"I'm sorry, sir, I've just got the one room left," the innkeeper says, looking contrite as the handsome traveler scowls, frustrated.
"The next closest inn is how far away?" Arthur asks.
"Next town over. Several hours' ride through pitch-black forest at this time of night, sir." The burly innkeeper studies this man, wondering what it is about him that compels him to keep calling him "sir". He chalks it up to the fact that the man is well-dressed and fairly clean.
Arthur sighs. "Fine. I'll take the room. I'd like two dinners within the hour, and I do hope your patrons aren't loud or rowdy," he says.
The innkeeper frowns slightly and says, "I'm sorry, sir, it's awfully late for dinner..."
Arthur places several coins on the bar and waits, looking the other man in the eye.
"Within the hour, sir," the innkeeper relents, removing the coins so swiftly Arthur doesn't even see his hand move. "I'll show you to your room," the large man says, starting to amble out from behind the bar.
"Just direct me; I'll find it," Arthur replies, holding his hand up.
"Last door on the left, sir."
"Thank you," Arthur shortly answers, turns, and walks out. He returns a few minutes later, followed by a young boy. The boy's head is bowed and he carries a large satchel on his shoulders.
As soon as they are through the main room of the inn, Arthur takes the bag and carries it himself the rest of the way.
"Sorry," he softly apologizes.
"It's all right," Guinevere answers. "It was necessary to keep up appearances."
He smiles and opens the door. He had explained the situation to her outside, and they both agreed that if they were to share a room, it would be best if she appeared to be his servant. Arthur Pendragon, Crown Prince of Camelot, did not travel all this way to return his Guinevere to her home to have her do so scandalized.
She had gone missing three days ago, stolen from the streets in the dead of night, in an attempt to draw her mistress out of hiding. Unfortunately, the bandits who wished to find Lady Morgana (in order to return her to King Uther for reward money) overestimated the former ward's affection for her maidservant and underestimated the prince's ability to singlehandedly defeat three men at once. They also had no idea that the prince values the maid's life far more than the ward does. Not that they'll be telling anyone now.
Guinevere reaches for the hat hiding her long curls as soon as the door is closed. "Wait," Arthur says, stopping her. "The innkeeper will be arriving with our dinners at some point."
"Oh. Right," Guinevere replies, rubbing her head before dropping her hand. "It itches a bit."
"Sorry. You look quite fetching though," he says, smiling. He steps over and indulges himself in one small kiss. "I'm so glad you're safe," he whispers, tucking an escaped curl into her hat. "When I heard you had disappeared, I..."
"Shh," she says, cupping his face in her hands, her thumbs stroking his cheeks. "I know, Arthur. I'm safe now, thanks to you."
"I will always keep you safe," he answers, leaning to kiss her again.
"You cannot promise that," she softly argues.
"I can and I will," he returns, stubborn as always.
She offers a small smile, not wishing to argue the point. She simply appreciates his efforts for her and his sweetness towards her. "I am the only person who sees this side of you," she says, looping her hands behind his neck.
"That is by design," he answers. "What would Merlin think if I suddenly started being... nice to him?"
She giggles. "He'd think you'd gone daft," she replies. "And you are nice to him, sometimes. I've seen it. Usually it's when you think no one is looking."
Or when we think we are about to die. He doesn't speak the thought, not wishing to upset her. "You are always watching," he says, smiling. "That is what makes you so wise, Guinevere."
"Not wise enough to avoid being kidnapped. Again," she laments, her face falling. "I—"
There is a knock at the door. Guinevere practically leaps out of Arthur's arms and busies herself in the corner with their bags, facing away from the door.
Arthur goes to the door.
"Dinner, sir," the innkeeper says, trying to peer over Arthur's shoulder without being too obvious about it. Arthur doesn't budge an inch.
"Thank you," he answers, taking the tray from the man. "I'll set this outside the door when we are finished."
"You dine with your servant?" the innkeeper asks.
"The boy does need to eat," Arthur haughtily answers, closing the door on the man.
"You weren't very nice to him," Guinevere quietly comments.
"It was an impertinent question. Besides, I've given him enough coin that he will look past anything I say or do," he replies, setting the tray on the small table. He sits, and his shoulders sag. "You are right," he sighs. "Of course you are right. I'm just... still on edge. This would have been simpler if you had your own room." He inwardly cringes at how that may have sounded to her, and hastily adds, "Not that I don't enjoy your company, or... well, under different circumstances..." like if we were married, "...I would be happy to share a cozy room in an inn with you. It's just... so much more complicated this way." He gestures towards one of the chairs.
"I understand, Arthur," she says, coming to the table. She removed the hat as soon as the innkeeper left and now looks much more like herself. "He probably thinks we have one of those master-servant relationships that are only ever whispered about..."
"I don't really care what he thinks of me. He doesn't know who I am, and there is no one he can tell that will have any effect on my reputation," he says, pouring some wine into the goblets. "Even so, I wouldn't care." He doesn't add that the main source of his unease is thinking about the one bed in the room.
"I'll just... sleep on the floor," Arthur says some time later, grabbing a pillow from the bed.
"Y-you do not need to," Guinevere quietly says. "I trust you."
"I know you trust me, Guinevere," he replies, stroking her cheek with his thumb. "It simply would not be proper." The problem is I am not certain I trust myself.
"Then let me sleep on the floor," she offers, knowing he will say, "No".
"You are not sleeping on the floor."
"You are the prince."
"You are a lady."
"I am not a Lady, I am a servant."
They stare at one another for a long moment.
"You are so much more than a servant to me, Guinevere. That is why you will sleep in the bed and I will sleep on the floor," Arthur quietly says. "Please don't make me order you. I abhor giving you orders," he adds, his voice even softer.
"Very well," she says. "Goodnight, Arthur." She turns to go to the bed.
"Guinevere," he stops her, his hand on her arm. "Do not be upset with me, please."
"I'm not upset, I promise you. I am simply very tired. I'm sorry I argued with you," she replies, head slightly bowed.
"You never need to apologize for challenging me, Guinevere," he softly says as he lifts her chin and softly kisses her lips. Then, he kisses them again, and yet again, until he wraps his arms around her once more, lost.
He remembers himself soon enough, and pulls away, dropping his forehead against hers. "That is also why I will sleep on the floor," he whispers. Then, he is gone, pillow in hand, as he walks to the only spot in the room with a large enough spot for him to stretch out.
Guinevere follows with a blanket from the bed. "Here."
"You need that," he answers, not taking the offered item.
"There are more on the bed, and you are far away from the fire," she insists, dropping it over him. "Goodnight, Arthur," she repeats, her voice gentler than the first time.
"Goodnight, Guinevere." He listens as she pads over to the bed and climbs in. He hears her soft sigh as she settles into the covers, pictures her sweet face resting on the pillow. "This reminds me of the time I stayed at your house."
"Except that time, you did have the bed," she answers, smiling.
"I still feel badly about that," he admits.
"I forgave you a long time ago," she reassures.
They fall silent, listening to the crackle of the fire and the muffled sounds from the tavern. Arthur thinks he hears Guinevere's breathing slow and even out as she drifts to sleep. He thinks he hears an owl. He thinks he hears the innkeeper telling the patrons about the strange noble who dines – and does only the gods know what else – with his serving boy. He knows he still doesn't care about the innkeeper's opinion.
He also knows that the floor is very hard and he is getting very cold. Sleeping on a stone floor is quite different than sleeping on the ground. He shifts, trying to find a comfortable spot, but unforgiving stone grinds against his hipbone. He tries his back, which is no good, because he's never been able to sleep on his back.
"Just come up here, Arthur," Guinevere finally says. "I can hear your discomfort. This bed is plenty large, and I am not even taking up half of it."
"I am all right," Arthur answers.
"I will order you," she returns, a smile in her voice.
He sighs, a smile gracing his lips. "You know, you are probably the only person I would allow to give me orders," he says. "Well, you and my father..." He groans, then rises, dragging his blanket and pillow.
He pauses beside the bed, noting how little space she occupies. She is used to that narrow bed of hers. Still mindful of decorum, he lies down on top of the blankets, covering himself with the one in his hands.
"I don't think that's necessary," she says, turning to look at him. "I am touched by your adherence to chivalry and decorum, but your weight is pulling on the blankets and, well, this is just silly." He stares at her. She stares back. "Get under the blankets. My lord."
"Yes, my lady," he answers, flipping the spare blanket off, then sliding beneath the covers. The bed is fairly comfortable. Not as nice as his own, but he is Prince of Camelot, so his bed should be better than a bed in some random roadside inn. It's certainly more comfortable than the floor. "Thank you, Guinevere. Good night," he says. "I..." he pauses, the words, "love you" sticking in his throat. "I hope you sleep well."
"Good night, Arthur. Sleep well," she replies.
Arthur isn't sure if he'll be able to fall asleep.
Little does he realize Guinevere feels the same. They both will their bodies to relax, to make their breathing slow and steady, neither of them wanting the other to think they're awake.
They must have both succumbed to sleep at some point, because when they are roused into wakefulness in the early dawn hours by a rather noisy bird outside, Guinevere is curled against Arthur and his arms are around her, holding her in a gentle but secure embrace.
She sighs, snuggling into his warmth, not yet fully aware of where she is. All she knows is she feels warm and secure. Well-rested. Loved.
Arthur, half-asleep, drops a drowsy kiss on the top of her head, tightening his arms around her. "Mmm," he hums, content and blissful. "Guinevere," he murmurs. "Guinevere," he repeats, clearly this time, his eyes opening wide. "Oh. Um..."
She looks up at him, her eyes as wide as his. "Arthur," she says, at a similar loss for words. "We must have moved in our sleep," she adds, stating the obvious.
He nods, but doesn't release her. She feels too good in his arms. Warm and soft and like home if his home was a wonderful, loving place instead of a stone castle filled with responsibility and the cold, watchful eyes of his father. Maybe this will one day be home for me. Gathering his courage, he says, "It was rather nice to wake up this way."
She blinks once. "Yes," she quietly says. "It was."