It takes Gaius’ stores running critically low to finally get Merlin out of the citadel. Basket held in the crook of his elbow and book weighing heavy in the satchel over his shoulder—because he’ll not pass up any hint of study time after nearly a month of no privacy whatsoever—he runs into Arthur while walking through the lower town.
Well, not literally runs into. He hasn’t done that for at least a few weeks. Arthur has a few of his knights with him—Elyan, who gives Merlin a nod and a smile, Leon, who keeps his eyes on the shuffle of townsfolk around them, and Percival, who eyes Merlin’s basket with the same reserved consideration he seems to give everything and everyone else, at least when he’s not actively killing something. They are all resplendent in their red cloaks, chain mail a sullen glimmer beneath. Though usually such garb is usually forgone within Camelot itself, the people certainly seem more settled with such vibrant reminders of the return of their Prince.
“Where do you think you’re going?” Arthur asks without preamble.
Merlin takes note of Arthur’s impending scowl and angles his arm up, lifting the basket. “Gaius needs me to replenish his stores,” he explains. “And there’s no one else trained to pick the right ingredients. Unless you’d rather Camelot’s invalids go without their remedies?”
The scowl breaks out at Merlin’s preemptive thwarting. The remaining few injured and ill townsfolk from Morgana’s brief rule are the reason Merlin’s barely had room to lie down for the past few weeks; he knows they’ve likewise impinged on Arthur’s conscience.
“Don’t dally about, then,” he tells Merlin grudgingly. “No napping in the meadows.”
“Of course, sire,” Merlin says with a smirk. Over Arthur’s shoulder, he sees Elyan hide a grin, and then his eyes catch on Percival. The knight is still staring at him, and Merlin blinks in brief confusion before looking away.
He glances up again as he shuffles past them, curious to see if Percival’s gaze is still fixed, but he’s looking down as Merlin passes, staring at the Prince’s heels ahead of him.
A week later Merlin’s reminded of the incident—if it could even be called that—when he’s on his way out of town again, to harvest the patch of angelica that had just been budding the last time he’d visited it. Percival is guarding the gate with Lancelot, the two of them seeming to share amicable silence until Merlin comes within hailing distance, calling out to Lancelot.
Percival walks closer to stand silently with them as they talk—exchanging brief news of their respective domains within the castle—and Merlin doesn’t know what to make of it. He shoots Percival a hesitant smile as he says his goodbyes, and as Percival nods in return he says, “Merlin,” in short acknowledgment.
Merlin’s smile grows more natural, and Percival folds his enormous arms over his chest.
“Might see you two on my way back in, then,” Merlin says lightly, and glances at them both one more time before passing through the gate and into the sunshine.
Merlin’s not sure if he’s just noticing it more because he’s thinking of it, or if Percival is actually hanging about Merlin’s haunts of late. Standing by the steps if Merlin’s fetching from the well, walking to the sidelines to wipe off sweat if Merlin’s waiting for Arthur to finish at the training fields. Merlin’s even seen him in the corridor outside the tower stairwell, clear on the other side of the citadel to the knights’ quarters.
It’s hard to mistake his presence for anything but deliberate when Merlin and Gaius return from court to find him in Gaius’ rooms, facing one of the cluttered shelves and rubbing a dried leaf between his fingertips. Merlin’s eyes snap to him immediately; he’s unmistakable, making the room appear smaller just by being in it.
“Can I help you, Sir Percival?” Gaius asks dryly, and Percival turns to them quickly.
“Merlin,” he says. “Gaius.” He dips his head in greeting and drops his hands to form fists at his sides.
It’s difficult to tell, but Merlin thinks Percival might be just the very slightest bit flustered. If he hadn’t seen Percival grinning in glee at dropping boulders on people, the hint of emotion might be a bit more startling. As it is, Merlin finds it oddly pleasing to get this glimpse of this slightly-more-human Percival again. He struggles to keep his expression polite and open, instead of beaming like an idiot: he’s never been good at keeping his emotions off his face.
He can tell by the way that Gaius folds his hands together and steps forward that he’s already picked up on Percival’s tiny hints of uncharacteristic uncertainty, and is convinced the knight has some embarrassing medical condition. “Do you need privacy?” Gaius asks delicately.
Percival’s gaze flies immediately to Merlin at that question. “No,” he says gruffly. “I apologise, I’ll—” He strides towards the door, giving Merlin an intense stare as Merlin steps aside to let him pass. He nods his farewell. “Merlin.”
“What on earth was that all about?” Gaius says bemusedly once the door has closed.
“I’m sure I have no idea,” Merlin responds, but he’s still grinning, the scent of crushed sage and well-worn leather lingering in the air.* * * * *
Percival has seen Merlin leave the town to gather herbs three more times since that first time, but the moment to approach him has never been suitable until now. From his place on the walkway above the square, he sees Merlin skip down the steps with a basket in one hand and bag slung across his chest. His long legs eat up the paved ground in quick, decisive strides, and Percival feels a thrill of risk and excitement, not unlike going into a fight. He pushes his tongue against the back of his teeth to hold back his grin, and he walks rapidly along the wall and down into the stairwell.
He catches up with Merlin in the lower edges of the town, moving both more easily and more difficultly with his plain leather jerkin, cloak nowhere in sight while he’s off-duty. While in some pockets of the town he can slip through completely unnoticed, the utter plainness of his attire also means that in more crowded spots, no one’s more inclined to get out of his way than anyone else’s. Merlin seems to have no such difficulty, moving through the teeming streets like water through rapids.
“Merlin,” Percival says when he’s just behind Merlin’s shoulder, and Merlin starts and turns.
“Sir Percival,” he says. “Are you—”
“I saw you passing,” Percival says, hoping Merlin can’t tell just how rehearsed the words are. “I hope you don’t object to me joining you.”
Merlin’s eyebrow jerks upwards. “It’s nothing exciting, I’m afraid, just running errands for Gaius—”
“You’re leaving the city,” Percival cuts off. He forces himself to keep his face from shifting as he speaks the not-quite-untruth that follows. “It’s safer with an escort.”
Merlin’s eyes narrow, and Percival concedes his disbelief—he’s not sure if a servant has ever been granted an escort, in Camelot or otherwise—though, there was Guinevere, She Of Whom Lancelot Sighs Greatly, But Speaks Little.
“You’re not even armed,” Merlin points out.
Percival folds his arms over his chest, choosing not to correct Merlin—his boot knife is tucked well out of sight—and Merlin’s eyes drop down at the movement.
Merlin blinks, and his mouth twists a little, forming a softer shape as he looks back up to meet Percival’s eyes. “And I’ve done this hundreds of times on my own.”
Percival shrugs. “If you object—”
“No, I—” Merlin grins, though he still seems a little befuddled, eyes searching Percival’s face. “I’m just… Not sure what the appeal is, I suppose.”
Percival licks his lips nervously, tenses his shoulders then forces himself to relax. He’d hoped to accompany Merlin without the awkwardness of revealing himself while still surrounded by others, and hopefully not having to speak of it at all—just show Merlin his reasons for coming along.
Percival screws his courage to the sticking place. “I was hoping to… gather herbs. With you.”
Percival gives a curt nod.
Merlin blinks again, still staring at Percival, his mouth curling into a smile that’s half disbelief, and half something that Percival prays isn’t ridicule. They’re still surrounded by jostling crowd; Merlin’s tucked his basket in closer to his body, and Percival, fight-tense, doesn’t even flinch as someone bumps into his back and bounces right off.
“All right, then,” Merlin says, and slowly turns away to continue walking, not looking away from Percival until the last possible moment, as if he can’t truly believe that Percival intends to follow.
Percival relaxes very slightly; the insides of his fists are sweaty, and his shoulders creak as the muscles loosen. Merlin didn’t ridicule him, didn’t entirely disbelieve him; Percival will probably be able to demonstrate just how serious he is when they get out of the city.
Merlin slows his pace when they get to the low roll of hills and meadows a few miles out of Camelot, and Percival feels his heart getting lighter with every step. Wildflowers and grasses are thick around their ankles, and each step stirs up a half-visible cloud of pollen and insects and complex blends of crushed-growth scents. Percival has to close his eyes and bask in it, identifying each olfactory thread of it from memory. His mouth waters with the desire to name them all aloud, but Merlin’s a few paces too many ahead of him.
Heather thickens as they reach the ridge of a gentle slope, bright pink and golden yellow and swarming with bees. Percival’s stronger stride brings him close enough to Merlin to speak. “Calluna vulgaris,” he says. “My grandmother used to brew it in tea. She used to say it could bring dreams that foretold good fortune.”
Merlin, who had stopped as Percival began talking, drops his head and steps forward again, not answering. They stop at the top of the ridge, and Merlin turns his back on Percival to survey the landscape. “The beekeepers should be enjoying their harvest,” Merlin comments after a moment. He glances over his shoulder. “Do you like sweet things, Sir Percival?”
Before coming to Camelot, the sweetest fare that made it regularly to Percival’s plate was wizened apples, but the royal kitchens produce not only honey but a whole range of pies and jams and glazes. He answers Merlin truthfully: “Only since I came to Camelot.”
Merlin smiles and ducks his head again, then starts wading through the heather down towards a more sheltered meadow at the foot of the hill. The heather thins as they descend, the growth underfoot getting softer; centaury nod their small pink flowers on leggy stalks against Percival’s legs as he passes.
A light summer breeze wafts a honey-sweet scent from ahead, and Percival lengthens his stride to nearly run down the slope. An enormous nest of chamomile basks in the sunshine, high enough for Percival to run his hand across the top of without leaning down. The lacy green leaves cling almost stickily to his skin, bulbous yellow flower-heads bumping against his palm. He crushes one between his fingertips, and when he looks up Merlin has one too: plucking its papery petticoat, petal by petal.
“Gaius said he planted this years ago, but I don’t think it’s much of an achievement. A few of them crop up in the kitchen garden every year from Morgana’s tea leaves. It’s not exactly difficult to grow.”
The mention of Camelot’s erstwhile ruler seems to put a halt to Merlin’s good mood; he pinches the flowerhead between his fingernails and frowns, turning away again. Percival sees both a way to change the subject, and, more importantly, to guide it in the direction he wants.
“Why aren’t more grown in the kitchen garden, then?”
Merlin crouches down and begins to pluck the chamomile heads carefully, cradling a handful of them before depositing them on a bed of fine-woven cloth, ostensibly to prevent them from falling apart and getting in everything. “Gaius has always cultivated this meadow for herbs,” he says. After another few moments of gathering—during which Percival deposits his own handful—Merlin adds, “I think he used to like having a reason to get out of the city every so often.” He slants another glance at Percival, a small smile on his lips. “And there’s certainly a little more privacy out here.”
Percival nods absently, immersed in the sticky scent of the chamomile, the hot sun on his back melting away his earlier tension as he gathers more handfuls.
Something tickles against the side of his neck, the sensation too slow and deliberate to be the scurry of an insect. When he turns around, Merlin’s standing behind him, twirling a chicory flower between his fingers, its ragged-edged petals matching the sensation Percival had felt.
“‘Those who have anointed themselves with the juice of chicory become more popular and obtain their requests more easily’,” Percival quotes.
Merlin grins. “Did your grandmother teach you that too?”
“I learnt it in my own studies,” Percival admits.
Merlin’s eyes widen a little, mouth twisting again like he’s holding something back. “You must have been a very dedicated student.”
Percival nods. “I worked hard at it.” He smiles, and then his eyes catch the glimpse of purple chicory behind Merlin, and beyond it something with dark, glossy leaves, and little red-yellow knobs of flowers. His heart leaps as he recognises it, and he squeezes Merlin’s shoulder in excitement on his way past.
He’s never seen them growing before, but the smell is unmistakable. “Merlin,” he says, awe-struck, crouching down beside the thriving shrub. “Where—”
Instead of finishing his sentence, Percival finds himself abruptly on his back, having been knocked unceremoniously and bodily to the ground. Merlin, instead of rising and apologising, continues to lie on top of him, hands braced on the ground on either side of Percival’s head. Percival’s hands have automatically found a position on Merlin’s shoulders, either to prevent him from falling further or helping him back up.
“I heard that cloves are an aphrodisiac,” Merlin says lowly, face very close to Percival’s, and then his face is even closer, and his mouth is open, and then his mouth is open on Percival’s.
Merlin’s tongue is dexterous and very determined, and Percival’s lips are already parted a little in surprise, which turns out to to be not much barrier at all to sudden amorous advances.
Percival’s brain, meanwhile, is struggling to catch up with events; part of it is still stuck on idly chanting the herbalist dictionaries he learned by rote, the rhythm of which is becoming more fervent as Merlin wriggles and pushes his thigh between Percival’s legs.
Percival tightens his grip and pushes back on Merlin’s shoulders; their mouths separate with a loud smacking sound. “Elcampane,” Percival pants aloud, words spilling from him like breaking the kiss has broken a seal. “For treating the bites of magical creatures.”
He tumbles Merlin over, sprawling him on his back in the lush, fragrant grass. Percival presses him deep into it, pinning him down by grinding his hips into Merlin’s. Merlin moans.
“Ginger,” he counters when Percival lets him up for air again. “Love po-tions…” He hitches in the middle as Percival nudges his head to the side to bite the edge of his jaw.
“Juniper.” Percival braces his elbows on the ground, burying his fingers in the cool grass. “Repelling evil spirits.”
Merlin’s hands fly to Percival’s arse when Percival pushes forward, and he gasps and squeezes as they grind together. Percival can feel he’s hard, and he doesn’t even try to repress his grin.
“Mugwort, for… for— oh, sod it.” Merlin abruptly wraps his legs around Percival’s hips, and in a manoeuvre that Percival is deeply impressed by, manages with an arch and a heave to knock Percival over again, tipping him onto his side and then with the momentum, onto his back.
Of course, Percival only lets him keep his victorious straddle for long enough to unlace their trousers, and then he’s flipping Merlin over again, ending up pressing Merlin face-down into the grass when Merlin inadvisably rolls over in an attempt to get to his knees again.
Percival unknots Merlin’s neckerchief with his teeth, his hands busy pressing Merlin’s wrists into the grass. “Protecting travellers,” he says, and bites the back of Merlin’s neck. Merlin gasps and pushes his arse back against Percival’s stiff cock, and Percival loses his train of thought somewhat. “…From bookworms.”
“You’re very odd,” Merlin tells him later.
Percival looks away from the bobbing of flowers against the blue sky, and turns his head to look at Merlin through the grass. He conveys his thoughts on being called odd by someone who was, only minutes ago, very much enjoying having the prickle of a rosemary sprig rolled against a very sensitive part of his anatomy, with a raised eyebrow.
“Yes, well,” Merlin says. “You could have just told me you were a herbalist.”
Percival raises his other eyebrow.
“How was I to be expected to believe that someone actually cared about actual herbology?” Merlin’s voice rises defensively, and he throws his arms in the air half-heartedly. “And wasn’t just using it for flirting, because, by the way, that was absolutely flirting.”
Percival’s silent for a long moment. “You really don’t care about herbs.”
“Only inasmuch as Gaius probably used to, to get out of bloody Camelot when I can’t stand it any more.”
Percival feels himself sink a little deeper into the crushed grass, as if he’s just become heavier. “Ah.”
Merlin rolls over, bracing himself up on his elbows beside Percival and looking down at him consideringly. His pale, narrow chest is blotchy with the irritation of one of the multitudes of plants they’ve rolled in, and he’s fiddling with a cluster of forget-me-nots. When Percival meets his gaze for long moments without speaking, he idly traces the curve of Percival’s pectoral with the blossoms. “Maybe we could come to an arrangement,” he says, eyes lowering to watch his play. “Perhaps I do need an escort after all.”
“Because it’s horribly unsafe here, in this treacherous meadow,” Percival counters dryly.
Merlin hums in agreement, then drapes himself over Percival’s chest. “And I need a big, strong knight to protect me,” he says, squeezing.
Percival says nothing.
“And I’ll bring some of Gaius’ herbology books.”
Percival stretches his arms out, brushing through cooler grass for a brief moment, before settling his hands behind his head.
“And I’ll suck your cock?” Merlin looks—and sounds—distinctly hopeful. It’s amazing he’s survived in court as long as he has without even a shred of ability to conceal anything.
Percival holds one of his hands out between them; Merlin looks at it in confusion for a few moments before finally catching on and clasping it in his own, sealing the deal.
“Excellent,” Merlin hunches in lower, and he fondles Percival’s chest as if he’s not really aware he’s doing it, a speculative gleam in his eye. “It goes much quicker when there’s two of us, anyway.”