Title: Dryad
Series: Merlin (Au)
Character/Pairing: Arthur/Merlin
Rating: PG-13
A/N: comment_fic: Merlin, Arthur/Merlin, nymph / The Gauntlet: 32. the lush dark canopies of the gnarled trees. It's a bit sparse...though I'd attribute that to stylistic design more than anything else. This was supposed to be part of the challenge below, but I didn't finish it in time.

.

He catches sight as his arrow misses a buck. A prize buck, a once in a lifetime buck with a rack large enough to hang on the walls of Camelot and leave him a legend. But that regret, the hunter's lament for the one that got away is soon forgotten in the wake of the boy. He is smaller than Arthur, and more fae in appearance. He wore nothing but moss green pants, tied loose around his waist. As he walked closer, it looked as if the boy's pants were made of leaves sewn together, and a pattern of leaves that seemed seared on his skin was over his chest in circles.

Those blue eyes meet his, and Arthur feels rooted to the ground. The boy smiles mischievously. His blue eyes turn to gold, and then, a rush of wind. The boy says something, in a language that is like water, smooth, and indiscernible. He feels a force go through him, electric, beating. It is like nothing, like everything, a feeling wholly new.

And with that, a single blink, everything disappears.

The boy is gone.

.

"There was someone out there," Arthur says dazedly.

His companion claps him on the shoulder. "Oh, you've seen a nymph. Did she bewitch you and make you want to chase after her? Nymphs will do that, y'know. They're utter cockteases. They'll lead you"

"That's a ignis fatuus you arse," says another. "A will 'o the wisp. A nymph doesn't lead one to their doom – a nymph is always ready and willing, if they let you see them then they want to sleep with ya."

He thinks of skin so light that it's ethereal. Of the boy's long column of a neck. He'd wanted to lick it, all the way from clavicle to chin.

"Yeah. That must be it. I was bewitched. But I'm stronger than some faerie magic. I'm not going to let some magical usurper live while I'm around."

He shakes his head. The images is still there, the smile, the eyes turning shades.

"I'm going to catch that nymph. Just to prove that nymph isn't going to get the better of me."

The other men of the hunt laugh.

"You've been caught my prince. And once a nymph has got ya, she'll never let ya go."

He feels the weight of the gaze, as strong as if tendrils of vines had twisted about him.

The obsession begins.

.

He seeks out Gaius that night after bathing and removing his armor. Gaius' room is filled with books in varying sorts of disarray. It is not so much messy as pleasantly cluttered. Things bubble in glass vials, some in shades of green, others in brown, and red and even a vomit orange color. The smell ranges from stalely aseptic to nausea inducing.

"Is something the matter, Prince Arthur? What brings you to my door?"

"I need to know how to capture a nymph."

"A nymph?" Gaius says. He leans on his cane, thoughtful.

"Nymphs are creatures of magic, and magic is strictly banned–"

"I know that," Arthur snaps. "I paid attention in class. I didn't ask to be lectured on things I already knew. I asked how to catch a nymph."

Gaius purses his lips. He pulls out a book, just as old and as indistinguishable as the other tomes. He flips open, searching through several pages until he finds the one that he has sought.

"To catch a nymph you must bind them to you. And it would depend of their element. Water nymphs and nymphs of the air are the hardest to capture."

"He wore pants made of leaves, and there were patterns of leaves across his chest."

"Then it seems he is a forest nymph. A dryad. Find the tree or plant that he resides in and you may be able to force his hand. Think back, what did the leaves look like?"

Arthur thinks back. It all comes so clear, the impish smile, the eyes, the shape of his face. He lingers in his memory over Merlin's chest, focuses at the sight of his red nipples, his lean, boyish, yet slightly muscled frame. It was the leaves of an oak that were tattooed over his skin.

"Oak."

"Then that is the tree you must search out. But be warned – do not destroy his tree, for if you do, he will die."

"I understand," Arthur says.

.

Arthur rides out, citing his deep-set longing for the buck that got away. His father the king allows him this, though his companions laugh, and give him sly, knowing grins.

This is no buck.

At the edges of the nearest forest by Camelot everything seemed harmless. Spotted fawns drank from streams, clover bloomed in the slots between the tress where sunlight fell. It was peaceful to a certain point, until one crossed the line and came into the seething center. It pulsed with magic. Lights, like fireflies flittered through the air. Touching the light would result in a burn that would last for days, with runic inscriptions of another language printed on his hand.

Deeper, the trees are more gnarled, with long twisting roots and a canopy of leaves that is as thick and solid as a roof. It is more than simply mischievous pixies that dwell here. Monsters too, come from a place like this.

He searches every oak he finds, but they all look alike to him. There are no traces of magic making it shimmer, or some sign.

He leaves before night, for everyone knows that to spend a midnight in the forest is to simply offer oneself on a platter to be eaten.

As he leaves the forest, his search fruitless, he could swear that he hears the sound of laughter.

.

"You've been pining like a lovesick schoolboy as of late."

Morgana looks at him, a sort of smug amusement in her eyes, her smile, her face, her hair.

"It's like a drug...the worst kind," Arthur murmurs.

"Pardon?"

"Nothing."

He stares at the outset, the murky grey scene of Camelot, the land he will one day rule. All he can think of is what he doesn't have, what has eluded him. It only leaves him moodier.

"I'm surprised you haven't started writing tragic poetry for this love of yours."

Arthur glares at her.

"Do you mind? I'm busy with affairs of my own."

She smiles one last time, in that knowing way before she leaves him to his thoughts.

.

The questions do not last long. Between the wanting of the feel of it, magic and the boy, and the things he has learned, it is the drugged feeling he gives in to. He reasons that a creature entirely governed by magic cannot be purely evil. Humans misused the power, which is why his father banned it. But a creature born to it? One who simply lived peacefully in trees and occasionally played tricks on people? That had to be an exception to the rule.

At first, it is to capture, to punish. But then, he has no desire to bring the nymph who captivates him, to introduce him to his father as a worker in the forbidden arts.

Then, he only wants to capture the boy for his own reasons, for his own self.

.

After his second, fruitless visit to the forest, he catches sight of a boy in the castle courtyard with a face so like the dryad, simply with a slightly less fae look in appearance, clothed in a servant's garb.

Arthur pushes through the crowd.

"You're him, aren't you?"

He shakes the boy, as if to shake the truth and the true form out of him.

"Aren't you?!"

"What – What are you talking about? I'm just a regular servant," he says.

"What is your name, servant boy?"

"Mer-Merlin," he says.

"And is that your name – your true name?"

"I told you, I'm Merlin. You're awful suspicious, you know."

Anyone knows giving a true name is as good as attaching a collar to one's neck and attaching a leash. At least to the folk. Humans gave their true names away without a thought, or at least that was what Gaius said.

"Merlin," he says, testing it.

"Yes?"

The boy looks up expectantly. Arthur is hit with the same urge to lick his neck, to push him to the wall and claim him as his own. To bind him and never, no not ever let him be unbound from him.

Instead, he lets him go.

"I thought you were someone else. Carry on."

.

The next day, he asks for the boy as a servant. It is a request that is of course, given immediately, without another thought. It is an honor to be chosen. He is a prince, and Merlin lower class. His life is little more than a pittance, a thing to be thrown around and used at will.

He starts by feigning lack of interest. He gives the boy the most chores that could physically be withstood, and watches for any trace of the magic. Then his life is saved once, twice, thrice.

The first was with a poisoned chalice that the boy sensed, claiming to have seen poison put within it.

Each time with strange circumstances. He watches, hawk-like for the signs, the chanting, the eye color. For the signs of the magic which must lie beneath.

.

He waits until he has solid proof, after many long searching glances. The faeriedust is still on Merlin's hand when Arthur grips his wrist.

"That, is magic," he says.

"And magic is forbidden, I know," Merlin says. "Any chance I can use the excuse that I was saving your life again?"

But Arthur says nothing. He brings Merlin's magic encrusted hand to his mouth and licks it. The same opiate feeling of the magic, of the same person floods through him.

"I knew it was you,." Arthur says

"Well, yeah. Of course it's me. Who else would I be?"

"Someone playing at being a human," Arthur says.

"It was only a prank. Well, you've caught me. Wh-what do you want with me?"

Arthur pushes him to the wall, forehead to forehead, a deep breath. He still grips Merlin's wrist tight.

"Just this."

.

And so, Arthur catches himself a nymph. A dryad, to be exact. A boy who he has made his own.

In his bed, the sheets loose about them Merlin would tell of how his dreams began, and how he had known Arthur long before they met. The day they met Merlin was allowing himself to be caught, or at least beginning the chase. It didn't have to be long, for as he finds, Merlin has a short attention span, and anything bright and shining can divert him.

But through it all, his attention to Arthur is unwavering.

They spend the summer entwined, even when not in bed. Merlin changes in the sunlight, the water. Arthur traces all the way down, over the green undertones in his skin. Lakes and streams, flowers and hills – even walls and closets. Merlin is his, and every stone and tree will know.

At this point Arthur is so drunk he thinks he wouldn't care if they were found out.

.

As summer fades away, Merlin's skin becomes even more pale. There is a golden sheen to him, and at times he seems to become distant, and confused, as if he is floating away to somewhere far away.

"When winter comes I will disappear," Merlin says

Arthur looks up in alarm. "For good?"

"Of course not. I'm connected to my tree. As the seasons change I do too. I'll just be sleeping for a long time. You'll have to clean up after yourself for a while."

He places his hand on Arthur's shoulder. Arthur accepts this explanation gravely.

"I could order you to stay. Then you'd have to heed my command."

"Not even you can change the tides," Merlin says.

"...and if your tree was cut down?"

"I would die. Magical creatures aren't immortal, just a bit more hardy and harder to kill."

"Show me your tree so I can visit it," Arthur says.

And so he does, leading him hand and hand out to the forest. He practically drags him as they go along, and the minute he lets go of Arthur's hand, he frolics – there is no other word for it, in the meadow. Merlin's tree looks like any other until he touches it, and then it gains the same translucent quality, and shimmers in the sun.

At the base of it are flowers, but they will pass in winter. Arthur carries over two rocks, and places them near as markers.

"Now I won't forget," Arthur says.

"Oh, you'd not forget," Merlin says, "It feels just like magic, can't you tell?"

Arthur lays his hand upon the tree, the magic seeping into his bones.

He knows it is a feeling he will never lose or misplace, something that will stay with him his entire life.

.

As the days grow ever colder, Merlin becomes fainter, thinner, paler. One day, when the ground is covered in white, he doesn't come at all. Arthur continues his trips, albeit for short periods of time. It is cold enough to cause frostbite, and it'd be a bad idea to be down a few fingers or a limb when Merlin returns.

And so life goes. He never stops to think that his father might take to wondering, that the king might have watchers follow him.

He never thinks of the consequences at all, just the time passing. So it goes day after day, him telling his cares to a tree-wife (or is that tree-husband?). He keeps up his studies and practices. If it weren't for a certain distance and a lack of his servant ('he was called home for the winter due to an illness on his mother's side' is as good an excuse as any).

But excuses aren't the answer for everything.

When he comes that day the place where the tree, where Merlin is lays empty. A jagged stump, an axe set aside. The servants that did the crime are dismissed somewhere, leaving only a king there, to scold his son.

"You were bewitched. I am freeing you. One day, you will thank me."

And for a long while, the only sound he can hear is the ringing in his head, a long scream of rage and sorrow breaking the winter's silence.

And then, like the warrior he was, his sword was pulled out from its sheath and stuck through the chest of his father. It is so much a surprise – to him, to the king that his father doesn't even draw his sword in defense. Red stains the snow, and splatters, oozes over the breastplate.

He remembers Merlin touching his sword and whispering to him you will never lose in battle, but be careful who you fight.

All those years of hating magic and it was magic itself which proved his downfall.

It was just a fit of rage, a lose of his senses, but now he crumples to the ground, his father dying, dead. Merlin gone. A kingdom he doesn't want – not yet, oh not yet.

The air is cold. He is numb. The trees around him are silent, as if in mourning.

.

Gaius is who attends to the king, and who finds Arthur and brings him home. He rules it a tragic hunting accident. Arthur becomes king, in a pitiful ceremony like nothing he'd expected. But then, there is nothing for him, regardless. He isn't a king, just a man all broken down by his father's hate of magic. Wars loom. The enemies surely see a weakness.

Arthur withdraws. Gaius believes it lack of magic; he knows better. It isn't magic, but Merlin that has made every day drag on. There's no wry, comments, no stuttering or bright magic boy beside him anymore. Without him, the colors from the world seem drained away.

.

Gaius calls him down, on a day which is like any other. He doesn't count days or time any more. He just practices swordplay until his arms hurt, all his muscles ache and he can forget a little while.

"There is a plant which I think will interest you, sire," he says.

"I have no interest in botany."

"Really, you seemed to have much interest in it when it was for capturing that boy," Gaius says.

"That's the past," he says. Cold, terse, blunt. All these things have always applied to him, but know it is even worse.

"Not even to graft a tree back to life with one of its branches?"

He brings out a single small twig of a branch, with green lift still upon it.

"I asked Merlin to help me with an experiment. He left one of his branches with me to see if I could keep it alive all winter with a new potion I've tried to make. It was a success."

Arthur stares at the budding green shoots, the life in it.

"Are you saying that Merlin is still alive somewhere?"

On Gaius' charge, Arthur takes the small branch and grafts it into the stump, the last remains of Merlin.

It takes a long time and much care. He spends a great deal of his time out in the forests, near the one thing he has left of Merlin. All through that winter, his winter of Camelot with barely a king on its throne. The people are forgiving, for he is surely grieving, given that he'd seen his father die.

Then, after all those months, Spring comes again. Roots grow. Leaves bud. The time spent is maddening. Suddenly, his father's grief over his mother's death becomes tangible, and something he perfectly understands. He doesn't forgive him, however.

He'll never forgive his father, but then that lapse of senses is something he'll never forgive himself, so it is even.

.

Then one day after all that waiting, a boy comes out of the leaves. He looks like a younger version of Merlin, with dark hair and a spritely appearance. For a moment, he wonders if this is Merlin come back to him, or technically, he and Merlin's son.

"Merlin," he says.

The boy tilts his head as if asking a question. However, he does not run.

"Come back, Merlin," he says.

As he watches the boy glows, and behind that glow, something moves. Like the moving of a pupae, an older boy emerges from the light, now with the same features as the man he loved.

"You see the thing about plants is they often come back. Even the ones that die back all the way always sow their seeds," Merlin says "O-Or branches, in this case."

Arthur is struck dumb, till all he can say over and over again in his mind is the boy's name.

"I was there, you know. A little piece of me was watching because my soul was still in the branch."

"I see," Arthur says, because everything else is tied up in emotions and he's fundamentally not good with emotions. He pulls Merlin up against him and buries his face to him. His neck, the smell of him. The sheer unreal feeling of after all this time, Merlin is alive again and here with him.

"Are you going to make me shine your boots now?" Merlin says teasingly.

"Soon enough. They're a mess without you here."

And of course, he isn't talking about boots at all.