"Good Lord, Williams. You pregnant or something?"
Sarah ignored the awe-struck firefighter as she sank her teeth into her third bacon double-cheeseburger and chewed happily. Across the parking lot from the fire truck the sound of children shrieking and calliope music competed with the smell of corn dogs and cotton candy. She wasn't on duty for another twenty minutes and the BBQ set up near the rear of the truck smoked cheerfully as Dobbs threw another half-dozen burgers on the grill.
"Good burgers," she managed.
Roberts stared at the remains on her plate, then turned his head. "Hey Dobbs, grab another couple burgers. I think Williams is eating for two. Or six."
Eric Coleman snorted, then reconsidered the empty potato salad container in front of her. "Er...you're not are you?"
"'Cause if you were...you know we'd have to shoot the bastard, right?" Eric continued.
Dobbs plunked a full plate of burgers on the picnic table and got his fingers out of the way before six hungry firefighters grabbed them by mistake.
"Ah, Eric. That's so sweet. I didn't know you cared," Dobbs cooed.
Eric grunted."Hah...guess who her alternate is in the competition this year."
Julian Neville paused in his triple burger construction and looked dismayed,"Oh crap. It's Sweeney."He glared at Eric,"You hold the bastard. I'll shoot him."
Sarah rolled her eyes,"Gee...it's so nice to be wanted." She eyed the last burger on the plate, then grabbed it, ignored the disbelieving looks around the picnic table. "You can relax. I'm not pregnant."
She grinned as Dobbs and Julian both gave exaggerated sighs of relief, but wondered with amusement if she told them that while she might not be pregnant, she was eating for two.
When Jareth had told her she had to build up extra mass, she had thought he meant add a few extra pounds. Ha. Try a few extra thousand. Dragons were no bloody lightweights. Luckily, the mass was stored out of phase with this dimension. When she was ready, she would simply swap bodies. Which gave her a headache trying to figure out, but sort of explained where Jareth's clothes went when he shifted.
She glanced at Dobbs and nodded, swallowing the last of her burger. Bowing to Eric she smirked at his exaggerated grab for the last coleslaw container and grabbed her jacket. The summer sun was bright and hot, but she might want it later.
Dobbs was quiet as they strode across the parking lot. She eyed him with relief. Most of the station had volunteered to help at the fundraising fair and Roberts and the others were still inclined to ask questions about where she had been after she had disappeared from the hospital. Four hours in a first aid tent would give them lots of time to ask questions. Dobbs was as curious as the rest of them, but he was content to wait until she was ready to talk.
Truthfully, she was not sure going back to firefighting was what Jareth had intended when he told her to say good-bye to her world. Given the amount of money she had found mysteriously transferred into her bank account she rather thought not. She had worried at first, knowing how poor the Goblin Kingdom was supposed to be, but an emergency crystal to Jareth had just had him frowning impatiently.
"Gold has value in your world, my love. Not mine,"he'd said.
And that, apparently, had ended the matter.
In spite of her time Underground, she'd discovered a bare two weeks had passed Above by the time she returned. Not even enough time for her plants to die-although someone had watered them. She had left messages for her boss and her parents when Jiann smuggled her out of the hospital. Now, she was left with the uncomfortable fact she could not let anyone see her for at least a month. She might not have been critically injured, but her burns would have taken more than two weeks to heal.
Giving her boss a more formal request for time off, she had hurriedly updated her passport and gone traveling. In spite of the fact Jareth had said he would not press her, she had been surprised-and a bit disappointed- when he made no effort to contact her. England. Ireland. Wales. She had been disconcerted to feel nothing otherworldly at Stonehenge. Finally, she gave up looking for him and set herself to enjoying vacation.
She never taken the time to travel; now, she was determined to see it all. The Eiffel Tower and the Vatican. Ayers Rock and the Pyramids. The Great Wall of China. The tower was boring. The artwork of Rome was stunning-and the sheer amount of wealth that had built the city offended her. She learned to ride a camel and find water in the desert. She studied the aqueducts of history with interest, spent three weeks observing castle restoration in France, examined exotic gardening techniques from the Middle East, and let the monks of China describe the warfare strategies of seven thousand years of hill bandits and Mongol invaders.
Her visa to China expired a week after she joined a group of history students re-enacting a caravan journey along the silk trade route out of China. Walking into the embassy to file the necessary paperwork to complete the journey she was shocked to see that over a year of her life had disappeared. Just like that. She had more questions than ever, and the growing certainty that a lifetime would not be enough to learn all she had discovered she wanted to learn.
Jareth had been generous, but she had traveled as the winds took her and as the caravan finished the trip decided it was time to go home. Her boss had accepted her original request for a long-term medical leave of absence and all he wanted to know was whether she was fit for duty. A week after passing the medicals she was back at her old station and trying to feel her way back into a life that didn't quite fit the way she remembered it.
Three months later she was still trying.
Only a year had passed, but it might as well have been a lifetime. All her stuff had finally been unpacked from storage and the rooms of her new apartment gave her an odd feeling as she walked into them. As if she should recognize them as hers, but somehow came away with a vague feeling of nostalgia. It felt like she had walked into her old campus room and seen familiar walls and someone else's furniture.
Marking time was what she was doing. This life did not belong to her anymore, but she wasn't ready to let it go. Not today. She did not know what she was waiting for, but she had to hope she would recognize it when she saw it, because it wasn't time to leave this world behind.
She was about to ask Dobbs what he planned to do after the fair when a shadow moved in peripheral vision and her nostrils flared reflexively. She hesitated, staring blankly at the empty space between two carnival tents.
She held up a hand, sensing Dobbs looking back at her with concern. She shifted cautiously and stepped between the two tents, an odd scent teasing her nostrils and setting her teeth on edge. Barely, she bit back a growl and determined to come back and investigate when her shift was over. Jareth had informed her that there was a full Sidhe court centered in the New York area, but she had yet to meet any of the inhabitants. Other than the neck-prickling feeling someone was watching her, this was the closest she had gotten. She had begun to think she would have to get further into the country, away from the steel in the buildings in order to meet anyone vaguely fey.
She was turning back to Dobbs when the sound of a woman calling for her daughter caught their attention. Parents yelling for their children were not unusual, but it was the panicked note in her voice the firefighters recognized.
She had no logical reason to think the two things were connected. The girl had probably been located by security. No doubt she was kicking her heels back and forth in the first aid tents while security guards circulated her mother's name and description. Dragon reflexes didn't give a damn. She heard Dobbs shout behind her as she plunged into the maze of canvas and guy wires.
Fear and frustration. Skinned knees and candy apples. Sarah spun around as she caught the sharp scent of hungry triumph and the coppery tang of blood. A hint of decay and rotting flesh yanked at her attention and she jerked to a halt. Leather and dirt. Fear. Pain and terror. She was reaching for the object at her feet when the hiss of cloth warned her. Diving to her left she hauled her prize screaming into the air, the rank odor of its breath surprising her.
How had she missed smelling this?
Claws slashed at her face until she snarled and tightened her grip on the creature's throat. A blow from her free hand stunned it long enough for her to be certain the creature was alone. She shook the creature angrily. The girl's fear and blood-scent saturated the creature's skin and clothes.
"Where is she?" Sarah demanded.
Red eyes glared at her and the candy apple it had delayed to eat became a missile launched at her face. She did not even bother to duck. She simply let her eyes shift to silver and the sudden fear emanating from the creature was thick and satisfying on her tongue.
"Sarah? What are you...good god!"
She turned her head enough to see Dobbs come to a stunned halt ten feet away. He did not have a good angle on her eyes, but he had a clear view of the hobgoblin in her grip. Dobbs took a hesitant step forward, freezing when something crunched beneath his foot. He bent to pick the object up and when he straightened, his face was grim.
Fresh blood soaked the doll's dress and coated her plastic hair.
She tightened her grip on the hobgoblin.
"This thing helped steal the child and he's going to tell us where his friends took her."
The hobgoblin spit in her face."What traitor birthed you, half-blood?"it hissed with disgust.
Sarah stared at the hobgoblin expressionlessly, weighing the implications of that question. "No one," she said finally, curious to see how the creature would respond.
The hob snorted with contempt."Thinks I can't smell how close to the line you stand, half-blood?" It grinned maliciously."Did your father claim you, part-blood? We have your scent now. Lies won't save you..." It drew in a deep breath and Sarah smiled slowly when it froze.
Hobgoblin terror flowed like smooth wine.
"Let's begin this conversation again, shall we?' she said pleasantly, hearing an echo of Jareth's aristocratic distain in her own voice.
The creature hissed in spite of its fear."I don't bow to filth, Goblin slut. You don't rule here."
Sarah's smile went cold."What's your point?"
The creature screamed as his wrist broke with a dry-twig snap. Dobbs was panting shallowly behind her and when she looked at him he stared at her eyes with dawning horror.
"Sarah?" His voice was a quiet plea.
She forced the creature to the ground and glared at her partner."Hold it's arms."
The hobgoblin's eyes darted furiously as fear and hatred tried to choke her. Dobbs swallowed several times, then moved to comply. The bloody doll was laid gently on the ground beside the hobgoblin and Sarah saw Dobbs shudder when the creature eyed the drying blood and licked its lips. Almost, she thought Dobbs was going to be sick, then his eyes hardened and he gripped the hobgoblin securely.
He looked at her with a level gaze,"Now what?"
She stared at the hobgoblin and called her dagger to her. It materialized in her hand and Dobbs jerked once but otherwise did not move.
"Now it tells us where they took the girl."