Title: A Brief History of the Ampersand
Characters: Gwen and Morgana
Summary: Gwen transfers to the same sixth form college as Morgana, and suddenly, frustratingly, Morgana actually has to try to achieve top marks.
Warnings: snark, and eventual warm fuzzies
Word Count: 1,114 (sorry!)
Prompt: #68 - Rival
Author's Notes: Pre-slash-ish. Sorry I went over the word count a bit, Morgana was stubborn in coming round. I meant to write about the boys, but this seemed more fun and unexpected. Incidentally, this drabble-on-steroids was inspired by a real life conversation about ampersands in a creative writing class I once took. Though Wikipedia filled in the rest.
Morgana doesn’t have rivals. If she did, they would be termed the more polite ‘opponents,’ and wouldn’t have any idea that they were involved in feeding the competitive streak Morgana had ruefully accepted as a part of herself years ago. A disarming smile in passing outside of class, and her chosen game pieces would be no more self-aware than the candlestick in Cluedo.
But no, Morgana doesn’t have opponents, because in spite of how much her stepfather has to bleed his wallet dry each term for her to attend this oh-so-prestigious sixth form college, her peers are wretchedly, wretchedly stupid.
Except then there’s this new transfer student called Gwen Smith.
Gwen Smith, who’s in the same English Lit course (which Morgana is taking only mostly to piss off Uther, who thinks poetry is a waste of time) and the same Economics course (which is Morgana’s way of thanking him for sending her to an all-girls school, and Arthur to an all-boys, even though Uther hasn’t a clue why that works out so splendidly for both of them). And the same Maths course, too (not that anyone needed proof to figure out that Morgana is calculating).
Gwen Smith is soft-spoken. Not in the non-participatory sort of way, but in the way that makes everyone unconsciously lean forward in anticipation when she raises her hand to say something, because even though she’s not always certain of herself, she’s always, always clever. She makes everyone sigh and smile and want to be her best friend the way rich girls aren’t supposed to want, even though Gwen has no idea of the customs being broken for her, and she carries on obliviously being nice to people, getting invited to eat with them at lunch, and probably starting a circle of daisy-crown-makers, or something.
Morgana tells herself that everyone likes Gwen because she’s humble. Which Morgana is not. Morgana is subtle, and although she’s well-liked, with a permanent ticket to every social circle, everyone is at least a little bit afraid of her, including the teachers. If Gwen is humble, then Morgana is sublime.
Frustratingly, both approaches appear to work, and Gwen and Morgana take turns at being top of their class. Though Morgana has never had to work hard for anything in her life, she finds herself needing to read and reread the assigned passages in her textbooks, instead of her usual requisite skimming; and making study sheets the way she’s always seen the other girls do; and doing the extra problem sets they need to but never bother with, because they’re contented in their mediocrity in a way that used to anger her.
Morgana’s marks are better than ever, much to Uther’s approval, and the gap between her and her non-oppositional peers widens more every day, as if now that she’s actually trying, she’s parting some sort of sea with her mind. If there’s anything left glittering on the bare ocean floor beneath her feet, Morgana is too tired to see it. She can barely see what lies ahead of her.
For a fortnight, she almost nods off in the hours after lunch—horrifying, to do such a thing unintentionally—and overcompensates for it by responding to the teachers’ questions with more volume and cool snark than usual, her dark hair still ironed against her cheek. One day, she even thinks she catches a girl in the corner laughing at her, and though Morgana shoots her a glare like a poison dart, and the girl actually clutches at her throat in terror, the damage is done. She feels herself crumbling, just a tiny bit.
But Gwen Smith. Gwen Smith has smiles for everyone, and Everyone includes Morgana. And the smiles for Morgana are often accompanied with the absent twirl of a curly lock of hair around a slender finger; and the shy, downcast set of her eyes, where the lace of her eyelashes points to the freckles dusting her cheeks like vanilla bean flecks in expensive caramels. The way she blushes—blushes at Everyone—reminds Morgana of a forge fire flaring to life, and Morgana regrets studying poetry, sometimes, rubbing at the unattractive dark circles beneath her own eyes.
She knows it would bother her, having an opponent unaware of the game. But what makes her uneasy now is that it feels as if Gwen is playing some game of her own, some game meant to thwart Morgana’s by humility and daisy crowns and helping Morgana pick up her books when exhaustion causes her to accidentally scatter them across the corridor. Uneasy because in spite of everything, Gwen’s game is at its core sweet and friendly and stupidly, stupidly genuine, not manipulative and hurtful, which Morgana knows because she’s always had an instinctual gift for knowing when people are lying to her.
Gwen has never aloud acknowledged any sort of competition between them, but it suddenly strikes Morgana that maybe Gwen has always known.
Maybe she’s always liked it.
Maybe it’s possible to enjoy someone’s presence and yet—Morgana swears—still grin at them almost cheekily after exams are passed back, humility be damned even for a lightning’s flash of a moment.
Maybe Gwen just likes knowing things, and Morgana gives her an excuse to try harder.
Or maybe she’s just clever and unusual, the way they’re in English Lit one day, and Gwen is the only person besides Morgana who knows anything about the “&” symbol.
“It’s called an ampersand,” Gwen says from her place in the second row. “I mean, I... I think so. And—the symbol—per se—is in itself—and—the word. Ampersand. And—well, um, you can see how it means ‘and,’ really, since it’s physically a combination of an E and a T. For, um. The Latin ‘et?’”
While everyone just goggles at Gwen fondly, Morgana purses her lips, and feels the most idiotic flutter of warmth engulf her and squeeze lightly at her heart.
At lunch that day, Morgana stops Gwen before she can head off to the café with another group of girls, encircling her wrist gently in a butterfly touch.
“I’m Morgana,” she says.
“Oh!” Gwen exclaims. “Oh, well, yes, I know. I mean. I’m Gwen.”
“Gwen,” Morgana says with a smile that starts at her toes and unfurls itself through her whole body. “I think perhaps we’re on the same team, you and I.”
Gwen looks bemused, but pleased all the same, as if she’s been waiting for this a very long time. Deftly, Morgana slides her hand until their arms are linked together at the elbows.
Maybe, just maybe, Morgana’s been waiting for this, too.