began to play back the conversation. Mordred glowered at him, then at the phone. His eyes started to glow molten gold.
Merlin frowned, following Mordred’s gaze, at the same moment that Arthur realised that the phone was warming up.
“Drop it!” Merlin yelled, slapping the phone out of Arthur’s hand. The expensive, state-of-the-art model, that probably cost more than a month of Merlin’s wages, fell into the hard enamel sink. There was an ominous crack before it abruptly exploded, showering them in hot little pieces of phone.
“Jesus!” Arthur gazed at the smouldering remnants of his phone for a moment, before turning to stare at Mordred in horror. “You did that!”
The door to the toilets flew open and Lance burst into the room. “Arthur! Are you okay?” He looked around, taking in the scene. “What happened?”
“Mordred needs escorting from the premises,” Arthur growled. “He tried blackmailing Merlin, then when I recorded him… well, you can see what’s left of my phone. Could have taken my hand off.”
Lance frowned at Mordred as if the young man had deeply wronged him. And as Lance was theoretically on bodyguard duty that evening, technically Mordred had. Or almost had. “I’m arresting you. It’s treason to assault the heir to the throne!”
“Can we just let him go?” Merlin asked. “Nobody was hurt, and he’s lost his job anyway after this.”
“He tried to blackmail you,” Arthur protested.
“You made sure he didn’t.”
Arthur found he rather liked the way Merlin was looking at him now. Gone was the cheeky, mocking, insolent grin Arthur had been getting earlier and in its place was pure admiration.
“You. Out of here now!” Lance ordered, taking hold of Mordred’s arm.
For a moment Arthur thought that Mordred was going to argue, but instead the young man just glowered at them all. “Fine. It was a crap job anyway.” He tried to shake off Lance’s grip, but Lance was very good at his job when he was on duty, and he didn’t let go. “I can walk.”
“Good. Walk,” Lance told him, escorting him out. “Start now.”
The door swung shut behind them, and Arthur found himself alone with Merlin.
“So…” Merlin began. “You’re the Prince of Wales. That’s new. Don’t get much royalty in here.”
“Can’t imagine why. When I tell the Duchess of Windsor about this place, she’s going to be all over it.” He could see his sister just loving all the knitting and plushies, and as for the velour onesies that at least one patron was wearing… well, Morgana would be running screaming for the door. Hmm… maybe he should find a way to get her in there.
Merlin narrowed his eyes. “That’s your sister, right?”
“Sadly. We’re nothing alike.”
“Well, she’s got to be better than you at bingo. I’ve got a line!” Merlin mimicked in a high-pitched posh voice.
“I don’t sound like that.”
“No, what was it again? I think I can manage to stamp a few bingo cards without any help, Merlin!” Merlin smirked. “Still thinking that’s the case, my lord?”
He made the last two words sound like an insult, somehow. Arthur didn’t like being spoken to like that. Actually, he’d never been spoken to like that before (except by his sister, which he definitely didn’t like), and he wasn’t quite sure if he liked it or not from Merlin.
“I stepped in to help you when that creep was trying to blackmail you,” he reminded Merlin.
“Yeah,” Merlin gave him a little smile, a grateful one this time. “You did. Guess you’re not such a prat after all. Thanks.”
“You’re welcome. I hate blackmailers more than anything. So many people have tried that sort of thing with me over the years. Though they’re usually after money rather than sex.”
Merlin raised an eyebrow, a cheeky grin playing about his lips. “Really?”
“Hard to believe, I know.”
“You are such a prat after all,” Merlin murmured, still grinning. “How did that ego get in through the door?”
“Same way yours did?”
“Oooh! Touché!” Merlin grasped at his own chest as if Arthur had stabbed him. “You wound me! And there was I thinking I’d been rescued by a handsome prince.”
“Handsome?” Arthur moved closer, crowding Merlin against the sink. He was pleased to see that Merlin didn’t make any move to get away, and that his gaze was fixed on Arthur. Specifically he kept glancing at Arthur’s lips, then back to meeting his eyes.
“Prattish. I meant prattish prince,” Merlin told him, but his voice was all fondness and belied his words.
Hmm. Well, if they were definitely flirting and on the same page, for all Merlin’s protestations to poor Mordred that he wasn’t looking for a partner…
“You owe me a phone, Merlin,” Arthur breathed, leaning in very, very close. He could feel Merlin’s breath on his face. “I want compensation.”
“I bet it was expensive.” Merlin didn’t look at all concerned about that fact.
“I’ll buy you a beer,” Merlin offered. “Two, even. Can’t do more than that. Mordred’s bound to drop me in it about the magic with the bosses. I’m probably unemployed. It’ll have to be cheap beer too.”
“I don’t want beer. I’ve got a much better idea,” Arthur murmured, and closed the gap between them to claim Merlin’s lips. Merlin gave a little squeak of what might have been surprise but immediately returned the kiss enthusiastically. It was a good kiss. Merlin tasted sweet, and felt warm and right in his arms. Arthur explored just how right it felt for several minutes until they reluctantly broke away.
“I think,” Arthur told him, resting his forehead against Merlin’s, “that will be suitable payment. One kiss for every pound that the phone was worth.”
“That sounds unreasonably lenient,” Merlin replied, his voice low and soft now. “I think one for every penny that the phone was worth would make me feel more repentant.”
“That’s a lot of kissing.”
“I know. We should make a start.”
It was an excellent idea. Really, bingo was rapidly proving to be the best night out Arthur had experienced in a long time.
Arthur untucked Merlin’s shirt and ran his hand over the warm, soft skin beneath, encouraged by the way Merlin’s hands were reaching down to undo Arthur’s fly.
“Merlin! What’s going on? People are... shit! Sorry mate!”
It was the bloke from the hot food kiosk. He was standing in the doorway of the loo, staring at them both. His hair looked slightly less swishy, but perhaps that was a result of shock.
“Even I know there’s a time and place, mate!” the man continued in a strong Irish accent. “Gwen’s bloke just marched Mordred out. Someone needs to finish off the bingo.”
“Can’t you do it?” Merlin grumbled.
“No. Tuck your shirt in. Jesus, Merlin, you’re always telling us to behave and… shit!” He caught sight of Arthur. “You’re Prince Arthur! Fuck! It’s the Prince of Bloody Wales! Bloody hell!”
That was way, way too loud. There was suddenly a lot of noise out in the hall, and then what had to be most of the punters were crowded into the narrow doorway, trying to get a glimpse. Camera phones were out. Possibly the worst invention ever as far as Arthur was concerned.
“Thanks for that, Gwaine,” Merlin growled.
The Irishman just shrugged, then rummaged in his pocket and brought out his own phone. “Sorry, mate. Hey, can I get a selfie with HRH?”
“Gwaine!” Merlin looked apologetically at Arthur.
But Arthur just sighed, resigned. He knew from past experience that Gwaine’s request would only be the first of many.
Arthur stared miserably at the sea of newspapers strewn across the breakfast table. He wasn’t on the front of all of them, The Financial Times had a boring story about interest rate cuts, and The Guardian had something about global warming. But on every other paper there was a picture of Arthur coming out of the bingo club. Perhaps Mordred had alerted the press, although it could have been any one of the club patrons. Several selfies were scattered across most of the red tops as well. People might not have won at bingo, but they’d definitely made money out of the evening.
God, it was embarrassing. The papers were treating it as if he were some kind of secret bingo addict. Some even accused him of having a hidden gambling addiction. Most, though, were more interested in his blossoming relationship with Merlin.
“Our Arthur’s a secret bingo dabber!”
“Prince Arthur gets a full house!”
“Was he worth it?”
“Arthur’s royal flush!”
That last one wasn’t even bingo.
Arthur glanced worriedly across the breakfast table at Merlin, who was supposedly taking refuge in the palace until the fuss died down. The fact that they’d both decided Arthur’s bed was the best place for Merlin to hide was simply a bonus. Quite a bonus.
Merlin looked faintly amused by the papers and was smirking back at Arthur. His hair still had the same startled quality it had displayed when Merlin had woken up that morning. It was quite endearing. Perhaps they should go back to bed?
“Good morning, Arthur.”
Arthur froze. He knew that voice. Cold and regal, even when there wasn’t anyone else but them in the room. Merlin was staring past him at the man who had just walked into the room.
King Uther was never at breakfast that late. Arthur watched in horror as his father sat down at the table and poured himself a cup of tea, waving away the footman who tried to assist him.
“I see you’ve acquired a new hobby,” Uther commented, nodding towards the papers. “I was… surprised.”
“I was just helping Lance out. He’s got himself a new girlfriend who works there.”
“Commendable. And this young man followed you home, did he?”
Merlin gaped at the king, then turned a panicked gaze on Arthur. Arthur was glad that he’d found Merlin a spare, plain T-shirt to wear. Uther probably wouldn’t have appreciated the balls one.
“The paps were harassing him so… um… Merlin stayed here,” Arthur offered. “Thought that would be for the best.”
Uther gave a little smirk at that. “Even more commendable, and selfless too. Well,” he picked up his teacup and got to his feet. “A huge improvement upon your usual headlines, Arthur. You actually appear to have been sober. So, it’s a pleasure to meet you, Merlin. If you’re the latest boyfriend, then I ask that you conduct yourself in a dignified manner, and that you please try to keep my son away from clubs, pubs or any sort of public place where he can consume alcohol and make a fool of himself. Thank you.”
And with that the king left the room, Merlin staring bug-eyed after him.
“That was the king!” he squeaked when the door had closed behind Uther.
“Yes, he lives here. The clue is in the fact this place is a palace.”
“But… the king. Oh!” Merlin stared at Arthur. “He didn’t kick me out.”
“No, that was his way of saying that he likes you. Well, maybe like is a bit strong. That he doesn’t disapprove. That’s as good as it gets.” Actually, Merlin was the first boyfriend in a long, long time that Uther hadn’t had removed from the palace the morning after, usually as a result of what the papers had published about Arthur’s night-before exploits. “It means you can stay. If you want to.”
“I don’t have to be approved by your sister as well?”
His sister. Arthur hurriedly got to his feet. Morgana was always late down to breakfast and would be there at any moment. Meeting the second scary member of his family might be too much for Merlin that early in the relationship.
“No, and unless you want to be, I suggest we leave. Quickly.”
“To leave leave, or to hide out in your room leave?”
“Definitely the latter!” Arthur snatched a few slices of toast and wrapped them up quickly in a napkin. “Come on, quick! You can eat this later.”
Merlin grabbed the paper he’d been looking at and allowed himself to be hustled towards the door. Arthur caught a glimpse of the headline. Another bingo-related one. This time it was that stupid, stupid theme song.
“Arthur’s Night to Remember?”
He gazed fondly at Merlin’s tousled dark mop of hair as he chivvied his new boyfriend along in front of him. He could hardly wait to get back to the privacy of his room and explore ways to make Merlin look even more debauched than he did already.
Maybe, just for once, the papers had got it right.