Title: In Return
Character/s: Arthur, Merlin, Percival
Summary: Set between S3 and S4. Arthur wants to know why Merlin has been more tardy than usual.
Word Count: 1047
Prompt: #348, "witness"
Author's Notes: None.
For the most part, Arthur excused Merlin's tardiness. It felt only right. They'd been through too much together, and if Merlin needed to slip away once in a while to relieve some stress, Arthur couldn't really hold it against him. Complain, yes. Give him a hard time when he invitably showed up, most definitely. But punish him for some much-needed respite? Absolutely not.
Still, he couldn't help but be annoyed when Merlin's absences became more frequent. Merlin still had a job, after all. Work still needed to be done. So when Merlin came crashing into his chambers, late for the fourth time that week, Arthur decided to find out for himself what was engaging Merlin so much more than usual.
His first attempt was to send a guard to follow Merlin. But when he came back and reported he'd lost Merlin in the lower town, Arthur put him on stable duty out of annoyance. The second guard wasn't much better. The third lost Merlin before leaving the citadel.
"If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself," Arthur muttered as he pulled on a muddied cloak.
He'd told Merlin he wasn't feeling well, sending him off for the night, but as soon as the sun set, Arthur slipped past his guard to head for the tavern. The sky was clear, the moon bright, forcing him to keep the hood up and his head down. Every once in a while, he glanced carefully around him, but the few people who were out paid him no mind. Nobody expected him to be anywhere but in his chambers. Hopefully, Merlin fell into that category, too.
The tavern was crowded, people jostling against him as he tried to slip in without notice. Keeping his hood up, Arthur retreated to a dark corner and scanned the room. Merlin was typically easy to spot, but his gaze caught on a different profile instead.
Percival stood at the end of the bar, his big hands cradling a tankard, his shoulders stiff as he watched the others mingle around him. He looked uncomfortable, which was so far beyond what he knew of his new knight that Arthur took a step forward to talk to him and find out what was wrong. He froze when Percival's head suddenly swiveled toward the door and a familiar brilliant smile split his features.
Arthur tracked his line of sight. Merlin stood inside the doorway, returning Percival's grin. Without either of them uttering a word, Percival abandoned his drink and marched straight toward him. Merlin led the way, back out into the night.
Curious, Arthur followed. Back under the stars, however, he was forced to duck immediately into the shadows. Because there, across the street, Percival had pressed Merlin against a stable wall and was well and thoroughly kissing him.
Even more intriguing, Merlin was kissing him back.
Arthur remained frozen in his spot, aware of the rising temperature inside his skin as he watched the display. In all the time Merlin had been in his employ, Arthur had never imagined his interests could rest in men. He'd been infatuated with Morgana, hadn't he? There'd even been a brief period where Arthur had wondered if something was going on between him and Gwen. But one of his knights? He hadn't seen that coming.
"Can you stay tonight?"
Percival's whisper carried through the still air. Arthur held his breath as Merlin reached up and touched the side of Percival's face.
"You know I can't. Arthur might end up needing me."
Percival's shoulders sagged. He rested his forehead against Merlin's. "Someday, we won't have to hide."
As they started kissing again, Arthur slipped away, holding his cloak tightly around him until he was well out of earshot. His thoughts refused to still. Merlin and Percival? When had that happened? How? As far as he could tell, Percival spent more time with Gwaine than anyone else. It made more sense for them to become lovers than he and Merlin.
But he couldn't deny what he'd seen, nor could he forget it. He spent the entire night replaying their conversation, envisioning the hungry desperation in their touches, hearing the wistfulness in their words.
When Merlin knocked on his door the next morning, Arthur answered it rather than calling him to enter. Merlin cocked his head. "Is everything all right, sire?"
"Yes," Arthur said automatically, then stepped out of the way for Merlin to enter with the breakfast tray. When he caught a glimpse of the red mark on Merlin's neck, half-hidden by his scarf, he added, "No, actually."
Merlin hesitated before setting down the tray. "What's wrong?"
"I'm worried Gwaine is setting a bad example for Percival. I tried steering him toward Leon, but that didn't work. I was thinking you might be a good enough distraction."
The more Arthur said, the wider Merlin's eyes got. "Me? Why?"
"Because Gwaine respects you. If he thought you needed Percival to help with anything, he wouldn't interfere." All of it was true. Well, except for worrying about Gwaine's influence—too late for that—and his attempt to redirect Percival's training. But the rest of it, most definitely.
"I…don't know what you think Percival could help with."
"I'm sure you can think of something. Find something that requires a bit of muscle. Nobody would think twice about you needing assistance."
As a gibe, it was a mild one. He wasn't even sure Merlin caught it. What mattered, though, was that Merlin take the chance Arthur was giving him. Arthur didn't understand why Merlin and Percival thought it was so necessary to hide, but he'd be damned if he contributed to their lack of time together.
"If that's what you want," Merlin said.
"That's what I want." He sat down at the table to eat. When he realized Merlin had yet to move, he shooed him off with a wave of his hand. "Go on. I can't eat with you hovering, but maybe Percival can."
Merlin shot him a quick smile before whipping around and practically running for the door. Arthur held his back until he was alone again.
Both men had regularly laid down their lives for him. The least he could do was give them a little happiness in return.