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Among Friends

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Butler spends the years playing chess.

The beach is not an extraordinarily lonely one, though the beach-house he retires to each night expressly is. There's a private school and university nearby, and a luxurious retirement home a little further south, and the college town further south than that. Butler watches the ocean, regardless of the temperature and regardless of the clouds, but when the weather's fair, the beach can end up quite busy.

And, because he no longer has anything to fill his time with, Butler passes the days that fall into years by playing chess.

It's usually retirees that he plays with; the children are frightened of him, and the teenagers want nothing to do with an academic game during a day at the beach, because they quite normal teenagers, and not- well. Yes. And at first, he frightened the retirees, too- he's always tended to frighten most people. Winning their games with an unerring and military precision, and always sitting silent, because the life stories they wanted him to tell were tales that he could never say.

The weeks become months. No one comes.

At least, no one that he wants to see.

The day eventually comes when Butler has to start talking, just to keep his own sanity.

He spends the endless games of monotonous, mind-numbing ability tossing words about a spinning wheel, talking off the top of his head to invent a backstory without a single grain of truth to it. A few tours in Desert Storm, some work for private police in eastern Europe, a mercenary in Pakistan... it never matters. Being entangled in the Fowl family's scheme requires proper discretion, being able to invent a backstory on a moment's notice- so that was what he did. A new backstory every week.

Sometimes, he told the truth.

Not about the things that matter. Because even here, on this lonely, isolated beach, waiting on a vigil that may never end, there are things that matter. The identity of his charge changes with each retelling; never an Irishman, never a genius, never just a boy. The truth about the fairies is never there, either; they aren't little people living underground in these stories, they're magical sky elves or forest nymphs who fly with gossamer wings instead of a tech suit, because he wishes The People no ill will, just as he still, even with every last trace of his charge gone, must protect the Fowl family.

But sometimes, just sometimes, he'll retell the same story that he'd told the Fowl family when their son had vanished right out of this dimension and left him without a charge to protect.

Somewhat coincidentally, he's now now known as the unfortunate loner with dementia so severe he can't remember a single lick of his own past, and a group of onlookers gathers whenever the weather's warm enough to listen to whatever wild stories he'll tell next.

This is quite all right, to Butler.

Some day, this will end.

Some day, Artemis will come back.

For now:

He waits.

Foaly visits, sometimes.

Not often. It's a struggle, for a centaur to make his way around a human settlement. There's also just no reason for it; the situation doesn't change. If it does, Butler will know, but this doesn't matter, because it never changes, and there is never any news for Foaly to tell. They have never been especially close, and now, with Butler's charge and Foaly's colleague vanished from this dimension, there's nothing there between them but commiseration.

Still, Foaly sometimes visits.

He'll wonder his way in on particularly foul days, when the clouds are black with lightning storms, when it's too dangerous for even Butler to keep watch outside. Crinkling in something called chamfoil, which Artemis probably knows how to make while Butler merely wishes he'd asked him how while he still could. He'll grin, teeth flashing in the darkness of the hut, clomp about dripping and excited.

He's not sure if it's pity, that gets the centaur to sit down with him, and play the same game of chess he's wasting the years with.

It's something that he doesn't like. But no, he's not quite sure if it's pity.

Every time, the conversation between them is the same.

No, there's no sign of them.

Yes, he's sure.

Yes, they'd know if Hydras had appeared anywhere on the planet.

No, they've not stopped looking.

No, they haven't given up.

We'll never give up.

Midway through the second year, he's approached by a couple that reminds him of Angeline and Artemis Fowl.

It's not them, of course.

Angeline has never come, and the few times Artemis Fowl I has, begging him to stop speaking this nonsense and imploring him to just come home, already, his old employer had barely been able to look him in the eye.

He doesn't come, anymore.

But this couple might as well be them. Well-dressed with elite finery, clear members of the Irish aristocracy and parents of the nearby prep school that Butler recognizes coming from a mile away. They bring with them their son, a small, skittish, dark-haired little thing, too pale for the beach and too small for his suit.

His heart wavers.

When the couple introduces themselves, he filters and processes their names on a subconscious level. When they ask him to teach their son chess, promising to pay no matter his asking price, he barely even hears them.

He agrees, and tells himself, why not.

He doesn't pretend, even to himself, to not know why he's doing it.

The boy is smart, and quick-witted, and observant. He listens and absorbs like a sponge, and he plays well, when Butler teaches him the rules. He almost wins their third game, and manages to surprise even him on their fifth. He sits obedient and well-mannered, always right on his father's heel or at the end of his mother's hand. There's never a rude or impatient word out of his mouth. He is charming, likable, and polite.

He's not Artemis.

It takes only three weeks of lessons for Butler to send the boy away, and tell him, as a reward for all his hard work, that he can go play in the sand while he speaks to his parents. The look on his face, like sunlight breaking through on a new dawn, perhaps the first genuine joy he's ever seen on that child's face, is all he needs.

"Your son is five years old," he tells the parents. The mother, impatient and stiff with a tapping foot like Artemis Senior had once been; the father exasperated and frustrated in a way that mirrors a old memory of Angeline. "Let him have a childhood. He won't get another chance."

Behind them, the boy who is not Artemis is ecstatically at play in the sand, the happiest by many miles that Butler has seen him since they'd ever met.

Butler remembers playing Artemis in chess, the first time only at a mere three years old. Artemis' little hands hadn't been coordinated enough to lift the heavy pieces, and with a pouting lower lip and sulking eyes, the boy had had to drag them around instead, ivory scraping against the fine glass of the board with every move. His father would've had a fit, but Artemis is three years old and bright-eyed and curious, so Butler lets the thin glass scrape and scar as he explains the rules, names the pieces, and gently, hands over his, guides the the humming toddler's movements like a father might a child's.

Artemis had won the second game by the skin of his teeth. Then thrashed him so thoroughly the third time there'd been no need for a fourth.

He wasn't sure Artemis had ever even been to a beach. He was quite sure his charge had never once spread out in the sand like the boy before him was busy doing now, kicking and rolling and laughing, and relaxed the way children were meant to do.

He'd never seen him smile with such abandon, either.

Butler leaves his spot early that day, and resolves, as he trudges on back through the hot sands, that he'll find a new one tomorrow.

At least until that boy and his dark, dark blue eyes goes away.

Foaly visits that night.

Butler has learned the signs very well, so when that faintest of shimmers clops in through the door, he only tenses just a little, and waits in the thick, dusty shadows instead for the centaur to reveal himself, dripping and shaggy-faced with an unkempt laziness like a school boy. "Good evening," Foaly announces through a too big smile, his face too tired and tight, as if he's aged several centuries instead of just several years. In his eyes, there, right there, Butler sees it.

It's not pity, that keeps him sauntering out here two years in, with not a sign of Holly or Artemis ever in sight.

It's loneliness.

"Evening," Butler murmurs back. He watches the rain sheet down outside, a grey downpour that wets sand into thick mud. The tide'll be up to the house, tomorrow.

"-really coming down, out there- you know we don't have real rain, in Haven? Always feels so strange- are you quite sure you don't want to move further inland? Be less of a hassle for all of us- no? You're sure?" He prattles on in his heavily accented English, shaking a sopping wet mane out so vigorously Butler gets dripped on from across the room. "Well, I suppose I don't mind the excuse to visit a real beach every now and again..."

Chamfoil crinkles like a storm of parchment as it's set aside, the centaur cutting a curious sight of half-man, half-nothing as he drapes it to settle and dry over his broad back. "Shuttle over here was a nightmare, though, I'm telling you, if they'd only listen to me about the transfer from nuclear to thermal power for short-range flights... no one's listening to me, though, are they?" He sniffs and snickers, tossing his mane, and searches his eyes back onto him. "How're you, then, Butler?" He trots further inside, still seemingly mystified by the water dripping down from from head to toe in a way that only befits someone who's never been rained on before. "Still keeping yourself busy?"

Butler smiles through gritted teeth. "Artemis has kept me busier," he says, and reaches forward to set the chess pieces up for play.