It was only when Merlin stopped humming as he cleaned that Arthur realized he was staring. Again. Arthur could feel the blush forming on his cheeks as he ducked his head down. He was grateful that Merlin’s body was turned to the side, focused solely on scrubbing off the muck on Arthur’s boots.
The light framed him softly, not so bright that it seemed to bother Merlin but enough to let him focus on his task. It was soft enough to create a quiet glow about him and showcase his features, his dark as night hair that was long enough to begin curling, his smooth pale face, his sharp cheekbones, his pale pink lips-
Arthur bit his lip to stop himself from cursing out loud, not a minute had gone by and he was already staring. He looked down at the crop reports he was supposed to be reading.
The young king sighed at this rate he would get nothing done. There was really only one option.
“Merlin, when you are finished cleaning that pair of boots I need you to go to storage and check my winter clothes for holes and whatnot, mend them, and then muck out the stables.”
That should keep Merlin away long enough for him to finish all these reports.
His head was still down but he felt Merlin’s frown from only a few meters away. “Arthur, it’s Fall. You won’t need those clothes for several more months.”
Arthur refused to back down. “Precisely why Merlin. If we wait until it’s already winter, then we won’t know what needs to be thrown out until it’s too late. I know you like to laze around until the last minute but I prefer to not wear trousers with a large hole in them in the dead of winter.”
“Oh and no using magic to speed things up! I want them done the proper way.”
Merlin groaned but muttered out a fine followed by a clotpole that Arthur pretended not to hear.
Arthur ground his teeth together to stop himself from saying something stupid.
Merlin had just put his dinner down and made one of his daft jokes, “I told the kitchens this morning that you would be ready to eat a horse after all the training you had planned today but I didn’t think they’d take me seriously.”
It was stupid. And bad. So bad. Before Arthur had realised his feelings for Merlin he would have rolled his eyes and joked back. But now after admitting his feelings to himself last month, he found different words forming in his mouth. Words like, Sometimes you’re too cute for your own good, or I must really like you if I think that’s actually funny, and worst of all: I think I’m in love with you.
Merlin pulled him out of his thoughts as he said, “It’s not really horse Arthur, I was kidding.”
Arthur gave him a tight smile and shook his head, trying to get rid of his thoughts with the motion. “Sorry, my mind was elsewhere. What did you say?”
Merlin ignored his question and frowned. “Are you alright Arthur? You’ve been rather distracted the last few weeks.”
“I’m fine Merlin, really. Just worried about the fall harvest.” He replied, his smile relaxing a bit at his friend’s concern.
He felt bad worried Merlin like this. He needed an outlet for his feelings before he did something ridiculous, like confess.
Merlin nodded and gave him that soft smile. The smile that was barely there, just the slight uptick in his lips, the smile that Arthur had only seen him ever given to him. “I’m sure it will be fine Arthur.”
Arthur nodded back feeling pleased for all of five seconds when he realized his apple was gone from his plate. “Merlin.”
He could hear the smirk from behind him as Merlin, with all the false innocence that he could muster replied, “Yes my lord?”
“Do you have my apple?”
He could literally hear the crunch of Merlin taking a bite from it!
The man had the nerve to reply back while he was chewing, “What apple?”
Arthur whipped his head around and glared. “The apple you have right in your hand!”
Merlin looked down at his hand then back at Arthur, with mock confusion. “I don’t know what you are talking about my lord. This is a… a….”
Arthur smiled up at him with clear annoyance, his voice light and dangerous. “It’s a what Merlin?”
“It’s a, a grapple.”
While Arthur knew Merlin was going to make up something ridiculous, he honestly was expecting something a little more original. “A grapple?”
Merlin winced slightly but nodded. “Yup. A grapple. Very popular fruit with us commoners these days. Not surprised you haven’t heard of it.”
Arthur nodded and sarcastically said, “Really? Because it looks strikingly similar to an apple. Tell me, does it taste like one too?”
Merlin frowned but he was never one to give up. “Somewhat, but there is a subtle difference in sweetness.”
Arthur had to fight back the urge to laugh. His annoyed smile tightened. “Right, you done yet?”
Merlin shrugged but there was a twinkle in his eye.
Arthur sighed. “A grapple Merlin? Really? Honestly, I expected better from you.”
“Yeah. Not my best I’m afraid.” He chuckled and then tossed the apple back to Arthur.
Arthur was about to complain that he didn’t want an apple with a bite in it when his mind remembered something. It was a vague memory, like a whisper, but he could just barely remember. Something about a kingdom, apples, and marriage.
The next day after he listened in on a council meeting and Merlin was off washing his laundry, Arthur walked over to the library.
He walked around the aisles hoping the name of a foreign kingdom would catch his memory. He was about to give up when he saw a Greek letter.
Yes, that rings a bell, he thought.
Going through the books and scrolls of Greece, it was about half an hour later when he found the book he was looking for. It was a book about Greek customs. He skimmed through until he found the particular custom he was looking for. Marriage proposals through apples.
He grinned. Yes, that was it! When he was a child, he remembered a visiting noble telling his father about a strange custom he saw while passing through the outskirts of the Greek kingdom where people gave apples to their beloveds in hopes of marriage.
His heart beat rapidly as he read through the passage twice. It was an old peasant tradition, apparently, popular in his father’s time but had been out of practice for some time.
Peasants would toss an apple to their beloved and if their love was reciprocated, their beloved would catch it and take a bite. If they did not, they would ignore it or drop the apple.
His mind was all over the place as he thought about the strange custom. Arthur carefully put the book back on the shelf and left, his heart still beating rapidly as he pondered what to do with this information.
Arthur stood in front of the apple vendor silently cursing himself and ludicrous foreign customs.
It had been a while since the king had patrolled through the lower towns and so he decided that day seemed as good as any to do so. It had absolutely nothing to do with wanting to purchase an apple. And even if it had, he was merely purchasing to support the local vendors and because he simply wanted an apple, nothing more.
Right, nothing to do with Merlin at all, Arthur thought. With that last thought, he grabbed the nearest apple and gave the man his coin, already feeling silly over how long he had stood in front of those damn apples.
He slipped the apple into a pouch tied around his belt.
His only saving grace was that he had sent Merlin to retrieve his new boots from the shoemaker and thus, was not there to cement his embarrassment by asking why he had stared at bloody apples for the last five minutes.
As the day went on, Arthur felt equal parts embarrassed and foolish for buying the stupid apple in the first place. He was tempted to just eat the bloody thing himself and be done with it but instead, he hid it in a drawer.
It wasn’t until dinner when Merlin once again tried to steal some of his food from his plate that he finally did something with it.
Arthur grabbed Merlin’s slippery hand and glared at the man. Merlin of course grimaced at being caught but quickly changed his expression to a look of surprise as he looked at his hand.
“Huh that’s weird, why are these grapes in my hand? How odd.”
Arthur scoffed. “How odd indeed Merlin, in fact, it seems to be becoming a pattern, my food ending up in your fingers.”
Merlin grinned sheepishly. “Really? Huh, I haven’t really noticed.”
He snorted, “Oh of course you haven’t but luckily for the both of us I have.”
Arthur moved out of his chair and found himself in front of the drawer. His stomach seemed to be having a sword fight as he pulled the apple out of its hiding place.
With a deep breath, he turned around and tossed the apple to Merlin. And for a brief second, he saw Merlin stare at the apple and feared the man would purposely let the apple fall but he caught it.
The dark-haired man looked down at the apple and just stared at him. Arthur was suddenly struck with a strange thought, Does Merlin, impossible as it may seem, know about the custom? The thought nearly made his heart jump right out of his chest. Because it was ridiculous. Of course, Merlin doesn’t know, but the thought created an odd feeling of excitement and dread.
Merlin glanced up at Arthur and frowned. “An apple?”
Arthur was somehow simultaneously relieved and saddened by this response. He shook his head to get the thought out of his head and hauntingly replied, “Very good Merlin, that is an apple!”
His friend rolled his eyes before he snapped back, “I know what it is Arthur, I’m asking why?”
“Why what- Why are you giving me an apple!” Merlin asked frustrated.
Arthur couldn’t help the flutter of butterflies in his stomach at the question. He cooled his emotions and lied, “It’s it obvious? So, you stop putting your sticky fingers in my dinner.”
“You got me an apple?” Merlin said somewhat dumbstruck and for a second Arthur let himself imagine Merlin’s surprise is from the declaration of love.
Arthur shrugged, “If that’s what I need to do to be able to eat my own bloody meal, so be it.”
Merlin snorted but smiled brightly at him before taking a bite of the apple.
He knew that Merlin didn’t know what he had just done, what he had just accepted, and thus it meant nothing but that doesn’t stop Arthur’s heart from singing with joy at the sight. And just for a moment, he allowed himself to pretend that Merlin loved him back.
Arthur continued to purchase apples. He has a crate of them delivered to the castle kitchens and carefully picks out each apple as if they were rare and precious gems before giving them to Merlin. He lets the head cook believe that Arthur is just really into apples right now.
He creates elaborate and unique ways to give them to his dear sorcerer manservant. Whenever Merlin makes a particularly bad joke or comes up with an annoyingly good insult that he can’t think of a response to he gives him an apple. When Merlin makes him laugh so hard, he can hardly breathe, he gives him an apple. When he gives him that smile that he swears is just for him. Every time he does something so stupid and ridiculous and just so damn Merlin that it makes his heart want to burst out of love, he gives him an apple.
Sometimes it’s multiple apples a day, while other times it’s an apple every few days. There is no real rhyme or riddle to it, simply when he finds that he loves the man so much he can’t bear it in his chest any longer he gives him an apple.
The only thing that is constant, is that he always always gives it to him when it’s only the two of them.
Merlin was frankly, confused. A deep, deep confusion caused by one insufferable man, Arthur Pendragon, and his ridiculous apples.
The first time he gave Merlin an apple he understood the joke, Merlin had tried to steal his apple the day before, so Arthur gave him one as a joke. That had made perfect sense. So, when Arthur gave him another apple a few days later he had simply rolled his eyes at the joke but now nearly three months later Arthur was still giving him apples, sometimes multiple times a day. Just this morning, Merlin had been complaining about having to do mace practice with Arthur when suddenly Arthur threw an entire bowl full of apples at him! An ENTIRE BOWL!
He just did not get his king sometimes. He had tried to ask what the apples were about but every damn time Arthur would give him one of his infuriatingly
attractive stupid smirks and shrug or tell him he simply thought Merlin was hungry.
Merlin nearly threw his arms up in the air in confused rage in the middle of the street while he walked with Gwen.
“I’m telling you, Gwen, if he gives me one more bloody apple, I will not be responsible for my actions!”
Gwen snorted. “Merlin it's just apples. Surely it can’t be that bad. Besides, you said the apples tasted good.”
Merlin grunted angrily because it was true the apples also tasted annoyingly delicious. “That’s beside the point Gwen, he’s clearly trying to torture me. He knows it’s driving me mad not knowing what the apples mean!” Or at least that was his current theory. He had gone through a bad joke, running gag, and at one point he had Gaius check to make sure Arthur hadn’t drugged or poisoned the apples. He knew that one had been a bit far-fetched seeing that Arthur had accepted Merlin’s magic better than he expected but he was at his wits end with this.
“You’re thinking about this too hard Merlin. What about next time he gives you an apple you just ignore it.”
Merlin winced because yeah, he had tried that and somehow that was worst. “That’s ah, not an option.” Gwen gave him a look, but Merlin shook his head.
The one and only time he had ignored Arthur throwing an apple at him he had looked backed at the king expecting him to laugh or roll his eyes but instead Arthur had looked hurt and sad but worst of all, resigned. As if that was the response he had been waiting for all along. It had nearly broken his heart to see Arthur like that and before he had realised what he was doing, he grabbed the apple off the floor and took a large bite.
Gwen didn’t ask but kept going, “O-kay. What about you share the apples then? Surely that will be fine.”
He groaned. “Tried that, did not end well.” He had given one of the apples to Gwaine last week seeing as the man loved apples and Arthur looked ready to murder them both. Honestly, he hadn’t seen him that mad since his father was alive.
“Well then, I’m out of options I’m afraid.”
“Yeah, I know. I just wished I knew why he keeps throwing apples at me.” Merlin sighed as he nearly bumped into a passing stranger.
The stranger was an older man, not quite Gaius’s age but certainly closer in age with him than Merlin. The man turned around with an amused twinkle in his eyes. “Sorry, but did you say someone is throwing apples at you?”
Merlin frowned but nodded. By the man’s accent, he was clearly not from here. He was most likely a traveling merchant of some kind.
The man let out a boisterous laugh. “Congrats my friend! Now when’s the wedding?” He teased.
Merlin had been wrong; this was the most confused he had ever been. “Sorry what?”
The man chuckled. “Sorry, in my kingdom it’s an old commoner tradition to declare your intention of marriage by throwing an apple at your love. If they reciprocate in kind, they take a bite and you’re betrothed.”
“I’m sorry, what?” Merlin asked as his head exploded.
Merlin spent the next few hours in a fog. He knew realistically that there was no possible way Arthur had been proposing to him. No way, but he couldn’t get the thought out of his head. The idea made his entire body hum in pleasure. Arthur had thrown so many apples at him over the last two and a half months, seventy-nine to be exact. That meant seventy-nine proposals. The idea, even fanciful as it was, that Arthur wanted him so badly, loved him so desperately that he would propose seventy-nine times was dazzling. The idea that anyone could love him that much warmed his blood but the idea that Arthur could, made his heart sing.
The sorcerer shook his head, trying to push the thought away. He had chores to do.
The next morning when Arthur gave him an apple, he could feel his ears turned red and quickly turned around before closing his eyes and biting down into the apple. His heart beating as fast as a hummingbird and he swore to himself that no apple had ever tasted so sweet.
It took Merlin three days to finally build up the courage to bring up to Arthur what he heard in the lower towns.
Arthur had just finished his lunch when Merlin took a deep breath and spoke the words, he had been practicing the last few days as casually as discussing the weather. “So I was in the lower towns the other day and I heard the craziest thing from a traveling merchant.”
“Oh really?” Arthur responded not really paying attention as he reached over to look at the budget report.
“Really. He told me about an old tradition in his kingdom where people,” he couldn’t help himself and laughed nervously, “where people throw apples to propose marriage.”
Merlin took a sharp breath because at that moment he knew. He knew looking at Arthur’s tight shoulders, and how Arthur’s entire face in a matter of seconds went pale and then bright red that Arthur had known about the tradition all along.
He plopped down on the chair near Arthur, so shocked he could only say, “Oh.” Because he had fantasized about the idea over the last few days, but he never believed for one second that it had been true.
Arthur opened then closed his mouth, “Merlin I-” he sighed deeply. He looked over at Merlin, with a forlorn smile. “I am truly sorry Merlin, I never meant for you to find out. I understand if-”
“Why?” Merlin asked, his voice hard and thick.
Arthur looked at him confused. “Why what?”
“Why did you do it? Why proposal to me eighty times if you were never going to tell me in the first place!”
Arthur felt stunned. He didn’t know how to respond to any of it but especially to the fact that Merlin knew just how many times Arthur had proposed to him. So he decided to go with the truth. “Because I am hopelessly in love with you. You are my manservant but more importantly, you are my friend and I did not want to put you in an awkward situation. So I never planned to tell you.” He took a deep breath, “But not doing anything was starting to drive me mad so I thought finding a way to express my feelings without you knowing would be best.”
Merlin wetted his lips as he processed the King’s words. It was stupid, ridiculous really, the whole plan was clearly doomed to fail eventually. But it was also incredibly endearing and sweet.
The sorcerer glanced up and in the corner of his eye, he saw it. Smirking Merlin reached over and grabbed it off the table before throwing it at Arthur. “Catch!”
Without thinking, Arthur caught the light red apple in both hands. He could feel the air leave his lungs at the sight in his hands. He looked up at Merlin, his voice slightly shaking as he asked, “Are you- Merlin do you know what you are doing?”
Merlin grinned brightly, his smile taking over his entire face, and nodded.
Arthur threw his head back and laughed in bliss. He then looked Merlin directly in the eyes and took a bite.
Merlin was already out of his chair and grabbing Arthur’s face and pressing his lips to Arthur’s before he could even swallow the damn apple bite but Arthur could only chuckle as he quickly swallowed and kissed him back.