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This is What a Hug is Like

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Merlin's head spun as he slowly came into consciousness. His skull felt as if a thousand jackhammers were pounding on it, and his mouth tasted of rat. He would know. After struggling to peel his eyes open, he quickly shut them and groaned. Too bright.


“Mr. Hunithson? Merlin? Can you hear me?” A voice said in his ear. Too loud. Merlin moved his head away from it, then regretted the movement, screwing up his face in a wince. “Maureen, get the doctor. Tell him Mr. Hunithson in number twenty-three is awake.” There was a sound of assent and footsteps fading away.


“Merlin? I need you to open your eyes.”


“No. Hurts.”


“Alright. One moment.” There was a shuffle of cloth, and Merlin felt a soothing burst fill his veins. He sighed in relief, and finally opened his eyes. When they adjusted, he saw a brunette man with deep brown eyes, tan skin, and a kind expression. “Lancelot?” he whispered gruffly.


The man frowned slightly, and took a cup of water off the bedside table, holding the straw for Merlin to sip. “No, Merlin. I'm Nurse Evan. You're in the hospital. Do you remember what happened?”


It was then that Merlin noticed the beeping, and the oxygen mask on his face. He lifted his hand to remove it and saw the IV taped on the top of his hand. His wrists and lower arms were wrapped in gauze. He looked back up into the nurse's concerned eyes. “Um...well, this is awkward. I'm guessing it didn't work. Again.”


That caught the nurse's attention. “No, thankfully, it didn't work. So you've tried to kill yourself before?”


Merlin shrugged. “A few times, yeah.” A few dozen times, he thought. “It never stuck.”


Nurse Evan took Merlin's IV-free hand in his own, patting it. “We'll get you the help you need, Merlin. An evaluator will have to come to meet you, but I don't doubt that we'll be able to find you a bed in our psychiatric unit. It's a very good one, where you can begin to get better.”


Hold on!” Merlin tried to sit up, but when his head spun again he quickly aborted the motion and laid back again. “I don't need any help! I'm fine, it's out of my system. I'll just go back to my work and my life as usual.”


The nurse opened his mouth to reply but it was then that the door opened and a red-headed woman in a white coat came in. She held out her hand to Nurse Evan and he promptly handed her a clipboard. She scanned it, then looked up at Merlin. “Mr. Hunithson. I'm Dr. Mayberry. I see here that you attempted to end your life through cutting your wrists. Thankfully, we were able to stabilize you, though we did have to revive you once at the scene. You are on painkillers now, but once we wean you off of them, there will be some light withdrawals.” She paused then added, almost as an afterthought, “How are you feeling?”


I'm fine.” The doctor raised a brow. “I'm fine!” Merlin insisted. “When can I go home?”


Not for a while, I'm afraid.” said a new voice. All three in the room turned to the newcomer. It was an older man. He was pale, with silvering black hair and laugh lines on his face. He wore a green and purple houndstooth cardigan over a white button down shirt and brown slacks. “Hello Mr. Hunithson. I'm Geoffrey. I'll be your social worker during your stay here at Dover General.”


Merlin's mouth twisted. “My stay? No, sorry, but I've got to get home. When can I leave?”


Well,” started Geoffrey, “I've yet to evaluate you, so I can't say for sure, but we need to get you medically and psychologically stable before we even consider discharge.”


Merlin looked around the room at the nurse and the doctor, but they seemed to be in agreement with the social worker.


What! But—!”


A suicide attempt is very serious, Mr. Hunithson.” said Doctor Mayberry gravely. “I'll leave you to talk to Geoffrey and Nurse Evan. Good bye, Mr. Hunithson.” With that, the doctor left the room.


Nurse Evan pulled up two chairs, in which he and Geoffrey sat.


Now Merlin, is there anyone we should contact? Family? Friends? A partner?” the social worker gently asked.


Merlin crossed his arms. “No one. Maybe my publisher, I guess. I had a deadline coming up.”


You're a writer, then?” asked Evan. “Anything I would know? I love to read, myself.” He leaned forward, as if actually interested in what Merlin had to say.


It's The King and Sorcerer series. I'm M.H. Emrys.”


Both men's eyes widened, recognizing him. “I've read each one of them. They're amazing.” said Evan.


Geoffrey looked confused. “You're a successful author, on the bestselling list. Why are you so unhappy that you would try to take your own life, Merlin? What are you trying to escape?”


At that Merlin's throat became thick, his chest became heavy, and his eyes began to get wet. He took a shuddering breath, but didn't say anything. Silence reigned in the room for a couple of minutes.


Alright Merlin,” Evan eventually said. “Why did you call me Lancelot? Isn't that a name from the old tales of King Arthur?” Both Evan and Geoffrey looked interested in Merlin's reply.


Well,” Merlin started, voice cracking from emotion. “Lancelot was a friend of mine, in the past. There was a group of us. Camelot's court, sort of. Me, Lancelot, Percival, and the rest. Knights of the Round Table, yeah? It was just a joke, but Lancelot...Lancelot was one of my closest friends. He really knew me. You look like him.” his voice broke again. He clenched his eyes shut as his brow furrowed from intense emotions, and a few tears slipped down his sunken cheeks.


You said you had no one for us to contact, Merlin.” said Geoffrey, after writing down a few notes. “Did you have a falling out?”


No.” Merlin said dully. “They're all dead.”




Medication time!” yelled out a voice far too cheery for the setting. Merlin didn't move from his bed. It wasn't terribly uncomfortable, considering.


The social worker, Geoffrey, and the nurse, Evan, had been very kind to him as they explained that he would be in the psychiatric ward at Dover General for at least three weeks minimum while he was evaluated and put on the proper medications. In an act of kindness, they had allowed him to contact his publisher himself. She believed that he was sick and unable to write, which he supposed he was.


Hey.” His bed jolted. “It's med time.” That was his roommate, Prasad. Patients weren't allowed to touch each other without asking permission, so Prasad had settled for kicking Merlin's bed. It shook again. “Merlin.” Kick. “It's med time. Come on.” Kick.


Merlin sighed, rolled onto his back, and sat up, scrubbing his face. He needed a shave. He'd have to ask a nurse, so he could be supervised with a razor. “Fine, fine. I'm coming.” he grumbled.


He'd only been on the ward for two full days, now being the third, but he was quickly falling into the routine. Waking up to vitals, then med time, showers, breakfast, group, art, lunch, group, individual therapy, group, dinner, free time, med time, then lights out. It was almost comforting, having a routine.


He hadn't had much a of a chance to get to know anyone outside of group therapy. Things had changed so much since the 1940's when he had undergone electroconvulsive therapy in an insane asylum, so he was just grateful for that. They just sat around and talked about their feelings, and Merlin wasn't about to do that. In his individual therapy, he just sat in silence while his therapist, Dr. Strausse, asked a few questions and waited for him to speak.


Here you go, Merlin. Bottoms up, sweetheart.” said a large African woman at the med window. Makeba had been one of the highlights of the last couple of days, though Merlin hadn't said so. She was always cheerful, even to the most rotten of attitudes. Merlin accepted a small paper cup filled with medications and another one filled with water. He tossed one, then the other back. “Tongue,” Makeba prompted, and Merlin opened his mouth and stuck out his tongue, showing that there were no pills hidden. “Have a lovely day, honey.”


It didn't take long for a fog to fall over Merlin. They hadn't believed him when he said that Lancelot and the others were his actual friends, and had diagnosed him with major depression with delusions and psychosis. He shouldn't have been surprised. At least, he mused, he couldn't feel sad anymore. He couldn't feel much of anything.


He went up to the nurses' station and tapped on the Plexiglas barrier. One of the nurses looked up from their crossword puzzle. “Yeah?” the nurse asked. They had green dreadlocks, and the tag on their scrubs said Aiden. Merlin took a moment to remember why he was there. “Can I...can I shave? I need to shave.” Aiden eyed him.


Name?” they asked, wheeling their desk chair over to a computer.


Merlin Hunithson.”


There was some tapping, which Merlin assumed meant that Aiden was pulling up his profile. “Okay Merlin. Wait just a tick, and we can get someone to supervise you. I don't think I have to remind you that any misbehavior means a loss of privileges.”


Er, no. I'll behave, I promise. I just need to shave. Not planning on slitting my throat or anything. I just hate being scruffy.” Merlin figured he said the wrong thing when Aiden looked at him sharply. “Sorry, sorry.” he held up his hands. “I forgot that I can't joke about that sort of thing here. Really, I just wanna shave. Really.” he repeated.


Aiden raised an eyebrow, frowning. “Be careful what you say here, Merlin, if you don't want to this to become a long-term stay. Sit over there and wait for Rodrigo.” They gestured at the mustard yellow armchairs across from the nurses' station, and Merlin took a seat.


Time passed amorphously, and Merlin wasn't sure how long he was waiting. What do they have me on, anyway? he thought. He stared at the floor, making patterns out of the dots on the off-white tiles to pass the time. He was constructing a pegasus when scrubs covered in Spongebobs obstructed his vision. Looking up, he saw a man that reminded him remarkably of Gwaine. Knowing his precarious position, however, he didn't say anything.


Hi, Merlin,” said the man in a soothing voice, like speaking to a child. “I'm Rodrigo. Aiden says that you'd like to get cleaned up?” Merlin nodded, and Rodrigo nodded back at him. “Come along, then. We'll go to the single bathroom.”


Merlin followed the nurse to a small bathroom, which was much cleaner than the one shared with the rest of the male-identified patients. Rodrigo pulled a disposable razor out of his breast pocket and held it out. Merlin reached for it, but the other man pulled it back towards himself.


I just want to make sure, Merlin, that you're not planning on hurting yourself.”


No, no, I'm not.” Merlin quickly asserted.


Good. Because you only get this one chance. If anything happens, you'll be here a lot longer than you planned, and you'll be growing a beard while you're at it.”


Rodrigo searched his eyes, and Merlin didn't waver. Satisfied with what he saw, the nurse finally handed Merlin the razor.




Merlin filed out of the group therapy room along with the rest of the patients. It had been an intense session for the others; more than one person had broken down crying as they went over the topic of trauma in childhood. When Merlin had been asked if he had anything to add, he had just stared apathetically at the counselor, Claire, and said that it had nothing to do with him. She had written something down in her notebook, but didn't comment and went onto the next patient.


Seeing as it was Friday, pizza day, the food at lunch wasn't awful. Merlin gathered his meal of cheese pizza, a fruit cup, and chocolate milk and headed over to an empty table. He was just taking the first bite of his pizza when someone chirped, “Mind if I sit here?” They didn't wait for his reply, and sat across from him. Merlin, nonplussed, looked up at the newcomer. They seemed to be of Indian descent, with long and silky pastel blue and purple braids. They had eyebrow and lip piercings, and a small tattoo of a star on their cheek. Merlin couldn't tell if they were male or female, but either—or neither—way, that didn't bother him. What did bother him was the intrusion into his solitude.


Actually,” he chewed and swallowed what he had in his mouth. “I do mind. There's plenty of other places to sit.” Merlin looked pointedly around the room, where there were, indeed, plenty of open spaces.


I'm Rad.” the person introduced themself, ignoring Merlin. “I mean, Rad is my name. I'm awesome too, if you want to look at it that way. Awesome isn't my name, though. My name is Rad.” Rad grinned widely at him. Merlin pinched his nose. “So I gathered.” he sighed.


Rad, why are you here?” he asked, trying to seem as unwelcome as possible.


Well, I had a psychotic break!” they said, gesticulating wildly. “I thought the neighbors were secret agents and my cats were their spies.” They tapped their chin. “I'm still not convinced that isn't true.” They shrugged. “S'why I'm here!”


Merlin would have laughed if he wasn't so annoyed. “No, Rad.” he said, leaning forward. “Why are you here , sitting with me , at my table ?” Rad scoffed. “You don't own the table, Merlin. Merlin, right? Besides, you seemed lonely. Lonely is no good. Gotta fix that, fix that loneliness.” Merlin scowled, but Rad didn't seem to notice. “Everyone says you're mean, Merlin, but I haven't seen you say anything to anyone. Ain't that funny? Being mean without saying anything? 'Naw', I said to them, 'He's just lonely. Needs a friend, he does.'” Rad spread their arms out, knocking over their—thankfully still closed—apple juice. “So here I am!”


So here you are.” Merlin deadpanned.


Rad continued to chatter, seemingly not bothered when Merlin didn't offer any replies or even a glance. Merlin finished up his chocolate milk, set it back on the tray, and was about to pick it up when it was pulled away from him. He looked up to see Rad smiling at him. “I'll get that for you Merlin! Favor for a friend!” With that, Rad took both their own and Merlin's trays and brought it back up to the canteen.


Weird kid. Merlin thought.




We're concerned, Merlin.”


Merlin didn't glance up from the throw pillow he was fiddling with, pulling at a loose string. He was in his individual therapy session with Dr. Strausse, a tall, thin gentleman with neatly combed dirty blonde hair and thick-rimmed glasses.


The staff have reported that you haven't been actively engaging in group therapy, have been refusing to produce anything in the art classes, and that you just lay in bed during free period.” He paused, as if expecting Merlin to reply. When he didn't, the doctor continued, “We have positively noted, however, that you've been spending time with Rad, another patient on the ward. It's good that you've made a friend. It shows good progress that you're willing to—”


Have not.” Merlin interjected, stuffing the pillow on the couch beside him and crossing his arms protectively over himself.


Dr. Strausse tried not to seem too excited; this was the first time that Merlin has said a word in his sessions, and they'd been seeing each other for over a week now. “What was that, Merlin?”


Merlin glared at him, as if Dr. Strausse had tricked him into speaking his previous words. “Rad,” he gritted, “has been following me like a lost puppy. We're not friends. I don't have friends.” Against his will, Merlin's words had thickened through the last few words, and he looked away from the doctor, stubbornly refusing to meet his eyes.


Oh, Merlin, I apologize. If Rad is harassing you then we can—”






No. S'fine. Let them be.” He stood. “I'm done for today.”




A week and a half later, the entire group stared at Merlin, flabbergasted.


The topic was grief. After a bit of education on the topic, Claire had asked if anyone had experienced it and would like to share. Merlin was sitting in a chair in the corner, as usual, and Rad was sitting beside him, as had become usual.


It's hard. Missing them.”


After Claire recovered from her shock, she gently asked, “How so, Merlin?”


Merlin looked down at his clenched hands.


They're with you, and you all have your life together, and you can't imagine it ever being different. Then something happens, and you lose them, one by one.” As he spoke, his body seemed to hunch into itself. “It keeps happening and then, all of a sudden, you're all alone.”


The room was quiet. Merlin hadn't noticed when he had started crying, or when Rad had softly laid their pastel head on Merlin's shoulder. He realized this he was shaking, that sobs were escaping his mouth, that a hand was rubbing his back in soothing circles.


The rest of the group, along with Claire, silently witnessed. They gave Merlin the space to feel his pain, to express it. They honored it. Even when group time had finished, they sat. When Merlin's wracking sobs died down to breathy sniffles, a small blonde teenager wearing all black with nails and eyeliner to match got up and handed Rad a box of tissues. Rad pulled a few of them out and began to wipe Merlin's cheeks, making soft ssh ssh ssh sounds.


Face red and blotchy, Merlin took a deep, shaky breath and finally looked up. The rest of the room still sat quietly. Some of them had traces of a cry on their faces as well. He suddenly realized that they were here with him, that they felt for him, and that he was not entirely alone.


Thanks.” he sniffed.


That seemed to be the cue for the end of group, and the rest of the patients began to exit the room, some of them giving him a sympathetic smile. Claire stood, and her expression was conflicted, but in the end she left Merlin to the care of Rad and followed the rest out.


Rad and Merlin sat quietly for a few minutes, then Merlin rose shakily to his feet. He quickly found himself surrounded by strong little arms. Bewildered, he didn't know what to do at first. This is a hug , he thought. I had forgotten what they felt like . Slowly, he brought his arms up around Rad and returned the embrace. This is a hug.


Rad, from where they had their face buried in Merlin's chest, said, “You're not alone anymore, Merlin.”


Merlin laughed wetly. “No, Rad, I'm not alone anymore. I've got you, don't I?”


Merlin could feel the smile, even though he couldn't see it. “Yeah. You've got me.”




Over the next week, Merlin began to steadily improve. He spoke to the other patients, learned their names, sat with them at meals. He began to speak during groups, just a little, and opened up in his individual therapy sessions. His medications were adjusted, and as he was beginning to become accustomed to them he was no longer in a constant fog. Rad looked on like a proud parent watching their child's first steps, and was beside him the entire time.


What is that? A hippo?” Rad laughed.


It's a horse, thank you very much!” Merlin retorted, pretending to be offended. “Some people just don't appreciate art.”


Maybe glitter will help. Glitter always helps.” Rad said, nodding sagely.


By the end of the art class, Merlin was sure he'd never be rid of the glitter. How did it get in his hair, anyway?




We've seen a lot of progress in you, Merlin.” said Dr. Strausse. “We've been thinking that we can graduate you to our outpatient program sometime this week. What do you think about that? Do you think you're ready?”


Merlin smiled, though he was nervous. The ward had become a safe place for him, and he was a little afraid to leave it's confines in favor of the “real world”. The doctor sensed his unease.


This doesn't mean we'll be leaving you out to hang high and dry, Merlin. The outpatient program offers excellent daily support. You would still be meeting with me, though on a less intense schedule, and your meds will still be managed by Dover Hospital. If ever you feel the need to become inpatient again, there will be a bed waiting for you.”


Well...” Merlin started, “It'll be an adjustment, but I think I'm willing to try. I've got to go back out there sometime.”


In Dr. Strausse's opinion, Merlin's turnabout had been astounding. “Just one more thing I'd like to add.”


Merlin's brows raised in question. “Yes?”


Rad gave me permission to let you know that they will be joining the outpatient program at the beginning of next week.”


Merlin grinned. “Really?”


Dr. Strausse smiled. “Really.”




A few weeks later found Merlin in a coffee shop. He had his laptop in front of him, and was supposed to be catching up with his deadline, but he couldn't concentrate. He was too excited. He and Rad had seen each other at their outpatient program, but they hadn't yet spent any time together outside of a therapeutic setting. Today they would be having lunch together. It's not a big deal. Merlin told himself. Just lunch with a friend. Then he smiled. With a friend.


Someone slid into the seat across from him. Rad grinned at him, and he grinned back.


Mind if I sit here?”