Arthur rode back to Camelot hard and fast, Leon and a few other knights riding just beside him. He felt the aching in his wounds and knew his shoulder wound was desperately close to reopening again, but he did not stop. With a few hurried words he had explained to Gaius what had happened but did not talk about it long. He left two knights with the old man and was out of the dungeon much more quickly than he had entered. It had taken them a day to reach the dungeon, but they had been slowed down by Gaius. With a hard ride, they could be back in Camelot by nightfall.
Arthur was not sure what he was going to do when he got back to Merlin. He only knew he had to help Merlin battle the sorcerer that was stuck in his mind, however he had gotten there. Arthur still did not have all the details figured out. All that mattered right now was that he had to get back to Merlin.
Of course they had to pace themselves, even dismounting and walking in order to give the horses a rest. They were no good to them dead, after all, and so it took them several hours to reach Camelot. By the time they had, the sky was already turning pink with the sunset.
Arthur galloped into the courtyard and dismounted quickly, almost collapsing when he landed on his bad knee. He turned to hand his reins to Leon and was about to head back to Gaius’ chambers when the sight of several people staring upwards caught his attention. He couldn’t help but glance up in the direction they were looking and pointing. What he saw caused his breath to catch in his throat.
Standing at the top of the highest tower was Merlin, on the edge, looking frail and weak even from where Arthur stood, and the scariest part was how he swayed dangerously. Arthur was moving before he even fully processed this information.
He climbed the stairs two at a time, his lungs already begging for air after the hard ride, but he did not stop. It seemed to take an eternity. He was so afraid that when he finally reached him, Merlin would not be there; that he would have already taken the leap. The thought caused Arthur to push his legs even harder.
Finally he burst out onto the rooftop. The door was already open, so it was not a noisy entrance. Gwaine was already there, his hands held out to Merlin as though he were trying to placate him, only a few steps away but not close enough to reach out and grab the man. Merlin was facing the knight, and Gwaine was saying something that Arthur could not make out. Neither of them had noticed Arthur yet.
“—you know what this will do to Gaius, to Gwen! How can you be so selfish?!” Arthur only caught the last bit of this conversation, but it was easy enough to pick out what Gwaine had been saying.
“What about me, Merlin?” Merlin had been staring at Gwaine with determined eyes, but now his gaze faltered ever so slightly. “Before you and Arthur found me in that tavern I was nothing. You brought me here, gave me a purpose, friends, a life. Don’t think I’ve forgotten that. You were the cause of all that, and if you die… I’m afraid it will all go away again.” Gwaine was blatantly honest with Merlin, hiding his emotions suddenly seemed less important in the face of losing his close friend. “Merlin… I’m… I’m sorry… This is all my fault… If I had just done what I was supposed to and stayed by your side, I could have prevented all of this.” Gwaine’s voice was so sincere.
Merlin’s eyes softened. “You don’t know that, Gwaine. For all we know she may have just killed you.”
Gwaine shook his head. “We don’t know that either.” he said resolutely. “If you die today Merlin, it will be my fault. Do you think I could live with that?”
Merlin gulped. “You will be fine, Gwaine. You are the strongest man I know. You have proven that your nobility comes from your actions and not your blood. You are a good knight, and you will continue to be a good man after I am gone. Do not let one mistake ruin your life.”
Gwaine sounded hurt and angry now. “What about Arthur, Merlin?” Arthur saw the resolve return ferociously to Merlin’s eyes. “You claim to be doing this for him, but you know this would destroy him. He knows that you’re doing it for him; the guilt will destroy him. He can’t stand having people sacrifice themselves for him. It is a part of his very nature to protect people. The guilt will eat him alive.” Arthur swallowed, it was true. Merlin seemed to ponder Gwaine’s words, and Arthur watched him closely, waiting for a response.
Merlin lifted his head and looked straight at Arthur. Arthur froze; he couldn’t speak, couldn’t say a word, just stood staring at Merlin. “Arthur is the greatest man I know and will be known as the greatest king of all time. Stories will be told of him for ages and generations to come. He will persevere.” Merlin’s feet shifted ever so much closer to the edge, and Arthur suddenly found his voice.
“Merlin! Don’t! I know what’s happened! I can help you!” Arthur pleaded, coming out of the shadows. He saw Gwaine jump slightly, but he only turned his attention away from Merlin for a second.
Merlin’s foot continued to inch back towards the edge, and he looked over, swaying slightly which caused both Gwaine and Arthur to take another step forward, but Merlin looked only at his king. “I can’t fight him anymore, Arthur.” he pleaded. “I don’t have the strength.”
Arthur was begging now. “Please Merlin! Come down from there! We’ll…” he seemed at a loss as to how to fix this. “We’ll lock you up if that makes you feel better, chain you in the dungeons so you can’t hurt me.” He was aware that Gwaine was glancing at him with a look of disbelief, anger, and nervousness, but Arthur was completely focused on Merlin. “We’ll get him out of your head, Merlin, we’ll find a way.”
Merlin laughed but there was no amusement in it. “You can’t stop me, Arthur. No chains can hold me.”
Arthur just stared at Merlin confused. “Why not?” he asked.
Merlin inched even closer to the edge, his heel almost completely off. Soon he would just be holding on with his toes. “It doesn’t matter anymore. This is the only way.”
Arthur shook his head, trying to think of anything that would buy him a little more time. “Merlin please! I need you to explain it to me!”
Merlin hesitated but only for a moment. His clothes swayed in the breeze and he looked like he would collapse at any moment. He finally shook his head. “I can’t… I just… I can’t… I want you to remember me well… I want you to remember me as a friend… I can’t…” his breath caught and he breathed in deeply. “Goodbye, Arthur.” They were the most frightening words Arthur had ever heard and then Merlin’s foot slipped and he fell. Arthur was frozen on the spot and did not even try to catch him.