Of Cupids and Kings
A Valentine's Day Labyrinth Story
Sequel to the Christmas-themed "Of Holly and Hobgoblins".
A bit early, I know, but I didn't want it to drag too long after the actual holiday, like the xmas one did.
There should be fairly regular updates leading up to Valentine's Day – I originally planned on writing about 3 chapters, so there should end up being 5 at least! heh!
Currently rated K+ (just in case!)
Please enjoy! ~ W.J.
"You don't mind watching Toby tonight, do you?"
That was how it started. Ironically, just like the first time.
Although at least this time, her stepmother made it sound like she had a choice. Sarah tried to smooth the insincere crinkles out of her smile; the inherent actress in her took over. "No," she answered in her best tone of breezy assurance; it actually sounded convincing. "I'm happy to do it. We get along fine now, don't we?" She playfully jiggled the toddler on her hip. He smiled broadly and gurgled. Good boy, she thought inwardly, you're playing along just fine.
Irene still looked a little unconvinced. She wore a beautiful evening dress, fashionably cut in crisp lines, with her short hair perfectly coiffed and her make-up softening her natural sharp features to best advantage in the dimness of twilight. She had a look of sophisticated allure, Sarah thought to herself. Irene, despite her rather strict and sensible approach to daily life, nevertheless had a bit of latent frivolity in her. She liked clothes that were structured, tailored to look dramatic despite their simple design, and coordinated her jewellery and cosmetics impeccably with her chosen outfit; she was always irreproachably well-turned-out. There was a time when Sarah had resented the sight of her streamline pencil skirts and low-heeled pumps striding away from her out the door, leaving her saddled with her young charge for the entire evening. But those times were no more. Sarah had made peace with her little half-brother, and with the babysitting duties that were periodically thrust upon her. She had 'made her peace' – not, perhaps, the best term to describe the process – in a most extraordinary way.
But that was another story.
"You're sure you don't have any other plans for tonight?" Irene asked her for what must've been the fifth time over the last few days. Sarah grinned. Part of their argument last time had been that Irene hadn't bothered to ask her that question. She rather wished now that she'd stop asking it.
"No, I don't. Really, I don't." She wasn't acting any more. It was entirely true. But that didn't make it any easier to say. Every time she said it, she felt more like she was lying to herself. Telling herself that not having any plans tonight – this particular night – didn't bother her. And somehow, she wasn't quite a good enough actress to make herself believe it, regardless of the smiles and assurances she gave to her stepmother, seemingly with utter conviction.
She rather thought it was ironic. It should be the other way round – the teenager asking the parent if she could go out for a date on Valentine's Day.
Not that Irene and her father were going out on a date, per sé. Married people didn't really go out on dates, didn't need to. The wooing was done, no need to flutter anxiously over candle-lit tables, sidling and sighing, wondering how the other person felt; it was all sorted by then. Sarah's insides twisted slightly. She felt rather envious of such people having that finality, that comfortableness in each other's presence.
As if on cue, Sarah's father came downstairs just then, looking very gallant in a suit jacket and shirt – tie-less, but still quite dapper. A coat was draped over one arm; the other unconsciously wrapped around Irene's shoulders, half-embracing her in a way that was casual, yet at the same time both possessive and protective. "Alright," he said, "We should be out for no more than a few hours, you know which restaurant it is and the phone number is on the fridge. If you need anything, give us a call."
"We'll be fine, Dad." It was a scene they enacted every time her parents went out, and by now it was more a formality than any actual genuine concern. Sarah was a very responsible babysitter. Everything was always alright. Well, almost always. There were some things that a phone call just couldn't solve, not without wasting a significant part of her precious thirteen hours with futile explanations. But she had managed to handle that incident on her own and it had ended happily, after all.
"Bye, Toby," Irene patted her son's hair fondly, then put her hand on Sarah's shoulder in turn. "He's had a bath already and it's already nearly his bedtime, he had a busy day today running round the park so he shouldn't be too fussy, he should be happy to go right to sleep. Just reheat some of the food in the fridge for him in an hour or so – not too hot, mind – and your dinner is there too. Be careful if you use the stove, but you shouldn't need to, it'll be fine in the microwave. Call us if there are any problems."
She had already heard this soliloquy before; she could almost recite it from memory if she were asked to. "Yes, yes, I know. Go already, before they think you're a no-show and give your table away to someone else!" Irene smiled appreciatively, her father gave her a friendly little wave, and the two of them left. Sarah's watchful eye did not miss the commendable display of chivalry as her father held the door open for Irene to pass through before him. Then the door shut firmly behind them, and the two siblings were left in what suddenly seemed to be a very quiet, empty house.
Sarah smiled down at her little brother. "Alright, Tobs, it's just you and me tonight. Would you like to play in your playpen until dinner? You've got some nice teddies and a toy train and some lovely bright-coloured building blocks to keep you occupied for an hour. How about that, boy-o?" Toby merely looked up at her, listening attentively and tightly clutching his favourite teddy bear, Lancelot. Sarah had given it to him as a present last Christmas, and though he obviously adored it, taking it everywhere with him, it still didn't feel to her like it had been enough to repay him for the gift he had given her.
Well, it was partially from him. One other person wishing for it certainly hadn't hurt.
She took Toby upstairs and deposited him in the fenced-in play area that had been set up for him in her parents' room. She left him happily conversing with a clutch of soft toys in his own private language, and headed for her own room next door. As she plumbed herself down on her bed, resolutely turning on her bedside lamp and opening a book, her thoughts nevertheless strayed off the page, drawn irresistibly onto a path of thought that she had been conscientiously trying to avoid all day.
That had been when the dream had come true – or so she had thought. She should've known that nothing the Goblin King gave her ever came without a catch.
Not that he had really done anything wrong – not this time. He had mellowed considerably, he didn't taunt and tease and tempt her any more. But he didn't seem to do much of anything else, either. It was true, she had seen him a few times since Boxing Day – always when she went for a walk in the park. Not every time she went, but sometimes, when there was no one else around, when even the breeze seemed to cease itself and the little babbling stream under the bridge seemed to quieten significantly, like a stage set just as the curtain had gone up, the audience waiting in hushed expectancy for the principle actor to take the scene. That was when suddenly, but not altogether unexpectedly - almost as if she had known exactly what cue it would occur on - she would see a reflection appear beside hers in the stream, or a hand rest itself on the bridge's railing beside her own. And he would greet her with what seemed to now be his customary greeting:
"Hello, Sarah. I trust my presence does not intrude…?"
It was spoken with his trademark self-assured attitude, yet there was a hint of a question in it. As though he were confirming something she had said, or something she had asked for. She never actually asked, not in as many words. But he was never intruding – really, how could he be when the only reason she went to the park these days was on the off-chance that she might see him? She had started to tell herself that she couldn't go there as often as she would really like to. As it was, he didn't appear every time she went there. Surely he had better things to do than answering to the summons of a teenager wandering in a park with a dog, when he had a whole kingdom to see to. Besides, her parents would get suspicious if she kept slipping away to the park all the time. They would start to think that she was meeting a boy. Which she wasn't, of course.
She was meeting a goblin. And she doubted that the fact that this goblin was, in fact, king of them all would make them any more predisposed to her chosen company.
For she had chosen him, it was true. She may not have wished for his gift with actual words herself, but she had undoubtedly wished it with something that, perhaps, wished more fervently and far more passionately than words alone could. And she had accepted the gift this time. Every time he appeared with those casual words which held a deeper, hidden question, she replied with an answer that was likewise deeper than her likewise casual tone seemed to imply:
"No, you're not intruding, Jareth. I'm glad you came."
And they would talk, quietly, almost hesitantly, in the hush of the afternoon, watching the brook hurtling onward beneath the bridge, making its own, far more plentiful, conversation beneath their feet. And that was about it, really. They talked. She wasn't sure what, exactly, she expected. Given past experience, she supposed she somehow expected him to challenge her to battles of wits, or prod and provoke her into a verbal sparring match, or brazenly try to sweep her off her feet. The last possibility was, perhaps, what made her wander hopefully down to the park at least two evenings a week. But it never quite degenerated into that. Or, rather, reached those heights. It was just civilized talk. Like normal people had. Well, perhaps not quite 'normal':
"So how is Hoggle going? I haven't seen him in ages."
"Oh, you mean the gate-keeper? He's as well as can be expected, I suppose."
"You haven't punished him or done anything dreadful to him since I last saw him, have you?"
"Such a question! Would I do that to one whom you consider to be a friend?" He had paused to scratch Merlin, who had sidled up beside him, behind his floppy ears. Sarah hadn't replied, instead waiting for him to answer his own query. "As far as I know, Hoglin is still living out his pathetic little life in peace, with his jewel collection and can of bug spray."
"You do get his name wrong on purpose, don't you?"
"Am I that obvious? I do it quite well, don't you think? It is hard to invent so many names starting with 'H' that still sound a bit like 'Hoggle'. If I called him Horatio or Helga, now that would be obvious."
"Why bother with all that?"
"You don't approve?"
His directness had caught her unawares. She answered more truthfully than she had intended, worried that he would feel insulted: "It seems childish, getting on his nerves on purpose all the time like that."
"Mayhap it is. Really, though, it's not much of an irritant. And it's by no means an exclusive form of torment - I do it to everyone. Sometimes, I must confess, it is a genuine mistake. Most diminutive goblins look the same from my vantage point – a cap, a head of shaggy hair from which protrudes a pair of feet and, in some instances, a long snout or a pair of horns. You walk about all day with them scurrying around your ankles, and after a while they all start to look the same."
"I suppose you think that about human children too," she had added a little defensively, which a touch of human pride, then added thoughtfully: "I suppose people look even more all-the-same, without horns and tails to tell them apart with; especially when they're young." Toby, she had reflected, had looked almost identical to all the other babies when he had been in the hospital nursery.
"Oh, I wouldn't say that, not in every instance. Some humans do have distinguishing characteristics which far remove them from the mundane hordes of others." He had cupped her chin with a gloved hand as he had said it, seeming to be examining her features with that intense gaze of his, two pools of impossibly deep, mismatched blues. It had made something flutter madly in her chest, somewhere beneath the heart-shaped pendant that hung from a chain there; as though it marked the location of her own heart. Then he had drawn his hand away again, and leaned on the railing with a sigh. "As to my 'childish past times' – well, such trifling jovialities do rather help to break the boredom."
"What, fancy-dress balls every week aren't enough for you?"
He had smiled at that; a bittersweet smile that showed plenty of teeth, but not much actual mirth. "Being king isn't all a bed of roses, Sarah."
'Being king'. She hadn't really given much thought to that. It was true that she had thought, especially with the overconfident swagger with which he strode around all the time, that a King of the Goblins could do whatever he liked all day. It was a childish point of view, she now realized. He probably had loads of duties and responsibilities to stress about all day long. Really, when she thought about it, she didn't know much about him, other than what paltry details her old favourite fairytale had told her. And being with him in real life - great though that was - wasn't exactly a fairytale. Sometimes she didn't know what to say to him, what to talk to him about. As a royal figure, he was quite intimidating. Oh, she wasn't scared of him any more, not really. But he was an almost exotic figure, so regal and other-worldly, able to do so many things, able to use magic. He wasn't ignorant of human customs, that much she had learned from talking to him – coming into contact with humans and visiting the Aboveground as often as he did, he had probably picked up a lot of things, gleaned a thorough understanding of human habits. Sometimes she felt small and silly next to this grown-up, imposing figure. After all, what was she in comparison – a fifteen-year-old schoolgirl who still kept a box of dress-up clothes and read children's stories? Even amongst her peers – other teenage girls her age who twittered over the pages of gossip magazines, with their bright-hued, long-tipped nails and risqué fashions, strutting down the street on the hip of their grown-up-looking boyfriends, whilst she sat in the park, talking to her dog – she often felt quite babyish in comparison.
What did someone like the King of the Goblins really see in her, anyway? She wasn't sure any more. Especially the way things were going now. If he was still trying to romance her, he wasn't exactly being obvious about it. And somehow, 'Jareth' and 'subtlety' didn't really seem to go together. She wished she could look sophisticated like Irene, or even perhaps have the whimsical, worldly charm of her bohemian-actress mother. She supposed that was her problem; at an age when most other girls at her school were starting to look and act like women, she still felt very much like a little girl. She had been somewhat dreading today. Whilst she had seen people at school exchanging valentines and covertly slipping cards into lockers, she had spent the day feeling very alone, wondering what he felt towards her. She hadn't mentioned Valentine's the last time they had met, and he hadn't either. It seemed rather logical when she considered it – despite his knowledge of human customs and, presumably, holidays, Valentine's Day didn't exactly seem like a holiday goblins would celebrate, especially since they had only just celebrated Christmas for the first time last year. Still, she couldn't help but feel slightly disappointed, which in turn made her feel rather ungrateful. But after all, it was the only holiday of the year devoted purely to romance. Perhaps her expectations had been too high – wasn't it little more than a full-blown commercial fiasco, a ruse to sell scores of greeting cards and expensive chocolates and flower bouquets? – but still… she couldn't help but wonder what it would be like to receive a valentine, to spend a romantic evening with-
Was that a roll of thunder she had heard in the distance? She came back to reality with a start. Glancing at the clock on her bedside table, she saw that more than thirty minutes had passed, and she still hadn't read a single page of the open book before her. There was another ominous growl of thunder, seemingly overhead; not as distant as she had initially thought. She scrambled up off the bed, realizing she should go and check on Toby. When she went into the room, she saw that he was still in his playpen; she felt an irrational sense of relief wash over her to see him still there, despite the fact that the goblins had redeemed themselves in her eyes over the past few months. He was sitting up, Lancelot beside him, with a bright red building block crammed in his little mouth. He looked innocently up at her as she leaned over the side of the pen.
"Hey, Toby. You hungry? Ready for dinner?" She decided she should get it out of the way right now. You never knew, in this kind of whether there could sometimes be-
She had just lifted him out of the pen when, coinciding with a loud crack of thunder, the light fitting overhead suddenly dimmed, blinked back on, made a fizzling sound, then went out completely with a loud pop!, plunging them into total darkness. The suddenness of it made her cry out before she realized what was actually happening. Regaining her composure, she went to the light switch and flipped it off and on again, to no avail. The hall light was off too; glancing out the window, she saw that the whole street was pitch-black, even the streetlights. The whole block must be out of power, she realized.
In this type of weather, there could sometimes be black-outs.
She sighed, and jostled Toby comfortingly in her arms. He didn't seem scared, and he didn't cry; he just made a surprised, awed-sounding noise, a bit like a muffled whimper, and clutched his bear to himself. Sarah crossed with him over to the bed; she knew her dad kept a powerful torch under the mattress in case this sort of thing happened in the middle of the night.
"Well, looks like cold crackers for us tonight, Toby," she muttered to him, but more to herself, as she groped in the dark for the torch. Irene had left dinner for them both – mushed-up versions for Toby, normal portions for herself – to be reheated before eating, but with no power and both the microwave and electric stove out of action, they weren't exactly a palatable option any more. They would have to raid the larder for their dinner, she supposed-
"Oh, I'm sure we can do better than that."
She whirled and nearly lost her balance as a silky voice floated out of nowhere, striking her ear out of the eerie silence of the room. A strong hand caught her under her elbow, keeping her – and Toby – upright. Lightning flared outside; she caught a quick glimpse of a dark silhouette between her and the window panes that lit up with the momentary flash of light. Then as the peal of thunder followed it, the light stayed in the room. It emanated from a crystal ball that glowed softly, like a miniature full-moon, held by an outstretched hand in a black leather glove.
That was how it started. Just like the first time.
Author's Note: And so it begins - again! :D
This story has been giving me a bit of a hard time. I know how it begins – obviously – and I think I know how it will end, but I'm not sure how the middle should go. I mean, if you're stuck in a black-out with the Goblin King, what should happen? I've started writing something, but I'm not sure if I'm really happy with it, so I'm open to suggestion. If anyone knows something that is good to do during a black-out, just normal, fun things (and keep it clean – Toby is there too, remember) suggest away, if I get something better than what I've written, I may well use it.
Subsequently, our family never does anything in blackouts, except perhaps to actually sit around eating cold dry crackers, and waiting for the power to come back on. So I suppose as long and Jareth, Sarah and Toby don't just end up doing that, it should be a vast improvement on proceedings at our house. This story was based on one such incident. I suppose I only should have written about it if I could think of something exciting for them to do. Oops.