A/N: A hasty entry slipped in just under the wire. Enjoy!
Even as a little boy, Artemis had never been one to indulge in the cheery, lighthearted spirit of the holiday season. Other children might work themselves into frenzies over candy canes and presents and visions of sugarplums but he, Artemis, cared little for the saccharine atmosphere and the Santa Clause-oriented mania of his peer group. He enjoyed receiving gifts as much as the next boy, of course, but looked forward to them with the sensible knowledge that they all came from his parents, and therefore he was sure to receive everything that he'd put on his list. It took away much of the suspense, but Mr. Fowl did not believe in raising his son on fantasies and fairy tales.
And so the task of breathing life into the holiday fell to Angeline. Thanks to her, miles of lights lined the manor façade, using enough electricity to power a small nation, and raggedy but sentimental stockings were displayed proudly above the main fireplace. She was the one who spirited the two elder Butlers away for an afternoon, returned with the biggest evergreen she could find, and then mandated that everyone in the household help decorate it.
She was the one who coaxed her husband from his study, her son from his bedroom and the Butler family from the dojo, and gathered the motley little crew around the tree for eggnog and off-key Christmas caroling. Her zest more than made up for the reluctant reveling of the rest of her family.
This year, however, Angeline was not in the mood for celebration. An air of melancholy hung over the manor; the absence of Mr. Fowl and the Major was a specter hovering over everyone's shoulder. She and Artemis Jr. were seen less and less often - she holed up in her bedchamber, he barricaded in his study. There were no carols echoing through the corridors, no refrigerator stocked with eggnog, and the front yard was bare of lights.
Artemis had been apathetic toward the idea of a tree, but Butler had managed to rustle up a decently sized one on his own and set it up in the sitting room. Juliet had spent a morning by herself covering it in baubles and tinsel, and now sat in the kitchen stirring a mixing bowl, feeling almost guilty for playing the holiday radio station in such a somber atmosphere.
Butler walked in and unhooked an apron from the back of the door, putting it on as he eyed Juliet's array of baking sheets. "What are you making?"
"Christmas cookies," said Juliet, gesturing to the lump of dough with a rolling pin. "Wanna help?"
"I've got to start making dinner. You remembered to grease the pans, though, right? Not like last year…"
"Oh shut up. I bought new pans, didn't I?"
"After we'd determined the charred remains of the old ones were unsalvageable-"
"Lucky the kitchen is still standing, really-"
"You know what? I don't want your help anymore. Go make dinner and leave me alone."
Chuckling, Butler pulled a bag of potatoes from the pantry and began to peel them as Juliet stabbed the dough moodily with a star-shaped cookie cutter.
He gave her a few minutes to get over it before he asked, more seriously, "How's Mrs. Fowl doing?"
"Not so great. She chucked a biscuit at the television when I went to take her tea today. No good reason. She just felt like it. I swear, she's getting crazier every day." Juliet began to roll a tiny ball of dough between her fingers. "How's Artemis?"
"Fine, I guess. Hasn't started throwing things around, anyway. Course, I haven't seen him come out of the office in days. Always handling some kind of paperwork, or doing something on the computer…" He trailed off.
Juliet sighed. "This Christmas is going to suck, isn't it."
"It won't be so bad."
"Yes huh it will. Everyone's miserable."
"Life is what you make of it, you know." Juliet merely grunted.
"I do hope I'm not interrupting anything important," came a dry voice from behind them. The Butlers spun around; neither of them had heard Artemis enter the room. "But I need to speak with you, Butler. If you would meet me in the study."
"Of course, sir." Artemis nodded once and left.
Juliet looked sideways at her brother; it must be something important if Artemis didn't want to talk in front of her.
"Is it just me, or does he seem more bummed out than usual?" she asked.
"Maybe." With Artemis it was hard to tell.
"Think he heard us talking about him?"
"I don't know," said Butler, a wrinkle in his forehead. "Does it make much difference if he did?" He set the knife down on the cutting board, washed his hands, and set off up the stairs to his employer's study. The door was ajar, but Butler knocked anyway.
The room was dim, lit by a lone floor lamp that stood in the corner. Artemis was bent over the giant mahogany desk he'd inherited from his father, reading over a typed letter, half obscured behind several disorganized stacks of documents. His dark hair was combed back and he was wearing a suit, as had lately become his custom, but the shirt he had on beneath the jacket was wrinkled, and the pleat had come out of his trousers.
"Do have a seat," he said, not looking up from his letter.
Butler obliged, wondering at this excessive formality. Artemis had never called him into his study to discuss anything before. It was true that they normally kept up a professional front, but somehow this meeting felt more like playing pretend.
Artemis signed the letter, capped his pen and folded his hands, all without meeting his bodyguard's eyes. "As you are aware, since my father's accident I have encountered some… severe financial setbacks. Between the debt collectors, the Russian search teams, my mother's medical bills… You see my point."
"Of course, sir."
"All the rest of the staff have been let go, but I believed that after the downsizing, I would be able to amass the funds to continue to pay your salary. And, as you are also aware, for the past three months I have failed to do so." Artemis wet his lips. "Recently, however, I have run some new calculations in regard to my admittedly limited budget, and I… I'm afraid that that payment is still not a possibility. I'm sorry."
"Apology accepted," said Butler calmly. He waited a moment. "Was that all?"
"No. It…" Artemis sat back in his chair and placed both hands on the desk, as if trying to brace himself. "I have postponed this moment for as long as possible, and this must seem abrupt, but… Butler, I simply cannot afford for you to continue to guard me."
Butler's eyebrows rose. "Are you saying I'm fired?"
For a fraction of a second, Artemis looked as if he'd been punched in the gut. "I called off two of the teams," he said quickly, the words slipping out before he could stop them. "But it still wasn't…" He broke off and swallowed. "I've drawn up a form releasing you from the original contract you made with my father. All you need to do is sign it, and you're free to seek employment elsewhere as soon as you like." He passed the paper he'd signed across the desk with a jerky motion. Butler didn't even glance at it.
Butler studied his employer across the desk.
"Yes?" said Artemis again, more waspish this time.
"You made it very clear that expense is the only thing preventing you from keeping me on, right?"
"You know that, Butler," he muttered.
"Right. So," said Butler, leaning in conspiratorially, "I don't think I'm too out of line when I say that you're mad if you think you're getting rid of me that easily."
Artemis looked up for the first time since Butler had sat down in front of him, seeming equal parts relieved, perplexed, and mildly affronted at his manservant's brass.
"What do you mean?"
"Just what I said." Butler sent the paper back across the desk. "I'm staying."
"You understood the bit about how I cannot pay you?"
"Yes, I understood. I also caught the bit about you calling off several of your rescue teams to try and meet my salary. Listen to me. You don't have to make that a priority. Worry about what's important." Butler refrained from adding, Like your mother. Artemis wouldn't like the reminder that she needed worrying about.
"So, just to set the record straight, you are going to continue working as not only a personal bodyguard and butler, but also chef, gardener, chauffeur and partial house cleaner… all for no paycheck."
"That sounds about right, yes."
Artemis sounded bitter as he said, "What on earth would make you want to stay in this place when you are not contractually obligated?"
"You're here," Butler pointed out. Artemis mulled this over. "Besides," he continued, mouth twitching. "I hate flat hunting. Especially at this time of year. So, really, it's a win-win situation for both of us."
"I suppose so."
"I'm glad we've reached the same conclusion. Was there anything else you wanted to say?"
"Well… No. Butler, I… Thank you."
Butler got to his feet, touched Artemis' shoulder and headed for the door. He paused with his hand on the knob, debating himself, and turned back. "Did you honestly think I was going to just pack up and bail on you?"
Artemis' chin dropped. "I couldn't presume…"
"A little faith, please," said Butler gently. "You should come down and have dinner with me and Juliet in a while. Don't spend Christmas Eve up here alone. Maybe we can even persuade your mother to join us."
Artemis nodded. "In a while."
When the door had shut, Artemis drew a shaky breath. He crumpled the document, turned in his chair and tossed it into the fire, where it curled and smoked. As the paper crumbled to ashes, his heart felt lighter than it had in months.
A/N: So, umm, vote for me? Pretty please? Or if you don't, the least you could do is leave me a review. ;) Tis the season to give, and all that. Merry Christmas, everyone! (And late Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, New Year's, so on and so forth)