Well, I'm afraid this is it, folks. My obligatory 60 000 words are far away and passed and I've dragged this on for long enough. I hope you enjoy this one last, little bit; it had to be done, really. I make no apologies if you find this maudlin, melodramatic or mawkish (aha! alliteration!), this story's going out with a bang. Thanks to everyone for all the wonderful things you've said!
Once and for all, ilex-ferox has been beyond compare, especially with this chapter. So thank you, one more time. And just keep thinking about Never on a Sunday.
Chapter Twenty-Three: No Parenthesis
then laugh, leaning back in my arms for life's not a paragraph
And death i think is no parenthesis
- ee cummings.
'Is he here?' Trouble crosses the floor towards her.
Holly shakes her head. 'Coral's taken him to lunch,' she replies, her voice paper-thin.
Trouble runs a hand through thick brown hair. 'Good,' he says, coming closer, 'I wanted to talk to you.'
'Oh?' Holly rearranges her frail body in the armchair. 'What about, Trubs? Nothing's wrong is it?' Her eyes are bright above her sunken cheeks and dark, dry lips.
'No ... nothing's wrong.' Trouble stands next to her, coming up to her shoulder.
'You've got a new scar,' she smiles, tracing the fresh white line with one thin finger. His skin is still smooth and dark, soft under her trailing nail.
'Yeah, accident with a couple of goblins yesterday,' he shrugs.
She begins to let her hand drop but he takes hold of it, keeping it pressed against his face. His dark eyes are a little desperate.
'Trouble ...' she frowns, 'what's wrong? Something's wrong.'
'Nothing's wrong. I just ... I wanted ... I needed to speak to you before,' he swallows, 'before ...' But he is not brave enough to say it.
'Trouble, I've years to go before I die: the doctors say at least a decade.' She rolls her eyes, 'What joy, what rapture.'
'You know time passes differently below ground. I may not get another chance to come up in the next decade. Or what if you ... if you ...'
'Okay. Alright. It's alright, Trubs, you want to talk, I'm here. It's alright,' she speaks softly, as though to a frightened child.
'I love you, Holly,' he blurts out, still holding her hand.
She smiles, 'I love you too, Trubs, you're one of my closest friends. And you've been fantastic about this whole thing, really. You've been the best.'
'No, I mean I love you. I wanted to marry you, Holly Short.'
Holly licks her dry lips. 'Marry me,' she repeats slowly.
'Why are you telling me this?'
'Because ... I needed to tell you. But I just couldn't ever get the nerve up before, and then, afterwards, you seemed so happy with,' he wrinkles his nose, 'Fowl.'
'I am happy with him. I love him, Trouble.'
'I know. I know. I just ... I couldn't let you go without telling you how I felt.' He lets her hand drop, turning back towards the window. 'I'm sorry if I've offended you, Holly.'
'Oh Trouble,' she sighs, 'don't be silly. I'm not offended. It's just ... well, it's a bit selfish of you, dropping this on me now.'
'Selfish? What do you mean?' He turns back to her, puzzled and hurt. 'What should I have done? I couldn't have told you before. A Commander and his Captain? A fairy and a human? Either way, we couldn't have done it.'
'No,' Holly nods, 'we couldn't have. Trouble,' she sighs again, 'it wouldn't have mattered when you told me. I've always loved him. Even before this. Even when I was...'
Trouble stares, 'You're kidding me.'
'Holly, that's sacrilege. That's -'
'Love, Trouble, is what that is.'
'I couldn't have done that,' he repeats.
'No,' Holly agrees again, 'you couldn't have.'
Trouble looks at the tiny human before him, her delicate bones barely hidden beneath dark, wrinkled skin. She seems so fragile, as though she couldn't stand up in a breeze, never mind break every taboo thrown her way. He discovers that he feels ashamed. "Courageous Commander Kelp", he laughs to himself. He finds he loves her now more than ever.
He smiles at her suddenly, 'You're a better man than I am, Holly. And you deserved better than me. I'm glad you got it.'
She laughs. 'Oh Trubs, don't overdo it. I know how much you hate Artemis.'
Artemis Fowl II is a person who should have, by rights, spent his life alone. He is a man apart, and always has been. His friends can be counted on two hands; one, if you don't include family. His lovers can be counted on a single digit. One may be the loneliest number but, in some cases, it's all that's needed.
So when Holly tells him, with terrifyingly calm certainty, that she is going to die tonight, he finds himself faced with a decision that, had he read or heard about it elsewhere, he would have condemned as melodramatic and clichéd. But he has never played the Capulet before, holding that happy dagger.
'How do you know?' he asks. 'You're weaker, but you could live for months yet.'
She laughs: a tired, scratchy sound. 'Yes, and wouldn't that be lovely? The People always know when they are about to die, Artemis. We can feel it coming, like we can feel it in others: the exact moment the spark goes out. I reckon I've still got just enough elf left in me for this. Funny, aren't they, the things that stick?'
'You're sure?' he presses. 'Positive?'
'Mm hmm,' she murmurs, her voice fading.
'You were always supposed to outlive me,' he tells her, as though this makes a difference.
She shrugs. 'I always meant to read War and Peace, too,' she says, her eyes closing.
Artemis sighs, watching the sun play in the wrinkles of her skin. She is so thin and frail now. Though, if her body has betrayed her, her mind has stayed as sharp as ever, never succumbing to human senility. He thinks back over his life and is hard pressed to remember a time when she wasn't present. The few memories he does come up with are hardly worth remembering. He finds that, over the years, 'Holly' and 'living' have become more or less synonymous in his mind. It isn't an act of hopeless romanticism, he realises, only one of accepting his time to go.
'It's been like a really incredibly novel,' she speaks suddenly, 'the kind where the end always comes too soon, though you were desperate to find out what happens.'
'I wasn't desperate. I always know what's going to happen,' he retorts, cradling her face.
'Oh?' Voice arch, 'You saw Opal's gun coming, did you?'
'I believe you have become even more quarrelsome with age.'
'Like how cheese just keeps getting smellier.'
'You're really enjoying your similes today, aren't you?'
'Trying to keep the mood light,' she smirks. 'And anyway, at least it's been a good novel. Sometimes they're awful and the end can't come soon enough.'
'Holly,' he runs his thumbs along her cheekbones, 'stop talking about novels.'
She tsks. 'It's my death-bed; I can talk about whatever I want. Like that song, you know, It's my party, and I'll cry if I want to ...'
'It always made me distinctly uncomfortable when you tried to reassure me. Something terrible was nearly always imminent.'
'Well ...' Holly gestures eloquently to her failing body.
He draws closer to her, their old bones settling against each other through the thin layers of their papery skin.
'Don't worry, Arty,' she yawns, 'you're supposed to have a good few years left in you. Enjoy them. Eat out with Coral and little Artemis. Terrorise the kitchen staff. Swindle a last couple of billion for Coral.'
'Yes, when put like that, my life sounds just wonderful.'
'It is,' Holly tells him. 'You've got more than enough food, clothes to wear, an enormous roof over your head, and a loving daughter and grandson. If only everyone were so lucky.'
'Let me enjoy my grief in peace, would you please?'
Holly sighs, wrapping her arms around him. 'Don't grieve, Artemis. I've had an extraordinary life. If it's time to go, it's time to go.'
'You could still be young now, if -'
'But I'm not. And how do you think I would feel, standing here, watching you fall to pieces in front of me, knowing that I still had another thousand years to go?'
'I think I can imagine it relatively easily.'
She chuckles. 'Ah, Artemis.'
He smiles, having no trouble remembering when she had lain on top of him, laughing into the duvet, saying, "Ah, Artemis," and telling him to come for dinner on Friday. He swallows. Acceptance, he tells himself.
This isn't acceptance, says his cruel streak, this is cowardice. In the end, you're nothing but a coward.
Perhaps. But haven't I earned a little cowardice?
Reaching into the drawer of the bedside table he pulls out a bottle of pills. Shaking out a white one, he has to hunt for the red one, put there by himself. He passes the white pill to Holly and pours them both a glass of water from the pitcher on the table.
Holly frowns at the pill in her hand. 'What's this?'
'Sleeping pill,' he answers.
'Why's yours red?'
'I'm going to need more help falling asleep.'
Her frown deepens, then understanding dawns. 'No,' she says, as forcefully as her feeble voice will allow.
He smirks. 'It's my death-bed; I can do what I like.'
'Artemis, you can't. I won't let you.'
'Oh? How? Punch me until I relinquish my pill?'
Holly leans her forehead against his, already worn out from such a long conversation. 'Artemis ...'
'It's getting late, Holly. Even for us.'
She runs her fingers under his blue eye, swallowing. 'Okay,' she whispers, then sighs, 'I am tired.'
'I know,' he says, helping her hold the cup to her lips as she swallows her pill. She returns the favour.
Lying back down, she laughs quietly. 'This isn't how I thought it would end, that's for certain.'
'No, I'm sure it's not what every LEP hotshot dreams of.'
Another chuckle. 'Hardly a blaze of glory, is it?'
'I'm sure I could find some matches,' he offers.
'I can see the headlines now: Ancestral home of Fowl clan destroyed in fire when eccentric elderly couple commits double suicide.'
'How melodramatic,' he mumbles, eyes fighting to stay open; fighting to watch her until she sleeps.
'Is this going to be like one of those telephone calls where neither person wants to hang up, so they both just stay on the line until it gets really awkward and they feel silly?'
He laughs feebly. 'Something like that.'
She resettles herself next to him, their bones sliding together like puzzle pieces. 'Just this once, I'll let you win.' Stretching up, she kisses him, their lips dry and delicate. 'I'm closing my eyes now. Good night, Artemis Fowl.'
'Good night, Holly.' And he wraps his thin arms around her knobbly back, finally letting himself fall asleep.
'Good mo-orning up there!' Foaly has donned his biggest smile. 'Holly? Artemis? Wake – oh.'
For a moment, the Ops Booth is completely silent: even the whirr and hum of machinery stops.
Then, on the other end of the line, birds begin calling to each other. Drifting in through an open window, the noise is picked up by Foaly's celebrated microphones and relayed hundreds of miles underground. The booth is filled with the sound of birds singing.
Foaly sags suddenly in his chair, closing his eyes. 'But I didn't get to say goodbye,' he whispers.
The morning sun pours in through the French windows, and dust motes float down through the shafts of light to land on the white sheets. For once, the two of them are peaceful; folding neatly into each other, they might be only sleeping, there in the warmth of a summer sunrise.
'Trouble loves me,' she tells him that night, as they lie beside each other, 'or, at least, he did. I never knew.'
He laughs at her. 'Are you serious?'
'About what? That he loved me, or that I didn't know?'
'Obviously I'm serious, why else would I say it?' She frowns at him, 'Don't tell me you knew.'
'I'm relatively sure everyone knew. Except you, clearly. Isn't that always the way?' He smiles sardonically. 'What did you tell him?'
She blows out her fringe. 'I told him the truth. That you'd got there long before any of this species business even came into play.'
He is silent for a moment. 'Is that true?'
She stares at him. 'Are you serious?'
He watches her, not saying a word.
'Yes, it's true. Of course it's true. Don't you remember anything? Oh, you silly old man, I've loved you for so long now, how can you possibly still need reassurance?'
He gives a rueful smile. 'Every now and again, I still worry that I'll wake up to find that you're a metre tall, and young, and always have been.'
'Would that matter? Even if I were, it wouldn't change anything.'
He chuckles, putting a hand to her face. 'No,' he agrees, 'I don't suppose it would.'