True to Artemis's prediction, they arrived at the spot they needed to be at in order for Mulch to utilize his secret way in less than ten minutes later. Mulch seemed dismayed to learn that Holly and Artemis already knew about it, but really, with people from the future he should have been expecting it by now.
Mulch's spirits couldn't be dampened for long however as he eagerly anticipated the major haul he would be getting. “Nice clay,” he commented, putting his oversized mouth to the ground. “Tastes like profit.”
Holly got out of the car after Artemis and Mulch, and was hit with a blast of intoxicatingly clear, fresh air. She breathed deeply. Sometimes she forgot just how wonderful the world was aboveground.
Holly pushed thoughts of the country out of her mind for the moment however and remembered Mulch pawing the ground, his greedy eyes bright with anticipation. She recalled again then that this was not the Mulch she knew from their time and knew she would have to deal with the dwarf the way she had before they had become friends – that meant threats, generally. The bribery part had always been secondary.
She went over to where the dwarf was crouching and kicked him with the side of Artemis's expensive shoe. Not hard enough to really hurt him, but enough to get his attention and knock him over.
“There will be no profit for you if we can't get into the terminal unseen,” she reminded him irritably.
“I thought we were supposed to be friends,” the dwarf sulked, getting to his feet. “Easy with the kicking and punching. Are you always this aggressive?”
True, she had also punched him earlier for burying her when he could have just as easily simply covered her mouth, and also because it had seemed to her like a good means of recovery after the uncomfortable moment with Artemis.
Sad as it was, she had to admit she felt more like her old self when she was abusing the kleptomaniac dwarf. Also, though Mulch probably didn't know it, she considered it fair payback for the embarrassing 'Arty this, Arty that' comment from earlier.
Holly chose to ignore the question and kept pressing him for reassurance that he could do what he claimed, even though she knew very well what he was capable of. Better to keep on the aggressive side and maintain the upper hand.
She was a little surprised however to learn that Mulch would have to leave them behind for a short while, as the tunnel was too long to allow anyone to follow – or at least for anyone who didn't particularly want to be covered in tunnel recyclings.
With one last parting jab at Artemis after Artemis told the dwarf they would give him fifteen minutes, Mulch dove into the ground, disappearing from view in a matter of seconds. Holly and Artemis were alone.
Holly for one felt suddenly awkward, all the things she had been planning to say promptly deserting her.
Artemis, on the other hand, was looking at the place where Mulch had been a moment before, a look of something like admiration on his face. “What a species. If they could take their minds off their stomachs for a few minutes, they could rule the world.”
The comment was enough to break the tension and Holly out of her temporary state of embarrassment. She almost laughed. Now there was the Artemis she knew.
Holly alighted easily onto the car's hood, where she laid back against the windshield glass. She closed her eyes and felt the gentle warmth of the rising sun on her face, thoroughly relaxed.
“Maybe they don't want to rule the world,” she suggested, the hint of a smile on her lips. “Maybe that's just you, Arty.”
Artemis said nothing in reply and a short silence followed.
Now's your chance, she thought. Just come out and say it.
Instead she heard herself saying conversationally, “It's a pity we had to steal this car. But the note we left was clear enough. The owner should find it without a problem.”
“Yes, the car,” said Artemis, though he sounded as if his mind was elsewhere.
Say it, she told herself. Just say it.
She felt the weight of the car dip as Artemis came to sit beside her. She expected him to say something then. To make a comment about how the mission was going perhaps, or to ask her a technical question about the equipment or something similar in order to gather more information, as he was forever doing, but he said nothing.
Minutes passed and though the short time seemed exceptionally long as she worried about working up the courage to open her mouth, she found herself also not wanting this time to end.
Still Artemis didn't speak and it occurred to her that Artemis knew what she wanted to say, and he was now just waiting for her to say it. This would probably be her last opportunity after all, before they went back to their own time. Once they returned and got reconnected to their own separate worlds once more, they would probably never be this isolated, this close ever again.
For some reason, despite how much she missed all their friends, that thought made her feel a bit melancholy.
She forced herself to snap out of it. That was not the point. The point was, she reminded herself, that this may be her last chance to explain herself, to alleviate this awkwardness between them they were both at the moment pretending not to notice. One thing she knew, she did not want to leave Artemis' impression of her so unresolved, to let him think she was the kind of person who could be so distracted, made so unreliable because of some silly adolescent fantasy.
Holly opened her eyes, allowing them to flicker toward Artemis sitting on the hood beside her. She made herself speak at last.
“Sorry about earlier,” she blurted, wishing she could sound as casual as if this just happened to be a passing thought, and not the very subject she'd been going over and over in her mind practically the entire car ride over. She continued hesitantly. “You know, the thing.”
“The kiss?” asked Artemis, showing little sign of perturbation at actually saying the dreaded word.
Holly found she could not look at him as she felt hot embarrassment creeping up her face. She had to close her eyes again to keep her voice steady. As she went on, she forced herself to pace the words, keeping them even and natural even though her every instinct wanted her to say everything in a rush and get it all out and over with a soon as possible.
“Yes,” she answered, then added honestly, “I don't know what's happening to me. We're not even the same species. And when we go back, we will be ourselves again.”
She could have groaned. This wasn't what she wanted to say – these things that only made what she was feeling even more sadly obvious.
Holly pressed a hand to her face, fingers extended to cover both her eyes, a burning feeling a little like shame starting at the front of her forehead and slowly spreading through her like the heating of an iron.
“Listen to me,” she said, lips half twitching into a self-mocking smile. “Babbling. The LEP's first female captain.”
And now she was prattling on even more. Artemis was almost always so efficient with his words, perhaps he would soon start to get impatient. She needed to hurry up and get to the point. “That time stream has turned me into what you would call a teenager again,” she finished. That would explain it to him. That was the real excuse for why she was acting this way.
Holly pulled her hand away from her face and slowly opened her eyes to see Artemis's reaction, and found he was watching her intently from behind a curtain of dark hair.
As usual, she could not tell what he was thinking behind those sharp, mismatched eyes. Even her magical empathy was so weak at the moment she could only get the vaguest sense of a confusion of mixed feelings. But once again, she didn't see hostility or annoyance in those eyes.
Now she would say it. Give them both the resolution they needed to this little episode, and make things the same as they had always been between them.
Oh well, it's like you said. This is all temporary, no more than dress-up. We'll be ourselves again soon enough. I'll be myself again.
If she could just say that, this would all be over, and they could both breathe a sigh of relief as their easy, straight-forward friendship went back to normal.
The words were already on her tongue as she stared back into Artemis's mismatched eyes, the light from the rising sun illuminating his pale face.
But Holly Short had never been much good at lying, especially to herself. And so she said instead, smiling softly, despite all the worries that ate away inside her, despite her lack of confidence, “What if I'm stuck like this? That wouldn't be so bad, would it?”
Holly felt strangely as if a weight had been lifted off her chest, cliché as it was. To finally allow herself to admit this simple fact was such a relief, as though she had been released from a great struggle, the struggle to forcibly suppress those sentiments she hadn't wanted to acknowledge.
Silence filled the space between them as she waited for a response. She had no clear expectation for what she thought he would say, she could not guess for certain what he was thinking or feeling.
She would not have been surprised if, pragmatic and focused as always, his answer was something like, 'We can talk abut that once we rescue the lemur and my mother is well again, Captain' or 'It is highly unlikely that you will remain in that state once we return, so further discussion of it would be immaterial.' She would be able to live with those. She could shrug, smiling, and say, 'Okay, you're the genius.' Even if it hurt, even if it was hard, it was only to be expected.
And yet, deep down she felt there was a small part of her heart that could almost dare to believe, that could consider the possibility that he might after all be favorably disposed...
Artemis rarely showed much in the way of emotion, save when it came to the well-being of his parents. He always kept himself calm and in control, so that his emotions could not cloud his judgment, or be used against him. As the two of them sat there, on the hood of the stolen Mini Cooper, holding one another's gazes, he appeared the same as he usually did, face smooth, thoughts concealed behind an unyielding composure.
But then, his careful mask of control and calm flickered, then split. His face twisted as though he was in pain, eyes stricken, haunted, as they had been when he spoke of what he had done to the lemur.
He spoke suddenly, as though the words had been punched out of his mouth, words that brought the adolescent Holly Short crashing back to reality.
“It wasn't you, Holly.”
And so, that's all there is. Thanks for reading this far, and hoped you enjoyed it (or certain parts of it) at least a little. (: This is the point I decided I needed to write up to for the sake of the fanfiction, so I don't intend to go further.
Although, recently I've been playing around with ideas for the rest of the book from Holly's point of view (the Extinctionist's compound would be fun, and when Holly goes to get Artemis after his plane ride), but I won't even consider writing the last half unless I feel like there was enough room in each later scene for enough new material/interesting, non-apparent ideas to make it worthwhile.
So yeah, I guess for all real intents and purposes, this is the end of the fic. Please feel free to leave any comments (what you liked, what you didn't, etc.) or questions you might have, or point out any criticisms. (:
(Writing a parallel story and finding the right balance between bringing enough new material so as to make it qualify as a 'fanfiction' and also providing enough regurgitation/summaries of the story from the original book to still string everything together into a continuous storyline was even harder than I thought, and there are lots of areas I'm not happy with still x3)