Summary:Summary: A snowy Yule eve, a closed road, and two childhood friends who never thought to see each other again.
Author's Notes: Dear Fifty, I was so surprised to find out I'd written this for you. If I'd known it was you, there would have been a yew tree! Anyway, I really hope you like this, and I deeply apologize that this is only a lead up to the 'delicious smut' you requested, but I hope it hit some of your other likes! Wishing you the happiest of winter holidays and a beautiful new year to come. For some reason the title page and fic didn't fit on the same post...so the title page is part 1 and the fic is part 2.
Many thanks to the mods for making this happen! Thank you Penn for the last minute beta! And thanks dear Plutonia for the encouragement, support and help!
Disclaimer:Merlin is owned by the BBC and Shine. No copyright infringement is intended and no profit is being made. Don't send us to the dungeons.
The Dragon's Bookshop and Cafe & The Herbarium Redux
Overall, Merlin would never complain about his dream come true; The Dragon’s Bookshop and Cafe was perfect. When dear old Gaius had died, little did Merlin imagine that he would be the one to inherit his beloved shop. The Herbarium had been a magical place—housed at the side of a bubbling stream in a building that had once been the village’s grist mill. Gaius had bought it for a song many decades ago, and had renovated the inside while maintaining as much of the original structure and charm as possible. He had converted part of the space into a cozy home, and the rest into his office and shop. But the most wonderful thing might have been the lovely hothouse he had added on to grow some of his specialty herbs.
Growing up, Merlin had spent many happy hours at the Herbarium—helping Gaius until he got bored, then running off to explore the glass-walled room or the old mill workings. There was nothing more enchanting than watching the snow fall on the noisy little river while lounging on one of the wicker settees that Gaius had arranged at the end of the hothouse on the small indoor slate patio.
While Merlin and Hunith were not overly surprised that Gaius had left his home and shop to Merlin, they were quite shocked at the tidy nest egg that the old man had put away, leaving Hunith enough to ensure her financial security. The rest he had bequeathed to Merlin, asking only that he donate ten percent to a worthy charity of his choice, and that he use the rest to work towards creating a life he wanted for himself.
Reeling after the reading of the will, Merlin had been somewhat panicked. “Mum, I have no idea how to grow herbs, or make tinctures, or run an herbarium. You know I don’t have Gaius’ green thumb! He made a mistake!”
Hunith had calmed Merlin down and reminded him that Gaius would have wanted him to make the old mill his own and follow his own dreams. “Let’s spend the weekend there, Merlin. We’ll say goodbye to Gaius again, share our memories of our time there. When we’re ready, we’ll begin to clean it up, and maybe we could have a memorial service for him there?”
Merlin nodded in agreement.
“And you’ll take a little time and begin to get clear on whether you want to be the one to bring the old mill into its next incarnation...and if so, what that might be. Gaius would never want this to be a burden to you...only a gift.”
Two years and three months later, Merlin plops down in one of the settees in the hothouse. He has never developed a green thumb, but he has added the necessary heating and cooling to the greenhouse to make it a comfortable year round solarium. He’s also made an arrangement with a local friend who has a way with plants. She fills the place with enough greenery and flowering plants to make the whole glass room look and smell wonderful. In turn, Merlin supports her addiction to caffeine, sweets, and obscure used books. Other than this little lounge area that Gaius had set up, the room is filled with an eclectic mix of tables, chairs and comfy seating. Merlin lives in the flat upstairs, and the former shop, office, workroom, and drying areas have been converted into a cafe and used bookshop. A space at the back serves as a small kitchen where daily soups, breads, and sweets are prepared. Up front there is a counter for coffee and placing orders. A variety of seating options are scattered throughout the place, and pretty much every bit of wall is covered by shelves full of intriguing books and the works of local artists.
Merlin loves it all. He is sure that Gaius would have loved it too, and that makes him happy. In general he wakes up chipper and glad to face another day of feeding and nurturing people...body, mind, and spirit. And he’s really not a complainer. But on a snowy Yule Eve, at five minutes before closing, he groans when he sees a car pull into the tiny parking lot (which is otherwise completely empty except for his own car which is already buried in a few inches of the falling snow.)
Merlin rises from his seat and heads into the main room to greet his customer.
“I’m...I’m sorry. It looks like you are about to close?” the man says hesitantly.
“Umm, yes, I am...well, I was….” Merlin’s intentions dissolve in the face of the disappointment that flitters across the man’s (rather gorgeous) face. “But tell me what you need, and I’ll see what I can do. You won’t find much else open right now. Are you looking for a last minute holiday sweet? Heading off to a party?”
The man shakes his head. “Oh. No. I’ve just moved in. My house is just up the road here, along the river. But the electric isn’t working, and without the electric the oil burner won’t work. I’ve tried calling around for repairs, but no one can come until Monday….and the inn is full...so I’m heading back to my sister’s in the city...And I thought a big cup of coffee and some snacks would help me stay awake for the drive.”
“Oh mate, I hate to tell you this, but you’re not gonna make it to your sister’s tonight. The highway is shut down in both directions.” Merlin smiles regretfully. “My friends from the city were meant to arrive in a few hours for our holiday celebration. They just called to give me the news.”
“I...oh…,” the man floundered.
“Look, you’re welcome to stay here. Otherwise every customer who comes in next week will want to chat about the poor bloke up the road who died of hypothermia on Yule.”
The man cracked a smile and then threw back his head and laughed heartily. Merlin froze for a moment and then mused, “There is something about you...”
The man looked into Merlin’s eyes questioningly, his brow creased. His head tilted as he continued to explore Merlin’s face. “There’s something about you too...and this place. I feel like I know it. Like I know you.”
Merlin nodded. “It’s like one of those dreams or memories where you’re not sure if it’s a dream you’ve had more than once or a memory that you can’t quite remember.”
They looked at each other in bemusement. Finally they broke eye contact, each one reluctant to be the first to look away...as if in some long forgotten childhood staring contest.
“Where are my manners? Come in, come in. I can’t believe I’ve left you standing in the doorway all this time. Let me hang your things.”
Merlin led the man to a table near the fireplace and held out his hands for the garments. He hung the coat, hat and scarf on hooks near the door and turned around curiously to look at his guest who was busy looking all around the room, confusion plain on his face.
“I know this place.”
“It was my uncle’s,” Merlin replied.
“Gaius,” they both said simultaneously.
Merlin froze to the spot and watched, as if from outside his own body, as Arthur sat down heavily and covered his face with his hands.
The voice came, quiet and unsure. “Merlin, is it really you?”
A sharp inhale. Merlin reeled with the onslaught of memories. “Arthur?” he croaked out. “Can it be?”
And suddenly they were in each other’s arms, holding on for everything they were worth. Merlin was trembling, and tears ran down Arthur’s face. Barely letting go of each other they sat down at the nearest table, hands clasped and knee to knee.
“This place is different somehow. I didn’t recognize it at first.”
“Gaius left it to me a few years ago, and left me enough money to make my own dream come true. I can’t grow a plant to save my life, but I’ve tried to preserve as much of the old place as possible.”
Arthur sighed. “I’m so sorry he’s gone. He meant a lot to me. Merlin, I never thought to see you again.”
Arthur nodded glumly. “My father closed up the house and refused to come back here. He never told me it was to be mine, that my mother had left it to me. I never knew the name of the village. We had always referred to the house as Tintagel, but it turns out it’s not even in Cornwall.” Arthur laughed ruefully. “I can’t even tell you how many holidays I have spent exploring Cornwall, hoping against hope. Of course, when I asked locals if they knew of a house called Tintagel they thought I was totally daft.”
Merlin gave a small laugh at that, but sounded on the verge of tears. “I cried every day after you didn’t show up that day. Do you remember we had decorated our own little tree in the woods and planned to meet there and exchange gifts? I never knew what happened to you.” He looked away as he began to cry silently.
“I was never allowed to cry,” said Arthur, scooting even closer. “But I didn’t speak to my father for at least a year. I never gave him more than one or two word answers for a whole year. And I never felt the same way about him again. He died last year.
“It was only in going through his papers that I discovered the name of this village, and that my mum had left me a house here. My father had told me long ago that you had moved away, that there was no point in looking for you anyway. I know we are supposed to speak kindly of the dead, but really, how could he?”
Merlin nodded wordlessly. Then wiped his eyes, gave himself a shake and stood up, holding out his hand. “C’mon Arthur. It’s Yule. The longest night and the celebration of the returning light. And seeing you again is the best Yule gift ever. There was meant to be a potluck here tonight, and my contribution was the pie, so I’m afraid all I have is four different pies and odds and ends in the fridge.”
Arthur rose and grinned happily. “It really is meant to be, I suppose. This morning when I headed up here my chef friend, Percy, insisted on sending me with an ice chest full of holiday dinner. He said it was bad enough I’d be spending the holiday all alone with only ghosts, and that he certainly wasn’t going to see me be hungry to boot. To be honest, I’m not sure what he’s packed, but he’s a fabulous cook.”
“I’ll help you bring in your things,” Merlin offered.
The two men ran outside without bothering with their coats and lugged in the heavy ice chest and Arthur’s overnight bag. Then Merlin led them upstairs to the flat, which was fragrant with the smells of cinnamon, vanilla, apples and pumpkin.
Arthur began to check out the books on Merlin’s shelves and the art on his walls, getting to know his long-lost friend all over again. From the open kitchen through to the living area, Merlin tensed slightly as he saw Arthur approach is display of badges. Yes, there were the ‘Stop Pollution’ and ‘End Racism’ badges, and there were the silly ones, like ‘Be Kind to Dragons For Ye are Crunchy and Good to Eat,” but the preponderance of the flair was covered with rainbows, mementos of Gay Pride events, support for marriage equality, and (Merlin groaned) the “I Only Look Straight” and “I’m Not Queer, But My Boyfriend Is.” He’d known Arthur would eventually spot the signs when he’d invited him up, and he’d decided he wasn’t willing to hide, but still, it was a bit easier said than done.
“Oh, I have this one too!” Arthur exclaimed.
“Which one would that be?” asked Merlin hesitantly.
Arthur turned to grin at him. “I Only Look Straight.”
“Yup. Really.” The grin evolved into a smirk.
Once again, they couldn’t drop eye contact, but this time when they finally did they both broke out laughing. “I WIN!” Merlin shouted, and they both broke into laughter.
“I can’t believe you are here. And I really want to be a good host, but I have a Yule tradition that I try to never break. It won’t take very long...maybe an hour. Would you mind? You can get settled in meanwhile.” Merlin put up the kettle to boil, gave Arthur fresh towels and showed him the guest room.
“Do you mind telling me what your tradition is? Is it a family tradition?”
“Oh, yeah. Yeah. Um. Sort of.”
Arthur sat on the bed and Merlin leant against the doorway. He crossed his arms across his chest and fidgeted with the fabric at his elbows. “Every year, after you left, I’d get very sad on Yule eve.”
“I’m so sorry, Merlin. You know...”
“Shhh. Yes. I know now. It’s not your fault.” Merlin smiled faintly. “After a year or two, Mum had an idea. Every Yule Eve before our dinner and celebrations, we sat down with quiet music and lit candles, and notebooks and pens, and we’d write down the current year and all the things we were sad about or regretted. And then we’d turn the page to leave that all in the past year. Then we would write down all the things we were grateful for and turn the page. And finally we would write the new year on the top of the next page and write down all the things we hoped for, all the things we were looking forward to and the things we planned to work for. It helped me a lot.
“Every year I missed you. Every year I would write down ‘missing Arthur’, and then somehow it would be easier to enjoy the holidays and look forward to the next year. Mum and I still do it, even those years when we haven’t been able to be together...like this year when she’s bumming around Greece!” Merlin cracked a grin. “I pushed her to go. She never takes a break, but it’s nice to think that right around now she’ll be doing the same thing we always do.”
Arthur just stared at Merlin, and this time Merlin broke first; and no one laughed. But Arthur rose, rummaged through his bags, and held up a beautiful leather-bound journal and a pen. “I am so sorry that I was part of the pain that inspired that tradition, but would it be alright if I joined you?”
Merlin nodded. He retrieved his notebook, made them each a cup of tea, and led Arthur back downstairs to the solarium. He turned on the heat, and lit a few candles. “Sometimes the river rushing by is my favorite music.” The fondness in Arthur’s expression made Merlin gulp. He sat down and watched the falling snow for a few minutes before opening his notebook. Arthur was already scribbling furiously.
When Merlin turned the page on his sorrows, Arthur was still scribbling furiously, brow furrowed, pain pouring out onto the page. Merlin moved on to his gratitude, and when he finished with that page, he found himself waiting, wanting to move on to writing his hopes and dreams for the new year when Arthur was also ready to begin.
Arthur’s face was so expressive. It was clear that he was currently pondering what he was grateful for. The sight of his lovely face flooded Merlin’s heart with warmth, and he suddenly felt he’d do anything to bring that look to Arthur’s face again and again. Merlin was still watching him when Arthur finally turned the page and looked up. Lips pressed together, he smiled solemnly. Merlin lifted a corner to turn to the next page and whispered, “Ready?” Arthur nodded firmly. And side by side they wrote their dreams.
They turned down the heat and blew out the candles. At the foot of the stairs Arthur stopped Merlin, his hand around his arm. Merlin turned to Arthur and stepped a bit closer.
Arthur placed his notebook and pen on the step, brought one hand up to Merlin’s face, and wrapped the other around his neck. Merlin pulled away for a moment to drop his own notebook next to Arthur’s, and then turned back to put both arms around Arthur’s waist, and brush his lips across Arthur’s. They kissed and kissed. Finally, Arthur broke away, “I have something for you.”
They went back upstairs, and Arthur retrieved a small, battered, wrapped gift box from his bag.
“I don’t understand.”
“I’ve had it with me every single Yule. Every Yule I’ve thought of you waiting at our little tree in the forest, sad and hurt that I didn’t show up. I knew it was silly, but somehow I felt like it was the least I could do, to have the gift ready and think of you every Yule, even though I knew you’d probably never know. Open it.”
Merlin unwrapped the gift to find a perfectly sculpted little dragon; it glimmered with iridescent blues and greens and purples and was trimmed with gold. Yet again his eyes filled with tears, and he rose and stepped right into Arthur’s arms.
Arthur buried his face in Merlin’s neck and murmured, “My dragon.”
After some long moments of kissing Arthur’s hair and the side of his face, Merlin pulled away. “I still have your gift too, but...well, it’s not new anymore. Not at all.” Merlin led Arthur to the door of his bedroom and retrieved a ratty, old, golden brown stuffed animal from his pillows. He handed the lion to Arthur, whose face cracked with emotion. Arthur sank to the floor in the doorway of Merlin’s bedroom, cradling the lion to his chest. Merlin knelt beside him, took Arthur into his arms and whispered, “My lion, my beautiful lion.”
Hours later, full of roast beef and extraordinarily gourmet mashed potatoes, odd and delicious little tiny vegetables, apple pie and pumpkin pie and mincemeat pie and hazelnut torte, the two sat on the sofa watching the Harry Potter movie they had last seen together just days before their separation.
“It doesn’t feel so sad anymore. I haven’t been able to rewatch this for years,” Arthur said.
“Yeah. I know. But I’m not really watching,” confessed Merlin. “I’m thinking about how to tell you that I can’t sleep without snuggling with my lion. Unless of course you can think of a suitable replacement?”
“I’ve waited a long time for this gift. There’s no way I’m giving him back. Would you consider me as a replacement?” asked Arthur, placing his hand on Merlin’s knee.
Merlin simply rose, turned off the television, and nodded his head towards his bedroom. The two men, once so familiar to each other, paused on the threshold and kissed again. Merlin’s fingers slid underneath Arthur’s shirt, and he looked to his long lost friend for permission. Arthur pulled Merlin’s hand away and up to his lips, kissed his knuckles and his palm and the tips of his fingers before placing Merlin’s hand back under his shirt. “Anything you want. Anything. Everything. Always.”
“Right now I just want to hold each other. I still can’t quite believe you are really here. Could we just do that for a while? It’s not that I don’t want more, it’s just…”
“Shh, Merlin. Yes. Me too. That would be perfect. Come, let’s lie down. Just hold me.”
There were no more words for a long time.
Hours later Arthur woke to find Merlin watching him.
“Do you think it’s still to soon?” asked Merlin. He trailed his fingers across Arthur’s chest.
“I think we’ve waited enough for a lifetime, but I can wait longer if that’s what you want.”
“What I want is for you to get those clothes off,” said Merlin, standing to undress himself.
Arthur grinned, pulling off his clothes quickly and pulling back the duvet. “Last one in is a rotten egg.”
As it turns out, Gaius had inspired a great love of botany and herbalism in young Arthur. He had gone on to become a botanist and an expert on the traditional and current uses of various herbs, had written several books on the subject, and had developed his own line of herbal tinctures.
Eventually Merlin moved into Tintagel with Arthur, and they converted the upstairs space at the old mill to The Herbarium Redux. And if the solarium became a bit more crowded with fragrant green growing things, well then, no one ever thought to complain.