"...And Every Map Is Blank"
She needed to write that book.
It was a magic in itself, working cosmetic surgery upon the memories that hooked between them, a thousand pointed wires digging barbs into their skin, wrapping like sticky twine around their throats, refusing to allow them room to breathe. The red thread of fate was knotted and tangled as it joined their hands together to link their futures inexorably to their pasts, dyed with the blood of the ones they had lost, tangled up in the guilt he still atoned for, in the grudges she could not help but hold, in the schemes that defied all suspension of disbelief. Most days it was hard to look back and remember that they had done so much; sometimes it hurt too much to bear.
It felt like this: with so much past sitting like an anchor between the two of them, it was impossible to simply be.
And so she began to write that book.
"Artemis," he said when he heard the name for the first time, brow furrowed, tasting the pseudonym like an unpleasant medicine.
"Confidentiality clause states I'm not allowed to use our real names. We've already gotten in enough trouble over classified situations to last us several lifetimes." She paused. "My lifetimes, even. Not yours."
"Fair enough. But -" He crinkled his nose. "Artemis? I'll admit it's apt, but - you do know it's the name of a female goddess?"
"I'll make it work," she promised, and turned back to the screen with a wink. "Trust me, friend. I've got artistic license."
He got used to seeing her in silhouette, pulling faces as she strung words together, gesturing at the empty air as if the motion itself were a command. "Tell me how to tell this story," she would silently implore, and he almost felt sorry for the air. Surely it must have been a losing battle, for he was certain in his bones that no language could properly convey the way her eyes shifted when something needed to be pushed back into place. Sometimes he would turn and she would be muttering under her breath to herself, fingers tracing patterns over the keys, stringing symbols and letters together before scratching them out, a brisk motion of the fingertips, to start again.
"Holly," he said in that same half-interested way, once more craning his neck down to peer over her shoulder, to skim the words on the screen. In the pause that followed she knew he was running the word through his mind, testing it as a name, his thoughts sparking through webs of connections, of connotations, of weight and theme and purpose. Finally he announced his judgement: "It fits."
He paused a moment to arrange his thoughts. "Holly is another name for the ilex genus of foliage. Distinguished by glossy leaves with serrated edges, white flowers with four petals, and bright berries with toxic fruit. A harmless enough plant in appearance, until that underestimation proves to be a deadly mistake."
That was the night she declared he was no longer allowed to read the manuscript in progress; he would, like everybody else, have to wait until she was finished with it.
Not that he had any intention of waiting. Deep down they both knew her files were only as secure as the itch in his fingers as he sat at the keyboard, as the little voice in the back of his head that told him to leave it alone.
Over the course of his life, he'd had more than enough practice ignoring that little voice. Several keystrokes later he was in, scrolling through pages of writing in a language he had taught himself as a child. He had always liked the fairy tongue, although it sat clumsily in his human mouth. It was easy to fake a passable accent after all these years, but the written lines still gave him a faint moment of pause every now and then - trained in the classical versions of the language, he had long since become versed in references to myth and legend, to the characters and perspectives that denoted an archaic style. It was unsurprising that now his eyes occasionally tripped over an unfamiliar modern symbol, struggled to conceptualize a particularly thorny twist of phrase. If the symbols were a roadmap to the concepts they represented, reading the fairy tongue became a task of navigation, of winding his way through images and between thoughts, of piecing together the empty spaces to reach the grains of meaning beneath the characters on the screen.
Yes, he knew it was a beautiful language.
She had changed him, he noted, for the sake of the story she needed to tell - the color of his hair had been written away, the complexities of hue drained and replaced with a fathomless spread of dark ink. The ice blue of his eyes, though, remained.
His mannerisms, too, were untouched, as frigid and formal as he recalled (though at the time, of course, they had been the only choice - at the time, it had always been the only viable choice). The corner of his mouth twitched; he hadn't realized she would remember his mention, once and many years ago, of his only childhood health concern. Yet there it was in the opening pages, stripped of the original context, turned into a casual character trait: "Perfectly healthy, I assure you, aside from a slight dust mite allergy. And I doubt even you could do anything about that."
She was establishing him as a villain, and yet the narrative was already gentler to his younger self than he deserved. She did not depict him as a lost boy, but as a future friend. It did not allay the residual guilt, and he closed the document with a twinge of regret.
She started at the beginning, at a twelve year-old child's desperate gamble for his parent's safety, at an attempt to carve a young name into the history books through a game of roulette with a biological bomb. It did not take her long to push past that portion of their story, operating from sense memory and a compulsion to set the truth straight. Once the words began to pour from her, she found the story would not stay confined and so she gave herself over to the task of transcribing their history through the lens of false names.
Artistic license was hers but she did all she could to be honest, knowing that he was reading along despite her injunctions. For once, he was startlingly obvious - his gaze would follow her typing fingers, his mouth would half-form a sentence and then swallow it back down. She knew and so she began to pepper her writing with asides, with casual remarks, with sarcasm and wit and inside jokes. They conversed in code, him dropping allusions to the text and her acknowledging them, drawing them out and holding them up like crystals to crack the light, to shed some kind of radiation upon their past. It never surfaced in their daily lives but rather rolled beneath those quiet moments, a current between them, drawing and recoloring the paths that led them to the present.
She tried to tell the truth, and yet it read as fiction. She could have written for an audience that would have adored the high stakes, that would have joined her in pursuit of the adrenaline rush, that would have eaten up the twists and turns of his schemes. She could have written for an audience that would have fallen in secondhand love with the way moonlight painted the fallen leaves of an ancient oak, with the taste of salt air over the Atlantic ocean, with a ragtag group of heroes who wanted nothing more than to go their separate ways until, somehow, their ways were no longer separable - perhaps they never had been.
Yet she insisted she did not write for that audience, and he understood why. She was mired within the tricky morass of events, traversing a thousand different moral penumbras to find a neat, concise plot-line, like tracing a web of arteries backwards to uncover a beating heart.
Perhaps it was a futile attempt. After all, even in fairytales the liars sometimes won, the honest sometimes bled, and the best decisions were not always the right choices. This was a fairytale only in the literal sense of the word. Born belowground, an elfin girl grappled her way upwards and filled her lungs with crisp surface air; carrying the antagonism of a criminal name, a boy prodigy travelled to the center of the earth and learned how to fight alongside his friends. As she arranged their story in rows of trust and truth, it became easier to see that they had done the best they could.
Artemis and Holly were mirrors, and she gave them both reflections.
And so the tangled landscape of the past was buried, enshrined in ink and semiotic code, metamorphosed into a map that could be folded and tucked away to gather dust in the back of some forgotten drawer, to be drawn out and perused on a rainy day or before setting out upon some adventure. Cartography knows only the bias of the mapmaker, and in this sense, memory was laid to rest.
Ultimately he made only one change to her words, wrote down a single line that had once slipped from his dying mouth to fall upon ears that were already swimming with sedative. It felt good to articulate, finally, in a language that came as easily to him now as his own native tongue: "I was a broken boy, and you fixed me. Thank you."
She needed to write that book, and he needed to read it.
This wasn't planned.
Winged and I began talking about the idea that Holly was the narrator of the series all along, and that she must have written down her adventures to create the books that we know and love. With that established, we realized that the names in canon were so meaningful for each individual because they were likely pseudonyms she chose to protect her friends in the eventually of the books being read. Really, she probably altered all kinds of minor details to keep their identities safe. At one point, we even joked it was plausible that Arty could easily have suffered from a terminal case of being ginger (yet sadly, despite 40% of the Irish population bearing them, freckles don't translate well to an antihero and so Holly nixed that particular trait as soon as she set pen to paper).
After that conversation it's really not surprising that, thirty minutes later, we were rushing back online to gleefully present snippets of fic to each other. Winged and I started out with the same idea, ran in two separate directions, and somehow ended up in the same place: when all is said and done, Holly wrote those books for Artemis. She needed to tell their story, and he needed to hear it.
And that's how this fic came to be. This one was a solo flight - Winged's (much more heartbreaking!) half of this symbiotic process will be posted in the next few days back on our author profile. I'll update this note when it's there.
Thank you so much for reading, and I really hope you enjoyed!
P.S. For reference, the title of this fic comes from the song "Blank Maps," by Cold Specks ("Head for the heart, does it break? / Words may fall, but the body remains / and every map is blank").