JUXTAPOSITION

Holly had not expected him to have company. Much less, female company. As soon as she saw the blond mane of curls bobbing thoughtfully over the chess set, she knew who it was. Grinning to herself, she alighted in the tree above them, being careful to settle on a thick sturdy limb so as not to jostle the dry summer leaves too much. She wouldn't put it past Artemis to know she was there from that alone.

Peering at the couple below her, Holly watched the game. The insanely boring game. Holly wondered just what people found interesting about moving pieces from one square to another. Meaningless. Absolutely no physical prowess involved.

Minerva Paradiso slid her rook across several spaces, knocking a bishop off the board with a playful whack. Artemis Fowl countered with a flick of his knight, capturing a pawn that left her queen in jeopardy. Minerva scowled and Holly could see her kick his shin under the cast-iron table. He raised his eyebrow and curled his lip, giving her a listless half-salute with narrow forefingers.

Holly felt her face warm with pleasure as she grinned at the scene below her. She felt uncomfortable spying on the two of them, but witnessing this was very refreshing, not to mention reassuring. She'd been worried about Artemis, much as she hated to admit it. It was sickeningly maternal of her and she would never admit it to anyone, but she had actually lost sleep over the fact that at the age of seventeen Artemis still had no girlfriend. He deserved someone who could understand his ingenious whims and appreciate everything that made him special.

Minerva, much as Holly would have hated to admit it at one time, seemed to be able to do just that. Holly watched as Minerva edged Artemis's king into a corner.

"Check," came the French accented voice, deep with playful smugness. A tone Holly remembered well. "Let's see you worm your way out of that one, Fowl."

Artemis sat with his elbow on the table, his hand covering his mouth as he glared daggers at the chessboard. Holly, catching the spark of annoyance in his eyes, was suddenly glad she was not the chessboard. The genius's pale, almost spidery hand reached out and hovered above the pieces, tickling the air as he thought.

Come on, you can do it, Holly urged from the tree.

Minerva, who had folded her arms and sat back with a satisfied expression on her face, shot up with a cry of dismay when Artemis knocked her piece off with a deft move and, at the same time, managed to cut off all escape for her own king.

"Checkmate," came the gentle, clipped reply.

Holly grinned wider. He never let her down.

Minerva picked up her king and spun it around in her fingers. "That was embarrassing."

"On the contrary, I found it quite rejuvenating." Artemis leaned back in his chair, stretching out his long legs so his feet were resting on the rim of the table. The sheer teenager-ness of the pose took Holly by surprise.

"Is that the Irishman's way of reveling in the disgrace of his opponent? By showing her the muddy soles of his shoes?" Minerva quipped.

"And how do the French console the losing opponent?"Artemis, apparently suddenly aware of how undignified his previous position had been, quickly lowered his legs and reinserted himself into his chair in the proper manner.

Holly quirked an eyebrow. That particular question had been delivered quite smoothly. It almost sounded like . . . No, it was an honest question. Simply that. Anything else would be beyond Artemis Fowl.

"We kiss," Minerva shrugged indifferently.

Artemis quirked an eyebrow. "Indeed?"

Minerva smiled evilly over the chess piece she was still fiddling with. "Oh, is that what you were inferring? You wish to kiss me?"

Holly stifled a laugh as Artemis visibly paled and backpedaled verbally. "I was simply gathering information about different cultural habits for juxtaposition, nothing more," he said quickly, getting up from his chair and gathering the chess pieces. "And may I say that I much prefer the Irish method of consolation."

He tried to catch the king that Minerva tossed at him, but the piece fumbled from his fingers and fell onto the grass.

Holly watched as they cleaned up the game, chatting amiably about things she didn't even understand. Quantum physics or something equally as dull. But they seemed to be enjoying the conversation immensely. This is what he needs, Holly thought as Artemis threw his head back and laughed at something Minerva said.

The pair of geniuses walked out beyond the shade of the tree toward Fowl Manor. Holly, thanks to the enhancement feature in her helmet, was able to see the moment when Artemis's tentative, pale fingers curled cautiously around Minerva's.

"That's it, Mud boy," Holly muttered softy to herself, and for some inexplicable reason, she captured the picture and saved it.