The hour before and the hour after midnight were always the quietest in the tech department.
Jones walked his usual late-night circuit around the floor, more of a habit than an actual need. An excuse to stretch his legs – to spend some time away from his lab and his desk, if not away from his work.
All his current work sat in minimised windows along his HUD task tray – unless it was something that the Agency didn’t need to know about, it was automatically synched. Backups upon backups upon backups; changes made in-HUD or by keyboard were executed, recorded, and logged.
He stopped by one of the window seats, and he brought up his email as he sat. The transparency was such that the city outside the window was still perfectly visible. Everything seemed peaceful, but it was impossible to be sure.
Any little office light that he saw could be anything, from a relatively innocent Blue Earth meeting to a Solstice torture facility.
Except for in a select few cities, Solstice seemed to take some sort of sick pleasure in seeing how close to an agency they could operate a facility – for both short-term and long-term locations. A perverse game of chicken.
A game that often left the Agency looking foolish.
Even after two years, Clarke refused to let it go that their Field team had failed to detect a temporary Solstice base less than three hundred metres from the Agency, in a building that half their recruit population walked past everyday.
It had undoubtedly been a failing on their part, but they’d already well and truly paid for the error. It wasn’t something to continually bring up whenever there was room for a snide comment in a meeting.
Jones flicked off a few quick emails and continued his circuit.
The phone bank was quiet – a small mercy, but statistically likely, compared to the two day shifts. Tamarai still looked nervous – understandable, given it was her first week back.
It always took a while to recover, the first time you listened to someone die.
Counselling was on-hand, but even with the therapy and the advantage that the blue gave the recruits in stabilising their emotions, she had gone from being a gregarious woman to being someone who had to be convinced to leave her quarters.
He watched as her earpiece blinked blue. She raised her hand, but as she did, she caught his gaze, nodded, and slipped away from her desk.
Jones nodded and they walked down the hall a few feet. ‘How’s your evening going?’
Tamarai stared. ‘Don’t you mean “How are you?”? It’s the same question, no matter the wording.’
Jones held up his hands. ‘Guilty, but you can’t fault me for asking.’
‘Bring me Starbucks in the morning, Andrea, and we’ll talk then.’ She looked past him. ‘I want to get through the night before even trying to figure out how I am.’
He nodded. ‘Did your parents take off all right?’
She seemed to perk up a little. ‘They don’t mind getting shifted around, but the private plane was too much to pass up. Did I thank you for organising it yet?’
Jones squeezed her shoulder. ‘You don’t need to thank me, sweetie. Good luck with tonight.’
She nodded and walked back towards her desk.
Jones stared after her for a moment and wished that everything in the Agency was as simple to solve.
The main operations room was empty – there were no active missions, no recruits on patrol, and no one running sims to up their potential reaction times. A quiet night.
Jones continued the circuit. A few recruits wandered the halls, on their ways to bed. A half-dozen of his people sat in the common room, Die Hard playing on the television but being ignored by all – all six recruits were on computers, keeping each other company without words.
He heard crying in the back of his mind.
Many things about Merlin had taken time to get used to. The boy still managed to surprise him on a daily basis – with a new power, or a phrase from a world long dead.
He had disliked the child invading his mind, picking through his thoughts and seeing all of his deepest secrets. Merlin had seen his soul, had seen past his carefully curated personality and obfuscations, had seen his plans and machinations…and judged them to be good.
The upside to the boy getting into his mind so easily, in the boy being so close to him, was that Merlin felt comfortable enough to express his worries and his fears and cry into his mind when he didn’t feel safe enough to do so in the real world.
Jones shifted back to his lab and waited for his eyes to adjust to the lack of light. He pulled off his glasses, and slipped them into his pocket. ‘Merlin?’ he said gently, even though the boy would already know he was there.
There was no light in the lab, and his system was taking time to compensate – a sign that more than the lights was being switched off. There was no light at all – not in the cracks around the doorframe, not from any of his computers or sundry machinery. Nothing at all.
He took a step forward, heard a shout, and froze.
There were few things more reckless than ignoring one of Merlin’s warnings. He shuffled back to his initial position, and let his arms hang at his side.
He focussed on warmth and comfort in his mind. Images of blankets and teddy bears and hugs.
The crying disappeared from his mind and became audible with his ears. It was no shock at all that it was coming from beneath his desk, from the cardboard box that was his little boy’s safe place.
After a solid minute, some light finally began to penetrate the room – the small LEDs on his monitors and the blinking lights on his towers. In the air ahead of him, thin red lines began to take shape – razor wire, made of light.
Jones reached into his pocket, withdrew a notebook, and ripped out a page. He lifted his hand as close to the wire as he dared, then let the paper drop.
The line of light sliced through the paper with ease, the two halves fluttering to the floor.
‘Merlin,’ he said gently. ‘I’m here, whenever you want to let your defences down.’
Rushing the boy only led him to withdrawing more, to going non-verbal for days or weeks at a time, to retreating to the spaces in his mind where no one could hear him crying. Even after years at the agency, Merlin’s first reaction when he felt threatened was to close down, to act as he had around his parents.
In a world with so many monsters, Jones felt as if Merlin’s parents had to rank in the top ten. It was a thought based in emotion, rather than in logic, but wherever they fell in the ranking, they were monstrous.
He hated them all the more for the monumental task still ahead of him, to provide enough maternal care to even begin to give Merlin some sense of love and family.
And on the good days, he succeeded. Merlin had started calling him “mother” less than a year into his time at the agency, and Magnolia had been Merlin’s big sister since the moment she’d rescued him.
But still, the bad days came, as they would for the rest of his life.
The red razor wire twitched and bent, and a loop formed in it – a loop large enough to allow him passage.
Come in, Mumma.
There was no need to hesitate. Jones walked forward, unafraid of the wires curling and recoiling, bare inches from him.
There was a lamp under his desk, turned on its side and aiming its light at the slowly disintegrating cardboard box.
An automatic requirement could have replaced the box every day or every hour, but the concept set Merlin on edge, so the boxes always stayed until they were well and truly falling apart – and they lingered for weeks more, fixed up with tape and staples and magic.
Merlin eventually would give him permission to change the box, and when he did, they would spend an hour decorating it. From the outside, it would look innocent and childish – drawing with markers and crayons, using all the colours from the biggest box of Crayolas known to man, and pressing handprints onto the surface with bright acrylic paint.
What the casual observers never saw was how Merlin could make the drawings dance within the cardboard, or that the handprints pressed in memories as well as paint, to give the boy small bastions for his mind – a mental scrapbook of good memories.
Jones knelt, his fingers brushing over a memory of a trip to the beach – one entirely constructed within the simulator, as they couldn’t chance Merlin going outside.
Merlin barely knew what the outside looked like. Had spent hardly any time in the sun, let alone a day having fun in the sun.
It had been an Andrea day, which had worked out well. A day in the simulated sun, in an Agency-blue bikini, had been an excellent cure to what had been a bad week.
And everyone had cheered when Merlin finally went into the water. The recruits didn’t know what Merlin was, didn’t understand his powers, but they didn’t need to. He was one of them, and that made him family. And when family accomplished something, you cheered.
Jones took his hand away from the memory and crawled into the refrigerator box with Merlin
– who was shaking, wrapped in the same grimy blanket they he had been brought to the Agency in.
No matter what they did to it, it would never come clean; and he refused to let them throw it out.
It had been his first and only possession for so many years – especially during the years when his parents hadn’t even bothered to clothe him.
Merlin held up his arms, a shield made of the same red razor wire extending from his wrist for a moment before it disappeared. Jones waited for it to fade completely, then scooped the boy up and held him in his lap.
It took a moment, it always did, before Merlin relaxed enough to truly believe that the contact was for comfort, and not some precursor to another beating, another abuse, another experiment.
The boy let out a tiny, rattling breath, then buried his head in Jones’ chest, his face slipping behind the open flap of his lab coat, hiding him from the world.
Jones made the same wordless sounds of comfort, the platitudes and the reassurances that he always did, the whole time keeping his mind as open as possible, in case Merlin couldn’t bring himself to use his actual voice to express what was wrong.
Merlin cried, his throat sounding raw, tears quickly soaking through Jones’ lab coat and original-not-required Farscape shirt.
Jones leaned back against the cardboard and gently rocked his son as he wept.
‘She and he,’ Merlin said at last, his voice so small that Jones had to strain his ears – an unusual act for an agent. ‘She and he were close today.’
Merlin never said “Mum and Dad” or “Mother and Father” or even “my parents”. He just used pronouns, and anyone who didn’t understand whom he was talking about didn’t need to understand.
Jones gently kissed the top of Merlin’s head. He wished he could tell the boy that everything would be all right, that his biological parents couldn’t reach him within an agency, but it wasn’t the truth, and Merlin knew that.
And sometimes, lying for the sake of giving comfort was worse than not giving the comfort in the first place.
He and the agency didn’t know what Merlin’s parents were, not for sure, but a few assumptions usually lead to the conclusion of a demon being involved.
A demon could walk into the agency anytime they chose, and there would be nothing they could do but run.
Demon. Fae magic. Mirror magic. Magic from dead worlds. Merlin was the most perfect cocktail that no one in their right mind should have created.
‘I’ll protect you,’ Jones said, ‘with my life. You know that, sweetie.’
It was the truest thing he could say.
Merlin nodded. ‘I know, Mumma. I know.’ He sniffled and wiped his nose on his far-too-large lab coat. ‘I don’t know what they wanted. It’s– It’s hard to read them. Unless they’re thinking right at me–’ He shuddered. ‘I don’t want to think about it anymore.’
Jones ran a hand through the boy’s hair. ‘Do you think you can get some sleep?’
Merlin shook his head. ‘I’m not tired.’
‘What’s the rule?’ he asked of the young boy.
‘If people are bad, deny them baked goods.’
‘Not that one.’
‘Oh,’ Merlin said slowly. ‘That one.’
‘I know it’s hard for you to sleep, but you have to get at least eight hours every two days.
Please, Merlin. I don’t ask a lot of you, and this is for your own good.’
Merlin pushed himself from Jones’ lap and sat back against the back of the cardboard box, disdain on his face. After a moment, he pulled off his goggles and snorted.
An image rammed into Jones’ mind like a blow to the head.
His systems railed against the intrusion, but he did his best to clear the alarms so he could focus on the…memory. A woman – Merlin’s mother – lifted a long silver knife and watched droplets of blood slide off the sharp tip. ‘This is for your own good.’
He heard Merlin scream in the memory and begin to cry in real life.
The intruding memory faded from his mind, and as it did, Merlin stopped crying – whether he had simply run out of tears or was too tired to keep going, Jones didn’t know.
‘I’m not her,’ Jones said. ‘Sweetheart, you know I would never hurt you. I’m sorry for triggering you. I’ll try not to say that again.’
Merlin made a small noise, then came away from the back of the box, and nestled in beside Jones. ‘I know, Mum, but she–’ He shook his head for a moment. ‘She was kind, a couple of times, just to be crueller afterwards.’
‘I will never hurt you,’ he said gently.
Merlin rested his head on Jones’ chest, the blanket lifting up and slithering across the box towards the boy’s hand. ‘She and he. They hurt me cause they were bad. If you hurt me,’ he said, his voice stiff, ‘it’s cause I deserve it.’
Jones felt his heart straining. He wanted to scream, to decry that thought at the top of his lungs, to bury the boy in a skyscraper’s worth of plushies.
And none of those loud, grand gestures were what Merlin needed.
Jones continued to pat the boy’s head, smoothing out his hair, and left thoughts of comfort on the surface of his mind, as the first things Merlin would pick up when he reached out with his mind.
‘Never,’ he said gently. ‘It was never your fault. You can’t deserve abuse. It doesn’t say anything about you. It says something about the person who does it.’
‘You can, if you want,’ Merlin said. ‘I won’t mind. Iffin– If I’m bad– You can hit me a little, if it helps.’
‘No,’ he said. ‘Never. I’m not perfect, sweetheart, but I try not to hurt anyone. I’ll never knowingly hurt you.’
‘What about when there’s no choice?’
‘I don’t want to think about situations where that is the case.’
Merlin was quiet for a long few minutes. ‘Mumma?’
Jones nodded and slid down so that he was lying in the box, his knees pointed at the roof. A requirement gave him a pillow – thin, but comfortable enough to see him through the night. He required away his lab coat and nodded.
Merlin adjusted himself and curled up against him, resting his head on Jones’ shoulder. ‘I don’t promise to sleep, but I’ll try.’
Jones wrapped his arm around the boy. ‘That’s all I ask, little one. Dream of nice things.’