It's deep into the early hours of the morning, the candles all burning lower than they should be, and Merlin is adding a few pieces of wood to the fire to ease the cold and give some light to the dim room.
Behind him Arthur is sitting in a position that would be called "slumping" for anyone who isn't a king. He's low in his chair, a goblet of mead dangling in one hand and his other hand shaped into a fist against his temple, supporting his head.
Merlin sets the poker back in its place and wipes his hands on his trousers, exhaling a deep breath before turning back around. He offers Arthur a weak smile as he makes his way to sit opposite of him.
Arthur stares at him for a moment before he averts his gaze and lazily brings his goblet to his lips. The cup is overly full and some splashes on his night shirt. Merlin sighs deeply, knowing full well how difficult the stain will be to remove, and how on any other occasion Arthur would never be quite so careless.
But tonight… Tonight Arthur is drunk. He is very, very drunk.
It's not the first time they've sat down in Arthur's chambers to drink together, but usually it's Merlin getting too far into his cups while Arthur sits back and laughs both with and at him. Merlin suspects that Arthur invites him to have a drink because he finds a drunk Merlin to be an entertaining one, and Merlin allows himself to drink a bit too much because he knows it cheers Arthur up, that it makes him happy.
Merlin wishes that was what had Arthur asking him to stay tonight, but Merlin knows it has more to do with Arthur wanting to allow himself a night of thoughtless drinking before he must once again shoulder the burden of Camelot, this time without the support of Guinevere, without the knowledge that she will be his queen.
Arthur sloshes more mead from the goblet as he fumbles it haphazardly onto the table, and Merlin purses his lips, annoyed at the mess, but his brow is drawn together in worry over just how drunk Arthur must be.
"Merlin," Arthur calls, head lolling back and his eyes closed. He opens them blearily and licks his lips. "Come here."
Merlin sighs the sigh of the burdened, but scoots his chair away from the table and stands, moving to Arthur and preparing to haul him off to his bed, whether Arthur wants to or not. Arthur looks close to sleeping where he sits, it's late, and Merlin himself is tired after feeling second hand distress for Arthur and making sure Arthur has been attended and catered to all day. It's probably the best actual service that Merlin has ever given, and he even put up with Arthur's snappish and brooding mood. Merlin is emotionally and physically exhausted; it's definitely time for bed.
He leans over and tugs Arthur's arm up to loop it over his shoulder, but when he does, Arthur pulls him down forcefully. Merlin's breath catches as Arthur pushes his face into Merlin's neck, sighing heavily. His heart in his throat, Merlin tries to pull back, knowing that Arthur has no idea what he's doing.
"What do I do?" Arthur asks quietly. "I loved her. I still love her. How can I still love her after what she did to me?"
Merlin exhales deeply through his nose, and attempts to gently tug Arthur's arm from where it rests heavily across his shoulders. But Arthur only pulls him closer, so abruptly that Merlin nearly falls face-first into his lap. He catches himself on the arm of the chair, narrowly avoiding what would undoubtedly be one of the most awkward positions they've ever been in, and Merlin definitely doesn't want to feel any more awkward than he already does.
Arthur has never been very tactile, most especially not with Merlin. And even though the angle is more like when Arthur puts him in headlocks than any sort of embrace, Merlin knows that Arthur would never hold him this way if he were in his right mind.
"Arthur," Merlin says, allowing himself to bring up a hand to stroke through Arthur's soft hair. "It's time for bed."
Arthur just presses his face further into the juncture between Merlin's shoulder and neck, giving a small hum of acknowledgment, but making no move to stand.
"Tell me, Merlin," he asks, his breath whispering against Merlin's skin. He pulls his head away to look Merlin in the eye, face only inches from Merlin's."You are wise at the strangest of times, aren't you? Tell me what to do."
Merlin searches Arthur's eyes, and he looks so unbearably sad, so tired and resigned, that Merlin can't help but want to comfort him.
"You shouldn't have sent her away," Merlin says, brushing Arthur's hair - shorter, now, having been recently cut for the wedding - away from his eyes. "There may be things you don't know about what happened. She was in the wrong, yes, and there's nothing that can be done to change her actions. But love… Love rights wrongs between people. I really believe that. And I know that she truly loves you, and you her."
Arthur's gaze is heavy on Merlin's for a moment before he breaks it away to stare into the fire. His hold on Merlin slackens for a bit, but then his hand slides from Merlin's shoulder to his arm, and on down to his hand, which he grips with fingers loose from too much alcohol.
"Maybe she loves two people? The two of us. Me and him," Arthur mumbles, slurring and absentminded. "I know what it's like to love two people, to have to choose," he says, and Merlin swallows deeply as Arthur begins stroking the back of his captured hand with his thumb. "But she already chose me. I didn't go back on my choice. She should have been… honorable."
"Yes," Merlin breathes, pulling lightly at his hand. "She should have been. But if you know how hard it is to choose, can you blame her for wavering? And she did choose you. She was going to marry you."
"No," Arthur says, and now he's fumbling with Merlin's hand, squeezing tightly before clumsily twining their fingers together. Merlin is wide-eyed and getting steadily more nervous, not sure if he wants to hear what Arthur has to say.
It's one thing to be rejected for Gwen, to be dismissed before even being considered because Arthur was absorbed in her. But it stings even more to know that there has been another that has won Arthur's notice above Merlin. He's always known that his feelings for Arthur are not reflected by Arthur's feelings for him, but right now his is acutely aware of this, and something clenches in his chest in the same way it did when Arthur announced to his uncle that he would be marrying Gwen.
"No," Arthur starts again, once again fixing his gaze on Merlin. Merlin is pulled in by the intensity he finds there, and his eyes feel the weight of Arthur's heavy feelings pressing in. "It's different for her. She's allowed to waver between myself and Lancelot. But I…" he stops here for a moment, then closes his eyes again, exhaling his burden as he speaks. "I'm the king, and there will always be certain things I can't have, ways I can't behave. I took a risk in even having her. But I can't have the other person, I can't have-"
"Arthur," Merlin chokes out, interrupting the babbling. His heart is pounding, and there is a layer of moisture shining in his eyes that he blinks away quickly. He's done, he's been comforting, and he knows that he's at his limit. He can't take hearing about people Arthur loves in ways that he will never love Merlin. "Arthur, you need to go to bed. You're exhausted, it's late, and the kingdom won't put itself on hold for you."
"The kingdom will do whatever I bloody well want it to do," Arthur scoffs, frowning petulantly. "But fine. I suppose you're right."
Arthur leans forward and releases Merlin's hand to grip the table. Merlin quickly moves behind him to pull the chair back, and Arthur wobbles to his feet. He tries to take a step toward the bed, but his legs are weighted with drink and he stumbles into the chair, nearly knocking it over before Merlin comes to his side and steadies them both.
Arthur says nothing as Merlin holds him by his shoulders, frowning again, his eyes unfocused and staring off through Merlin's lips.
"Arthur?" Merlin says, trying to get his attention. "We both know I can't bear your full weight, so you're going to have to work with me to get you to the bed."
"Mm," Arthur agrees, stumbling forward slightly. Merlin steadies him again before slipping in next to him and slinging one of Arthur's arms around his shoulders.
It's a bit of a struggle as Merlin all but drags Arthur to the bed, dumping him on it as well as he can. This leaves both of Arthur's legs hanging off the side of the bed from the knee down, and Merlin exhales a breath of exertion before kneeling to take off Arthur's boots.
Arthur sits up and looks down at him, blinking blearily.
"The bed is very comfortable, you know," Arthur says, watching Merlin push and pull his right boot, trying to get it off a non-compliant foot.
"I'm sure it's fit for a king, sire," Merlin says, managing a small smile as he glances up at Arthur, who is smiling back gently.
"You never say 'sire' unless you're being sarcastic or are cross with me," Arthur starts, his smile morphing into a frown. "You're not cross with me, are you? You were her friend."
Merlin finally yanks Arthur's right boot off and sets it aside.
"No," he says quietly. "I'm not cross with you. I understand."
"Good," Arthur says, a hand coming forward and petting Merlin's head. Merlin's hands freeze on Arthur's other boot, and he looks up at him. Arthur's hand slips down from Merlin's hair to cup the side of his face, and Merlin's eyes flutter shut as Arthur's thumb traces his cheekbone.
"You should stay," Arthur says, and something inside Merlin unravels. He flinches away from Arthur's touch and hurriedly goes back to removing his other boot.
"I'd rather sleep in my bed than on the floor," Merlin says lightly, though he knows that's not really what Arthur meant. But Arthur is slurring his words, swaying just sitting up, and Merlin doesn't want regrets in the morning.
"Don't be stupid, Merlin," Arthur continues, leaning back on his elbows. "You'll share the bed with me. I told you, it's comfortable."
Merlin yanks the second boot off and sits back on his heels, pretending to be scraping a bit of dirt from the sole rather than meeting Arthur's gaze.
He swallows thickly as he contemplates his options. He could… stay, share something as intimate as Arthur's bed - something they've never done outside of cold winter nights in the forest - or he could tuck Arthur in and leave. The urge to take advantage of Arthur's invitation is strong, but the question of what the morning would bring bothers Merlin. He doesn't think he could stand to be kicked coldly out of a warm bed.
He thinks about it for a moment before realizing he could simply lie with him, wait for Arthur to fall asleep, and then sneak quietly from the bed. Arthur probably wouldn't remember the request in the morning, and even if he did, odds are that he would simply choose not to discuss it. As long as Merlin is gone before Arthur wakes up, it can remain a secret between them.
Merlin swallows thickly, finally chancing a look at Arthur, who is staring steadily down at him.
"You… Do you really want me to stay?" he asks, carefully watching Arthur's face.
"I already told you not to be stupid, Merlin," Arthur says, rolling his eyes. He sits up once again and leans forward, nearly falling all the way off the bed before Merlin catches him and pushes him back up.
Arthur flops onto his back, and his grip on Merlin's shirt has him yanking Merlin down with him. Merlin flails for a moment, face buried in the softness of Arthur's bedding with the majority of his body still off the bed. He manages to push himself up and makes to get out of the bed again, but Arthur grabs him before he can move away.
"Where are you going?" he asks, something that sounds like desperation tinting his tone. Merlin's jaw nearly drops at the ferocity of the question; it's as if Arthur would be truly upset if Merlin were to leave him.
"My boots," Merlin mumbles, looking away. "I don't want get the bed dirty. I'm the one who has to get the bedding washed, you know."
Arthur just blinks at him and lets his head fall back again, releasing his hold on Merlin's arm.
Merlin makes quick work of his own boots and removes his neckerchief and jacket before moving to Arthur. He manhandles him into a position where he can pull down the blankets, Arthur helping in his own way by wiggling here and there across the bed and rolling over when he's instructed. It takes a few minutes of maneuvering before Arthur is situated under the blankets with his head on the pillow and his feet at the foot of the bed.
Merlin looks at him carefully, sees that his eyes are closed, and thinks that maybe he should go ahead and leave. As much as he wants the comfort of a night next to Arthur, he also doesn't really trust himself to stay awake and make an escape when he's encased in the warmth and softness of the bed. He's as tired as he's ever been, and sleep would be too sweet a temptation.
"Merlin," Arthur says, eyes opening slightly, "Come here."
And Merlin goes.
He crawls into the bed next to Arthur on top of the blankets, and lays on his back. Arthur turns on his side, and when Merlin glances over, Arthur is frowning.
Arthur tuts at him. "Get under them, you great girl. You'll freeze otherwise."
Merlin hesitates for a moment, but then swallows and nods.
Arthur needs intimacy right now, he thinks, and Merlin is glad to be trustworthy enough that Arthur feels safe asking him for this. He already knows he'd do anything for Arthur, and though this is difficult for him - giving this, when he's already resigned himself to never having it - he finds it's something he wants to give.
Merlin moves under the blankets, still on his back, but close enough that he's almost touching Arthur. He forces himself to relax, and blinks up at the canopy. He tries to think of mundane things; he'll need to change all the candles in the morning, as one by one they are slowly burning out. They were getting low anyway, and it was almost time -
He inhales sharply when he feels Arthur's fingers trace the edge of his shirt, and stops breathing altogether when those fingers push under the fabric, hand sliding up to settle gently on Merlin's belly. Arthur's thumb makes slow circles on the skin there, and when Merlin exhales he feels the weight of Arthur's hand sharply.
"For tonight," Arthur says quietly. "Stay for tonight."
Merlin wants to say 'You won't want me here in the morning,' and 'You don't know what you're asking of me', but he says nothing, continuing to stare above.
"Tell me you'll stay. That you'll be here when I wake up."
Merlin turns his head to the side to see Arthur's expression, and he looks so broken and vulnerable, drunk but earnest, that Merlin feels his heart break silently into pieces. He doesn't want to lie, he really doesn't, and Arthur's palm is warm and calloused against his belly, the motions of his thumb lightly tickling but more soothing than anything, and Merlin wants to stay, to wake up to a sleepy Arthur, one who will see him and want him for everything.
"Yes," Merlin says, a bit breathless. "I'll stay with you tonight."
Arthur smiles gently, sadly, and removes his hand from beneath Merlin's shirt, trailing his fingers up Merlin's chest and neck, coming to rest on his lips. He traces Merlin's lower lip with his index finger, his eyes following the movement, before his hand settles against Merlin's cheekbone, cupping his face gently.
"Merlin," Arthur murmurs, eyes half-lidded with sleep. "I wish I could have you."
In that moment, Merlin thinks he might understand. He thinks that maybe he isn't alone in his forbidden thoughts, that perhaps the looks and moments between them are held as close to Arthur's heart as they are to Merlin's. Merlin's heartbeat is pulsing in his chest, in his throat, in his temples, and the seconds pass all too quickly. He brings his hand up to cover Arthur's, and turns his face into the touch.
"I wish," he starts, but his throat is dry and his tongue is heavy in his mouth, "I wish you could too."
Merlin closes his eyes, because it's almost too much; what they have has become tangible, there is evidence of the strength and the nature of their feelings and yet they can never amount to anything more than what they've been for years now. But Merlin will take all that is given to him, and he can feel in Arthur's touch that he will do the same. They will quietly love each other, barred from the intimacy they're sharing in this moment by the constraints of status and duty.
They make the choice not for themselves, but for Camelot.
Arthur moves his hand again, placing it back under Merlin's shirt, but this time hiking it up until he touches the place where Merlin's heart is thundering fiercely.
"I'd ask of you - but it isn't fair to… I don't want…" Arthur trails off, his eyes looking lost and sad as he gently presses the tips of his fingers into Merlin's skin.
Merlin closes his eyes briefly, resting his hand over Arthur's again.
"I'd give you anything you asked of me. But I know you can't ask."
"I want to, though," he says. "But you're right."
"I should quote you on that," Merlin says, a teasing smile spreading through his heartbreak. "You rarely ever admit that I'm right."
Arthur huffs a laugh, then shuffles closer to Merlin, until they are almost nose to nose. They stay like that for a moment, close, just looking and breathing.
"You're often right," Arthur says quietly, breaking the silence.
Merlin's smile shifts to something smaller, more private.
"Go to sleep, Arthur. You're very drunk and starting to say things you'll regret in the morning."
Arthur sighs, closing his eyes, only to open them a moment later.
"Then I'll add more to the list - I want to have this for as long as possible. I want to watch you fall asleep, to wake up to you in the morning. I want to choose you."
"I know," Merlin says. "I know."
"I know you know how unfair it is. But I love her too, I do. And she's what's right. You're both meant to be by my side," he says, then gives his head a gentle shake. "But what's more unfair? The most unfair? I made my choice, I meant to forever be loyal, and I was betrayed. And now she's gone, and I can't have you. What do I do, Merlin?"
Merlin tightens his grip on Arthur's hand.
"You keep on. You're going to be the greatest king Albion has ever known. And you know that I will always stay with you. My place is with you, has been with you ever since I became your servant; always, really. Hers is as your queen. You'll see, Arthur. All will be as it's meant to be."
Arthur closes his eyes tightly.
"But what if it's meant to be you?"
"It's not," Merlin murmurs. "Maybe in a different lifetime, but not now."
"It's not fair," Arthur says, and Merlin gives Arthur's hand another squeeze.
"It's not," he agrees. "But don't be petulant. You're meant to be kingly."
"I'm drunk in my private chambers. I don't have to be kingly right now."
Merlin laughs a bit, and finds himself suddenly overcome with the desire to move his face across the small distance between them and kiss Arthur. He purses his lips in resistance, and turns his head to stare at the canopy once again.
Arthur sighs heavily.
"What is it?" he asks, sounding put-upon.
Merlin closes his eyes.
"Merlin. Tell me."
It's Merlin's turn to sigh, and he draws out his exhale, eyes closing.
"I want to kiss you."
Arthur stills, and for a moment Merlin panics and thinks maybe he's got this all wrong, that Arthur is just looking for someone to touch, just for a moment, that Arthur was just claiming friendship and that sort of love.
But Arthur is leaning up, and when Merlin opens his eyes, it's to Arthur brushing his lips across Merlin's brow, his nose, his chin, his lips.
Arthur pulls away, and Merlin hears him say, "Just once," above the blood rushing through his ears.
Merlin closes his eyes, and notes absently, through the haze of emotion, that almost all of the candles have gone out, and the fire is little but coals in the hearth.
"We should sleep," he says into the quiet. "We'll already barely able to function tomorrow."
"You're barely able to function anyway," Arthur says, "But for now, just be here. Sleep will come." He pauses, and then, very quietly says, "Make good on your promise to be here when I wake up. I want that moment. And then it will be over. No more."
Merlin swallows and nods, feels his chest constrict to the point that he can barely breathe.
In the morning they will be friends.
In the day they will be master and servant.
But tonight… Tonight they are almost lovers.