Even when Merlin hates Arthur, he hates it when Arthur is hurt.
Ill, Arthur is constantly complaining, asking for one thing after another and forever arranging for Merlin to be out of sight and away so that he might sneak out of his chambers and stagger toward the practice fields. Merlin, who has carefully cultivated various agreements with Arthur's knights hinging largely on a combination of bribery and threats, has — since the last time Arthur went feverish and sick — arranged to have Merlin, Gaius, and the king alerted, since any one influence might not work to compel Arthur back to his bed but a triple-threat is likely to do the job.
Hurt, Arthur is an entirely different creature. He's silent, uncomplaining, and refuses to talk or catch anybody's eyes when they're rolling yards of white linen bandages around him, testing stitches, rubbing poultices on the wound with clumsy, careless hands.
"Give me that," Merlin snaps, slapping away some page or another that has somehow managed to sneak into Arthur's work rotation. The boy gives Merlin a bleak look, and Merlin only points at the doors of Arthur's chambers, saying, "Out!"
Arthur sighs, his body relaxing backward into his bed in a way he must think is imperceptible, but Merlin sees the way the muscles in his stomach go lax, how his face isn't so tight any longer. "That was poorly done of you, Merlin," Arthur says.
"So was that boy's business with your wound," Merlin snipes in return. The wound in Arthur's chest is a healthy red, the skin tender around the ugly black stitches Gaius had made, neat but terrible, like teeth across Arthur's skin.
He goes to the washbasin first, dumps out the cloudy water for clean and scrubs carefully away all the dust and grime and dirt from Arthur's armor, before returning to the bed, where Arthur is watching him with hazy blue eyes. He's in pain probably, but Merlin's given up on trying to give things to Arthur like willowbark tea and sympathy, so he sits on the mattress, close to Arthur's hip, and dips his fingers in the poultice instead, dabbing carefully, covering the wound as gently as he could.
"It's funny," Arthur mumbles at him, breath hitching every time Merlin brushes up against his wound. Merlin's never scolded for that sort of thing, even though it's one of those rare moments where he feels genuine remorse. "For someone who's so clumsy you're surprisingly good at this part."
Merlin glances up at Arthur from underneath his lashes. "I've had a lot of practice."
Arthur actually smiles at him, crooked. "I'm not that bad."
"You're awful," Merlin mutters at him, and means it in every sense of the word.
He wants to yell at Arthur about trusting perfect strangers over him, about choosing others over Merlin, about never listening when he needed to. But all the words keep dying on his tongue because there're still all these secrets filling up the air in between them, and Merlin knows if he starts shouting about how Arthur never believes him, how Merlin's not an idiot, then all these other things are going to come out, too, shaken out of their places hidden beneath the river stones once the dam breaks.
"Still sulking about Cedric, then," Arthur chuckles, and laughing must still make him sore, because he stops himself, breath hitching, and Merlin wishes any of the spells he has tried would work when it comes to knitting Arthur back together.
It would be suspicious of course, but it would be better than this, these long, horrible nights when all of Arthur's compound hurts from a day of pretending to be fine seep out of his bones, better than having to change his bandages, scrub Arthur's blood out of soft, overused linens.
He says, "I'm not sulking, you prat," instead, because he is, and he thinks that even if he did figure out how to fix Arthur, whisper magic and make the horrible ugly bruise on his face disappear, he couldn't risk it, not here, not now.
But he has dreams about it sometimes, the way Arthur's eyes will round, pupils going dark and mouth opening — wet — with surprise, and the sun rises like a corona around Arthur's yellow hair and he says something, always something good — these are Merlin's dreams, after all — and he seals his promises with something sweet: the touch of his fingers on Merlin's brow, the brush of his lips at the corner of Merlin's, wordless vows. Arthur is so good about all the promises he makes and Merlin wants, more than anything, to be the object of one, to have Arthur's word.
"You know," Arthur starts, taunting, "whatever your feelings about Cedric are, you could still learn a few things from — "
"He stole from you," Merlin snarls, and he draws his hand away from Arthur's skin from long practice, careful. Once, when he hadn't and they'd argued, he'd ripped Gaius' careful stitches, and he'd had to watch — white-faced — as they were done up again, watch as Arthur refused all the ale he was offered and suffered it in awful silence.
But Arthur's face is only clear and wide-open and tired when Merlin finally focuses his scowl upon it, and Arthur says, "There you are."
Merlin frowns at him. "What?"
"I fell off my horse, Merlin," Arthur tells him, instead of answering the question. "You fell asleep in the middle of mucking out my stables — you set all the horses free and they trampled half of the market stalls. You emptied a chamber pot on me."
None of it is his fault, but Merlin blushes fiercely anyway. "You probably deserved all of it," he snaps. "Even though — "
Arthur waves away the rest of his words.
It has taken more than a year but Merlin's conversational in Arthur now, knows the way Arthur's eyes shade and brighten, how his shoulders can convey volumes, the exact angle of his mouth. Merlin feels sometimes like he can go entire days, weeks, without talking in anything but Arthur, and there is something terrible and intimate in that, living inside this, whatever it is.
"You weren't being replaced, Merlin," Arthur tells him, soft but without any hesitation.
Merlin stares at him, and it takes a long moment before trusts himself enough to lay hands on Arthur's chest again. "That's not what it looked like," he says.
"I had to divert half our household budget for the week to compensate the villagers for everything the horses destroyed when they got out," Arthur tells him mildly, with surprisingly little reproach in his words.
Merlin feels his eye go huge. "What!"
"No sweets this week," Arthur tells him, and before Merlin can work up a proper pout, Arthur reminds him, "And furthermore you had just emptied a chamber pot on me — I am not given to tormenting myself over exiling you from my presence for a while."
"Just for that," Merlin tells him, feeling that giddy rush, the way something flushes through his body that burns a little like embarrassment and a little like happiness runs under his skin like a warm hand, "I am over-tightening your bandages."
"Don't even — Merlin!" Arthur squawks, because Merlin has done exactly that.
Arthur, who in all things that do not concern the welfare of Camelot at large enjoys putting off everything unpleasant, has of course secretly loosened the bandages around his chest and is slowing the healing of his bloody ribs. Gaius, and even Merlin, have given him that lecture so many times it doesn't bear repeating, and Merlin just gives Arthur a jaundiced eye and carries on. After the bandages, Merlin swaps out the poultice with a salve that smells like rosemary and mint and smooths it — careful — over the ridge of Arthur's brow, gently around the curve of his cheek, over the corner of his mouth, murmuring, "Sorry, sorry, almost done," at Arthur's winces, the involuntary way his mouth tugs downward. And Merlin tries not to, the way he always tries not to, ache on Arthur's behalf at the way his prince doesn't flinch away from pain, the way Arthur just lets it come to him, lets it roll over him like it comes with his crown and his sword and the red dragon of Camelot. Maybe it does, but Merlin wishes it didn't.
It takes another half hour of negotiation and flat-out threats before Arthur condescends to drink the willow tea that's gone cool where Arthur had ignored it and left it at his desk. And of course it is "foul, horrible, completely foul," according to Arthur, so Merlin kicks off his boots and draws his feet up on Arthur's royal bed, curls up in the empty space next to the line of Arthur's body, underneath the covers, and stares at him until he finishes the entire cup.
"There," Arthur says, hurling the goblet across the room in an arc like a spoiled child, and it lands with a clatter by the fireplace, "are you happy? It's finished."
Merlin narrows his eyes at Arthur. "Are you going to get up and muddle about with the account books some more if I leave you?"
Arthur glares at him. "No," he lies.
"Right," Merlin says, cheerful, and stretches out on Arthur's bed, sighing.
"Absolutely not," Arthur says. "Get up — now."
Merlin shakes his head, still grinning, closing his eyes resolutely. "Nope, can't possibly leave you unsupervised. You'd only make yourself ill, the king would never forgive me."
Arthur starts, "Merlin, you — !" and stops himself in obvious disgust before sighing, "Fine, nevermind."
Merlin feels Arthur settling, awkward around the aches and hurts in his body, but he also knows better than to offer to help. It's these stupid things, these tiny tendernesses that Arthur can endure the least, and Merlin waits until the mattresses still and Arthur's breathing evens a bit before he pushes himself up, puts out the candles and plunges the room into an orangey warm darkness.
In the morning, Merlin knows he'll have crept under the covers sometime during the night, that Arthur will have put one heavy arm over Merlin's shoulders and drawn him close for warmth. And Merlin will wake first, when the dawn is a milky gray, and that he'll watch Arthur's sleeping face for long moments and feel torn between sorry and hunger and contentment he drifts away into sleep again. He knows that when he wakes up again, Arthur will be up and ordering a passing servant to bring breakfast, to bring up the fire, and that passers-by in the hall will see through the opened door to Arthur's chambers and Merlin curled in his bed and think what they might.
"Stop thinking so loud, you're keeping me awake," Arthur complains, hoarse and close to Merlin's ear, and Merlin has to keep his eyes shut tight, bite back all the different things he wants to say into these small spaces between them.
Moments like this are the most dangerous of all, when Merlin is drowsy and safe in Arthur's keep and the dangers of the world feel small compared to the hugeness of what he feels, overflowing his chest, pouring out of him, filling up the room. He knows he should say, "Fine, prat," or snap that Arthur should be a good patient and sleep, but all that comes out is a whispery little noise.
Maybe Arthur is fluent in Merlin as well, because he only sighs, closes one of Merlin's hands inside his own and says, "Sleep, Merlin," and Merlin does, tips over into the inky black of his dreams.
And inside of them it is day and the sun is favoring Arthur with her own crown, all of Albion at their feet, and between them, there are no secrets at all.