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The Space Between

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The thing is, Arthur is not claustrophobic. He can deal with closets, small rooms, even the odd cave during company retreats. He doesn't like them, but really, who does? And then he has to ignore the Merlin-voice in his head listing off people might like small spaces, but he’s gotten good at ignoring the Merlin-voice. Anyway, he's not claustrophobic.

But the world knows he isn't exactly good with small spaces either. Arthur likes room to move, to act, to fight. He likes places like the footie field, where he can run and jump and tackle. He prefers the open road to traffic, is incredibly glad he jumped straight into a big office rather than some hole in the wall. He needs space to pace.

So when the elevator jolts to a halt somewhere between floors 13 and 14--and oh, Arthur recognizes the irony--Arthur curses even as he picks himself up from the floor, because damn it, he knows what comes next, because that is how his life goes. And then he looks over to see Merlin pulling himself up by the gilded railing, and he curses again for good measure.

Because there is another reason he is not good with tight spaces. Arthur can deal with Merlin from a distance. He can convince himself that Merlin is just a moderately attractive, incredibly irritating man. When Merlin sits in the outer office, answering his phone or whatever PAs do these days, Arthur can believe that he only glances at him occasionally. That they don't exchange rueful grins every once in a while, that Merlin's smile is simply too big and bright to deal with. And maybe he sometime zones out when staring at Merlin's back, at the long, slim lines of it, and maybe he's started sitting slightly to the right of his desk so he can see out his door, but those are little things. They don't count. Like how it doesn't count when Arthur sits in a booth and Merlin goes to the bar to get them drinks, and Morgana has to elbow him before he remembers to pay attention to his friends and not the way Merlin tilts his head back to laugh at something the bartender has to say, and what right does the bartender have making him laugh like that anyway?

But then Merlin would sit back down at the booth, mere feet from Arthur--inches, sometimes--and he might smile at something Arthur said, and Arthur could feel himself fall, feel something warm and hot curl in his belly, at that smile, which is, yes, too-bright but lights up all the dark corners of Arthur and makes him feel like he can take on the world. Or Merlin will come up to Arthur's desk, lean over it to look on the computer with him, and his cheek will be inches from Arthur's and he knows that if he turns his lips would brush Merlin's skin, pale and warm and stubble-rough. Or, oh God, when Merlin hugs him, his thin arms with their surprising strength wrapped around Arthur, body pressed against body in the best kind of torture, and Arthur really has to pull away before he does something incredibly stupid like not let go. It is only up close that Arthur knows that Merlin’s eyes are not really blue, but blue and grey mixed together, like the ocean, like a cloudy sky.

Those eyes are, right now, eying him with concern, because of course the bloody idiot is worried. “Arthur?” he says, immediately crossing the space in one long stride, because he wasn’t close enough already. “Are you okay?” He reaches out, fingers long and elegant, and Arthur jerks away.

“Fine,” he snaps back, and ignores Merlin’s hurt puppy-dog face to cross to the panel. He follows the instructions, jerks out the phone, and presses the requisite numbers.

“Yes?” the man sounds like it is the worst inconvenience in the world that the phone is actually ringing. The tone makes all of Arthur’s hackles rise.

“Hello,” he says tightly, “the elevator is jammed.”

“Thank you for your call,” the man drawls. He is probably sitting behind a desk somewhere, his feet propped up on the table, enjoying the fact that Arthur is stuck in increasingly small space with a man who he may or may not be hopelessly in love with. “We’ll be with you in just a moment.”

“A moment!” Arthur nearly screeches. Merlin makes an amused, chiding noise. He takes a deep breath, in and out. When he speaks again, it is quiet and regulated and dangerous. “Look, sir, I am Arthur Pendragon, and my family owns this whole building, which means you work for me.” He can almost feel Merlin roll his eyes. “And if you do not get us moving again within five minutes, I will have you fired.”

It may just be his imagination, but he hears feet thump to the floor. “Yes, sir!” the man says, suddenly polite and urgent and oh-so-ready to please. “Right away. I’m so sorry, sir.” Arthur allows himself a smirk. That is how people are supposed to react to him. Everyone except bloody Merlin, who waltzed in and insulted him and refused him and laughed at him and managed to do it so endearingly that Arthur has never been able to stay mad at him.

“So?” Merlin asks, when Arthur puts the phone down. He is leaning against the corner, where the mirrored walls meet, so he is reflected a thousand times, Merlins going on forever. “Did he hop to?” He says it in that way he has, that sounds like he’s making fun of the world for aligning to Arthur’s will, but that also lets Arthur in on the joke.

“Yes.” Arthur mirrors Merlin, crosses his arms across his chest. “We should be out of here soon.” He glares at the phone, as if it will transfer his glare to the men working on the problem. He’s firing all of them, as soon as he gets out of here. Shoddy upkeep, that’s what this is.

“Are you in such a hurry to be home?” Merlin looks completely at ease, perched as he is, as if he has long, meaningful conversations in stuck elevators all the time. Which he might, for all Arthur knows. It sounds like the sort of weird, inexplicable, brilliant thing Merlin would do. He probably met Gwaine in an elevator.

Arthur pauses, considers lying about all the fabulous things he has to do tonight, then remembers Merlin controls his schedule, which has somehow come to mean not just his work meetings but his entire life, within the past two years of Merlin working for him. “No,” he admits, “But I’m not keen on being stuck here either.”

“Who is?” Merlin asks, and Arthur has to snort. Merlin grins back, that brilliant, dimpling grin that makes Arthur’s heart skip a beat.

Arthur has to fill the silence then, because it’s not the sort of thing that should shut him up. “Are you going home to something?” then he adds, because he’s obviously a glutton for punishment, “Someone?”

Because if there is one thing Arthur has learned about Merlin, it is that there is always someone. First it was Gwen who he always talked about, which gave Arthur a few sleepless nights—not that he was jealous then, not really, because he hadn’t know Merlin then, the way he laughed and talked back and generally made life a thousand times more interesting—and then Will, and then once Will had gone back home there was Lancelot. And when Arthur finally met Lancelot and saw how besotted the man was with Gwen, and how Merlin finally approved, there was Gwaine, who throws his arm around Merlin without a second thought and ruffles his hair and generally does all sorts of touching that is absolutely not okay. And not just because Arthur cannot bring himself to act that way with Merlin.

“Nah, just to cold pizza,” Merlin replies with a shrug. “Lancelot will probably come to moon over Gwen, but that’s all.”

“No Gwaine?”

“He’s working,” Merlin explains, but he tilts his head to look at Arthur, as if confused. What, he’s not allowed to be interested in Merlin’s life now? He’s always been interested in Merlin’s life.

“How’s that going?” It hurts just to ask, but Arthur won’t give up this… whatever he has with Merlin. It’s the closest thing he’s had to a real friend in years, and just because he can’t keep his feelings in check when Merlin is within bloody reach doesn’t mean he doesn’t also remember late nights of slaving over papers together, the things Arthur says when he is high on caffeine and success that no one other than Merlin has ever heard, has ever wanted to hear.

Merlin is still giving him that odd look, which makes him look rather birdlike, but he answers slowly. “Oh, you know, Gwaine is great.”

He is, too, which is the worst of it. Arthur likes Gwaine, like he hadn’t liked Will or Freya or Alvarr or any of the others. The man laughs too loudly and talks too much, but he’s also brave and loyal and strong and an amazing athlete. If Arthur had to pick someone for Merlin—someone who isn’t him, that is, which it will never be—than he’d pick Gwaine. Well, he’d probably pick Lancelot, because everyone would pick Lancelot, but Gwaine would be his second choice.

Except he doesn’t want to pick someone else. He wants to be the one Merlin curls up next to at night, as he’s probably a cuddler, who Merlin whispers his secrets to and leans on when he’s tired and he goes all boneless.

And now he’s been quiet too long, and Merlin is giving him one of those looks he gives, like he can see right through Arthur, to the very core of him. Except not the very core, because he’s never seen the dreams Arthur has, in the dark of the night, one hand around his cock, when Merlin’s mouth is doing filthy things to him and his hands are in his hair and on his skin and his ass and it feels so damn good, until he opens his eyes and Merlin isn’t there. Those are the days when he comes in early, works for an hour or two before Merlin comes in, trying to wash away the vague shame and lust in work. They are also the days when he tackles Gwaine on the footie field for no apparent reason.

“He is,” Arthur agrees, trying to pick the thread of the conversation back up. This is why he cannot be in enclosed spaces with Merlin for too long. So he starts to pace, circles around and around, one by two paces. “When is this bloody thing going to move?”

“You threatened them enough, I’m sure they’re working on it.” Merlin’s sea eyes watch Arthur circle, then he huffs out an exasperated breath. “And sit down, you’re making me dizzy.”

When Arthur doesn’t reply, keeps moving, Merlin reaches out and grabs him by both shoulders. It brings them face to face, a foot apart, and Arthur freezes, caught by those high cheekbones and laughing eyes, even by those ridiculous ears. “Sit. Down,” Merlin repeats, and pushes.

Arthur has had so many dreams like this, fantasies, of them so close and Merlin pushing him to his knees, and this is simultaneously so like and so not, that he resists. Which shouldn’t have mattered, because he is larger by far than Merlin, even if Merlin has an inch or two on him, but somehow Merlin, in a way known only to those of such infinite clumsiness that they can trip standing still, manages to fall forward, bringing Arthur down with Merlin on top of him.

Arthur catches himself before he hits his head on the wall, instinctively reaches up to shield himself from the weight coming down on top of him—and his hand come up against Merlin’s chest. Merlin is braced above him, one hand on the floor, one on his shoulder, the rest of him pressing down on Arthur, their legs intertwined and oh bloody hell. Merlin’s eyes are huge, his cheeks red. His tongue flicks out to wet his lips, obviously preparing to apologize, and Arthur can’t help it. His eyes follow the movement of his tongue, the swipe of it over those pink lips.

Merlin scrambles back, off of him, onto his heels, stammering apologies. Arthur sits back up more slowly, taking the time to compose himself, to balance the part of him that is still savoring the feel of Merlin on top of him and the part of him that is breaking because of how quickly Merlin pulled away. Arthur has always known that this thing he has for Merlin is utterly and hopelessly unrequited. Merlin doesn’t even touch him like he does his other friends, the casual one armed hugs he shares with Gwen whenever she comes close enough, the quick pats on the arm he and Lancelot share, the easy physicality of Gwaine and him. He even leans on Morgana, when he’s drunk a little too much and can’t quite stand on his own. But—other than the hugs, and the occasional time when he’s absolutely plastered and hangs himself all over Arthur until he shoves the other man onto Gwen, because if he ever sets foot in Merlin’s bedroom he will actually self-combust—Merlin does not touch him. Arthur has always known this, but it hurts all the same.

“Shut up,” he snaps, and Merlin’s apologies stutter to a halt, replaced by a glare.

“Prat,” Merlin shoots back, “You don’t have to get all uppity just because I fell.”

“You could have knocked me out!”

“Which would only have made my waiting much more bearable.” But Merlin is looking at Arthur in a way that has nothing to do with their banter, which they can both do basically on autopilot by now. It is the same way Merlin looks at a row of figures when he finally deciphers them and finds the way to make them all come out right, how he looks at the last line of one of his poems right before he shuts his notebook with a cry of triumph. It is, Arthur realizes, almost unbearably attractive. He presses himself back against the wall.

“It would have helped mine too.”

“I could try again.”

“Like you ever could.”

Merlin shifts closer—which means he is basically on top of Arthur again, because he didn’t have far to go in the first place. Arthur flinches back, can’t help it, the same way he can’t help but lean forward too. His tongue flicks out again, and Arthur echoes him, because they are far too close and he can almost feel Merlin’s body heat and he can count the eyelashes brushing those cheekbones and he absolutely cannot deal with this any longer. He sidles sideways and up, back to his feet, to the opposite corner. Which is nowhere near enough distance between him and the sheer want of Merlin—a few miles might do better. Possibly a few light years. “It has been far more than five minutes,” he remarks, trying for light. “I am definitely firing people.”

Merlin ignores that. He is the only one who ever ignores what Arthur says, except when he hears everything Arthur didn’t say. “Arthur,” he says, getting to his feet as well, like he is unfolding, unfurling, every inch of skin and muscle, his eyes never leaving Arthur. “You do know Gwaine and I aren’t shagging, right?”

Arthur swallows. That makes it so much harder. “Waiting, then? Good for you mate, playing hard to get.”

Merlin takes a step forward, halving the distance between them. Arthur has never felt more helpless, not even when his father collapsed of a heart attack and he watched the EMTs load him onto an ambulance. At least then he could call people, worry. Here it’s just him and Merlin looking at him like he’s prey. “He’s not my boyfriend. Or my fuck buddy or my anything, except a friend.”

Arthur makes a sound that he hopes indicates mild interest, but is actually a swallowed ‘good, he’s not good enough for you; only I am’.

“In fact,” Merlin goes on. He’s stopped moving, but he is still perilously close. This is the second time Merlin has been this close, like they’re touching but they’re not. “He’s not my type at all. I tend to go more for blondes. You know, blue eyes, bright hair.” He’s started to smile, not the bright, overwhelming smile but a smaller one, his why don’t you be in on the joke too smile, and it is unbearably fond. “Plenty of muscle, but stockier. Helps if he’s a bit of a prat—”

Arthur doesn’t think before he moves, cuts him off with a noise that is more than half a snarl and now he is the one to shove, until Merlin is against the wall, more Merlins reflected behind him, and Arthur’s hands are on either side of his face and they are nearly nose to nose, close enough that Arthur can smell the herbs and sweat scent of him. “What,” he hisses out between clenched teeth, because he is only human, “Are you saying?”

Merlin just smirks at him, that bloody little ‘finally, you’re doing what I want even though I never asked’ quirk of his lips and eyes. It’s one of his most irritating expressions, one of his hottest. “More than a little bit, really. Likes to order people around. Smarter than he lets on, nicer too—”

“I’ll show you how bloody nice I am,” Arthur growls, and leans in and smashes his lips onto Merlin’s.

It’s not a nice kiss, not gentle and kind and loving. It’s lips and teeth and tongue and plundering, Merlin’s hands clawing at Arthur’s hair and shoulders and Arthur leaning in, pressing Merlin hard against the wall, desperate and hot and heavy with want.

And that, of course, is when the elevator starts moving again. It bumps Arthur away from Merlin, and he curses again, loudly and with feeling, before looking at Merlin. Merlin sags against the wall, lips swollen, pupils as big as his eyes. Fuck. Did he just ruin everything? He had been sure—but he hadn’t known—

“Well,” Merlin says, with a flash of a grin, “Took you long enough.”

“Took—me—” Arthur does not splutter, but he comes close. What Merlin does to him. “We are going out to dinner after this. I am taking you out to dinner.”

Merlin opens his mouth, but Arthur is through giving him a choice. Now Arthur has finally had a taste of him, and he is not giving that up. “And maybe we’ll go to a movie afterwards. And I don’t bloody care what you say about it, that’s what’s going to happen.”

Merlin grins. “Do we shag before or after dinner?”

It goes right to his groin, and Arthur can’t speak for a moment. “Hell, Merlin! You can’t just—after,” he decides. “We’re doing this right.”

Merlin rolls his eyes. “Picky, picky,” he mocks, gentle and teasing, as the doors to the elevator slide open, revealing a glass-paneled lobby. “I’ve waited two years for this, I don’t want to wait more.”

Arthur wraps his fingers around Merlin’s wrist, just because he can—or he thinks he can, at least, and Merlin doesn’t pull away. “Patience,” he breathes into Merlin’s ear, and he can see the other man shiver in a way that just about undoes him. Maybe before. Before is good too. “Is a virtue.”

“Good. Then you won’t fire the elevator workers?” Merlin asks, eyes glinting, as if he knows perfectly well that Arthur would never do that, and never meant to.

“They’ll get a pass this time.” Arthur replies, dragging Merlin out of the office. He wants Merlin in a restaurant, candlelight on his pale face, playing up the shadows in his eyes. He wants Merlin spread out on his bed, panting and sweaty. He wants Merlin. And Merlin wants him.

A involuntary smile spreads over his face, as they step into the orange light of the setting sun, the wide sky, wind rushing past them.

He’s giving the elevator man a bloody raise.