Beep. Beep. Beep.
Without a thought, Merlin blindly hit his alarm clock.
But then he became aware of the scratchiness of his pillow against his cheek, of the soft breeze coming in from what must have been an open window, the smell of fumes from the city street below –
And then he became aware, eyes jolting open and breath shallow, and he scrambled out of bed, reveling in the feeling of his carpet on his bare feet as he reached for the calendar on his bedside table.
June 15, 2030, Merlin gulped in a breath of air. 2030. The last time he’d been awake was 2028. He’d missed nearly two years.
But before the day in 2028, it had been over three, so he really shouldn’t be complaining too much. This was good. Two years was doable. Two years was –
Too long, Merlin sank to his knees, resting his forehead against the hard wood of the end table. Far too fucking long.
Merlin couldn’t imagine what it must be like to be a person who woke up and went to work. Work was for the sleeping, the braindead, the motionless, the ordinary. It wasn’t for people who were awake. And waking up happened so rarely that it seemed impossible that you would waste the one day you could think.
He supposed work was better than just lying in bed and crying, which is what he had done the first time he woke up, not long after he turned twenty-four. The government had instilled the program shortly after his twenty-second birthday, and he had been asleep ever since.
Merlin had voted against the proposal, had rallied against it, banners and signs and protests, the whole shebang. Better workers, the government cried. A more productive society. Individual needs should no longer exist. Just a few glitches in the system, a few days that you’ll be conscious, self-aware, but that’s just as well. They could leave the world one tiny piece of freedom, just one bit.
They hadn’t even announced that the vote had come through – just turned off people’s cognitive functions and let the world slip into a coma.
Even now, Merlin still felt like he was twenty-two, like he had just graduated from uni, like he had his whole life ahead of him –
But now he was thirty-three years old, his body the proof. It had become longer and leaner since he’d last seen it. He was still skinny, but not in the underfed way he’d looked in his early twenties; sinewy muscles ran up and down his arms. A scraggly beard adorned his face, and though it didn’t look half-bad, it had never been how Merlin saw himself.
He couldn’t look at his reflection for too long.
The apartment was the same – not the one he’d had at twenty-two, but the same as the last three days that he’d been awake. The contents of his closet remained unchanged, the food in the fridge was similar enough, there was no other human presence.
His car keys weren’t on the table, but Merlin found them in one of his coat pockets, and braced himself before heading out the door and into the world.
He couldn’t stand seeing London sleeping, but he had to get through the midmorning traffic in order to get out of the city, and the thought of staying in his apartment the whole day made his stomach roil. The upside, he supposed, to people’s brains being slowed to the point of stopping, was that it made them better drivers, and he was out of the city within the hour.
He hated wasting those precious minutes, and tried to take as full advantage as he could, honking his car horn unnecessarily and often, running his hands over the leather interior of the seats, blasting the radio as loud as he could, letting the sound fill his ears –
Once he was out of the city, away from the dead eyes of the people on the street, Merlin could finally relax, letting his car slow on winding country roads as he drove further and further from civilization.
He pulled over when he reached the edge of a cliff side, car skittering to a stop. Slamming the door, he appreciated the warm sun beating down against his back as he walked aimlessly around the valley. He had been here before – driven past it on his way to his mother’s, the last time he’d been conscious.
Seeing his mother’s sunken in face and expressionless eyes, recognizing him as her son but not being able to do anything about it – no smile, no hug, just “Merlin” in the deadest voice he’d ever known. He had tried to stay, to get her to talk to him, eat with him, do anything – but she had simply brushed past him on her way to the mill.
It made him wonder if, when she was awake and he was not, he had ever treated her like that, shuddering at the mere idea of it.
But this place had looked so beautiful, and he couldn’t bear to look for any of the people he loved in the mess that London had become, so he had decided before falling back into the void of the world that the next time he woke up, he would come here.
He threw his jacket and trainers into the car before he headed up the hillside – it was plenty warm enough, and he wanted to feel the world around him in all its glory for as long as he could.
The grass was wet with dew under his feet, but he didn’t mind in the slightest, even lying down when he reached the top of the hill to let the rest of his body feel the pinpricks of coolness.
He wasn’t sure how long he laid there, staring at the clear blue sky and trying to think about all of the people he cared about without thinking about what they were doing right now, if their eyes were sunken in and their voices low and flat.
Merlin fought to stay extremely conscious of everything he was doing, every thought that ran through his head, every movement his fingers made running across the grass, the wind brushing his hair into his eyes, because he knew he would only get this for so long, his time was already running out, before he knew it he’d be twenty-two years old in an eighty-year-old’s body and life would short-circuit –
“Who are you?”
Merlin’s heart nearly stopped at the sound of the voice. Who the hell would be up here right now? Whose job would possibly lead them up a hillside in the middle of nowhere? And why did the voice, with its inflection and attitude and accusatory nature, feel so – so –
Merlin sat up abruptly and swung around to face a blond-haired man who looked maybe ten years old than him – no, my age, he’s my age, Merlin reminded himself – with an expression of pure befuddlement as his piercing blue eyes hit Merlin, mouth slightly ajar in shock.
“Are – are you awake?” Merlin asked the other man, scrambling to his feet, heart beating a mile a minute, mind churning just as fast. “I mean –”
“You’re awake?” The other man cut him off, turning his head so that his hair glowed golden in the sunlight. “That’s – that’s not supposed to be possible. How is this possible?”
“I don’t know,” Merlin’s mind was flitting through possibilities. People weren’t supposed to be awake at the same time – it just wasn’t done. That was how an uprising would start, too many people being awake at once. They filtered through, never letting anyone with any connection to one another stay awake for too long. With the drastic decrease in the world’s population in the past thirty years, it wasn’t a difficult feat. London’s population was less than a million now, and they scattered the population, kept track of their movements so that no two people who were awake would ever come into contact.
“I mean – there must be a problem with the algorithm,” the man shook his head as if righting himself, his voice growing more confident as he did so. “The algorithm must be off. I wonder if they know – but Uther always knows, and I’ve already broken protocol. It doesn’t matter if he discovers this. If he knows I’m awake and didn’t come straight to him, he’d kill me anyway.”
“Hey, hey,” Merlin didn’t even think before he crossed the space between them to touch the man’s shoulder, warm in the summer sun. He gripped tightly until the man stopped muttering and turned to look at him. His eyes were bright blue and managed to convey the shaky terror of his words while still being steely and willful, determined in their own odd way. “It’s okay. You’re going to be okay.”
The man took in a shaky breath before standing up straighter, Merlin’s arm falling from his shoulder in the process. “I’m sorry,” he said, his voice much more measured. “You caught me by surprise. I’m having a…difficult day.”
“You’re awake,” Merlin said gently. “In what this world has become…being awake is very difficult.”
The man smiled hesitantly at him before reaching a hand out with some of that steely determination Merlin had seen before. “I’m Arthur.”
Merlin laughed at the formality, but wouldn’t pass up the chance to touch someone else, someone who was also fully aware of their conversation, who would remember this interaction. “I’m Merlin. It’s nice to meet you, Arthur. I never thought I’d get to have another conversation with a human being again, so this is pretty exciting for me. Probably for you as well.”
“It’s…unexpected, that’s for certain,” Arthur let his hand fall away. “I wasn’t supposed to be here today. I was supposed to – well, that’s a long story. But I guess I understand why we met. The algorithm is intact; I just didn’t do what I was meant to, that’s all.”
He shuddered and Merlin reached a tentative hand out again. “You wanna talk about it, mate? I’ve got all day.”
“Merlin, don’t waste the one day that you get to be awake on listening to my life story,” Arthur said with a rueful grin. “I promise that there are better ways to spend your time.”
“Are you kidding?” Merlin asked, incredulous. “I’m talking to someone. I fucking love talking, and it’s been ten years since I’ve had any decent conversations. I mean, it only feels like a week or so, but I know that it’s been ten years, and that hurts my soul, Arthur, it really does. No one’s told me to shut up in ten years. I would love to hear your life story.”
Arthur’s smile was very nearly shy. “You might regret that about five seconds into the whole tragic affair.”
“Aren’t all of our lives tragic affairs nowadays?”
“Point taken,” Arthur recognized, and Merlin gestured toward the ground with a grandiose wave of his arm.
“Care to sit?”
Arthur snorted, but sat in the dewy grass with Merlin, the two of them facing the valley that sprawled beyond the cliff. It was nearly noon, and the sun was beating down hotter and hotter, but Merlin reveled in the feeling and thought that Arthur did too if the contented close of his eyes as he sat was anything to go by.
“So,” Arthur started before cutting himself off with an awkward smile.
“So,” Merlin smiled at him, forgetting how nice it felt to laugh, to tease someone, to make someone feel at ease. Merlin felt most at home around people, especially people he loved, but if he couldn’t have any of them, Arthur would have to do.
“Um…my father is one of the men who enforced the sleeping program to begin with,” Arthur started, and Merlin winced without realizing it. Arthur gave him a hesitant look before continuing. “He’s a higher-up which means he’s always awake, and whenever I wake up, I’m supposed to report to him. But today…I didn’t. I couldn’t. I’m so tired of doing everything that he wants, being everything that he wants. I voted for this program to make him happy.”
“Wait, what?” Merlin’s stomach flipped over. He’d never known anyone who had actually voted for this, assuming that the government had only let the vote go forth to give the people a false sense of security, the decision having already been made. He never thought anyone would have actually consented to this broken world.
“I know it was wrong,” Arthur’s voice dropped to a whisper. “But I just wanted to make him happy, and an automaton who had no personality and only cared about work is the son my father always wanted.”
“What made you leave today?” Merlin wondered aloud, heart cracking just slightly for Arthur. He couldn’t forgive him for consenting to this madness, but his life sounded much more difficult than Merlin’s own had ever been. “I mean – you said something about him killing you earlier when you were muttering.”
“He probably won’t kill me,” Arthur sighed. “He’ll probably just command the technicians to never wake me up again. I’ve always known that the second I broke protocol, I’d never wake up again. This is – well, Merlin, it’s my last day.”
Arthur looked him in the eye for the first time since he had started his story, and Merlin understood what that fear clouding his eyes was. He hesitantly reached a hand out to put over Arthur’s. Arthur looked down at it, but didn’t pull away.
“It might be everyone’s last day,” Merlin said softly after a moment. “Any moment now, we might stop waking up and spend the rest of our lives as automatons. I’ve lived a week in ten years. Even if nothing changes, I only have a month or so left. …You won’t feel it when you die. I’ve heard that’s a comfort to some people.”
“But not to you?” Arthur looked over at him, head-tilted and genuine, truly wanting to know the answer.
Merlin shook his head. “Not to know when you die? Not to feel anything when your soul is wrenched from your body? To age and die without ever getting to live your life? That’s a tragedy to me. I’d rather feel…everything. Pain is better than this emptiness.”
“Yeah,” Arthur said after a moment. “It really is.”
They were quiet for a moment, listening to the wind, before Arthur said “Tell me about you, then. You listened to my tragic affair, it’s your turn now.”
Merlin smiled over at him gently but teasingly. “It’s your last day, Arthur. Sure you want to waste it on my life story?”
“Not really going to find a better conversationalist,” Arthur pointed out lightly, but Merlin could hear a please hiding somewhere in there.
“Not much to tell,” Merlin shrugged. “I’m from a tiny town called Ealdor near the border with Wales. Population’s less than a thousand. I graduated secondary school with a class of a whopping twenty-nine people.”
“Holy shit,” Arthur laughed aloud, eyes bright and crinkled around the edges, and Merlin felt a swooping sensation in his stomach.
“So naturally, I went straight to Oxford,” Merlin rolled his eyes self-deprecatingly, but Arthur’s eyes went wider as he grinned.
“Really? Me, too,” he said, voice very nearly delighted, which caused more uncomfortable sensations for Merlin’s insides. “What year?”
“I graduated right before the program went into effect.”
Arthur nodded, “Okay, so I was a year ahead of you, then. We must have seen each other at some point. It’s a big school, but with the population decrease it’s not nearly as populous as it was in its prime. What did you study?”
“Biochemical engineering,” Merlin responded promptly, waiting for the ever-constant gaping that followed. Arthur was no exception, his eyes going wide and mouth falling open in incredulity. Merlin had stopped being offended by it a long time ago.
“I wouldn’t have guessed that,” Arthur shook his head. “You’re too nice to be a scientist. I would have guessed…I dunno, art or something like that.”
“I thought about it,” Merlin allowed, “but decided against it in the end in favor of something a bit more financially stable. Which ended up being for the best – I can’t imagine trying to create art asleep.” They fell silent for a moment at the idea and Merlin quickly changed the subject. “And what did you study?”
“Business, taking after my father,” Arthur bit his lip, expression almost angry. “Naturally.”
“I guess it’s not too surprising that we never saw each other, then,” Merlin pointed out. “Different courses, different buildings, and I guess we had different friends as well.”
“Well, I never really had any of those to begin with. Father kept me very busy.” The bitterness in Arthur’s tone was evident and pity welled up in Merlin again. He couldn’t imagine living your entire life just trying to please someone. He would almost rather live in this half-life than live a full life with that as his only goal.
“Well, you wouldn’t have run in circles with my friends, anyway,” Merlin tried to keep it light for all of two seconds before failing miserably as he added, “We were a part of the Sixth Street Rioters.”
“Fuck,” Arthur swore and Merlin was almost certain he inched in the other direction. “Are you serious?”
“Yeah.” Merlin didn’t mean to let his voice seep with apology, but it did anyway. “I was arrested twice. Which was nothing on my mate, Will, by the way, who had the record for most arrests at a grand total of seven.”
“Just tell me you weren’t the guy who killed the Parliament member,” Arthur said with a nervous grin, and Merlin winced.
“Nope, that was Will,” he admitted as Arthur visibly winced. “If it makes you feel any better, I tried to find him the first time I woke up and he’s just a mindless droid like the rest of them now. That’s all I did, really, the first few times I woke up – tried to find the other rioters, see if we could get a program going to start a revolution. But it never panned out. I could never find anyone who was awake until – until now. You.”
Merlin purposefully didn’t look over at Arthur so he couldn’t tell what his reaction was. After a moment’s silence, Arthur let out a long breath. “Sorry to say that your revolution will have to go on without me. This being my end and all.”
You don’t know that, Merlin wanted to say but knew it wouldn’t help. Chancing a glance at Arthur’s profile, golden hair shining in the sunlight, eyes downcast on the valley below them, Merlin felt his heart break at the idea of Arthur being lost forever in the sleeping.
“Well, I’ll stay with you,” Merlin told him, and Arthur’s head jerked toward him as if he were shocked, but Merlin had known that he would be staying long before he said it out loud. “We can just…stay here until we fall asleep. And then we’ll both go back to being dead together.”
Arthur’s expression was very nearly tender as he placed his hand on top of Merlin’s and squeezed. Merlin had to look away for fear of his eyes giving away the tremors in his chest.
“Worst hangover you ever had.”
“Ooh…first year at Oxford, my second weekend there. I wanted to prove to everyone that just because my father was Uther Pendragon didn’t mean I couldn’t have fun. Big fucking mistake on my part, I’m just glad no one ever found out that I peed on the statue outside of the hall.”
“And I didn’t think you had it in you.”
“My turn, then. Favorite…favorite teacher.”
“Mm, Professor Gaius, second year organic chemistry. I thought he was such a hard ass with expectations through the roof, but I worked harder in his class than any other, and when the semester was done, he offered me an internship with his lab. Worked there until I graduated. How about…the best book you’ve ever read for class?”
“The Once and Future King. I read it when I was sixteen and excruciatingly arrogant and thought myself King Arthur. It’s very embarrassing, looking back. Um…first girlfriend.”
“Freya Waters, my first year of uni,” Merlin hesitated before tacking on, “but I had a boyfriend before that.”
Arthur didn’t turn to look at him from where they were both laying in the grass, world growing darker around them. The morning dew was long gone and crickets were chirping, but Merlin was trying is hardest not to think about the dimness and what it would soon bring.
“I told you about him before – Will,” Merlin decided to keep talking. “I’ve known him since I was four, we lived in each other’s back pockets for years. We started dating when we were sixteen, but we realized that we were fucking terrible as a couple and became best mates again without much difference in our relationship. It’s all we were ever meant to be, really.”
He was silent for a moment, just in case Arthur wanted to add something, but Arthur remained staring melancholically at the darkening sky, so Merlin said “First –”
“I had a date with a boy once,” Arthur cut him off and Merlin fell quiet, heart thumping even louder in his chest. “When I was seventeen. He was in my English class. It was really nice. We flipped a coin to see who would walk the other home and he won, but I made him leave me on the street corner so my father wouldn’t see. But the neighbor saw us kissing goodnight and called my father, so when I got home…” Arthur broke off, shuddering, before cracking the worst impression of a smile that Merlin had ever seen. “I definitely didn’t go on anymore dates with boys after that.”
“You deserve so much better,” Merlin said after a moment of deciding how he wanted to formulate his next words, “than a father like that. And a life like this.”
“It’ll be over soon anyway,” Arthur whispered, voice cracking just slightly. “Merlin…I’m scared to die.”
Merlin reached for Arthur’s hand and pressed against it lightly for a moment before taking a leap of bravery and entwining their fingers. “Don’t think of it as dying, then. Think of it as…getting ready for the next life. A better life than this.”
“Do you really believe that?”
“I have to,” Merlin answered in completely honesty. “To keep sane, I have to think that we’ll be reborn in a better world. Besides…today can’t possibly be the only day in all of eternity that I get to spend with you.”
Arthur laughed shakily, turning his head to look at Merlin with wide, genuine eyes. “You think we’ll see each other again?”
“Yeah,” Merlin breathed out, noticing that their faces were close enough that Arthur could probably feel that breath on his cheek. “I mean…For no other reason than that the universe has to give me an opportunity to punch your father in the face.”
Arthur really did laugh then, loud and real. “I would love to see the expression on his face. Though my father’s a pretty intimidating man, physically and otherwise. You might not be able to.”
“I’ll have the element of surprise,” Merlin argued. “When you’re meeting your son’s –” he breathed, “–friend, you hardly expect them to hit you. It’s foolproof.”
Arthur chuckled again and Merlin squeezed his hand tighter. “I wish I had met you before, though. At Oxford.”
“I don’t, on the account of the fact that I was a real twat when I was nineteen,” Arthur told him, but Merlin heard a thank you and a me too somewhere in there.
“I could’ve helped with that.”
“By making me a rioter rebel?”
“Among other things. I would’ve asked you out, for one.”
Arthur’s smile was gentle and heart-breaking. “Yeah, you would’ve had to make the first move. And work pretty hard at it, too, to get through my father’s years of conditioning the perfect son.”
“I love a challenge,” Merlin breathed, leaning in to brush Arthur’s nose with his own, their cheeks nearly resting together. He waited a moment, listening to Arthur’s breath, before pressing his lips lightly against Arthur’s. He pulled away, but Arthur’s hand fell on Merlin’s side to keep him in place, and leaned in to give him a real kiss.
It took most of Merlin’s courage and more than a few minutes for Merlin to pull away, but he kept a hand in Arthur’s hair, running through it gently and meaningfully. “I don’t want to fall asleep,” he breathed.
“Me neither,” Arthur pressed his lips against Merlin’s again. “But – if I have to have a last day, I’m glad it’s this one.”
Merlin nodded and kissed him again. “I think I know why we were both awake today.”
Merlin lifted his face up to press a kiss to Arthur’s forehead. “Because we can’t possibly go a whole life without seeing each other. Not you and me.”
There were definitely birds singing.
It was kind of nice, but also kind of irritating.
That was a feeling.
There was definitely grass beneath him.
Which was also irritating.
And warmth pressed against his side – a body. He could hear their measured, sleeping breathing.
That was nice.
That was –
Merlin’s eyes jolted open and he shoved his body upright, very nearly gasping for breath.
He was awake.
He was awake.
“What the fuck –?” He gasped out as he reached his hands to shake Arthur roughly awake. “Arthur, Arthur – oh, God, please be awake with me, you have to be awake, this can’t just be a fluke –”
Arthur’s eyes opened and for one horrible second, Merlin thought that he was still asleep. But then his body energize and he snapped up as well, eyes wide. “Merlin? Are you – how are we – how is this possible?”
“I don’t know,” Merlin breathed in amazement, a hand reaching out to grasp Arthur’s shoulder, cupping at his neck. “I don’t know. I guess – I guess I was right about the universe, though, because it’s definitely conspiring for the two of us right now.”
“Do you think this is permanent?” Arthur nearly choked on his own breath in his hurry to get words out. “Are we awake now? Is it just us?”
“Who knows?” Merlin laughed weakly, pulling Arthur toward him in a tight hug. “But no matter what happened, we have one more day together.”
“It wasn’t the end after all,” Arthur said into Merlin’s neck, and Merlin pretended he didn’t feel the wetness of Arthur’s tears against his skin, just held him tighter and tighter, never wanting to let go.
It wasn’t the end. Merlin couldn’t believe it. In fact, it felt like quite the opposite. It felt like a beginning.