She wasn’t sure she’d ever expected to be a mother.
Andrea slowly sipped her coffee, pecked at a couple of keys, starting the next round of scans, then dutifully began to sort through the latest crop of crayon drawings.
Agents who became parents tended to be a lot older than she was, for a start – early 30s was a perfectly normal age for a human to have a family. However, for agents, it was still very much on the “Newborn” side of life.
There were exceptions, of course – some agents came to their emotional maturity – or at least their emotional selves – fairly early in life, flipping that irrevocable switch that would transcend being “just a program” into a fully-fledged person.
Darren, from one of the outpost agencies, was a classic example of this. It was also something she’d gotten to witness firsthand, as Darren was one of the few agents in the local network that was younger than her.
Darren – whilst “mature” wasn’t the first word to describe someone who still had the “call me Dazza” ease of a highschooler, in other ways, he was a speedrunning champion.
And now, mature or not, he was married with an adorable gaggle of children.
Numbers of children for agents was something that varied wildly – some went the same route as Darren, producing their own sportsball team of children; others had fewer, many had just one.
Of those in her own Agency, the childless outweighed the parents. Taylor had never shown interest. The Parkers would surely look on a baby as nothing more than a small science experiment. Applebaum dismissed the question with a grumble that he was missing his shows. And Natalie’s opinion was somewhere along the lines of “I’m going to live forever, bitch, I’ll get around to it eventually”.
Ryan had one estranged son and one Stef.
So for the longest time, she’d been the only parent – a position she hadn’t sought, but one that had been undeniable once presented.
Merlin had been rescued from a nightmare – brought back to the Agency wrapped in a blanket carried by Magnolia – who had been so angry at the evident abuse she’d been crying.
One tiny hand had reached out from the blanket as he’d helped Combat get the tiny bundle to the Parkers, had latched onto her and hadn’t let go.
One tiny hand that had become the saddest, most heartbreaking hug she’d ever experienced. Half an ocean of tears had flown before she’d even become aware that they weren’t her own tears. That Merlin’s grief and pain had been overflowing so severely that he’d needed help to process them.
She’d been the only one he trusted, the only mind he’d allowed to be conscious of what was happening, to recognise that he was more than the abused child of a demon.
It had taken weeks – months – to even begin to figure out what the bounds of Merlin’s powers were, but that first night had made her sure of two things.
First, that Duty or not, there was no way she would turn the child over to Central for the experimentations to continue.
Second, and this had come as dawn had broken, and Merlin had finally fallen into proper sleep; that the tiny child that had been unwilling to leave her arms was hers, and that she’d burn the world to protect him.
She selected a picture of Magnolia from the stack of drawings – partially because there didn’t seem to be any obvious magic imbued into the paper – that made it safer to be seen by anyone else coming to the lab. And second – and more importantly, from a mother’s perspective – the amount of hard work he’d spent capturing Magnolia’s default angry expression was evident.
What the Agency knew about Merlin and what she knew about Merlin were two very different things – and for his safety, it had to stay that way.
What they knew was that he was the son of a demon, one that had been the subject of experimentation – but so far as the Agency knew, those experiments had been for naught.
The Agency knew he was a traumatised child, adopted by an agent, who was likely to become a recruit when he reached the age of majority.
What she knew was that her son was likely to be one of the most powerful people on the planet – or at least had the potential to be.
Ryan wasn’t the only one with a child housing pieces of a dead world.
Compared to the accident that had rendered Stef…the word they were using was “comatose”, even if it wasn’t accurate; the experiments performed on Merlin had been horrific, cruel, and meticulous.
Pieces of twelve different mirrors were embedded in the boy’s spine, leaving him so in tune with magic that sometimes it was hard for him to exist in the real world.
Merlin could warp emotions, memories and reality. A gentle hug on a bad day could banish all bad feelings; lazy thoughts and the merest bit of will could make it so Agency security systems heard and saw safe realities rather than real conversations.
He was powerful and could become so much more, could change the world.
And all she cared about was making sure that he was safe.
The future would come one day, for better or worse, but until then, it was her responsibility to make sure he had as many soft and safe moments of childhood as he could.
She tacked the picture of Magnolia onto one of the equipment cupboards, then picked up a tablet and turned towards Stef, ready for the next set of hourly observations.
Something bright and orange stopped her, and she stepped forward, trying to make sense of what she was seeing, before the image crystalised.
Lying on the floor at the far end of the room, next to where Merlin was working his way through a crossword book – filling in the answers using languages from long-dead worlds – was another aspect.
Compared to the barely-more-than-a-baby of the red aspect, this one was probably about five or six years old.
Adorable as adorable came, she quickly took out her phone and snapped a picture for Ryan – who was listed as being out of System territory.
Hair halfway down her back and a little dress straight out of a doll catalogue, the aspect lay on the floor, playing with dolls.
Even tinted orange, she could tell that the dolls had some discolouration to them – the young Stef had taken a marker to them to make them more “interesting”.
‘She’s hiding,’ Merlin said. ‘Doesn’t want to be seen playing.’
She knelt and watched as aspect!Stef wiggled forward, smushed her face into the ground and – if she had to make a guess – either looked out from under a bed or tried to look under a door.
Without any visible effort, Merlin picked up one of the dolls that aspect!Stef had set aside, playing with it as though it wasn’t matter that barely intersected with this level of reality.
With considerably more effort, she reached out to touch aspect!Stef’s soft little cheek. ‘I hope one day you can forgive me. I promise I’m not trying to hurt you. Please, please trust me.’
The aspect gave no response, and she was almost grateful for that. It was all too easy to imagine its head-turning unnaturally and speaking with the deep voice of a horror movie monster.
Here, in reality, there was no admonishment and no permission. She was on her own, as she was so much of the time.
She had her convictions, she had her goals, and she had a set of shaky lines in the sand – every one of which she knew she’d eventually have to cross.
But when your son was powerful enough to save or destroy the world… so many other things became relative. Morals, ethics, good and bad. Every concept known to philosophy had been turned over and over in her head a hundred times until she had found the precious Goldilocks zones where she could operate and still feel like a good person.
The ends justified the means; that was easy. Still, she wanted those means to hurt as few people along the way as possible.
‘Some privacy, please, darling,’ she said to Merlin as he continued to play with the aspect.
For a moment, Merlin’s eyes glazed with every colour – real and imagined – that the universe was capable of creating, then he reached for the nearest crayon like it was nothing.
This was amongst the oldest of their tricks.
Inches along her path of parenthood, it had become obvious that there were going to be moments and actions that weren’t for the eyes of the Agency. That proof that Merlin was more than just a traumatised child would be dangerous.
And initially, she’d looked into her own bag of tricks – every agent, especially every tech agent – had their own ways of snatching a moment of privacy.
But almost instinctively, Merlin had known how to make it so whatever room they were in was safe from the rest of the world. People forgot about appointments or had the urge to knock flee as they reached towards the door. Security cameras showed banal activities, and the System never sensed magic it wasn’t supposed to know about.
It wasn’t hard to gather what she needed from the rolling drawers – a simple plastic kidney dish, forceps and a scalpel.
It was harder to open the flap in Stef’s scrubs, the little velcroed square of fabric that hid her open chest and mirror from the world.
‘It’s for the greater good, I promise,’ she said, briefly squeezing Stef’s dead hand. ‘I promise.’
With how Merlin had been…constructed, experimented on, designed, by his parents, there were moments when he was unstable. And for a child holding that much power, instability was their enemy.
The first time it had happened, she had tried everything – every test, every prayer, called in so many favours – and still, her son had sat there, dying as the power of a sun burned his body from within.
More and more favours later – she’d negotiated her way to the tiniest piece of a mirror, one that had been kept as a family heirloom by some wealthy fae family. It had lain in a velvet-lined box, already the shape of a tear before she’d lain her own weeping eyes on it.
It had been her last shot – and it had worked.
And since then, she’d made sure to always keep some amount of mirror on hand – she wasn’t going to let Merlin suffer like that again.
And now, she was being offered enough mirror to keep her son stable for years.
There was sorrow but not regret as she pressed the scalpel to the mirror.
The largest part of her was glad not to have been turned to ash or thrown back against the wall. A smaller part was impressed with how much magic she could feel – with her hand this close to the mirror, it was impossible not to feel the potential, not to want to be drawn in by the potential that lay at her fingertips.
Wishes enough to change the world. Wishes sufficient to save it or end it.
Power enough, more than enough, to keep two sad children alive – and for the moment, that was what was needed.
The scalpel slid into the mirror like it was soft butter.
‘I won’t take more than you can give,’ she said. For the moment, it was the truth, and all she had was this moment. This moment, and the next and the next. Promises made with the best of intentions. Promises that sometimes had to be broken for the greater good.
She slid the scalpel down the outside curve of the heart, feeling oddly like she was peeling a potato. At the bottom of the heart, she withdrew the blade, then lifted out the strip of mirror, holding it in her palm, her own heart pounding, mind purposely blank, as to not make an errant wish.
Nonetheless, the mirror pooled into her palm into the shape of a heart, while the heart it had been stolen from rippled and smoothed over, erasing all traces of interference.
Carefully, she wrapped the small heart in a piece of silk, then slid it into the pocket of her lab coat.
It wouldn’t be the last she’d take – this was too valuable a resource to mine only once, but for so long as she could keep her promise, she wouldn’t take more than the heart could offer.
‘It’s for the greater good,’ she mumbled again, then laid a gentle kiss on Stef’s corpse-texture forehead. ‘For a better world, I promise.’