Merlin gets two texts from Arthur while he's on his lunch break. One to tell Merlin that he's coming home from work an hour later than usual, and another to ask Merlin to bring something home for dinner. When Merlin replies to ask what he'd like, Arthur replies "whatever you'd like" and "something hot" and, finally, "maybe soup."
Which is about as close as Merlin's going to get to Arthur admitting he's feeling under the weather. He'd been coughing a little bit last night, and this morning he'd looked completely bleary as he watched Merlin get ready for an early morning at the surgery. Coughing and sniffling and rubbing his eyes. Merlin knows he'll have better luck with Arthur at home, when they're alone, but even then it might take dinner, tea, and probably on hour on the sofa together with Arthur slumped against his shoulder, half-asleep and sniffling, before he admits he's caught a cold.
Unless he's already feeling really coldish. Merlin sends Arthur a text telling him to take a couple nurofen and promising him soup and fresh bread for dinner, and something with protein and vegetables because Merlin's going to need more than soup after a ten hour day at the doctor's office.
This time he gets a thank you and at least twice as many x's and o's as usual from Arthur. Which is another sign he's feeling ill and needy and exhausted and doesn't quite know how to tell Merlin over text that he's feeling thus. Merlin's done a pretty good job of figuring Arthur out over the past six months, but moments like this still take him by surprise.
Merlin has ten minutes left in his lunch break, so he pours himself another cup of coffee, finds the online menu for his and Arthur's favorite restaurant for take-away, and spends at least two minutes rereading their text conversation. He makes plans to stop at the chemist before picking up dinner and sends Arthur one more text to let him know if he wants anything special from either place.
. . . . . . . . . .
Arthur's already home when Merlin gets back with dinner, but it looks like he hasn't done much more than take off his coat and shoes, turn on the sitting room lights, and collapse onto the sofa.
"Long day?" Merlin asks and kisses the top of Arthur's head.
Arthur nods, snuffles, and coughs into his shoulder. "You, too, though..."
"Yeah, but I'm not completely congested and coughing." Merlin kisses Arthur's hair again and smiles when Arthur grumps at him.
"M'fine. I'm just..." He coughs again, then rubs both hands over his face and gives Merlin quite possibly the most pathetic look he can manage without actually trying to look pathetic. "Tired?"
"I'm sure you are. Go get changed out of your shirt and tie. I'll be back there in minute after I put dinner in the kitchen."
Arthur blinks at Merlin, then nods. He really does look tired, a bit pale and with shadows smudged under his eyes, a sure sign he's worked himself up to good, strong head cold.
Too much time in hotels and airports, Merlin thinks, if past experience is anything to go by. All the dry, recycled air and close contact with so many people, along with the late hours, always seems to land Arthur with some sort of upper respiratory thing.
Arthur's still on the sofa after Merlin's finished in the kitchen, snuffling and looking like he's just about ready to doze back off again. Merlin nudges Arthur along to the bedroom, and kisses his shoulder when Arthur has to turn away and muffle a rough sneeze into the crook of his elbow.
"Bless you," he murmurs when Arthur tries to apologize and only ends up coughing again.
"Sorry," Arthur says anyway. He gives Merlin another blinkish sort of look and then sighs. "I'm a mess tonight."
"You just need some looking after." Merlin reaches up to loosen Arthur's necktie and unbutton his shirt. "We'll have dinner, and I'm going to give you some cold medicine, alright?"
Arthur nods, but he looks uncertain for a moment. "You don't need to... fuss or anything. I know you're tired, too."
"Mm. I am. But I don't mind fussing at you a bit. Besides," Merlin says, "I hardly think picking up take-away chicken soup and LemSip counts very much as fussing." He slides off Arthur's tie, finishes unbuttoning his shirt, and puts both arms around Arthur's waist. "Are you feeling pretty low?"
This time, Arthur glances away from Merlin, bashful, and gives a nod in reply. "I lasted until about noon, then I just felt overwhelmed with this cold."
"Thus the plaintive texts."
"They were not plaintive."
Merlin leans up to press his lips to Arthur's forehead, then rests his against Arthur's. He doesn't feel feverishly warm, but he's probably been fighting the cold off since he returned from the conference two days ago. "There were a bit plaintive. And a bit sweet, really."
Arthur shakes his head, ready to protest, but instead yields and hugs Merlin close and warm. "Only for you."
"Good. I don't want to share that with anyone else." Merlin tightens the hug, and tightens it even more when he feels Arthur droop against him. "Come on. Put on your pajamas and let me ply you comfort food and hot medicine."
Arthur laughs, and there's good deal more coughing and sneezing while he tries to get changed, and Merlin's pretty sure he has to blow his nose at least three times before he can get himself settled properly on the sofa. But once he does, he's so amenable to all the small, fussy things Merlin does to look after him. He takes his bowl of soup and eats it on the sofa next to Merlin, and even drinks down the medicine without any protest.
There are a lot of things that Merlin likes about Arthur. He loves how generous he is, how he puts his whole heart into whatever he does, how he loves his work in publishing and how he loves to read and to talk about literature. How protective he is of his friends and how readily he gives them the best of him.
What Merlin loves best, however, are the small, private things that Arthur shares only with him. His quiet, unvoiced vulnerability, that trace of insecurity that makes him think that Merlin might not have the time or desire to look after him, the moment when that insecurity vanishes and Arthur lets Merlin take care of him.
Sometimes, Merlin thinks, that's all he's ever really wanted: somebody to look after, and somebody who'll look after him when he needs to be. And he knows that Arthur will, that Arthur looks after him in a dozen small ways every day, from handing him his keys and glasses on his way out of the door to taking off Merlin's glasses for him before they curl up together in bed.
Tonight, they curl up on the sofa after dinner, already in pajamas, and Arthur doesn't say a word when Merlin tugs the fleece blanket over them after turning on the telly.
"Did work feel really long today?" Arthur asks. He has his head on Merlin's shoulder and one arm around Merlin, making it easy for him to stroke Merlin's chest when Merlin only shrugs in reply. "I'll take that as a yes."
"It wasn't bad. We were pretty busy, and the filing system's getting an overhaul, so that made things interesting. Should I even ask about your day?"
Arthur shakes his head, turning to rub his face against Merlin's shoulder at the same time; he ends up muffling a cough against Merlin, then reaching for his box of tissues to blow his nose again. "I think I spent most of it doing that. That afternoon meeting had to be rescheduled, and that's why I was home late."
"Poor Arthur. Don't go in early tomorrow, or do anything ridiculous like that, yeah?"
"I won't. I'm not even sure I could convince myself to," he admits. After a few minutes of watching television, he rubs his face against Merlin again. "M'going to fall asleep on you..."
"It's alright. I'll have to move you to the bedroom eventually, though."
Arthur makes a stuffy, sleepy sound that Merlin assumes is one of agreement. He already has that tired, rumpled look about him that Merlin finds completely endearing, and only a few more minutes pass before Arthur dozes off again.
Merlin turns the volume down on the telly, though he knows Arthur's worn out enough that the sound won't wake him, and nestles himself in closer to Arthur under the blanket. The soup and LemSip will do him good, but it's the extra rest that he really needs. Merlin turns to nuzzle a kiss into Arthur's hair and smiles when Arthur sighs into his shoulder.
Even a couple more hours of sleep tonight and again tomorrow morning will help. And if that means that Merlin gets to spend a couple more hours with Arthur curled up against him, warm and fond, well, he's certainly not going complain about it.