Uther has hung with nymphs from his bedpost, mounted unicorns above his mantle, draped himself in the furs of yetis. He’d danced with sprites and bathed in mermaid tears and feasted on sweet drops from the tips of the stars. Never before has he seen a man such as this though.
He rises, swathed in the faint glow of a half hidden moon and painted in green silk. Uther, who’d spent his life under his father’s command collecting all the great splendors of the world, had never seen anything more beautiful.
If the man is at all stunned to see him, if there is any surprise in those blue eyes, it is well hidden, cased in a closed-lipped grin. He slinks forward, silent across the forest floor, until he stands before Uther.
This is the moment when his heart should be pounding, when sweat should drip from his brow and he should cling to the sword currently sheathed at his hip. He has never felt more at peace though, not even in the nights spent curled beneath silk sheets, when his father is away doing what fathers do and he knows the next morning is all his own.
The man holds out a hand, skin glittering like disturbed water. Uther doesn’t know what he means to do with it, what he intends, but he doesn’t care. This man could rip his lungs straight from his chest and Uther thinks he’d kiss those knuckles.
He doesn’t, rip his lungs out; instead, he places his palm against Uther’s chest. He lets it rest there, fingers splayed. His hand is cold, is ice, is the warmest damn thing Uther has ever felt and he has stood in the forges, been the first to hold a weapon fresh from the flames.
“What are you?”
The man smiles, the faintest glimmer of teeth, and Uther is surprised to find they are square, are not sharpened fangs. He opens his mouth, looks as though he will speak, but a branch snaps somewhere to the left of them and his head turns fast as a whip. His nails dig into Uther’s chest, cutting through the fabric of his tunic. When he turns back, the blue of his eyes has taken on a nasty edge, silver and murky, inhuman.
He curls his hand into a fist, shoves. Uther takes a step back. The man, the creature, smiles at him. Feral and frightening despite the bluntness of his teeth. Uther thinks it might be that his lips are stretched too far, gleam too red in the darkness of the night.
He follows Uther forward, this time placing both hands in the center of his chest. They’re cold. Colder than the edges of winter. Cold enough that Uther’s chest grows tight and he feels his heart slowing down. He reaches up and grips delicate wrist in his own hands, delicate but thick, strong and ready to ruin Uther.
“You’re far from your home, Little Soldier.” His voice is as murky as the silver of his eyes, echoey and deep. It reverberates inside of Uther’s skull, sends him to a land he’s visited only once before.
He was young then, wild and foolish. Roaming the Witcher Woods against his mother’s wish, against his father’s orders. He doesn’t remember much from that day, only running, chasing the sun as it splintered through the leaves.
He’d entered another hill between one tree and the next. A world that smelled like honey and mint and tasted like daffodils and sunberries. Everything had been so quiet there, so peaceful, that Uther had felt like he’d fallen into a bath that was perpetually warm.
The guards said he’d been missing for only an afternoon but Uther knows he spent months in that land.
Now though, the water is turbulent. It is a slush that weighs him down, that seeps into his throat and threatens to split open his veins. He can feel the stone-glass fingers gripping at his jaw and the fear stiff against his spine. The world is too loud now, screaming in his ears. It is a disjointed unsymphony. Every note piercing into his skull and clawing at his memories, searching.
“Little soldier, would you hang me from your canopy too?” He leans forward, brace his hands against Uther’s jaws. He face is close, so close Uther can see the spots where the sun has kisses his skin, can count the fine lines around his eyes.
“You’re so much older than I expected.” It slips out, unbidden. “You must be nearly my age.”
“Have you found what you’re searching for, Little Soldier?”
“Who says I am searching for anything?” Uther grips the hilt of his sword for the first time, feels the metal against his skin, familiar and comforting.
“Traipsing once more through my woods, bringing your little playmates. You leave them behind though, you run and run until your feet bleed in your leather shoes. You don’t answer their calls because you’re searching.”
“I’ve never been here before.”
Lips ghost across his. Dry, rough skinned, salty. “Little Soldier. You’ve been here before. You spent so much time and then you left. Why did you leave?”
His head is fogging again, heading back to the sun-splintered grass. He remembers fruits, tart on his tongue, sweet between his cheeks. He remembers fingers across his collar bone, always cold against his skin but too hot beneath it. He remembers laughter and a sunset that was all blues and purples. The softest furs against his skin, fingers that skim the downy hairs across his chest, a tongue that taste like sweet wine.
He shakes his head, shoves against the green-silk creature. “What are you?”
The man skitters back, moves about like a nymph on the water. He laughs and it’s like bruised bells in an abandoned church. The sky lights up, lightening exploding in an unnatural color. Silver edge but blue in the center, like the monster's eyes.
“Tell me Little Soldier have you completed your search?”
His father wants him to find all the creatures, to tame all of the beast. Wants their lands to be known for a menagerie unlike any other. Uther just wants to settle somewhere. To live his life, and have his life be enough.
“I have found you, haven’t I?”
The man cocks his head, his eyes flicker, blue shining bright for the first time, and his smile dampens. Uther has seen that sorrow before, in his mother’s eyes when his father drifts through the doors drunk but affectionate. “What is my name?”
“It was so long ago, and I was only a boy.” Uther steps back, turns away until the the night is everything is swallowed by the night and the trees.
“And what was I, Little Soldier? Back when you broke into my realm?”
“You were everything I should have tried to conquer.”
The man moves, silk slipped off his shoulder until he stands before Uther, and Uther is surprised by the milky flesh. How soft it looks, how human.
The sun begins to crest somewhere to his left and it bathes the man in flaming locks. The man glances at the light, at the way the worlds ripple between them. If Uther reaches out he thinks the veil might feel slick against his palm.
“Little Soldier, my kingdom waits. Would you come with me?”
“What is my name?” Uther ask the question back.
Uther shakes his head, remembers sandy banks and soft skin and warm bread. “Leon, tell me my name, and you shall have me on my knees. That was our deal, was it not?”
Leon smiles, blunt teeth, blue eyes. The sun seems to shift, to quiver and the forest goes quiet. Leon reaches with his ice-fire skin and pulls Uther until he is flush against him. He moves, fluid, until they are a breath away from the shimmering air.
They hover, for a heartbeat and for a lifetime there, and then Leon whispers against his ear “Uther” and they are falling into that dream world once more.