The heavy, wooden door creaked as Arthur carefully pushed against it, opening it slowly to reveal the little room next to the physican’s chambers.
It was messy as it always was, despite all Arthur’s efforts and admonishments, nearly every bit of floor covered by clothes and books and bits of armour. Arthur’s armour, which he would’ve pretended to be quite cross about, if Merlin had been awake to receive a lengthy scolding. As it was, Merlin was in his bed, head tucked up at an awkward angle, chest rising and falling as he breathed slow and heavy, far away in peaceful sleep.
Of all the things Arthur had had to learn to handle as prince, of all the situations he had had to learn to respond to, to control himself in, this would always be the most impossible. Because there was nothing to do, no way to stop the way his heart skipped a beat or three, the way his stomach curled up on itself, harbouring so much affection that it was near unbearable. There was no way, not anymore - not for a long time - to deny the depth of the affection, the love that he felt for his manservant. It was just there every moment of every day, but never more insistently present than times like this, when there was no-one around to watch him, no real reason to hide his heart. Moments like now, when he could just watch Merlin sleep, peaceful and beautiful, like a drowsy, content little kitten.
He took a deep breath, tried to breathe through all that emotion, give it space inside of him, let it dissipate into his blood, into his bones, into his everything. He went properly into the room, closing the door to the dark, silent room behind him, then stepped up next to Merlin and gently took hold of the old, leather-bound tome that he was cuddling, already knowing what it was. He sighed to himself with the carelessness of it, feeling the affection in his chest turn a bit sharp, a bit painful with fear, his mind automatically going through all the plans he’d made, the thousands of strategies that swirled in his head late at night when he couldn’t sleep.
Merlin frowned and made an unhappy little grumble as the book slipped from his grasp and his hands fell onto his stomach.
„Arthurrr,” he mumbled, maybe sensing him there, maybe just out of habit and either way it flooded Arthur with the same warmth that had been assaulting him before, twice as strong now.
A soft smile played on Arthur’s lips as he walked a few steps to hide the book under the floorboard where it belonged. Then he went back to Merlin, placed a hand under his lower back, the other under his nape and maneuvered him down to lie properly, knowing how much his neck hurt when he fell asleep like that. Merlin frowned some more at that, grumbled some more too and said Arthur’s name once more, just as sleep-addled and hazy as last time.
„’M right here, love,” he mumbled, drawing out the hint of a smile on Merlin’s face.
Merlin reached out for him, grabbed one of his arms.
„Stay,” he said softly, pulling Arthur downwards.
„Can’t,” Arthur replied, brushing some hair out of his face, „Have to finish a speech for tomorrow.”
Not that he could’ve stayed if he didn’t. News of the prince waking up in a servant’s chamber (and a male one at that) would no doubt release a tidal wave of gossip over the castle.
Merlin frowned once more, made an unhappy, little sound in the back of his throat, more a whine than a grumble this time. Then his face smoothed out as sleep claimed him fully again and his hand fell from Arthur’s arm.
Arthur sighed and stood up, gathered a blanket that was carelessly puddled on the floor and draped it over Merlin, over the one that was already covering him.
He leant in to place a gentle kiss on his forehead, was rewarded with another little whisper of a smile and a pleased little hum that resonated deep inside of him. He smiled back, mumbled,
„Just wait until I’m king, Merlin. Then you can fall asleep right next to me and I’ll stay with you all the way until morning.”
Until he kicked him out of bed so Merlin could get him breakfast that was. Well, except he’d probably have another servant then. They’d have another servant. And in the evening Merlin would sit in Arthur’s chair and read, not hiding that book anymore, and when he inevitably fell asleep, studying some ancient spell that he would doubtlessly use when he saved the kingdom for the thousandth time, Arthur would gather him up and place them in their bed and he would curl up right next to him until the morning sun shone through the windows.
But for now, Arthur stood up, took a moment to arrange the blankets around Merlin, then blew out the candle on the bedside table and made his way out of the room, back to his own to write that speech, to fulfil his duties as prince until he would outgrow them and become king. Until he could fulfill his destiny and every promise he’d ever made to Merlin, whether half-whispered like this, said clearly as a solemn vow or just uttered as a thought in his own mind, when he’d regret he couldn’t celebrate Merlin and his invaluable help like he wanted to.
Soon, Merlin, he thought to himself as he slipped out the door. Soon we’ll make the kingdom we’re supposed to make. Just you and me and all the good we’re gonna do together.