Back! Finally, a Butler piece. Not sure how I feel about this one, it didn't quite go how I thought it was going to go. But, in the end, I think it's okay. Penny for your thoughts?
The three lines from a song in this fic are from "All the Money I Had is Gone", by The Deep Dark Woods.
Last, but not least, thanks to ilex-ferox for the endless betaing.
Two Hands in the Dark
Domovoi Butler lay in bed. Something was playing on the radio. It sounded like bluegrass: slow, tripping guitar; a banja; smooth, deep, three-part harmony.
All the money I had is gone.
A bit of honky tonk piano in the background now. Butler sighed, shifting his weight in the four-poster bed.
Money wasn't what Butler was lacking. Butler was lacking time. He was lacking life.
All the energy I had is gone, he thought to himself, with a wry smile.
He had never been afraid of dying, oh no, not him, not the fearless Domovoi; even as a child he had been fearless. But he had always thought he'd die in action. Die defending his principle, die on the front lines fighting for some cause – good, bad, it wouldn't have mattered, when you're face down in the dirt with your blood watering the daisies, causes all tended to sound the same. The point was he was supposed to die fighting.
Yet here he was: frail and weak, old beyond his years but with more years behind him than he had any right to have. He was sick of living. Really, that was the biggest irony of all: he had lost the last of his youth, but he would live longer than he should have. What the hell was the point in that? He was like Orion, granted immortality but not never-ending youth, just never-ending incapacity.
Not that Butler had anything against old age. Sure, let people grow old, enjoy the fruits of their labour; just not him. The fruits of his labour? What labour? A soldier, a bodyguard, a murderer. His labour was the wishes of others. There was nothing for him to enjoy but a heavy conscience, and a nagging worry as to who would do his job when he was gone.
That was what really got him. Who would protect Artemis when he was dead?
See? His imminent demise only worried him in relationship to how it would affect his charge.
Butler sighed. He had to stop thinking about Artemis. Something different. Something new. Himself? He frowned. When had he last thought about himself? Or, phrased differently, when had there last been something about himself worth thinking about?
Well, there had been one thing. Not a thing, really. A person. She had made him think about himself. He shook his head. Don't think about that, it was too new, too fresh, even after all these years. Think farther back.
He remembered a time, long, long ago. Before Artemis. In the preparation-for-Artemis days. And, even then, his life hadn't really been his own.
Oh, the way I'm living is gonna cause my heart to ache.
Butler turned off the radio.
He walked through the streets of Paris, not caring about the eyes that followed him, the heads that turned. He could still feel the needles that had drawn that blue diamond, that had written down his success, his incredible abilities, for all the world to see. He was free at last from four a.m. wake up calls, from endless laps and drills and demonstrations. His life was his own, and he was eighteen, and handsome, and had money in his pocket.
Domovoi Butler felt like the king of the world.
Hers was one of the heads that turned. But his turned at the same time until they were staring at each other over their shoulders. He turned around and walked back to her cafe table.
Without asking, he sat down across from her. They were still staring at each other.
'Hello,' he said. At that time, his French was only a handful of words. By the time he left her, he would be nearly fluent. And he would keep that slight Provençal accent for the rest of his life.
'Hello,' she replied. Her English was better than his French, but her accent was thick. 'Café?'
She ordered for him. An espresso. He drained it, though he hated espresso. She smiled at him.
'My name is Solène,' she told him, reaching one slender, dark hand across the table. He took it and, in a fit of old-fashioned gallantry, kissed it. She raised an eyebrow, but said nothing.
'Butler? Your family name?'
'My family is odd about names.'
'Alright,' she shrugged, and didn't mention it again.
He was staying at a hotel. She had a flat in Montmartre. You could see the Eiffel tower from her balcony. The flat was very small; the kitchen was a tiny wedge of space, crammed between the hall, the bathroom, and the air above the courtyard below. Butler had difficulty negotiating the angles of the rooms, but she didn't. She was small, and dark as a shadow. Until she smiled and her teeth flashed out from that red cupid's mouth.
She smelled of lavender, he realised. Having never been to the south of France he harboured vague, romantic notions that everything and everyone there smelled of lavender. When he mentioned this, she laughed and said her parents owned a nearly defunct lavender farm; they sent her packets every month.
'A lot of things in the south, they smell of fish,' she told him, trying not to smile at his disappointed expression.
When he stayed with her she would sit on the ledge of the French windows and watch him weave through her furniture, carefully working his way towards her. When he reached her, she would look up at him through thick, dark eyelashes. He would hold out his hands to help her stand. Stubbing out her cigarette, she would accept. When she smiled, her brown eyes crinkled at the corners.
Domovoi Butler had never been in love before. It would be a very long time before he was again.
Solène walked with confidence, one foot directly in front of the other, like a model. When she spoke to men on the street she tilted her head back and to the side, eyeing them down the hooked line of her nose, through thick eyelashes. It made them feel like scum. Not that that discouraged them.
She was sarcastic, intelligent and had a habit of looking past unwanted companions and smirking at something past them. She tossed her hair, the long, dark, mass of it. Arms akimbo and hip jutting, she looked capable of filleting a man where he stood.
She couldn't, however.
That was, Butler came to realise, the integral difference between she and him. She had difficulty killing mosquitoes. He had no qualms about executing a roomful of people. He found it endearing, her bravado. He found her innocence even more so.
One night he watched her, lying under her floral print sheets, as she scampered around her tiny bedroom half-heartedly swatting at a mosquito at one in the morning. Eventually he held out his hand and killed it in midair. Her eyes got very big as she bit her bottom lip.
'Je vais acheter de la citronelle,' she said after a moment, and climbed back into bed with him.
Butler nodded, thinking that citronella would do nothing to close the gap between them.
They were in bed when the phone rang.
'Butler? Oui, mais comment...?' Those dark eyes wide, she passed him the phone. How had someone known to call him at her flat? They were alone in Paris.
Butler cradled the phone between his chin and his shoulder. He knew the voice on the other end of the line. He knew what she would tell him before she began to speak.
'Your flight leaves in two hours from Charles de Gaulle. You're going to Dubai. All relevant information can be found in airport locker 2291. The key has been mailed to your hotel room. You'd best hurry.'
Butler stared at the receiver in his hand. His first principal. He'd been looking forward to this for years.
He didn't want to go.
'You're leaving me,' Solène said when he passed back the phone.
'Yes. I have to.' He looked up at her.
'We never have to,' she told him.
'It's my job. My duty. My responsibility.'
'Only eighteen,' she sighed. 'Already so much responsibility. You are a good man, Butler.' She smiled, a loving smile, a proud smile. One that said it thought he was the best thing to happen to the world since sliced cheese.
'You don't even know what my responsibilities are.'
She shrugged. An unshakable belief in his inherent goodness.
'I'll write to you.'
She put a hand to his cheek, nodding.
The first time he killed another human being, he shot the man through the heart. It was a messy, easy way to kill. Butler preferred pressure points or a quick snapping of the neck. You had to be close to kill someone that way; you had to see them right in front of you; the pores of their skin, the lines of their bones, the colour of their hair and the smell of their sweat. The consciousness in their eyes. When you killed someone like that you knew you were killing them and you felt it. You felt them beneath you. You took the full weight of your actions on yourself.
To kill with a gun was cold. It was disrespectful. It made a stranger of the person whose life you had stolen. It kept them at arm's length. Butler believed there was nothing more intimate than taking another's life. It was not something that should be done in the chaos of battle where you couldn't even see your victim; it should be done with your hands on their skin.
However, murder was still murder, no matter the hows or the whys. When the man fell and hit the ground, Butler knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that he would never touch Solène again. How could you make love with hands that killed?
As Butler walked away from his first kill he realised that the difference between Solène and himself had not been so great, back then, in her cramped flat. She hesitated to kill and he, in his ignorance, had boasted of his abilities to himself. But he had been just as innocent as she would, hopefully, always be.
He knew better now.
Then he had thought it weak of her to shy away from killing pests. Acting as though she was incapable, with him so very, very capable.
There was a difference being capable of something and having done it.
The difference was nearly as large as that that now separated him from Solène. He had killed that man and he had enjoyed it. It made his blood rush and his mind sharpen to an impossible clarity. It showed the world just how far superior he really was.
As Butler walked away from his first kill he was grinning.
It wasn't until he had returned to his flat, stripped and burned his clothes and got into the shower did he realise his hands were shaking. He got out of the tub and threw up three times before he could get back in.
Letting the hot water wash away the smell of vomit, he realised it wasn't the fact that he had killed someone that made him ill: it was the fact that he had gloried in it. And his mind (his heart?) rebelled against it.
Butler sat down on the white porcelain and discovered that, though he was a killer, he was also a good man.
How could a brain and a body feel so differently?
After his years in Dubai he had a month of leave. He returned to Paris. He looked up Solène, she had moved, she was going out with an architect now, and they lived in the suburbs near Versailles. The architect had money.
Butler took to watching her run errands from the other side of the street. There was a cafe across from the market from which he could sit and drink espresso and watch her buy fish and eggs and artichokes. She never saw him.
Once he tried to cross the street, with vague plans of speaking to her, but, as he stepped out into traffic, all he could see was her wide eyes and bitten lip. He turned back.
Sitting back down at his cafe table he looked at his hands. Large, square, with long, tapered fingers. The nails were clean and well taken care of. He had beautiful hands. He wanted to cut them off. He wanted to be able to touch the woman he loved.
Getting up, he walked away.
Months later, a war later, he was having tea with Madame Ko. She asked him how he was.
'I feel like shit,' he said.
Madame Ko raised an eyebrow.
He told her the story. He tried, fumbling for words, to find a way to describe the beauty of her hands and her child-like purity. To describe his hands and how they horrified him. He couldn't find the words.
'I want to feel nothing,' he said. 'Nothing. Not pride, not pity, not anything.'
'You want to die, then?' Madame Ko put down her tea cup.
'No.' Butler shook his head. 'Maybe. Is that what death is? I suppose it is.'
'I have a job for you,' Madame Ko said after a moment of silence.
Butler laughed, but it was closer to a cackle, or a sob.
'It is a dangerous job, however, and Domovoi, perhaps you need to take a break.'
'No,' Butler poured more tea, 'I don't need a break. Dangerous is good, I like dangerous. Bring it on.'
Madame Ko tsked. 'Do not spout Hollywood tripe, Domovoi, I trained you better than that.'
'You did, which is why I'm so good with danger, isn't it? Which is why I now have nothing. Which is why it doesn't matter if I die. Don't you understand? I have nothing, so they can't take anything more from me.'
'Do not say things like that. It is asking for trouble. There is always something.'
'Tell me about the job.'
He stood, heading for the door.
'Sit down!' The tiny Japanese woman snapped with unnerving force. Butler sat down.
'You are still young, so I will forgive your rudeness, but do not walk away from your teacher when she is speaking to you.'
'I'm sorry,' Butler intoned, his face blank, 'it won't happen again, sensei.'
It turned out that Madame Ko had been right. And, really, he should have seen it coming.
Something else, think of something else.
Please think of something else.
What else to think about? Who else to think about?
Who else was there?
He had been such a small baby.
How many dead at his hands and he was being given this little boy to care for? Surely this was some sort of sick joke. He shouldn't even be allowed near children. And yet this boy was why he killed. This little boy was why he lived. Talk about born in chains. Minutes old and already - inadvertently, unconsciously - the cause of so many deaths.
Artemis II looked up from his crib, pinning Butler with his narrowed eyes. The big man couldn't repress a shudder.
Over the years, however, Butler came to realise that he was more suited to Artemis than he had thought. The boy was not a child, just as he was not a father. Even before he began to harden, growing that Fowl exoskeleton of guile and greed, Artemis had never been a child.
'Artemis!' The voice of Artemis Fowl Senior was loud, it was cold, and it was terrifying.
The four-year-old boy at the foot of the stairs raised his dark head, his eyes momentarily wide with fear. 'Yes, father?'
'Get that cat out of the house. What have you been told about animals in the Manor?'
Butler had bought the boy a kitten, hoping to cheer him up after the news of his father's latest impending departure. He opened his mouth to explain but his charge beat him to it.
'That they're not allowed. Sorry, father. It was a momentary aberration. It won't happen again.' And with that the boy picked up the kitten and walked across the hall to the front doors. Recognising the unspoken order in his young master's stiff shoulders, Butler followed mutely, holding open the door for him.
'Artemis –' The bodyguard began as soon as they were outside.
'Don't bother apologising, Butler. I am a child, it's natural for me to want to seek solace in pets and such-like things. Being reprimanded for breaking such a minor rule is merely a part of the growing process. However, for a full grown man to be subjected to a setdown for attempting to comfort his employer's son would be unseemly. For you to be chastised for such an infantile thing would be a humiliation – men who have killed other men should not have to be bothered over such silly things as kittens on the stairs. It offended my sense of propriety, that's all.'
Butler stared at the boy beside him. Crouching down, he placed both his hands on Artemis' shoulders. 'When your father called your name you were afraid. So let's get one thing straight, Artemis: I am here to protect you. From anything and everything. From hunger, from wet trainers, or from blame – whether deserved or not. That is all I do. So, if you are afraid of something, to me it will never be a silly thing. Do you understand?'
The boy looked at him in silence for a moment, his blue eyes unreadable. At last he spoke, quietly, with the slightest hint of a quaver. 'Thank you, Butler.'
The child raised a sceptical brow but didn't say anything.
And how that little boy had grown. Grown into something barely human. At times Butler felt himself to be utterly and completely useless. How do you protect a ten-year-old boy from his own mother? From impending bankruptcy? From himself?
And then Artemis had hatched his big plan. The kidnapping.
Butler stirred restlessly in his bed. He didn't want to think about this. He didn't want to think about her. But what else was there? She was all he wanted.
For, of course, there couldn't be nothing forever. Suddenly, unexpectedly, he had found a something; a someone. Suddenly, he had had so much for the world to steal.
And, unfortunately, there were no laws keeping the world from returning to try again, if it failed to take back its gifts the first time.
Artemis, Butler decided, had it easy.
Surely there was something else he could think about?
Minerva had the same accent as Solène.
It wasn't until Artemis vanished over the side of the Taipei 101 that he recognised it, however. But there it had been: cutting through the sudden blank white that had enveloped him. He wondered how he had missed it before. He wondered how he heard it all through the mantra in his brain:
He had lost him. He had lost them both. Artemis has said he would come back. Would she? He had lost him. He had lost them both. This, this was what having nothing was.
And then came her voice, sing-song and thick, as she quietly recited equations and theorems, trying to keep herself calm.
He turned to her, staring, as though this little girl speaking French under her breath was the most extraordinary thing among all this wreckage. And, in a way, she was.
When she noticed, she frowned. 'Yes?'
'Don't stop speaking,' he told her. 'Please. Just keep speaking.'
She blinked. '... Butler?' Her voice quavered. Her hands were pale and round, reaching out to him, hesitant.
'Please,' he said. He didn't take her hand.
She swallowed, nodding slowly. The hands fell away, so soft and foreign, and not what he wanted.
All the way to the street she talked. When they got to the car she began reciting La Fontaine.
Amour, amour, quand tu nous tiens, - On peut bien dire: «Adieu prudence!».
She spoke until she lost her voice and drifted into fitful sleep. Butler watched her, brushing blonde hair back from her face. She was all white and gold, nothing like dark Solène and her lingering smell of lavender. Then he smiled: at least she was something. She was something where there had been nothing. She wasn't what he wanted, but she at least she was there.
And her voice made him think. Think of so many other things.
Butler sighed. Was it time already? Had he no other memories to distract himself with? Oh, he had plenty, but none so worth remembering.
By the time Artemis told the Butlers his plan, Butler had worked for the boy long enough to know there was no point in arguing. That there was no point in pointing out that fairies did not exist. If Artemis thought they existed, well, Butler would too.
And oh, did they exist.
Butler looked down at the tiny woman lying before them. So small and dark. And her hands...
He could feel something tightening in his chest. Guilt? Shame? Horror? Love? He wasn't sure.
He looked up at Artemis. In the boy's eyes he could see the same emotion. Whatever it was.
As suddenly as it had come, it flickered and passed. Boy and man got back to work.
She was beautiful, he knew that much. And she was brave.
She smiled easily. Even for Artemis, for whom very few people smiled.
She had saved his life. She had saved Artemis' life.
She hadn't killed them when she'd had the chance: she had saved them.
It had developed slowly, though they were so similar, always fighting. Fighting for what? For others.
It had developed slowly and yet he had loved her from the very beginning, when her hands in the grass had lain so still, so slender and dark.
She didn't smell like lavender. She spoke French, but with that odd lilting accent with which she spoke every language.
She was not an innocent.
'Butler?' Artemis stood in the doorway. 'I've brought you your medication. How are you feeling?'
The big man smiled, 'Pretty good. My life's flashing before my eyes.'
'I keep replaying. It's going to take a bit longer.'
The boy – the man now – pours water from the cut glass decanter on the bedside table. He hands it to Butler with a half smile. 'Any part in particular?'
'Oh, you know, the usual: the day you were born, your first steps, your first word.' Ironic that the one time he wasn't actually thinking of Artemis he felt the need to lie about it. But Artemis needed to feel loved more than he needed the truth.
'Of the day I asked you to shoot your first fairy?' And, of course, because he was Artemis, he already knew the truth.
Butler sighed. 'I try not to replay that part.'
Artemis nodded. 'No, I suppose not.' He sat down on the edge of the bed. 'Though, speaking of whom, she phoned. She's coming by tonight.'
'No wonder you're looking so well-groomed. Had Maeve change your sheets yet?'
Artemis pinched the bridge of his nose. 'I always looked well-groomed.'
'It's been a while since she's had the time to come up, though; you must be looking forward to it.'
His charge smiled at the floor.
Their lives were not their own. It was worse for Holly: government employee and under Artemis' sway. Butler only had to deal with Artemis. And Artemis was more than enough to consume an entire life.
But they were helpless. He told them go and they went. He told them jump and they jumped. It didn't matter if they disagreed, in the end everyone knew they would do as they were told. And they would do it willingly. That was the truly incredible part: that, at the end of it all, they weren't bitter. They didn't hate him for using them as a means to an end. Their dignity was a long-forgotten dream.
At first, he thought maybe it was because she cared for Artemis as he did - as so few others did. His life was, after all, Artemis', it would make sense that he should love someone for Artemis' sake.
But here was his one selfishness. He did not love her because she appreciated, protected, loved, his charge. He loved her because of who and what she was. Because it made him happy to love her. Artemis didn't come into it at all. And this amazed him.
Holly approached the bed hesitantly. Of the three of them, she was the only one who hadn't outwardly changed. The passing years which had wasted Butler's body had barely touched her. He was glad. He wanted his last memory of her to be as beautiful as his first. She was the daydream that time would never touch. His only daydream.
'How are you feeling, Butler?' Her voice was soft and her eyes were sad. She placed her hand to his cheek, kissing his forehead.
'About the same as I look, I assume.' He tried for a laugh.
She gave a watery smile. 'I wish – oh, you know what I wish.'
'Holly, I would have been dead years ago if it hadn't been for you.'
In some ways, he wished he had died then. Still young, still fighting. And before ... before everything had started. With Artemis. Before Artemis had become involved. As always.
If he was honest, in a lot of ways he wished he had died then. God, why hadn't he died then?
Because of Artemis.
And so he was glad he was still alive.
Because, at the end of the day, they weren't bitter. They were lambs coming freely to the slaughter.
She took a deep breath, tilting her head back to stop tears. 'And was that the right thing for me to do, Butler? Was it what you wanted me to do?'
'Yes, of course. Holly, you gave me back my life.' But not what I really wanted.
'And stole your youth.'
'Holly, that doesn't matter. I needed to live. Who would take care of Artemis if I died?'
She laughed mirthlessly. 'Frond, Butler, don't you ever stop thinking about Artemis?'
Holly shook her head. 'And what do you think about when you don't think about Artemis?'
'This and that.'
You. Always you.
One day her innocent farewell kisses began to last longer. One day Artemis' brief smiles became something else entirely. One day their friendly teasing took on a whole different meaning.
Butler tried not to think about it. He ignored hands on dark shoulders, fingers resting in soft, black, hair, arms brushing arms. He even ignored Holly's presence the mornings after her night-time visits. He could ignore all that.
He could not, however, ignore that it made Artemis happy. After all, Artemis' health and happiness were the point of everything. That was what he lived for, the meaning to his life. Butler realised, then, just how much he was willing to give up for one boy.
Just, please, did it have to hurt so goddamn much?
Butler thought that the world's sense of the ironic left much to be desired.
Artemis came back into the room, carrying a tray of food.
'Just look how self-sufficient he is, Butler,' Holly watched her lover cross the floor, his mismatched eyes fixed on the tray before him, 'carrying a tray up all those stairs all by himself. I would never have believed it twenty years ago.'
So intent on his tray, Artemis did not respond.
Butler would have laughed, if Holly's eyes hadn't been quite so focused, quite so hungry, as she watched the man come towards them.
He turned to watch Artemis and his tray. The man's face was pursed in concentration, trying not to spill anything. Something flooded into Butler's stomach. He believed it might be love.
No wonder he gave up anything and everything for this man before them.
How had it taken him so long to realise?
There was no one else. The two of them together, the one of them, that was all there was. It had never just been Holly, he had got it wrong. It had been Artemis as well; it was always Artemis as well.
Artemis hung back after Holly had said goodnight and vanished down the corridor.
He looked at his dying bodyguard and licked his lips.
'You love her, don't you?'
Phrased as a question, though it wasn't really.
Butler blinked. 'What gave it away?' he asked, smiling. Proud of Artemis' clever mind.
The other man shrugged. 'A lot of things.'
'How long have you known?'
'Not very,' Artemis admitted. 'Well. That may not be quite true. I don't ... I don't believe I wanted to know.'
'Did you ever tell her?'
'Because she isn't the only person I love.'
Artemis was silent, eyeing Butler in the lamplight.
Without speaking, he moved to the bedside, placing a hand on Butler's cheek, as Holly had done only a little while before. Bending down, he kissed Butler on the mouth.
It was not a chaste kiss, a 'good night, Father' kiss. It was how Butler assumed Artemis would kiss Holly in a few minutes' time.
Artemis straightened and the two men looked each other in the eye. 'From both of us,' said Artemis. 'From both of us.' He swallowed, and turned his face towards the windows. 'Thank you, Butler. Domovoi. I - Thank you.' His voice broke on the last words and he left.
In the silence that echoed out from the closed door, Butler reached for the radio again.
A different station, but the same song.
I can weep and I can cry. I can wonder why.
Butler shut it off. He didn't need to wonder, he knew why.
Solène looked up from the green beans she was bagging, her attention caught by a movement in the corner of her eye. A movement so familiar.
She turned, scanning the other side of the street.
No, it couldn't possibly be. But it had to be. She knew the way he moved, she could have recognised him from miles away.
'Butler!' she called.
He didn't turn.
'BUTLER!' Dropping her shopping, she ran, pushing through the crowd. 'Butler!'
He didn't hear her.
One foot on the pavement and one on the street, Solène stood staring into the crowd, her dark hands covering her mouth.
'Reviens,' she whispered. Come back.