It’s a lazy Sunday afternoon. Arthur is lying on his back on the sofa, staring idly at the ceiling, which in retrospect Merlin ought to have known was a precursor for trouble. He looks over from his own seat at the kitchen table and raises an eyebrow, although of course Arthur isn’t looking at him.
“Why did you tell Leon we were reading poetry, of all things? You know he must have thought we were mad.”
“It was the first thing that came into my head,” Merlin confesses honestly. Clearly today is going to be one of those days; they’ve been happening with increasing frequency since Arthur returned, days where the king—prince—where Merlin’s roommate is quiet and brooding as he reflects on events from a life long past. “I could hardly have said we were playing tennis.”
“What’s tennis?” Arthur asks, then shakes his head. “Never mind. It’s just—I never really got into poetry very much.”
“You should read some,” Merlin suggests, more because he’d like to put an end to this conversation than because he really thinks Arthur will go for the idea. “It’s evolved a lot over the past thousand years. You never know—you might actually like it.”
“Maybe.” Arthur sounds doubtful.
“There’s a collection in the bookcase over there,” Merlin persists, trying to be helpful. “You could start there.”
“Yeah, okay.” Arthur doesn’t make a move to go and get it, though, and he doesn’t budge from the couch for the rest of the afternoon.
Merlin has more or less forgotten about the poetry incident a few days later, when he comes home from work to find Arthur sitting by the window, nose buried in the pages of a book.
“What’re you reading?” he asks curiously. It’s not that unusual to find Arthur studying when he gets home; the king has several hundred years of history to catch up on, for starters, and he has done his best to learn as much as he can about the things he’s missed out on, starting with the modern world and working his way back. Still, Arthur tends to be an active reader on those occasions, unable to resist making comments about what he would have done, and all the things the previous rulers had done wrong. Sometimes it can be trying.
Not tonight, though. Tonight Arthur is frowning at the page like it’s written in a language he doesn’t understand, even though the first thing Merlin had done was spell him so that he could comprehend modern English the same as the dialect they had used in Camelot.
“Poetry,” Arthur says succinctly, and oh, that would explain the scowl. “What does this mean?”
He shoves the book towards Merlin, who takes it, running his eyes over the lines of text. Arthur taps one line with his finger.
“It doesn’t make sense,” he says. He sounds quite irritated about it. “And it’s you are whatever the moon has always meant? It’s gibberish.”
“A lot of cummings’ poetry is like that,” Merlin says, sitting down next to him. “His style is quite experimental. It’s more…it’s kind of more about feelings and expression than it is about making logical sense.” The look on Arthur’s face suggests that this answer is inadequate, so he tries to explain further. “The narrator is in love, yeah? He’s trying to explain that feeling of—of carrying someone around with you, of being so close to them that it’s like you’re the same person and you see them in everything.”
Something in Arthur’s expression clears, and his eyes widen. “That’s what he’s talking about?”
“Yeah, look. If you read it carefully—”
It’s probably ironic, Merlin thinks later, that of all the things that gets Arthur to start acting like himself again, it’s poetry. Or maybe it’s not so strange; perhaps he’s thinking of Gwen, and engaging with other people’s feelings is helping him to process his grief. It could happen. Either way, Merlin can hardly begrudge him a few hours spent poring over the words of old favourites, not even when Arthur turns to him afterwards and says, “There’s only one person I’ve ever loved like that,” and Merlin can feel his heart shrivel just a little bit more inside his chest.
They sleep in the same bed out of necessity. Merlin can only afford a single-bedroomed apartment, and while he could always have made Arthur sleep on the couch, that would never do as a long-term solution. Besides, Merlin is used to having him nearby—there’s a part of him that is never quite relaxed without Arthur somewhere in close proximity, and even a couple of thousand years apart hasn’t really done anything to fix that. Instead, it’s given him nightmares, which—well. Let’s just say it’s better for all concerned if he experiences as few of those as possible.
In any case, later that night when the two of them are preparing for bed, Arthur is uncharacteristically quiet. He slides underneath the covers and rolls over to watch as Merlin does the same, studying his face in the lamplight.
“All right, out with it,” Merlin says, settling against his pillows. “What’s bothering you?”
But Arthur shakes his head. “Nothing’s bothering me, exactly. Just…did you ever go along for most of your life thinking that things were one way, only to find out that they were really another way the whole time?”
“I guess so,” Merlin says, thinking of all the friends who had turned out to be enemies, and vice versa. “Things aren’t always as they appear.”
“No, I know that. I just mean—you go your whole life believing something about yourself, and then…” He trails off. “Never mind.”
“No, tell me,” Merlin says, curious now in spite of himself. “Do you mean you’re surprised that you actually enjoy poetry? Because I’ll admit, I’m surprised too. Who would’ve thought you had a sensitive soul underneath all that brashness and bluster?”
“Shut up,” Arthur says, rolling his eyes. “That’s not what I meant.” He takes a deep breath, then recites softly, “Here is the deepest secret nobody knows; here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud, and the sky of the sky of a tree called life…”
The cadence is a little off, as is his pronunciation, but even Merlin—who has become something of a literary pedant over the last thousand years or so—can’t fault the earnestness of the execution.
“I carry your heart,” he finishes in a low voice, and Merlin’s eyelids prickle. “I carry it in my heart.”
“It’s,” Merlin swallows, looking anywhere but at Arthur. Surely the king isn’t trying to tease him about this, of all things; he’s never given any sign that he knows about Merlin’s feelings, and yet, they must be written all over his face— “It’s a beautiful poem, isn’t it?”
Arthur reaches out and touches a thumb to Merlin’s chin, turning it towards him, and Merlin meets his gaze again almost involuntarily. Arthur looks very serious.
“There’s only one person I’ve ever loved like that,” he says, and not even Merlin can mistake his meaning this time. “But I’m afraid he’s a little dense, because he persists in remaining ignorant of the fact.”
Merlin chokes out a laugh, then covers his mouth, holding back his smile out of pure reflex. “I know the feeling, sire.”
“Do you?” Arthur’s thumb brushes distractingly along the line of Merlin’s jaw, and his eyes flutter shut for a moment. “Perhaps you ought to tell me about it, then.” He holds up a finger when Merlin tries to speak. “Poetically.”
Merlin stares at him. Arthur is smiling slightly but there’s a challenge there, underneath the unexpected vulnerability. “All right,” Merlin says, because he’d started this, hadn’t he, all those years ago, and it’s only fair that he be the one to end it. “All right, I’ll tell you.”
He doesn’t need to retrieve the book, or even think very hard about the lines to know what he wants to say, because he’d memorised that poem a long time ago. “I fear no fate (for you are my fate, my sweet); I want no world (for, beautiful, you are my world, my true), and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant, and whatever a sun will always sing is you—”
Arthur cuts him off with a kiss before he gets around to repeating the final verse, but it’s probably just as well. His voice is shaking so much, he’s not sure he’d be able to do it justice anyway.