TITLE: Where You Stumble
RATING: PG13 (for violence)
WORD COUNT: 7100
SUMMARY: Written for the "whipping/flogging" square on my hc_bingo card. Canon, set between seasons 3 and 4. When Percival sacrifices himself for Arthur's safety, Arthur wants nothing but to rescue him.
NOTE: This is a standalone piece, but I have every intention on writing a sequel to it. Thanks to paragraphs for reading it and convincing me I could leave it like this!
DISCLAIMER: The characters depicted herein belong to Shine and BBC. I make no profit from this endeavor.
Bodies packed the square, thick and restless like penned livestock before a storm. Short of brandishing his sword, nothing Arthur could do would get him anywhere nearer the dais at its center. From beneath the hood of his cloak, he glared at the pair of burly, unwashed men blocking his view.
“They act like this is a celebration,” he muttered, cringing when another boisterous laugh rose above the rest.
“That’s because it is to them,” Merlin replied. He hadn’t bothered with a cloak. His trousers and jacket were still filthy from the deluge that had taken them by surprise two days outside Camelot. Though he’d complained against Arthur’s insistence they didn’t have time to wash up, ever since Odin’s realm and discovering what was set to occur, he’d remained thankfully mute on the matter.
“There’s no honor in what they’re doing.”
“Perhaps not.” Finally, a supportive response. “But if they had done the honorable thing, we’d be too late to help him, now wouldn’t we?”
As far as Arthur was concerned, every hour since discovering Percival had been captured in his stead, a plot his knights had formulated behind his back in some noble attempt to protect Arthur from Odin’s latest scheme, had been time too long. Percival deserved none of this regardless of the fact he’d insisted on taking Arthur’s place.
Shouts erupted from the other side of the square, followed immediately by a hush that allowed the roll of wooden wheels to crunch like broken bones through the air. Steeling against the sound, Arthur shifted sideways to peer between the shoulders of the men in front of him, but knew in an instant the effort was unnecessary.
Percival towered over the crowd. His captors had lashed him to a pole nearly as broad as he was, stripping him to the waist to reveal the strain of his muscles against the chains that bound him. Bruises mottled his jaw and the side of his face, his left eye swollen shut in protest. His chin was high, though, his gaze locked forward, not even acknowledging the jeers that were now starting to drift from the throng.
A rotten vegetable splattered against his stomach.
“Don’t.” Merlin caught Arthur’s arm when he jerked closer, ready to rage through the onlookers. “We can’t help him here. There’s too many people.”
He was right, of course. Arthur knew that. In his head.
In his heart, where Percival was as much a brother as he was a loyal knight, Arthur only knew the burn of frustration as he was prevented from doing the one thing that mattered.
Transferring Percival from the cart to the dais took four men to hold him and a fifth off to the side with a sword at the ready. Percival made no protest, not even when they yanked his shackled wrists so high he had to lift his heels to maintain his balance.
“Maybe we shouldn’t watch,” Merlin said.
He didn’t need Merlin’s gentling. “We have to be here when they take him away so we know where they’re keeping him.”
“That doesn’t mean—”
“This is not up for discussion, Merlin.”
“And if someone discovers who you are? You won’t do him any good if you’re up there with him.”
If he was on the dais, he’d be slashing through every one of Odin’s men to get Percival down. “Nobody will know.” That was what the cloak was for, or was Merlin so nervous about what Arthur might do, he’d forgotten that? “Unless, of course, you keep prattling on about it so even the deaf man we passed at the gates can hear you.”
“I just don’t think you want to see this.”
Arthur clenched his jaw until it ached, but that was nothing compared to what Percival was about to endure. “I’ve seen public floggings before.”
“Not like this.”
There was no time for rebuttal. A new man had replaced the others flanking Percival. He had the look of someone who’d spent a lifetime meting out punishment, with the permanent curl to a lip, the mad gleam in his eyes that was visible even all the way to the back of his audience. In his powerful hand, the leather tail of his whip dragged along the wood as he rolled his wrist, around and around to loosen the joint.
Arthur’s blood turned to ice. He’d done that. Did that. Every time he had a moment before battle. Relaxing like that gave him an edge. He didn’t want to consider what kind of edge it gave Percival’s tormentor.
The onlookers held their collective breath. The pulse that fueled them was pure anticipation.
The first blow whistled through the air, but it was the crack against Percival’s skin that Arthur truly hated, the one he felt scald across his own. The red lick it left behind seemed harmless, too fine to be much more than an annoyance. Percival hadn’t even flinched at the contact.
He didn’t flinch at the second crisscrossing its predecessor, either.
Or when the blood began to drip from the open wounds, like water seeping into ruts on a wet track.
Or even when Arthur couldn’t see anything but a seething scarlet mass where Percival’s back and shoulders used to be.
Arthur’s control was brittle, ready to snap at the slightest provocation. When the whipmaster finally lowered his arm, the other five men swarmed onto the dais, working amongst the cheers and roars to release Percival. He sagged between them.
This time when Arthur bolted, Merlin didn’t try and stop him.
They skirted the edge of the square, one eye always on the cart. He couldn’t draw his sword, not here, not yet, but once darkness fell, Arthur vowed he’d do that and worse with any man who dared to bar his path in getting to his knight.
“It looks like they’re taking him back to the castle,” Merlin said in a low voice. “That means the dungeons. It won’t be easy getting him out.”
Arthur maintained his brisk pace. He wouldn’t lose Percival now that he’d had him in his sights. “We’ll do whatever it takes.” His heel slipped, and he glanced down to see the small pool of blood he’d just stepped in. His stomach lurched. Percival’s. “He’d do the same for us.”
Though his back felt like it had been roasted over an open flame, Percival refused to make a sound and give his guards the satisfaction in knowing he was in pain. They already boasted what a worthless prince Arthur was, how Camelot would fall as soon as he got the crown. The inside of Percival’s cheek was raw from how many times he’d bitten it to keep from arguing with them.
His cell stank from stale vomit and blood, though they’d covered the stone floor in clean straw while he’d been in the public square. He hadn’t had the strength to push it away when he collapsed inside, but at least resting on his stomach kept the worst of the prickling away from the open wounds. Some of them still bled. He could feel the droplets tickling down his sides. The one time he’d managed to lift up enough to peer beneath him, the scarlet stains mottling the straw had proven his suspicions.
As much as it hurt, though, he wouldn’t have traded it for his comfortable bed back in Camelot. That would mean one of the others would be here instead, or worse, Arthur, and no humiliation or pain was worth living with the knowledge he could’ve prevented it and hadn’t. This was his balm as he drifted in and out of consciousness. It could’ve been Arthur under the whip. Percival had saved him from that, at least.
The clang of a sword outside his cell door pulled him from a hazy sleep where the sun beat down on the knights to bake them within their armor and only Arthur’s smile had made it better. Blinking blearily in the door’s direction, he tried to focus on the small, barred window near the top, but his eyes refused to cooperate. The perspective seemed off, too flat and too narrow, and he belatedly remembered that one eye was still swollen shut from the beating he’d taken when captured.
Someone shouted. The short hairs on the back of his neck rose.
That had sounded like Arthur.
Bracing his hands beneath him, Percival gritted his teeth as he pushed upward, struggling to get to his knees. His back screamed in protest. At least one of the whip marks ripped open. The smell of fresh blood gagged him, and he fell back to his chest, his jaw smacking against the stone.
Keys rattled outside his door. The lock grated where it turned, and light from the corridor blinded him as the door swung open. He saw a figure holding a torch, but who it was eluded him until the man mounted the torch again and stepped inside, joining Percival in the near darkness.
“My lord…” he breathed.
His initial exhilaration at Arthur’s presence was quickly swamped by dismay. He shouldn’t be here. It wasn’t safe. Percival hadn’t borne the whip just to have Arthur walk into a trap. But as he struggled again to rise, Arthur swept to his side, sliding a free arm beneath his chest for Percival to push against.
“Can you walk?” Arthur asked.
As much as it shamed him, Percival shook his head. “Save yourself, sire. Odin—”
“—won’t know you’re gone for another two minutes,” Arthur finished. His mouth was grim. Percival tried not to stare, but the patch of abraded skin along his jaw, a reminder of the lengths he’d gone to come for Percival, was too much to resist. “What if you lean against me? It’s not far. Merlin’s getting a cart for us to get you past the city walls.”
“Merlin?” But of course Arthur hadn’t come alone. Now more of his friends were at risk, not just the man to whom he’d dedicated his service—his life. “Who else is here?”
“Just me.” Stray light from the flickering torch at the door caught in Arthur’s eyes the moment before he tore them away from Percival’s. “And unless you’ve shrunk since you’ve been gone, I’m going to need some help getting you out. Be strong just a little bit longer, Percival. That’s all I ask.”
He couldn’t refuse.
He had to squeeze his eyes shut and clench his jaw to summon the barest strength to aid Arthur in getting him to his feet. Straw stuck to his skin, poking into the open wounds, and when Arthur lifted his arm to slide beneath it, Percival swayed dangerously to the side before Arthur had his arm clamped around Percival’s waist, rooting him back in place.
The pain almost drove him back to the ground. It was the only way for Arthur to help him, but the pressure of his strong forearm against the raw lashes was worse than feeling the skin flayed open in front of strangers who only wished him harm. It pushed and pulled at the ragged wounds, smearing blood into Arthur’s sleeve as well as the waist of Percival’s trousers.
Arthur swore under his breath, but his hold remained firm as he guided Percival to the door. They both understood they didn’t have the luxury of time for him to find a more comfortable method, but each step was agony, the new blood dripping down the backs of his ankles by the time they reached the stairs leading outside.
Fear of slipping and dragging Arthur down with him forced his concentration on every lift of his foot, every shift of his weight. The narrow staircase drove their bodies closer, hips unnaturally aligned with his stooped posture, and though he might have dreamed once or thrice about what it might be like to feel Arthur shuddering against him, he never would have imagined it like this.
All he had to offer Arthur was his strength and loyalty. Of what value was he broken as he was?
When they reached the top of the stairs an eternity later, Arthur kicked at the heavy door. Immediately, it swung open, and there was Merlin’s open face, long arms reaching in to help, to hold, to hoist some of Percival’s bulk from Arthur’s straining grasp.
He fell face first into the cart Arthur had promised, too long for its short bed. The world hazed over, Arthur and Merlin’s hushed voices distant reminders that he hadn’t actually died in the escape. Vaguely, he felt his legs being folded up, his body rolled slightly to accommodate them.
“Arthur...” came out as a croak.
A horse whinnied, and the cart jolted into movement. Shadows passed in front of his eyes, and then there was Arthur, a swathe of blood swiped across his cheek. “Don’t speak.” He rested a hand on Percival’s shoulder. “Save your strength. We’ll be home before you know it.”
As much as he longed for Camelot’s sanctuary, Percival couldn’t find joy in Arthur’s declaration.
Because if he was going home, that meant he’d failed, and Arthur was no better off than before.
Somehow, they made it out of the town without anyone bothering to stop and wonder who these three strangers were or what they could be hauling in their cart that moaned every time Merlin guided the horse to hit a damn bump in the road. Arthur walked ahead, eyes darting everywhere in search of a threat, his sword in easy reach if it became necessary, but his thoughts were elsewhere, at Percival’s side, with his slumped body broken against Arthur’s own.
He bore that weight all the way to the edge of the forest that would help hide them on their journey home. He suspected he’d bear it for a long time to come.
Merlin’s low voice drifted from behind him, pulling him to a halt. A weary Merlin greeted his glance, his features a map of shadows in the pre-dawn light, but Arthur couldn’t allow himself to feel guilty for the division of labor. They’d had to leave the horse behind when they reached the trees, and Arthur had needed to be the one to fight off any attackers, which left only Merlin to pull the cart along. He’d find a way to make it up to Merlin once they got back to Camelot.
“What is it?” Arthur asked.
“We have to find someplace to rest for a while. Percival’s still bleeding. If we don’t tend to his wounds, we’ll leave a trail for anyone to follow.”
He resisted looking behind Merlin for proof of his claim. Such action was unnecessary. The cloying scent of blood still clung to the air, sticking in his lungs every time he inhaled. They didn’t need to stop it just for the sake of their escape. Predators prowled these woods, animals who would have no qualms about chasing down the source of recent bloodshed.
“Someplace close to water would be best.” He scanned the nearby trees, but it was still too dark to see far. “I don’t suppose you remember passing a river or stream when we arrived, do you?”
“Actually...” Merlin’s gaze swiveled in the opposite direction of Arthur’s, his chin lifting as if that was all it would take to peer farther than Arthur had. “I refilled our flasks right before we arrived. I’m fairly sure we’re close by.”
“I can live with fairly sure. Go. See what you can find.”
Merlin frowned. “I don’t like leaving you alone.”
Arthur rolled his eyes. “Because I can’t take care of myself? Don’t be an idiot, Merlin.”
“And we’re not far enough away from Odin for me to feel safe enough to sleep.” He pointed toward the trees. “Go. Be useful.”
Merlin trudged off in the opposite direction, swallowed by the night within moments. Arthur might’ve felt a tad guilty about being short with him if time wasn’t so valuable right now. Dawn would make them vulnerable. Percival needed to heal before they could continue. He’d compensate Merlin for the trouble later.
A groan came from the cart.
Arthur forgot about keeping an eye out and clambered over the edge of the cart to check on Percival. They’d had to contort his body in order to fit him into the short bed, which meant he couldn’t stretch out flat on his stomach. Some of the lashes that curled around his sides rubbed against the coarse wooden slats, keeping them raw. They were the source of the trail they were leaving.
Pulling out the cloak he’d used as a disguise in town, Arthur carefully wadded it into the space between Percival’s body and the cart. He winced when Percival moaned again and settled one hand on the powerful bicep, hoping it would offer some assurances.
“Try and sleep,” he said, unsure if Percival would even hear him.
“Can’t.” His ragged breathing scraped over Arthur’s senses. “Shouldn’t be here.”
“What?” He must’ve misheard. “Of course, you should. We’re going home.” Eventually, anyway.
“Won’t be joining us.”
In the darkness, he thought he saw a flash of white, a hint of a smile that turned too quickly into a grimace of pain. “He’ll come,” Percival said. “He won’t stop.”
Now, he understood. More of the plot to protect him. Even in his current state, Percival put his own needs second.
Anger swelled to replace Arthur’s anxiety, burning around the edges of his already shredded discipline. “That’s for me to worry about,” he ground out. “Your job right now is to heal.”
“I’m still...your knight. My job—”
“—is to do as I command.”
He couldn’t let Percival finish that sentence, not when its predecessor had delivered Percival straight into Arthur’s claim. Others called themselves knights of Camelot. From the start, Percival had given himself to Arthur, a gift he hadn’t known what to do with for months, but through it all, Percival had been diligent, honoring his title whether he’d been born to it or not, helping rebuild what Morgana had destroyed. Arthur knew of no person, male or female, who didn’t like and respect Percival.
He deliberately softened his tone. “Merlin’s finding us someplace to rest for the day. I’ll clean out your wounds, you’ll get some well-deserved sleep, and tonight, when we strike out again, you’ll see this was for the best.”
The muscle beneath Arthur’s palm sagged. Percival’s murmured, “Yes, sire,” should’ve been more of a relief than it was, but he couldn’t take pleasure in it. He almost retracted everything then, just to give back the spirit his words seemed to leech away.
Though Percival seemed to have passed out again, Arthur remained in the cart. Sticky blood began to seep through the knees of his trousers, but his hand was still in place when he heard the dry crack of a twig in the trees.
“It’s me,” Merlin said quietly before Arthur could leap over the side. His outline appeared a moment later, etched against the forest behind him as he drew near. “How’s Percival?”
“Still out.” Sharing the brief conversation, as innocuous as it was, felt too private to divulge, even to Merlin. “Did you find something?”
“There’s a cave, not far from here. It’s perfect for hiding.”
It would have to do. The cart rattled as he hopped out, eliciting another of Percival’s low moans, but Arthur gritted his teeth as he took Merlin’s old place in pulling it. The way was rough, far more so than the path had been, each wince from within damning him further. What was worse, however, was when Percival finally fell silent, because that brought with it the needle of fear that he’d broken too much to fix, all of Arthur’s efforts for naught.
Reaching the cave brought a fresh dilemma.
“We have to wake him,” Merlin said. “Even with both of us, we’d never get him inside without his help.”
“Walking will open the wounds again.”
“Just until we get him inside.” Merlin edged closer, into Arthur’s space as only Merlin could do. “As soon as he’s laying down, I can bandage him the way he should’ve been. Gaius has taught me a few treatments that will take away the worst of the pain and help him sleep. But to do that, to guarantee we don’t have to worry about Odin’s men, he has to help us.”
He was right. Again.
“Fine.” If his terse tone bothered Merlin, he gave no sign. “But I’ll be the one to treat his wounds once you’ve prepared the medicine.”
“It’s more of a paste—”
“Whatever it is.” His gaze slid to the cart, the image of a battered Percival indelibly printed on his mind’s eye. “He’s my responsibility.” My knight. “I’ll do it.”
I won’t let him down again.
The world returned, not with a haze but with a heave, shoulders locking against further pain as Merlin and Arthur braced Percival on each side to drag him into the maw. Percival kept his head high, jaw clenched against the fire racing down his back. Though he caught the way Arthur kept glancing at him out of the corner of his eye, he refrained from comment or accepting the respect coming off Arthur in waves.
His act wasn’t the act of a stalwart knight. It was the desperation of a damaged man, too sure that letting his head hang would pull at the bleeding scores along his spine.
Darkness shielded him from more of Arthur’s misplaced trust, drawing them into its embrace with each step. When Arthur and Merlin stopped, so did Percival, waiting for their guidance as to what came next.
“Lean on me. Merlin’s going to spread a blanket for you.”
At the low rumble of Arthur’s voice, Percival shivered. The reaction was inappropriate and more than a little unwelcome, but he couldn’t help it. His strength to fight the impulses he squashed on a daily basis was gone, sapped from the sheer effort of placing one foot in front of its mate.
Arthur swore under his breath. “Hurry up, Merlin.”
Merlin’s arm loosened, though it didn’t let go. “Ready, Percival?”
He cleared his throat to muster the breath necessary to reply. “Do it.”
The angle adjusted in soft fractions, his weight bearing more and more onto Arthur’s solid form. When his arm fell back to his side, Percival’s groan of pain was eclipsed by Arthur’s grunt, the only evidence of the exertion it took to keep Percival upright on his own. Whispers fluttered around him, the soft whip of fabric, the brush of dirt. Percival barely had time to feel the way Arthur’s muscles quivered before Merlin was back, his knees folding, the unyielding floor rising up to meet him.
He must have passed out, because the next thing he knew was a new heat glowing off to his side. He blinked, and Merlin came into focus, his rawboned shape bent over the low fire he’d made. The question of where Arthur was died without being spoken when rough fingers slid across his exposed shoulder blade.
They were slick and cold, gentle enough in their touch but resolute in their sweeps back and forth. Every so often, they disappeared for a moment, only to return in a new spot, whatever coating their surfaces stinging at the first contact. Percival hissed the first time it happened, but Arthur’s murmured, “Sorry,” prevented any more from escaping.
He let his good eye drift shut again. He might have preferred going to sleep, especially with Arthur’s tender ministrations ready to permeate his dreams, but that very same reason kept him alert, savoring each second though he deserved none of it. When he had healed sufficiently, all of this would be gone. Arthur might protest—his arguments outside made it perfectly clear he would be stubborn about it—but once he could fight again without relying upon the kindness of comrades, Percival had every intention of striking out from Camelot to find the means to prove his worth again. Until he did so, he’d never be able to look the other knights in the eye without seeing his failures reflected there.
“He’s out again,” Merlin commented.
“Good,” Arthur replied. Percival fought to keep his breathing slow and even, his body languid, to let the illusion continue. “It’s better for him if he sleeps.”
“I don’t know how he survived it.”
“What are you going to do about Odin?”
Arthur sighed. “Not now, Merlin.”
“You’ll have to deal with Odin sooner or later.”
“Later sounds good.”
“Let it go!” His hand skidded across Percival’s back, a nail inadvertently scratching across an untouched welt. It took all of Percival’s willpower not to flinch. “Percival is my priority right now. When he can walk back to Camelot with us, then I’ll discuss how best to deal with Odin.”
“Thinking about it now might distract you.”
“Just like I was too distracted to even notice what my own knights were plotting behind my back?”
But Arthur’s anger wasn’t the sword-sharp heat Percival expected. This was blunt and aimed elsewhere, self-recrimination instead of accusation. Percival could take anything but that.
His groan cut off all further conversation. The silence freed him from facing how he’d hurt Arthur, but that was all. It didn’t change what they both already knew. It didn’t absolve his defeat.
Dawn came, as did Odin’s men, smashing through the trees like the animals they were. Merlin took Arthur’s place at Percival’s side, ensuring he remained still, while Arthur poised behind the mouth of the cave, sword drawn in the event one of the men got lucky and found them. He held the hilt too tightly, muscles rigid from disquiet that refused to vanish, but he’d slash at all of them before he’d allow Percival to be taken again.
No one discovered them. Though the voices and shouts crawled their way into the cave, under his skin, they left them alone soon enough, edging their way deeper into the trees, likely wending a path toward Camelot.
He had to pray they’d turn back before crossing the border. Odin couldn’t be ready for an all-out war yet.
As soon as the forest was quiet again, Arthur rose to return to Percival’s side, but immediately froze. Sunshine shafted through the opening, and though it hardly bathed the interior in light, enough bled across the packed dirt floor to illuminate the others, deeper in the cave. Merlin waited, solemn, silent, but it was Percival’s prone form that churned his stomach, the salve he’d spread over the lashes a sickly pale yellow. From this distance, it looked like pus, especially with the way it curdled on the edges of the broken skin.
He wished Merlin hadn’t insisted the wounds stay open until the medicine dried into a powder they could brush away. Only then could they bandage them again.
He wasn’t ready to face them.
“I’ll go hunt something down for us to eat,” he said, retreating for the cave’s mouth.
Merlin stiffened, pushed up onto his knees. “Arthur—”
“Don’t leave him alone.”
With that, he turned on his heel and climbed out, never looking back. He didn’t have to. The image of Percival wasn’t going anywhere.
He’d been drifting in and out after Arthur applied the medicine, but he was mostly conscious when he heard Arthur leave to hunt. He swallowed down the familiar regret and willed himself to open his eyes.
Merlin swam in front of him as his vision focused, his left eye finally cooperating. The swelling was receding, though not by much from the looks of it. Before he could ask, a cup of cool water pressed to his lower lip.
“Drink,” Merlin said.
He didn’t need coaxing. His throat felt like sandpaper, and he couldn’t remember the last time he’d had water. Lifting his head the scant inches necessary, he sipped at the refreshing liquid, not stopping until it was all gone.
It took resting again to realize his back didn’t hurt as much. “What was that?”
Merlin glanced down at the empty cup. “Just water.”
“No, no.” He set it aside. “The salve must be working. How do you feel?”
How could he answer that in the way he wanted? “It’s not as bad as it was getting out of the wagon.”
But Merlin’s eyes caught everything, and Percival had always been rubbish at hiding his feelings anyway. “Arthur was ready to tear the citadel down to find you, you know. He wasn’t happy about your plan.”
“It was meant to protect him.”
“He knows that.”
Then he understood how badly Percival had failed, which only made it worse. With a sigh, he closed his eyes, praying for oblivion to return. “He should’ve left me,” he muttered. “Odin would’ve been appeased then.”
“But Arthur wouldn’t.”
“But protecting him...that’s my duty.”
“And you’re his.”
Merlin’s words, as well-intentioned as they were, lanced not Percival’s regret, but his heart instead. Because in its quietest recesses, where he dared to let such fragile emotions hold rein, he was. Arthur’s. He had been nearly from the moment Arthur had welcomed him into his band, a stranger with no home, no name, no family. All the stories Lancelot had told came to life before his very eyes in those first weeks in Arthur’s company.
Losing his heart to the man who would someday be king had been as simple as breathing. Arthur would never know, of course, because it was Percival’s place to be his friend when required, his knight always. Only two people were blessed with the regard Percival yearned for—Guinevere, the one woman he deemed worthy to serve Camelot at Arthur’s side, and Merlin, the friend he could never begrudge for all his years of loyalty. He’d accepted that long ago. It had made choosing this quest easy.
Because he would never be Arthur’s in the way he wanted Merlin to mean. Especially in the aftermath of his failure.
“Camelot needs its future king more than a lowly knight,” he said. “Arthur’s duty is to all of them.”
“Clearly, he disagrees.”
“You should have stopped him.” He dared to open his eyes again, meeting Merlin’s with faint accusation. “Why didn’t you?”
Merlin snorted. “Arthur doesn’t listen to me.”
There might’ve been a time he’d let Merlin get away with such a blatant falsehood. Now wasn’t it. “Merlin. We both know that’s not true.”
Considering Merlin’s attempts to sway Percival, he expected the usual games Merlin played, the denials and laughter, the lighter temperament that made him a favorite in the court amongst nobles and servants alike. When Merlin’s mouth thinned, however, he realized they weren’t going to materialize, and his stomach dropped with the slight fear that the reason Merlin favored honesty in the moment rather than artifice was because his injuries were more life-threatening than he thought.
“Arthur was adamant when he discovered what you’d done,” he said. “But I wouldn’t have attempted to talk him out of it, regardless.”
“Because I believed he was right to come after you.”
He had no response to that. He didn’t understand, not in the slightest, not when an entire kingdom was at risk, but if Arthur and Merlin were united in the decision, nothing would change either of their minds.
Silence came between them, as palpable as his confusion. Merlin toyed with the empty cup, but didn’t move away and leave him be. Arthur’s orders, after all. Percival had heard them himself.
“How bad is my back?” he finally asked. If nothing else, he needed to know the extent of his injuries.
Merlin glanced at it, then back to the cup. “There’ll be scars. A lot of them, unfortunately.”
“But they’ll heal?”
“Yes.” Merlin’s certainty was a relief, albeit a small one. “You’ll be arm wrestling with Elyan and Gwaine again before you know it.”
A life of normalcy, the one he’d given up to ensure Arthur’s safety. Merlin meant well, but the future he promised wasn’t Percival’s. He had his honor to rediscover, a journey alone stretching out in front of him. If he was sufficiently healed before they reached Camelot, he might even strike out along the way.
Whatever it took to regain the right to call himself a knight of Camelot.
To deserve Arthur’s friendship again, once and for all.
The forest was rich with game, though Arthur had to settle for smaller prey he actually stood a chance of taking down without a bow. His success came early, but when he might have gone back to the cave, he deliberately kept on the track, avoiding the inevitable as long as possible. He justified it as necessary. They would need food for the trek back to Camelot, and if he didn’t have to stop to find some, they’d move all the faster.
But he knew they were lies. Memories of Percival’s injuries reminded him of it at every turn.
Time ran out on him, or maybe it was luck, because the afternoon crept through the trees with its burnished hints that Odin’s men could return at any moment, their journey reversed once they realized they had the wrong trail. Arthur stopped once at the river Merlin had found and filled the flasks, his last task to lose minutes before rejoining the others. From there, it was only a few short yards to the cave, but he had to bolster his courage before stepping back into the murk. Every strong ruler had to face his mistakes. Allowing Percival to reach this state would always be one of his.
Merlin met him just inside, taking the bulk of the load without a word. When Arthur glanced past his shoulder and saw the white strips hiding most of Percival’s back, he had to suppress the desire to throw his arms around Merlin and thank him.
“The bleeding’s mostly stopped,” Merlin offered. “If Odin’s men are gone, Percival should be strong enough for us to strike out again in the morning.”
The quiet announcement snapped Arthur’s attention back with a frown. “He can’t have healed that quickly.”
“He’s not. But he should be able to bear more while we move him. We might not even need the cart for much more than a day or two.”
Excellent news. They’d travel faster without the cart slowing them down, and Percival could put this entire incident behind him all the sooner. One of them should.
“Why don’t I go clean these for supper?” Merlin suggested. He was already moving past Arthur, leaving him empty-handed, alone, bereft of any shield to hide behind, with Percival just lying there in silent censure. When Arthur tried to grab his arm to stop him, Merlin skidded out of reach, tossing back only an apologetic smile.
Arthur sighed. Merlin wasn’t sorry in the least.
He still had the water, and though he dreaded facing Percival, duty dragged him closer, the flask ready in offering as he knelt at Percival’s side. An awake Percival met his gaze for a moment, then graciously accepted the drink, swallowing half of it down before pulling back.
“Thanks,” Percival murmured, resting his head back on a pillow made from Merlin’s jacket. “How was the hunt?”
“Good, good. Plenty to eat if you have your appetite back.”
“For Merlin’s cooking?” His mouth quirked into a crooked grin. The boyishness of it wrenched Arthur’s gut. “Maybe I’ll stick with the water for now.”
As pleased as he was Percival felt well enough to joke, Arthur couldn’t muster the same attitude. “You need to eat something. It’ll help you get your strength back.”
The smile faded, and his lashes ducked. “Yes. I’ll only hold you back while I’m like this.”
Though he’d considered their speed a priority earlier, hearing the same necessity fall from Percival’s lips cast it in a different light. “And for your own sake,” he argued. “I’m hardly going to demand you return to your duties the moment we return to Camelot.”
“Will it be the stockade, then?”
“Why on earth would I punish you?”
“For putting you at risk.” He stated it with a bald ease that unsettled Arthur further. “For failing my quest.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. You hardly failed.”
“Odin’s still a threat.”
Arthur rolled his eyes. “Now you sound like Merlin. Don’t worry about Odin. I’ll take care of him when the time arises.”
Percival’s quiet sigh blew a gentle breath across Arthur’s knuckles, sending the hair along his forearm to stand on end, the goosebumps created by such a minor act parading at their roots. “The whole point of it was so you wouldn’t have to.”
“And why not? The problems with Odin are mine. I’m the one who created them. It’s not up to you, or Merlin, or my father to fix them for me.” He’d been annoyed by that aspect from the start, but hearing it had been Percival who’d been the one to ride off to the so-called rescue had outstripped those early feelings. “Don’t you think I’m capable of it?”
“No!” Percival’s head jerked up sharply with his denial, and he almost immediately winced as the bandages across his upper back wrinkled and pulled. He took more care settling down again, but the frown he wore was still firmly in place. “But why put yourself at unnecessary risk? People need you.”
“People need you, too.”
“I’m a human shield. You don’t think I know that?”
He wasn’t so blind not to see that was how people saw Percival. Even the other knights did. But Percival had always maintained a good humor about his size, never questioning tasks given to him specifically due to it, always smiling afterward when the job was done and the day was proverbially saved.
For Arthur, though, there had always been more, and the fact Percival didn’t know that was Arthur’s error, not his.
Unable to find the words, he instead forced his eyes to Percival’s wounds, the torment of his imagination. The bandages were expertly applied, not a spare inch of marked skin exposed to the air. A relief for both of them, actually. Arthur made a mental note to thank Gaius for training Merlin so well. The problem rested in how many there were. Percival wore more dressings than he did flesh, and medicine or not, he’d bear the marks for years to come.
Percival tracked the rise of Arthur’s hand, his chin shifting the inch necessary to see how Arthur traced the edge of the nearest bandage. He registered no pain at the touch, though his nostrils flared when Arthur skimmed over the tanned skin at the edge of the coarse fabric. Hot, like he burned with fever, but Arthur knew from training that was just Percival’s natural temperature.
“I would do it all again, Arthur.” A hoarseness roughened his voice, drawing forth more gooseflesh along Arthur’s arms. “I just wish...you hadn’t come.”
Though Arthur knew that, the confession still struck deep. “And I wish I’d reached you earlier. It looks like we’re both disappointed.”
“Not in you, though. Never in you.”
“And you’d deny me the same?” The one place to safely rest his hand was the back of Percival’s neck, so he laid it there now, not really surprised at how well it fit. “There’s none other like you among my knights. I know that even if you don’t.”
Percival shook his head, a faint measure he was sure not even Percival believed. “Any one of them would’ve done the same for you.”
“No,” Arthur said. “They would have done it for Camelot.” His grip tightened, and now, he could feel the rapid throb of Percival’s pulse against the pad of his thumb, a pounding against his skin, into his flesh, echoed by his own. “And that is why seeing you like this kills me. Not because I think you failed me. Because I know I failed you.”
Percival was prepared to argue more, mouth tensing, nostrils flaring, but Arthur was done listening to words he refused to accept. The only way to quiet him, perhaps to convince him once and for all, was to lean down and kiss him.
Beneath his touch, Percival went completely motionless. His lips didn’t move. He didn’t breathe. His sole reaction came when Arthur began to pull away, and then it was a whimper, a lunge, the meeting again of mouth to mouth, only this time, he opened to Arthur and took him in.
The second kiss was almost as brief as the first, but intent was everything, burned between them, both men panting when they parted. Percival was slower to withdraw, but Arthur didn’t know if that was due to distance or desire. Either way, his lips felt swollen, too sensitive to anything more, and his head muddled with disbelief he’d yielded to impulses he’d always thought would be tamped.
“I want you at my side,” he said. “That’s how we’ll solve the problems with Odin. United.”
He hated the uncertainty he saw flickering behind Percival’s eyes, but at least no more arguments came. Arthur sat back, breathing freely for the first time since returning from his hunt, only to stiffen again when Merlin crashed into the cave.
“Odin’s men are on the way back,” Merlin said.
The skinned animals hung from a stick, but he hadn’t got around to gutting them yet. Just as well, Arthur thought as he jumped to his feet, his sword ready in his hand. The fresh kill would have alerted them that people were in the vicinity.
“How far?” he asked, keeping his voice low.
“Not very,” Merlin replied.
“Did they see you?”
“Good.” He stepped toward the opening to resume his guard.
His grip tightened at Percival’s call. When he glanced back, Percival had shifted slightly to better face the cave’s mouth, poised as if to rise. The fear that he actually would, that Arthur would have to push him down for his own good and break whatever improvement he’d made between them, was quickly squelched when Percival smiled.
“Watch your left if you have to fight,” he said. “That’s the side you tend to drop.”
With that, he relaxed again, leaving Arthur to take the watch.
For the first time, Arthur actually believed that amends could be made for both of them, the guilt each carried regarding what had happened to be set aside and a new direction for their relationship forged. Seeing the proof of Percival’s sacrifice would never be easy to see, but better that than watching Percival struggle with his own guilt.
A fresh start awaited them in Camelot.
Arthur would do everything he could not to lose the second chance they’d both been granted.
|rejection||motion sickness||arrest||minor illness||falsely imprisoned|
|group support||forced marriage||unwanted transformation||parting ways||apocalypse|
|wings||fire||WILD CARD||forced to participate in illegal / hurtful activity||de-age|
|tyranny / rebellion||sex pollen||loss of vision||interrogation||headaches / migraines|
|forced to hurt somebody||hugs||ostracised from society||poisoning|