Chapter 1: The Solicitor
Merlin gets discharged from the psychiatric hospital on the day of his cousin Gwen’s wedding.
He stands on the footpath in front of the entrance, suitcase trailing his heels, watching patients meander through the manicured grounds. He’s started to get used to the place, to the predictable structure of its routine.
“Remember, you can call me at anytime,” Dr Kilgharrah says, crossing the distance between them to pull Merlin into a hug.
He hooks his arm under Dr Kilgharrah’s, letting himself be held by the elderly man. The doctor looks sturdy, and barrel chested, but underneath his suit, Merlin feels a skeleton as frail as a scarecrow held together with string.
Merlin’s teal jumper pools at the wrists, slipping past his knuckles as he lets go of Dr Kilgharrah and grasps the handle of his suitcase. He thanks the doctor, watching him disappear into the prim residential facility.
Rolling his sleeves up but not past his forearms—never past his forearms—Merlin wheels his suitcase to the nearest bus stop, and waits for his mum’s car.
Gwen lifts her veil, and she and Lancelot become a single being, fused at the mouth.
Pastel-coloured crowds whoop around them, gay with laughter as they chant for more.
“Snog her again!” someone shouts.
Gwen laughs, and settles for a small peck on Lancelot’s cheek, but Lancelot has none of it. He tilts Gwen back, kissing her until her wedding dress engulfs them both in a white cloud of tulle, the two of them on top of the world.
“Save some for the honeymoon,” shouts another person.
The bridesmaids giggle. They clutch at bouquets, pretending to be embarrassed for Gwen, but keep their envious eyes stapled on the couple.
Merlin stands in the back of the party, behind the bride and groom, the bridesmaids, the cake, and his mum’s hybrid rose bushes. She’s done up the garden for the ceremony, picked out all the weeds, but Merlin’s suit is square in the shoulders, and smells moldy enough to distract him from the pleasant surroundings.
It’s a rental; one his mum’s chosen. Scratching his armpits, he wonders how many other best men have worn this same pair of trousers, if they had scabies, and how well they played their parts. He’s happy for his cousin, he is, but his smile hasn’t caught up with that yet.
A hand taps Merlin’s shoulder. He turns.
“Hey, Will,” he says sheepishly.
“Will, yeah, who you almost successfully forgot,” replies Will with a toothy grin.
Merlin shakes his head. “Did not.”
Though they’re neighbours and grew up together, Merlin hasn’t seen Will in over a year, since sixth form, when they lurked together at the back of the classroom. Today Will lurks with Merlin at the back of the wedding. His suit is a mess, his tie neat, just how Merlin remembers him.
They celebrate Merlin’s homecoming by breaking into the closed bar, Will offering Merlin a cider that Merlin doesn’t drink. It feels like childhood reborn, like eighteen is only a number, and one that they can both outrun if they sprint fast enough.
Sneaking out onto the dance floor, they writhe like idiots, in a perfect imitation of Merlin’s relatives.
“Now, here's a little something for the lovebirds,” croons the DJ.
The guests slip apart, search for better partners, and recouple. Will and Merlin stop dancing. Through the crowd, Merlin spots a figure lilting toward them.
“You look handsome, Merlin, just like your mum said,” Balinor calls, shoving guests aside with the green bottle in his hand, until no one stands next to Merlin but Will.
“Thanks, Dad.” Merlin swallows. He looks at the empty bottle in Balinor’s hand, and back into his father’s veiny eyes. “I…I thought you’d quit?”
“Do you know how much I missed you, Son?” Balinor slurs.
“I missed you too, but—”
Balinor pulls Merlin forward, rubbing his thick beard into Merlin’s shoulder and hiccupping. People are staring, pointing at Balinor’s crooked posture as he begs Merlin to fetch him another drink.
Merlin gives Will a helpless look.
Will claps Balinor on the shoulder. “Mr Emrys, congrats about your niece,” he says. “Hate to interrupt, but you’re wanted in the house.”
Balinor stares down the length of Will’s pointed finger, squinting in the direction of the house. With a grunt, he slides off of Merlin, shuffling past the wedding cake and into the crowd.
“Thanks,” Merlin whispers, dusting off his suit jacket.
“Don’t mention it.” Will shrugs. He grabs Merlin’s hand, pulling him off the dance floor and back into the garden.
Will’s fist curls around a bulge in his pocket, and with a laugh he pulls out a fat packet full of rice, stolen from the gift bags. They sit side by side on a bench. Will runs his fingers through the rice tossing random grains into a weathered fountain to watch them sink.
“Are you happy to be home, Merlin?” he asks.
Merlin sighs at him. They sit in silence, staring in unison at raining confetti that ripples and sparks in the sky like fireworks.
Will licks his lips, and tries again. “I mean, are you happy to be home? As in, happy happy?”
In the distance, Lancelot carries his new bride into the house, still eating her face like it’s a five-course dinner.
Merlin takes a breath, watching the last of the guests cry and laugh—emotions that barely graze him, that aren’t part of the numbness that’s made permanent residency inside of him.
“How can you tell I’m not?” he answers.
“Because,” Will says, chucking the rest of the rice into the fountain with a curveball. “I think I understand what that’s like.”
It’s midnight, and Merlin’s parents are at it again.
He can hear them shouting in the kitchen through the floorboards. His mum’s voice carries upstairs, and Balinor denies every one of her accusations, as usual.
“Seven months you were gone! Seven!” Mum shouts. “Why even bother coming back?”
This is what he hasn’t missed about home, what he’s been dreading since coming back from hospital. Merlin pulls his comforter over his head, snaps his eyes shut, and counts aloud.
“You want to talk to me like a child?” comes Balinor’s voice, rough with drink. “Think that you can tell me how to live my life?”
A table rattles. Mum laughs, louder and louder, until the cackles crack, shattering into full-fledged sobs.
“You act like a child! You don't act like a man. A real man never would have left his family!”
“I'm glad I left.”
“I'm not. Why do you... why would you... I'm not sloshed!”
The floor vibrates from the force of the front door slamming. Outside his window, Merlin hears the squeal of tires as Balinor drives away. He’s gone out on another bender; to return... in a day? A year?
Merlin scrubs a hand across his face. With trembling fingers, he leans over his bed, searching for the one thing in the house that’s constant, that can calm him and smother the anger.
Finding it is not a matter of want; it is a matter of necessity.
What Merlin needs is nestled between the mattress and the boxspring. His fingers brush the drawstrings of the bag, the hard square corner inside of it.
When he tugs at the string, the bag emerges from the cushy depths.
He senses the scornful eyes of every film poster on his wall judging him as he sits up in bed. He opens the cigar box anyway, balances it on his knees and takes inventory.
Mum never found it while he was away. Nothing inside has been moved and everything is in proper order. A lighter, a seam ripper from mum’s sewing kit, a nail, a green Swiss Army knife, a nail file, iodine, and a clean cloth—Merlin is spoilt for choice.
He picks up the knife, brushes a fleck of golden rust off on his joggers, and rolls up his shirt. He tests the tool against his thumb, watches the metal tip push the skin with resistance. When it fails to immediately draw blood, Merlin chooses the file from within the box, and fixes the problem.
Feeling past healed hills of old scars, Merlin finds a soft valley of virgin flesh. He thinks of Dr K, of everyone from his program that he’s going to disappoint, but the shame doesn’t last long.
A stinging sensation blossoms in Merlin’s bicep, flooding him for a merciful moment with the relief that he seeks.
“I'm so proud of you, love, being out in the world like this,” Merlin’s mum says, after Merlin submits his resume to the Costa Coffee near her office.
He shrugs and tries to give her a reassuring smile. Hunith deserves that after what he’s put her through.
Merlin’s ‘accident’ happened with his mum in the kitchen. He had been dicing vegetables for a salad with a serrated knife; the good one, with the wooden handle. Gwen had stopped in to say hello, before her shift at Tesco, and upstairs, Balinor slept off the effects of being pissed.
Because of the limited amount of time that his mum’s back was turned, checking the oven, Merlin was hasty, cutting his arm too deep. He wasn’t sure how he could have misjudged when he’d been self-harming since secondary.
He doesn’t like to reclaim that moment, even in memory. It’s not the injury that troubles him, but his mum’s wounded scream, as if the knife had slipped through her instead of him. When Merlin closes his eyes, he can hear the sound of it vibrating through him, shrill as the passing sirens of an EMT.
“Here’s an idea. Let’s do a practice interview together, Merlin. Won’t that be fun?”
His mum smiles. She hoists the hem of her skirt as she enters the bus, Merlin trailing her heels. Balinor still has the car, wherever he’s disappeared too.
They find open seats together. Merlin takes the one closest to the window, resting his forehead against the vibrating glass. Hunith settles beside him, plopping her purse onto her lap.
“Well, Merlin, go on,” she prompts.
“I have never had a job before.” Merlin drones, taking a stilted breath. His mum eggs him on, and so he continues. “But I can assure you that I am very excited about this opportunity. Costa Coffee would be a wonderful place to begin… my career.”
Merlin doesn’t get a call back from Costa, or the ten other businesses that have his resume on file.
Running out of options, he checks the paper mum’s left in a pile next to breakfast. He picks up a burnt soldier, busts open the yoke on his soft-boiled egg and unfolds the crinkled newsprint.
Little is inside the wanted adds that he can work with; most of the listings require qualifications he lacks, or prior job experience no eighteen year old would have.
One listing sticks out at Merlin, though—a simple advert, with ‘Secretary’ written in bold typeface and an address below it.
Google tells Merlin that Pendragon & Son Solicitors is a family firm in it’s fourth generation.
His mum escorts him to the interview. The building is an ancient blemish on an otherwise upstanding street, white based, dark trimmed, with peeling shutters and a blazing red front door. They trudge past it twice before spotting the numbers hidden under an overgrowth of ivy.
Hunith holds onto their umbrella, taking shelter under a bus stop as Merlin darts into the foul weather.
Raindrops tremble against the purple macintosh his mum has loaned him, trickling down the pressed creases of his trousers—Balinor’s trousers. Everything that he wears today, beside the mac, are Balinor’s; tailored to fit by being tucked and belted into submission.
Merlin raps once on the red door. No one answers. He taps the dragon doorknocker, inhaling as the door creaks open.
“Hello,” he calls.
Receiving no answer, Merlin sticks his head through the doorframe.
Inside, houseplants claim the murkiest corners of the office with waxy fanning leaves. The wallpaper is rich masculine damask, matching the polished hardwood floors. It smells like paper, and earth, and damp, and Merlin can’t help but think that the place looks like the lovechild of Eden and the Bakers Street flat on the telly.
He glances back to his mum, who waves obliviously at him from behind the glass bus partition. Merlin gives her a startled wave back. It’s now or never, and she’s a good mum; she’ll report him missing if he fails to turn up again.
Unlike Eden, no serpents reside in this garden. And, unlike the Baker Street flat on the telly, everything inside the office is clean, save for a reception that looks like a file cabinet has sneezed on it.
Papers litter the floor, the messiest pile encircling a woman hugging a cardboard box.
“Hello? Excuse me, Ms?” Merlin says.
The woman is short, fine boned, and too busty for her blouse. She wrinkles her nose at Merlin, ignoring him in favour of fleeing to the front door.
“Wait,” Merlin calls after the stranger. “Wait, I—”
The door slams shut. The woman is gone.
Merlin tiptoes past the hurricane room wondering what could have caused the mess, and box-lady to leave in such a hurry. Is anyone else even in?
“Hello?” he calls again.
“Inside,” rings a posh voice, and Merlin follows its call.
At the end of the hallway, past weepy ferns and a fortified door, is a large office.
Merlin pauses. He walks into the doorway. “Hello?”
The man inside is tight-lipped with a square jaw and a no-nonsense suit. Merlin fancies him to be in his early to mid thirties, but he’s pants at guesswork. His black shirt shimmers under the low-lights of the office; a red tie streaked down his sturdy chest.
His head is lowered over a colossal desk, diligent fingers combing blond fringe off his brow. When he spots Merlin he freezes, stashing a red pen from the desktop into a drawer.
“Hello,” replies the man, clearing his throat.
“Hi. Are you Mr Pendragon? The solicitor?”
The man blinks. He stares at Merlin for a beat, as if he can’t fathom how or why Merlin’s appeared before him.
“Yes,” Mr Pendragon finally replies, with a smile that looks pained.
Merlin wonders if he’s interrupted something important, if he should take a big step backward and leave while he can, like the busty woman with the box. He isn’t frightened, though, and nothing about the solicitor before him strikes Merlin as threatening.
“It said ‘secretary’ in the wanted advert. That you, um, needed one,” adds Merlin.
He walks up to the solicitor, fishes through his pockets, and pulls out his resume. The paper is wrinkled, stained, and dissolving around the edges from the rain.
Merlin locks his elbows as he presents Mr Pendragon the document.
Mr Pendragon’s eyes widen. He swallows, as if eating a thought. “Yes, it did,” he says to himself.
Merlin holds out the paper until his wrists begin to tremble. When Mr Pendragon doesn’t take it, he gives up, stuffing the tattered thing back into his mum’s mac.
He waits for Mr Pendragon to say something, anything to crack the potent silence between them.
“Are you pregnant?” Mr Pendragon asks him after a pause.
Merlin glances down at his belly. The purple rain macintosh he’s wearing is effeminate, if he’s honest, though he still can’t fathom the mistake.
He pushes the hood off of his head, and snorts a nervous laugh. “I’m, um, a man?”
Mr Pendragon wipes a hand across his upper lip, motioning Merlin closer. “Do you plan on getting anyone pregnant?” he amends.
“Do you live in a flat?”
“A terraced house.”
Merlin licks his lips. “With my parents.”
“No. But my cousin visits. She got married last week, and—”
“—Are you married?”
Merlin shakes his head, blows his hair out of his eyes. “Nope.”
“Show me your resume again.”
He pulls it from his pocket, handing it to Mr Pendragon.
“Merlin. Emrys.” Mr Pendragon reads, flattening out the crinkled paper. He leaves it at the centre of his desk, looks it up and down, and picks up a pen, one of many queued up at the side of his desk.
Merlin watches Mr Pendragon fiddle with the cap. He looks like he’s going to write something on the document, but after a moment he puts it down again, looking up at Merlin and saying mechanically, “Could you get me a cup of tea, with sugar?”
Merlin doesn’t know where the pantry is, but most disconcerting, he has no clue how many sugars the nosy solicitor takes in his tea.
He bumbles down the hall, sticking his head through every open door until he finds a room resembling a pantry. Cups form a neat row beside a cabinet and a small sink, but there’s no kettle or cooker in sight. Merlin grabs a clean-looking cup, raiding a transparent container full of red label teabags. He rips one open, sniffs at it and empties it inside of the mug.
The string sticks to the bottom of the cup like silt in a riverbed, and Merlin tries to steep it with hot water from a cooler in the corner, but the tap’s busted. He pounds the water jug with his fist, making a hollow ring emanate through its core.
No water is coming out of the cooler, because no water is inside of it. Brilliant.
The replacement jugs are a pain to move, but they exist, for which Merlin is thankful. He props one into the cooler base, water sloshing down his chest, dribbling onto his crotch and thighs. Now it looks like he’s pissed himself. Double brilliant.
Tea complete, he enters Mr Pendragon's office with a teatowel stuffed under one armpit, and places the cup neatly on the solicitor’s desk.
Mr Pendragon, grim-faced, motions to the empty chair in front of him. He doesn’t touch the cuppa Merlin has prepared, or give Merlin the slightest nod of praise.
Merlin sits. He dabs at the water stain on his chest, feeling sorely at odds with himself, and how Mr Pendragon looks at him, as if he’s all elbows and thumbs.
“Do you really want to be my secretary?” Mr Pendragon asks.
“Yes, I do,” says Merlin earnestly. He trails the towel lower, rubs at the circular stain on his trousers, and the annoying water stains down his thighs that haven’t evaporated.
Mr Pendragon studies Merlin, his pupils’ bull’s eyes on a target of the brightest blue. He coughs once into his fist, shifts in his seat, and buttons up his suit jacket, saying, “You’re qualified for the position, but you’d be bored to death.”
Merlin drops the teatowel in his lap and meets Mr Pendragon’s eyes. “I want to be bored.”
When Mr Pendragon speaks again, his hands fold over each other in swift compulsive motions. He leans back in his chair.
“All I need is a typist. Someone who can get to work on time and answer the telephone. I use typewriters for internal correspondence in my office and preparing papers for court. No computers. And I do not allow mobile phones or any other electronics, aside from my own personal devices. No google, no wiki, or tumblr nonsense. Do you understand?”
Merlin thinks for a moment, studies the room. It strikes him as a bit paranoid, and true to Mr Pendragon’s word, there isn’t a computer at his desk. Merlin’s played with his nan’s typewriter before, ages ago, though he wouldn’t call himself proficient, and the mobile he owns is on a cheap pay-as-you-go plan. He can’t remember the last time he texted anyone besides his mum.
Merlin shrugs, and answers that he’ll manage.
“It is dull work,” Mr Pendragon cuts.
Raising his chin, Merlin says with equal insistence, “I like dull work.”
Mr Pendragon inhales a sharp breath. He steeples his fingers, looks fixedly at Merlin, and replies in a rough voice, “There is something about you, Merlin. You're...”
The rotary phone on the desk rings.
The solicitor clambers up his chair. He grabs the phone by the receiver, two-fingered, like it will bite if he holds it for long, and tosses it in Merlin’s lap.
“Tell them I'm not in,” he snaps.
Merlin clutches the phone before it can tumble off him. The cord tangles around his wrist.
“There’s too much sugar in my tea, and too little milk,” Mr Pendragon grunts, still giving the rotary the evil eye. “And remember, whenever that rings I’m not in. I’m never in.”
After working in Mr Pendragon’s office for a week, Merlin still doesn’t understand what a solicitor is, or what a secretary does, but routine cements itself.
He’s assigned the desk in the reception. His afternoons consist of answering the phone and hammering keystrokes on the ancient typewriter Mr Pendragon’s supplied him; all under the watchful eye of the oil painting that looms above his desk. The man in the portrait is middle-aged, painted in concise strokes, with salt-and-pepper hair and the same tight brow as Mr Pendragon.
At first, it takes Merlin hours to type a legible sentence, but with the help of an industrial-sized container of white-out, his typing looks decent, and he no longer feels like the portrait is judging him.
Mr Pendragon himself says little to Merlin. When he does, Merlin notices that his words are blunt and exacting, as if he strives for oratorical perfection. Occasionally he will stride into the reception, to give a request or an elusive (much appreciated) “Good job”.
Despite the heady old-money aura that clings to Pendragon like cigar smoke, his manners are… questionable. For example, Mr Pendragon’s mum never taught him that it’s impolite to make grim faces at one's secretary from across the room—without blinking.
His boss is an odd duck. A meticulous and expectant man, who demands one sugar, no more, and no less, dissolved into his tea each morning.
“I accidentally threw out my notes on the Valiant case,” Mr Pendragon says to Merlin one afternoon. “Maybe you could...”
“Go through the bins outside?” Merlin finishes.
Mirth swirls in Mr Pendragon’s eyes. He looks at Merlin as if he’s been uncommonly clever. “Yes, Mr Emrys, that will do. Thank you.”
Merlin rummages knee-deep in plastic bags and stinking takeaway containers, avoiding rotten banana peels and the scurrying of insects. All the while he can see Mr Pendragon peeping at him through the curtains, pretending not to watch the spectacle Merlin’s become.
It takes Merlin half-an-hour to find the case notes, another ten to dab curry grease off the front of them.
Clutching the notes proudly to his chest, Merlin expects undying gratitude, or at least a “Thank you”, when he returns to the office and presents the missing documents to Mr Pendragon.
What he receives instead is a tepid, “I’ve no need for those, Merlin. I’ve located another set,” followed by a bark for more tea, lunch, and six copies of the most recent case files.
If Merlin didn’t know better, he would say that his employer enjoys taking the piss out of him.
Mum meets him at the bus stop, as she does everyday after work.
They go to Tesco together; select two puffed bags of crisps for Merlin, and a net full of vine-ripened tomatoes for mum.
Gwen works the checkout tonight. Her hair is tangled in a fancy twist, cheeks flushed with what must be marital bliss. She squeals when she spots them in her queue, pulling Hunith into a hug that threatens to puree the tomatoes.
Merlin receives a soft peck on the cheek, followed by a dewy-eyed smile.
“Look at you,” Gwen says, flattening his crinkled tie with her hand. “My baby cousin, a PA. I close my eyes for one minute, and poof, you’re all grown up!”
“I’m a Secretary,” corrects Merlin.
Gwen scrunches her nose. “A Secretary? People still use that term?”
She promises to invite them for a visit, once she and Lance are settle into their new flat. It’s got crown moulding, she says, and the perfect amount of sunlight in the garden for Hunith’s rose cuttings to take root.
“Gwen looked lovely, didn’t she?” Hunith chirps while preparing dinner. “Married life suits her. That Lancelot is a good man. She deserves a good man, and so do you.”
With a swallow, Merlin loosens his tie and putters about the kitchen, flipping open the cupboards until he spots his crisps.
Hunith shakes a carrot at him. “Appetite,” she scolds, putting it back onto the cutting board with the other washed vegetables. “So, how was work today?”
Merlin shoves his crisps back on the top shelf. “S’fine,” he mumbles.
“And how is Mr Pendragon?”
He wants to tell his mum every “how” that he has mentally filed away since working at the office of Pendragon & Son. How Mr Pendragon prefers his sandwiches, for example—on toasted wheat bread, without mayonnaise. He wants to tell her how unbreakable Pendragon’s gaze is, how he works out in the mornings until he’s sweat-drenched, and how Merlin’s skin prickles every time his employer says his name.
“Mum,” Merlin says instead, wetting his lips. “Can I help you make the pasta?”
Hunith throws herself over the cutting board, barricading Merlin from the vegetables —or more precisely—the cutting knife that’s been replaced since Merlin’s ‘accident’.
The sides of her lips twitch down as her brow droops. “No, love,” she coos. “It’s… You... just sit down. Dinner will be ready in a moment. You must be exhausted.”
Work is mindless, easy, compared to rebuilding his relationship with his mum. Her forgiveness is a given, but trust runs deep as bone and it takes time to mend after a fracture. Merlin knows the healing between them won’t come easy; it will come one slice of tomato and home-cooked meal at a time.
He shrugs off his guilt and sets the table; three glasses, three plates, three forks, and three weeks since Balinor’s disappearance after the wedding. He hasn’t called home yet, but every night Merlin grabs the pitcher from the refrigerator and fills his father’s water glass, an offering for his thirsty ghost.
As they chew, Merlin twirling spaghetti around his fork, he wonders what Mr Pendragon is eating right now, and if anyone cooks for him. Merlin doesn’t think so; Pendragon strikes him as the solitary sort. Perhaps he’s at the office, eating takeaway in the amiable quiet of his urban canopy; talking to the plants while no one watches.
Merlin enters the pantry Monday morning, finding cheddar-cheese diced and waiting for him inside of the refrigerator. The setup is gourmet for an endgame that amounts to rodent incarceration. He has not seen tail nor whisker of the vermin his employer swears infest Pendragon & Son, but has swept up enough mouse droppings to confirm the myth.
Three cubes go into Merlin’s shirt-pocket. He pats them with an affirming tap before entering Mr Pendragon’s office.
The aroma of wet-clay and phycus permeate the air. Mr Pendragon is in, his eyes glazed over in a pre-caffeine stupor. He nods a curt ‘hello’ at Merlin, sticking his hand out in a bored fashion.
Merlin fills it with a cuppa.
“It’s Monday,” drawls Pendragon between sips. “Don’t forget to clean the old cheese from the traps. It stinks up the room.”
Merlin wastes no time falling on his hands and knees. He sucks in a breath, crawling under his employer's desk and reaching for the metallic glimmer near Mr Pendragon’s wing-tips.
Pen strokes scribble above him. Pulling the trap out, Merlin sits cross-legged, examining the tiny prison. It’s designed to capture, lacking the barbaric hammer and spring mechanisms of old-fashioned traps, but that doesn’t make it any easier to set.
“Bugger,” Merlin mumbles, digging at the doors with blunt nails. The cheese is gone, but the traps closed and there’s no mouse in sight.
Mr Pendragon pops his head over his desk. He stares squarely at Merlin, clapping the cap back onto his pen. “Honestly, Merlin,” he sighs. “Give me that.”
Merlin relinquishes the trap.
Holding it two-fingered, Mr Pendragon places the trap onto a manila folder, prodding the points of entry with his pen until the doors burst open like firecrackers.
“Thank you,” Merlin beams.
Mr Pendragon’s smirk hitches up one corner of his mouth. It’s the closest thing to a smile Merlin’s ever seen on him. He can’t imagine Pendragon actually smiling wide, with all his straight white teeth. The sheer novelty of that would short the circuits in the building.
The smirk fizzles. Mr Pendragon returns to his writing, and Merlin loads the trap, cramming it under the desk.
“Mice like to go behind the chair in the corner as well,” echoes Pendragon’s voice through the hardwood. “Just because it’s hard to reach doesn’t mean that we don’t take care of every possibility.”
The bloated armchair in question, pegged in place by bookshelves, is impossible to crawl under. Merlin weighs his options, determined not to look incompetent in front of his boss. He wiggles out from under the desk and walks to the armchair, climbing it and moulding himself over the outside back.
A traps sparkles on the floor, amongst dust that still needs to be hoovered. Merlin sneezes. He stretches his fingers, leaning forward and steadying his other hand on the armrest.
The phone cries out in the reception.
He jerks up quick, too quick, and the room spins like a roundabout, cheddar tumbling from his pocket onto the floor.
Merlin catches himself against the headrest. Through starry vision, he spots Mr Pendragon gawking at the contortion he’s become. Forehead glued to the armchair, legs pin-straight, arse raised, trousers riding low—he must be quite the sight.
The scrutiny makes Merlin feel starker’s. Pendragon should really learn how to blink—this level of staring can’t be good for his corneas. Perhaps… perhaps he’s enjoying the view?
Flushing at the impossibility, Merlin jumps to the floor, yanking his trousers up with a firm tug. “I’ll...just get the phone,” he mutters.
Pendragon visually tracks him across the room, issuing more orders.
Take the Odin papers with you.
Notes are in the margins.
No milk—Or was it more milk?
Merlin misses the full dictation. The phone is screaming like a banshee, and his head’s still reeling from getting up too fast.
He grabs a stack of papers at the edge of Mr Pendragons desk and dashes into the reception, flinging them on his workspace.
The papers hit a glass, knocking it over and flooding Ribena onto the papers. Brilliant.
Falling into his seat, Merlin juggles the telephone up to his ear.
“Mr Pendragon’s office, how may I help you?” he gasps into the receiver.
“Merlin, is that you?”
“Gwen?” The tone doesn’t sound like his cousin at all. “How… how did you get this number?”
“Your mum gave it to me. For emergencies. You weren’t answering your mobile. I texted a hundred times.”
Merlin’s heart stops, “M’not allowed to use it at work—Is mum alright?”
“I saw Uncle Balinor today, during my shift,” Gwen sighs. “He was buying...” a soft pause. “Never mind. It doesn’t matter what he bought. It looks like he’s been rough sleeping again, and I thought you should know. I wasn’t sure if I should tell Auntie Hunith.“
The front door rattles. Heavy footfall drifts down the hall. Merlin rolls in his seat, trying to get a better look at the client that’s entered the office.
He gapes at the man walking down the hallway, then at the portrait behind his desk.
The stranger is the oil-painting’s lumbering doppelganger. Though his suit is different, it’s the same charcoal colour and bulges slightly at the belly, like the subjects put on weight since his sitting, or paid the painter to take artistic liberties. His hair is also more salt than pepper, but it’s unmistakably the same person.
“Is he in?” the client asks, ignoring the fact that Merlin is on the telephone.
Merlin claps his hand over the receiver. “I’m sorry. He, who?”
“Arthur.” Snorts the man impatiently.
“Arthur? Arthur, who?”
“Merlin?” Chirps Gwen on the line.
“I… could you wait one moment?” Merlin pleads to both parties. He returns to the phone. “Please, please, don’t tell Mum about Balinor,” he whispers to Gwen under his breath. “She doesn’t need to... Knowing won’t help anything!”
The man leans over Merlin’s desk, looking him square in the eye. “I do not have time for your ignorant act, boy. Has my son put you up to this? If that he thinks deleting his email accounts and ignoring my calls is going to stop me visiting, you will inform him that he’s grossly mistaken. I’m still a partner at this firm, and this is still my office.”
Merlin takes in the sharp Romanesque features, the straight tight mouth that marks a Pendragon—a riled one at that. Even if portrait man is the Pendragon in Pendragon and Son, Merlin can’t let him barge in without an appointment. That would be a gross violation of the golden rule, namely, Mr Pendragon is never in when he doesn’t want to be.
Merlin’s already left the mouse traps unfinished; he can’t arse this up.
“Merlin? Are you there?” comes Gwen’s voice.
“Listen, Gwen, I can’t talk right now.” Merlin sighs, hanging up on his cousin. He faces Pendragon senior, puffs up his chest, and says, “Sir, I will inform Mr Pendragon of your arrival, but you are not allowed in his office without authorization!”
Pendragon Senior’s face flashes blotchy purple, his nostrils trembling. Merlin swallows, splaying a hand across his forehead. No. He will not perform CPR on this wanker if he has a heart attack.
With a violent huff, Pendragon Senior takes a seat in the reception. “Tell Arthur that his father is here to speak with him. Now,” he barks.
“Mr Pendragon. Sir?” calls Merlin.
The office is eerily silent; everything is in its proper place, except for Mr Pendragon.
“Hello? Mr Pendragon?”
Merlin stills. Padding around the room, he tracks the voice like a bloodhound. The source originates from a long cupboard at the back of the office. Merlin presses an ear to it, licks his lips, and whispers, “Mr Pendragon?”
“I'm not in,” a small voice murmurs back.
“Okay.” Merlin nods. “Okay, you’re not in.”
He returns to Pendragon Senior, who’s at his desk, flipping through Merlin’s confidential files like he’s entitled to them. Merlin slams a hand down on the papers, sliding them towards himself.
“Mr Pendragon has left for the afternoon,” he lies, all out of shits to give today.
“Is that so?” Senior counters.
“It is. Do you have a message for him?”
The older man lunges. Merlin ducks under the desk.
A clattering scrapes above him, followed by a metallic ping and the windfall of footsteps. He cracks open his eyes, staring up at a sun-bleached square of wallpaper above his desk. The oil painting and Pendragon Senior have vanished together, and the telephone is ringing… again.
Merlin swears and wishes—not for the first time—that Mr Pendragon had caller ID, or a telephone made after the bloody nineteen-eighties. Collapsing into his chair, he yanks the phone line out of the rotary and throws it with force across the room.
He straightens up his glass, flips aimlessly through the sopping Odin files, but the legal jargon dribbles out of his consciousness and he hasn’t the energy to type it, let alone breathe.
Father’s. Tossers -- all of them.
Merlin rubs slow circles over his arms, until he’s scratching hopelessly at himself through his shirt. He sniffs, wiping his nose on his cuff. His emergency kit is stashed in a pencil case, tucked in the right-hand drawer. He hasn’t used it yet. He doesn’t want to use it.
He should probably be calling Dr Kilgharrah right now.
He takes it out anyway, arranging the tools in front of him with surgical precision: an unlabelled bottle of iodine, cotton swabs, and paperclips, bent as backwards as the step he is taking.
Merlin picks up a paperclip. He rolls up his sleeve, exposes his left bicep, and starts the cut.
Mr Pendragon slinks into the reception with the energy of a scorned dog. He scans the room for threats, freezing mid-step as he spots Merlin’s arm and fisted paperclip.
As their eyes lock, the shame that fills Merlin is unendurable. He waits for the scolding reprimands, the questions, but they never come. Nothing about Mr Pendragon’s body language is predatory. For a moment, he looks as small and lost as Merlin.
They watch each other with unwavering interest; familiar strangers, looking at the other clearly for the first time. Mr Pendragon has seen the scars. He has seen them, and now he won’t want Merlin anymore.
With fevered hands Merlin packs away his paperclips, his iodine, his cotton swabs, and hides the pencil case under a folder. He tips over his pen jar, making it look like an accident, to mask the unsettled shake of his lips as he fusses over the sorting.
When he lifts his head up again, Mr Pendragon is gone.
He wasn’t supposed to arse things up at his job, at least not this early on.
Merlin expects a sacking at every clock-stroke, but Pendragon lets him work through the day, nodding a mute goodbye that leaves Merlin’s own tongue bereft. He doesn't look like a man who should be left alone, though Merlin does this.
One day passes, and another, quiet becoming their common truce.
Will stands on tiptoe at Merlin’s doorstep. His hair is greased down; tie an open noose, impaled through the centre with a neon nametag. He jabs the doorbell with his thumb and peers up, pupil eclipsing the peephole.
As Merlin cracks the door open, he spots the bag slung over Will’s shoulder, pissing clear liquid down the porch steps.
"No, I don’t have any shovels or lye that you can borrow. Please tell me that’s not a body in there?" He sighs.
Will hefts the bag down with a cheeky smile. "Wouldn’t that be brilliant? So, are you opening the door or what?”
Merlin nudges the sack with his toe. “Isn’t this how vampire movies start?"
“Naw, it’s nothing sinister,” Will says. “Our washer died mid-cycle and my mum’s uniform was inside. She wanted to know if I could finish washing these at yours, if it’s OK with Hunith?”
Merlin sees no reason to object. His mum’s having dinner at Gwen’s—he’d feigned a stomachache. Though it’s selfish, Merlin’s relieved to have skipped rehashed Balinor gossip paired with Gwen’s famous cod in parsley sauce.
He lends Will a hand, manoeuvring the bag downstairs as they chew through small talk.
In the basement, the dryer hums a lonely hymn. Everything in the room is boxed or broken, a catch-all for what doesn't belong in the house. Balinor’s clothes carpet the concrete, gathering dust-bunnies.
They drop Will’s bag beside the washer, Merlin watching as Will peels up his denims to reveal a lighter and a joint, smuggled under his tube-sock. He picks it from his leg hair like a nit, pinching the paper between thumb and forefinger.
“Want a hit?” Will asks.
“Yeah, why not.” Merlin sighs slamming the washer shut. He clambers on top of the machine, blowing away a string of spider webs as he jimmys the window latch.
The air in the basement is stale, dashed with gardenia air freshener guaranteed to smother all but the stench of death. Merlin crosses his legs up on the washer, trying to look unimpressed as Will cups the joint and lights up.
The last time they’d smoked together was in the teacher’s washroom, flat-pressed against three other boys from sixth form. Merlin had barely inhaled before they’d heard Mr Gaius cough and flushed the prize down the loo, trying not to tumble in with it.
Will’s eyelashes flutter as he takes the first hit. He tilts his head back, hacking through the exhalation.
“I told mum to wait until dad fixed the washer, but she wouldn’t listen. She has to wash her clothes even if she’s only tried them on. Bloody compulsion, if you ask me. Don't blame the machine for offing itself.”
Merlin nods amiably.
“And then you’ve got types, like my old man, who refuse to wash their clothes when they stink to hell.”
“Which are you, then?”
Will shrugs, his eyes contented slits. He chuckles as he says, “Maybe, I'm the type of bloke who wants a boyfriend, Merlin.”
“Funny,” Merlin replies. "I only wash my clothes when they're dirty.”
“Same. And that’s important in a relationship, you know. Compatibility.”
“Relationship,” repeats Will. He hops onto the washer beside Merlin with a thud, forcing the joint between Merlin’s parted lips.
The paper is spit-moist. Merlin smokes it in greedy gulps, the mistake funnelling fire through his lungs.
“Oh," he wheezes into his fist, passing the joint back to Will. “I… I didn’t know you were out?”
“Not everyone’s mum’s like yours.” Will takes a languid puff. “But I had a mental breakdown a few months back. It gave me perspective.”
Merlin sympathises, he does, but that doesn’t mean that he knows how to comfort his mate without sounding trite. “Me too. Kind of,” he says after a pause. “You heard that I went away for a while? Well, I wasn’t doing volunteer work abroad, like mum tells everyone. I was in a psychiatric hospital.”
"It’s like I said, we’ve a lot in common.” Will grins.
They finish the joint and raid the upstairs for crisps, building a nest in the basement with a moth-eaten blanket. As the washer and dryer harmonize, they laugh over rubbish, convinced happiness can be found at the bottom of their greasy Walkers bag.
Will’s thick fingers, sticky with crumbs, feel good as they knead the knotted muscle between Merlin’s shoulder blades. Merlin glances at Will. His boyish face isn’t unappealing, even if his nose is small, his eyes the wrong shade, and his voice...
Will’s voice is hopeful when he asks Merlin if he wants to fuck around.
They’re good mates; if they took things further tonight it would be nobody's fault.
Giggles mature into caresses. They tangle limbs, Merlin losing where his hands begin and Will’s end. He figures it’s safe to let Will feel him up if it’s over his clothes. He won’t be able to see the scars.
When Will closes his eyes, Merlin emulates. He knows what he wants his first kiss to be like: brain freeze, hot chocolate nipping the tongue—a poetic cliché.
Salt-coated, Will’s lips taste tart as the rim of a margarita glass, his mouth a campfire extinguished with week-old coffee.
Merlin kisses back anyway; going through the motions until the room quiets and the eager tongue licking open his mouth could be anyone's.
Will insists that it’s no trouble to pick up the laundry in the morning and give Merlin a lift to work.
He arrives thirty minutes early, bright-eyed for seven-am and acting like the cat that swallowed the canary-cage and all.
Will talks about everything but the snogging, and if the exhaust pipe chatters back more than Merlin, he doesn’t notice.
The car skims the kerb, the office of Pendragon & Son rolling into view. A square set of shoulders—Mr Pendragon’s— appears beside the hedge. Merlin tries to ignore how Mr Pendragon’s trousers stretch over his thighs like a second skin as he squats by the footpath, hand angling a mousetrap away from his shoes.
The tiny mouse inside paces in its cage as if stuck on fast-forward. Mr Pendragon tucks the trap in a tangle of roots, gingerly tapping it until the mouse scampers off into the green.
That’s when Merlin spots it, the barely noticeable flash of teeth, the fleeting quirk of Mr Pendragon’s smile that is everything and not nearly enough.
“That your boss?” Will asks, killing the ignition.
Though the moment was never his to share, Merlin aches to lose it. It’s nine degrees inside Will's car but he’s boiling in his shirt and—fuck—when did he start thinking this way about his boss?
Merlin’s voice cracks.
“Yeah, that’s him,” he says, jiggling the door handle as Will’s elbow jabs into the horn.
The blast startles Mr Pendragon to his feet. Merlin supposes the honk was a lark, but he feels like a creeper and wants nothing to do with it.
Hiding behind one hand, he throws his boss an apologetic wave, but Mr Pendragon looks past him into the driver's seat of the car. Snatching the trap, he retreats to his office.
“Not the smartest bloke, is he?” says Will. He leans towards Merlin, still frozen in the passenger's seat, planting a peck on his cheek. “You should tell him that’s not how you get rid of mice. You’ve got to poison them.”
"Look at it!”
A hand slams onto Merlin’s typewriter, a white sheet of paper glaring accusingly at him from atop the machine.
Merlin peers past short-clipped nails, solid wrists and a clean-shaven chin until he is face-to-scowl with his boss.
“Not me. The letter,” snaps Mr Pendragon above him. “Do you see that?”
Mr Pendragon holds the paper at Merlin’s face like a broken mirror. “This document has four typing errors, one of which,” a sharp inhale, “is a spelling error.”
Merlin drags his hands from the typewriter and stares questioningly at the document. On the surface it’s unremarkable, a page in a novel’s worth of correspondence he’s typed for Mr Pendragon, only this one is riddled with red sharpie circles that stand out like welts.
“This isn't the first time, either,” says Pendragon briskly. “There have been other errors that I let go of in the first weeks of your employment. This cannot continue. Do you understand how incompetent these mistakes make me look?"
“I’m sorry,” Merlin swallows, unsure if he’s meant to apologize. To speak at all. “I—“
Mr Pendragon flattens the paper onto the desktop with a slap. He angles his head down, eyes dark. "Type it again," he growls, low and heady. "And get it right.”
Lunch and tea pass without Pendragon exiting his office, leaving Merlin to speculate that his boss has either died or forgotten about the errors.
Merlin hugs the revised letter to his chest. He trudges down the hallway, opening the office door on the first ‘come in’.
He squints at the sudden change of light, letting his eyesight adjust to the dim.
Mr Pendragon is hunkered at his desk, nose-deep in a book. It doesn’t look like a law book, or any of the other immaculate books on the shelves. It’s a soft-cover, the pages flagged and worry-worn along the edges, the title obstructed by Mr Pendragon’s grip.
At Merlin’s approach, Mr Pendragon dog-ears a page and tosses the book swiftly into his drawer.
Merlin licks his lips. He presents the letter, watching his boss hold out his palm like an omnipotent ruler, his eyes scouring the text.
Mr Pendragon selects a red sharpie from a straight formation of them upon his desk. He lassos an error in a stroke, crumpling the paper into a tight ball within his fist.
"Type it again,” he says, glowering at Merlin and tossing his efforts into the rubbish.
Two more attempts garner identical reactions.
By the fourth, Merlin is drowning in the Oxford dictionary. He can’t hide the nervous twitch of his fingers as he enters Mr Pendragons office.
Merlin lays the paper testament of his devotion out for inspection, his shirtsleeve bumping Mr Pendragon’s sharpie queue, sending the pens spiralling across the desk.
“Make three copies of that and then put it in the Nimue file.” Mr Pendragon snorts, ignoring the letter in favour of straightening his pens.
Merlin digs his toe into the carpet. “Aren't you going to proofread it first?” he asks.
An arched eyebrow and uncomfortable minute of silence follow. Merlin takes the hint, and is halfway out the door before he hears a drawn, ‘Merlin’ behind him.
Merlin turns on a dime. He pokes his head through the doorframe as Mr Pendragon casts him a firm look.
“Mr Emrys,” says Mr Pendragon in a toneless voice. “When people come into this office you are the first visual representation of my business. The way that you dress is slovenly. Nothing you own fits you.”
Merlin tilts his chin and stares blankly down at his clothing. His stained shirt is two sizes too big. Wrinkled. Perhaps his employer has a point.
“Okay,” he mumbles.
“And another thing,” interjects Mr Pendragon, leaning in his chair until the gears crack.
“What is with your tongue?”
“You wet your lips with it. Constantly. Are you aware of this?”
“I… I’m sorry. I didn't know that I wet my lips.”
“Well, you do. There, you’re doing it again. That’s unacceptable,” Mr Pendragon replies, staring Merlin dead in the eyes until Merlin halts his tongue mid-lick, sliding it back into his mouth.
In the bowels of Marks and Sparks, shoppers navigate the treacherous sea of pinstripes and Egyptian cotton with a captain's ease.
Merlin attempts to blend in with them, though inside he’s shrieking and treading water.
He inspects the same pair of trousers for twenty minutes before it occurs to him that the trousers aren't the problem; he simply doesn’t know how to shop for anything without his mum’s help.
Merlin piles five pairs of trousers into his arms in different sizes—statistically, one of them should fit. A rack at the rear proudly proclaims two-shirts-for-sixty-pounds. He pulls several out and lays them over a tie display, considering which overpriced garment suits him best.
The crimson shirt's striking, perfect for Mr Pendragon, but it’s not him. He’d do anything to please his boss and can’t fathom how things have gone pear-shaped between them. Is this delayed retribution for catching him with the paperclip? For Will being an arse and honking the horn?
Merlin adds a turquoise shirt, a white, and a purple to his mountain of clothes, veering towards the fitting area.
Mirrored wall-to-wall, the changing room has a seventies porno vibe. Merlin trips out of his shoes, shaking off his shirt and baggy trousers.
Stripped of Balinor’s clothes, he’s forced to face his reflection in triplicate.
His body has changed since the last time he confronted it in a full-length mirror. His shoulders have broadened. The tapering of his waist is more pronounced, his legs less coltish than they were a year ago, cushioned by firm planes of muscle.
Merlin scratches at the waistband of his pants—he should buy new pants while he's at it—turning in slow circles. He runs his hands along his neck, his sternum, across the crater burns dotting his chest and tiger stripe scars on his arms that he wishes he could scrub clean with the pull of his fingertips.
No. He’s not ashamed of what reflects back at him, though his naked body is a rare sight, something he breaks into palatable pieces by looking into the bathroom mirror. He’s changing, evolving. Though he doesn’t know what kind of man he’s becoming, it’s clear as the reflection that Balinor’s castaways don’t fit the one he longs to be.
It takes a few combinations, but Merlin finds a winning outfit in the purple shirt and black trousers. He looks good in purple, he decides.
Merlin pulls his shoulders back, taking a shaky breath.
“Mr Pendragon,” he says, looking into the mirror with a determined smile. “Thank you so much for your helpful suggestions, because I’m trying to be the best Secretary that I can be… for you.”
“Mr Emrys, come into my office. Immediately,” blares the intercom on Merlin’s desk.
Merlin knows what’s coming. Mr Pendragon’s drained two cups of tea and it’s an hour after his scheduled lunch, which leaves only one possibility — a grammar reprimand.
He inspects the notches on his new belt, origami-folding his dress shirt into his trousers.
Merlin knocks once on Mr Pendragon’s door, entering when he hears no resistance. His boss stands erect beside his writing desk, a marble statue with the loneliest eyes. When he addresses Merlin, those eyes sift through him, past the flashy new clothes, penetrating deep into bone.
“So,” Mr Pendragon says, a touch of wildness to his voice. “The telephone is ringing, Merlin. Answer it.”
Merlin looks to the desk. Hidden under piles of paperwork sits the rotary telephone, silent, and covered in a film of dust.
He tilts his head to get a better look at it. “It’s not ringing,” Merlin says.
“Brr-ing!” The r’s roll harshly off of Mr Pendragon’s tongue. He repeats the sound a second time, louder, gesticulating in grand circles above the telephone.
Merlin’s face brightens with recognition. If work related role-play is Mr Pendragon’s order of the day, he’s willing to play along.
“Brr-rr--!” sings Mr Pendragon again.
Merlin rushes to the telephone, brushing away papers and yanking it to his ear. “Hullo,” he says, cheerily. “You've reached the office of Mr Pendragon—“
“Listen,” Mr Pendragon interrupts, gliding behind Merlin. “You're a big girl, Merlin. You can get a much louder voice out of that delicate throat of yours.”
“Mr Emrys, you told me when I hired you that you were used to answering telephones.”
“I am,” Merlin says, voice cracking slightly. “I have a mobile. I answer it.”
“At my office?”
“The phone's still ringing, Merlin.”
Merlin puts the receiver to his ear. "Hello," he says, in his best booming parody of a BBC One host. “You've reached the office of Pendragon & Son Solicitors. Mr Pendragon is away at the moment; may I take a message for you?”
Mr Pendragon throws his head back, his laugh a resounding burst.
“You see?" he says, clapping his hands together. He takes the telephone from Merlin without touching him, returning it to the receiver. “That's showing initiative! I run a solicitors office here, not a mortuary.”
Merlin laughs too, his giggles fumbling into awkward snorts. It’s good to earn a spec of praise from his boss after a long dry spell.
Mr Pendragon walks past his plants, deflating into the armchair at the corner of his office.
“Merlin," he sighs wearily.
He pats the chair. “Come. Sit."
The armchair may be plush, but it’s not large enough to accommodate two grown-men comfortably. Merlin hesitates, perching at the edge of the cushion to give Mr Pendragon space.
Mr Pendragon looks at him with heavy-lidded eyes, nostrils flaring slightly. “Did you have a date recently?” he asks.
Merlin’s tongue sticks at the back of his throat. He thinks about Will giving him a ride to work the other day, about how out of character it must have looked to be dropped off by someone other than his mum.
“Yeah,” Merlin answers, hoping his blush isn’t ruining his poker face.
“With whom did you have a date?”
“Um… his name is Will...er… William.”
“William," Pendragon copies. There's a curious lilt to the name, a melancholy to the way it's said. "And did you two have sex?”
“W-what?” Merlin snorts, shaking off the mental image of Will dry-humping him on the basement floor. They’ve had a second date since—casual snogging. Nothing noteworthy—not the type of conversation Merlin ever expected to be having with his boss.
“Are you shy?” Mr Pendragon asks, shifting closer.
"No,” Merlin answers. “I mean. I don’t know?”
“I’m shy. It’s nothing to be ashamed of.”
Merlin shakes his head. "No. You're not shy—you're a solicitor!”
Mr Pendragon offers a wan smile. “I am, but I overcome my… shyness… in order to do what is expected of me. To fulfil my obligations.”
“I don't think you're shy at all,” Merlin asserts, holding Mr Pendragon’s gaze.
Mr Pendragon’s pupils dilate, refocusing on Merlin’s mouth. “Merlin,” he says, scrubbing a hand across his face. “I need to be direct with you. I am your employer, and as such, we have a prescribed relationship. But I want you to understand that you should feel comfortable around me.”
Merlin’s heart seizes. He nods, leaning in closer.
“Comfortable discussing your problems, for example.”
“Problems?” Merlin hums, only half listening.
“I’m referring to the items hidden in the second right hand drawer of your desk,” Mr Pendragon says. “The plasters. The iodine. The broken paperclips.”
So, they’ve come to this.
Merlin doesn’t want to disappoint Mr Pendragon, like he’s disappointed other important people in his life. Dr Kilgharrah. His parents. He wants to answer his boss carefully, because he’s not the type to deny or manipulate fact. He was caught red-handed, but now Merlin can’t seem to do anything with his hands except squeeze them in his lap, wringing the blood out of them.
“I...I feel—” Merlin sputters.
“—Shy?” supplies Mr Pendragon.
Merlin releases his grip. He nods, rubbing his tingling knuckles against his cheek.
“Would you like something to drink, Merlin?” Mr Pendragon asks warmly.
“Okay,” Merlin whispers.
Pendragon wastes no time leaving and returning. The drink he presents Merlin is stormy purple, ice cubes clinking musically against the glass. It has the taste of Ribena, sweet, but not overly so, made the way Merlin prepares it for himself at lunchtime. But Mr Pendragon— why would he notice this insignificant detail about Merlin’s tastes? It's Merlin’s job to memorize Mr Pendragon’s habits, not the opposite.
He stares transfixed at the glass as Mr Pendragon settles beside him.
“Why do you cut yourself?” Pendragon asks after a long pause.
Merlin drains the Ribena down to the ice cubes, wiping the moisture off his lips with the back of his hand. He thinks of his first cut, his first above all firsts. It came before his first kiss, his first job interview. He thinks about the hospital, his mum’s kitchen, the pale-faced EMT who’d asked Merlin how many fingers he was holding up before hauling him onto a stretcher.
“Dunno,” Merlin replies.
“Is it that sometimes, the pain inside needs to come to the surface. And, when you see physical evidence of the pain, experience it, in a sense, it confirms that you’re still alive."
Mr Pendragon speaks like a man nursing wounds. Merlin wonders if his scars are on the outside, like his own, or in deeper places the naked eye can’t see.
“I,” Merlin struggles, overwhelmed by a sudden outpouring of empathy. “Yeah. It’s... it’s something like that.”
Mr Pendragon takes the glass from Merlin. “I'm going to tell you something,” he says, his pitch dipping into a hypnotic intonation. “Are you listening?”
Merlin sniffs, mouthing a resigned yes. Here comes the sacking.
“I want you to open your right hand and cup your palm for me.”
Merlin offers his hand. Mr Pendragon fishes through the Ribena glass, plucking two ice cubes and dropping them in the centre of Merlin’s palm.
“S’cold!” Merlin squeals, jumping in the chair.
“Curl your fingers around the ice," Mr Pendragon instructs, holding his arm out in front of Merlin’s chest to coax him in place.
Cold nips Merlin’s skin, numbing it. He shivers, concentrating on clutching the cubes without dropping them as Mr Pendragon opens his suit jacket, producing a ratty book from the breast pocket. He lays it on the chair between them.
“Close your eyes and breathe in from your diaphragm,” says Mr Pendragon. “Slowly. Yes. Good. Are you ready to listen? Are you listening?”
“Yes,” Merlin answers, forcing his eyes closed and his breathing into a steady rhythm.
“You will throw away the tools, Merlin. The plasters. The iodine. The paper clips. All of it.”
Merlin’s eyes snap open. He clutches the ice, the cold verging on the edge of too-good and too-much. The sensation of it, the sting and the physicality of having ice in his hands, is enough to stop him from nervously scratching his scars through his clothes.
“Look at me, Merlin,” Mr Pendragon says. There is no heat in how he says Merlin’s name. His words are simple and concise, gentle even. “You will never, ever, cut yourself again.”
Merlin watches Mr Pendragon, studying his features. He’s never had a proper excuse to look this closely at him before. Sandwiched together on the chair, it’s impossible to ignore how fit his boss is under the corporate cut of his suit. He wonders idly if Mr Pendragon dates too—whom he has sex with.
Above all else, Merlin wonders why Mr Pendragon would keep him after seeing him at his worst.
“Okay,” Merlin whispers, surprised by his own obedience.
“Have I made myself clear?” inquires Mr Pendragon carefully. “Do you understand what I’ve asked?”
“Good. Now, do you know what I want you to do?” Pendragon says, giving the glass to Merlin to return the ice cubes. “I want you to leave work early. You're an adult. Your mother doesn’t need to escort you to the bus every day. I want you to take the book on the chair home with you. I want you to take a walk in the cool air, because you require relief, and when you are alone, I want you to open the book and read. Understood?”
“Yes, Sir,” Merlin whispers, with more conviction.
Merlin strolls like a dog off-leash.
He stalks pigeons, ignores pedestrians. He veers off the footpath and into a park; letting his steps crackle through curled leaves. When he thinks about it, he’s never walked for pleasure before.
Every gulp of air expelled from his lungs is liberation. The park stills around him. The lapping fountain, the tessellated shadows of the treetops, all expect nothing from Merlin but silent admiration.
Because Mr Pendragon has granted him the permission to leave early, insisted on it, it’s as if Pendragon walks beside Merlin, giving his movements direction.
He texts his mum telling her not to worry that he isn’t at the bus stop, letting his walk stretch until sunset honeys the sky. Merlin finds a bench and rests, watching the fountain ripple from blue to black as night tucks in.
He pulls out the book.
The cranberry cover is well-loved. Familiar. A Bright Red Scream, Self-Mutilation and the Language of Pain, reads the title, followed by the author's name.
He opens it to the first page. The inside cover is written on, the inscription “To Arthur, Love Morgana” scribbled over multiple times in blue ink. Below that is a list, written in Mr Pendragons fastidious scrip.
Merlin reads the list aloud.
In lieu of self-harming, Mr Emrys is allowed to:
Use a red pen to mark where he usually self-harms
Rub ice across his skin where he usually self-harms
Wear rubber bands on his wrists, arms, or legs and snap them instead of self-harming
Write down his negative feelings on paper and then rip the paper up
Chew something with a strong taste
Take a cold shower
Squeeze a stress ball
Confide in others
Allow himself to cry
The list continues to the bottom of the page, ending with helplines, and treatment referral numbers, including a number Merlin recognizes as Dr Kilgharrah’s office.
Merlin rubs his fingers across Mr Pendragon’s words, sniffling until he’s following item ten on the list.
The next day at lunch, Merlin knicks a fork from the pantry.
He doesn’t ask where the rubber bands on his desk came from. The stress ball in the shape of a mouse next to his typewriter. He doesn't ask why the fridge has been stocked with Ribena, the freezer lined top to bottom with ice cube trays.
Merlin slinks out the front door, curling under the hedges. Surveying the ground, he prods the earth with the tip of the fork, finding a plot where the metal sinks into the dirt like rich chocolate cake.
He digs a small hole, a fist wide. Once it’s elbow deep he scrounges through his trousers, pawing for what’s hidden inside. Iodine, paper clips, plasters, and his tools from home all tumble into the ground when Merlin turns out his pockets.
When they’re in the earth, he mouths a silent eulogy, scooping handful upon handful of earth over the unmarked grave. He packs it solid, and returns to the office, bumping head first into Mr Pendragon in the hallway.
Instead of averting his gaze, or asking Merlin how he muddied his knees, Mr Pendragon looks at the rubber bands on Merlin’s wrists and nods solemnly, letting his secretary work undisturbed for the rest of the day.
A week passes, and Merlin makes another typing mistake. The error summons Mr Pendragon into the reception like a chalk circle.
“What is wrong with you?” Mr Pendragon says, narrowing his eyes at Merlin. He drops a letter onto the desk, locking his arms around Merlin's chair, caging him in place with his forearms. “All you have to do in this office is type and answer the telephone. Is that beyond you? It certainly seems to be.”
“Sorry?“ Merlin sputters.
Mr Pendragons mouth hovers over the back of Merlin’s neck, blowing softly against the skin. “No. No more excuses.”
Merlin drops his hands into his lap. He picks at his fingernails, tries again. “Sorry. I—”
“Stop it! Stop apologizing to me! That’s not what I—” Pushing himself up, Mr Pendragon rounds the desk, still scowling at Merlin like he’s a disobedient child. “Honestly, Emrys, what goes on inside that head of yours?“
Merlin picks up the letter and makes a feeble attempt to read it, but his eyelashes stick in wet clumps.
No matter; Mr Pendragon’s ignoring him again anyway.
He closes his eyes, lowers his head. As Mr Pendragon stalks back to his office Merlin sniffles, tongue darting impulsively over his lower lip before he can stop it.
Mr Pendragon takes one look at Merlin, and his face crumbles. He freezes mid-step in a taught spasm of muscle.
“Come into my office,” he whispers in a coarse voice. “Bring the letter.”
Merlin lingers in the doorway.
The shadows that haunt the room have fallen away, replaced by pale sunlight seeping in through panels of sheer under-curtains.
Merlin lowers his eyes, and steps over the threshold.
At the centre of the room, framed between two rectangular windows sits Mr Pendragon. He rises before Merlin, hands clasped firmly behind his back.
“Put the letter on my desk,” he says, so softly that Merlin strains to hear it.
Merlin places the letter face up and waits, trying not to fidget or slouch, which would make Mr Pendragon cross.
The door squeaks as Mr Pendragon shuts it behind them.
Though Merlin is the taller of the two of them, Mr Pendragon’s bearing devours the room. He settles behind Merlin, standing close enough to be heard, but not seen.
His voice dips low, vibrating in his throat. “Now, I want you to bend over my desk so that you are looking directly at the letter,” he says.
Merlin shakes his head in quick succession. He trusts his boss, wants to please him, but he’s never been tasked to do anything like this before.
“I don’t understand,” he says.
“There is nothing to understand,” Mr Pendragon says, with a fondness that makes Merlin’s chest ache. “I want you to look directly at the letter. Get your face very close to it. Put your palms on the desk, bend over and,” a soft pause. “Read it aloud to me.”
Merlin chances a look at Mr Pendragon behind him, but doesn’t bother trying to break into the man's thoughts. Instead he holds his breath, resting his elbows against the oak and straightening into a horizontal position that makes him feel more table than human.
“Dear Mr Cedric,” he reads, concentrating on the consolidated rows of type. “I am grateful to you for referring me to your case. The subject of animal captivity has been of interest to me for some time— ah— ahh!”
A hollow clap echoes through the office.
Merlin gasps as pain radiates into the tender flesh underneath his trousers. He looks over his shoulder, craning his neck as far as it will go without snapping, and gapes at his boss.
Mr Pendragon stands poised behind him. Unblinking. “Continue, Mr Emrys,” he instructs after a loaded pause.
“Umm…” Merlin stutters.
“Read,” Mr Pendragon commands, velvet-smooth.
Merlin’s arse-cheeks clench reflexively at the measured tone of Mr Pendragon’s voice. Positioned this way—his palms suctioned to the desk, arse throbbing and held high like a show dog—it should be horrifying. It should be wrong, and demeaning, but...
Merlin turns his head again, taking in the alabaster cast of the room. Sunlight dapples Pendragons cheekbones where he stands, hands clenched loosely at his sides. Merlin’s thought about these hands before; the square palms, the rough fingers that would put atlas to shame yet fear picking up telephones and avoid handshakes like plague.
He’s fantasised about his own hands as Mr Pendragon’s: cupping, fondling, and stripping his cock under the sheets before bed. But he never seriously considered that his boss would touch him, and never like this.
The friction of the spank wasn’t entirely unpleasant; nor is the proprietary way Pendragon stares at him, like he’s trying to memorize Merlin’s features in case he pulls a runner.
Mr Pendragon’s eyes burn bright. “Mr Emrys,” he whispers again, less commanding. Anticipative. He looks like he expects Merlin to pull back in disgust, like he’s lived through this exact scenario before.
Despite being propped over a desk, Merlin has the strange realization that he isn’t the vulnerable one. Mr Pendragon has revealed a secret. Whatever comes next, wherever they go from here, depends solely on Merlin’s consent and his boss seems to understand this.
Merlin clings to this thought, his awaiting answer. He smiles shyly, pressing his fingertips into the desk as he returns to the first paragraph of the letter.
“Dear Mr Cedric,” he projects, ignoring his thundering heartbeat. “I am grateful to you for referring me to your case. The subject of animal captivity has been of interest to me for some time. My secretary has prepared research materials that I believe you will find illuminating. Please review them and—“
A second spank ripples across both cheeks, tearing Merlin’s breath from him. He can’t see Mr Pendragon, but can feel the dissolving outline of his palm, fingers seared like brands upon his skin.
Merlin steadies himself on the desk and starts again.
“Please review them— “
He screws his eyes shut, trying not to whimper and writhe as three spanks hit hard and hurt right. It’s an addictive pain; with the promise of more to come. The sensation’s alluring, but Mr Pendragon isn’t letting him read. Clearly he’s missed something to the exercise, but what?
When Merlin cracks open his eyes he notices the red pens scattered across the tabletop, the same pens Mr Pendragon uses to correct typing mistakes. He’s been such a fool.
This isn’t a punishment his boss is conducting. It’s a grammar lesson.
“Please review them,” continues Merlin, straightening his forearms and taking a dramatic pause to indicate his understanding of where the comma in his letter should have been typed. “And contact me at your earliest convenience. Yours sincerely, Solicitor Pendragon.”
Fingertips stroke Merlin’s buttocks through his trousers, as if to reward him for how clever he’s been. Merlin feels held by the gesture, forgiven and made helpless by it’s tenderness.
“Again,” Mr Pendragon commands, in a wrecked voice.
“Dear Mr Cedric,” Merlin starts again, remembering to use his telephone voice this time. “I am grateful to you for referring me to your case. The subject of animal captivity has been of interest to me for some time. My secretary—“
Clapping spanks fill the room like a standing ovation, reducing Merlin to primal groans drowned in the raucous applause. Unlike Will’s feel-ups, there’s nothing clumsy about Mr Pendragon’s touch. His swats are exacting, almost clinical in weight and precision, and yet Merlin can’t predict when and where they will fall next.
Merlin’s eyelashes flutter. His bollocks tighten. He’s never been this turned on; never been teased in a way that thrills his every nerve to life.
“My Secretary,” Merlin gasps, “h-h-has prepared research materials—”
Mr Pendragon’s palm continues its orchestration, kneading tenderly between swats. Fringe tumbles into Merlin's eyes, striping his vision onyx. He can’t see the letter properly, only his reflection in the polished wood, eyes half-lidded, lips parted and obscene.
Cock tenting his trousers, he’s aching and well past the point of hiding his excitement. He wants Mr Pendragon to hurry up, to slow down— to spank harder, until he cries or comes.
“Materials, that I believe you will find—” Merlin moans as a thumb trails over his crack. “That you will f-find illuminating,” he says, the words sounding breathy and broken even to him.
Pendragon’s palm falters, a comforting bulk nuzzling against Merlin’s back.
Wedged toe-to-heel, Mr Pendragon rubs his forehead between Merlin’s shoulder blades, inhaling sharply, like he can’t help himself.
They stand pressed together, struggling to catch their breath.
When Mr Pendragon’s hand slides beside Merlin’s on the desk, warm and real, Merlin wonders if it’s possible for people to make love without being naked—if that’s what they’ve done.
He catches hold of Mr Pendragon’s pinkie, twining the little fingers together like a promise. He wants—no—he needs to show Pendragon that this was good for him, too.
Mr Pendragon flinches. He exhales sharply, shrinking from the contact.
Merlin listens in place as his boss rises but doesn’t dare move, not when he hasn’t been instructed to.
Mr Pendragon walks to his chair, grips the armrest like a cane and lets his gaze sweep over Merlin, stagnating at his stretched trousers with an air of satisfaction.
“Now,” Mr Pendragon says, sliding stiffly into the chair as he repositions his Windsor knot. “Straighten yourself up, Mr Emrys, and type the letter again.”
At home, Merlin locks himself in the loo.
He turns on the faucet, and lets the water stream. He isn't sure why he does it. It’s not like he’s about to have a covert conversation with the soap that needs covering-up.
He stands on tiptoe, peels back his trousers and pants and confronts his arse in the mirror.
The skin is irritated, battered and bruised across both cheeks, but the marks aren’t raised. They look like they’ll heal in a few days.
Merlin’s sure that their existence violates every workplace sexual harassment law within the UK.
He’s also sure that he could care less.
Without ceremony, disciplinary spanking passes like a waking dream into routine office culture. Mr Pendragon moves Merlin’s desk out of the reception, across from his own, bending Merlin over it to ‘discipline’ him at least twice a week.
The Persian rug burns Merlin’s legs as he crawls down the hallway, envelope clenched between his teeth. He could close his eyes, and still know the route by touch alone.
As the texture changes from carpet to hardwood, clacking against his knees, Merlin gets a happy coiling in his belly.
He prowls past the houseplants, admiring the artwork hung on the walls leading up to Mr Pendragon’s office.
Mr Pendragon has installed a gallery exhibition, showcasing every misspelled letter Merlin’s typed, professionally matted and framed. It reminds Merlin of how his mum used to display his art on the fridge when he was in primary, advocating Merlin's talents to anyone and everyone who would listen.
Merlin remembers each typing mistake—more vividly how he paid for them.
He noses Mr Pendragon’s door open, slinks up to his desk and kneels before it, hands cupping the edge as he drops the letter from his mouth at the snap of Pendragon’s fingers.
Mr Pendragon unfolds the paper, ignoring the cylindrical saliva stain at the centre. He makes a ritual of uncapping his pen, tapping it against his chin as he reads.
“Good Letter, Mr Emrys,” he says, putting the pen down and adding ruefully. “You haven’t cheated, have you? Used a computer program to spell-check it?”
Merlin shakes his head. “No,” he replies. “I would never.”
Pendragon makes an agreeable noise as he folds the paper, slipping it between Merlin’s lips. He pats Merlin on the top of the head, playing with his curls absentmindedly. “Send that to Ms Lefay. Her address is on file. Then… come and see me. I have a more challenging project for you.”
Merlin loves everything about their new working relationship; how ruffled Mr Pendragon looks when he calls Merlin to his desk. The sound of the spankings; how they break the solemnity of the office like oars breaching a lake. He even loves how Mr Pendragon trusts him enough to let Merlin attend client meetings and negotiations to take notes, introducing him as his secretary.
But what Merlin lives for is the physicality; the hot rush of pleasure that accompanies giving himself over to someone completely, and trusting that person to care for him in return.
As Merlin’s pain tolerance increases his spelling and grammar improve, leading Mr Pendragon to develop more inventive ways of testing his secretarial skills.
On Friday, Merlin finds a stainless steel bar with shackles and an attached collar sitting on his desk. The device reminds him of the medieval stocks he’s seen in films, and for a moment, he wonders if Mr Pendragon plans to lob rotten tomatoes at him.
Merlin sits in his chair, spreading his arms and tilting his head forward to make it easier for Mr Pendragon to cuff and collar him. The fit is snug, but the leather is suede-padded inside, and he only experiences a slight touch of pressure at his pulse points when he moves.
Arms martyred, steel-spreader bar braced shoulder-to-shoulder and strapped wrist-to-wrist, Merlin assumes his usual duties.
He starts with tea, twisting his body sideways through the pantry door so that he doesn’t smash into the frame. The cuffs jingle as he walks. It’s difficult to manoeuvre with the bar in place, but he manages to make a proper cuppa lock-armed, and without scalding himself.
He offers-up the steaming cup to Mr Pendragon, placing it on his desk.
“When did you say Father called?” Mr Pendragon says, frowning at the person he’s on the telephone with. As Merlin approaches, he traps the receiver between his chin and shoulder. He picks up the tea, takes a testing sip, and recoils.
“Too hot,” he barks at Merlin, sliding the cup towards him, “Fix it.”
Merlin tilts to the side, bends his knees and takes the cup in hand, immediately realizing his predicament. It’s impossible to hold the tea and fan it cool with both of his hands locked by the bar.
“No, Morgana. Don’t put words into my mouth,” Mr Pendragon says into the phone, pinching his temple. “I would never ask him to do that.”
The name peeks Merlin’s interest. Is this the same Morgana from the scratched out inscription in the book Mr Pendragon gave him? Should he be... jealous?
Mr Pendragon glances at Merlin, gesticulating with his arms for Merlin to hurry up, and then holds the telephone away from his face, letting the voice on the line shriek into the air before placing the receiver onto his ear with a beaten sigh.
“It doesn’t matter. He’s technically a still a partner, until I purchase the outgoing share of the business,” Mr Pendragon says. “No. That doesn’t mean that I’ll apologize. I choose my clients based on culpability, not connections. Father knows that.”
Merlin puts the cup down again on the desk and leans over it, keeping his back ballerina straight so the collar doesn’t choke him. He pillows his lips, blowing over the cup until the steam dissipates.
The movement of Merlin’s mouth captures Mr Pendragon’s attention.
“I see. Well, I’m not in a position to forbid him from visiting, even if we disagree,” continues Pendragon thickly. He’s given up pretending not to look at Merlin, so Merlin makes sure to put on a good show, wetting his lips a few times for good measure.
Mr Pendragon’s nostrils flare. He’s no longer answering the caller, though Merlin’s certain by the chatter on the line that they’re still talking.
“Fine, Morgana. Give me one day, and I'll talk to him for you. This is my mess. I never should have got you involved. I’d straighten things out sooner, but my workload has been...” his gaze flits back to Merlin, appraising. “Overwhelming.”
“Have you heard about the sexual harassment scandal at Tesco, Aunt Hunith? It was all over the news. The courts ordered Tesco to pay eight thousand pounds compensation to the victim,” Gwen says.
She sniffs the bubbling saucepan, pulls out a jar of basil from Hunith’s cupboards and labours over the correct amount to add, stirring a dash in clockwise with her spoon. The tomatoes for the sauce are already simmering, giving the kitchen a delicious welcome-home smell.
Merlin’s cousin’s a fantastic cook, crediting everything she’s learned to her aunt.
Hunith tuts out loud to herself, continuing to cut vegetables on the counter beside Gwen.
“I’ve heard. How terrible for that poor woman,” she says with a sigh. “Her supervisors ought to be ashamed of themselves! Which department was this?”
“The delicatessen,” Gwen says. “And not our branch, thank god. We wouldn't stand for that. This happened in Dublin, but the company’s already rolling out a strict new reporting policy. The change is overdue.”
“Merlin, your office represents those types of things, doesn’t it?” says Hunith with a smidge of pride.
Merlin grins as he washes the colander for his mum. “For the millionth time, it’s not ‘my office’ mum. And, yes, and Mr Pendragon handles harassment cases, divorces... He’s basically the best solicitor there is!"
Gwen stops stirring to give Merlin a sharp look, eyebrow arched.
Merlin coughs into his hand, hoping to conceal what must be stars in his eyes.
“Hygiene, Merlin,” his mum chides.
In the hallway, the telephone rings. The dinner preparations come to a stop.
“Coming!” Hunith calls into air, as if the telephone will answer. She tugs at her apron strings, passing it to Gwen on her right. “Guinevere, would you be a dear and please finish cutting these carrots while I—”
Merlin places his hand over his mother’s shoulder.
“Mum,” he says, low and soothing. “Gwen doesn’t need to do it. I can finish the cutting.”
Gwen nearly drops the apron, and Hunith’s eyes go misty. No one appears to be breathing. When she looks up at Merlin, smile-lines crease her cheekbones, and her gaze is warm and clear.
“I know,” she says faintly, almost to herself. “You’re doing so well. I’m proud of you.”
She rests her hand over Merlin’s, squeezing it once before dashing into the hallway. As Merlin quarters a carrot, he catches snippets of her conversation:
“Yes, this is Mrs Emrys.”
“Yes. I see.”
“And… how long will he be there?”
Merlin puts down the knife as Hunith hangs up the telephone with a glazed look.
“Who was it, Mum?” he calls.
Gwen stops stirring. She turns off the burner, joining Merlin to check on Hunith in the hallway.
“Hunith?” Gwen says.
“Mum?” Merlin shadows.
Hunith lowers the telephone to her thigh, her back to them. “That was the hospital, the A&E department,” she says in a detached voice. “Merlin, your father’s checked himself in.”
Lancelot meets them at the taxi queue. They’re given abstract directions by a receptionist, who shuffles them into a boxy registration corridor packed with coughing patients.
The wait is restless. A doctor meets them; he offers his hand, grips Merlin’s like a batter, and launches into a guarded speech about test-results and treatment statistics with Hunith.
The doctor ferries them into a hallway, facing a multi-patient ward with frosted glass. Surprise colours Hunith’s cheeks. She asks the doctor three times if the unconscious man is her husband, visually searching the beds for someone else.
A breathing tube rests under Balinor’s nose; another stuck in his arm, feeding clear liquid into him intravenously. His beard is scraggly as an overgrown garden, concealing all but a pale crescent of cracked lips. Even the familiar features of his face are obscured by wrinkles and cuts Merlin know’s weren’t there before. Rough sleeping, Gwen had said, and he looks it.
Whatever drunken impulse made Balinor leave home; desperation has driven him here.
Merlin wants to despise the man who’s scarred him and his mum so much. Yet, as he watches Balinors ribs rise and fall with the strength of an infant, he can’t bring himself to hate.
Hunith folds her arms over her chest, as if closing herself off from what she sees. Tears prickle her eyes. She ineffectually brushes them away.
“S’alright, Mum,” Merlin says, listening to Gwen sob into Lancelot standing behind them. “Shhh. Don’t cry. It’ll be alright.”
The taxi costs Merlin fifteen-plus pounds.
He almost forgets the address; parcelling it out to a driver who glowers at him like he’s daft. Merlin’s only seen the full address once —stamped on outgoing office mail, and the darkness isn’t helping him find the cross street.
Mr Pendragon’s flat is an impressive period building, with rod-iron gates and a tidy front garden. The hedges are cut squares, granite rocks encircling them like the whites of an eye. Even the streetlights are relics from a bygone age. It is all so prim and proper that Merlin worries the taxi will charge extra for looking at it.
He pays the driver and doesn’t bother with his change. When he unlatches the front gate, holding his breath as he walks, he stops halfway, a flash of movement at three-sided bay windows startling him.
The curtains are backlit, revealing a dark silhouette in motion. A runner on a treadmill? Merlin avoids the front door. He clambers atop the hedges instead, rapping twice on the window.
He knocks harder and the movement stops. The window vibrates as it opens and music pours out. Some sort of acoustic guitar rendition. Soulful. Not the stuffy classical stuff Merlin would peg Pendragon a fan of.
“Merlin?” Mr Pendragon says, panting.
He’s lathered as a racehorse; his kit plastered to his skin. Golden chest hair sticks out above his long-sleeve V-neck, his nipples peaked through the gauzy material. He looks casual in a way that makes him appear almost…normal.
The flat smells like the bachelor comforts of a take-away meal, mixed with adrenalin, and suddenly Merlin’s a kid on his first day of school, anxious, and desperate to fit in.
“Hi,” Merlin says. He smiles dumbly.
Mr Pendragon doesn’t return it. “May I help you?”
“I just wanted you...” Merlin says, but the words wither. Mr Pendragon looks like a cat that’s just been pet backwards. Why is he acting so formal?
“You...wanted me?” Mr Pendragon swallows.
All Merlin wants is something solid—a look, a touch— a tiny kindness from Mr Pendragon to ground him to the earth, because right now he’s falling. Hard.
“I needed you...to,” Merlin tries again.
Merlin tastes his heartbeat on his tongue. He needs to reach out to Mr Pendragon; to press a kiss on his neck, whispering nonsense into his damp skin. He needs to sob grossly into his shoulder, like Gwen did with Lancelot, until the tubes in his father's body dissipate from his vision, and the guilt recedes.
Mr Pendragon’s lips thin. He stares at Merlin with confusion, as if he can’t quite read these thoughts.
As Merlin steadies himself on the hedge, the impromptu visit becomes all the more ridiculous. They have a relationship, of a sort, but Merlin has no claim over Mr Pendragon’s private life. He’s intruded. He shouldn’t even have this address.
“I just wanted you…” Merlin says, voice cracking. “To make sure that you don’t forget to review the Annis papers. For the…er… the client meeting tomorrow.”
He’s a terrible liar.
Mr Pendragon wipes a gleam of sweat from his brow with his forearm. “I haven't,” he says.
He looks like he’s debating opening the window wider, to pull Merlin in out of the darkness.
Merlin keeps his head low, knowing that he can get through this mess, so long as he doesn’t meet Mr Pendragon’s eyes again. He picks at the hedges instead.
“That's…aces,” he winces, stripping a leaf. “Really good.”
Mr Pendragon nods, but doesn’t look relieved.
“Thank you, Merlin,” he says, closing the window. “I’ll… see you tomorrow?”
As it shutters in Merlin’s face, he can still hear the faint pull of the music on the other side, reminding him of where he longs to be.
The next day, Merlin find’s his desk banished from Mr Pendragon’s office.
It comes as a shock to see it in the reception, back under the depressing square of wallpaper that once held Pendragon Senior’s painting.
Mr Pendragon doesn’t explain his decision, and the spanking just… stops. He isn’t short with Merlin at work, doesn’t treat him with disrespect. He simply carries out his day as if nothing had ever happened between them.
Merlin finds it insulting. He’ll take hatred over indifference. Anger from Mr Pendragon would at least prove that their relationship had existed, and wasn’t a one-sided figment of Merlin’s imagination.
When he brings out the rubbish, he spots Mr Pendragon’s red-pens scattered inside the bin. He keeps making typos, hoping to be noticed, but Mr Pendragon ignores them, treating Merlin like a regular secretary.
He begins to wonder if that’s all he ever was.
It’s the weekend, and Will’s parents have trusted their house to Will and Merlin without the slightest suspicion as to how they’ll abuse it.
Merlin’s in bed on his back, with his eyes open to the ceiling light, hips pinned between Will's thick thighs. Their trousers are off, but that’s where Merlin’s drawn the line. He can feel Will's prick thick against his hip as Will grinds into him, lavishing obscenities at Merlin guised as compliments.
“Fuck...yeah,” Will groans, rubbing his hand in a rough movement over Merlin’s sternum. He lowers his head, lapping gracelessly at Merlin's nipple through his long sleeved shirt, but Merlin’s too distracted by the bedroom to reciprocate.
Will’s bed takes up all the floor space. Merlin’s visited before, but he was younger then, and more impressed by an attic conversion that had felt like a fort at the time, not an episode of “How Clean Is Your House?”
The floor is covered in used tissues and shiny sweet wrappers that creep out from under the bed. The walls are joined at odd angles, and the bedspread smells faintly of cheese & onion crisps.
Will suckles Merlin’s nipple harder through his shirt, waiting for a reaction before he sighs and gives up, licking a stripe up Merlin’s neck to capture his mouth. He kisses like a puppy, all emotion without the slightest hint of self-control and way too much saliva. It’s flattering, but not erotic in the least.
Merlin thwarts the kiss. As Will’s hands migrate to Merlin’s arse, kneading under it, he keens forward.
“Mmm,” Merlin purrs, and grabs Will by the wrist, slapping his hand against the side of his arse-cheek hard enough to make a sound. Yes. That’s better. He could do with much more of that.
Will chuckles and squeezes Merlin’s bum through his pants, seeming to take the hint, so Merlin flips under him, rolling onto his belly to present himself properly.
“Do it,” Merlin says, closing his eyes and sticking his bum up.
Merlin hears a condom wrapper tear. He wiggles from between Will’s thighs and sits up in the bed. “That wasn’t what I meant!” He hugs his knees to his chest.
“What? But I thought you wanted to?” Will complains, adding a hurried, “we have the whole house to ourselves. When’s that going to happen again?”
Merlin shrugs. He pulls at some lint on the bedspread.
Will nudges Merlin’s knees open with his own. “Come on,“ he says, stroking himself lazily through his pants. “Don’t you want to see what it’s like?”
Merlin knows what he wants from tonight; he just doesn’t know how to ask for it. He’s never had to ask before. Mr Pendragon always just…knew. Without words. Without questions or boring pillow talk. He knew because he watched Merlin, listened and anticipated Merlin's needs before Merlin even knew them himself.
If it’s a mistake to try and forget Mr Pendragon through the touch of another, Merlin’s lonely enough to make it.
“Okay... fine,” he whispers, sliding his pants off. “But my shirt stays on, and I want all the lights out.”
Three o’clock ticks by in a haze, and Merlin has nothing on his mind in particular.
He snaps the rubber band at his wrist, keeping with the choppy rhythm of the rainfall outside. Mr Pendragon’s barricaded in his office, on a call with a client, his voice as unintelligible as it is familiar.
Merlin tilts his head, relaxes his long legs in boneless sprawl in his chair, admiring the cottage-cheese texture of the ceiling.
He’s sore; achy from last night, and it’s not the pleasurable kind of ache that he misses. The good pain that tingles right under the surface of his skin, not burning and twisting wretchedly inside him.
Merlin wonders if, maybe, Will did it wrong. Then he wonders how Mr Pendragon would have done it. If he’s ever done it?
The telephone argument in Mr Pendragon’s office heats. Merlin hears a change overcome boss's voice, slight, no-nonsense. This client doesn’t stand a chance. Mr Pendragon can be very persuasive, when he wants to be.
Merlin misses being… persuaded. He misses being on the other side of the door. He misses how Mr Pendragon’s hands lingered longer than necessary on his arse after spankings. He misses being commanded like a dog, and rewarded like a lover.
With a weary sigh he closes his eyes, but there’s no time to mope, not when he has lunch to sort out. Merlin straightens his legs, hobbling out of his chair with the enthusiasm of an eighty-year-old man.
He snatches a brolly by the front door, pulls his macintosh off the hook and dashes madly into the rain. The footpath is dotted in puddles, the edges lapping Merlin's leather shoes as fat raindrops disturb their surface. He tries to avoid the big ones, and almost crushes an earthworm in the process.
“Hey, watch where you’re going!” Merlin jokes, bending down to pick the worm off the concrete. If he can save the creature from it’s squashed fate, at least he’s accomplished something productive today.
He waits for the worm to wiggle but it dangles limply between his fingers. Dead. Drowned, most likely. Merlin cradles the worm in his palm, thinks to throw it in the hedges, until a sinister thought hijacks his brain.
So, his boss wants to ignore him all day? To treat him like a lowly worm? Merlin has something to say about that.
With a smirk, he tucks the wet creature into his mac pocket.
Merlin waits until Mr Pendragon is taking lunch, and he knows that he won’t be interrupted.
The worm’s dried-out in his pocket, making it easier to smooth onto the blank piece of paper and pin down with tape.
Once the task is done, Merlin takes a step back to admire his handiwork. The worm looks like a horizontal exclamation point on the page, and is bound to get Mr Pendragon’s attention.
Merlin folds up the letter, addresses it, and stamps it.
And then he waits.
Merlin switches on the incoming intercom call. He can tell by the gravel of Mr Pendragon’s voice that this is the payoff he’s been waiting for—the reason he paid express postage on a fake letter mailed to his own office.
“How may I help you, Sir,” Merlin says, dragging out the honorific.
“Come into my office,” Mr Pendragon replies.
Merlin twists the telephone cord around his little finger, saying without concern, “But, a Mr Pendragon Senior is here for his appointment—”
In the reception, Pendragon Senior sits grave-faced in a dark suit, thumbing through a law journal. He’s had the good the manners to schedule an appointment with his son, this time, and to listen to Merlin’s instructions. He looks across the room now at Merlin, with the expression of a man who wants nothing more than to leave his seat and strangle his son’s secretary with the telephone cord.
Merlin smirks as he asks Pendragon Senior to wait a moment. He huffs and haws, throwing his weight around, but doesn’t give Merlin any real trouble.
Merlin walks into his boss’s office.
Mr Pendragon is seated, straight-backed in his chair, his knuckles knotted together. Merlin’s letter is unfolded before him; the worm on the page circled an infinite number of times in red pen.
The feral gleam in Mr Pendragon’s eyes warns Merlin that he isn’t playing games, not anymore. Merlin walks to Mr Pendragons desk and instantly flattens his palms, arching his back to present his arse; the way his boss likes it.
As Pendragon rises from his desk, the telephone rings. Merlin reaches out a hand.
“Ignore it.” Mr Pendragon says, creamy and smooth.
Merlin does. He puts his hands back in place, clearing his mind of everything but Mr Pendragon’s instructions.
He hears a drag of breath as Mr Pendragon comes to a stand behind him, followed by a self-assured command of, “Pull down your trousers.”
“Why?” Merlin asks. This request is different, less innocent. Mr Pendragon’s asked him to do all manner of things, but never with his clothes off.
“You're not worried that I'm going to fuck you?” chuckles Mr Pendragon. It’s almost a joke, except that there is pain laced in the delivery.
Merlin takes a moment to think before he reaches for his belt. When he unbuckles it, letting his clean-pressed trousers puddle around his calves, he shivers at his own vulnerability.
“And the pants.”
Merlin registers the request but doesn't move.
“I'm not going to fuck you,” whispers Mr Pendragon. “I'm not interested in that, Merlin. Not in the least.”
The declaration is easy to confirm. Mr Pendragon has had ample opportunity. There have been times when Merlin’s wanted his boss to violate him over the desk he’s splayed on, but Pendragon’s never so much as hinted his interest in that kind of physical relationship. Intimacy seems to repulse him.
Merlin makes a decision. With steady hands he peels off his y-fronts, wiggling them down to join his trousers. His arse is chilled, cock already fattening in anticipation.
He can sense Mr Pendragon’s hands hovering over his skin, their aura leaving goose pimples across his flesh. It feels like he’s tracing the lines of muscle with his fingers, studying every freckle and curve.
Merlin clenches his stomach, waiting for the quick sting that never comes. In its place, he hears the crisp noise of a fly being unzipped.
Mr Pendragon’s breathing thickens, his sighs punctuated by a stilted rhythm of skin on skin. It takes Merlin a moment to grasp what’s happening behind him. When he does, he immediately wants to turn, to put a face to what he’s hearing.
Mr Pendragon smothers a moan as his pace quickens.
Merlin’s never heard someone wank so swiftly and silently. Even as a pubescent boy locked in his parent’s bathroom, he never had that level of efficiency. It makes Merlin wonder, how many times Mr Pendragon’s done this, if it’s a trait forged out of necessity or personal preference.
The rhythm quickens, becoming erratic. Merlin hardens in sympathy. He could rut against the desk, try and bring himself off, but that would involve moving his hands, which is disobedience.
Mr Pendragon sucks in a breath. He grabs Merlin’s shoulder, shuddering as his cock slides up Merlin’s back, coating his shirt in a warm wet spurt.
Almost as soon as he comes, Merlin hears him zip up his fly again.
Mr Pendragon rounds Merlin, still braced over the desk, and takes his rightful place in his chair, breathing like a racehorse. As he licks his lips, he attempts to meet Merlin's eyes but can’t seem to do it. His gaze settles on the desk and letter instead.
Merlin stays frozen in place, biting the inside of his cheek. He’s never seen Mr Pendragon quite this nervous. He looks fucked out, younger than his years, and utterly lost.
“Get these forms filled out,” Mr Pendragon says, flipping through a pile of papers on his desk that he uses to cover up the worm. “And then you may take your lunch break. You will have a sandwich, a piece of fruit, and water; I'm eating in. The usual.” He takes a gulp of air, fiddles with his tie and adds hastily, “Wait a moment, please, before you send in the next appointment.”
Merlin dashes to the loo, locking himself in the first open stall.
He reaches around his back, touching the large moist stain that now coats his fingertips. Unable to stifle a groan, Merlin palms himself roughly through his trousers. He had no idea that disobedience, and his gangly body full of imperfection, could pushed the most controlled man he’s ever met over the edge.
He’s never felt so powerful.
Merlin unhooks his belt, pops off the first button on his trousers and shifts his erection out the opening of his y-fronts, not bothering to pull them down.
As he closes his eyes, wrapping come-coated fingers around his cock, he imagines the sharp zip of Mr Pendragon’s fly, and his ragged voice. With shaking hands Merlin mentally recreates Mr Pendragons muffled groans until they become his own. He plays out every needy hitch, the memory of Pendragon’s orgasm sending him spiralling over the edge.
Merlin only gets a few swift strokes before he’s gasping out a broken, “Arthur,” coming in spurts into his fist and against the adjacent wall.
He crumples forward, rests his head against the wall and stares at the mess he’s made, strangely renewed. As Merlin cleans himself up, belting his shirt into his pants to hide the stain, he hears swearing in the loo.
Merlin leaves the stall. At the bathroom sink, a man pumps soap out of the dispenser like it’s gasoline.
When Pendragon senior spots Merlin, he looks like he’s going to retch.
Bathed in the after-glow of post-orgasmic euphoria, Merlin dons an innocent smile. “Er… Hullo, Mr Pendragon,” he says, joining Pendragon Senior at the sink to wash his hands. “I believe that Mr Pendragon is ready to see you now.”
There are a million creative ways to spank your partner. At least, on the Internet. Merlin’s seen flogs, and paddles. He’s seen videos with ladles, and whips, and bare hands.
Browsing the websites gives him a vocabulary. It teaches Merlin terminology, exposing him to a subculture and lifestyle that he never knew existed.
As he scrolls one website, saving a video of a man being bare-assed spanked over another man's knee, he daydreams about what Mr Pendragon will command him to do next, now that they’re on terms.
Merlin exits the bus and bundles his scarf to his neck, coughing through a plume of exhaust as the bus careens forward to pass him.
The birds have awoken, chattering amongst themselves as they wait for daylight. As Merlin follows the footpath to the office, he notices that Mr Pendragon’s car is parked in the same spot as yesterday, coated in dewdrops, as if it hasn’t moved since the night before.
He’s known his boss to pull all-nighters, but the recent caseload has been light. Merlin can’t think of any client on the books that would merit the extra commitment.
He pushes the front door open, finding it unlocked. Merlin bolts it behind him, plods to his desk, and stops dead in his tracks. The intercom on his telephone’s flashing alarm-red. Mr Pendragon must have heard him come in.
He sprawls his entire body over the desk, pinning the intercom button with his thumb.
“Mr Pendragon, Sir?”
“Mr Emrys,” Mr Pendragon replies. His tone isn’t urgent, but his voice seeps exhaustion and is strangely detached. “Come into my office. Bring your resume.”
Merlin loosens his scarf and tosses it over the back of his chair, keeping his right thumb held on the button. “Yes, Sir. Would you like me to bring your tea as—”
The intercom disconnects, and Merlin pulls a face. His resume? He’s not sure what Mr Pendragon wants with that, or where he put it.
He rifles through a few drawers, finds an empty packet of crisps, two pounds, and his resume stuck to the bottom of a copy-machine brochure. Merlin peels the sheets apart, ironing out the wrinkles in his resume with his fist.
As he carries it down the hallway, he realizes something is wrong.
An overhead light's gone out, and, judging by the dry-earthen smell, the plants haven’t been watered. It’s unusual. Mr Pendragon always tends his precious forest first thing when he arrives.
Merlin squints through the dark as he walks. There’s a crunching noise under his feet. He lifts up his left heel, peering at crystals of broken glass lodged into the sole. Glass and tattered papers blanket the carpet runner. They’re everywhere, to the point that Merlin worries there’s been a break-in, but nothing else of value appears to have been disturbed.
He wipes his heel off on the carpet, leans down, and carefully lifts the edge of one of the papers, shaking glass off it. It’s a letter. One of his red-pen letters, and the frames on the walls are gone; reduced to kindling underneath his feet.
Merlin quickens his pace, throwing open the door to Mr Pendragons office.
“What’s happened?” he says, gasping.
Mr Pendragon doesn’t flinch at the noise. He’s seated in his chair, calm and collected, as if he’s been expecting Merlin for a long time. They lock eyes and Merlin swallow’s, glancing out the door again, then back at Pendragon.
“Are you pregnant?” asks Mr Pendragon, ignoring Merlin’s question.
Merlin almost giggles, until he realizes something’s off about his boss today. There’s a shadow of stubble across his face, and his suit is creased and wrinkled.
He’s heard this question before from Mr Pendragon, hasn’t he? It was months ago, during his first interview. He’d felt very small then, standing alone in this great office. He doesn’t feel small now, though. And he’s never been frightened of Mr Pendragon.
“No,” Merlin answers, uncertain of the direction this game is leading.
“Do you plan on getting anyone pregnant?” Mr Pendragon amends.
“Are you living in an apartment?”
“A terraced house.”
“With my mum,” quips Merlin without missing a beat.
“Are you married, Mr Emrys?”
A smile softens Merlin’s lips. “No,” he says, shaking his head.
“Is that your resume?” Mr Pendragon asks, motioning to the paper in Merlin's hand.
“Show it to me.”
Merlin produces the paper, laying it flat out in front of Mr Pendragon, as he’s done a hundred times.
Mr Pendragon inspects the document but doesn’t pick it up. He meets Merlin’s eyes, holding them for a heartbeat. “Do you really want to be my secretary Mr Emrys?” he asks in a flat voice.
“Yes,” Merlin replies, in the same solemn tone. “Yes, I do.”
Mr Pendragon leaves his chair, stalking behind Merlin.
“This isn't just about the typos, pens, and mousetraps… is it, Merlin?” There’s a bitterness to the question; a bite that wasn’t there before.
“No,” Merlin says, shaking his head. Mr Pendragon’s always been able to read his motivations; can’t he see the purity in them now?
“What was that?” grunts Mr Pendragon behind Merlin.
“No, Sir,” amends Merlin, a decibel louder.
A pause stretches into awkward silence. “I like you, Merlin,” continues Mr Pendragon, the words ghosting over Merlin's neck. “But I don't think that I'm going to offer you the job this time.”
This is no longer a game, Merlin realises. It’s a carefully planned farewell, one that he he refuses accept. Months of working at Pendragon & Sons have given him a dedicated teacher, and he’s been a top student, if the letters on the wall were anything to go by.
Unacceptable, Merlin thinks. Pendragon owes him more than this.
“Why?” Merlin asks. He’s testing the waters, he knows it, but it’s bloody-well his turn to ask a few questions.
“It's your behaviour,” answers Mr Pendragon cooly.
“What about my behaviour?”
“It's very bad,” he drones, adding a softer, coddling, “I'm sorry, Mr Emrys. You may collect your things.”
Merlin turns on his heels, clenching his jaw as he stares down his boss. “Time out!” he shouts, making a T-sign with his hands.
Mr Pendragons eyes widen. “There are no time-outs. I’m sacking you.”
“No, I’m sacking you!” counters Merlin, shrieking it in Mr Pendragon’s face.
Mr Pendragon squares his shoulders, puffing out his chest as he gives Merlin—the look. Merlin knows that he’s being childish, breaking all their non-verbal rules, but he doesn’t care. He’s not going anywhere.
“I said you’re sacked, Merlin. Terminated. Do you understand? Now, leave my office!”
The slap startles Merlin. He watches, out of body, as his long fingers strike Pendragon, hard, across the left cheek, stubble scraping his skin. He hasn’t hit another person since he was four.
“Tell me why,” Merlin gasps, gulping air. “I want to know.”
Mr Pendragon’s face stays frozen in profile, from the force of the blow. As much as Merlin loathes the barbary of what he’s done, he wouldn’t take it back. For all the physical pain Mr Pendragon’s inflicted, nothing hurts Merlin more than losing trust in the person that he respects most.
A mauve blush colours Mr Pendragon’s cheek. When he faces Merlin he bares his teeth but doesn’t lay a hand on him.
“It’s because you smeared grease all over the Monmouth files,” he says evenly. “That was an important client, Merlin. You don’t pay enough attention.”
“That happened because I was polishing your shoes. You asked me to do it!”
“And are you aware that you kick your shoes off under your desk, and that I can smell your feet from my office? Do you only own one pair of socks?”
“I have a dozen,” Merlin says. “And I’ll keep my shoes on.”
Mr Pendragon pales. “Every time you erase… there…there are little pencil shavings all over your desk,” he says, feebly.
Merlin shakes his head. “I don’t use pencils anymore.”
Mr Pendragon’s breathing becomes erratic. He corners Merlin until they're practically bumping chests, huffing short exhalations onto Merlin’s face.
Merlin can see Mr Pendragon’s every pore, every golden eyelash, and in this moment all he can think of is how much he’s going to miss him.
“I told you not to use your mobile in my office,” counters Pendragon hotly, certain that he has the upper hand. “I’ve seen the one you hide in your desk, Merlin—don’t lie to me. I know it's there.”
Merlin holds his head high, refusing to be cowed. “I’ll throw it away.”
Mr Pendragon matches Merlin’s stare, fighting for a full minute not to blink until his shoulders slump, his anger melting in a bone-weary sigh.
“The things I’ve done to you… Merlin. You’re so young, and I...” Refusing to meet Merlin's eyes. “It’s disgusting. Don’t you understand? You have to go. You have to go… or I won’t stop.”
Merlin reaches out, touches Mr Pendragon’s hair, and for a brilliant moment, Pendragon lets him, the two of them standing flush.
“Don’t make me,” Merlin pours his heart into the caress. “Please.”
Mr Pendragon’s hair is silky and fine, just like Merlin thought it would be, and he can’t contain his joy at being granted this permission. He threads his fingers through fringe, shushing him. “I want to know you,” he whispers. “Arthur.”
Mr Pendragon shakes his head, looking like a man lost in his own skin. Merlin knows the feeling. It’s the same insecurity he wore like a baggy jumper before coming to Pendragon & Sons.
“We can’t do this anymore,” Mr Pendragon repeats. “I’m sorry, Merlin. For what’s happened between us.” He takes Merlin's wrist, guides his hand away. “I realize that I made a terrible mistake. I can only hope that you understand. Rest assured, you can count on me for excellent references.”
Reaching into his suit pocket, Mr Pendragon produces an envelope with the Pendragon & Sons return address stamped in the left hand corner, and offers it to Merlin.
Merlin balls his fists at his side. He isn’t sure when he starts to cry, but he knows that the sobs are ugly, and that he can’t accept whatever's inside the envelope. Taking it would be like condoning the sale of his soul.
“I’m sorry, but you have to go,” Mr Pendragon says in a hushed voice.
“Mr Pendragon,” Merlin sniffles. “What are you—”
A sterner, “Leave.”
“No—you don’t have to do this…” Though he thinks better of it, Merlin lets a question slip. “If this is about what we did in the office yesterday, about your father hearing—”
The blue in Mr Pendragon’s eyes clouds in a violent storm. He pries Merlin’s first open, jamming the envelope into his hand. “I said get out of my sight!” he erupts, loud enough for the street to hear. “Now!”
Chapter 2: The Secretary
At home, Merlin can’t open the envelope fast enough. The check inside weighs like lead in his palm; and it smells like hush money.
There are more zeros on the paper than Mr Pendragon owes him, and it occurs to Merlin to tear it up out of spite. He doesn’t, though. Accepting this money was Mr Pendragon’s last order. The submissive and the sentimentalist in Merlin can’t bear to disobey.
It’s the right thing to do, to move on with the sacking and hide it from his mum. With Balinor’s precarious health and their impending separation, she doesn't need the extra worry. Besides, he can’t confess what’s happened without falling to pieces.
Merlin wakes up early. He irons his dress shirt, shines his shoes, and takes the rubbish out, pretending to go to work. His walks often lead him through the park, where he watches leaves clog the fountain for hours. Other times, Merlin musters up the courage to stroll past the office with the red front door.
Mr Pendragon’s changed the locks, and hired a secretary, a blond curvy girl, with perfect cleavage. The first time Merlin sees her, he fears that he might vomit up his heart.
Is he so easily replaced? Is that sort of secretary his boss wanted all along?
The new secretary doesn’t water the outdoor plants enough, Merlin thinks—not that he’s stalking the office, or anything, hoping to catch the silhouette of a stately profile through the curtains. Because he’s not.
Dr Kilgharrah once said, “A man must journey on foot to find the path of his destiny.” And so, Merlin decides that it’s time to start the journey and meet a new dominant.
He meets Edwin through Grindr. The man’s a self-ascribed academic who sexts like he’s done BDSM for years. He seems promising enough, until he jumps Merlin, trying to clamp his nipples as soon as he gets in the car.
He meets Cenred through Craigslist. He orders Merlin to eat the dirt in his garden, and when Merlin refuses, scoffs at him and grumbles, “But I thought you said you were a masochist!”
Gwaine is a random encounter. He’s fit, flirtatious, and almost perfect, almost, except that the only way he gets off is by having apples thrown at him. And they have to be crab apples. Merlin never asks why.
Eventually, Merlin accepts defeat. He stops trying to meet anyone, ignoring the part of him that had thrived under Mr Pendragon’s tutorage.
Because Will's still keen and won’t let him be, Merlin dates him, visiting his father in hospital and struggling to find contentment in the mundane.
The treatment facility reminds Merlin of the psychiatric hospital. It’s welcoming, in the transient way of hotels and doctors offices. There’s a small garden, a gym, and paintings on the walls that no one looks twice at.
“Nice, isn’t it?” Balinor says, leading Merlin to his room. He looks good, Merlin thinks. His beard is close-cut, and his collarbones no longer jut out like handlebars through his shirt.
The room is dirty-tan, and looks like it was wallpapered twenty years ago. Inside there’s a small desk, a wardrobe, and a double bunk, which while not an unusual arrangement for a sleep-over camp or a prison, is odd in a facility catering to middle-aged and middle-class adult males. Merlin wonders idly if they had to rock-paper-scissors for top, or if the beds were assigned.
They sit on the bottom bunk and stare out the window into the courtyard. Merlin tries to think of a commonality to talk about that isn’t painful for either of them, settling on helping his father clean up his resume.
“They held a workshop,” Balinor says as a means of explanation. “To get us employed by the programs end. It’s part of the inpatient outpatient support sessions.”
He hands the resume to Merlin along with a pen with the facilities name printed on it. Merlin can tell by the way Balinor crosses his arms, pretending to look at the wallpaper, that he’s nervous.
Merlin rests it on his lap, humming thoughtfully as he skims the content. The bed frame creaks as Balinor leans over to see what Merlin’s doing. He snorts after a several minutes.
“It’s rubbish, isn’t it?” He rests a hand on his hip, burying his face into the other.
Merlin, circles a bracket of text, then looks up, flashing his father a determined smile. He’s read through the work experience twice, to make sure he hasn’t missed anything. If Mr Pendragon’s grammar lessons have taught him anything, it’s that persistence pays off.
“S’fine,” Merlin replies. He caps the pen, handing the document back. “Looks good. There are a few minor grammatical errors, but nothing major. One more revision and you should be able to submit this to employers.”
Balinor smiles a little. “Look at that, you’ve grown up smarter than your old man.” He glances at the resume, and Merlin can pinpoint the moment where the world falls apart in his father’s eyes. “Jesus. Merlin.” he says thickly. “I’m so sorry.”
Merlin’s first impulse is to say, “I’m sorry too”, or, “It’s okay”, but none of that is true. He hopes that things will be okay between them, in time, but their relationship isn't there yet. Not even close. Maybe it will never be.
He looks thoughtfully at Balinor. “I know,” Merlin answers instead.
“I tried,” Balinor croaks, dragging the subject. “I wanted to come back, to be a good husband, and a good parent to you but…I failed you and your mum.”
Merlin leans forward, sighing audibly. They both stare out the window again.
“Maybe, dad,” he says, swallowing hard as looks at the resume in his father's hand, marked up in blue-pen. “Maybe some of us aren’t meant to live like everybody else.”
Hunith piles food onto Will’s plate, tapping the spoon along the rim to dislodge a double-portion of potatoes.
Merlin’s been holding in his piss for the last half hour, because a break in dinner conversation to excuse himself is remote. Ever since admitting to his mum that he and Will are more than friends, the questions about Will have been incessant; his family shamelessly scavenging for clues about Will’s character.
“Are you sure you don’t want any more, William?” Hunith asks, as if she’s serving the Prime Minister fillet instead of old leftovers to a pimply-backed neighbour.
Will accepts his plate, flashing the hostess a cursory smile. “I’m fine, thanks. I was just going to ask Merlin if he wants to come with me to my workmate’s wedding next week.”
“A wedding?” Merlin says with surprise. He clutches his water for comfort, but can tell by the sweaty glass that the ice cubes inside have already melted. “Uh, well… that’s nice. But I don’t really do...”
Gwen turns to Lancelot at the table with a doleful look, “Remember our wedding, sweetheart?”
“The best day of my life,” answers Lancelot faithfully.
Lancelot picks up Gwen’s hand, kissing each knuckle individually.
“A beautiful wedding,” Hunith confirms, dabbing her lips with her napkin. “And, Merlin, you looked so handsome that day. Didn’t he look handsome, William?”
Merlin glances at Will, who’s still watching Lancelot and Gwen, mesmerized at their every move.
“He was,” answers Will, giving Merlin a wink. When he thinks Hunith isn’t looking, he grabs Merlin’s other hand under the table, forcing their fingers together. His skin is warmer than Merlin's, dryer too, the callouses irritating Merlin’s palm.
“So, are you busy?” Will grins, squeezing Merlin’s hand.
“You’re not working that day, are you dear?” chirps Hunith conspiratorially.
Merlin’s never wished so hard to choke on potatoes until he blacks out. Technically, he isn’t working. Ever. “Err… Well, no, mum,” Merlin says. “About that...”
“You know what? I think I have the number for the suit rental company we used the last time in my nightstand. Isn’t that luck?” Hunith says, clapping her hands together. “Let me run upstairs and fetch it for you boys.”
The tailor fusses over Merlin for half an hour, muttering, “Too skinny” under his breath.
The suit shop is crammed full of decapitated mannequins in unnerving action poses. It’s uncomfortably dusty, with marshy green carpets, and though Merlin has a vision that he’ll be in and out of this dump in twenty minutes—he knows his size now, after all—the shopkeeper dashes that, insisting that Merlin be properly measured.
“So, I told him I’d RSVP to the wedding plus one,” Will says, completely ignoring the tailor as he gossips to Merlin in front of him. “Bugger had the nerve to ask if I’m bringing my sister!”
The tailor snorts and bites down on a pin. He elbows Will aside, looping a tape measure around Merlin’s hips to take measurements in the most violating of places.
Will has already picked up his suit for the wedding; a brown-wool number draped across his arm, and seems oblivious to Merlin’s misfortune.
“I told him to sod off, and that I had a boyfriend. A real one. Should have seen the look on his face!” Will puckers his mouth in imitation, and Merlin nods, trying to pay attention to the tailor’s instructions and Will’s long-winded rant at the same time.
The tailor finally pulls something together, getting a pair of trousers to hug Merlin’s narrow hips without slipping. He shucks the suit-jacket over his dress shirt, scrutinizing himself while Will watches.
Merlin makes a full turn in front of the mirror, Will whistling at him through his teeth. “Hot,” he says, interrupting his own story. “Shaggable.”
Merlin looks deep into the reflection of his eyes, two cold points of blue. He watches his jaw tighten, the tendons in his neck straining as he fights back a scream.
“Wait until everybody see’s you, Merlin. That oughta show him. Serve him right for saying—”
“—It’s the same suit,” Merlin says, panicked.
Will scratches his chin. “Huh?”
“The suit that I wore at Gwen’s wedding. It’s the same one!” Merlin twitches, sniffs the sleeve, and twists the collar away from his neck. “Even smells bloody the same!”
Will shrugs, a coy smile plastering his lips. “Who cares? You look fit, that’s what counts. Anyway, when we go into the church together lets—”
Merlin clutches his head, covering his ears as Will’s chatter morphs into white noise. He doesn’t feel fit. No. The suit hangs off his bones, scratchy, and all wrong. He can see his future in this wretched suit, a dismal life, poisoned by imposed obligations, and all the missed opportunities he was too damn shy to take.
Is that how he’s willing to live?
He’s been running from his pain for so long, instead of embracing it. He’s tried to forget what gives him pleasure, thinking that if he pushes a relationship with Will together hard enough he can make the pieces fit, but they’re never going to. They’re a mismatched set, Will and him.
There’s only ever been one “right” for Merlin, and he’s tired of asking what if’s, when what he needs is to grab life by the bollocks and find out what is.
Will’s still talking when Merlin flies out the door, seizing the moment before he can think better of it. He bolts past the signboard, past a shouting Will, leaving a shocked shopkeeper and a mess of confused patrons behind him.
He runs until his knees buckle, his calves burning from the inside-out.
Merlin cut’s through the park, sending indigent pigeons airborne in a flurry of coos and feathers. By god, it’s a beautiful day. His tie whips wildly in the breeze. He can smell the grass under his feet, and the sky has decided to stop pissing down on London long enough for the sun to crack through the clouds.
Merlin bursts through the red door, veering past a shocked secretary as he barrels down the hallway.
“Hey!” the secretary yelps, jumping from her chair. “You’re not supposed to—”
“Shove off, imposter!” Merlin shouts over his shoulder.
When Merlin flings open the door to Mr Pendragon’s office, he’s confronted with the gorgeous full-moon of Mr Pendragon’s arse outlined through trousers, his torso buried underneath the desk.
“I have something to say to you!” Merlin blurts.
There’s a loud thump underneath the desk. Mr Pendragon curses, shimmying out from under it. He puts down the mousetrap in his hand, rubbing the crown of his head in a circular motion.
“Merlin?” he says, round-eyed, like he’s seen a spector.
Merlin takes a sweeping step forward to look down at Mr Pendragon. Ironic, watching his former boss on his hands and knees. Not a bad view, actually. He could do with more of it.
Sucking in a shallow breath, Merlin locks eyes with Pendragon and says, firmly, “I’m in love with you.”
There’s a rustle as Mr Pendragon clambers into a stand, taking full advantage of his height. He blinks for a moment, then raises his chin.
“Merlin,” he says, testing. Aloof. He looks Merlin over, as if deciphering why his former secretary’s stuffed into a god-awful rental suit. “Shouldn’t you be… somewhere else?”
“I love you,” Merlin repeats.
With an imperceptible flinch, Mr Pendragon settles on a verdict. “Impossible,” he says. He crosses the space between them, grabs Merlin by the elbow and guides him forward, holding open the door to show him out. “I’m sorry, Mr Emrys, but this matter was resolved when you failed to cash your severance check.”
There’s no weight in the hold. Merlin easily shakes him off.
“But it’s true,” barks Merlin. He walks to Mr Pendragons desk, flops down in his seat and folds his hands across his lap, the way Mr Pendragon often does. He licks his lips, too, just for the thrill of it. “It’s your job to tell me what to do, Sir, not how to feel.”
Mr Pendragon inhales deeply. He looks genuinely worried, and maybe a little aroused, judging by the curve in his trousers. He straightens his suit-jacket over his waist and closes the door, keeping his gaze fixed on Merlin.
Merlin meets the intimidation head-on, unafraid and unblinking. A muscle in Mr Pendragon’s jaw flexes.
“We can't do this,” he says, like he’s already given the matter sleepless nights of though. “Twenty four hours a day, seven days a week. We can’t. It isn’t...it’s not normal.”
“Why do we have to be normal?” Merlin asks. “Why can’t we just be...us?”
The concern in Mr Pendragon’s voice fades, replaced by tight-lipped control.
Merlin likes the serious turn of his expression more and more, especially when Mr Pendragon pulls back his shoulders, saying haughtily, “Put both your hands on the desk where I can see them, Mr Emrys. Palms down.”
Merlin smiles closed-mouthed. He fights to contain his excitement as he slaps his hands to the hardwood, but he doesn’t stop there. This time, Merlin’s obedience has conditions. He knows what he wants, and he isn’t leaving until he gets it.
“I want you to fuck me,” he says, leaning forward.
Mr Pendragon stiffens. He pulls his keys from his pockets, but doesn’t answer or look to Merlin again. “Keep both your feet on the floor and your hands on the desk, until I come back,” he murmurs.
As the door shuts, Merlin presses his dress shoes into the floorboards, willing them to take root. The circumstances between them are perfect, and despite the odds Merlin’s grown here, thrived even, in this strange office. They’ll both find what they need in this relationship, he knows it. It’s only a matter of making Mr Pendragon realise that, too.
Merlin can hear Mr Pendragon pacing the hallway behind the closed door, dismissing the new secretary. He wonders what he’s up to, until a few minutes later the rotary on the desk rings, signalling an incoming intercom.
Merlin perks in pavlovian response, but lets the ringer go, keeping his hands glued to the desk.
“Nice try, Pendragon,” he says to himself. Mr Pendragon may be testing him, but the challenge is clear: don’t move a finger until he comes back, and that’s an order Merlin’s going to obey.
Hours pass, and Mr Pendragon doesn’t return.
Merlin ticks off the time by watching the wavering shadows in the room; how the boxy stripes of sunlight from the windows gradually ebb off the carpet. It’ll be dinner, soon. His mum will be worried, but Merlin has no fears. Mr Pendragon will be back for him… he will.
He contents himself by admiring the few personal effects Mr Pendragon, an abhorrer of clutter, allows on his desktop.
There’s a monogrammed pen, and a fancy letterset, the top indented with shallow scribbles built up over years of correspondence. If Merlin could move his hands, he’d stroke the scarred surface, tracing the ghosts of Pendragons past letters.
Eventually the door stirs in a sign of life. Merlin’s head snaps up and his breath catches. When he spies who’s in the doorway, his face falls.
“Oh,” Merlin says pursing his lips. “It’s you.”
“That’s all you’ve got to say?” asks Will in a surly voice. He makes a beeline for the desk, coming to a slouch beside the chair.
“I’ve been looking everywhere for you! Your mum’s —Gwen’s. Nothing. Then I think to look here, at your work…” Will trails off, frowning as he looks around the office and to the desk where Merlin sits, hands spaced evenly apart. “What the fuck are you even doing here, Merlin?”
Merlin doesn’t move a muscle. Will pauses, waits for Merlin to answer him, and then tosses his arms up in air when Merlin doesn’t speak. “What’s this all about, then?”
No reply from Merlin.
“So, that’s it? You’re staring into nothing and giving me the silent treatment like when I was five and broke your toy car? Can’t bother telling me why you left me at the shop looking like a sodding groom dumped at the alter?“
Merlin glances to his frozen hands, then back up at Will, his expression unyielding. “I'm sorry,” he says in a clear voice. “But I'm going to have to ask you to leave now.”
Will chuckles, his tone unsure. He’s waiting for reaction, as an actor would a theatre audience on opening night. “I'm your boyfriend, Merlin. You just can’t—”
“Trespassing. Entering someone’s property without permission.”
Will shakes his head. He props his elbows onto the desk, flips through a pile of papers on it and then leans closer, cringing a little as he looks Merlin up and down.
“Merlin,” he says, licking his bottom lip. “Are you doing… is this something… kinky?”
Merlin rolls his eyes. “Does this look kinky to you?”
Will pushes off the desk. He runs a hand through his hair, fisting it. “Fuck it, I don't know? Why don't you move your hands and talk to me!”
“Because I don't want to,” asserts Merlin in a dead voice.
“Then I’ll move them for you—“
Merlin shrieks as Will snatches his hands, prying them off the desk with all his might. He twists in place, howling like an animal, but it’s no use. Will out-muscles him. Merlin’s hands are yanked up by force, finger-by-finger, his chair rolling back as Will barricades a forearm between Merlin and the desk.
Merlin head-butts him square in the chest, sending Will stumbling back with a wheeze. He bails out of the swivelling chair, scrambling to the desk.
“Merlin, Fuck! I don’t know how to deal with you when you’re like this!” Will sputters. He jumps Merlin, tangles their legs and pins him to the floor in a wrestling hold that leaves Merlin writhing face up, his wrists cuffed above his head by Will's vice grip.
Struggling underneath the weight, Merlin does the only thing he can. He has to get back to the desk. He has to keep his promise to Mr Pendragon to stay put.
He jerks up, kneeing Will with a swift blow to the crotch, and shoves him away, running back to the chair.
Panting heavily, Merlin wheels the chair to the desk. He sit’s down in it, drops his hands solidly back in place and glares murder at Will, who’s still curled foetal on the carpet.
“I’m not going to the wedding,” Merlin says in choppy breaths. A long inhale. “I’m sorry, but I don’t feel that way about you.”
Will groans. He rolls to his side; reaches out in Merlin’s direction, expecting Merlin to leave the chair and help him up.
Merlin bites his lip and looks away.
“Merlin,” whimpers Will.
“Get out,” Merlin says, in a sharp voice.
“Merlin, I didn’t mean to… I’m sorry I—“
“Get out of this office. Now!”
Will stands on shaky knees. He blinks around the room, fixes his clothes and shoots Merlin a puppy-dog face, but Merlin’s out of pity. Will laid his hands on him, tried to overpower him bodily, as if Merlin’s submission was something he could force, and Merlin can never forgive him for that.
Will passes the desk. He lingers at the door, rubs his ballocks and mutters, “You really are mental.” As he grabs the door handle, he turns to Merlin, adding a bitter, “And you’re paying me back for that suit rental. Every fucking pound.”
Word of Merlin’s devotion and whereabouts travels fast, and on the second day, the gawkers arrive.
It starts with Merlin’s mum, chiding him over disappearing. As she wails at Merlin, asking him what on earth possessed him to spend the night hunkered down at his employer's desk, she tries to coax him to lift his hands and leave.
When that fails, Hunith comes back with tins full of homemade baked goods, attempting to hand feed Merlin biscuits like a babe. Balinor joins in Hunith’s efforts an hour later. Despite their differences, the two of them form a unified front, appealing to their son to move on his own behalf.
When Gwen arrives, she has Merlin figured out in a matter of minutes.
“This is about your boss, isn’t it?”
“Ex boss,” Merlin corrects.
She pats Lancelot on the arm, asking him to stand beside her as she takes a chair across from Merlin.
His mum and dad have gone into the reception to nap, joining a multiplying group of relatives, acquaintances, and a heavily snoring Dr Killgarah.
It’s embarrassing, the flood of attention Merlin’s received, with no word yet from the person he’s waiting for.
Merlin colours. He tries to look anywhere but at his cousin, and Gwen’s eyes widen. “I knew it,” she says quietly. “I knew you were sweet on him. The way you spoke, how your eyes looked whenever you said his...”
Her triumph fades, cut off by a worried press of her lips. She rests her hands atop Merlin’s.
“I know what it’s like, to be head-over-heels. To want to do anything for that person.” She turns her head to Lancelot, smiles briefly at him before addressing Merlin again. “But what you’re doing, Merlin, the not moving and this weird hunger strike… there are more conventional ways to show someone you care.”
“We only want what’s best for you,” Lancelot adds.
Merlin straightens his spine and pulls his chin up. “M’not so little any more,” he huffs. “Old enough to know that I’m not so scared of suffering. It’s nothing new.”
Gwen winces, but Merlin doesn’t stop there.
“I don’t feel empty anymore, Gwen. I feel… alive. More than I've ever felt. And now that I've found the right person to share that with, to play with—well—I don’t expect you, or Lancelot, or mum, or even Dr K to understand what that’s like.”
“No,” Gwen says. “I suppose we can’t.” Letting go of Merlin’s hand. “But it’s nice to see you happy, for a change, and talking like you’ve a future. There’s been a spark to you lately… it wasn’t there before. If caring for your boss is part of the reason that you’ve found that, than I…”
“Oh, Merlin!” She trails off, squishing Merlin into a hug he can’t escape. “You’re my baby cousin. I’ve loved you since the day auntie Hunith let me hold you when you came home from hospital. Just, please, promise me that you won’t let this go on long enough to get yourself hurt? Alright?”
“No more than I like.” Merlin smiles.
On the third day a dark-haired woman arrives, and she’s gorgeous.
As soon as she struts into the office Merlin can’t help but stare at her pale cleavage and sanguine smile.
He’s exhausted, to the point of delirium. His tie has become a moist nuisance about his neck, and he wishes he’d had the foresight to take off the itchy suit jacket before committing his hands down. The suit no longer smells of mould, but of the piss he’s given up holding.
At first glance, Merlin assumes she must be an angel of mercy. When she speaks, it’s clear that, if anything, she’s a ringer for the other team.
“I admire you, Mr Emrys,” the woman says, sliding into the chair across from him. She sniffs the air, folds her legs, and positions her Chanel clutch on her lap, staring Merlin down with cultured coolness. “My brother is, without question, the most isolated man I've ever known. Personally, I blame father for it. He loathes involving himself in anything remotely “emotional”, or worse, sexual. You, on the other hand could have left by now, should have, and yet here you sit. It’s impressive.”
“Your… brother?” Merlin whispers, clearing the thick from his throat. So this is the mysterious Morgana from Mr Pendragon’s book? His sister? It’s hard to see the relation. She’s articulate, without the conservative speech patterns of her brother. The type of woman who says what she wants, when she wants, and damn the consequence.
She smirks, as if Merlin’s read her mind. “Morgana Pendragon-Lefay,” she says, offering her hand. When Merlin stays put and doesn’t shake it, she laughs wildly at her own private joke.
“You could get up, Mr Emrys. I wouldn’t tell.”
Merlin shakes his head.
“Oh, darling, you’re obedient, aren’t you?” She sighs, placing her elbow on the armrest to cup her head in her palm. “Cute, too. No wonder Arthur likes you. He must be creaming his pants by now over how good you’ve been. He’s an idiot. Failing to recognize a good thing when he’s got it.”
“How?” Merlin finds himself asking. He senses it isn’t the right question, but he’s too mentally fuzzy to conjure the correct word.
“How do I know he likes you?” Morgana asks, understanding Merlin’s implication. “Well, when I had him over for dinner, a few months ago, I inquired as to how his new secretary was working out—Arthur goes through secretaries like teabags; his perfectionism is ludicrous—anyway, do you know what he said to me?”
“No.” Merlin shrugs.
“He said that his secretary's name was Merlin Emrys, and that he was absolute rubbish at his job.”
Merlin chuckles, despite himself.
“You laugh, but that’s one of the most personal conversation’s my brother’s volunteered in years.”
Merlin’s amusement fades. In a solemn voice he says, “He’s not happy, Ms Lefay. I think you can tell, too.”
Morgana doesn’t dispute it. “And you think you can help him?” she asks tartly.
“I…” Merlin trails off. He wants to offer an enthusiastic yes, but he’s been down that road before, and it’s a solitary journey at heart. He knows how difficult it is to pave a new path for yourself.
“No,” he says. “I don’t think it works like that. Isn’t that easy. But, I can stand by him, the way he did for me.”
Ms Lefay’s eyes narrow into heavily-mascaraed slits. “Out of pity?”
“Out of love,” Merlin pleads. “I’d like to be with him, if he’ll have me. Tell that to Mr Pendragon if you see him. Please.”
Ms Lefay rises from her chair. “Personally,” she drawls bending over to flick Merlin’s tie before shrugging her bag over her shoulder. “I’ve never believed that love has to be either soft or gentle. Don’t worry, Mr Emrys. I’ll send my brother your fond regards.”
The night of the third day, Merlin listens with closed eyes as a murmur ripples through the reception. The noise starts off a whisper; growing into a crescendo of gasps and nervous exclamations.
There is measured footfall in the hallway. It stops in front of the office door, going quiet, until Merlin thinks the walker must have changed their mind and left.
The door squeaks open.
This time, Merlin doesn’t have strength left in him to open his eyes, or to lift his head off the desk and see who it is. Besides, it’s probably his mum come to chide him. Or worse—Will.
The person enters the room. Merlin feels a sturdy hand at his cheek, cradling his head. Fingers comb through his hair and something curved—the rim of a glass—presses to Merlin’s lips, teasing them open.
“Drink,” instructs a mild voice.
Merlin laps intuitively, sighing as Ribena coats his dry tongue, sticky and sweet. He bats his lashes open.
Mr Pendragon is beside him, wearing a proud expression. He’s a vision of masculinity; black suit, red tie, his hand supporting Merlin's head as he drinks.
“That’s a good boy,” Mr Pendragon says, soothing Merlin’s doubt with the even timbre of his voice. He tilts the cup up, encouraging Merlin to finish the whole glass.
“I know.” Merlin smiles a little as juice dribbles from the corner of his lips.
Mr Pendragon nods, his eyes half-lidded. He makes Merlin finish a second glass, and before Merlin can bring a sleeve up to clean his face, Pendragon brushes the juice off of Merlin’s chin with a soft sweep of his thumb.
“Come,” he says, resting the empty glass on the desk. “Let’s get you home.”
Relief goes to Merlin’s head like cheap champagne, dizzying and joyous. Arthur’s returned, as Merlin hoped he would, and the world has never felt so pleasant and right.
Mr Pendragon lifts Merlin’s hands off of the desk. He wedges one arm under Merlin’s legs, propping the other at Merlin’s back, and carefully hauls his limp body out of the office chair.
Merlin takes an unsteady breath, conscious over how he must look, and smell, but Mr Pendragon’s unconcerned by the state of his person. There's love in his actions; how he carries Merlin’s weight not as a burden, but with gratitude.
He’s ferried down the hallway into the buzzing reception. The room has never been so packed. There are familiar faces: his parents, Dr K, Gwen and Lancelot, and a host of spectators Merlin fails to recognize.
They all turn in the same direction and look. Merlin thinks he spots Gwen wave at him, but no one heckles or moves as Mr Pendragon wordlessly parts the crowd. He walks with efficiency, but not haste, as if it’s only himself and Merlin in the room. Merlin wonders if the reception stays silent because the people see what he’s always seen; the regal bearing at the core of the humble solicitor, golden and impossible to refuse.
Mr Pendragon takes Merlin outside, where daylight’s aged into dusk. Merlin inhales the crisp starless night around him through both nostrils, and Mr Pendragon doesn’t let go of him, not even when they reach his car at the curb.
The clicker-key beeps. Mr Pendragon opens the door of the Benz one-handed, settling into the leather seat with familiarity. He arranges Merlin onto his lap, pillowing Merlin’s head on his right shoulder, while folding his legs sideways to make sure Merlin’s feet rest comfortably over the parking brake.
Merlin listens to the clink of the key and the smooth purr of the engine come to life. He stares out the windscreen from his cozy position, nuzzling deeper into Mr Pendragons collar as he watches buildings pass in marred flashes of red and grey.
Neither of them speaks, though Merlin’s head is full of questions.
He wants to know everything: what made Mr Pendragon decide to come back? Why he took so long? If he trusts him now? If Ms Lefay kept her promise? He wants to know, and yet the silence in the car would be polluted by how trivial these questions would sound spoken aloud.
Mr Pendragon is here, and that’s enough.
Merlin’s eyelids droop. He struggles not to nod off as he waits to see the weathered brick of his parent’s house. There will be time to sleep when he’s alone again. For now, he should enjoy the steady heartbeat against him.
Mr Pendragon isn’t driving the usual bus route. Lampposts scroll past, the streets around them growing cleaner and grander by the minute. He parks in front of a flat with a rod-iron gate, bay windows, and perfect square-cut hedges.
Mr Pendragon prepares a bath.
There are shiny copper fixtures, checkerboard tiles, and a porcelain tub, its cast-iron claws curling into the floor.
A platter has been set along the sink, a lavish in-room buffet, each wedge of cheese and premium cold-cured meat painstakingly sliced, as if Mr Pendragon had arranged them before Merlin’s arrival.
Ever the pragmatist, Pendragon’s left nothing up to chance.
Merlin slips into the still water, letting the bubbles pool up to his chin. He floats in them for a while, because he’s never been in a tub this big —and it’s brilliant. He dips his head down, like a submarine, blows at the dissipating foam, spying on Mr Pendragon through the foggy mirror above the sink.
Mr Pendragon takes off his jacket and tie, folding them into squares on the countertop. There’s a hesitance as he unbuttons his cufflinks, a rare shyness that weighs down the shrugging of his shirt. Once it’s off, he cares for it in the same meticulous manner as his other clothes, keeping on his trousers.
Merlin hasn’t a clue why Mr Pendragon would feel uncomfortable shirtless. He’s broader out of a suit; his pectorals covered in the type of hair that’s only begun to sprout at the centre of Merlin’s slight chest. His torso is strapping, in the way of statues and athletes, and as he reaches for a washcloth and the platter, the twitch of his bicep and the slight jump in his abdominal muscles are enough to render Merlin —with the exception of one organ— boneless.
Mr Pendragon rests on his knees at the back of the tub. He nudges a slice of cheese against Merlin’s lips, and Merlin’s starving enough that he doesn’t have to be told twice what to do with it. He nibbles and swallows, resting his eyes and letting himself be hand-fed until Mr Pendraogn’s fingers are licked clean, the feast laid bare.
Dunking the washcloth into the water, Mr Pendragon sponges Merlin’s face, and his neck. He even scrubs behind Merlin’s ears, and, once clean, Merlin feels a hot press of lips at the back of his earlobe, caressing the wet shell.
Merlin melts, pliant as the water around him. He groans, turns his head in search of more, but Mr Pendragon kisses like he speaks; careful not to be too generous or sparing.
Mr Pendragon trails the washcloth up Merlin’s neck again, guiding Merlin’s head to recline until it rests on the lip of the tub. He hums in a pleased tone, the sound resonating through the enamel.
Something moist hits Merlin’s scalp, tingles through his roots. Eucalyptus and sandalwood calm his senses, steady hands working the shampoo in, thumbs dragging from Merlin’s temples down the nape of his neck. The measured circles last and last.
As water cascades past Merlin’s ears, a towel dabbing dry his hair he feels the plight of the last few days washed clean.
The dam on Merlin's tongue finally breaks.
He twists in the water, sloshing it out the sides of the tub. Merlin rests his cheek on the edge of the bathtub, admiring Mr Pendragon behind him.
“Where did you go to secondary?” Merlin whispers.
Mr Pendragon tossels Merlin’s hair dry a second time, pressing out the moisture on the tips with the towel. He doesn’t answer.
“What was your childhood pet like?” tries Merlin.
He decides to push his luck. “Who was your first love?” Merlin asks, flushing a little at his boldness. “What was their name?”
Mr Pendragon gives Merlin a conscience-stricken look, yet has the bollocks to twitch his lips, like he’s fighting back a smile, and hasn’t already twisted Merlin’s world upside-down, owning the power to do so again, should he choose it.
This time, Merlin knows he has nothing to lose. “Why,” he asks, meeting Mr Pendragon’s eyes directly, “do you let go of the mice?"
Mr Pendragon rests the towel on the tile floor. He closes his eyes, wets his lips, and kisses him.
Merlin whines—honest to goodness, whines—as Mr Pendragon sighs into his mouth, kissing Merlin again, and again, the moisture and the velvet texture of his lips making delicious clicking sounds against Merlin’s mouth. It’s impossible—one man shouldn’t be capable of inflicting exquisite pain and equal tenderness.
When Mr Pendragon speaks, the answer to Merlin’s question seems so obvious. Simple.
“Because it would be wrong to keep them,” he says, breaking the kiss, a breath from Merlin’s face. “But I can’t help wanting them to come back.”
Merlin’s toes curl, half-drunk on a teaspoon of affection. It’s so domestic, so intimate, that he thinks, fuck pruney bath fingers, he’ll stay in the tub forever.
Merlin is in bed, a towel wrapped around his waist and music all around him. Some sort of acoustic guitar rendition. Soulful. Exactly the type he’d expect from a complex man like Mr Pendragon.
The singers voice warbles. The master bedroom is airy; the sheets tucked tight but the bedspread wrinkled as mountains. Merlin buries his head into the down. The fabric even smells like Mr Pendragon; expensive aftershave, and a neurotic amount of hand soap.
He rolls over onto his back, the covers billowing around him, supple and white as marshmallow. Plants spring from clay pots around the bed, the one bookshelf in the room packed with trashy paperback novels, organized by both color and height.
Beside the headboard, a metallic object glimmers on the nightstand. Merlin’s jaw drops.
When Mr Pendragon enters the room, food in hand, Merlin pounces.
“You bloody liar,” he squawks. “You own a computer?”
Mr Pendragon tosses his head back, laughing low in his belly. He leaves the plate of cheese toasties Merlin asked for on the laptop, seemingly to spite him.
“I never said I didn’t. And don’t get any ideas, Merlin.” he says, mischief slanting his mouth. “My office. My rules.”
He dips into the sheets, parallel to Merlin, unwinds the belt from his trousers. At work Mr Pendragon’s always loomed big, and Merlin doesn’t mind. Here, lying side-by-side in length they’re all but equals.
“You’re rules, Sir.” Merlin gladly agrees.
When they kiss again the sweetness is replaced by fever; smacking lips and stubble razing skin.
Mr Pendragon leans in close, whispers into Merlin’s ear, “Still want me to fuck you, Mr Emrys?”
Merlin makes a broken noise he hopes sounds like a “yes”.
There’s no return banter, no banal wordplay as Mr Pendragon tugs the towel from Merlin’s waist, letting it crumple onto the sheets. He hauls Merlin into his lap, grips his arse and marks him with love bites: Merlin’s jugular, his shoulder, the soft skin above Merlin’s collarbone that turns Merlin into a giggly wreck.
Trousers scratch against Merlin’s thighs, and Merlin rolls his hips appreciatively, encouraging the hardness beneath the cloth.
Mr Pendragon slips his right arm between them, taking Merlin roughly in hand. He strokes him tip to base, thumbs his finger over the slit and Merlin shudders, leaks, because he’s only eighteen, and his own hands can’t compare to this.
Merlin tries to fuck into the loose fist, to take off the edge, but Mr Pendragon’s grip tightens around his shaft, squeezing under the head with his thumb and forefinger.
“No,” whispers Mr Pendragon, his eyes dark, and Merlin fights back a pulse. He could lose it by looking at the mess he’s made over Mr Pendragon’s knuckles. His expensive trousers. Mr Pendragon, who is never, ever, uncouth; but the edge on his voice, and the spark in his eyes tonight… they’re downright vulgar.
He releases Merlin, lets him unwind.
“I want you to turn over,” Mr Pendragon growls. “Onto your stomach. Lift your legs, and place your hands behind your head. Where I can see them.”
Merlin slides off of Mr Pendragons legs and onto his knees. He spreads his thighs, lifts his arse, and hides his face in the bedspread. A pillow’s slipped underneath Merlin’s stomach, propping him forward. He senses hands hovering, but this isn’t a desk and Mr Pendragon’s done looking.
He takes his time massaging Merlin’s arse, kneading apart his cheeks.
A drawer opens. There’s a snap, and Merlin feels the lick of a surgical glove at his entrance, dripping wet. He wiggles, greedy for the fingertip slipping past his furl, stretching and stroking in a come-hither motion.
Merlin groans. He rocks into the pressure, rubs his face into the sheets, whimpering and clenching his hands above his head. The sensation is flooding. His prick is too hard, the pillow under it too soft, and when Mr Pendragon mercilessly rubs that spot, Merlin can’t see straight.
The finger withdraws, leaving Merlin bereft. He hears a fly unzip, and Mr Pendragon’s trousers flutter to the floor, followed by pants and a soiled glove. Another drawer rumbles. A wrapper tears, and there’s a slippery sound of lube over latex.
Mr Pendragon holds Merlin’s hips, pulling Merlin level to him as he eases inside.
Merlin breathes in, groans out, feeling a stinging burn. He grits his teeth, bears down until it hurts, and the movement just… stops, Mr Pendragon only half-sated.
“Easy,” Mr Pendragon says, stroking the small of Merlin’s back. “This isn’t… it doesn’t have to be painful, Merlin. Didn’t he…” His voice plummets, taking on a fractured quality. “Didn’t he teach you that? The boy that you were with?”
“I…” Merlin shudders, and he gets it. The point of this isn’t to use him. Merlin’s been broken so many times, by so many people. What he needs, what they both need now from one another, is to be mended.
Mr Pendragon pulls out. He flips Merlin, re-arranges the pillow under Merlin’s lower back with possessive affection. He looks down at the floor, to his discarded glove, sucks in air through his nose, and nods almost imperceptibly.
Merlin relaxes, biting back pleasure as Mr Pendragon teases his entrance, this time bare handed. He withdraws, nudging himself inside until Merlin’s full with him.
There’s foreignness to the condom, but once that turns into friction, Merlin’s lost in weight and careful slide of Mr Pendragon inside of him.
Skin slaps skin. For the first time Merlin has a clear view of Mr Pendragons face during their play. Perspiration marks his temples, his skin flushed, blotchy all down his chest. Lower. His exhalations are hitches. He’s trying so hard to stay composed. And failing.
They find a pace as Mr Pendragon thrusts. Considering. Measured. His timing clockwork, set to the beat of Merlin's heart.
Merlin’s cock throbs, sticky against his stomach. “I can’t,” he moans.
“No,” Mr Pendragon, pants, giving Merlin’s hip a good squeeze. “Not yet.”
“Please. I —” Merlin’s back arches, the corners of his eyes wet. “I need—”
Mr Pendragon rhythm sputters and he groans, wrapping a caring hand around Merlin.
“Now,” he whispers, twisting his wrist, jerking the moist foreskin over Merlin’s cockhead. “Come for me.”
Merlin orgasms with a thank you on his lips, his legs hooked around Mr Pendragon’s waist.
Mr Pendragons release follows; a sob that sounds suspiciously like Merlin's name.
Mr Pendragon sits at the edge of the bed, smelling of sea salt, fastening the knot on his bathrobe with fastidious care. He watches Merlin, exhaling evenly, as if he can’t quite believe Merlin’s there, that he asked for this. He stares and stares, unsated, until Merlin reaches across the sheets and takes hold of his damp hand, inviting him to touch.
They lay side-by side, and Merlin shares his scars. Each pale fissure, each cratered burn. They’re lasting testaments of the struggles and loneliness of his youth. Mr Pendragon handles them like a moths wings, not afraid, but reverent, and Merlin feels beautiful.
He tells Mr Pendragon where the first one came from, because Mr Pendragon’s witnessed the last. He remembers each mark, each emotion, but they no longer hold any power over him.
These are souvenirs of a past, and the present is looking Merlin in the face; Mr Pendragon daydreaming. Merlin hopes -- of the many lessons he still has to teach.
The year Merlin turns twenty, he decides he wants to become a solicitor.
Mr Pendragon gives Merlin a spiritless look from his desk. “Terrible profession,” he mumbles, rearranging a pile of loose papers. He shoves them into a file folder, takes the cold tea on his desk and downs it like a shot, glaring at his case files as if to further his point. “Draws the worst sort. You could do better.”
Merlin raises an eyebrow but doesn't contradict him. He can’t, actually. Not with the ball gag currently lodged in his mouth. Mr Pendragon is definitely, without a doubt, the worst sort. Terrible.
And Merlin adores him for it.
Merlin leans over the desk grips the empty cuppa with his hand, preparing to take it into the pantry.
“Merlin,” calls Mr Pendragon over his shoulder. He waves a stack of files in Merlin’s direction, sighing, like he’s dealing with a spoilt child.
When Merlin retrieves the files their hands brush in the exchange. Mr Pendragon runs his fingers along Merlin’s arm, touching him lightly to ground him in place.
“Pendragon and Emrys Solicitors… The name has a nice ring to it. Don’t you think?” Smirks Mr Pendragon.
Merlin’s eyes widen.
“And if my secretary were to… say… to start studying towards a qualification with the Institute of Legal Executives,” Pendragon continues, stroking along Merlin’s wrist, across his shirt-cuff. “I could probably find the time to help him with his coursework. Caseload dependent, of course. What do you think my secretary would say to that?”
Merlin makes an unintelligible noise, high in his throat. He bites down on the ball, trying not to salivate.
Mr Pendragon chuckles. He leans up in his chair. “Let’s try that again, shall we?” he says, removing Merlin’s gag.
Merlin gasps as the restraint falls, “Thank you, Mr Pendragon!” he says, the words flying from his mouth.
“Thank you Mr Pendragon...?” Mr Pendragon prompts.
“Thank you, Mr Pendragon.” Merlin grins. “Sir.”