This began shorter but now seems too long to fit into "In the Time to Come" so it's going it alone. The title is actually a film and is used (obviously) without permission. Enjoy!
Many a "thank you!" to ilex-ferox for the spectacular beta-ing.
Disclaimer: Still borrowing without permission. Still "re-adjusting", let's say.
A Very Long Engagement
It was Christmas and he and Marie had come back for the holidays. They did every year, and every year it went the same way: his father was jolly and made a sly remark about grand children which Marie laughed off; the twins were bigger, this time they were adults; his mother was overjoyed to see him, she cried a little at the airport and, when they were alone, just the two of them, would turn her big, blue eyes on him and ask him, like his father, about grandchildren. His father's ribbing didn't bother him, but his mother's sad, hopeful eyes made him squirm. They both knew that 'grandchildren' was a code; that the real question was about happiness. He always said the same thing.
"Maybe next year, Mother." And he'd kiss her cheek and wander off, back to his old rooms.
And then there was the party. Christmas Eve his mother always threw the same party: hundreds of people, too many decorations—both on the trees and on the guests— and too much champagne.
He usually managed to escape at some point; to his study, to the music room, to the snow-covered, silent gardens. This year he was in the great hall, sitting on the stairs. It was filled with decorated pines and garlands of holly and ivy. It had that strange, ringing quality of a room which, until just recently, had been filled with voices and light and cheer but now stood suddenly empty. Moodily, he tore a piece of holly off the banister. He pricked himself on one of the leaves and blood welled on his fingertip, shockingly bright against the white of his skin. He swore quietly and sucked off the blood.
This was the one night of the year Artemis allowed himself to wallow. He couldn't help it, there was always too much alcohol for anyone as miserable and bitter as himself not to make off with a couple of bottles and indulge in self-pity for a few hours. He blamed it on the house, bringing back memories he'd rather leave undisturbed.
Childishly, he flung the holly branch as far from him as he could, but it was so light it landed only a few steps farther down. He swore again. He used to be a genius, a wunderkind, a miracle, nearly immortal. Now he was a mediocre, middle-aged man with a dull job and a pathetic marriage who took out his frustrations on Christmas decorations. He cringed every time his parents told him how proud they were of him.
Her voice came from behind him. It sounded surprised, almost scared. His spine stiffened and his fingers tightened around his glass.
He turned to look up at her.
"You're home," she said, and a smile ghosted across her face.
"I always come home at Christmas," he told her. "What's your excuse?"
"I— I—" Holly stumbled over her words, "I heard you were back. I came to say happy Christmas, I know it means a lot to humans."
"To some, yes," he answered.
She came down the steps and sat next to him. "I wasn't sure if you'd really be here or not. The past few years I've been in South America."
They both saw this non-sequitur for the weak excuse it was.
"How was that?" he asked.
"Warm," she replied. They sat in silence for a moment.
"Look, Holly, why are you really here?" he asked wearily, as though exhausted by her very presence.
"I told you, to say happy Christmas. And— and it's been a while, I wanted to see you."
"Don't you think it's a little late for that?"
"I— look, I've been busy! Plus, I thought, well, you're married now and you'll want to spend time with your wife and kids—"
"No children? But you said you wanted children."
"I did." He poured himself more champagne.
"Are things not going well?" Holly's voice was tentative. "With your wife, I mean?"
"That is absolutely none of your concern." His voice was cold and hard as it hadn't been in decades.
"Artemis, what's the matter? What's wrong with you?" He wouldn't look at her but her voice broke his heart and he was furious at himself for it.
"What the hell business is it of yours?" He did turn to her then, his eyes dark and his face bitter.
"Artemis," she said, her tone hardening, "you're drunk."
"Really?" he spat, "I had no idea."
"Artemis—" But whatever she had been going to say was lost. He let his champagne flute drop and, as it shattered on the marble steps, he took her by the chin and kissed her viciously.
When she broke free, she glared at him. "What the hell is wrong with you, Artemis? You have a wife!"
"That's what's bothering you right now? A stranger?"
"She's your wife!"
"She's a bloody stranger. You've never even met her. Get off your high horse."
She tried to slap him but he caught her wrist. Furiously, she twisted in his grip.
"Not as much fun trying to beat a grown man, is it?" he spat.
"I can still kick your ass, Artemis, don't worry."
He smiled despite himself. "Still trying to prove yourself, Captain?"
"It's Major now, Fowl, and I will break your nose, so help me Frond, if you don't let go."
He didn't let go, he pulled her closer, and kissed her again. He kissed her until her free hand uncurled from its fist and closed again, too tightly, on his hair; he kissed her until her lips opened; he kissed her until she was the one kissing him; until he was holding on to her for dear life, her mouth desperate against his.
A distant door slammed, followed by a wave of laughter. They broke apart instantly, guiltily, searching the empty hall for signs of life.
"Artemis—" she began.
"Come with me."
He took her by the wrist and led her down the steps, through a small, forgotten door at the end of the hall, down a dark corridor, to a dark room only they remembered. It was the one place he was sure they wouldn't be disturbed.
But even as she opened her mouth to curse him, she was kissing him again. The old cot groaned under their weight. Her body was a shadow caught between the white of the sheets and that of his pale, luminescent skin. He kissed her until her lips were swollen and raw. Her nails gored his back, leaving it marked with red half-moons until his skin looked like scales. She cried out at one point, having been alone for so long by then and unaccustomed to him. But she was unwilling to be outdone and they moved not so much in harmony as in fierce competition. And then, when it was over - and they finally succumbed to exhaustion and emotion, and everything was slick and wet and shuddering- he began to cry.
She put her arms around him and didn't say a word.
As their sweat grew cold, he finally calmed, his body growing still at last. He looked down at her, his eyes adjusted to the dark.
"Artemis, this was a mistake," she said, now that she had his attention.
He gave a small, humourless "Ha!" and rolled away from her, standing up. "That's what you said last time as well."
"Last— Artemis, that was ages ago. And it was a mistake! I was a hormonal teenager!"
"If I'm such a bloody mistake then why come visit me at all? Why not just leave me alone?" He grabbed at his discarded clothes, angry at how childish he sounded.
He paused, his trousers halfway up his legs. "What?"
"I tried," she repeated, hanging her head. "But I clearly didn't do a very good job."
"What do you mean, you 'tried'?"
"Why do you think I haven't been around much ... lately."
"Lately as in the past decade?"
"Because you had that nauseating sprite boyfriend. What's-his-name. Fen? Oh, I see," Artemis yanked his trousers up completely, "he's left you and you were feeling lonely and you thought: who better to amuse me than that idiot mud boy who was always so infatuated with me as a child!"
"No!" she stood up, clenching her fists. "I left him. I left him when you got married, you total idiot. I spent your wedding day sobbing my bloody eyes out on Foaly's couch. I didn't leave his house for three nights! It was after that that I left Fen. It wasn't fair to him. And I left you alone too. You didn't need some spectre from your past haunting your marriage. I thought you were happy and I didn't want to get in the way."
They stared at each other a moment, her words catching in the heavy, damp air of the cell, and reverberating, the echoes hemming them in.
"Hell," said Artemis and he sat down on the edge of the cot.
"Artemis, please, tell me you're happy." Her voice was desperate.
"You hate it when I lie to you."
She sat down next to him. "Why did you marry her if you didn't love her?"
"Because my mother likes her and I thought I may as well get married as you were clearly otherwise engaged. I thought maybe it would distract me, keep me out of your way."
Holly groaned. "What are we doing, Artemis?"
"I wish I knew," he said.
"Is she happy?" Holly asked.
Artemis rolled his eyes. "Always the saint," he sneered
"Artemis." She wasn't asking for the sake of his wife, she was asking for her own. She knew she was far from sainthood.
"Yes. No. Maybe. She's rich, she can do as she likes, she has friends, she has lovers, she seems to be content enough."
"How do you know she has lovers?"
"Holly, I may be only a shadow of my former scheming self but I can still manage to keep track of my wife's lovers. Please. Now you're just being insulting."
Holly couldn't help but laugh.
He reached over and tucked a straying curl behind her ear. "You're right though," he spoke softly, gently, "I did want children. But I always imagined that they'd have red hair, a temper to match it and my intelligence to even it out. That's always been such a winning combination in my life after all."
She stared up at him, realising what he meant.
"But I did research into it and discovered it was probably impossible. And, by that time, their theoretical mother was occupied elsewhere anyway. So," he shrugged, "why not get married?"
"Why didn't you leave her if you were unhappy?"
"Why bother? I wouldn't be less so without her and she allows my mother to hold on to her dream of grandchildren."
Holly nodded. "Do you ever take lovers?"
"Aside from just now, you mean?"
She gave him a crooked smile. "Yes, aside from just now."
"No," he shook his head, "what would be the use? I mean, aside from the purely physical satisfaction."
"That's a good enough reason for most people." She paused, looking up at him, "Then again, you're not most people."
He laughed bitterly, shaking his head.
She stood up and put her arms around his shoulders, easing her way between his knees. Brushing his cheek with her lips, she whispered, "But that wasn't very loving, was it, what we just did?"
"No," he said, swallowing. "It certainly wasn't what I dreamed about as a sentimental young man."
She chuckled. His arms came around her waist, lifting her onto his lap; pulling her body flush with his. "If I'm going to be your lover, then let's at least do things properly," she grinned, tightening her grip on him. In the gloom, his body was black and white and hers was red, like a drop of blood welling to the surface of his skin; like proof of life where once there had been only wreckage and ruin.
Three months later:
He had stayed in Ireland, renting an enormous flat in Dublin, telling Marie to continue on to the Cote d'Azur without him, there were some family matters he wanted to take care of, he'd catch up. She'd made no complaints.
He spent time with Myles and Beckett and found that, over the years, they had all grown more similar. He had never enjoyed human company so much. On Sundays he took his mother out: to museums, to tea, to the theatre. Anywhere she wanted. She was delighted. She stopped asking about grandchildren. He talked to his father about his business ventures, asking his advice. The older man would go on and on, offering more wisdom than was necessary, but Artemis sat through it all and his father felt, for the first time, that his first-born actually needed him. It was only when Timmy offered him advice about married life that Artemis would stop him, gently changing the subject.
Over those next few months he found that life as a normal, non-miraculous person was not always so bad.
Sometimes, she called him. Once, it was just after he and his mother were leaving the opera and Angeline watched his face light up, animated like it hadn't been in years. She wondered who he was talking to: she was smart enough to know it wasn't his wife. But she was so glad to have her son back that, when he finally put away his phone, she didn't ask him a single question.
All she said was, "I always loved the blind garden in St. Stephen's. It's such a lovely idea."
"Yes," said Artemis, aware that his mother had heard his plans to meet his caller there the next evening. He braced himself for the grilling. When it never came, he added, "It's one of the few gardens which is just as lovely after dark."
Angeline nodded, smiling up at him.
Next to him on the bench, the smells of the newly budding blind garden surrounding them, she fidgeted. "Well?" she asked.
"I— I didn't think it was possible," he replied, still in a state of shock.
"Neither did I."
"Will it hurt you? Will it be dangerous for you?"
"No one's sure. Your guess is as good as anyone's. Possibly better."
He accepted this with a nod. "Is this why you took the job at Tara?" he asked.
"No, I took that before I knew. I thought it would be nice... if you were interested, I mean... Tara's much closer to the surface."
He chuckled. "Yes, it certainly is."
He looked down at her. "Are you alright?" he asked.
She nodded. "Yes," she said without hesitation, "I am. I'm... glad actually. Frond, I'm thrilled." She looked away from him and out towards the dark garden.
He smiled. "Me too," he told her and leaned down to kiss her.
Six months later:
He was still in Dublin. He and his mother were having tea at his apartment. She was chattering happily about Myles' latest award, his first one for a literary effort, and Artemis hated to ruin the mood. It was, however, high time to tell her.
"Mother," he began when she paused for breath, "I'm getting a divorce."
Angeline looked up, startled. "Artemis. Oh, darling. Dear, are you sure?"
"Well, I suppose I'm not surprised." Her blue eyes grew sad. "As long as you're happier that way."
She reached across the table and took his hand.
"Truly, Mother, I'm happier this way."
She smiled at him and tried for cheery nonchalance. "Well, at least Beckett's engaged now. I suppose I'll get grandchildren one way or another."
"Actually, Mother, I've been meaning to tell you..." And he smiled.
Nine months later:
She was dripping wet, her breaths still coming in great, heaving gasps. He hovered at a distance, the wrath of the nurses not the only thing keeping him at bay. Sweat ran down from his hair and seeped under his shirt; he ran a hand under the damp cotton of his rumpled collar. But his fingers were trembling and he couldn't smooth his collar down.
The room was stark, all off-white and chrome-coloured machinery. Even in her hospital gown, she was the most vibrant thing in it. The whole world seemed to spin around her as she gasped and strained, so bright and alive, the only clear point on the globe. Artemis felt as though he had been much like this room - a stark, off-white limbo - until she had come back to breathe life into him once more.
A bundle was put in his arms, something soft and warm and impossibly small. And then suddenly they were alone.
In the vacuum left by the nurses, he could hear the erratic beat of her heart, still racing in her chest. Or perhaps that was his heart. He wasn't sure. He wanted to look down, to examine his baby inch by miraculous inch, but it frightened him to look away from her.
The sweat on her arms and neck reflected the lights above them and the blood was still high in her cheeks, the red of it welling like the spark of life, shockingly bright in that off-white room. She leaned back on her pillows, her eyes heavy-lidded with exhaustion. From under her dark lashes they watched him; unfathomable.
Slowly, he crossed the room and came to stand next to the bed. "She's a girl," he said, repeating what the nurses had told him, knowing he should say something.
"I noticed," she replied, a languid smile curling across her face like smoke.
"She's got your hair," he tried again, still unable to properly compute what was happening to him.
"Like you wanted."
"Yes," he whispered. He looked down at his child and she looked back up at him, dark blue eyes blinking owlishly in the bright lights. Anything else he'd had to say was lost.
"Give me our baby, Fowl." She reached out her arms to him. He wanted to lay himself in them; he wanted to bury himself in them and emerge red and bright as well, never to be lost again.
Instead he did as she asked. She took the child and shifted over as far as she could on the narrow bed, making space for him. As she pulled down the shoulder of her gown to nurse the baby he arranged himself beside her as best he was able.
"Are you alright, Artemis?" Holly asked. She ran her hand over his damp hair and rumpled collar. She was used to being sweaty and tired, but he wasn't.
He nodded mutely and laid his head on her shoulder, kissing the skin beneath his lips. "This is incredible," he said after a moment. "This is a miracle."
Though he couldn't see her, she was watching him watch the baby; her eyes were soft, and slightly dreamy, and altogether loving. After a moment, she smiled. "Well, miracles have always been our speciality."
As Holly turned back to the baby, Artemis looked up at her. He look at her and he was once more the genius, the wunderkind, the miracle, the near immortal that he had been in his youth. For gods and monsters do not exist unless there is someone to believe that they do; they are forever at the mercy of others and it is a balancing act between the believed and the believer that makes the miracle.