As far as eighteenth birthdays went, Merlin didn't feel particularly different on the day of his. It was supposed to be some rite of passage, moving on into adulthood, becoming a grown-up and venturing out on one's own. At least, that's what everyone said, wasn't it?
Merlin had been on his own for a long time and, for as long as he could remember, he'd known that no one would look out for him but himself. He'd been shuffled in and out of the system for years, getting wrapped up in the juvenile justice system, had social workers trying to force something more out of him, having people treat him like shit, just because he was Clipped.
He finally ran away from his last foster home about a year and a half ago. His foster family just wouldn't leave him alone, always saying cruel things about Merlin and his 'genetic abnormality.' His foster mother would call him, and those like him, 'hiccups of the human race.' She, at least, had looked at him with a bit of pity, but it was too little too late to soothe him after a lifetime of hate and neglect.
People knew about the few who had 'funny little powers' but the government had (most of) them under control. Their powers were bound tight and couldn't ever be reached. They were harmless people, but freaks still, and being Clipped didn't make life easy for Merlin.
Life wasn't easy. It was one of the first lessons Merlin had ever learned.
But he'd survived. All these years and he'd survived, and now he was an adult. But he knew the passing of one day, turning from one age to the next, really wouldn't do anything to better his situation, wouldn't change it. If he got caught stealing or pickpocketing again, it would likely make life a lot worse, actually.
Still, that didn't stop Merlin. A man had to eat, after all. And he had rent due on his room that day too. So Merlin did what he always did and hit the crowds at the shopping centre. It was the easiest place to be, at midday, when wallets were handy and people were rushing about.
Merlin sat alone at a small two-person table at the back of the food court. His water bottle -- looking full and new, though he'd just filled it in the sink at the first floor loo -- sat in front of him. He picked absently at the label as he surveyed the happenings at the shopping centre, eyes like a hawk.
People were coming and going, rushing about in the short amount of time they were allowed for lunch. They were standing in queues to place their orders for greasy fast food, words rapidly spilling to the person at the till, throwing notes and coins to the counter top with lightning speed. There were all types of people cluttering the small space. Businessmen in smart suits and ties and little tie clips that flashed under the fluorescent lights; women in pencil skirts and silk tops with shoes that had tall thin heels that clacked against the fake marble floor.
There were school students in ties and dress shirts, girls in tartan skirts and boys in pressed trousers. Uni students with their rucksacks slung over their shoulders and torn blue jeans, tops layered and knitted scarves around their necks and beanies on their heads with shaggy hair curling around the edges.
There were the tough looking guys and girls with tattoos that covered their arms and hands or any other visible skin, and probably much more. They had numerous piercings, silver adorning random body parts.
It was the same thing, day in and day out. None of this surprised Merlin; he'd seen it all before.
Merlin knew better than anyone how to blend in. He didn't stick out in the crowd of people; anyone who looked at him would just glaze over, moving on to something or someone else. He was just another faceless young man, nothing special in a sea of people.
He preferred it that way. It made everything so much easier as he watched and waited, trying to pick out the perfect target.
It only took a couple of minutes that day.
The man was in a fine suit, tailored perfectly to his firm body. He wore a white buttoned shirt so stiff it must have been starched, and his deep red tie hung neatly, the tip of it disappearing behind his buttoned blazer. His black shoes shone and tapped echoingly against the floor as he walked. His blond hair swept perfectly across his brow and his eyes were a vibrant blue. He carried himself with confidence, looking as if he owned the bloody place.
Merlin had seen that kind of man a hundred times before; rich and cocky, and a complete arsehole. It was his attitude that had caught Merlin's attention -- that he obviously thought he was better than everyone else, just because he wore a suit and had a shiny expensive ring on his index finger.
Merlin hated that sort and so this man quickly became his target. Merlin watched him closely as he queued at the healthiest place in the court, paid and tucked his wallet in the inside breast pocket of his suit. He looked perfect, even as he carried a ridiculous orange plastic tray to a table, taking a seat by himself.
He annoyed Merlin. Merlin didn't need to speak to him to know that. But he couldn't stop watching the man, and only glanced away when he looked up, his eyes sweeping the crowd, gaze dangerously close to Merlin. Merlin looked in the opposite direction, taking a deep swig of his warm water.
When the man stood up to throw his wrappers into the bin, Merlin made his move. He stood up swiftly, going around tables and angling himself to walk towards the man.
Merlin walked through the crowd, going against it as they tried leaving the food court, and his eyes were on his target. Merlin walked towards him, seemingly to step around a little old lady and walked right into the man he'd been watching, elbowing him and hand jarring against his chest as if by accident.
Merlin smiled widely. "Sorry, mate," he said cheerfully.
"Watch where you're going," the man snapped.
"Sorry," Merlin repeated. He stepped around the man, and he started to walk away.
Merlin's getaway was foiled when a hand grabbed his elbow, spinning him around. He saw the man staring at him angrily. Merlin yanked his arm away. "Oi," he said, scowling. "What was that for?"
The man grabbed his elbow again. His voice was low as he said, "Give it back."
Merlin feigned curiosity. "Back? I have no idea what you're talking about. Now, if you'd just--"
"My wallet," the man said. His grip tightened a bit on Merlin's arm. "I know you nicked it."
"I don't know what--"
"Enough. Give it back to me and I won't drag you to security. Even though I should."
"I don't know--"
The man tugged on Merlin's arm. "All right, then, let's go."
"Fine," Merlin snapped, yanking his arm away. For a moment, he considered running, but given the determined look of this man, and the fact that Merlin really wanted to stay under the radar at this shopping centre and not catch the attention of security, he decided against it.
He glared defiantly at his target; the man only looked back expectantly.
"Do the right thing, kid," he said.
"I'm not a kid," Merlin said grumpily. But he pulled the wallet out of his pocket and placed it in the man's outstretched hand.
"Since this belongs to me, I won't bother saying thank you," the man said dryly.
Merlin gave him a wry smile. "Righto, then. Tah." He turned on his heels and planned on leaving as quickly as he could.
"Wait." It wasn't loud or angry but the man's request was so definitive that Merlin found himself pausing on the spot and looking over his shoulder.
The man had his wallet open and was pulling out a couple of tenners. He closed the wallet and tucked it back into his pocket, smirking at Merlin, as if daring him to take it again. But he snapped the crisp notes between his fingers and held them out to Merlin.
Merlin's response was automatic. "I don't need your charity."
The man raised his eyebrows. "This coming from the guy who just tried to nick my wallet? Just take it."
Merlin scowled. "No."
The man rolled his eyes and grabbed Merlin by the wrist -- Merlin winced as his fingers enclosed around the leather band that Merlin always wore -- and shoved the notes into his hand. "Take it," he repeated. His eyes dragged up and down Merlin. Merlin tried to stop the blush from rising to his cheeks. He knew he was a stark contrast to this well dressed man; Merlin's jeans were frayed and dirty around the hems and there was a hole in his old Converse shoes. He had owned this hoodie for a long time; it had once been black but was now a dull, old grey and it was starting to give out along the seams. The blue rucksack on his back looked like it'd been around the world and back, it was so dirty and worn.
The man said, "Buy yourself something more than a water, will you?"
He abruptly turned away from Merlin, leaving Merlin shocked and staring after him.
Merlin walked briskly down the pavement, the misty rain chilling the evening air. He carried a sack containing burgers and chips, all purchased with the man's money. Merlin sipped on a yellow straw, sighing happily as the cool milkshake filled his mouth.
Despite nearly being caught, it had still been a rather successful day. He'd been able to lift three other wallets, the chosen targets much easier than and incredibly different to Merlin's first one. He really didn't want to repeat his mistake, but playing it safe had taken away the fun and challenge.
He hopped over some fallen wooden planks and then ducked down and passed through a hole in a chain link fence. It was a poor part of the city, run down and full of squatters and the homeless and people barely able to pay the rent on their shoddy little flats. But Merlin, at least, had a home to go to … even if he was dreadfully behind on his rent. Hence the pickpocketing, and he hoped there was enough cash in the wallets that were deep in his rucksack to pay Aredian for the week; even better if it could be for the month.
He made his way up the steps of Coven House, as the residents affectionately called the run-down block of flats, and entered through the front door.
"Hullo, Helen," Merlin greeted the woman with dark hair and a gap between her front teeth, who looked up from her spot at the front desk.
"Merlin," she said. There was a click of a mouse as she stared at her computer screen. She looked at him and smiled warmly; he knew not to trust it, as she was quite the devious woman. "Your rent for the week? Or will this be going on your tab?"
He nodded at her. "Yeah, give me a few, would you? I'll be back down."
She pushed a lock of brown hair behind her ear, the bangles she wore sliding together, making soft clinking sounds. "Make sure you are."
He nodded and bounded up the stairs -- the lift hadn't worked at all in the year that he'd stayed at the Coven House. His room was small but at least it was his own; though, had he been sharing, he would've been paying less and probably wouldn't be in such debt. The things he learned after signing a contract.
Merlin sat on the edge of his narrow bed and reached down under it, fishing for a small box. He pulled it up onto the bed and threw off the lid. Sitting inside were a number of licenses, some with scraps of paper and pictures paperclipped to them. He pulled the wallets out of his bag and rifled through them, pulling out notes and counting them.
"Yes!" he muttered under his breath joyfully, seeing that he had enough to pay Helen for this week; she kept the books for Aredian and was very meticulous, and loved informing him when his little Clipped weren't paying up on time. He would know if Merlin was behind yet again.
He took the licenses from each of the wallets, and dug around to see if there were any family pictures or other important documents in the wallets. Carefully, he paperclipped them together and put them into the box.
In the little notebook kept in the box, he wrote names and the amounts of money that he took from the wallets. He was as good as Helen when it came to keeping these records, and it would be yet another debt that he'd pay off someday.
Merlin cut the credit cards into two and just as he was disposing of them and the wallets there was a knock on his door.
The door opened a fraction, and Merlin glanced over to see big brown eyes peering into his room.
"Freya," Merlin said with a smile. "Come on in."
She pushed the door open and gave her customary shy smile. "Hi, Merlin," she said. Taking a couple of steps in, she sat down on the small stool in the corner of Merlin's room. "Have a good day?"
"I made out all right," Merlin said, nodding. "You?"
"I sold really well this morning. Weather held up a bit." Freya's fingers twisted the number of woven and beaded bracelets that covered half her right arm -- they were samples of her own work. It was how she made her money, setting up a blanket on different street corners or markets or where ever she could find that didn't get her in trouble.
Freya was kind and sweet, but didn't seem to quite fit in with the rest of the people staying at the Coven House. In one of the very first conversations Merlin had with her, she told him she liked being Clipped and that she wouldn't ever want to reach her magic again.
("My magic isn't good, Merlin."
"It can't be bad, though, can it? It's just… a little bit of power. Moving things with your mind or what have you."
"Mine's different. It's not all nice and gold like everyone else's."
"I… well, to be truthful, I don't know if that's what mine is, Freya."
"No. I haven't been able to reach it since I was eight. I don't remember it much.")
Now, she sat on the stool in his room, nervously playing with her bracelets. She was a bit of a timid sort but when Merlin asked her about her past she always shook her head and didn't answer. He really couldn't blame her; they all had sob stories here, all different but similar in their own ways. He didn't like talking about the past much either.
"Here," he said, pulling a burger out of the bag. "Have one."
"Oh, I don't know. I don't want to take your food," she said, waving her hand a little to dismiss his offer.
He just thrust the yellow-wrapped package at her. "It's fine, I bought plenty to share. Had a good day."
She smiled at him, brown eyes finally meeting his. "Thanks," she said, taking it. He saw how she quickly opened it and ripped off some bread, shovelling it into her mouth.
He frowned. "Did you make enough for this week?"
"Barely," she said. "But I did. Just, well. Nothing extra. I'm a little worried about next week, though."
Freya shrugged and suddenly her burger must have become very interesting because she wouldn't look up from it. "I'm almost out of supplies." If she didn't have anything to make things out of, she wouldn't have anything to sell.
"Oh, I'll help you," Merlin said instantly.
"Merlin, you don't -- It's not like you can afford it."
Merlin grinned cheekily. "I have my ways." That was, of course, going down to the big department store and shoplifting little spools of thread and some packets of beads. He'd done it before and he'd do it again, if it'd help her. He didn't feel quite as bad doing it from those big corporate fucks who had too much money anyway.
Freya sighed. He knew that she didn't exactly approve (she was one of the few who tried to live honestly, and that made things all the tougher for her) but she nodded. "I'd appreciate it, Merlin."
He smiled, happily. "Anytime." He held up his money. "And now I have to go and see the wench downstairs."
She laughed. "You shouldn't call her that."
"I bloody well should!" Merlin protested playfully. "She's awful, the way she preys on us."
Freya tilted her head to the side. "She's just doing her job, Merlin. You know it's not her." Her hand twitched a bit and she looked down, blushing.
"I know," Merlin said. "Believe me, I know." It was a piece of information he'd discovered too late; when someone comes to you and offers you a roof over your head and a bed to sleep in, and to be around others just like you, it seems too good to be true. And he had been too young and too desperate to realise that's what it was. But he'd got himself into this mess, and it wasn't that he didn't appreciate having an actual place to stay, so he tried not to complain too much. Especially since they weren't allowed to.
He bid Freya good night and she went into her own room, thanking him again for dinner. He went downstairs to pay his dues.
"Happy Birthday, Merlin."
Merlin looked at Helen, a bit shocked. "Oh. Well. Thank you."
"It is your birthday, isn't it?" Helen asked, smiling at him. "It's in your file. Unless you lied to Aredian?"
"Oh, no, I didn't. It is. I didn't realise you knew, that's all," Merlin said, trying to be pleasant. He didn't like the gleam in Helen's eyes. He handed her the wad of notes he had. "This week's rent, all covered."
She snatched them from his hands. "Yes, we'll see, won't we?" she asked. Merlin leaned against the counter, hand trailing absently over the rough wood as she dutifully counted the money. It was the same every week -- well, the weeks he could pay up. She'd count the money, fill out the receipt, and they'd both sign it. The information went into her computer. Her boss and his landlord, Aredian, the owner of the building, would know he had paid.
On the weeks Merlin couldn't pay, he still had to initial the receipt for his tab. He hated those weeks, seeing how much money he owed on his contract. It was only supposed to be for three years -- two more left -- but unless he caught up on what he owed he'd be there longer than that.
He really wasn't sure where else he'd go, anyway. Freya had been there longer then her original contract called for, but without being able to find an actual job, she said she couldn't afford her own flat anyway. There were few other options for young people like them and at least this was somewhere.
Helen interrupted his thoughts, "You're short."
"Like hell!" Merlin protested. "Count again; I know I have it all there."
"You have it all there for your previous rate. But as this is the week of your birthday, your rent goes up thirty pounds a week."
Merlin looked at her, jaw dropping.
"It's in your contract," Helen said, a sugary-sweet smile on her face. Merlin scowled at her; she shouldn't be that cheerful over it. "Or have you forgotten? Or did you not read the full contract? Bit of a silly thing to do, wasn't it?"
"I … yes, I knew. I just forgot," Merlin mumbled. He sighed and said, "I'll get it to you tomorrow."
"It's my day off," Helen said.
"Fine, the next day," Merlin said, exasperated.
"That makes you late," Helen said. "There will be a bit of a charge on it, like all your other weeks."
"But I have it all right there!" Merlin protested angrily, gesturing at notes on the counter top.
"Not all of it, Merlin. It's not my fault that you can't keep track of your finances."
"Fine," Merlin said. "I'll pay what I can and you'll just charge on the bit I didn't pay, right?"
"Yes," Helen said, and she really shouldn't sound as sad over it as she did. "I'll make up your receipt."
Merlin scowled at her, but waited at the counter as she prepared. He nodded at a young couple coming in; Catrina and Jonas. Jonas looked quite tanked, stumbling over his feet, but he had a pleasant smile on his face. His arm was slung over Catrina's shoulders and she was weighed down under it, but tried to smile happily as well. Her eyes were bloodshot and her pupils were blown wide, and there was a distinct stale smell to the air around her. Merlin secretly urged them on, to get upstairs before getting Helen's attention.
No such luck.
"Oi!" she said as she looked back at them. "What's this? You know the rules."
Jonas protested, "We don't have anything on us!"
"Yes ma'am," his girlfriend tuned in.
Merlin said to Helen, lowly, "I think they just need to crash."
"I hate that loophole," Helen muttered dryly. She liked to run a clean house and drinking and drugs weren't allowed; but if they weren't done on other premises there wasn't a lot she could do about it.
As long as there wasn't a ruckus. The moment there was trouble, Helen was right on it, and in addition to the other consequences, Aredian would be notified,
Merlin tried to avoid that at all costs.
Helen slid Merlin the receipt to review and sign. Catrina and Jonas made their way up the stairs, causing a bit of noise but otherwise without a problem. Helen kept her narrowed eyes on them and Merlin could tell she was watching for trouble. She looked a bit disappointed that there wasn't any and she sighed as she took the paper back from Merlin.
"Thanks, Helen," Merlin said, turning to go upstairs.
"Oh, Merlin," she said, calling him back. He looked at her quizzically. She told him, "Aredian wants to have a meeting with you in the morning."
Merlin's insides went cold with nervousness. "Me? Really?"
She smiled widely. "Yes. He'll send a car for you at 9 am. Would that work for you?"
Merlin knew by her tone that he was expected to make it work. He smiled at her, swallowing back any anxiousness. "Of course."
"Excellent," she said. "I'll inform him of that."
He gave her a nod and said goodbye, and she returned it with a small wave, the bangles jangling on her wrists.
Merlin tried very hard not to be nervous as he sat in the back of the car that was taking him to see Aredian. Merlin had only met the man a couple of times before; he first approached Merlin while he was in a local park, curled up on a bench trying to get some sleep; when Merlin had accepted his offer; and on the day Merlin signed the contract. Other than that, Merlin had had very little contact with him so far.
Merlin knew that Aredian was known as the Witch Finder. The kids that had 'power', or magic (as they preferred to call it), called him that because he had a knack for finding their kind. They didn't have access to their power any more and that's how Aeridian liked them best. But he'd find them and help them out, as long as they agreed to his terms.
Aredian never visited Coven House, and Merlin had been told that none of his meetings took place in the same spot. There were tiny whispers about him that spread throughout the Coven House, but for the most part, the residents were bound against revealing any of his secrets or gossiping about him. No one knew where Aredian hung his hat, or how many places he actually had that kept Clipped people like them, or who they could talk to if they did want to report him (though that would be a disastrous move for anyone who tried.) They were quite often kept in the dark, but Merlin knew it was to preserve their way of life; who knew what would happen to most of them if they didn't have Aredian looking out for them?
Freya saw him on a monthly basis now. That morning, when Merlin was waiting in the front foyer, she had looked at him thoughtfully. "Just remember," Freya said, "you can always say no."
Merlin looked at her, surprised. Freya rarely talked about this sort of thing. "Is that what you do?"
"Always," she said. "You do have a choice, and that's something."
Merlin swallowed the lump in his throat, but her words comforted him. "All right. I'll remember that. And, hey, it might be a good thing, right? Maybe he has a job for me."
Freya had smiled sadly at him and had patted his arm comfortingly, and with a rucksack on her back and a little tattered blanket under her arm and an old umbrella in her hand, she had made her way out into the city to put in a day's work.
Now, Merlin watched as the city passed by. Finally they stopped in the alley way outside a run-down building, and the driver showed Merlin inside, knocking on a door three times. A muffled voice called through, telling him to send Merlin in.
The room was small but set up like an office. There were tall bookshelves lining the back wall, full of old texts and books with fraying, cracked spines. A large oak desk was in front of the shelves and behind it sat Aredian.
He smiled at Merlin but no warmth reached his eyes. "Merlin," he said. He gestured to the chair in front of the desk. "Please, sit."
The driver closed the door behind Merlin and he found himself alone in the room with Aredian. He sat down in the chair -- old, with dark wood and a velvet cushion that was probably once red but now looked pink. Merlin tried to smile and said, "Hullo, sir."
Aredian sat quietly, his fingers steepled in front of him while he watched Merlin. Merlin tried not to fidget in the chair too much. Aredian said, "Happy Birthday, Merlin."
"Oh, yes. Thank you," Merlin said, a bit surprised. He knew he shouldn't be though; if Helen knew, certainly her boss did.
"Did you have a good day?"
Merlin shrugged. "Just another day, I suppose."
"Ah, yes, I suppose so." Aredian looked at Merlin intensely and then said, "I will cut to the chase so I don't waste your time or my own."
"Oh. Okay. Whatever is good for you," Merlin said. His right knee bounced up and down and he had to force himself from chewing anxiously on his fingernails.
"I brought you here because now that you're of a certain age, I'm able to offer you some … jobs, if you will."
"Yes, I remember that," Merlin said. It was in his contract, and he'd known it from talking to Freya and some of the others, though they were usually rather vague about it. For some reason -- an odd sense of nobility? a legality? -- Aredian would not offer certain jobs to anyone too young.
It had been a relief, honestly, that Merlin hadn't had to deal with it before, though now he wished he'd thought of it a bit more so that he'd been better prepared.
"I have some clients who like to have -- companions," Aredian said. "Escorts, if you will. People to spend time with, and they will pay quite handsomely for that time. Though you must understand, on occasion, there are certain expectations."
Merlin said unwaveringly, "Sex."
Aredian smiled, baring his teeth. "Yes, sometimes. And it just so happens that I have a client that is looking for a young man."
Merlin felt a bit sick to his stomach and he swallowed. He opened his mouth but found his voice had been chased away.
Aredian continued, "Let me make this clear -- you can say no. I'm sure there are others who would like to take this opportunity. Now that you're eligible I thought I would present it to you first, due to your debt to me."
Merlin looked up sharply. "If I were to take this, uh, opportunity? How much?"
"I appreciate your directness," Aredian said, grinning. "Your cut would be enough to pay off your debt to me and pay down an advance of six months."
Merlin's jaw dropped and he gaped like a fish. Finally he squeaked, "That much?"
"Yes, well, it is a six week contract."
"I must say, it is one of the most generous offers presented to me, but a time-consuming one." Aredian's face turned very serious. "I am taking quite the chance with you, seeing as it is your first time." His eyes flashed dangerously as he added, "So be sure you consider this very carefully. If you take this job and you muck it up -- well, let's just say I won't be happy."
Merlin blinked at him but nodded. "Noted."
"Especially since this is one of my regular clients. He is wanting a special gift for his son." Aredian smiled slyly. "I hope the gift is appreciated."
Merlin went back to feeling sick again and not even the thought of the money drove that away. Aredian didn't seem to notice Merlin's internal battles. He continued, "Let me explain how this works. You will sign a contract --"
Merlin interrupted, "Don't I have one with you already?"
"Clever boy," Aredian said. "This would be like me subcontracting you out."
Pimping, more like, Merlin thought bitterly. But that was illegal and he didn't doubt that Aredian had some sort of loophole for this, too, or at least a way that he wouldn't get caught. He was thinking less and less of Aredian as time went on.
"You will be bound to the contract and you will follow it; however, you have input into it. You will agree to certain things but you can put limitations to it and say no to other things. The person you are contracted to for the time must also follow these rules, or the contract is broken. Understood?"
Merlin nodded, but didn't say anything.
"Good. Before the contract is signed, you will be tested for diseases and other STDs --"
Merlin cut in, "I was six months ago. I'm clean."
"Ah, yes, well. Six months is plenty of time to have fun in, isn't it?" Merlin blushed a little bit. Aredian continued, "You will be with no one else between the time you're tested and the time your contract ends. He'll be tested too and protection is required at all times. Any questions?"
Merlin's face felt red hot and he couldn't believe the ease with which Aredian spoke about this; it was quite far out of Merlin's comfort zone, but he appreciated that he was being looked out for.
Or, rather, that Aredian was looking out for his clients, but at least Merlin got included in with that, even if it was as a side-effect.
"Do you have any other questions, Merlin?"
Merlin looked up at Aredian, who was looking at him expectantly. "I -- I don't think so," Merlin said, frowning. "I mean… six weeks is a really long time, though, right? What if I can't even stand to look at him?" Merlin hadn't meant to think that out loud, but really, he couldn't help it. Six weeks was a long time and if Merlin couldn't stand to be in the room with the fellow then there really was no point to this. He was having reservations as it was, and maybe this was the excuse he was looking for. Maybe he should just say no; he wasn't sure he was cut out for this.
Aredian chuckled and rolled his eyes a little bit. "You young ones are all the same," he said. He pulled a picture out of the folder that was out on the desk before him. "My client knows that as well and provided one picture of his son." He slid the picture across the top of the table.
Merlin picked up the picture and his jaw dropped. It was the man from the day before -- the one whose wallet Merlin had tried to pickpocket, but didn't get away with.
In the picture, his head was bowed a little bit and his lids were down over those intense blue eyes, pale lashes against his cheeks, but Merlin remembered those eyes. He had a soft smile on his face, unlike anything that Merlin had seen the day before. But this was him and Merlin couldn't help but wonder what could possibly make him smile like that, since when they'd met it had seemed like he had a big silver spoon shoved up his arrogant arse.
"Do you know him?" Aredian asked.
When Merlin looked up, he saw that Aredian was looking at him. Merlin shook his head, and answered what he felt was an honest, "No. No, I don't." Because the man in the picture was not the man Merlin remembered from the day before.
Merlin looked back down at the photo, his finger absently rubbing over the edge of it as he held it in shaking hands. "What's his name?" Merlin asked.
"Client confidentiality, Merlin. I can't tell you at this early stage."
Merlin sighed and he handed the picture back to Aredian.
"As I've said, you are more than welcome to say no, but I'll give you the rest of the day to think about it--"
"I'll do it," Merlin blurted out.
Aredian raised an eyebrow. "Will you? You want to?"
The words had left Merlin's mouth before he'd really thought about it; but on a moment's reflection Merlin knew that, yes, he wanted to. He shrugged. "That's a lot of money." He tried hard not to think of the man in the picture.
Aredian gave a predatory smile. "That is most excellent news, Merlin. I'm sure the client will be happy to hear that." He tucked away his papers, pulling a mobile out of his inner pocket. "I will make arrangements for your testing straight away; there will be a rush on the results. I have friends at the clinic."
Merlin didn't doubt that at all.
Aredian continued, "And my client will draft the conditions he's interested in for the contract. It'll be sent to you tomorrow and you will work with Helen, letting her know of anything you want changed. It'll go back to my client for a final review and if all parties are satisfied it'll be signed by the day after. Hopefully you'll begin your assignment Friday evening."
"That soon?" Merlin asked, surprised.
"Yes, my client was quite insistent that it happen sooner rather than later." Aredian gave Merlin a hard look. "Your word is binding, Merlin, as is the contract. You're sure about this?"
Merlin nodded his head. "Yes. I just didn't know it would happen that fast."
"Well, it will. Now, if you will go with my driver, he'll take you to a doctor's appointment," Aredian said.
Merlin felt dismissed, and so he stood. "Yes, well. Thank you for the opportunity."
Aredian smiled. "Pleasure to do business with you, Merlin."
Merlin worked with Helen on his contract, and it was probably the most embarrassing couple of hours of his life (and Merlin had faced a lot of embarrassment in his time.) The fact that she knew such personal things -- the things he felt could and couldn't do with some guy he didn't even know yet -- was mortifying.
But she acted with the same attitude as she usually did, and he got the distinct impression that this was far from her first time doing it, so he tried not to let the whole situation bother him too much.
Although it did bother him. The whole thing, the way Aredian set them up and used them, was sickening. As was everything that came along with it -- the embarrassment, the shame, the desperation.
On the other hand, there was a part of Merlin that was curious and a little excited. And a little turned on, too, when he thought of that picture.
He wondered what was wrong with him but thought it was probably best to not delve into it. There really wasn't that much else he could do about it. The decision had been made, no matter how rash it might have been. The choice had been his and he'd have to live with that.
Friday afternoon, he decided to go out into the city one more time, to see what kind of cash he could salvage, be it from a plastic cup on the corner or lifting a few wallets. He didn't want to leave himself completely strapped for the next six weeks. His rent would be paid for, but he really didn't know what he'd do for extra money, as staying away from his usual illegal activities was part of the package he'd agreed to.
He bounded down the stairs and tried to slip out the back so he didn't have to see Helen, but damn it if she didn't have some sort of extra sense for when the residents were around.
"Merlin!" she called out. "Merlin, come here!"
He cursed under his breath but put on a smile. "Morning, Helen," he greeted as he approached her desk.
"Morning," she said with her sugary sweet smile and he had to consciously think about keeping his lip from curling in a smirk at her. She said, "Some big news for you today."
"Final draft is in. The client accepted your counter-offer."
Merlin blinked. "Oh, already?" Not that he was surprised; the client, Aredian, and Helen all knew what they were doing and there really wasn't that much he'd thought needed changing. He suspected from Helen's comments that Merlin was actually getting a rather relaxed deal in comparison to others, most likely from the length of time he'd be, uh, offering his services for.
"And your test results are back," she said, sliding an envelope across the counter top at him.
He took it and opened it, eyes scanning. "Negative."
"As expected, I'm sure," she said smoothly, and he wondered if she was mocking him in some way. "Aredian will be sending a car to pick you up in an hour. It'll take you to meet with him and the client, and the contract will be signed. Then the client will take you to where you'll be staying. Interesting, that."
"Can't really discuss that, can I?" Helen said.
"Fucking frustrating, isn't it?" Merlin countered. He figured she meant how the contract was set up -- done through a regular client but technically for someone else.
"It is what it is," she replied. "You should go get ready, Merlin. There's not a lot of time."
Merlin sighed, disappointed that he couldn't carry out his plans for the day, and now there were nervous butterflies starting to flutter around in his stomach. His hands gripped the edge of her desk, his chest leaned against the tall counter, and his forehead met the wood with a thud. "What am I doing again?"
"Making ends meet, Merlin." He felt a hand lightly ruffle his hair. Surprised, he looked up but found she was staring at her computer screen, as usual. She added, not looking at him, "We all do what we have to do."
Merlin tried not to let the onus of her words settle down on him too much; he'd spent his whole life trying to stop feelings like that from weighing him down, from suffocating him. He wouldn't start now.
Merlin didn't own a lot, barely making enough money to buy the simple things in life like clothes and food and soap, let alone things he didn't need. Those came first, and so it didn't take him very long to pack at all. A couple of pairs of boxers and jeans and few shirts and he was nearly ready to go. He really hoped he wasn't going to need anything nice to wear because he didn't have anything; the client was well aware of that, he was sure. Merlin would be provided for if there were any specifics but he hated that he couldn't be more prepared and that he had so little to take.
He reached under the bed and pulled out the small box. The licenses and little notebook inside were the most precious belongings he had. And, sure, he could put a lock on the room but he knew what it was like around the Coven House; it was forbidden to take from each other but times got hard and sometimes you did whatever you had to. Well, Merlin didn't do that to the others, and he trusted Freya too, but that was probably about it.
Merlin thought about leaving the box in Freya's care. He didn't put a lot of trust into people any more but he felt he could with her. Unfortunately, other people tried to take advantage of her kindness. He really wanted to make sure this box remained safe. He thought about it for a moment and then he slipped the box into his pack. It was probably best it stayed with him.
Last, he decided to wash up, try to make himself look presentable -- well, he was required to. Merlin was pulling the disposable razor over his face, trying to get rid of his stubble, when there was a knock on his door. "Yeah, it's open," he called out. He rinsed the razor under the cold water that ran from that tap -- all the rooms had a sink, at least, though the loos and showers were communal.
He turned and expected to see Freya but instead saw Nimueh, another Coven House resident, standing at his open door.
"Oh. Hi," he said, surprised. Merlin and Nimueh had never been particularly close. He had made attempts to get to know her but she was always standoffish with him and he'd never understood why.
Nimueh was tall, thin, and extremely beautiful but Merlin always thought there was something unnatural about her. Her eyes were a vivid blue that shouldn't exist, her skin pale and flawless like a porcelain doll's, and her hair had random twists and kinks that shouldn't be there. He wondered if it was her magic deep inside her trying to get out the only way it knew how.
But he sensed a darkness that lived in her too and, as much as he hated to even think it about another one of his kind, he was glad she was Clipped. He wasn't entirely sure he wanted to see what she was like if she could reach her powers. He felt incredibly guilty thinking that and tried to push it aside.
"Merlin," Nimueh said. She looked coolly at him, a small secretive smile playing at her lips. Merlin wasn't sure he trusted it. "I heard you're going away for a while."
"Uh. Yeah," he said, shifting uncomfortably on the spot. He shrugged, trying to be nonchalant. "It's nothing, really."
She stepped into the room. He saw she was wearing clean and pressed trousers and a deep red top with a dark blue hoodie over it. The only imperfection to it was that the long sleeves had little holes at the seams of the cuffs that her thumbs stuck through. Still, she looked incredibly put together and he wondered how she accomplished that; she didn't look like she fit in with the rest of them.
"Six weeks is nothing?" she asked, raising an eyebrow. "I hope you aren't too terribly disappointed in the future. Most -- times away--" she said vaguely "--hardly last longer than a weekend."
"How'd you know it was six weeks?" Merlin asked.
"Your little girlfriend was lamenting over how long you would be gone."
Merlin rolled his eyes. "You know she's not my girlfriend."
"No, she's not your type," Nimueh agreed. "Of course, I didn't think you were Uther Pendragon's type either."
Merlin looked up sharply. "How'd you know that? I know I didn't mention--"
"I have my ways," Nimueh said smoothly. "I happen to know a lot about Uther Pendragon."
"We're not supposed to talk about this," Merlin said flatly. He turned back to the mirror and carefully brought the razor up to his face, continuing to shave.
"No, I suppose we're not, are we?" Nimueh said, stepping into the room a bit more. She was behind Merlin, looking at his reflection as she spoke. "I suppose that means I shouldn't tell you to watch yourself with him then, should I? Silly me, thinking to look out for you."
"Well, I don't need you to," Merlin said. "I'm not for him." Merlin's hand twitched, dangerously close to nicking his skin and he sighed, pulling the razor away.
Nimueh's features softened -- she looked a little surprised but not sly anymore. "You're not?"
"No." Merlin dropped the razor in the sink and turned to her. "Fuck, Nimueh," he said, annoyed. "You know I'm not supposed to talk about this."
"Of course," Nimueh said. "Well, I should leave you to get ready then."
"Yes, please," he huffed. He picked his razor up out of the sink, waving it in her direction, shaving foam falling to the floor. "I have to be presentable or some shite like that."
"The Pendragons are rather particular," she said, a hand smoothing over her thigh, flattening out her already perfect trousers.
"I take it you've had experience?" Merlin said. It would explain her jealousy, he thought. He held up a hand when she went to protest, "I know, I know. Big bad secrets and all that."
She smirked. "You'll get used to it."
He snorted, turning back to the mirror. "I hope not."
She ignored his comment and turned to leave. "Bye, Merlin. Have fun." She smirked. "Then again, that's the whole point, is it not?"
"For him, anyway," Merlin muttered but she had already left.
Merlin didn't like to think he was very easily intimidated but walking through the door into Aredian's office he couldn't help but feel that way.
It wasn't the same office as before, though it had exactly the same feel. Old, formal, impersonal. The extra addition to it was that this time there was someone else sitting across the desk from Aredian.
"Merlin," Aredian said. He gestured to the man, who Merlin assumed was the client. "This is Uther Pendragon."
Uther was an older gentleman, but he still seemed fit. He wore a suit and tie and had gleaming shoes, and his hair was a distinguished silver. He smelled and looked like he was made of money. He probably was.
Merlin tried to muster up a smile. He held out a hand. "Hello, sir."
Uther raised an eyebrow at him, looked him up and down, but did not take Merlin's offer. Merlin's smile faltered and his arm dropped back down to his side. Looking back at Aredian, Uther said, "You were right. Precisely Arthur's type."
Arthur. That was the man in the picture, the man at the shopping centre. The man that Merlin would be spending the next few weeks with. Merlin had held onto that name, rolled it around in his head and wondered about it, ever since he read it in the contract the day before.
Aredian smiled. "I do know my business."
"That you do," Uther agreed. "And he's new to it, you said?"
"Yes, he is."
Merlin stood uncomfortably, not knowing if he should take a seat or not. He hated that they spoke of him like that, as if he wasn't even standing there, or that his thoughts didn't count.
To them, they probably didn't.
Uther glanced back at Merlin. "That's good. So is Arthur. Not to sex, obviously, but to having -- a companion, if you will." Aredian and Uther smirked knowingly at each other but Merlin just thought it was plain odd that Uther would know that about his own son. Uther continued, "But Arthur does like being in control, taking the lead. This will be a good situation for him."
Aredian nodded. "I'm glad to hear that."
"Me too," Merlin put in. He sat down in the chair next to Uther, sick of being left out of the conversation. Uther looked at him, unimpressed. Merlin said with fake earnestly, "Will make everything go smoother, if he's happy with it."
And Merlin felt better knowing that there were certain rules in place that prevented Arthur from getting carried away in taking control.
Aredian answered, "Yes, it will." He said to Uther, "And I can guarantee Merlin will do everything to make sure it does. Won't you, Merlin?"
Merlin hoped his effort to smile came through, though he wasn't sure how sincere it looked. "Of course."
"Hm," Uther hummed. "Make sure you do. A lot of money was spent on this contract."
Merlin was nauseated at the ease in which Uther said that, as if Merlin was nothing more than a transaction, a thing, rather than a person who was likely to get hurt or demeaned or embarrassed somewhere in this whole mess of a situation.
He smiled, automatically, and hated himself for it. "Yes, sir."
"Excellent," Aredian cut in. He pulled a thin stack of paper out of his briefcase, as well as a pen. "There is no need to dawdle here. Mr. Pendragon is a busy man, I say we get this underway."
"Sure," Merlin said with a nonchalant shrug, though really he quite agreed. He just wanted this awkward meeting to be over.
Aredian slipped the papers across the desk to Merlin. "A copy for you to sign," he said. Merlin had already seen it, of course, but he looked it over and made sure nothing had been added in that he didn't know about. Not that he didn't trust Aredian and Uther but -- well, no, he didn't really trust them at all.
But when everything looked fine and exactly what he'd agreed on, he nodded. "All right," he said. "Here we go."
Aredian handed him the pen. "Use this," he said.
Merlin had seen that pen before. He took it, examining the silver and gold swirls that intertwined themselves up and down it. His ran his fingertips over its length, feeling the engravings carved into it. He'd seen those runes before; they belonged to his kind, used to control and subdue.
Aredian smirked at him. "You remember how this works?"
Merlin nodded. He'd used it before, when he signed the contract to have a room at Coven House. The magic would bind him to the contract, force him to follow the rules.
He hated that Aredian used it against him, against the Clipped, and for his own profit. It wasn't fair; he wasn't magic, but he knew how to use it for his own benefit.
It made Merlin so angry, the injustice of it, but there wasn't anything he could do. Not against Aredian, not against Uther, not against the governments and society who created it and allowed it. He was powerless.
Sighing, he signed the paper.
He could feel the magic flowing, ever so slightly, and he swore he could see a slight golden glimmer through the air. It flowed from the pen into his fingers, crawling up his hand, and it made his arm twitch. It disappeared under the wide leather band he wore, and wrapped around his wrist like a heated bracelet.
Done signing his name, he dropped the pen, breaking the chain of power, but he knew -- could feel -- that it had taken hold of him. Bound him. For his part, the deal was done, completely.
Glancing at Aredian and Uther, neither looked surprised or shocked. Merlin didn't even know if they'd been able to see it, the magic, but he knew by the smirks on each of their faces that they knew what had happened.
Uther took the papers and the pen, quickly sprawling a signature. There was no gold, no magic, nothing, but Merlin felt it in his hand just the same as when he held the pen. He was bound again, this time to Uther.
"I'll take this to Arthur," Uther said, "when I take the boy to him. He'll sign it and I'll return it to you."
"I normally don't operate this way," Aredian said. "But you're a trusted client and a friend. As always, it's a pleasure doing business with you." Aredian stood from his chair and held out his hand to Uther. The other man stood as well and took it in a firm shake.
"I appreciate your making alterations for this," Uther said. "It's not something Arthur would arrange for himself but I'm sure he'll enjoy the benefits."
Aredian smiled. "I'm sure he will."
Uther left the room and Merlin followed behind him. There was a sleek car waiting outside, one that didn't belong in that part of town, but it had remained untouched.
Before he got into the car Uther stopped and finally looked directly at Merlin. Uther said, "I want to make something very clear to you. I don't like your kind -- you're a blight on society and you have no right existing."
Merlin's jaw dropped as he stared Uther.
Uther continued, "The only reason I trust you is because I trust Aredian and I know from experience that you're now under control. But make no mistake, you are expected to fulfill your contract and please my son. If I hear anything otherwise, I'll make sure you never work again. Understood?"
Merlin was fuming now, angry at Uther's hypocritical statements. He bit out, "Then why even bother with us?"
"You need to make a contribution to society some way. Can you think of another?"
Merlin gaped at him like a fish, and didn't know how to answer.
Uther said dryly. "That's what I thought. My son doesn't know what you are; I think it's best we keep it that way. Now, get into the car." Uther got behind the wheel and didn't say anything else.
Merlin stood there, shocked for a moment. But then he took a deep breath and gritted his teeth, letting Uther's hate roll off his back, because Merlin had heard it all before, and much worse. He got into the car and hoped that Uther's son was nothing like him. He felt rather doubtful.