When Artemis had made his way to his office, he had not expected to find Holly already there, leaning against one of the book cases, a grave air on her elfin features. She straightened when she saw him and her expression went from sober to incredulous.
"Artemis, what are you wearing?"
He winced, painfully aware of the picture he made, his jacket sleeves too short and the shoulders too broad. "One of my father's suits." He adjusted his tie and tried to ignore the looseness of the shirt collar beneath it. "None of mine seem to fit anymore."
"Foaly did say your new body was a little older."
"In that case I shall have to send him my tailoring bill." He tugged at his sleeves and then sat down in his oxblood chair.
Holly must have heard him sigh for her expression turned to once of concern. "How are you feeling, Arty?"
Never was there such a loaded question. After all, one couldn't simply reply "fine," after returning from the dead. "Better than yesterday and immeasurably better than the day before that. Reviewing my journals has done me a great deal of good." It had been only a few days since his return to the living, and in that time he had often felt that he wore his memories more like a borrowed suit–too long here, too tight there–than like his skin. "My most recent memories are the slowest to return, those that I had less time to consider and fully integrate." He paused, brow crinkling. "Were there really... crickets?"
Holly cracked a smile. "Yes, there were definitely crickets. Nasty ones."
"In that case, it's fortunate we escaped them. Avoiding murderous trolls, goblins, and demons only to be defeated by crickets would have been an ignominious end to our adventures."
As she turned to peer at the spines of the books on the nearest shelf, the evening light poured in from the western-facing window to cast a shadow over her features. From where he sat, he could see the tension in her shoulders, the set of her jaw. "Artemis," she began cautiously, "what's the last thing you remember about this room from before–" She hesitated a moment and then, "Before you confronted Opal."
Before you died. The words hung there even though she'd not spoken them.
Artemis let his palms slide along the smooth wooden surface of his desk and took a deep breath. "Updating my will." The first time he had sat in this chair, late yesterday afternoon, the memory had washed over him, the terrible weight of fear and steely determination. For a moment he'd been unable to draw breath.
Holly squeezed her eyes shut. "I got the gold bars," she whispered.
Artemis nodded. He had hoped Butler would see to it that the proper arrangements were made with the Lower Elements. "They all arrived intact, I take it?"
"Yes. Thirty-seven gold bars."
He nodded once more, watching as the sunlight gave her skin a rich coppery glow, even as it shaded her eyes from him. "The price of your ransom."
"You don't need to worry about that now. That was ages ago and you're not that person anymore."
Wasn't he, though? Holly herself had recounted the tale of their first meeting and she'd not pulled any punches. Mitigating circumstances or not, what he'd done–what he'd been willing to do–was monstrous. But there was no need to delve into all that now, not when his friend looked so anguished. "You're right of course. I am reborn," he said lightly. "My past is buried."
Holly rounded on him, eyes blazing. "It's not your past that was buried–it was you!"
Artemis nodded, attempting to keep his expression as neutral as possible. Since he'd woken in a pile of rose petals, surrounded by a group of friendly but not quite familiar faces, Holly had put on a brave front. She'd been encouraging and cheerful. This was the first time since he'd woken that he'd seen the toll the past six months had taken on his dearest friend.
Her hands were balled into fists at her side as she bounded towards him, glaring up into his face. "You don't know–You have no idea..."
"I do have an inkling." He stared into her mismatched eyes. "I remember the incident in Limbo."
"No, Artemis. I was dead for a few minutes. You were dead for months. Months!"
His brow furrowed as something tickled at his memory. She had stormed into his office like this once before, furious, gesturing, glaring. "You were angry the last time we were here," he said slowly. "When..." He closed his eyes, trying to tug the memory from the fog that still veiled some of the events of that long last day.
She took a step closer to him, her fingers brushing against his hand as she asked him if he was all right. His own fingers sprang to his neck to rest over his carotid artery. But why...
A tingle seemed to permeate his skin where her fingertips brushed it, and suddenly he was struck by her closeness. And something else... the hint of her scent. Grass and citrus.
Another memory surged over him, tossing his thoughts about like a buoy on foamy breakers.
"When you drugged me," he said finally, looking into her eyes. They widened.
He raised a hand for silence before she could protest. Pausing for a moment to clear his thoughts, he took a breath, determined to work through the memory to its end. He almost had it. The pattern on the Afghan rug caught his eye and he bent to touch his fingers to the tree of life motif. "I fell... but my disorientation lasted only a moment."
He frowned, trying to sort out the strands of memory recalled all at once and so vividly: the tickle of the rug's fibres against his nose, the pained tone of Holly's voice as she apologised for drugging him, as she asked him not to hate her forever, the warmth of her hand as she took his. Holly's gaze was fixed on him, her expression a mix of grief and anxiousness. He met her eyes. "And then I drugged you."
"Yes. Sneaky Mud Boy," she whispered, dropping her gaze. "You knew all along that I'd try to stop you."
Artemis flashed one of his old vampire smiles. "I had it on good authority that you couldn't do without me." He'd hoped to lighten the moment somewhat, but though the ghost of a smile appeared on her lips, her gaze was still sober and rather sad.
He cleared his throat and went on. "I explained that I'd anticipated you and taken an adrenalin shot to counteract your sedative." He rose from his chair and, grasping Holly's hand, led her to the leather sofa, just as he remembered doing then. "And then I reiterated why it had to be me who faced Opal."
She sat down on the sofa and he knelt in front of her to arrange the cushions as he had that day. This drew a wan smile from her. "Very considerate," Holly said wryly, though he could see she was blinking rapidly, her eyes bright.
Six months ago, the sedative had been rapidly taking effect on Holly's tiny frame, leaving her unable to move or even to speak, though he could still remember the bright trail of tears on her cheeks. "After that I–"
She put a hand to his lips. "Shh. You don't have to say it twice."
But in the silence that followed, the words echoed between them. I want you to know, my dear friend, that without you, I would not be the person I am today. I was a broken boy, and you fixed me. Thank you.
He'd thought he'd be deprived of the opportunity to say goodbye, but her attempted interference had at least given him the chance to say what he most needed to before the end.
Artemis straightened and tugged at his jacket sleeves. "Let's take stroll around the grounds, shall we?"
And because Holly didn't know what else to say to that, she only nodded.
It was one of those rare clear evenings and the clouds had parted long enough to let the sun's dying rays wash over the fields and meadows surrounding Fowl Manor, bathing them in an orange glow. Like fire, thought Holly, as her eyes scanned their surroundings. Sunset came late to these latitudes in the summer months and she could spot no prying eyes about. So her attention turned instead to Artemis who walked a pace ahead of her, the sunlight giving his pale skin an almost healthy hue. Dark bristle shadowed his chin and jaw.
He looks older. No matter what Foaly claims about a makeover.
Artemis caught her watching him and raised an eyebrow. Flushing, Holly punched him in the arm to cover. "Now I know for sure you're not yourself," she said. "Artemis Fowl never just goes for a walk."
"I assure you, there is a point to this excursion."
A glib response died on her lips as they topped the rise and Holly saw the ruined stone tower ahead.
"You're trying to jog your memory again, aren't you?"
He nodded solemnly, his eyes fixed straight ahead as they moved steadily closer to the site of the last battle with Opal, the site of his death. She stole a glance at his face, trying to imagine what that walk must have been like for him, all alone, both she and Butler unconscious, and he, marching straight to his own death. The courage that would have taken...
A wave of fondness washed over her, forcing a smile onto her lips in spite of their destination. He'd come so far.
As they drew closer to the tower, she reached up to grab his arm, half afraid that he might vanish when they reached the site. She didn't want to go back there. She could still see it with perfect clarity in her mind's eye, Artemis lying there in Butler's arms. Plan or no plan, in that moment, Artemis had been well and truly dead.
The roses were little more than thorny stems now, but Artemis picked his way to the centre of the spiral. For several minutes he only stood there in the dimming light and Holly was reluctant to speak for fear of interrupting his attempts to remember. Finally, she could take no more. "Do you remember anything, Arty?"
He nodded, a wan smile on his face. "I remember all of it now."
"Do you remember anything about..." She hesitated, but he knew her too well, it seemed.
"About my time as a ghost? Yes, I've recalled that as well. It required a great deal of concentration to remain tied to this plane."
"If anyone could pull it off, I knew it would be you."
"Of course," he said, straightening his tie and looking very smug indeed. "It matters not how strait the gate, how charged with punishments the scroll. I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul."
"Mud Man poetry?" Holly ventured.
"Yes. From a poem about stoicism titled 'Invictus'."
"Unconquered," Holly said, as the gift of tongues allowed her to understand the Latin phrase with ease. "Right then, now that we're done here, we can head back to the Manor." She turned on her heel to leave but stopped when he clasped her shoulder.
"There is one more thing."
He waited for her to turn and face him before he went on and the seriousness of his expression worried Holly; these past six months had left her nerves more than a little frayed.
"While my soul remained without a physical vessel, I had only my mind and will to anchor myself. I did so by focussing on what ties me to this realm: my family, Butler, and you, Holly." Holly's breath caught. His blue eyes fixed her as he went on. "The moment which my thoughts returned to again and again, was our brief flight in the solar plane. We were not on the ground, nor quite airborne, gliding somewhere between the two–an apt analogy for my disembodied soul. And you, taking control of the plane's flight even as it fought you at every turn."
"Artemis..." Her voice was barely more than a whisper.
He knelt before her so they could be face to face. Placing his hands on her shoulders, he locked eyes with her. "I have proved finally the master of my fate, but, Holly, it is you, not I who is the captain of my soul."
And, too overwhelmed to think of anything to say in reply, Holly took his face in her hands and kissed him.
She would have been lying if she'd claimed that that kiss didn't set her heart thrumming and make her lips tingle. When she pulled back to look into his flushed face, he smiled and raised an eyebrow. "I do hope that wasn't from Foaly."
Grinning, Holly punched him in the shoulder. "No, Arty, that was all me."
"I am very glad to hear that," he said softly.
Dusk had settled over the meadow, but as the light faded, leaving them in shadow, she hung on to Artemis all the more tightly.