This is how it starts.
Gwen’s father dies.
And they have no money with him gone, and they were poor before the Crash, and now they live like animals. Sometimes Gwen doesn’t eat for days and it’s worse for Elyan; what little he finds he gives to her.
The night Gwen skins and cooks the family dog is the night something inside of her breaks.
But really it starts when Elyan swallows what little pride this country ever let him have, and takes the sweeping job at the factory one town over. He works fourteen hours a day, and walks six miles there and back. His shoulders starts to take on a permanent hunch, just like the one their father had. When she sees him off at five in the morning, his eyes are dim and cloudy, like an old man’s.
Gwen stays all day in the hut they call a home and thinks about her brother, and how it would be if she had money to give him. Enough to eat at every meal, to get out of this nowhere town; enough that he wouldn't have to go cap in hand to the white factory owners who call him "boy" and make him step off the sidewalk to let them pass.
But really it starts when Gwen ventures into town one day and comes across Morgana Pendragon leant against the wall of the town bank, eyes closed, long bare legs stretched out in front of her.
Gwen knows Morgana Pendragon. Everyone knows Morgana Pendragon. Daughter of the richest man in town (illegitimate, so the rumours say), twice as pretty as Mary Astor, and wilder than a kicking colt. She always seems to Gwen to move untouched through this petty little town, brushing off its poverty and its small mindedness, and its palpable sense of despair. Morgana’s not bound long for this place. Gwen only has to look at her now to see she’s destined for something more.
But Morgana’s not her business so she hurries on, stealing glances back as she goes. And Morgana never moves, not once, in all the time it takes Gwen to complete her errands. Until finally, when Gwen passes the bank one last time to start the long walk home, and Morgana’s eyes blink open.
“You know what we should do?” she says, as natural as if they’d been in conversation all along.
Gwen shakes her head, caught in the spell of Morgana’s wide green eyes.
“We should rob this bank,” Morgana says, and she laughs, all her pretty white teeth on display.
And Gwen laughs too, even though she knows right from the start that Morgana isn’t joking.
This is the middle.
They start out small. Morgana takes two guns from her father’s collection, and they travel three towns over. They wear disguises, those first few times. Later they don’t bother.
Morgana can shoot a pea can from a hundred yards, and she claims she’ll put a bullet in the head of any man who gets in her way.
Gwen doesn’t know much about guns, but she knows how to dress wounds, and cook roadkill, and steal money right out of someone’s pocket. And Elyan taught her how to pick a handcuff lock when she was twelve, how to flex her wrists to give her more wiggle room. How to break her thumbs if she had to. He didn't trust the law in their town. The law was white and white meant trouble, mostly.
Morgana’s trouble, no doubt about it. But she’s trouble Gwen’s chosen for herself. Not trouble that was forced onto her. And that seems to make all the difference.
They get famous, later. After they’ve discarded the disguises, after they start walking in loaded with all the guns they can carry, looking exactly like themselves. After they've taken the money (“Not all of it,” Morgana says. “Just what’s fair”), and started burning up any mortgage documents they can find.
It's the mortgage burning that makes them notorious. Papers start calling them the Robin Hood Girls. The press get hold of a picture a passing photographer managed to take outside a motel in Ohio. Gwen's leaning over the car, hair falling across her face, while Morgana stares off into the distance, a cigarette dangling from her lips. The man didn't know who they were when he took it, but he sells it everywhere once he figures it out, and it becomes the most enduring image of the two of them. There's much talk in the paper about their races, their social class, their different backgrounds. But there isn't even a hint that they might be together in any other way.
"It's like they can't see us properly," Gwen remarks one day, after an article speculates on the secret boyfriends they might be robbing to support.
"Men never see women properly," Morgana says.
They come back home whenever it’s safe, so Gwen can give Elyan the money she’s taken for him.
Only he doesn’t want it, of course, and she thinks she should have seen that coming.
One time they stay for a couple of months, when the heat is really on. They hole up in an abandoned shack on the outskirts of town, one that the police have searched twice already before they came. They figure it’s safe there for now.
Elyan knows where they are, comes to visit occasionally. He doesn’t approve, far from it, but he won’t turn them in. He’d never pick the white sheriff over his own sister.
Arthur comes once or twice too, Morgana’s fair haired brother. He alternates threatening Morgana and pleading with her, but she just smiles at him. Gwen worries, but Morgana says he’s all talk.
“Does he hate the sheriff too?” Gwen asks.
“No, but the sheriff’s an old friend of our father’s,” Morgana says, one eyebrow arched. “And Arthur really hates our father.”
And she shuts Gwen up with a kiss, presses her down onto the floor of that dirty shack and does things that make Gwen see God, if God happens to be a skinny white girl after all this.
Gwen doesn’t care if it’s wrong. Morgana’s fingers inside her feel like a blessing, anyway. A sacrament more holy than any she ever found in church.
She’ll go to hell happily for this. As long as Morgana is there too.
One day Morgana has news from her brother's weekly visit.
"Arthur and Elyan have been talking about a way to stop us," Morgana says, her eyes alive with mirth at the very thought.
"Arthur and Elyan don't talk," Gwen says. They might be the same age but black and white folk don't mix in this town.
Morgana laughs, not meanly.
"They used to talk when they were sixteen down by the creek. Or not talk, as it may be."
She draws out the ‘a’ in may and Gwen's distracted by the movement of her lips. Then she tunes in to Morgana's words.
"Arthur and Elyan?"
Morgana smiles, easy and slow.
"I used to climb a tree and watch them."
Gwen shivers with a pulse of disapproval and something else, something more sharp and primal that awakens inside her at the thought of it. She pictures Morgana lying flat on a tree branch, thick wood pressed between her bare thighs, watching their brothers touch each other in the long grass below.
Gwen wonders what her brother saw when Arthur stripped off his clothes. Arthur's so pale and fair, so alien somehow to her that she can't imagine it. But Morgana is pale too, and she looks like home to Gwen.
"I didn't shock you, did I?" Morgana says, a tease in her voice.
"Did you touch yourself?" Gwen replies, because two can play at that game.
Morgana steps up close to her, rocks her hips up against Gwen's, hands snaking round to lift her shirt.
"Yes. Shall I show you how?"
And Gwen gives in to sin again. Even though she hears her heartbeat thrum everytime they kiss nowadays, as though it's a clock ticking out the time they have left, as though she knows they don't have long.
This is how it ends.
Morgana says robbing isn’t enough anymore. Morgana says money is the problem. The root cause of all the suffering. She doesn’t want to steal it anymore.
She wants to burn it.
They stop at the nearest town they find with a bank, a place called Old Bend in western Arkansas. And Gwen keeps a lookout late one night as Morgana packs the place with dynamite. Sets a powder trail and locks the barred gate on it, so no-one can put it out once it’s lit. They sit down outside the vault when she’s done, and Morgana licks her out slow and tender, hands stroking up and down her thighs as Gwen gasps and moans.
They’re sharing a cigarette when they hear the police car draw up. One’s got Gwen in handcuffs before she even knows what’s happening, locking her to the door frame in a matter of seconds. But Morgana’s quicker and she slips out of their grasp, stands over the powder trail with her lit cigarette, dangling it just so.
“Let her go,” she says calmly, and waits for their gaze to follow the trail along to the dynamite stacked against the wall.
“You’ll kill us all,” a policeman says, incredulous.
“There’s no me if there’s no her,” Morgana says quietly, and Gwen’s eyes fill with tears.
“Someone grab that crazy bitch,” one of them shouts and Gwen knows with a lurch what’s about to happen.
The men start towards her. Morgana drops the cigarette.
The trail catches light immediately. The police start shouting, everything is confusion. They try to grab Morgana but she struggles hard, and they give up, cursing.
“Get out!” the sheriff suddenly screams. “Leave the bitch, this place is gonna blow!”
And then they’re gone, and the trail’s burning down, and they’ve taken the handcuff keys with them.
“Go, Morgana,” Gwen says desperately. “Out the back, you can run. You can make it.”
Morgana’s tugging at the handcuffs, eyes wild.
“No,” she says. “No, no, no. I won’t leave you!”
Gwen tries to smile through the tears she can’t hold back.
“You always said we wouldn’t live long like this.”
“No!” Morgana shouts, kicking frantically at the door frame.
“Leave me, you have to leave me.”
“Never,” Morgana hisses. “Never ever. We live together or we die together.”
“Please,” Gwen begs, though she’s not really sure what she’s begging for anymore. A second chance? A life where her dad stays alive and Elyan’s happy and she and Morgana get to be together? Would she do anything differently the second time round, even if she could?
“Just think!” Morgana shouts, and the trail has nearly reached its destination. “Think Gwen, think of something, this isn’t it, I know this isn’t it…”
“Thank you,” Gwen says. “Thank you for everything. Morgana, I love you, I love you, I-”
Outside a crowd is gathering. Word’s gone round that the Robin Hood girls are inside, though no-one quite believes it. The police won’t let them get too close, but the people stand and stare all the same, eyes fixed on the old town bank.
The explosion, when it happens, is like nothing the folks at Old Bend have seen before. Most of them talk about it for the rest of their lives. It was like the whole sky was on fire, they say. Brighter than the whitest star. As though God himself showed his burning face, if only for a second.
Those poor girls, the kinder among them add. Those poor poor girls.
Arthur brings the paper round to Elyan the next morning. He's quiet for a long time after he reads it.
Elyan's wearing a thin white vest, and Arthur can see the patch of rough skin on his neck that he used to lave his tongue across.
He looks away; stares at the religious cross stitch hung on the wall and tries not to cry, or worse, take Elyan in his arms.
"They didn't find the bodies," Elyan says at last.
"The bank exploded!" Arthur shouts, suddenly furious.
He snatches the paper back and jabs it so hard it nearly tears.
"She was locked up inside! So unless either of them knew how to break out of police issue handcuffs..."
To Arthur's complete and utter shock, Elyan begins to laugh.
The sun sets late in this part of Mexico. Gwen likes to watch it disappear from sight, bleeding pink into the valley where they live. Morgana stands behind her, arms wrapped around her waist, nose buried in Gwen's hair. The restless part of her has calmed since they've come here; she doesn't scan the horizon with that hungry, yearning look anymore.
They live quiet, live simple. Gwen misses the excitement sometimes, but mostly she doesn't. She's had her fill of running. She wants to try standing in one place.
But she carries a newspaper clipping round in her pocket, the one with the famous photo of the two of them by the car, her hair in her eyes and Morgana staring off into the future.
Gwen doesn't look at it much. She doesn't need to. It's enough to know it's there.