Arthur is first over the fence, of course, fingers straining white against the chainlink as it bows under his weight, and he’s straddling the top before Merlin thinks to look away; before he can think much of anything, really, except that they definitely should not be doing this. Nights with Arthur always seem to end with him in trouble, one way or another.
“Come on, Merlin,” Arthur says, dropping neatly to the ground on the other side and brushing off his hands like a master gymnast. “Don’t tell me you’re going to chicken out.”
“Of course not,” Merlin says, automatic. He has never backed down against Arthur yet, even though he probably should have.
“Here, let me give you a boost,” Arthur’s friend Gwaine suggests, waggling his eyebrows with a leer as he leans in close. Merlin can smell the alcohol on his breath, the sweet cherry wine Arthur had brought as a joke. He could probably blame the wine for all of this, for any of them thinking breaking into the pools was a good idea, for the way he just goes along with it like he can’t simply turn and leave whenever he wants, but he knows that’s not what it is. The real reason he’s still standing here is peering at him through the fence and making impatient gestures for him to climb over already, Jesus Merlin. So Merlin climbs.
It’s— awkward. The gaps are too small for his feet and the metal makes his fingers ache, still warm from the heat of the day and too-thin, biting. Gwaine ‘helpfully’ gives his bottom a shove when he nears the top and Merlin pitches over the fence head-first, only just managing to swing himself upright before he hits the ground.
“Fuck, Gwaine!” Leon’s voice, loud and startled in the darkness. “You nearly killed him.”
“Sorry.” Gwaine grins at Merlin through the fence. “All right there, M?”
He’s bruised and shaken, and the buzz from the wine isn’t enough to take the edge off the sting from where his knees hit the concrete so hard his teeth clacked together, but he’s more or less in one piece. Arthur helps him up, shaking his head.
“So fucking clumsy.”
“It wasn’t my fault,” Merlin hisses back, but Arthur is already turning away.
The girls climb over next, Viv in her low, practical flats and Morgana in heels, somehow managing not to get them caught in the chains. Gwaine, Percy and Leon follow them and drop one by one to the damp concrete, and they all hold their breaths to listen for anything that might suggest they’ve been overheard. Nothing stirs. Even the traffic sounds are distant; Ealdor is always dead on a Saturday night.
It’s not like there’s anything better to do, but Merlin’s been spouting off about finally finishing his A-Levels and Arthur seems to think it merits some kind of celebration, which for Arthur means getting pissed and doing stupid shit. Still, now that he’s seen the gap between the pool and the changing rooms, this whole thing seems a little extreme.
“It’s tradition,” Arthur insists, and maybe it is, but Merlin’s got uni starting in the autumn, and he's not keen on sitting his degree with a broken neck. On the other hand—
“Go on then,” Arthur whispers. “Kit off.”
Merlin shivers, goosebumps rippling over his skin despite the warm summer air. “Are you sure about this?” he mutters, struggling to pull off his running shoes. “What if I don't make it?”
“We’ve all done it, Merlin,” Morgana assures him from somewhere in the darkness. “You’ll be fine. Just make sure you get a good running start.”
Arthur’s hands are tugging at Merlin's shirt, pulling it off over his head and discarding it, fingers tickling as he pokes Merlin in the ribs. “Scared?”
“You wish,” Merlin retorts, spine straightening the way it always does when Arthur teases him. One of these days he’ll learn how not to care about Arthur’s opinion, but for now he’s just glad the darkness is enough to hide his face as he undresses. Fear isn’t exactly all he’s feeling, not with Arthur so close.
“Once you climb up, go to the back of the roof and take a running jump,” Arthur says, catching Merlin’s shoulders and positioning him so that he can see the rickety old ladder leading to the floor above. It used to be part of the old lifeguard’s station, but now that’s been replaced most of the kids use it as a climbing frame, and the Council apparently can’t be arsed to take it away. “We’ll be waiting for you by the stands when you get out.”
“That’s it?” Merlin asks, because obviously he has no sense of self-preservation whatsoever. “Just jump in and swim to the other end of the pool?”
Arthur raises an eyebrow. “Not challenging enough for you, Emrys?”
Merlin shrugs, holding Arthur’s gaze. “I could race you.”
There’s a pause, and Merlin thinks he’s gone too far, that Arthur will see it for the transparent ploy that it is, but Gwaine is laughing and saying “Go on then, Princess,” and even Leon is trying to hide a grin so Merlin knows that he’s won. Arthur doesn’t say anything for half a minute, until Morgana loops an arm through his and says in her crisp, mocking tones, “If you’re scared — ”
“I’m not scared ,” Arthur snaps, yanking his arm away from hers. “Just wondering if it’s fair to Emrys, that’s all. I’m not sure he can keep up with me.”
His eyes meet Merlin’s, dark as the pool in front of them, and Merlin thinks, I can do anything, if he’d just keep looking at me like that.
And then they’re shivering, the two of them, standing naked on the roof staring down at the dark water. Merlin keeps trying not to look at Arthur, but out of the corner of his eye he can see the curve of his arse in the light from a streetlamp, the faint dusting of downy hair at the base of his stomach where it dips towards the shadow between his legs. He looks gorgeous, and Merlin can’t tear his eyes away from him, like Arthur’s a lighthouse and Merlin is helpless in the current, a rudderless ship about to be dashed on the rocks below.
"Ready?" Arthur asks, and Merlin nods, stomach clenching. There have been rumours about this pool; a girl who cracked her head open and drowned. A boy who was paralysed from the waist down. He can hear his mum’s voice in the back of his head like a presentiment: if Arthur jumped over a cliff, would you? But the answer is always going to be yes.
He runs; jumps. Nearly falls, but somehow makes it, and then they're both in the water and swimming for all they're worth, a cocktail of wine and adrenaline buzzing inside them.
Arthur wins, of course. Merlin comes up sputtering after a lap of the pool to find him sculling lazily against the side, his trademark half smirk firmly in place.
"Best two out of three?" Merlin offers, mostly just to see his face.
Arthur rolls his eyes and ducks him. “You’ve got a cheek, Emrys.” But he’s smiling.
They run the gauntlet back to the sheds, Gwaine hooting and hollering, Morgana making a show of covering her eyes and swooning against the seats at the sight of her half-brother’s dick. She’s grinning so hard it’s difficult to take her seriously, though, and Arthur swears cheerfully as he pounds past, Merlin on his heels, fishtailing wildly for balance on the slick-wet concrete. Excitement is a fluttering pulse at the base of his throat, the flashing white soles of Arthur’s feet ahead of him. His hand slaps against Leon and Percy’s outstretched palms, and he’s laughing, feeling like he’s part of something, finally, for once, a part of something great—
Torchlight sweeps across the water, catching on the ripples disturbed by their presence. Arthur skids to a halt, and Merlin lumbers into him, nearly pitching them both back into the water. Someone is coming; in a few steps, they’ll be unlocking the door.
“Security guard,” Arthur murmurs, catching at Merlin’s wrist. “Must be.” Merlin’s stomach twists. He can’t get caught, not like this; his mum will kill him. He hears Arthur's voice rising above the throb of his pulse and lets out an explosive breath.
And just like that, they’re running for their lives.
The changing rooms stink of piss and chlorine, and Merlin spares a moment to think of all the many myriad infections he’s likely to catch just from breathing in its general vicinity before Arthur is grabbing his arm and yanking him into one of the stalls and behind the door, shoving him until he climbs up onto the little wooden bench inside. His hands are warm and familiar against Merlin’s skin, sliding down his flank and against his buttocks to push and tug him into position, and Merlin feels an unwanted spark of arousal in his gut as Arthur steps up beside him, crowding against Merlin’s body and bracing one arm on the concrete wall to keep them both steady.
“What are you— ?”
“Shh,” Arthur hisses, and he’s holding Merlin in place now, warm palm splayed across Merlin’s stomach, his chin digging into the back of Merlin’s neck. “She’s coming.”
The security guard’s torch is already sweeping beneath the stalls and over the deserted room, and Merlin falls silent, waiting. Arthur is panting quietly into his shoulder, plastered against his back so close that Merlin can feel the startled drumbeat of his heart against his back, and, oh shit , Arthur’s cock nestled tantalisingly against the cleft of his arse, Arthur’s fingernails digging into his still-damp skin. He’s breathing fast, Arthur’s hand rising and falling rapidly with the movement of his chest, and he’s pretty sure Arthur can feel him trembling because he runs a thumb over Merlin’s hipbone and murmurs, “Hush,” just as they hear the wet slap clack clack of footsteps outside the stall.
Merlin holds himself very still, muscles straining. He tries to breathe through his nose, listening to water dripping somewhere beyond, willing himself to be small and silent the way he used to be in school when he didn’t want to be noticed. Arthur had put an end to all that, the bullying, but it’s still a habit Merlin keeps under his skin, something that comes out in emergencies. He curls his shoulders and hunkers down to wait, all too aware of Arthur’s mouth at his nape; the sudden breath of a laugh; and then a tongue against his neck, wet lips sucking, every nerve of his body on fire and fucking Arthur, with his smirk and his cigarettes, acting like he’s entitled to everything and pretending he doesn’t want it anyway.
The footsteps start up again, moving away this time. Slap clack clack . Out the door and towards the women’s changing sheds. Merlin sags in Arthur’s grip and exhales, resting his forehead against the stinking wall with no thought for germs or infestations. “That was too close.”
Arthur laughs softly. “Come on, Emrys, where’s your sense of adventure?”
“I’m sorry, I think I left it out there with my trousers,” Merlin hisses back. “How the fuck is this an adventure? We nearly got arrested stark-bollock naked!”
“Relax, M.” Arthur pats his stomach. “This is your first offence. At worst, you’d probably get community service.” He’s still smiling. “You being such an upstanding citizen and all.”
He lets go of Merlin and drops down to the concrete floor, peering around the door to confirm the woman is truly gone, and Merlin stares at his back with his hands shaking, cursing everyone born with the name of Pendragon while simultaneously missing Arthur’s warmth along his back. He looks at Arthur, the whole golden length of him, the way he’s bouncing on the balls of his feet like this is some kind of game and has a sudden revelation.
“This is fun for you,” he realises, and then feels stupid for saying it out loud when Arthur turns and shoots him a well, duh look that Merlin can read even through the darkness. “You’re certifiable.”
“Coming from you, I take that as a compliment,” Arthur says wryly. Merlin wants to hit him.
“Don’t you care?” He asks instead. “I mean, I thought you hated it here. Don’t you want to get out, become a big-city lawyer like your dad?”
Arthur snorts. “Can you see me as a lawyer?” he asks, and Merlin has to admit he has a point. Arthur has never met a rule he didn’t break. “I’m not cut out for that kind of life, Merlin. Besides” —some of the amusement drains from his face— “I don’t have to worry about university. My father doesn’t give a fuck anyways, so what’s the point?”
“The point of what? Working for it? Knowing you’ve earned something for once in your life?”
A muscle flexes in Arthur’s jaw and his eyes narrow. “You have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Oh right,” Merlin scoffs, turning to face him, and he’s not quite sure why he’s pushing like this, except that two minutes ago he had Arthur’s dick pressed against him and they almost got caught and he’s furious that it’s such a big deal, furious at Arthur for acting like it’s not. “I’ve seen your marks, you know. I know you’re not nearly as stupid as you pretend to be.”
A look of surprise flits across Arthur’s face, followed by a sly smile as he pushes the stall door all the way closed. “Why Merlin, I never knew you cared.”
“Could’ve fooled me.” Arthur’s gaze drops to below Merlin’s waist, and although his words are facetious the look on his face is more predatory than playful. Merlin realises too late that he’s half-hard still, his erect cock on view for all to see. “You should do something about that, you know. Wouldn’t want your balls to drop off from underuse.”
“That is seriously not a thing,” Merlin mutters, his cheeks flaming. He wants to press himself into the concrete and disappear, but there’s nowhere to go. “It’s really not. And my balls get plenty of use, I’ll have you know— ”
“Oh my God,” Arthur says, rolling his eyes and stepping forward until he’s almost at level with Merlin’s chest. “Do you ever shut up?”
“I— ” Merlin starts, and that’s all he gets out before Arthur’s touching him, a feather-light brush of his knuckles against Merlin’s belly, over his hip. Merlin sways forwards involuntarily, hands catching at Arthur’s bare arms, and nearly jumps out of his skin as Arthur’s hand trails lower, grazing the edge of his pubic hair. “Arthur, what are you doing?”
“Thought it would be obvious,” Arthur says, and smirks. “Are you sure you know what this thing’s for?”
Merlin swallows hard. “I’ve never— ”
“Yeah, I figured.” The questing fingers stop, hovering so close to Merlin’s cock it’s almost torture. “But we can change that. If you want.”
They stare at each other for one heartbeat; two. Yes, Merlin wants to say, yes, please, but his throat is dry and full of chlorine fumes, and he’s still reeling from the shock of it, of this, like lightning out of a clear sky. Finally he nods, head jerky, and Arthur’s hand closes over him, giving an experimental tug. “Oh shit.”
“Had my eye on you for ages,” Arthur is saying, low and fast, giving his hand a little twist that makes Merlin whine at the back of his throat. “That hair. That mouth. Those fucking ears.”
Merlin scrabbles at Arthur’s shoulders, aware of the need to stay quiet, head tipped back and mouth open, gasping for air. Arthur’s lips press against his stomach, ghosting over the long-healed surgery scar and down towards the jut of his hip.
“I saw you looking at me,” Arthur breathes, making the skin of Merlin’s thighs prickle. “That day behind the bike sheds. Saw you watching while Viv sucked me off. Your face was so red, I thought you were going to explode.”
Merlin makes a small whimpering sound. He hadn’t thought Arthur noticed him at school — or ever, really, thought he’d been too busy dicking around with the Knights or smoking or having sex with girls to look twice at a friendless boy from the form below. Apparently Arthur hadn’t been as oblivious as he thought.
“Always figured you were shy,” Arthur continues, relentless. “But you’re not, are you? Just quiet. Mysterious .”
“I’m an open book,” Merlin objects, and Arthur laughs.
“You’re really not.” He bites at Merlin’s throat; kisses him.
“Fuck, Arthur. ” Merlin moans, head thudding back against damp brick. “Don’t— I’m— fuck— ”
But Arthur does, and Merlin lets out a strangled sound, knees locking as he shudders a bit and comes all over Arthur’s chest. He closes his eyes in mortification, expecting Arthur to laugh, but then Arthur’s crowding up against him, the hot length of his erection sliding against Merlin’s thigh, his warm breath gusting in Merlin’s ear as he whispers, “You can touch me, too.”
Later, when they’ve retrieved their clothing and are getting dressed again, Arthur asks how he got his scar.
“Appendicitis,” Merlin says. “Nothing too exciting.”
“Yeah?” Arthur’s eyes are dark, not looking away from him. “I heard you almost died.”
Merlin shrugs into his t-shirt to avoid answering, his heart pounding in his ears. He’s not delusional enough to think that Arthur actually cares, but—
“They said I could have, if they hadn’t got me to the hospital in time. But I’m fine.”
Arthur nods, and gives that crooked smile again. “I’m glad.”
The cherry-sweet taste of him is still on Merlin’s lips, and though the buzz from the wine should have long since faded, he thinks he might still be a little bit drunk. He watches as Arthur pulls on his jeans, slips his feet bare into his trainers, and doesn’t blush when Arthur catches him looking.
“Come on, M,” Arthur says, slinging an arm over Merlin’s shoulders, his thumb pressing against the spot he’d kissed just so. “I’ll walk you home.”