It took Merlin fifteen minutes to stop tensing in his arms.
As he had always done and would always do, Jones held the child until the fear subsided to what they unfortunately had to accept as “normal” levels. A background radiation of fear.
Something they couldn’t avoid; something that was only natural, with Merlin’s life.
He gently placed Merlin onto the closest bench that had enough room for a child and bent to look into his son’s eyes – albeit through his latest set of goggles.
Merlin gave him no reaction, so Jones needed to start gently. ‘You need to get some sleep.’
The boy shook his head. ‘I had enough.’ He slowly turned, his goggles disappearing. His eyes were still as dead as they had been whilst Parker had wrapped his hand. ‘What did you do with the seeds?’
‘They’re on the floor,’ he said honestly. ‘I didn’t have time to do anything with them.’
‘Can you burn them, Mumma?’
Jones should have said no. He should have asked what they were. An agent doing his duty would have tested them. An agent doing his duty would have logged this incident somewhere other than plain memory.
A parent, however, just wanted his charge to sleep without nightmares, and burning those seeds was the least he could do. ‘Of course.’
Merlin slipped off the bench and sighed, his entire body seeming to deflate as he exhaled, turned on the spot.
And, mid-motion, simply slipped out of sight as if he’d never been there.
Jones felt his heart seize, and he immediately rushed forward the two steps to the same spot. Merlin usually left his doors open for a few seconds.
There was never any clue as to where they left, never any idea as to whether they were going next door or to the next universe. It was a trust exercise, and it was one that had proven almost always safe so far.
The panic and backup plans in the back of his mind settled as he realised Merlin had simply brought them to his small bedroom – a room Jones had insisted the boy have, so that he could begin to regain some semblance of freedom, to have some space for himself.
Even though Merlin had agreed, things hadn’t worked out as he had planned. The room had begun life as standard-sized recruit room, but it had quickly diminished in size down to something about the size that the kitchenette had been.
Most of the space was taken up with the single bed, leaving barely enough room on either side for the boy to walk around – though most of the time, Merlin just walked through it, as though it weren’t even there.
There was a small bookcase, which held a few books, and a few treasures – mainly small presents from Magnolia, and his tablets in brightly coloured cases.
Merlin still made no move toward the bed. He simply crouched in front of his bookshelf and came up with one of the small computers and a few pages of handwritten notes. The notes were in Latin.
Jones gently took the computer from the boy’s hands. ‘No, no more work today.’
Tears slipped down Merlin’s cheeks. ‘It destroyed your work. I’ve got to make up for it.’
Jones held Merlin’s shoulders. ‘You’re more important than work. I can easily redo it tomorrow.’
More tears came, and the boy turned so he could rest his head against the bookcase. ‘It wasn’t supposed to come back. They only agreed on once. More than once is dangerous. More than once leads to numbers too numerous. That’s why you gotta destroy the seeds, okies?’
He gave Merlin a solemn nod. ‘Of course.’
The boy’s hands curled into fists, and uncurled, his fingers moving as if typing on an invisible keyboard. ‘Let me just get the program back to where you had it, then I’ll sleep, I promise.’
The tears still came, but the tone was one of a child wanting to stay up just one more hour, or to watch one more cartoon.
‘No.’ It wasn’t a word he said often to the boy. “No” was something that Merlin’s parents embodied. “No” you may not have any contact with friends. “No” you may not have any friends.
“No” you may not have any food today. “No” you cannot have any semblance of a normal childhood.
Merlin started to shake. ‘But it’s my fault!’ he screamed.
Jones required a handkerchief, wiped away the tears, and cleaned the boy’s nose. ‘It’s not your fault, and I don’t blame you.’
The boy grabbed Jones’ lab coat and pulled him down, level with him.
Merlin stared at him, then looked surprised. ‘You really don’t blame me.’
‘Of course I don’t.’
‘It was her idea,’ Merlin said as he sat on the very end of the bed and stared down at his sneakers. ‘Most things, especially the bad-bad-bad things, were his idea, but this one was her.’
‘You don’t have to think about it.’
Merlin raised his bandaged hand. ‘Thoughts don’t go away by themselves.’
Jones gently lifted the boy, required the covers away, placed him at the correct end of the bed, and required the covers up over him. Merlin sat, still in his full uniform – he never wore pyjamas – shook his head.
‘The snake,’ Merlin said quietly. ‘She knew it could kill me, and that’s what it was charged with doing. They wanted to see if it could kill me. They wanted to know if I could die.’
Jones had suspected as much. Even the nightmare’s diluted version of the poison had caused Merlin great pain. He hated to imagine what the real one had done to the boy –
especially considering he must have been at least two years younger when the snake had attacked.
He stood and lifted the boy, required a blanket around him – tight, so that he could be swaddled like a baby – and sat on the bed, cradling Merlin in his lap.
‘I didn’t die. It did. It knew that it could die, but it didn’t matter. All its knowledge is passed down to its children.’
His curiosity got the better of him. ‘Its progeny come from the seeds?’
Merlin nodded. ‘It enters the world through something being created. Your program – that’s why it destroyed your program. It needed something unborn, something unfinished, and when it dies, it leaves behind the next generation in an unborn form.’
He nodded. It sounded amazing, unlike anything he knew of, but research and investigation was for a time when he wasn’t caring for terrified child. He couldn’t promise that it wouldn’t hurt him again, couldn’t promise that he could protect him from the next nightmare…but none of the other nightmares had injured him this badly.
‘How did it hurt you like that?’ he asked.
Merlin looked down, burying his chin in the blanket wrapped around him. ‘Memories are always strongest on their anniversary.’
‘How old were you?’
The boy took a long moment before he answered, ‘Seven. It’s a magic number. They wanted to see how far I’d progressed.’
Jones felt sick and was glad that his emergency subroutine had stayed tripped – that he wasn’t showing the disgust he felt for the boy’s parents, that he wasn’t showing the rage he felt for what they’d done for him.
The boy exhaled a long breath and curled up within the blanket. ‘I’ll make it all better, Mumma. I’ll make up for it, I promise.’
‘I said stop worrying about it.’
‘But–’ A bright woolly bobble hat appeared on the boy’s head, effectively hiding all but a few strands of hair and a small nose from his view. The bobbles shook as the boy tried to hide deeper within the blanket. ‘But if I don’t make it better, and you don’t like me anymore, then–’
The boy sucked in a deep breath. ‘Then I won’t be able to pretend that you’re my mother anymore.’
‘It’s not pretend,’ he said. ‘I’ll always look after you.’
Jones looked away, into the dark shadows made by the blanket.
‘I know you don’t like the old stories,’ he said as he gently pulled away the woolly bobble hat and stroked Merlin’s head, ‘because of their origins, or because of the story they aren’t telling, but sometimes, just sometimes, they have meaning other than what you think.’
‘Hmm?’ Merlin asked as he extracted an arm from the safety of the blankets to wrap around Jones’ slight body.
‘The ones where the children have cruel parents but run away and find their real parents. Not all those stories are parables for changelings, or mean that the prince who will save everyone is being hidden away on a farm. Sometimes it just means that you get a new family, because your old one wasn’t good enough. Sometimes it just means that your friends take their place, or that you can find people who care for you far more than those that gave you life.’
‘So you aren’t gonna get rid of me?’
He kissed the top of the boy’s head. ‘Of course I’m not.’
‘Or trade me for a rabbit?’
‘Not if you get a good night’s sleep.’
Merlin seemed to consider this for a moment. ‘Okies.’
Jones lifted the blanket-wrapped boy from his lap and placed him back down on the bed, covered him with the thin quilt. ‘Are you going to be all right, Merlin?’
He smiled and nodded, and Jones felt relieved – almost all the fear seemed to have disappeared from the boy’s eyes.
He knelt and kissed him on the forehead. ‘Goodnight.’