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***

"So," says Uther Pendragon stiffly. "You're...you're gay, then."

In spite of himself, Merlin snorts. Then he immediately feels guilty for it. "Yes, I am," is all he says.

It's an awkward start to what might end up being the most awkward dinner Merlin has ever experienced. Short, pointed, frequently appallingly personal questions are punctuated by long, tense silences. Merlin is underdressed, because Gaius said dinner, not five-star restaurant, not that Merlin even owns a suit he could have actually worn here. Uther is board-stiff in his seat and drinking more heavily than Merlin thinks is probably normal for him, and he looks as if everything about Merlin's existence makes him anxious and uncomfortable.

He'd leave, he really would - he loves Gaius, but this has really gone well beyond the bounds of "a slightly odd favour to ask of you, Merlin" - but for one thing, and one thing only. Uther's one saving grace, so to speak.

He's trying.

And yes, it's awful and sad and kind of hideous that he has to try this hard - that he is such a natural bigot that he genuinely cannot seem to function at all in the face of homosexuality - but there is something oddly endearing about the strangely businesslike way he has decided to attack the problem.

His son is gay. Uther exists in a world which, it has become painfully clear to Merlin tonight, has literally no frame of reference for dealing with that. He's a harsh, stern man who seems to inhabit a terrifyingly exclusive universe made up of lavish wealth and cutthroat business. He is distant and formal and cold and generally unpleasant in every way, but the fact that he's here, treating Merlin like a research experiment to be dissected and studied and understood -

There's a kind of love in that. For all his faults, and however ridiculous his methods, Uther is reaching out in his own way, trying to find a way to understand his son.

So Merlin stays.

He stays through dinner and through drinks. He stays through a pudding he doesn't even want, but which Uther high-handedly orders for him without asking, because apparently it is the best. He stays through questions like, 'So...I understand your people wear a lot of...colours,“ and "Are there charities of some kind I should be donating to?“ And he stays through a stilted final coffee, during which not a single word is spoken, but Uther stares very intensely at him the whole time, as if he can find some vital clue to understanding his son's sexuality by way of Merlin's face.

After politely turning down a rather perfunctory offer of a lift home, Merlin finds himself turning back at the last second, reaching out to touch Uther's arm with an impulsive hand.

"He's still your son," he blurts. "He's not - this doesn't make him a different person, he's still the same son he was yesterday, and last month, and last year before that. It's...it's an adjustment, I know, but it doesn't change who he is. And - " He hesitates, and then offers a small smile. "He's lucky. Luckier than some. This is hard for you, but you're trying. That matters. That - that'll mean a lot to him, I think."

He walks off before Uther's gobsmacked expression even has a chance to fade.

***

"So," Gaius greets, eyebrow high. "How did that go, then?"

"Don't ask me for any more favours," Merlin tells him dryly. "Ever."

The rusty sound of his uncle's laughter trails Merlin up the stairs.

***

The last person Merlin expects to see walking through the door of the coffee shop later that week is Uther Pendragon.

Uther just stands at the counter without ordering for a long moment. He's watching Merlin with that research-experiment stare again. Merlin shifts awkwardly in place.

"Uther," he greets uncertainly, feeling very aware of Gwen's curious eyes on his back.

"Merlin," Uther returns, with a grave little tilt of his head that makes Merlin have to bite back a laugh in spite of himself. "I...I require your assistance."

Merlin works very hard not to grimace. "All right," he says, as evenly as he can. "Well, my shift here doesn't end for another five minutes, but if you don't mind waiting, I can get you a coffee...?"

Uther seems oddly bewildered by that idea, like ordering coffee in the coffee shop is a thing that would never have occurred to him. Merlin wonders uncharitably for a moment if he's somehow afraid of contracting The Gay Lurgy, but after only the slightest hesitation, he gives another stiff little nod of thanks.

"I can certainly wait. A black coffee would be lovely, thank you for offering."

Merlin chews on his lip very hard, and keeps his back to the counter while he pours the coffee so that Uther can't see him fighting a laugh.

The last five minutes of his shift are interminable. He manages to invent and discard a hundred increasingly dire scenarios for what kind of "assistance" Uther "requires," ranging from help shopping for rainbow-patterned power ties to planning the world's most businesslike coming-out party for his son.

In the end, though, Uther just gives him a mildly uncomfortable look, and invites him out for dinner again.

Merlin will never know what devil possesses him to say, "There's a chippy up the street, we could walk while we eat," but watching Uther's face as he struggles with that suggestion makes the whole evening already worthwhile.

Shockingly, Uther actually concedes, albeit somewhat uncertainly, and within half an hour, they are meandering side by side through the park, and Merlin is watching with open amusement as Uther attempts to force down a chip butty without actually allowing it to touch any part of his body, including his taste buds.

"So, what can I help you with?" he finally asks, because he can't help feeling a little mean, even if it is funny.

Uther makes the least dignified face Merlin has ever seen from him around the last bite of his "dinner," but like the proper, polished gentleman he is, he finishes chewing and swallowing before he deigns to answer.

"Arthur works for my company," he says bluntly. "And while he did eventually tell me of his...preferences, I have noticed that he's made no mention of it in the office."

He's far too dignified to indulge in things like vocal tones or facial expressions, but the words somehow manage to carry a distinct air of tattling nonetheless.

"Perhaps he's working up to it," Merlin suggests reasonably. "Or perhaps he just doesn't want to announce his personal business at the office. That's not unusual. It's really no one's business, is it?"

Uther seems wrong-footed by this response. "Are you suggesting he might never tell them?"

Merlin's eyebrows go up in spite of himself. "Is there some reason he should have to? I mean, he might want to, in which case good on him and I wish him well when he's ready for that, but it's not like it's a requirement. It's his business who he talks to about personal things, isn't it?"

"Of course it's not his business!" Uther snaps. "I was given to understand that this - this coming out is part of the...the agreement!"

"The...agreement," Merlin repeats, baffled. "Between...gay people?"

"Yes,“ says Uther, like Merlin is the idiot here. "Coming out means telling people. I do know that much, at least."

"But not necessarily all people," Merlin points out. "I mean, we don't have to wear name badges or anything. Where are you getting your information? It's not a cult, Uther. It's just like anything else - everyone has to make their own choices about who has a right and a need to know their private business."

But Uther seems to be stuck on his own, increasingly-agitated wavelength. "If this is how he's going to live his life, he needs to own up - "

"Own up?“

"Yes! He says this is who he is, and he's proud of it. Well, proud people have nothing to hide! I'll not have my son skulking around keeping secrets like he's ashamed of himself - "

Merlin scowls. "Oh, please. When exactly did you hold the meeting where you announced to the entire office what kind of sex you like to have?"

Uther actually splutters, which would be funny if Merlin weren't so irritated. "That is not the same thing—"

"Of course it is," snaps Merlin. "Come on now, don't skulk around like you're ashamed of yourself. You have to own it, Uther. So - which is it, blondes, or brunettes? Big tits, or are you a leg man? Straight-up vanilla sex, or a little bit of bondage for spice? Don't be shy - people have a right to know."

Uther stops dead in his tracks, white with shock and growing rage. For a second, Merlin honestly thinks he's going to get punched. He might even deserve it, a little - that was rude, and he knows it.

But only a little.

"The point is," he says, attempting to moderate his voice back to something at least reasonably polite, "no one obsesses about the sexual preferences of heterosexual people. You're not expected to put an ad in the paper, or make an announcement at the office about what you like to do in the privacy of your own bedroom, or who you like to do it with. And you shouldn't be. It's no one's business but yours. Some people choose to come out with banners and streamers and rainbow t-shirts, and some people choose not to make an issue of it outside their family and close friends. Those are both valid choices. Either way, it's Arthur's choice, not yours or anyone else's."

Uther is silent for long enough that Merlin starts to wonder if he shouldn't just walk away. Or apologise, except he's not really all that sorry.

"But..." Uther seems genuinely confused. Enough that he's even forgotten to be angry, apparently. "Aren't you meant to - march in parades, and fight for...for rights and things?"

Merlin sighs, and shoves his hands into his pockets. "I don't really think those things have anything to do with each other," he says, as patiently as he can. "You seem to feel like being gay is something people do. It isn't. It's something people are. I am gay every minute of every day, whether or not the person I'm talking to knows about it. And yes, sometimes I personally choose to march in parades and fight for 'rights and things', but that doesn't contractually obligate me to tell everyone I talk to how much I like cock."

Uther seems to be struck temporarily speechless at this point, possibly with horror.

"Look," Merlin says, suddenly tired. "You're going to have to talk to your son about this one. I can't tell you what his reasons are, because I don't know them. But I will tell you this - there's no 'right' and 'wrong' way to be gay. If you're expecting Arthur to suddenly conform to some stereotype or idea of a 'model' gay person, then you're being unfair to him and you're going to end up disappointed anyway."

He walks away after that. He feels a little bad about it, but honestly, he never signed up to be Uther Pendragon's Guide to the Gay Side.

***

He's convinced that will be the end of that, but someone apparently forgot to tell Uther, because two days later, he's waiting outside the coffee shop when Merlin's shift ends.

"Arthur says he has no intention of coming out at the office unless and until he has a significant other he'd like to bring to a company event," Uther says abruptly, sounding for all the world as if he's picking up the conversation exactly where they left off.

Merlin stares at him for a long moment, and then gives a resigned sigh. "Curry?" he suggests glumly.

Ten minutes later, they're sitting down in a shabby little Indian restaurant Merlin eats at a minimum of twice a week. Uther, as usual, looks wildly out of place but determined to ignore it.

"Don't you think that's a bad idea?" Uther demands, once they've placed their orders.

Merlin forcibly restrains another sigh. "Why would that be a bad idea?"

"Well, it's just - discourteous." Uther scowls. "What happens when he actually has this significant other? He just...turns up with a man on his arm? No one will be prepared, everyone will be forced to simply...deal with it, on the spot."

"Seriously, you don't find that even a little bit ridiculous? That people would care? I mean, I realise they will care, that's the way the world works, but how is that Arthur's problem? If you met and started dating some twenty-year-old student, you would hardly be obligated to send out an email about it ahead of time to make sure everyone was comfortable with your choice of girlfriend."

"I don't care about that," Uther snaps. "I'm talking about his date. He's talking about bringing an innocent person into a highly uncomfortable situation without even warning anyone. How is that an acceptable way to treat someone you care about?"

Merlin blinks, baffled by this sudden twist. "Who the bloody hell do you work with? Organised crime?"

"What?"

"You're making it sound like they're going to get stabbed. It's a business dinner, not a hate crime. They'll have an awkward night. Some people will look at them funny; some might say shitty things. But it's not like his date would be going in blind. I mean, presumably he'd have told the guy in question what to expect, and if Arthur is okay with it and his date is okay with it, then what's the problem?"

"It's...ungentlemanly." Uther sets his jaw, and then has to pause while the waitress arrives and stare at his plate for a while as if he's never in his life seen anything like what's on it before. After a moment, he seems to remember himself. "It's cowardly, that's what it is. If Arthur wants to bring a man to a company function, fine, but he's got no call to be dragging his date into the path of any unpleasantness that may follow. That is no way to treat a - someone. I brought him up to be better than that."

Merlin tears off a piece of naan, and sighs. "Uther. Is there a 'someone'?"

"What?"

"Is Arthur going out with someone? Is this an actual thing that is going on, or are we dealing with hypothetical future boyfriends, here?"

Uther frowns. "Arthur is not currently seeing anyone, no."

Merlin had assumed as much. "So, what's the real problem, then? You can't really be obsessing about the mental welfare of a fictional man your son isn't even seeing yet, who may or may not hear a couple of snide remarks at some imaginary future company party. What's actually going on?"

Uther opens his mouth, then closes it. He looks wrong-footed again, and deeply uncomfortable.

"Eat your curry," Merlin says, taking pity on him.

His expression suggests that there are a great many things he would rather be doing with his time, like possibly wrestling live eels, but Uther reaches for the naan with a scowl.

For a while, they eat in blessed silence. Merlin tries to figure out how his life has come to this - gay guru to a repressed Tory business tycoon - but comes up with no answers that don't start and end with 'mad uncle Gaius.'

"All right," he says, once they've made it through most of the meal in relative peace. "Here's what I think. I think none of this is actually about Arthur's imaginary future date, or whether your son is sufficiently proud of who he is. I think you want Arthur to come out because you know it's going to happen someday, and you know some people aren't going to react well. I think waiting for it is killing you, maybe because it's going to be embarrassing for you, maybe because you're afraid it'll be painful for Arthur. And I think you want me to tell you that I agree with you, that he should get it over with, and hopefully give you tips on how to make it as painless as possible."

Uther's cheeks flush a dull red, and he glares fiercely at his plate in absolute silence. Merlin takes this as agreement.

"The problem is, I can't tell you that," Merlin says, as gently as he can. "Arthur has to do this his own way. When I came out, I was sixteen. My mother was lovely, there could be no more supportive person in the entire world. She was so supportive, in fact, that she started wearing LGBT equality t-shirts, and put a sticker on her car that proclaimed her the 'proud mother of a gay son.'" Merlin winces. "The thing is, I wasn't out at school. She meant well - she meant so well, she was proud and wanted everyone to know it, especially me - but that didn't make it any easier when half the rugby team decided I was probably spying on them in the showers when I stayed late for extra lessons with one of my teachers. I ended up with a bloody nose, and 'queer' written on my forehead in marker pen."

Uther physically flinches. "How can any parent want this for their child?" he murmurs, and in that moment, he looks so lost and helpless that Merlin's heart goes out to him.

"That's not going to happen to Arthur," he says. "He's a grown man, he knows what he's doing. He will face some...unpleasantness, as you put it, at some point in his life - and yes, it may end up happening at work, if they're all as awful as you seem to think. People will say things, some people will do things. It can be scary, and it can occasionally be dangerous, but most of the time, it's just going to be Arthur, living his life. And your job is to let him live it. He'll come out at work when it's important to him to come out at work. And when that happens, you'll be there, and that will mean a lot to him. But rushing him isn't going to help anything. Ultimately, it's his life and his privacy and his business, and you're going to have to find a way to accept that."

Uther grimaces, looking miserable and human.

Merlin smiles. "If it helps," he adds, "you might end up being surprised. As bad as you think it's going to be, a lot of people just won't care. I suspect you're building this up way out of proportion in your head. People generally do, with things that worry them."

Uther sighs at that, and stares at his plate in silence for awhile. Then, very suddenly, he's sitting up straight in his chair again, visibly pulling himself together.

"Next time," he says, all stern and formal again, "I am selecting the restaurant. You clearly cannot be trusted in matters of taste."

Merlin laughs out loud, a little despairingly. "Oh, god," he says. "Of course there's going to be a next time."

Uther does not dignify that with a response.

***

"Listen," says Merlin, three weeks (and five visits) later. "You can't keep coming here. Gwen is starting to think you're my sugar daddy. Can't you just phone like a normal person and arrange to meet up somewhere?"

Uther looks frankly alarmed. "Gwen thinks what?" he demands. "Who is Gwen?"

Merlin sighs. "Never mind. Where are we going tonight?"

***

"Merlin," says Gaius, very slowly. "Why is Uther Pendragon sending you flowers?"

Merlin glares. "Because he doesn't understand about Pride," he grits. "I never should have mentioned it, but he asked about holidays, like he thought we were some sort of weird religious organisation. Look at this card: Congratulations on your homosexuality. I am proud of you."

Gaius stares at him for a long moment, and then tips back his head and laughs and laughs.

***

At some point, around three months after that first hideous dinner, Merlin realises that Uther is, in a strange way, becoming something almost like a friend.

Not really like a friend, because Uther is definitely not the sort of person Merlin wants to text with, or talk to on the phone, or hang out with just for the sake of it. They never see or speak to each other at all in fact, outside of Uther's continuing habit of turning up imperiously outside the coffee shop and dragging Merlin off without so much as a by-your-leave to deal with Uther's gay angst and lingering ignorance.

But Merlin has stopped feeling quite so exasperated every time it happens - it helps that Uther has mostly settled into a much more comfortable once-a-week schedule now that the initial crisis seems to be behind him - and sometimes he actually even enjoys himself. They still talk more about Arthur than anything, and Uther is still hopelessly stuffy and uptight, but he's stopped treating Merlin quite so much like a laboratory specimen at least, and his questions have mostly tapered off from invasive-and-offensive to genuine and thoughtful. He asks a surprising number of questions about Merlin's life - his mother, his absentee father, his plans for the future. He even answers occasional inquiries about his own life that don't revolve around Arthur, though those are much rarer and most often amount only to short, clipped replies. But Merlin knows that he was married once, to a woman named Ygraine whom he loved more than anything, and that she died while giving birth to Arthur, and that he has a daughter named Morgana from another woman, with whom he has a very strained relationship.

He also knows that Uther hates pizza even more than he hated curry, that they have very different ideas about what makes for acceptable sushi, and that the funniest thing in the entire universe is the sight of Uther's facial expression when confronted with any sort of meal from a stall or van.

But for all that, he is still entirely unprepared for the moment Uther looks at him across the dinner table - some haughty French place this week, because it's Uther's turn to choose - and says, "You should come to lunch on Sunday."

Merlin accidentally inhales about half his glass of water. "P-pardon?"

"Lunch," Uther repeats, handing Merlin an honest-to-god handkerchief with a look of deepest disapproval. "Sunday. You should attend it."

"Lunch," Merlin repeats slowly. "At...your house. Sunday lunch."

"Do you have some sort of mental affliction?"

Merlin narrows his eyes. "Uther. Are you inviting me to your family lunch on Sunday, or not?"

Uther scowls. "I rather thought that was obvious," he says stiffly.

A horrible, horrible suspicion blooms in Merlin's mind. "Oh, god," he says, horrified. "We're not dating, right? You're not - you're not gay. Right?"

"What?“ Uther looks like he's about to keel right over at the table. "Of course we're not dating, you utter imbecile! I want you to go out with my son!“

"Oh, god," Merlin says gratefully. "Oh, thank god."

Uther still looks ready to die. Or hit something. "So, you'll come?"

"Oh," says Merlin. "No. Not in a million years. But...you know. Thanks anyway."

"What?" Uther glares. "What do you mean, no? Why the hell not?"

"Because you know exactly two gay people in all the world," Merlin explains. "And I understand how that translates in your head, and you think it makes perfect sense for us to pair off, but that's not actually how that works."

"Of course that's how it works," Uther snaps. "People set their children up all the time. And Arthur is a fine young man. You could do much worse, you know."

Merlin laughs. "He sounds lovely," he says, and even means it. "I have nothing against your son. But that doesn't mean we have anything in common. Besides, you know...being gay."

"How would you know that? You've never even met him."

"No, but I've met you,“ Merlin points out. "You tried to feed me snails tonight, Uther. Remember the fish and chips incident?"

"Rational people do not eat food served in a cone made of newspaper," Uther grits, and glares again when Merlin laughs.

"That's exactly my point. I like food served in a newspaper cone. I don't drink thousand-year-old scotch, or bottles of wine that cost more than my life is worth. I don't...play polo, or know anything about business, or even own a suit."

"Arthur wears denims when he's not in the office," Uther objects. "And I know he ate pizza at university."

Merlin laughs again, charmed in spite of himself. "You're ridiculous."

"You could at least try," Uther insists. "If the two of you don't get along, then you don't. But I can hardly see the harm in meeting him."

"Tell you what," says Merlin, and he already knows he's going to regret this. "Why don't you bring him along next week instead. Not as a date," he adds, very firmly. "But at least we can meet, and maybe we'll even end up as mates. How's that?"

Uther rolls his eyes. "You're very difficult. I don't know why I put up with you."

"Neither do I," Merlin agrees, feeling very nearly fond.

***

Arthur, when Merlin finally meets him, is visibly confused.

He's also tragically, tragically gorgeous. Somehow, Uther has apparently forgotten to mention that part.

Not that it matters, because no way in hell is Merlin going down that road. But some warning might have been nice.

"This is Merlin? You're Merlin?" Arthur looks at his father. "This is your friend Merlin?"

Merlin raises an eyebrow at Uther, who looks uncomfortable.

"Yes, well," Uther mutters stiffly. "We should be off."

"I don't get it," Arthur says blankly. "How do you even know each other?"

"He's Gaius's nephew," Uther says firmly. "Now, we should really - "

"Hello, Arthur," Merlin says loudly, holding out a hand to shake. "It's very nice to meet you. I've heard a lot about you."

Arthur shakes his hand, still looking a bit gobsmacked. "Obviously, the information has all been running one way," he says. "I'm sorry, that was rude. When my father told me he wanted me to meet a friend of his today, I was expecting someone a bit..."

"Older?" Merlin suggests brightly. "Wealthier? More heterosexual?"

Arthur chokes. "More - what?"

"Was that necessary?" Uther hisses, glaring at Merlin.

Merlin rolls his eyes. "You haven't told him anything, have you?"

"Wait," cuts in Arthur. "What?“

Merlin sighs. "After your...announcement," he explains, setting off up the street and leaving the other two with no choice but to follow, "your father decided he needed a bit more information. Which is apparently where I come in. I'm sort of like his gay tutor, it's hard to explain."

The look Arthur gives his father at that is truly priceless. "His gay...tutor," he says slowly.

"Yes," Merlin agrees, cheerfully watching Uther's face wash with red. "He turns up whenever he has questions or concerns. It's actually a bit sweet, in a really dysfunctional sort of way."

"Dysfunctional!" snaps Uther, affronted.

"The first time we met, he asked me how many STDs I have to get treated for each year," Merlin confides to Arthur, who makes an extremely undignified sound by way of response, and bleats,

"Father!“

Uther scowls at Merlin. "Are you quite finished?"

"Probably not," Merlin says pleasantly. "You have no one to blame but yourself. I warned you about matchmaking, you old bastard. You should have told him what was actually going on for yourself, and then I wouldn't have to."

Uther visibly grits his teeth. "Fine. Forget it. Do you have a destination in mind so we might actually eat at some point tonight, or is it your plan to drag us aimlessly around London for hours instead?"

Merlin had actually planned to take pity on Uther for once and choose a nice, nondescript pub somewhere, but he's feeling much less charitable than he was before he found himself being waved around in front of an unsuspecting Arthur like a gay chew toy, which is why he ends up maliciously saying, "Yes, there's a lovely kebab shop just ahead," instead.

Uther makes one of his 'ugh, unwashed peasant' faces. "Kebab...shop," he repeats darkly.

Merlin beams, victorious. "I'm sure you'll just love it."

Arthur, Merlin cannot help but notice, is gaping back and forth between the two of them like he honestly cannot understand the world at all anymore. Merlin can sympathise - he's been feeling much the same since Uther first stormed into his life.

"So," says Arthur a few minutes later, once they're all successfully in possession of their evening meal. Even Arthur looks a little uncomfortable with his, but it's nothing to Uther's hilarious pinched expression, and the way he's clutching his with two gloved fingers like he thinks it's about to explode in his face. "When you say 'gay tutor'..."

Uther sighs heavily, and marches off toward the park, leaving Arthur and Merlin to trail along behind him.

"Mostly, I answer his questions about gay culture and lifestyles," Merlin explains, taking pity on Arthur where he didn't for Uther. "Especially in the beginning, he just genuinely seemed to have no comprehension of how to relate to it at all, but...he really wanted to understand you. So I sort of became his research project somehow."

Arthur sighs, and covers half his face with one hand. "I had no idea," he mumbles. "Though, I did think he was dealing with it better than I expected - " He pauses, suddenly arrested, and glances at Merlin. "Are you by any chance responsible for the professionally gift-wrapped 'Gay Pride' present I got a few weeks back?"

Merlin flushes. "Yeah, we had a little miscommunication there. I ended up getting flowers," he admits. "With a card. Congratulating me on my homosexuality. Don't worry, I've explained it better now."

Arthur laughs out loud at that, head tipped back, hair fairly glowing in the fading sunlight. Merlin forces himself to look at Uther instead, and inadvertently catches him in the act of discreetly binning his untouched kebab. He snorts.

"Be advised," he continues, loud enough to ensure that Uther can hear him, "He has progressed to the point of matchmaking now, so you'll want to keep an eye out for any new gay people he might happen to meet. I headed this one off at the pass, but don't be surprised if a lot of gay men start turning up at Sunday lunch."

Uther's shoulders stiffen, and Arthur looks amused.

"You headed this one off at the pass?" he asks, smirking. "Should I be offended, then?"

"Not at all, you're quite pretty," Merlin says brightly. "Only, I had to give your father the gay Talk a few months back, after he made the mistake of reading an article about gay health and welfare that included the phrase 'rectal tearing,' and I really feel like there are some lines you can just never come back from."

Arthur chokes on a bite of his kebab, staggers sideways, and almost tips right off the pavement. Merlin has to catch his arm and drag him back to steadier footing, laughing. Ahead of them, Uther has given up all pretence of inattention, and is glowering fiercely at Merlin.

Merlin smiles sunnily back.

"Oh, god," groans Arthur, once he can mostly breathe again. "Oh, god. I'm so sorry about him, I had no idea - "

"It's all right," Merlin says, smile softening. "Actually, I wasn't joking before when I said it was sort of sweet, really. He cares about you a lot, Arthur. It's been really important to him to understand what your life is like. He's...he's trying, you know?"

Arthur looks a little bemused, maybe a little awed. "Yes," he says quietly. "I suppose he really is, isn't he?"

***

Two days later, it's Arthur's turn to show up unannounced outside the coffee shop. Merlin quietly wonders why he even bothers to be surprised anymore.

"Arthur," he greets cautiously.

Arthur grins. "When I told my father I was coming here, he ordered me to 'wear denims and eat pizza.' Is there a story there that I should know?"

Merlin closes his eyes, and shakes his head. "Stubborn old bastard," he mutters. "Apparently he's not quite over the matchmaking thing yet. Oh well, he'll get it eventually. How's the pub sound instead? I could really use a pint."

It turns out that Arthur really just wants to know exactly what sorts of things his father has been asking Merlin about, which is fair enough. In his place, the curiosity would be killing Merlin too, so they settle in comfortably at the pub and spend nearly two hours laughing helplessly as Merlin works his way through the highlights of his Uther Experience.

Along the way, the conversation ends up sidetracked a bit, and they talk about other things for awhile - Merlin's two "real" relationships, and the ill-advised month he spent letting his well-meaning mates set him up on a series of blind dates from hell; Arthur's teenage years in the closet, denying his sexuality even to himself; Merlin's accidental outing by way of his mother; what it was like to grow up as a child in the shadow of Uther's cold disapproval.

"The strangest thing of all was watching the way you talk to him," Arthur admits, halfway through the third pint. "I've never seen anyone but Morgana take him on like that, and with them - well, it's not nearly so friendly or lighthearted."

Merlin shrugs. "There's no reason for him to scare me," he offers. "He's not my boss, or my father, or anyone whose opinion I have to worry about, you know? I mean, he's my uncle's friend, but even if I mortally offended Uther and he hated me forever, Gaius wouldn't care. It's a lot easier to cut through all the bullshit when you've got nothing on the line."

Arthur acknowledges that with a vague nod. "But you...you actually seem to like him." Like this is another thing he cannot imagine. Fear, he could understand. Friendship, obviously, not so much.

"In the beginning, I just felt bad for him," Merlin admits. "He was horrible and offensive and he looked at me like I was an insect or something, but he was just trying so hard to get it, you know? I've had plenty of friends whose parents flat-out refused to accept it at all, either cut them out entirely or just...pretended it didn't exist, tried to talk them out of it or insist that it's just a phase. Uther was an awful bigot, especially early on, but trying to change you was never even on the table. He was determined right from the start to change himself, to understand you, and that mattered enough to stick around."

Arthur stares at him for a long moment, and then smiles crookedly. "I don't suppose I could change your mind on the whole matchmaking idea, could I?"

Merlin laughs, even while he can feel himself blushing helplessly. "As if I'd give your father the satisfaction," he manages lightly, and Arthur laughs with him.

But his eyes are warm and intent when they finally say goodnight and go their separate ways, and Merlin staggers into the bedroom of his little attic flat and faceplants on his bed in despair.

"I am so fucked," he mumbles into his pillow..

***

Arthur turns up twice more before the week is out, once with a friend named Lance in tow. He still looks at Merlin with open interest and curiosity in his eyes, but he doesn't make any more outright flirtatious gestures, which is more than can be said for Lance.

"Somewhere, swelling strains of violin music just started playing for no reason," Merlin mutters from the corner of his mouth, watching Lance and Gwen gaze besottedly at each other from under their lashes.

Arthur looks on incredulously. "Is it just me, or did everything just go all soft-focus and glowy in here?"

For whatever reason, Gwen chooses this moment to at least vaguely re-join reality, glancing over at Merlin with a distinctly dazed expression. "What?"

"Nothing," says Merlin, sighing. "Don't worry about it. Go back to your soulful gazing, there." He turns to Arthur, making a face. "Want to go and get drunk?"

"So drunk," Arthur agrees, watching Lance beam shyly at Gwen.

Merlin takes off his apron. It's still fifteen minutes early for the end of his shift, but it seems only fair. Gwen gets a gorgeous hunk making cow eyes at her across the counter, and Merlin gets a fifteen-minute head start on drowning the kind of sorrows that come with having the most gorgeous gay man he's got anywhere near in a long while be the recently-closeted son of Uther Pendragon.

Life has to make some accommodations, after all.

***

For the first time in a long time, Uther doesn't bother to wait impatiently outside the coffee shop. He turns up at the counter instead, bold as brass, ten minutes before Merlin's shift is due to end.

"My son," he says, loud and fierce, "is infatuated with you. He mentions you constantly. Not a day has passed since he met you that I haven't heard your name."

"Uther," hisses Merlin, eyeing the suddenly-interested crowd around them with growing dismay.

"Why are you being so difficult about this?" Uther demands. "It's obvious he's attracted to you, you seemed to enjoy his company well enough - "

"Uther," says Merlin, louder.

"Surely things cannot be so different among your people that mutual attraction and pleasant company are not considered reasons to date - "

"Uther!“ Merlin snaps. "Shut up, and go sit down. I will be with you in ten minutes. You are making a scene."

It must be the first time in living memory that anyone has dared to boss Uther Pendragon around, much less scold him like a misbehaving schoolboy, but after a single, shocked beat of hesitation, he actually obeys. Merlin would crow with vindictive delight if he weren't busy being fatally mortified in front of all the other baristas and a fair-sized crowd of customers. He ends up abandoning the counter to Gilli, and retreating to clean the espresso machine with his back to the room, face burning.

"Your...people?" ventures Gwen, out the side of her mouth, sounding like she's fighting a laugh.

"The gays," Merlin mutters darkly. "We're a bit like the martians, only sparklier and less familiar with Earth customs."

Gwen politely hides her laughter in a stack of serviettes, and Merlin devotes the last few minutes of his shift to remembering all the reasons why he hasn't punched Uther yet, and convincing himself that it would be a real shame to break that streak now.

Ten minutes later, he slams a cup of black coffee down in front of Uther with what he considers to be an impressive display of restraint, and drops into the chair across from him with a glare.

Uther opens his mouth, but Merlin holds up a hand to cut him off before he even gets started.

"No, you are going to sit quietly, and you are going to listen. This may not seem like a very important job to you, but this is where I work. I need this job, and I do not appreciate being humiliated by one of your tantrums in front of my friends, other staff, and customers."

Uther has the grace to wince at that, though likely as not, it has more to do with his own lapse of dignity than any guilt over Merlin's discomfort.

"I...apologise. That was not well done of me," Uther says stiffly.

"It was not," Merlin agrees heartlessly. "Don't do it again."

Uther glares a little at that, but Merlin doesn't back down, and eventually, Uther seems to give up in favour of his original plan of attack. "About Arthur - "

Merlin sighs. "No, Uther. There is no 'about Arthur.' I am not going to go out with your son."

Uther scowls. "I do not understand this childishly stubborn refusal. You are being ridiculous. There is nothing wrong with my son."

"I never said there was," Merlin says tiredly. "Arthur is lovely. I have nothing against Arthur."

"Then - "

"He is also," Merlin continues, "very new to all of this. He's only been out for a few months - he's never even been on what he considers to be a 'real' date. He still has a lot to learn, about everything. Even he admits that."

"But you don't," Uther says, like Merlin is an idiot. "That's what makes it so perfect. You've done a perfectly sufficient job of explaining things to me these past months. You can help him."

Merlin stares. "Do you even get that I am a real person?" he demands, incredulous in spite of himself. "I realise this may come as something of a shock to you, you entitled prick, but it is not actually my sacred calling to guide you and your family through this time of gay crisis. I have tried to be patient with you, because you clearly love your kid and I respect that, and on some level I even recognise this as the twisted sort of compliment it obviously is, and I appreciate that I have been deemed 'worthy' of Arthur's attention in your eyes. But at some point you are going to have to get the fuck over yourself and accept the fact that I might want more for myself than to be your son's learning experience."

Uther couldn't look more shocked if Merlin had punched him in the face, but for once, Merlin honestly does not care.

He stands up and storms out of the shop without a word, leaving Uther to stare wordlessly after him.

***

If there were any sort of justice in the world, that would have been the end of it, but all of Merlin's Pendragon experiences thus far have taught him better than to cling to such a fragile hope by now.

Which is why it almost - almost - manages not to surprise him when a woman who looks like a supermodel strolls up to the counter out of nowhere the next day and announces with a frightening smirk, "So, this is the mighty Merlin."

Merlin groans. "I take it that would make you Morgana, then? Fabulous. Would you like to wait five minutes until my shift ends, or humiliate me publicly right here at the counter?"

Morgana actually laughs at that. "I can wait," she says graciously.

"Excellent," says Merlin wearily. "And what can I get you to drink while you wait?"

Morgana only laughs again. "I can already tell I'm going to like you, Merlin."

She strolls off without bothering to order a drink, taking the attention of most of the shop with her, and settles herself at a corner table with all the dignity of a queen overlooking her court.

"Just go," says Gwen, amused. "I can cover your last five minutes."

Merlin sighs. "That offer would sound a lot more generous if you weren't tossing me to the lion's den."

"Go," says Gwen, and Merlin goes.

Morgana watches him approach, mouth curled up in a smirk that would have intimidated Merlin a lot more if he'd seen it before spending three and a half months squaring off against the demon that spawned it.

"So, this is the face that launched a thousand broken hearts," she says, almost warmly. "Or at least two of them. They're pining, you know, the pair of them. It's ridiculous, and sort of precious."

Merlin rolls his eyes, dropping into the seat across the table and levelling her with a look. "Seriously, what is it with your family and stalking me at my workplace? Do you people not understand about phones? Or email? I would not turn away a carrier pigeon, if that's your thing."

"The thing you need to understand about Uther Pendragon," she says, apparently having an entirely different conversation and unwilling to be swayed from it, "is that the fact that he arranged that first meeting with you is a mark of how much he really does love his son."

"I know that," says Merlin.

"And the fact that he continued to seek you out after that is a mark of how much he likes you."

Merlin snorts.

"I'm serious," says Morgana. "Uther is terrible with emotions, he's genuinely stunted in some way. It's actually sort of sad. His determination to see you and Arthur married off would almost be sweet if he weren't being such a nightmare about it, but - that's just it, you see. This is how Uther does fatherly affection."

"I get that, I really do, but I'm still not a gift he gets to give to his son."

Morgana laughs. "Not fatherly affection for Arthur. Or - well, not just Arthur. I was talking about you. Uther doesn't have any frame of reference for relationship classifications like, 'he's like a son to me.' That's...it's strictly emotional, it's too tenuous, that isn't something he can be comfortable with. 'Son-in-law' is much firmer footing, you see. You're really one of the family then. He can throw money at you and make you come to Sunday lunch and that...that's a relationship he can understand. That's all very clear-cut, with roles and expectations and where everything makes sense."

"I'm not like a son to Uther, though," Merlin says blankly. "He barely knows me. He doesn't even like me - at first, he thought I was, like, a human STD I think, and I'm still not convinced he doesn't look at me and see a walking, talking gay lurgy. He disapproves of literally everything about me, from my sexuality to where I work to the way I dress and what I eat. And it's mutual! He drives me insane, I can barely stand to look at him sometimes. He's a bigot. And he's rude, and he's high-handed, and he expects everyone to just drop everything whenever he waves a hand - "

Morgana's smile is blinding. " - and even when you hate him, you can't help caring about him anyway. See? You're one of us already. Welcome to the Pendragon family, Merlin. You have just described exactly what it's like to be one of his children."

Merlin scrubs a tired hand over his face, feeling distinctly unsettled. "What is my life?" he asks bleakly. "I was just supposed to be doing a stupid favour for Gaius." He sighs. "I'm going to have to apologise for yelling at your father, aren't I?"

"Absolutely not," Morgana says crisply. "Pendragon family rule number one: Never back down, especially from Uther. He needs to be put in his place from time to time, and no one else will dare to do it, so it falls to us to pick up the slack."

"Stop saying 'Pendragon family,'" Merlin mutters darkly. "And I'm still not going out with your brother."

Morgana waves a hand. "No, that part I understand. So does Arthur, actually. He's very new, and inexperienced, and you don't want to be his test drive. We all get that. Well, except for Uther, but he'll get over it eventually. Arthur is frustrated - you're lovely and funny, and basically everything he's looking for in a relationship, and he can't have you because he can't magically make himself less new, but he really does understand your reasons. I think he'd very much like to be your friend, however."

Privately, Merlin doubts that friendship with Arthur is a scenario that's ultimately destined to end with less heartbreak than just going ahead and dating him would be, but he hasn't been able to bring himself to turn away from Arthur's friendly overtures yet, and now that it looks like Lance and Gwen are going to get married and breed a million soulful little babies, it's probably too late anyway.

All at once, he can see the future stretching out ahead of him, like a glimpse of his own certain fate: Arthur will continue coming around, and Merlin will continue feeling fluttery and stupid about it. Lance and Gwen will throw sappy dinner parties, at which he and Arthur will be unintentionally coupled up in accordance with the Two-Gay Default Standard. At some point, Uther will get his way about Sunday lunch, and Morgana will start insisting that Merlin meet her for brunch, or shop with her, or drop everything to attend one of her dinner parties, and Merlin will be unable to refuse, because she's kinder than she looks, and obviously twice as determined. Merlin will continue to like and detest Uther in equal measure; Uther will continue to offend him and order him about and generally take over his life in all the most frustrating ways, and Merlin will snark and snap and bicker and let him, because he's too soft-hearted for his own good. Eventually, Merlin really will be 'one of the family,' in so deep he can't even remember what the other side looks like anymore, and all the while there will be Arthur, blond and gorgeous and everywhere, until Merlin finally caves and they have some sort of mad affair he can only hope won't end in messy disaster.

Part of him wants to run as fast as he can in any direction but that one. Part of him wants to call Arthur and throw in the towel right now, volunteer himself for test-drive duty and just roll with whatever happens.

Either Morgana is surprisingly perceptive, or Merlin's thoughts are more obvious than he would like, because she's smiling at him again, disarmingly soft around the edges.

"For what it's worth," she says, "Arthur is a good man. He'd be the first to tell you he's far from perfect - he can be arrogant and sometimes rude, and he spent his formative years effectively alone with Uther Pendragon, so make of that what you will. But he is not Uther, and he never has been. To be honest, as much as I understand your reasons - and I do - I think you're doing him a bit of a disservice. He may be new, but he's not stupid, and he's not a child. He knows what he wants, and the only reason he's still inexperienced this late in the game is because he's honestly not looking for the kind of 'test drive' you're worrying about. He refuses to settle for less than the best - he's a bit like Uther in that way, actually, as terrifying as that is to contemplate. You should think about that, because people who look like my brother are not without opportunities, and he's never been interested in any of them - until you."

She pushes to her feet before Merlin can even work his way through all of that.

"But," she says cheerfully, gathering up her things. "I'm confident that Arthur will win you over on his own. We're a very persuasive lot, we Pendragons. It was lovely meeting you, Merlin." She leans over, dropping a light kiss on his cheek, and then smirks. "I'm sure I'll see you at Sunday lunch someday soon."

And then she's gone, leaving Merlin to stare blankly at the tabletop and wonder what has happened to his life.

***

"I met your sister," Merlin says to Arthur, when he turns up a day later.

Arthur has the grace to wince a little. "I heard," he says. "She likes you."

Merlin grimaces. "I'm beginning to feel like a family project."

They're on their way to the chip shop. One good thing about Arthur: he hasn't once tried to drag Merlin anywhere posh or pretentious, though Merlin doesn't doubt that he's every bit as comfortable with and accustomed to those sorts of places as Uther is. Arthur may occasionally eye a kebab with wary confusion, but so far at least, he's been game for slumming it.

Arthur is quiet for a moment. Then, "Yeah. I suppose I should pretend to be sorry I dragged you into all this," he says frankly. "But I'm not. My father is insane, but if he wasn't, I'd never have met you. And I can't be sorry I've met you."

"Arthur." Merlin clears his throat. He can feel himself blushing like a schoolboy, it's embarrassing.

"It's fine," says Arthur, sounding only a little strained. "I get it. I'm fresh out of the closet, and you've already met my father. It's like all the reasons not to want to go out with me ever, I know that. I wasn't trying to push."

Merlin feels like an arsehole, and he wants to kiss Arthur, and he wishes he'd never met anyone named Pendragon in his life.

"You barely know me," he points out, as evenly as he can.

Arthur rolls his eyes. "Don't be condescending," he says, and he's a fine one to talk, but Merlin doesn't want to pick a fight. "I know you more than well enough to like you. I don't know what it was like when you came out, but so far it hasn't affected my brain functions."

"It's not about when you came out of the closet," Merlin tries to explain. "Not really. I mean, it would be a problem if you were in the closet, because I'm not interested in being someone's dirty secret, but you're not in the closet, and I don't much care when or why you came out of it." He hesitates. "What I do care about is that it's all still so new to you. You weren't...fumbling around with boys in dark corners or sneaking off to gay clubs when no one was looking, Arthur. I never had the kind of epiphany you had, I always knew I was gay, but I've known enough people who have to understand that it's not just like flipping a switch. Things are going to be confusing for you for awhile. I...I like you. I think I could really like you. Enough that I'd rather hold out and maybe have a real chance at something later than be the starter model you learn on."

They're silent the rest of the way to the chippy, and don't speak again until they've got their food in hand and made it all the way to the park.

Then, suddenly, Arthur says, "No. That's stupid."

"Pardon?" Merlin is taken aback.

"I'm gay, not incompetent. Yes, I spent a long time not knowing exactly what I wanted, and I get where that could make you think I'm confused. But I'm not confused. The things I find attractive in a person, the things I'm looking for in a relationship - those things haven't changed just because I understand now that I'd like them to come attached to a dick. I'm inexperienced because I'm picky. I'm not saying you're the only man I could ever be attracted to, and if you're bound and determined not to date me I'm sure I'll survive, but I think I could really like you too, and I don't see why I shouldn't be allowed to learn with someone I actually care about just because I'm gay now."

Merlin stares helplessly at him for a very long moment, and Arthur stares back, all scowly and golden in the sunlight, and Merlin's chest feels tight and fluttery and he's a little breathless in spite of himself.

"I am seriously so fucked," he realises distantly, and chucks his untouched chips in the nearest bin.

Arthur gives him a weird look, and eyes his own chips like he's suddenly not sure what he's meant to be doing with them, but Merlin doesn't care about that. He doesn't care about any of it anymore - not crazy Uther and and the looming threat of Sunday lunches, not Arthur's painfully recent gay epiphany, not the entire creepy, stalkery family's ridiculous penchant for turning up and taking over his whole life like it's somehow their god-given right to monopolise his time - because it's over, he gives up, whatever, he's in. This is probably going to be his biggest mistake since agreeing to that first dinner with Uther, but Merlin just doesn't care.

He walks straight into Arthur's startled arms, wraps his arms around his neck, and tips his face up to nudge at Arthur's open mouth with his own.

Arthur exhales, sharp and shaky, and then his own chips are falling unheeded to the ground, and his arms are so tight around Merlin's waist that it's nearly painful, and the kiss goes hungry and desperate and urgent and curious at once.

This isn't Arthur's first kiss, Merlin knows. They've talked about that much, at least. Arthur never actually made it as far as sex with a woman, but he did basically everything else, confused and waiting all the while for something that was never going to click, never going to make sense. Then, one night not long before Merlin met Uther, he'd drunk half a bottle of vodka alone in his flat, staggered out the door and to the nearest gay bar, and kissed the first man that smiled at him. According to Arthur, the kiss was frantic and terrified and utterly awful in every way - and Arthur came in his pants like a teenager, right there against the bar. Then he went home, downed the rest of the vodka in silence, and passed out on his sofa for fourteen hours. The very next night, he'd driven to his father's and come out.

So this is not Arthur's first kiss, or even his first kiss with a man, but Merlin can still feel the jagged edge of fear and exhilaration behind it, the overwhelming intensity of discovery, of finding something that finally fits. It's enough to take a simple first kiss in the park between two people who think they might like each other, and turn it into something huge and bewildering. Which is sort of exactly what Merlin was afraid of, except now that it's happening, he finds he doesn't mind so much after all.

Whatever this thing with Arthur turns out to be, it can never be simple or casual. It's already too late for that, it was too late for that before they met. This is going to be an epic mess - Arthur is going to be half-mad with the newness of it all, and Uther already has them halfway to married in his head, and Merlin apparently has no defences to speak of against posh, stubborn idiots determined to get their own way. It's a disaster in the making, but -

What the hell. At least it'll be a ride to remember in the meantime.

Merlin licks into Arthur's mouth, and relishes the shuddering gasp he receives in response.

And, yeah. Okay. Merlin smiles into the kiss.

Worth it.

***

"Uther sent you flowers again," Gaius says dryly the next morning.

Merlin is already laughing ruefully as he reaches for the stupid card.

Congratulations on your new homosexual relationship. I will expect you on Sunday for lunch.

***

End