Disclaimer: You know the drill.
She sat on her bed, arms wrapped tightly around her knees, staring into the darkness, Steve's words echoing in her mind. The tears had stopped, but a dull ache still gripped her.
Garfield wasn't her son. Not biologically. In every other sense, he was. He was a child who needed love and protection, who sought acceptance and compassion. And she filled the role of mother because her maternal instincts, always pounding within her, finally found an outlet. They were two halves to a whole; it was perfect.
But maybe it wasn't. Maybe Steve was right—it was wrong of her to do this, to embody what Garfield had lost when there was the chance of her being stolen from him. Death was constantly on the back of their minds. For the safety of the world, at all costs. Their oath. Their duty.
Even now, she would honor that. Without hesitance, she would give her life in order to preserve the future. A future where Garfield would again be motherless.
She didn't deserve him. A true mother would put her child before all else. She couldn't. No, she wouldn't. All the bedtime stories and goodnight kisses and hidden sweets would mean nothing, not when he would be left to grapple with the trauma of a second betrayal.
This charade, this game…she was thinking about herself, her own yearning for a child to love. She had given him a false sense of security, a belief that he could return to normalcy. It was a lie. A fairy tale without a guaranteed happily ever after.
She had to stop. There was no other option. It would kill her, break her heart into a thousand pieces, but this had gone on far too long. Garfield's well-being was more important than her own happiness, and it was about time she put him first, stopped living out the fantasy she imagined every day since childhood because she was not his mother—
A timid knocking brought her attention to reality. Glancing at the clock, she realized it was almost one in the morning. Only one person came to her room this late.
"Come in, Garfield."
The boy opened the door and approached her, hiccupping slightly and rubbing his eyes.
"Another nightmare?" she asked gently, kneeling before him.
Nodding, the whimpered, "I saw them d-die. And they k-kept asking me to save them and I tried but I c-couldn't m-morph and all I c-could do was w-watch as they went under and they w-were sc-sc-screaming…" Fresh tears came, streaming down his face, and he threw himself into her. "And, and then, I was with you g-guys and we were fighting the v-villains but I d-didn't listen to Mento so he m-made me leave and I was all a-alone again."
"Oh, Garfield," she breathed, hugging him tightly to her. "I'm so sorry."
"I d-don't want to be k-kicked off the t-team. I d-don't want to b-b-be alone."
"You will never be alone," she promised.
"But Mento said—"
"Even if you weren't on the Patrol, you would still be part of this family. We will never send you away."
"You m-mean it?"
"Of course, sweetheart."
She was doing it again and she knew, in the back of her mind, that it was wrong because there was always that chance that he could lose them, always the possibility of him watching another family be ripped from him. But as he clung to her, trembling, his tears landing on her neck, she didn't care. He needed her to be his mother. And she could do that.
Soothingly, she rubbed his back, never stopping until the tears ceased and his breathing became regular. Kissing his forehead, she asked, "Feeling better?"
"Let's get you back to your room."
Wrapping his shirt around his hands, he pleaded, "Can I sleep in your bed tonight?"
This was the ultimate test. If she crossed this line, there was no chance of ever going back.
"Sure you can."
She lifted him onto the bed and tucked him in. Running her fingers through his hair, she whispered, "Do you want me to tell you the story of The Princess and the Frog?"
Gently, she began, telling him the tale she told him every night because it comforted him, hearing about the frog finding someone to love him for who he was. Exhausted from the nightmare and crying, Garfield was already moments from sleep only a quarter into the story. Just as she got to the part of the frog retrieving the girl's golden ball, he murmured, "I love you Rita."
Her voice faltering, she stared at the small form before her, already on the brink of sleep. After a moment, she returned, "I love you, too."
They weren't family, not biologically. She couldn't assure him a perfect future without pain or suffering. She couldn't put him first above all else. But she could love him—she did love him. And he loved her.
And that was enough.