They were a fortnights journey from the castle walls when it happened. Gawain had taken himself off to find a tree leaving Merlin and Arthur - whose sword never cleared its scabbard - alone when the bandits attacked. There was no clear warning, one moment Arthur thought them alone and the next they were beset by thieves. The prince heard Merlin snap out a sharp syllable sounding more like rouged music than a curse when with a flash of fire-gold eyes the bandits left as silently as they had come. Deep down he knows that they are dead-men now though he'd seen no fire and heard no screams.
This worried Arthur, Merlin's readiness, willingness, to kill so easily, it was not like the Merlin he'd known. There had been no hesitation, no warning, just a quick death. Where had the laughing, simplton of a boy Merlin had been gone? Or had he always had this in him? Arthur began to wonder, and yet for all this he felt no fear for himself. Merlin was changed but he was still Merlin.
Gawain rejoined them and they shuffled onwards neither speaking of what had happened.
Arthur worried, for a time, but gave it up in favor of counting his blessings that Merlin seemed a little more himself with the Buckland adventure, as he called it, behind them. Merlin began to smile more, laughing at Gawain and his ribald jokes, and humming silly shanties as he cooked - which was still awful tasting - and when he slept at Arthur's side the nights passed quietly by with nary more than a passing own-screech to disturb.
Gawain watched Merlin differently now, Arthur never asked but he knew that somehow between aiding in their rescue and the Buckland adventure the knight had discovered his menservants secret. One night while Merlin feigned sleep they talked long into morning, it ended like this, 'he is loyal to me, to Camelot, and I will not see him burn, is that understood?' Gawain had. Far easier to make a choices when it was put in those terms. So Gawain kept a close eye on Merlin with Arthur watching them both, a look of warning clear when they lighted on his knight. Arthur gently poked and prodded at Merlin until they resembled something like their old selves bantering and bickering over chores and insults that were so well used to them they seemed more endearments that held no sting.
Arthur having grown used to those quiet firesides and days of rolling hills saw the jut of the castle above the tree line and felt something like dread curl over his heart. Merlin had come this far it would make no sense to turn away at the gates, it was a silly fear but one Arthur held close and tight with bated breath. Why should Merlin come back, here to this place that held so many personal dangers for him?
In the end, he needn't have worried. Merlin had only paused briefly, like a man staring into the eyes of his fate knowing all its dangers and choosing it anyway - for good or for ill -, before ridding through. There had been a feel of finality in that moment, a choice made, and when the gates swung close behind it sounded to Arthur like the click of cell doors.
His first proper day back after the feasting and dining his father had insisted upon, he had nearly lost him after all, he thought it aught to be awkward, strange even, but it wasn't. He and Merlin fell into their allotted roles easy as bolts into slotted holes and fit together once more as they always had. It was comforting, to know no matter what, he would always have this. Merlin brought food enough for three and ate half, he grumbled and growled threats they both knew would never come to pass.
"To the stocks with you Merlin" had almost become his morning greeting, Merlin's answer varied on the day. On the days he was hung over from the last feast nights drinking his manservant would whistle a chirpy song as he yanked open the shutters, "of course sire, drink this, there you go" and all but patting his head, which admittedly always felt much clearer afterwards.
"Clean this room Merlin, it's a pigsty" he'd say, and the stocks would be forgotten. "Small wonder, that" Merlin would mumble and with a flick of his wrist, a glint of gold, the room would set to righting itself. Most mornings went like this.
Then there were others that went quite differently where Merlin would call him sire far to often, and bow to low and his smile would be brittle and hard. On those mornings Arthur summarily dismissed his plans for the day in favor of gentle poking at Merlin with all of Gawain's best jokes until he smiled truly, and laughed loudly.
On these days more than any other he looks at Merlin and sees how he's changed, in the way of a sword re-forged might be changed, its shine a little dulled but its blade remaining sharp. But no matter to all these subtle shifts when Merlin does smile, the one that makes Arthur light at the head and heavy at the tongue, he feels that old familiar feeling, it was past speaking on now, but he can put a name to it at last, love.