Title: lightning in a bottle
Pairing/s: Merlin/Arthur (pre-slash)
Character/s: Merlin, Arthur
Summary: Fantasy AU. In a world where negative emotions sometimes manifest themselves as tormenting spirits, Merlin must help the prince put a particularly strong djinni back in the bottle. But Arthur has secrets, and once Merlin knows them he finds he can't just look away. [ Part I • Part II ]
Word Count: 1000 words.
Prompt: #224 Anything you want.
Author's Notes: Found the AU prompt on the AU Ideas tumblr and fell in love. Consider this Part 1 of a longer story that may or may not get written someday.
He arrived just as Merlin was closing up shop for the night, the hood of his cloak pulled up and his face in shadow. Even so, Merlin knew who he was. There was only one person on the planet who could afford robes like that.
“My lord,” he said, giving a low bow. “How may I serve you?”
“I have need of a glass-merchant,” the prince said, glancing uneasily over his shoulder. Most of the other sellers in the marketplace had packed up and left before the sun went down, but enough remained that there was a risk they might be overheard. He said, “There has been…a manifestation. A strong one. The containers we already have at the palace are useless.”
Merlin nodded. It would be bad manners to ask what sort of manifestation it was, and in any case that was irrelevant. “We have the finest selection of djinni bottles in all of Camelot,” he said proudly, stepping back to usher the prince inside. “My Uncle Gaius makes them. Of course, Your Majesty is welcome to anything he wants.”
After lengthy consideration, the prince selected a sturdy green bottle in the shape of an elephant. The belly was made from transparent blown glass, and there were charging ports in each of its feet so that the spirit could be used to power small appliances if the customer wished it.
“This will contain it?” the prince asked, dubious.
“It will, sire.”
The prince pressed a handful of gold coins into Merlin’s palm; more money than he had ever seen in his life.
“For your silence,” he said.
The next evening, the prince came back, once more just as Merlin was packing up. He upended a small cloth bag, tipping the shattered remnants of the elephant bottle onto the shop counter, and folded his arms.
“It broke,” he said.
“I can see that.” Merlin poked at the shards with one finger, and hissed. The edges were sharp and still hot, burning with magical energy. He looked at the prince. “This manifestation of yours — what level is it?”
The prince fidgeted. “I haven’t tested it. But it’s strong. Perhaps a level seven.”
“Our glass is spelled to contain anything up to and including a level 10,” Merlin said. “This is something else.”
The prince narrowed his eyes. “There’s no such thing.”
“I say there is.”
“What’s your name?”
“Tell me, Merlin, why should I believe a single word you say?”
Merlin studied him for a long moment. He was dressed in blue this evening, a colour which highlighted the soft gold of his hair and his tanned skin, but there was a sadness to his mouth, and there were shadows under his eyes from lack of sleep.
“Because you already knew that, sire,” Merlin said finally. “And because I’m the only one who can trap it for you.”
Talking the prince into smuggling him into the castle was the easy part — once they were inside, however, Merlin was at a loss. The Heartbreak that confronted him was not large, but that didn’t signify. The outward size of a spirit didn’t always correspond to its strength; in fact, some argued that the smaller the spirit the stronger it became, or at least the better the host had been at suppressing it. If that were true, Merlin thought, whoever had manifested the spirit must have been an expert, because it was very small, about the size of his thumb, yet Merlin could tell it was powerful simply by looking at it.
“Is it yours?”
The prince hesitated. “Yes,” he said, looking down at his hands. Merlin wondered if he was expecting ridicule; or perhaps he was just embarrassed.
“I’m sorry,” Merlin said softly. “You’ve been keeping it hidden?”
“As much as I can. If anyone found out…There would be questions.”
He didn’t specify what kind of questions. Merlin didn’t ask.
“I’m not surprised the bottles broke,” he said. “I’ve never encountered a manifestation this strong before.” The prince must have been hurt remarkably badly to have created an emission like this; only the worst of emotions ever manifested in such a way, and even then seldom so powerfully.
“Can you contain it?”
Merlin nodded. “But I will need to extract some ingredients from your memories for the spell.”
The prince looked wary. “Won’t that just create more problems?”
“I don’t use negative emotions in my spellcasting," Merlin said, smiling. "Too messy. Just the positive ones will do.”
To his surprise, the prince returned his smile, though only faintly.
“I suppose I can dredge something up,” he agreed.
The two of them sat cross-legged in the centre of the floor, the prince’s hands warm and firm in Merlin’s own. Merlin said, “There are three elements to bind a negative spirit. Your happiest memory; a hope for the future; and the thing you want most in all the world. Can you do that?”
The prince took a deep breath, his grip tightening momentarily before he met Merlin’s eyes and nodded.
“Then I’ll begin.”
When Merlin had finished the extraction, he dropped the prince’s hands and wiped his cheeks.
“I’m sorry,” the prince said, looking stricken. “Did I do something wrong?”
“No,” Merlin said. “No, it’s fine. It’s just the magic — sometimes it affects me like this.”
It wasn’t the magic. At least, not on its own. The prince’s memories were not what he would have expected from this man, who seemed to have everything he could ever wish for.
“I’ll come back tomorrow with the vessel,” Merlin said, getting to his feet. “And please, Arthur — sire — “ He stopped. “The best way to diminish a spirit’s power is to deprive it of the things that fuel it. You should…that is, it might help to talk to someone.”
The prince turned those lovely, shadowed eyes on him, and Merlin felt his own heart constrict at the pain he saw there.
“I’m afraid that won’t be possible,” he said quietly. “But thank you all the same.”