Summary: Because sometimes happily ever after doesn't always come easily. Because sometimes you have to hurt a little before you can smile. Because sometimes life gets in the way. Because sometimes when you find love, you have to seek its shelter and hold on tight. Because sometimes it's worth it.
Author's Note: I was absolutely inspired by Comfort & Joy, one of my favorite books. Also, I would like to thank Shannon, queenb23more , for all her help, encouragement, and QUICK beta work; she rocks my world. And to kaalee for her words of encouragement.

SHELTER

23 December

Merlin shivered underneath his thick coat and long scarf. He had his dark blue suitcase on the sidewalk next to him. His hands were fisted inside his coat pockets, cold as ice; he had forgotten his gloves at home. There was a never-ending queue of taxis in front of the airport, but he didn't know which one Arthur was in. He kept his eyes downwards, not wanting to appear too eager or too anxious, and swallowed against the unexpected lump in his throat.

There were large wreaths on the glass doors behind him, the only Christmas decorations in the whole airport, but it was enough to remind Merlin why he was there, waiting for Arthur, and what they were about to do. It had been three years – three years they had been together – and this was the first time they would spend the holiday together in England, the first time Arthur would meet Merlin's mother, see the house he grew up in, and meet his hometown friends. Merlin wasn't sure how the visit would go. His town was small, humble, his childhood home tiny, with thin walls, and his friends were loud, drank mead, and had patches on their coats.

A red bag stopped by his feet. Merlin looked up and saw Arthur wearing a white jumper under his expensive black coat. He had the red scarf Merlin had bought him for Christmas last year wrapped around his neck, and he looked exhausted. Merlin had the instinct to reach out and touch him, to kiss his cheek, hug their bodies together, but he just balled his fists tighter inside his pocket and opted for a smile instead. "You made it."

"Did you think I wasn't coming?"

Merlin didn't answer immediately.

"Of course I was coming, Ems. I was in that ridiculous queue of cars and just got out and walked. I hate waiting. Do you have our tickets?"

"Yes."

"How long is the plane ride?"

"About eight hours."

Arthur looked at his watch. "We'll get there around midnight then. Brilliant."

"There's a time change," said Merlin, raising his eyebrows.

Arthur sighed. "When will we get there then?"

"About five in the morning. Come on," said Merlin, grabbing his suitcase.

"Did you pack everything?"

"Yes?"

"Including the—"

"Yes," Merlin bit out, walking through the front door. "We're on Concourse B."

They walked through the crowd of people in silence, Merlin annoyed and unsure exactly why. The more he thought about it, the more he realized that going back to England for Christmas wasn't his idea and as much as he missed his mother and Will, he simply did not want to go.

Arthur was only half a step behind him; Merlin could feel his presence. They checked their bags quickly enough, but the security line took them almost an hour to get through and Arthur's constant sighing and looking at his watch didn't help matters. Once they were through the line and had put their shoes back on, they made their way to the concourse, finding their gate quickly.

Merlin sat down in a chair in front of the windows and looked out at the rows of large white airplanes. The black ground was wet from lightly falling rain and there were lights everywhere, giving it the illusion of midday even though the sun was hidden behind dark rain clouds. Since security took such an age, they didn't have to wait at the gate long and they boarded the plane quickly. Merlin found their seats, annoyed that Arthur had changed their tickets from economy to first class, but he kept his mouth shut, knowing that arguing about expenses with Arthur was completely useless.

Arthur sat next to him, close enough that passersby would know they were traveling together, but not so close they might guess that Merlin and Arthur were also lovers. Arthur didn't like displays of affection and even though Merlin often craved his touch, Arthur rarely gave it to him when they weren't safely inside their house.

"Is your mum going to pick us up at the airport?"

"No," said Merlin, "I'm sure she'll be asleep. My friend Will is coming to get us. He's a barkeep these days, so he usually gets off work around three or four o'clock in the morning. It won't be much of an imposition."

"I hope your mother likes me."

Merlin turned and looked at Arthur. It was the first time Arthur had uttered anything about being worried about the visit to Merlin's home. Everybody liked Arthur and he knew this; they liked him because he was rich, beautiful, and a successful doctor. Everybody except for Merlin. Those were the things he liked least about Arthur at first but had come to love those vices later.

"She will," said Merlin. "Don't worry."

"I hope Will likes me as well," said Arthur. "Since he's your best mate."

"Don't let Gwen hear you say that."

Arthur made a noncommittal noise and let his head fall backwards against the seat.

"You look tired."

"Exhausted."

"Good day?"

By now they both knew that when Merlin asked, "Good day?" what he was really hinting at was whether any of Arthur's patients had died.

"Yes, it was fine. Don't give me that look. Honest, it was fine. I've just been awake since three this morning."

"I know, you woke me up."

"I did?"

Merlin felt his face flush as he nodded. "Yes. When you know I'm awake, you say goodbye," he said quietly, "but when you think I'm still asleep, you sit down on the bed, touch my hair, and kiss me." He looked up at Arthur.

Arthur sat there, perhaps contemplating. He reached and cupped Merlin's cheek in his hand. There was something in his eye, a glint or shine, a bit of hope or love. The moment was over quickly and Arthur dropped his hand, settling back against the seat again and closing his eyes.

"Did you find out your marks on your exams?"

Arthur nodded but didn't open his eyes. "I checked online this morning when all the final scores were posted. I passed everything."

"Of course you did," said Merlin, feeling proud.

Arthur opened his eyes and turned his head towards Merlin. "No more exams," he said and smiled – the first genuine smile in months. "I can breathe now. Well, until third of January, but then it's only nine more weeks until everything is finished."

"Good. These last few months have been really hard on us."

"I know and I'm sorry."

"Don't apologize – it's all right."

Arthur yawned and closed his eyes again. He reached over and took hold of Merlin's hand, entwining their fingers. "I know." Merlin knew he was asleep when his grip on Merlin's hand slackened, but as the plane took off, Merlin couldn't help but smile.

_

Almost ten years ago

Camelot was small town. Not so small that Arthur knew everybody's name, but small enough that no matter where he went, someone knew he was Uther Pendragon's son. Uther was a cardiologist, a heart surgeon, who worked out of Camelot Hospital, a notable teaching hospital several hours outside of London. His hours were long and he came home late at night, right before Arthur would go to bed. It was such a normality, Arthur didn't think anything of his father missing dinner or even missing birthdays and Christmases, but for someone who could never remember whether Arthur liked carrots, Uther took an overactive interest in Arthur's schooling and social life. Not every boy at school was good enough for Arthur's friendship.

Arthur moved to London as soon as he could. He had an inheritance from his uncle that he used to let a large flat, buy furniture, and live as luxuriously as he was used to. During his second year, while studying outside in the park, on the grass in the sunshine, a boy in one of his Literature classes approached him. His name was David, he had dark hair and skin, was born in Puerto Rico, grew up in New York City, and moved to London for university. He was complex and spoke with a smooth American accent and by their third meeting had ended up in Arthur's bed.

It wasn't the first time Arthur had made another boy come. He had attended St. Paul's, a school in Camelot for boys. Even though it was only a few kilometers from his home, Uther had insisted Arthur stay at the boarding house during the school year. Arthur resented this; he wanted to stay home with his mother and sister, but after one year, he felt more at home at the school than at his house.

When he was sixteen, he had his first encounter with another boy. It was after football practice, back in Arthur's private room. They wanted to go into town, grab some fish and chips, but had to stop by Arthur's to get some money, and somehow ended up tangled together, hands down each other's shorts, panting strangled breaths into each other's necks. They didn't kiss or talk about it afterwards. They came together every few weeks over the next year at school, only stopping when they both went home for summer holiday. The next term, their attraction seemed to have ended, but what hadn't changed was Arthur's interest in men.

Arthur dated a girl named Vivian during his last year at St. Paul's. She made him laugh and helped him with his schoolwork, edited his essays, and went to his football matches. She attended St. Paul's sister school, and after they'd been dating for six months, Arthur had managed to finally sleep with her. He hadn't really noticed at the time, but their lovemaking was less than zealous. Vivian was eager, but Arthur – Arthur thought it was textbook, ordinary, and almost boring, but he couldn't reason why it would be any different than when he was with the boy from his football team. She stayed in Camelot to go to university while Arthur went to London, and he took it as an opportunity to end their relationship.

In London, Arthur stayed mostly anonymous, having very few close friends, so when he met David, everything suddenly changed. David was outgoing, the life of the party, always with a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other. If they went out in public, Arthur never allowed them to be alone, never allowed David to touch him, and none of his friends ever figured out they were sleeping together.

It was an intense two months which came to a head when Uther rang the doorbell to Arthur's flat unexpectedly.

"What are you doing here?" were the first words out of Arthur's mouth when he opened the door.

"Is that any way to greet your father?" Uther walked into the flat and into the living room, the first room at the end of the entryway. He stopped and looked at David, whose bare feet were on top of the coffee table. "Who are you?"

David quickly stood. His lips were red from where he had been kissing Arthur just moments before. "Er, I'm David?"

"Did you get a flatmate?" Uther asked, turning back to his son.

Arthur shook his head. "David is a mate of mine."

"Are you going to the medical school—"

"Father," said Arthur warningly. "He's just a mate from university."

"A mate?" repeated David, staring at Arthur.

"One of my patients checked into the hospital here in London. I've been her doctor for the last twenty years, but she was too weak to travel back to Camelot."

Arthur pressed his lips together, not sure how to respond.

"I came by to see if my son wanted to go to dinner." Uther didn't take his eyes off David, who hadn't taken his eyes off Arthur.

"Right," said Arthur, "well" – he cleared his throat – "I can change and be ready in ten minutes?"

Uther nodded. "I've a car downstairs. I'll meet you outside."

Once Uther had left, Arthur dared to look at David.

"You're not out, are you?"

"Out?"

"No one knows you're gay," said David, shoving his feet into his trainers.

"I'm not gay."

"The fuck you're not."

"I'm not."

"The way you suck my cock tells me differently."

Arthur felt his face heat.

"I thought you were just uncomfortable with public displays of affection – but shit was I blind. Your mates don't know about me. They think we're mates, don't they? Your father has never heard of me."

"Have your parents heard of me?"

"Yes," replied David, taking a step closer to Arthur. "I can't be with someone who can't even admit he's gay. I can't believe I was so blind." David shook his head. "I'll see you around."

Arthur stood, unsure of what to say or do, so he remained silent and let David walk out of his flat and out of his life for good. He could have rang him later, he could have gone by his flat to see him, but he didn't. He pushed that part of himself as far back inside as he could and refused to think about it.

_

23 December

Merlin gently shook Arthur's shoulder. "Hey," he whispered, "we're getting ready to land."

Arthur slowly blinked and rubbed the sleep from his eyes. He looked around the plane. "Did I sleep the entire time?"

"Yes," said Merlin. "For the last six hours at least." He attempted a smile. "You were in and out, mumbling about blood clots and microeconomics."

Arthur raised his eyebrows. "Really?" He reached over and touched Merlin's cheek, gently rubbing his thumb over his cheekbone. "Because I only remember dreaming about you."

Merlin felt his face heat and he glanced across the aisle at an older couple who were both staring at them. When they caught Merlin's eye, they looked away. Arthur dropped his hand and sighed.

"How far away is your mum's house from the airport?" He shifted in his seat and rotated his neck, doing his best to stretch his body.

"An hour and twenty minutes, I think."

"I hope I don't fall asleep in the car."

"I'm sure Will would forgive you."

They were quiet until the plane landed. It was still dark outside and Merlin watched out the window as the plane taxied to the gate. For once he was grateful that he was in first class and could deboard the plane first.

"Let's go." Merlin stood, but Arthur grabbed his wrist and pulled him back down until he sat next to him. "What?"

"Nothing, I just – I hope the holiday is good. I don't want to ruin it."

"Why would you ruin it?"

"Have you ever brought a man home to meet your mother before?"

"No."

"Why not?"

Merlin shrugged. "It's a small town. A quarter of the size of Camelot, maybe smaller. And, well, when you compare it to where we live now, it's incomparable in size. Not all of the villagers are as open-minded as Mum."

Arthur nodded. "Which is why I hope I don't ruin the holiday."

"Arthur, you won't. You wouldn't." Merlin wanted to kiss Arthur, touch the back of his neck, but he knew Arthur would pull away so he just swallowed back his impulses.

"All right." Arthur let go of Merlin's wrist and stood, grabbing both his carry-on bag and Merlin's. They both left the airplane and walked through the airport to the baggage claim, and Arthur grabbed both their suitcases, not letting Merlin take the bags. Arthur slowed his pace as he pulled both suitcases so Merlin could walk beside him. "Are you nervous?"

Merlin swallowed. "Maybe a little." He walked through the airport and through the front gates. His eyes scanned the few loiterers in front of the airport, looking for Will. "There," he said, nodding towards a tall, thin man a few yards away. "That's Will."

When Will noticed Merlin, he smiled and gave a small wave. He waited for Merlin to walk to him before holding his arms around and enveloping his friend in a tight hug. Merlin grinned, happy to see Will.

"This is Arthur," said Merlin, stepping back and gesturing towards Arthur, who stood two steps behind him.

Will held out his hand. Arthur let go of the bags and shook Will's hand; his eyes narrowed slightly, something that Merlin noticed but knew no one else would. For a moment he thought Arthur didn't like Will, but the flicker of dislike in Arthur's eye disappeared as quickly as it had come.

"I've heard so much about you," said Will.

Arthur smiled, but it wasn't as genuine as Merlin was used to. "It's good to meet you. You didn't have to pick us up so late—"

"I just got off work. I'm a barkeep at the pub down the road from Merlin's house, so it's no trouble."

"You drove over an hour here, so that sounds like you went to a bit of trouble."

"Anything for Merlin," replied Will. "I'm just happy he's finally coming home for a few days. We used to rip Ealdor apart when we were kids."

"How's Mum?" Merlin asked, interrupting Will.

"She's asleep. I gave her a ride home on my way to work. You need to convince her to get a new job."

Merlin sighed. "She'll never agree."

"Only people who are mad go to work at four in the morning."

"I suppose," said Merlin with a shrug, "but she's a good nurse and the hospital needs someone for the early shift, don't they? And she's worked there so long it was no problem for her to get time off work to spend the holiday with me."

"My car's over here." Will picked up the suitcases. Arthur made a motion to take the bags from Will, but Will just grinned and shook his head. "I know you're probably tired, yeah?"

"Arthur slept on the plane ride, but I was awake. You know I can't sleep anywhere but my own bed."

"I know," replied Will. He walked to the car park, where his old Volvo sat. He put the suitcases in the back of the car and unlocked the doors. Once everyone was in, Will pulled out of the car park and onto the street. "Your mum wanted me to tell you to wake her when you get in."

"We aren't going to do that," said Merlin.

"I know, but she wanted me to tell you anyway."

"It'll be nice to spend a couple days with her. I haven't seen her in almost four years." Merlin rubbed his eyes; he was growing tired. "Are you coming by on Christmas?"

"Yeah, with the girls."

"Both of them?"

Will laughed. "Of course both of them. You've never met Effy."

"No," said Merlin, "and that's highly unacceptable. And I've never met Michelle as your wife either, actually."

It was a short drive to Merlin's mum's house compared to the lifetime they spent on the airplane, and Merlin was really beginning to feel his exhaustion. The door to the house was unlocked, as it usually was, and Will took their suitcases inside for them. He bid them goodnight, promising to see them on Christmas Day, and left. Merlin showed Arthur upstairs to where his childhood room, the room where they would be staying over the next four days, was.

"My mum's room is downstairs, next to the kitchen," said Merlin softly. "She sleeps like the dead."

Arthur looked all around the dark corridor at the top of the stairs and followed Merlin into the room at the very end of the hallway. Merlin turned the lights on. "The bathroom is through that door – there are towels and everything in there already, if I know my mum."

Arthur smiled and nodded. "Sure." He walked further into Merlin's old room.

"You can set the suitcases next to the wardrobe," Merlin said, sitting down on the end of his old bed, which was covered in a blue and red plaid duvet. "My mum hasn't changed anything in here. It's the same as when I was sixteen and left for university."

Arthur's eyes roamed the room and Merlin looked at everything Arthur looked at. The walls were mostly bare. There was a tall bookshelf, jammed with books, and a bedside table with an old lamp and an empty picture frame. Next to the door was a framed diploma from New York University.

"Did your mum put that up?"

Merlin nodded. "She was really upset that I ran away to America when I was sixteen, but she was proud of me that I finished university there. I think she was more upset that I ran away, which is how it was, really. I couldn't stay here and I applied to New York on a whim, but my uncle had always said he'd pay for university and, well, he did. The tuition, I mean, I paid for everything else."

"I ran away to America, too. My mum used to say I was really good at running away."

"I hope you've grown out of that particular flaw."

"I have," said Arthur. "I'd never run away from you."

Merlin nodded. "All right."

Arthur closed the bedroom door and turned to Merlin.

"Did you want to shower before bed?" asked Merlin.

"No. I'll shower in the morning."

"Shall I get your pajamas?"

"No, shut up, Merlin." Arthur sat next to him on the bed. "You're acting nervous."

"Sorry."

"Don't be nervous. Just be normal."

Merlin nodded. "I know, I'm sorry. This house – this town isn't quite what you're used to. My uncle used to work in Camelot at the hospital and I've been there a few times. It's a really rich town. You're rich. And this house is small and my town is poor, and it's just not what you're used to."

"It doesn't matter to me."

Merlin looked down at his hands sitting in his lap.

"You've lived with me for a while now – do you not like it there?"

"No, of course I do. But, you know . . . it's your house and—"

"It's our house. It's just a stupid house, we can find another one."

"Oh."

"Oh?"

Merlin swallowed. "Oh," he repeated.

Arthur laughed and Merlin's head jerked up in surprised.

"Why are you laughing?"

"Because you're absurd." Arthur cupped Merlin's face in his hands, brushing his thumbs across Merlin's cheekbones. "I don't care about that shit – money and whatever else. Yeah, this room is half the size of my bedroom growing up, but I spent five years at boarding school where my room was smaller than this one. Houses are just houses." Arthur brushed his lips against Merlin's. "I love you, Ems."

Merlin closed his eyes. Arthur rarely said it, sometimes so infrequently that Merlin yearned for him to breathe the words quietly against his neck as they made love, and so the times he admitted it, Merlin's heart stopped and his breath caught in his throat.

"I love you, too," he whispered.

"Does your bedroom door lock?"

Merlin opened his eyes and nodded.

"Lock it. I want to fuck you in your mother's house."

_

Seven years ago

Whether Uther knew there was something going on with David or not, he didn't mention it to his son. Arthur was careful and for the rest of university, he didn't bring any men home with him. He went out with his friends, drank a lot of whiskey, and played a lot of football. Soon it was time to think about medical school and Arthur knew where he wanted to go but was not sure how his mother and father would react.

The Christmas of his last year in university found Arthur back home in Camelot. It was a four hour train ride from London, and he met Morgana at the train station. She drove up in their father's car and jumped out, giving Arthur a rib-breaking hug. Morgana was almost three years younger than Arthur and looked nothing like him. Arthur was short with an athletic build, all arm muscles and broad shoulders, his hair blonde, eyes blue, and jaw line square and hard. Morgana was fair, with dark curly hair, green eyes, and a body of nothing but smooth curves.

"I'm so glad you came home!"

"How're Mum and Dad?"

Morgana rolled her eyes. "Insufferable." She climbed back behind the wheel as Arthur put his bags in the back of the car.

"What's the theme this year?" asked Arthur as he got into the passenger's seat and fastened his seatbelt.

"The new bloke I'm dating," said Morgana as she pulled away from the curb. "Dad is furious, but Mum is in denial."

"Why, what's wrong with him?"

"Nothing, but if you ask Dad, he isn't good enough for me. He's a policeman."

Arthur shook his head. "Leave it to you to find the worst profession. Dad hates police."

"He's also a bit older than me, but mostly they don't like that he's not a doctor. Please tell me you're not going to go to medical school."

Arthur laughed. "No, I'm definitely going."

Morgana groaned. "I am so sick of doctors!"

"I'm not going to school in Camelot, though."

"Thank god. Dad would be nauseating if you did. Which school did you choose? Isn't that mate of yours from St. Paul's going to medical school in Oxford?"

"No idea. Don't tell Mum and Dad yet, but . . . I'm not going to medical school in London."

"Oh. Where the hell are you going then?" Morgana pulled into the drive of their parents' house. She put the car in park and turned it off but made no move to get out.

"I was accepted at three different medical schools in America—"

"What?" shrieked Morgana. "Oh, Mum's going to scream when you tell her. And Dad – oh, shit, I should sell tickets."

Arthur rubbed his eyes.

"Why are you doing this?"

"Doing what? It may surprise you, Morgana, but sometimes I do things I want to do. I don't want to live my life for our father. If I did, I would go to medical school, work at Camelot Hospital for a few years, and then take over Dad's practice – none of which I want to do."

"Which schools did you get into?"

"Well. I'm only considering two of them. New York University and Emory University."

"I've never heard of either of them."

"I'm not surprised," sighed Arthur. "I don't know. Two of my Anatomy professors went to school in America, so I asked them where to apply and just did it."

"You're never been so impulsive."

"I've always been so impulsive."

Morgana shook her head. "I'm glad you're willing to completely ruin your relationship with Dad in order to do what will make you happy."

"I don't know if it'll make me happy, but I can't keep doing what Dad wants just to avoid a fight."

"So you're running away."

"Well. That sounds – that's not exactly – well. Yes. I'm running away."

"I love you. I'm so glad you're home," exclaimed Morgana. "This will take all the focus off of my policeman."

"Well, I'm so glad I can help you," said Arthur sarcastically. "I'm going inside."

Christmastime had been tense ever since Arthur left for university. Both of his parents wanted him to stay in Camelot and go to university there, but he'd decided to go to London instead, to experience life "on his own." His mother insisted he come home often, so the first year he lived in London he took the train to Camelot once a month, but it became such a chore that Arthur stopped going back altogether, save Christmas. That year had been no different and every time his parents asked why he wouldn't come home, Arthur told them he was too busy with his studies and football.

Morgana walked inside behind Arthur, a smug grin on her face. They made it through dinner and pudding before she let the ball drop, and immediately Arthur forgot about all the reasons why he loved her so much.

"I'm going to kill you," he mouthed to her from across the table. She just shrugged and sipped her wine. He knew it was because their father had begun to drill her with questions about her policeman again and she wanted the attention on someone else – on him – so she said, "I hear America has a lot of crime. Maybe Leon can get a job over there and we can go live with Arthur across the pond."

Uther's head whipped so quickly from Morgana to Arthur he surely got whiplash. "You are living where?"

Arthur picked up his glass and downed half a glass of red wine, hoping it would numb him to the rest of the conversation.

"I applied to medical school in America."

"Why on earth would you do that?" asked his mother, Ygraine. She gave her son a puzzled look. "You know those Americans are ridiculous. You will never find a suitable wife in America. Did you apply to Camelot University?"

"No."

"No? Why the hell not?" demanded Uther. "You would automatically get accepted!"

"I didn't want to. I don't want to go somewhere that will just take me because I'm your son. I'd rather get into school on my own merits. Look, I've been in London for almost four years and I'm ready for a change."

"If you want a change, you buy a new pair of shoes or let a new flat," said Ygraine. "You don't buy a plane ticket to America. You don't even know anyone there."

"I know. It's going to be brilliant." Arthur reached for the wine bottle and uncorked it. He filled his glass a little too high but immediately began to drink from it. "I was accepted to some really great universities over there, you know. You should be proud."

"What kind of life can you build over there?" asked Uther. "You know those Americans, always in the news for doing something completely inane. Their morals—"

"Are you serious?" laughed Arthur. "How many Americans do you know?" He held up his hands and shook his head. "No, don't answer that. It doesn't matter about Americans or about that country. It's about me. If you trust me, then you can trust that I will go over there and be the same person I am here."

"I'm not paying for you to go some school in America!"

"You don't have to. I have all the money from my inheritance. It's more than enough to pay for four years of medical school."

"I should never have allowed you to go to university in London. I don't know why you didn't just begin medical school immediately, as I did. You wanted to be a doctor and always have – why waste my money on university when it was completely useless?"

Arthur cleared his throat. "Because in America, you have to have a degree before you enter medical school. And I thought it would be easier to work as a doctor there if I had gone to medical school there."

There was silence as everyone stared at Arthur. Morgana kicked him from under the table. The look in her eye was absolutely mischievous.

"So you've planned this all out?"

Arthur shrugged. "It was in the back of my mind for a while, yes. But I had some professors at university who helped convince me. . . ."

"And after four years? When school is over?" asked Ygraine. "Do you really want to build a life over there?"

Arthur shrugged again. "I don't know. I may go over there and like it, and I may go over and hate it. Either way, I'm going to medical school there, and that's the way it is."

"I forbid you to go," said Uther, a dangerous tone to his voice. "And why are you smiling?" he snapped, looking at Morgana who was smiling behind her wine glass. "Don't think I've forgotten all about that serviceman you've been running around with. We'll get to you next."

"You can't forbid me to go," said Arthur. "I'm an adult and besides, I'm still going to medical school. You wouldn't accept for me to be anything other than a doctor anyway, and that's what I'm going to do so just drop it."

"When I was your age, I was engaged to your mother and we were married halfway through my own schooling. You haven't courted a girl since Vivian."

"Courted? Dad, be serious."

"He is serious," said Ygraine. "We worry about you. You seem to go out with your mates all night and get drunk. You never bring a girl home to meet us."

"I'm twenty-one! You can't be serious!"

"We want to make sure you're thinking of your future," said Uther very slowly. You need to calm down, get your head out of the clouds, go to Camelot University, and find a nice Camelot girl. You may be young, but you should be married by the time you finish medical school. You'll be overwhelmed with work and you need a woman at home to help relax you and help care for your home."

Arthur shook his head and laughed in disbelief. "I don't want to marry," he said quietly, drinking the rest of his wine.

"Not now," said Ygraine with a nervous laugh, "but you will one day, when you meet the right girl. People get married later and later in life these days. If you're thirty, that's all right, I suppose."

"No," corrected Arthur, "not ever. I'm not the marrying kind."

"Of course you are," yelled Uther, slamming his fist down on the table. Morgana jumped in surprised and sloshed her wine on her dinner plate. "Don't be completely absurd, Arthur."

"I'm not! I'm not absurd at all! I'm perfectly sane. I'm going to school in America and if you want to stop me. you'll have to kill me. And I'm not getting married. Not now and not ever, so if that bothers you so fucking much, Father, then you can just write me out of your will and give my inheritance to Morgana."

Uther fumed as Arthur stood and stomped out of the dining room. He went to his room and slammed the door behind him.

The next Christmas he was in America and didn't come home. He told his mother he hadn't been able to get away from school because of exams, but at midnight, when Christmas Eve became Christmas Day, Arthur took a shot of tequila, kissed the man sitting next to him at the bar, went home with him, and bedded him. When he woke up the next morning, he quickly dressed, wished a "Happy Christmas" to the man passed out in the sheets next to him, and walked the few blocks home to his flat where he could open the presents his mother had sent him. As he ripped open the paper, he tried to pretend they were from Father Christmas instead, like memories from the days when he was a child and Christmas was happy, full of blinking lights and thick stockings, and nothing like the Christmas of that day: lonely and bare.

_

Arthur was in the top third of his class in medical school, scored well above average on his step two of the boards, and when he was twenty-five, he started interviewing at the hospitals where he would start his internship. He chose nine hospitals and interviewed at each. Afterwards he ranked them in order of his preference and waited to see where he would match. The matching process was rather stressful, mostly because Arthur liked definites and was always two steps ahead when planning things out, and waiting for a computer program to tell him where he matched did not help him figure out his future plans.

He had been in New York for the last four years and he was more than ready to leave the city for something new. His flat was large and only a few blocks from the hospital where he had done his rotations for the last year, but it didn't feel like home. Being so far away from Camelot gave Arthur a new sense of security. He brought home several men over the four years he lived there and while the sex was mostly anonymous, there were two men he saw several times, but somehow things fell apart. Both men had broken off the affairs, citing both Arthur's egotism and insecurities as the reasons. It didn't hurt Arthur's ego at all; he knew how he was and he hadn't allowed himself to get emotionally attached anyway.

Hiring movers seemed more sensible than doing the work himself, and in two days, all of Arthur's possessions were packed into neat boxes, his furniture padded and wrapped, and everything placed in the back of a large moving truck. Arthur took a plane south, leaving behind medical school, but not the long hours and sleepless nights. The plane took him to a new state, a new teaching hospital, and a new life – hopefully.

Somehow he got sucked into emergency and was quite unsure how he ended up there. The hospital where he worked was the public hospital, and every day was full of gunshot and stab wounds, car accidents, and general tragedy. His shifts were sometimes thirty-six hours long, and he had to keep three pairs of scrubs in his locker at a time to change into when the pair he was wearing got soaked with blood.

He struck up a friendship with another doctor, a resident surgeon named Lance. Lance was tall, dark, and reminded him very much of David, except Lance was as straight as they came. He was three years older than Arthur but extremely youthful and pleasant. He was ready to become an attending but wasn't sure if he wanted to stay at the public hospital or not. Working at the only level one trauma hospital within a hundred mile radius certainly proved interesting, but Lance was laidback. He preferred a quieter life, one that perhaps a private hospital could provide, one that didn't have him operating on so many gunshot victims.

"I don't know how you put up with that shit," Lance said one day over lunch in the cafeteria, which was on the ground floor of the hospital. Arthur had a bruise on his cheek where one of his patients slugged him in the face after refusing treatment for a stab wound from a drug deal gone bad. "At least when I see them, they're under anesthesia and I don't have to talk to them. These patients who come in here – they're doped up on drugs or drunk off their – how do you say it? – arses?"

Arthur laughed. "Arses, yes. Good, I like how you're learning how to speak British. It's not so bad. A kid did spit on me the other day when I tried to look at his knee where he'd sliced it on a rock after falling off his bicycle. He wanted me to stitch him up without any anesthetic."

"Seriously?"

"I told him nurses did that shit for me, and if he spat at me again that I'd let him sit there for another eight hours."

Lance laughed. "You're such an ass – I mean, arse. When's your next day off?"

"In about ten years at the rate I'm going. I think I'm so full of caffeine I could bleed coffee."

Lance laughed. "Come on, I need an oxygen break."

They threw their leftovers in one of the rubbish bins, put their trays on the return-counter, and left the cafeteria. They walked through the back corridors of the hospital until they got to the back service entrance. There was a loading dock that was used when the trucks came to deliver large orders of medical supplies. It was also where all the medical staff went to smoke cigarettes and play half-court basketball during their breaks.

Lance took his pack of cigarettes out of his coat pocket and offered one to Arthur. "It's good for you," he said. "Everyone needs a vice."

"I've got enough vices," replied Arthur.

Lance shrugged, put the cigarette to his lips, and lit it. "What vices?"

"Drinking." And men, thought Arthur, but he didn't think he was good enough friends with Lance to tell him that particular secret.

"When was the last time you were drunk?"

"Pissed."

"What?" Lance's eyebrows furrowed together.

"Pissed," repeated Arthur. "I'm furthering your British education. When someone is drunk we say 'pissed.'"

At that moment, several ambulance sirens blasted through the air.

"I don't know why I thought it would be a good idea to work at a public hospital."

"Someone has to do it," said Arthur. "They put all the new interns and residents here because no one else wants the job, but the two of us, we're not complete imbeciles. They could have some doctor here who was in the bottom third of his class and fucking everything up."

"That's true. I'll be glad when they let me rotate to one of the other hospitals. How come you never go anywhere else?"

Arthur shrugged. There were eight hospitals around their city, all independent until ten years ago when Candler Memorial Hospital expanded and took over five of them. The names of the hospitals changed to reflect being run by Candler: what was one once Ponce Medical Center had become Candler Memorial at Ponce, Eastside Hospital was now Candler Memorial at Eastside, and so on. The original Candler building was exclusive and expensive, with large single rooms where patients never had to share with anyone, and floors which were always fully staffed.

The thing about Candler Memorial was that everyone wanted to work there. So doctors, fresh out of medical school, all applied, only to be issued out to one the other five hospitals, none of which were as nice as Candler Memorial. Normally they were able to hop from hospital to hospital every three months, gaining experience at each location, but Arthur always remained at the public hospital and didn't ask for assignment anywhere else. He didn't suppose he had a reason; he didn't love the hospital, but what he said to Lance was true: there was something about being at the public hospital, full of the city's poor and desperate, people devoid of humanity and privilege, that made Arthur want to be there and help. He knew himself, knew he could be great at his hospital, Candler Memorial at Grayson. He was a doctor and had chosen medicine to help people, to heal, and he knew that the sorts of patients who ended up at the Grayson building were the kind who probably needing healing the most.

Just then, the service door opened, and a man and a woman walked out. The woman wore a button-down shirt and a straight skirt that fell just above her knees. Her footsteps clicked as her heels hit the concrete. Both her skin and hair were dark, darker than Lance's, and she was oddly attractive. She had a nametag clipped to the belt loop on her skirt, but she was too far away for Arthur to read it. The man she was with wore green scrubs, which meant he was a nurse. He had a long-sleeve shirt underneath it, the sleeves scrunched up to his elbows. His trainers were white and blue with frayed laces. His nametag hung off the front pocket of his scrubs. He lit up a cigarette, but the woman he was with didn't. Arthur studied them, unsure of their relationship, and was momentarily caught off guard on how interested he was to find out.

"Her name is Gwen," said Lance.

"Pardon?"

"Gwen," repeated Lance. "The woman you're staring at?"

Arthur's eyes were resting on the nurse – his messy black hair that wasn't quite long enough to hide his large ears. He was all sharp angles, with long fingers and a quirky smile. He wasn't even attractive. No, he was. Well, maybe. Arthur couldn't decide. He was certainly not the type of man Arthur was usually attracted to, which was unnerving. Arthur usually took home men who were like him – muscular, handsome, athletic. In New York, he had bedded more than one model and perhaps even a semi-famous actor who was still in the closet, though Arthur would never admit to any of it.

"Oh, right," said Arthur, looking back at Lance. "She's okay-looking. I've seen better birds."

"Birds?"

"Women. Er, you lot call them chicks."

Lance smiled. "Right. She's in administration. I'm not exactly sure what she's in charge of. I've been thinking of asking her out for a while."

"You should," encouraged Arthur. "Looks like she doesn't take oxygen breaks, though."

"But her friend does, so she clearly isn't opposed to it."

"I've never seen that nurse before," said Arthur, trying to be casual. "Where does he work?"

"ICU. I don't know his name, but he's always with Gwen. I've handed off several patients to him after surgery."

"Right," said Arthur. "ICU."

Right then Arthur's mobile went off. He fished it out of his pocket and looked at it. "Oh, shit," he said so loudly that Gwen and her friend turned and looked at him. He glanced at Lance and then at them. "Traffic accident," he said loudly, as though that gave his early shout an explanation. "Must've been what all the sirens were from."

"Bad?" called Gwen from across the dock.

Arthur looked at the second text message that came through. "Yeah. One of those big trucks—"

"Tractor trailers," offered Lance.

"Yeah, those," said Arthur, "only it says – Christ, stop sending me texts!" he yelled at his phone. "All right, bye!" He ran from the dock, through the service door, and down the corridor. He didn't bother waiting for the lifts and took the stairs upstairs.

Once he got to the ED, he found out that it wasn't just a tractor trailer, it was actually a truck carrying gas. It hit another truck, turned over, and spilled gas all over the highway, causing a fire and injuring so many people that the hospital had to shut down its trauma unit to all other emergencies except for casualties from the accident.

Arthur ran from patient to patient, treating burns and broken bones. Everyone needed a bed, several needed surgery. He paged Lance twice to come down for a surgical consult, only to be told that all of the operating rooms were being used. It was a disaster, a massacre, and Arthur had never felt more alive – until he got his final patient. He went opened up the curtain on bed four and saw a little boy, no more than seven, shaking on top of the white sheets. The boy was covered in burns from the car accident. He was all alone.

Arthur looked at the boy's chart. He checked the boy over, being extra careful not to wake him. Then he checked the chart again to see who had first looked at him and administered his IV. "NURSE ADAMS!" Arthur yelled. When a young-looking nurse ran over to him, Arthur rounded on her. "Why the hell am I only looking at this patient now?"

"You've been busy," she snapped, "and he's got an IV. We did everything—"

"He's in a much dire state than several of the other patients I saw before him."

"That's not my opinion, Arth—"

"Excuse me? What did you call me?"

Nurse Adams eyes widened. "Are you kidding me?" Her nostrils flared and her cheeks turned red. "I've worked here for eleven years, Doctor, and you've worked here for eleven minutes. That patient has had pain meds, he's sedated. Does he have second degree burns? On part of his body, yes, but—"

"Eleven years is no excuse for being a complete moron."

Nurse Adams looked as though she might lunged at Arthur, but an arm held her back.

"Whoa, calm down," a voice said.

Arthur's eyes quickly sought out the owner of the voice. The accent sounded English, similar to Arthur's, and he was more than surprised to see that the owner was the nurse who had been smoking outside a few hours earlier.

"Both of you are having a battle of egos," said the nurse.

Arthur looked at his nametag: Merlin Emrys.

"Whatever, Merlin," said Nurse Adams. "If this doctor calls me a moron again, I'm going to—"

"Don't call her a moron," said Merlin. "Why are you yelling in the first place? This place is loud enough without your pitch being added to it."

"This boy needs to go to surgery now."

"He's fine," snapped Adams.

"Tell that to the fucking internal bleeding that you missed."

Merlin let go of the nurse and ran to the patient. He ran his fingers along the boy's abdomen where his seatbelt must have been. "Feel here," he said to Adams. "How long has he been here?"

"I don't know – a few hours."

"I'll take him to radiology, but he's probably got liver damage – you can tell because of—"

"No, no, I see it. Fuck it, I'll take him. Move out of the way."

Merlin helped Adams with the brakes of the bed and removed the IV bag from the hook, placing it on the bed. "Where're his parents?"

"They're dead," said Adams, her voice flat.

Just as she said it, the boy's eyes opened and he looked around frantically. Arthur took two large steps to the side of the bed.

"Do you know where you are?"

"Hospital," said the boy. "Where's my mom?" Tears leaked from his eyes and he began to cough.

"She's, er, in another bed," lied Arthur. He'd had to tell family members before that their loved-ones had died but never a seven-year-old boy. "We're taking you to radiology."

"What's that?" The boy began breathing heavily and unevenly.

"We need to take pictures of the inside of your body."

The boy grabbed Arthur's arm. "Don't leave me."

Arthur stared at the small hand wrapped around his forearm, unsure of what to do. "Okay," he said, "I won't."

Arthur helped Adams take the bed to radiology. While the boy was inside, Arthur waited in the corridor, sitting down in one of the waiting chairs. His head was in his hands, his elbows on his knees. Even though he didn't smoke, for a moment he wished he did so he could claim need for an oxygen break and escape outside.

"She's human."

Arthur looked up. Merlin had sat down next to him in one of the radiology waiting chairs.

"I mean, she made a mistake, but you didn't have to yell at her like that. You have to get the nurses on your side and if you're a prat, they'll never have your back and you'll be out of allies."

Arthur blinked. "Are you serious?"

"Of course I am. You doctors are all the same. You act like God because you've got two extra letters at the end of your name, but having an M and a D doesn't give you the right to order other people about like you actually are God. The thing is, nurses do all your dirty work. We draw blood, put in IVs, sew in stitches. You see patients for ten minutes a day and the rest of the time, patients see nurses."

"Are you always this assertive?"

"Just when I see someone being a complete arse." Merlin stared right at Arthur, as though daring him to say something. "My name is Merlin Emrys. I know almost everyone and you can find me on the fifth floor, ICU, if you have any questions about how to have appropriate interpersonal relationships."

"I cannot believe you're speaking to me like this. Do you know who I am?"

"You're Arthur Pendragon," answered Merlin, pointing to Arthur's nametag. "M.D. – Mostly Daft? Or just Majorly Defected? Have a nice day."

Arthur watched Merlin walk down the corridor and back towards the Emergency Department. He had no idea at that moment he had just been told off by the future love of his life.

_