Title: The Seventh
Warnings: Minor character death (offscreen)
Word Count: 4500 words
Summary: Historical AU. Nobody ever knew how Percival felt about Merlin. But he made sure to show the sheriff in whatever ways he could.
Notes: Thank you to sheswatching for the beta!
Prompt and Prompt ID: 224: “We look at each other wondering what the other is thinking but we never say a thing.” (song lyrics ~Dave Matthews)
A town without a sheriff was easy pickings for anyone who didn’t give a damn about hurting women or children to get what they wanted. As far as Percival could tell, Merlin didn’t have a choice but to pick up the badge when a couple of gunfighters decided to put a bullet in Balinor’s back. Ealdor, Colorado needed a leader. Merlin needed a purpose.
It wasn’t easy. For all of Merlin’s smiles, for all the skills he’d inherited from Balinor—the sharpshooting, that innate ability to communicate with any kind of creature, two-legged or otherwise—there were moments when Percival would have sworn Merlin would walk away from Ealdor and never look back. Like the occasional glimpse of wistful sadness in his face before he rose from his pew at church and set about to greet everyone who’d attended. Or the long, slow strokes over Kilgarrah’s flanks when he stabled him at the end of a difficult day. Even the visits to his father’s grave that stretched for hours longer than he later claimed. There might’ve been more, but those were what Percival saw.
There probably wasn’t more. When it came to Merlin, Percival paid attention.
Nobody would ever know about his real feelings for Merlin. As much as they overwhelmed him sometimes, filling every corner of his being until he thought he’d bust, he knew how wrong they were. He’d bring shame down on his mother, who worked tirelessly from well before dawn to long after dusk to make ends meet, and he’d disgrace his friends and church who had no idea of his true inclinations. Worst of all, he’d lose Merlin’s respect and kindness, because not even he could forgive that kind of abomination. Confession wasn’t worth it, not even for his soul, no matter what Pastor Geoffrey said.
That didn’t stop him from finding other ways to express what Merlin meant to him. Of all the animals he stabled, Kilgarrah got the most loving attention, and when Merlin needed extra horses, he volunteered his own without fail. On Saturdays he always planted himself at Gwaine’s side, making sure he stayed out of trouble—well, too much of it, anyway—since the last thing Merlin should ever have to do was lock up his best friend. But the gesture that meant the most to him, the one he valued more than any of the rest, happened on Sunday afternoons.
Ealdor went quiet on Sundays. Townsfolk spent the morning at church, then hustled home lest they got caught out for breaking the Sabbath. Miners staggered off to sleep away their Saturday night drinking, and those that didn’t make it far enough before finding mischief were locked away in one of Merlin’s cells to wile the day away before he let them out at dusk to return to their claims. The first time Merlin came knocking, Percival had been mending some loose boards in the stable. He hadn’t even looked up to see who it might be until his mother came out and asked for his assistance.
“For what?” he said, swiping some loose sawdust from his hands.
“The sheriff’s here. I need you to take him out to the garden and let him pick out half a dozen flowers for him to take to his daddy’s grave.”
His heart leapt at mention of Merlin, but he kept his features bland and even. Years of experience at that. Grabbing a pair of shears, he followed her out into the brilliant summer sunshine, blinking against the sudden shift in illumination. His smile came naturally when he saw Merlin’s outline against the horizon, hands shoved into his pockets, eyes looking out into the world instead of what was right in front of him. It only widened further when Merlin glanced back and gave Percival a small smile of his own.
“I didn’t mean to interrupt whatever you were doing,” Merlin apologized. “I told your ma I could cut the flowers myself, but she must not trust me or something.” He laughed and pretended to shrink away when she gasped and slapped at his arm.
“I’d do it myself if I didn’t have supper on the fire,” she said. “Busy man like you doesn’t need to be fussing none with a few flowers.”
Mention of the purpose for his visit seemed to sober Merlin right up. He straightened his shoulders and glanced toward the horizon again. “Well, I appreciate you looking after me like this, ma’am. How much will I owe you?”
“Oh, no, there won’t be no charge. Not for you.”
He cocked his head, eyes twinkling. “And then what happens if someone notices? You want people to think I can take a bribe?”
Her brow furrowed, trying to make sense of what he said. Percival could tell Merlin was just playing—no way would anyone in town think he was even capable of being so deceitful—but his mother was just a little too literal-minded to see the teasing.
“I’ll take care of it, Ma. Don’t you worry.”
Merlin watched him with a curious half-smile, but held off on saying anything until after she’d gone back into the house. “You know I can’t let you just give me those flowers, right?”
“I know.” He nodded toward the garden. “I’ll slip it into the books for the stable. Ma won’t know the difference.”
They walked, side by side, around the windworn building he’d called home since they moved to Ealdor when he was ten. Occasionally, Merlin’s shoulder brushed against his, and he tried to ignore the twinge of lust that went straight to his groin, but it wasn’t as easy as just blanking out his head. Merlin was one of the few men in town he didn’t tower over like they were children, and though Merlin still had to look up to meet his eyes, the difference didn’t make either of them uncomfortable. Then again, he’d never experienced that level of discomfort with Merlin regardless of the circumstance. Another reason to idolize the man as far as he was concerned.
Ma’s gardens filled the back of their lot, stretching out to the line of trees separating the town from the nearest lode. Nobody in Ealdor had a thumb for making things grow like she did. Her buds filled the church for Sunday services as well as special events like weddings and the like, so it made perfect sense for Merlin to come to her now.
Merlin stopped at the first bed. “These.”
Percival frowned. “But those are just daisies. They’ll grow wild all on their own if you tell Pastor not to pull them.”
But Merlin wasn’t budging. “They were his favorite.”
If daisies were what he wanted, daisies were what he’d get. Crouching down, Percival scanned the flowers for the best to offer, carefully snipping six that were young enough to hold the bloom as long as possible. He was about to straighten when a bud caught his eye, and on an impulse he couldn’t fathom, snipped that one as well.
“What’re you doing?” Merlin asked. “That’s seven.”
A sudden tremor ran through his hands, strong enough to scare him into thinking he was about to snap the stems. Tamping down his nerves, he decided to play the fool to hide his true intent. It was his easiest, and most common, role to assume, unfortunately, though he’d never used it on Merlin before. He’d never made a bold choice such as this, though, either.
“Ma said you’d be doing this every Sunday.” When Merlin just stared at him blankly, he added, “There’s seven days in the week. Seven days, seven daisies.”
Though Merlin sneaked a peek toward the house, he was too polite to call her into question, especially to her only son. Percival wanted to crawl under a rock for using that to his own advantage. Maybe he didn’t love Merlin, after all. Wouldn’t he treat Merlin better than that if he did?
“Seven daisies,” Merlin murmured. Then, he surprised Percival with a nod. “That works. He deserves that.” His sudden grin was like the sun coming out after a day full of clouds. “And now your ma really can’t argue about me paying for them.”
Percival’s cheeks flamed. The money had never been his intention, but at least Merlin didn’t suspect the truth.
A week later, Merlin was back.
Percival greeted him before Ma could see. They repeated the silent walk to the garden as well as the cutting of the flowers. When he handed the seventh over, his fingertips brushed along the side of Merlin’s thumb.
And Merlin smiled. At him.
Right then, Percival would have given him the moon if he could figure out a way to climb into the heavens and fetch it back.
Ma never found out. No one did, as far as Percival knew. It was their secret, one he’d take to his own grave along with all the others. He’d never see this as a sin, though. The rest, sure, that was wrong, but not this particular contribution. There could be no evil in giving a man a few moments of serenity and contentment. Not even Pastor could convince him otherwise.
Even if Percival knew in his heart that seventh daisy was his gift to Merlin, not for Balinor.
Merlin found the first box in February, almost lost amidst his disorder atop the scarred desk he’d inherited from his father. It didn’t have a note, or a card, or anything but its simple carved top, but he realized as soon as he opened it he should’ve known who it was from. It looked just like Percival—solid, dependable—but carried surprises few got to see. The question was how Percival could’ve fathomed out this Sunday was any different from last, unless he’d somehow overheard Merlin begging off Mrs. Sutter’s dinner invitation before church that morning. Merlin didn’t see how, though. He’d been nowhere around, and frankly, when it came to a man of Percival’s size, he got noticed whether he was trying to be or not.
Merlin certainly always did.
But the thaw had started two days ago, the sun beating down so warm it turned the edges of town into a bog from all the melted snow running down from the nearby hills. He’d stopped going to Balinor’s grave when winter first hit, and the itch to talk to him had got so bad over the past few weeks, he’d taken to talking out loud in his bed at night, like the dark would make it easier for Balinor to hear him. The rotten weather fading away was the sign he needed. When he woke up with the sun streaming in through the window, he knew then and there today would be the day he’d make the trek.
Now, he wouldn’t be going empty-handed. It wasn’t the seven daisies that had become his weekly…what, sacrifice? Boon? Apology that he hadn’t been able to save Balinor? Something, surely, but he hadn’t had flowers to take since the seasons had turned. To be fair, that had been one of the reasons he’d stopped going. Without the flowers, it seemed wrong. His hands were too empty, and the spot on the ground too barren. He only went now because his need to get stuff off his chest had finally surpassed his silly feelings about the lack, but Percival’s gift made it all moot anyway.
The box held a pair of dried daisies, their stems tied together with twine. He toyed with the frayed end, rolling it back and forth between his fingers. Thoughtful. Considerate. Everything he realized he expected from Percival. More than he certainly deserved.
He pondered it all the way out to the grave. The first time Percival had given him the seventh daisy, he hadn’t given much thought to it. Why should he? Percival’s simple explanation made sense. But then it happened again, and again, and again, and the more the weeks stretched on, the more curious he got about what Percival was actually thinking. As friendly and kind as he was, Percival wasn’t a man of many words, and Merlin didn’t want to make him uncomfortable by asking questions he might not wish to discuss. Was the gesture because Percival understood what it was like to lose a father? That had been his first notion, though it didn’t sit well. Percival’s father had died before he and his ma had moved to Ealdor. He never spoke of him. A loss from that long ago wasn’t necessarily powerful enough to fuel such a gift.
And he’d started up again, just when Merlin needed the flowers most. More than that, he must’ve planned for such a contingency because the daisies had been gone for months now. These had been cut and pressed and dried, like he knew all along Merlin would require them. He was dying to ask how, but when he thought of facing Percival and posing the query, that urgency slipped away. Because Percival couldn’t hide his feelings any better than he could his self in an empty room, and the way he looked at Merlin…
On one hand, Merlin hoped he was wrong. Nobody talked about it, but everybody understood that men couldn’t love other men, not like that. It wasn’t right, not to God, not to Pastor who might as well be God in these parts, not to the old biddies who sat in the front pews every Sunday and nodded along to everything Pastor had to say. Watching their bonnets bob up and down was almost enough to drive Merlin into enacting a new law that required women to take them off inside, just like men had to take off their hats. If he was reading Percival right, he was in for a whole world of hurting if the wrong people in town found out.
On the other hand, the first time he’d caught Percival looking at him like that, like he’d personally hung the sun in the sky or something, his heart had taken off at a wild gallop, and the tips of his ears had burned so hot Mrs. Sutter at the mercantile had asked him if he was feeling all right. He’d flustered through some kind of response, some nonsense he didn’t even remember, but then Percival had slipped out of the shop and Merlin had spent the rest of the day wondering why he could still smell the scent of dirt and sweat and flowers that always seemed to follow Percival around.
Some of those smells surrounded him as he drew Kilgarrah to a stop at the edge of the cemetery. In spite of Pastor Geoffrey’s protestations, Merlin had buried Balinor at the farthest point, closest to the horizon, separate from others. Entirely selfish on his part, but when he gave so much more back to Ealdor, he figured he could be on this one thing. The town had received all of Balinor’s best years. It was Merlin’s turn to have him all to himself.
“Good morning,” he said, as he always did, as if he hadn’t been gone for months and this was just a weekly visit. He let Kilgarrah’s reins drop so the horse could graze in peace and pulled the dried flowers out from inside his jacket as he approached the small, discreet marker. “Percival sends his regards.”
He rested the daisies along the top of the stone, but when a slight breeze threatened to blow them off, moved them to its base. Crouching, he rubbed away the grit that had embedded in the etched letters in his absence. Dirt ground beneath his nail. His fingers were numb and black when he finished.
“Spring’s coming. Maybe not soon, but it’s finding its way. It won’t be months again before I come back next time. I promise.”
He might’ve been better off leaving off that last part, because there was no telling what the weather would do to prevent him from keeping it. Like the wind still acting up now. The twine around the daisies fluttered, and he watched, waiting for them to decide whether they’d stay or blow away.
“I wish you were still here,” he whispered. “There’s so much I don’t know, stuff you could’ve taught me, stuff I should’ve learned while I had the chance. Everyone still talks about you like you’re just on some trip, and that when you get back, you’ll take over again.” His breath plumed in front of his face, doing little to warm his cheeks. “All anyone wants is to stay safe. You were the best at making sure they were.”
Some men seemed to take the protector role without any problems. Percival, for instance. Merlin had wondered more than once what kind of deputy Percival might be, but he wouldn’t dare ask. He couldn’t take Percy away from his mother. He wasn’t sure he could give Percival back at the end of the day, either.
“I wonder…if you had to do it all over again, knowing how it would end, would you? I make these choices, these decisions for everyone, all day, every day, and I want to believe that it’s all for the best, but then someone gets hurt, and I just don’t know anymore. I don’t know how you did it.” Or even if he thought about it during the time. Balinor had been a tight-lipped man, more content to let his actions speak for him than his words.
Percival was like that, too.
Funny. He hadn’t made that connection before.
The daisies remained firmly in their place.
September brought a different palette to Ma’s garden, richer greens, deeper reds and oranges, the occasional shot of purple and yellow to remind the world of all the beauty the flowers had to offer. In the closest bed, the daisies stood sentinel, tall, proud, faces turned brightly toward the sun. Nobody would ever see the holes left behind from the blossoms Percival had cut that morning for her funeral service. All her favorites, but nothing that would destroy the gifts she left behind.
Sweat trickled down the back of his stiff collar. They’d thrown open the windows at the church to let the breeze in, but he hadn’t noticed the heat until now. His thoughts were elsewhere, on the past month when she’d taken ill, on the next few months where he’d have to learn what it was like not to have her around. Though the home she’d made for them had always been just right, it’d felt too big and empty as he’d walked through it now to get to the back door. She’d filled it with her sure voice, her strong personality. Without her, the house was hollow.
He didn’t know how to refill it. He didn’t know if he should try.
A horse whinnied from the stable. Kilgarrah. Percival would recognize his low, rich sounds anywhere. None of the other animals indicated distress, but when Kilgarrah whinnied again, Percival glanced in his direction out of habit.
Merlin stood in the open entry, gazing inside. He’d been at the service—everyone in town had—but except for a murmured condolence and a firm handshake as he walked out, he hadn’t said a word to Percival. Percival didn’t expect anything more; he hadn’t expected anything at all. Marshal Pendragon was in Ealdor, along with his pretty wife Gwen. Merlin needed to see to his guests, so showing at all for the funeral was above and beyond.
But the Marshal hadn’t come by for their horses, which meant the Pendragons were still in town. Was Merlin fetching the animals so they didn’t have to?
“Something I can do for you, Sheriff?”
Merlin glanced back. His blue eyes were oddly dark in spite of the brilliant sunshine, somber and distant. Percival recognized that look. It was the same one he wore when he stared off at the horizon. “How long have we known each other?”
The question was the last he would’ve expected. “You know. Since Ma and I moved here.”
“So a long time.”
Sixteen years, four months. “Yeah.”
“You never call me Merlin anymore. Always Sheriff.”
Because that was his title. “I never wanted to disrespect you. Any man who wears a badge deserves that.”
Merlin snorted. “It’s not like I earned it.”
He had a feeling arguing would be pointless. “You don’t call Marshal Pendragon by his first name.”
“He and I aren’t friends like us.”
As confusing as this whole conversation was, hearing Merlin refer to them as friends was the first bright spot he’d had all day. He managed to keep from grinning—it was hardly appropriate—but he felt it, just the same.
“So I’m supposed to go back to calling you Merlin, is that it? Even at church or if I see you at the mercantile?”
“That’s much better than Sheriff, yeah.” Shoving his hands into his pockets, he glanced one more time toward Kilgarrah before ambling toward Percival. “Besides, maybe I’ll be the one calling you Sheriff from now on.”
“What?” A more eloquent response escaped him. Merlin was talking nonsense.
“That’s why I’m here.” He came to a stop in front of Percival, some of the tension that had been knotting his shoulders gone for whatever reason. “I’m done. I turned my badge over to the Marshal. That’s why he’s here. When he asked who I thought should replace me, I mentioned you.” He colored slightly. “The timing’s poor. I’m sorry about that. I’ve been trying to get him here for a couple months now, otherwise I never would’ve done this today of all days.”
“Why did you do it at all?” He had an easier time understanding Merlin quitting than he did the recommendation. How many times had he wondered how long Merlin’s tethers would last? But… “I don’t know anything about being a sheriff.”
“And you think I did?” His smile was slow and sad. “You’re one of the most honest men I know. People like you. Ealdor could do a lot worse.”
Shame burned behind his eyes, and he looked out over the flowers before Merlin could see it. He wasn’t honest. He was the biggest liar in town. He pretended every day that he didn’t worship the ground Merlin Emrys walked on. He’d even started courting Elena Sutter before Ma got sick and he couldn’t think about anything but taking care of her. An honest man didn’t make promises to a lady when she wasn’t the person he wanted. That’s what liars did.
“Someone has to take care of Ma’s flowers.” His voice was rougher than he liked, as if he hadn’t used it in days. He cleared his throat. “Where would you get your daisies every Sunday if I was off sheriffing?”
“Actually…I won’t need those anymore.” The closest Merlin had ever come to bringing up the dried flowers Percival left for him every week during the winter was asking what it took to preserve the blooms through the cold months. Percival had offered to show him, but Merlin just shook his head and begged off learning until the leaves started turning. Though they were on the verge now, it looked like it no longer mattered. “I think it’s time I moved on.”
Percival couldn’t breathe. Merlin leaving was bad, the second worst news he’d ever heard. That made today the absolute worst day of his life.
When he didn’t speak right away, Merlin did. “Without the badge, there’s nothing really keeping me here. No family, no land. And there’s a lot of this country I’ve never seen. A lot of people I could help. I don’t have to stay in Ealdor to do good.”
“That’s not true.” The words choked from his throat.
Merlin cocked a brow. “I can’t do good if I’m not here?”
He couldn’t smile at Merlin’s teasing. He couldn’t. “It’s not true there’s nothing here for you. You’ve got friends.” He swallowed and forced the name out. “There’s Gwaine.”
“If I’m not sheriff, Gwaine will spend a lot more time at the jail than he already does. He’ll move on. You’ll see.”
If he wouldn’t stay for Gwaine… “What about me? You said…we’re friends.”
“We are. But you’re going to be too busy being sheriff to miss me.”
“No.” Every fear he had, every ounce of aching he’d locked away all day that had only compounded with Merlin’s announcement, came out with that vehement lone word. “I don’t want it.”
“So what do you want?”
The soft question was everything he’d always wanted to hear and always feared having to answer. He’d imagined it on so many occasions, at night, in the stable, after church, from so many different people, Merlin included. He’d imagined the reply, too, though more often than not, what came out was another lie, more words to placate whoever asked rather than to satisfy Percival’s heart.
But they were alone here, and Merlin was leaving anyway, and what did it matter if this one time he said what was inside him instead of what was expected or right?
“I want to be where you are.”
This was the point where Merlin recoiled, where Percival got called a sinner and reminded he was on a path straight to hell for even daring to think such things. He braced for it, his teeth aching from how hard he clenched his jaw.
“Then there really wouldn’t be any reason for me to stay. Not if I have you by my side.”
When he turned to stare at Merlin—because it couldn’t be real, he couldn’t have just claimed Percival’s companionship without even balking—he found Merlin staring out over the flowers, into the trees, the smile he’d worn gone wistful like it usually did when he gazed at the horizon.
The difference was, it no longer seemed sad.
“You won’t miss Ealdor if you go?” One last chance to let Merlin change his mind.
“How can I? I’ll have the best part of Ealdor with me.”
In the stable, Kilgarrah neighed. It sounded so much like he agreed with Merlin that Percival laughed.
Merlin joined in. “Now you have to come. Kilgarrah would never forgive me if you didn’t, and you know him. When he’s mad, he bites.”
Feeling lighter than he’d been all day, Percival shook his head. “We can’t let that happen.”
“No, we can’t.” Merlin nudged Percival’s broad shoulder with his own, but unlike every other time they’d accidentally touched, he didn’t withdraw. Their arms continued to graze against each other when he straightened to look out again.
Maybe Percival should’ve chosen that moment to say something.
Thank you for letting me go with you.
Whatever you want, I’ll do it.
I love you.
But he didn’t. He didn’t have to.
He had all the time in the world now to show Merlin all of it.