10 – Kindness, Cruelty
‘Think you could add seventeen more pages to this?’
Stef looked across to Jones, one hand dedicated to working the constellation of monitors that look up the centre of his desk – usually there were eight, but the number seemed to flex with each task.
His left arm lay to the left, where Merlin was doodling on the white fabric of Jones’ lab coat with bright markers.
‘That still wouldn’t make a printed version as tall as you.’
‘No, but it would make it-’
‘1337,’ Jones said automatically, ‘aren’t you a bit young for l33t-sp34k?’
‘It’s the internet, time is malleable. It’s still the best way of doing passwords. Like, I know people probably expect that I always do thirty-two character passwords that are simultaneously Shakespeare references and entirely composed of grawlix, but…like a compound word with some o’s swapped out is so much easier.’
‘So long as it’s not one-two-three-four-five, you’re doing a lot better than most people.’
Merlin left the half-done picture on Jones’ sleeve and jumped up onto the observation bed to join her. She adjusted her crossed legs and dragged some of the files out of the way, making sure not to interfere with the electrodes that ran up both of her arms.
Pretty much from the moment she’d come back to life, the weirdness of Merlin being around had…stopped being weird. It was just an accepted part of the modus operandi that every day for Jonesy was “bring your kid to work day”.
And there was something weirdly calming about Merlin being around.
However old he chronologically was, he acted like was under ten – albeit an occasionally genius under ten. And it was just endearing – he was old enough that he didn’t set off any of her trauma about not having kids, but not so old that she had to put on the proper social mask just to interact with him.
But it was more than that.
It was extremely hard to rely on your gut instincts when you were paranoid. Hard to trust what you felt was true inside when…There had been times she’d refused to get on a bus, because she had known, every micron of her had known, if she stepped foot on that particular bus, she would die.
Hard to trust yourself when there’d been moments when she couldn’t bear to leave the house because something bad was going to happen.
An entire life of second-guessing and weighing the odds, trying to take actions that had the least bad consequences.
Something about Merlin felt different from being around any other person.
That statement by itself was normal – spending time with Ryan felt different to hanging out with Jonesy than doing homework with Curt.
But it was something more.
She closed her eyes and drummed her fingers, some of them caught on the cardboard folders and some on the starched sheet of the bed.
As hard as it was, she tried to push thoughts out of her head, tried to scrape away logic, and just leave feelings, instincts, whatever her subconscious was trying to tell her.
Her heart didn’t beat anymore. At first, it had been almost impossible to bear, something to be countered with those little vibrating pillows you gave to sad kittens who missed their mums. But, like a kitten, she’d tried to wean herself off the crutch.
Jonesy had said it would be possible, when she got agentified, that he could program in a false heartbeat, but it was something she’d knocked back. It wasn’t something that would work if she stumbled into a blackout zone or in Faerie, so relying on something that could disappear at the worst moments would make a bad situation even worse.
It really was hard to stop thinking.
Having no heartbeat was weird, but it was becoming part of her new normal.
She stopped drumming her fingers, and dug the nails of her left hand into the palm of her right. A little pain, a little concentration.
She imagined emptiness, thought of darkness, and remembered the sheer nothingness of Death’s realm.
And in the emptiness of all of space and time, she felt her heart.
It wasn’t beating, but in some way, it was making itself known, drawing unthunk thoughts towards it, pinging some part of her brain that was usually too busy to notice.
She let herself sit with the weird sensation for a moment, tried to figure out if it was paranoia, a psychosomatic symptom, or if it was real.
And as every portion of each second went by, it seemed less and less like something she was inventing whole cloth.
She opened her eyes, and Merlin was staring at her.
Often, his eyes were hidden behind goggles – often cheap-looking little steampunk cosplay goggles. Whether these were just fashion – and considering Magnolia’s pretty dresses, that wasn’t entirely out of the question – or if they served some purpose-
‘It’s really noisy in my eyes sometimes,’ Merlin said, all the happy-little-boy energy gone from his voice.
The fact that she hadn’t spoken dawned as she saw little flecks of silver shine in his brown eyes.
And every little bit of her knew that silver was mirror.
She let out a little, high-pitched, e-heh of a giggle, and felt blood pounding in her ears. ‘Oh, I’m in danger, aren’t I?’
Jones laid a hand on her shoulder, and she couldn’t help the scream that came. ‘No, sweetheart, you’re not, I promise.’
She slipped out from under his hand and slid off the far side of the bed – leaving herself pinned in a corner, where she’d have to pass one or both of them to get- Her feet felt pinned to the floor, and she knew panic well enough to know this was something external.
She could scream. She could require a hole in the wall behind her and try to get the attention of someone who just happened to be walking through an otherwise unoccupied floor. She could dive for her phone – even if her feet were stuck, it was in range, amongst the pile of files she was reading through.
She could try and require something that would send up a dozen flags, some WMD or something that needed an authorising agent, which would bring Ryan running to her rescue. Bring him right to where the danger was and-
‘I’ve never hurt him,’ Merlin said, still in the same place on the bed, looking more miserable with each passing second.
‘Get the fuck out of my head,’ she growled, teeth clench, her voice sounding almost inhuman.
‘He doesn’t mean any harm,’ Jones said. ‘Blocking himself off takes a lot of energy.’
She looked from Jones to Merlin, down to feet that were no longer listening, then up to Jones again. Hot tears burned just behind her eyes. ‘Are you gonna hurt me, Jonesy?’ She looked at Merlin. ‘He’s like me, isn’t he, but- But- But no-one knows? And-’ Her voice cracked. ‘And now I know.’ Tears slid down her face. ‘I’m sorry. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to work it out. Don’t take it out- Don’t hurt Ryan, please. If you gotta- If you’re gonna disappear me, then-’
‘I’m going to approach you, and I am not going to hurt you.’
She stared at the floor. Her life had already flashed before her eyes – and taken weeks to do so. Two deaths down, and one more guaranteed, agents didn’t live forever, but it would have been nice to actually get to be an agent before-
Jones came into her field of vision, brightly coloured sneakers poking out from plain black slacks.
Part of her expected him to just press his hand into her chest, breaking through skin and muscle like it was paper and tear her heart from her chest. A couple of wishes would solve any problem, give any cover story the validity it needed.
Jones reached out, took both of her hands, and as she felt something bump against the back of her leg, gently tugged downwards, encouraging her to sit. The freshly required chair was soft, and presumably matched the one that Jones was sitting in, in the cramped space beside the bed.
‘I have only prayed a few times in my life,’ Jones said, holding onto her shaking hands, ‘it’s…just hope verbalised. The gods may have created us, but they don’t care about us on an individual level, aren’t listening to the things we wish for, or wish wouldn’t happen. Things will happen, however they’re going to happen, and there’s only so much you can do.’
She pulled her hands free of his grip and angrily wiped tears away with the heels of her hands. ‘Please, if you’re gonna- The fact that you’re being nice is making it worse.’ She folded her hands in her lap.
Running, even if her feet would obey her, was pointless. She couldn’t shift yet, so the most it would do would be to get her into an empty hall, pounding on an elevator call button while Jonesy approached like the dorkiest of terminators.
‘I prayed this wouldn’t happen,’ Jones said, then handed her a handkerchief. ‘I prayed, Stef, but I always knew…This was an inevitability, but I wish it hadn’t happened so quickly. Smart girl. Clever girl. I’m going to have to keep you two apart, or you’re going to keep working it out. You’ll probably still work it out again. This is going to happen again. And I am so sorry.’
She let each of Jones’ words sit for a moment, and as she twisted the handkerchief around her fingers, cutting off the circulation to a few of them, and let herself live in the tiny amount of hope that came with mentions of “again”.
If there’s gonna be another time, then ergo vis a vi, I’m not gonna die.
‘He’s not like you,’ Jones said, untwisting the handkerchief to stop the little amount of self-harm that was going on. ‘All the tests we’ve done…you would have to touch your mirror to make a wish, we haven’t found anything yet that activates it naturally. Merlin…he can’t stop doing magic. It’s a wonderful thing to be a parent, but it’s so much harder to enforce a bedtime when your kid can walk through walls.’
‘I only do that sometimes, mama.’
‘If they knew what he could do, what he might be able to do one day, he’d be locked up so deep in Central he’d never see sunlight again. You have to know I can’t allow that. Ryan, frankly, risked execution breaking the rules needed to bring you back. I couldn’t do less for my son. I’d burn the world if I had to, it’s what a parent does.’
‘Oh. Shh. Shh. It’s okay.’ He reached out a hand and cupped her face. ‘I’m never more cruel than I need to be. You’re not going to remember any of this, it’s not going to hurt, and in a minute, we’ll be talking like nothing happened.’
Merlin slid off the bed and sat on Jones’ knee. ‘I’m good at this.’ He puffed up his cheeks and blew a cold stream of air at her face.
Something glittered to her left and she turned her eyes to see an iridescent little Glinda bubble, a moving image of…looking down at her stuck feet from her perspective.
Cold wind encircled her head and more bubbles – more memories – started to circle her head. Most were of the last few minutes, but some were older, moments where her subconscious had probably started to put things together.
She looked back to Jones, and felt herself take in a sharp breath as Merlin reached a finger towards the bubble and-
‘That’s the thing about genius,’ Jones said, ‘people tend to ascribe certain tropes to it, even to real people.’
Stef stared down at her hands, then to the folders, then shook her head. ‘Sorry, sorry,’ she said, ‘I think I completely tuned out.’
Jones smiled. ‘I won’t take that personally, we’ve been at this for a while. Take a break, go play some video games or something.’
‘You’re an authority figure, should you really be telling me to waste my time?’
Jones winked. ‘You’ve got enough days coming when I won’t be able to let you off early, take the win, Agent-to-be.’
She smiled and began to gather her folders and miscellaneous agentification documentation. ‘I hate chess.’
‘What you were saying while I was zoned out. And sorry again. You watch pretty much any movie and the go-to shortcut of “smart character”,’ she said, awkwardly holding her bundle so she could do air quotes. ‘Is someone playing chess, or just looking at a chessboard and the other player and going “check in eight moves” or whatever. I understand the game, but I don’t have the patience for it. I mean, I didn’t do extracurriculars but if I was the person I was supposed to be, then chess club should have been one of the things I did.’
‘“The person you were supposed to be”?’ Jones echoed. ‘Stef, no one gets to be who they were supposed to be, who they thought they were going to be, who their parents wanted them to be, the world’s too chaotic for that.’ He indicated to himself. ‘If you were to look at me on paper, I’m extremely boring, I’m a Tech agent in an unremarkable Agency doing fairly unremarkable work. But…Merlin fell into my life and now I have a child. I never thought I’d be a parent, a lot of agents aren’t, so it’s not socially expected of someone like me. Your dad didn’t expect the Director title so soon, if at all; Director Reynolds, may he sleep in peace, I would think didn’t ever expect to be part of a sacrifice that saved the world.’
Jones stood and gave her a gentle headpat.
‘Not being who you expected to be, Stef, is called “life”. Now fuck off, and enjoy it’
Bonus for this chapter: https://vocaroo.com/1nz5q6opDcUi
I spent like ten minutes making weird laugh noises, trying to figure out how Stef would sound, and decided to record one of them
Damn, Jones and Merlin are creepy sometimes.
‘I’ve never hurt him,’ Merlin said, still in the same place on the bed, looking more miserable with each passing second.
This is fine as it is, but if Merlin is trying to be reassuring, perhaps “I’d never” (as in, “I would never”) would better convey the intended meaning?
(Or maybe Merlin is being as reassuring as he can be without making promises he’s not certain he’ll be able to keep. That’s a little more sophisticated than might be expected from a child of his apparent developmental level, but “apparent” is doing a lot of heavy lifting there. (Though that raises the question of whether he’d care that he might be lying to someone whose memories he’s going to erase anyway. (Maybe he does! (Maybe he has reason to.)))
(Yeah, I hadn’t intended to analyze what might just be a typo quite that deeply.))
I mean, I didn’t do extra circulars but if I was the person I was supposed to be, then chess club should have been one of the things I did.’
I think I addressed most of the comments on Discord. 🙂
And things are no longer circular. 😛
Ah. Is good to be proofreading again.
‘I’ve never more cruel than I need to be
Should probably be I’m
Now for more backlog binging. Omnomnomnom!