Well duckies, it's the end of a (rather short) era. I hope you've enjoyed yourselves. This last chapter is unabashedly happy, so not quite as pretty as it could be, but ah well. On a side note, interestingly enough, and completely by accident, this story is 13 chapters long. HMM. Ha, and as always, kudos to Keats. Last few lines being mostly his after all. (Hopefully everyone gets the Ambrosia thing. I wasn't all that clear).
Chapter Thirteen: Because all good stories should end with feasting.
No1 is once again waiting for them in the shuttle port. He is grinning, rocking back and forth on the balls of his feet. Foaly is beside him, antsy, clattering his hooves. Trouble is there too, and Vinyáya, and the Councilmen. He is pensive, she is trying not to laugh and they are frowning for all they're worth.
As they disembark Foaly grabs Holly and Artemis, heedless of who is watching. With them clutched in his arms, he staggers in awkward circles, yahooing and warbling like a yodeller on acid.
'Foaly. Foaly-' Holly struggles in vain. 'Would you get off? Foa-ly.'
Artemis sighs resignedly at the damage done to his previously immaculate attire. Between Foaly and Holly this shirt was going to be more wrinkled than that sprite in Ho Chi Minh City. And he had dressed with such care too.
'Foaly, you are so embarrassing...' at last, Holly manages to slip out from underneath one hairy arm. Her hair is sticking up every which way and she glares, trying to flatten it back down, only to be grabbed around the middle by an effusive No1. From a safe distance, Mulch giggles, licking the last of the figs from his fingers. Butler decides Artemis can deal with this one on his own. He's a big boy now.
'Ahem,' the councillors clear their throats as one, eyeing Holly as though she might spontaneously combust at any moment. She turns to them and smiles over No1's head. This, arguably, disgusts them even more than her original sin.
'Master Fowl, if you please,' they continue, desirous of beating a hasty retreat. Who wants to witness a celebration of such depravity!
'Of course,' Artemis straightens his clothes as best he can after Foaly's exuberance, 'take your Persephone then. Count yourselves lucky I won't need her back come springtime.'
They take their trophy and leave, unaware of Artemis smirking at their retreating forms. Apollonius pauses before Holly, a finger rising for one final reprimand, but Butler clears his throat and the Councilor moves on.
Foaly waggles his eyebrows at Artemis. 'Are you hungry? (No, don't answer that Mulch, I wasn't asking you) We've got quite the spread down in one of the conference rooms, thnks to Section 8. How about it?'
'It's nearly six in the morning,' comments Butler.
'Exactly,' replies No1, puzzled, 'dinnertime.'
Quietly, Vinyáya puts an arm around Holly, whose face is glowing.
Trouble comes towards them, face caught between smiling and frowning. 'Captain,' he begins, then corrects himself, 'Holly. Are you serious about,' he licks his lips, 'about Artemis?'
'What? Oh no, not all, I'll jump into bed with just about any old mudman,' she replies acerbically.
'Quit it, Holly. It's a big decision. There's no precedent, he's human –'
'No, say what?'
'Have you really thought about this?' Trouble ignores her interruption.
'Yes, I have. And since the council - no, actually, d'arvit the council. I love him. I would love him no matter what they said.' She takes Trouble's face in her hands, 'Be happy for me Trubs. I know you think he's a bastard... and though that may be true,' she concedes after a second's consideration, 'nonetheless, he's the only person I know who would still come to save me even after I was dead. So don't worry so much, okay? After all, thousands of years' worth of prejudice,' she laughs, giving him a ruthful grin, 'can't be worse than the LEP locker rooms.'
Trouble sighs. She rolls her eyes.
'Trubs, I hid him when I should have killed him, loved him when I should have betrayed him. If I can begin a relationship during an assassination attempt, I don't see what would keep me from continuing it once we both got our freedom. I mean, really.'
'Yes, meeting someone over drinks is for lesser mortals, not the ground-breaking Captain Short,' Trouble smiles, though a little weakly. 'But I know, and I get it, and I am happy for you, I only... I want to be sure you're sure. Just because he raised merry hell to get you back, doesn't mean you have to go with him.'
Holly sighs, 'Maybe not. But honestly, you should probably be counting me lucky. I have this sinking feeling that I'd go with him even if he abandoned me in a gutter.'
Trouble glances over at Artemis, heatedly discussing the ant with Foaly and No1, and sighs again. 'So do I,' he replies gloomily. But he kisses her cheek like a gentleman and, with a smile to Vinyáya and a nod to others, exits stage left.
They are sitting around or, in the case of Holly and No1, on the table, happily gorging themselves, despite, in Butler's opinion, the odd hour.
'Artemis,' Foaly taps the man with a dolmades which Artemis is sure will leave a stain, 'explain to me why exactly you called it the 'Persephone Project'. Not quite following you on that one.'
Artemis shrugs, 'It's rather silly honestly. It was half faery technology, i.e. below ground, and half of my own devising, i.e. above ground, just as Persephone was half of each.'
'Gotcha,' Foaly pops the dolmades into his mouth.
'Okay, well, I don't. Who the d'arvit's Persephone?' butts in Mulch.
Artemis blinks, opens his mouth to explain, and then thinks better of it, 'Never mind.' He shakes his head and, turning back to Holly, frowns, 'I hope you don't intend to make a habit of sitting on tables.'
Unperturbed, Holly bites into a grape, 'Arty, I've been making a habit of sitting on tables for the past 100 years. You're just going to have to deal with it.'
'Alright,' he replies evenly, sitting down in a chair and taking her with him. He is not a publically affectionate person, but her comical 'Hurk!' as she chokes on her grape is worth the slight battering to his dignity. To say nothing of how this ability to hold her, and look at her, is still so new that reaching for her has nearly become a twitch.
Meanwhile, in his lap, having successfully swallowed her fruit, she smiles. He is safe and she is free and here there is no one to point their finger and denounce her.
No1 smiles, much like a child watching his parents make up after a fight. Content, he thinks, satisfied, safe. Then he smirks. Frond, where would these people be without me?
Mulch guffaws loudly at the spectacle, his fingers stained with grape juice as he munches his favourite fruit. 'Whaddya say we ditch the Mudmen, bust out some wine, and really party,' he calls, and is about to say more when he is drowned out by Butler's silent stare.
'After dessert, Mulch!' Vinyáya smiles. Then, laughing, 'Would this be wine of your own brewing?'
'Why? You gonna do me for it, copper?' he asks, a leer beginning on his ruddy face. Suddenly, he feels a cold hand pass through his shoulder. He doesn't need to turn around to know exactly who is breathing (well, metaphorically speaking) down his neck. He sighs, some people are just so territorial.
Meanwhile, Foaly's been busy, digging about in his bag. Finding what he wants, he straightens, waving a stoppered vial above his head. As everyone turns to watch, he empties the vial into a clean glass and, with a flourish, offers it to Artemis. 'I brought this especially for you. We found the basis for it in Opal's lab when we arrested her, but since then I've tinkered with the compounds and, I must admit, perfected it.'
'Yes, that must be very hard for you to admit,' pipes up Vinyáya.
'Really difficult,' agrees No1, 'challenging, character testing.'
Foaly purses his lips, 'Well, it certainly was hard to make. But fine, whatever, don't appreciate me.'
'What exactly is it?' Artemis takes the cup and eyes the liquid inside, a delicate pink, vaguely reminiscent of sparkling grapefruit juice.
'I call it Ambrosia,' Foaly smirks, 'with a sweet yet tangy taste, it sparkles on the palette.'
No1 nods in appreciation of his adjectives. Mulch rolls his eyes. Foaly ignores the latter, 'Go ahead Artemis, I think you'll like the side effects.'
'Ambrosia, you say?' Artemis looks at the glass once more. He looks up, at Butler, who nods, understanding, his smile only a little sad. He looks around the room at people who for the most part, surprisingly enough, actually care for him.
'Just drink it, mudbrat,' he hears in his ear.
He looks at Holly. She is watching him, face soft with delight. In the corners of her mouth there are the shadowy hints of a smile that waits, like a bright light in a casement open to the night, hopeful.