"One Latverian dictator," Director Fury mused, standing straight in black leather as SHIELD agents loaded the snarling man in armor onto his helicopter. Doom was bound in shackles Phil knew had originally been meant for Loki; a touch of irony the agent thought rather capped off the night. "Signed, sealed, delivered. Nice work."
"It's not over yet, Sir," Phil said politely. "I need to do some... background work. On a few unexpectedly helpful bystanders."
The brow over Nick's whole eye arched. "The Fowls."
"Sir, I strongly suggest not trying to recruit Artemis," Phil said wryly. "Unless you want him to take your job."
Nick gave him a narrow-eyed look.
"And that wouldn't make either of you happy," Phil shrugged. "Besides. I get the impression he's been looking out for... something we shouldn't officially know we should look out for."
"Nuclear hand grenade?" the director said pointedly.
"If SHIELD can tolerate Doom in charge of Latveria, I think we can tolerate this," Phil stated. "Besides. Given the World Security Council's past acts of record, we might want to have a few back channels to people they don't speak for."
Fury sighed, and gave him a long look. "I'm giving you a lot of leeway, Agent. Make it worth it."
Phil waited until the helicopter was up and away before he relaxed a little. "I think it already is."
Now to go find out what's really been going on.
Steve stared down at Holly as the Avengers walked into Artemis' suite; a black-suited, helmeted, very professional looking Holly, for all that he could have smuggled her in a guitar case with room to spare.
He had to admit, he was almost as impressed by how Artemis and Butler were currently fading into the background. Between Artemis' love of manipulating attention and Butler's... well, Butler, the fact that the two could make sure the lady had center stage was pretty amazing.
Then again, Holly's pretty amazing. Like Peggy was.
Ah. And there was Mr. Fowl, coming through the door sandwiched in between Natasha and a very tired Bruce. Hopefully they could keep this short. For everyone's sake.
"So," Tony announced to the cranky voice still tossing tech details with him over the speakers, "are you the dwarf or the centaur?"
"I am not a dwarf!"
Holly's lips twitched.
"I'm just saying," Tony shrugged, "because Artemis made sure I invited in an elf, a dwarf, and a centaur, and Jarvis says anything magic that needs an invitation to get in needs that invitation to stay in, which is how he kicked Opal out, and if you're not the dwarf and Holly's definitely not the centaur..."
"Have you back-hacked my video feeds? Holly, we should-"
"Foaly." Holly lifted a gloved hand. "Have a carrot, and take a deep breath. Did the Wing Commander say yes?"
"Provisionally. That's provisionally, Holly, watch your step up there." A snort; it almost did sound like a whinny. "Humans!"
Holly nodded, and eyed Steve through her visor. "Captain Rogers. Can I have your assurance that Agent Coulson is here as an Avenger, not a member of SHIELD?"
"I trust him," Steve said simply. And Phil had told him Fury was giving them all leeway to handle this, unless something went sour. Hopefully it wouldn't.
"Good." She took off her helmet, revealing short-cropped red hair, an impish grin, and long pointed ears. "We haven't been properly introduced. Captain Holly Short, Section Eight, Lower Elements Police."
She's an elf, Steve thought, amazed. She really is... wait, what?
"You're a cop?" Tony blurted out.
"As you Americans say, yep." The grin got just a little wider, as she reached into a pocket and drew out what looked like two silver acorn charms on a chain. "Which reminds me. Artemis? Foaly says the paperwork went through a few hours ago." She tossed winking silver his way. "You're in."
Left-handed, Artemis caught them.
That's Artemis smiling, Steve realized, catching that subtle twitch of joy, tempered with a calculation he could feel even behind the teen's mirrored lenses. Damn. He doesn't know how to just be happy, does he?
"I thought you needed three recommendations?" Artemis said quietly.
"Foaly did some digging," Holly shrugged. "Julius... left his on file." A sad smile. "All three pages of it."
"Oh." The teen cupped silver in his hand, as if it were more precious than diamonds. "How long was it after you redacted the invectives?"
Holly tried, but couldn't quite keep a straight face. She sniffled, and chuckled, gloved hand wiping at her eyes. "About two paragraphs."
"Now that sounds more like Commander Root," Butler rumbled. "He was a good man, Captain Rogers. You'd have liked him."
Was. Steve put that together with the fact that Root had apparently been Holly's commander, and some of Opal's rants Jarvis had recorded, and came up with an unpleasant answer. "Opal killed him."
Holly nodded once, short and angry. "About four years ago, now. She's very fond of blowing people up. We're putting together a file on her for you. Though translating it may be a bit sticky; most of us only have English as a second language, and the only humans truly fluent in Gnommish," her glance slid toward Artemis, "well, they're sitting right there-"
"Exactly what is official with my son?" Mr. Fowl demanded.
"I'm currently wondering if that's any of your business," Holly said flatly.
Oof, direct hit, Steve winced. Legally Artemis is eighteen. Mr. Fowl knows it, Holly knows it, and Artemis knows it. Just because Artemis hasn't walked out the door doesn't mean he can't.
Artemis sat up straight, tense. "Captain Short."
"No," Holly shook her head. "You may be the genius in the family, Artemis, but I refuse to believe your father can't think it through. If he wants to." Her smile was like Natasha's, hard-edged and dangerous. "After all, he told you to go straight. Too bad he didn't specify by whose standards."
By whose- Steve's eyes widened. And Artemis speaks her language. Wait, she doesn't mean-
"You are..." Mr. Fowl drew a deep breath. "You are this woman's informant?"
"Consultant. To Section Eight. Officially." Artemis' tone was pure ice. "And given that Captain Short risked her life to drag you out of a freezing radioactive harbor at Murmansk, Father, I might ask that you give her a degree of courtesy."
The elder Fowl started. "She... exactly what happened at Murmansk-" He cut himself off. "Your pardon, Captain Rogers. That would be a private matter."
"On the contrary; it is relevant," Artemis stated, leaning wearily back in his chair. "You and your team may as well be seated, Captain Rogers. This may take a bit of time. But you've crossed Opal Koboi, whether or not you wished to, and she will neither forget nor forgive. You should know exactly what manner of enemy you've acquired." He tapped the odd little computer on his right wrist. "Though it seems I did not know everything. Who in the worlds left the fact that Opal Koboi could possess people out of her criminal file? And how did she manage to recharge her magic enough to do so while in LEP custody?" His tone soured. "Which, of course, assumes she is still in LEP custody. Given her last escape, Foaly, you'd best be heading to Atlantis with a retimager."
"You mean in case this is another clone?" Foaly harrumphed. "Don't have to. The Wing Commander rattled some cages, and an Atlantis LEP Retrieval team walked into her cell just a few minutes ago. She's gone."
Holly clapped a hand to her forehead. Butler squinted, casually rechecking the room's exits. And Artemis... sighed. "I suspect any invective strong enough would have Mother terribly disappointed in me."
"Like you even know any," Foaly snickered.
Artemis raised a dark brow. "I have worked with Mulch. Would you like the proof inserted into your formal reports?"
"Don't you dare!"
"You can hack Mr. Foaly?" Jarvis asked, intrigued.
"I have the advantage of knowing the technology," Artemis nodded. "And fair is fair. Foaly considers it part of his job to keep me under surveillance. Or perhaps a hobby. In either case, I see no reason not to return the favor." He steepled his fingers. "Well. Opal. How to sum up... I suppose I should start with Murmansk. Britva sent me a picture to prove he had you, Father, and Butler and I were in the process of arranging funds and transport to pry you from his grasp, when we were detained by the LEP."
Steve gave Holly a look.
"Trust me, we had cause," the little elf captain said wryly. "Only it turned out that this time, they were innocent."
"Quite," Artemis said wryly. "Rather a unique experience. In brief, Commander Julius Root offered a bargain: our assistance in locating the true culprit, in return for his in obtaining your freedom. Given what I knew of Britva's capabilities and ruthlessness in ransoming hostages, I accepted." He took a breath. "Shortly after that, things became... complicated."
"I'll spare you the details of Artemis and the plasma conduits," Butler said dryly. "Let's just say that by the time it was over we'd managed to take a ride on a radioactive train, escape being buried alive, and put down an armed insurrection of goblins."
Mr. Fowl clapped a hand to his forehead in disbelief. "Arty..."
"You were going to die." Artemis was stiff, fingers laced white-knuckled together. "Britva does not return live hostages, ransom or not. I needed help. Help I could trust. And Commander Root's word was his bond. Always." He shook his head. "Opal Koboi was one of those who'd arranged the insurrection, sabotaging LEP equipment. She meant to reign over Haven as its queen. We thwarted her dreams of conquest, after which she feigned a coma for a year to put herself in a position to escape. Which she readily did, and that... that was when she arranged for Commander Root to be murdered."
"It was a no-win scenario, Captain," Artemis said quietly. "You could have been snared by the bomb as easily as Julius was. It was pure chance that you were not. I... know that does not make it any easier."
"I can't believe she's out there," Holly said tightly. "I can't believe anyone let her get away again. What do you have to tell Atlantis to get them to keep a damn door locked?"
"Oh, I very much look forward to finding out." Artemis' grin might have given a vampire chills. "We should see the scene of the crime, should we not? Given we will undoubtedly need to unravel precisely how she did get out."
Holly stifled a snort. "You two will terrify them."
"Excellent. A little judicious fear never harmed anyone." Artemis glanced back at his father. "In any event, after her first escape, Opal was bent on revenge on Haven in general and those who'd captured her in particular. After several shenanigans and one or two near-catastrophes we did catch her. I'd hoped we would not have to do so again."
"I can only imagine," Mr. Fowl said soberly. "It was like hearing through fog, but- she despises you, Artemis. And you as well, Captain Short. It was as if someone opened a tunnel to the magma at the Earth's core; that, is the heat of the rage she feels knowing you're still alive and untouched. What on earth did you do to her?"
"Ah." Artemis smirked. "I am a criminal, Father. Willing to sink to the lowest depths to accomplish my goals, especially when pressed to the very wall. We quite literally were, at one point; underground, with a mass of molten iron aimed to wreak death and destruction on countless lives. We had to beat her, or see the world itself shattered." He shrugged. "And so, I did something truly desperate."
Steve thought of Tony, pushed into desperate measures, and tried not to cringe.
"The mind boggles," Mr. Fowl said dryly. "What did you do? Drain her bank accounts? Set fire to her art collection? Threaten her children?"
Artemis cleared his throat. "We stole her truffles."
"And ate them," Artemis went on, almost nonchalant. "Appreciatively. Whilst she listened."
Behind him, Steve could almost feel Clint shaking with laughter.
"You trifled with a woman's chocolate," Mr. Fowl managed. "Arty, I believe I did warn you about that."
Which was about when Steve decided burying his face in his hands might be a good idea. Because obviously Artemis had come by his skewed view of the world honestly, and if anyone was going to add any sanity to the night, it was going to have to be the Avengers. God help them all. "You're saying a magical megalomaniac tried to kill us because you ate her candy?"
"They were really good truffles," Holly admitted.
"Fate of the world was at stake?" Natasha inquired.
And Steve had to raise his head at that, because the Black Widow sounded almost sympathetic. Which - no. Just no. Natasha Romanova didn't do sympathy.
Yet there was a shadow of a smile on Artemis' face, as if he heard that ghost-whisper of sympathy clear as a bell. "Do you truly believe I would have dared such a thing if it were not?"
Mr. Fowl was shaking his head. "Did you really have me shot, Arty?"
Steve held his breath. For a moment, Artemis' voice had actually quavered.
"With... I believe Hollywood would call it a squib, in the special effects trade," Artemis went on. "Britva's men had perched themselves on the wreck of a submarine, with near a hundred riflemen and snipers laying in wait. There was no way to sneak you out, nor to take them down swiftly enough to ensure your survival. The only solution was to make the situation such that they thought you already beyond rescue. So. I engaged the man in charge over the radio, Butler sniped you - great gouts of real blood, by the way, with men of their experience we could not risk a substitute - whilst I congratulated the kidnappers on allowing me to remove the one impediment to my control over the Fowl Empire. One ransom well-placed with a flare at a good distance away, and they were distracted enough to allow us the chance to pull you out. " His voice caught. "I... did not expect them to toss you overboard. If it had not been for the captain... she's so small, Father, I could run the mass calculations in my head even as she went under, I knew how quickly she'd lose heat, far faster than a human-"
"Artemis." Holly brushed the back of his hand. "I'm all right. I had a plan, and good tech behind me." She raised a red brow. "And backup that didn't stop talking to the Mafiya, so they stayed distracted until we both got out." A slight shrug, and she looked directly at Phil. "The details we gave you on Limbo were accurate, by the way. It's just that we both fell through the portal with Qwan, and, well..."
"If the alternate dimension SHIELD calls Otherplace is not the same pocket dimension as what the locals we ran across called Limbo, that is hardly our fault," Artemis said piously.
Brass, Steve thought, tempted to smirk right back. Before the ice, he would have tossed Artemis in with the Howling Commandoes and watched the fun. He could only imagine how much damage Artemis would have helped them do to HYDRA. The kid has pure brass.
Phil clapped a hand to his forehead. "No wonder you weren't worried about demonic contamination."
"I had plenty of other things to worry about, Agent Coulson," Butler said bluntly. "That damn transport spell back-" He shook his head.
"Fell through the portal." Mr. Fowl interlaced his fingers. "I would like an explanation of exactly how you and Captain Short came to fall through an interdimensional portal."
"It was preferable to being blown up," Artemis sighed. "Father, I... well. In short. Agent Coulson, the creatures you call demons are an entirely different group from the species the ka-dalun call demons-"
"The who?" Bruce frowned.
"The-" For a moment, Artemis looked nonplussed. "It translates as the People. You would say fairies." He hesitated a moment, as if reordering his thoughts. "The situation is rather complex to cover swiftly. In essence, I uncovered a set of calculations that indicated a temporally displaced island was casting its inhabitants adrift at a steadily increasing rate as the spell deteriorated-"
"Enough," Mr. Fowl cut him off. "I've no doubt you can quote the physics of whatever it was to the last decimal point. And you undoubtedly have some sort of explanation for why it was perfectly logical to get mixed up with the young Miss Paradizo in the first place, much less dive out the window with a bomb attached. You always do. What I want to know is, of all the people in the world you might have called on as assistance, how on earth did you get mixed up with fairies?"
"Ah." Artemis glanced down.
Oh no. Not good, Steve thought, seeing that almost invisible stiffening of the teenager's shoulders. Whatever he's about to say-
"I kidnapped Captain Short, of course."
Steve heard Bruce suck in a breath, and caught a glimpse of Tony patting his arm. Right. Whatever had happened in the past, Holly seemed to trust Artemis and Butler now. Heck, her whole organization did, if that it's official meant anything. Which meant somehow it couldn't be quite as bad as Artemis was making things sound. So why was the teenager twisting the knife-?
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Tony twirl a rowan cross through his fingers.
Artemis left a cross for his father, Steve realized. Opal possessed him anyway. So either she can punch past the crosses to get to people - or Mr. Fowl wasn't wearing his. Which means he wasn't listening.
Meaning Artemis had had it up to his eyebrows with being subtle, and was going straight for the jugular. No wonder Butler's face had gone so politely still.
"You-" For a moment the elder Fowl could only shake his head. "Even at the height of our criminal enterprises, I taught you better than that! No matter what our profession, the Fowls have been known for honor and honesty-"
"Honor and honesty?" It was almost a hiss; Artemis' fingers clamped on the armrests of his chair, and Steve heard something creak. "If I'd been honorable and honest, I'd be an orphan!"
Shocked, Mr. Fowl drew a breath-
Artemis didn't let him take it. "You... you dare to preach at me of honor and honesty! If I'd followed those words, instead of what you taught me - you would be dead. Mother would be insane. Myles and Beckett would not even exist. And countless people you have never met would have been plunged into slavery and war. But ignore that; ignore everything that does not fit into your tidy little corporate world, where the truly unforgiveable crimes are avoiding parties and not serving the correct grade of olives in the martinis. You would be dead. I spent three years of my life becoming the most skilled criminal mastermind on the planet, to find you. And I am not sorry!"
Oh yeah, Steve thought, surreptitiously checking angles of attack in case someone broke and went to physical violence. This has been coming for a while.
Mr. Fowl's own knuckles were white. "Arty-"
"I am Artemis Fowl the Second!" Sparks of blue and gold flared across Artemis' fingers. "Honor and honesty be damned! I lie. I cheat. I steal. And yes, Father, I trick people, even to their own doom, and I walk away laughing."
"And sometimes, you save the world," Holly said quietly.
"A useful if sometimes unintended consequence." Artemis let out a slow breath. "Stay on your guard, Agent Coulson. Opal Koboi does not take being thwarted lightly." He glanced aside. "I would appreciate it if you warned your agents around my family. What information I have on possession does not allow me to determine how close Opal must be to take over another body. If we can determine that she was indeed physically incarcerated until fairly recently, then that distance is considerable." A heartbeat's pause. "Which means my family is at risk. And... I already know my mother's will is not the strongest."
Steve felt the blood drain from his face. He could almost see the nightmare scenario that must be running through Artemis' head: Mrs. Fowl possessed, with two helpless children at Opal's nonexistent mercy.
Phil nodded, grim. "Natasha, would you mind?"
The Black Widow took out a cell, and started dialing.
For a moment, Mr. Fowl looked as though he wanted to object. But he knotted his fingers together instead, sitting silent with a thoughtful frown.
"If only we knew how she was doing it." The way Artemis rubbed at the side of his face, Steve was fairly sure the teenager was staying awake by pure stubborn will. "The little information I've had access to, there just isn't enough to identify anything..."
"Well, I don't know exactly how she possesses people, magic doesn't fit in physics no matter what Thor says, but I think I've got a guess about what she's using as a carrier." Tony pulled out a box of Stark Industries pens. "When Clint did a pat-down of your dad, we checked that pocket that glowed. Guess what we found? Same batch as the pens down at the security desk. I had Jarvis run a search, and looks like the manufacturer who supplies us just recently - as in, last month - got bought out by a silent partner. Guy by the name of Cudgeon-"
"Opal," Holly and Butler said at once.
"He was her accomplice in the goblin rebellion," Artemis agreed. "Until he decided her survival no longer suited his plans." The teenager flinched. "He died... badly."
We need to wrap this up, Steve decided. Glanced at Tony, and nodded toward the door.
"Anyway," Tony picked up smoothly, standing and brushing himself off, "wasn't sure what would keep the darn thing safe outside of not touching it, so I just took the pocket the pen was in. And the coat. Who's your tailor? That is a nice coat..."
Phil watched the older man pace his office, and debated offering a chair. "Are you alright, Mr. Fowl?"
"We were nearly all blown up, my family has lethal enemies I never knew about, and my son seems perfectly content to remain a criminal consultant to a creature out of myths and fairytales," Fowl Sr. said testily. "No, I am not alright. What do you think they're doing in there?"
"Probably collapsing," Phil said honestly. "Magic takes a considerable amount of energy. Even if he was just deflecting Doom's bolts, Artemis used a lot of it. And I was asking about you, sir. You've been possessed, restrained, and tranquilized. That's a bad day for an Avenger, much less an ordinary human being. I know Dr. Banner checked you over, but if you feel anything off, we can get more formal medical help."
"I'm fine," the man said gruffly.
Phil raised a brow. "Would you believe your son, if he told you that?"
Fowl Sr. stiffened... and sighed. "Artemis could lie through his teeth if he were bleeding out," he admitted quietly. "Never show weakness to an enemy."
Phil hid a wince.
Or perhaps he hadn't hidden it well enough; Fowl Sr. snorted. "Yes, I know what that means," the man said evenly. "My own son considers me a potential threat. I suppose that's a logical conclusion, given my current arrangement with SHIELD and the fact that he apparently intends to continue working with an entire race humans didn't know existed. And I did train him to use logic." He gripped the back of a chair as if he'd like to strangle something. "Did I... really teach my own son to be that cold...?"
"I'm sure part of it is natural talent," Phil said wryly. Sighed, and gave the man a serious look. "Never underestimate what desperate people will do to save the life of someone they care about. And if you want to look into some advice and counseling on your family's situation - someone going missing, in many ways, can be more damaging than a known death. With a body, people mourn and move on. But your wife and your son didn't know. From the reports I've read, your wife pretended everything would be fine until the strain almost broke her. Your son," delicately, this was touchy, "decided to use every resource at his command to learn the truth, once and for all." Phil paused. "Including himself."
"He's not a resource-!"
Oh good, there was a father under all the civility. "Yes he is, to some," Phil said clinically. "Or an asset. You did mention my reputation with difficult assets, Mr. Fowl. What most people don't appreciate is that I have that reputation because I do not deal in assets. I deal in people. Brilliant, brave, damaged people who will never respect anyone who refuses to see them as they are."
Give him a moment. Let him start to get angry - because he knows Artemis is damaged goods, by society's measure. That's part of what's making him so furious...
"But I can only deal with those people as Phil Coulson," Phil went on. "Not as Agent Coulson. Individuals can afford to deal in people. Organizations can't. Strategists can't. And to save you, your son became the entire Fowl criminal enterprise." Breathe, and shrug, carefully casual. "From the sound of it, he didn't come out of that until he met Holly."
You are an endless hall of mirrors, reflecting nothing, Artemis had said; cool and clear and so terribly understanding. I was almost like that. Once.
And Phil so wanted details on just what had happened in that kidnapping. Not to mention the mess with Murmansk. Because to go from the kind of cold, ruthless person who would kidnap someone like Holly to someone who would willingly pit his wits against a bomb designed by a psychopath, to save innocent lives...
Huh. Tony thinks Holly's like Natasha. He might have it the wrong way around. What if she's like Clint?
Agent Barton had been sent out to stop the Black Widow, permanently. SHIELD's orders. But Hawkeye had made another call.
Sometimes I wish the world could always be that small, Phil reflected. Saying he'd never regretted Clint's choice would be a lie; the Black Widow had brought past horrors with her like trailing ghosts. But on the balance, he'd count saving Natasha Romanova as one of the better things he'd done.
I wonder what Holly thinks of meeting Artemis?
"Captain Short." Mr. Fowl drummed his fingers on the back of the chair, hard. "I think we can guess who enticed Artemis into magic. Over and over I told him, it's naught but legends and moonshine, believe in fairies and you'll believe in anything, and a Fowl can't afford to believe in what is not real..." A steam-kettle hiss of a breath. "How on earth did he end up planning to kidnap an elf?"
Phil blinked, nonplussed. "You don't know that he planned it."
"Oh, I do," Mr. Fowl said dryly. "I know my son. Possibly not as well as I thought, given he kidnapped anyone - but there is no way on Earth or in Heaven I'd believe my Artemis ventured into any criminal undertaking without a clear, concise, deliberate plan, complete with four alternate versions for various catastrophes, laid out in bullet points. I taught him to be thorough." A deep breath. "That... improvisation, with a lethal explosive... that was not thorough."
Oh. "I hadn't thought about that," Phil admitted. "But you're right. Criminals can make a plan, and decide whether or not to risk carrying it out, or just wait for another day. In SHIELD - in the Avengers - we can make all the plans we like, but ultimately there comes a time when we all have to face an enemy countdown. Because that's what we are. That's what we do. Criminals act. Heroes have to react."
Mr. Fowl stiffened. "Agent Coulson-"
"That's what going straight means," Phil said firmly. "You've put yourself on the side of the law. The side of playing by the rules." He shook his head. "It's not like chess, Mr. Fowl. In this game, black moves first."
The elder Fowl glanced down at his hand, fingers opening and closing on hard wood. "You're saying that in choosing to aid and assist SHIELD, I have put my family in danger." He took a slow breath. "And... in asking my son to stand by me, and be a hero..."
"Artemis is sane enough not to want to be a hero," Phil said pragmatically. "All he wanted was to make things safe for his friends. The minute he knew that was a bomb, he called for help. He didn't want to be there, Mr. Fowl. He just knew there wasn't anyone else who could do it."
"No?" Mr. Fowl pounced. "Why not Captain Short?"
Phil gave him a level look. "We both know cops aren't usually trained in bomb disposal. If Artemis has any amount of familiarity with their tech, he's probably more qualified and you know it." He paused. "So what really bothers you about the captain?"
For a long moment, the older man was still.
And that's where Artemis gets it from, Phil reflected. A dangerous family. They know how to wait.
"How did he hide this from me?" Mr. Fowl said quietly. "He's good, he's very, very good - but an entire criminal enterprise? A hidden life, with allies and enemies I had no clue existed? How?"
Oh boy. At least Phil had been thinking about this, off and on, from the moment he'd learned Artemis had been lost in time. It was not a simple situation.
But I think I'm going to have to take the direct approach anyway, the agent thought ruefully. I have to get this through. For all our sakes. "He didn't have to," Phil said simply. "It's not that hard to hide from someone who isn't there."
Mr. Fowl gave him a hard look. "I have always made time for him."
Compared to your father, probably, Phil thought. "But from the time Artemis was ten until he was thirteen, and that significant portion of his fourteenth year you were in physical therapy, you were not there. That's a long time for a boy his age. Four years of keeping what was left of the family alive and safe, trying to figure out how to grow up when everyone either answered to him or wanted to use him, and trying to find you. Most people couldn't have done it. He did; which is a tribute to how well you taught him before you vanished. But. You weren't there. And he loves you, which makes this worse - because that young man is absolutely furious that you left him when he needed you. And he doesn't think he should be, because he knows you never meant to get hit with a missile and leave him, but he is. So he feels angry, and guilty for feeling angry, and - this is just a guess, but - probably terrified on top of that. Because he's angry at you, the person he cares about most in the world... and Artemis is incredibly dangerous when he's angry."
That rocked the man back on his heels. Good. There were times Phil thought Steve was a breath of fresh air, antique values or not. Back in his time teenagers took adult roles. They had to be taken seriously.
"Dangerous?" Mr. Fowl said skeptically. "I know my son. Despite all Butler's attempts-"
"You knew your son," Phil cut him off. "When he was a ten-year-old boy who'd always had his whole family around him. When crime was a game, like chess; a way to show off, and show the father he had on a pedestal just how clever he was. You don't know the fifteen-year-old survivor who's used criminal tendencies and cold-blooded ruthlessness to keep what's left of his broken family safe against everything the world can throw at them. Including magic and fairies. He may not be physically dangerous," though Phil wouldn't count on that, Loki was vicious in anything approaching a fair fight, "but you know what he does to people he considers threats. Let me give you a short list. Britva. Jon Spiro. And Opal Koboi herself."
"Oh, yes," the elder Fowl said dryly. "He stole her chocolates."
"Yes he did," Phil shot back. "Think about that. A magical, explosives-wielding genius, who apparently staged an insurrection and intended to drop molten iron on a whole fairy city, and he outsmarted her with chocolate."
The older man stared at him.
"He humiliated her," Phil went on. "And somehow, he did it with one small, simple little trick that tripped her into defeating herself. He outthought her. Based on what Ms. Potts could tell us about her personality, that's why she wants him worse than dead. So." Phil straightened. "You asked for my advice? First, let everyone get some sleep. Yourself included. Adrenaline is the enemy of anything like a rational discussion. Then - treat Artemis as a stranger you want to get to know better. Because right now, that's what he is." He took a breath, and shrugged. "And for heaven's sake, please tell Mrs. Fowl to stop throwing eligible girls at him? I know he's intelligent and mature and probably an excellent catch, criminal or not - but he's shy."
"Artemis?" Mr. Fowl said incredulously. "But... he's..."
"Absolutely capable of verbally disemboweling an enemy in five seconds flat, when the people he loves depend on it? Yes. Completely clueless how to interact when disemboweling isn't on the table? Oh, so much. Poor kid. You don't bring a scalpel to a dinner party. Though from what I hear, the low-cut dress was asking for it."
Mr. Fowl choked. Good. Let him think about what SHIELD surveillance actually meant, when it came to the Fowls and privacy. And how much that lack of privacy had to be eating at Artemis, who'd kept himself and his friends alive in large part because no one knew what he was doing until he'd already done it.
"How would you feel," Phil went on, "being forced to talk to people whose ideas about international shipping boil down to, wow, why can't we just send it all on airplanes?" Moving to the door, he opened it. "Think about it."
"So as far as Phil's min- um, subordinate SHIELD agents can tell, that one company Opal took over is the source of all the enchanted pens," Steve summed up what they'd found since the near-explosive excitement last night, watching the white-haired elf-lady on the Avengers' briefing screen with great interest. He might not know yet exactly what Vinyáya was a Wing Commander of, but the fact that an elf in the same dangerous armed and armored outfit as Holly's was willing to talk was worth the risk of letting Foaly into the Tower video feeds this morning. "SHIELD's trying to narrow down how many might be out there, and where they might have gone. Is there anything your people can do to give us a hand?"
"To SHIELD, no," the Wing Commander said gravely. From the look of the steaming mug on her desk, she'd had as long a night as any of them. "Yourself and the other Avengers, Captain... I think so. But I have to stress that this is unofficial. If some of the Council got wind that we were talking to more humans, there'd be explosions." She paused. "Possibly literal explosions. I'm trying to pound home the Chitauri footage for the denser sorts down here, but it's an uphill battle. Put frankly, a lot of us are used to thinking of your race as barbarians. The fact that there are species out there advanced enough to squash all of us isn't going over well."
"As usual," Artemis observed, seated to one side with Holly; Butler hovering in the shadows behind them like a guardian demon. Mr. Fowl had apparently voluntarily offered to sit this meeting out, while some of the Tower's associated medics gave him a look-over for any lingering aftereffects of last night's excitement. "I might point out, however, that despite the fact the Avengers have every reason to hold the People responsible for a near mass-murder of innocent civilians-"
A hint of red flamed in Vinyáya's face. "You can't possibly hold us accountable for that- that-!"
"Then make up your minds," Artemis bit out. "Either you treat humans as the sometimes sane and trustworthy individuals we are, or continue your policies of holding all Mud Men responsible for a war you lost ten thousand years ago. There is no middle ground here, Wing Commander. If you hold all humans responsible for any one human's criminal acts, then they are perfectly entitled to do the same to you." He arched a genteel brow. "Were I you, I would hesitate to allow Opal Koboi to be my people's default ambassador."
Perched on a few cushions to let her look over the table, Holly waved a hand. "You might notice Jarvis and Foaly are at an armed truce, Wing Commander. The Avengers could find us if they tried. But they're not trying."
"So they say," Foaly grumbled in the background, tail swishing.
Steve was not going to stare at that flowing white tail. Or the long, horse-like ears. Or the tinfoil hat. Though the sight of a centaur in a labcoat had already made Tony break down snickering once this morning.
"So I say," Jarvis stated, calm and unruffled. "Artemis and I have already come to an arrangement of mutual honesty." He paused. "More or less."
"I am not sorry that we deceived you," Artemis said bluntly. "We needed to be unobserved, in case the fairy tech we'd detected was in fact part of your structure and we had to arrange a separate oath between you and Captain Short to prevent anyone taking drastic action." He folded his hands together. "I am, however, sorry that I was forced to violate the spirit, if not the letter, of our agreement. I have been mesmerized in the past, and I detest it. I could argue that I simply guided your gaze aside, instead of ordering you to perform actions against your will. But manipulation is manipulation. You have every right to consider me in violation of our arrangement."
"I am taking that under consideration," Jarvis said calmly. "However, given you and Captain Short were in fact trying to manage the situation so no one was hurt, including myself, does speak in your favor. This is not the first time malevolent entities have arranged for dangerous technology to be within the Tower, and I doubt it will be the last. If we do come to an arrangement, Wing Commander Vinyáya, I would like to ask for a means to detect your people's devices. Then we could alert your officers directly, and avoid all this fuss."
Tony was trying, very hard, not to snicker. Bruce blinked, and dared to poke him in the shoulder, one brow raised.
The inventor grinned like the cat that'd swallowed the cream. "Sorry. It's just - all this time," a snicker slipped out, "mini-Moriarty was here as a cop looking for stolen goods..."
Uh-huh, Steve thought wryly. And the fact that Tony meant to get his hands on fairy-detecting technology wasn't part of those giggles at all. Right. And if he believed that, Tony had a bridge to sell him.
Holly smirked at them both. "You're surprised? If you want to catch a thief, ask an expert." The smirk faded into a more professional calm. "I'm going to take a wild stab in the dark, here, and guess that was the bio-bomb stolen from Atlantis?"
"It was," Vinyáya confirmed. "It looks like I'm going to have to shake up Atlantis myself. I know stonewalling when I hear it."
"Go armed, and carry rowan," Butler said bluntly. "If I were Opal, I'd have seeded the whole place with trapped pens. Why not?"
The Wing Commander's answering smile had an edge of pure steel. "Oh, I plan to. With certain... unusual measures, that Opal won't have had the chance to plan for."
"Ah. Qwan," Artemis nodded.
Vinyáya squinted at him. "Has anyone ever told you how annoying that is?"
"Oh yes." Artemis almost looked innocent. "Captain Short in particular."
"Wasn't Qwan the demon who dragged you into Limbo?" Clint leaned on the table, honestly curious.
"Demon warlock, of the species the ka-dalun call demons, or the Eighth Family. I suppose it might be best to use that term to avoid confusion," Artemis reflected. "He seems to be a rather decent person, even after having been trapped in stone for millennia. I suspect," he gave Phil a considering look, "that if acceptable conditions were set beforehand, and secrecy avowed, he might be quite interested in giving some of your associates lessons in detecting malevolent enchantments."
Phil let out a low whistle, and looked straight at the Wing Commander. "If we could arrange that, ma'am, I could definitely persuade Director Fury to keep this contact off the books. I can name at least seven evil magic-users we're trying to track right off the top of my head. If SHIELD knows that the Avengers can find ways to stop them, then they don't need to know how."
"And in return," Steve picked up the line Phil had left dangling for him, "we can keep you up to date on threats to your cities that we know about. And do our best to stop them before they ever touch the underground."
"Starting with how you back-hacked my comms!" Foaly huffed. "Human tech shouldn't be able to do that."
"Communications technology should be something we discuss," Artemis said carefully. "However, there is another field of science in which we should consider the benefits of information exchange."
"Oh?' Steve gave him a curious look.
"Medicine." The teenager looked directly at Vinyáya. "My father is not a young man. I don't know if Opal has done him damage we cannot detect. And likewise, he has reason to be concerned with the state of my health, given he can probably deduce that the specialists Butler brought me to after my return from Limbo were, in fact, fairies, and he has not met the physician in charge of my case. Would Section Eight be interested in making a good-faith offering of humanitarian medical information?"
The Wing Commander considered his words, and took a deep breath. "That would depend on Dr. Banner."
Bruce started. "Me?"
"I understand you're not a licensed medical doctor," Vinyáya stated, "but the information my IT people and certain consultants have found states you have a habit of providing medical aid to those who need it. Including people SHIELD would refer to as 'metahuman'."
"Someone has to," Bruce shrugged. "It's good to fix things. When I can. And - well - sometimes it takes someone who's seen a lot of strange things, to help people who... aren't baseline human anymore."
She nodded thoughtfully. "I'll see what we can do. In the meantime, Captain Rogers, let's have a talk about comms, why Foaly's throwing a fit, and privacy..."
"Okay... I'll be blunt." Bruce stared down at the teen and elf currently ensconced in his lab. He was going to ignore the bodyguard. Really. "What could people who can heal with magic possibly need with human medical science?"
"That's like saying what would doctors who can do blood transfusions want with organ transplants?" Holly gave him a look askance that still never quite met his eyes. "Basic magical healing has time limits. It's fine if you can get right to someone right then. If you've got an injury ten minutes old, you need paramedics just like anybody else. And specialized medical healing. Even then, there are some things," she seemed to tremble a moment, "some things we just can't fix. Radiation..."
Artemis cleared his throat. "Forgive me, Captain Short, but I think I can explain this rather concisely. Dr. Banner, I may not have wide experience with the bulk of the People's medical science, but I do have confidence in Section Eight's medical warlocks. You might say I've been a special case of theirs." One hand moved toward his glasses.
"Are you sure you want to do this?" Holly muttered.
Artemis' hand paused, holding the side of the frames. "If anyone in this building would understand, Dr. Banner would. And it will... simplify explanations." He drew a breath, and took off the glasses.
Doesn't like the lab lighting, Bruce realized as Artemis squinted. Too bright? Odd; this is pretty much baseline human-bright... oh. "Heterochromia?" he guessed, staring. The right eye was the same icy blue as Artemis' file photos. The left - a clear, bright hazel. Where have I seen that before?
"Nothing so simple," Artemis said dryly. "You do know about the transport spell that returned us from Limbo?"
Bruce grimaced. Magic. "Yes?"
"It moved us through time and space, in a fashion I wouldn't recommend to anyone who wishes to keep their health or sanity," Artemis stated. "It was, in some ways, rather akin to a magical transporter beam. With all the potential for accidents that implies."
Bruce felt his heart pick up a notch; deliberately calmed it back down. "Accidents?"
Holly blew out a breath. Raised a hand to her left eye, and carefully removed a contact.
Bruce looked between them, heart sinking as he matched blue and hazel. "You... switched eyes?"
"The transfer went a bit further into the nerves than that," Artemis said soberly. "Warlock Kingsfoil has the details. Suffice it to say, I have very personal reasons to make certain the surface world and the People can come to some sort of arrangement."
"You're chimeras." Bruce let out a low whistle. "How did - you're not even the same species, the immune cross-reactions should be murder-" Oh. "You said you collapsed."
"The People refer to it as changeling syndrome," Artemis nodded. "And as it was hours before anyone knew something was wrong, it was not something ordinary magical healing could mend. We both had a very bad month." He tilted his head, as if listening to something Bruce couldn't hear. "Ah. That is Warlock Kingsfoil. Excellent. He can tell you a great deal more. As indeed he must. We have information that leads us to believe changeling syndrome may be involved in your situation, as well."
Bruce eyed him. Glanced at Holly, barely over three feet, and definitely not green. And looked past her as the door opened, to reveal a sandy-haired elf just a few inches taller than her, a red cap over his ears. "I have a hard time believing the Hulk has anything to do with elves."
"Who said a thing about elves?" The new elf strode into his lab with the confidence of a mini-Rogers, thick folder under one arm. "If I'm right, Doctor, what's mixed up in your DNA is just a bit meaner."
"Good gods." Dr. Banner did a bit more muttering under his breath in Hindi as he looked through Kingsfoil's file.
Holly stayed quiet in a lab chair, trying to be as still as Butler was against the wall, only lifting her hand when Artemis looked as though he might say something. They were there to watch and answer questions, so neither side felt pushed too far. Outside of that, she meant to leave the pair of biochemistry experts to their own devices. And hope nothing went boom.
Right now, the radiation scientist was studying pictures of demons at various ages, and a lot of DNA gobbledygook that made Holly's head hurt just to skim. His lips were thin, and his face a little more pale than normal. But he took a breath, fingers moving through something that looked like a warlock's meditation, and looked up. "I'd need to run some of my own analyses to be sure. But... this does look plausible." He hesitated. "So you think that past transport spells have left some humans with cells - and eventually DNA - from the various fairy races."
"We've proof of it. Especially in Ireland," Kingsfoil said bluntly. "Artemis, for one." The warlock glanced their way. "You might not think it from your father, but looks like you came by a bit of elf from both sides. Which is probably why you and Captain Short came out as well as you did; less mess to clean up in your immune systems."
"I must admit it is still unsettling," Artemis said gravely. "I wouldn't blame you in the slightest for wanting to toss us all out on our collective ears, Dr. Banner."
"No," the scientist said quietly. "No, I want the truth. No matter how... unsettling... it might be." He eyed the pages again. "So you think I might have inherited some genes from this... Eighth Family."
Demons, Holly could all but see written on his face.
"We honestly don't have much modern information on the warp spasm yet, but we know it's possible," Kingsfoil nodded. "Cú Chulainn is one of the better known historical examples of humans with demon heritage." He paused. "I don't doubt your situation is serious, Doctor, but from what I've read? The Hulk is far better at telling friend from foe than he ever managed."
"...Huh." Dr. Banner looked away.
"And given your chosen field, you're lucky it was Eighth Family rather than one of the other fairy races," Kingsfoil said soberly. "The rest of us, when it comes to radiation? Like living in a paper house under a rain of stones. Even too much sunlight's not good for us."
The doctor started. "We can polarize the windows-"
"It's not that bad." The warlock grinned a little. "Honest, glass is enough to keep us safe. Though being inside a human dwelling has... other problems. Even sometimes for changelings. Blended genes can give you advantages... and weaknesses."
Beside her, Artemis tensed.
And Kingsfoil turned, and looked at him directly. "Your call, Master Fowl. But if you think Dr. Banner's trustworthy enough to give one of the People first aid - well, you know the first step in checking for concussions."
Holly winced. She didn't have to look at Artemis to feel his stillness.
Dr. Banner straightened. "There is a reason for the sunglasses, then." He glanced at all of them. "A reason none of you look someone in the eye."
"There is," Artemis said quietly. "As one person who has had to avoid being used to another - Dr. Banner, if you know this, you must keep it private. It is a terrible, terrible thing to hold over someone else's head."
The scientist almost whistled. "It's that dangerous?"
"It is," Artemis nodded.
Dr. Banner took a long moment to think, and reluctantly nodded. "Then you have my word. Especially if - well, if you think I'm part changeling, this is something that threatens me too."
"Actually, no," Artemis sighed. "The Eighth Family is not bound by the same geis as the other fairy races. The Rule of Dwellings does not affect you." He swallowed dryly. "It does, however, affect me."
"It's not obvious, but all humans have some of their own magic," Kingsfoil picked up the thread. "For most of you it's bound up in thresholds. Territory you know is yours. Inside a human dwelling," he took a deep breath, "if a fairy meets a human's eyes, and that human gives an order - a fairy's bound to it."
"...You're not serious," Dr. Banner said, stunned.
"Oh, we are deadly serious," Artemis snarled. Clenched his fists, white-knuckled; took a slow breath, and deliberately let it out. "I cannot fault Section Eight for their care; I am alive, when I should have died a slow and lingering death. But the night before your Agent Coulson contacted us - the details are no matter. Suffice it to say my mother ordered me to go to my room. And I... I could not do otherwise."
Dr. Banner stared at him, pale. Glanced back at the file, and slowly shook his head. "Are you... are you actually telling me I'm lucky?"
"Luck's in the eye of the beholder," Kingsfoil shrugged. "Though I'd have to say, I do envy you, a bit."
The scientist gave him a startled look. "What? Why?"
"Oh, the Hulk's no light load to carry, that's certain," the warlock allowed. "But without that nasty dose of gamma rays, you'd have lived and died a normal life. Someone like me... I ended up in Section Eight for a lot of reasons. Part of them my combat record." He grinned at Butler. "I didn't one-on-one a troll, but- well, we can swap war stories later." He glanced back at Dr. Banner. "Thing was, you didn't have a clue. When I was growing up... when I stuffed the bullies into the wastebasket, the Mud Man genes were all my fault. And if I did well thumping nasty things no one else wanted to go near even with a Neutrino and a charged wing-pack, everyone gave the credit to the barbarians lurking in our family tree." He hmphed. "Idiots. There's a reason I went for medical warlock. Believe you me, Dr. Banner, I know what it is to want to fix things."
"...You're part human." The scientist shook his head in disbelief.
Kingsfoil jabbed a thumb Artemis' way. "At least as much as he is elf."
Which was a really odd thought, even now, Holly reflected. You didn't think of elves as criminal, calculating, and upending entire worlds... and then again she'd just described Cudgeon. Who hadn't even come close to having as much style.
Bruce drew a finger across some of the text, and frowned thoughtfully. "I know something about DNA; I had to, to find out what kind of damage I did to myself. But I'm not an expert. What we really need is a geneticist. Or at least some kind of biochemist." He looked almost at Holly. "Do you think the Wing Commander would okay it, if I wanted to show this to Phil? He might have suggestions on someone who could be trusted."
Holly folded her arms. That was a man feeling guilty about something, or she'd never spent a day on the force. "You sound like you might already have someone in mind."
"Actually..." Yes, the man was blushing. "I know someone who would be interested. As long as it's an ethical study."
"I could hug you," Phil said gleefully, flipping through pages of biochemistry and medical terminology without even minding the headache. "This? Is just the excuse I need to transfer Betty to the Tower."
"Are you sure?" Bruce had worry lines between his eyes. "I thought this arrangement was supposed to not have SHIELD involved. Officially."
"And we won't," Phil nodded. "I'll just request her as a necessary scientific consultant for ongoing biochemical research into the latest bioweapon Doom unleashed on New York. Specifically some very malicious pens."
Bruce looked at him askance. "You're going to call that a bioweapon?"
Phil winked. "Right now, we don't know it's not."
Holly thumped into one of the suite chairs, taking full advantage of thick cushions. Hanging around as a quiet voice of potentially violent sanity when two researchers were feeling each other out was a lot harder than Butler made it look. What a day.
Artemis was flipping through his sketchpad, touching a few pages that looked slightly brown around the edges. "Is there any more word from Atlantis?"
"Outside of we knew nothing about this, really? Not much," Holly sighed. "They did cough up a visitor's list."
"She was allowed to have visitors?"
She gave him a sidelong look. "Artemis."
"Life imprisonment as an alternative to execution hinges entirely on the fact that the suspect in question will never again be a threat to the public," Artemis said bluntly. "Opal is obviously not going to stop killing people, on the surface or below it. If the LEP cannot hold her, pure self-interest must insist that your government reconsider their policy of leaving murderous criminals alive."
Holly grimaced. "Do we have to argue about this now?"
"I'd prefer not to argue about it all. And certainly not here," Artemis sighed as well, not looking away. "Nevertheless, we must face the fact that so far Opal has escaped two supposedly impregnable prisons, she is still bent on world domination, and at some point... a choice will have to be made." He rubbed tired eyes. "I would rather not think of it either. But someone must."
Point. D'Arvit. "We'll bring it up with the Wing Commander. Later," Holly said firmly. "For now - we know who some of her visitors are, and the LEP is questioning the ones that haven't vanished."
"Lovely," Artemis breathed, a finger-snap ruffling up pages.
"Half the ones who have, were apparently part of a network of mystic guru devotees," Holly checked her wristcomp for her exact notes, "who believed in establishing 'an intangible pool of Good Will for members to tap when the Darker Forces of the Universe seem to turn against them'."
From his corner, Butler cleared his throat. "Does that mean what I think it does?"
Artemis had his face in his hands. "If by that you mean Opal apparently persuaded a group of fairy wiccan-types to allow her to tap their standing node of pooled magic, I would say yes."
"But magic doesn't work that way!" Holly objected. "Seriously, it's a bunch of posers; you can store magic in batteries, or in yourself, but you can't just leave it hanging around in the air for anyone to tap into-"
"If even a third of the texts I acquired have any validity?" Artemis raised his head, eyes narrowed. "Humans can."
And the last time they'd met, Opal had declared herself a human. Pixie or not. "...That's not good," Holly said faintly.
Not good, and it meant Artemis was right. The Council would have to rethink imprisonment. Half the reason prison worked was that most fairy criminals had lost their magic - and the rest couldn't recharge.
Only Opal found a way to do it. Holly groaned, and banged her head against the seat's cushioned back. "You know, my life was so simple before I met you."
"Likewise," Artemis murmured. "Though I must admit, having experienced the alternative, I prefer the complexity."
"I've hurt you," Artemis observed. "I did not intend to."
"It's not you," Holly admitted. "I just can't help but wonder, if you'd had your memories when Opal broke out..."
"It haunts me as well," the young mastermind acknowledged. "I have racked my brain with what I knew, or could have known, at least a dozen times. Logically, I can think of no way I could have prevented Opal's escape, or Commander Root's murder. But the heart... the heart is not logical." He folded one hand over the other, looking into the distance. "Warlock Kingsfoil is not the only one who envies Dr. Banner."
Out of the corner of her eye Holly saw Butler go very still.
Dangerous ground. "Why?" Holly said simply.
"He is not the only one with darker impulses," Artemis stated. "One might say, his are the more easily handled. Simply cease to attack the Hulk, and sooner or later, the monster will disappear. Dr. Banner wishes to be left alone, and seems to bear no grudge so long as he is left alone. While I..." Artemis wet his lips. "I have been responsible for much more than myself, for many years. Retreat was not an option. I learned to fight. With words. With lies. With a ruthlessness my enemies would not have expected from my father, much less a child."
Silence. Holly sat on her impatience, and waited.
"But the problem with learning to be so deadly dangerous, is one never quite knows when to stop," Artemis said at last. "Are my enemies cowed? Are they beaten enough? Is this the winning move that will finally leave my family safe? Because-" he glanced at her, odd eyes pleading. "Because it never is, Holly. There will always, always, be those who seek to do my family, my friends, deadly harm. Should I ever beat my sword into a plowshare, I would very shortly be plowed six feet under."
"Like your father almost was." Holly nodded reluctantly. "I wish it wasn't so. But you're right. Your life isn't safe."
A shadow of a smile touched his face. "But you have made it safer."
Holly started. "Pack of trolls?" she pointed out. "Bio-bombs? Demons?"
"I was not referring to physical safety." Artemis wove his fingers together, meeting her gaze. "You, and Commander Root, and Foaly - you gave me your trust. Your belief that when I made a bargain, I would cleave to it, no matter the cost. Your conviction that I had a spark of decency, buried under all my scheming. You... allowed me to believe that I could be more than just a criminal."
Oof. "You were never just anything, Artemis."
"So speaks the true hero." Artemis' smile grew a little more obvious. "I can never lay down my sword. But... with the LEP... I believe I could learn to sheathe it, once in a while. To not strike, when it is not truly necessary." A slight shrug. "I may not ever be one of the white hats, so to speak. But I would like to try for a paler shade of gray. If the LEP will have me."
Oh, Artemis. "If?" Holly said wryly, and pointed at the silver chain next to the gold at his throat. "What did you think those acorns were for, decoration? You're in it with Section Eight just as deep as any of us." She smirked. "Including the paperwork."
Startled, Artemis laughed.
Holly stretched, and shrugged. This would be obvious, but - they both needed a breather. "Speaking of paperwork, what have you got there?"
"Ah. Something the so-called Human Torch did not quite manage to combust." Artemis didn't quite roll his eyes, as he brought the sketchpad over to her, pages turned to a cool scene of marshy greens and browns, gray mist filling the sky. "Honestly, someone should take a fire extinguisher to the man. Perhaps the ones they use to contain rocket fuel accidents..."
Holly let the sarcasm fade into the background; Artemis was Artemis, and hearing what Butler had summed up of their explosive welcome to New York left her inclined to drop an iceberg on the man herself. This was far more important. A scene of quiet fog-light and movement, rendered in colored pencil like the small, thin brushstrokes of the Impressionist paintings he loved. Marsh, pond, and tadpoles, a brilliant red dragonfly painted into one corner with the shadow-sketch of an eye sigil to sign the work. Everything was alive, stirred up like a breeze in the bend of marsh grasses, the ripples of the water-
Ripples. Movement, in the colors of the background. The faintest of waverings, like a heat haze.
Holly drew in a breath, the image of grassy marsh and a pool of tadpoles suddenly transformed.
An elf under shield crouched at the edge of the pond, the side of her Recon boot rippling the water. She was bent to look at the scatter of silver light off a water-spider's bell, helmet dangling from one hand, Hummingbird Z-7 wings out and ready for takeoff in just one heartbeat more.
That's it. That's what it looks like.
"A poor attempt at capturing the essence, I am sure-"
"It's fine," Holly got out past the lump in her throat. "It's amazing."
"You're too kind. I am a forger, not an artist." Artemis studied his work with a critical eye. "But in the wake of regaining my memories, I thought... I'd seen an artwork that reminded me of the People, even if I could not remember why. So I thought such might be spared, if I were mindwiped again. They probably would not be left, Recon is thorough... but I at least hoped they would not be destroyed. That someone would see-"
"Shh." Holly stepped in and hugged his waist, hurting for him. "Artemis. It's going to be okay. We don't mindwipe fairies."
"Who knows?" Artemis rested a hand on her shoulder. "You may yet. Someone will undoubtedly suggest that for Opal, rather than execution. Assuming she'd let herself be caught yet again." He hesitated. "Am I to be considered one of the People then? I don't know what to be. Simply wishing to not be a normal human boy is not the same. That, I know."
"You never wanted to be a normal human boy," Holly said dryly, letting go so she could look up at him without straining her neck. "I never wanted to be a normal elf girl, either. How do you think I ended up in the LEP?"
That vampire smile flashed. "One of these days, my father will get the joke."
"And you're just dragging it out to get the look on his face when he figures out you really did catch a leprechaun." Holly couldn't hide a grin. "Take a picture for me, will you?"
Artemis clapped a hand over his heart. "I swear to give it my most solemn attempt, Captain."
He would, too. Artemis never did anything halfway. Wing Commander Vinyáya was either going to bless the day she'd let him talk her into hiring him, or rain eternal curses down on all his ancestors.
Or, knowing Artemis, both, Holly thought, amused.
Butler cleared his throat. "You might want to consider the fact that Artemis isn't the only changeling in this room. If humans can pool magic and share it - wouldn't surprise me if you could pick that up, too."
Now that was an interesting thought. In all uses of the word. Funny, how often "interesting" gets dangerous around Artemis, Holly mused. "Recharging on the run. I can think of a lot of times on Recon I'd have given my wings for that..." Her gaze fell on Artemis, and she grinned.
"You would recall the run part of the equation," Artemis sighed. "I suppose I'll have no opportunity to slack off, schedule or no."
"Not a chance." Hers was a well-practiced evil chuckle, oh yes. Sprites and their tendency to get caught in mosquito netting were a well-known statistical fact to anyone who worked Recon. What was less well-known, officially, was that sometimes all you needed to get time to untangle them was a spooky enough chortle to get humans to dive into their sleeping bags. "Put it into your schedule before dawn. I plan to run right with you. And laugh."
When this assignment is over, I demand a raise, hazard pay, and a paid vacation to the Bahamas. Dealing with family trauma is not in my pay grade.
P.S. Go to Ireland at your own risk.
P.P.S. I like Fowl Jr. You wouldn't. As they say at NASA, stand back und watchen der blinkenlights.