All characters are © Eoin Colfer. No profit is being made from this work.
If you give me a single throwaway metaphor from a book, this is what I will do to it. I hope I kept Artemis in character. To be honest, though, it's Holly with whom I have far more trouble. Ever since The Arctic Incident, I've pretty much always been on Artemis' side in terms of reasoning, and can never figure out what other people are objecting for. Also, this fic was supposed to be a short dialogue. I have problems with the concept of 'short', so this is what happened.
Degrees of Poison
It was almost three in the morning when Holly Short flew over the acreage that had belonged to the Fowls for generations. Her destination was, of course, Fowl Manor – it dominated the landscape, and she'd have no reason to cross over these grounds if not for that. Well, more specifically, if not for a certain Mud Boy within the manor. It had been almost twelve weeks since she'd so much as spoken to him, much less seen him. Not since she'd left with N˚1 and Jayjay, returning to Haven City.
On top of all of the damnable red tape that had been dealt with – well, the worst of it, in any case – she'd needed that time to think. About everything.
She found Artemis' room easily; her thermal bar picked up any life forms in the manor, and there was only one occupied room in the house that still had its lights on. She'd had a general idea of where his bedroom had to be, but – and Holly realized this with a bit of amusement – of all the places she'd been in the sprawling manor, including when she'd been attempting to wreck as much havoc as possible after she'd escaped her cell, she'd never actually set foot in Artemis' own room.
The heat signature that signified Artemis suddenly moved; it had been stationary near one of the walls – he'd likely either been sitting on his bed or at a desk, with the latter being by far the best bet – but now Artemis was moving toward the balcony, and then through the double doors and out into the night air. Holly was undetectable; it had to be coincidence that he'd chosen this moment to walk out to the balcony and lean against the railing of the ornate lattice, gazing out over the expansive grounds.
Coincidence. With Artemis. Of course.
She alighted on the corner of the balcony's fencing; it was thick, almost like a miniature column, and supplied more than enough room for her to stand comfortably. It also put her a few feet above Artemis' height, which was a useful psychological strategy. Or rather, it would be with anyone but Artemis. It was difficult to use psychology to intimidate someone who could charm an entire room full of sociopaths bent on murder by way of careful wording alone.
Her landing was utterly soundless, as her boots had been specifically designed to suppress sound waves upon impact. Her weight was slight enough and her control of her wings good enough that she'd have barely made a sound anyway; she could have landed on a Mud Man dinner table while an entire family was eating and no one would have noticed.
"Hello, Holly," Artemis said, before she even had the chance to unshield.
"All right, how did you detect me this time, Mud Boy?" Holly asked with a faint hint of irritation, flickering into the visible spectrum and pulling off her helmet. With these new suits, there was no longer a haze in the air—she should have been undetectable. But then again, this was Artemis.
Unsurprisingly, Artemis shook his head. "Trade secret," he said, with that familiar arrogant smirk, and Holly made a mental note to ask Foaly about it when she got back. It was certainly an indication of a security problem, not to mention that getting a one-up on Artemis was always a plus in Foaly's book. And Holly's. And pretty much everyone's, really.
"We need to talk, Artemis," Holly said quietly. She watched Artemis' face carefully; his skin was bone-white in the moonlight, the same pallor it had been when she'd rushed to his side in the gorilla's cage, certain that he was dead and nearly unable to deal with that possibility.
Even if she hadn't been... herself, exactly, when she'd kissed him – kissed him! – he'd been so close to death that the tears would have come no matter her age. Even though she certainly couldn't love Artemis in a way that involved kissing... after all they'd been through, Holly did love him, and she knew that if he died now it would devastate her just as much as it would have if he'd died in that cage in the past.
That didn't mean she liked him all of the time. Or perhaps, nowadays, it would be more appropriate to say that it didn't even mean she liked him most of the time. A part of her, the optimistic part, wanted to believe that this conversation would be a step toward repairing that. But her optimistic side had taken quite a beating lately where Artemis was concerned.
Once upon a time, Holly had thought she'd understood Artemis Fowl the Second. And while that might have been unconscious arrogance on her part – or maybe just foolish, misplaced trust – she had understood him; at least a little, but it hadn't been enough. She'd come here tonight because she wanted to see Artemis for what he was. For all that he was.
"That is a rather ominous statement," Artemis said, though he failed to sound tremendously concerned. Artemis generally failed to sound tremendously concerned about almost anything, up to and including possible impending death. "Have you decided to renege on your forgiveness, Captain?"
"I'd be offended," Holly commented, "if I didn't know that you know me better than that."
Artemis smiled, though it was obviously an effort. He knew that she wasn't here to chat about the weather. "What is it that you wanted to talk about? What occurred in the past, I presume."
"No, actually." Holly allowed herself a brief smirk at Artemis' faintly surprised expression. Even the great Artemis Fowl wasn't always right. Then the smirk dropped off her face, because Artemis had never yet been completely wrong, not when it mattered. Not when they'd needed him. "I wanted to talk about you."
"That is interesting," Artemis said, arching one eyebrow, "considering most people leave me with the impression that they would rather I refrained from talking about myself."
"Which is why I'll be doing the talking," Holly told him. She carefully sat down on the railing, cross-legged so her feet didn't dangle ridiculously and with her helmet placed on her lap. She was still a bit taller than Artemis this way, maybe half a foot, and the movement gave her a moment to collect her thoughts. Once she'd settled herself, she said, "You've come a long way, Artemis. You're nothing like the boy I first met."
"I would say thank you," Artemis said wryly, "if I didn't expect there to be less flattering observations on the way."
Holly ignored that, mostly because there was no point to confirming it when they both knew he was right. "When we mind-wiped you, after Spiro, I told Foaly that it was a pity, because you and I had almost begun to be friends."
"And what did our four-legged friend say to that?"
"'Sure,'" Holly quoted; Foaly's words that day had left an impression on her. Maybe because of the truth of them. "'Like you can be friends with a viper.'"
There was a long moment of silence, in which Artemis just looked at her with no discernable expression on his face. Finally, though, he offered her a faint smile. It was sharp, but that edge was tinged with sadness. "You know, it is possible to have a viper's venom sacs removed."
She thought it might have been Artemis' strange sense of humour coming through, but for once, she couldn't be sure. She didn't bother to mention that such a procedure was repulsive to her, somewhat because Artemis already knew that it would be, but mostly because she understood the metaphor.
"Yes," Holly agreed, wishing she could simply accede the point and have that be the end of it. But she'd realized something about Artemis, after their most recent adventure. A painful but necessary truth. What was the word, for something like that?
Looking Artemis in the eye, she asked quietly, "But the viper wouldn't really be itself anymore, would it?"
"No," Artemis said, his expression suddenly shuttered away. "I suppose not."
It had taken Holly this long to contact Artemis again, partially because she'd wanted to have this conversation in person and needed clearance for the surface, and partially because she'd been doing a lot of thinking. About Artemis; about what he had done— all of the things he had done since the moment they'd met, the bad and the good and the grey alike—and what he was. What Artemis was always going to be, in one way or another.
In the Arctic, when they had rescued Artemis' father... Artemis had decided to actually shoot his own father. She knew it had disturbed him greatly; nonetheless, it had been a ruthless plan, one that only a ruthless mind could have come up with—but if they hadn't done that, what could they have done?
In Spiro's bedroom, when they'd cut off his double's thumb—it had been utterly despicable, but, as Foaly had confirmed for her later, there had been no other possible way to get to the Cube.
Artemis – and, by extension, his plans – were not always ruthless and cold. Some, in fact, were even borderline selfless. His plan to rescue Minerva. His plan to save the remainder of demonkind. He had come back for Holly at the Extinctionists' gathering, despite being put in terrible danger by throwing himself – nearly quite literally – into the lion's den. He'd piloted a plane that might not have flown well, with an insane murderer chasing him whose chances of success were rather high, in order to draw her away from the rest of them.
But sometimes those plans were ruthless and cold, and Artemis would always claim that his way was the only way to succeed. The most frustrating thing about that was that however much Holly argued that there had to be another way, in the end, Artemis was always right.
Artemis' strategical genius had kept them all alive just as effectively as Holly's training and Foaly's computers and Butler's power and skill—maybe more, in a way, because each of those skills wouldn't have gotten them far in the grand scheme of things without Artemis to plot out how best to use them. The 'grand scheme of things' was, after all, his specialty.
But all of the genius in the world wouldn't help Artemis if he couldn't think like his opponent. If he couldn't anticipate his opponent was going to do, if he couldn't even conceive of the decisions that could be made by that kind of ruthlessness, Artemis' plans would fall apart before they were even put into motion. And sometimes, though Holly would rather take a dive in the Bay of Kola again than admit it to Artemis, the only way they'd been able to combat that kind of ruthlessness had been for Artemis to match it.
Artemis needed his venom. It was what made his bite so effective.
"There is a limit to how much I can change, Holly." Artemis was looking at her now, meeting her mismatched gaze with his own.
"Why?" Holly asked, though she knew the answer. "Because you think it's too late to get rid of the last of your criminal urges?"
"No," Artemis corrected, "because there is a limit to how much I truly wish to change. I am not entirely satisfied with my own thoughts and actions at times, but being as I am still growing up, I am confident that I will sort it all out by the time I reach physical maturity."
Holly snorted, shaking her head. "That's one of your biggest problems, Artemis. Everything with you eventually comes down to logic."
"Naturally," Artemis said, unperturbed.
"Which is why I've finally figured out how to trust you."
Artemis glanced up at her, puzzlement on his face. "As much as I am loathe to admit this, Holly, I'm afraid that I am not following you."
Holly almost smiled; under different circumstances, she would have. "If someone offered you all of the gold in world in exchange for exposing the People to the world, you wouldn't take it."
"You're certain of that?" Artemis asked, arching an eyebrow, but Holly's expression didn't change.
"Yes, Artemis. I have no idea what would be going on in your head—when do I ever?—but I know that you wouldn't betray me for that. Or the People. Your conscience, now that you have one, wouldn't let you. You aren't the monster you were when I first met you, and you never will be again."
Artemis' expression had flickered briefly at the word 'monster'; not with disagreement or surprise, but regret. Artemis knew full well what he had been, especially after coming face-to-face with his younger self. Even though young Artemis had some decency in him, 'monster' was still almost too kind a word for that cold child.
Holly continued, "I know that when placed against anything of material value, you wouldn't trade the People's existence for anything in the world. I can trust you absolutely." She paused, and then said, "But."
"But," Artemis repeated, that same sadness-edged smile back on his face. If he'd been doing it on purpose, Holly would have been disgusted and infuriated; but she knew he wasn't, because it was such an awkward vulnerability rather than Artemis' usual polished acting, and so it just made her heart hurt.
"But," Holly echoed, "you're still capable of betrayal, under the right circumstances."
"My mother," Artemis said, inclining his head in the general direction of his parents' room.
"Yes," Holly agreed, though Artemis' statement didn't need to be confirmed. "It was a selfishly selfless decision. You manipulated me, hurt me. Deliberately. You knew I trusted you, and you used that without hesitation. All for your own ends. But your own ends were to heal your mother, no matter what it cost you. Even if what it cost you was everything." She took a breath, then let it out slowly. "Even if what it cost the other people you care about was everything. In circumstances like those, that's when we're back to square one, and I can't trust you at all."
"If I am a viper, then I suppose I shall always be poisonous." Artemis smiled, obviously amused by the metaphor. Even so, that smile was noticeably strained. "I will just have to do my best not to bite."
"That's the problem, Artemis," Holly said flatly, staring him down. "'Your best' isn't always good enough."
"Yes," Artemis answered, his smile fading as he held her gaze unflinchingly. "I am well aware of that. And, as I said, there is a limit to how much I can change."
No, Artemis, thought Holly. As you said, there is a limit to how much you wish to change. You will never give up your bite.
"And I don't particularly want to argue, Holly, but I do have one question," Artemis added. "If you'll indulge me."
Holly frowned. Anything that started with someone telling you they didn't want to argue almost inevitably led to an argument. And at this point, she wasn't sure if her relationship with Artemis could stand another blow. A disagreement, yes. A full-blown argument? Maybe not.
"All right," Holly said warily, nodding.
"You will likely disagree with me, but I personally believe that anyone is capable of betrayal, given the right circumstances." Artemis' gaze was still locked with hers, his eyes as piercing as ever, and suddenly Holly was afraid. Afraid of what Artemis was about to ask her.
"Who would you be willing to betray someone for, Holly?" Artemis asked, voice quiet and, somehow, strangely gentle. "Who would be the one you'd betray me to save?"
My mother. The thought was in her mind before Holly could even try to lie to herself about the answer. Artemis was asking her the very same question she'd asked herself, when they'd been in the past: what would she have done, in his place? She hadn't been able to answer herself with certainty then, but in the last few weeks, she'd figured out the answer to that, too. And it was a truth just as bitter to swallow as the realization that Artemis wouldn't be Artemis without his ruthlessness.
Had their roles been reversed, Holly knew now that she would have betrayed Artemis for her mother's life. With staggering guilt, certainly, and deep regret for what it would cost – Artemis' trust – and for the pain she would cause him, but if it was the only way... if it was the only way, then no matter how much she'd hate herself for doing it, she would take that path.
"I don't think you have the right to ask me that," Holly answered, her voice not quite as steady as she'd like it to be, because for all of that she still wasn't sure she was ready to forgive him. Not yet.
"No, perhaps not," Artemis said, neither agreeing nor disagreeing. "But I merely requested permission to ask you a question; I didn't say that you were required to answer it."
But you know the answer anyway, don't you, Mud Boy? thought Holly, and suddenly, she was furious. Furious with Artemis, for daring to ask her that question. Furious with him for daring to put her in his shoes.
Furious with herself, for how much it had hurt her when he'd lied. The guilt had been almost preferable to his betrayal. So, so much easier to deal with, so much less painful than when he'd looked at her with that broken expression, his calm shattered, and all but begged her to understand. To understand why he'd chosen his mother over her, whatever the cost.
Abruptly, with that thought, the anger faded as quickly as it had come. It drained out of her, leaving her feeling tired and hollow. Discussions with Artemis tended to leave people that way.
Holly knew that some of her anger was directed at herself, for not having completely forgiven Artemis yet. It had been almost three full months since they'd been in the past—Artemis, after all, would have forgiven her by now. And that knowledge burned her, even though she knew why Artemis would have been able to. It was because Artemis was ruthless, and the irony in that was enough to choke her.
Artemis automatically understood that kind of decision, and had their roles been switched, he'd have had no difficultly admitting to himself that he would have done the same thing. He would have been furious with her, too, and hurt; she knew that. It would have taken him time to forgive her. But he would have understood, and no matter how betrayed he felt, in the end it wouldn't have shaken his trust in her.
To him, a situation like that wasn't about trust—just necessity. It was something that had to be done, something that couldn't not be done, so where did trust come into it at all? It had been his mother who was dying; with their roles reversed, it would have been Holly's mother who was dying, and Artemis wouldn't have stayed angry with her indefinitely because she'd chosen her mother's life over his feelings. Had he known that Holly had been forced to choose between them, he never would have expected her to choose anyone else. She knew exactly what his reaction would have been.
"We're from different worlds, Artemis," she'd said. "We will always have doubts about each other."
Holly supposed that made her a liar, too.
"Artemis—" she began, not sure of what she was going to say, but Artemis waved a hand, his eyes uncharacteristically downcast.
"It's fine, Holly. You're correct; I had no right to ask you that question, not after..." He paused, then finished, "after everything."
No, she thought. You did. Because you deserve to know why I haven't forgiven you.
"No," she said aloud. "I can't answer that, Artemis— won't answer it, but it was..." A fair question, she wanted to say, and it had been. But the words wouldn't come. "It's all right," she said finally.
He did deserve to know why she hadn't completely forgiven him, even though Holly herself wasn't entirely certain why. But she wondered sometimes, late at night, just how much of her inability to forgive him was just a good excuse to keep him at a safe distance. A distance far enough that she wouldn't have to look at him, at his mismatched eyes that matched hers, at his mouth, and remember what it had felt like to kiss him. Remember what it had felt like to sit on the hood of the stolen car with him, nearly equal in age, and ask if it would be so bad if it turned out that they had to stay like that.
"And my elf-kissing days are still over, of course," Artemis added casually, pulling her out of her troubled thoughts and turning his gaze to look out over the manor's grounds. But this was Artemis Fowl, and nothing Artemis Fowl did was ever casual. Calculatedly casual, yes, but never truly relaxed. "What was it you said, when you left with N˚1 and Jayjay...?"
"In another time," Holly repeated her own words, though she knew he hadn't forgotten. But in spite of her firm tone, she was taken aback; but had her emotions truly showed so clearly on her face that Artemis had picked up on what she'd been thinking? Or had it just been Artemis, with his uncanny sense of timing, knowing the perfect time to...
To strike, she thought, and immediately felt a pulse of guilt for thinking it. It passed quickly, mainly because it was true. Whatever showed in her face, though, those three words were no less true now than they'd been the first time she'd uttered them.
"In another time, Artemis," she reiterated, just for good measure.
"Yes, of course," Artemis agreed, a little too easily. "The past, naturally. What other time could there be?"
Holly didn't respond. She couldn't, because those six simple words had hit her with such force that she could barely think beyond them. The emotions she'd tried to keep down, tried to attribute to her younger body and to leftover confusion from how she'd been in the past, were suddenly whirling in her chest. She shouldn't have been surprised; Artemis had always done this to her, from the very beginning: kept her off-balance, never entirely sure what to feel, and caused her to end up feeling things for him that she knew she shouldn't.
Mourning him, when she'd thought the blue rinse had killed him.
Sympathizing with him, when he'd told them the price of helping them defeat the B'wa Kell.
Missing him, when he'd been mind-wiped.
Kissing him, eight years or just a scant few months ago.
She'd told herself countless times the very same thing she'd told Artemis: in another time, because 'in another time' made it easier to accept the end of something that hadn't even begun, something that likely should never begin. But Artemis found the loopholes in everything, as he always did.
What other time could there be?
"Fly away, little fairy," Artemis said softly, glancing up at her as if sensing her internal struggle. His words weren't condescending; there was a sort of teasing quality to them that seemed out of place coming from Artemis Fowl. But his next words weren't entertaining in the least. "A viper's venom is no less poisonous from lack of use."
Though Artemis' left eye was hazel, his right was still his own, and in that moment it was the blue-black colour Holly so clearly remembered. The colour she'd seen the first time she'd looked into the eyes of twelve-year-old Artemis Fowl.
"Look in my eyes and tell me that I can't."
She'd seen the truth there, when she'd first met his eyes. She saw it now.
"Goodbye, Artemis," Holly said abruptly, replacing her helmet and switching on her shield. "I'll be in touch."
"Until another time, Holly," Artemis said to the supposedly empty air, and from his neutral tone, no one who didn't know him would have been able to tell whether it was a simple goodbye or a deliberate choice of words. However, considering nothing about Artemis Fowl was ever simple and Holly wasn't a fool, she could guess.
Against regulations, Holly opened the throttle wide and shot off into the sky. For almost a minute she tore through the sky at full speed, but she couldn't keep up the pace; she needed time to collect herself, and a long flight home in solitude would provide that.
Of course, she had no solitude, not even while seventy-five feet above the countryside.
"You heard all of that, didn't you, Foaly?" Holly asked finally, breaking the silence of the dark Irish morning.
"You think I'd miss something like this?" Foaly answered, without a hint of shame.
Holly sighed, though she'd expected nothing less. If she'd wanted privacy, she should have thought to specifically ask for it. "What did you think?"
"Well, I wasn't really there," Foaly countered. "What did you think?"
Holly scowled. "You said you were listening."
"I know what I heard," Foaly said, sounding surprisingly serious. "I don't know what you think."
There was a long moment of silence over the line.
"You were right," Holly said finally. "Artemis is a viper."
Foaly chuckled. "Quite the extended metaphor we have going on here, isn't it?"
Holly didn't answer. She wondered if love, in any of its many forms, was just another kind of poison when it came to Artemis Fowl. It certainly hurt enough to be.
"But there's something you might be interested in hearing about vipers," Foaly added, pulling her out of her thoughts. "That is, if we're insisting on calling poor Artemis a venomous snake." Holly snorted; poor Artemis indeed. Foaly didn't continue, though, and Holly glared at the visor in front of her for long moments, since Foaly, as he'd said, wasn't actually there to glare at.
"Oh, fine. What's this interesting thing, Foaly?"
"Something called a dry bite."
"Mm-hm," Foaly hummed in agreement. "In essence, it's when a poisonous snake bites, but doesn't inject its venom into its supposed victim."
Holly frowned. "Why would a venomous snake bite and not inject its venom?"
"Self-defence, usually. When people get too close." He paused, then said, "Vipers are also adept at injecting different degrees of poison, based on both the situation as well as its... ah, victim."
Holly took a moment to process this.
Degrees of poison. Artemis telling her the truth about his mother's infection, when he so easily could have kept both his mother's life and Holly's trust, because who would have known? He'd placed all of that crushing, terrible guilt upon Holly, but then freed her from it rather than continue the deception. Only enough to put things in motion.
For his plan, of course. Artemis always had a plan. Usually one in which someone could get hurt, emotionally if not physically, and Artemis would see it coming. Because Artemis saw almost everything coming. And, needless to say, none of that knowledge would interrupt his plan once he'd decided it was the only way. Artemis, both fortunately and unfortunately, was almost always right.
I suppose it isn't fair, thought Holly, to need a viper for what it is and then condemn it for being that way.
That didn't mean that all of the things Artemis had done in the past were ethically right, or even acceptable under normal circumstances. But Holly knew what Artemis was, and even if she'd been the fairy equivalent of a teenager at the time, she'd still known that when she'd kissed him in the past. She'd seen Artemis' ruthlessness firsthand; in fact, she'd personally been a victim of it. She'd looked into those cold blue-black eyes before leaving the house in which she had been held captive, and seen nothing of mercy or kindness within them.
No matter how much Artemis had changed, Holly would have to be a fool to believe that the cold, icy centre of him had melted completely. Captain Holly Short was no fool.
And she'd still managed to forget all that, to push it all to the side and kiss him anyway, as if none of it mattered. In that moment, it hadn't mattered, and it would have gone on not mattering. Until the viper had turned his bite onto her.
Degrees of poison.
Or perhaps a dry bite.
"And, ah, Holly..."
Holly blinked, and then frowned warily at the tone of Foaly's voice. It sounded almost... gleeful. And that was never a good thing. "Yes?"
"What did Artemis mean, exactly, when he mentioned 'elf-kissing'?"
Holly switched off communications. Not that it meant anything – Foaly could override it in less time it took for him to eat a carrot, and he proceeded to do so – but it got her point across. She could tell, if only because Foaly didn't press the issue.
The chuckle she heard at his end, though, told her that she wouldn't be allowed to avoid answering forever.
As much as she wanted to just switch her brain off on this subject for a while, and certainly didn't want to confess to it, Foaly was the only one of the People she would choose to tell if she had no other choice. He was perhaps the only one who wouldn't raise an utter scandal over it, if only because he knew Artemis almost as well as she did.
Holly could trust Artemis with her life, and the secret of an entire race. She knew that short of the lives of Artemis' family being in danger, there was nothing that could make him betray her. That was enough. For now, at least, it had to be. And for the first time, Holly wondered if she had the right to ask anything more.
Possibly, she would eventually have that right. The right to be placed on the same level as Artemis' family, and be able to trust him absolutely without having to consider the situation; be able to trust that there would be no venom for her in his bite. Perhaps one day.
The future, after all, is another time.