The first thing Merlin's aware of is pain. It's sharp and bright and cold, like blades of ice cutting up his arm, and it makes him groan before he's fully awoken.
There's a sound nearby that he eventually recognizes as harsh breathing, ragged and too fast. He doesn't think it's his own. When he groans, it goes silent for the space of one pounding heartbeat, and then another. And then there's a gasp, and scrambling, and there are hands on his face, turning his head. Even that causes enough jostling that he cries out as another bolt of icy-hot pain shoots through his arm.
"Merlin?" It's Arthur's voice, and that's a relief. He relaxes back down onto the hard earth beneath him. "Merlin?"
He runs his tongue over his lips, takes a moment to figure out how to make his voice work again. "I'm right here." His words come out scratchy and hoarse. He can't remember what might have happened to make it that way. "You don't have to shout."
Arthur makes a sound like all the air's been punched out of his lungs. Merlin can feel him settle down beside him, the warmth of him and the sheer awareness of his presence. "This isn't real." His words are suddenly wooden, distanced. "It's an illusion, or it's sorcery, or--"
"Oh good," Merlin says. He finds it in himself to blink his eyes open. There are treetops soaring high overhead, and cloud-patched blue sky visible through their branches. "That's wonderful news. Because if this was real, then I'm pretty sure my arm would be broken."
Arthur makes that sound again, hoarse and strained. It's like he's trying to laugh but tears keep getting in the way. "Merlin, you were dead."
"I'm pretty sure I wasn't." He's tired of being on his back in the dirt. He wants to sit up, but the throbbing in his arm serves as a pretty dire warning that if he does, he's going to regret it. "Passed out, maybe. Broken bones are very painful."
And he's practically handing this to Arthur on a platter, the opportunity to tease him, to mock him for his weakness, for passing out, for not being stoic in the face of a little pain. He waits for Arthur to take the bait, but all he does is make that wounded sound again and grab on to Merlin's shoulder. "No. You were dead. You weren't breathing. Your heart wasn't beating. I checked. I--"
Merlin hums beneath his breath. "You're right, then. Must be magic, because people don't just come back from the dead all on their own. You'd better summon the knights here and hunt down that sorcerer." He rolls his head to the side, enough that he can see Arthur, can see the way that his face has gone pale and his features strained. "Or you can help me splint my arm. Might be more productive."
Resolve settles over Arthur's face, hiding the traces of fear beneath it. His mouth thins and his eyes steel and he gives a single, decisive nod. "Tell me what to do."
"Right," Merlin says. "Pay attention, because this is going to hurt, and once you get started I'm not likely to be in much shape to repeat myself."
Arthur doesn't pale, doesn't even flinch. Merlin's warning just makes the corners of his mouth tighten, and makes him roll his shoulders like he's getting settled into his skin before a joust or a fight.
Merlin figures the least he can do is be as brave, so he doesn't let his fear show as he instructs Arthur how to grasp his arm and pull the bone straight to set the break.
It takes hours, and the sun's going down and the night getting cold, but eventually Merlin is upright, his arm splinted and bound across his chest to immobilize it, and Arthur's busying himself making a fire and setting up a tent because they're things he knows how to do, things that make him feel useful, instead of fumbling and helpless.
He doesn't say as much, of course. He never would. But Merlin read the tension and frustration in him well enough, as he tried to follow Merlin's instructions, and it was no mystery why he stomped off to go gather firewood as soon as he was done. He keeps his search to a narrow circumference, always in sight of Merlin, always in shouting distance.
Merlin leans back against the rock Arthur helped him get propped against and stretches his feet toward the fire, and sighs in appreciation of the rare luxury of getting to enjoy a fire he didn't have to first build himself.
It's a hell of a way to get a day off, but it's easier to be pragmatic about it, now that his arm's bound and stabilized and mostly doesn't hurt so long as he doesn't shift his weight the wrong way, or forget and try to reach for something unthinking.
"You're going to go back to Camelot as soon as dawn breaks, right?" he asks, wiggling his toes in front of the fire. It's just so nice, to sit and have nothing to do, no work that needs to be done hanging over his head. He wonders if this is what Arthur feels like, when he's lounging about making Merlin to do things. It's no wonder he likes to order Merlin about so much.
Arthur lifts his head from where he's been poking the fire with a stick, trying to stir it up higher and brighter. The flame casts flickering orange highlights across his face and makes it difficult to read his expression. "No," he says. "You can't ride, and I'm not leaving you here on your own for days. You can't even defend yourself like this."
Merlin smiles a little to himself and resists the urge to smirk and say, I could, actually. Arthur would never believe him without a demonstration, and it hardly seems the time to give away Merlin's last and best secret.
"What do you intend us to do, then? Bones take months to heal, Arthur. We can't just camp here until it's better."
Arthur shoots him a scathing look, like he's the world's greatest idiot. Merlin knows that one well. It makes him grin. At least some things, not even medical emergencies can change. "We're supposed to be back tomorrow," Arthur says, slowly and with exaggerated patience, as though Merlin's a simpleton. "When we don't show up, they'll send the knights out looking for us."
"They'll probably wait a few days," Merlin says. "In case you just got us lost or something."
Arthur's face flushes at the insult, but he holds his tongue, and says only, "Yes," bitten off and grudging. That just makes Merlin grin harder, and want to see how much it takes to get him to lose is temper.
"And we're a few days out from Camelot, even if they don't have any trouble finding us."
"Merlin," Arthur growls.
Merlin throws his hand up, fingers spread and palm out, to ward Arthur off. "I'm just thinking!"
Arthur settles down beside the fire again. "Don't strain yourself," he says, dry.
"It could be a week. We don't have enough provisions for a week."
"I can hunt, Merlin."
But they didn't bring any weapons for a hunt. All they've got is Arthur's sword, because neither of them anticipated running into anything or anyone more problematic than a wayward highway bandit, easily dealt with, whether with Arthur's sword or Merlin's magic.
The thought of Arthur chasing after rabbits with his sword has Merlin grinning again. The sharp look Arthur shoots him warns him against giving voice to whatever it is that he finds so amusing, like Arthur just knows. Merlin just keeps grinning and says nothing.
Whether Arthur manages to kill anything that way or not, Merlin's still going to be dependent upon him for food and sustenance until the knights find them and they can all go back home. Merlin may be the most useless manservant in the history of Camelot, but he's not stupid.
There is nothing comfortable about sharing a tent with Arthur. It's a small one, designed to fit Arthur on his own comfortably, which means that with the two of them, it's cramped and awkward and there's no way to really settle down. Every position Merlin tries to get into, there's a shoulder or an elbow or a hip in his way, and every time he thinks maybe he's starting to nod off, Arthur shifts and grumbles and ends up knocking into him, startling him right back awake.
More than once, Merlin ends up with his face mashed up against the tent's side. To Arthur's credit, though, whenever Merlin's arm gets jostled and he sucks in a sharp breath at the pain before he can help himself, Arthur immediately whispers, "Sorry, I'm sorry," and plasters himself as far on the other side of the tent as he can.
It never lasts long, because Arthur's not used to having to make room for other people in his life, but it's a far cry more than Merlin had really expected from him, and it makes the pain easier to ignore.
Arthur leaves to go hunting in the morning shortly after dawn, after extracting a firm promise from Merlin not to wander out of sight of the camp. All he's got on him for a weapon is his sword and his dagger, and Merlin has visions of Arthur returning and their celebration turning to consternation as they realized that the game he brought back is hacked to inedible ribbons, so for the sake of his growling stomach, he sends out a tendril of magic. Nothing big, nothing worth getting noticed for, just enough to lure the animals in the area into a bit of complacency. Arthur will never think to wonder whether he caught his quarry due to anything but his own skill, and so there is no risk of discovery.
Arthur returns with two beheaded grouse, looking mightily pleased with himself. It takes all Merlin's strength to tuck his smile away and not give himself away entirely.
Arthur uses the grouse, supplemented by the provisions they brought along with them and a bit of scavenging in the woods around their campsite, to make a passable stew. He cleans the birds well, and Merlin suspects that's probably a point of pride, a hunter's duty learned at Uther's knee, but his sheltered upbringing shows when it comes time to butcher the bird and cook the meal.
And there's no containing Merlin's grin, then, as Arthur hacks at the birds with the dagger, frustration pulling his expression tighter and tighter until he looks like he's maybe thinking of stabbing its carcass, just for good measure.
The bird goes into the stew in rough-cut pieces that would make the palace cooks cringe in horror, and Arthur glares at Merlin like he's daring him to say something. Merlin doesn't bother telling him that he wouldn't dare. Then Arthur might stop trying, and a poorly-cooked meal is hardly the worst thing Merlin would endure for the opportunity to see Arthur like this, sweating and out of his element.
The stew is fine, but trying to eat it with his off hand is a challenge Merlin hadn't anticipated. After the fourth time he spills broth all down his front when he fumbles with the spoon, he huffs out a sharp sigh and wonders if maybe he isn't that hungry, after all.
Arthur is watching him keenly, his own bowl long since emptied while Merlin's barely made a dent in his. Eventually, he scoots around the fire to sit at Merlin's side and holds his hands out, his expression commanding. "Give it to me."
Merlin gives him a sour look and holds his bowl close against his chest. "Just because I don't inhale my food like a glutton doesn't mean you get to claim it for your own."
The look Arthur shoots him is flat and unamused. "Merlin, give it to me. It's painful watching you like this." He somehow manages to look and sound put-upon while offering Merlin help. "You'll waste away before you ever finish eating, at this rate."
Merlin gives him a long stare. "You are not feeding me."
Arthur's expression settles into something impatient and demanding. "Merlin, your prince commands you, just give me the damn bowl and let me--"
"No," Merlin says, a little wildly. "You are not feeding me." He lifts the bowl up to his mouth and slurps the stew like he actually has no table manners at all, because anything is better than sitting here allowing Arthur to do that for him. He'd rather starve.
Arthur looks like he's peeved enough that he's inclined to let him. But eventually he moves back to the other side of the fire and settles for glaring at Merlin across the flames like he can't get over the fact that Merlin flat-out refused him.
The next night, though, when Arthur returns from his hunting trip with a pair of rabbits, he skins and cleans them and skewers them, and then roasts them over the fire, and makes sure that Merlin ends up with the thighs on his plate, convenient for grasping even in his off hand, and he's able to eat his supper almost as quickly and easily as Arthur does.
Merlin watches him across the fire, his heart turning over in his chest. It's a little painful, but it's a good kind of hurt, like looking at something beautiful but rare. Arthur going out of his way to be considerate -- to do as Merlin asked instead of insisting Merlin do it his way -- is a sight he never believed he'd live to see.
"What?" Arthur snaps, scowling, and Merlin realizes he's been grinning at him.
He shakes his head and takes another bite of rabbit. "Nothing," he says around the mouthful. "I'm still just impressed that you can cook without accidentally cutting a finger off, or poisoning us both."
Arthur huffs and rolls his eyes and lies down on his back in front of the fire, staring up at the darkening sky.
"But I just bandaged your arm up yesterday."
Merlin huffs air out through his nose and fights for patience. "Yes, but they need to be changed daily," he says again, for what feels like the hundredth time. "Look, I'd do it myself if I could, but--"
"I know." Arthur's mouth tightens at that, his eyes going hard, and Merlin might think he was angry except that he knows him better, by now. He knows how to recognize guilt in Arthur. It usually looks a lot like anger because he hates feeling like he did something wrong, and for whatever reason, he's decided to take the responsibility for Merlin's broken arm onto his own shoulders.
Merlin settles back against the big rock in their campsite, bracing himself as best as he's able. When Arthur starts unwrapping the bandages that hold his arm immobile and bent across his chest, he can't help the way his breath catches as things start to shift again, despite the splint.
Arthur's mouth just gets tighter, his expression bleaker and bleaker. Merlin realizes distantly, through the sick haze of pain rolling through his stomach, that maybe Arthur's expression isn't actually about the accident at all. Maybe it's about this. He knew he was going to have to hurt Merlin to do this.
If Merlin could focus at all through the pain, he'd want to stop and examine that thought, that hurting Merlin upsets Arthur, infuriates him. But there are other things that need his focus, like not moving no matter how much the pain makes him want to flinch away.
It feels like it takes an eternity, but the sun's barely moved when Arthur finishes wrapping his arm back up and binding it again in place across his chest. Finally, Merlin slumps back and releases a breath. He's sweaty and clammy and trying not to shake just a little, but the bandages are changed, and that's important. Filthy bandages are a quick way to infection and blood poisoning, and if either of those happen out here where it's just the two of them, and help days away, then Merlin's going to have much bigger problems than a little discomfort.
Arthur seems solemn afterwards, but Merlin doesn't have the reserves left to ask him why. They sit in silence around the fire while Arthur occasionally feeds it with the stack of wood he's gathered up to one side of their campsite. And if Arthur gives Merlin the bigger portion of supper that night, his expression is mutinous, and dares Merlin to make any mention of it.
Merlin holds his tongue, and keeps his peace, and takes the food for the apology that it is. It's a lot more than he would have expected from his prince, a week earlier.
Despite Arthur's ministrations, there's a long scrape on Merlin's shoulder that starts to feel hot and swollen to the touch. He can't see it, so he wrestles his shirt off over his head and leans forward, Arthur at his back, and demands he tell him how it looks.
Arthur is quiet for a long moment, and that's answer enough. Merlin feels no surprise, only the weight of inevitability, when Arthur murmurs, "It's bad."
"It's getting there."
Merlin sighs and straightens, rolls his neck out to release the tension gathering there and tries not to fear. "Okay. You're going to have to make a poultice, then, to try to draw it out."
"Just tell me what to do," Arthur says quietly from behind him, and if it's bad enough that it makes him sound like that, frightened and willing to take direction without even a token protest, then Merlin thinks he's probably grateful that he can't see it for himself.
It should be a simple thing, making a poultice. He's been making them since Gaius first took him in, and even when he was at his most inept and fumbling, clueless about everything that had to do with medicine and healing, he usually managed to make one without accidentally ruining it somehow.
Arthur is worse than that, and Merlin doesn't know how it's possible for someone so competent in everything he does to suddenly be so inept. Sending him to gather the right herbs in the first place is an effort in itself. He brings back twigs, to make sure he's got the right plants before he starts gathering from them, and Merlin has to throw out half of them with a shake of his head.
"Three-lobed," Arthur says, scowling, when Merlin discards the branch of the palmwort bush, which when mixed with verquet berries, which Arthur did manage to identify correctly, would create a deadly poison. "That's what you said, three-lobed, with fur on the back of the leaf."
"I also said the leaves come in triples." Merlin shows him how the leaves on the branch he brought back are all in pairs. And when Arthur just keeps scowling, looking irritated but also more than a little frustrated, he adds, "It was close," with a smile. "Try looking around the base of the linden tree, they usually like to grow in its shade."
Arthur does not seem mollified in the least, but he goes back out without another word. Merlin dozes while he's gone, trying not to focus too firmly on the heat that he can feel crawling up his back and across his shoulder. If they can't get the infection under control, Arthur might have to leave him here after all and go find help. A broken bone's more irritant than danger, once it's set and splinted and immobilized, but an infection won't wait for the knights to realize they're gone and head out on their search.
Arthur wakes him when he returns with his ungainly crashing through the brush. He's got an armful of branches and leaves and berries, and as Merlin sorts through them, he smiles and announces that Arthur found everything that they need.
But then he has to instruct Arthur on how to make the poultice, and that's an adventure in and of itself. He still only has his dagger as a tool, and that's more designed for stabbing enemies than for chopping up herbs. He manages a rough job of it, and Merlin eyes the growing pile of hacked-apart leaves and wonders if Arthur won't be inclined to use the dagger on him if Merlin tells him he needs to get all of them much, much smaller.
Once the chopping's done to Merlin's satisfaction, there's the mixing and the grinding. Arthur finds a rock with a hollowed-out depression in it that'll suit, and a stone from the banks of the stream that's been polished round and smooth. Merlin tells him how to use the two to grind the leaves up into a paste, but Arthur doesn't take to the task easily.
Merlin could have it done in less than half the time it takes Arthur, but instead he has to sit there and bite his tongue while Arthur struggles with it after his first attempt at offering helpful advice is met with little more than a surly look and a snappish response.
Eventually, Merlin deems it good enough. He strips his shirt off with one hand, clawing at the back of his collar to pull it up over his head, then leans forward with his elbows on his knees to give Arthur access to his back. "Just smear it on," he says, looking back over his shoulder to talk to Arthur. "But keep it thick. It's not going to do me any favors if you're stingy with it."
Arthur looks grim, and Merlin can't tell if it's because he thinks Merlin's being patronizing, or because his shoulder looks just that bad. He hopes it's the first. If Merlin's used to anything, it's Arthur being irritated at him. But concern is something else entirely and Merlin's not sure he can survive it.
"You need Gaius," Arthur says, his voice tight and unhappy as he settles the bowl of mashed-up herbs on his lap.
"Well, what I've got is you. You're going to have to do." Merlin leans back, nudging in against Arthur to try to jolt him out of the mood that's taken him. "Come on, Arthur. I won't tell anyone you deigned to dirty your hands for a servant, I promise."
That, at least, has the intended effect, and gets Arthur scowling and focused on something other than his fear. He scoops up the poultice mixture with his fingertips and spreads it carefully across Merlin's shoulder like he's determined to be the best damn help Merlin could ask for.
The mixture is cool, and there's an herb in it that has a further cooling effect when applied topically. Merlin closes his eyes as the poultice starts to do its work, and leeches heat out of his swollen shoulder. If he's able to keep it in place long enough, and they did this well enough, it'll start to draw out the infection, too, and then maybe this won't be a complete disaster. Maybe they'll be able to get back to Camelot without it becoming a desperate race against time.
He stretches out carefully onto his stomach, lying beside the fire, so the poultice will have a chance to do its work undisturbed. The warmth coming off the campfire is nice, and the soothing coolness of the poultice is even better, and when Arthur comes around the fire to sit cross-legged by Merlin's head, Merlin just sighs and lets his eyes drift shut, and enjoys the proximity, and the rare opportunity to be in Arthur's company without them sniping at each other.
"Tomorrow," Arthur says, low and quiet and staring at the fire so it seems almost as if he didn't speak at all. "Tomorrow, if it's no better, I'll ride for Camelot. I can make it in a day, if I push."
"You'll kill your horse," Merlin says, propping his chin on his arms. And yourself, he thinks, but leaves that part unsaid.
Arthur turns his head to give him a hot look. "It's easier to find another horse than it is another manservant."
Merlin stretches. The fire is warming one side of him but leaving the other chilled by the night air, and it makes him feel off-balance. "You're right," he says, deadpan. "It's dreadfully difficult to find terrible manservants, these days. Everywhere you look, they're just too keen!"
Some of the heat fades from Arthur's gaze, leaves him just looking warm and a little fond. But maybe that last is just Merlin's imagination. Or possibly delirium from the infection setting in.
"Ah, but you're not just a terrible manservant, Merlin," Arthur says. "You're the worst manservant I've ever seen. I'm sure I'd have to scour the countryside to find a manservant who equalled your level of incompetence, and really, I just don't have that sort of time." He stretches his legs out toward the fire and dons an **insouciant** expression that Merlin's used to from him. But the warmth in his eyes when he glances at Merlin still lingers, and that is entirely new.
"Well, I'd hate to inconvenience you," Merlin murmurs, and turns his head to pillow his cheek on his arms. The warmth of the fire is finally starting to work through the whole of his body, and all he wants to do is sleep. "I suppose I'll just have to stick around after all."
"Yes. See that you do," Arthur says sharply, and Merlin sinks into sleep with a smile hidden in the curve of his arm.
"I don't know," Arthur says. "Better. Maybe. A little." He lays his hand over it and hisses. "It's still hot. I don't know. Maybe it isn't any better. Maybe I'm just seeing seeing signs of improvement because I want to."
Merlin hums and twists, feeling the way the skin stretches tight over his shoulder and the pain seems to throb in time with his pulse. "I hate to suggest it," he starts, but when he looks to Arthur to see his response, Arthur's already moving around, breaking down their campsite and packing things up.
"I'm taking you home," he says in a voice that holds no room for argument.
Merlin leans back, his shoulders against the rock that's become "his" spot in their campsite. "I still can't ride," he says, and gestures to his splinted arm with a nod.
"You can't ride alone," Arthur corrects him. "You can if I help."
"What—" Merlin starts, but Arthur's too busy packing up their site in record time to spare him an answer. As focused as he is, it's not long before Merlin discovers that what Arthur meant is actually what it sounded like maybe he meant.
"You intend us to ride together?" Merlin eyes Arthur's mount. "You really do mean to ride your horse into the ground, don't you?"
Arthur huffs a sharp, impatient sound. "She's strong enough to carry me in full armor. She's not going to have a problem with the two of us. Besides, you're all skin and bone, you can hardly weigh enough for her to even notice you're there."
Merlin's sure Arthur means it as the usual sort of teasing insult they always trade between them, but there's a catch to Arthur's voice, a roughness to it, that makes him sound much more earnest and concerned than Merlin's used to. He gives Arthur a sharp glance, but Arthur's stepping forward to check the saddle's girth around the horse's belly.
The heat in his shoulder is alarming enough that Merlin doesn't put up a fight beyond his first token protest. It's an effort trying to get Merlin up into the saddle, and by the time he's settled in front of Arthur with Arthur's arm wrapped solid and strong around his waist, he's even less certain about the wisdom of this course of action. But Arthur will not be swayed, and the lingering heat in Merlin's shoulder makes a compelling argument.
They don't ride hard, because Merlin's arm can't take the jostling without making a cold, nauseous sweat break out across Merlin's skin. But they ride until the setting sun forces them to stop and make camp while there's still light, and by the time they do so, they've covered more than half the distance home.
Merlin's sore from the long hours spent in the saddle, from a full day's worth of tension that he couldn't help at the constant presence of Arthur's arm around his middle, at the warm strength of Arthur at his back for hour after hour. He waits for Arthur to dismount and then help him down, chafing at the fact that he can't even do this for himself any longer. But Arthur's hands are strong on his waist, and when Merlin lands, they're standing very close, with the solid warmth of the horse at Merlin's back and Arthur just in front of him, still holding onto him, and it takes Merlin a moment to catch his breath.
Arthur clears his throat and speaks first. "Are you all right?"
Merlin nods while he tries to find his voice. "Yes. I— Of course."
"You just looked—" Arthur shakes himself. "I was worried you'd jarred your arm."
Merlin can't help but smile a little at that. "No. It's fine. I just…" But he can't exactly admit the truth, can he? That if he stood there gaping like an idiot, it was because of Arthur's proximity, not any discomfort in his arm. So he just shakes his head and finishes. "I'm just tired, is all. It's been a long day."
But Arthur doesn't take that answer any better than Merlin expects he'd have taken the truth. His brows lower and the corners of his mouth pull tight. "It hasn't been that long," he says. "You've ridden longer with me before, and fared better."
Merlin sighs. "Arthur—"
But Arthur's already moving away from him, dragging their saddlebags off the horse and pulling out supplies. "Sit," he says imperiously, and points to a little flat spot in the grass beside him. "I need to check on your shoulder."
"It's not my shoulder, Arthur," Merlin protests, but Arthur's got the bit between is teeth now, and there's no stopping him. Merlin drops down to sit cross-legged in the grass and sighs.
A moment passes while Arthur gets their things ready, and then he moves around to sit directly behind Merlin, his knees pressing into Merlin's hipbones. He puts his hands on Merlin's waist and pushes the hem of his shirt up his back, and Merlin can't help the way he shivers.
Arthur's hands pause in the middle of his back. "Are you feeling feverish?" he asks, his voice sharp with concern.
Merlin bites back a laugh. "No. I'm fine. There was just a breeze." There isn't a breeze. The air is still in this little clearing they've found, and he's sure Arthur will catch him out in the lie, because surely he noticed. But Arthur says nothing, just pauses a moment before he resumes stripping Merlin's shirt off of him, leaving him bare-chested and shivering again with the knowledge that Arthur is looking at him again, that he's just behind him and Merlin can feel the warmth coming off of him as he hovers his hand over Merlin's shoulder.
"It looks better," he says quietly. "It really does, this time. The redness is fading some."
Merlin lets his breath out on a rush of relief, though he thinks a moment later that it shouldn't be any surprise that the infection is improving. Two days ago he had his shirt off and Arthur's hands hovering over his skin just like this, and his only thoughts had been concern for his arm and his shoulder. Now, it's difficult to keep his thoughts off of Arthur's proximity, or how nice the warmth coming off of him feels, or how dreadful it's going to be having to squeeze into the tent with him tonight.
He coughs to clear his throat, so he can speak without giving himself away entirely, and looks back over his shoulder at Arthur. "Do we have any of the herbs left?"
Arthur nods and drags the bags over to dig it out. He's better at it than he was last night, more practiced and more sure, and in a few moments he's got a passable paste mixed up and he nudges Merlin to sit straight so he can spread it across his shoulder.
Merlin shuts his eyes and forces himself to hold still as Arthur's fingers drag over his skin. All Arthur's doing is helping him, he tells himself sternly. It's completely inappropriate for him to be reacting to it the way that he is.
When Arthur's finished applying the poultice, he gets out the long strips of bandages they'd packed carefully away and starts wrapping Merlin's shoulder, to keep the mixture in place so it can do its work undisturbed throughout the night. He ends kneeling in front of Merlin as he secures the bandage's end, tucking it beneath the previous wraps of fabric to hold it fast. Merlin won't look at him, he can't, but even when he's finished Arthur lingers there, his hands lying lightly on Merlin's chest. The calluses on his fingers from all the training he does with the knights are rough and scratchy against Merlin's skin, and it's all he can do to fight the urge to lean in and feel it better.
"Merlin," Arthur says, low but intent.
Merlin still can't bring himself to look at him, but he hums a little sound of acknowledgment so Arthur will know he heard him, and he's listening.
"You are absolutely not allowed to die. I forbid it."
That startles a laugh out of Merlin. "If serving you all these years hasn't killed me, I doubt a little tumble is going to." It's a joke but it doesn't make Arthur laugh, and when Merlin risks a glance at him, he's somber-faced. Merlin drops the act of levity and tells Arthur, "We'll be in Camelot tomorrow. An infection like this could kill, but not in a day."
"Good." Arthur leans his forehead against Merlin's with a shuddering sigh. His hands are still warm on Merlin's waist, and Merlin doesn't know what any of this is. "If you were to allow any harm to befall yourself, I would be most displeased."
Merlin rolls his eyes and starts to point out that the fall wasn't his fault, but he's barely started speaking when Arthur's hands tighten on his waist and, before Merlin knows what's happening, Arthur's mouth is on his, warm and soft and just pressing there, just breathing.
When Merlin's finally regained command of his body, he jerks back so hard he'd probably have fallen and earned himself an excruciating impact, but Arthur's hands on his waist slide around to his back and hold him up.
"What," Merlin says, staring at him wildly. "What."
Arthur scowls. "That's not even a question, Merlin."
"If I were capable of formulating a question right now, I'd have about a million of them." He sits down hard on his heels and just stares at Arthur, trying to figure out if this is a fever dream, if maybe the infection has gotten worse after all and he's delirious.
Arthur scowls like the idea of Merlin's bewilderment about this new development personally offends him, and Merlin supposes he's not surprised. Arthur's always been the sort to choose action over discussion, and Merlin figures that at least this once, he can take Arthur's lead.
"All right," he says. "Just one question." And when Arthur heaves a sigh and gives him a get-on-with-it look, Merlin grabs onto the front of his tunic so he won't grow impatient and decide to leave before Merlin can get it out. "Did you mean that?"
Arthur shakes him off with a growl. "Damn it, Merlin, if you're going to question my sincerity--"
And really, that's an answer in itself, so Merlin just tips himself forward and lets the crash of their mouths together be his answer. This time it's Arthur's who's surprised mid-sentence, and Merlin can't help but grin into the kiss at that.
"This is horribly unfair," he protests when they both part to catch their breath. "You have the worst timing. How am I supposed to share a tent with you tonight when I can barely even move without it hurting?"
The light in Arthur's eyes is positively wicked. Merlin wonders how long it's been there, and how he's managed to go so long without seeing it before today. "Both my arms still work," he says, and leans in to brush his nose against the edge of Merlin's jaw. "There's a lot we can still do. If you can manage to keep yourself very very still…" He lifts his head and he's grinning like this is a game and he's already won. And there's very little Merlin can do in the face of that but bite off a helpless moan and hope he survives the night.
And wonder, distantly, if maybe they can't stretch their journey out a little. By rights he ought to want to get home, to get to Gaius so he can get his arm properly splinted and well on its way to healed, so he can get his shoulder treated so neither of them have to fret about it any longer. But the prospect of another night with just the two of them and the too-small tent suddenly seems much more alluring than it did the night before.
And soon enough, when his arm is healed enough to use, he's going to pin Arthur down and pay him back in kind, and gods help anyone who tried to get in his way.