Chapter Twenty: Absolute Beginners

The song was raw and wild, his powerful voice soaring effortlessly across the expanse of the Labyrinth. From the castle the extent of the damage was clearly visible: areas of greenery were scored and the earth churned up; the intricate network of pathways and passages were frequently interrupted where walls had collapsed. The Goblins had been working hard to remove the worst of the rubble - and to bury their dead. For days the air had been filled with the sound of their laments: earthy and resonant, they held their own strange beauty.

But this song was different and as it continued the Labyrinth began to heal itself. The deep furrows that scarred the plains slowly softened and blurred, finally being covered over by fresh grass. As Sarah listened she felt all of her skin prickling. After feeling the energy of this place flowing through her, it seemed as though Jareth's song was penetrating to the core of her being. It was easy, sometimes, to forget exactly who and what he was. He was not the man who took you to the movies, washed the car at the weekend and mowed the lawn. He was a king, a magician of sorts, and wild and more than a little dangerous.

But she still closed her eyes and felt his voice reverberate through her.

'Nice tune.' Delaine's voice, unexpectedly close to her ear, pulled her out of her reverie. 'Don't think much of the lyrics, though,' she continued heartlessly.

'It doesn't have any lyrics,' Sarah said, smiling slightly.

The gash on Delaine's cheek had been reduced to a thin red line; within a few days it would vanish completely. She was wearing a slightly harassed expression.

'How's the invalid?'

Delaine rolled her eyes. 'The sooner he goes home, the better.'

Sarah bit back her laughter. Delaine, in a moment of tenderness, had insisted that Rajad stay with them until his shoulder had healed. The moment now passed, she had done nothing but complain about him. Despite that, she spent most of her time with him - and the pair spent most of that time bickering. The obvious solution to this, as far as Sarah could see, was for them to avoid one another, but she had the impression that they actually enjoyed their ongoing verbal battles. A penchant for complicated relationships seemed to be another trait Jareth and his sister shared.

'Why did you two split up anyway?' Curiosity got the better of her.

'Because he's stubborn, arrogant, vain and impossible to live with.'

'Sounds charming.'

'He can be. When he wants to be. That's the problem.' Delaine sighed and then shook herself. 'Ever know one of those people you could quite cheerfully strangle whenever you see them, but you can't get them out of your head?' A pause. 'I can't believe I just asked you that.'

'I don't want to strangle Jareth,' Sarah protested. 'Well, not anymore. As much.' She managed to avoid Delaine's eyes but saw the blonde's sardonic smile.

'I hope I'm not interrupting at an inappropriate moment, my dears.'

Ambrosius was leaning heavily on his staff and regarding them with evident amusement. Toby was with the wizard and from the exaggeratedly innocent expression he affected, Sarah judged that he had been up to something of which she would not entirely approve. She chose not to enquire further, a decision that resulted in a telltale sigh of relief from her brother.

'We were just having one one of those women's conversations,' Delaine said airily. Toby automatically made a face that expressed pure disgust. Ambrosius' eyes were still as lively as ever, but his lined face looked tired and his shoulders sloped more than they had before. Delaine frowned slightly, her keen eyes raking his face. 'Are you feeling all right, Ambrosius?

'Feeling my age, my dear. Which is considerable.'

'You'll be here longer than any of us, Ambrosius,' Delaine said firmly.

The wizard's beard twitched. 'Is that a prediction, Delaine? I thought that prophesy was supposed to be my role here.'

'Let's just call it an educated guess.' Her voice was strained. 'What's wrong?'

He was using his staff as a prop and even as they spoke to him he seemed to sag against it more heavily. 'I am not ill, if that is what's worrying you,' he responded. 'I'm just rather tired. I think I may take a little nap.' His black eyes sparkled. 'I'm an old man, my dear: I need my beauty sleep far more than a young thing like you.' He looked down at Toby. 'It's been a great pleasure getting to know you, my boy. You've turned out rather well.'

Toby stared back up at him, suspicion slowly clouding his expression. 'I'm gonna see you again, right?'

Ambrosius looked between him and Sarah. 'That rather depends on your sister.' He smiled over at her. 'Take care, dear girl.'

He slowly melted before their eyes and for a moment all three stared at the spot he had been standing in. 'The last time he went for a little nap,' Delaine said, 'we didn't see him for about fifteen years.'

'Will he be all right?'

'I think so.'

Toby was still frowning; now he turned his wary gaze to Sarah. 'What did he mean when he said it depends on you if I see him again?'

Delaine looked between the two siblings; her brother's voice was still echoing across the Labyrinth and she heard the change in note and rhythm with relief. 'I think it's time for a duet. If you'll excuse me...' She started toward the battlements and then turned back. 'Sarah...'

'Yes?' she prompted.

Delaine's shoulders sagged. 'Nothing.'

Sarah focused on the retreating figure without really seeing her. She steeled herself and then met her brother's accusing stare.

'You want to take us away again, don't you?'

'Toby-'

'Don't you?'

'That's what I need to talk to you about, Toby. Toby!'

He had run back into the castle. Feeling both sympathy and annoyance, Sarah started after him. Goblins leapt out of their way as they rushed past. For reasons best known to themselves, a small posse was manoeuvring a suit of armour along a corridor: Sarah squeezed past them and then heard the inevitable crash and their voices raised in complaint behind her. The Goblin King would have some disgruntled subjects to contend with when he had finished his work. Provided that the combination of the Goblins' inept housekeeping and their own sprint around the place didn't result in the castle being reduced to a pile of rubble.

Toby could move quickly, but Sarah had almost managed to catch him up; he turned a corner and she followed him, and then came to a dead stop, staring down the vertiginous passageway that dropped away from her feet. It had never occurred to her that it would still be there; the room was as disorienting and sinister as when she had first seen it and it took several seconds before her heart rate settled back to normal. She could hear his light feet pattering up - or down - one of the staircases. 'Toby?'

'Leave me alone.'

It was impossible to tell where his voice was coming from. She mounted the staircase closest to her tentatively but then, realising the ridiculousness of the situation, sat down on the top step. 'I'm not going to go chasing you all around this place, Toby,' she called. 'I'm sitting right here, and we are going to talk about this.'

There was silence for a long time, until he appeared from around a corner, as silently and nimbly as Jareth could have managed. He had learnt well from his self-appointed mentor, she thought. 'Are you ready to listen to me now?'

'I know what you're gonna say,' he muttered; his head was lowered, but he raised his eyes to hers from under a shock of unruly blonde hair. 'I don't want to go back home, I want to stay here!'

'It isn't that simple, Toby,' she said patiently. 'Just because we go home doesn't mean that you won't see any of your friends again - they can visit you all the time and maybe we could even come back to see them sometimes.' Sarah held out a hand to him. 'Come here and sit down.'

'You can't tell me what to do!' he shouted suddenly. 'You're not my mom! You're not even my proper sister; you're just a half-sister!' He stopped himself, either because of the knowledge that he had gone too far, or because of the look on her face. His slender shoulders shook. 'I-I'm sorry.' She remained silent. He crept up the stairs and sat next to her, unable to look at her.

'You're right,' she said after a while. 'I'm not Karen. I'm not Dad, either. I can never take their place. But I am responsible for you, Toby. You know, when Jareth took you, after I ... I wished you away, he offered me... He offered me everything, really; well, you saw it, didn't you?'

'He offered you your dreams,' Toby said indistinctly.

'Yes, he did. And I refused it. I made you my priority, Toby, and I have never regretted that part. And it's what I have to do now: it's just you and me and I have to decide what's the best thing for you. I know that it seems really unfair having other people make decisions for you, but that's part of beng a kid. The adults have to make the hard decisions so that you don't have to.'

'But I don't see why we can't just stay here.' Toby was picking at the fraying edge of a tear in his jeans. Sarah felt the reproach spring to her lips but suppressed it: now was not the time to start quoting Toby's mother at him. 'There's nothing for us at home anymore. Mom and Dad aren't there.'

The knowledge was like a heavy stone in the pit of her stomach. 'I know. But we have lives there - and you have to go to school; you need an education.'

'Ambrosius can teach me. He taught Delaine and Jareth and they know about everything.' His face was beseeching, hopeful. 'I mean, how many kids get to be taught by Merlin?'

'Not that many, I guess. Ambrosius has been showing you around, huh?'

Toby nodded. 'And Sir Didymus promised to show me how to use a sword.' Realising that this may not be the best method of persuading Sarah to stay, Toby hastily added, 'Not with real swords, obviously, that would be stupid, but with, y'know, sticks and stuff.'

She didn't have the heart to disappoint him twice in one day. 'That sounds like fun. I think I saw Sir Didymus and Ludo down in the rose garden - why don't you go find them, get a head start on the fencing lessons?'

He stood slowly. 'Are you coming?'

'No. I think I'll stay here for a bit.'

Toby's feet dragged slightly as he went down the stairs; when he reached the bottom he looked back at Sarah. 'Jareth made this place for you, y'know. Guess he thought you'd like it. He's strange, isn't he?'

'Yeah. Yeah, he is very strange.'

'But in a good way.'

She nodded. Toby left the room by way of a doorway in the floor; Sarah barely blinked at the sight.

She remained seated for a while but, eventually, started to wander through the dizzying maze of the Escher room. It was a remarkable place, she realised. No matter where you were it was impossible to determine which was the right way up. She smiled to herself - when Jareth said he had turned the world upside down, he wasn't joking. She remembered the argument she had had with Sam when they had broken up - she had been quite certain about what she wanted then. Sarah took a step off a platform and enjoyed the momentary sensation of flying before her feet hit solid ground again. She continued her slow progress, until she found herself at the edge of the pit that she had jumped down in order to retrieve her brother.

Sarah inched closer and then stared into the abyss - the dark mouth gave up no light. For a moment she wondered if, should she throw herself into it again, she would find the answers at the bottom. Would Jareth be waiting to make her another offer? And what would her answer be this time?

Around her the walls of the Escher room rose like a cathedral in honour of the impossible made real. She pulled herself back from the edge.

ooOoo

When Sarah emerged from the castle, she found that it had been raining. The clouds had passed, leaving the sky pale and clear. The air was fresh against her skin. Jareth stood alone on the battlements: his song finished, he was regarding his lands. There were tiny droplets of water caught in his hair, glinting in the sunlight like miniature crystals as he turned his head. Sarah felt unshakeably calm as she joined him and looked out over the Labyrinth.

'You've fixed it all. It looks like it did before.'

He stirred slightly. 'You can never put anything back exactly the way it was before.'

'No, I guess not. But it still looks beautiful.'

'Of course it does,' he retorted haughtily. 'It is my Labyrinth, after all.'

Delaine's description of Rajad could equally apply to Jareth, Sarah thought, but kept that opinion to herself. Instead, she undid the clasp at the back of her neck and removed the amulet, holding it out to him. 'I promised I'd return it.'

He took hold of it thoughtfully, as though judging its weight in his hand. 'Yes... You also promised that you would return Aboveground with Toby if I fell.'

'I did promise that.'

Jareth tilted his head back and scrutinised her fiercely. 'So, you lied.' He leaned closer, trapping her against the stone balustrade. 'We have severe penalties for liars in the Underground, Sarah.'

She met his stare, her grey eyes sparkling. 'No, I did not lie. Exactly. When you said 'fall', I interpreted that as meaning dead. You were not dead. You had just fallen down, not actually fallen.' She mimed inverted commas in the air.

He pulled back, his eyes wandering over her. 'You've been spending too much time with Ambrosius - he also has the ability to stretch logic to its limits.'

Sarah shook her head. 'Nah. My dad was a lawyer. He taught me that sometimes if you interpret things very literally it can give you a great deal of leeway. Anyway, are you complaining? I may have helped to save your life. And the entire Underground, in fact. You could at least be a little grateful.'

'I am indeed.' His glittering gaze softened and he raised both her hands to his lips. 'All hail the Lady Sarah.' He paused and then added more seriously, 'I am aware of the choice you made, Sarah. I know how difficult it must have been.'

'It wasn't as bad as it could have been. I knew that it wasn't real, but the funny thing was ... my dad... He told me I had to do the right thing. That's exactly what my dad would have said, if it he had actually been there.' She shrugged. 'It's silly, I know, but I like to think that maybe it really was him. And Karen. Like they were able to talk to me somehow, give me permission for what I knew I had to do.'

'I think I would have liked your father,' Jareth observed softly.

'I know he would have liked you.' His elegant eyebrows arched again. 'Once he'd got past the whole Venetian aristocrat thing you've got going on there, obviously.'

'Obviously.'

Her eyes fell back to their joined hands. 'You're not wearing any gloves!'

He laughed slightly. 'I had no idea that it was such a momentous event.'

'I've just never seen you without them before.' She inspected them: his fingers were long and tapered like a musician's, the hands themselves well-shaped and strong.

'You have very-'

He turned her right hand palm-upwards and kissed the inside of her wrist.

'Very beautiful hands,' she finished unsteadily.

'Thank you,' he murmured, repeating the procedure with her left wrist.

Sarah swallowed hard. 'Wow. I didn't burst into flame or turn to stone or anything.'

'Did you think you might?'

'Well.' She tried vainly to get rid of the strangled feeling in her throat. 'Well, what with the constant gloves and all, I thought that maybe something terrible would happen if you touched someone without them.'

'Funny you should say that...' He met her reproachful look and laughed, releasing her hands. 'When I inherited the kingdom I also inherited a great deal of power. I was still relatively young and had not learnt to control the magic properly.' He paused then added wryly, 'There were a number of incidents as a result. I found that the gloves helped - a sort of barrier, as it were. Over the years it's just become a habit. I also find it adds to the overall mystique.'

She looked him up and down. 'Mmm. And they say women are vain.'

His lips twitched slightly before, with apparent innocence, he asked, 'Has Toby calmed down yet?'

'Oh, for heaven's sake!' Sarah rolled her eyes. 'Are there no secrets in this place?'

He gave her one of his enigmatic smiles. 'I don't know - that's the point about secrets.'

Sarah's face grew more serious, but the steadiness she had found within herself remained intact. 'He's so certain - so sure about what he wants.'

'Yes, that's one of the enviable virtues of youth. Things become more difficult as you get older.'

'Maybe. I think it's because they become scarier. You can see all the things that could go wrong and it can be paralysing.' She paused and then added, 'I never did see what was in that crystal - the one with my dreams.'

'Would you like me to show it to you?' he asked softly.

'No.'

Something had changed in her, Jareth thought. She was radiating... A sort of serenity, as though she had reconciled herself to something.

'Sometimes dreams are just that: dreams. And you have to let them go.'

She had made up her mind, he realised. And he had no idea what her decision would be. For the first time, he was the one unable to read her and it unnerved him.

Sarah watched him for a moment. 'I know what my dreams are. But I have to ask you something, Jareth, and I need you to tell me the truth.'

'I told you - I have never lied to you.'

She raised her eyebrows.

'Apart from one honourable exception.'

'Very honourable.' He was rewarded with a dazzling smile. 'After you ... you kissed me, you just walked away. Why?'

It was not the question he had expected. He leaned against the balustrade, looking out across the beloved land he had come so close to losing. 'I had to. If I had even looked at you I would have kissed you again.' He glanced at her with a sly smile. 'Your kisses could bring a man back from the dead, Sarah. And I would not have been able to leave you; I may never have left that room and all would have been lost.' He turned to face her. 'You are my weakness, Sarah, and my strength. You have been since the moment I saw you. I would keep you here; I would have you stay with me forever and I would devote myself to your happiness. But only if that is your choice. You have a life Aboveground and if you wish to return to it I will not stop you.'

'Just fear me, love me, do as I say and I will be your slave,' Sarah intoned. 'I've been thinking about that a lot, and what you meant by it. And what I want.'

He was looking out over the Labyrinth again. 'And what conclusion have you reached?'

'I don't want you to be my slave, Jareth; and I will not be yours. But I will love you, and I will stay with you.'

He stared at her, wild-eyed; Sarah felt euphoric laughter bubbling up inside her.

'You-you know what this means? You would be leaving you friends, your family.'

She looked to where Toby was attempting to teach the Goblins the principles of American football: Ludo acting as quarterback, Delaine helpfully conjuring helmets and shoulder-pads, Hoggle and Sir Didymus shouting enthusiastic encouragement from the sidelines. Even Rajad - though still standing aloof from the others - had come to watch. 'My family and most of my friends are already here.' She turned back to Jareth, meeting his mismatched eyes. 'Everything I want is right here.'

One hand gripped the balustrade tightly. 'Are you sure?'

Sarah almost laughed and folded her arms, gazing at him provocatively. 'What's said is said. Tell me you love me.'

'I do. I love you.'

His mouth claimed hers. Her lips were soft and pliant, her hair cool and silken under his hands.

Time is difficult to measure in the Underground - it is impossible to say how long they were entwined before they broke apart.

Sarah finally opened her eyes. 'And they all lived happily ever after,' she said dreamily.

He held her at arm's length. 'Yea gods, woman, what do you think this is? Some sort of fairy tale?'

'Isn't it?' She stepped back into his embrace and twined her arms around his neck, twisting a lock of his hair through her fingers. 'Okay, how about we start over again? With "Once upon a time..."'

The start.