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Mapping the Distance

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It begins with fingers.

Morgana will ask him about it later and it’ll take a while for Arthur to answer. He’ll trace back the story in his head, like a long street on a map with dozens of intersections, side streets, one ways, and detours. As an historian, Arthur’s used to dates and timelines, but outside of books, beginnings are muddled little things. Only in hindsight is it possible to say: there, that moment, that person, that’s where it all started.

So. It begins with fingers, and sunshine, and sheets of music.

Gaius’ nephew sits at the desk across the room, waiting for Gaius to come back from his last lecture, and Arthur watches as he drums his fingers against the wood. The sun comes in from the window, diffused through the thick, distorted, old glass. It casts long, dancing shadows across the sheets of music spread in front of him as he moves his fingers along to a melody Arthur can’t hear.

He’s a cellist, Gaius had said, and Arthur can almost see it there, in the way he moves his hand, the way his head is bent over the papers. His neck is a graceful line that Arthur follows with his eyes, his skin stark white in the light, shadows umber-like and liquid around him.

Then he raises his head to look at Arthur and his eyes are ocean-blue and bright. He says, “I’m Merlin, by the way,” with a dimpled smile that makes both Arthur’s chest tighten with want, and his stomach drop at the youthfulness of it.

∆ ∆ ∆

Arthur leans against his desk and throws his head back with a laugh that he can’t stop and that resonates against the grey stones of the office. Mithian’s hand on his shoulder, as she doubles over and laughs with him, is warm and light. He looks at her and grins, her eyes crinkle at the corners and she wipes a tear with a knuckle. He wants to hold her tight and inhale all the familiarity of her.

“I’ve missed you,” he says. “It’s been too long.”

“Me too.” She looks at her watch, and almost pouts. “I have to go. Tomorrow?”

“Seven. I’ll be there.”

She kisses his cheek and squeezes his hand before leaving, her brown hair bouncing across her shoulders in the exact same way it has always done. The sight fills the hole inside of him her absence had left.

“She’s beautiful.”

Arthur settles himself at his desk before looking at Merlin. He sits in his usual way on Gaius’ chair, feet up on the seat and knees tight against his chest. It’ll make Gaius huff and grumble when he comes back, as it always does, and he’ll swat at Merlin with his book until Merlin unfolds himself to stand up, and Arthur will follow the movement with more attention than he’d like to admit, unable to decide if it’s graceful or fumbling.

Merlin bites his lip. “Are you—I mean—” He stutters a laugh and rubs his cheek with the back of his fingers, the room so silent Arthur can hear the scraping of his stubble against his skin. “You dating?” He glances at Arthur across the space between the desks with an open face and a soft look that Arthur can’t quite read.

Arthur wants to say yes. He should say yes. Because Merlin’s beautiful and bright and twenty-four to Arthur’s thirty-five.

Arthur knows he’s not old, not really. But when he looks at Merlin, at the rise and fall of his sharp bones under his skin—curves Arthur’s fingers crave to follow—and at the way his wrists move as he plays silent music in the air, the way he grins mischievously at Arthur every time Gaius shoos him off his chair—at every little moment and glance—Arthur feels like he’s the oldest man in the world. Brittle, breakable, and achy.

Merlin’s twenty-four, Arthur’s thirty-five, and eleven years might as well be a whole century.

“No,” he says, word tumbling out of his lips like it has a mind of its own. “She’s my best mate. Oldest one, really. The only one who can put up with me.” He tries for levity, but Merlin shakes his head and smiles wide—dark hair falling over his forehead, ridiculous ears poking out to the side—with a happiness that makes Arthur’s muscles heavy like stones.

Oh, he thinks as he spreads his fingers over a paper about Monet, wide, like he could hold on to it.

Oh, he should have lied.

∆ ∆ ∆

The rain makes Arthur’s skin clammy and cold. It drips from the awning of the coffee cart in the quad and falls into his collar, along the back of his neck, and slides along his spine.

Arthur barely notices.

Across the lawn, in a stone doorway, Merlin’s huddling with two other girls. He holds his cello case tight against him with one arm, and moves the other one excitedly as he talks. His jeans are ripped and wet, clinging to his legs, and he wears a coat over a faded red hoodie.

From this distance, he looks like a freshman.

The girls are pretty and fresh-faced, their laughter clear even over the sound of the rain. To Arthur, the three of them are so bright they could almost shine through the dullness of the day. Arthur feels weary, like he would melt into it instead.

He gives a small self-deprecating laugh. His mother always said he had moods like the weather. Arthur stays still—collar wetter and bones colder—unable to tear his gaze away from them, from Merlin’s sheer vivacity, until his fingertips burn, tight around his coffee cup.

∆ ∆ ∆

“What’s that?” Merlin asks as he leans over Arthur’s desk to look at his cork board.

This close Arthur can smell the wool of his jumper and see the fine lines at the corner of his eyes as he squints. It’s hard to look away.

Arthur picks up the postcard Merlin’s looking at and hands it to him. “George Frederic Watts. The Minotaur.”

Merlin takes it between his hands, handles it with care like it’s a precious thing, like it isn’t just a piece of old cardboard with fraying edges and faded ink.

“Is it your favourite?”

“No. Not really. In a way.”

Merlin laughs, and sits on the edge of Arthur’s desk. “That makes no sense.” Arthur only shrugs. Outside, it’s still raining, the sound of it muffled against the old stone of the college, the light grey and subdued, with only the yellow glow of Arthur’s desk lamp spilling over both their hands when Merlin gives him back the postcard. “Does it mean something?” he asks, as he fiddles with Arthur’s stapler.

He always fiddles with things, his fingers always move. It makes Arthur want to reach out and wrap his own hand around one of Merlin’s bony, but strong, wrists to stop the movement, to stroke the skin on the inside of it with his thumb. He closes his hand against the wood of his desk and looks to the side.

“What do you mean?”

“You know. Does it remind you of something?” Merlin looks at the pictures pinned to Arthur’s board, and when he speaks, it’s with a slight quirk of his lips. “Like that song you listened to on repeat while on a roadtrip with your best friend, and every time you hear it you can still feel the sunshine on your face and the wind in your hair. Or that pastry smell that brings you back to your mum’s kitchen when you were a kid, licking batter off wooden spoons. It’s hard to dissociate these things, you know?”

Arthur doesn’t understand how Merlin can just hand over pieces of himself like that, little precious things for Arthur to pick up, to gather close to him and avidly collect if he wanted to. And he does want, he really does. A part of him thinks he shouldn’t because there’s so much space, so much time between them, that it shouldn’t be so easy to reach across and take these little gifts and keep them. It shouldn’t be so easy to say “It’s my mother’s favourite painting,” and “she brought me to the museum with her and bought me the card afterwards.” and—

Arthur remembers. He remembers the feel of his mother’s hand in his, the way her thumb felt across his knuckles. He remembers being deeply unimpressed by the painting, almost bored to tears really. But when he looked up to ask his mother if they could go, his mother was crying and the words died on his lips. Arthur didn’t get it then, how someone could cry and look so happy, look so in awe it makes it hard to breathe. His mother was crying, and there was the painting, and her hair was haloed by the lights from the ceiling. Arthur leaned against her leg, wrapped his arms around her thigh, and she caressed his hair while they looked at the painting together for what had felt like hours.

It took him years to understand.

“I knew it,” Merlin says, sitting in the chair in front of Arthur’s desk. “I knew there was a story there.”

Arthur shakes his head and gathers his papers. “Did you?”

“It’s faded and worn, and yet right there, right in your line of vision. You can see it every time you raise your eyes. It had to mean something.”

Arthur laughs, and it shakes off the weird weight inside of him that always settles there when Merlin’s too near. “Well done, Sherlock.”

“My favourite was always Jeremy Brett,” Merlin says, nodding as he pulls his legs up on the chair.

“What?”

“My favourite Sherlock. I’m quite partial to Jeremy Brett. Keep up.”

“That was a weird segue.”

“I don’t think so. You’re the one who brought Sherlock Holmes up.”

Arthur barks a laugh, feels himself swept up into the moment, unable to quite stop it, stop himself. “I would have pegged you for a Cumberbatch fan, to be honest.”

Merlin raises an eyebrow. And it’s a challenge. Arthur knows it’s a challenge. “Guess I’m full of surprises.”

Arthur feels giddy, light, almost relieved. He narrows his eyes at Merlin a little just to see his grin bloom into something bigger, all faked innocence and restrained laughter.

Arthur leans back in his chair, and lets himself relax. Lets himself forget.

Just for a moment.

∆ ∆ ∆

After that, it’s an accidental meeting at the campus coffee shop where Arthur buys Merlin a green tea and they walk back together to Arthur’s office, shoulders brushing. Later on, his shirt still smells like the rain that clung to Merlin’s coat and skin, which leads to—

Merlin moving from Gaius’ chair across the room to the one in front of Arthur’s desk, his feet still up on the seat as he reads over his music notes, softly humming under his breath in a way that should make Arthur on edge, but lulls him into a sense of peace instead. And he wants to tell Merlin to move, because that chair is for his students. It’s… weird. Merlin isn’t one of his students, is actually older than most of his students, but still fits there in a way that constantly reminds Arthur of that fact. But Arthur doesn’t say anything, because, well, he doesn’t. He glances up from a horrifically written paper on Russian art, sees Merlin, and doesn’t. So then—

Merlin has lunch with Arthur on Monday before going back to the Conservatory to practice for his concert. Arthur doesn’t kiss him goodbye, but thinks about it, thinks about leaning in and—

Arthur offers Merlin a lift one night because Gaius was sick and left early. It’s dark and stormy, the wind snapping at their clothes, and Merlin’s only shadows and pale skin in the faint orange light of the parking lot lamps. Arthur opens the car’s boot for Merlin’s cello. Merlin slides the case inside easily and walks to the passenger door, and Arthur’s struck by how casual and natural it feels. Like he’s done this, lived through this moment, a dozen of times before. Routine. Habitual. And he smiles. He smiles all the way to Merlin’s house and doesn’t flinch when Merlin puts his hand on his arm, thanking him, doesn’t even think. But then it’s—

once again at the coffeeshop, with Merlin sprawled over the table, whinging about something or another. Even with the familiar unease always lodged somewhere behind his lungs, Arthur takes a moment to enjoy the warmth brought by the way Merlin wrinkles his nose, and how he twists the loose threads at the end of his jumper’s sleeve around his fingers. He’s beautiful, Arthur thinks. He’s so beautiful. There are flights of fancy taking shape in his mind that he can’t stop, possibilities and desires, and his skin itches with it all. That’s probably why Arthur doesn’t see it coming, the callback to reality, and it’s like a bucket of cold water over him because Merlin says:

“All my friends are slowly getting paired off, and it’s scary you know? Soon it’ll be marriages and babies, and—” He sighs.

Arthur looks outside. The bloody rain won’t stop. It seems to want to change into snow, caught between the two states and it’s fitting somehow, even though he can’t quite explain why. It’s grey and wet and undecided.

“All my friends are married, and have families,” Arthur says. His voice sounds distant to his ears, like he’s already standing outside, on the other side of the glass, already further away.

Merlin raises his head and leans his chin on his arm. “Oh.”

Arthur looks down at him. His eyes are wide and blue, and there’s not a trace of sadness in them, of remorse or shame, or anything that Arthur feels right now. He wants to shake Merlin, shake him and scream, Don’t you see? Don’t you understand?.

Merlin only lays his head back down on his arms, pushes his foot against Arthur’s, and starts talking about his upcoming concert. Arthur waits a heartbeat, then two, then three, but never moves his foot away.

∆ ∆ ∆

The museum’s about to close. It’s Arthur’s favourite time. The galleries are almost empty, the halls so quiet the sounds are both muffled and amplified. The lights are bright and white. To Arthur it feels like the rooms breathe. And there’s comfort here, for him, in all the colours and shapes and names he knows so well.

He walks around from artwork to artwork, Merlin close to him, his body a long, warm line against Arthur’s side, and Arthur relishes it. He takes a selfish moment to love the way they bend their heads close together so he can tell Merlin about this painting, and that sculptor. He represses a shiver every time Merlin’s breath touches his skin, and tries to remember the distance, all the distance between them—all the moments, the successes and failures, all the growing-up, all the living—finds it the most difficult thing in the world when Merlin’s lips are only a step away, smiling, shiny and red. The desire sits heavy in Arthur’s stomach. A constant thrum under his skin.

They sit on a bench. Merlin leans back on his hands, stretches his long legs in front of him, shoes muddy and a hole in his right knee, like a kid. Like a kid that he isn’t, but is, but isn’t.

Arthur takes a deep breath and covers Merlin’s hand with his own. Merlin’s fingers twitch under his touch, and Arthur listens to him take a deep breath—how he lets it out slowly, how it sounds both tense and relieved. Or maybe that’s just how Arthur feels. Merlin’s skin under his own is warm and dry, and Arthur curves his fingers slightly under his palm in a loose grip.

“I’m too old for you,” he says in the silence.

The words hurt Arthur’s throat.

Merlin looks away, looks down at his feet, and Arthur stares at his profile, the sharp edge of his cheekbone, wants to lean in, wants to take it back.

The works of art surrounding them are of no comfort.

“Too old for me? Or am I too young for you?” Merlin says. He turns his hand around and presses his palm against Arthur’s.

“Isn’t that the same thing?”

“No, it isn’t. It isn’t at all.” The silence is heavy. “You don’t even know, do you?”

Arthur frowns, looks at their hands touching, feels the warmth between their palms. “I’m too old for you,” he repeats, but it’s softer, and he hates how it almost sounds like a question.

Merlin hums and tangles his fingers with Arthur’s, squeezes.

∆ ∆ ∆

“You’re coming tonight, right?”

Arthur raises his head from the paper he’s reading. Merlin’s leaning against the doorframe in the shadows. He’s wearing black dress trousers, the sharp crease on the front making his long legs seem even longer, interminable. His white shirt tucked carefully inside his waistband crisply follows the shape of his shoulders, his small waist, where Arthur wants to put his hands. He wants to put his hands around that waist and pull Merlin in, pull him between his legs, into his lap, have all those long limbs wrap themselves around him until all he can see and breathe is Merlin, and the rest of the world is shut out.

Arthur puts his pen down. “Of course, I am.”

Merlin smiles a pleased smile, happy, so wide Arthur has to answer with one of his own and they must look ridiculous, maybe a bit crazed.

“I’ll see you after, then.” Merlin stops with a hand on the doorknob. “Arthur?” There’s something in his voice, the way it wraps around Arthur’s name—a bit uncertain, a bit fragile—that has Arthur standing up. “The first piece,” he says, “after the intermission. Pay attention alright?” His gaze moves to Arthur’s board, to the postcard his mother gave him. “I’ll play it for you.”

Arthur crosses the room before he can even think about it. He slides his hand along Merlin’s jaw, to the back or his neck, where his hair is silky soft between his fingers, and kisses him.

It’s chaste, not a reflection at all of everything that’s been boiling inside of him since the moment he saw Merlin, and yet, oddly, it’s absolutely perfect and everything he wants it to be. He closes his lips softly around Merlin’s lower lip, swallows his gasp, and pulls back.

Merlin’s eyes are wide with surprise, but Arthur lightly bumps his nose against his and that seems to shake him out of it. He grins, slumping backward against the doorframe with a long relieved sigh and a quiet little laugh. Arthur almost wants to roll his eyes and apologise.

“I’ll listen,” he says, instead. His hands shake.

∆ ∆ ∆

Merlin plays.

He plays and moves to the sound of the music, and Arthur can’t take his eyes off him. Merlin touches his cello so tenderly, so gentle yet certain and proprietary. It sends shivers down Arthur’s spine. Arthur thought he knew how those fingers moved, their shape and grace, but he was wrong. He looks at Merlin playing and thinks, This, this is how Merlin loves.

And the music has Arthur’s name wrapped around it.

∆ ∆ ∆

Merlin’s skin against his makes him dizzy. He almost wants to sob with the painful way it unclenches something inside of him that was tight and coiled. It floods his body with heat.

“Did you hear?” Merlin asks, lips warm, so warm, over Arthur’s collarbone. Arthur slides his fingers into Merlin’s hair, keeps his head there, where he can mouth at Arthur’s skin. He wants to say yes, wants to say he heard, but now that the music’s faded, that they’re far from the concert hall, safe in Arthur’s bedroom, he isn’t sure anymore. He’s scared that maybe it was only wishful thinking, his own projections. “Now every time you hear it, you’ll think of me,” Merlin says; lips dragging along Arthur’s throat, hands wide on his chest, palming Arthur’s sides.

Arthur closes his eyes, rolls his hips up into Merlin’s to give himself time to swallow past the lump in his throat, to steady his own heart. “I don’t own any classical music.”

Merlin pushes off him a little, looks down, hair in disarray and mouth bruised and slick from all the kissing. He smiles, and Arthur whimpers a little, for all the dimples, the boyishness of it. “It’s okay. I made you a CD.”

“Of course you did,” Arthur says grabbing him, pulling him closer because he has to touch and feel all that bare skin against his, all those angles and long expanses of softness and hair.

Arthur reaches out for the condom and lube on the bedside table, but there’s something in the way Merlin’s hand tightens on his thigh that stops him, has him frozen in mid movement.

“Merlin?” Merlin’s eyes dart from the condom to Arthur’s face, and the bottom of Arthur’s stomach falls. “Merlin is this—”

“Don’t panic!” Merlin straddles Arthur’s waist and places his hand on each side of his face. Arthur can’t help but lean a little into the touch.

“Merlin are you—”

“I’ve done plenty,” Merlin says, pushing his arse back onto Arthur’s hard cock as if to prove his point. “Just—” he grabs the condom between two fingers, makes the package shimmer under the soft yellow light of the bedside lamp. “Just, never this.

Arthur expires, shaky. He can feel the unease behind his lungs grow, and the sudden distance between them that seemed to have had disappeared stretches wide again. “You know we don’t have to—”

“No,” Merlin moves Arthur’s head so that they’re looking at each other and Arthur focuses on that, on the way his long fingers span his cheeks and temples. “Please, don’t panic. Please. I’m not a child, Arthur. I just—there was never—I was always practicing. There wasn’t much time for… anything. Anyone. No one I wanted—wanted enough.” He bends down and kisses Arthur. It’s sweet and pleading and it worms itself into Arthur’s chest. “I want this,” he says. “I want it. Don’t treat me like a child. Please.”

Arthur takes a deep breath and wraps his hands around Merlin’s wrists, kisses his cheeks, his nose, lets his bottom lip catch on the slight stubble on his chin until it burns. Merlin smiles and shrugs a little.

“Just a bit nervous, is all.”

“You can fuck me, if you want,” Arthur says. “If it makes you feel better.”

Merlin nods and almost lunges forward to grab the lube. Arthur has to catch him around the waist so that he doesn’t topple over the side of the bed, and can’t help but chuckle against his stomach, sneaking his tongue out to quickly taste Merlin’s cock.

Merlin stretches him, and it’s better than Arthur thought it would be. He should have known. He’s been mildly obsessed with Merlin’s hands from the beginning, they’re clever little things that set to break him apart even in their tentative fumbling.

“Oh,” Merlin says. Arthur’s so ready, wants him inside his body, and he groans, lifts himself on his elbows to glare at Merlin. Merlin laughs against Arthur’s knee. “Oh this is worse, actually.”

“What?”

“Well, now I have to perform, right? Make it good. Can’t just… lay back and think of England.” Merlin turns his face into Arthur’s thigh and bites lightly at the skin. “I’m really not helping my case, am I?”

Arthur lays back, stares at the ceiling. That’s when Merlin kisses the side of his knee, his fingertips moving lightly on Arthur’s cock, like he’s playing a tune, and something inside Arthur lets go, just unfurls and breathes and expands. “Okay,” he says. “Okay.”

He pulls Merlin to him and then turns them around so that he can straddle him. Slowly, he slides down on Merlin’s cock, breathing deeply through the stretch. Merlin moans and throws his head back, arches off the bed, and the sight of it makes Arthur a little bit wild, sends his heart stuttering.

He takes Merlin’s hands and puts them on his thighs while he starts rolling his hips, riding Merlin, taking him in. He buries his face into Merlin’s neck and licks the warm skin there, salty with sweat.

“Just like this,” he says. “I want you, too. I always do.”

There’s a long moment where’s it’s only Arthur moving. Only Merlin’s gasps and Arthur’s huffed breaths. Then, Merlin’s fingers dig into Arthur’s skin, his knees bend and he pushes his hips up, meets Arthur’s thrusts, and laughs, and moans, and laughs some more.

It’s this joyful sound, new and full of wonder, that wrenches the fear out of Arthur, and all he can feel now is the tight glide of Merlin inside of him, the heat of him.

And he laughs too.

∆ ∆ ∆

Later, Merlin pushes inside of him again while Arthur’s stretched on his back, with a leg on Merlin’s shoulder and Merlin’s arms around it.

Merlin’s eyes don’t leave Arthur’s, his hand holding on to his ankle, and it’s like he’s playing him. It’s a silly thought. But Merlin bends over him like he bends over his cello, and Arthur thinks he belongs, just like it does, between Merlin’s legs.

It’s a ridiculous thought. Overly sentimental. An overwhelming thought. And yet, when Merlin slides his fingers along Arthur’s leg like they’re on strings, the touch flares up through Arthur’s limbs, his hips stutter and he moans, whimpers, cries out in time with Merlin.

∆ ∆ ∆

The rain finally changed into snow during the night, so when Arthur opens his eyes, it’s to white winter light flooding the room. He stays still for a long time, listening to Merlin’s even breaths, following the rise and fall of his chest with his hand wide across it.

∆ ∆ ∆

“Come on, old man!” Merlin yells from the living room, and Arthur drops the cup he’s holding in the sink, where it shatters. Merlin pokes his head into the kitchen and makes a face. “Too soon?”

Arthur lets out a breathy laugh, shaky, and he passes his hand through his hair. “A bit, yeah.”

“Sorry.” Merlin kisses Arthur’s cheek and rubs his cheek on his shoulder, humming low and content. “One day, I’ll show you. One day, you’ll understand.”

Arthur’s brain catches on one day and doesn’t let go. It speaks of things he hadn’t let himself consider, too fragile, too likely to crash, taking Arthur with them. Brilliant possibilities. But for now, with Merlin smiling at him over his shoulder as he brings the food out, with his smell still lingering on Arthur’s skin, Arthur believes him.

Because, if he were to trace the nervous system of his life, map it all out, all the beginnings and ends, and ongoing stories, Arthur suspects he’d find Merlin already entrenched there—like something permanent and inevitable—along the way.