This isn't a submission to the TBR contest but it deals with the same thing, more or less. Just in a very different way. It's written as though it's an exert of a novel so no, there's no actual 'earlier conversation', etc. Enjoy!
They had wandered away from the others. If it had been done intentionally it was unconsciously so. They found themselves on the bank of the river where, without discussion, they sat down. The sky above them was the milky white that comes just before sunrise. Within the hour the day would arrive and she would be gone.
He watched her, quite openly, as they sat next to each other. She didn't seem to mind and, if she did, she said nothing.
"Do you love him?" Artemis asked, without warning, referring back to their earlier conversation of - had it only been a few hours ago? It seemed like years.
"Well, I was speaking of Trouble, but are there others as well?"
Holly clicked her tongue at him but, after a moment's hesitation, nodded. "Yes, I do."
"Not ... not like I love, like I have loved ... other people, but, yes, I love him. He's good to me."
"Yes," replied Artemis, "he is good to you. Like other people haven't been."
She looked up sharply, eyes narrowing at him; he only smiled mildly, before continuing. "Thank you, by the way, for taking such care of me while I was ... while I was ... mad." He had difficulty saying the word. "I feel as though I should thank you now, in case we argue and I forget." Though, he thought to himself, 'taking care' didn't even begin to describe all she had done for him during his madness.
Her suspicion slipped away, replaced by a smile. Reaching over, she raised her left hand, laying the back of it against his cheek. "No problem, Artemis, that's what friends are for."
"Yes," he put his hand over hers to keep her from taking it back, "friends."
For a moment he was silent, staring out across the river.
"I did it on purpose, you know," he said finally, turning back to her.
"Did what?" she asked, puzzled.
"Broke – what are you talking about, Artemis?"
"Last time. When I lied to you about my mother's illness. I did it to keep you away. So that you wouldn't have a choice but to keep away. So that you could be happy with ... with Trouble," he made a face, "who is good to you."
Like a bizarre déjà vu, she was caught in the same expression as she had been on the bonnet of that car, years ago. The same happy, unknowing smile was frozen on her face, unsure if it should stay or if it should go.
"What do you mean?" she managed at last, but her voice was raspy, a whisper.
"That you're in love with me, Holly Short. And that I would have taken advantage of that and made you stay with me; would have caused you 80 years of misery by scheming, lying, and stealing. And then, at the end of much too little time, I would have broken your heart by dying of old age. " His face hardened, "You must understand, I had to lie. Not just for my mother, I knew you would have helped her in the end, but to force you to leave. To keep you safe." He didn't look at her. "Because, you see, Holly, I am in love with you as well."
"Oh yes? And don't I get a say in the matter?" she asked, letting her temper rise, trying to keep to a pattern she understood. "Don't I get to choose?"
He shook his head. "You love him, Holly. He's good to you. And, left to your own devices, you make terrible choices."
She wanted to be angry with him. She wanted to be absolutely furious. But all she felt was heartbreak; and the tiniest wave of relief.
"Why are you telling me this?"
He smiled wryly. "Because it's quite safe now: you love him and your sense of honour won't let you leave him. I wasn't intending to tell you at all, but I didn't realise the magnitude of what it was I was losing until after I had lost it and I didn't – I don't – I couldn't let you live on after me thinking that I had done it in cold blood. I wanted you, at least, to think well of me at the end. I am a selfish person, after all."
"Artemis," she licked her lips, "Artemis –" But she couldn't get past that.
"I wish," she whispered after a minute, after she had looked away; up at the sky, out across the river, anywhere but him, with their hands still against his skin, "I wish that you had never done it."
He laughed, but without any joy. "Oh, you've no idea how much I regret it, Captain."
"I wish you'd never done it," she repeated doggedly, "but thank you." Because, in the end, he was right – as he was always right – for she did love Trouble and she would be – she was – happy with him, as she would never have been able to be otherwise. "Thank you so much."
He nodded, knowing he had lost her for good this time. He brought her hand down from his cheek and held it in both of his. She didn't pull away.
"May I kiss you?" he asked suddenly.
"Yes." She did not hesitate.
He slipped one hand along her jaw, thumb brushing her cheek bone. For a moment he didn't do anything but look at her, thumb running back and forth under her brown eye. Her heart was careening around inside her chest; it kept crashing into her ribs like a bird against a bay window. She wished he would just get it over with. She wished he would just hold her like that forever. She didn't move.
It wasn't the innocent, chaste thing that had been their first kiss. It was definitive, declarative. It was, without a doubt, a goodbye.
He began it and he ended it, but, before he pulled away, he let his cheek rest on hers and he leaned against her, as though for support. It was the tenderness of that gesture – so out of the ordinary for him – which nearly undid her. She laid her free hand on the crown of his head, only for a second, before they broke apart. She swallowed.
"Thank you," he smiled at her, calmly, happily; as though he were reassuring her.
"Artemis," she repeated herself, helpless.
"We had better be getting back," he said. He made to drop her hand but she tightened her grip. Nodding, more to himself than to her, he led them back towards the shuttle.
When they got close enough to be seen he dropped it again, and, this time, she let him.
"Holly! There you are! We're going to be late," Trouble broke away from a gaggle of LEP officers to take her by the hand. Her right one.
"Sorry, Trouble, lost track of time." Her eyes crinkled at the corners when she smiled at him.
"I'm shocked," he replied, failing an attempt to deadpan. "Are you ready to go?" His eyes flicked briefly to Artemis.
"Yes," she said, "all set."
At their Commander's wave, the LEP fairies disappeared into the waiting shuttle, Holly and Trouble close behind them. As the two of them stepped aboard, Trouble held out his hand to Artemis. "Thanks for your help, Mud – Fowl. Hopefully we'll have things under control from here on in."
"Glad to be of assistance," Artemis replied breezily, as though he had been helping Trouble with a tricky piece of arithmetic, "But I doubt that." He didn't bother to hide his smile.
Trouble rolled his eyes.
"Goodbye, Artemis," Holly gently nudged her Commander - her lover - aside.
"In another time," she told him, a half smile on her face.
"Yes," he agreed, watching Trouble's arm snake around her waist as the shuttle door closed.
"A better one," he told the empty clearing as he raised a hand in farewell.