Aaaaaaand I'm late again.
Five nights after their return to Earth was a full moon, and Holly climbed heavily into her pod, cheeks uncharacteristically damp.
You know you have to do this. You have to give him this choice.
The horrifying realization had come to her the first night home, as she had lain in bed and stared up at the ceiling, ruminating over their last adventure. She had thought, huh, Artemis finally met someone his age, and then the terrible idea had cut through her mind like a knife, lodged itself in her heart, and stuck there, cold and foreboding.
She rehearsed what she was going to say to him one more time in her head.
What if I'm right? What if...
Then you let go, she told herself firmly. That's it. If that's what makes him happy, let go.
Artemis lounged on his balcony, savoring the cool night air. He was certain Holly would find a way to make it to the surface, but unsure about when she would manage to do so, so he had brought a few books and settled in for a possible long wait.
A slight creak of rubber on wrought-iron pulled him away from his novel. He looked up to greet her, and froze. "Holly?"
She was biting her lip, chin quivering, clearly trying to keep some strong emotion under control. A thin film shone on her cheeks as though she had recently wiped away tears, and her gloves hands trembled as they gripped his railing.
He waited, not sure what he needed to do to comfort her, or whether staying in his chair was the better option for them both. He opened his mouth to ask what was the matter, but she interrupted him.
"I wasn't sure whether to come here tonight," the elf admitted, staring at the concrete.
Still not understanding, he chanced a gentle "Why?"
"I…" still not making eye contact, she swallowed hard, then her words rushed out. "Artemis, if you want to keep this relationship purely professional, I understand. You have a human friend and two brothers now, so you don't really need to rely on a mythological creature to be your only friend
beside your bodyguard. Minerva's a genius and I know that you can discuss things with her that I would never be able to comprehend, so I can see why I would be rendered sort of useless." She took a deep breath, but before he could interrupt her, continued, still determinedly addressing the floor. "You don't have to explain, if you want me to stop coming... I get it." She lowered her head even further and sniffed.
Artemis had frozen in his seat when he realized what she was suggesting, and had remained silent while she listed her reasons. He should have anticipated this, but then, there was no alternate reality in which Holly didn't mean the world to him, so he had never even considered the possibility that she might not realize herself how much she was worth.
She still awaited his verdict. His heart cracked as a single tear dripped from her eyelashes to the balcony.
"Holly, I'm sorry," he began quietly.
I knew it. She raised her head but refused to look at him. "I thought so. Really, Artemis, it's fine." Jumping swiftly to her toes and turning away, she bent her knees, preparing to leap off the railing and start her wings in the air because she just wanted to get away -
And the wind was knocked out of her as Artemis lept, panicked, from his seat and for all intents and purposes tackled her.
"No!" he exclaimed breathlessly, his arms crushing her ribcage. "How-" he spun her around then pulled her back into him, slamming her into his chest, tangling one hand roughly in her hair. "How could you even think that was what I meant?! Never try that again!"
Gasping like a beached fish, and rather disoriented, the elf tried to make sense of the world, but his scent was clouding her head, confusing her.
So she curled her arms around his neck and waited hopefully for his next words.
"Holly…" he let out a shuddering breath. "I have done everything I possibly can, in every context of our relationship, whether we were enemies, allies, friends… I have always done all I can to keep you safe. During the siege I made sure you stayed alive; in the Arctic I reattached your finger; on Hybras I brought you back from the dead. Do you think I'm just going to let all that hard work go to waste?"
He felt the fairy in his arms shift slightly. Then clutch at him more tightly. Knowing she needed an emotional release, he rubbed her back in gentle circles. "Just let it out."
She broke, sobbing silently, allowing all the pent-up feelings of the last several days to flow out of her. Generally she had her "weak moments" alone at home, with a pillow and a stuffed unicorn (her twentieth birthday present from Foaly) to comfort her, but this was so much more effective, having living, breathing support. All her anger, fear, jealousy, rejection, detachment, confusion, sadness; all of it was dissipating with her tears. Artemis rocked her gently, quietly murmuring in her ear that crying actually released endorphins in the brain that literally made one happier, so technically this was healthy. She supposed he was either trying to stave off any possible awkwardness or was simply lecturing out of habit. Either way, it helped.
Artemis wasn't sure what he himself was feeling. It wrenched his heart to hear Holly cry, but it was a good cry, a purging cry, and at least she was crying on him. An image of Riley flashed into his head, and his hand fisted a little tighter in her hair, earning - if he wasn't mistaken - a quiet moan.
He shivered, breaking the peace of the moment. Might as well say something now, before she got embarrassed and flew off. "Holly - know that Minerva will never, ever replace you, all right? She is a genius, but she doesn't have your heart." He paused. "And besides, sometimes I like to play chess against someone I can beat easily."
The light undertone of tension drained away from the atmosphere. It took the sultry romantic aspect with it, leaving the absurd attraction and all the hilarious times together. Laughing, she whacked his chest. "Right. You just couldn't live without me."
He cocked his head to one side and lowered his eyelids to half-mast, regarding her carefully. She had expected a sarcastic reply, and felt her cheeks grow hot under his gaze, skin flaming where his hands still touched her.
"No," he muttered, so low she barely caught it. "I don't believe I could."
That didn't turn out how it looked in my head, but whatever.