In which a way is found.
Sarah opened her eyes to nothing. There was nothing to see.
Except that wasn't right. What eyes? Not eyes. Not-eyes.
She went to take a breath, but no, that wasn't right either. No breath, not breath, not-breath -
Her mind began shrieking, scrambling for some sensation, anything at all. But there was nothing because there was nothing.
She shrieked into the not-ness with her not-voice until she mercifully lost consciousness again.
This repeated itself an uncountable number of times until, finally, it didn't. A calm like the time after endings whispered over her.
(Or perhaps), suggested a quiet grain of thought, (a calm like the time before beginnings. In the beginning, it is always dark.)
Her consciousness paused as it skated the edge of flailing panic, recognizing the quote from The Neverending Story. Even if The Neverending Story didn't actually exist anymore. Because nothing did in this not-ness.
Except, apparently, me. And that single grain of thought.
Her sense of Heroic Protagonist kindled, rising inside her like a phoenix.
Trapped in a void of not-ness? So fucking what. The Universe is made of stories, not of atoms. Muriel Rukeyser knew that. The Universe is made of stories.
At that, she felt a curious forming of substance within her. Indescribable. Ineffable.
Or was it?
She had the urge to speak into the not-ness, and found to her surprise that she had both breath and voice. "Once upon a time..."
"Stop." The word shattered in the strange fluidity of not-time. Not-Jareth swelled endlessly around her, through her, inside her, digging for that unfathomable, untouchable speck of substance.
She felt her lips then, and stretched them into an ironic smile. "Make me."
He dove deeper, reaching and pulling and scraping. If she still had a body, he would have consumed it utterly. But she didn't, though her lips and breath collapsed away beneath his assault.
He couldn't touch the speck cradled inside her, though. His grasp slipped around it, off it, through it, but never to it, as if it existed in a place beyond him.
Ha! Thbbbbbbbbbt. Her breath re-formed around the speck, then her voice. "Once. Upon. A Time."
His fury roared forth, massive beyond reckoning. "I said stop!" It was a sound that would have sundered galaxies, if there were still galaxies to sunder.
But there weren't. Convenient, really.
Her laughter danced between them, light as fairies and twice as bold. "Or what? You'll rip off my mouth and slice out my brain? Spare me your theatrics. My will is as strong as yours and I am officially sick of this shit."
He paused his incursion, regarding her with a sucking maelstrom of not-eyes.
She smiled again, a feral baring of teeth. Hey, teeth. Nice to have you back. "I say it's time for a story."
The force of him battered her again, roiling with dissolution. "Far too late for that."
"Says you. And since you can't stop me, you might as well listen."
A shadow of disdain flowed through him for the briefest of moments, sketching shape and form, a hint of nose, a sweep of cheekbone. "Your words have no power over me."
"Don't they?" She shrugged. Helloooooo, shoulders. "You seem a mite tetchy about my opening line for someone who's immune to my words." She leaned forward into him, wrapping her essence around the speck inside her so that his will cascaded past her like water. Gotcha.
He stared at her, watching his infinite power slide right off.
She winked at him. "You know what? I'm just going to tell my story anyway. Maybe someone's listening."
His eyes narrowed as he retracted his power. "Tell it to nothing and no one, stupid girl." He slammed back out of existence then, leaving her alone in the void.
"That's twinkle bat to you, honey," she muttered. She took a deep breath. Heh, lungs. Been missing those. She savored the sensation of that breath for a long and glorious moment, and then it was time to begin. "Once upon a time, there was a king who lost his way so very very badly that everything seemed lost forever. But, gentle listener, I'm here to tell you that it most certainly wasn't."
It was the first of countless stories Sarah told into the not-ness. Kings who came to their senses after falling hard from grace predominated, of course. But there were so many others, too. Ones with goblins and stars. Ones with masquerades and siblings and Heel-Face Turns. Ones with princesses and pedicures and penguins and trebuchets. Ones with Muriel Rukeyser and David Bowie and J.R.R. Tolkien and Michael Ende and Jim Henson. Ones with tvtropes and googledocs and books with large friendly letters saying "Don't Panic", ones with drabbles and luck dragons and lattes, ones with Aramaic and astrophysics and finding your one true love.
It was everything she had gathered from human collective memory from before, spooling out endlessly from the speck inside her. And she told these stories over and over and over again, until they flowed from her without conscious thought.
It took a very long time. Nothing happened in the not-ness (which was fitting, really - it was not-ness). But inside her, she felt the speck of substance strengthening, fed eeeeeeever-sooooooo-sloooooooowly on the stories she shaped from it.
She felt not-Jareth on occasion, too. Pushing, testing, searching for a way into, a way through. Listening with an enemy's careful attention.
Maybe listening for other reasons. A girl can hope.
She smiled to herself. A seed of hope in an oubliette of not-ness. Seemed like a fine story component. "Once upon a time..."
Time was immeasurable in the void, of course, so words like "midnight" and "afternoon" and "twilight" were merely fanciful terms Sarah used in her endless stories. But, since she had absolute say over such things, she decided it was dawn when the untouchable speck of substance inside her yielded a sudden infinitesimal and irrefutable flame.
She had just the words for it. "Yehi or," she breathed, adrenaline and hope fluttering together. "Genetheto phos. Fiat lux." The flame pulsed inside her, against the void, cradled and caressed by her intent. "Let there be light."
She let the filament dreams of Memory embedded in her consciousness swirl into it, expanding it with the imperceptible slowness of ripening fruit. It took eons or femtoseconds or something in between - what did it matter? The light was, and that was everything. Soon enough it was a golden bubble of possibility held against her core, glittering into the void, shivering, straining, waiting to be let free. So many seeds lay inside, each one a narrative singularity bursting with potential.
The Universe is made of stories.
In the shadows cast by the light, she saw him. At last.
Not-Jareth had assumed a breath-takingly familiar form. There were the beautiful patrician features she remembered, the lips on the verge of quirking, the eyes holding everything back. There were the tapered fingers, the lean limbs with their whipsnap sharpness, the sinuous curve of neck and shoulder. All of it was carved from darkness. But darkness was something far far different than not-ness.
She smiled. She had something for darkness too, courtesy of Madeleine L'Engle's A Swiftly Tilting Planet and the Faedh Fiada. "I've brought you a gift."
She moved closer to him, and began a whisper of secrets fueled by the light held against her. "With Jareth in this fateful hour, I place all Heaven with its power." A narrative seed glided forth, golden and glistening between them. "And the sun with its brightness, and the snow with its whiteness, and the fire with all the strength it hath." Golden tendrils glittered and grew, seeking and shining and filling. "And the lightning with its rapid wrath, and the winds with their swiftness along their path." Golden roots sank in, penetrating, being. "And the sea with its deepness, and the rocks with their steepness, and the earth with its starkness." She could see into his eyes for the first time in unspeakable ages, the barest hint of something reflected there. "All these I place, with God's almighty help and grace, between myself and the powers of the darkness."
The force of her words rolled wild between them, thundering and quickening.
His face was a breath away, but still shrouded with darkness. "What have you done?"
She lifted her chin, holding his gaze, breathing in his icy exhalation. "Built us a nice little gilt prison-kingdom full of Sunday visit time. Wanna come, honey?"
She blew the golden bubble of possibility from her lips, still holding it together, concentrating its potency. It wafted gently as dandelion fluff.
It hit him with a sound like a nonillion stars being born.
She was blinded for a moment, immobile in the all-consuming light, quark-gluon plasma, whatever it was. But when she could see again, moments, ages, 10^-37 seconds later-
His eyes sparked crystalline, his hair sunbright as he stepped into her, wrapping her in his arms and kissing her hair, her cheeks, her forehead, her lips. "Oh yes, twinkle bat. Yes, I do."
She sighed into him, tears streaming along her cheeks as she released the reins of the golden bubble with its infinite narrative potential. It expanded to cover them both in the space of a heartbeat, and then beyond to the size of a house, then a city, then a planet, a galaxy, a universe.
His forehead pressed to hers, his eyes closed. "I hated what I was. What I did. But I couldn't-"
"I know." She shook her head. "God almighty, do I know. Narrative exigency and service to the realm and all. But still, through dangers untold and hardships unnumbered..." She snorted softly. "Think it worked to bring in outside interest?"
"I should bloody well think so. If not, outside interest has no taste."
She buried her face in his neck, choking on a laugh. "I love you so damned much."
"And I you. Forever and always."
"Not long at all." Her breath was hot against his skin, smothering more giddy laughter. "Relatively speaking."
"You don't say."
"Let's not do this again anytime soon, okay?"
"So pacted." Something tried to not-tinkle and snapped like a broken guitar string.
She jerked back, staring at him, speechless for a moment. "Did you just make a Faerie promise in my brand new universe?"
He kissed her lightly on the lips. "Different rules this time round, I think. Your universe and all, love."
She collapsed back into his shoulder. "Damned right it is. Let's go home, honey."
Author's Notes: And lo! The promised happy-ish ending, which seems relatively peachy after what they both just went through. This also seems like a fine place to leave off, given the completed epic suffering arc. ;) Thank you to all my wonderful readers who kept me going throughout with your brilliant comments, reviews, and general attention. :: writerly love :: You guys are the best.
Special thanks to Ellen Weaver, whose influence spurred me along new narrative avenues time and again.