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Sometimes, juggling everything she needed to do was hard.
Sometimes, it was just fun.
Magnolia tried to set her face into a frown, but the grin on Merlin’s little face made it near impossible. His goggles sat on his forehead, a sign that he was willing to interact with the world without a filter – which for him was the first and most obvious sign that he was having a good day.
With Merlin, the bad days could really bad, so every good day had to be cherished.
It was such a good day that she was having to explain to him exactly why riding a bike around the lobby – even with training wheels – would be a bad idea.
In a lot of ways, the Agency was very nondescript, and purposely so – a typical tiled lobby, a high-walled reception desk, whatever selection of palms and succulents that Natalie felt like staring at all day, and some modern art that looked like it had been purchased at a department store for fifteen dollars.
There was nothing in the design to attract people to come in – no number plate, no list of fictitious business inside a many other Agencies had. And still, every day, randos walked in off the street and insisted that they had some business there, despite having no way to back up the claim.
People would wander in, looking for job interviews that were next door, across the street or down the road. People would try and sell their wares. People would come in looking for directions.
And all of this was without a little boy riding a bicycle around.
The twinkle in Merlin’s eyes told her he knew the logic – and even if he didn’t want to listen to her words, she was keeping her mind open enough for him to skim the thoughts off the top of her head. He couldn’t help reading the minds of everyone around him – even as much as Jones tried to caution him against it.
Readers were dangerous, it was as much a fact of life as “agents wear suits”.
Merlin wasn’t dangerous. But the fewer people knew about his powers, the better. The more normal he seemed, the safer he would be. Mind reading was something you could argue away as good intuition, so long as he didn’t say anything too specific.
Walking through walls on the other hand…harder to hide.
And she didn’t use him. There had never even been the temptation to do so – neither she nor his new mother ever wanted to be anything like his birth parents, who – from what they could tell, had begun to exploit their child, even before he was born.
But Merlin liked to be helpful, he liked to be a part of things. He wasn’t a recruit – almost all Agencies required their recruits to be the age of majority before signing on, though some allowed earlier recruitment with parental consent.
Legally he was- Complicated. The Agency had to bend to Kings’ law, and as Merlin wasn’t human, Kings’ applied. But his parents had never come for him, so while Jones wasn’t legally able to adopt him, everyone carried on as though he had.
The shoe would drop one day, but until then, they just had to keep him from crying because his attempts to eat two ice creams at once had left him with sticky hands.
He wasn’t a recruit, but he liked to help. He would get on as an operator – though only with her; and when new people were around, he always liked to give his opinion. His opinions weren’t always coherent, nor necessarily accurate-for-right-now, as sometimes he seemed to be able to get glances of the future, though they rarely made sense until afterwards, but they were valuable.
They had to look strange – a too-small-for-his-probable-age boy in a lab coat at least three sizes too big; and her in one of her favourite dresses, this one simple, with feature patterns of black gingham.
Along with Natalie, who was graciously ignoring Merlin as he sat on the side of her reception desk, they probably didn’t look like the best front-line team the Agency had ever put together, but appearances were deceiving.
Everyone underestimated Natalie.
In some ways, that was by design.
Most people only knew Natalie as the cute secretary who spent all of her time at the front desk. That perception wasn’t inaccurate, as her primary job was to gently guide away those lost randos.
But it also meant that she was the first person to see any threat that decided to attack from the front.
Natalie was a cute face attached to a cute body; with the ability to assess threats that would even make Taylor jealous, if Taylor were ever to feel jealous about anything.
Magnolia had spent one very enjoyable evening down at the pub with Natalie – who had been lonely while both of her partners had been out of town – listening to the secretary talk about her job. The half-drunk lecture about micro-expressions, body language, the way nervous people carried themselves, the bulges various weapons made, and all of the other fascinating minutiae of her job that most of the recruits around her seemed to ignore.
If Natalie’s relationship had been an open one, Magnolia would have made a move – if only to spend a night with the woman, but to the loss of everyone who fancied the cute brunette, her heart belonged to her two partners. She’d been with her girlfriend for years – the addition of the boyfriend was somewhat more recent, and a rather cute story.
Natalie and Rana had come across Kyo while clubbing, and had taken him home for the night – the girls had woken in the morning to find him bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, making them a full breakfast and hangover cures.
And with very little fuss, one night had turned into a long-term, successful poly relationship.
‘I’d say he’s late,’ Natalie commented as she slid the candy jar in Merlin’s direction. ‘But I assume he’s not the one controlling when he’s shifting in.’
Ten minutes later, and twenty minutes past when the new recruit had been scheduled to appear, Magnolia heard a whispering noise in her head – not words, just a gentle, breeze-like white noise that meant Merlin wanted her attention.
She looked up at him – and a face so covered in candy stickiness that she couldn’t help but smile – and he gave a small nod.
Casually, she turned, pretending to inspect her dress, and saw a rush of air in the centre of the lobby before it solidified into the shape of her new problem.
First impressions were important – they weren’t always accurate, and bias often played a huge part in those first few snap judgements, but they were still important.
And her new problem was more and less than she’d expected. She’d known he was a white guy – the profile photo had told her that, but somehow in person he was- He looked like a younger version of a default video game protagonist. Brown hair, brown eyes, tall, a little bit of muscle, but not like he’d played a lot of rugby at school, just like he was at least aware of what a gym was.
All of that was expected – the Solstice tended to pull from the same kind of pools that would otherwise have birthed guys who shot up their schools or beat their girlfriends in parking lots. Young men with a lot of anger and no patience to understand why their prejudices might be wrong.
If you asked most Solstice if they wanted to go fairy-bashing, they’d agree, even without clarifying if you were using a euphemism.
He was clean-shaven, and wearing casual clothes – he held a gym bag in one hand, and it didn’t seem to be too heavy – he was travelling light, which wasn’t unusual for a recruit – you didn’t need to pack a lot when you could require whatever you wanted.
All of that was expected.
The slight hunch to his stature and the sunken look in his eyes like he hadn’t slept in a week weren’t.
After a couple of seconds, he shook his head – normal for someone who wasn’t used to getting shifted around, he straightened, a neutral expression coming down on his face like a newborn agent, and he stepped forward.
‘Hi,’ he said, his voice at a carefully measured volume – not too loud, but not so quiet as to need to be repeated. ‘I guess you’re expecting me. Agent Farnshaw wanted me to pass along apologies for being late, he had a small medical emergency to deal with.’
‘I need you to sign in,’ Natalie called, and the new recruit approached the desk.
Magnolia turned away – and even as she did so, she knew Taylor would berate her for turning her back on an enemy – and lifted her arms to Merlin, to help him down from the desk. She let the question float on the top of her mind, wanting his opinion, his input, anything he could give her about the latest addition to their Agency of Misfit Soldiers.
Merlin’s voice came into her head, as clearly as if he was speaking, but in a messy, stream-of-consciousness kind of way. Words flitted by, and she knew she heard them, but they disappeared before she could register them as if she wasn’t allowed to hear thoughts he was reconsidering.
After a moment, only four words became clear. ‘He’s not himself yet.’ The statement repeated a couple of times, then silence returned to her brain. Merlin cuddled into her. ‘He’s not done baking yet.’
And like that, her tiny Oracle of Delphi was done with his proclamations. Some would have been disappointed with the lack of specifics – but in its own way, it was almost a comfort. There was a wealth of information in what Merlin didn’t say, as much as what he did say.
Merlin didn’t hold his tongue when there was danger around – more than once, a short, sharp scream straight into her brain had kept her safe when some hidden danger had been coming for her life; or a look when assessing potential recruits had been enough to instigate a more thorough background check.
And every time, he was right.
If there was something dangerous, something that needed to be known, he said something.
And the fact that now of all times, he was choosing to say nothing – that nothing of substance needed to be said – was far more telling than any first or second impression she was going to have of the new recruit.
It wouldn’t be worth asking Merlin “can I trust him”, because his answer was always “you don’t trust anyone Maggie-Mags”, which was fair, if a little glib, she was just very particular with who she trusted.
But the fact that he hadn’t said that the new recruit was dangerous, or that he couldn’t be trusted said a lot of good things.
He was still her new problem, still a torturing piece of shit, but maybe not someone who she would need to kill.
She laid a hand on Merlin’s head. ‘Go to your mum, tell her to run you a bath, cause you are too sticky to be around any technology right now.’
Merlin nodded and walked towards the bank of elevators at the back of the lobby.
She turned to O’Connor. ‘I’m Magnolia. Aide to Combat. Follow me.’
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