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in this present day

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Merlin stepped off the bus with three dollars in his pocket and all his earthly belongings in a duffle over his shoulder. He saw Gwen waiting for him on the curb, waving with both hands and hopping up and down.
“You look demented,” he told her as he got closer.
“And you look homeless!” she replied, beaming. She had a blue bandana tied over her hair, dark curls escaping from beneath it, and she wore a too-large flannel and ripped jeans cuffed over scuffed combat boots.
She looked everything and nothing like the Gwen with whom he’d gone to school, something about her a little happier, a little freer, unbound. She wrapped her arms around his middle, face squashed in his chest, squeezing tightly.
“I missed you, you gangly loser,” she said, voice muffled in his shirt.
“I missed you too,” he said. “It’s good to be here. With you, at least.”
“Yeah, no doubt. I’m sorry about the whole thing at home. That sucks.”
He shrugged one shoulder, squinting off at the skyline. “It was bound to happen eventually. Honestly, I’m surprised it didn’t happen sooner. And now, you know, here I am. In a city I’ve never been to in my life. Homeless. Jobless. Broke as fuck.”
“But not friendless,” Gwen pointed out, her tone a comforting, familiar mix of sardonic cheer.
“I could never be friendless. I am charming as all get out,” he said blithely, tossing an arm over her shoulder and scanning the parking lot of the bus station. “Now how are we getting back to your place? Hitchhiking, I presume.
She elbowed him. “No. Don’t you remember? I texted you.”
“Phone died,” he said.
“Well. You remember that girl I told you about?”
“The one who threw up in your car?”
Gwen rolled her eyes. “She didn’t throw up in my car, she opened the door and threw up in the gutter. But yeah. That girl. So, funny story…”
“She fixed your car.”
“No, it’s still in the shop. Let me finish.”
They started walking toward the parking lot, arm and arm, Merlin forced to stoop a little to maintain the comradery.
“Anyway, so, the girl left her phone in my backseat. I actually found it the day after that when I went to take the car in. Crazy coincidence, because if it hadn’t broken down then, I probably wouldn’t have noticed the phone for a while. It was really jammed in the seam between the seats? Weird, right? There were a bunch of calls from her brother on the home screen, so I just called him back and told him I had it, and long story short, we’re dating now.”
“Wait,” Merlin said, trying to keep up, “You and the brother or you and that girl?”
She made a face. “Me and the girl, dummy. Trust me if you’d met her brother you wouldn’t be asking that question.”
“What, is he a giant douche or what?” Merlin asked. “And I’m confused. What does this have to do with how we’re going to get back to your place?”
“Be-cause,” Gwen singsonged, breaking away from him to do a little dramatic spin, “Morgana has a car! And also, you might not have to be homeless for much longer!”
She sashayed up to a black BMW, pattering out a drumbeat on its hood. The window rolled down, revealing a pretty White girl with dark hair and the most vivid green eyes Merlin had ever seen. Music full of bass and witchy vocals poured out of the vehicle, staining the cool fall air.
“Hi,” the girl said. “I’m Morgana. You must be the infamous Merlin.”
“I am he,” Merlin said, holding out an arm and cutting a curtsey. “Thank you very much for the ride. Much appreciated.”
“No problem,” Morgana said, hitting the unlock button. “Welcome to the BMW. It runs on lesbian magic and daddy’s tears. Hop in.”
Not sure whether to be encouraged or slightly frightened by this introduction, Merlin slid into the backseat. Gwen hopped in the passenger side, and Morgana pulled out of the lot and headed toward the city proper.
The traffic was light, it being a weekday at one pm, the freeway almost empty and the sky clear and blue. Morgana hummed to the music, tapping her nails against the wheel. They were acrylic, painted a matte black to match her lipstick, her hair a similar shade. Her clothes, also black, were an assortment of consignment leather and fishnets, and looked as if they had been ripped with kitchen shears, her eyeliner brutal and the notch in her nocked eyebrow acidic.
She looked like an agglomeration of all the people with whom Merlin had ever wanted to be friends. He desperately wanted her to like him, which was not a good vibe to give off if he ever wanted success in that department. To keep from giving himself away, he turned to Gwen.
“What was this about my not being homeless?” Merlin asked her.
“You would never be homeless,” Gwen reassured him, twisting in her seat so she could look at him. “If it comes down to it, you can always sleep on my couch until you or I die. But you won’t have to do that, if you don’t want to, because an opportunity has arisen…”
“What sort of opportunity?”
She raised her voice and talked over him. “AN OPPROTUNITY HAs arisen which could be beneficial for all parties. I really think you should give him a chance.”
“You coddle him,” Morgana said from the driver’s seat. “It’s revolting honestly.”
“How long have the two of you been going out?” Merlin asked. “My sense of time is absolutely wrecked right now.”
“Two months,” Morgana said.
“Two months and six days,” Gwen corrected.
This made Morgana smile and look at Gwen fondly, which reassured Merlin. If she loved Gwen’s precocious exactness as much as she should, their long-term compatibility was all but guaranteed, which was a relief. Gwen deserved to be happy more than anyone he knew.
“Who am I giving a chance?” Merlin asked.
“Oh,” Gwen said. “Arthur.”
“My brother,” Morgana said dryly, pulling off their exit with a squeal of brakes and rubber on asphalt.
“Wait. The guy you called a…?”
“I didn’t call him that, you did,” Gwen interrupted. “And he’s a very nice, decent guy. He’s not a douchebag he’s just not…my type.” Morgana snorted and Gwen delicately chose to ignore her. “He just moved into a flat, and he’s been looking for a roommate for a while. Then you texted me, and I thought, what a perfect coincidence.”
“Two things,” Merlin said, “One: no offense, Morgana, but I feel like you only have to qualify someone as a very nice, decent person if they’re decidedly not that.”
“No offense taken, you’re completely correct, he’s a prick.”
“See?” Merlin said pointedly. “Thank you. Two: this guy doesn’t know me from Adam, and all I know about him is that he’s apparently a prick. How’s this supposed to work? I just waltz in with my duffle bag full of dirty clothes and sign a lease? I can’t afford to pay rent right now. You’ll recall me saying that I am distinctly, decidedly, overwhelmingly unemployed at the moment.”
“You’re both being ridiculous,” Gwen said, “And mean. You would meet him and talk it over, obviously, and if you both get along and agree to it, then you’d finalize it and sign a lease. Honestly. Also, you didn’t let me get to the coolest part, which is that he’s okay with covering the rent until you’re able to get a job. For the first few months at least.”
Merlin slumped in his seat, feeling the tips of his ears burn red.
“Gwen!”
She seemed totally taken aback. “What? What is it? What’ve I done?”
“You’ve played the mum card,” Merlin said, wrapping his arms around his head. “I know it’s been a while since we’ve been together like this, but…seriously. You’ve talked this man, this grown man, into covering my rent? Don’t you…don’t you hear how this sounds? This is Darren at the bar all over again.”
Morgana smirked. “That sounds like a good story.”
“It isn’t,” Merlin said weakly. “Trust me.”
“But Arthur isn’t a stranger, Merlin,” Gwen said, still not understanding. “And it’s not like he can’t afford it.”
This was so obtuse a thing to say that Merlin had to sit up straight again. Morgana spotted the look on his face in the rearview mirror.
“Oh, it’s not like that,” she said, “He really can afford it. Our dad is like, the king of the castle. Uther Pendragon? Very medieval? With the, uh, magic propaganda and the seat on the legislature and the very profitable company and all that shit?”
“You’re kidding me,” Merlin said.
“I am not,” Morgana said darkly. “He’s the worst.”
“Yeah, I’m not going to disagree with you on that.”
He glowered at Gwen and she squirmed in her seat.
“Oh, don’t worry,” Morgana said, picking up on the tension, “I’m not with him. In fact.” She snapped her fingers, and blue sparks flew up. “You could say I am diametrically opposed from him. We don’t speak anymore.”
“What about Arthur?”
“Oh, he’s the brainwashed heir apparent,” Morgana said in a would-be blithe voice. “The only reason we still talk is because he’s too spineless to pick a side and I love him. Sadly.”
“And you want me to live with him?” Merlin asked Gwen.
“I’d like you to give him a chance,” Gwen said. “You have to trust me, Merlin, it’s not as bad as all that. He’s a really laidback guy, and he’s a bit…repressed when it comes to all that political stuff, but he doesn’t really believe in it.”
“Yeah? Does he know you’ve got magic?” he asked Morgana.
“Hell no. Daddy lied to him when he kicked me out, he’s got no clue. And I don’t intend to tell him anytime soon.”
Merlin gestured in the direction of this answer. “There you go. Proof enough. I cannot live with someone like that, because I am also…you know…” he snapped his fingers, sending up green sparks.
“Ooh, cool,” Morgana said, deadpan.
“I’ll just find another place to live, it’s not a big deal,” he muttered. “I’m sure there are plenty of places that will take someone with no credit and a history of evictions. This’ll be great.”
“Okay, fine,” Gwen said. “I was only trying to help.”
“I know. I appreciate it, really I do. I’m just, you know…” he sighed and pulled a hand over his face, exhaustion settling in every part of his body. “It’s been a long week.”
“I’m sorry, Merlin,” Gwen said softly, the empathy in her voice painful. “It’ll be hard, but you’ll get through this. I promise.”
The car jerked to an abrupt stop and Morgana announced with a ring of fanfare, “Look at that, we’re here.”
They were in a quiet, slightly rundown neighborhood full of old trees and privacy fences. The air was mellow and gray, yellow leaves dripping into the street and clogging up the gutters. Morgana parallel parked on the curb with terrifying skill. They all got out, and Merlin followed the two of them up a cobbled front walk, through a side-gate, and into a courtyard that connected two small houses.
There were plots of dirt presumably used for gardening in-season, pots stacked and scattered about. Ivy climbed up one side of the fence, threatening to collapse it, and the roots of an overgrown plum tree broke through the stone in the far corner.
Merlin scarcely had time to observe this, Gwen and Morgana already moving down a short set of stairs that led along the side of one house to a basement door with a window inset, a lacy curtain blocking the interior from view.
“Welcome to my humble abode,” Gwen announced, fiddling the key into the lock. She swung the door open and Morgana preceded her inside. Merlin hurried to catch up, entering the flat ahead of Gwen, who closed and locked the door behind him.
It was small but surprisingly full of light, a set of narrow windows along the top part of one wall letting in enough to keep all the plants alive. The plants, for their part, hung from the ceiling and crowded the floor and crammed shelves made for their express purpose. They spilled, green, almost through the entirety of the flat.
The rest of it was mostly a couch and a little kitchen, a tiny hall leading back to what Merlin guessed was a bedroom and a bath. The space was impeccably decorated, cheery and neat.
“So, what do you think?” Gwen asked, shucking off her coat. “It’s nice, isn’t it?”
“If she does say so herself,” Morgana inserted, flopping down on the couch.
“It is nice,” Merlin said. “I feel right at home.”
“Good, because this is where you’ll be sleeping,” Morgana said, patting the cushion next to her and tossing her feet up on the glass coffee table.
“M,” Gwen said, “Shoes, please.”
“Oh, yeah. Sorry, love.”
She bent over to unlace her platform boots at the exact same second the sound of a toilet flushing came from the other end of the flat.
“Is someone else in here?” Merlin asked, alarmed.
He prepared a spell, ducking it behind his back. Morgana paused, a glow seeping from her cupped hands, too. A door in the dark hallway opened and a hulking figure stepped out.
“My alarms didn’t go off,” Morgana murmured.
“Who is it!” Gwen called, stepping in front of Merlin, gesturing at him to lower his guard. She flicked the light on, revealing a disheveled blond figure wiping his hands on the front of his hoodie. He looked up, and Gwen relaxed. “Oh, it’s you.”
“What the fuck, Arthur!” Morgana exclaimed from the couch, the glow in between her fingers fading abruptly away.
“I thought I heard you come back in,” he said. “About time. I’ve been waiting around for almost an hour.”
“Okay, first of all you do not get to act like this is your space, because it’s not and that’s fucking rude,” Morgana said, irritated, “And second, I ‘told’ you what we’d be doing today. Three times.”
Arthur – apparently – scrunched up his fair brow and then shook his head. “No, I don’t think you did, because if you had, I’d remember.”
Morgana let out a menacing growl that encouraged Merlin to take a step away from her. “How are you my brother? How?”
“You’re adopted,” Arthur said with biting ease. “And I’ve no clue what you’re talking about, I’m a delight.” He finally looked to Merlin, taking in his presence with put-upon bafflement. “And who are you?”
Morgana stifled a groan and proceeded to yank her boots all the way off. “If you’d listened to me the three times I’d told you, you’d remember that Gwen and I were going to go pick up an old friend of hers from the bus station today. Arthur, Merlin. Merlin, my complete fucking idiot of a brother.”
“Merlin’s my friend from university,” Gwen piped up, eager to diffuse the tension.
“Oh, you’re the one Gwen’s been talking up,” Arthur said, realization spilling over his face. “Nice to meet you.”
He held out a hand to shake and Merlin took it, doing his best not to wince at the strength of the grip. “Likewise.”
“How’d you get in here?” Morgana asked Arthur, interrupting with no qualms. “Did you give him a spare key?” This last part was directed at Gwen, who refused to look sheepish, planting her hands on her hips.
“It’s my place, I can give keys to who I like.”
“But why would you give one to him?” Morgana demanded. “He has a place to live. He does not need to be here constantly just because all his friends have jobs like real adults, and he has nothing to do.”
“I have a job,” Arthur protested. “I’m the…”
“If you say the communication and messaging corporate diplomat, I swear to God I will kill you. I will literally murder you.” In a move which seemed to cement the idiocy of which she’d accused him, he began to talk anyway, but she steamrolled over him. “You realize that’s a made-up title, right? Everyone knows you don’t do anything but look pretty and go on tv.”
“That’s harder than it looks,” Arthur said, faux-modestly.
“It is not. You wash your face with dish soap.”
He put a hand to his heart, offended. “I do not, take that back. My skincare routine is pristine, and the fact that you would insinuate…”
“Girls, girls,” Gwen broke in. “You’re both super gorgeous, okay? Stand down. Now I’m starving, so should we order food? And I’m sure Merlin would like to shower after hours on a Greyhound bus.”
“You would be correct on that front,” Merlin said. “Point me in the direction, thank you for loaning me your hot water, etcetera.”
“You took the bus here?” Arthur asked, wrinkling his nose. “Why?”
Gwen, within elbowing range, planted her elbow in his ribs. “Rude, Arthur.”
“Sorry.” He grinned and held the place where she’d hit him but didn’t look the least bit ashamed.
“Because I could afford it,” Merlin told him, “And that was a stretch. Oh, do you have a washer/dryer unit anywhere in the vicinity that I could borrow? Or I can just find a laundromat tomorrow, I guess.”
“No need. There’s one in the hall. Morgana, could you show him? I’m going to order Thai, I think. Does that sound good to everyone?”
Smoothly, as she always did, Gwen had soothed the tension with an artistry that Merlin had always envied. When he wanted people to stop yelling, he got them to laugh at him. When she wanted people to stop yelling, she got them to love her.
“I like Thai,” Arthur said. “Here, you can use my card.”
“Stop flirting with my girlfriend,” Morgana said, getting up off the couch and shouldering past him, though he was by no means in her way. “It’s gross. Merlin, follow me. You have to kick the unit in a certain spot so that it finishes its cycle.”
Merlin slid past Arthur just as he said, defensively, “I’m not flirting, I’m just being nice. Which you wouldn’t know about if it walked up to you on the street.”
Gwen heaved a gusty sigh.
Morgana showed him the unit tucked back in a narrow utility closet, grabbed him a towel, and practically shoved him in the bathroom so she could rush back to the kitchen and keep an eye on her brother.
She didn’t seem at all worried about Gwen, but the eagerness with which she slammed the door behind him made Merlin suspect that something had happened in the past to make her so apprehensive.
He didn’t know why. If he had the capacity to be attracted to women and had his choice of the Pendragon siblings, he would have picked Morgana every time, no question.