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Just Friends

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On Monday morning, Morgana stumbled into the office half-asleep, hair in mild disarray and blouse half tucked in. Arthur looked up from where he was flirting with the practice manager (who also happened to be his wife) and gave her a glare of disapproval.

“You’d better not be drunk at work again, Morgana.”

“Shove off, Arthur,” she snapped, “I’m just tired.”

Gwen gave her a sympathetic smile. (Gwen used to be Morgana’s personal assistant before Arthur had dated her behind Morgana’s back, then gone into a serious relationship with her also behind Morgana’s back, then gotten engaged to her not-so-much behind Morgana’s back, then married her, after which Gwen was promoted to practice manager at Pendragon Gorlois Accountants.)

Morgana gave them small nods as she passed them to her office. She also passed Morgause just coming from the office kitchen, coffee in hand. She took one look at Morgana’s sleep-deprived form and followed her half-sister to her office, and shut the door.

Morgana sat in her leather, high-back chair and Morgause said accusingly, perched on the desk, “You haven’t been wearing the bracelet I gave you.”

Morgana looked up at her. “What is the point of being a superhero when I don’t even use my superpower?”

Morgause gave her a hard look. “Then use your other superpower.”

The two sisters were both rare in that they both not only had one, but two, superpowers. Morgana could see the future in her dreams and also make things explode if she concentrated really hard. Morgause could talk to animals, and also had the ability to bring people, animals or insects back to life for five minutes. Once in a board meeting, a fly had been buzzing around the room and Arthur - who had the power to never miss no matter what weapon he was using - flicked a paperclip at it. It had died instantly, falling pathetically to the table top. Morgause had flicked her fingers and brought it back to life again, where it buzzed around Arthur’s head with increased anger and enthusiasm.

Morgana said, “No way. I am not using my exploding ability; what if I accidently make someone’s head explode?”

“I rather have that than having you coming into work bone tired all the time,” Morgause sniffed. “Did you at least dream something interesting?”

“Going to be a bank robbery at midnight tonight,” Morgana answered passionlessly. “Want to go?”

“Not particularly.”

“I...” Morgana paused and looked at her sister with narrowed eyes. “I also dreamed you’d set me up on another date.”

Morgause gave her a triumphant smirk. “I met this guy, he’s perfect for you – “

“Oh god,” moaned Morgana.

“He’s gorgeous, eyes like a fox.”

The last guy Morgause had set her up with had turned out to be a supervillain who animated animals - especially snakes - to bite people. She was about to argue this point when the office phone buzzed. The name ‘Arthur’ was on the screen.

She picked up the receiver and said angrily, “Arthur, for the last bloody time I am not drunk. And I know the Rogers’ financial statements were due to go out to the client yesterday but I’m still trying to figure out why the rental statements – “

“Er,” said the man on the other end of the line. It wasn’t Arthur.

Morgana looked at the phone’s screen and saw that it was an outgoing line, which meant Arthur had transferred the call and then hung up. Morgana threw Morgause a dismissive gesture and said softly, “Hello Merlin.”

“Hey Morgana, how are you?” asked Merlin in his quiet, almost-Irish happy tone and Morgana watched Morgause leave the office with one last look and shut the door behind her.

Merlin was Arthur’s best friend, which Morgana had always believed to be a little strange as Arthur and Merlin were practically opposite in personality as well as looks. She could remember a time when she was twelve and the boys had been ten, and Arthur would come home from school, flushed from the long walk with little Merlin and his large ears trailing after Arthur. Nothing had much changed now that they were all in their twenties, except that Morgana was older and wiser and could see that the friendship the boys had and the affection Arthur held for his best mate were unmatched by any other forms of mateship she had ever seen.

Merlin and Morgana’s friendship had always been tentative, however. They’d never been good enough friends to hang together alone or talk on the phone for hours. There had always been Arthur, and sometimes Gwen, as a buffer between them.

“I’m fine,” Morgana answered now. “You’re back from Ealdor?”

“Yeah,” said Merlin, “came back just last week. Thought I should say hi.” He cleared his throat awkwardly.

There was a pause.

“Well I better get back to work,” said Morgana.

“Yeah,” Merlin repeated. “Actually, I was thinking we should all catch up – go out to dinner sometime.”

“Sounds nice,” said Morgana, feeling as if Merlin’s awkwardness was bleeding through the phone and into her. “I’ll talk to Arthur and Gwen about it over lunch.”

“Great,” said Merlin. “See you.” He hung up.

- - -

Friday night rolled round slowly like a tennis ball rolling down a Velcro slope. Morgana went on Morgause’s stupid blind date.

It was actually going pretty well. Alvarr had taken her to a Chinese restaurant that had large tanks on the side filled with live crabs. Morgana felt a bit sick seeing their claws tied against their bodies like that, but she could hardly hold that against him. Besides, the food was great, and he was a nice guy – at least he wasn’t a supervillain. There was only one problem – his phone kept ringing and he kept answering it.

He was just telling her about his superpower – locking and unlocking doors and the like – when his phone rang for the umpteenth time. He gave her an apologetic look and Morgana almost threw her hands up in desperation as he turned in his seat away from her and spoke quietly to the other person on the mobile phone.

She watched and listened closely. She could not understand what he was saying but she could tell his tone was urgent and irritable, yet whining as if placating a distressed lover.

Which made her pause.

He hung up and gave her a smile which she did not return. “So anyway,” he said, continuing the conversation where he left off. He started talking about whatever it was; Morgana had stopped listening, anger burning through her blood and making her ears ring.

Then Merlin walked through the door.

He went straight over to the desk where the take-away orders got picked up and spoke to the girl there a moment. Morgana saw her check through bags of take-away, then the order slips. When it was obvious Merlin wouldn’t get his food immediately he turned and leant against the desk and looked out across the dining floor and spotted her.

His expression held surprise, as did her expression, she suspected – and they stared at each other across the room for a moment.

Morgana had not seen Merlin for months due to other commitments and then Merlin going back to Ealdor. She hadn’t forgotten what he looked like, but then again - she realised as she stared - there were certain aspects about him she’d forgotten: such as how his eyes were as blue as the summer sky, his sweeping lashes and his slow-building, infectious smile that crinkled said eyes into little half-moons.

He gave her one such smile now, cheeky as if laughing at her predicament – as if he knew she was having a terrible time with this horrible date. She gave him a sarcastic smile in return, which only made him grin wider, still leaning against the desk casually in jeans, jumper and scarf.

“I unlocked the car boot even though he’d told me nothing was in it,” Alvarr was saying, “and a good thing I did too because there was somebody in there.” He cleared his throat. “Morgana? Morgana, are you listening?”

“Hmm?” she mumbled, dragging her eyes away from her appreciative assessment of Merlin’s physique (When had he filled out in the shoulders like that, and did he always have such nice looking thighs?) “What were you saying?”

His eyes held an irritation that made him look spectacularly less charming than he did at the beginning of the night. Then his phone rang and he took it again, whispering over the line, “I told you I’m out with the boys – “

Morgana bit back a growl of rage. How hypocritical that when he wants to talk she has to listen, but when he wants to talk on the phone he disrupts their conversation.

She looked back at Merlin to see him still watching her, now with an indecipherable expression that seemed a mix between sadness and irritation. She glanced at Alvarr to make sure he wasn’t paying attention, then mouthed Call me! at Merlin, using the universal phone-to-ear hand gesture to emphasize her point.

He frowned at her in confusion.

Call me, now! she mouthed again, quickly. Alvarr hung up yet again and resumed the conversation as if he hadn’t just been talking to his girlfriend or wife or whoever it was. Then her phone rang.

“Morgana?” said Merlin, when she answered. She glanced from Alvarr’s irritated look to where Merlin was standing across the room, phone pressed to his ear and smirking. “This is Doctor Emrys of Camelot Hospital. I’m afraid your prat brother Arthur has had an accident.”

“Oh no!” she wailed, fingers pressed to her lips in a dramatic act fit for Days of Our Lives. “What happened to my poor, poor brother?”

Merlin sighed heavily. “At this point we can’t know for sure. It seemed to involve a sexual encounter with a toaster, Japanese bondage rope and two dwarfs.” He paused. “And a barbeque and a XBOX 360 and possibly pancake mix.”

“Eww,” said Morgana. “I mean – Oh my! I shall come right away!” She hung up, stood up and grabbed her jacket and bag all in one smooth motion. “Well,” she said to Alvarr, “bye.”

“Wait – “ he said, reaching out a hand as she took a step away.

“Oh right,” said Morgana, shaking her head in exaggerated forgetfulness. She plunged her hand into her purse, pulled out some money and chucked it at his head. “Here.”

- - -

Merlin and Morgana laughed and laughed as Merlin drove them away from the restaurant. “What a wanker!” said Merlin.

“Complete wanker,” Morgana agreed. She put her phone to her ear and deepened her voice. “’Sorry honey, I’m out with the boys,’” she impersonated, “’No no I’m not on a date, what are you talking about?’ I cannot believe he did that!”

Merlin was still laughing quietly to himself. “Good thing I was there.”

“God yes,” said Morgana. The laughter died down and she asked, “Where are we headed?”

“I need to eat my dinner,” Merlin confessed, gesturing behind him to where the Chinese take-away was sitting in the back seat, giving off a greasy smell. “But afterwards I was going to go down the pub. You coming?”

“Of course, Merlin,” she answered. “You think I’m going home after that debacle?”

Merlin ate his noodles while they were parked in the Burning Witch Pub car park. He swallowed and offered her some.

She waved the food away. “It’s alright, I ate already. Take your time.”

They went into the pub together, passing the sign that said: No Masks, No Powers and No Heroics and sat at their usual table. It wasn’t long before she spotted Arthur, Gwen and Morgause walking through the door.

“You!” she shouted at Morgause, pointing her finger accusingly. “You set me up with the worst date ever!”

Arthur and Gwen sat next Merlin, and Morgause lowered herself into the chair next to Morgana with an aloof shrug. “You say that every time.”

“So perhaps you’re picking the wrong men?” said Morgana with faux politeness.

Morgause was unrepentant. “Maybe you’re just picky.”

Merlin threw Morgana a secret, amused smile. Arthur said, “Merlin, get us a round will you.”

Merlin looked at him in annoyance. “Why don’t you get us a round?”

“Yeah Arthur,” Morgana chipped in, “why don’t you?”

I’ll go,” Morgause drawled, getting out of her chair. Morgana heard her mutter, “Lazy bastards.”

As soon as Morgause was out of earshot, Gwen leaned forward and gave Morgana a sincere look. “Was it really so bad?”

Morgana nodded. “If it wasn’t for Merlin, I’d still be stuck there now, slowly being tortured to death by his boring conversation and terrible ring tone.”

Gwen and Arthur gave her identical confused looks, before projecting said looks at Merlin. Merlin raised his eyebrows and threw up his hands in surrender. “It was only a coincidence, I swear.”

Arthur raised an eyebrow at that, giving Merlin a strange, disbelieving look Morgana could not interpret.

Then Lancelot walked through the door and Arthur and Merlin forgot all about the conversation, dropping into synchronised chorus as Lancelot sauntered to their table. “His name is Lancelot,” they sang, “he visits France a lot, he likes to dance a lot - !

“Ha ha,” said Lancelot sarcastically, sitting down in Morgause’s seat. “Aren’t you sick of that song yet?”

“Never!” Arthur declared.

“We’re just talking about how horrible Morgana’s date had been,” Gwen supplied helpfully. Morgause returned and glared at Lancelot until he gave up his seat, moving to get another.

Once settled, he gave Morgana a long look, dark eyes assessing. “If you want to go on a date,” he said, slowly, “you could go on one with me.”

“What?” said Merlin, alarmed, and everyone stared at Lancelot as if he had just announced, ‘I’m moving to the North Pole to become a Christmas elf.’

A beat passed, Morgause’s eyes flicking between Morgana and Lancelot. “You know,” she said slowly, with a look of dawning inspiration upon her face, “that’s not a bad idea.”

“It’s a terrible idea!” Merlin half-shouted with surprising vehemence. When Morgana looked at him, she saw his brows knitted and lips pressed together tight in a deep scowl.

“I’m in total agreement,” Arthur said, nodding and clapping Merlin on the shoulder. “The two of you together is preposterous.”

Lancelot shrugged one shoulder, nonchalant. “Whatever,” he said, “it was just a thought,” and just like that, the tension in the group was gone.

- - -

The following Friday had Morgana on the doorstep of Merlin’s townhouse. She had invited him out to dinner after Morgause had threatened to set her up with another one of her men if Morgana didn’t have any plans. Unfortunately, at the time she had not known Gwen and Arthur would be away Saturday and Sunday, so when she made up the excuse that she was hanging out with Gwen Saturday night, Morgause called her bluff. She didn’t have the heart to cancel on Merlin, though, despite now having another blind date set for tomorrow night.

She rang the door bell twice with no answer. Knocking had the effect of accidently pushing open a door not shut properly, and she let herself inside. “Hello?” she called tentatively, then stood in the hall and strained to listen. There were voices coming from the upstairs bedroom. She quietly went upstairs.

The door to the master bedroom was open a crack. She thought about knocking and then –

“I can’t believe you’re ditching me and Lancelot for some girl,” Arthur moaned, tone bordering on resignation as if he had argued this point several times this evening, and found that he was losing the fight.

“She’s not ‘some girl,’” said Merlin, voice soft and hesitant. “What do you think of this shirt?”

“Hmm,” said Arthur, considering. “Needs an iron.”

Morgana heard Merlin sigh. “I haven’t got time.”

“Just do, you know – “ Morgana saw movement through the crack in the door as if Arthur was gesticulating. “Use your magic.”

“I’m no good at anything other than moving objects around,” said Merlin. “Last time I tried to use sorcery to iron my shirt, it caught on fire.”

Arthur sniggered. “So this girl – is she fit?”

Merlin made a surprised noise in the back of his throat. “We’re just friends.”

“That’s not what I asked.”

Morgana pushed into the room before Merlin would have to answer with something like ‘she’s not my type.’ The men froze: Arthur stared at her with wide blue eyes and Merlin had paused with a black shirt half pulled over his shoulders, pale strip of skin from collar bone to hip visible and contrasting against the dark material.

She dragged her eyes away and looked at Arthur instead, because he was easier to look at of the two, and raised a challenging eyebrow at him.

He stared back at her with an alarmed and incredulous expression smoothing easily into amused and challenging. She had seen it before: once when she had been sick and bed ridden from the nightmares, Merlin had given her flowers and Arthur had asked, “Pick them yourself?” and Merlin had answered, “Maybe,” then laughed nervously and added, “I was only trying to be nice.”

Arthur turned his head and gave Merlin a narrow-eyed stare as Merlin hastily buttoned up his shirt. “You’re going on a date with Morgana,” he queried, voice flat.

“It’s not a date,” said Morgana and Merlin in unison. Surprised, they both looked up and into each other’s eyes, exchanging a smile.

“Oh Jesus,” Arthur bemoaned, rolling his eyes. “I guess that’s my queue to leave and head to Lancelot’s, all alone.

“I was in Ealdor for three months,” Merlin told him as he hastily pulled a scarf around his neck and grabbed his jacket. “How did you survive without me?”

They headed down the stairs. “It pains me to admit it,” said Arthur, “but I did miss your surly retorts; in fact it’s probably your only redeemable feature.”

“Thanks,” said Merlin, sarcastically.

“You’re a dick, Arthur,” Morgana told him, voice quivering a little on the name as Merlin pressed a hand to the small of her back, guiding her through the front door.

Arthur didn’t notice, smirking as they stepped onto the porch. “So if you two are going out to dinner just as friends and it’s not a date, can I come too?”

“No,” said Morgana and Merlin, together.

- - -

Merlin smirked at Morgana over his menu. “You want vindaloo?” he asked.

“No,” she answered, shaking her head. “I really don’t want vindaloo.”

He tilted his chin down and gave her a searing look from beneath dark lashes. “Come on, live a little.”

She tilted her own chin imperiously, theatrically reading the menu herself, blindly, trying desperately not to flush under his watchful gaze. “I’m having the chicken tandoori,” she told him.

They mostly talked about work, Morgana complaining about clients complaining about her, and about Merlin’s return to university to complete his final year.

“I can’t wait to finish,” he explained. “It has been a hard few years studying and working, especially with me not having healer superpowers, like a lot of the other medical students.”

“Does it upset you?” Morgana asked sympathetically.

Merlin shrugged. “Healers just think they’re better than everyone else, as if they’re the only ones who should be allowed to study medicine.”

It was nice, just having dinner with a friend, no emotional strings to tie her down. Despite all the complaining Morgana did, she did like going on dates with different men. There was a sort of freedom in it, especially after her break up with Tauren this year. They had been together two years and the split really shook her. Now, dressing up and looking beautiful and going out with different men gave her a sort of inner power that was almost like an entity all itself. At the same time, however, there was an undercurrent of loneliness that no amount of fancy dinners could warm.

A little later, when Morgana was full from the garlic naan, tandoori sauce and chicken, Merlin asked, abruptly, “So been on any dates since I saw you last?”

For some reason the question made Morgana feel somewhat nervous, perhaps because she saw that Merlin had gone a little tense in the shoulders. That’s what Merlin was like: he tried so hard to hide what he was feeling but if she paid attention, she could see it clearly. “No,” she answered, smiling slightly.

Merlin relaxed, then gestured to his own mouth. “By the way, you have a little...”

“What? Oh,” said Morgana, embarrassed, as she hastily wiped her mouth. And then, because sometimes she was self-destructive, said, “But I’m going on a date tomorrow night.”

Merlin’s empty glass suddenly flew off the table and smacked the back of someone’s chair, before falling. Merlin threw out a hand and stilled it mid-fall to the ground. He floated it back to the table.

“Oops,” he said breathlessly, smile tight and self-depreciating, “sometimes I’m really clumsy.”

The old man whose chair had been smacked was glaring at him. “No powers!” he barked.

“Right,” said Merlin, “sorry.”

And then Morgana just happened to glance out the window at the snow-covered street, and saw an old woman hobble by.

“What’s the matter?” Merlin asked, concerned.

“It’s just...” She faltered. “I had a dream about that old lady. She gets mugged.”

Merlin stood up so fast his chair almost toppled over. He pulled out his wallet and hastily threw money on the table, then put on his jacket. “Come on,” he said, “let’s save her.”

“Er,” Morgana dithered, getting up out of her seat more slowly. She hadn’t been an active superhero for about a year. “We’re not wearing our superhero costumes.”

As soon as she had her jacket pulled over her shoulders Merlin grabbed her wrist and pulled her through the restaurant doors and into the cold night. They looked to the left and across the road and there – a man grabbed the old woman’s handbag and pelted down the street past them. Merlin and Morgana ran after them.

“Halt, foul villain!” Merlin shouted.

The man glanced at them over his shoulder as he ran. “You’re not allowed to use your superpowers out of uniform!” he shouted back at them.

“That’s not going to stop us!” Morgana yelled, then concentrated hard, eyes narrowing, on a shop window –

A rubbish bin flew from the street and smacked into the man’s side just as glass from the shop window exploded out, hitting him on his other side. He yelled, tripped and fell on the pavement, then lay there, unmoving.

Morgana and Merlin slowed to a walk and approached the man warily. “Is he dead?” she whispered.

Merlin crouched down and checked his pulse. “No, just knocked out.” He grabbed the old lady’s handbag, and together they headed back down the street.

The old woman snatched her bag from Merlin and growled, “I fucking hate you capes!” and waddled down the footpath, away from them.

Morgana and Merlin stared after her for several beats, then exchanged glances.

They burst out laughing.

- - -

It was Saturday night, and the date was going really well. Although Morgana could not help the small, niggling feeling that it was all wrong.

They were having dinner at a fancy Japanese restaurant. The man’s name was Aglain and he was tall and handsome – even taller than Merlin, in fact, and his shoulders were broader too. Aglain’s skin was a dark, caramel colour, unlike Merlin’s white-as-snow complexion. Merlin, though, had nice, thick dark hair, while this guy had shaved his head –

And Morgana was going to stop comparing men to Merlin. She was. Really.

Aglain picked up his sushi, using chopsticks with perfect elegance as if he had been using them all his life. He had just been explaining to her about working in Thailand after the tsunami had swept through.

“I did what I could,” he explained in his deep, gentling voice. “But it was hard. I felt as if I was only one man: what could I do? The damage was too great.”

Morgana gave him a sympathetic smile. “You did the best you could. I’m sure you helped them.”

Aglain returned the smile and placed one of his big hands over hers. “You look beautiful tonight, Morgana,” he told her in his deep voice gone soft with affection.

She felt she should be falling for this, that he was obviously being sincere and yet she only felt annoyance. She pulled her hand away. “So,” she said, after a pause, “you’re a doctor? So you have healer superpowers?”

He shook his head slightly. “No. I can talk to animals, usually to tame them.”

“Oh,” breathed Morgana, surprised. “My sister has the same power.”

He smiled. “Yes, she told me.”

“Right,” said Morgana, smile tight, “of course.”

What was wrong with her? This man was perfect: handsome, strong, sexy voice, a doctor, a volunteer... she also knew he got on well with Morgause and probably would with her step-father, Uther (which was almost an impossibility). So why was she so repulsed?

There was a moment of silence between them as Aglain ate and Morgana didn’t. She tapped her fingers on the table top, once, twice, then made a decision.

She stood up and grabbed her jacket.

“I have to go,” she told him.

- - -

Morgana knocked on Merlin’s door three times, and when there was no answer, she reached up again –

The door flew open and Merlin stood there frowning, in a t-shirt and jeans worn soft with age.

“Hi,” she said, smiling tentatively.

He frowned further.

“Can I come in?” she asked.

Merlin didn’t move. “How was your date?” he asked her in what was probably supposed to be politeness, but came out more like a growl.

Morgana blinked. Then slowly and surely, like glue running down a wall, her feelings turned to irritation and anger. She gritted her teeth. “Great actually. For once Morgause picked a good one for me. He was really handsome and nice.” Then she repeated, forcefully this time: “Can I come in?”

Merlin’s eyes were bright and his expression was thunderous. But he stepped aside and she strode into the hall.

“I’m glad to hear you had fun,” Merlin barked at her, slamming the front door shut.

What is your problem, Merlin?” They whirled on each other, glaring. “Don’t you want me to be happy?”

Merlin let out a fast, exasperated breath. “Of course I want you to be happy, Morgana. It’s just – we went out last night and we had a good time, and I thought – “ He cut himself off and clenched his jaw.

“You thought what Merlin?” Morgana snapped at him patronisingly, taking a step closer. “That we – that you – “ She floundered for a second. “You made it perfectly clear you just want to be friends!”

Now it was Merlin’s turn to flounder. “You – what – when?” He ran a hand through his hair, calming down, and said, voice soft and exasperated, “Yeah, just friends. Like I was just your friend when you were seeing that arse Tauren. And then I come back from Ealdor and you’re finally single again, and some other lucky bastard gets you.”

Morgana held her breath for a pause, then let it out again, then strode forward the remaining distance and threw her arms around his shoulders and kissed him on his soft mouth.

He kissed back instantly, arms circling her waist and hands large and warm against her back. She moved her mouth over his daringly and he made a desperate noise in the back of his throat, and her stomach dropped at the sound. She pressed into him further, breath hitching and nipples hardening as their chests pressed together, mouths moving slowly, soft and gentle but with an undercurrent of urgency and awe.

After a long moment, Morgana pulled back, just a little, Merlin’s long fingers caught in her hair and caressing. He looked at her face, his expression of affection and wonder.

“Go out with me?” she whispered.

He grinned, bright like the sun. “I thought you’d never ask.”

--End.