Part Fourteen

Sarah had been terrified, was now worried and was about to be furious. There's a nice progression there, a sort of idiot's alternative to the conventional five phases of dealing with grief. Not exactly grief , though. Hallmark doesn't make cards for what Sarah's been going through.

At least, they don't for the moment.

If things don't look up soon, it's entirely likely that cards featuring a sad puppy with a sign in its mouth reading: 'I'm dog-gone sorry that you're in a battle of wits with a supernatural entity!' will be coming soon to a pharmacy near you.

(And, because some things are inevitable, when you open the card it will say, 'Especially because you're unarmed! Ha Ha!' in big round letters. There'll probably be a smiley face, too. Bastards.)

Putting merchandising possibilities aside, Sarah was currently finding that hoping that someone would just go away didn't work any better on an ordinary person than it did on Jareth, although the adjective 'ordinary' can't really be applied to someone who is currently suffering the focus of a very intense and very localized thunderstorm.

"Sarah?" Lisa said in a trembling voice from inside the eye of the storm. She spit out a mouthful of water and grimaced.

"What?" Sarah said defensively.

"What's going on?"

Lisa was soaked to the skin now and the rain showed no signs of stopping. A close observer might have noticed that there was no rain on the floor, and an even closer observer might have realized that this was because the water was vanishing a micron before it hit the ground.

A ridiculously close observer, possibly someone out on a walking tour of the subatomic level, might even have noticed that the very same water molecules that didn't hit the floor were reappearing a second later inside the cloud, ready for another go.

If all these observers got together at a bed and breakfast somewhere in Maine and met to compare notes over a nice brunch, they would conclude that all this proved two things:

It proved that magic understands the idea of recycling, which should come as a relief to all those who were worried that Jareth was just spending magic willy-nilly with no thought for the countless future generations of mortals who have a god-given right to wish their loved ones away, fight to get them back and in the process be terrorized just as lavishly as everyone else and with just as many musical numbers and costume changes.

(This should come as a special sort of relief to all those who have been wondering why Jareth isn't answering their calls. Whatever the reason, it's not budget cuts. Try wearing spandex, preferably some with animal prints, and calling him a twit at random intervals. That should get results.)

More relevantly, it also proved that the storm isn't going to be running out of water soon... in fact, not ever.

Why would Jareth do this? Sarah thought.

On the textile plane of hearing, Sarah's shirt was doing a fair approximation of an evil chortle directed at Lisa's silent blouse - silent because the language of fabric is the language of shifting and the blouse was currently pushed down by the remorseless pounding water. Water poured into its seams and spread through its fibres and held it trapped and silent and blinded and terrified. (For clothes, the washing machine is a dark and noisy hell.)

Sarah's shirt continued to chortle.

"It's all right," Sarah said to Lisa. "It's the sprinkler. That's all."

Lisa blinked at her. She opened her mouth and made a noise that sounded like, "A glugAGH?"

"Yes," Sarah said, having had a great deal of experience in fear-to-English translation. "A sprinkler."

Lisa crossed her (wet) arms over her (wet) chest, her mouth set in a thin line.

"Hang on for a minute, okay?" Sarah said, becoming aware of the gathering crowd. "Then we'll talk."

Lisa rolled her eyes, but nodded. She uncrossed her arms with a damp squelch and sat down on the bench, staring intently at Sarah and blinking hard to keep the water out of her eyes.

Sarah looked around to appraise the situation. It wasn't looking good. There was now quite a large crowd gathered around them, and there were faces the store windows. There was also a hastily lettered sign that read, "All WET? Why not buy one of our all-weather parkas?"

"You know," someone in the crowd said to his wife, "I never really did understand what 'climate controlled' meant. This must be it, eh?"

"It doesn't look all that controlled to me," his wife replied in a pinched voice.

"You just don't understand technology, dear." The man said and there was something in the way he said 'dear' that made the people standing near the couple start slowly edging away.

People were rationalizing nicely, Sarah thought, and that was good. But if this went on for much longer someone was bound to show up who didn't see this as cheap entertainment. Soon or later there were going to be official people. People who knew about weather. Yes, Sarah thought with mounting hysteria, there could be meteorologists in the mall right now, coming to find out about this unauthorized weather.

She had to get Lisa out of sight before they found out about the Labyrinth!

"All I'm saying, darling, is that I think a climate control system is like a very large air conditioner. Or, as you would put it, sweetheart, 'a big box'. That, I believe, is a cumulus nimbus storm cloud. Do you see the difference, pumpkin?"

This is the point where a rational observer who'd opted out of the brunch would note that every person who knows about and believes in the Labyrinth is one more vote for mass hysteria and one less for solitary insanity. It's always best to go bananas in a bunch.

Unfortunately, Sarah lost the 'rational logic' attachment for her mental toolkit about five seconds after Jareth flew through her window and her Get A Grip on Reality wrench set has never even been taken out of the shrink-wrap.

"That won't be necessary, dumpling. How wonderful for me to have a wife who knows everything about everything and is never, never wrong! Sweetness."

Lisa, for her part, was rapidly approaching the state of mind where a glass of cold water to the face is normally called for. Luckily, should anyone want to try that approach there happens to be a large quantity of freezing water conveniently located- oh. Never mind.

Taking a deep breath, Sarah grabbed Lisa's arm. The shock of water on her skin came as something of an anticlimax after nearly being drowned, or possibly devoured by hand dryers, or possibly devoured by Something else. (stop that!)

When she turned to pull Lisa away, Sarah nearly bumped into a man being mercilessly pummelled by a woman half his size.

"Darling." The man said forcefully, getting her in a headlock. "Sugar."

"Lovey bear." The woman growled and kicked him in an area of the male body that is called 'sensitive' by prudish women and which frightened men prefer to refer to as 'Not there not there! Aarghhhhh'

"Dear-ghhhh..." The man said, crumpling like a paper bag. He fell to the floor, landing heavily at the woman's feet.

Okay, Sarah thought bemusedly, that's not normal. What the heck is Jareth doing?

Still, no point wasting a good distraction. Taking a firmer hold on Lisa's wrist, Sarah half-led, half-dragged her friend towards a side exit while the crowd was still watching the woman do her victory dance. The cloud trailed after them like a child's balloon, but larger. And wetter. And really not much like a balloon at all, except for the trailing.

Sarah pushed open the side exit and pulled Lisa out after her. The cloud ducked under the door and followed them out into a small empty smoking area that was ringed with tall hedges and carpeted with a gritty dust. There was sunshine there, looking vaguely inappropriate as it shone brightly on the dark and swollen cloud.

Sarah waited hopefully for the cloud to float away. It continued to hover a steady ten inches above Lisa's head, raining smugly.

Sarah sighed. Still, she thought, at least the cloud looked slightly less conspicuous outdoors. After all, clouds are supposed to be outdoors. And clouds are supposed to rain on people, right? Clouds are supposed to have blue pulses of light inside of them... right? And they're supposed to twist in on themselves like meteorological Slinkies... right? Right?

Uh oh, Sarah thought.

Sarah stared at the cloud. So did Lisa, despite the fact that tilting her head back at this point was an experience akin to unscrewing a fire hydrant using only her teeth. Drowning didn't matter.

Not when the cloud was wavering like that. Not when there were things that looked like tentacles in the heart of it, and other things that looked like they were screaming, and still other things that looked like they were laughing and yes, all right, there was one thing that looked exactly like the hamster that Sarah had when she was eight but one hamster does not a happy scene make.

"Brownie?" Sarah said in a strangled voice.

You'll really like this one, Sarah's shirt insinuated to Lisa's blouse in a mocking rasp.

"Sarah?" Lisa said without looking away from the cloud, which was becoming larger as it pulled the rain back up into itself. "Should we run?" she asked.

"It'd follow us. They always do." Sarah said numbly. She thought she could make out faces in the cloud.

"Oh." Lisa said, and took Sarah's hand.

They watched as the cloud expanded and gained clarity. There were definitely faces there now. Faces and teeth and other things not as identifiable and wrong in ways that were hard to quantify and impossible to look away from.

Oh god, Sarah thought, her stomach twisting. I didn't think he hated me this much.

You never thought that he hated you at all, a voice whispered back. You thought -

Well, I was an idiot, Sarah thought fiercely. Just a stupid little kid.

Ouch, the voice said. You really know how to hurt a girl.

Sarah watched the cloud do something like a full body heave and she swallowed hard and thought, I don't think I'm the only one.

This is the fun part, Sarah's shirt projected smugly.

The largest face in the cloud leered at Sarah, all dark shadows and shifting slippery cloud stuff and she thought it was coming closer and she wanted to scream. And then there was a light like a thousand spotlights coming on, and Sarah threw her free hand up to shield her eyes and was suddenly looking at dark smudges of bone inside her glowing hand and then she really did scream.

And then it was gone and Sarah blinked hard but couldn't see anything beyond a lot of dancing spots that, given recent events, she just hoped weren't about to bite her and she realized that Lisa was holding on to her hand so tightly that it hurt. Or was she holding on to Lisa? It was hard to tell.

"Are you okay?" Sarah asked the spotty darkness where Lisa should be.

"Yeah," Lisa's voice came back. "Are you?"

"So far. Can you see?" Sarah paused. "Do you see spots?" she asked worriedly.

"No" Lisa's voice trailed off. "Sarah?"

"What? Are there spots?" Sarah asked, blinking furiously. Ah good, the darkness was fading. She was beginning to see light again. A lot of light.

"No spots." Lisa said in an odd tone.

The darkness was almost completely gone now and Sarah looked up. And blinked.

"Don't stare it," Lisa said dreamily. "You'll go blind."

Let there be light, Sarah's shirt conveyed to Lisa's blouse in an unpleasant rasp. Lots of it.

Sarah stared at the small sun where the cloud had been. It's a will of the wisp, she thought. Or a fairy. A fairy with sunspots, she added as a small arc of flame rose and fell on the surface of the glowing ball. Her eyes watered and she had to look away.

"I think," Lisa said carefully, staring at her feet. "That now would be a good time for you to explain."

"Explain what?" Sarah said. She moved her hand back and forth in front of her, fascinated by the perfect blackness of the shadows it cast on the ground.

"Oh, I don't know. You could start with why I have weather!" Lisa said icily. "And what's going on with you and what that cloud was and why the hell do I have weather, Sarah?" She paused. "Are you doing shadow puppets?!"

Sarah hastily straightened out her hand.

"I don't know what to tell you," Sarah said honestly. "Maybe we should talk about this somewhere more private."

"Good idea. We can just walk along to my house, it's only a few blocks away, and I'm sure that none of the people on the way will be at all curious about why I'm my own solar system!"

"I could buy you a hat." Sarah suggested, darting a quick glance sideways at Lisa and wincing as the light hit her eyes. "Sunglasses, too."

"A hat?"

"A big hat!" Sarah said.

"I'm going to kill you," Lisa said seriously, "unless you tell me what's going on right now."

"You can't even shoplift," Sarah said.

"Normally, no. Does this seem normal to you?" Lisa said. "In about ten seconds, I'm going to bend over and if that thing follows my head well, do you know what it looks like when someone gets hit in the stomach by a small sun?"

"No," Sarah said, eyeing the distance to the door. "And neither do you."

"But I'm going to," Lisa said.

There was a noise on the other side of the door.

Sarah grabbed Lisa by the arm and pulled and when the door opened they were already hidden behind the nearest hedge.

Lisa's blouse was now dry enough to get across the message that there was going to be hell to pay for this, and also that it wanted to know where the shirt had learned how to do that.

"Can you see anything?" Sarah whispered to Lisa.

"No," Lisa whispered back, looking through a hole in the hedge. "Wait - I see something."

Sarah's shirt made it clear that it would be useless to tell the blouse anything, because in a few hours the blouse was going to be bleached to sackcloth.

"What is it?" Sarah asked.

"It's" Lisa hesitated and drew back from the hedge. "It's a Hat," Lisa said finally.

"A hat?" Sarah said slowly.

Lisa's blouse curled in a way that implied that, even bleached, it would still be more fashionable than the shirt and also seriously, it wanted to know how the shirt had done that.

Lisa nodded. "A big Hat. With feathers on it."

Sarah twitched and asked, "Is it moving?

Lisa gave her a strange look but put her eye back to the bare patch. "It's a little bit closer, I think, Sar- Sarah?" she said to the empty air where Sarah had been a second ago..

Tell me what you think?

Ah, we're into seriously new territory here. It's frightening, but also very fun. *g*

On a more grovelling note, sorry for the delay. I've been busy and also dumb as a rock. The one will pass, the other I'm pretty sure I'm stuck with. A profound thank you to everyone who prodded me with a stick looking for signs of life.

All reviews replied to, you marvellous people, which has renewed my faith in mankind and also led to me calling people over to the computer saying things like, "No, no, just read this one. And that one, too. Oh, and that one. Here, you want to use my chair? Sit. Where are you going? I said sit."

I should probably stop doing that, eh? People will start to Talk. And hide, also.

Ash "Think of Me as a Harmless Lunatic" Jay