Gwilym smiles at the sight before him, reaching out to run his fingers through Roger’s cropped hair, watching it catch the light in the early sunlight streaming through their window.
Roger groans softly and reaches up to gently bat Gwilym’s fingers away, then tugs at the sheets until they’re over his head, trying to hide away from the world.
Gwilym chuckles and pulls the sheets down, watching Roger’s face grimace as the sun hits him. “Morning,” he says quietly, moving closer to Roger, reaching out to play with his hair again.
“No,” Roger says, trying to roll away from Gwil, but Gwilym wraps his arms around him, pulling Roger into his chest. “It can’t be, not yet.”
Gwilym swallows hard; he can feel his stomach start to turn, and a lump start to grow in his throat. They said they wouldn’t do this; Roger said he wouldn’t do this. But, Gwil guesses, that’s easier said than done, especially now that the day is finally here, and they have to face it. “I’m sorry, Rog,” Gwilym says, burying his face in Roger’s neck, taking a deep breath.
Roger squeezes him tightly, clutching at Gwilym. He pushes him back onto the bed, and lays down on Gwil’s chest, eyes squeezed shut so his tears don’t spill out. “Please don’t,” he says softly, voice soft against Gwilym.
Gwilym squeezes his eyes closed, trying to fight against his own tears. He starts running his fingers up and down Roger’s spine, trying to soothe his boyfriend and himself. He doesn’t want their last morning together to be like this. They promised it wouldn’t be. “I love you,” he says quietly, and he can hear how close his voice is to breaking; he’s on the verge of tears.
“Don’t go,” Roger pleads softly, and Gwil can feel the hot wet of Roger’s tears on his skin, having finally spilled over. “I can’t lose you,” he says, sniffling.
“It’s not forever,” Gwilym assures him, holding Roger’s head to his chest, pushing his fingers through his hair. “I promise, it’s not. It’s not goodbye.”
Roger lifts his head to look at him, his big blue eyes filled with tears, and Gwilym has to bite down on his lip to keep from crying out. “I love you,” Roger says, and he surges forward, pressing his lips to Gwil’s.
Gwilym holds Roger against him, their mouths moving together. As they kiss, Gwil can feel his own tears spill over, rolling down his cheeks. Roger pushes himself up a bit, holding Gwilym’s face between his hands, starting to desperately move against him. “Hey, hey,” Gwilym says, pulling apart, chuckling softly as Roger tries to follow his mouth and keep kissing him. “Hey, slow down, okay? We still have a little time.”
Roger sniffles and glances over at the clock on their nightstand. “Are you sure?” he asks, reaching up to wipe at his face.
Gwilym smiles and nods, leaning in to give Roger a kiss, much slower and sweeter this time. “I’m sure, love. I promise.”
Roger sniffles again and smiles weakly, taking a deep shaky breath. He wants to beg Gwilym not to go, to just stay in bed with him for the rest of the day and for forever, but he can’t. They’ve had this conversation, over and over. He knows this is the best he can hope for. He looks away from him, squeezing his eyes shut again. It’s taking everything he has to not start sobbing in Gwilym’s arms. He starts taking deep breaths, trying to calm himself down. This isn’t how he wants Gwil to remember him for the next year, and he doesn’t want to make him feel any more guilty for leaving than he already does.
Gwilym pulls Roger in, holding him against his chest, starting to shush him softly.
“I’m sorry,” Roger says, trying to just stay focused on Gwilym, still there with him, in his arms. “I’m sorry, I know I said I’d be alright, but— but it’s like it wasn’t really real until now. You’re leaving. God, I wish you weren’t leaving.” His tears spill over and he shakes against Gwilym as he sobs.
Gwilym sniffles, squeezing his eyes shut. His own heart is breaking, he knows exactly how Roger is feeling, how scared and alone. As the days have counted down, he’s felt more on edge, like he was on the verge of tears and about to break down at any moment. Homesick for a place he hasn’t even left yet. He’s unbelievably torn. Of course he doesn’t want to leave Roger, he’d be foolish to, but he’s also never been more excited about something in his entire life. Scared, nervous, yes, but Gwilym knows that what he and the rest of the BIS are setting off to do could change everything for the better. He’s doing this for Roger, in a way. So that they can have a chance at a real future, in a better world. It’s only April, but the growing consensus, if not in the general public then at least in the government, is that this year is going to be one of the most trying periods in British history.
Based on everything he’s heard so far, if 1939 doesn’t end in bloodshed, Gwilym will be shocked. He can only hope that Project Mercury isn’t too late to help, if it does.
“I don’t know what to say, Rog,” Gwilym admits softly. “I’m not happy to leave you, love, I’m not. I’m going to miss you every day that I’m gone, but then I’ll come back, and we’ll be together forever, yeah? It’ll go by so fast, just think about that. We’ve been together so long, and it still feels like we met yesterday. You won’t even have a chance to miss me; before you know it, I’ll be home. And you’ll be just as sick of me then as you are now.” He laughs softly, trying to lighten the mood to comfort him. He’s trying to comfort himself, too. He doesn’t even believe what he’s saying, but to make Roger feel even just a little bit better, he’d say or do anything.
Roger doesn’t reply, and for awhile the only sound in their small bedroom are his sniffles, and the gentle motion of Gwilym running his hands up and down Roger’s back. There’s the noise of cars and people on the street below their flat, even as early as it is, and if Gwilym pauses he thinks he can hear the quiet pitter-patter of the cat in the kitchen.
Gwilym would almost think Roger’s fallen back asleep, if it weren’t for Roger gently playing with his hair, lightly tugging it and curling it around his fingers. He steals a glance over at the clock, and his stomach aches. He’s supposed to report to the Council Hall in only a couple of hours. He doesn’t want to tell Roger to get off him, he doesn’t want to stop touching him at all, but if he doesn’t get a move on soon, he’s going to be late. He’s never been late, and he certainly can’t start today. Rami would never let him hear the end of it. That’s all he needs for the next year.
“Rog,” Gwilym says quietly, starting to shift under him, but Roger just looks up at him. “I’ve got to—”
Roger leans forward, tilting his head to brush his lips against Gwil’s. “I thought you said we had time,” he says softly, pulling back just enough to meet his eyes. “Just one last time?” he asks, and then kisses him again.
Gwilym takes a deep breath and then smiles, nodding. He pushes his fingers through Roger’s hair, pulling him in. “Always time for you,” he murmurs softly against his lips, though he’s desperately trying not to think about the fact that time is actually running out.
+ + + + +
Rami’s sitting next to him, their shoulders occasionally knocking against each other with the bumps in the road, but he sits quietly, hands folded on his lap. He just stares down at them, twisting his fingers together. He wants to speak up, wants to ask Gwilym about Roger and how he was when he left him this morning, but he thinks Gwil made it pretty clear that he doesn’t want to talk about it. He will, though; pretty soon they’ll have almost nothing to do but talk. Rami turns his head and looks up at Gwilym, who’s still staring at the opposite wall of the truck. Rami sighs and then looks down, out of the corner of his eye seeing light catching on metal. Gwilym’s twisting a ring around his pinky finger, a ring that Rami’s never seen before. He looks up at Gwilym again and then reaches out, resting his hand on his.
Gwilym jumps a bit, as if just realizing that Rami is beside him. He looks down at their hands, and sighs.
“Roger’s?” Rami asks, lightly touching the ring, and Gwilym just nods furiously, head dropping forward. Rami shifts on the bench seat and reaches out, wrapping his arm around Gwilym’s shoulders, pulling him in a bit.
“I’m sorry,” Gwilym says softly, and Rami just shakes his head.
“There’s nothing to be sorry for,” Rami assures him. “It’s hard, I know that.”
Gwilym lifts his head, meeting Rami’s eyes. “I didn’t even— how’s Sami?” he asks, sniffling.
Rami smiles, taking his arm away from Gwil’s shoulders. “He’s alright,” he replies. “He’s been trying to get rid of me for years. Actually, he said he’s excited for when we come back and become famous, so that he can go around telling everybody it was actually him that went.”
Gwilym chuckles softly, reaching up to wipe at his face. “Would never work. You’re much more handsome.”
“That’s what I said!” Rami says, and he laughs loudly. “I think he’s happy, though. For me. For us. Proud.”
“Of course he is,” Gwilym replies. “He should be.”
“Plus, he’s proud of himself,” Rami continues, smiling. “He thinks he’s so special because of the tests they’re running on him. I’m not sure what sort of egomaniac I’ll be coming back to.” He chuckles softly and sighs, settling back in his seat. An uneasy silence falls over them, as the weight of what they’re about to do hits them again. They’re leaving their families behind. Rami, who’s never spent more than a week away from his brother, isn’t going to see him for a whole year. He knows he’ll miss him, but the question is, how much, and for how long? They’ve always lived together; Sami followed him from London to Perth when Rami needed to start the final phase of mission-training. Will he wake up in the night on the ship, wondering where he is? Or will he adjust quickly? Rami sighs, frowning. So much is still unknown.
Gwilym’s stomach is in knots again, and he feels like being sick. His nerves, the stress, and the bumpy road are a horrible combination. He just reaches out, placing his hand on Rami’s knee to try to give him some semblance of comfort. They don’t speak again for the rest of the drive.
+ + + + +
As Gwilym and Rami and the others climb out of the truck, approaching BIS, Gwilym swallows hard, glancing over at his friend. They didn’t know each other before they signed on with the BIS, had never even met; now Gwilym couldn’t imagine doing this without him.
Almost three years ago, Gwilym and Roger were living together in Cardiff, where Gwilym worked in the biology department at the university, while Rami was in London, studying engineering and training with the Territorial Army as part of the volunteer reserves. Then Gwilym received a letter at the university from the BIS, inviting him to London. He met Rami in week one of basic training, and they stuck together through every training cycle since. A year-and-a-half ago, when Project Mercury was approved, and Gwil, Rami, and eighteen others were officially assigned to it, they began Increment-Specific Training. Gwilym became the crew expert in astrobotany, and Rami was one of two crew members specifically trained in avionics. The BIS also put Rami’s military experience to use, and he’s expected to enter combat, if and when the journey requires it. Gwilym knows Rami is enthusiastic about the work he’ll be doing in avionics, but far less so at the idea of having to fight while they’re away. Gwil also knows that he’s worried they’ll be coming back to war in a year, and he’ll be forced to join that fight too.
“What do you think?” Gwilym asks, studying Rami as they make their way into the first building. This part of the centre is usually quiet, it’s more administrative than anything else, an entryway to the rest of the complex, but today, even the staff here are loudly buzzing and bustling about.
Rami glances over at Gwil, giving him a crooked smile. “I think this is going to either be the longest year of our lives, or the shortest. Not sure yet.”
Gwilym smiles back nervously, and nods. “Guess we’ll have to see when we get back,” he says, and he reaches out to clasp onto Rami’s shoulder.
They walk through the building, heading downstairs to down a long, concrete hallway that leads them upstairs into the next building. It mostly consists of crew quarters and the meal hall; it’s where they stayed when their training required them to be at the centre for longer periods of time that prevent them from returning to their flats in Perth. The expectation is that they’ll all board the Mercury fed, showered, and shaved, if necessary. Gwilym isn’t looking forward to that part, mostly because Rami’s been teasing him about it ever since the orders came down a couple weeks ago. There was no specific reason given; no rules that state Gwilym and the other men can’t grow their beards back out once they’re actually on board. The consensus seems to be that Flight Director Garrick just thinks beards are unprofessional, and doesn’t want them to ruin the photo op. Rami’s joked that Garrick is just envious, and doesn’t want anyone to look better than him today.
They disappear into their rooms, expected to take no longer than 20 minutes before they’re ordered to appear in the meal hall, where they’ll be served Cullen skink, haggis and potato pie, and bread and butter pudding. It’s entirely too Scottish for Gwil’s tastes, and he knows most of the crew would prefer to have a choice of what to eat, but though the crew members come from all over Britain, the workers in the meal hall are local to the area, and the meal is what they chose.
Rami looks up from his tray as Gwilym makes his way across the meal hall to him, holding his own food. Rami slowly smiles, and then starts to laugh as he studies Gwilym’s face. “You look like a child,” Rami says, and Gwilym sighs as he sits down.
“I know,” Gwilym replies, picking up his spoon.
“Honestly, you look about ten years younger,” Rami continues, and he laughs as he starts eating the soup, shaking his head.
“I’m growing it back as soon as we get out of here,” Gwilym replies. “I feel ridiculous.” He reaches up, rubbing his hand over the smooth skin. He’s had a beard for years now, even since before he met Roger. He doesn’t know why Garrick made the call but he’s annoyed. If Roger could see him right now, he’d probably whine with disappointment, and make a joke about going off to find someone else who doesn’t look about nine years old. Roger really is the worst tease. It makes Gwil’s heart ache to think about it.
Usually, the meal hall is filled with all the BIS employees who are on duty that day, but today, it’s just the twenty of them, sitting quietly, having what feels depressingly like a final meal. They’ve spoken with counsellors and therapists, having been theoretically prepped for the possibility that something could wrong on the mission. Even if something doesn’t go wrong for all of them, it could still go wrong for someone. When Project Mercury was first approved and they were all assigned, there were discussions of the twenty of them having preventative appendectomies, but it was quickly rejected by the medical crew, who thought the entire idea was ridiculous. Gwilym and Rami were both not-so-secretly relieved; they’d have surgery if and when, not a second before.
Gwilym knows they could die. They all do, though it’s not something they talk about. Gwilym also knows that they could die here, and if things get worse, they just might, so forgive him if he doesn’t worry about his organs hypothetically rupturing when there’s plenty of crew members around him who are trained to handle just that sort of situation. They all even watched films of people performing surgeries on themselves, but Gwil’s pretty sure he’d want to die anyway before it came to that.
Gwilym sighs, pushing his tray of food away. He didn’t finish the soup. He tried the pie, which normally he can’t get enough of, but it just tasted sour in his mouth. He can’t even contemplate eating the pudding. He knows the director wants them well-fed before they step on board, but he knows that’s not happening. He looks around at his crew mates; some of them, like Rami, seem to be eating normally; others, like him, have pushed their trays away, looking slightly ill. Gwilym just sits, watching Rami and the others, until the bell goes off, signalling meal time is over. They all push their chairs back, for a moment the room is loud, too loud, but then they fall silent again as they head towards the door. They head downstairs again, and walk in another underground hallway to the next building, where they head up the stairs to the main boardroom of the BIS. Besides Chamberlain, George VI, Elizabeth, and their two daughters, everyone else there is BIS staff, even the photographer, who Gwilym recognizes.
The existence of the BIS isn’t classified, not at all. The headquarters in Westminster is clearly marked and even listed in the phone book. Same with the smaller branches, like the one in Perth. It’s no secret who they work for. But knowledge about Project Mercury is need-to-know, and Chamberlain and everybody else agreed that very few people need to know. Immediate family of the crew members, and higher-ups in the government. Gwil’s honestly surprised to see the princesses there; he’d almost think they were too young to be able to trust.
Outwardly, the BIS is just a space advocacy group, a non-profit largely financed by the contributions of its members, with some funding provided by the government. Their stated mission is to support and promote space exploration, not actually do it.
But the funding for Project Mercury is hidden somewhere in the government’s budget, spread out across multiple other projects, mostly military expenditures, but also more pedestrian endeavours, like road maintenance. Public knowledge of it is zero. That’s the entire point, to ensure that the Germans don’t find out about it. Rami and Gwil were invited to come work for the BIS almost immediately after the remilitarization of the Rhineland three years prior. One of Chamberlain’s first acts was to approve Project Mercury, in preparation for the war they all saw coming, and for the possibility that Germany will invade Britain. Nobody with German heritage, or anyone who’s ever even been there, has been allowed to work with the BIS since 1937. There is a plan for revealing the project to the public once they return; they’ve all been briefed on that, to know what to expect when they arrive home. There’s a back-up plan for what to do if they don’t; Gwilym doesn’t want to know what that one entails, and nobody seems willing to share it with them anyway.
They pose for their photo, the twenty crew members, Flight Director Garrick, Chamberlain, and the royal family. Gwilym can’t help but wonder where this photo will sit for the next year, how it would be explained if anybody outside the BIS saw it. How it will be used if they don’t make it back.
George wishes them all well, and says he hopes to have them for tea in a year. Chamberlain makes a speech about how history will remember them, the score brave souls heading out into the sky, during which Gwilym can feel Rami impatiently tapping his foot. The princesses give them each a flower that they apparently picked from the grounds of Buckingham Palace; Gwilym smiles at Margaret as he bows to her.
Garrick leads them out of the boardroom in single file, letting them all shake Chamberlain’s hand as they go by. Gwilym’s eyes fall on their bags, neatly piled against the wall. They stay in their line to grab them, slinging them over their backs. Their spare uniforms are already on board, waiting for them in their quarters. The bags are what they packed themselves, personal items, books, whatever they wanted. Roger gave him a photo of the two of them together, and a journal, blank except for the note that Roger wrote for him on the first page. His mother sent him a new jumper she knitted, and his siblings all wrote a letter to him, tucked inside a copy of Blue Moons, one of his sister’s favourite books.
Gwilym knows Rami has a collection of Hercule Poirot books in his bag; he finds them entertaining to read over and over, even though he knows the solution. He also knows that Sami gave Rami a copy of a play, something called Ahl al-Kahf, by an Egyptian writer. Gwilym had flipped through the pages when he saw it on Rami’s desk once, running his fingers over the words he couldn’t even begin to understand. Rami explained to him it was about a group of seven young men who hid in a cave to escape the Romans and fell asleep; when they woke up, they thought it had only been a day, but in reality, they’d been gone for 300 years. Gwilym thought it sounded interesting, and asked Rami to read it to him. Rami told him to learn Arabic and read it himself. Gwil wonders if a year is enough time for that or not.
They walk out of the building in single file, where three transport vans are waiting to carry them down the road to the ship. Gwilym and Rami make sure to climb in together, bags resting at their feet.
Rami twists in his seat, watching out the window as they approach the ship. “Are you scared?” he asks softly, glancing over at Gwilym.
Gwilym swallows hard, looking out the window. He can see BIS staff members milling around the grounds, starting to line up at the staircase that will take the crew up to the access platform built around the ship. “Are you?” he asks.
Rami takes a deep breath, fogging up the window. The truck comes to a stop, and the doors open. Rami grabs his bag and looks back at Gwilym as he climbs out. “Doesn’t matter now, does it?”
Gwilym grabs his bag, following after him. He sees Flight Director Garrick, other flight controllers, and backup crew members. All the crew members fall in line in order of rank; Gwilym is further back than Rami, as engineering officers taking precedent over science officers. Their commander, Eastaughffe, takes the lead, and quietly speaks to Garrick before he starts up the stairs.
As Rami takes his first step, he glances back at Gwilym, gripping the handrail tightly.
Gwilym gives him as much of a smile as he can muster, and nods him ahead encouragingly. Rami looks slightly relieved, nods in response, and turns back around. When it’s his turn, Gwilym feels Garrick’s hand pat him on the shoulder. Gwilym turns around to look at the Highlands one last time, taking in the blue and sunny sky. He takes a deep shaky breath, and steps up.