That night when Merlin helped him undress, Arthur asked: "How are you now?"
Merlin looked up, a little startled. "I’m fine." He looked down, away from Arthur and focused on folding the shirt.
Arthur stayed quiet for a while. When it became clear that there would be no proper answer, he reached out.
Merlin jumped when he felt a soft touch to his elbow. He turned his head and frowned at Arthur.
“I can see that you still don't feel much better.”
Merlin's hands clenched where they held onto the shirt. He didn't know what to say.
“Merlin,” he said softly. “You don't have to pretend to be okay.”
Merlin turned his back to Arthur and put the shirt away. He stayed like that, head hung low, hands twisted.
Arthur regarded him for a while. Why did Merlin act like this? Why did he think he had to pretend to be alright when it was clear he needed time to recover. He sighed and got up. He stopped very close to Merlin, almost chest to back.
Merlin sucked in a small breath. He could feel the heat radiating off of Arthur. He could feel the breath ghosting over the back of his neck. His entire back prickled because Arthur was so close .
Nothing happened for a long while.
Then all of sudden Arthur's hands slid around his waist and pulled him back. He was pressed against Arthur's chest, wrapped up in his arms.
His skin tingled everywhere Arthur touched him. For the first seconds, he felt like he could barely breathe.
Slowly, his breathing calmed, still his heartbeat hammered in his chest and he heard the thrumming of blood in his ears.
Something changed in Merlin's posture. Had he not learned how to read Merlin, Arthur wouldn't have seen it. He wouldn't have been able to make sense of how his shoulders sagged ever so slightly, how his head tipped forward a little. And finally, how his breath slowed.
He slowly slid one of his hands up to Merlin's chest, spreading it out, caressing him through the shirt with his thumb. He kept his eyes on Merlin's face, watching him for any sign he might be going too fast. It was a fragile situation. One time he had hugged him, pulled him very close and entangled their legs, Merlin had started shaking. Later he had said that while it had been an immense relief to be held so closely, so intimately, it had also been quite overwhelming.
Merlin closed his eyes and took a shaking breath. Arthur was so close, he was everywhere. Touching him, holding him, warm and gentle.
His hands still hung at his sides, his palms itched with the need to touch Arthur's arms, to feel the soft skin and soft hairs beneath his fingers. But he didn't raise them. He didn't quite dare to.
After several more minutes had passed, Arthur figured that Merlin had had enough time to adjust. He leaned closer and pressed a kiss to the corner of Merlin's jaw.
Merlin tensed again and made a small noise that sounded a lot like a whimper. Then Arthur's hands started moving again, one caressed his belly, the other slid up to his shoulder and pulled him closer. He closed his eyes. It felt so good. It had no right to feel this good. To be wrapped up in Arthur’s arms, to be held so closely.
“Come to bed with me.”
It was just a small whisper. But it made his stomach lurch in anticipation.
In the end, he couldn't talk, so he simply nodded.
Arthur undid the belt and then took a small step back. One of his hands slid to the small of Merlin's back, under his tunic and pushed it up.
Merlin drew another shaky breath. Arthur's warm hand sliding up his back sent a shiver down his spine.
As Arthur put his shirt away, Merlin sat down on the edge of the bed to take off his boots.
When he was done he turned around and saw Arthur lying under the covers, arms opened invitingly.
He couldn't help but smile a little as he shuffled under the blanket.
A big smile lit up Arthur's face and he pulled him close.
This time Merlin dared to reach out as well. His hands tentatively came to rest at Arthur's sides.
One of Arthur's hand slid into his hair, pushing Merlin's head into the crook of his neck.
It was all a bit too much at first. But it was Arthur, it was warm and soft and so good.