In months or years to come, Merlin thinks, he’ll look back on his reaction to probably the worst news he’s ever heard and think ‘God, I was a prat’. That’s his first thought. His second thought is screw that, he probably won’t even be around in months or years to come, and now doesn’t he feel stupid. But he can’t help the fact that the first thing he thought when the doctor looked him in the eyes like he was trying to search for a cure within the very core of Merlin’s being was ‘they’re never on their own in the films’.
It’s stupid, he knows. It’s so typical of him, with his reputation as a bloody people-pleaser, to want someone with him when he’s about to be told that yeah, sorry, you’re going to die. He can handle it by himself. He is twenty-six years old. He is a grown man. He doesn’t sleep with the light on any more and even his oldest childhood teddy is stuffed in a plastic box on top of his wardrobe. And yet he’s never wanted to hold anybody’s hand more than he does now.
He could call his mother. Why didn’t he call his mother? Or Gwen, or Morgana, or Arthur – Arthur would have been hilarious in this situation, he thinks; he’d probably have offered the doctor £3million to invent a cure on the spot and then sued him for everything he was and would ever be worth when he couldn’t come up with the goods – or even Lance? He curses himself for not thinking ahead.
“Mr Emrys?” says the doctor, gently. He’s holding out a box of tissues, but Merlin is dry-eyed and equally dry-mouthed, so he waves them away.
“I’m fine,” he manages to croak out. “Sorry. Just making plans. People to call, that sort of thing.”
The doctor smiles sympathetically, and Merlin sort of wants to punch the smile right off his face, even though he seems like a genuinely nice bloke. Fuck you, he thinks, you’re not dying.
“We can go through treatment plans now, if you want,” the doctor says. “Or we can schedule an appointment for this afternoon, after you’ve called someone. I can shift my schedule around, make something work.”
Merlin doesn’t really know how to show any emotion other than numbness right now and he hopes that the doctor will psychically pick up on his telepathic waves of gratefulness as he nods yes, I would like to do that. The doctor smiles again, sadly, and starts writing something down in his work diary.
Merlin has one more question before he calls his mother.
“What are my odds?” he asks, barely audible.
The doctor stops writing and looks him in the eye, putting the lid back on his pen and putting it down on the desk, ensuring it’s perfectly parallel to his diary, before answering.
“Fifty / fifty,” he replies, and shit. Merlin suddenly gets hit by this ridiculous idea – he knows it’s ridiculous, can’t help thinking it anyway – that he doesn’t have even a second to waste in fighting this. There isn’t a second to lose, because those seconds won’t be tacked onto the end of his life.
“Give me the treatment options,” he says.
“Well, shit,” is the first thing Arthur says when Merlin tells him, and Merlin thinks it’s probably the most eloquent thing he’s ever heard his best friend say. “No, really. Shit. Fuck. That’s… shit.”
“It is,” Merlin agrees, downing the rest of his pint in one go. Arthur hasn’t even started his yet. It’s funny; with his twig-like arms and spider legs, everyone assumes Merlin will be the lightweight. In fact, Arthur, for all his muscle and bravado, will tell you anything you need to know after half a pint. It’s for that reason he’s not allowed near the wine at work socialising events.
“It’s not, like, a death sentence though,” Arthur says. “There are loads of people who’ve survived cancer, right? You read about them in the news all the time, these weak, sappy little bald kids who record Youtube videos and get to meet Kelly Clarkson and then just don’t die.”
The funny thing is that Arthur genuinely has no idea that what he says is offensive half the time. Merlin rolls his eyes.
“My odds are fifty / fifty,” he explains. “I guess I have as good a chance of surviving as I do kicking the bucket.”
“Yeah, that’s not so bad,” Arthur muses, swilling around his nearly full pint. He sets it down on the sticky table and draws a happy face in the condensation on the glass, followed by a sad face, which he then scrubs out with his sleeve. Merlin watches, fascinated. Simple things, he thinks. “If you were a game of roulette or something, I’d probably bet on you,” Arthur continues.
“Thanks,” Merlin grins. “Your ringing endorsement of my survival skills is truly touching.”
Arthur sticks his tongue out and Merlin laughs. He definitely wishes he’d called Arthur earlier. He can almost allow himself to forget that his body is slowly being invaded by alien cells of his own making. Almost.
The plan is to start chemotherapy almost immediately. Merlin is absolutely fucking dreading it. He isn’t looking forward to the constant vomiting, weight loss, weakness and, of course, the hair loss. If he’s honest with himself, he’s dreading the hair loss the most; that’s what’s going to mark him out as a cancer patient. Even people who aren’t cancer patients look like cancer patients if they’re bald, Merlin thinks.
The general consensus amongst his friends is that he should take control and shave it all off. They’re all sitting around the huge dining table in Gwen and Lance’s front room, and they’ve nearly all stopped crying now, except for Freya, who keeps having to make trips to the loo to dab her eyes with a bit of toilet paper.
“You’re not going to die,” Gwen had said, rubbing his back in soothing little circles that had eventually made him itch.
“You’re going to make it, mate,” Lance had choked out through his tears, awkwardly patting him on the shoulder.
“I refuse to even get upset about it,” Gwaine had sobbed.
“Can I have your Xbox if you die?” Arthur had beamed, earning him a horrified look from Gwen and an affectionate shove from Merlin.
“I’ve promised it to Leon,” he’d retorted. Arthur had put his index finger beneath his eyelids and dragged them down to make a grotesque face in response. Gwen had then thrown a tea-towel at him, and they’d all sat down to eat, even though they all knew that no-one was really hungry any more.
“When do you start chemo?” Arthur asks about half an hour into dinner, pushing a limp bit of lettuce around his plate with his index finger. Gwen’s tried, bless her, but even after six years of domestic bliss, she still can’t cook worth a damn.
“Thursday,” Merlin answers.
“That’s only three days away!” Arthur exclaims. Merlin looks at him pointedly.
“Well observed, Captain Obvious,” he says, dryly.
“There is only one option,” Arthur states, ignoring Merlin completely. “My fine, feathered, soon to be featherless friend, we must get you laid, before your eggs are no longer able to hatch.”
Lance throws a hardboiled egg at him.
“Hatch that, douche,” he grins. Arthur returns fire with a handful of soggy lettuce.
Gwen stands up suddenly, slamming her hands on the table.
“How can you all joke around like this?” she whispers, her voice quivering. Merlin wants to fall into a black hole. At the very least, a mineshaft. She looks at them all, a mixture of confusion and despair, and flees into the kitchen.
Merlin stands to follow her, but Lance raises his hand.
“I’ll go,” he says. “Don’t worry. It’s not your fault.”
He follows his wife out of the room, and Merlin slumps in his chair. Arthur pats his head.
“Chin up,” says Arthur. “It might never happen.”
“Or it might,” says Merlin.
“I might wake up tomorrow and find that I’ve turned into a woman,” Arthur states. “Can’t prove it won’t happen. I don’t know if I’d mind that, actually. As long as I knew it wasn’t permanent.”
“Well, death is pretty permanent,” Merlin retorts, bitterly, and that shuts Arthur up for the rest of the meal. Merlin can’t even get him to talk about his latest string of conquests.
They’re standing in front of the mirror in Arthur’s apartment. They’d briefly argued about why they couldn’t do it at Merlin’s place, and Merlin had said that sweeping up hair was a process vastly complicated by the addition of the presence of chemo-induced vomit. Arthur had gagged and told Merlin to dose up on anti-emetics before he arrived, which he had dutifully done, even though taking them makes him want to throw up even more. It has been three days since his first chemo session and he feels like absolute shit. He isn’t sure whether a side effect of chemotherapy is the slow decay of all bodily tissue, but it certainly feels like it might be.
Arthur picks up the razor.
“Are you sure?” he asks, meeting Merlin’s eye in the mirror. “I stand by my earlier statement that it’s going to look really stupid with your little circular head and your sticky out ears.”
“My head is not circular,” Merlin mutters, flushing. “And yes, I’m sure. Might as well get rid of it before the chemo does.”
“Don’t come shouting at me when all the little howler monkeys in the zoo try and adopt you as one of their own,” he says, and Merlin is immediately incredibly thankful that he chose Arthur to do this out of all his friends.
Broadly speaking, Merlin can divide his friends into two groups; friends for life, such as Gwen, Lance and Morgana, and friends he’s seen naked, such as Gwaine and Leon. Arthur is the only friend who belongs in both categories. Whenever Merlin mentions this, he is usually asked to provide the full sordid story. The truth is that there isn’t one. They get horribly drunk one night, celebrating some promotion of Arthur’s that finally meant he gets his own office – with a calculator! – and end up too drunk to walk all the way back to Merlin’s flat, so Merlin crashes on Arthur’s sofa. Arthur always sleeps naked in the Summer and this takes place in August; Arthur wakes up with the hangover from Hell and forgets he’s got company, walks into the kitchen to get some Ibuprofen and bam, accidental eyesore. They never mention it these days, although Merlin does admit to gaining some perverse satisfaction from referring to Arthur as a ‘massive knob’, or some other variant thereof.
Anyway, Arthur lifts the razor to Merlin’s scalp and is about to start the deed when Merlin shouts something incomprehensible.
“I’m not ready,” he says. Arthur sighs.
“I have to do it though, don’t I?”
“Yep. Think so.”
“I fucking hate chemo.” Merlin looks down, not wanting to meet his own eyes in the mirror any more. They look so much more tired than he’s used to seeing them. Arthur plasters a fake grin on his stupid chiselled features.
“You look fabulous,” he beams, and Merlin manages a small smile, just because Arthur’s trying. “What does chemo even do, anyway?”
“Kills me before the cancer gets there first, I think,” he answers. “I’m sure that’s how it works.”
Arthur pats Merlin on the shoulder in a way that’s probably meant to be reassuring. After a few seconds, he starts up the razor again.
“Ready to try again?” he asks. Merlin squeezes his eyes shut tightly and nods fearfully.
“Don’t tell me when you’re about to start,” he warns. “I’m not going to look, just make it so – OH MY GOD, YOU’VE STARTED, SHIT SHIT SHIT!”
He wants more than anything to open his eyes and see the damage that his friend is doing but he’s worried that if he sees how ridiculous he looks he’ll stop the process and end up with half a head of hair. He keeps his eyes clenched shut and his right hand grips Arthur’s left – when did that happen? – so tightly that he starts to worry he’s going to break Arthur’s fingers. It only takes a few minutes before the sound of the razor stops.
Merlin is about to open his eyes when he feels Arthur’s hands on his face, covering them.
“Arthur, what the fuck?” he says.
“I just want you to be prepared,” Arthur explains. “You do have a rather circular head. I mean, I think it’s perfectly endearing, but, you know. You might not.”
Merlin waits a couple of seconds, but Arthur doesn’t remove his hands. Merlin clears his throat.
“If you’re sure you’re ready,” Arthur says, warningly.
“I am!” Merlin exhales. Arthur removes his hands. Merlin opens his eyes.
He wishes he hadn’t.
“I look like… my God, I don’t know what I look like,” he wails, putting his head in his hands. “Why did no-one tell me my ears were like that?”
“I mean, you could lift me up and carry me by those! This is just the straw that broke the camel’s back. First, I’m dying - ”
He feels Arthur’s hands close around his wrists and gently pull his hands away from his face.
“You’re not,” he says.
“ – and now I look like Mr fucking Potato Head! Oh God…”
“I’m not denying that one.”
Merlin whimpers. Arthur sighs and grabs him by the wrist again, this time dragging him out of the bathroom and into his bedroom.
“I’m sure I can find a hat for you in here somewhere,” he murmurs, letting go of Merlin’s wrist and beginning to search through the drawers.
“I’m not a hat person,” protests Merlin nervously, chewing his fingernails.
“Well, clearly you’re not a skinhead person either,” Arthur retorts curtly, opening another drawer and pulling out a truly hideous rainbow beanie. It looks like it was knitted for the sole purpose of causing embarrassment.
Merlin shakes his head vigorously.
“No,” he states flatly. Arthur raises an eyebrow.
“Trust me,” he says. “It doesn’t look as bad on.”
Grudgingly, because truthfully he’s starting to feel more than a little sick now and he wants nothing more than to curl up and go to sleep for years, Merlin accepts the hat and pulls it on. He sees a small smile creep over Arthur’s lips.
“Oh ha bloody ha,” he sighs. “I know I look like a dick, you don’t have to remind me.”
“Actually, I think it’s oddly endearing,” Arthur counters. Merlin gives him the middle finger, and Arthur pouts.
Merlin keeps the hat on for the remainder of the evening.
A few days later, Merlin is busy throwing up everything he’s ever eaten into the kitchen sink when he hears a knock at the door. He spits out the remainder of the pea soup he ate for lunch and rinses his mouth out.
“Coming,” he calls. The knocking continues, increasing in volume as Merlin rushes to answer it. “Fragile cancer patient in here, could you keep it down?” he shouts. The knocking stops almost immediately and Merlin doesn’t try very hard to feel guilty about exploiting his new status. After quickly gargling with mouthwash, he pads over to the front door and opens it. Arthur and Gwaine are standing there. Gwaine looks concerned. Arthur looks annoyed.
“Are you all right, mate?” Gwaine asks. “Nice hat, by the way.”
“I’m fine,” Merlin answers. “And thanks, it’s this dickhead’s.” He pokes Arthur in the belly and Arthur flicks Merlin’s ear. Gwaine snorts.
“Why are you here?” Merlin suddenly asks. “I mean, not that it’s not lovely to have you here, but I’m not - ”
“Pleasure to see you too, Merlin,” Arthur beams sarcastically. “We, my friend, are taking you out!”
Merlin stares blankly at Arthur before gesturing down at himself. He’s dressed in tatty pyjama bottoms and a massively oversized Avengers t-shirt.
“I’d definitely get some mad cock dressed like this,” he states flatly. Gwaine almost chokes. Arthur just raises an eyebrow.
“My dear fellow,” he begins. “Without meaning to sound impetuous, before long, you won’t be able to come out with us. So humour us, yeah? We’re not going out on the bloody pull or anything. Just up the pub. It’s two streets away, Merlin.”
Merlin looks up at the ceiling, briefly wondering if there is a God and whether he has made it his life’s mission to play practical joke after practical joke on Merlin Emrys. When he looks back, Arthur is still staring at him pleadingly. Gwaine is raiding his cupboards. Merlin wonders why these are his friends.