A/N: So, first of all, thank you to everyone who has made it this far, lol. I'm glad you've stuck with this story, and I'm glad that those of you who read the first chapter and wanted more actually asked for more, because I had a blast writing this! :) As usual, thanks to those who have reviewed. I really love to hear from people.
Huge thanks to MySoapBox for the beta on this chapter. :)
I do have some more Merlin stories in my head. I know that I'll definitely write one more, but I have a new semester of school and another fandom to write for, so I'm not sure what else I'll be able to finish. Hope you enjoy this one, though! :)
"Arthur!" Morgana complains as her foster brother drags her down the street toward the celebration.
"Come on," he laughs, the bonfire in the field lighting up his smile even from so far away. "I'll buy you a toffee apple."
Rolling her eyes, Morgana trudges along towards the meadow. Normally, Arthur would come with his friends, and she'd be left alone to wander or simply not attend. But, earlier that evening, he'd insisted on her accompanying him. She hadn't thought much of it, but now, after having time to mull it over, the fact that he'd resorted to begging has convinced her that there's a girl involved.
A thick crowd of people is milling about the field, so thick that the two siblings can hardly make it to the center of the celebration, where a twenty-foot-high bonfire is raging. Morgana follows as Arthur, tall and broad, pushes his way through. He turns and offers to go find some hot chocolate. Nodding, Morgana takes off her gloves and holds them out toward the soaring flames of the bonfire.
She loves fire, has always loved it. Loves the warmth of it, the spreading sensation of belonging it sends through her heart. When she was a child, her father would come home from work, build a fire in the library hearth, and take her onto his lap. She would pretend to read the newspaper with him, and he'd let her have extra dessert.
To this day, she loves sitting in the library and curling up in an armchair to read by the fire.
Breaking herself out of her memories, she checks her watch. Arthur's been gone too long for merely a hot chocolate run. Honestly. He's probably gotten himself lost, giant baby that he is.
Sighing, she pulls her gloves back on and heads toward the booths, just to be safe. Not finding him in line, she looks around and finally locates him standing at the end of a low stone wall, a Styrofoam cup of hot chocolate in each of his hands. As she makes her way over to him, she notices with a smirk the dazed expression on his face. Turning to follow his gaze, she sees a beautiful girl about their age, with curly black hair and a kind smile, sitting on the wall.
She nudges him in the shoulder. "Who's the girl?"
Arthur jumps, startled, almost spills the hot chocolate. "What? Who? Nothing!" he sputters.
Still smiling, she looks again and notices that the object of Arthur's affections is sitting next to a young man. A dark fringe of bangs pokes out from beneath his hat, and his pale skin is illuminated by the nighttime festivities, but he has a bright, happy face, and Morgana's strangely drawn to the way his eyes shine when he smiles, the way she can see the outline of his overlarge ears beneath his knit cap.
"Is that her boyfriend?" she asks, telling herself that she's asking for Arthur's sake alone.
"No," Arthur replies with a shake of his head. "Her best friend. I don't think he likes me very much."
"Well, have you tried being friends with him or have you just been your normal, prattish self?" He sticks his tongue out at her, and she laughs, saying, "Oh! So you were just a prat to him. Nice, Arthur."
He frowns, his shoulders slumping. "What if she doesn't like me?"
She slides a hand onto his shoulder and gently asks, "Have you tried just talking to her?" When he doesn't respond, just swallows nervously, she gives him a little push and says, "Well, go on, then. Go talk to her."
"Will you come with me?" he pleads.
"Why? So I can distract her friend?" She gives him a dry look, but on the inside, the prospect of meeting the dark-haired boy is bizarrely thrilling.
"Please, Morgana. I won't ask anything else of you."
"Like I haven't heard that before," she laughs. But, seeing the sincerity in his eyes, she softens. "Okay, Arthur," she sighs. "Lead the way."
He grins. "Have I ever told you that you're my favorite sister?"
Laughing, she gives him another push. "Shut up and go be charming."
She follows Arthur as he walks across the damp grass and over to where the two friends are sitting. They look up as Arthur and Morgana stop in front of them, and Arthur, beaming, immediately hands the girl one of the cups of hot chocolate in his hand.
Morgana rolls her eyes. She should've taken it when she had the chance. But her foster brother's already ignoring her because he's too smitten with this girl, and the boy sitting on the wall in front of her looks too nervous to start a conversation himself.
Well, it's not like she's never taken matters into her own hands.
Smiling, she holds her hand out to him. "Hi," she greets amiably, "I'm Morgana."
He brightens as he takes her hand and gazes up at her. She's struck by the deep blue of his eyes, the staggering flecks of gold surrounding the iris.
"That's a beautiful name," he says quietly, his voice calm in the raucous night.
For a moment, staring into those eyes, Morgana has to remind herself how to breathe properly. She's always thought of her name as old-fashioned, dull. People have complimented her on her beauty, occasionally on her acerbic personality, but never on her name.
She bites her lip, willing down an unfamiliar swooping sensation in her stomach. She's known him for a minute, and already he can set her pulse racing.
Clearing his throat, he scoots over and gestures for her to sit down. She does so, grimacing slightly at the feel of the cold stone against her already-cold jeans.
"You haven't told me your name," she chastises lightly.
"Oh, it's an embarrassing name. Not as good as yours," he chuckles, his cheeks turning red. But as she urges him with a laugh, he breaks and confesses, "Merlin. My name's Merlin."
She watches his warm breath mushroom in front of his mouth. "Merlin," she repeats, testing the name out and deciding she enjoys the way it rolls off her tongue. And as she takes in his angular cheeks, his sculpted mouth, she comes to another conclusion. "I like it. It suits you."
"Thank you," he says, his grin so wide that his teeth shine in the moonlight. He turns to face her and asks, "So, uh, you're Arthur's friend?"
"Foster sister," she corrects.
"Oh," he intones as his eyebrows disappear beneath his hat. "I didn't know he had a sister."
"I don't live at home anymore, so not a lot of his friends know me. Although . . . you don't really strike me as the type of guy who'd be friends with Arthur Pendragon."
Merlin laughs and adjusts his hat. "No, I suppose I'm not. But Gwen likes him."
"And you tolerate him because she's your best friend?"
"Something like that," he shrugs.
"You two have been friends for a long time?" Morgana inquires.
"Since we were eight, and my mum and I moved across the street from her family, yeah."
"So she's the one who dragged you here tonight?"
"Pretty much," he assents with another laugh and shrug. "But it's not so bad. Nice to get out, away from classes. Cold, though!"
This last assertion is accompanied by an exaggerated shiver, and, as another giggle escapes her lips, Morgana's amazed by how much he's made her smile in just the five minutes they've known each other. She's never met anyone who can draw a smile from her simply by his presence. He doesn't have to crack a joke or even try really. All he has to do is sit beside her in his adorable awkwardness, which seems so contradictory in how comfortable it can make her feel.
"I guess that's what body heat and company are for," she jokes, a bit more suggestively than she means.
The comment makes him blush even harder, but instead of turning away, he grins and proposes, "Perhaps we should cuddle – huddle! together for warmth, then."
She's in stitches, the warmth from her laughter spreading throughout her body, and Merlin's truly mortified now. But his embarrassment dissipates when she leans against him.
"That better?" she asks cheekily.
Surprisingly, he slides a friendly arm around her back. She scoots the tiniest bit closer so their legs press together.
She can feel the motion of his chest as he takes a deep breath, almost like he's deciding something. Finally, he swallows and, without looking at her, asks, "Have we met before?"
Morgana lets her gaze roam over the crowd. It's unsettling when a stranger perfectly understands how you're feeling, even more so when the feeling makes no rational sense.
She knows Merlin.
That's silly, of course, because she only saw him for the first time ten minutes ago. But when she looks into those eyes, she feels like they reach deep down into her and pull out something that was lost long ago.
"No," she breathes.
He frowns, his brow furrowed.
"Hey, guys!" Arthur calls from his perch beside Gwen. "The fireworks are about to start!"
Sure enough, a red pinwheel chooses that moment to explode above their heads, the boom resounding through Morgana's chest. She tilts her head and sneaks a glance at Merlin, watching his face widen in wonder as the colors erupt in the night sky. She smiles, turns her gaze back to the show, lets her vision cloud with the vibrancy of it all.
For once, she decides, she's happy that Arthur's dragged her along.
"You're taking me to a bar?" Merlin asks with a laugh.
Smiling sheepishly, Morgana points up at the sign hanging over the door. It depicts a not-so-fierce dragon wearing glasses and holding a quill pen.
"This is where I work," she explains. "Now hush up, or I'll make you pay for your drinks."
He holds the door open for her and asks conversationally, "You're a barmaid? Very cool."
"Yeah, well," she shrugs, walking into the warmth of the bar, "I'm just biding my time until I can figure out what to do with my life. Or until I can save up enough money for a road trip."
They pause in the threshold to take off their coats and hang them on hooks behind the door. Merlin sheds his cap, his short hair sticking up at odd angles. The darkness of it sets off his ears, his cheekbones – so pale in the bar's dim lighting – and Morgana's struck by that swooping in her stomach again.
She chokes it down when Merlin looks at her and says, "I have to confess, I don't drink very much. Gwen took me out for my twenty-first birthday last month, and I'll have a beer from time to time, but I don't really know anything about actual drinks."
She takes his hand and drags him toward the bar. "That's a dangerous thing to say to a barkeep, Merlin."
They reach the far corner of the bar, and he claims a stool while she makes her way behind the counter. It's not super crowded, and Morgana counts her blessings.
"Why?" he asks, his eyebrows raised in amusement.
Morgana shoots him a wicked grin, leans her elbows on the counter. "Because now I'll make you try everything."
Swiveling on the stool, he lets out a laugh. "Sounds like someone's trying to get me drunk."
She takes two glasses from beneath the bar and sets them in front of Merlin. She lifts a brow. "And if I am?"
This time, even the tips of his ears go red. "Honestly? I . . . probably wouldn't know what to do," he stammers. "I haven't been on many dates, so I'd probably just go along with anything you told me to do."
Morgana straightens and looks straight at his burning face. She tries to keep a smirk from her lips as she queries, "So you think this is a date?"
She hadn't thought it was possible for Merlin's cheeks to go any redder, but apparently it is. Surprisingly, though, he has the courage to answer, "Well, you did ask me to come out tonight. That could technically constitute a date."
Now it's Morgana's turn to blush fiercely. Since she met him just sixteen days ago, they've hung out thirteen of those days, whether it be grabbing lunch or hanging out with Arthur and Gwen at the pizza place near their university. Twice, she's even brought him a pick-me-up coffee at the library while he was studying and writing papers.
But that doesn't mean either of them has had the courage to define whatever they are. By mutual, unspoken agreement, the words 'boyfriend' and 'girlfriend' are off the table.
Luckily, she's spared from answering when a blonde barmaid walks over.
"Morgana," she greets with a smile. "I didn't know you were working tonight."
"Hey, Laura," Morgana replies, a grateful look in her eye. "I'm not actually. This is Merlin. I just brought him in for a drink." Morgana gestures to Merlin, then leans in and whispers loudly, "He doesn't know what kinds of drinks he likes."
Laura regards him with feigned alarm, her eyes wide and a hand covering her mouth. "No," she chuckles. "Well, have fun. I'll let customers know you're off-duty. And make sure he has an Irish Car Bomb."
"You're horrible!" A smile on her face, she turns back to Merlin and places her hands on the bar. "So, what do you want to try first?"
Pretending to think, he contorts his lips and strokes his chin, covered by the slightest bit of stubble. "I'm guessing not an Irish Car Bomb?"
"Maybe we should wait for that until you're a bit more experienced."
"Well, I dunno then," he hums as he drums his fingers on the countertop. "Hit me with, em, a martini?"
"Let me guess: shaken, not stirred."
"How'd you know?" he exclaims with a broad smile.
She rolls her eyes and swaps his highball glass for a martini glass, deciding to give him a standard gin-and-vodka James Bond martini. "I work in a bar. Not the first time I've heard that line."
Chuckling, he asks, "Have people ever given you the 'Bond, James Bond' thing?"
"All the time," she responds dryly, flicking a glance up at him.
He doesn't say anything else, just smiles and watches as she makes swift work of his martini. She slides it across the bar to him and goes to work on her own Mai Tai. As she's pouring in the triple sec, though, his eyes on her suddenly make her self-conscious. She's always been the confident girl, and she marvels how easily he can make her feel beautiful, but also how effortlessly he makes her want to strive for so much more than mere outward beauty.
She's known him for just over two weeks now, and already he makes her want to be more than she is.
She glances up somewhat shyly. "What?"
The grin seemingly permanently plastered onto his face, he shrugs. "It's just . . . I like being around you." He rests his chin on his fist, and his voice is soft when he admits, "It's easy, and I'm . . . comfortable."
"Like I've known you for a thousand years," she murmurs under her breath, fixing her gaze on the ice cubes in her glass so she won't have to meet his eyes – those startlingly gold and blue eyes.
"Yeah," he agrees quietly.
They descend back into a relaxed silence as she finishes mixing her drink and slides around the corner of the bar to hop onto the adjacent bar stool.
"So," Morgana asks, finally raising her eyes to his piercing gaze, "what should we toast to?"
Merlin raises his glass enthusiastically. "To new friends."
Nodding, she takes a deep breath and chinks her glass against his. "To new beginnings."
He takes a sip of his martini. "New beginnings," he agrees happily before his mouth twists into a grimace from the taste of the drink.
Morgana lets out a delighted laugh at the expression on his face.
Yep. She's definitely happy that Arthur dragged her along a couple weeks ago. She'll have to find a way to thank him soon.
For now, though, she's with Merlin and wonderfully content in his company. She rests her elbow on the bar and her cheek against her palm, her gaze dropping down toward his mouth as he licks the taste of the martini off his lips. Catching her stare, he leans forward slightly, the corners of his mouth twitching upward.
He's close enough now that she can smell the musk of his cologne, and Morgana decides that she could inhale that scent every second of her life and never get enough of it.
"Morgana," he whispers, his breath teasing against her lips.
"Would it be all right if –"
"Yeah," she breathes before leaning up to close the distance between them.
He tastes of gin, and evergreen, and freedom, and the discovery is so exhilarating that she slides a hand into his hair, fisting the tendrils into her grasp to pull him flush against her. He cups her face in his large, strong palms, and a tingling sensation of warmth spreads through her as his tongue ghosts over her bottom lip.
His kiss sparks something within her that's lain dormant her entire life, and she's never felt so alive.
When they break apart, Merlin shoots her a sparkling smile, his eyes shimmering in the half-light of the bar.
Despite their previously understood agreement, Morgana's pretty sure she's just claimed him as her boyfriend. By the grin spreading over his lips as he leans in to kiss her again, he seems to be more than okay with that.
His soft lips mold against hers, and, reveling in their suppleness, their familiarity, Morgana feels the stirrings of something recovered and recognizable. She doesn't need the fire in her heart to tell her that she's found the missing piece of herself.
He's hers – always has been, always will be.