Disclaimer: Not mine. Eoin Colfer's.
Artemis's brain was working overtime as he carefully engraved Foaly's name on the lid of Pandora's box. His plan relied rather heavily on this point; he could predict exactly what would happen if he couldn't convince Sool to change his mind and it wouldn't be good for either the fairies or himself.
"Killing Foaly won't stop anything he's set in motion, sir," he said with entirely unfeigned nervousness as he formed the last letter, "and he's got technical assistants who can operate his inventions without much trouble. Why don't you set the box to destroy his inventions instead?"
Artemis winced inwardly at the unsubtlety of directly stating what he wanted. This called for a delicate touch, but he had run out of time.
Sool gave him another suspicious glare. "Would that work?" he demanded.
"Almost certainly, sir," said Artemis.
"Of course it wouldn't!" snapped Rheeson, at exactly the same time. He glared at Artemis, then continued, "What makes you think we'd trust you anyway, Mud Boy?"
"I can't lie!" protested Artemis. He turned to Sool with the wide-eyed innocent expression that he had practiced for Spiro, pouring every ounce of sincerity he owned into his tone. "You know I can't be lying, sir, you gave the order yourself. I've studied Foaly's technology and the Book, and I'm ninety-three percent certain that Pandora's Box can destroy anything the LEP can send at us, even if it's already on its way here."
"Ninety-three percent?" scoffed Rheeson.
"Quiet, Corporal," snapped Sool. "He's telling the truth. All right, human, set the box to destroy Foaly's inventions. Then open it."
Artemis didn't need the order – he had already picked up the engraving tool and was carefully adding 's inventions after Foaly's name. He took a deep breath as he put the tool down and picked up the box again.
The two fairies leaned closer in anticipation as Artemis' fingers moved over the box with practiced ease, manipulating it to the first of the possible permutations, then the second, then the third.
"How long will this –"
Sool trailed off as he realised the answer to his question. Artemis had managed to slide three black panels almost out of their groves, each protruding a centimetre or two above the top of the box. He held them there with his left hand as, on the other side, he used his right hand to slide two white ones up to match.
Glancing up at Sool briefly, he levered his thumbs underneath the golden top and pulled. With the locking tiles out of the way, it came off easily, the five barbed spikes that had held it in place sliding perfectly through the tracks his efforts had arranged for them.
For a moment, it seemed like nothing would happen as Artemis carefully placed the box on the table. Then purposeful black tendrils of something that looked like sentient smoke began to drift out from beneath the lid of the box, fanning out to explore the room. One shot out of the box at Artemis and he froze at the eerie feeling of it probing him, brushing against his forehead and his chest for a bare instant before it moved on.
Finished with him, the inquisitive smoke examined Sool and his guard, and then moved on again.
"What's it doing?" asked Sool in a hushed voice as the tips of the tendrils sank into the walls and moved on to explore outside.
"It's searching for anything that fits the destruction parameters," explained Artemis. "Anything magical that Foaly's had a hand in, like LEP equipment. The more magical – the bigger the area where fairies die."
"Wait a minute," said Rheeson slowly. "What if there'd been anything of Foaly's here?"
Artemis actually smiled for the first time since he had woken up in this room a small eternity ago. "Then you would have died. Did I forget to remind you of that?"
The tendrils suddenly snapped tight, coalescing into just five strands that radiated out like the spokes of a wheel. They inflated like fire hoses as the blackness began to pour out of the box in earnest. Artemis looked down at them, his smile broadening.
"It's found something," he observed blandly. "Perhaps it's the time-stop towers outside. It looks like there is something of Foaly's here, after all…"
They gaped at him uncomprehendingly for a split second, and then whirled at the sound of a huge crashing noise from outside. It was getting louder by the moment, speeding towards them along the long corridor outside.
"Close the box, human!" shrieked Sool. "Close it!"
"With pleasure, sir," said Artemis, hands already balancing the golden top over the box as he lifted the locking pieces again and realigned the spikes with their holes. He pushed the top down swiftly, cutting off the thick black tendrils at their source and, in an instant, they were gone.
The sound of destruction from down the hall, however, did not stop.
Artemis looked up to meet Sool's horrified eyes again as he picked up the box and began shuffling the puzzle pieces back to their original configuration from memory. "Unfortunately, it's a little too late, now. Sir. But," he added in a cruel mockery of Sool's words, "there's probably nothing worth saving. Like Sodom and Gomorrah."
Sool didn't have time to develop an appropriately nasty retort before the shockwave reached them.
The tiny flame of the magical candle in his hand was snuffed out like a canary in a contaminated mineshaft, plunging the room into pitch darkness. The two fairies themselves dissolved like sugar-cubes dropped into hot tea, the disconnected motes of dust that was all that was left of them drifting invisibly to the floor of the dark room.
Artemis wouldn't have noticed, even if there had been light to see by. He had troubles of his own.
Magic didn't form an integral part of his biology, as it did for a fairy, but he too was caught up in the magical backlash. Over the past three years he had known about the fairies, he had been mesmerised, mind-wiped, healed, drugged, and enslaved, and each contact had left an indelible mark. His chest and head seared with pain and he was unable to stop himself from screaming as every trace of residual magic was ripped away from his body.
At an order from Kelp, the LEP fairies outside the shuttle fanned out in a defensive formation, pointing their weapons at the nearest tendril, ready for when it broke through the time-stop. Diggums and Arty's Butler slipped out of the shuttle too and, while Diggums waved a somewhat nervous farewell and disappeared into the ground, obviously not seeing the need to wait around for the black smoke to break out of its prison, Arty's Butler joined the defensive line.
What any of them expected their guns could do except draw the thing's attention, I'm not sure.
Then the tide turned. At first, I thought it was my imagination, but even after I blinked several times with mingled hope and disbelief, I could see no more waves of reinforcement emanating from the building. Cut off from their source, the black tendrils faded and, within a few seconds, had completely disappeared, leaving the inside of the time-stop area looking ravaged, but peaceful, the weak blue light of the time-stop glowing gently in the dome and the batteries looking hardly brighter.
"Ten percent," breathed Foaly. "Eight. Seven – and – it's stabilised."
In that moment there was a pause, as though the fabric of time and space itself was holding its breath, waiting to see what would happen. Then Arty's Butler turned and rapped on the shuttle door, which Foaly immediately buzzed open.
"I'm going in," said the big man in a tone that brooked no disagreement.
Without waiting for an answer, he turned and strode directly towards the building. The weakened blue dome rippled to let him in as Foaly opened the time portal for him to pass through. He crossed the short distance quickly, unflinching as he came into range of the destroyed cannons, but they didn't stir in their cradles. The door itself gave easily as he kicked it, although he had to bend almost double to get through the fairy-sized opening.
Then he disappeared out of sight.
I held Angeline close to me, but we didn't even look at one another, both staring fixedly out of the windows of the camouflaged shuttle, at the door through which Butler had disappeared. Arty would be all right. His plans always worked. He had to be all right.
Minutes passed slowly with no sign from inside and I reminded myself that the length of time didn't mean anything, that Butler had to find Arty before he could bring him back out again.
I caught my breath as the door swung open once again and Butler emerged from the building. When he straightened up, it became clear that he was cradling a small form wrapped in something that looked like it had once been a curtain – and nestled against his shoulder, I could see a head of messy black hair.
Arty had not been aged then.
I was not remotely relieved to see it. The obvious alternative, given that apparently only the elderly Pandora had survived direct contact with the contents of the box, was too horrible to think about.
My heart hiccuped over several beats, the universe seeming to move in slow motion. Arty's Butler was still too far away to read his expression; I couldn't tell whether his measured stride was the sorrowful march of one bearing his employer's body, or simply that of a man made old before his time by his near-death experience. Each of his steps seemed to be taking at least three times as long as it should. There was a roaring in my ears and it seemed as though my vision had tunnelled to display only the still form of my son in his massive bodyguard's arms.
Then the world suddenly exploded into motion again as I realised that the dark-haired head which protruding from the bundle was not lolling limply against Butler's shoulder, but was arguing fiercely with his rescuer.
"He's alive," I breathed and Angeline released her white-knuckle grip on her diamond, beginning to cry silently with relief. "He's alive!"
I had to say it again, just to be sure I hadn't somehow misspoken the first time. He was alive. It was real. He was really alive!
As the duo passed through the time portal, Arty's heated orders grew audible.
"Put me down, Butler," he was saying. "This is absurd."
"Yes, Master Artemis," said Butler, not slowing in his stride or making any move to release his small employer.
"I'm not a child; I can walk!"
"Of course, Master Artemis," agreed Butler placidly.
"Yes, Master Artemis?"
"This is most undignified," huffed the boy, but he seemed to realise the futility of arguing.
"Yes, Master Artemis," agreed Butler, with the faintest hint of a smile, continuing his ground-eating stride back towards the shuttle.
"What's the situation?" demanded Kelp.
"Butler?" There was no more volume, but this time Arty's voice was ringing with an unmistakable command.
"If you insist, sir," said Butler meekly, carefully placing the boy back on his feet in front of Kelp.
"Thank you, Butler," Arty said testily.
As soon as he was released, however, Arty swayed on his feet, looking utterly mortified at the display of weakness. Butler's face didn't even twitch towards a smile as he put a massive hand under the boy's elbow to steady him, but Arty shot him an irritated look nonetheless.
Short was by his other side in an instant and healing blue sparks began to gather on Arty's skin, clustering over both bruised wrists and running up his body to collect over his bloodshot eyes. He convulsed as the sparks sank in and surely would have collapsed if not for Butler holding him up on one side and Short on the other. A moment later he stood unassisted, looking unblemished and substantially refreshed.
"Thank you, Captain Short," he said, inclining his head towards her as he produced Pandora's box from inside his curtain, where it had been clutched protectively in the crook of one arm. It was closed and had been returned to a configuration of precisely alternating white and black squares – and if I knew my son at all, it was about as far away from the open state as was physically possible.
Short jumped back from Arty as though the box he was holding was a live snake, staring at both the box and its holder with wide eyes.
"Butler," said Arty, ignoring her. "If you could take care of this for me until it can be returned to its rightful place? I should very much like to never see it again."
"Yes, sir," said Butler, taking the box gingerly and tucking it inside his suit jacket.
Arty twitched the folds of the curtain back into place around him with the careless grace of one wearing a designer suit rather than a window-dressing, tucked his oddly long hair behind his ears, and then turned back to Kelp.
"Sool and his accomplice are dead," he said tersely. "They were killed when I carried out their own orders and opened Pandora's box. I assume the time field served its purpose and contained the blast?"
"Yes," said Foaly, who was poking his mostly-human upper body out of the shuttle door. "How did it… did you know it would… that you would…" He still seemed unable to describe what we had all just witnessed. Short and Kelp exchanged amused glances at the sight.
Arty blinked tiredly. "The Book's description of the effects of Pandora's box sounded very much like matter-antimatter explosion – the targets are eliminated, along with everything in the vicinity – except that matter remained largely unaffected; it was magic that was consumed, and damaged in the backlash. Foaly's told me all about his antimatter engine – he can use a time-field to contain the explosive backlash of annihilation, but he can't prevent the antimatter itself escaping."
He spread his hands as though the rest was obvious. Perhaps it was, to him, but I could tell I wasn't the only one who wasn't completely following his explanation. At least I seemed to be doing a better job than Short or most of the fairies other than Foaly, who didn't even seem to be understanding most of the words he was using, let alone the concept of antimatter.
"Therefore," Arty continued blithely, "I concluded that the contents of the box were some form of guided antimagic missile and the collateral damage was the equivalent energy blast produced from magic-antimagic annihilation. When Pandora opened the box the second time, it was only the coalition that was destroyed; the magic explosion which should have eliminated all the police-fairies in the vicinity was held in by the time-stop, even if the antimagic passed straight through the barrier. So I convinced Sool to specify Foaly's inventions as the new destruction parameter –"
Foaly choked and Arty raised a tired looking eyebrow. "The hardest part was convincing him to target your inventions, rather than you. The idea was to give the antimagic something hugely magical to annihilate inside the time-stop, so that it wouldn't go looking for anything to destroy outside, and thus Haven's magic would be protected from the backlash. Sool and his accomplice weren't so lucky."
From Arty's Butler's satisfied expression, he hadn't needed to check pulses to be sure that Arty's captors were dead. I felt a thoroughly reprehensible wave of satisfaction at that, but didn't bother chiding myself. There were some things that I could not forgive – and hurting my son was one of them.
"As for myself, that was a little more risky, but I theorised that the antimagic kills fairies and destroys magical property because it disrupts the magic itself – and anyone who's ever seen a healing can testify that loose magic is dangerous. I theorised that, being non-magical, the only reason Pandora was affected at all was that Frond had shared his magic with her to heal her or keep her young and healthy – possibly even going as far as a slave oath to sustain her past her natural lifespan. The antimagic took it all back, using her own life force to compensate for the deficit – as happened with Butler when Holly ran out of magic to heal him."
He held out a pale hand, examining his nails, and even from a distance I could see that they were not as immaculately manicured as usual. "The only major healing I have ever received was some badly broken ribs and, while I do appear to be six weeks or so older than I was a few minutes ago, I am free and otherwise unharmed. I closed the box before it could let out enough antimagic to completely consume the magic in Foaly's time stop and move on."
"There's only seven percent of the time-stop power remaining, Fowl," said Foaly in exasperation. "Seven percent. You cut it rather fine, don't you think? And if you'd been wrong about – about anything!"
Arty raised that weary eyebrow once again. "But I wasn't wrong, was I? I was working with a prophecy," he said. "Ohm's been right before and it said 'those fairies who oppose him', not 'friend and foe alike'. Therefore, if the prophecy was real, those who were working with me were safe. Since anyone working with me was likely to be just outside the time stop and thus unable to survive a breach – it simply had to work."
"Fowl!" Short growled, looking as though she would have taken back her blue sparks if she'd been able.
She might even have tried to deck him despite Butler's presence at his side, if the boy hadn't suddenly closed his eyes and swayed on his feet, his magically-assisted second wind seemingly leaving him. I would have been proud of the perfect play to regain the fairies' sympathies – if I could have been certain he was faking.
"It wasn't just my life, Rheeson sabotaged Foaly's bio-bombs," Arty defended wearily, leaning on Butler's arm. "It could have been a massacre. I had to do something."
"He did what?" demanded Foaly, patting his foil hat with a horrified hand. "That treacherous, conniving –"
Foaly pulled his head into the shuttle and trotted over to his computers and, as I glanced over, he was moving from screen to screen and setting them all to running diagnostics.
"Paranoid, paranoid," he muttered under his breath. "Obviously not paranoid enough. It's the second time they've got to me!" From the expression on his face, he would be checking every single connection in every piece of fairy hardware before he let anything be used once again – and possibly also upgrading his foil hat to a more sturdy steel helmet.
When I turned back towards my Arty, Angeline was gone – somehow, she had managed to break free of the need to keep her eyes transfixed on our son for long enough to push her way out of the shuttle and run to him.
"I'm so happy you're all right, darling!" she sobbed as she wrapped her arms around him. Arty relaxed into her embrace, letting his shadowed eyes fall closed as he struggled to hold his game face.
"Mother," he said flatly. "I am pleased to see you are safe. Was Father harmed?"
His tone was deadly even once again, communicating his anxiety to me more effectively than a scream.
"He's fine, darling," said Angeline in confusion, pulling back to examine him, but keeping a firm grip on one hand. "Were you worried about us?"
I was already moving awkwardly across the shuttle, having understood his reaction instantly and kicking myself for not predicting it.
"No one's been hurt, Arty," I assured him as I began to awkwardly clamber out of the shuttle door, cursing my prosthetic leg. Arty's head snapped around to look at me, an almost imperceptible tension bleeding from his shoulders. "No one but you, that is, and presumably Sool and his friends. They told you we'd been killed, didn't they?"
Arty's mask slipped a little and he sighed. "It's an elementary manipulation, of course, but…"
He pulled the curtain more tightly around his shoulders and, though I was quite certain that no one but I would have noticed the gesture for what it was, my heart ached for the sudden insecurity he was showing.
The fairies might as well have ceased to exist for all I cared about them as I finally reached my family, discarding my cane and clasping Arty and Angeline's joined hands in my own. "It's completely understandable, Arty," I told him. "That tactic is a classic for very good reason – I can assure you that my response was rather unprofessional when the Mafiya told me that Angeline was dead and you had been left an orphan. It's not like it sounds from reading textbooks or articles, is it?"
"No," he said flatly, "it isn't."
He was blocking; suppressing his emotions, refusing to face what had happened, and shutting me out.
I frowned, raising a hand to warn Angeline not to interrupt as I considered the best course of action. Arty stared at me stubbornly, knowing what I was thinking but refusing to allow me to force the situation.
Denial was a perfectly natural psychological defence mechanism following a traumatic situation, an excellent method of propping yourself up for a few more hours while you got whatever the job was done. But it wasn't healthy to allow him to push the whole thing out of his mind, to just pretend it had never happened. It would take him time to come to terms with his ordeal, of course, but it could be weeks, or months, before he even started to heal if I couldn't get this right. And it would have to be handled delicately; he wouldn't soon forgive me if I made him lose face in front of his dubious allies.
Inspiration struck at last; there was at least one thing that I knew Arty would not forget easily, something that would seem insignificant to those who were watching, but something that had disturbed him so much that I had seen his mask nearly crack when it had been at its strongest. He would not be able to push it aside now, when he was already struggling for his composure.
I gave him an apologetic smile as I stretched out a hand to ruffle his hair, a direct mirror of Sool's actions a few hours earlier.
Arty's eyes widened infinitesimally as the memory rushed to the forefront of his mind, bringing with it the emotions he had been suppressing; the loathing for his captor, the fear, the self-doubt, the helplessness... Then his mask shattered and Arty ducked his head, averting his eyes from mine.
He drew one shuddering breath, and then another that sounded a little more even.
I waited him out, deliberately leaving my hand in place on the crown of his head as though, by its very presence, it could dilute the distressing whirl of emotions.
"Touché, Father," he said finally and, although his voice was steady, he still wouldn't look at me.
I withdrew my hand at the acknowledgement, doing a rough calculation as I let the lengthened strands of his hair fall through my fingers and settle back into place.
"Six weeks older, you think, Arty?" I asked him carefully. It seemed about right from the extra couple of centimetres on his hair.
"Approximately," he agreed in a wary tone, using the excuse of examining the growth of his fingernails to continue avoiding my eyes. "Perhaps a few days more."
"Then," I said, "I guess I should wish you a happy birthday." I left a thoughtful pause before continuing. "I think you might have grown an inch or two taller, as well."
Arty's head remained down and I checked my arithmetic; six weeks and two days away was his fifteenth birthday. Spot on – but really, it shouldn't matter if I was slightly off.
As far as anyone else was concerned, I might have been talking about his physical age, but Arty would appreciate my true meaning. I wasn't referring to anything so mundane as his height, or the number of years he had been alive; we were talking about growing up, about gaining experiences and learning from them, about how proud I was of the choices he was making and of the adult he was becoming.
The moment stretched and I began to worry. Perhaps Arty was too tired for doublespeak? But he would hardly believe I was sincere if I made it any more plain.
Then Arty raised his face again and, although there was still a measure of pain and self-doubt there, the corners of his eyes were creased slightly with amusement at the incongruous suggestion that we should shift his birthday. I relaxed minutely at the confirmation that he would be all right, after all.
"Thank you, Father," he said, his lips quirking in a smile. "Do you think it would be too much trouble to organize a decent meal, a bath, and a good night's sleep for the birthday boy?"
I smiled back at him and, finally giving in to the urge, pulled him against my chest and let my eyes fall closed in contentment.
At any moment, Arty would remember that he was 'fifteen' now and far too old to be hugged by his father. I still had to face Angeline's wrath over taking Arty on a business trip in his childhood and I was either going to have to find a new bodyguard or spend the next several years training my Butler to adequately fill his father's shoes. I also suspected that, as soon as the shock wore off, the fairies would remember that Angeline and I had not previously known about their existence and begin talking about danger to their society, about escalating risk, about the thin end of the wedge.
In a few days, I would be lucky if I remembered this moment at all, despite my scathing speech to the Council. Perhaps particularly because of it.
But right now, none of that mattered to me in the slightest. All that mattered was the awareness of the perfect now and the overwhelming sensation of my child, warm and safe in my arms.
"I'm sure that can be arranged," I told him, in as bland a voice as I could manage through the smile that seemed determined to crack my face in half with sheer, unadulterated happiness. "I'm sure that can all be arranged."
A/N: Thanks for coming along for the ride, folks. If you enjoyed my story, please take the time to review, even if it's just to say hi. If you've got a little more time on your hands, I adore hearing specifics, positive or negative, because they're the things that help me feel my stories from the readers' point of view and help me keep improving. And of course, I have quite a few boxes of virtual!chocolates here for anyone who offers constructive criticism! Thanks again, also, to Gus for the beta. Given the number of layers of high-gloss polishinspired by his comments, this story's hardly recognisable from what I sent him.
To all those who have reviewed or will review, or who simply read along and enjoyed, my sincerest thanks. I hope you all enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.
PS: Support the Orions Awards for quality Artemis Fowl fanfiction! (Links on my user profile)