"I was starting to feel bad for you
And I knew you'd turn me down
A fight for you to see through
An ideal to live up to
That's what you counted for"
Artemis was right. I didn't like new Artemis.
At first I fantasized that maybe Artemis was wrong, that he would be exactly the same when he returned. But, being the cleverclogs he is, he was right on the money. New Artemis walked with that same cold purpose and spoke with the same sharp tongue that he used to have, when I first met him. He even seemed colder than when I first knew him, if that was even possible. In his eyes I saw not the slightest trace of happiness when he recognized me in the gloom of that broom closet. He might as well have said to my face, 'Oh. It's you. Ugh.'
Well, he probably wouldn't say 'Ugh.' Probably something like 'Mon Dieu' or something equally dismissive. Before he'd left, I could always pick out a fleck of appreciation in his eyes. But now it'd been smothered, lost in the cold blue expanse of his royal blue eyes. It was as if all those times we'd shared meant nothing to him anymore. How could he have forgotten me, his very first friend?
When I broke down in the cab, I wasn't just crying because my mom is a total *#$#&. I'd known that for years from the horror stories that Dad would tell me. I was crying because I was afraid that I'd lost Old Arty. New Artemis acted as if he'd never found himself, as if he'd died out there in the world.
No, not died. Not lost. Forgotten.
Artemis put an arm around me, something that even I hadn't expected in my emotional low. My sob froze in its tracks. I looked up at Artemis with wide eyes, my heart brimming with hope at this sign. His face twisted a little, surely feeling awkward at this tender expression. I smiled at him, brushing hair out of my face and straightening a little.
"I-it's okay," he said softly, retracting his arm as if scared of showing himself. He was taking baby steps, rediscovering friendship's meaning-just like that lunch period all that time ago. "I've been there. When I was only a lad, I...I lost my father. For two years I searched, but in vain. When I finally did rescue him, he...he was different. He was a new person. He used to be cold, clever, just like me. But now he's warmer, and it's...weird. Like when I first met you. You baffled me, and you still do. But…"
"But?" I prompted, his pause lasting longer than I had patience for. He smiled at me, and for the barest, most precious glimmer, I saw Arty.
"But I like it." he said.
As soon as the driver pulled up, I swung the door open before he could put on the parking brake and swaggered onto the driveway. Artemis followed suit on the other side of the car, looking around furtively as if he were afraid of the world now that he had revealed his soft inner sanctum. Like I would betray his secret-he'd given me a much bigger one less than a week ago. I tapped in the passcode for the gate on a shiny keypad, tapping my foot impatiently as the wrought-iron gate took its sweet time opening for me. Artemis cast his gaze over 'my' property, looking as poorly impressed as I was the first time I'd come to my new home. Well, 'home' was as fitting a term for my place as 'mom' was for my biological maternal parent.
"It's nothing special," I lamented as I finally walked through, allowing the taxi to drive away. "I mean, it is to 'mom,' but it really is nothing special. Me and Dad's mobile trailer back west-that was something special. Something I'd trade this for in a heartbeat."
"Your mother spared no expense, did she?" observed Artemis, eyeing the square acre of rolling green land and the fat mansion plopped in the middle of it. I'd seen the whole thing more times than I'd like, but I guess I should describe it anyway. The whole estate is fenced off by spiky iron fence, and trees aren't allowed except for a cluster of conifers around the house itself and the lavish gardens. Out of these trees streaked two low-to-the-ground and incredibly fast figures. At the sight of them, my face broke into the devilish grin that Artemis knew all too well.
"Brace yourself, Arty," I said ominously. He made no move to act on my warning, instead looking at the oncoming figures with increasing fear. Sighing at him, I reverted to my coach vs. rookie instinct.
"You call that a stance?" I insulted, planting my hands on his shoulders and pulling them forward. He stumbled with less grace than I would expect from a man of his caliber, then widened his feet to compensate for the loss of balance. "Lower your center of gravity! Plant those feet on the ground! You're about to be tackled in the gut by a hundred and ten pounds of fur and muscle, make it worth his while! Honestly, you call yourself a man? I know saplings that are more steadfast than you!"
"Is the shouting really necessary?" asked Artemis, his own voice rising in volume in an attempt to compete with mine. I nodded, dropping into my own football stance.
"May Dog have mercy on your skeleton," I rumbled, relishing the look of horror on his face as he was ran flat by what appeared to be a black wolf.
I was subsequently glomped by a giant white-and-red borzoi. I ruffled his long, wavy coat of fur from his neck to his shoulders, spouting pet babble as he licked my face off. By the time I rolled up into a sitting position, his entire body was wagging from his mid-spine down. I gave him a bear hug around his shoulders, completely ignoring Artemis's muffled pleas for help from under my huge german shepherd mix. But then the black dog noticed me and jumped up on me, reaching all the way to my shoulders to try and out-compete the borzoi in the lick-Diane's-face-off olympics.
Artemis got to his feet, muttering something about his newly soiled school uniform. By now I had engaged in a tussle with my dogs, eventually getting them both on their backs and panting with happiness. Artemis looked on in equal parts wonder and indignance as I gave them belly rubs.
"I should've known you were a dog person," he grumbled with a hint of contempt. I finally got up, brushing grass stains off my jeans whilst absentmindedly scratching a pair of ears.
"Of course I am," I shrugged, as if that were obvious. "Meet Boris and Blackie. Well, technically, Boris is Mom's-political gift from some Russian count. Blackie came with me from America. He couldn't stand being away from me; a week after I left, he broke into Dad's trailer and tore it up like a tornado."
Artemis looked a little apprehensive as Blackie leaned into his leg, undoubtedly about to topple himself under Blackie's weight. "The way they came at me, they're either the best guard dogs or the worst."
"Trust me, they're the best," I corrected, walking up the brick walkway to the front doors. "Well, at least Blackie is. Boris is a little shy around strangers, so he tends to avoid them. The only reason he came tearing down towards us is so that he could get at me. Blackie, on the other hand, has this intuition that lets him know immediately whether or not someone's here with permission or not. If you are, he's your best friend. If you're not, he'll rip you to shreds. Apparently he'd done that before, but that was before the shelter picked him up and rehabbed him."
Artemis didn't look any more assured after being told that the dog that was begging him to be petted was an ex-mangler of humans. I swung the door open, completely ignoring the ballroom-sized front room and waltzing towards the stairwell. But I froze for a moment-Blackie's fur was raised, and he was growling. Not at Artemis, though judging by the look on my friend's face, he didn't know that. I looked around, though it was very likely that what Blackie sensed was something I could not. Nothing I could do about it now.
"Easy, boy," I murmured, scratching Blackie's ears. Groaning unhappily, my dog escorted Artemis up the stairs beside me, Boris on my other side. But I couldn't shake the feeling that something wasn't right.
That something was about to go horribly wrong.