Jones stood in the doorway of the workroom, watching Tamarai working through the evidence in this sim. Merlin sat on a large cushion, methodically working his way through a lollipop half the size of his head.
Merlin knew he was there – he’d felt the boy’s mind touch his as soon as he’d come up to the floor. From what emotion leaked from his son, Merlin felt disturbed, but from looking at him, he was putting up a front, perhaps acting happy for Tamarai’s sake.
Tamarai, on the other hand, seemed completely, and genuinely relaxed. This had been a good move. The job was low-level work that should have been handed to the next newbie that came along, but it would give her the space she needed. And it would reinforce that not all corners of the Agency were filled with death and misery.
Jones gave a low cough as he walked into the room, announcing his presence. ‘Do you mind if I borrow Merlin?’ he asked of Tamarai, as he crouched next to his son.
Tamari looked up, her eyes bright – a world away from where she’d been after the trial shift back in the phone bank. ‘Go ahead, but he’s been a great helper.’
Jones smiled. ‘Coffee tomorrow?’
‘Raincheck?’ she asked. ‘I’m staying at the mansion tonight.’
Jones let his smile spread inward. Several of his recruits had pooled their desire to live off-site and wrangled a reasonable deal for what was referred to as “the mansion” – a seven-bedroom house on a reasonable-size block of land that included two pools and a tennis court.
There was an Agency door installed in the living room, so they could walk right from their home and into the tech department.
The recruits who didn’t live there were welcome to visit whenever they wanted, or to participate in parties – either of the dance or board game variety.
Going was a sure sign that Tamarai was starting to come back to herself, that things were starting to normalise – at least for her.
Jones smiled. ‘Always. Just hit me up when you need caffeine.’
Merlin made small, Guinea-pig-like sounds and raised his arms in the universal child-speak for “pick me up, parent!” Jones obliged in lifting him up, then allowed the boy to crawl around to put himself in a piggyback position, his legs wrapping around Jones’ waist.
He bid Tamarai a goodnight and walked back to his office, Merlin’s face buried in between his shoulder blades.
Once they’d stepped back into the safety of his office, all the lights became bright and all the doors disappeared, far more quickly and completely than what would’ve happened if Jones had required them away – Merlin needed to feel safe, and sometimes, cutting them off from the larger world was the only way to achieve that.
Jones required a couch and sat, slowly peeling his son off his back. ‘Are you all right?’ he asked slowly, and he swept Merlin’s hair back from his face.
Whatever front Merlin had been putting up around Tamarai, it was gone. He looked devastated, and silent tears poured down his cheeks. ‘I couldn’t help you,’ Merlin said. ‘I couldn’t see you.’
Jones kissed the top of Merlin’s head, then began to rub gentle circles on his back. ‘Don’t blame yourself for this. You didn’t do anything wrong. It was she who hurt me, not you.’
‘She could have killed you!’ Merlin screeched, his voice cracking.
‘But she didn’t,’ Jones said, trying to keep soothing images in his mind, ‘and even if she had, Magnolia would have looked after you.’
The platitudes of human parents came to mind, but he never liked to lie to Merlin. Humans would so often promise that they “would always be” there, or even more spuriously that they would “never die” – a promise that few who weren’t Fortitude’s children could actually pull off.
‘I will look after you,’ Jones said, ‘so long as I live. That’s what good parents do. They love and they fight and they protect.’ He held Merlin close. ‘You’re my son, and I’ll do my damnedest to stop them from hurting you.’ He felt his own tears starting. ‘I can’t always. I’m only an agent, and she’s something more powerful than me.’
Merlin cuddled close. ‘But you’re still the best mumma.’
Jones felt the familiar strains of love, responsibility, and heartbreak puling at his heart.
He had always loved children, lived their wide-eyed need to learn – just like new recruits –
but had come to accept that he was unlikely to have a child of his own. There were too many factors working against him in his professional life, too many responsibilities that he needed to pick up because of Ryan’s poor leadership.
And then, Merlin had been dropped in his lap – a child that needed a parent, and a parent needing a child.
And they had fit together, and they’d accomplish amazing things.
Merlin required a pillow, and curled up, wedged in the crook of Jones’ arm. ‘I love you, Mumma.’
‘I love you, too.’
Jones slowly took off his glasses, slipped into his pocket, and sang lullabies until his son fell asleep.