A/N: The usual disclaimers apply. The Atlantis Complex release date looms ever closer! I'm so pumped about it, it's not even funny.


Grounded


The shot made contact with a muffled thump, attaching itself to the base of the craft hovering motionlessly in the space outside the window. Despite its size, it was fairly well camouflaged in the darkness. Artemis frowned. From what he could see, it seemed to be warming up. If the technologies were based upon fairy engineering – and, judging by the modified wings he had seen on Holly's double earlier, Artemis was quite willing to bet that they were – the craft would very soon hit sonic and flicker out of sight at the speed of sound. Time was of the essence.

So he bit down, bracing himself for the tug that would kick in once Holly hit the Hadron's retract button, effectively propelling them out through the window and into the warm, Monagasque night.

Holly glanced over at Artemis once, and then pressed 'retract'.

Turns out, that was a bad, bad move.

The line gave a forceful pull, wanting to recoil back the Hadron. And it was partially successful too, heaving the two a few feet into the air, expandable padding fluffing out around the harnesses with a faint whoosh as Holly and Artemis' feet left the ground. But then something went wrong: the anchorage gave out, dumping the partially uplifted duo squarely back onto the ground in a tangled heap. The line – and its unconnected anchor – retracted back into the gun with a satisfied schwick.

Or almost. Stunned, Holly blinked at the attachment in disbelief before noticing Artemis, collapsed on top of her. She shrugged him off with a grunt, then further inspected her failed weapon. No, the anchor hadn't retracted completely, having apparently ripped off the surface coat of the craft in a failed attempt to, well, anchor. The mass stuck there looked a little bit...spongey?

Something wasn't right. "Foaly? You'd better have some answers for me."

Having witnessed the catastrophe through his monitors, Foaly shook his head. "It shouldn't have come free."

Behind Holly, Artemis had risen and dusted himself off. He looked up at the small patch of night the tiny view from the high window afforded. There was nothing out there. Nothing but night and the constant screen of light pollution, filtering out the stars. He glanced at Holly.

"May I see your weapon?"

She handed it over without looking at him. "And why do you reckon that, Foaly? Because I'm pretty sure that if it had worked, I wouldn't be standing in the bathroom right now with a sore backside."

He whinnied indignantly. "You're looking at the very best anchorage possible. So much new tech went into that, I've got a room full of patent discs for it! A mechanical AND chemical holding portion -- the gripping mechanism is made of spindles, see. They contain tubes that slide and lock when activated. The retract causes them to liquefy and reform for the next use. See entire contact pad? Melds right to any known material on or under the earth. Covalent bonds, Holly. It shouldn't have come free."

"And yet it did," came Artemis' voice. He held out the gun and its unwanted booty under Holly's nose to afford Foaly a view from both their iris cams. "Foaly, can you identify what this might be? A polymer of your design, perhaps?"

In the ops booth, the centaur leaned a little closer to his monitor. "Hmmm. I can't get sufficient readings from only the iris cams; we'll have to wait until you get to Holly's helmet."

Holly reached out two fingers, gingerly touching the dark, porous substance. "But do you know what it is?"

"Well, that'll depend on what the readings tell me."

"But?" Holly pressed.

Foaly sighed. The sound came like a rush through their earpieces. "No. It looks like foam, but no idiot would wrap their ship up in that. It wouldn't have been able to reach sonic like it did. The properties don't seem to add up."

"Which may explain why your contraption failed." Artemis caught Holly's eye and grinned at Foaly through her camera, a flash of white incisor.

The centaur nodded in understanding. "Because this might not be any known material on or under the earth."

//


The car ride home was a thoroughly miserable affair.

Butler had touched down in nearby Nice during their eventful night, weary but unwavering in his insistence to drive them back to the simple, four-story, Italian-style villa they had rented in Cannes. Hidden by the cloak of night, Mulch and Holly had quickly bundled up their fairy equipment, stuffing it into the trunk before the twins and Juliet were brought inside, the latter carried by her older brother. When Holly handed over the girl's limp form, Butler had glanced at Artemis with a momentary look of disapproval.

"I know," he answered, apologetic. "I'm sorry, old friend. She will most likely be well within the night."

Once seated, the trio mulled over the events of the evening, Holly and Artemis both nursing a plethora of bruises. Holly flexed a hand, almost expecting to see the tiny crawl of blue sparks rushing to mend her injuries. But there was nothing. Not a drop. Despite her best efforts, she felt her heart sink.

Artemis saw the action and caught her gaze for a moment. He looked vaguely sympathetic. But still not nearly sympathetic enough to call off this whole thing and relinquish it to the Lower Elements, she noted.

Holly frowned. No, that was just her frustration speaking. Trouble had already as good as told them that he'd have nothing to spare for this matter at the moment. They'd simply have to wait until the prison-rabbles blew over and resources became more accessible down below before they could even think of cobbling together the paperwork needed to look into it. And by then? Well, things could get bad, really bad. Bureaucracy, she thought with distaste. Holly rarely found herself envying Trouble's job.

But still. This entire kidnapping business was giving Holly an odd assortment of feelings to sort through: given Artemis' rather spotty history of veracity, it was pretty easy to feel uneasy about everything that had happened so far – plans were told to them as an afterthought, mostly post-composition of follow-up arrangements in which they played a vital part.

If they were given enough time to feel uneasy. Usually things moved from zero to too complicated, too quickly and no one would have a spare moment to think about what was really going on. Who knows? Even now he may have been holding back something. Given the colossal deception Artemis had pulled the last time they had been together, she wouldn't put it past him. How quickly she had forgotten what these Artemis ordeals were like.

Or maybe it was just her. Artemis, she had to admit, had always had a knack for making her believe his word with one look, right back his early promises regarding the time stop. It was perpetually irritating and made Holly feel like she needed to question his plans simply because that was the logical thing to do.

Holly bit her lip miserably. Or maybe this bad feeling could be blamed on more physical reasons: her brain was currently fairy but her body was human, after all, mixing up the standard flow of information through her brain and central nervous system. The resulting effect was a psychological nightmare.

As for the rest of the car, nobody was faring much better, mood-wise. Myles was stuck in a contemplative funk after witnessing yet another kidnapping – so alike to the first and right before his very eyes. Furthermore, he was furious with his older brother who, for once in his entire life, had taken to treating him like a child and was withholding information. Myles also had a niggling suspicion of the others occupants of the car. Moira, after all, was the very first of his brother's friends that he had met, few as they were. And she was a girl, at that: a fact that would continually bring distaste to most 10-year-old boys for many millennia to come.

In the front seat sat Artemis, seemed overtly calm in contrast, observing the beautiful French night through the limo's windows as though he hadn't a care in the world. Only the rather deep furrow of his brow told of the depths of his displeasure.

And in the back, Mulch was still overcoming the last portion of his change-sickness (Holly's had merely subsided into the occasion stomach wrench). He was positioned over an opened plastic bag, occasionally retching into it wetly. Beside him, Juliet slept like a proverbial baby. If she had been awake, mind you, she might have protested her placing a little more vehemently.

And so Butler, sensing the rather heavy mood in the car, turned on the radio in a desperate attempt to diffuse the tension. Music this time, he decided, no radio. The media was rife with nothing but scare stories anyway, which would do nothing for the gloom. Ah, he thought, after his ears were met with the dulcet tones of the Righteous Brothers, and one he had been familiar with from his youth. His father had always listened to it, singing along at the top of his lungs while cleaning his rather extensive gun collection. Memories.

When You've Lost That Loving Feeling came on the radio, both Holly and Artemis sank a little lower in their seats. They were up to two kisses now, though one didn't count. Or both of them. It was kind of hard to tell.

"Boy, do I love this song," Mulch commented innocently, glancing up from his bag.

Artemis massaged a temple with one hand. It would be a very long drive back, indeed.

//


Rental House, Cannes

"Wait, wait, go back to the last part." Trouble cocked an eyebrow. He mustn't have heard that correctly.

Foaly cleared his throat, about to speak before giving up. He glanced helplessly at Holly.

She sighed. "I was in the first-floor ballroom with Juliet and the twins when I saw one of the servers follow Artemis to the washroom. I thought it was a little odd and decided to follow her. And when I rounded the corner --" She paused, waiting for the next few facts to somehow rearrange themselves into a sentence that wouldn't make her feel remarkably awkward recounting. It never happened. She looked at Artemis and shook her head.

"Allow me to interject here," he offered, taking a breath. "Instead of visiting the washroom, I contacted Foaly once I had reached the upper floor. Who, it was later revealed, had been attending the birth of his firstborn child. At that moment, however, I had been under the impression that he was, for some reason, not monitoring the events of the evening. Which, though excusable, was true. I was then approached by said server." He tapered off, taking more than a moment to diplomatically formulate his next words.

Mulch beat him to it. "Then she laid one right on him. Front and centre."

"What?" Trouble sounded incredulous.

"She kissed him." Foaly even had the courtesy of backing up their story with footage from said kiss. Over and over again. From both feeds. Even Butler, who had until then been standing silent in the doorway, raised an eyebrow.

"And then the explosion happened," cut in Holly, hoping to usher the conversation along. "I went downstairs, found Adelaide Galibois missing and spotted the aircraft. Artemis and I made an attempt to latch on and follow it using the grappling function on the Hadron, but no anchorage happened."

Trouble gave Foaly's screen a disapproving glance. "The grappling function that was never supposed to fail? D'Arvit, Foaly, my calendar can barely contain enough numbers to describe your budget. What happened there?"

The centaur whinnied in protest. "It should have worked. It would have worked on any other known aircraft in the world. But this one was different." A clack of keys sounded as he sent the data through. "My readings from Holly's helmet were all over the place on this substance. It actually tore off, for Frond's sake! Who'd wrap their air-worthy craft in something that'd actually tear? Currently, I'm waiting on the actual sample for analysis, but Holly just dropped it off at the Nice chute a few hours ago. We're waiting on the shuttle team for delivery."

"In all fairness, Commander, I've run some tests on it myself," offered Artemis, standing up from his chair. "Preliminary tests, mostly, but I couldn't seem to find an identifying match in any of my existing databases. The physical properties show very marked differences from what you would expect while investigating the molecular structure – sponge-like to the touch, but the molecular interactions would tell at something much more rigid. The explanation would likely point to the nature of the molecules themselves, but they seem to contain what appears to be a new element. I would run some tests on the properties of the substance, but I haven't yet had the time."

Trouble frowned. This was getting complicated. He had always had a very distinct level at which he felt Fowl's interference was too much, having mistrusted him since the days of the original kidnapping some ten years ago. The majority of his term in office had been blissfully Fowl-free, something that he was secretly glad of. But it all had to end sometime and here he was, staring right at it. A human-sized fairy mixed in with all these kidnappings? Further still, with Holly's face? And now this new and very mysterious substance. He'd be a fool to not keep an eye on it. If it were up to him, he'd have a pair of wings on in no time and would hop right on up to join them.

Sometimes, Trouble wondered why he took that promotion.

"Foaly," he said. "What do you suggest here?"

The centaur mulled it over for a moment. "We can't leave it alone, Trouble. This is a big deal. I'll get the samples in a bit and start running tests. Maybe we can locate where it came from, trace environmental residues and whatnot."

"Right. Sound advice, though I don't like it." Trouble sighed. "But we've got to stop those kidnappings from happening again. Frond knows what these guys are up to while we clatter away at computer keys. Alright. Captain Short, Diggums... Fowl. Are you all ready to follow through with this a little longer?"

"I never had much choice in these matters," Mulch noted. "Considering that fact that I'm already wearing human hide and puking my guts out. So let's just say my answer's a yes for now."

Holly nodded appreciatively, knowing the bundles of red tape Trouble would have to wade through to simply authorize this. Especially with Artemis involved. Speaking of which... She glanced at Artemis. "You don't have to stick around. Remember what I said to you before."

He flipped up the lid on his computer, not meeting her gaze. "Commander Kelp, I've already pledged my assistance to this case. I have a personal involvement in the matter and would like to see it through to the end."

"Right. However, let's try to keep your hand to strictly consulting whenever we can. Foaly, you're still on this case, though I'll ask when I need you. So. We'll figure out the substance, find the location of these kidnappers and you're all relieved. I'll have a dozen teams waiting in the wings."

The other members of mission looked a tad unsure. Trouble always made things sound easy; Holly had once heard him talk about troll-wrestling in the same tone he would explain opening a jar of peanut butter.

In the background of Trouble's screen, his secretary opened the door with a hefty stack of papers in hand. He spotted her and sighed. "I'm unfortunately out." The screen winked off unceremoniously.

"Well, there they are," said Foaly, cracking his knuckles with poorly disguised glee. It had been a fairly quiet couple of years, and the thrill of the challenge didn't escape him. "Our orders."

Mind you, he'd spend the majority of this ordeal in the Ops Booth. The others were understandably less enthusiastic.

"Indeed. There's nothing for it, then. We must work to minimize the amount of kidnappings until we gain a lead. There will be another party in Roussillon, two weeks from now." Artemis sounded a little put out. He reached for his cell phone. "I'll begin making arrangements."

Holly glanced round at him. "Okay, but on one condition."

"Would you not currently consider yourself a trifle too deep for conditional agreements?"

"Be that as it may." She reached over and not-so-delicately removed Artemis' cell from his grasp. "No more heels. I mean it."

He considered her for a moment. "You realize that, with your current height being 5'1, our sizes are rather --"

"Doesn't matter."

"And that you are currently experiencing a considerable degree less nausea than our fi--"

"Still doesn't matter."

Artemis frowned then, after a moment, held out one hand. "Agreed."

Holly grinned with the sweet sensation of triumph, relinquished the phone to his grasp and leaned back into the sofa – purposefully not leather in consideration of the current company.

Mulch plopped down beside her. "So? Whose party are we crashing?"

"I wouldn't say crashing, as we did receive an invitation. But she is another young heiress, within our target age group," he explained. Holly noted that Artemis' expression seemed irritated. "An old acquaintance of mine."

His darkening of mood hadn't quite slipped past Mulch either. "Ooh," he said in mock-delight. "What have we here? A lovely lady perhaps?"

Artemis frowned. "I'd not put it as theatrically, but unfortunately, yes. Though I suppose it would be more accurate to refer to her as 'our' old acquaintance." He held up an invite.

Holly took it from him, scanning the embossed text for the name of their host.

Paradizo, it read.

//


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