All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible. ~ T.E. Lawrence
Chapter One: Mingle with Divinity
That was all right. Percival loved him anyway.
But as he emerged from the Underground, his step faltered. London was smaller than he remembered. The buildings were still tall, the energy pulsing, but after open skies and hundreds of miles of horizons, the city felt claustrophobic in ways it never had before. He could cross the street in just a few steps—and did as he bounded toward the restaurant Arthur had chosen. Instead of grass and sulfur, his nose filled with the scent of exhaust mixing with the hot oil from the chippy he passed, and he was nineteen again, hanging back behind Lance as introductions were being bandied around the Pendragon foyer like rice at a wedding.
It was more than a lifetime ago. Perhaps Arthur had a right to wonder if he’d actually follow through on the invitation.
The restaurant was nothing like he would’ve expected Arthur to choose. More cafe than anything else, he walked in at the end of a long queue, at least a dozen people waiting to order at the single cashier. The chalkboard menu on the wall boasted usual pub fare, but the coffee smelled rich, the laughter from nearby patrons contagious. When he turned his head toward a particularly raucous roar, he spotted Leon and Arthur sitting at a tiny table with an unknown brunette.
Arthur spotted him before he could look away. “Perc!” He nearly knocked over his chair in his haste to get up. Heads turned to follow him, and faster than Percival could step out of the queue, he was surrounded by his old friends, Arthur at the fore, clasping him in a fierce hug.
“Well, I won that wager,” from a wry voice in the background.
Percival stepped away from Arthur to face Gwaine’s brilliant smile. “Good to know at least one person has some faith in me.”
“Who knows you better than me?”
He laughed, but it was bittersweet. The question would’ve been rhetorical before, but now, he wondered if Gwaine would say the same if he knew some of what Percival had done in the years that separated them.
Everybody took their turn in welcoming him. Arthur had been right. The whole gang was there, as well as a few faces he didn’t recognize. His gaze kept straying back to the brunette who remained at Arthur’s table, but before he could find out if it was Arthur’s latest girlfriend, Leon was there, demanding to know what he wanted to drink so Percival could take his seat while Leon went and fetched it.
As Percival folded himself into the chair, the brunette gave him a wry smile. “I didn’t realize we’d be joined by the prodigal son. Lucky me.”
While Percival blushed, Arthur burst into laughter and clapped him on the back. “Lucky for all of us. Perc, this is Mithian. Mithian, Percival.”
She stuck out her hand, surprising him for a moment before he shook it. Her fingers were long and slim, and though his swallowed hers, her grip was strong, and she didn’t seem intimidated by his size. If anything, her eyes sparkled in silent challenge. “It’s nice to finally meet you.”
He nodded and murmured something equally polite, but couldn’t resist a curious glance at Arthur. What exactly had Arthur said about him?
“Just for the record, Gwaine didn’t make that bet with me,” Arthur said. “I had every confidence in you.”
“No, he didn’t,” Gwaine called from the next table.
Percival chuckled. “That’s all right. I can see why you might think I’d flake out. It’s been too long.”
“We’ll have to come up with another major life event to drag you back. Merlin can only get promoted so many times before that gets old.” Arthur leaned back. “What about you, Morgana? Ready to show off a bump?”
When she slapped his shoulder, everybody laughed, Percival included. Any awkwardness he might’ve expected was nowhere to be seen. They’d slipped into familiar rhythms, even when surrounded by unfamiliar faces.
“You could always get married,” Percival said. “Uther should love that.”
“Nobody will have him,” Morgana chimed in.
Arthur caught Percival’s glance at Mithian. Unfortunately, so did she.
“Oh, we’re not together,” Mithian said.
“Then…” He was still struggling to figure out how she fit into the gang. “Leon?”
That brought on a fit of giggles. “Oh, Lord, no.”
“Mithian’s just one of the guys,” Arthur said. “Our fathers are old friends.”
Sitting there with her dark eyes and dimples to drown in, Mithian was nothing like he would’ve called one of the guys. Certainly, Morgana and Gwen were beautiful, too, but they were part of the gang through blood—Morgana for being Arthur’s sister, Gwen for being Elyan’s. Including Mithian without anyone considering her for more romantic purposes didn’t fit with what he knew of his old friends. Gwaine, especially, would’ve tried something, though from what little he’d already seen of Mithian, Percival could see her shooting him down fast if she wasn’t interested.
Thankfully, Leon arrived with his coffee and saved him from posing an awkward question that would put him back on the outside for not knowing the answer. Percival tried to give him his chair back, but Leon waved him down, taking an empty one with Merlin instead.
“So where do you live now that you’re not in London?” Mithian asked.
His coffee was too hot, so he cradled it between his palms to wait for it to cool. “Kent.”
She brightened. “Oh, I love it down there. Everything’s so lush and open.”
“That’s true about almost everywhere but London and Essex, you know,” Arthur said. “You’re just too much of a city mouse to see that.”
The face she pulled was so adorable, Percival had to bite back his smile. “Some of us know how to actually appreciate the country.” Her gaze swiveled to Percival. “Isn’t that right?”
He threw his hands up in surrender. “I’m not getting in the middle of this.”
She cocked a brow. “It’s not about sides. It’s about opinions. Are you saying you don’t have one?”
Folding his arms over his chest, Arthur leaned back in his chair with a grin. “Oh, this is going to be good.”
He had no idea what Arthur was talking about, but he recognized a gauntlet getting thrown when he saw it. Forgetting everything he’d been thinking about staying out of what was clearly an old argument, he pushed his coffee aside so that nothing was between them as he angled in to lock on Mithian’s eyes at the same level as hers. “It is about sides,” he said, keeping his voice even. “Every opinion we have automatically lumps us together. Every action we take. You might be right or you might be wrong, but even then, it’s all just a matter of perspective.”
She’d gone still as he spoke, absorbing each word he uttered. “You’re forgetting about neutrality. That’s what you wanted when you said you weren’t going to get in the middle of this, after all.”
“No, I wanted not to have to take the side against Arthur because I agree with you,” he countered. “That doesn’t mean I don’t have one.”
“I thought you were in the Army or something. Aren’t you programmed to automatically take sides?”
At his side, Arthur hissed beneath his teeth, but Percival ignored it. “Actually, I’m in the Reserves now. And no, I’m not. I’m trained to assess dangerous situations and act accordingly. Sometimes, that means going against orders.”
Her eyes widened. “You’re allowed to do that?”
“Not really. But on the rare occasion I got called out on it, I was able to defend my choice well enough for it not to matter.”
“So you believe that what’s important is when to choose voicing your opinions, is that it?”
“I pick my battles, yes. Because who gets listened to more closely? The man who never shuts up, or the one who rarely speaks?”
Her lips parted as if she had a rejoinder, but nothing came out. He could see her mulling over his argument, turning it over and around in search of its flaw. He almost wished she would find something and challenge him on it, just so he could hear what she had to say.
He jumped when Arthur started clapping and broke the spell.
“He doesn’t look it, but Perc outdid us all at uni when it came to philosophy and psychology.” Arthur rapped on the side of Percival’s skull with his knuckles until Percival laughed and knocked his hand away. “There’s actually a brain under all that muscle.”
“I can see that,” Mithian mused.
Under so much scrutiny, Percival flushed and reached for his coffee, taking a big swig so he’d have an excuse not to respond. “Taking sides is just a sore point for me,” he said when he ran out of stalling time.
But her contemplative visage never wavered. “You’ll have to tell me why some time.”
The thing of it was…he believed she meant it.
* * *
If anyone noticed, nobody said a word. He rather believed they were all still so shocked he’d actually come that they weren’t willing to jinx it by saying anything that might drive him away again.
Gwen and Lance were the first to make their exits, and when Percival lifted a brow when their hands slid together on the walk, Merlin nodded.
“They don’t think the rest of us know,” Merlin said.
“Which makes it quite a laugh catching them out and then pretending we haven’t seen anything,” Gwaine added.
Percival shook his head. He didn’t quite get it. “But why go to the bother? Not for Arthur’s sake, surely.” His break-up with Gwen had been ages ago, long before Percival had left London. The fact that they’d all remained friends should’ve been testimony enough that he’d be all right with any relationship she might decide to have.
“You know Lance.” Merlin shrugged like it was all common knowledge. “He loves the drama of it all.”
And it was commonly known, or at least it had been on Percival’s departure, but wouldn’t he have grown out of such a thing in the time since? Not for the first time that night, he really looked at his old friends, noting the fresh laugh lines at the corners of Gwaine’s eyes, the thicker set of Merlin’s jaw. They weren’t boys any longer, none of them.
“You don’t find it romantic?”
Mithian’s pointed query turned him in his seat. Her shrewd gaze erased the others around him, creating a different milieu where the world was both sharper around the edges and faintly surreal with its absence of detail at the same time. “No, I don’t,” he said without considering the consequences of prevaricating. “They’re among friends. What’s romantic about denying your feelings for the world to see?”
“Says the man who’s never been in love,” Gwaine commented.
“That’s not true,” Merlin interjected. “Remember Mia? He was mad for her.”
“Until he finally came to his senses and listened to us about how she was sleeping around.”
“I thought we were talking about Lance’s love life, not mine,” Percival complained. Mia was an unfortunate memory he’d tried to put behind him, but of course, here he was, wallowing in the past so it was understandable he’d get mired in her again when he least wanted it.
“You shouldn’t tease him,” Mithian said. “If he’s never been in love, then of course he wouldn’t understand.”
Her observation, so wrong and yet so perversely right, drew him back to her, grateful and annoyed at the same time. “I did love her,” he heard himself confessing. “As it turned out, I only knew the idea of her, but that didn’t stop me from making it clear to everyone how I felt.”
“So we are talking about your love life.”
Though her voice remained soft, the breath of it sent a shiver through him. He knew the distance between them made that physically impossible, but real or not, he’d felt it.
“We could talk about yours instead,” he tried.
She smiled. “I don’t have one. I’m one of the guys, remember?”
Her tone held a faint hint of bitterness he doubted anyone else in the vicinity caught. Though he loved his old friends dearly, their tendency to paint each other into their neat little corners made it hard for anyone to escape once they were there. For instance, Arthur might brag about Merlin’s professional accomplishments, but he would always be the scrawny kid Arthur thought he had to rescue. Percival had to literally leave London to break away from their limited expectations. Mithian was the latest victim. The problem was, she hadn’t been part of the group long enough to accept things for what they were.
He returned her smile, hoping she saw an ally rather than adversary, in spite of their earlier argument. “I find that hard to believe.”
“Stick around, then. You’ll discover soon enough this is pretty much the extent of my social life.”
“Why?” he couldn’t help but ask. “Because of work?”
“If only I was that busy.”
“Don’t let her fool you,” Gwaine said. “She always has excuses not to go out.”
For a split second, Percival caught Mithian’s glance, her mouth tight with restrained laughter, and he had to duck his head to avoid spoiling the moment. Gwaine, charmer that he was, didn’t bother to look past the surface of her polite refusals, because of course, why wouldn’t she want to go out with him?
“Speaking of excuses…” Twisting in her seat, she grabbed her satchel from where it was hooked over the back and swung it onto her shoulder. “I should probably head home. I’ve got an early morning.”
Merlin rose and swept her into a hug before she could walk out. “Thanks for coming.”
“I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.” Her withdrawal was slow as her gaze slid to Percival. “It was lovely meeting you, Percival.”
He had the overwhelming urge to stand and say goodbye, but with the others’ eyes heavy upon them, it seemed awkward. “Same here.”
Except she didn’t walk out right away. As her slim fingers toyed with her strap, she said, “Maybe we’ll get the chance to see each other again. Are you going to be in London long?”
“No,” he hated to admit. “Just for the night, actually.”
“Oh.” She masked her disappointment with another quick, bright smile. “Well, then, I guess it’s a good thing I got to meet you when I did. It might’ve been another three years before I got the chance.”
As she finally turned on her heel to go, Percival lurched to his feet. “Wait.” She had to tilt her head back when she obeyed, but the glimmer he saw behind her eyes made his discomfort worth it. “Why don’t I give you my number? Or maybe you could give me yours.” He dug around in his pocket for his phone, cursing himself for his sudden clumsiness. “We could meet up whenever you’re down in Kent.”
“I’d like that.” Their fingers brushed as she took the phone, though if she noticed the heat leaping between them, she gave no sign. As she passed it back, he heard a muffled ring from inside her bag. “Just cancel that,” she said. “But now I’ve got your number, so the next time I escape the city, I promise, you’ll be the first person I ring.”
As Percival took his chair again amidst Gwaine’s lewd teasing and Merlin’s attempts to defuse his comments, he tried to pretend he wasn’t watching Mithian as she darted across the street toward the Underground.
He was fairly certain that just like Lance and Gwen, he didn’t fool anybody.