Merlin took several slow, calming breaths as he stepped into the mist of morning on his first day of lectures at Camelot U. He’d been on campus for several days, settling into his room, but this was the first time he’d seen the walkways and stretches of carefully manicured lawn populated with anything other than freshmen and subwardens. The return of the greater student population left him fighting off panic.
He’d known, going in, that Camelot University was a school for the elite; knew that only the smartest or richest were accepted and that it was no small miracle that he was counted among them. But years of home schooling and moving from place to place left him mostly ignorant of the kind of opulence he was now witnessing. His careful plans to blend in and get by for the next three months slowly crumbled as he stepped into a world that he thought only existed on television or in magazines.
The parking lot was full of brightly colored sports cars, each one full of equally brightly colored people; young, beautiful, and dressed in wardrobes that were probably worth more money than Merlin had seen in his entire life combined. Everywhere he looked there were smartphones or tablets or some other outlandish electronic device, all buzzing with trace amounts of magic, which spoke more than anything to how much such devices were worth. There were girls draped in brands and logos that his simple upbringing didn’t quite recognize, guys with gleaming watches and shoes that seemed far too flashy for a university campus. But that was the clue. This was a world where logos and shiny shoes were an armor of sorts. Defense against scrutiny, camouflage in a sea of privilege.
Merlin had no such protections. These were predators, and it would only take an instant for them to mark him as different and therefore prey. He could already see it happening. He walked across the sprawling stretch of grass, dotted here and there with trees, and could feel their eyes on him. The trek to the main entrance was a gauntlet of smirks and whispers, the words “scholarship student” following him like a persistent breeze. He knew. He already knew that even though his mother had spent more than she could afford to buy him “nice” clothes for school, the khaki trousers, pale blue button up, and argyle sleeveless jumper did nothing to hide his humble beginnings. He wasn’t like the rest of them. Blending was not an option.
He bit back an irritated sigh, teeth clenched as he resigned himself to his fallback plan. If fitting in with the rest of the student population wasn’t going to work, his only option would be to go invisible. Tuck his head, keep a low profile, and try to be as unobtrusive as possible. Avoid attention at all cost.
“I can handle that,” Merlin reasoned to himself, adjusting his rucksack on his shoulder. “It’s only fall term. I’m sure I can manage to control my big mouth for that long.” Not that he had a choice. There was entirely too much at stake for him to ruin everything because his brain-mouth filter had a knack for failing him at the most inopportune moments.
He drew in another fortifying breath and continued forward as casually as he could, taking strength from the warm plus of power emanating from the school’s central garden. He allowed himself a secret smile at that. The rest of these people may think that they ruled the school, but none of them knew the secret he knew. Camelot was a school for Mundanes. None of them knew the significance of the grounds upon which the campus stood or its magical history.
His first lecture would begin in half an hour and he wanted to grab a quick cuppa before making his way to the science building. Of course, this meant he had to find the little coffee shop Gaius had told him about first. He just hoped that the dragon statue he’d been told of as a landmark was really as impossible to miss as his godfather claimed.
He took in the school’s architecture as he walked, making a point to ignore the judgmental eyes that surrounded him in favor of admiring the beauty of the place. The main building of the campus was actually an honest to goodness castle, situated in the sprawling hills of the lush countryside. More buildings had been added surrounding the central citadel, all modeled off of the original architecture, so that stepping onto the school grounds felt a lot like stepping back in time. In Merlin’s mind’s eye, the students milling about the lawn could have easily been lords and ladies; the noble knights and fair maidens that his father used to read to him about when he was young.
The majority of the buildings were made up of white stone, accented by blue tiles for the roofs and awnings. The entrance to the main quad was a huge archway, decorated with intricate carvings of small white dragons and various representations of academia that Merlin suspected were added when the space was converted. There were other, smaller passages that led in and out of the quad, but they were far less impressive. As it was his first day, Merlin wanted to take in the big and obvious; save the smaller ones for later exploration when he needed the time alone to think. He had a sneaking suspicion that the semester would not be an easy one.
He knew that he was adding to his bumpkin persona by gaping up at the structures like a tourist, but he also couldn’t be arsed to care. These people were going to judge him no matter what he did, so he was going to enjoy the bloody architecture if he damn well pleased.
It was thusly, mouth gaping and eyes focused up, that he first encountered Gwaine Roderick.
The situation would have been funny, really, if it had happened to any other two people. Or even if Merlin had bumped in to, for instance, another fresher, or at least a bloke who wasn’t the embodiment of several of Merlin’s wet-dreams poured into denim and wool. As it stood, it was Gwaine who was walking out of the quad with a steaming cup in hand, eyes focused on his mobile just when Merlin was attempting to step into the quad, mind focused on the carvings and the masonry and wondering at the logic of making an archway so big. Neither saw the other, so the collision was inevitable.
The part that made Merlin sure that some higher powers were playing a sick, sick joke on him was not when Gwaine’s steaming cup of joe exploded between them, but rather when the majority of said joe found its way directly to Merlin’s crotch.
He was not proud of the very undignified sound that escaped his mouth, but nor could he control it, hand flying straight to his man-bits as invasive, burning heat soaked straight through the thin fabric of his trousers and pants. He might as well have not been wearing anything at all.
“Christ!” he screeched, pulling at his trousers in a vain attempt to protect the possibility of him having children someday, “What were you drinking, molten lava?!”
“Bad luck, mate.” The voice that responded sent an entirely different kind of heat straight to his crotch. Merlin’s eyes shot up and he had to fight very hard not to will the ground to open up and swallow him whole. You know...just in case it actually did.
“All right?” Gwaine, asked offering a couple of napkins and a winning smile. Of course, Merlin hadn’t known his name at the time, so all his mind could manage was a litany of hairscruffeyesmuscles fuck!stop clutchingyourdick! smells nice. Because Gwaine was definitely one of those beautiful people the school seemed to be entirely populated with, and Merlin really wasn’t that worried about losing the ability to have children because his preferences didn’t make such a thing very likely anyway.
Merlin realized that he was actually expected to answer the question when his walking fantasy continued standing there watching him, napkins held out. He finally managed to unhand his crotch.
“Yeah!” Merlin replied after enough time had passed to make the situation awkward for both of them. “Sorry. I should have been watching where I was going.”
“That makes two of us,” Gwaine said, ducking his head and scratching his brow with one finger, eyes falling to Merlin’s crotch. Heat raised to Merlin’s cheeks even though he knew that the other man was just looking at the stain. “But I, at least, was on my way out. You gonna have to walk around like that long?”
“Shit!” Merlin hissed, groaning at how pathetically cliche his first day was shaping up to be. He didn’t have time to get back to his dorm, change, and get back before his lecture began, and if he was late on the first day, he would lose his seat. His only option was to go to his lecture looking like he’d wet himself. When had his life become a B rate comedy?
“Hey, no worries,” Gwaine’s voice cut through his thoughts. There was the sound of a button popping then a zipper being undone. Merlin’s eyes shot up just in time to see Gwaine slip his own jeans down his legs and step out of them. “Like I said, I’m on my way out. You need them more than I do.”
Merlin could only stare, lost in shock and sudden arousal. Gwaine smirked at him, apparently amused. He handed Merlin his stonewashed jeans then turned to walk away. That was enough to break the spell and Merlin finally managed to get his head out of his arse.
“I’m Merlin,” he called after the stranger’s boxer-brief-clad behind. The other man kept walking without pause or break in his stride, but did flash a supermodel smile over his shoulder before calling back,
“Gwaine,” Melin repeated the name quietly, enjoying the feel of it on his tongue. The prospect of three months at Camelot U. had suddenly become a whole lot more interesting.
As it turned out, the “other dragon statue” that Gaius had referred to was indeed quite difficult to miss. It wasn’t like the Great Dragon that protected the school’s central garden, and for that Merlin was grateful. It would be hard enough to focus while in such close proximity to a source of that much concentrated energy. He didn’t know what he would do if there were more than one. Still, it was a rather impressive sight; tall and proud, facing out the quad’s entrance, towards the central garden where the Great Dragon could be seen, past the lawn, guarding the garden’s Northern gate.
This statue was clearly just that; a statue. It had no pull, no power. Nothing like what Merlin had felt in the presence of the larger statue. This one was simple stone, nestled in a circular patch of grass, clearly meant to mimic the look and feel of the other garden. The Dragon’s Garden; the heart of the field of energy known to the magical community as the Dragon’s Circle.
A chill moved down his spine at the memory of that first day when he’d arrived at Camelot. How Gaius had taken him to the dragon. How thick the air was with magic as he’d approached. The beast had seemed almost alive, as if at any moment its arching neck would stretch, its tail would lash, and it would cry fire and fury into the sky. As he stood there, Merlin’d had the unsettling feeling that the dark stones that made up the sculpture’s eyes were watching him, waiting and judging somehow. It had been all that he could do to keep the power he held carefully in check from reaching out to the statue, testing the dragon to see what secrets it held.
This block of stone was a pale imitation. Large, but not nearly as large. Detailed, but not nearly as immaculate in craftsmanship. Merlin reached out a hand to touch the carving without fear, tasting the stone through its connection to the earth. Feeling the lingering power in it, and taking comfort in knowing that magic still seemed to be thriving in this place at least.
“You’re not planning to be here long, are you?”
Merlin’s attention snapped immediately from the dragon to find that he was being watched by another student. Male, blond, and radiating an air of “fuck off,” Merlin knew that he would have to tread carefully with this one. However, with one look, Merlin also knew that the stranger wasn’t like the others at the school. There were no logos or devices to be seen, and if it weren’t for the stack of text books at his side, Merlin would have guessed that one of the locals from town had wandered onto campus.
“What?” Merlin asked in reply to the statement.
“Standing there stroking a statue with a stain on your front like you pissed yourself. I hope you’re not planning to stay long, because the rate you’re going, you won’t last the week.”
If mortification could be a color, Merlin imagined that his face was achieving it at record speeds. “I-I was looking for the loo,” he stammered out, quickly covering the stain with the now crumpled jeans in his hand. The blond rolled his eyes but, obligingly, gestured with his head. Merlin hurried in the indicated direction, ears practically glowing with heat. How could he have gotten distracted enough to forget about his trouser situation?!
It only took him a few minutes to change. Gwaine’s jeans were a little short, but they fit well enough. A far sight better than his khakis at least. He carefully folded them to wash later and shoved them into his rucksack, very conscious of the fact that most of the other students at the school would likely have tossed them. Yet another reminder of the chasm that existed between Merlin and the rest of the CU student population. He couldn’t afford to waste a perfectly good pair of trousers over a bit of spilled coffee.
The blond was still there when he returned, lounging on the grass beside one of the dragon’s claws, smoking.
“You’re here on scholarship too, aren’t you?” was the first thing that came from Merlins mouth. The question earned him a dry laugh in reply.
“Give the lad a prize,” the blond drawled, taking a long drag from his cigarette. “You sure you’re in the right place, kiddo? You look a little young for uni.”
Merlin huffed, offended. Who was this brash stranger to judge whether he belonged there or not? They both appeared to be in similar positions, so it seemed as if the bloke by the dragon was as close to an equal as Merlin was like to find in the entire school. A fact that gave him the courage to snap back:
“I’m old enough. Not that it’s any of your business.”
“You’re right, it’s not,” the blond readily agreed. He finished his smoke and flicked the butt away before climbing to his feet, collecting his things. “Good luck, fresher.” He tossed over his shoulder walking away. Merlin was left wondering at the strange encounter. The blond man needn’t have bothered saying anything to Merlin at all if he was going to be so rude about it. But then again, he supposed that in a small way the stranger had helped him out. It looked like just one other mystery that Merlin was going to have to deal with in this brave new world.
Except fortune seemed to be smiling on Merlin in strange ways on his first day. He made it to his first lecture with time to spare, stepping into the room and bracing himself for the discomfort inherent in any new situation. It had been a very long time since Merlin had set foot into an institution of formal education, but he would never forget what the first day of school always felt like. The insecurity. The question of where to sit. The hope of finding a familiar face amongst the crowd of other students. In this case, Merlin was not expecting to have any luck on that last front, but to his mild surprise, there was a familiar face amongst the sea of logos. The blond from the dragon was sitting in one of the back corners of the lecture hall, slouched in his seat ignoring everyone else. Merlin gauged his options, glancing between the bloke from the dragon and the rest of the students, all radiating posh and entitlement. Not exactly a difficult choice to make. He began navigating his way up and across the room.
“I’m Merlin,” he said taking a seat next to the blond.
“Will,” came the brief response. Will never took his eyes from the small mobile he was fidgeting with. Unlike the others in the room, Will’s was a battered looking flip phone that probably had its origin sometime around the latest turn of the century. Of course Merlin wasn’t one to judge. He couldn’t afford a mobile at all.
“You’re cute, fresher, but I don’t swing that way.”
Merlin jumped slightly at the words. “What?”
“You’re staring,” Will sighed, slipped the mobile in to a pocket and turned resigned eyes to Merlin. “You’ll want to stop doing that if you want to keep your head here.”
“What do you mean?”
“These rich wankers,” he gestured to the filling lecture hall with his chin. “they only understand the language of money. They catch you staring like that, it’s like begging them to come at you. They can’t help it, see? ‘S in their blood. I’m only telling you this ‘cause not a lot of us make it in, and even fewer make it through.”
Merlin knew that by “us” Will meant other scholarship students. Others who didn’t have the money to afford Camelot U outright and could only hope to get in based on their brains. CU had the largest Etic Arcanology program in the nation, and in a world where powerful magic was becoming harder and harder to come by, companies who depended on that magic were desperate for experts in the field. Seeing as such companies were usually big money makers, those who survived the rigorous coursework and made it to graduation were basically guaranteed high paying work immediately thereafter.
Between the campus R&D Labs pumping out theories on magic synthesis and the University Officer Training Corps training in the latest techniques in magical defense, Camelot had become a source of hope for magic’s survival to the non-magic world. Something that Merlin looked on with bleak irony as he knew the school’s Chancellor to be one of the greatest magic haters there could be. He knew that with natural magic’s decline, even sorcerers were beginning to explore other avenues for solutions.
Especially since their leader hasn’t shown his thick head, Merlin thought glumly.
His mind was pulled from darker musings by a commotion at the front of the room. There was a sudden shift in tension, the air becoming charged with anticipation. Heads turned to the entrance, and some of the gaggles of clustered students began speaking excitedly amongst themselves.
“Oh, bugger,” Will said under his breath and shifted lower in his seat. Merlin had no idea what was happening.
Then a Grecian god entered the room.
Or at least that’s what it seemed like to Merlin. A wave of whispers passed through the crowd at the young man’s entrance, all cock-sure swagger. He was fit. Tall, with broad shoulders, and clothes clearly tailored to hug and accentuate the firm, defined planes of his body. His hair was the color of honey, and eyes a crystalline blue that Merlin could see even from his place high up on the opposite side of the room. His throat went suddenly dry and there was a passing thought that Gwaine had just earned some competition for a starring role in his wet dreams.
“Staring,” Will hissed at him, and Merlin immediately averted his eyes before those icy blues swept the room. Even without looking directly, Merlin could feel the proprietary weight of scrutiny as the man surveyed the lecture hall like it was his personal domain. Other students approached him with a certain deference, but the blond ignored them largely in favor of sitting with a couple of other blokes near the front.
“Who is that?” Merlin asked, unsure of why his voice was shaking but sure that the blond man who had just entered was the most dangerous of all the predators at the school.
“Arthur Pendragon. Chancellor’s son.” Will told him shortly. There was a tight note in his voice that Merlin wanted to question but didn’t dare. “Stay clear of him,” Will warned. “He’s the last enemy you’ll ever make.”