Title: under pressure
Characters: Merlin, Arthur, George
Summary: When the bottle Merlin made for the prince shatters unexpectedly, Merlin is called in to help clean up the mess. (Part 3 of the World in a Bottle series)
Warnings: Minor injury, reference to blood.
Word Count: 1000 words.
Prompt: 356 (I'm here)
Author's Notes: So, I had thought I was done with this series, but apparently not. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
He didn’t hear from the prince for over a week, and had begun to think that the dragon-glass would hold when he received a summons. It was personally delivered by a messenger in the prince’s livery, and consisted of only two words: please come.
He found Arthur kneeling amidst the remains of the bottle, fragments of red glass embedded in his palms. The Heartbreak, now rendered as small as a pinprick due to the extent of its compression, hovered in one corner like a malevolent sun, casting a violent glow over the room.
“Arthur?” Hurrying forwards, Merlin sank to his knees beside the prince, forgetting all protocol in his alarm. “Arthur, I’m here.”
“It broke,” Arthur told him needlessly. His eyes were fixed on the manifestation and he looked ill, his cheeks drained of colour. “I didn’t think it would, but then—”
He cut himself off. Blood was dripping from his lacerated hands onto the floor, but he didn’t seem to notice. Shaking his head, Merlin sent the servant hovering at the door to fetch some supplies, and took gentle hold of Arthur’s wrists, tugging on them a little to draw the man’s attention.
“What happened?” he asked, when Arthur finally met his eyes. “Are you all right?”
“I’m fine.” The prince’s gaze dropped to his hands; he seemed surprised to find that he was bleeding. “It shattered as soon as I entered the room; I don’t know why. I was able to cover my face, though, so it didn’t end up doing too much damage.”
“I’ll be the judge of that,” Merlin said sternly. He turned Arthur’s hands over, wincing when he saw the number of slivers lodged in the unprotected flesh. “Doesn’t it hurt?”
Arthur only shrugged, and Merlin pinched his lips together. He had known from the outset that the prince had a habit of pushing his emotions down, burying his true thoughts and feelings beneath a veneer of impassivity. But there was a difference between being reserved and being reckless.
“I’m going to start removing some of these shards now,” was all he said. “Tell me if you want me to stop.”
He didn’t expect Arthur to answer, so was not surprised when the prince only nodded and let him get to work, his eyes drifting occasionally between Merlin’s busy fingers and the presence that loomed above them. The magic in the glass was Merlin’s own, which made it easier to remove; he called to the pieces under his breath, a low and sibilant whisper, and they slipped from Arthur’s skin without resistance, dropping to the floor without a sound.
Gaius would no doubt caution him against revealing even this much about his powers in front of a Pendragon, but it could not be helped; Arthur had asked for his assistance, and Merlin couldn’t bring himself to refuse such a request. From what little he had glimpsed of Arthur’s thoughts, the prince would not betray him, and not just because he valued his privacy; whatever it was that preyed on Arthur’s mind, it was not the unthinking hatred of magic that had plagued the king since Arthur's mother died.
The servant returned just as Merlin was finishing up, setting a large bowl of steaming water down in front of him along with some bandages, and then a pitcher full of honeyed mead. Merlin smiled and thanked him; it was a small kindness, but under the circumstances it meant a lot.
“My pleasure,” the man said, bowing stiffly. He stole a glance at the prince. “Will he be all right? Should I send for the king?”
“I’ll be fine, George,” Arthur said before Merlin could answer, and he seemed to rouse himself at the sound of his servant’s voice, becoming more alert and authoritative. “The king is not to be informed, nor are you to share a word of this with anyone. This matter is to be treated with the utmost secrecy. Do you understand?”
“But, sire—your injuries—”
“—are the result of my own clumsiness,” Arthur said calmly. “I tripped, and shattered a looking glass when I fell. A regrettable accident. Merlin here is helping me clean up.”
George still looked uneasy about this deception, but he nodded once to show his acquiescence. “As you say, my lord,” he said, and bowed again, giving the Heartbreak in the corner an uneasy look before he left.
“Friend of yours, I assume?” Merlin asked lightly, soaking one of the cloths in the water as he prepared to get to work. “He takes good care of you.”
“Not a friend, per se, but he is loyal,” Arthur said, shaking his head. “He’ll make sure we’re not disturbed for the rest of the evening.”
“I’m glad to hear it.” Merlin wrung out the cloth and reached for Arthur again, settling the prince’s hands palm-up against his knees. “That makes things easier.”
“Then you can recapture it?”
Merlin was silent. He began to bathe the cuts on Arthur’s left palm, then his right, sponging away the worst of the blood and cleaning the larger wounds carefully before bandaging them in fresh white linen. When he looked up again, Arthur was still watching him, raising both his brows in an obvious question. Merlin sighed.
“This—” he gestured at the Heartbreak above their heads, “—is clearly too strong to be contained by conventional means, and I can’t in all good conscience suggest we try again. Manifestations at this level can be volatile, even dangerous, as you’ve already seen for yourself. If this goes on much longer, it could kill you.”
He saw Arthur’s throat work, the delicate flutter of muscles along his neck and jaw. His fingers flexed in Merlin’s lap. “Then what do you suggest?” he asked, his expression unchanged.
“I think you know,” Merlin said quietly. He finished tying off the bandages and sat back, settling himself cross-legged on the cold stone floor. “You have to talk to someone, Arthur. It might as well be me.”