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Like the Flip of a Coin

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Arthur pushed open his chamber door, surprised to see Merlin already there. More often than not, he had to send for his useless servant to attend to his evening duties. 

“Merlin,” he sighed, “it has been a very long day.”

Merlin hummed in a way that showed he was not listening in the slightest. “Did you meet Morgana on your way here?”

“Morgana?” he frowned. “No, I haven’t seen her since this morning.” When they’d gotten into an argument and Morgana had stormed out of the council chamber. “Why?”

Merlin shrugged, finally stepping forward to take Arthur’s shirt. “She was in here when I arrived. Said she was looking for you.”

“To apologize, I hope.”

“For what?”

“She was quite uncivil this morning. Kept railing on about arrogance and taking me down a notch.”

Merlin’s lips twitched at that. “What, arrogant? You?”

“Shut up, Merlin.”

“Yes, my lord.” He had a way of making the title of respect sound like an insult, ever since the first time they’d met.

Arthur sent Merlin away soon afterward, not in the mood to be disrespected. He’d asked himself many times over the years why he continued to put up with Merlin, and the answer was always the same: firstly, he doubted he would ever find another half a loyal, and secondly, though he would never admit it, there was something enjoyable about Merlin’s insolence. Sometimes it was nice to be treated, not as a king, but as a regular person.

 

~

 

Arthur awoke startlingly uncomfortable. He rolled onto his side, surprised to feel the mattress crackle like straw beneath him. “Merlin,” he mumbled, “what have you done with my pillows?” When there was no response, he squinted his eyes open to a vaguely familiar room. It took him a moment to recognize his surroundings as Merlin’s room in the court physician’s quarters. He pushed himself up on his elbows, trying to remember how he’d gotten here. Was he injured? His body felt odd, but he wasn’t in any pain as he swung his legs over the side of his bed and stood.

Gaius was in the next room, but he barely glanced over as Arthur entered. “Ah, good, you’re awake. I need you to gather some herbs for me today, there’s a list on the table.”

“Wha-” he stopped. Cleared his throat. Tried again. “What are-”

The door flew open and for a moment, Arthur was convinced he was dreaming. The man in the doorway was unmistakably him, looking exceptionally out of sorts with his hair like a haystack and a jacket thrown over his bare chest. Arthur stumbled back, reaching instinctively for a sword that wasn’t there. His doppelganger stared at him with equal horror. 

“Arthur,” he said, hurriedly closing the door behind him, “please tell me that’s you.”

“Of course it’s me,” said Arthur, but his voice sounded all wrong. He sounded like—

He looked down at his body—no, not his body. Slightly taller, far too scrawny, clad in simple roughspun.

Merlin?” he demanded, staring into his own eyes and seeing someone else inside.

Not bothering to answer, Merlin pushed past him into the bedchamber and dropped to his knees, peering beneath the bed. Gaius followed, looking from one to the other in utter confusion. “My lord? Merlin? What on earth is going on?”

“Aha!” Merlin—it was so strange to think of his body as Merlin—reached under the bed and pulled out a small bundle of fabric. “I found another under Arthur’s bed when I woke up. It must be—”

“Magic,” confirmed Gaius, taking the bundle from him and examining it.

“You mean to tell me,” said Arthur slowly, still disconcerted to hear Merlin’s voice as he spoke, “that someone used sorcery to make us, what, swap bodies?”

“That is precisely what it appears… Sire,” Gaius replied, uncertainly tacking the title on the end of the statement.

“How do we undo it?” demanded Arthur. “I have a kingdom to run and I need my body back.”

“I’m afraid I’m not familiar with this spell,” said Gaius, gingerly opening the bundle and peering inside. “I will need time to study it and consult my books.”

“How much time?”

Gaius shook his head. “I can’t say for certain. I will do what I can, my lord.” With a bow, he returned to his chambers to examine his books.

Merlin stood, expression solemn but with a familiar sparkle of mischief recognizable in the eyes that did not belong to him. “We must keep this secret, sire.”

“Of course.” Arthur rubbed a hand over his—Merlin’s?—face, feeling the unfamiliar ridges of brow and cheekbone. “You should—” He stopped, taking in Merlin’s state of undress. It wasn’t the first time the inhabitants of the castle had witnessed Arthur in search of his servant in his nightclothes, but he could at least try to minimize his humiliation. “I will check that the coast back to my chambers is clear.”

“Good idea, but first,” Merlin snatched a blue tunic and red kerchief from the floor and tossed them to him, “get dressed. You do still remember how to dress yourself, don’t you?”

Arthur scowled. “I’m perfectly capable, Merlin.”

In the end, he did require some assistance in tying on the neckerchief, which did not help his mood.

“Go on, then,” said Merlin, giving the scrap of fabric a pat. “And try not to strut too much, sire, or no one will believe you’re actually me.”

“I do not strut,” Arthur snapped, and marched out of the physician’s chambers with his shoulders back and head held high.

“That’s a strut,” Merlin called after him.

 

~

 

As soon as the footsteps faded in the corridor outside, Gaius gripped Merlin by the sleeve. “Is your magic intact?”

Merlin felt his eyes widen with shock; he hadn’t even considered that. He held his hand out toward Gaius’s desk, focusing on one of the books, reaching for that place inside him that had always answered his call.

The book remained where it was.

Merlin frowned. He could still feel his magic, but it was just a bit outside his reach, slipping away from him like trying to catch smoke in his hands. Redoubling his focus, he muttered an incantation under his breath. With more effort than it had ever required him to move an object before, he willed the book into the air.

“I still have magic,” he said, letting the book fall with a thump back to the desktop, “but not all of it. Everything I’ve studied, I still have, but the instinctive magic I was born with—”

“Is with Arthur,” Gaius finished. “Fascinating.”

“I was going to say extremely bad, but fascinating works too, I suppose.” Merlin ran his fingers through his hair, surprised and annoyed to find it longer than he was used to. Stupid Arthur with his stupid golden hair, he thought irritably. “Gaius, we have got to undo this spell, as quickly as possible.”

“I know that, Merlin." Gaius snatched the book from his hands and shooed him toward the door. "But in the meantime, Camelot still needs a king and we'll just have to make do with you."

When Arthur returned, confirming that the coast was clear, they hurried to the king’s chambers in silence. It was utterly bizarre, Merlin thought, watching himself from behind. Was that really what his hair looked like in the back? 

As soon as the door of the king’s chambers shut behind them, Arthur spun to face him. It was nothing short of appalling to see Arthur’s haughty glare on his own face.

“I swear to all that is holy, Merlin, if you humiliate me—”

“What, you’ll put me in the stocks?” Merlin retorted, spreading his arms wide, gesturing to the body he was inhabiting. 

Arthur’s glare sharpened. “We will find a way to break this enchantment, Merlin, and then you’ll answer for your insolence.”

Merlin couldn’t suppress a smile, remembering dozens of similar threats from over the years. It was an almost comforting scrap of normalcy. “Will I, though?”

In an act of utter betrayal, the hand that had, until that morning, been under Merlin’s control, flew up and cuffed him on the back of the head. “Ow!” he yelped, clapping a hand to the sore spot and directing a scowl at Arthur only to find him staring back at him with wide eyes. “What?”

“I felt that.” Arthur gingerly touched the back of his—Merlin’s?—god this was confusing—head.

“What?”

“I felt it,” Arthur repeated.

Merlin reached out and pinched him hard on the arm.

“Ouch! Merlin, what the—”

“We’re still connected to our bodies,” said Merlin, rubbing away the sting on his arm(he decided to think of this arm as his). “If one of us gets hurt, we both feel it.”

“Which means,” added Arthur grimly, “if one of us dies—”

“Thank you, King Sunshine, for that cheerful thought.”

“Whoever cast this spell must have an assassination attempt in mind.”

For the second time that morning, Merlin froze, faced with a possibility he hadn’t considered. When he’d found the spell beneath Arthur’s bed that morning, after ten solid minutes of examining his reflection and trying to wake up from this bizarre dream, he’d immediately assumed Morgana was behind it. Between her presence in the king’s chambers last night and her argument with Arthur earlier in the day, it still seemed to be a likely explanation. Arthur had no idea about Morgana’s powers, but was it possible he was right? Could Morgana be planning—

No. If Morgana wanted Arthur dead, her position as his closest advisor would have provided her ample opportunity. This seemed more like a prank, which was—

“Why are you laughing?” Arthur demanded. “This is a serious matter!”

“Of course it is, sire,” Merlin wheezed. “Not funny at all, it’s just—” he made the mistake of glancing up, and the sight of Arthur’s most severe expression on his own face made him double over with laughter.

“Shut up, Merlin,” said Arthur, but there was amusement creeping into his tone. The sheer absurdity of the situation was too much. “Dear god, Gaius had better find a cure for this before you run my kingdom into the ground.”

Managing to force his face into a neutral expression, Merlin raised an eyebrow. “I’d be more worried about yourself. It isn’t easy being me, you know.”

Arthur snorted, very un-princelike. “I’ll just shirk my duties and spend all my time in the tavern. No one will notice a difference.”

“Fine.” Merlin strode to the wardrobe and snatched out a tunic at random. “If you think my life is so easy, why don’t you go down to the kitchens and get breakfast?”

“Uh.” For once, the king was at a loss for words.

“That’s what I thought.” Merlin reached into the pockets of the jacket he’d thrown on before leaving these chambers this morning. Arthur caught the apple Merlin tossed him, quick reflexes undiminished from being stuffed into a different body.

“Where did you—”

“Nicked them from Gaius.” He didn’t bother with the dressing screen as he shucked off the jacket and pulled the tunic over his head. When he looked back at Arthur, there was a bemused smile playing over his lips. “So, sire, what’s on my royal schedule for the day?”

 

~

 

Not for the first time this morning, Arthur was at his wit’s end. His hands, clasped together behind his back, were no doubt white-knuckled by how hard he was gripping them as he wrestled with the temptation to strangle the man who was currently speaking. Unfortunately, that man was him, the king of Camelot, as far as any of the others seated at the round table knew.

“So, uh,” Merlin was saying, trying to imitate Arthur’s usual demeanor and failing miserably, if the confused looks on the faces of the knights were anything to go by, “we should probably, um. Send men.”

“Of course, sire,” replied Sir Lancelot after a moment of silence. “How many?”

“I—” Merlin moved to scratch his head, but caught the nervous tick and returned his hand to the table. From his place behind the king’s chair, Arthur couldn’t see his expression, which was probably for the best if he wanted to retain what was left of his sanity. “Sir Leon, can I trust you to deal with his matter? Take as many men as you need to rid the villages of these bandits.”

“Yes, sire,” said Leon, exchanging a concerned glance with Elyan. “Are you… feeling quite well this morning?”

“Quite well, yes,” Merlin replied, voice sounding as if he might faint.

Morgana leaned forward in her seat, an amused tilt to her mouth. “Merlin, won’t you get the king some water?”

It took Arthur a full five seconds to realize she was addressing him. Barely suppressing a scowl, he snatched a goblet from a side table, filled it with a nearby pitcher, and placed it in Merlin’s hand, taking care to lean close to his ear. “Get it together,” he hissed. “What is the matter with you?”

Merlin drained the goblet, then handed it back, taking the opportunity to mutter, “Being a royal prat doesn’t come naturally to all of us, you know.” Good. If he was talking rubbish as usual, he must have snapped out of his panic.

Across the table, Gwaine loudly cleared his throat. “May Sir Percival continue his report now?”

Merlin straightened. “Yes, go on,” he replied in a far more convincing imitation of Arthur’s tone.

Relieved, Arthur turned away to replace the goblet, but his elbow knocked into the pitcher. Time seemed almost to slow as it tipped—in fact, it seemed to stand still, the water unmoving on the lip of the pitcher until Arthur reached out and snatched the handle.

He blinked hard, trying to account for what had just happened. It must be a side effect of being in the wrong body, he supposed. Some sort of lapse in perception. But there was an odd sort of tingle throughout his body that made it impossible for him to relax for the rest of the meeting.

 

~

 

An hour later, Arthur had a much more pressing problem on his hands: lunch. He hadn’t set foot in the kitchen since he was a child, when he and Morgana would sneak in to steal piping hot sweet buns that burned their fingers as they rushed away, the pain overshadowed by the victory of getting away with thievery. In hindsight, he realized that the cooks had likely turned a blind eye on the young prince and the orphan girl the king had taken in. Still, he wondered if he might be able to get away with swiping one of the loaves of bread intended for tonight’s supper and avoid all this cooking nonsense. There were a few cooks and other servants in the kitchens, but if he was quick about it, they’d hardly notice.

“Did those potatoes offend you in some way?”

Arthur whirled around, stamping down his fighting instincts as he took in Guinevere’s teasing smile. “What?”

She nodded at the meager pile of vegetables he’d gathered. “You’re glaring at them like they just insulted you.” 

“Oh.” He tried to relax his expression, tried to channel Merlin’s carefree attitude. Evidently he did a poor job of it, because Gwen’s smile faltered.

“Are you alright?”

“I’m fine, I just,” he gestured to the ingredients, “need to prepare lunch for M—for the king. What are you doing here?”

“Preparing lunch for Morgana,” she replied. As the wife of one of Arthur's most trusted knights and a valued counselor besides, Guinevere was under no obligation to remain a servant. Her loyalty to the Lady Morgana, however, was unrivaled—except perhaps by Merlin's loyalty to him—and she seemed to enjoy keeping busy.

“Right. Of course.”

“Like I do every day,” she added, eyes narrowing in suspicion, “almost always at the same time as you.”

“Right,” Arthur repeated, relieved when she moved past him to the counter, selected one of the potatoes and began to slice it.

“So, yesterday we were interrupted before you could finish telling me that story,” she said, not looking at him. “With Gwaine and that barkeep?”

“I—” Arthur suddenly had much more sympathy for Merlin’s panic during the meeting of the round table. His mind was utterly, disastrously blank. “Oh, well, uh—I don’t quite remember where I left off.”

“Interesting.” In a movement faster than he would have expected, Gwen had spun around and pressed the tip of the kitchen knife into his side, angled so that none of the other servants could see. “But not surprising, considering we didn’t speak yesterday.”

Despite the blade jabbing dangerously close to his ribs, Arthur barely suppressed a laugh. This was the aspect of Guinevere that had him so besotted with her when they were younger: sharp as a sword, a warrior in her own right. Lancelot was a lucky man. “Guinevere—”

“Merlin never calls me by my full name,” she hissed. “Who are you, and what have you done with him?”

Arthur glanced around to be certain that no one was in earshot. “It’s Arthur, Gwen,” he whispered. “Now put that knife down.”

Gwen’s eyes widened and she hastily stepped back, though Arthur noticed she did not relinquish the knife. “Arthur? But what—how—”

“I’m stuck in Merlin’s body and he’s in mine, and I’ll explain it all later but for now,” he sighed, the humiliation hitting him like a mace, “will you please help me? I don’t know the first thing about cooking.”

Gwen pressed her lips together, shoulders trembling slightly. Arthur recognized that expression.

“Oh, not you too,” he groaned. “This is not funny.”

“No,” she agreed, giggling as she resumed chopping her potato, “not remotely funny.”

 

~

 

Merlin had been alone in Arthur’s chambers before, but never with nothing to do. He was normally scrubbing the floor, turning down the sheets, polishing boots and armor and whatever else Arthur needed. Today, though, he just paced, trying to ignore the way the muscles of Arthur’s legs flexed under his control, the way his center of gravity was slightly lower, the way his feet touched the floor in slightly different places than Merlin’s did—he was doing a poor job of ignoring it all. It seemed indecently intimate to feel Arthur's body this way, from the inside out. He wondered if Arthur had the same discomfort, wondered if Arthur had noticed the way their hands were callused in different places, wondered if Arthur found his body deficient in any way. The sound of the door opening and the sight of his own face were a huge relief if only for something else to think of.

“Arthur, finally, are you—” he stopped abruptly as Gwen slipped into the room as well. “I mean, uh, Merlin! You idiot, what took you so—”

Arthur shoved the door shut with his shoulder and dropped the tray he was carrying on the table. “She knows.”

Gwen smiled, placing a second tray on the table. “How do you like being king, Merlin?”

“Not as much fun as I expected, to be honest,” he replied, filling a goblet with water and passing it to Arthur, who slumped into a chair with a sigh. “But it looks like Arthur isn’t faring much better if he’s already been found out.

“That was hardly my fault,” Arthur protested.

“You are one of my closest friends, Merlin,” Gwen added appeasingly, taking the seat on Arthur’s left and plucking an apple from one of the platters. “I can always tell when something’s amiss with you.”

As Merlin filled a bowl with stew for him, Arthur began recounting the morning, starting with waking up in Merlin’s bed. He’d barely begun to describe the mysterious bundle beneath the bed when Gwen held up her hand.

“Stop,” she said, looking at Merlin. “Just stop.”

“Stop what?”

“Stop skulking behind his chair like a servant while looking like the king.” She grimaced, pointing at the chair to Arthur’s right. “It’s too strange. Sit down and eat something.”

Merlin obeyed, frowning. He hadn't even noticed; somehow, despite his best efforts, he’d developed the instincts of a proper servant. He would have to fix that immediately. It was quite odd, sharing a meal in this room. He and Arthur had eaten alongside each other many times on patrol or hunting trips, but rarely within the walls of Camelot. It was even stranger to look to the head of the table and see himself where the king ought to be, alongside Gwen who was both a maidservant and the wife of an esteemed knight. The lines between noble and common had certainly blurred since Arthur took the throne, but it was still an odd party.

“Now,” said Gwen, “what do you know about the spell? Do you have any idea who’s responsible?” She peered accusingly at Merlin. God, he almost missed the days when nobody but Gaius knew of his powers. Thankfully, Arthur was too focused on his food to notice anything.

“No,” Merlin responded, speaking carefully and hoping Gwen would understand what he left unsaid. It wasn’t me. “But they somehow had access to both my chambers and the king’s, so they must know the castle well.” Morgana is a likely candidate. “For the safety of the king, this must be kept secret.” Don’t you dare tell Lancelot or he will be insufferable.

Gwen bit her lip. “Of course. You can trust me.”

“Whoever cast this enchantment must be found,” said Arthur, once again entirely missing the significant glance Merlin and Gwen shared. It wasn't that Arthur was completely stupid, Merlin knew. He was a brilliant strategist and quite observant when sizing up an enemy, but he did tend to be… single minded. When his thoughts were occupied, as they often were, he became completely oblivious to his surroundings—which was probably the only reason Merlin hadn't been sent to the pyre within his first week in Camelot.

"The sorcerer is likely long gone," Gwen said tentatively. 

"We can't know that for certain."

Merlin opened his mouth but was spared coming up with something to say by a knock at the door. All three of them froze until they heard Gaius’s voice say, “It’s me, my lord.”

“Come in,” called Merlin, still surprised that he sounded exactly like Arthur even after hours of speaking with his voice. He’d gotten the tone of command right this time, though, and that pleased him more than it should have.

Gaius entered, his wizened face as carefully blank as always until the door closed securely behind him. Merlin shot to his feet, dimly aware that Arthur had done the same. “Have you found anything?” they asked in unison.

Gaius’s eyebrow quirked even higher than usual. “I have found a record of this spell. It was used in the Old Religion as a test of loyalty. According to my research, the effects will wear off after a day.”

Merlin felt his knees go weak with relief. “So we only have to keep this up for the rest of the day.”

“Good,” Arthur nodded grimly. “And once I have my body back, we’ll hunt down the sorcerer who did this.”

Gwen made a slight choking noise, then sipped demurely from her goblet. “Of course, my lord.”

Merlin shared her amusement; it was highly unlikely that Arthur would ever suspect Morgana. However, even if Morgana meant no real harm when casting the spell, the fact remained that the king was now twice as vulnerable to attack. Merlin would gladly give his life to protect Arthur, but even that was not an option in their current situation. He’d have to be more diligent than usual until they returned to their rightful bodies.

 

~

 

When the door shut behind Guinevere and Gaius, Arthur fixed Merlin with a glower.

“What?” asked Merlin, crossing his arms over his chest.

“I was meant to go hunting with the knights this afternoon,” he grumbled. They’d agreed that it would be in the best interests of everyone involved if Arthur and Merlin canceled all plans for the rest of the day. Gwen promised to bring them some supper in the evening, but the guards had strict orders not to let anyone else in. 

“You can do that tomorrow,” said Merlin dismissively. “I promised to buy Gwaine a drink tonight and he’s going to have my hide for skipping out.”

“Maybe I should keep that appointment for you. I’ve a hankering for a mug of ale, even if it is with Gwaine.” And if he stayed in his chambers for the rest of the day, there would be nothing to do except the paperwork he had been hoping to avoid by going hunting.

"No," Merlin yelped, a look of abject terror crossing his face. "Absolutely not." 

He hadn't been seriously considering it, but the inclination to do exactly what would most bother Merlin was strong. "Why not? With a bit of alcohol in his system, he'd never notice that I'm not you."

"Oh yes he would."

"How?"

Merlin groaned and scrubbed a hand down his face. "Gwaine and I… talk. About things that are frankly none of your business."

Arthur squinted at him. " Is this about the cross-dressing thing? Because I already—"

"What? No! The– look, there is no—"

"All right, Merlin," Arthur drawled. "Whatever you say."

"No, Arthur, listen—"

"I'll just pop down to the Rising Sun—"

"You will not."

Arthur raised his eyebrows. "That sounded very much like an order."

Merlin held his gaze. "It was."

His insolent manservant had tried to tell him what to do on several occasions with varying levels of success, but never before had he been quite so authoritative. Arthur couldn't decide whether to be annoyed or impressed. "One day of being king and you're already in the habit of ordering people about."

When Merlin laughed, Arthur could glimpse him beneath the borrowed features. "Yes, well, I understand a bit better how you became such a spoiled, pompous prat." With an utter lack of decorum that Arthur wished surprised him more, Merlin flopped onto Arthur's bed.

"Hang on," Arthur protested, fighting to hide his amusement, "I haven't relieved you of your duties. My boots and chainmail still need to be cleaned, for starters." 

Merlin groaned. "I'm the king of Camelot, you can't tell me what to do."

"Well then, you'd better get over to the desk and have a look at these crop reports—"

"Suddenly I have a great love for polishing chainmail."

Arthur laughed outright at that. "A wise decision."

For a time, everything seemed almost normal. Arthur tackled the pile of reports and correspondence on his desk, soothed by the soft clinking of chainmail. It was only when he glanced up at Merlin—which he never before realized he did so often—that he remembered their predicament.

The feeling of wrongness had mostly dissipated over the course of the day as he grew used to the shape of Merlin's body, like breaking in a new pair of boots. He still felt the difference, but it wasn't unpleasant. Even the peasant roughspun clothing, which he'd worn on previous occasions for purposes of disguise and always hated, were borderline comforting. That might have had something to do with the scent of medicinal herbs and blossoms that clung to the fabric. Merlin's scent.

"What are you doing?"

Arthur started, opening his eyes and dropping his hand from where he'd been absolutely rubbing his thumb over the sharp ridge of Merlin's ridiculous cheekbone. "Nothing."

Merlin set aside the chainmail and peered at him. "Is there something the matter with my face? What have you done to it?"

“There’s nothing the matter with your face other than it being idiotic.”

Merlin frowned. “I happen to like my face. You ought to be grateful for the chance to borrow it.”

Arthur huffed out a laugh. “I think it’s the other way around.”

“Of course you would think that, my lord,” Merlin shot back, the title of respect sounding more like arrogant prat.

Arthur merely rolled his eyes, then peered back down at the document on his desk. Continuing this conversation would only give Merlin the opportunity to accuse him of vanity, and in fact, Arthur did not think Merlin had a particularly bad face. It was odd, to be sure, with his wide-set eyes and jutting cheekbones, but not unpleasant. It was striking, the kind of face that one didn’t soon forget. Arthur certainly hadn’t after the impression Merlin had made on their first meeting. 

With a sigh, he pushed his chair back; his mind was far too distracted to get any more work done.

 

~

 

There were some definite perks to being king, Merlin decided. Though he’d never say so to either of them, the royal cook made far better food than Gaius.

“Are you going to be sorry to be yourself again tomorrow?” Gwen smirked as he helped her gather the empty dishes back onto the tray. Arthur, in true Arthur fashion, had wandered over to a seat by the fire with no thought for the mess.

“Not hardly,” Merlin laughed. Between dull council meetings, people bowing to him, and the constant fear that Arthur would accidentally activate his magic, Merlin figured he would be excessively glad to have his own life back. “Still, I’ll do my best to enjoy it while it lasts.”

“I want a bath,” Arthur complained as the door swung shut behind Gwen.

“Not happening,” Merlin said emphatically. “Unless you want to go lug buckets of water up the stairs, you’ll make do with the washbasin.” He knew they probably could have called for another servant to prepare a tub, but the idea of attending the king while he bathed Merlin’s body made him want to crawl out of his borrowed skin. Arthur might have shared the sentiment because he made no further argument. Instead, he shucked off Merlin’s tunic and neckerchief and headed for the basin. Merlin watched his own slim back disappear behind the dressing screen, his sense of modesty utterly confused at this point.

Arthur peered around the side of the screen, blinking water out of his eyes. “Well, what are you waiting for? I’ll not have you neglecting my body when I’m taking such good care of yours.”

Merlin rubbed a hand over his eyes, wondering if Arthur truly did not know how inappropriate that sounded, or if he was deliberately trying to make him flustered. It was almost worse than the knee-walking comment Arthur had made when they first met. “Wouldn’t dream of it, sire.”

Arthur made that face, lips slightly pursed and eyes narrowed, the face he always made when he couldn’t quite tell whether or not Merlin was making fun of him. The absurdity of seeing that expression on his own features was such that Merlin couldn’t help but laugh as he joined Arthur by the basin.

“Why you think everything is funny today,” Arthur grumbled, but a smile was playing around the corner of his lips.

There was, of course, some argument over the issue of where to sleep. “You could go back to my chambers,” Merlin suggested.

“Absolutely not. Whoever cast this spell has only a few more hours to take advantage of it. Your chambers are far too vulnerable to attack. Besides, your bed is like sleeping on grain sacks.”

Merlin rolled his eyes. “Fine. Isn’t there a cot in the antechamber?”  

“Right,” Arthur snapped his fingers. “It’s been so long since I’ve had a manservant who actually cared about his duties, I’d forgotten about it.”

“Great,” Merlin yawned. The day had been torturously long. “Put a tunic on, would you? I know you like to sleep bare-chested like a barbarian but I’d hate to return to my body only to have a cold.” He’d already put one on, unused to the sensation of air on bare skin though the chamber wasn’t particularly cold. Merlin didn’t bother to look at Arthur, merely listened to his half-hearted snort and the padding of his feet over to the wardrobe. For a few moments, Merlin thought he might actually be left in peace, until—

“What do you think you’re doing?”

Merlin peered at Arthur from beneath the delightful pile of blankets and furs he had burrowed under. “Going to sleep, if you’d shut up long enough to let me.”

“That’s my bed.”

Merlin grunted. “This bed belongs to the king of Camelot, who I currently happen to be.” He closed his eyes, ignoring Arthur’s dark expression. For the moment, Arthur could do nothing to him without feeling the pain himself, and Merlin wasn’t one to let such an opportunity be wasted.

“Your insolence truly knows no bounds.”

“One would think that you’d be used to it after all these years.”

“Do you really expect me to sleep on that cot?”

Merlin cracked one eye open. “Think of it this way: when you wake up in your own body in the morning, where would you rather be?”

A pause.

“You are a complete idiot, Merlin,” Arthur sighed. “Move over, I prefer to sleep on the left.” 

With a disgruntled groan, Merlin allowed himself to be shoved sideways as Arthur climbed under the covers. “Ugh, your feet are freezing, get those away from me.”

Arthur twisted around to place his cold feet directly on Merlin’s bare calves. The resulting tussle ended with them both wheezing from an elbow to the stomach(Merlin had no idea which elbow or which stomach, but the pain hit them both at once).

“You know, Arthur,” Merlin gasped as he regained his breath, “you might be an even worse manservant than I am.”

Arthur snickered, trying to tug more of the covers to his side of the bed. “I’m sorry to have taken that achievement from you. I’m sure you’ll do your best to reclaim your title of worst manservant in the five kingdoms ever starting tomorrow.

“Prat,” Merlin mumbled, closing his eyes and relishing the softness of Arthur’s bed.

“Idiot,” Arthur replied softly. He shifted closer and Merlin froze, feeling the slightest brush of fingers against the back of his hand. The contact sent a familiar glow through his senses and he realized that he could feel the part of his magic that had been lost to him all day. Then Arthur pulled away and the power was once again out of his grasp.

“You know, Merlin,” Arthur murmured, so soft that Merlin might have dreamed it, “this day has been a disaster but… I’m glad it’s you.”

It wasn’t quite a compliment, nor an explicit admission of trust, but Merlin was helpless against the warmth that bloomed through his entire being at the words. He kept his eyes closed, imagining Arthur’s face and the expression he would be wearing: that fond, half-exasperated almost-smile that always made Merlin feel like he would do anything to keep Arthur’s gaze fixed on him for just one moment more. And that was why, of course—why one sincere word from Arthur felt like a bloody sonnet and a bouquet of roses from anyone else.

He’d been trying not to think of it throughout the whole day. He was accustomed to pining from afar, always one step behind his king, content to serve, but today he had been too close. To inhabit the body that he had been stealing guilty glimpses of for years felt like an invasion. He clenched his hands into fists and willed himself to sleep, deliberately not thinking of how servant and king must look at the moment, sharing warmth beneath the same blankets.