It took Uther nine years, three months and twenty-five days to understand.
"Sir Uther Pendragon. I'm here to see Merlin Emrys."
The nurse was young, a fresh little thing with bright eyes and a nervous smile. She tapped at the computer for what felt like several minutes whilst Uther waited, elbow crooked on the desk and eyes scanning his surroundings. The last time he had stepped into this hospital, thirty-five years ago, his life had changed forever.
The girl looked up at last. "I'm sorry, sir, but I'm afraid he's in surgery at the moment."
"How long until it's over?"
"Sorry sir, I can't tell you at the moment."
Uther frowned disapprovingly. "My son – Arthur Pendragon – brought him in, where can I find him?"
"I believe he's in the waiting area. If you take the lift to the third floor, the receptionists will give you directions."
For the surgical ward, the third floor was eerily quiet. Even if Uther didn't already know his way, he would have found the waiting area with little hassle; he could recognise the sound of grief anywhere – mothers sobbing a lifetime's worth of tears, orphans bewildered and confused into quiet, spouses stricken dumb with loss.
When Uther finally saw Arthur, hunched over and head in his hands like the world had fallen on him, déjà vu hit Uther so hard, he had to rest a hand on the wall to steady himself.
Uther stared at his son, broken and devastated, and he understood.
"There's been a complication—"
"What do you mean, complication?"
"I'm sorry, sir, but during the C-section, your wife lost a lot of blood – more than should be normal, and more than her body could take."
"I don't understand. What happened? Tell me what happened!"
"Sir, I need you to stop shouting, please calm down—"
"How can I calm down! Where is my wife? I need to see my wife! Take me to my wife right the hell now!"
"Sir, please, I'm sorry, sir, I'm so sorry—"
Arthur looked up. His eyes were wide and wet, his hair in disarray from too many fingers running through it too many times.
Uther sat down. The atmosphere in the waiting area was stifling – too many hopeful prayers, too many shattered lives, too much memory everywhere – but he pushed them aside, for Arthur. For his son.
Arthur slumped into his seat, inhaling heavily. "Merlin went out to do my dry-cleaning. It was just a shirt, but it was for tomorrow's presentation, and I was working on it, so I sent Merlin. I should never have made him go at this time of night. H-He—" Arthur's voice was breaking, the ends frayed and paralysed with regret, but he swallowed it down with clenched fists. "He was attacked. T-They stabbed him… with a knife."
Uther muttered something inaudible under his breath.
"He's been in surgery for two hours already," Arthur continued, staring fixedly at the hospital floor. "I only got here after they'd started. I haven't seen him, but the passerby who called 999 – he said there was so much blood." He choked, leaning over again and folding into himself.
Uther wasn't a fool. He told himself that his thirty-five-year-old son was still unmarried because he wanted to find the perfect woman, and he had the looks to maintain such arrogance. He told himself that Merlin, Arthur's personal assistant, was nothing more than that – Arthur's right-hand man, maybe his best friend after so many years loyal to him, but no more.
He told himself both these things, but Uther knew the truth – had always known the truth. Only, he'd never understood, until now.
"Come here," Uther said gruffly, and pulled Arthur into him, crushing his face against his shoulder. Uther held tight as his son made a choked, muffled noise in his shirt, and began to cry.
"Uther, I'm so sorry."
"It was that doctor. Doctor… Nimueh. It was her fault."
"Uther, listen to me: it was no one's fault. It was out of anyone's control."
"Gaius, my wife is dead! Tell me who to blame. Someone needs to take the blame for this! I can't have lost her for nothing!"
"Blaming someone won't bring Ygraine back, my friend."
"I don't care. I don't… I can't. I can't do this!"
"And what of your son? Yours and Ygraine's son. You must be strong for him, he's just lost his mother, Uther."
"And I have lost the love of my life."
It was a small mercy that Arthur fell into a fitful sleep against Uther's arm not long after spending his tears into his father's shirt with silent sobs, soaking the blue material into dark navy. Uther watched his son sleep, frown furrowed deeply into his forehead even in his dreams, and felt like a fool.
This was why Arthur always turned down dates with women recommended by friends and family for seemingly casual dinner with Merlin. This was why Arthur always looked like sunshine was pouring from him every morning at work when Uther walked into Camelot and Sons, because Merlin was sitting at his desk outside Arthur's office, wearing the exact same idiotic smile. This was why whenever Uther saw his son, or talked to his son, or heard about his son, he was always with Merlin, his personal assistant.
The truth was, Merlin hadn't only been Arthur's personal assistant for a long, long time – nine years, three months and twenty-five days, to be precise. Uther felt a right fool for pretending it was something less than it was; that it didn't exist, that it was anything other than what it was:
"I love you."
"My dear, you are such a sappy softie for such a scary businessman."
"But it's true: I love you, Ygraine, with all my heart."
"And I love you, Uther Pendragon. Forever and always, cross my heart and hope to die."
"Now you're just teasing, sweetheart."
"But of course I am."
"I can't wait to see our son. He's a strong kicker, he's going to be brilliant at football."
"No pressure on him now, Uther. I want him to make his own choices; even if he turns out as gay as a daisy, we'll love him, because he's ours."
"My son will not be gay! Pendragons aren't gay!"
"Yes, dear. Of course, dear."
"I'm warning you, Uther. Anyway, let's talk about names. Have you thought about any?"
"I like 'Uther'."
"Of course you would! No way am I calling him that, it would be so confusing. Can't you imagine it? I think 'Arthur' is better. It's a little like 'Uther' too, don't you think?"
"I don't know, Ygraine…"
"Well, think about it. Whatever we name him, he'll be brilliant, Uther. I just know it."
Gaius turned up half an hour later, Uther deep in his memories and Arthur still perched asleep against him.
"He's in surgery, but they refuse to give me more than that," Uther informed his oldest friend. In their fifty years' of friendship, he had never seen Gaius look so anxious.
"I will ask after how it is progressing. Hunith is desperate to know, she's travelling from Ealdor as we speak," Gaius said sombrely, eyebrows knotted together. "You may be knighted, Uther, but I used to practically run this hospital. They can't ignore me."
Arthur and Merlin's fateful meeting ten years ago had been due to Uther and Gaius' friendship, founded during their university years and carrying on when Uther took over his father's lucrative business, and Gaius turned to medicine and research. Gaius was Merlin's godfather, and he had been the one to recommend him to Arthur, who had been desperate for a new personal assistant at the time after burning through eleven in only four years.
Merlin had been shoddy at first, to say the least, despite graduating from Cambridge with flying colours, because he was clumsy and awkward – Uther could still remember the boy pouring tea all over his creased white shirt the first time they'd met. But evidently he had been somewhat proficient at his duties, because Arthur kept him on.
Ten years later, Merlin was still Arthur's personal assistant, and here they were sat, Pendragon father and son, waiting to hear of this boy's (because he would never be a man in Uther's eyes) fate.
Uther watched Gaius approach the nurse at the desk, and turned back to his son. Arthur looked drained and pallid against his shirt, and in that instant, Uther regretted so much. His heart hadn't ached like this for a long time – not for thirty-five years, when Arthur had been born in this very hospital, and Uther had sat in this same waiting room, only drabber, darker, older. He'd shut all those emotions out a long time ago, only revisiting them when necessary, and now to watch his own son go through the same trauma…
Uther was helpless again.
"She's beautiful, even in death."
"Where's her boy? Has he been brought here?"
"Such a tragedy."
"How young she was. Only twenty-two, her whole life ahead of her."
"That poor little boy, growing up without a mother."
"Look at her husband, so collected. I would be sobbing my heart out if it were me."
"She was a fine lady, stunning in every way."
"I hear little Arthur looks just like his mother, even at three-weeks old. Apparently he has her hair."
"Such a dreadful way to go."
"What a terrible, terrible shame."
Arthur was shaken awake by his father and Gaius' urgent voice. He immediately jumped to his feet, hair dishevelled and eyes red from tears and wide with alarm. "What, what's happening?"
"Merlin is out of surgery," Gaius said. "He's safe for now, the surgery went well."
Arthur moved away from Uther, clutching at Gaius' wizened hands. "Where is he? I need to see him!"
"He's not even awake yet, Arthur—"
"I don't care!" Arthur shouted frantically, "I need to see him! Please, Gaius! You can make it happen, can't you?"
Five minutes later, Uther and Gaius followed Arthur into a whitewashed room, filled with the sounds of machines and sallow breathing. Arthur rushed to the bedside, where Merlin was lying, unconscious and stretched along the sheets, almost like in death if it weren't for the reassuring pulses of the monitor.
Uther swallowed, blinking away the memories.
"Merlin," Arthur breathed, and clutched his hand tight, close to tears again at Merlin's face, as white as the walls.
Gaius turned away, as though to give them some peace and privacy, but Uther watched as his son, without so much as a glance towards them, bent forward and pressed a chaste, shaking kiss to Merlin's lips.
Arthur didn't say the words, but Uther heard them anyway, because he understood at last.
"I love you," Uther whispered in her ear as his tears fell against her cheek.
Ygraine slept on, forever.