Percival’s attempts to track Morgana turned up fruitless, but he had pushed forward in the way that one only can when fueled by sheer grief and desperation.
He convinced himself he would find her, and a dark, wild part deep inside himself fantasized what he would do when he found her.
Suffocate her, drive his blade through her body over and over, well aware that it would do nothing, but for his own sake, pray that it hurt, at least.
Anything to distract himself from the cold reality that he had not embarked on this journey alone.
That Gwaine-Gwaine’s body lay not far away, with only a humble marker to show where he was buried. It was not a burial worthy of the man Gwaine was, and for the first time, Percival repeatedly cursed himself for being too weak. To take Gwaine with him until he could receive a hero’s send off.
In addition, with no word of Arthur’s whereabouts, Percival would not hand Gwaine to just anyone for a funeral pyre. No, if anything, it would be a small gathering of the knights, their king, Guinevere and Merlin.
Percival paused to collect himself, finding his fingers clenched, white-knuckled and digging into his palms. Logically, he knew it would do no good for him to drive himself to exhaustion and starvation at this point, no matter how much his heart hammered in his chest, and his brain screamed at him to keep moving, keep fighting, fight for them, for him-
There was movement nearby, soft and clumsy enough that it was clear the new arrival had not expected anyone around. For a split second, Percival’s throat closed up, and he turned, imagining that it could be Morgana, somehow, that he had succeeded, caught her unawares.
He crouched behind a fallen log, hoping for an additional advantage.
Another snap of a twig, and shuffling leaves. This person-if it was a person-wasn’t even trying to be unnoticed. He rose, stiff backed and cautious, and was met with the wide-eyed, red-rimmed eyes of Merlin.
“…Merlin,” Percival’s voice hardly seemed his own, cracked and hoarse from disuse, and his own private grief.
Merlin just stared at him, almost blankly for a moment, his mouth opening and closing wordlessly. He looked, Percival realized, like Percival himself felt. His hair was mussed like he’d been pulling at it, face ghost like and pale against red, swollen eyes. Merlin took a step forward, woodenly, lips parting around Percival’s name, but all that came out was a low, keening sound of anguish.
Percival launched over the log with a sudden pulse of adrenaline, and the moment his hands touched Merlin’s arms, Merlin’s legs gave out, crumpling bonelessly into Percival’s chest, and some part of Percival noted that they were barely holding each other up, so he slid to his knees, guiding Merlin to the forest floor with him.
The two of them stayed kneeling, clutching at each other’s arms, both unwilling to speak-Merlin seemingly unable to form words around his own pain, and Percival unwilling to voice what he inevitably knew.
Their King was dead.
"Call me Arthur.”
“Arthur it is.”
Percival shifted without releasing his hold on his friend, and Merlin’s fingers dug painfully into Percival’s bare arms, his head bowed, defeated.
“I failed,” Merlin rasped, and the words were a blow like Percival had never before felt, flaying him open. Percival felt the wind get knocked out of him, and he rocked forward with a shuddering sigh. Merlin twisted in his hold, silent but there was dull surprise in his blue eyes, mouth parted.
It was then that Percival realized his sigh had been a sob, and his own eyes were wet and stinging. He swallowed, not bothering to hide his grief, which had just been doubled, and he was reminded of the heartbreak and gaping emptiness that followed the death of his entire family.
“Merlin,” Percival searched his friend’s expression, and all he got was a jerk of Merlin’s head, his body shaking with intermittent tremors. He didn’t press for more. He didn’t need to, and he wasn’t about to push Merlin into voicing the truth.
Not when Percival couldn’t do the same himself.
“We’ll make camp here,” Percival said, finally, low. “Neither of us are in any shape to make the trip back.” Against his chest, he felt Merlin shake his head again. Percival tried not to think on what that could mean, and set to clearing the space for the night.
Once again trying not to think about Gwaine, because if Percival was unable to form the words out loud to accept it to himself, how was he supposed to tell Merlin that his closest friend was dead, right on the heels of losing the person who meant the world to him.
“Percival,” Merlin broke the silence after several minutes. He was leaning against a tree as Percival worked, hugging his knees, looking both impossibly small and somehow ancient in that moment. “What aren’t you telling me?”
Percival stilled, eyes falling shut, and the ground swayed beneath him. He suddenly felt empty and light-headed.
“Percival,” Merlin repeated, desperate and lost, and Percival wondered if Merlin had seen it in his face and known, like Percival had known that Arthur-
“Morgana,” Percival turned, kneeling in front of Merlin, hands out to offer physical comfort if needed, and Merlin’s eyes dropped to the fading bruises on Percival’s wrists from the rope bindings.
“Dead,” Merlin said, his voice holding no inflection, but somehow laced with an undercurrent of dark satisfaction that made Percival inwardly flinch. “What about her?”
“Gwaine-” Percival started, and the skin around Merlin’s eyes tightened, his lips pressing together, expression growing guarded and wary. Shielding himself, Percival knew. Self-preservation. When your heart, soul, and entire fiber of your being cannot take anymore, and it’s all a person could do not to shatter completely.
“No,” Merlin said, simple as that. “No.”
“No,” Merlin repeated. “Do you understand? He’s not, he can’t be, because I can’t. Because I can’t.”
They sat in silence once again. Merlin’s eyes were closed, the tightness around his mouth relaxed, and for a moment, Percival thought he might have fallen asleep.
“How?” Merlin’s voice was low, thick, his eyes still closed.
“Poison. I think a snake bite, but-“
“Nathair,” Merlin’s lip curled, brief. “She’s dead, I killed her.”
Percival nodded, once, recognizing the unspoken promise that Merlin would kill her again if he could. It was terrifying to hear from his friend, but possibly more so that Percival would do the same in a heartbeat.
Merlin exhaled, shaky, after a moment then curled on his side, his worn jacket pulled tight around his body.
Percival wished he had brought his cloak with him. He settled down and stretched out on his back, staring up through the canopy of trees. There was the sound of Merlin shifting in the leaves, and for a few moments, Percival could close his eyes and believe that everything was normal, and his friends were tucked safe around the fire for the night.
“Night,” he said, quietly.
There was no response.