Merlin had never quite approached a pudding with such trepidation before. Most of the time, he did what all the servants did and devoured any leftovers in the royal kitchens with a speed that verged on indecent and also potentially unsafe. And there was a difference in theoretically knowing that there might be a bit of gristle or something in the pudding and then knowing that the cooks had purposefully put things in there for the Feast of Fools.
He continued to eat carefully -- it was good, after all, but beyond that, all the nobles were watching the servants like hawks, smiles barely suppressed. At least the King of Misrule had already been crowned, although the King was actually a woman this year, which appeared not to matter to the nobles in the slightest. Uther had already slung an ugly, masculine crown on top of her white curls.
There was a great shout at the other end of the hall when a stable boy spit out the metal piece that made him the Prince, and another burst of laughter when Gwen held up the Queen piece. The nobles were insane, Merlin reflected sourly.
And then on his next mouthful, he bit down on something hard and wondered for a moment if he couldn't just swallow it. But Arthur must have seen his expression, because he looked anticipatory and said, "Come on, Merlin, spit it out and let's see."
He did and the piece in his hand had a rose engraved on it -- puzzled, he showed it to Arthur. And then he knew his future was going to be wretched, after all, because Arthur's countenance turned gleeful and he shouted to the hall, "Merlin's the Maiden!"
The hall exploded into whooping and cat-calls, and Merlin wondered how bad it would be if the ground really did swallow him whole.
"Oh my god," Merlin moaned. "Do they do this every year?"
"Didn't you have a midwinter feast in your village?" Gwen asked curiously.
"Well, it's not really what you'd call a feast, but we -- what are you doing back there?" Merlin demanded, looking back over his shoulder.
"Stop moving," Gwen advised, and Merlin reluctantly stood still while she yanked hard on the laces of the kirtle she had stuffed him into.
The door burst open then to reveal Morgana, who was carrying a frothy mess of purple in her arms. "I know this one will work," she said. "I mean, it's a little old-fashioned, but the Lady Margaret was tall enough."
Merlin whimpered. "Can't you just put a sack on me and have done with it?"
Morgana thumped him on the arm, which actually hurt more than Merlin would have expected. "Merlin, you don't understand -- last year's Maiden was that old cook who's missing all her teeth. It wasn't any fun dressing her up."
"You're ever so much prettier," Gwen enthused. "I mean -- you know, you're younger. And your teeth are very nice." She stopped, looking awkward, and helped Morgana pull the purple gown over his head.
Gwen and Morgana stepped back to survey him. "Well," Morgana said, looking pleased, "Maybe Arthur won't actually throw the tourney this year."
"What are you even talking about?" Merlin asked, but both girls just giggled in a totally horrifying way before jamming a wreath of dried flowers on his head.
Arthur was normally a prat around his friends, but apparently he was doubly so when Merlin was wearing a dress. "Why, Merlin, I had no idea you had such a...shapely figure," Arthur said, looking him up and down while his friends sniggered. Arthur was wearing the plainest clothes he owned, apparently holding no truck with the idea of actually wearing his servant's clothes (unlike Morgana, who had cheerfully traded with Gwen).
Merlin felt his face burn even as he plotted his revenge, which might include dropping Arthur's favorite doublet in the middens as soon as possible.
"Would you like a hand up on to your horse, my lady?" Arthur asked, in an approximation of chivalrous behavior that might have been convincing if he weren't trying so hard not to smile.
"I don't need any help," Merlin spat, and turned to face the very fine mare that was his to ride for the parade.
Arthur stepped up behind him and let his hands rest on Merlin's waist. "Don't be so stubborn," he said in a low voice, too quiet for his friends to hear. "Unless you want to get all tangled up."
Merlin hunched his shoulders as Arthur's warm breath ghosted over his ear. "I hate this," he said miserably.
"It's supposed to be fun," Arthur said, squeezing Merlin's hips in a gesture that was probably supposed to be reassuring.
"For you," Merlin grumbled.
"Grab your skirt with your right hand," Arthur instructed, and Merlin seized a fistful of material in one hand, grabbed the pommel in the other, and let Arthur lift him up into the saddle in one smooth movement.
Arthur surveyed him with a critical eye, pulling his cloak into place. "Sit up straight -- ladies don't slouch."
"I hate this," Merlin repeated.
Arthur just grinned up at him, obnoxious and such a prat. "Really, Merlin, if I'd known you'd make a better maid than a manservant--"
Merlin kicked his heels into his horse's sides, leaving the hooting laughter of Arthur and his friends behind.
The parade probably would have been more fun if Merlin was as drunk as the onlookers -- sadly, he was completely sober and utterly mortified to have men of all ages lewdly calling out to him, and young girls sighing over him as though he were actually Arthur, and not his servant in a dress -- which, what kind of sense did that make? Women were clearly delusional.
When the parade had circled through the city, it ended up at the tourney arena. Arthur appeared at his side again to help him down from his horse, his hands warm where they firmly gripped Merlin's waist.
The King of Misrule sat on Uther's throne, with Gwen on one side and Merlin on the other. The Misrule Prince was nowhere to be found -- apparently, he was drunk already and sleeping it off in the castle, and Merlin was bitterly jealous. The contesting knights came up one by one to offer their most overblown bows to the Court of Misrule, including the disreputable Sir Baius, who leaned over the wall and said, "I've a mind to win this year -- I wouldn't mind escorting you to the feast and maybe a hay bale afterward." Then he let out a guffaw and Merlin cringed in his seat. Just because he'd passed some time with Will back in his home village in no way meant that he wanted to be tumbled by one of Camelot's more foul knights.
Arthur came forward last, and was about to turn to go when Merlin said, "Wait!" He fumbled for one of the ribbons on his sleeve, pulling it off with one good yank. "Come here," Merlin said.
Arthur cocked an eyebrow. "For luck, my lady?" But he obediently came to the edge of the wall so that Merlin could tie it to his armor.
"Arthur, if you have any affection for me whatsoever, please win," Merlin said urgently.
"Or what?" Arthur asked, sounding bored.
"Or Sir Baius will," Merlin said, not hiding his shudder. "He wants to tumble me in a haystack -- Arthur, please."
Arthur looked at him consideringly, but didn't say a word and went to line up with the knights.
"The Prince usually loses in the first few rounds during Misrule," the King said, patting Merlin's hand in what might have been intended as a fortifying gesture.
"Oh god," Merlin moaned.
Uther was apparently content to give up his throne for the day but not a good seat, which was how he ended up next to Merlin after the first few rounds. It was disconcerting to see Uther in such plain clothing, especially since even without a crown, it was clear who was actually in power.
"You know," Uther said conversationally, "Usually the tourney is a great deal more ridiculous, what with the men falling all over themselves to lose."
Merlin looked at the two knights battling in front of him, but they were going at it with all apparent ferocity. "Then they're better actors than I gave them credit," he said, and then added, "Sire."
Uther let out a low laugh at that. "They take their cue from Arthur. He usually allows someone to best him in the first round, but he seems oddly serious this year."
Sir Baius knocked down his opponent at that moment and turned to leer at Merlin. He winced and shivered a little.
"Are you cold?" Uther asked solicitously. "Here, take my cloak," he said, wrapping it around Merlin's shoulders.
"Sire, that's not necessary," Merlin protested.
"Don't be absurd," Uther said. "We can't have the prettiest Maiden we've had in years catching a cold."
"In years?" Merlin said in a horrified croak.
Uther gave him a filthy, filthy smile and Merlin was very afraid.
Baius didn't even make it to the final round, much to Merlin's relief. But Arthur did, and the middling Sir Elias was no match for him.
The crowd, still mostly drunk, cheered their approval when Elias fell to the ground. When they quieted, the Misrule King stood and said, "I declare the champion of this tourney to be Prince Arthur!"
"Arthur!" the crowd echoed back.
Arthur came forward, and the King said, "And now for your prize." She turned to look down at Merlin. "Come on, don't keep everyone waiting."
"Waiting for what?" Merlin hissed.
"He's earned your kiss," the King said, grinning.
"I thought he was just supposed to escort me to the feast!" Merlin said, but the Misrule King seized one of his arms, and Uther seized the other, and they shoved him forward toward the arena barrier.
The crowd whistled and hollered, and Merlin gulped as he leaned over the edge and Arthur stepped close. "You didn't say anything about this!" he whispered to Arthur.
Arthur shrugged. "You were the one who wanted me to win."
"Yes, but--" Merlin stopped and looked at the crowd around them, which seemed to be holding its collective breath. "Well, you'd better do it, then."
"What a charming invitation," Arthur said. "But you're supposed to kiss me, not the other way around."
"Oh," Merlin said faintly. He wet his lips nervously, trying to forget the crowd around them without much success. Arthur's face was flushed from exertion, and his hair was in sweaty disarray, and his lips seemed to be redder than usual. Merlin could hear the crowd growing restless, so he leaned forward over the wall and caught Arthur's lips with his own.
He felt the crowd's surprised gasp and Arthur's gasp almost as one, but then he realized he had misjudged his lean over the wall, and was in fact in danger of falling out into the arena itself when Arthur seized his shoulders and steadied Merlin, deepening the kiss as he did so. He could hear the crowd roar, and finally got a good grip on the wall to lever himself back, separating from Arthur with a heart-pounding, dizzying rush.
"Well," Uther said. "Arthur's certainly cemented his reputation as a good sport -- usually the Maiden just kisses the victor's cheek."
Merlin turned slowly to stare at him, completely horrified at his mistake, and then slouched deeper into Uther's cloak. Arthur was still looking at him, wide-eyed, and Merlin wondered why his mouth had tasted of mint and honey.
Gwen and Morgana swept Merlin away to Morgana's chambers before the feast, apparently intent on doing more utterly terrifying girly-type things to him.
"Oh, this necklace is perfect," Morgana said. "It looks much better on you than it does on me, Merlin -- maybe you should keep it."
"I'm not actually a girl, you know," Merlin said.
Gwen giggled and affixed yet more sparkling things to Merlin's hair.
"So, what was it like?" Morgana asked, looking at Merlin with what felt like unhealthy degree of interest.
"What was what like?" Merlin asked blankly.
"Kissing Arthur," Gwen supplied, and Merlin could see her grinning in the mirror.
"I'm really not actually a girl," Merlin reminded them, and watched his reflection flush in remembrance of Arthur's lips pressed against his.
Arthur showed up at Morgana's door, having apparently cleaned up and changed into something more appropriate to a tourney champion. "Are you ready to leave?" he asked.
Merlin looked down at his dress doubtfully. "I suppose so."
Arthur held out his hand imperiously, and Merlin could hear Morgana softly laughing behind him. Gwen had already gone on ahead, dressed in a red velvet gown as the Queen of Misrule. He sighed and placed his hand in Arthur's, trying not to trip on his skirt on his way out the door.
They walked in silence for several corridors before Merlin could muster the courage to say, "Thank you."
"For what?" Arthur asked.
Merlin looked away. "You know. For not throwing the tourney."
"Oh," Arthur said. There was another awkward silence. "They put...things in your hair."
Merlin touched his head self-consciously. "Er, yes."
"They look...nice," Arthur offered.
They both studiously looked straight ahead and avoided speaking until they got to the feasting hall. Merlin and Arthur ended up seated next to Uther at the head table.
And that was how things went to hell in a very short time period indeed, because Uther insisted on having Merlin's wine goblet filled to the brim, and Merlin had no head for wine, none at all -- but Misrule or no, he didn't want to offend the real king by refusing.
Arthur took in the situation and Merlin's trepidation and leaned in to whisper, "Eat first or the wine will hit you harder."
So Merlin ate but it didn't seem to help appreciably -- and furthermore, everyone else was terribly inebriated so it didn't seem quite so bad to have a little more than he would have usually allowed himself. Unfortunately, so did Uther and Merlin was starting to become very alarmed by the glances Uther was sending his way.
"Save me," Merlin begged Arthur.
"You're in my lap," Arthur observed.
"No place else is safe," Merlin told him very seriously, trying not to slur his words. Then he let his cheek rest on Arthur's shoulder -- velvet did make an awfully nice pillow -- and he felt Arthur's arms surround him to hold him in place.
Arthur muttered, "I'm not sure this is safe either."
There was music and more food, and really, the food was fabulous even when it was cold leftovers down in the kitchens, so it was exemplary when actually warm. And there was yet more wine, and Arthur said, "If you start singing, Merlin, I will dump you on floor. I might do that anyway, I can't feel my legs."
Merlin just hummed a little and let his head fall on Arthur's shoulder again, turning his face into Arthur's neck. "I think," he said, his lips moving against Arthur's skin, "Arthur, I think I'm drunk. Sire. I'm supposed to call you 'sire.'"
"You don't remember that when you're sober," Arthur said, and Merlin could feel the beat of Arthur's pulse under his lips.
"Arthur," Merlin sighed, and then, well, his lips were already there, so he kissed Arthur's neck.
Arthur froze, and then said, "That's it. We're retiring for the night. Come on, up you go."
Merlin was really quite wobbly but he did manage to get up. As soon as Arthur was standing, he wrapped one arm around Merlin's waist. Relatively few people seemed to take notice of them leaving, and they wandered down empty corridors to Arthur's rooms.
"Hmm. Good night, then," Merlin said cheerfully.
"Where do you think you're going?" Arthur demanded.
"To my room?"
"You lunatic, you'll brain yourself on the stairs in your condition. Get in here," Arthur snapped.
Merlin did, and then sagged back against the door when he shut it, and Arthur stepped in closer to hold him up, frowning. "I think Morgana can hold her wine better than you," Arthur said.
"I'm not actually a girl," Merlin felt the need to point out.
Arthur laid one hand firmly on Merlin's chest. "I can tell," he said shortly. "It's not like you were fooling anyone with that hair of yours."
"You said you liked my hair," Merlin murmured, sliding one hand up Arthur's arm to rest on his shoulder.
Arthur looked at him, something soft and odd in his eyes, and then he muttered, "God help me, I do." And he leaned in to kiss Merlin just as Merlin had leaned in to kiss him at the tourney, but this was better because it was warm and they were alone, and Arthur's mouth moved surely against Merlin's, his tongue dipping into Merlin's mouth for more than a brief taste.
Merlin moaned into the kiss and clutched tighter at Arthur's shoulders, and when they broke apart for air, Merlin pressed messy, open-mouthed kisses against Arthur's neck which made Arthur shudder and then press Merlin more tightly against the door.
"We have to stop," Arthur said, even as Merlin tried to kiss him again. He did consent to kiss Merlin once more, heated and lingering, before he said, "You don't know what you're doing."
"I do," Merlin said, frustrated when Arthur evaded his lips again.
"Merlin, you're in a dress," Arthur said between gritted teeth. "And you're kissing me. Need I go on?"
"I do too know what I'm doing," Merlin said huffily.
"If you were a girl -- if you were a girl, Merlin, I'd never," Arthur said, deadly serious. "Not like this."
"It would be more comfortable in bed," Merlin agreed.
Arthur squeezed his eyes shut once, and then said, "Right. Bed. Come on, then."
Merlin made it to the bed and sat down heavily, and the bed was oh so very soft. Arthur knelt at his feet, pulling off Merlin's shoes, his hand braced on each of Merlin's calves in turn. Merlin let gravity take him down to lie on his back, and then he heard Arthur ask in a slightly strangled tone, "Merlin, are you wearing women's--"
"Mmm," Merlin said, and his eyes fell shut.
Merlin woke what felt like hours later, but it was still dark, and there was one candle burning at the bedside.
"Are you awake?" Arthur asked, his voice a little rough.
"Yes," Merlin said simply, because answering the question was easier than dealing with the fact that he was in Arthur's bed, and Arthur's arms were around him.
"Are you still drunk?"
Merlin considered that carefully. "No." He looked down. "I do still appear to be wearing a dress."
"The feast doesn't end until dawn," Arthur said quietly.
"Right," Merlin said. "Do you still think I don't know what I'm doing?"
"You tell me," Arthur said softly.
"I'm not a girl," Merlin said. "And even if I were, I'm no maiden."
Arthur's mouth hung open at that, and Merlin took the opportunity to kiss him again, pushing Arthur onto his back and settling with his thighs spread across Arthur's hips. He couldn't do anything about his own clothes, but he was an expert now at getting Arthur out of his, and helped Arthur strip his shirt off over his head before lettings his fingers work at the laces on Arthur's trousers, even as Arthur caught Merlin's earlobe between his teeth and slid one hand up Merlin's skirts.
Arthur was the one who sounded drunk now, murmuring Merlin's name as Merlin wrapped one steady hand around Arthur's cock, stroking it slowly. Merlin met his lips and kissed him, Arthur making noises of frustration when Merlin denied the rhythm of Arthur's lifting hips. His frustration turned to a growl of outright discontent when Merlin made to get up from the bed.
"Where are you going?" he asked, sounding bewildered.
Merlin snagged the bottle of oil he was looking for off the shelf. "I just needed to get something. Lie back down."
"Bossy," Arthur said.
"It's still the Feast of Fools," Merlin reminded him. "Don't you have to do what I say?"
Arthur swallowed at that, but obediently laid back in the center of the bed.
"Good," Merlin said, and stepped out of the women's hose he was wearing before he crawled back onto the bed. He fought not to let his hand shake as he uncorked the bottle of oil -- he might not be a maiden anymore, but he wouldn't say that he was completely confident, and even if he were, this was Arthur -- everything was different.
Still, the entranced look in Arthur's eyes was good motivation, and Merlin leaned forward on his hands and knees over Arthur, hiking his skirts up and reaching back with one oiled finger, willing his body to relax as he pressed the finger inside himself. Arthur watched his face raptly, and maybe the prince wasn't quite so worldly after all, because he said breathlessly, "Are you -- are you really -- let me" and then he was carelessly opening the bottle and slicking his own fingers, reaching behind the skirts bunched at Merlin's hips to let his finger find where Merlin's was pressed deep, his eyes focused on Merlin's as his finger joined Merlin's in pushing into the warmth of Merlin's body.
Merlin gasped at that, and Arthur never took his eyes off Merlin's face, watching his expression intently as he replaced Merlin's finger with another of his own, letting Merlin fall forward to rest both of his elbows against the bed. Arthur slid his fingers in and out almost lazily at first, oh so slowly, and when Merlin's hips began to move, almost of their own accord, Arthur picked up the pace and Merlin panted, trying to breathe while Arthur had one arm tight around his waist and two fingers deep with his body.
"Oh," Merlin sighed.
"Please, let me, I want--" Arthur said, cut off when Merlin kissed him again.
Merlin reach back to gently pull at Arthur's wrist, who took the hint and pulled his fingers free. Merlin fumbled for the bottle of oil, already half-spilled everywhere, and slicked Arthur's cock before kneeling up over it, his skirts puddling around his hips as he slowly sank back onto it.
"Oh my god," Arthur said roughly, and Merlin would have been inclined to echo the sentiment if he'd had brain enough to do so, if all of him hadn't been focused on the slow slide of Arthur's cock inside, uncomfortable at first but easier by the second, and when Arthur was fully seated inside him, Merlin looked down at Arthur, lick his lips once and then lifted his hips and brought them back down again. Arthur groaned, so Merlin did it again, and again, and then he really wasn't thinking at all, just chasing the soft, helpless moans that fell from Arthur's lips .
And just as before, Arthur wasn't content to lay back and let Merlin do just as he pleased -- he took Merlin by the hips and rolled him over, and Merlin cried out, because Arthur was thrusting inside faster now, and it felt amazing, sharp sparks of pleasure flying up his spine and he spared a weak thought that this might be dangerous, he might lose control, but he couldn't think at all once Arthur cursed and shoved a hand under Merlin's skirts, finding Merlin's cock and stroking it roughly, even as his thrusts became short and hard and Merlin wailed when he came, feeling utterly undone.
"Oh," Arthur said in a small voice in Merlin's ear, resting his forehead on the pillow next to Merlin's head as his hips moved in a few more sharp jerks before he came to a shuddering halt.
Merlin tried to catch his breath, stroking one hand idly down Arthur's sweat-slick back. And after a few moments, Arthur pulled out and let his body fall to one side.
Merlin said after a while, "You know, that was the first thing I've done all day where I didn't get tangled up in the dress."
Arthur pulled back to give Merlin one incredulous look before he let himself fall face-first into the pillow again, but it was all a front because Merlin could feel him laughing.
Merlin was forced to shamefacedly knock on Morgana's door the next day. Gwen answered the door, and Merlin fidgeted for a moment before he said, "Um, about the gown the Lady Morgana lent me?"
"Yes?" Gwen said.
"Well. I, uh. I can't return it. It's ruined," Merlin said wretchedly.
"Oh dear," Gwen said, but she didn't sound that concerned. "Well, it was old, and not that precious. I don't think my lady will be that upset," she said consolingly. "Did you enjoy the rest of the feast night?"
Merlin froze and felt his cheeks flush, and then he said, "Um, yes. And you?"
And then Gwen likewise stood still, blushing. "I -- yes. It's too bad it's only one day a year, isn't it? I mean, not that you can't do everyday what you can do during the Feast of Fools. Not everything, obviously, but some things you can do all the time -- not that you would, of course, but you could. You know?" she said, and then bit her lip.
"Right," Merlin said finally, thinking that for once, he really did understand what she was trying to say. "Well, I have to be going," he said, and started back down the hall to Arthur's quarters.
After all, the crown might be firmly back on Arthur's head, but Merlin knew where he belonged, even if Arthur had insisted he clean the bedsheets before he got back there.