Rating: PG-13 now but will end up NC-17
Word count: 5,047 so far
Warnings/Spoilers: Some homophobia
Summary: Modern AU. Merlin has always dreamed of going to Cambridge University and is thrilled to win a place at Queens’ College. Whilst there he falls hopelessly in love with the JCR President, drinking society President, Lacrosse captain and all-round popular guy Arthur Pendragon. Arthur takes him under his wing until Merlin stands to be LGBT Rep on the JCR and Arthur realises that Merlin likes boys. Full of Cambridge slang, UST, Arthur being a knobhead with no knob, and eventual happy ending. I promise.
It had always been Merlin’s dream to go to Cambridge University. It was one of many, many things that differentiated him from his classmates at the awful (awful) senior school he went to from ages 11 to 17. The other things being, in no particular order: the fact he had an absolutely ludicrous name (thanks Mum!), his enjoyment of learning and homework, his awkward limbs after his growth spurt at 13 and the fact that everyone was convinced he was gay. He was, but he hadn’t come out – it was just a sneaking suspicion they had that made them do things like steal his exercise books, throw his rucksack out of the classroom window, flush his head down the toilet, beat him up, etc etc.
But he was always determined that this wasn’t going to be it; that he wasn’t going to spend his entire life in a small, anonymous town in Essex. He was going to go to Cambridge to study History, he was going to graduate with a first, and he was going to become a shit-hot management consultant, or part of a political think-tank, or an editor at Penguin, or, or, anything really. First from Cambridge in History and the world was his oyster. He was going to make a better life for him, and for his Mum, and he would never again be picked on or bullied. Ever.
He’d kept his head down during his GCSEs and ignored the taunts every time he put his hand up in class, or gave his homework in on time, or aced his mocks. And it all paid off when he got 11 A*s – unprecedented for Witham High School. He had his picture in the local paper, holding his certificate and looking like a moron, and his Mum had (embarrassingly) had it laminated and framed. The bullying had got even worse then and Merlin had been kicked, and punched, and had his clothes stolen after P.E. but even all of this couldn’t take away from the glow he felt whenever he remembered how well he’d done.
A-levels were harder. He chose to do History, Economics, English and, because he secretly thought it was pretty cool, Latin. His school didn’t offer all of those courses but they were so proud of him, so supportive, that they arranged for him to attend Latin and Economics classes at the local private school. He always felt a bit out of place there – them in their smart suits with braying voices and the air of confidence that came from knowing that the world was your oyster, and him in his jeans that frayed at the bottom, with the hunched shoulders that came from the assumption that everyone was out to get you. No one there picked on him; it was alright to be smart, pretty much expected. But he still felt hunched and unsure, and he found it hard to look up and make eye-contact whenever he made his way down the corridors that were all shiny wood and expensive loafers.
Merlin was one of three kids in his year to apply to Oxbridge. The other two were applying to Oxford, meaning that he was the only one trying for Cambridge. He spent the summer after AS levels (4 As, of course) going to open-days at Cambridge colleges. His Mum had insisted on coming with him to each of them and he’d loved her for it, known that she felt out of place as she sat in on the talks with stern tutors who said ‘most of the applicants will be unsuccessful’ and ‘95% of applicants will go on to get five As at A-level so it is not merely about their academic record’. But Merlin? Well, Merlin was in love from the minute they entered the town, his stomach butterflying round and round until he felt nauseous and excited by the sense of possibility: the feeling that anything could happen.
The first college – St John’s – felt too big for him, and he found himself faintly terrified by the Director of Studies who was so old and posh that it was a strain for Merlin to understand a word he said. The second – Christ’s – felt too small. The college bar shut at 8pm as well which was a factor in Merlin’s decision, added to the fact that the admissions tutor stressed upon them that it wasn’t just important that they got all As: they would also analyse closely their percentages in every exam. Merlin liked pressure, thrived on it to be honest, but he thought he’d find all of this a little tiring after a while.
Just like Goldilocks, the third one was exactly right. Queens’ was a reasonable size, a mix of brash modern architecture and beautiful old buildings, the Director of Studies in History was loud and funny and charming, and when Merlin met some of the other students he knew it was the right place for him.
‘It’s a bit of a party college,’ one of the second year Economics students told him, with a charming smile and a shrug as she twisted one curl around her finger. ‘I mean, academics matters here – of course it does, it does everywhere at the Uni! But there’s also a lot of emphasis on fun, and sport, and drama. Stephen Fry went here you know?’
That sealed the deal for Merlin, and when he met his mother at the end of the day he told her with a brilliant grin, and a spring in his step, that he was certain he wanted to apply there.
The application process was utterly terrifying. He poured his heart out in his personal statement, he begged his teachers for the nicest possible references they could give, and when he got the letter saying he had an interview he was so nervous he ended up vomiting copiously in the school toilets, pressing his clammy forehead against the mirror and just looking at himself. ‘This is it,’ he said. ‘Your one chance.’ And then he felt like an X-Factor contestant and told himself to stop being a knob.
He wore his best Marks and Spencers suit and tie (his one suit and tie to be honest) and his Mum kissed him moistly on the cheek before he left to get the train, pressing his hand and making him promise to text her immediately afterwards. Going through the porters’ lodge into the college was exciting enough. The short Northern man behind the desk winked at him and gave him a map, wishing him ‘the best of luck, young sir’ so that Merlin felt that he’d walked straight into a Tom Sharpe novel or Brideshead Revisited or something.
He had to wait in a ridiculous glass room called the solarium and he found himself nervously judging everyone around him: the overconfident blonde girl with black-framed glasses and uncombed hair which swooshed over her head in a side parting, the fat Scouse boy with perfect cornrows who talked so fast he could barely understand him, and then the others in between, just like Merlin, too nervous to talk and looking like they were going to throw up all the while.
Merlin’s interview was the last of the day, at 5:30pm, and the numbers of people around him dwindled until he was the last one there, pacing and pacing and biting his thumb with nerves. Then there was a knock on the door, and a blond boy poked his head round. ‘Alright? You the last one here? I’ve come up early to work on my extended essay, saw the lights on… remembered how it felt when I was here, three years ago! I was the last one too, practically shat myself waiting.’
Merlin laughed, then, his nerves leaving him in a rush as he took in the blond, confident, goodlooking boy standing in front of him. The boy held out a hand, ‘I’m Arthur,’ he said. ‘Third year historian, head of the JCR, Roos president, Lax captain, and all round good egg.’
Merlin shook it gingerly, only half of those words made any sense to him at all. ‘I’m Merlin.’
Arthur quirked an eyebrow, ‘Merlin?’
Merlin flushed and looked down, ‘Yeah, Merlin…’ he sighed.
Arthur laughed, ‘Well this is obviously serendipitous – I’m practically the King of the college. Maybe you can be its magician?’
Merlin was embarrassed, ‘I know it’s a shit name and…’
‘Hey,’ Arthur punched his arm gently and he looked up. ‘I’m not being a twat. I can’t judge anyone for their name anyway… my Uncle’s called Eldredd which is fucking ludicrous if you ask me, and last term I was shagging a girl called Loveday.’
‘Loveday?!’ Merlin snorted.
‘And one called Starling.’ Arthur rolled his eyes, running a tanned hand through his blond hair. Merlin caught glimpse of a signet ring on his little finger, gleaming. Everything about him seemed golden.
‘Merlin doesn’t seem so bad, now,’ he admitted, shuffling awkwardly but unable not to grin at this boy who seemed to sum up everything he wanted Cambridge to be with his confidence, his sunny demeanor, his good looks. He was fucking fit, to be honest. His jaw, his shoulders, his blue eyes, his white teeth (public school teeth, Merlin thought, oddly), and even the fact he was wearing a polo-shirt with the collar popped, baggy beige shorts and flip-flops couldn’t alter the urge Merlin felt to push him against the wall and lick his teeth. Weird. What was this place doing to him?
‘What you applying for?’ Arthur asked, leaning against the wall, arms crossed, as if this was normal to him. As if living and breathing in Cambridge University was normal to him.
‘History,’ Merlin said. ‘Same as you study.’
‘Brilliant, mate!’ Arthur’s eyes crinkled as he smiled and Merlin’s heart seemed to be trying to escape his chest. ‘It’s such a cool subject and a total doss. I barely do any reading at all, just cram it into the day before my supervision and spend the rest of the week getting hammered. You’ll love it.’ He winked.
‘If I get in,’ Merlin said, sadly.
Arthur ‘pish-tosh’ed. ‘Just be uber-enthusiastic, that’s what they want. Show how much you want it, how fun you’d be to teach! They don’t want carbon-copy students – they want people who’ll make the supervisions fun, who’ll be quick and bright and different. You’ll get in, trust me.’ Arthur’s smile was reassuring. It was hard to believe that he was ever wrong about anything.
Some of Arthur’s confidence rubbed off on him then. ‘Enthusiastic. Bright. Got it.’
Arthur looked at his watch then (Rolex, of course), ‘shit, mate, you’ve got to get a wiggle on – your interview’s in Cloister Court in five minutes.’
‘Oh crap,’ Merlin yelped. ‘Shit, shit, shit.’
‘I’ll take you there, it’s fine,’ Arthur said. ‘It’s only a couple of minutes away. But don’t want you being late – gives a bad impression, doesn’t it?’
They walked together in companionable silence, Merlin’s stomach churning away all the while as he sweated and sweated through his cheap suit. Arthur left him at the door, squeezed his shoulder. ‘Good luck mate: see you in October maybe?’
And he left, leaving Merlin to try his hardest not to puke on the doorstep.
The offer letter came on New Year’s Eve. Merlin’s hands were shaking so much he didn’t know if he’d be able to read straight but he made out the important parts. ‘Merlin Emrys’ and ‘offer a place in October 2008’ and ‘contingent on achieving four As at A-level’ and then he pretty much passed out with joy. His Mum screamed and cried and rang everyone she knew and Merlin? Well, he rang his headteacher and his friend Will and… that was it really. But nothing would kill the buzz of anticipation in his stomach. He knew he could get the grades, he fucking knew it. He imagined himself punting along the Cam, scurrying to lectures in the snow with a college scarf around his neck (green and white), going to parties, and clubs, and making friends and meeting people and. Arthur. There was always Arthur. He’d pop up in every dream about the place: his white smile, the flex of his arms, the image of him running his hand through his hair.
Merlin was too ashamed to crack one out deliberately thinking about Arthur but if he scampered into Merlin’s head when he was busy imagining other boys, celebrities, sucking him off and coming all over his chest. Well. He couldn’t exactly help it, could he?
Merlin knuckled down to schoolwork harder than he ever had before. People still picked on him of course but he had a new confidence to him that took away some of their attention. He squared his shoulders, lifted his chin, didn’t look away, sidling down the corridors like he was invisible. He was somebody now.
Results day was the best day of his life. It was so good he could only remember it in snapshots afterwards. His Mum making him eat his breakfast even though he swore he couldn’t stomach anything. The sun shining as he made his way into school. His teacher calling him into the classroom. Her smile. The As lined up neatly on the paper. Then his screaming and whooping and yelling and his Mum crying and crying and crying as he screamed ‘SCREW YOU, WITHAM, I’M GOING TO FUCKING CAMBRIDGE!’ Always dignified, our Merlin.
The summer was a blur of working three jobs to save up for Uni. There was the weekend shift in Starbucks, the daytime job in a fucking call-centre, and then the evenings he spent stacking shelves in Tesco. He didn’t give a shit about how tired it made him, or how horrible members of the public were. The word ‘Cambridge’ was like a pulse in his body, omnipresent, promising so much. He’d had a letter from his ‘college parents’, two older students who’d been tasked with looking after six of the freshers, who’d be his college ‘brothers and sisters’. He might have found it wanky had he not found it all so incredibly exciting.
He’d been so hopeful that Arthur would be one of his college parents but no, they were two second years: Lance and Gwen. Gwen was an Economics student, who liked dance, and drama, and student politics. Lance did Engineering, and rowing, and rugby, and basically everything ever. They wrote him letters telling him what to bring to Queens’: a suit, smart shoes, warm clothes, a duvet, a toaster, passport photos, the books from his reading list. They also recommended costumes. ‘We have weekly bops – sort of, club nights, I guess! They’re themed normally and play shit cheesy music and the drinks are £1.50 each!’ Gwen had scrawled. She’d added a P.S. too – ‘Our first bop is school-uniform themed. It’s customary for the boys to cross-dress! Hope that’s not a problem!’
Merlin had felt embarrassed and intrigued, all wrapped up in one confusing emotion that lodged itself somewhere in his stomach.
His Mum drove him there on the 1st October, her face all sort of shiny with happiness and pride. ‘You’re going to have the BEST time, I promise you!’ They were met at the gates by a tall ginger boy in a green top proclaiming ‘QUEENS’ JCR’ and he directed Hunith to a parking space. ‘You go into the plodge and someone will find your keys for you and help you unpack. You’ll have a wicked time, mate, seriously.’
‘Thanks,’ Merlin stammered, completely overwhelmed by all the noise, the people everywhere. By everything, really. He hopped out of the car and headed to the plodge, pushing his way through the throngs of tourists, and leaning against the heavy wooden door until it swung open.
There, on the other side, was Arthur, wearing one of those green sweatshirts, frayed jeans and… flip-flops. Seriously now, it was winter, weren’t his feet cold? ‘You’re a fresher right?’ he approached, holding out his hand, still as glorious and god-like as Merlin remembered.
Oh. Arthur didn’t remember him. He felt a pang in his stomach. Their small exchange previously had come to sum up everything that Cambridge stood for, for him… obviously Arthur hadn’t remembered, and even though he knew he was being ridiculous, it still hurt. ‘Erm, we met before, at interviews? I’m Merlin Emrys.’
‘Merlin!’ Arthur yelled. ‘Of course you are! Another historian, good work. Sorry mate, I’m so hungover I can barely see. Went to the Mahal last night for a curry and decided at about 4am that Jagerbombs were a good idea. Fuck me I wanted to die this morning.’
Merlin laughed, his insides twisting as he looked at Arthur’s broad grin. ‘Guess I’ve got all that to look forward to…’
‘Yes you bloody do! Freshers’ week is wicked. You’ll be pulling a different girl every night, getting pissed, making loads of new friends. Ah, bliss.’ He closed his eyes and mock-swooned, making Merlin snigger. He went up to the porter behind the desk, ‘This is Merlin Emrys.’
‘Ah yes,’ the porter slid his finger down the list. ‘You’re in BB5. Just sign here,’ he gestured to a line, ‘and I’ll get you your keys.’
‘BB5?’ Arthur’s face was a picture. ‘That was my old room in first year! Fucking hell, talk about coincidence… We meet at interviews, you’re a historian, now you’re in my old room. This is brilliant stuff.’
Merlin laughed, ‘Is it a good room?’ He’d gone for the cheapest band of rooms. Whatever it was like, he didn’t care. It was in Cambridge. It was Arthur’s old room.
‘It’s massive: wicked for parties. There’s only one other room on your corridor, and it’s in the block where all the freshers live so it’s a good way to make friends.’
Merlin was so excited he felt like he might do something terribly embarrassing and girlish like burst into tears. He took his keys with shaking hands.
Arthur slung a friendly arm round his shoulders. ‘Your parents will have parked out the back, I’ll give you a hand with your stuff.’
Arthur showed him where his pigeonhole was and Merlin gathered up the handful of papers that were already in it. Out the other heavy swinging door and he was in the midst of cars being unpacked everywhere, people laughing, other awkward teenagers obviously being embarrassed by overzealous parents.
‘Mum!’ She was unloading the boot just by the plodge.
‘Mrs Emrys,’ Arthur held his hand out to her. ‘I’m Arthur Pendragon, President of the JCR. Let me take that from you,’ and he took the big suitcase she was struggling with, leaving her unable to do anything but smile.
Merlin followed him with another large box, leaving his Mum with his rucksack and a smaller bag. Arthur didn’t seem affected at all by how heavy it was, he just strode through the throngs of new students, people calling out to him, ‘Alright Arthur!’ and ‘Oi Pendragon, party in EE42 tonight!’ He just gave them all the same non-committal grin and a wave. Merlin and Hunith followed him up the stairs to where was going to be Merlin’s home for the next year. His hands fumbled the key into the lock and then he was inside. It was a big room, wooden floors, shelves, a desk, and a small wardrobe.
‘It’s just like I remembered,’ Arthur smiled wistfully as he took it in.
‘Was this your room?’ Hunith asked, looking around at the bare walls that would soon have Merlin’s personality stamped all over them.
‘Yes, when I was an innocent, naive young fresher, just like Merlin here,’ he punched him on the shoulder. ‘But he won’t be so fresh-faced for long…. You’ll have a mental week: I remember it like it was yesterday.’ He shook his head as if to clear it of nostalgia. ‘You’ll have a letter from your college parents in amongst that bumpf from your pigeonhole and you’ll have tea with them later on today and they’ll tell you what’s off. There’s also an itinerary in there of everything you have to do in your first week – parties, and meetings, and academic stuff.... the whole shebang.’
Merlin unfolded the itinerary and it seemed to blur in front of his eyes, full as it was of times to meet people, times to go to bars, for curries, out drinking, to bops, times to read, times to learn. He didn’t know how he’d have enough hours in the day.
‘I can see you look a little overwhelmed,’ Arthur remarked drily. ‘So I’ll leave you to unpack and get settled. I’ve got other damsels in distress to help out with their luggage, anyway.’ He struck a ridiculous super-hero pose. ‘I’ll see you around,’ he squeezed Merlin’s shoulder and his knees turned to jelly and then he was gone, and it was like the day suddenly became a bit more overcast.
‘Well, he certainly seemed nice,’ Hunith enthused. ‘If everyone’s like him then I’m certain you’ll make lots of friends here!’
‘You sure Mum?’ he chewed his lip. ‘I wasn’t exactly rolling in them when I was in Witham.’
‘It’s different now, love. All of these people are clever, too… they’re more mature than the kids back home. And they won’t tease you for being different.’ Her eyes were soft and he found it hard to look at them.
Merlin knew what she meant when she said ‘different’. ‘For being gay, you mean?’ he said, quietly, not looking her in the eyes, not quite sure why he was making his admission like this, after so many years of swallowing it down.
But there was nothing surprised about Hunith. ‘Yes, darling. For being gay.’
‘How did you know?’ he stuttered. ‘For how long did you know? I never told anyone…’ no matter how hard it got to pretend to Will that he fancied girls, that he liked looking at Nuts magazine, at dodgy Channel 5 porn they taped whenever their parents were away.
‘I always knew.’ She rubbed her thumb over his cheekbone, forcing him to look at her. ‘This isn’t some small, suburban town now, Merlin.’
‘I won’t be the only gay in the village, you mean?’ he half-smiled, trying to turn it into a joke.
She huffed at him, ‘You don’t have to do that, love. You don’t have to use humour as a defence. People here will understand who you are, and no one will judge you for it.’
‘Okay,’ he said, finally, because he didn’t really know what else to say, and he didn’t really dare to believe her. ‘Shall we unpack?’
Three hours later and Merlin was in T3, a set in Fisher building that Lance shared with a guy called Leon.
‘Come in, come in!’ Lance opened the door and Merlin swallowed. Were all of the guys here going to be film-star goodlooking? ‘Which one are you?’
Lance just looked at him open-mouthed. ‘Merlin?’
Merlin thought that his Mum had obviously been wrong about it being different here. He squared his shoulders. ‘Yes, Merlin, and don’t even think about making a joke about it because I’ve heard every single one you can think of before! And whilst we’re at it I also come from Essex, so I’m sure there’s a joke in that, and I’m… I’m. Gay.’ The last word came out almost of its own volition and try as he might he couldn’t swallow it back down again.
Lance stood there blinking. ‘Erm. Okay.’
Merlin flushed, ‘I’m oversensitive, sorry.’
‘No, don’t worry about it,’ he reached out and squeezed Merlin’s arm. ‘I’m sorry, I wasn’t going to make fun of you… honest to god, I’m not a dickhead. It’s just… my name’s Lancelot.’
‘Lancelot?’ Merlin’s lips quirked.
‘I know right. Fucking hell, we’re like a walking Arthurian legend here, aren’t we? You know the JCR Pres is called Arthur?’
‘Yeah, we met.’
Lance shook his head, laughing, ‘This is unreal. Well, come in Merlin from Essex who is also gay.’ He leaned in, ‘None of which are things I will mention unless you want me to, and none of which are things I would ever, ever laugh at you for.’
The knot in Merlin’s stomach untangled and he smiled then, feeling relaxed in a way he hadn’t for weeks, since he woke each night sweating and worrying and yearning for what University would bring.
‘Gwen, here’s Merlin! Our firstborn son!’ He ushered Merlin into the large room, covered in pictures of Lance in black-tie, and rowing lycra, and in costume, always surrounded by large groups of people and always looking blissfully happy. Merlin wanted that, too.
Gwen was all curls and wide smile and soft skin. Everything about her made Merlin feel at home. ‘Merlin, so good to finally meet you!’ She came over and pulled Merlin into a hug. He had to bend down so she could properly reach. ‘Ah, my first son… so grown up already.’
He laughed, ‘There’s not much of a family resemblance between the three of us.’
‘Yeah…’ she looked across at Lance. ‘You’ve also got a Chinese brother and a Nigerian sister. I feel like I’m Angelina Jolie.’
Merlin snorted, ‘What are the others like?’
‘You’re the first to arrive but two of the girls emailed me to ask me lots of questions. One of them is a historian too, like you, so that will be nice,’ she beamed, acting for all the world like a proud parent.
There was a knock on the door then and Lance leaped up, opening it to reveal two girls looking young and embarrassed.
‘Hi, I’m Tasha,’ one of them said, in a Northern accent. She had a short blonde bob and too much eye make-up on.
‘I’m Mel. Y’alright?’ the other one was posher, cooler probably, in skinny jeans and a vest top, which she teamed with cowboy boots. Her hair was back-combed within an inch of its life but she had an enviable air of insouciance about her.
‘Let the girls in, Lance, they’ll want to sit down and meet everyone!’
‘I’m Merlin,’ he waved at them, in a fashion that he then cursed as completely geeky. He was supposed to be turning over a new leaf here: appearing cool, popular.
But they didn’t seem to mind: Tasha and Mel waved back, folding themselves onto the floor where they sat cross-legged, firing questions at Gwen and Lance about bops, and supervisions, and DoSes until Merlin wondered if there had been a language dictionary he’d failed to notice amongst his freshers’ pack.
The other three sloped in within a few minutes of one another. The Nigerian girl, Akanke, was tall and stunning; Ed was awkward and gawky; Barney was public-school through and through and his braying laugh set Merlin’s teeth on edge within a minute or so if meeting him.
Merlin let himself be himself for the first time in ages, making jokes, contributing witticisms and questions, and generally acting like he wasn’t ashamed of every part of his voice and body. It was a far cry from who he’d been at school.
‘There’s a bop tonight for all of you – cocktails and cheesy music in the Fitzpatrick Hall. We’ll be there, and the JCR, but otherwise it’ll be all you guys, pulling and dancing, and getting embarrassingly pissed.’ Lance leaned back in his chair, stretched his legs out. ‘Oh how I wish I could go back to that day… I’d do things differently this time.’
‘He means that he wouldn’t pull three girls who turned out to be best-friends, and then vomit all over the squash courts,’ Gwen put in.
Lance grimaced as the others laughed. ‘Seriously boys, do not pull all the members of the same friendship group. It can get awkward.’
Merlin flushed at the thought of pulling anyone. He wondered if his Mum was right, if people would accept him for who he was, if he could kiss boys, and have sex with boys, and no one would think twice about it. Unbidden, he thought of Arthur again, before shaking his head as if to physically clear the image. Arthur was the epitome of the straight lad. And even if he wasn’t, he wouldn’t be interested in Merlin.
But even if there wasn’t Arthur there would be others, right? He needn’t hide who he was any more, burying his urges in sneaking copies of Attitude and looking at free gay porn clips on pornotube.com whenever his Mum was out. They only lasted a couple of minutes but the images would stay with him, under his skin, so he felt embarrassed every time he brushed hands with an attractive man in a coffee-shop, or saw one of the football team changing for a game.
When they left the set an hour or so later, full of crisps, and tea, and gossip, Merlin felt like his head was buzzing with all the newness. He arranged to meet the other five in the college bar at seven so they could get some drinks in together before they went to the bop.
Merlin said his goodbyes and went back to his room and threw himself on the bed, determined to have a nap before dinner. But suddenly he was remembering that it had been Arthur’s bed, that Arthur had lain here, had wanked here, had fucked here.
And then he found it very hard to sleep at all.