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Barely Breathing

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At the age of six-and-a-half, Joshua learnt that there were places he had been able to go as a child that he could no longer go to. One such place is Mum and Dad’s workplace. Mum said that her boss made a new rule – no children allowed at work – but Joshua thought that there was another reason behind this rule – one that Mum and Dad wouldn’t tell him.

He still had vague memories of playing with someone called 'James.’ He remembered setting up toy train tracks with James.

"Who is James, Mummy?"

"Someone at work," his mother replied, checking his maths homework. She pointed to a sum of an equation.

"Check your numbers, Josh," she said. A sigh escaped her. "James is better at this than I am."

"Did he help me with maths?" James must be a genius, Joshua thought, eyeing his incorrect sum with distaste.

"He helped you to memorize a few times table." His mother kissed him on the cheek. "Dad will be home soon. I'm going to the kitchen to prepare dinner, okay?"

Joshua watched her leave before turning back to long division. Why couldn’t James visit him anymore?

"James works somewhere else now, darling," said Mum, when he asked her after dinner that night.

--

Some CHERUBs like James had been a great deal of help to Zara, back when Joshua was a baby and she was juggling the jobs of mission controller, wife and mother. At that time, to know that Joshua was being kept safe and busy while she ran around compiling dossiers, attending meetings and dealing with paperwork was a great weight off her heart. But now, with Joshua on the cusp of beginning grade school, she was beginning to regret her earlier decision.

Every now and then, Joshua still asked about James. His questions were innocently loaded.

"What does James work as, mummy?"

"How old is James?"

"Where does James live now? Why doesn't he visit us?"

James had returned a few times ever since he graduated, but during his final year at CHERUB, Zara had already stopped bringing Joshua to the campus. Joshua was growing old enough to have a significant long-term memory, and Zara didn't want to expose him to CHERUB. It wasn't fair to her son - to show him a world that he could never be part of.

She had been tempted to let him be a CHERUB. Tempted enough to sit Ewart down for a serious discussion about the topic. But one of CHERUB's entry requirements was that children must not have any known family beyond siblings. Placing Joshua in CHERUB might also evoke resentment from CHERUBs who saw their CHERUB membership as a balm for their lack of family. They would resent Joshua for having the best of both worlds, and with that difference in background between him and the other CHERUBs, Zara couldn't imagine him adjusting well.

Pulling him out of that environment was the best option although was unfair to the CHERUBs who had babysat Joshua. In the weeks that followed her decision, Zara often felt that she had done James a disservice. He had taken the news that Joshua would no longer visit campus stoically, but when she told him that he might not be able to see Joshua again due to 'security issues,' his face tightened. He told her politely that he understood, but Zara heard from Meryl later that James had been slapped with a detention for vandalism. Something about having punched the wall of the dojo. She convinced Meryl to let James off the hook.

--

The incident with Joshua was the first time James had an inkling that he was far too secluded from the everyday world – one that did not involve spies or criminals.

“Can I come and visit him when I’m back from uni?” he asked Zara when his Stanford acceptance email arrived in his inbox.

She sighed.

“He still talks about you, James. If you visit him and he sees that you’re so young, I don’t know how to explain to him that you worked with me. Unless I said that you’re an intern or a part-timer, and even then… there’s a lot we’ll have to fabricate.”

James grit his teeth. He was fond of Joshua and the word ‘fabricate’ made him think of mission dossiers, fake names and cobbled-together character histories. He left Zara’s room without a word.

--

About one and a half months later, when he, Kerry, Callum, Connor and Gabrielle were called into Zara’s room and told that they would need to tell a series of carefully-constructed lies about their childhood to people who were not connected with CHERUB, James felt numb. The anger that rushed through him then was deadened by the hurt he felt when he first learnt that Joshua, the child he had grown fond of, was lost to him, perhaps for good, because of ‘security concerns.’

Fuck ‘national security.’

When they offered James a place at CHERUB, years ago, why didn't they tell him that he would be forced to lie for the rest of his life?