"How much longer," Merlin asks, rubbing at his tired eyes. It's almost four in the morning, he already did a shift at the corner shop before taking the taxi out, and he has a university lecture at nine which he can't afford to sleep through.
"Just one more fare, Merlin, I promise, then Percy's shift starts and I'll clock him in as your replacement." She sounds sorry, her timid little voice even quieter than usual through Merlin's tinny phone speaker. "I really am sorry. Hang on." She fades out for a few moments. "Freya's got one for you. A nice easy one to end your night. Some drunk guy needs a five minute lift because he can't be bothered to stumble home. I know you find them amusing."
"Sure, Gwen," Merlin sighs, even though he's just too tired right now to be amused by anything. "Send it through."
She hums overenthusiastically, wishes him well and hangs up -- somehow managing to do even that softly and affectionately.
His fare is tottering around a lamppost exactly where his onboard system says he'll be.
Merlin likes to people watch. And when you're driving around streets at God knows what hour -- 4am for example -- you'll do anything to stave off boredom and stay awake. Therefore, he's also good at making snap judgements. Like this:
Blondie's rich and successful, used to getting his own way. He's out on the town either on or after some sort of formal meal meeting. And now, after some sort of positive outcome, he's hammered and high on his own self-importance. His suit miraculously isn't wrinkled, despite the beer stain on his loose tie. His cheeks are flushed and his smile is wide when he dodders up to Merlin's passenger window, knocking on the glass as if Merlin doesn't already know he's there.
"Alright, mate?" he slurs. Merlin instantly goes on guard; there's something familiar about him in more than a 'I've driven you somewhere before' sort of way. "Arthur to Grange Street?" Truthfully, Merlin hadn't even looked at the destination. He glances down now, pretending to double check. He's actually trying to quiet the alarm bells going off in his head. For some reason he’s getting flashes of his old school gym clothes flying from a high roof. He’s too fucking tired for this.
"Yup, that's right," Merlin says, slipping his customer face on, cheeks already aching from the strain of his smile. "Hop in the back."
"Actually," Arthur says, already pulling on the front passenger door handle, "I'd rather join you up front, if it's all the same to you."
"As long as you don't throw up on my seats." He's trying to be cheeky and charming, really he is; he could do with a tip from a rich ponce. But it's 4am and it probably sounds like he'd like nothing more than to push this Arthur chap out of the car while they're going eighty down a motorway.
Arthur isn't dissuaded. "Sure thing. Not cool. Totally understand. I solemnly swear I've never been fined for anything by a taxi place before." Christ, he's got some baby blues on him too, as if the heavens hadn't blessed him enough with his perfectly sculpted cheekbones and gorgeous jawline. Even in the shitty streetlights they fly by he still looks perfect.
It doesn't take Gwen's prescribed five minutes for Merlin to pull up outside of a pristinely white three-floor victorian town house. It’s more like three and a half. Arthur fills the silence babbling about all of the things he has to do tomorrow and how he's got to be in the office by lunchtime. Merlin tries not to grind his teeth to dust thinking about his morning lecture.
"Three, please," Merlin says, fiddling with his computer again so he doesn't have to make eye contact. He wants to be out of here. Not just because he wants to get to bed and the dreams waiting for him there, but also because there's something familiar about Arthur and Merlin can see flashing lights behind his eyes warning him away.
"Here, keep the change for yourself." Arthur jumps from the car, slips on the curb and falls, laughing uproariously, back through the open door. The whole car shakes when his arse reconnects with his seat. He guffaws merrily. Merlin can't help grinning along with him, clearly he's losing his sanity. "You know," Arthur says, turning half towards him in his seat, "I don't mean to be rude, call it liquid courage, but what are you doing driving taxis, mate?"
"Excuse me?" Merlin asks, turning his customer face up to full wattage -- it's the only way to hide how annoyed he is by that question. Of course the posh git would judge him without knowing him, would think all he's good for is ferrying people around like some modern day servant.
"It's just, me and the lads, we always assumed you'd go on to be some sort of rocket scientist or something is all."
"You and the...lads?" And then Merlin knows. "Jesus Christ, you're Arthur Pendragon." Of course he is. Of course this upper-class privileged judgy clotpole would be the shithead that bullied him all through high school.
Merlin sees red. He's so angry, all that registers in his brain as the logical thing to say is, "You're Arthur Pendragon," again. Statement. Accusation.
"Yeah," Arthur says, confused. "I thought you knew. You mean, you didn't recognise me?"
"Get out of my car, Pendragon," Merlin hisses. He stops himself from shoving at Arthur's solid shoulder firstly because he can't be rude to a customer like that -- Gwen would chop off his head -- and secondly because it probably wouldn't do him any good whatsoever.
"No, wait! I'm genuinely curious." Merlin banishes the thought that Arthur slurring every word longer than a syllable is adorable. "We really thought, you know, out of all of us at that dump, you'd be the one to...you know."
"I'd be the one to what? Crawl along in the dirt trying to make a living?"
"No!" Arthur swings himself fully into his seat so he can face Merlin. "That you'd be the one to make it! " Arthur's eyes are wide and sincere, his hand gestures -- while drunkenly flamboyant -- show no deception.
"You did?" While it is true that he's actually studying for his masters in biological engineering at uni at the moment, and he needs to work three jobs because of his family situation, Arthur doesn't know that. But for some reason, he wants to. Merlin would even hazard he wants to care.
"But," Merlin whispers, trying to keep his courage up and maintain eye contact, "you were always horrible to me."
"Hey, boys will be boys, am I right?" Arthur laughs loudly, falsely. Merlin scowls at him, and his bravado crumbles. "Fine, I wanted your attention. I’m grown up enough now to admit it. I had an arse over tit crush on you. It wasn't like I could ask you to study with me, I was barely making passing marks in school and you weren't taking any of the same subjects."
It feels anticlimactic. Merlin thought some part of him was forged in that school, some hard as nails, never give up part of him. And now it turns out, nothing was how he thought it was at all.
"You could have just, I don't know, talked to me?" Merlin says, more angry at himself now than the posh prick sitting next to him.
"No, I couldn't. You were in a completely different crowd. The scholarship crowd. I know now that's all a pile of bollocks, but back when you're a teenager, it's all you've got really, isn't it?"
"Sure, Arthur," Merlin sighs. He wants this night to be over. He's had enough and he feels frayed.
"Why don't you come up for tea?" Arthur suddenly asks, excited like he's just invented toast or something.
"I don't think so, Arthur. I want to go to bed, and I think you could do with the same." Arthur slumps, dramatic but truly disappointed in his seat as only an inebriated person can pull of. "But," Merlin amends, "maybe another day? I don't get much free time, between my three jobs and university classes, but I'd like to. Most of my friends are through work now."
"A-ha!" Arthur exclaims, clapping his palm firmly on Merlin's shoulder. His fingers are warm through Merlin's work shirt. "I knew it! I knew you couldn't have been an ordinary minimum wage sort of guy!" Merlin can see his crooked teeth where his plush lips are spread in another smile, this one warm and welcoming and so hopeful it catches Merlin's breath. He smells like wine and warmth.
"If you must know, this is my best paying job." He isn't joking but it comes out softly, fondly.
Arthur winds down his window before hopping out of the car again, then slams the door behind him and leans back through. "So, when should I expect you?"
"I'll call you." He genuinely means to as well, but Arthur looks crestfallen. "No, I mean it, I can sweet talk Freya, the girl who took your call, and get your number." It breaks about fifty company regulations, but Freya would believe him when he tells her what’s happened. Besides, it’s not like Arthur’s going to sue them.
"I don't go out most Fridays," Arthur says, grinning hopefully.
"And I know where you live." Merlin gestures to the house looming behind him.
"Yeah, so you do."
Merlin chuckles and goes to pull away. "Drink plenty of water, Arthur," he adds, shifting into gear, "you're smashed. I'll text you tomorrow." Just in case you don't remember this, he doesn't say.
Arthur laughs up at the crescent moon. It illuminates him unfairly. Merlin thinks maybe he shouldn't be driving right now because he feels slightly intoxicated by the sight of him. "Hey, Merlin!" Arthur calls through the still night air, staring out at where the horizon is turning pale blue. "It was nice to see you."