Spoilers: Through Season 1, to be safe
Warnings (highlight to view): nothing to warn for
Cover art by the wonderful pollitt.
Written for the when you care enough to hit send fest.
At a certain point – Merlin couldn't have said precisely when – Arthur began behaving less like a prat. It was a gradual process, and so Merlin hardly noticed it, especially since Arthur tended toward rather impressive acts of noblesse oblige at regular enough intervals that Merlin tended to gloss over the incidents where Arthur flung his grotty underwear at Merlin's head. Come to think of it, though, he hadn't done that in well over a month.
However, Merlin did notice when Arthur changed from simply not being a prat to actively being a model employer, which in a member of the nobility was highly suspect behaviour. Merlin had always been well paid for being Arthur's manservant, surprisingly so considering the proportion of his job description that involved manure removal and pest control. He truly hadn't expected any other forms of compensation, but one day he arrived in Arthur's quarters with his breakfast just as Arthur was rising and found a book lying on the table. He laid down the tray, then picked up the book and headed over to the shelf where Arthur kept them.
“What are you doing?”
Merlin looked up to see Arthur frowning at him, his arms crossed against his bare chest. He concentrated on keeping his eyes raised to Arthur's face. “Putting this back? Unless you're not done with it.” He thought he already knew the answer to that question; Arthur never read in the mornings, only at night.
Arthur's chin snapped up. “That's yours.”
This time it was Merlin's turn to frown. “I don't – think so,” he said. He didn't remember bringing a book –
“Oh, for –” Arthur uncrossed his arms and waved one at Merlin. “I mean it's for you.”
“Oh,” Merlin said stupidly, looking down at the tome in his hands. The leather was butter-soft, obviously newly made, and there was a subtle gold filigree pattern etched into the spine. He cracked it open carefully.
“It's blank,” Arthur said quickly, taking a step forward. “I thought you might – that is, if you're studying under Gaius you're doubtless taking notes –” He stopped, mouth snapping shut when Merlin looked up.
“Yes, I am. I have been.” He'd been using parchment when he could get it, but the cost meant that his writing had to be so cramped that he could barely read his notes when he was done with them. The book easily weighed ten pounds, and there were hundreds of pages. He could write in it legibly and it would literally take him years to fill it up. “This will be a great improvement. Thank you.”
“Well,” Arthur said, “I thought it would keep you organized. God knows you need it.”
Merlin thought about saying something, then remembered that the book must have easily cost more than half his year's wages and thought better of it. “Thank you, sire,” he said again, softly.
“Alright, alright,” Arthur said, waving at him again, “you can go. Let me eat my breakfast in peace.”
Merlin smiled – grinned idiotically, if the truth be told – and let himself out, Arthur's gaze on him the whole time.
It continued like that for several weeks, Arthur giving him gifts – most of them small tokens, though some were quite useful, and all were appreciated – each time passing it off as something designed to improve Merlin's character. One day, he threw Merlin something round and brightly-coloured; Merlin caught it without thinking, and the most heavenly scent arose from its pebbled surface as he relaxed his grip.
“What is it?”
“It's a fruit,” Arthur said, “from a Spanish ship blown off her course. They call it a naranha.”
“It's very – orange,” Merlin said, unable to resist lifting it to his nose and taking a deep sniff. Gods, it smelled like sunshine itself. He opened his mouth to take a bite –
Merlin obeyed immediately, feeling foolish. Of course Arthur hadn't meant for him to have it; it was clearly terribly rare and valuable. “I'm sorry,” he said, holding it out to Arthur as he came toward him.
“No, you idiot,” Arthur murmured, taking it from him gently, “you have to peel it first.”
“Well, how should I –” Merlin began, and then Arthur's thumbnail pierced the skin and the sharp smell burst between them, filling Merlin's nostrils with a tart shock.
They both sucked in a breath at the same time, and when Merlin looked up, he met Arthur's gaze. The look in his eyes was like nothing Merlin had ever seen on the prince's face. It was as though he were seeing Arthur as a child, still filled with wonder at simple things like anthills and sunsets.
Arthur's fingers deftly peeled back the skin of the fruit, and the smell was nearly overpowering now; Merlin wondered if Spain smelled like this all the time. “How are these grown? On trees, like apples?” His voice was hushed, as if they were in church performing some sort of sacred ritual.
“I think so,” Arthur answered back, just as quietly. “Here.” Merlin watched, fascinated, as Arthur separated the fruit easily into pieces, then raised one to Merlin's mouth. “Be careful,” he warned, “there are seeds.” He pressed the fruit to Merlin's lips, and Merlin opened to let him push it inside. Arthur's thumb brushed against Merlin's mouth, and Merlin suppressed a shiver as Arthur's hand dropped away. He bit down tentatively, remembering the words of caution, and the juice exploded across his tongue without warning. Bloody hell, that was amazing.
“Good?” Arthur said, smile curling one corner of his mouth. Merlin nodded wordlessly, and Arthur chuckled and dropped the rest of the fruit into Merlin's hands. Merlin was oddly disappointed Arthur wasn't going to continue feeding him, and in the next moment he was berating himself for being a tit. Just because Arthur gave him presents on a regular basis and didn't fling underwear at his head – that only meant he was attempting not to be an ass every single moment of every single day. It certainly didn't mean he was trying to woo Merlin with gifts the way he might a foreign duchess.
That was just silly.
Only Arthur was still watching him, and standing – now that Merlin was paying attention, he was rather close. Close enough that Merlin could, if he wanted, study the truly extraordinary blue of Arthur's eyes, which were leveled right at him, watching him as though he were the most fascinating thing in the world, bugs and sunsets and an entire tree full of naranhas all rolled up into one.
Or perhaps Merlin was just losing what was left of his mind.
Merlin's breath stopped in his throat, then started again. Well, nothing ventured, nothing gained, he reasoned, and before he could think better of it, he took a section of fruit and held it up to Arthur's lips.
Arthur's eyes widened fractionally, and then he opened his mouth, letting Merlin lay the treat on his tongue. He chewed, then shut his eyes briefly in what appeared to be sheer bliss. Merlin's mouth went dry.
And then Arthur turned and spat the seed onto the floor.
“Oi, I'll have to clean that later,” Merlin protested, and Arthur turned round again, sun-bleached eyelashes hiding his eyes, and slid his hand around the back of Merlin's neck. The taste of the naranha was still sweet in their mouths as they kissed, and Merlin cradled his gift in his left hand as he twisted the fingers of his right in Arthur's shirt.
“You'll have to press that later,” Arthur retorted, a smile curling his kiss-reddened lips. Merlin bit him on the ear for that, and then it was a graceless shoving and stumbling stagger to the bed, where they tumbled together onto the mattress. Merlin placed the fruit between them and they took turns feeding one another, lapping at the juice running down their chins. When Merlin collected the seeds in a handkerchief, Arthur laughed and asked him what he thought he was going to do with those.
“Someday I'll plant an orchard,” Merlin told him, and Arthur laughed even louder.
“Are you moving to Spain, then?” Arthur asked, as Merlin straddled him and lifted his shirt over his head and flung it away.
“No,” Merlin said, “it'll grow right here in Camelot.” He could see it as clearly as if it were laid out before him – a garden filled with exotic delights from every corner of the world, sun-warm fruit and majestic, sprawling trees and night-blooming flowers that were the exact colour of Arthur's eyes. “And it will all be for you.”
A small wrinkle appeared between Arthur's brows, but Merlin's hands didn't stop moving, and soon, Arthur was smiling again, his own hands sliding up under Merlin's tunic.
“Planning on giving me presents, are you?” he murmured, as Merlin leaned down over him.
“You have no idea,” Merlin assured him, falling into a kiss, into the future.
A/N: The Spanish word for orange is naranja. I've written it the way two hopeless English boys would try to pronounce it.
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