“Maybe we can arrange a miracle.”
Butler raised a gray-speckled brow at the magical sparks, which Artemis had expected. But then his bodyguard frowned. Which he had... not expected.
“We both know what sort of damage a mesmer does to the mind, Artemis,” Butler stated, somber despite his unkempt disguise of beard and hair. “What are you thinking?”
“We do indeed,” Artemis murmured, using will to shut away that annoying sense of dizziness that had come with Holly’s left eye. Only a twinge when Section Eight had dropped him off on shore, it was closer to a vertiginous lurch now. A sense of nausea likely enhanced by memories of uses and abuses of mesmer he’d seen in the past. Used lightly, as Holly had, it might leave a human watching imaginary wrestling matches or cause unwary guards to literally overlook a dwarf walking right in front of them. Used maliciously, it hampered thought, might cause blindness, and could even lead to brain damage and death. Especially if used on a strong-willed victim, and Fowls were nothing if not strong-willed. How could he not have thought of that, when he’d been laying plans to make his family ignore three years of absence? “I’ve no idea what I was thinking....”
Butler’s cottage lurched sideways, and spun.
What am I doing on the floor?
Butler was on his knees beside him, turning the communicator ring on his right hand to active. “Foaly! I know you’re monitoring this channel. Artemis needs help, now!”
I saved Holly from getting shot, uncovered a demon overlord’s true identity, and helped bring a colony of demons from ten thousand years in the past to now. I most certainly do not need help.
And he was going to tell Butler that, even as the snarky neigh of an annoyed centaur vibrated his bones. Any minute now. Just as soon as he could get off the floor....
Beeping. It brought back memories of Russia, cold calculation, and fear.
Did I make the right choice? Will my father live through this?
Will he know me?
Artemis Sr. had lived, and Butler had assured him he’d had no better choice. But that his father knew him, even years later- no. Painfully, no.
Because he can’t. He can’t know about the People. And I can’t forget them again. I couldn’t bear it.
And still the beeping, nagging at his ears. Beeping that didn’t sound quite like an ordinary hospital.
Where am I?
Artemis breathed shallowly, mindful of Butler’s instructions on kidnap situations, the survival thereof. He might not be interested in physical exertion, but exercise of the brain was always worthwhile.
Sounds almost like a hospital. Smells almost like one, but cleaner; stone and water, a hint of exotic spice - ah. Vole curry. Haven? Or some other enclave of the People. Haven would be the most sensible place if this is at all official; I’ve already been there, which limits the security risk of my uncovering new details of fairy protections. The next step is to determine exactly who is that stranger breathing off to my left-
“Don’t touch the IV,” Butler rumbled from his right. “The medics say your immune system’s taken a hit, so the masks are a precaution for you and Captain Short. And your eye’s bandaged so you don’t end up hurling all over the floor.”
Which was a tacit invitation to stop playing possum. Even if the information was rather alarming.
Artemis blinked his right eye, taking in the comforting bulk of Butler, clean-shaven, masked and ensconced on a sturdy small stool; and the slightly less comforting vision of a worried Holly, curled in a chair in a pale green hospital gown, with her own red IV slowly dripping down.
Allies located, he turned his head left, noting the masked and gowned elf whose brown crewcut and no-nonsense attitude said Recon, and whose skeptical cinnamon stare said medical professional. “I take it you are one of the attending physicians, Doctor?”
“Section Eight Medical Warlock Cedar Kingsfoil, Mr. Fowl,” the elf nodded, matter-of-fact. “You’ve been seen by a half-dozen other medical professionals, but I am in overall charge of your case. Mainly because most of our physicians have never seen this condition in a fairy, much less a human, and I’ve at least read up on past cases as part of our section’s files.” Kingsfoil held up a folder as thick as a dwarf’s toe. “Captain Short says you’re fluent in Gnommish, so you can go over the details while you stay in bed.”
Artemis narrowed his eye at the medic. Holly rolled her eyes at him, and Butler went so far as to clear his throat.
Yes, yes, message received. And he was not sulking. “The details would be appreciated, yes,” Artemis stated. “I take it Captain Short is also somehow afflicted? Did we encounter something on Hybras your medical fairy did not vaccinate us for afterwards? Is it contagious? I didn’t contact many humans on my way to Butler, but if it’s a potential epidemic you need to start tracing them immediately.” He glanced at Holly, trying to give her a look of appropriate friendly concern. He might not be sure how much more than mere friendship he felt for the deadly elf, but he could be fairly certain her superiors wouldn’t approve. “Are you well?”
“I will be,” Holly said firmly. “It’s not contagious. Section Eight was checking everyone who came off Hybras for interdimensional transport effects once they got down to Haven; the equipment’s bulky, so they didn’t bother bringing it up to the surface when they thought everyone was coming underground anyway. They caught me before I keeled over. If Butler hadn’t called, we probably would have had a team out to check on you in a few more hours.”
Even more ominous. “I take it merely resizing the affected eyes was not sufficient.”
Kingsfoil’s hmph had all a doctor’s patients are idiots laced into it. “Not hardly,” he said dryly. “You and Captain Short are suffering from Changeling Syndrome.”
Panic was adverse to clear and collected thinking. Artemis would not panic. But based on the folklore he’d studied, that was certainly not an optimal scenario. “As in humans inexplicably withering after close contact with fairies, rather than the kidnapping a baby scenario, I presume.”
“The first,” Kingsfoil confirmed. “It used to be much more of a problem when the People lived aboveground in fairy forts. Transport spells were common when more People had easy access to replenish their magic; and mishaps were a lot more common before warlocks were trained and licensed. These days it’s all shuttles and hotshots. I’m not sure there’s a doctor in Haven who’s ever seen a live case of Changeling Syndrome. Fortunately we still have the records, and medical science has advanced enough that we know we’re treating systemic incompatibilities in magically transplanted tissues, rather than just falling back on old home remedies and hoping for the best.” He pointed toward the red fluid in the IV. “Bio-magically modified stem cells and bone marrow. They’re in the process of replacing your current immune system so your body doesn’t tear itself apart trying to kill the foreign cells.”
Hence the precautionary masks, and the sterile tang to the air. “A bit of a drastic step, I would think,” Artemis said, with calculated calm. “I’ve no desire to play Cyclops, but one would think removing the foreign tissues would be a far simpler solution.”
Holly paled. “Artemis! That’s your eye!”
“Technically it is your eye,” Artemis pointed out, “and while I treasure it, Captain, I do become a bit worried when doctors venture into unknown medical territory. No matter what species the doctors may be.”
“If it were just an eye, you might be right,” Kingsfoil stated, matching his clinical tone. “But our scans make it clear each mystically exchanged eye also came with most of its own nerve network attached. I wouldn’t want to risk that sort of deep-brain surgery on an elf, much less a human. My medical opinion, after consulting with Mr. Butler and Captain Short, is that a modern update on the traditional treatment by blood donation has the best chance of success. It’s taken quite a bit of fine-tuned medical healing so far, human spleens are finicky, but progression looks good on both of your cases. If all goes well, we’ll have both your immune systems convinced they’ve always been chimeras, and you’ll be as healthy as you ever were. Perhaps a bit more so in your case, Captain Short. Human immune systems are more radiation-resistant than your average elf, and given your career in Section Eight will require you to visit the surface on a regular basis, that can only be an asset.” Behind the mask, Cedar heaved a relieved sigh. “At least you didn’t mix cells with any of the demons. This could have been much, much worse.”
Artemis eyed Holly with due caution, and found her eyeing him right back. Surely, following how a partner in battle and investigation thought closely enough to echo their words wasn’t that unusual, was it?
Cedar was looking at them clinically, evidently taking notes in his head. “Demonic heritage can react violently to certain abnormal situations. We’re fairly certain that’s what led to the Hulk, based on our analysis.”
“Who?” Holly got out, an instant before Artemis could.
Butler sat up straight. “Three years.” He made the words sound worse than a goblin’s curse. “Artemis. You need a briefing before you go home. Your father’s recent business associates-”
A speaker on the wall hummed to life. “First things first,” came an unfamiliar elf woman’s voice. “Before anyone goes anywhere, I want some assurances.”
“Wing Commander Raine Vinyáya,” Holly said in an undertone. “On the Council. Head of Section Eight.”
And thus in charge of everything demon-related in the LEP. Which might, at a stretch, include this situation. If the Wing Commander saw fit to make it so. “What sort of assurances?” Artemis asked calmly. Calm was the key here. Humans - Mud Men - were the violent nightmares of fairykind. So long as the People thought they were dealing with a calm, reasonable Mud Boy, there was a chance to skate through whatever difficulty this Wing Commander thought she might see.
“Foaly’s shown me your Interpol file, Artemis Fowl,” Vinyáya said dryly. “Along with quite a few other files. You’re as aware as any Recon officer that we don’t leave any traces of the People in human hands. Not technology, not written records - and not bodies.”
Ah. Meaning this Vinyáya was not an idiot, despite her exalted rank. What a refreshing novelty.
Commander Root was no fool, either.
Frond. He still missed the choleric old Recon Commander. Damn Koboi and all her schemes.
“Now, little trinkets like your ring and whatever else Foaly might have let slip into your hands are one thing,” the Wing Commander went on. “They can still be self-destructed at need. Or I’ll have a centaur to fry.”
“Hey!” came a familiar neigh.
“Ah. Private, secure communications.” Vinyáya’s voice could have dried up the Irish Sea.
“They are secure!” Foaly objected. “No one else is listening to this, I’d stake my tail on it!”
“You were supposed to be one of the no one else.” The Wing Commander sighed, exasperated. “You realize that if any of this slips, the Council is not likely to give any of us a choice in the matter. As of this moment Artemis Fowl II is a walking, breathing breach in the People’s secrecy. One DNA test of those hybrid cells, and some Mud Man scientist will pounce. I can’t speak for what all of the Council would say, but I know enough of those old sticks in the mud to know any vote to bury the pair of you Mud Men and be done with it would probably pass. Even if you did save an entire race. So convince me, Fowl. Convince me you’ve changed, from that disastrous mess with the C-Cube. From the cold and callous Mud Boy who kidnapped one of the finest Recon officers we had and held her for ransom. Convince me you are a good and decent being, who will keep our secrets.”
His head hurt, his arm hurt, and he was still a bit fuzzy from whatever the medical warlocks might have used. Artemis would be the first to admit he was in no shape to plead for his life.
Which is exactly what they’ll think. “I can’t convince you of something that’s not true, Wing Commander.”
“Artemis!” Holly leapt from her chair; swayed, even as Butler gripped her shoulder to keep her standing. “This is no time to be frivolous!”
“I’m not. Please allow me to finish, Captain.” Foaly doubtless had cameras in here. He had to look as though he were telling the absolute truth.
I only hope I can pull that off, Artemis reflected. I really am telling the truth. “When I first encountered Captain Short, I was not a good person. I was younger, and desperate, and I only knew fairies as creatures out of children’s stories.” He took a deep breath, and shrugged. “And to be frank, Wing Commander, my actions in the cases of Opal Koboi and Hybras aside, I doubt I will ever be a good person. I am a Fowl. We are thieves, dishonest to the bone, and we exult in breaking the law and not getting caught. But Captain Short and Commander Root provided me with an example of how I can put those tendencies to a more honorable use.” He glanced at Holly, hoping she understood. “I’m quite comfortable breaking human laws, and leaving the People’s alone. Especially given... well, I’ve heard that Recon can be quite the hazardous job, and Section Eight bids fair to be even more dangerous. If there were ways I could assist in making it a bit less so, it would make both our worlds safer.”
Holly glared at him, but let Butler help her back into her chair. “You expect the Wing Commander to believe you want to be an honest thief?”
“Actually, I rather think I do,” Vinyáya mused.
Holly’s jaw dropped. Fuming, she shot Artemis a look that should have set him on fire.
He did his best to look innocent. Though there might have been the tiniest hint of a vampiric smile on his face.
“I have read his files, Captain Short,” Vinyáya went on. “I’d sooner expect sprites to stop chasing the ladies than an expert thief to go straight.” Keys clicked on the other side of the line. “I have here several comments by the late Commander Root. I’ll spare you the profanity, but in essence they boil down to, insufferable genius, but if you need a Frond-given miracle, he’ll make it happen.”
Artemis glanced away from where he thought the camera was most likely to be. Hospital air, D’Arvit. His eyes were stinging.
“So. Assuming I consider - consider, mind you - keeping you in Section Eight’s jurisdiction as our consultant.... Kingsfoil. What are our options? All of them.”
Kingsfoil’s shoulders went stiff. “The first, which I do not recommend, is ceasing treatment at this point. Mr. Fowl would survive, but the likelihood of neurochemical imbalances in the future would be high, and I’ve seen the files on Opal Koboi. She’s psychopathic. We’d be setting Fowl up for a straight-out case of Atlantis Complex, and that’s worse.”
“Next option,” Butler said flatly.
“Yes, if you would be so kind,” Artemis agreed, chilled to the bone. He remembered his mother’s descent into delusions as clearly as if it’d happened only yesterday. The thought of his own sanity slipping away was more terrifying than imminent death.
Kingsfoil looked a bit less stiff. “The second option would be to continue with the current course of treatment, but no more. You’d be healthy enough, but far more prone to night blindness and vertigo. The brain fills in your right peripheral vision from your left eye, and currently you have two distinctly different types of vision.”
“That’s no good.” Holly crossed her arms, one hand tapping near her IV as if she’d like to tear it out. “He already has two left feet. And why am I not having those problems?”
Kingsfoil gestured toward her blue left eye. “Because we’ve already corrected the vision in that eye to match your own. For Fowl... well, we have two alternatives. Dim down the vision in the elf eye, or....”
“Adjust my own to match it,” Artemis finished for him. “I see your dilemma, Wing Commander.”
“Do you?” Vinyáya’s voice was sharp. Like the finest blade, so keen you’d never know you’d been cut until you began to bleed.
“Well, I don’t.” Holly’s mismatched gaze bored through him like a laser. Her tone was officially annoyed, but the way she held her eyes on his....
She’s worried. About me? We’re both alive. She’s alive. I’ll be fine.
“I’m a LEP officer, not a medical warlock,” she went on, as if she were one picked pocket away from slapping on the cuffs. “What difference does it make?”
“Everything else might be taken for a rather odd transplant,” Artemis stated. “Unusual in the tissues, perhaps, but not outside the realm of possible human technology. I’d have to check the current research, it has been three years, but altering organs already in situ is likely still beyond us. If, by some rude chance, an unscrupulous scientist were to somehow stumble on this fact-”
“Over my dead body,” Butler stated.
“It would almost certainly have to be over my dead body as well, so that is unfortunately likely,” Artemis agreed. “I’m not sure what possible assurance I could give you to defend against that, Wing Commander. Outside of a will specifically requesting cremation, and perhaps a note in my file that your Retrieval teams might want to be absolutely sure it did take place.”
“Noted,” Vinyáya mused. “No qualms about seeing the world through fairy eyes, Mud Man?”
From the way Holly stiffened in her chair, she was about to discard good sense and tell her commander exactly where to stuff the racial insults. Artemis caught her gaze, and shook his head minutely, feeling an honest smile strain at muscles not used to it. “Captain Short has changed the way I see the world from the moment I met her. I see no reason to balk at that now.”
Finally, some privacy, Holly thought, all too glad to let Butler help her shift her chair closer to Artemis’ bed so they could study files together. She didn’t feel nearly as bad as she had a few days after Hybras had been evacuated, but she was still weary to the bone.
Well, relative privacy. Warlock Kingsfoil was still examining a few specialized readouts that went beep, and if she knew Foaly he was listening in for sheer entertainment value. But the Wing Commander had formally signed off, assuring them both there’d be plenty of paperwork to deal with once some hapless clerk’s sniffle on the forms wouldn’t kill them both. Say a week or three.
Given how much of the People’s “paperwork” was computerized, Holly suspected Vinyáya was actually using the extra time to check Artemis’ papers for any potential loopholes.
I feel sorry for her. Three weeks isn’t nearly long enough to outthink Artemis. “What am I going to do with you?”
“Fortune and Section Eight’s medical experts with us, recover.” Artemis raised his left hand away from the pages a moment, frowning as he wiggled his fingers. “You switched them back.”
“Would have been a giveaway not even a blind Mud Man could miss. And according to Captain Short, you prefer your left hand for detail work.” Kingsfoil didn’t look up from his readouts, making notes on a small computer wrapped in a layer of one-use sterile membrane. “That was interesting work, by the way. We don’t see many truly ambidextrous types down here. Luckily you and the captain have the same dominant eye, or fixing the insides of your heads would have been even messier.”
Holly tried not to cringe at the thought. If she’d had to relearn how to target her shots - well, it would have been a long recovery before she was fit for field duty again.
Then she flipped a page in the file, and did cringe. Archaic language or not, some of reports on past teleport spells and dimensional accidents made for graphic reading. Especially the illustrations. “I never thought I’d see any way of getting around that scared me more than a hotshot.”
“Hotshots are perfectly safe!” Foaly objected over the com. “Mostly. With a good pilot. If the equipment’s not too many decades old....”
Butler almost cracked a smile. “Keep digging.”
“I must admit, if I’d had access to this information before encountering our dimensionally challenged friends, I would have thought twice before grabbing onto one,” Artemis allowed. “The possible consequences are daunting. And-” He paused. Flipped back a few pages. “Potentially heritable?”
“Depending on what cells get switched around,” Kingsfoil stated, finally glancing up. “These days, calling a fairy human-blooded is just a nasty insult. Most people have no idea that in some cases, it’s true.”
Artemis arched his visible brow, and nodded once.
...Right. Not everyone was a certified - possibly certifiable - genius. Holly poked him in the ribs. “Share.”
“Ah.” A hint of pink touched his cheeks as Artemis glanced at the intercom. “Perhaps not.”
“Don’t worry about sparing my feelings,” Kingsfoil smirked. “Our computer expert is probably digging into the relevant files this very minute, now that he knows there’s something beyond demons to dig into.”
“Well, obviously,” Foaly sighed, keys ticking in the background of his voice. “How am I supposed to keep everything running smoothly if I don’t know what’s... oh.” The centaur’s voice turned nervous. “Ah. I may have made a few remarks in passing that were less than the most discreet-”
“Ah. So now he’s in my combat record,” Kingsfoil mused, cracking gloved knuckles. “So which did you find first, old horse?”
Holly traded an exasperated glance with Butler, then studied Kingsfoil all over again. He looked like a perfectly ordinary elf. Maybe an inch taller than most. “You’re a... changeling descendant?”
“Thus making him more qualified than most to engage in treatment, given he has inside information as to some of the potential pitfalls,” Artemis nodded.
“The family doesn’t talk about it much, but yes,” Kingsfoil inclined his head. “A few centuries back. Some poet by the name of Thomas, if the records are right.” A gowned shrug. “They’re much more common among humans; you breed so much faster, it’s just more likely that even a sick changeling will have a chance to have children. In fact,” he crossed his arms, tapping his left fingers against his forearm, “if your maternal family tree went back enough centuries, Mr. Fowl, you might have a story like that yourself.”
Artemis blanched. “My... mother?”
Butler’s expression didn’t change, but Holly saw the shift in his shoulders that promised violence. “Let him explain,” she said quietly. Then I’ll punch him.
“Ah.” The warlock let his arms fall, and shrugged. “Sorry. I do enjoy medical mysteries. Perhaps a bit more than I should. I just mean to say that based on the information Recon gathered on your mother’s condition before and after Captain Short’s healing, and a few odd bits in cells of yours I’m fairly sure weren’t affected by the transport, it seems there’s a changeling back in her family tree. Many generations back.” The way his eyes creased above the mask, he was smiling. “And it’s nothing to be worked up about. Statistically speaking, more of your people have a few changeling genes than not. Especially in Ireland. We have history there.”
Artemis’ fingers were pale where they gripped the folder. “So what does that have to do with my mother’s condition? She’s well now.” He shot a dark look at Butler. Holly wondered if anyone else could see the fear. “She is, isn’t she?”
“As long as she knows your father is,” the bodyguard nodded.
“Not uncommon,” Kingsfoil said, matter-of-fact. “You can read the details on hybrid vigor and hybrid breakdown in the file. In essence, some descendants are a tad more fragile than others. But so long as they have emotional support from someone they can rely on, they’re usually fine. Flighty, but fine.”
A blue eye narrowed. “I have never been flighty.”
“No, you are frighteningly sane,” Kingsfoil agreed. “A hiccup in one gene repeat, missing a fever at ages most babes get one, having a stable person in your life from the very start,” he nodded respectfully at Butler, “any of those can make the difference. Once we’ve straightened out all of your treatment, you’ll be perfectly fine.” He growled; the impatient noise of a medic knowing there were bleeding people he just couldn’t get his hands on. “Which is not the case with some of the other humans Section Eight’s been keeping an eye on.”
This time it was Butler who came up with a fairy laptop wrapped in a sterile layer. Holly had to grin as she watched him use a blunt stylus to press the keys. Butler’s hands might be very, very good at battering trolls and goblins into submission, but fairy tech wasn’t his preferred area.
“I knew you’d need some background before we went topside again, Artemis, Captain Short,” Butler stated, handing the computer over to Artemis. “Didn’t realize exactly how much. Time flies, eh Foaly?”
The centaur’s head popped up in a video window, tinfoil hat looking surprisingly jaunty. “That it does. You’re lucky you kidnapped Holly when you did, Mud Boy. A few years later and the Council would have been howling about mutants and blue-rinsed Fowl Manor whether Holly was in it or not.”
“Mutants?” Holly helped Artemis steady the computer. “I thought you gave up foil hats for Cymballine, Foaly. What are- what is that?”
Whatever the creature in the new video clip was, it was bigger than a troll, shattering asphalt and buildings like crusty bread, and green.
“That,” Cedar informed her, drifting close enough to glance at the screen, “would be the Hulk.”
“And that would be Harlem.” For once, Artemis sounded as stunned as she felt. “This is the individual you believe might be a result of demon DNA?”
“One of a pair that tore apart that city, yes,” Kingsfoil agreed. “Believe it or not, the Hulk is the sane one.” He pointed at another, even more distorted entity that had roared its way into the video; gray, with bony growths that looked far too much like some of the more terrifying demons, and a smirk that chilled Holly worse than a besieging pack of trolls. Trolls were gorilla-sized venomous wrecking balls that just wanted to kill and eat you. The gray creature wanted you to suffer first.
“I’d have to agree,” Butler grumbled. “People I’d trust say if you see the Hulk, just clear the area. He’s only interested in hurting things that hurt him first. That Abomination was some sort of super-soldier dreamed up by a general called Ross, and it killed near a hundred people before the Hulk took it down.”
“Oh, lovely,” Artemis breathed, in the cold tone Holly knew meant he was calculating exactly what resources he had on hand to do something permanently inconvenient to an unsuspecting criminal. “Has anyone contained this general?”
“It was discussed, but it seems Ross wasn’t the brain behind whatever induced warp spasm-like effects in the two victims.” Kingsfoil’s eyes narrowed, and he deliberately looked away from the video. “A pity he didn’t walk into that fight himself. Even trolls wouldn’t have stood much chance in that mess.”
Butler’s stylus closed the disturbing scenes of carnage, and opened a surreal view of guns and bullets, hanging in midair before cops scrambling for cover. “Dash-cam footage of an encounter with a mutant known as Magneto,” he stated, bringing up a mug-shot of a distinguished silver-haired human. “Controls metal. Word is he’s locked in some kind of plastic prison, but I wouldn’t count on that holding him forever. Apparently he preaches that mutants are the next evolution of humanity and the rest of us flatscans ought to shuffle off and die. Men like that always find idiots to follow them.”
“Flatscans?” Holly craned her head back to look at him, uneasy. Butler had used the term with the same venom she’d heard fairies put into Mud Men. And she didn’t like that. At all.
Artemis was skimming some of the associated files, blue eye intent. “Apparently this Erik Lehnsherr believes he can pick out his Homo so-called superior from ordinary Homo sapiens by way of a particular spike in brainwaves. Stuff and nonsense, of course. Jiggle an EKG connected to a bowl of conductive jelly, you can put spikes in it.”
“If he does get out, don’t say that to his face,” Butler advised. “Just run.”
“And nobody believed me about human mind-readers,” Foaly huffed, brushing shiny foil. “According to the police reports on this mess, there is one, he took over other mutants there, and Magneto wasn’t grabbed because he was using a good helmet!”
Holly’s jaw dropped. “A mind-controlling human.” She glanced at the two humans with her; under the calm control, they looked just as perturbed as she felt. “Oh wonderful. I can’t even imagine what the Council wants to do about that.”
“I can,” Butler murmured.
She wasn’t going to wince. Artemis had opened the door for Recon to bio-bomb Fowl Manor by his implicit invitation if he died. He’d known Recon’s ransom protocols, and wagered his own life and three others on his ability to beat a time-stop. He’d known exactly what he was doing.
But he’d also been twelve and desperate. How desperate she hadn’t realized, until they’d rescued his father. Between that and Opal Koboi’s efforts to bomb her - no. She really couldn’t sympathize with the Council’s attitude of, throw a bio-bomb at the situation and hope it goes away.
For one thing, sometimes it just didn’t work.
“Hmm.” Artemis rested his chin on his knuckles, brows drawn down. “And you think these so-called mutants may in fact be the result of oddly expressed changeling genes? In effect, magic?”
He’s worried, Holly realized. Well. He did have magic. If only for a little while.
Though she only had Artemis’ word that he’d used it all. He might have... stretched things a bit. Given how many times a healing had been all that stood between those he cared about and death, she almost couldn’t blame him if he had.
D’Arvit, he might even think he’s telling the truth that he doesn’t. Running hot is obvious. Only a smidge of magic left? Not so much.
Thank Frond for Butler. If Artemis did still have any magic, and had walked into this mess without a briefing... well. Holly had no illusions about Artemis’ talents for finding trouble. They were almost greater than his knack for getting out of it.
“We don’t know if it’s magic.” Kingsfoil stared at the video of Magneto, and shook his head as if to rattle loose thoughts of sharp-edged mayhem. “Mutants that make enough of a splash to show up on Section Eight data-mining programs are generally on the run, and the Wing Commander hasn’t gotten Council permission to aggressively acquire DNA samples. Those on the Council who aren’t in denial - oh my, humans can’t possibly have magic - are terrified a mutant might see right through our shields. And they could be right.”
Artemis shifted his attention from the video to the warlock. “You want to help them.”
“We can’t risk the People’s security.” Kingsfoil didn’t sound happy with that answer. “But I’m a warlock, and I’ve seen young warlocks show up in families that can barely pull off a mesmer. If they’re not identified and trained early, things can get messy. If you’re lucky, a hell of a lot of resentment all around. If you’re not- well. Boom.”
Holly had to grimace in agreement. She’d never been on a delinquent warlock case in Recon, but she’d heard some of the old horror stories. “And there’s no one out there to train these humans?”
Kingsfoil jerked a thumb toward Magneto. “Apparently he is.”
“Lovely,” Artemis muttered.
“Indeed,” the warlock agreed. “There may be some less malevolent types teaching mutant children, but if there are, they’re keeping almost as low a profile as the People.”
“I’ve asked Foaly for non-metallic Neutrinos for both of us.” Butler gave Artemis the level look Holly knew well: this is bodyguard stuff, and you will listen no matter how much you don’t like it. “You’ll carry it and learn to use it. I’m not losing you to a megalomaniac who can kill you with a paperclip. Or a robot made up to look like a megalomaniac.” He flipped up a picture of a scowling metal mask under a green hooded cloak, cloth flaring wide to show off dark gray armor from head to booted toe. “Magneto is dangerous, but at least he doesn’t have his own country to base his hate in. Latveria isn’t so lucky.”
For once, Artemis looked thoroughly nonplussed. “That is Victor von Doom?” Dazed, he shook his head. “I absent myself from the timestream for three years, and the world slides into insanity.”
“Doom was headed that way years ago.” Butler touched the monitor, drawing up a few files on some kind of experimental spacecraft that gave Holly chills just looking at it. “Don’t know what it is about some men. A lady tells them she’s not interested, and instead of wishing her well and walking away, they morph into crazed stalkers out to make people’s lives miserable. Given Doom is skilled at building robots that go boom, he makes life interesting for New York whenever he’s in that country.”
“In the United States?” Artemis eyed the photo with deep suspicion. “Has no one seized his passport?”
“Diplomatic immunity.” Butler’s lips made a tight line. “Not to mention a few interesting technological, biological, and occult threats he’s scattered around. Section Eight had you all vaccinated for good reasons. There have been a few things loose these past years no doctor’s ever seen before.”
“A psychopathic disease-making human,” Holly breathed. “I thought Opal was bad enough. At least molten iron isn’t contagious.”
Artemis nodded, grim. “I am a bit more concerned with the occult aspect.”
“Most people don’t believe it,” Butler said neutrally.
Artemis glanced up. “You are not most people.”
“No,” his bodyguard agreed. “I haven’t found much information. Yet. What I have found makes me very, very cautious. Some of the names involved may tie back to something Recon calls the Hamburg Incident.”
Holly winced. Would she never be free of that mess?
“Please don’t hack his systems anytime soon,” Butler went on, mercifully ignoring her embarrassment. “Not until we know more. Foaly’s mentioned a few of the magical security measures Haven has set up, and if Doom has anything like them you’re going to need LEP tech on your side.”
“Noted.” Artemis nodded, far less flippantly than usual. “I promise I’ll be cautious.”
“Good.” Some of the tension eased out of Butler’s shoulders as he called up yet another video clip. “Though based on your father’s recent investment strategies, you’re more likely to run into Iron Man than either of the psychopaths.”
Holly suppressed a shudder at the name. In these modern times the People didn’t have much problem with iron and steel, mainly due to better knowledge of nutrition, anemia, and sunlight’s UV effects on fairy physiologies. But given she’d had proof that humans could still exploit fairy folklore, in the form of the denizens of Fowl Manor surviving a bio-bomb - brr.
Talk to Kingsfoil about iron supplements for Artemis later. He might not have enough elf in him to have to worry about it.
For now, she followed the footage of red-and-gold armor streaking across the New York City skyline, ripping pieces off some kind of flying metal whale-thing with the Hulk and dodging other flying machines with chaff and launches of mini-missiles. “Oooh... give it wings and I want one.”
Butler smiled. Artemis’ glance was as alarmed as if he were strapped into a hotshot and she’d just handed him the controls. “Section Eight suits aren’t good enough?”
“They don’t come with missiles.” Kingsfoil chuckled behind his mask. “Trust me, I’ve heard that from half the Retrieval jocks already. The armor’s also better at taking impact than anything we’ve come up with-”
“Yet!” Foaly threw in over the com. “It can be done. We’ll do it. And Holly’s right about the wings. See how he has to use his hands to maneuver? That’s no good if you need to fiddle with tricky tech while you’re flying. We can do better.”
“If you can duplicate the power source,” Artemis said, less than impressed. “I don’t think even a Neutrino’s nuclear battery can maintain that level of sustained output. Certainly not for long.”
“Yeeees,” Foaly drew out the word, as if he were reluctant to let it past his lips. “The arc reactor is a key factor. I don’t suppose an honest thief might be interested in a bit of industrial espionage?”
Holly clapped a hand to her face, and wished she had the centaur in punching range. “Foaly!”
“I believe I learned my lesson on such matters with the C-Cube,” Artemis mused. “Why steal an industrial secret when you can buy it? Tony Stark’s never been averse to selling his inventions before.”
Foaly harrumphed. “Your media still denies that’s Stark.”
“The human media misses Russian Mafiya movements, fairy mind-wipes, and exploding islands,” Artemis shrugged. “If you’re relying on them for accurate information, you might as well read the horoscopes for business advice. I keep track of the people in my tax bracket.”
Probably the better to know who to steal from, Holly thought wryly. Though on the other hoof, as Foaly would say, it was rich humans with no scruples who could cause the biggest messes for the People, so it was just as well Artemis did know who they were.
“Stark Industries has the resources to develop the prototypes necessary to make such a suit work,” Artemis went on, “and Tony Stark is one of the few engineering genii out there who could have made it work in three years. Also, Butler specifically mentioned Father’s investments, and Stark Industries has always been one of his favored legitimate moneymakers. I’m not averse to that stock myself. Although Father swore to Mother he only invested in the medical and scientific research divisions of the company. Not the weapons.” He touched the screen to freeze, rewind, and expand the video image, focusing on the massive thing that had been hurtling through the sky before Hulk and Iron Man brought it down. “I would say that not investing in weapons appears to have been an incredibly short-sighted idea. What is that? Where did it come from?”
“Outer space,” Butler said succinctly.
“Aliens?” Holly muttered, too stunned to disbelieve. Anyone else, she would have wondered if they were trying to pull a fast one. But Butler didn’t joke about threats to Artemis. Ever.
“And you thought my hats were crazy,” Foaly said cheerfully.
Because centaurs are born paranoid, Holly thought. But even paranoids have enemies. “I’m sorry I ever doubted you. Aliens.” And the acorn dropped. “No wonder the Wing Commander wants to hire you two!”
“Indeed,” Artemis agreed. “If another species is attacking Earth, they will by default attack the People as well. You need surface agents gathering information for your own survival.” He lifted a hand Butler’s direction; Holly frowned at the subtle tremble in it. “I’ve no doubt you’ve already done some preliminary work while I was gone. How did this happen? Did one of NASA’s probes give someone a black eye, or were we hit by the equivalent of a horde of intergalactic locusts feeling peckish?”
“Neither, unfortunately,” Butler rumbled. “Here’s where it gets complicated.” He called up a few more video stills. A muscular blond man in armor and a flamboyant red cape, raising a hammer that crawled with blue sparks of magic. A whirlpool of light, etching a blaze of unfamiliar runes on desert ground. A tall, too-thin black-haired man in green and a bronze-horned helmet, bearing a spear that glowed with malevolent light.
Artemis frowned, ignoring the two humans in antique armor to focus on the runes. “Those are not Norse runes. Very like them, but not quite.”
“Oh, and you know about Norse runes?” Holly gave him an arch look. It was the best way to get him to focus. She knew Artemis. If he didn’t think he’d snatched enough facts to grasp the bones of the problem, he’d never sleep until someone drugged him. And she’d had enough of watching him toss and turn these past days, not sure if he would live or die.
Live. He’s going to live. Thank Frond.
“I looked at every set of symbols known to man three years ago... six years ago, now,” Artemis corrected himself. “I know what real Norse futhark looks like.”
“Quite correct. That’s Asgardian,” Kingsfoil nodded. “I suspect the Wing Commander will clear you for what we know about it. Though if Foaly happens to hack his way in and shuffle a few files your way early - I’m your medic. I don’t need to know about it.”
“Asgardian?” Holly glanced at Butler. “I’ve never heard of that human nation.”
The bodyguard lifted a peppered brow. “That would be because they’re not human.”
“Thor and Loki,” Butler gestured at blond and black, “are from a planet called Asgard. They call Earth Midgard. They get here by way of an Einstein-Rosen bridge... I didn’t even try to understand the physics on that one, Artemis, you’ll have to look it over. From what I could puzzle out, the Asgardians have the science to control wormholes. And they have since at least the first time they came to Earth. A thousand years ago.”
Science to control wormholes. “Can we do that, Foaly?” Holly asked, a bit scared of the answer. Everyone knew that advanced warlocks and scientists got up to odd things in secret Haven labs, but she’d never heard a whisper of anything like this.
“Unless you count the demon warlock transport spells, which I don’t, the answer is no,” the centaur said grimly. “This is bad, Holly. We’re talking about science Haven can’t match. Not just a few genius humans like Stark and Artemis stumbling on a thing or two. A whole culture centuries ahead of us.”
“Possibly worse than that.” Artemis’ tone was chill calculation. “Thor and Loki. As in the allies or descendents of Odin One-Eye, the Corpse-Gatherer, the master of sorcery. The Norse god whose Valkyries drove the best warriors to madness in battle, so he might have his pick of the slain. No one picks names like those lightly.”
“They didn’t pick them,” Butler said dryly. “If the sources I’ve asked are right, Odin is the king of Asgard. The same king.”
Holly shivered. “It’s been a thousand years. Maybe the rest of them have changed?” Hah. The People still blamed Mud Men for driving them off the surface ten thousand years ago, even though by now most of Haven knew Artemis had saved their lives. Why would a bunch of aliens change?
“I don’t think so.” Foaly’s nervous hoof-stomp echoed over the com. “Thor showing up wrecked a small town in New Mexio. When Loki dropped in he killed people on two continents and brought that whole alien army through a portal to New York. Humans managed to stop it, especially Iron Man and Hulk in a group called the Avengers, but someone ended up lobbing a nuclear bomb back through the portal to do it.”
Holly swallowed hard. Radiation. Deadly to humans. Even deadlier to the People. “I want to go back to bed now.”
Shifting off the sheets, Artemis’ hand found hers.
“I’ve been in the files Section Eight has,” Foaly assured her. “It’s not as much as I’d like. Apparently back then most of the People didn’t realize Asgardians were more than frighteningly powerful Mud Men, flee on sight. And they thought we were... interesting wildlife.” His voice dropped. “If Section Eight’s right, half our horror stories aren’t about humans at all.”
“The Norse gods were supposed to be excellent hunters, whenever they couldn’t find a fun war to join in on.” Artemis’ tone could have etched glass. “Of course they hunted you. If you’ll tell beings who look just like you that they should worship you as gods, what will you do to those who don’t?”
Hand on hand wasn’t near the closeness they’d had in the interdimensional tunnel. But Holly thought she could still feel the sear of self-loathing in Artemis’ soul. He’d hunted her, after all; even if he’d been after gold, not lives. Hunted, and taken, because he hadn’t thought of fairies as people.
But you’re not that person anymore, Holly thought. You need to believe that. Looking at Butler, she raised an eyebrow, and glanced at Artemis.
“I think that’s enough for now, Warlock Kingsfoil,” the bodyguard obliged. “If you don’t mind, I need a few minutes alone with Artemis. Family matters. We need to come up with a very good story, if we’re going to keep the People out of it.”
“Good luck with that,” Kingsfoil said wryly. “I hear Warlock Qwan is over the moon that you got here only a few years off. But I think people are going to notice you’re missing three years with no possible good explanation.”
Artemis smirked; Holly saw Kingsfoil twitch. “Ah. Sometimes I forget how little the People know of who I really am.” One canine glinted. “I am a Fowl, Warlock Kingsfoil. I never explain anything.”
“...Right,” the elf medic said under his breath. “Follow the instructions in the file, let Mr. Butler help you if you get out of bed, and when you’re tired, rest. Outside of that... I’ll just leave you to your nefarious plotting.”
Holly waited until he’d entered and sealed the medical airlock before she poked Artemis in the shoulder. “That was mean.”
Holly almost rolled her eyes - but hesitated. Most people would have taken that as just another cruel cut. But she’d worked with Artemis for three years, dragging and dragged by him through one hair-raising peril after another. She’d seen him with his memories of the People, and without; heard him break down crying when she’d recovered his father alive, and seen him honestly freak out when he’d told Butler he’d turned down gold, because helping stop Opal Koboi was the right thing to do.
Artemis was a genius. Unquestionably. And a young man who loved his parents dearly; she had tears and the return of half a ton of gold to the People as proof. Yet somehow, something had gone terribly wrong in that family, because the same person she’d trust to yank her out of the jaws of death flailed like a drowning sprite when someone told him we’re friends.
He can predict and manipulate a murderous psychopath into taking us halfway across the world to the exact spot we need to be, but he can’t connect with someone just trying to be there, Holly thought. We’re going to have to work on that. “Just a little,” she said instead. “I know you hate hospitals, but try not to take it out on your doctor.”
Artemis glanced away. “I’ve never said I hated hospitals.”
“You didn’t have to.” Holly patted his arm, thinking of the long days Artemis had waited for his father to be released, and her own dark memories of her mother’s death. “I hate them too.”
“...I am sorry for the inconvenience, then.”
“Right,” Holly sighed. “Because you absolutely intended to ruffle up both our lives by letting an interdimensional transport spell jury-rigged by a demon warlock who’d been trapped in stone for ten thousand years go just a little bit haywire. Seriously, Artemis. I know you have control issues worse than centaurs have paranoia-”
“I heard that!”
“Quiet, Foaly,” she ordered. “Artemis - sometimes things happen that just aren’t your fault. All right? I’m not saying you have to agree with me. Just... think about it.”
A long moment of silence. “I’d prefer to think about these Avengers. The name is either pretentious or ominous, and I would like to have enough data to decide which.”
Butler inclined his head. “I have detailed files on the team and each as individuals, including what Foaly could hack out of SHIELD on Thor.”
Artemis started, inching a bit up and back against the headboard. “You do?”
The bodyguard smiled. “Given your father’s recent business partnership with SHIELD after his rescue, it seemed necessary, as you were not there to investigate for yourself.”
Holly hid a grin as tension eased out of her friend’s shoulders. Some people just wanted chocolates.
If you love Artemis, feed him information.
“But those details can wait until you’ve had some rest,” Butler said soberly. “Right now, the Fowls are more important.”
That quick, she felt Artemis tense all over again. “Has something happened to my parents?”
“Your parents are fine,” the older man said firmly. “It’s just... well. No easy way to say this. You’re an older brother, now.”
Holly drew in her own breath, stunned. Right. Humans could have children far more often than every twenty years. She’d just gotten used to the idea that Artemis was one of a kind. Honestly, after unleashing that terrifying genius on the world, what sort of parents would dare have more?
“An older brother.” Artemis pronounced the words as if they were in some alien tongue. “My parents had another child?”
“Twins. Myles and Beckett,” Butler said plainly. “Beckett’s the blond one. Myles is the one with the mold cultures. They’re two.”
For a moment, Artemis went very, very still. “I see Mother did not waste time. Who are their bodyguards? Are you in contact with them? I want to know they’re reliable-”
Butler almost winced. “Juliet is very reliable.”
Artemis stared at him. “Juliet? Finally returned from her stint as a masked Mexican wrestler with a jade ring of doom? Juliet looks after Mother.”
“And the twins,” Butler said simply. “Your father’s decision.”
Color drained from Artemis’ already pale face. “Father has not hired another Butler, has he?”
Butler sighed. “No.”
“My father - once one of the most notorious crimelords in the entire world - is unguarded, with Juliet to watch over Mother and two two-year-old twin Fowls, and you say my parents are fine? Let me up! Holly, let go of me!”
“No,” Holly gritted her teeth and hung on, until Butler could move in and brace Artemis back against the bed. “You’ll die. Are you listening to me? You leave this room and you will die. Your immune system can’t take the shock of a surface ride. Stay put. You know Butler wouldn’t leave them if they were in danger.”
The look in Artemis’ eye said he knew nothing of the sort. He was Butler’s principal. Not the rest of the family.
“They’re safe,” Butler stated. “SHIELD agents aren’t Butlers, but they’ve been enough to keep the worst sorts at bay. Agent Coulson has seen to that.”
Artemis seemed to stop fighting. Holly didn’t let go. Artemis might seem to have two left feet and an odd mental hiccup in that evil genius brain when it came to the use of actual physical force, but he had more guts than any ten Recon officers she knew and nerves that had to be strung from titanium steel. And she’d never forget dying, and then not dying, as Time itself rewove around one perfect shot.
He did it for me. He’d do it for Butler. Now if we can just get the idiot to shoot to protect himself.
“Agent Coulson.” Artemis’ voice was just a little unsteady. “I take it you’re familiar with this particular SHIELD agent?”
“Mostly by reputation,” Butler allowed. “But we met a few times while you were... away. Your father demanded that someone look into your disappearance in Taiwan, and it turns out SHIELD has run into a few very nasty things that look slightly like the warlock statues. They managed to pull together before and after pictures and determine that one of the statues was missing.”
Holly paled. A government agency had evidence of the People? “Oh, no.”
“Easy, Captain.” Butler lifted a calming hand. “You should read those files, too. Foaly and I have already given copies to your Wing Commander. It’s her judgment that so long as SHIELD thinks Qwan was one of these Otherplace demons, they’re not going to look any farther. Haven is safe.”
“But my parents,” Artemis objected.
“Agent Coulson has years of experience protecting and handling difficult assets,” Butler informed him. “I’ve done a few dry runs on the agents keeping a perimeter around your family. They’re good. Not as good as I was, but I wouldn’t mind if Juliet kidnapped one of the better ones and took him home.”
“You talked to Coulson.” From the carefully neutral look on Artemis’ face, he’d gotten something out of those words Holly had missed. “What did you tell him?”
“More than I told your family.”
Artemis raised an intrigued brow.
“Your family knows you were kidnapped by Billy Kong and his associates thanks to Minerva Paradizo’s misjudgment,” Butler began.
“Butler!” Artemis looked equally amused and mortified. “I made some rather glaring mistakes at that age myself.”
Holly snorted. Even at his worst, Artemis had never brought his schemes home to where a child would be in danger. Much less gone into one of his master plans relying on someone he didn’t trust beyond the next paycheck.
...And absolutely none of her disdain revolved around the fact that Artemis was fifteen, male, utterly confused at why evolution had inflicted such a horrible curse as hormones on so-called sentient beings, and Minerva was a pretty little thing for a human who could actually almost outthink Artemis. None at all.
“Even when you were ten, you had more sense than to stand in grabbing range of a psychotic armed killer you’d just fired,” Butler said dryly. “She was twelve - fifteen, now - and if it took siccing your parents and hers on her to make her see sense, she got off cheap. Your father wasn’t happy that I took your orders to keep her in one piece, but given you were heading out the window with a bomb he understood why you did it.” He paused. “I did not mention Qwan, No. 1, or you, Captain Short. Or the fact that your backup plan was to take an interdimensional hop to god only knows where in time and space. Have a less nerve-wracking one next time. Please.”
“I will endeavor to do so, yes,” Artemis shivered. “So you set my family on the trail of Billy Kong’s network. To keep them busy?”
“It gave them something to chase beyond legends that couldn’t be real,” Butler sighed. “If I’d told them the fairies took you away, they’d have thought I’d lost it. And then who’d be waiting to brief you?”
“...Thank you.” Artemis rubbed a knuckle under his eye. “But you told Coulson more.”
“As I said, SHIELD’s run into things that looked a little like Qwan,” Butler nodded. “Coulson showed me a few pictures. I had to admit they didn’t match, but there seem to be multiple demonic types in this Otherplace, so he was willing to believe Qwan might be another. I told him flat out I’d seen the demon hanging onto you and you disappeared. And then I asked him what the hell I should tell your parents.”
“Oh, well done,” Artemis murmured, smiling.
Butler chuckled. “I thought you’d appreciate that. So Agent Coulson agreed it’d be best to stick with kidnapped. Apparently SHIELD has a few contacts who deal with extradimensional incursions but they’re... not precisely reliable. Have a habit of disappearing into other dimensions themselves for who knows how long.”
“So my family has a public explanation for why I’ve been missing, and SHIELD is unlikely to have contradictory information,” Artemis concluded. “Excellent. Far better than I’d hoped for.”
“I am going to beat you over the head with a pillow, see if I don’t,” Holly muttered. “What in Frond’s name is good about any of this?”
“Captain Short has a point,” Butler agreed. “Now I’ve been missing too. Only a week so far, but if I stay down here until you’re well, it’s likely to be a month.”
“Exactly.” Artemis’ smile might have frozen an unsuspecting sprite in midair. “Your unexplained absence will make everything plausible. It’s really very simple; the best way to explain this is not to explain anything.”
Finally letting go, Butler settled back on his stool. “Oh, this should be good.”
“Simple deduction,” Artemis shrugged. “You reported to Agent Coulson that a demon had apparently kidnapped me, and he did not so much as blink an eye. The logical conclusion is that Otherplace demons do kidnap humans; for what reasons, we should determine. He further told you to inform my family that I was kidnapped. Not dead. Which implies that some victims in the past have been rescued.” A casual shrug. “When we return to the surface, you will call Agent Coulson and inform him you found me. And that I appear to remember nothing.”
“Appear to?” Holly asked, fascinated despite herself. Watching Artemis plot was like hitting the top of a roller coaster. It was a long way down... but the ride was going to be interesting.
“I’ve ideas for the story under the story, but I’ll require more details on what SHIELD knows....” Artemis rubbed his head, and sighed. “And that will require a clearer head than I have at the moment.”
If he was admitting that, Holly knew, he really was tired.
Which means I might get some answers. I think we both need them.
Not that she could ask him flat out. Not without a setup first. Artemis Fowl II was possibly the most dangerous criminal the People had ever met. If she didn’t respect that, she’d lose him.
Stalking her target, Holly opened the medical folder again, lingering on one of the more heartbreaking changeling cases. “You know, we say humans are horrible and violent. But if I’d had something like this happen to my family, I’d show them violent.”
“I’ve no doubt some of the People did exactly that,” Artemis said soberly. “It’s rather depressing, how many human legends of fairies end badly for both sides.” The ghost of a smirk crossed his face. “Then again, if a particular arrangement was working out, it wouldn’t do either side a favor to advertise that fact, now would it?”
“I know I wouldn’t talk about it.” Butler leaned casually away from the bed. Or almost casually, if she didn’t know him.
You’re setting my Principal up for something. If it hurts him, we’re going to talk.
Ouch. But sometimes you had to dig to pull out a thorn, and that was all there was to it. “Artemis,” Holly said, very gently, “why are you doing this?”
“Recovering?” Artemis pulled away just enough to give her an arch look. “Or speculating on the possible motivations of people likely centuries dead, when it serves no current purpose?”
He was not that detached from reality. Though if he pulled that clueless look on his own parents, no wonder they’d missed the warning signs of a bored criminal mastermind. “You let the Wing Commander back you into that too easily,” Holly said bluntly. “I know you. You always have a plan.”
Oh Frond, I pushed too hard, he wasn’t ready-
“An hour per second for a count of forty,” Artemis said, barely above a whisper. “Then a deceleration to thirty minutes per second for a count of eighteen. Next a jump backward in time, one minute per second for a count of two. Then it repeated.” He swallowed. “For a minute on Hybras, I... almost lost you.”
“I remember,” Holly said quietly. I remember dying. I remember you letting me die there, alone in the ashes. “You had to keep the count.”
“It... never happened.”
Holly let out a slow breath. “Just because you undid it, doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.”
Artemis glanced away. “I am uncertain of the consequences of acknowledging a potential paradox.”
Butler was glancing between them, eyes as wide as she’d ever seen them. “Captain Short?”
Holly smiled at him, the same as she would before firing up a shuttle to tear a hole in the sky. “Your principal shot through a hole in Time.”
Butler blinked. She could see the thought written across his face in bold letters: Artemis actually hit something?
“Whatever might or might not have taken place,” Artemis said, picking his words like steps through a minefield, “I find myself highly averse to the thought of your continuing in such a hazardous line of work without dependable backup. I am sure your coworkers are skilled, and trained, and courageous. However, they are dependent on fairy technology, and there are simply far too few fairies. Your advanced technology is overwhelmingly the product of a select group of genii such as Foaly and Opal Koboi, rather than the mishmash of millions of minds poking at hardware and software for profit. Including exploitable holes. It leaves you vulnerable.” He paused. “I want to provide you with other options.”
Whoof. Holly watched him carefully. “Me, or the LEP?”
“Both,” Artemis acknowledged. “That is, after all, what a good consultant would do, is it not?”
Foaly’s snort came over the com. “You don’t think the Wing Commander’s going to go through with that, do you?”
There was the smirk, glimmering like ice. “Why should she not?”
A neighing laugh. “I hate to point out the obvious, Mud Boy-”
“Ah, but the mere fact that changelings are listed as Section Eight business implies that they were not considered ordinary Mud Men,” the young genius cut him off. “And given some of the entries in these files,” Artemis riffled pages loudly, “it seems that under certain circumstances, a changeling can petition for the status of naturalized fairy.”
For a moment, all she heard was blood thrumming in her ears, and a centaur’s shocked whimper. “...Oh, D’Arvit.”
Holly couldn’t help it. She giggled, even as the torrent of centaurean profanity went on. “Oh, Foaly. You are doomed to have someone you can officially discuss fairy science with until your brains melt. So very, very doomed.”
“That’s not funny!”
Ah, that’d done it; the shadows were almost gone from Artemis’ gaze, as he stifled snickers behind one hand.
Holly squeezed the other. “But are you sure this is something you want to do? I seem to recall a certain criminal mastermind trying to argue Haven’s laws didn’t apply to humans.”
“At which point you and Commander Root applied them anyway,” Artemis recalled dryly. “If I am by default considered under your jurisdiction, Captain, I might as well make it official.” A faint, tentative smile. “But... there are other considerations. Starting with the fact that I do respect your law enforcement, heavy-handed as it may sometimes be. And I particularly respect some of its officers.” He met her gaze, as trusting as any human who’d been mesmerized could ever be. “Even when I had every advantage over you, Captain Short, you told me what I was doing was wrong. And you never made a threat you did not carry out.” A twitch of a smirk. “Even the troll.”
“The troll really wasn’t my idea,” Holly admitted.
“Nevertheless,” Artemis nodded. “Haven has treated me as a human more fairly than the world treats Fowls. I want to - I would very much appreciate the opportunity to make full use of my talents-”
Butler cleared his throat.
“Ah. Honesty. Does not come easily to me, I will admit, I hope you can tolerate that shortcoming for the sake of other advantages-” Artemis cut himself off, pulling away to clutch his arms about himself. “...I want to help.”
I want to help. Not, I think you’re outmatched, or Frond help them all, I’m bored.
I want to help. Holly smiled. I can work with that.
“Wait a minute,” Foaly said nervously. “If Fowl’s going to be an official Section Eight consultant - you were serious about the Neutrinos!”
Butler’s smirk wasn’t as icy as Artemis’, but it promised much more immediate pain. “I never joke about firearms.”
“It’s not the first time we’ve armed them,” Holly pointed out.
“That was a goblin rebellion!”
“Sparked off by Opal Koboi, and are you absolutely certain she’s safely locked up?” Artemis said archly. “She’s only magicless, bound, and under constant guard in the deepest prison of Atlantis under miles of water, after all.”
“...I hate it when you have a point.” There was a crinkling sound; Foaly scratching his mane under the foil hat. “But you’ll be teaching Artemis to shoot!”
And that’s going to be tricky, Holly knew; thinking of a perfect shot when it mattered most, and a coin snatched from the air by wondering fingers. But I have a few ideas.
So did Artemis, apparently. “There are more weapons in the world than Neutrinos. We’ll see what Stark has available... Butler?”
“He’s not trading in weapons these days,” the bodyguard stated.
Artemis stared at the man. “Stark Industries, arms dealer to most of the free world and no few other places under the table, is not dealing in weapons? Why?”
“Ah,” Butler motioned for Artemis to lie back and rest, voice falling into a calm rhythm. “Now, that is an interesting story. It starts with Stark getting kidnapped in Afghanistan....”
“Life Model Decoy.” Tony drummed his fingers on the arm of his overstuffed chair; a stunning effort at normal, civilized behavior, more for the benefit of Steve trying to relax in another TV room chair than for the battered but very much alive agent recovering on his couch. “Would have been nice for Fury to tell us that before the memorial service.”
“I got lucky,” Agent Phil Not-Quite-Dead Coulson nodded, laptop on top of him as he surfed through what were probably a bazillion super-secret messages from panicky SHIELD spies suddenly faced with answering directly to Fury. Tony almost pitied them. “Although for a few hours the medics weren’t sure I would be. It seems that magical shock transfers through an LMD worse than physical wounds.”
“Director Fury let us think you were dead,” Steve said quietly.
...And that was just not fair. How could one sad look from Rogers bother people so much more than Tony’s excellent snark?
“I am sorry about that. I wasn’t in any shape to say otherwise.” Phil gave Steve a reassuring smile. “I promise I’ll try not to let that happen again... huh.”
Tony traded a glance with Steve. Rogers hadn’t been around Phil long enough to know all the agent’s flavors of huh. But under the Boy Scout exterior was the wariness of anybody who’d had to depend on military intelligence in the middle of a firefight. “Is this a huh that we’re officially cleared for,” Tony wondered, “or one we should jump on anyway?”
“You’d probably hear about this soon enough,” Phil mused. “You might as well get the facts as SHIELD knows them.” He glanced up from his email. “Artemis Fowl II has been found. Alive.”
Tony had to wiggle a finger in his ear, just in case he’d heard that wrong. “Did not see that one coming.”
“Someone else I should know about?” Steve didn’t sigh. But Tony would bet he wanted to. Being thrown decades out of your own time was not fun.
“I would be surprised and disturbed if you did,” Tony said honestly. “I wouldn’t know much about the kid if he hadn’t done something incredibly vicious, nasty, and smart to the Russian Mafiya who kidnapped his dad. Nobody’s really sure how he did it, either, though my money’s on some kind of combination chemical on the bills. Jarvis? Bring up a summary for us.”
“Artemis Fowl II.” The AI shimmered a hologram into being; a file whimsically made to look like an old-fashioned manila folder, with the photograph of a serious dark-haired teenager in an expensive suit clipped to one edge. “IQ tested into the genius range. Speaks English, Irish Gaelic, and Russian fluently; believed to be competent in several other languages. Known aliases Stefan Bashkir, chess grandmaster; Dr. F. Roy Dean Schlippe, renowned psychologist author; and Violet Tsirblu, best-selling romance writer.”
“What?” Steve choked.
“Told you I’d be disturbed,” Tony smirked. God, the horrible puns. He’d bet they’d broken at least five Interpol agents’ brains. “Kid genius, and Jarvis finds out he’s writing romance novels? Talk about a waste of a good mind.”
Phil sat up a bit. “We didn’t know about the romance novels.”
“Tsirblu’s identity is cleverly concealed, but there are ways of tracking the royalties,” Jarvis noted. “Artemis was first brought to Interpol’s attention as the son of Angeline Fowl and Artemis Fowl Sr., crimelord of an organization that reached from Dublin docks to some of Tokyo’s worst back alleys.”
A family photo flipped up out of the folder now: a tall, dark-haired Irishman with a grim face, a smiling brunette whose diamond wedding band cast back glints of sun, and a younger Artemis in front of her looking even more expressionless than his father. Behind the Fowls stood two muscular Eurasian men whose posture all but shouted bodyguards.
“Eight years ago Fowl Sr. tried to open a legitimate business enterprise in Russia, and fell afoul of the Russian Mafiya,” Jarvis went on. “The Fowl Star was sunk in the Bay of Kola. At the time, there were believed to be no survivors.”
Steve shook his head. “That poor kid.”
“Say that again after you’ve fended off one of his hacks,” Tony said wryly. Mini criminal mastermind, and Steve saw a poor, lonely kid? Yikes. “He didn’t believe the courts when they declared Senior dead. Kept sponsoring expeditions for people to keep looking. Three years. Searching for a guy who would have wound up in hypothermic water if he was lucky.” He flipped through a dozen more pages in the folder to remind himself of the details, and watched Steve’s eyes cross. Wuss. Wasn’t speed-reading supposed to be old-school, way before the days of Attention Deficit Ooo Shiny? “I heard about it, and figured the kid wasn’t as smart as everybody thought.” Tony flicked open his hands as the file dropped onto the right page, like a conjurer fluffing a dove out of thin air. “Then half the Russian Mafiya turned itself inside out fighting over five million dollars that somehow went up in smoke just before it got to big man Britva himself. It was a slaughter.”
Steve’s eyes widened.
“And Fowl Sr. shows up alive in Helsinki, of all places, dropped right outside the doors of University Hospital,” Tony finished. “Didn’t remember a thing from after he left Dublin. Or so he said.”
“The interesting thing about that,” Phil mused, “is that Artemis received the call from St. Bartleby’s, his school in Ireland. Yet less than twenty-four hours before, we have reputable sources placing him in Murmansk just before midnight, arranging the payoff to ransom his father. And we have no idea how he got from Murmansk to Ireland.”
Steve raised a blond brow. “He got from Russia across Europe, and SHIELD has no idea how he did it?”
“None at all. And it’s not the only time Artemis has done that,” Phil nodded. “He’s been spotted in different countries, on different continents, on the same day. On multiple occasions. Interpol is a little... spooked by him.”
“Hence why they dropped his file in your lap,” Tony concluded. “Mutant? Alien technology? Super-secret supersonic shuttle?”
“We still don’t know, though from the DNA tests we can probably rule out mutant.” Phil hesitated. “Probably. They’re Irish. And Irish X-genes can be a little off.” He blew out a frustrated breath. “Though I’m pretty sure Dr. Ross would flick my ear and tell me we don’t have large enough sample sizes to generalize about any mutants, much less specific ethnicities.”
“Long story short, happy family reunion, yay. Dad claims to have gone straight, Junior not so much,” Tony summed up. “Then three years ago Junior goes poof in Taiwan. No ransom demand, no nothing. Just gone. And,” he tapped at the younger of the two bodyguards in the family photo, “his bodyguard’s not talking.”
“Butler always insisted that Artemis had been kidnapped, but refused to give the authorities any more details,” Phil agreed. “For the past three years he’s been camped on the Irish coast, disappearing every few months to search for leads. A month ago he vanished again, completely.” He gestured toward his email. “Less than twelve hours ago, he and Artemis turned up at Fowl Manor.”
“I guess that’s good news.” But Steve was still frowning.
“You have the sad Cap look,” Tony observed. “If we could bottle it we’d have instant crowd control. What gives?”
“Well, it’s just....” Steve sighed. “He was thirteen. If paying the ransom got his father back, why would a kid set up people to kill each other? Even the Russian Mafiya.”
Tony grimaced, and tossed a look at Phil. “You want to give him the bad news, or should I?”
The agent’s shoulders slumped. “Steve. This particular organization had pulled off at least six prior ransom swaps that SHIELD knew about. In every case, both the hostage and the people delivering the ransom ended up dead.”
Steve flinched. “But-”
“No witnesses, no one trying to get the money back,” Tony said lightly. “Efficient.”
“Butler has contacts in the intelligence community, and he’s known to be very honest with his principal,” Phil nodded. “Artemis knew what he was dealing with.”
“Even if he managed to out-think them long enough to drop them the ransom and snatch his dad, that wouldn’t have been the end of it,” Tony added. Wasn’t fair to make Phil give all the bad news. “Britva would have had them both hit, just for pulling one over on him. Probably his mom and her bodyguard too, just to make it a clean sweep. Mob pride thing; don’t leave anybody out there to take revenge. Only way to derail that was to make it clear - gruesomely, lethally clear - that anybody who snatches a Fowl isn’t going to live to enjoy it.”
“And you think Artemis... knew that.” Steve looked a little ill. “He was thirteen.”
“And he did what he had to, to keep his family safe.” Tony crossed his arms; no point in arguing this with someone who didn’t get what it took to stay alive at the top of the money-pile. “Guess there’s some advantages to being an orphan.” He shrugged at Phil. “So. You heading to Ireland?”
“No, not yet,” Phil said, half his concentration on whatever other scanty facts were in his email. “For now we’ll just observe. Based on past experience, if he and Butler are back in the public eye, they’ve already done... whatever they were planning to do to whoever was responsible.” He frowned. “And if they haven’t yet, Butler is getting a little old for field ops, then I’d like to be healed up enough to lend a hand if SHIELD gets involved.” He glanced up at Steve. “I’ve worked with members of the Butler family in the past, and I once had the honor of taking a few lessons from Madame Ko, Butler’s sensei. Whatever you might think about Artemis, Butler is a decent man. Losing his principal hurt him. I want whoever did that.” The agent smiled tightly. “Assuming Artemis doesn’t beat us all to it, first.”
Erk. Wait. Reboot. “You like the mini-mob boss,” Tony realized.
Give him credit, Phil had to stop and think about that one. “I think admire might be more accurate.”
Tony slid a subtle glance Steve’s way. Yep; Rogers was staring just as much as he was.
“The same way you’d admire a leopard up a tree in the sun,” Phil said dryly. “From a distance, when it’s not hungry, and with no intention to get any closer and tick it off.”
“He worries you,” Steve frowned.
“Yes and no.” Phil mulled his options a moment, and shrugged. “For the most part, he’s just not SHIELD’s problem. Artemis’ favored M.O. includes forgery, fraud, grand larceny, and on one spectacular occasion, forcibly donating Jon Spiro’s criminal fortune to Amnesty International. He’s not a world threat, Steve. A criminal, yes. Dangerous to anyone who goes after his family, definitely. But he has no interest in war, or weapons, or making either of the two easier to spread through the world. He’s... I hate to say harmless. But he’s had plenty of opportunities to walk much darker roads, and he hasn’t.”
“He’s eighteen,” Tony said lightly. “Bet he hasn’t even gotten started yet.”
“I kind of hope he won’t get started at all,” Phil said ruefully. “Mr. Fowl has made sincere efforts to establish himself as a legitimate businessman. He’s been a great help setting up certain cover identities and safehouses for SHIELD. And both he and Mrs. Fowl have been trying to give their son a more normal life.” He paused. “Had been trying. This is going to throw things.”
“Yeah, getting kidnapped kind of does.” Tony scratched the back of his head. “So Senior went straight, huh? Sure, fine, maybe I buy that, I know about people pulling a change of heart.” He thumped the arc reactor. “Though personally, I’d take a real close look at that report that says he doesn’t remember anything since Dublin. But Moriarty Junior? Not happening. Not after Russia.”
Phil grimaced. Yeah. He got it.
“He saved his father in Russia,” Steve pointed out.
Aaaand maybe Steve didn’t get it. Though Tony thought that maybe Captain America protested too much. “You dealt with the Resistance, right?”
“Yeah,” Steve said, evidently not happy.
Oh good. There was some practical sense under the shiny stars. “Forgery, sabotage, espionage, the whole ball of covert ops wax,” Tony listed off. “And they were able to do all that because they knew people who knew people. Sometimes very bad people.”
“...Yeah,” Steve sighed. “They had connections. Contacts.”
“Debts to call in,” Tony said flatly. “Snatching Senior out from under Britva’s claws? Artemis owes people. No way around that. Maybe he’s paid off those debts since, but people don’t forget. And if he has paid those debts off....” Damn it, this really did cut close to home. He’d been young and smart and bored, taking bigger and bigger risks just to see if anything could stop him. Until a bomb finally had. “Then he’s good at it, Steve. And if you’re good at dancing on the edge like that? It’s really, really hard to quit.” He shrugged, giving Phil a calculating look. “You ask me, I’d guess the kid disappeared himself, instead of dealing with Daddy Goody-Two-Shoes saying stay inside and do your homework.”
Okay, that was an interesting huh. Tony raised an eyebrow, swiping his fingers toward himself in an all right, lay it on me.
“You know, I could see that,” Steve said thoughtfully. “Just, not for that reason.”
Tony sat up, intrigued. Because okay, maybe they were still getting the hang of this whole teamwork thing, and maybe Steve would never be winning prizes in experimental nuclear physics. But Steve could still swing a mean wrench at exactly the right place when stuff needed to be put together or yanked apart, and he was better at people than Tony had ever been.
Then again, there were probably lonely rocks in the desert better at people than Tony was. See Obadiah Stane, various disasters thereof. That was why he’d hired Pepper.
“He spent three years looking for his father,” Steve said simply. “No matter what it took. I know if I’d had any shot at getting my father back, I’d have done - well, a lot worse things than I did. But Artemis actually did it. And everything should have been okay. That’s what Dads do; they fix things too big for a kid. Or if it can’t be fixed, at least they’re there.”
Obviously Steve had never dealt with the wonder that was Howard Stark as a father. But Coulson was listening, in that intent agent way he had, so maybe there was something to what Steve said after all. A smidge. A snowflake.
“Except Mr. Fowl didn’t fix this,” Steve went on. “And if he’s saying the family has to go completely straight - then he’s not letting Artemis fix it, either. Like you said; no one can just walk away from favors like that. So Artemis has been lying to his father ever since Mr. Fowl got back. He didn’t have a choice. That....” Steve shook his head. “Yeah. With everything hurting that much, I might have run away, too.”
Phil was studying Steve, face as blank as Tony’d ever seen it. “You should be aware that no less than five separate psychiatrists have diagnosed Artemis as sociopathic. Someone literally incapable of caring about another human being, except how he can use them.”
Ah. Yeah. That would be bad, Tony reflected. Except wait, Phil had almost called Artemis harmless. And if there was one thing a sociopath never was, it was harmless.
“F. Roy Dean Schlippe.” Steve rolled his eyes. “If he’s smart enough to write about psychology he’s smart enough to fool psychiatrists. It’s not that hard. The Mafiya were going to murder his father just to get money out of him. Of course he’s pretending not to care about people. If he doesn’t care, it doesn’t do the bad guys any good to threaten people, does it?”
Phil relaxed a bit. “Well, you just read the situation better than most of our analysts.”
Wait, what? “You mean that crazy little hacker really does care about his family?” Tony blurted out.
“Strongly enough that Butler asked for my help vetting the agents looking after the Fowls,” Phil nodded. “He didn’t say it, but he made it quite clear that if something happened to them while Artemis was in no condition to stop it.... That might be a very final last straw.”
As in damn the torpedoes, I’m blowing up the world ‘cause I really don’t care about anyone anymore, Tony reflected. Yeah. Bad. “So not run off. Really kidnapped.” Tony ran their conversation back through his mind. “Wait, you said Butler didn’t give the authorities any details-”
“He did tell me a few things that have never seen the official reports,” Phil acknowledged. “I’ve had the relevant SHIELD personnel working the leads, but it’s not something the Avengers could have helped with.”
“Oh no?” Tony wriggled his fingers, ready for a good hack.
“No,” Phil said firmly. “If that changes, you’ll be the first to know. For now, we let the Fowls try to sort this out in the family. Butler has my number.” He closed that email and opened another. “If you really want to get into something the Avengers can help with, I have some reports that hint Victor von Doom might be sending robotic submarines down to WWII shipwrecks beyond the Straits of Gibraltar. Any ideas what he might be after?”
Oh, yay, Doom. Why couldn’t Reed Richards handle the maniac once and for all?
Ah well. Could be worse. If Doom was using submarines, he wasn’t using magic.
Yeah. Look on the bright side. We’ll end up fighting some major underwater battle over a lost superweapon and nearly dying from lasers, robots, or just plain old bends, but not magic. Anything but magic.
Cheered, Tony peered at the map.