AN: Apologies for the long absence. Real life and health has been rather rough. Thanks to those who read, reviewed, and nagged in my absence. Happy new year to all.
"I hadn't intended this conversation to progress quite this way," he commented, hours of fire-lit conversation later.
Sarah nodded, enjoying the soft scratch of the rug on the nape of her neck. They lay side by side on the floor, warmed by the glowing hearth and a little fine brandy. The mix of informality and luxury amused her. They did not touch at all, yet through their long conversation and occasional laughter, Sarah felt them drawing closer. Her intense anger was fading. She wasn't sure how she felt about losing her venom, yet she yearned to enjoy the closeness until it had to end. It had to end.
She yawned. "You intended to scold me, didn't you?"
He chuckled. "I already told you, you've been vastly more successful than I expected."
"I don't really feel successful."
"I do not think that monarchs often do."
Sarah wrinkled her nose at him. "You always reeked of success and superiority."
"Tell me more good things about myself," he purred, stretching out on the rug.
She threw a pillow at him. "You're arrogant and self-centered."
"Extraordinary egotistical, over-inflated, narcissistic…"
"Well my dear…"
"Pompous, haughty, supercilious…"
"I think you're trying too hard Sarah."
She narrowed her eyes at him. Somehow in the long companionable hours by the fire, he'd charmed her away from a far earlier question. Now it burned like the flames licking the hearth. "Why did you do this to me? Tell me really."
"Please, don't tell me 'it isn't fair.'"
"Don't insult me. I'm not playing anymore," she paused, searching his face. "There has to be a reason."
"Would you prefer a lie or the truth?"
"Is an untwisted truth too much to ask for?"
He shook his head.
"Then tell me that. How can you justify making me give up my whole life on your whim? Making me tie myself to this place under false pretense?"
"I like to think I knew it would be best for you. And you would be the best."
"You said that before."
"Maybe I did," he shrugged, but she noticed the tension in his shoulders. "You seem very happy here."
"Except when I'm miserable." Sarah refused to let him think he'd somehow fixed her life. She could have been happy aboveground away from him. "I'm stretched between two or more lives at any given moment!" she snarled. "I have to push people I love away. You've made me suspicious of everyone. And you've made me so alone!"
"You know what I mean."
"No, tell me."
After keeping the secret so long, the words flooded out. Telling him didn't betray anyone's secrets, and unlike her other confidants, he wouldn't send her for a psychiatric evaluation. "I don't fit anywhere anymore," Sarah sighed. "Not in this world, certainly not in the high court where no one shows their faces, not even in my supposed kingdom, not at school when I'm constantly rushing back here, not a home where I keep everyone at arm's length."
He paused for a long moment. "I did apologize," he said at last.
"But you didn't tell me why."
Sarah studied his face, watching the tiny ticks of muscles beneath the surface. He looked nervous, when he'd always been the epitome of nonchalance. Now, she wondered if he just did whatever he could to mask his own pain. His lip twitched.
She bit her own and rephrased the question. "Why did you pick me? Why did you make me come back?"
He looked at her as he never had before, so that returning his gaze made her eyes tear. "I thought I'd lost the only person I could ever invest myself in," he whispered. "Perhaps try to love."
Those were the last words she'd ever expected to hear him say. "What?"
"I did have to find a successor for the Goblin throne and will someday pass on the Majesterium…" He shook his head as if backtracking, as if he hadn't meant to say it that way. He cleared his throat and took on a more regal, yet warmer, tone. "Since you now have equal enough status with the Majesterium, I wondered if I might have the honor of courting you?" he asked, playing with his role as her sovereign and would-be lover.
"Courting me?" she repeated. Sarah stared at him for a full minute, mouth hanging wide open, before she could find any words. "Do you think I could ever trust you again? After all this deception?"
"No." She jumped to her feet, staring down at him. Sarah wished he'd stand and meet her challenge. "I spent the whole last year realizing that I missed you, that I might have felt something like…and you turn up now expecting me to forgive and accept you?"
"I hoped you would want to explore some of those feelings," he supposed, training his eyes on her feet from the floor. "Any of them at all. Even the anger."
"I'm so lost I don't know what I want from you beyond a little help so I can keep up my GPA while maintaining some sort of foothold in the high court."
He looked up at her and suddenly it didn't matter that he was lying on the rug while she stood over him. "You would have immediate respect if you entered with me Sarah," he promised, raising himself to one knee.
"Pity your little experiment taught me pride in self-sufficiency." Confronted by his vulnerability, she fought the sneer from her face. She hated his proposal of dependency.
"Sarah, I can see the pain in your eyes."
"You put it there," Sarah's lip curled.
He opened his hands, palms up. "Please, let me try to make amends."
"The only thing I want…the only help I can accept from you is purely political."
The old king seemed to decide she wouldn't listen. He nodded, stood, and bowed, face bleak. "Then I will be at your service Majesty."
The cold formality chilled her. Sarah turned away. "I think I'd like to be alone for awhile."
He disappeared without even a hint of glitter, taking all their prior warmth and affability with him. Their absence stung her skin.
x x x x
In the fall, Sarah returned to school determined to finish her senior year with a generous helping of advanced Political Science courses before finding a convenient way to disappear into the Underground almost completely. Although her teachers questioned the Biology Major's sudden interest in government her last three semesters, Sarah soon proved an especially diligent student, raised her GPA, and graduated with honors.
Meanwhile, she ran the Goblin Kingdom on a tight rein, with as much humor as she could manage. Her goblins, dare she admit it, adored her enough to keep their mischief to a minimum. She ignored all the summons of the high court during the school year, and felt especially proud of learning a spell that kept a quill moving on her desk like an invisible hand, sorting out her affairs. The high court didn't need her for frivolous parties, which stressed both her mental mettle and her time management. Now a fully recognized sovereign, she saw no need to attend. She made sure to enjoy her final year of college and full-time aboveground life instead.
The Majesterium himself kept his word to the letter and left her alone. Sarah couldn't decide how to feel about that. She replayed their conversation by the fire at least three times a day for that whole year. He'd mentioned love, or at least a potential for that elusive emotion. Sarah only knew that she knew nothing of love. But usually at least one daily replay of their last conversation made her wonder where he was, if he was smiling, and if he thought of her as often as she did of him. She waited for word or a visit that never came. She simultaneously appreciated his respect for her wishes and hated him for ignoring her.
After the fuss of graduation died down and Sarah settled into her kingdom while supposedly on European tour, she decided she might try putting in an appearance at an elite party. She knew she needed to brave tête-à-têtes with the other powers of the underground eventually, which social ties would only facilitate. And since she planned to disappear into the underground, she would need some sort of social interaction to keep her sane.
Now at peace with her royal role, and with her enhanced magic allowing her to see the faces and features of her peers, Sarah found it surprisingly easy to get swept into the banter, the dance, and the party. More surprisingly, her antics at her coronation and subsequent absence seemed to have made her an enigmatic attraction of the court. Instead of shunning her, the nobles sought Sarah. She danced and flirted with tall, dark, men from across the Underground. They wanted to speak of politics, but Sarah steered the conversation away, indoctrinating herself without giving anything away.
The music ended. She bowed to her partner as she had earlier in the evening, but paused when the chattering crowd suddenly fell silent.
Someone tapped her on the shoulder. The heat of the touch told her who it was.
"Jareth," she said, turning around.
A gasp and a twitter echoed around the room, but the courtiers, nobles, and rulers disappeared from her world.
He was again the epitome of royal elegance, of conniving, and of power. He once again blended her dreams and her nightmares. She had tried to forget him as anything but her over-lord this past year. Exposed to his presence again, Sarah knew that limiting his presence in her mind was impossible.
He smiled, offering his hand. "It seems you'll dance with everyone but me."
"My former partners say you don't dance at court functions," she taunted, surprised at how easy she felt around him.
"Not since your first visit," he teased, "you asked about me?"
"Just out of curiosity." She flushed and her confidence fled. "You didn't ask."
"I'm asking now." He paused, staring down at her. His eyes pleaded because his voice would not. "Sarah, I find myself with this second chance at living, remaking myself really, and yet my promise to you prevents me from investigating that about which I'm most curious."
His audacity shocked her, both that he'd acknowledge his dubious lies and betrayal, and to admit the opportunity for change so openly. Change of himself, and change for them, together. As Goblin Queen, and Sarah Williams, recent college graduate, she longed for change. He had spoken tentative words of potential before, of a future. And he undeniably intrigued her.
They moved in easy rhythm together, slippers and boots lightly tapping the floor. They did not talk; there was no music. She felt as if their essences mixed together as they had upon their first reunion in the mirror. It hurt to break apart when the dance ended and the music and crowd flared to life again, but Sarah could not trust him, could barely forgive him for stealing her life away to suit his whims. But maybe they were more than whims. He'd said she was the only person he could try to love. She only just realized that he held similar promise for her.
She had to tug on his hand to make him release hers.
"May I call on you?" he whispered in her ear. "May I try to prove myself?"
Sarah closed her eyes. "Yes," she replied, surprised that she did not need to think about her answer. She remembered the day she'd first realized the unlikely, budding compatibility of their souls and the first time she'd mourned his passing. She remembered the slow realization that she could not deny their connection, their attraction. She detested the trickery he used, but he had used it, in a twisted way, for her. "Yes."
Out of the darkness, his hand cupped her chin, and his lips brushed hers—feather light, soft, and reverent. He pulled away before she could move to deepen the kiss.
Sarah opened her eyes, her face still cradled in his palm. His thumb skimmed over her cheek bones. "Thank you for giving me a second chance," Jareth murmured.
Her heart beat fast at the thought of a second chance—a second chance with mutual understanding and opened eyes. "This is your third, and last," she replied.
Sarah stood on tiptoe and wrapped her arms around his neck. She pulled him into an embrace of her own, an entwining embrace that finally brought them together, and felt his quiet, hopeful laughter against her mouth.