It is only recently that the English language has evolved sufficiently to describe Valentine's Day.
For the most part, it sucks.
Oh, yes, there are those blessed types who trade roses and bliss, but really, how many of them do you know? More often than not, we end up shoving overly priced candies (bad ones, too—lesson, gents: generic boxed chocolates are not as good as your standard Hershey's) at each other, stressing out absurdly about proving our love through fattening foods and hideously overpriced foliage. Then we wake up the next morning and wonder how it was that Valentine's was not a ground-shaking Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan eternal love affair memory, rather like a figure skater lamenting the fact the best performance of her life didn't happen at the Olympics.
But could we help it? It all starts, as most of our problems do—ask any therapist—when we're just innocent kids. Innocent victims, rather, set up for the slaughter.
The massacre, that is. The St. Valentine's Day Massacre.
Fundamentally, there are two types of people in this world—and no, they aren't Democrats or Republicans. They are the Receivers, and the Cardless, and we can spot them from their earliest days in school. Remember those godawful card-trading sessions on Valentine's Day? Remember how you grew up and what was once a forced class practice, to give a card to everyone, became social dynamite, a charged climate in which you had to decide whom to card or not? And worse, what of the waiting for the card yourself?
And that's really where it all begins. We wait for our cards, looking around anxiously, trying to appear smooth and unruffled by the fact that first-grade trollop across the classroom has scored seven already and you've none. Or maybe one, from either the teacher or that one sickeningly sweet individual who inevitably went out and gave cards to her female buddies as well as the guys she liked. In either case, sexless (in as much as an elementary school child could have sexuality) and therefore not counting. All you knew in your gut is that you lacked value because you lacked a card. It was one step from there to an adolescence of Allure magazine, lip gloss, and desperately short skirts in a sad attempt to change the mind of the male world.
It was, appropriately enough, a gray and miserable morning, Sarah thought as she stared from her bed out at the Underground skies. Who would have thought it could rain in Fairyland?
As if rain were the only inconvenience to living here, she reminded herself with a snort. What with the nearly getting killed bit, and kidnapping kings, what was there again that made this world so attractive to her as a child—and, well, even as an adult? You'd think by now I'd have gotten the little moral of the story, that it's better to be real than to live in fantasy…Yeah, right. As if reality had a chance after the Prince of Sexy showed up the damn first time.
She yawned and shoved herself off the bed. Sitting around would hardly solve her problems. "The chief issue, Williams," she muttered to herself as she entered the bathroom, "is that you know you should go home, but…" She bit her lip and winced at the face, still marked by sleep wrinkles, in the mirror before her. It was one thing to admit to yourself an attachment…not based on shared intellectual bases, one might say. It was another thing entirely to give voice to the idea that the Goblin King deserved his title as King of Dreams, and if she left herself alone with him for any sustained amount of time, she feared she'd willingly trade her freedom for a lifetime of being his slave. His sex slave, preferably—although that would probably last not too long. Long enough in one sense, not long enough in another…Get a grip on yourself, Williams! She tugged on her clothing, frowning. Why do I keep going around and around on this? Fact: the man is a man-whore. Fact: he's got some perverse obsession with putting a notch marked "SW" on his headboard. She hadn't seen any notches, but that didn't mean they didn't exist. Fact: you like him because, well, you're human and straight, and it's been a while. This is not the stuff of forever.
"Whatever." It was a pointless word, and entirely stupid to be talking aloud to herself, but at least it felt good to pretend she didn't care. Distantly, she heard the clatter of the goblins in the hall—no doubt Magda and Lippie, supervising the cleaning for the morning. Or maybe the Queen and Hoggle, a pair she definitely did not want to see. Hoggle's gaze, normally so affectionate and supportive, had all the warmth of Karen's when she caught her with her first beer at the age of 17. That memory did make her momentarily smile—at least I won't be in rehab like some pathetic teen actress. But the humor of the memory dissipated when she recalled that Hoggle's gaze, unlike her stepmother's, had not alterd over time. He continued to fix on her a look that might as well have been a flashing neon sign ("SARAH BAD! BAD SARAH!" perhaps, to appeal to Ludo's sense of grammar) for all of the subtley it displayed. She didn't even have the guts to single him out and demand he treat her like an adult, because she knew perfectly well what he'd say. He'd made it more than clear that he was not convinced of the sincerity of her objections to life in the Labyrinth, given the scenes he'd witnessed. Lately, too, he had a vaguely suspicious look in his eye when he watched her, a speculative look that boded poorly. Toby always had the same look in his eyes when he was trying to decide if he should hit her up for a loan for one of his video games; minutes after she'd see that thoughtful spark in his expression, he'd come to her, sighing forlornly over his tragic circumstances as a member of the oppressed adolescents of America, and eventually he'd reveal the shocking news that a new video game—always $49.99, of course—would lift him from his funk.
Hoggle didn't want her money, though. For all he liked her old plastic bangle bracelet before, she sincerely doubted a debit card would go far in the Goblin Kingdom. That is, if Hoggle even knew about them!
So Hoggle was definitely up to no good and best to be avoided. His near-constant sidekick lately was the Queen, and she was absolutely to be avoided. She smiled at Sarah, an aggressively happy smirk, and Sarah's insides would freeze up; she suddenly knew how a captain of a vessel spotlit by a lighthouse felt. Even if she weren't related to Jareth, that smile—no, that damned smirk—signalled something was up. Something, Sarah was reasonably sure, she wouldn't like. Well, maybe like too much, given what she wants of me…But, really, was it too much to ask that the woman not look her as if she had "BROOD MARE FOR YOUR SON" hanging on a sign from her neck? It was enough to make one feel completely indecent; last night the Queen had actually ordered Hoggle to take a particular chair before Sarah sat down for dinner, just to force her to sit near Jareth. Who, of course, took every opportunity he could to make it clear he was interested in eating much more than the meal at hand. The things that man could do to a champagne class with his mouth…well, it just wasn't done. It was a testament to Jareth's skills that a maneuver that would like simply tacky coming from one of Sarah's peers, and more awful still to be performed at the same table as his parents, had Sarah lunging for her water, refusing to look at him the rest of the night, instead.
Her cheeks burning, Sarah impulsively grabbed the door to the wraparound balcony that connected several of the rooms on this die of the castle. If she waited a bit, maybe whoever was in the hallway would pass and she wouldn't have to talk to whoever it was. Or explain, of course, why she was now red as the proverbial tomato.
The weather at least was obliging her, if all else did not: it was bright, crisp, and clear. As Sarah lifted her face to the winter sun, she caught a flash from the corner of her eye.
It seemed only the weather was obliging her today.
At least it wasn't Jareth. Or his father, Sarah reminded herself with an inward shudder. It wasn't even the Queen, or Hoggle.
It was Elana.
She stood farther down the balcony—far enough that you'd have to raise your voice to call to her, close enough that an exclamation, not a shout, would be necessary. And she didn't appear to have noticed Sarah yet—she had her hands on the ledge, looking quietly off into the distance with an absorbed expression on her face, her lips turned slightly downwards. It did not escape Sarah's bitter inner critic that Elana, like all the other immortals, even managed to be cinematically beautiful in a moment where she thought herself alone—perfectly still, a wind lightly ruffling long, waving curls in a caress, as her eyes reflected the emptiness of the winter sun beyond.
She had half an inclination to turn and leave—back to her room, if not a walk in the opposite direction on the balcony, just to get away. But Sarah was always one to open Pandora's box, and she knocked that inclination to the side.
He grunted and adjusted the sack of mud on his back. Her Majesty, she liked to soak her skin in that muck, no matter how silly it seemed to the rest of the goblin lot. Sarah, she hadn't thought it was that silly, he remembered; she'd shown him a picture in one of her magazines, and explained Aboveground ladies, they did the same thing. It was all foolishness, if you asked him, but Hoggle was old enough and wise enough not to stand between a woman and her skin care, no matter what he privately thought of it.
Not to think about it—that was his motto for the moment about the Goblin King and his whole damned family. Of course, Hoggle admitted to himself, he'd keep that vow for all of a minute, just like any other resolution. But he had to try, or the lot of them would drive him damned mad.
He kept hiking back towards the castle. There was a mild uproar in the castle now—there was a party tonight, after all, and given the Queen's temperment lately, a big party. All she thought about was His Majesty, anyway. That is, Jareth. Not that she didn't think of her do-nothing former husband, the old king, but only to tell Hoggle regularly that the man was a louse who had made it difficult for their son to state his mind, or some such phrase. Personally, Hoggle didn't think Jareth had any difficulty whatsoever stating his mind, but that was the Queen for you. At least she was feeling good, though—part of Hoggle wished she'd accept defeat, while another part of him inevitably wanted her to have her way. She was like a little child, in a way—not so very different from the King himself in that way. Or Sarah—she was just a little girl herself, for all she thought she was a great lady grown.
"Damnation!" He made the mistake of glancing upwards just as the trees parted; the sun, flashing like a new-cut diamond, blinded him. He squeezed his eyes shut to drive away the resultant dancing dots in his vision, then looked forward again—and stopped cold.
Oh, no, Her Majesty would not be liking this at all. There was Miss Sarah, all but haloed by trouble, as usual, and there was the Lady Elana, the King's gal. He whistled softly to himself, and debated dropping the mud and running, to get a message to the queen. Remembering the last time she'd gone without her mud mask, though, he adjusted the bag on her should and kept walking on, a steady eye all the while on the castle. The Queen might be happy for her mud, but he doubted she'd be happy for this dirt…
Elana looked over at Sarah. The sky, naturally, sent obnoxious beams of light down to point out the miraculous high and lowlights in her hair.
Sarah fought back the urge to instant hatred. Breathe, Williams, breathe…She's not to blame for Clairol's cruel promises…
The woman must have sensed Sarah's emotional turbulence, because she simply inclined her head slowly. "I did not mean to disturb you, Sarah. I am sorry if I did." Her voice was actually…sweet. And not in a revoltingly 1940s Snow-White way, but just a pleasant and kindly female tone—pleasant enough that Sarah felt a traitorous desire to befriend the girl arise within her, the instinctive sense of sameness felt between women stuck by fate in a shared hell, like a baby shower.
"No, no, I wasn't disturbed, I just saw you there, that's all—feel free to stay," she found herself blurting out. She tried to lean against the low wall with the same elegance as Elana and tried not to visualize the crumpled mess she was making of herself. Elana, at least, seemed not to acknowledge the possibility that they weren't making a gorgeous image the moment—head tilted, she was observing Sarah with a slightly unfocused expression, as if she didn't quite see her. Sarah had been to enough bars to know that look: it meant either intoxication (unlikely, she judged) or a person who wanted to spill something—and not a drink.
Curiosity, that feline serial-killer, never lost its attraction for Sarah. Granted, her brain hurt from thinking too much about Jareth and her own life lately, but what cause did this nymphette, involved with Jareth's father, have to wear the expression frequently seen before all-night martini marathons? It wasn't like she was in jail with Paris Hilton, after all.
"You seem a bit down, if you don't mind me saying so—is everything okay?"
Fortunately for Sarah, Elana was not like many a roommate who would use such a question as an invitation to burst into tears. "I am fine, thank you…I am only wondering…"
"About directions…" Elana sighed (musically; Sarah was too caught up in impending gossip to grind her teeth) and turned back to the view, away from Sarah. Just as the quiet dragged out and it seemed she'd say no more, she flashed a sharp and sudden look back at Sarah. "Is it wrong to seek a goal?" Sarah's inarticulate grunt of surprise did not appease Elana, apparently, for she continued. "There is something…I want. Very much. But it does not seem to be. And will not be. Is it wrong to seek it?"
Feeling very much as if she'd been shoved into a live game of tennis, Sarah dove for social safety. "I'm not sure what you mean—what is it you want?"
The blond girl glanced agitatedly away. "Happiness, of course. Who does not want it? I had him, but—"
"Him? Happiness is a him?" Gloria Steinem would be proud; Sarah exclaimed the question automatically.
"Of course. Is it not always so?" Sarah bit her lip rather than answer that one. The Fae woman went on. "We are together, but he is—" She frowned, her hands gesturing for words that didn't come quickly enough. "He—We come here, I do not see him. We do not talk. And even now, I do not know where he is."
"You mean Jareth's dad?"
"Yes, of course, the King." She looked down dejectedly. "I know not what to speak. I know he is very busy; I know of His Highness, the Prince, and of her," the venom in her voice let no doubt about the identity of that female; in any language, that inflection designated the rival, "but he does not come to tell me of these things. It was not this way before." Her eyes flickered up and over to Sarah. "Before we came here, you know. Then, he could not be without me. Then, he wanted to speak to me."
"So you're just upset that you haven't seen the King?" Sarah frowned. A part of her was compassionate to the cry of (yet another) woman wronged; a part of her didn't understand, however, what the issue was with being alone for a day, or two.
Elana shook her head. A flicker of a tear slid, diamond-like, down her cheek. "The Prince loves you, they say."
"Let's not get too carried away--"
Elana jerked her head aggressively. "Say what you will, but it is well known he wants to marry you. But his father…" Her voice trailed off, and with it, her spirit seemed to go as well.
Sarah looked away and bit her lip. Wasn't the King married? Wasn't that what Jareth had said—he'd remarried and this Elana was a bit on the side? What did you do in such a case? If it were a girlfriend at home, she'd break it to the girl that her man was a cheating ass and about as likely to marry her (and stay married to her) as to the last woman he'd screwed over. But Elana had to know Nicholas had a wife; it would be like Brad Pitt trying to deny he'd been married to Jennifer Aniston when he met Angelina Jolie. Their lives were just too public for lying to be a possibility.
"Have you, um, talked to him about it?" It was the only diplomatic question she felt she could ask, other than "What on earth do you see in him?"
Elana sighed again. "Of course. But he—" she waved a hand brusquely. "He pretends not to hear. And then he sees me not. He wants to know of his son, this place, these people….but not me. He used to come for me every other day, you know, and want to dine with me on mornings when his dear friends were not in town. I could rely upon it." She said the last part with a thrust of weak pride, as if being second-best was somehow a prize. I guess it is—in a way, you're still "chosen."
"Why do you want to be with him?" She couldn't help herself. Call it far too many hours logged watching The Tyra Banks Show, but she hated letting doormats be doormats.
Elana looked surprised. "Who does not want her….how do you say it. Oh, yes. Happily ever after?"
The winter air was cold but Sarah's blood ran hot. "Do you think he has to be it? Why not making yourself happy?"
Elana clearly was not caught up in the sisterhood spirit. "But he would not be?" she responded hesitantly, brow furrowed in confusion.
"Look, Elana, I'm not trying to tell you how to live your life," Sarah began, ignoring the little voice that immediately howled, Oh, yes, you are, "but really. C'mon. It's your life, not his, not anybody else's. Do what you want to do, what makes you happy. And if he doesn't do that for you, why stick around?"
Elana's furrowed expression shifted to speculative. "Is this your way?"
Okay, touché. Elana's glance from the corner of her eyes told Sarah she knew perfectly well she'd landed her mark, too. She swallowed her tart response and went for bravado instead. "Of course!"
Elana nodded slowly, her face still a lovely blank page. "I see…Then let us make a promise, together…" Her words rushed out in a gasp of air as she grabbed Sarah's hands.
"Which is? I have to be careful about my words around here—"
"To seek our happiness, and to help one another find it…"
"And I shall help you by delivering this letter from the Prince, and you shall accept his invitation…"
Sarah glanced down at the bit of paper in her hand, complete with an elegant heart traced lightly on it.
For the second time today—but this time out loud, Sarah's profane side took over. "Oh, shit!"
Somewhere deep in the castle, a woman met with a dwarf.
"We're not Cupid, my dear, but we'll do."
He studiously avoided looking at her green-slathered face. On him, a bit of green was normal. Not on the likes of the Missus.
"I'm not hearing you, darling!" The voice had a touch of whip in it; at moments like these, you just knew Jareth didn't take all after his old man.
"Yes, I'm supposin' so…"
"And don't worry about her. She's no problem."
He muttered agreement sullenly. He didn't like this at all and he didn't know why she didn't care about this turn of things—seems the last person she'd want around Sarah would be Nicholas' little lady, all but bound to tell tales!
"You just rely on me, dear. Who knows better than a mother?" The phrasing was sharp, sharp enough to suggest what would become of one who presumed to know better.
As anxiety ripped down his back, Hoggle swallowed, and realized—there was a reason he never failed to send cards to his dear mum back in the forest, all right. Some forces were not to be trifled with.