There was silence for a moment. Arthur couldn't hear anything. “Merlin? Merlin, where are you?” The young prince asked anxiously, “Merlin, answer me and don’t do anything stupid!”
“It’s too late. I have to save you, you’re the prince and far more important to the kingdom than I am.” Merlin’s voice said quietly.
Arthur tried to stand up but he was too weak.
“I can’t mind the kingdom if I know you’d sacrificed yourself for me. I couldn’t live with that and you know it.”
“Sorry, I've made my choice and it’s your life and your safety, not mine. Just for once, let me be the hero to save you, my friend.”
Arthur suddenly heard that same quiet clicking that he’d heard before when he’d opened the box. Merlin wasn’t going to listen to him.
“Merlin, stop! STOP!” Arthur couldn’t have shouted harder but Merlin didn’t answer. “Please, Merlin, do you want me to live everyday of my life thinking that you died because of me. I want my best friend by my side when I’m king! You know I’ll never be able to rule Camelot without your help! Please!”
The box opened. For one second nothing happened but then suddenly a blazing hot white light filled the room. Arthur was about to say more but then his eyes abruptly cracked opened for the first time in days, bleary from disuse. He saw the light and he thought he was going to cry. It was beautiful but scary. His sight was blurry but he could see Merlin.
“Merlin, is…is that you?” Arthur stammered. His friend was the same as always but he seemed exhausted. The cube was sitting in his hands and the silver was melting into his wrists as it had done to Arthur before him, “Am I really seeing you?” The prince exclaimed, blinking in the fast diminishing light and trying to sort through his jumbled thoughts.
“You’re going to be alright now.” Merlin told him, his face a twisted grimace of agony as the silver ran up his veins and into his head, “Don’t worry about me. You’re going to live.” With a cry of shock he suddenly fell to the floor as though someone had rammed into him at full speed. Arthur remembered that moment, that pain that he’d suffered. He knelt down beside Merlin as another spasm swept through the boy’s skinny frame.
“I know it hurts.” The prince said, holding him up to his shoulder as Merlin began to writhe with the cruel burning sensation that Arthur could remember only too well, “Why would you save me, Merlin? Why sacrifice yourself for me?” The prince asked, trying to ignore the lump in his throat and the pitiful sobs that escaped Merlin’s mouth.
Merlin moved in his arms. His eyes burned with that unbearable light and he almost sank his nails into Arthur’s skin, but his friend said nothing.
“Because I owe you.” He told Arthur through gritted teeth, clutching the prince’s shirt collar to stop himself from slipping away, “So many times you’ve saved me, this is my moment to repay you.”
Arthur looked down at him, tears swimming in his eyes. He knew what happened next. Any second now Merlin would be seeing the visions of the people he loved dyeing.
“In a minute, Merlin, you’re going to see something but it’s not real. Don’t believe any of it.” He said, as Merlin almost climbed over is shoulder in an attempt to escape the pain.
Suddenly the young warlock jolted and fell to the floor again.
There was something like a bolt of lightning and he saw a flash of a sword. Arthur was dead in a second, only just having time to squeeze Merlin’s hand before his grip faltered and his eyes glazed over with pain, unseeing and clouded.
“No!” Merlin cried as the image disappeared and another came before him.
Gaius’s body broken on the floor, a sight that made Merlin almost throw up.
“Its not real. Its not real.” Arthur told him, pulling him into a hug as Merlin sobbed uncontrollably into his shoulder and the vision evaporated.
The prince looked on helplessly. He couldn’t do a thing to help his friend. Is this how Merlin had felt the entire time when he had been like this? How could he have stood it?
“It’s going to kill me…” Merlin gasped through gritted teeth, screwing his face up with agony.
“I thought that too.” Arthur told him, holding him tight and rubbing his arm, “Don’t let it win you over. You’ve got to fight it.”
“No, no you don’t understand.” Merlin hissed, “It’s going to accelerate the process. It said it would kill me almost instantly.”
“What?” Arthur exclaimed with horror.
“Don’t let me die on my own!” Merlin cried.
“I won’t. I’d never.” Arthur choked, “Please, you can’t die. Not on your birthday.”
“Yeah, I was going to buy you that drink or three, remember. You don’t want to miss that.” Arthur tried to laugh but it sounded strangled.
“I don’t think I’ve got a choice.” Merlin croaked.
“You can’t die!” Arthur blurted out, “Please, you can’t!”
This was like his dreams but this time it was real. This time Merlin would die.
“Everyone dies, Arthur. No one can stop that.”
“But not you, not now! You can’t die instead of me!” Arthur cried.
Suddenly he spotted the cube that was some way off on the floor. He felt a surge of anger boil up inside him at the very sight of the thing that had caused all this hurt.
He climbed to his feet and staggered towards the cube, wanting nothing more than to destroy it – maybe that would save Merlin. But he had still not recovered and his knees buckled beneath him and he crashed to the floor, the accursed object only inches from his outstretched hand.
Meanwhile Merlin could feel the cube beginning to slowly murder him. It was happening a whole lot faster than he’d anticipated and hurt more than he thought was possible for him to bear. It was like a scorching cold that completely encased his body and made movement impossible. And then there were the visions. They held nothing but death and misery. How could Arthur have suffered this for so long? He barely cared about any of these things though. All he could think about was how Arthur would now live and make Camelot a beautiful place. The only thing he regretted was that he had never summoned the courage to tell the prince about his magic. Someone would tell him one day but it wouldn’t be the same.
Merlin would have poured out his soul to his friend right there and then had he not had a sense of dread lodged in his throat, constricting him.
Where was Arthur? He’d said he wouldn’t let him die alone yet he was gone.
“Arthur?” Merlin croaked, groping around for a comforting embrace.
Arthur managed to crawl over to him and took the boy into his arms again, rocking him slightly as Merlin buried his face in his shoulder. He found the others hand and clamped it inside his own, knowing these would be the last few moments he would ever spend with his friend.
He wished he had some strong comforting words for him but Arthur’s mind was a tangle of emotions that would not let him form a sentence. It seemed like only a few minutes ago he had been laughing and joking with Merlin on the boat, happily embarking on a spontaneous fishing trip, completely unaware at where it would lead them.
It wasn’t fair.
“Please, Arthur,” Merlin murmured, “Make Gaius understand that this was the only thing I could do.”
“I will.” Arthur whispered into his raven-black hair, tears now falling freely down his face as he hugged him tightly and rested his chin on his friend’s head.
“But most importantly you need to know that you will be a great king. You don’t need me.” Merlin went on.
“You know that’s not true.”
“Please, don’t hate me for this. I did it to save you.”
“I could never hate you, Merlin.”
Merlin felt another spasm sweep through his body and he coughed painfully. His hand, still hooked tightly to Arthur’s, began to loose its grip. Arthur grabbed it as Merlin went limp and his thin frame sunk down further into his arms. The young warlocks chest rose and fell once more before he ceased breathing and became still.