Hope, if you squint

Trying to get away from all the depressing angst I write, but I don't know how successful I am.

It's hard.

Merlin's ears weren't really that big: it was those stupid neckerchiefs he insisted on wearing that made them seem so.

Arthur had told him so, many times. Not in so many words, of course; he didn't have the vocabulary for that. But in actions, in hints, in nudges and head nods.

But either Merlin was painfully obtuse, or he liked wearing those silly thing, regardless of what they made him look like.

It had become an inside joke between them, really. Someone would comment of Merlin's ears, Merlin would smile daftly, and Arthur would nudge him and nod toward his neckerchief while Merlin sighed good-naturedly.

Merlin had gone out to collect some herbs, and Arthur accompanied him. To see the sights, that was all. It got boring in the castle all alone.

"Hey Merlin, nice ears." Some creative chap yelled. Merlin waved at him and continued walking. Arthur sighed and, reaching over, tweaked his blue neckerchief. He paused, his hand still on the item of clothing, frozen.

Merlin kept walking, but then noticed Arthur had stopped. "Are you OK?" He asked, concerned.

"Yeah," Arthur choked out. "I don't think I'll go with you after all, though." He spun around and walked back to the castle. Merlin was his servant; Arthur wasn't going to explain himself.

Back in his rooms, Arthur leaned his head against a nearby wall. That was the most casual touch he had had with Merlin, and it kept replaying itself in his head. The heat of his neck, the soft skin just barely out of reach...

Why did that bother him? Merlin touched him all the time; he even dressed him, sometimes!

But Arthur knew why.

It was the first touch he had initiated; it was the first time Arthur had let himself act on his desires, if only slightly. He had wanted to touch the boy since about his second day of service, had wanted to throw him against the wall and into his bed.

Yet he had refrained. He didn't want to scare him, didn't want to lose him. And so he had been reduced to this, this quivering mess of a person who melted whenever he almost touched his crush.

(And it was a crush, nothing more. A strong crush, yes, but just a crush. It would go away soon enough.)

(Arthur had been telling himself that for about a year.)

He groaned aloud and stormed toward the door. Fighting someone would make him feel better, it always did.

The next time someone called out something about Merlin's ears, Arthur did his customary nudge and nod, but he didn't trust himself to adjust his neckerchief again. He didn't know what he would do if he got that close to Merlin's skin again.

So he glared at the floor and sped up, missing Merlin's small look of disappointment.

Arthur walked into his rooms, hot and tired from his practice fight (that he had won). He stopped, noticing Merlin was already in there.

"What are you doing in here?" He asked, a little briskly, but noting that Merlin had, once again, insisted on wearing a neckerchief (Arthur swore, the boy had about five hundred different colors. Not that he payed attention to what he wore.).

Merlin raised an eyebrow in that adorable way he had. "You're wearing armor. I help you take it off."

Arthur's cheeks warmed at the idea of Merlin taking his clothes off. He couldn't deal with it, not now. "Leave me, I can do it myself." He dismissed him.

Merlin raised both eyebrows this time. "Are you sure? You-" He started, but was stopped by Arthur's glare. "As you wish, sire." He mock bowed and started to leave.

"Wait!" Arthur called, facing the wall. He steeled himself and asked, "Why do you always wear those ridiculous neckerchiefs?"

Though he wasn't looking, could hear the silly boy's eyebrow raise. "Because, whenever someone makes fun of me about my ears because of it, you always protect me."

Merlin left.

Huh. Arthur thought. Maybe I haven't been imagining it after all. Maybe there's hope for us, the spoiled prince and the insolent manservant. If you look really hard, if you squint, there may be something there.

Arthur was left in his room, hot and bothered (but now for an entirely different reason), with a whole complicated mess of armor to take off.

But he couldn't control his smile.