Arthur sat on a log, staring into the flames of the campfire, brooding. Well, supposedly thinking. Technically brooding. Now, he knew, was not the time to be thinking these thoughts… No, he should wait to mull over these things until he was safely at home. Until Merlin was safely at home.
He glanced around the campsite, taking in everyone's position. Lancelot and Elyan were sleeping. Gwaine was over by his horse, talking to it and petting it. Gwen was flitting about here and there, wanting to be useful. Where was Percival?
Then someone sat down heavily beside him, and he got his answer.
At first Percival said nothing, just sat there and looked at Arthur with an unspoken question. Arthur and the rest had quickly learned that you had to guess a bit when you wanted to talk to Percival, since he usually just assumed people knew what he wanted to ask. But Arthur wasn't in the mood to guess. Let Percival say it out loud.
"Something wrong?" the man at last ventured.
"No," said Arthur, taking a stick and poking at the fire.
Percival just looked at him, but Arthur knew that if he had been Gaius, he would have raised an eyebrow. If he was Merlin, he'd have pressed the subject. If he was Gwaine, he'd have laughed, called Arthur a 'princess,' and given him a shove.
Percival decided to try out some comfort and see how Arthur reacted. "We'll get Merlin back, you know. The rescue mission will succeed."
Arthur nodded. "Of course. It's not… it's not really that." He looked at Percival suddenly and said sharply, but still quietly in case someone else was listening in, "Morgana kidnapped Merlin because she hates him."
"Yes." Percival wondered to himself where this was going.
"Not because she hates me… Not really. And Gwaine, Lancelot… They're going to rescue him because he's their friend, maybe their best. Gwen's going for the same reason. Elyan's going for Gwen." He stopped talking and looked into the flames again.
Percival stared at him. Was that what was upsetting him? "And because you asked us to come…" he said slowly.
"No," said Arthur with a dry laugh. "And if I had forbidden it, they would have gone anyway. I guess…" He shook his head, and then tried to excuse his thoughts to Percival, who looked frankly bewildered. "To someone like me, who never really had any friends, it's a wonder how Merlin manages to make friends – good, loyal friends – so easily."
Arthur bit his tongue and stopped altogether. He hadn't meant to say all that. He hadn't meant to tell anyone even bits of what he was feeling, but Percival was too easy to talk to. A little like Merlin.
Percival sat up suddenly, understanding. Arthur's feeling unimportant.
Bad timing? Maybe. But looking around at the little group, Percival could understand it. Arthur was right. Most of his best men were in this not for their future monarch, but for Merlin.
Percival rubbed his short hair and then his muscular shoulder, thinking it over and trying to come up with an answer. Arthur was staring at him but trying not to. Arthur was looking almost desperate, though if he knew he did, he probably would have turned those big blue eyes elsewhere.
Arthur's feeling lonely in a large group.
Percival spoke just as he always did… thoughtfully, quietly, slowly. "Sire… I suppose I can only speak for myself, though I suggest you take another look at some of the rest's motives, like Guinevere's. But all I know is that you were the man who led me and the others into a fight for all of Camelot, and we all came out alive. You are the one who knighted commoners, and then helped me to settle into that role. You save our lives everyday by teaching us how to protect ourselves. And Sire, Merlin is a good man. I would go on this mission to save him even if you didn't ask. But I wouldn't follow him into a battle."
Arthur snorted suddenly, looking away. The flames were making his eyes hot. He couldn't believe he was hearing these things.
"And Sire, he would never ask me to. Because Merlin would be following you."
With that, Percival left Arthur looking at red flames dancing in the night air to go do something useful. Arthur repeated his words over and over in his head, thinking to himself that that was the longest he'd ever heard Percival speak.
And Arthur was ashamed to admit it when he had so many other things to be worrying about, but he was feeling a bit cheered up.
The blond man didn't forget those words. He didn't forget them when they rescued Merlin the next day. He didn't forget them when he was crowned king. He didn't forget them when he united Albion and saw people doing things for loyalty to him, not Merlin. Some days he couldn't feel the words. But he always remembered them. And they helped.