For sometime this chapter was nearly complete except for that enigmatic little note: "Explain time." Apologies for the very long wait. Although there were far fewer personal crises and life is in fact looking up in many brilliant ways, I've been struggling with writing. Both finding time and that horrid block. But the goal is now to find the time and make it happen. I really like the unattainable goal of finishing this before 2010, but I'm not holding myself to it. Its probably a bad time that every other time I upload a chapter, I have to figure out the new format of the website.
Thanks to all who read, especially those who critique, stick with, or rediscover.
Leaps and Bounds
In the end, Jareth ceded his room to his convalescent lover. He stayed busy out of his own lair until Alexander reported that she was capable of walking shakily around his chamber. Alexander soon proposed Sarah leave the dark bedroom in favor of light and fresh air. And the next afternoon, sweet with the smells of newly arrived spring, Jareth found he couldn't stay away any longer.
He waited outside the chamber while Alexander and Sophia transferred the girl into a wicker wheelchair, enjoying Sarah's sparse but relatively happy chatter as she explained how much she longed to leave the sick room—his room. Of course, she didn't know he that could hear her. She said she heard stray traces of birdsong and wanted to see the feathered singers. She wanted to smell the new-bloomed flowers and dance with her filly. As he wheeled her to the door, Alexander told some inane joke and set her laughing.
The cheery laughter died as soon as she left the room and saw him. Her eyes narrowed and her lips pressed tight together. Face set, she stared straight ahead, ignoring Sophia and Alexander's farewells and, Jareth imagined, willing him out of existence. Of course she felt betrayed.
Silently, Jareth took Alexander's place and pushed the chair down the corridor. He planned to take her to the stables to see her mare and sprightly filly. Jareth hoped the visit would make her smile. They continued down the deserted hall in perfect quiet. He hoped she would say something.
They reached a door and a set of steps down. Her knuckles blanched from clutching the arm of the chair. As he carefully maneuvered them down the stairs, slowly, one set of wheels at a time, as not to jostle her, Jareth heard Sarah clear her throat as if biting back a comment or a distrustful sigh.
"I will not let you fall," he murmured, pausing on the steps.
"Why aren't you carrying me?" she accused. "You never missed an opportunity to restrain me before."
Well, certainly not afraid. "I am trying to modify my behavior," he said simply, taking her down the last two steps extra slowly.
Though Jareth thought she might protest or choose to fight, silence reigned. He hoped Sarah would show some recognition when he headed towards the stables, if not excitement. They reached the bottom of the steps. Of course, she refused to say anything to him.
"Since you are progressing well, I plan to send you aboveground within two weeks of our time," he started, lengthening his stride on the flat ground and rolling the chair at a brisk pace.
"You'll be strong enough then to see your family and friends."
Their speed sent a gentle breeze tickling across his cheeks; Jareth thought he might as well continue and simply hope she enjoyed the air. He could give her the information she had asked for even if she didn't respond. He knew Sarah would listen. Besides, he might have a better chance of communicating if she didn't start a fight.
"Although you see spring blooming here," he continued, "time moves quite differently between our worlds. At present, your classmates are preparing for exams before the winter holidays."
She turned her head slightly left; he glimpsed a half-moon sliver of her face. Just below her ear, Jareth thought he saw her lips form a silent word: "Christmas."
"I plan to return you for the duration of the holidays, about a month in your world. You will find us in early summer when you come home," he smiled wryly at the back of her head. She did not protest his usage of the word, which he considered a small, if now somewhat hollow, victory. "The flow of time between our worlds fluctuates, but luckily I possess a great deal of control and have stretched your visit as long as possible. Does this plan please you?"
A barely perceptible nod heartened him.
"I am spinning magic now to make your family believe you have been studying abroad. That is not altogether untrue."
"Studying what?" She returned to looking straight ahead. "Abuse?"
Jareth ignored her comment. "In your world, it has not been so long since you left," he continued. He wouldn't let her start a fight. "Your family will believe you spent the summer and fall at an elite boarding school, where you will complete your last year of high school."
"Yes?" he queried, slowing the pace. Jareth leaned forward, hoping he'd speak.
Sarah took a firmer grip on the arm of the chair. "They'll know me."
"It is what you wanted."
Suddenly breaking her torpor, Sarah grabbed one of the wheels beneath her and wrenched it hard.
Jareth jerked them to a halt, hoping she hadn't hurt her hand. She needed no more wounds. "You could have asked me to stop."
She turned her head sharply to glare at him. Her short hair framed her face in soft spikes. "And then? Will I ever see them again after this? Tell me now."
Jareth shrugged, feigning disinterest. He didn't like to let her go, but he would not lose her. "I fail to see why you couldn't attend university abroad and continue to visit."
"Except they'll find me a blithering idiot." She turned and slumped back into the seat. "And what's the point when the lie must come to an end?"
He reined in his temper and forced the macabre energy into walking. After a few minutes of silence, they approached the stables. "I could teach you," he offered, "Latin, Literature, Calculus, Physics—anything you wanted to learn in your world and more."
She snorted, but said nothing else.
Though Sarah played with spry Aspera, and leaned against steady, gentle Nightengale to curry her velvet coat, she couldn't fully devote herself to the visit when visions of her family kept shuddering in and out of her thoughts. She ignored the king, who kept his distance, excusing himself to visit his stallion.
Sarah braided Nightengale's thick mane and thought of the separate strands of her life. Would it really be better to see them just a little? To keep up the king's charade? She had to tell herself that seeing Toby would heal some of the ache in her heart. Seeing the brother she sacrificed herself for might at least justify some of her pain. Mollify her. But seeing him, and leaving him, might hurt her more. Especially now, her situation was desperate instead of his, but Toby had nothing to trade, nor the maturity to think of such an option.
Then, there was the chance that she could escape him above ground. Escape, and finding a way to her own world, had been her ultimate goal while running in the labyrinth. It seemed unobtainable then, but if he took her between worlds, she might be able to find some way to stay there. Of course, Sarah had no idea how. Of course, he would surely find some equally chance way to drag her back. Of course, she had never truly been able to try, even then. And of course, if she asked her parents for help, they would surely think her mad. But she could escape from a hospital. That would really be a piece of cake.
She didn't want her parents to see her now. Her shame went beyond her lack of education. She felt battered, physically and mentally, her life in tatters. If Sophia and Gilda quipped about her wilted appearance, her parents would surely notice the lack of light in her eyes. Of course she could never waver from the king's elaborately established lie, could never think of telling the truth, but the irony of it would haunt her every interaction with her family. Karen, particularly, had wanted her to grow up, to leave her childish fantasies behind, and she had, relegating them to a place of wishes and dreams. But to find her wishes so perversely fulfilled, and to her own ruin, made her wish she'd truly heeded Karen. Her soul would have emerged less wounded than it was now. Plain, and boring, shallow perhaps, mundane, but whole. To think that her parents had been right about the destructive power of her fairytale, all without even believing in it, hurt too much. She felt as if the worst aspects of being wrong combined to attack her.
Sarah sighed, and stayed silent a long while, numbing her brain as best she could.
"Meditative?" he asked at last.
"I'm really trying not to think about any of it," she replied, surprised by her own honesty.
"Especially not my role in it?" he asked in an unexpectedly gentle tone.
"Arrogant, but true," she muttered. Sarah held up her left hand and turned to him. The ruby ring glittered despite the grime from grooming the horses on her hands. "I'm not wearing this home."
"And why not?"
"Because it looks like an expensive engagement ring and I'm not engaged." Sarah swallowed. "I'm not."
Jareth studied the ruby ring that marked her as his. He could neither bear to see her naked, unclaimed finger, nor to commit such another obvious act of ignoring her feelings. "My ring did save your life," he said, not yet reminding her of her betrothal yet.
"That's debatable." Sarah shrugged, then ran a hand through her intriguing hair. The feathery points fell against her forehead, obscuring her eyes. "Take it off," she demanded, and held her hand out to him.
"Though you have failed to prove your point to me…" he began, weaving a half-truth. He didn't inherently like the storm gathering in her face, but the swirling signs of rage suggested emotion. He treasured her passion and had to convince himself of its survival. Perhaps he could convince her too.
"It doesn't fit with the story," she cut in, pressing her hand towards him. "And it doesn't matter, because I'll never trust you without this trip, and you'll never have the chance you so desperately want otherwise."
Jareth took advantage and clasped her hand.
She pulled it away. She must have sensed his unrestrained impulse. "You said so yourself. And I won't go with this ring on my finger. I'm not going to lie about that too."
He could, of course, simply deposit her above ground whether she wanted to go or not. He had the power, not she. Especially over worlds. Nevertheless… "I will remove the ring just before you depart."
Their eyes locked. Aspera approached her mother and whickered with concern, but neither Jareth nor Sarah looked away.
"You have asked too much of me and taken what I could never have given," she said slowly, holding his gaze with all her strength. "Now I'm asking this of you."
"Sarah…" he drawled, trying to distract her while his own mind reeled at her audacity and thrilled that she hadn't lost it all.
"I will not bargain with you." Sarah turned her attention back to her mare and the filly, stroking their noses. "I refuse. I'm only going to ask."
Jareth watched her with the horses, comforting them in their distress about the argument. Sarah's inner light barely glimmered, yet she found the strength to make demands of him and offer nothing. Then again, it was not so different from what he had done to her. They, neither of them, knew anything of his inner light. And they would both know, he would make sure of it, of their intimate connection. "Give me your hand," he said at last.
The ring slipped off her finger into his so easily Sarah almost forgot it had been stuck on her at all. The ruby glittered against the black of the king's glove. She felt a great deal of weight leave her shoulders and drew in a long, slow breath. Sarah raised her face to look at him, and tried not to grin, tried to force the corners of her mouth to turn down, but a hesitant smile sneaked through. "Thank you," she mouthed, unable to voice the words when her dignity told her not to express any sort of gratitude for small amends.
She couldn't read the expression on his face. "You are welcome."
Sarah turned back to the horses to let her smile blossom out of his sight. She buried her face in Nightengale's mane, wrapped her arms around the mare's neck, and released a silent peal of laughter.
"But remember you are betrothed to me, Sarah," his solemn tone sliced through her happiness. She felt his invisible hand reaching for her shoulder, ready to yank her back around to face him, but the blow did not fall. "Here in this world. Betrothed until we wed, or millennia pass and so do we."
Sarah froze, turning stiffly when he did not touch her. Her heart resumed its fluttering in her throat. "Undue it."
"Even I cannot do that," the king shook his head, "not when it has been declared before the court."
"Tactful of you." She searched his face for some twinge of embarrassment or guilt, any sort of emotion. "Do people wed even if they hate each other here?"
"Do not forget that I know what you read in my library. And you have seen my brother's court."
Her eyes narrowed. "Adele."
Although she didn't believe him, since Adele certainly seemed more suited to Alexander than her dangerous husband, another question begged forth. One she'd long longed to ask, but never dared. "How old are you?"
The corner of his mouth lifted in that sardonic grin, and he was all sardonic mask again. "Dear girl, you would prefer not to know."
And she was beginning to see through his persona. "Am I then, immortal?"
"Nearly as so as I."
"And what does that mean?"
"I thought you knew."
"I asked once. And I read a lot. Nothing and no one gave me a definitive answer."
He might have blushed, she guessed, had events not served his favor. "Once again, your situation is altogether unique."
"Are you telling me you don't have an answer?" she challenged, cocking her head to the side.
"Not as precise a one as I would like to give you."
"Then tell me what you do know."
"Time moves differently here. You will be older already…"
"Let me finish. You will be older aboveground than you are here. I believe that while your mind will age, your body will not decay past its prime." He ran his hand through his hair and shaking the spikes into a new arrangement. "I do not really know, as few humans remain in my world, and still fewer challengers."
"If you wish." The king deigned a mocking bow, but gave grudging acceptance of her term.
She paused. "So that's what you mean by millennia."
"Yes," he caught her gaze with a softened stare, "we do have an eternity."
"Only forever," she replied with a sigh. "Not long at all."
* * * *
The morning before her planned visit home, Sarah heard the sharp rap on her door, smiled, and set aside her book, expecting Alexander's appearance for their daily ride, which the magician-doctor called physical therapy. The excursions certainly brightened her days, and she felt stronger.
"Come in," she sang out, standing to stretch—her muscles still stiffened easily. She hadn't been paying much attention to the book, distracted by thoughts of home.
The door opened slowly, revealing wisps of blonde hair. Sarah swallowed her gasp and snapped her mouth closed.
"I knocked," the king said, face grave. It should have been comical, him so somberly apologetic and impossible to believe. "I had hoped you would ride out with me before you leave."
She forced her mouth to work—her head to nod. "All right." Sarah had thought she should try to talk to him, make an effort, perhaps acknowledge that he had obviously begun to try to listen to her, but she found her tongue tied. And he didn't really deserve much for finally giving into a few basic inquiries and courtesies. She certainly wasn't going to thank him or anything. Not really. Not in full voice, or meaning it. Sarah swallowed, feeling the color drain from her face. "It's been awhile."
"Yes, it has," he said, extending his hand.
Sarah looked at the proffered hand and shook her head minutely. She could only acknowledge so much change in him. At her side, both hands clenched into fists and relaxed. "Let's go," she said, letting the tension slip away and summoning a small smile as she preceded him out the door.
Heading for the garden gate, Jareth sent Pradosh forward into a swift canter. The stallion surged beneath him, wanting to charge at the little fence, but his master regulated him back, not wanting to get too far ahead of Sarah and her mare. He planned to jump the gate and then turn back to open it as he had on previous rides on this particular trail.
Five strides away from the gate, he heard Nightengale's hoof-beats quicken behind him. The stallion stiffened as he felt Sarah's mare closing the gap, straining against the bit to keep his lead. With a sharp tug and release on the reins, Jareth bit back a curse. What was the foolish girl doing? Sarah would never give her horse her head without ample room to run; she wouldn't pull the mare to halt so roughly. He pushed his mount the last two strides to hurtle over the gate, calculating a tight rollback as soon as Pradosh's front feet landed. Jareth quickly doubled back, only to see Sarah's mare, who'd never jumped a fence in her life, close the distance and leap over the gate after him.
Sarah was bringing the mare back to a quiet trot, petting her and crooning in her ear, when Jareth grabbed her reins. Their horses bumped shoulders. "What were you thinking?" he hissed past the lump in his throat. Was she reckless in his declaration of vague immortality? "You know better! You could have been hurt."
"I could have been killed." She seemed neither to believe what she said or care if she did, extricating her rein from his hand and leaning down to hug the mare's neck. Sarah rubbed her nose into the ebony mane; the black strands covered her smile. "Nightengale wanted to. I could feel it…I haven't jumped in such a long time… that soaring feeling in your stomach…" She was thanking the horse more than explaining herself to him.
Jareth felt his features tighten and fought the shadows from his face. "Promise me you will never do such a thing again."
"No." She straightened up slowly, then spoke with her chin raised, in an even, gently confident tone. "I'm not going to promise you I won't fly."
He checked his rage. Today, of all days, he must leave her with the best of him and none of his temper. He wanted them to have a pleasant outing together, something he could hold onto for the long weeks in his world when she wouldn't be there to brighten it, even in spring. "Fly?" he demanded, trying to soften as much as he could.
Jareth bowed his head, fixing the glow of her face in his mind's eye. "Perhaps next time you could endeavor to teach the horse to jump before you aim her at a fence."
"I know it was foolish," she said, feeling her cheeks heat, "but I'm not afraid anymore. And it felt right."
He raised his eyes. "May I then ask you a foolish question than feels right?"
Sarah nodded, but looked quizzical. He knew he shouldn't even bother to ask.
"I wondered if I might see you."
Sarah blinked. "That's what you're asking?"
"Once," she replied. She chewed her lower lip as she thought. "I suppose you could see me once. Sometime at night. Alone. Not for very long."
"Of course," Jareth replied. He pressed his calves into Pradosh's sides, cueing the great horse to continue down the trail. Her answer was more than he ever hoped for.