Disclaimer: I do not own Merlin or any of the wonderful characters in it.

Arthur Pendragon, king of Camelot, groaned and angrily scanned the utter disaster he was unfortunate enough to call his room. 'How on Earth did this happen again?' But he knew why, and that knowledge itself was enough to make a feral yell escape his throat as he attempted to take out his frustration by kicking the various belongings that littered his floor. Finally he collapsed on his (unmade) bed, thoughts frustratedly churning. When the sound of footsteps in his doorway met his ears, he immediately knew who his visitor was. The idiot never bothered to knock.

"No, Merlin," he said, not taking his eyes from the ceiling above his four-poster. It didn't make a difference- he could almost hear the smug grin on the warlock's face.

"I haven't even said anything yet," his infuriating friend replied, not even attempting to hide the amusement in his voice.

"You don't need to. You say the same thing every time this happens."

"Hmmm, well, this is the fourth time this week. I'd think you'd be tired of this sort of thing by now."

Still not looking at him, Arthur grabbed a goblet from the nearby nightstand and hurled it in the direction of Merlin's voice. Judging by the clatter it made on the floor, Merlin had no problem avoiding the projectile.

"You know, Arthur, this is why these things happen. You can't keep scaring them all off when one teeny little thing upsets you," Merlin said, adopting a sarcastically compassionate tone. "Soon there won't be a manservant in this entire castle who will come within 10 leagues of you."

Arthur groaned again and finally sat up to look at his friend. He did indeed have that smug little smile that made Arthur want to punch him, the clotpole. He was also wearing his old ratty brown jacket, oversized blue shirt, and ridiculous red neckerchief, completely ignoring Arthur's strict instructions to wear garments more befitting his new station. "That's fine by me- I don't want to be within 10 leagues of them either! Do you know what this one did?" -He paused but continued before Merlin could say a word- "I woke with his face not a handspan from mine, PEERING at me! He said he knew his duty was to get me ready for the day but he didn't want to 'displease' me by actually WAKING ME UP!"

"Ah, another mouse-like one," Merlin said, his tone now mockingly thoughtful. "Surely he wasn't as bad as the first."

"No, that one never said anything at all. I swear he thought I was going to throw him in the dungeons if he so much as breathed audibly."

"I didn't think the second one was so bad," Merlin commented, simply for the joy of riling Arthur up further. "What was his name, George?"

"Anyone that pathetically DULL doesn't need a name," Arthur grumbled, flopping back upon the bed. "I could be a lifeless block of wood and have more personality than that damned, efficient, bootlicking rag doll."

"Now Arthur, is that nice?" Merlin chided, but Arthur was hearing none of it.

"Spare me the lecture, Merlin, I know you don't like him either."

Merlin's sheepish silence confirmed Arthur's accusation, and for a very brief second Arthur thought he might be getting the upper hand, but then Merlin attacked again.

"Still, it wasn't very nice of you to sack him by chucking a pitcher at his head. I think the poor lad nearly broke in two."

"He lived," Arthur said disinterestedly. He knew for a fact that the man hadn't actually been injured. "Although I'd almost prefer him to the scut I had to deal with after him. I'm sure 'disgusting flatterer' is his middle name- I've never been called 'my lord' and 'your majesty' so much in my life!"

Merlin snorted. "Those are your titles, sire," he said pointedly.

"Shut up, Merlin."

Merlin went on, unperturbed. "I'm just saying, any good, proper, well-brought-up servant is going to call you 'my lord'... They don't know your royal pratness any better than that."

"Merlin!"

"They'll drive you mad inside a week."

"No more than you did," Arthur grumbled, but his heart wasn't in it. He knew he couldn't keep just dismissing every manservant that looked at him cross-eyed, but he couldn't help it. It just felt - wrong - to have a servant who wasn't... wasn't... He sat up and put his head in his hands. "What am I going to do?"

Merlin smiled broadly. "Well, you could always-"

"NO, Merlin!"

"Why not?" Merlin asked, glaring at his friend.

"Because I'm the king and you have to listen to me."

Merlin rolled his eyes. "Come on, Arthur, I never listen to you. What's the real reason?"

Arthur met his friend's glare with one of his own. "Because I can't have a servant as one of my chief advisors, not to mention my court sorcerer! It's not proper."

Merlin barked a laugh. "Since when have you cared about propriety? Surely you don't think the council will disapprove of me more than, I don't know, making commoners into knights or a maid their queen?"

Curse the idiot for knowing him so well. Even half-truths didn't work anymore. And it wasn't like he could admit that as wrong as it felt to have an impersonal stranger as a manservant, it was absolutely unthinkable to make this man, this self-sacrificing, magic-wielding, POWERFUL man, a servant. He commanded dragons, for the gods' sake. He could take down this entire citadel with a mere word. The scope of Merlin's power was absolutely incomprehensible, and any time their paths had crossed in the past week, Arthur had been unable to reconcile the clumsy, endearing friend he had known and the almighty sorcerer he now saw. Even when they reverted back to their old banter, as now, Arthur could not help but slip a touch of awe into his voice. The things Merlin could do, that he had already done for him... No way was he going to be a servant for a day longer.

But of course, he would sooner sit on a bed of burning coals than admit his awe for Merlin, of all people. Especially when the man seemed to be taking especial pains to be as irritating as possible. Arthur rubbed his head. "That is none of your business-"

"Um, I think it might be now that I'm ON said council..."

"Ughh!" Arthur exclaimed. Really, he'd never met anyone so frustrating. "That's my point! If you want to make those stuffy, inflexible busy-bodies listen to you- and gods know they don't know anything about magic- you can't be my servant! They'll never listen to a word you say!"

"They've been decently accepting so far..."

"And you're not a servant anymore. Isn't it funny how that works out?" Arthur smiled at his serv- his SORCERER's scowl, and decided to end the debate while he was ahead. "I've got to go watch the trainees make fools of themselves in the practice court. I want you to go find someone to clear up this-"

He stopped dead. Merlin was standing directly in front of him, holding out his armor and practice sword, obviously all set to get him prepared for training. More astonishing than that, though, was that the room visible behind the warlock's thin frame was noticeably cleaner- clothes were hung up, chairs straightened, and breakfast dishes stacked neatly on a tray to be returned to the kitchens. The more Arthur looked, the more he saw- the room was near spotless.

When had all this happened? He'd been in the room the entire time- true, he'd spent most of that time gazing at the ceiling, but Merlin still couldn't possibly have...

But he had. Arthur didn't know whether to laugh or groan, the irony was so intense. He'd just had a whole conversation with Merlin about why he couldn't be Arthur's servant, during which the man was performing those very same servant duties, and Arthur hadn't even noticed because it seemed so completely natural. For nearly 9 years the two of them had followed this exact same routine- bantering and debating while Merlin worked at his chores and Arthur took care of "princely" duties- and even though Arthur knew circumstances had changed, his mind unconsciously accepted Merlin completing a servant's work because it just seemed so... right.

And the sneak knew it! Arthur glared at his friend's face, which was utterly unrepentant. The smug grin was back - curse the idiot- and his multi-faceted blue eyes danced in amusement and triumph...and something else. Behind Merlin's gleeful, mischievous joy at besting Arthur, the king detected something much stronger and more serious- determination. Arthur had seen the same look in Merlin's eyes as they'd fought bandits, defeated evil sorcerers, and protected the kingdom from invasion. Merlin believed in what he'd done, and would do it again if necessary. But that didn't make sense...

"Your armor, sire?" Merlin interrupted his thoughts in a tone that sounded far too pleased with himself. Arthur had to stare at the armor Merlin thrust toward him for a moment before he remembered what it was for. Then his eyes rose to meet Merlin's mocking ones once more, and, standing, he sprang back to reality.

"MERLIN!" Arthur roared. Merlin, used to such attacks, merely broadened his smile. "You- you- I TOLD you-" He couldn't finish. Staring at the hint of steel in those stormy blue eyes, the anger left his voice. Instead, he infused all the confusion he was feeling into a single word: "Why?"

"Why?" Merlin asked, with a player's false innocence. "I would have thought that the knight-king of Camelot would know why one puts on armor for a training session, but if this confuses you I could-"

Arthur cut him off by slugging him in the arm. Merlin stumbled back, and in true clumsy form, dropped the armor he carried. He started to retrieve it, but Arthur caught him by the shoulders and looked him in the eye. "You know damn well what I meant. Why is this so important to you? Why would you want to be a servant when you're a- a-"

"A sorcerer?" Merlin's eyes were steely cold, the mirth of a few moments ago completely consumed by the determined gaze that now met Arthur's own. "I've always been a sorcerer, Arthur. Since the day I was born. You knowing the truth doesn't change who I am, and who I am is your servant." Arthur flinched, making Merlin pause. He studied Arthur curiously for a moment, then said without a trace of doubt, "I was born to serve you, Arthur. I'm not ashamed of that, and you shouldn't be either."

"I'm not- It's just-" Arthur trailed off. He couldn't lie to his best friend, his other half, the man who had stood by him longer than anyone else... but neither could he tell him the truth. After a few awkward seconds, Arthur simply released his friend and said in his most kingly voice, "Never mind. I need you to find someone to clean up the rest of this and help me this afternoon, then return to your duties." He gave Merlin a glare that would have sent anyone else scurrying from the room, but Merlin merely smiled and gave a mocking little bow.

"As you say, your most royal Highness," he said, with the sarcasm of which only Merlin was capable. Arthur rolled his eyes. "But first, do you want help with your armor?"

The offer hung in the air like the tempting fruit of old. "I should get someone else..." Arthur began, but he couldn't bring himself to complete the thought. The last man had nearly put the breastplate on backwards, and this... this was Merlin. He sighed. "Fine. But just this once!"

Arthur pretended not to notice Merlin's slight smirk of triumph as the warlock bent to gather the fallen armor. And as his friend helped settle and fasten the armor properly, as he had so many times before, Arthur tried not to think about how much he had missed this - had missed Merlin.

Fortunately - or maybe unfortunately - for him, Merlin already knew Arthur's thoughts...and had some ideas for how to bring his stubborn friend to his senses.

Three long, tiring hours later, Arthur stumbled back into his chambers. The training session had gone far longer than expected - he'd had to perform the final examinations of no fewer than six prospective knights - and Arthur wanted nothing more than food and a hot, soaking bath to lounge in until his council meeting that afternoon. Of course, without a manservant he'd probably have to wait quite a while before he got either one...

"Sire?"

Arthur jumped, startled, and turned toward the unexpected voice. It belonged to a man Arthur had never seen before. He was clearly a servant, wearing a well-worn shirt, vest, and trousers. His face was friendly and open, with bright blue eyes, a dusting of freckles, and most notably, a crop of short, flaming red hair. He grinned good-naturedly at Arthur, and Arthur found himself instinctively grinning back as he said, "Excuse me. I wasn't expecting anyone to be here."

The stranger chuckled. "Yes, I can see that. I'm Nick, your new manservant." He bowed slightly, as was expected of a commoner in service to a king, but somehow, the gesture lacked either flattery or submission. The boy's - Nick's? - eyes met Arthur's gaze steadily, and his lips formed a faintly mocking grin that didn't falter under Arthur's thoughtful frown.

"I don't remember seeing you around the castle," Arthur mused. He was sure he would have remembered such hair, even on a servant.

For a brief moment, Arthur thought he saw alarm flash into his new servant's features, but it vanished on second glance. Nick simply laughed and began removing Arthur's armor with practiced hands. "I'm new. My lady hired a whole batch of us this morning, something about the king going through manservants faster than Sir Gwaine goes through mead."

Arthur choked, caught between an indignant squawk and a snort of amusement. The manservant snickered, but made no attempt to help or apologize. When he had caught his breath, Arthur asked, "How do you know about Sir Gwaine?"

"It's a public tavern, sire," the boy replied, laughing again. "And when Gwaine's at his best, he lets EVERYONE know it."

Arthur noted the familiarity with which Nick spoke about Gwaine, and decided that he'd have to speak with the errant knight about his tavern escapades. Obviously, they'd caught the attention of the entire town. He snorted. "I'll bet. Nick, I'll be needing some food and a bath, as soon as..." He trailed off. Nick had taken away the armor, placing it neatly on the rack for cleaning, and behind him was a sumptuous lunch already prepared. Arthur stared at the food, then at his brand-new servant, who was grinning in unabashed amusement at the king's bewildered face.

"There's hot wash water on the way up. I'm not completely useless, you know." With a chuckle, Nick began to collect the king's bathing things, leaving Arthur to eat in peace. He did eat - he was starving, after all - but he continued his conversation with Nick as the manservant walked about the room.

"This is... much more than I'd even hoped for, Nick. You're obviously quite practiced. Do you mind my asking where you last worked?"

Again, for only a heartbeat, Nick seemed to freeze where he stood. His reply was so natural, however, that Arthur thought he must have imagined it. "Oh, all over, recently. Several years ago I served, uh, my lord Hector of Braisen, may he rest in peace."

"I... see," said Arthur, mulling this over. Sir Hector had died in battle three years earlier. "So how exactly were you hired here?"

"Her Majesty requested that all those wanting work in the citadel report to the lord seneschal. When he found out that I had previous experience, he sent me to my lady, and she sent me to you." There was a knock on the door, and Nick went to answer it, returning with a tub of hot water. Just seeing it made Arthur sigh in relief.

"If you're done with lunch, I suggest you hop in," the manservant said, settling the tub behind the dressing screen. "You smell like a pig left in the sun too long."

"WHAT?" Arthur's head snapped up. "I do NOT- you can't say things like that-" he stared at the man, who merely looked innocently back.

"Did I say something to offend, my lord?" he asked, with a sarcastic twist of his mouth. "If so, I humbly apologize."

Arthur just kept staring, utterly perplexed. No one, no one, was ever this relaxed with him, save Merlin and Guinevere. In particular, no common-born servant treated their king so casually... yet this boy seemed not even the least bit cowed by Arthur's station. He was remarkably efficient - even as the king watched, he laid everything out for the bath, then fetched the polishing kit for Arthur's armor, obviously all set to clean it while Arthur bathed - but he was still relaxed and cheerful. Arthur shook his head. "You are an impertinent fool."

"And you're a self-important toad," Nick replied easily, not offended in the least. Arthur spluttered, and Nick grinned. "Bath?"

Arthur's emotions were in a whirl. Confusion dominated, but irritation, shock, a touch of respect, and oddly enough, a nagging feeling of déjà vu were all swirling through the king's head as he stared at the tub. As emotions were not really Arthur's strong point, he decided to simply grit his teeth and deal with them the only way he knew how. Focusing on his new servant, he replied, "Yes, I should think so." He moved toward the tub with deliberate steps. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the amusement leech from Nick's face, as if the boy knew what was coming.

"You first!" With all the swiftness of the trained warrior, he flung his arm out wide, and was instantly greeted with the pleasing sight of Nick's dripping wet form. Arthur grinned and set down the now-empty goblet he'd been concealing.

"Thank you, sire," Nick grumbled in a tone that was anything but grateful.

"Happy to help," Arthur replied easily. Then, because all joking aside, he did need to wash, he disappeared behind the screen to enjoy his bath. From the sounds, Nick had retreated back and was busily polishing Arthur's armor, but neither man broke the silence as Arthur lazed in the tub, content for once to think of nothing at all. The easy atmosphere lasted for nearly an hour before-

"Up and at 'em, sire!"

Arthur jerked out of a half-doze and managed to knock the back of his head against the wooden screen. Out of habit, he exclaimed, "Merlin!" Rubbing the back of his head, he looked for his friend, but was brought up short by the amused face of someone very different. Nick stood there, holding a towel, and for some reason, seemed immensely pleased with himself. Arthur turned away to hide the embarrassed flush on his cheeks. Merlin's not here anymore, idiot, he told himself. Get over it.

As if to mock Arthur further, he heard Nick ask, "Did you want the court sorcerer for something, sire?"

"No, it's nothing," Arthur snapped, too embarrassed to be polite. He snatched up the towel from his new servant, who to Arthur's surprise and relief, did not seem offended in the least. In fact, he was grinning more broadly than ever.

"Good, because I ran into him on the way here, and I don't think he's very happy with you. He told me you were a stubborn clotpole, whatever that is."

Arthur gave a slight laugh. He wasn't surprised to hear that Merlin was annoyed with him, but it was still almost comforting to hear the familiar insult, even from someone else's lips. It made it seem like his friend was really here, like things were back to how they should be. "I knew that wasn't a real word. Nick, I need-"

"You know, the queen warned me about you too," Nick continued, cutting his king off. Arthur gave him a glare that would have peeled paint and glanced around for any heavy objects to throw at his servant's head, but he was pacified when, as if in response to Arthur's unfinished order, Nick came over and began to help Arthur dress. "She said that I was to put up with you no matter how much of an ass you were being-"

"I- I am NOT-" Arthur sputtered, immediately beginning to plan how best to get revenge on Guinevere for this comment on his character.

Nick ignored the interruption. "-because no matter what you do, she's not going to give you any more servants for at least a week. She says you might be done pouting by then and wake up to the fact that no servant is going to be exactly like Merlin."

Arthur promptly vowed to have a long talk with his wife about the kind of information she discussed with near-strangers.

"She also said-"

"Nick?" Arthur broke in, not interested in hearing any more.

"Yes, sire?"

"Shut up."

To Arthur's utter bewilderment, Nick smiled so broadly that you might have thought Arthur had given him a present. Obeying the king's tactless order, he kept silent until Arthur was dressed and ready, then clapped him on the shoulder and made as if to go.

"Woah woah woah, where do you think you're going?" Arthur interjected, stopping the man in his tracks.

"I, uh, you know," Nick stuttered, obviously grasping for some sort of excuse.

Arthur crossed his arms over his chest. "May I remind you that there is a council meeting in 20 minutes? That is why you dragged me out of the bath, yes?"

"Maybe I just don't want to see you with more wrinkles than you have already," Nick quipped, but he was obviously uneasy. Before Arthur could answer this (completely untrue) jibe, Nick continued, "I'm sure you'll have a perfectly lovely time at the council meeting."

Arthur snorted - no meeting of the council could ever be described as "perfectly lovely"- but stopped his suddenly reluctant servant's attempt at escape with an authoritative hand on his shoulder. "Yes, I will. Because you are going to make sure my cup doesn't run dry."

"No, I really think it's best if I don't come," Nick argued, and despite the king's hand on his shoulder he did not turn around to look at him. "Really, Arthur, if you can't manage by yourself for one meeting, what good are you?"

Shock, anger, and confusion warred inside Arthur's head as he spun Nick around to face him. The boy could not be allowed to speak to his king like that! He must have been brought up in Essetir, to think he would get away with such a thing. Surely he knew he could face imprisonment or even execution for such blatant disrespect? And who was he to choose which duties he wished to perform and which he did not? The king opened his mouth to give his servant the scolding of his life... but was suddenly struck by something else. "You called me Arthur."

Nick, who'd been flinching in anticipation of an explosion, did not seem in the least relieved by the king's sudden change of mood. If anything, he looked even more nervous. He tried to turn away, but Arthur held him fast.

"No servant addresses his king by his first name," Arthur said quietly. almost to himself, "especially on his first day of work." He studied his captive's face carefully- the bright red hair, the round face, the freckles dotting the small, pert nose. "No one except..."

The eyes, the bright blue, multi-faceted, achingly familiar eyes.

"FOR THE GODS' SAKE, MERLIN!" Arthur roared.

Nick - no, Merlin - opened his mouth as if to object, but seemed to realize his effort would be futile. "Uh, hi, Arthur," he squeaked instead, glancing at his friend with a small, sheepish, smile.

"What the HELL do you think you're doing?" Arthur asked, releasing Merlin with an almost violent shove. Merlin stumbled back, not protesting the blow, but did answer with a bit more spirit than he otherwise might have.

"I'm doing every other manservant in this castle a favor," he replied, meeting Arthur's glare steadily. "And you."

"You're doing ME a favor?" Arthur asked incredulously. It was so obvious, now. The past few hours had been so relaxed, so peaceful, so right - no, not right, of course not, why would he even think that - so familiar because his "new servant" was his best friend all along! He advanced on Merlin, their eyes locked, as he attempted to express his current feelings toward the warlock. "You ignore my express orders, shirk your own duties, disguise yourself using magic - that is, I assume, why you look like the village idiot got his head dumped in red paint?"

Merlin shrugged. "It doesn't look like me, does it?"

"No, normally you look like the village idiot who's skin hasn't seen the light of day in 10 years got his ears stretched." Merlin tried to protest, but Arthur cut him off by continuing his tirade. "-and do it all this to deliberately deceive your king, and you call that doing me a favor?" He'd backed Merlin up against the wall by this time, forcing him to answer Arthur's questions.

"I was trying to spare you the trouble of getting a new manservant every other day!" the warlock yelled. He met Arthur's furious face squarely. "You'd find fault with a servant from the gods themselves because you know it's not how things should be-"

"And just how should they be, Merlin?"

"Like this! How am I supposed to protect you if you have some other servant running about here mucking things up while I'm cooped up in my workroom scrying to make sure you're okay?" Merlin sucked in air, looking a bit as if he hadn't meant to say all that but still holding his ground.

Arthur was floored. Merlin had done all this just because he was concerned about Arthur's safety? "We're still in the same castle, you know. I doubt a single thing could happen in this entire citadel without you knowing about it." Merlin sucked in his breath, unable to argue. "You can't be a servant, Merlin. You're too... too..." He glanced down, ashamed of his own inability to express his feelings toward someone who had done so much for him. Lucky for Arthur, that someone knew him so well that it didn't matter.

"Arthur," Merlin-Nick said, holding the king's gaze despite Arthur's attempts to look ANYWHERE but those deep blue eyes. "You've been treating me differently ever since you found out about my... gift." Arthur desperately tried to look away, but in a rare show of anger, Merlin said sharply, "Look at me! You've been tiptoeing around me like I'm going to explode at any minute, you stop yourself from saying things you wouldn't have thought twice about because you think I'll be offended, it's almost like you're, you're..." Now Merlin was the one to break eye contact, addressing the floor with a soft, defeated tone that wrenched Arthur's heart. "You're afraid of me."

Arthur felt as if someone had dashed cold water over him, then conked him over the head with a sword for good measure. He'd never realized his awestruck reaction to the scope of Merlin's power might be interpreted as fear. Gods, Merlin must think Arthur hated him! The more he thought about it, the more Arthur realized he actually had been treating Merlin as a wild beast, a monster, that he didn't want to provoke. Feeling more miserable than he had in a long time, and calling himself ten kinds of idiot, Arthur gripped Merlin's shoulders tightly, forcing the younger man to look up.

"Merlin," he said, his voice sounding strange to his own ears. Uncomfortable with emotion or not, though, this had to be said. "I'm not afraid of you. How could I be? I've been acting this way because, well," he took a deep breath to steel himself, then said in a rush, "because there's so much you can do." Merlin looked as if he was about to interrupt, but Arthur released his shoulders and held up a hand. If he didn't say this all now, he never would. "You're a warlock. You have dragons at your command. You have Druids bowing at your feet. With a word, you could crush mountains, level forests, tame seas! And you say you do it all for me!" Arthur's voice shook with the increase in timbre on the last few words, then suddenly dropped as he nearly whispered, "I'll never be half the man you are. That's why I can't let you be my servant. I don't deserve you." He sat down on the edge of his bed and stared at the floor, sneaking a hesitant glance up at his friend. Merlin looked absolutely shell-shocked, gaping at the king as if he'd never seen him before. Arthur quickly dropped his gaze again.

After a few moments' silence, Arthur heard footsteps move toward him, then felt a hand come to rest on his back as Merlin settled on the bed next to him. Arthur stiffened at first, then relaxed into the light comfort the gesture afforded. Feeling that, Merlin relaxed as well. "I'm still me, Arthur," he said softly. Arthur looked up at him, and skeptically took in the round face and red hair. Merlin laughed. "Okay, well, maybe not really right this second, but I'm, uh, you know what I mean." Arthur found himself chuckling lightly, a small smile gracing his lips. Seeing this, Merlin's grin broadened. "I'm still Merlin. I'm still clumsy and still a peasant-born bastard and still infinitely better-looking than you-" Arthur squawked indignantly ("You are NOT-") but nonetheless began to smile in earnest, feeling more light-hearted with every word. "-and I am still your friend." Merlin held his gaze, and the depth of sincerity in those blue orbs made Arthur's own widen. "Forever, Arthur."

Arthur unsuccessfully tried to swallow the lump in his throat. He vowed then and there to spend the rest of his rule making sure he was worthy of Merlin's friendship. "Thank you, Merlin," he said, quietly.

Neither man knew quite what to say after that. After the silence stretched long enough to become awkward, Merlin coughed, rose from the bed, and asked cheerily, "So, should I be fetching you a new servant for this afternoon?"

Arthur snorted. "You know, there's been such a scarcity of good manservants around here of late that I'm taking that job away from you. I've found one myself."

"Oh? And who might this poor soul be that has to spend all day with your pratness?" Merlin asked, smiling in that quirked-mouth way of his.

"Oh, no one special. Just some mouthy country idiot with a lot of nerve and a SERIOUS lack of fashion awareness."

"Oh really?" Merlin asked, eyebrows raised. "Still wearing a neckerchief, I'm guessing?"

Arthur shook his head in mock pity. "Some people should really listen when I tell them it's not useful for anything."

"I'll show you what it's useful for!" Merlin said. Snatching his neckerchief from the closet, where he'd hidden all his normal clothes, he held it on his outstretched palm and whispered something Arthur couldn't quite hear. His eyes flashed gold. Before Arthur could really process what was happening, the neckerchief began to fly around his head, pestering him mercilessly. Trying to beat it off but laughing too hard for his swats to be very effective, he eventually flopped back on the bed to escape, ending up in the exact same position Merlin had found him that morning. Then, he'd felt defeated and angry. Now, with Merlin catching the flyaway scrap of cloth and laughing alongside him, Arthur felt whole again.

"Sire?"

Both men jumped at the sound of a new voice calling in and the door opening. A page, obviously unsure as to why the monarch was laughing hysterically with an unfamiliar commoner, poked his head in nervously. Arthur hastily got up from the bed and Merlin faded into the background, playing the part of a proper servant.

"Yes, what is it?" Arthur said professionally, trying to save whatever shred of dignity he had left. Merlin snorted.

The boy gulped and replied, "Sir Leon sent me to find you, my lord. He asks me to remind you that the council meeting was due to start nearly half an hour ago."

"Gods, the meeting!" Arthur exclaimed. He'd completely forgotten what had started this whole affair. Addressing the boy again, he said, "Give my apologies to Sir Leon. Tell him that had my manservant been competent at his job I would have been on time, but I will have words with him about his behavior and arrive shortly."

"Hey!" Merlin protested. Arthur smirked at him as the page bowed and gratefully escaped from the room.

Gathering his sheets of parchment, he tilted his head at his new - old? - manservant. "Aren't you coming?"

"Just a minute," Merlin replied, gathering his old clothes and stepping behind the dressing room screen. A minute later, Arthur saw his friend emerge, dark-haired, pale-skinned, and big-eared, returning to his place at Arthur's side.

"At your service, sire," Merlin said, falling into step as they left the room.

Arthur nodded, not fighting the grin that appeared of its own accord. This was as it should be.