Everything As It Seems
Sarah Williams was home for Christmas. It wasn't too unusual. She had come home every year, except her sophomore year at Randolph Macon where she had begged her dad with clasped hands and fits of overplayed drama to go with her friend Lily to North Carolina. She had been teasing him, mostly, and he had relented, mostly. Saying that he would miss her and she should come back for New Years. It had been a fun trip and worth it but now Sarah was glad to be here with her family and her family's friends on this eve before Christmas Eve as she had for years now.
They all sat around the long low table, her dad wearing an evening jacket, her step-mother in a green dress and round earrings that looked like ornaments that flashed and bobbed with the movements of her head. Toby sat just across from Sarah in his Sunday clothes, thoroughly bored. He was ten now. Old enough to know how to behave but too young to resist flicking peas and chopped carrots across the table at his little sister when he thought his mother wasn't looking. Margaret was six, brown haired and blue-eyed and just beginning to question the validity of Santa Claus. Belief or no didn't stop her from flicking peas back at him. Sarah was caught in the crossfire a bit but wasn't annoyed, even when a piece of carrot careened in a certain way off Margret's plate and ended up, against all odds, in Sarah's champagne glass. Sarah had coughed to cover a laugh and sipped at the champagne, carrot and all, winking at Toby who grinned brilliantly.
It was funny and it was sad, too. This would be their last Christmas. Her last Christmas anyway, here with them in this house. After Toby's birthday in mid-July, she'd be off to an internship in the plateau of northern Arizona, and from there, with any luck, a scholarship to a master's degree, from that a career, from that a life – away from this table and her family and the vegetable war. It looked like she was finally growing up. It seemed like she had spent her whole childhood waiting to grow and now that it was here she wasn't so sure she was ready.
"…is going to be an Anthropologist," Irene was saying. "Isn't that right, dear?" And Sarah found herself the center of attention from the adults in the room, Irene smiling like the Cheshire Cat. Sarah felt suffocated suddenly, feeling an expectation to say something witty and clever but she hadn't been prepared and only managed:
"Um, yes." And blushed a little and sipped her champagne.
"Oh, are you going to Egypt?" asked Irene's elderly friend and Sarah wondered if the woman fancied her as some kind of Indiana Jones, brushing dirt off relics whilst fighting Nazis with a whip.
"I didn't think they had ruins in Arizona," said the lady's companion. Not her husband, Sarah knew. Brother, she thought. Cousin maybe. She couldn't remember.
"Actually I'm training to be a cultural anthropologist," she said and at their blank looks, continued: "I um…study culture. Specifically I'm going to collect data from the Hopi people." It sounded like sand to her ears. Collect data? How cold. She was better then that. But she couldn't focus tonight. It must have been the champagne.
"Oh," said the lady and the conversation drifted away. From the head of the table Dad smiled at her and winked to let her know it was all right. That he, at least, understood. She was glad he did because she didn't. Not really. For some reason she was throwing herself hundreds of miles from home to talk to strangers and collect their stories. Sarah took a deep, quiet breath and let it out. That wouldn't be until summer anyway so there was no use worrying about it now.
An hour or so later, Irene's friends were about ready to go. Sarah watched them from the staircase, leaning on the banister while Toby sat on the steps with his chin in his hands. Margaret stood in the middle of the hustle and bustle of coats being handed out, wraps being shrugged on, and general hugs and kisses goodbye. She, at least, looked like she was enjoying herself. One of her hands was wrapped around Dad's, the other was busy trying to hold up her white dress tights, her face wreathed in smiles. Sarah glanced out the window, catching her own bored reflection. Outside, snow was gathering on the limbs of the beech tree. It had started flurrying before they sat down to eat but it looked like the snow was coming thick and fast now. She hoped everyone got home all right.
A heavy sigh by her knees pulled her attention to Toby, who had shifted his chin to one hand so that the other could pluck at the carpeting on the stairs. She smiled down at him. "Having fun?"
"Yeah. Buckets of it," he said, looking up at her. "Just think; tomorrow we get to do this again with Mom's knitting circle," he added in a low voice.
"Don't remind me," Sarah muttered, rolling her eyes. Irene was a bit of a social butterfly. She didn't even knit, but the knitters met next door to her yoga class at the rec center chatted with her and somehow she knew all of them. If Dad didn't put his foot down and say that Christmas Day was for family only, there was no telling how many people they would have over.
Well it wasn't so bad. Sarah stretched her arms over her head and went to sit beside Toby on the staircase. He moved over obligingly. Once Christmas came, her step-mother would settle down and be almost tranquil, at least until New Years. Toby would enjoy himself too, Sarah knew. He was still in love with Christmas, not to mention the frenzied present-rush where wrapping paper was flung all over the room. He nudged her arm and held out his hand, wiggling his thumb in invitation. She shook her head and clasped his hand, thumb wrestling with him for a few rounds until he was called away to say goodbye to the Millers.
Then she was by herself again and turned to glance once more at the snow. It was beautiful, lit by the porch light; falling soft as feathers and teased by the wind. It was almost like a fairy tale. Snow, and fairy tales, both were bright and enchanting until you were up to your knees and freezing and wondering how you were going to keep trudging through. Not that she believed in the latter, of course. Fairy tales were in stories and dreams, only those. Still, she thought, or dreamed. An uncertain shadow crossed the snow and her spine froze until she saw Mr. and Mrs. Dabney come into view, winding their way down the small path to the driveway, the blobby shadow going with them. She shook her head and stood. Maybe she should start to clear the table. That would help her get her head out of the clouds.
No one stopped her or called to her as she moved to the dining room. It was as if she had become a shadow herself, drifting across the floor. It was better this way, really, she thought, as she began stacking the china plates gently on top of one another. Not just that they let her be, but that she busy herself from dreams and weird thoughts. That kind of thing wasn't going to fly out in Arizona. She'd be all by herself. An assistant, really, to a moderately well known anthropologist. She could end up no more than a shadow herself, taking notes or transcribing hours of dialogue. It was good practice. She practiced being as silent as she could, pressing her lips tighter together even as she moved on cat feet into the kitchen. She half expected someone to be waiting for her there but she couldn't say why.
"Oh, stop that," Sarah told herself, though she hadn't moved into the kitchen yet. "You're not a shadow, you're a brainless girl putting dirty dishes into an old sink." She straightened her shoulders and moved at a normal pace into the empty kitchen and deposited the dishes carefully on the counter. When she came back to the dining room Toby was there, two mugs in one hand and with the other held a glass of half-full champagne and was eying it.
"Don't even think about it," she said, plucking the glass from his fingers. He grinned at her in a way that was entirely too charming for his own good.
"I was looking for the carrot," he said, gathering another mug. "It's not there, you must have drunk it."
"Well whose fault is it that it was in my glass in the first place?" she said, aiming a teasing kick at his backside as he moved past her toward the kitchen.
"Your own," Toby said over his shoulder. Then added: "Clumsy."
"You little brat!" Sarah said with a laugh. She gathered up a few more plates and followed him into the kitchen. She put the plates in the sink and waited until he deposited his mugs safely before reaching for him. He anticipated her move and ducked under her arms, laughing and running into the sitting room.
"You're going to get it!" she said, stepping out of her heels and chasing after him, slipping a little on the linoleum. His laugh was the only answer and she dove into the sitting room and found him standing by the tree, arms folded, grinning as if to say, "you wouldn't dare attack me here." Sarah smiled back at him and came closer. One step at a time. He edged further back until the pine bristles were over his shoulders, a see-through plastic ball hanging low against his neck. Sarah crooked her fingers. One little tree wasn't enough to stop her. Toby shifted. A candy cane shook loose and plunked to the ground. The ornament came to rest like a bird on his shoulder.
"Toby Williams, you get away from that tree!" Irene's voice cut sharply through the air and Sarah stopped and felt her face flush, embarrassed and annoyed at feeling she'd gotten caught when she hadn't even done anything. Toby stood away from the tree, accidentally taking the ornament with him and sending it plunking to the ground and rolling until it came to a stop at Sarah's feet. Irene was standing in the archway, her squinting a little like she always did when she was annoyed. "How many times do I have to tell you to stop horse-playing around it? There are heirlooms on that tree and you're lucky none of them broke the last time you knocked it over."
"Wasn't gonna knock it over," Toby muttered, shoulders hunched. Irene sighed and flicked her hands in the air, giving Sarah an exasperated look. Sarah felt immediately defensive but suddenly realized with a sort of chill the look was meant to be commiserating, one adult to another, but then Irene's expression changed.
"Sarah," she said, hesitating a breath before going on. "Mrs. Henson's ride just got stuck on the interstate. Apparently they haven't cleared the roads as well as they should. Your father and I are going to take Mrs. Henson and see if we can help her ride out. It's getting pretty cold out there so if you could just keep an eye on the children."
"Sure," Sarah said. Though it hadn't really sounded like a request. Then again, it never did but Sarah was past being annoyed, for the most part. Anyway it was for a good cause and it wasn't as if she had any other plans. Not that Irene had bothered to ask.
"Thank you," the woman said, sounding about as sincere as a newly elected politician. "I don't know how long we'll be gone," her step-mother continued. "It could be for a few hours depending on the roads. Do you remember the emergency numbers? And Margaret is to be in bed at nine, no later. Toby at eleven, and I mean it, buster. No playing your games after lights out."
"I know, I know. I've done this for a long time you know," Sarah said, tempted to add 'For most of my social life' and she would just be teasing, mostly, but she knew Irene would find it passive aggressive and catty so she refrained. It was almost Christmas after all.
"And be sure that Margaret puts on her lotion before bed," Irene went on. "We need to clear up that rash before school starts again or the nurses will have a fit. There's some ice cream in the fridge if you want it for later. If worst comes to worst there are frozen waffles for breakfast in the morning, or pancake mix, do we still have eggs? I can't remember."
"Irene we should get going," Dad called from the foyer.
"All right. Okay. I'm coming," Irene called back. Distantly Sarah could hear Margaret saying:
"Can I come with you, Daddy? Please? I'll be good."
"All right, Sarah. I trust you," Irene said. "Are you sure you're all right?"
"I'm fine, I'm fine," Sarah said. "I won't even wish anyone away this time." The words popped out of her mouth before she knew they were there. Irene smiled in a tight-lipped way, unable to get the joke or maybe not appreciating it. Dad called her again and she looked at him and waved an impatient hand.
"I'm coming. Honestly. He acts like it's a blizzard out there." Instead of going right out she came into the room and primped her hair a little in the mirror above the fireplace. Toby rolled his eyes in such an exaggerated way that Sarah had to turn from the mirror so Irene wouldn't see her smirk. Instead she picked up the clear plastic ball and went to hang it back on the tree. Sarah set it in place and stepped back to admire the view, hearing Irene leave the room and from the other room, Margaret beginning to cry.
"But I want to come with you, Daddy. We were going to look at Christmas lights. You promised."
Oh boy, this was going to be a long night, Sarah thought as she heard her dad say something to Margaret but too softly for her to understand.
"You wished someone away before?" Toby asked, coming to stand beside her. Sarah flinched inwardly but was able to smile about it. She folded her arms and grinned down at him.
"You," she said, making a joke of it. "Once."
"But I wanna goooo!" Margaret was screaming. Toby made a face and Sarah knew it was coming before he said it.
"I wish I could wish Margaret away."
And even though that had been a dream and Sarah knew it had been a dream, an avalanche of cold tumbled up her spine and she glanced at Toby.
"No you don't," she said, harder than she'd meant to. He looked up at her surprised. He opened his mouth, then closed it again and shoved his hands into his pockets.
"No, she's all right," he mumbled. Margaret's screaming rose in pitch and Dad said:
"Sarah!" shouting to be heard over the noise. Sarah took a deep breath, counted to ten, and then let it out before going out into the foyer where Margaret, who was probably overtired and overexcited, Sarah reminded herself, was having a full-out fit on the floor, pounding her hands and feet against the wood. Irene had already ushered Mrs. Henderson out the door, likely to get her away from the unpleasantness. God forbid anyone see any unpleasantness.
"You promised!" Margaret was screaming. "You promised."
"I said maybe, honey," Dad said. "We can go tomorrow. Okay?"
"No I want to go now!"
Sarah thought a moment. Threatening would only make it worse for her later on. The thing to do was to get Margaret's mind off of it; but if a threat wouldn't work, a bribe just might do it.
"Well I guess Toby and I will have to watch Rudolph all by ourselves," she said, raising her voice a little. "And it'll be sad without Margie Pargie to share a bowl of ice cream with. Mmm-mm!" She rubbed her stomach. Margaret looked up, wiping her eyes with the heel of her hand.
"Go on, honey," Dad said, lifting Margaret off the floor. "We're not going to have any ice cream with us. It's just going to be cold and boring."
"Okay…" Margaret said and hugged his neck. "Will Mommy be cold, too?"
"No. She can keep herself extra warm." He hugged her back and kissed the top of her head, then shot Sarah a look of gratitude as he slipped through the door. Margaret sniffled, wiping her eyes and nose and then rubbing her hands on her velvet dress.
"Come on then, princess," Sarah said, holding out her hand. "Lets get you clean and put on your jammies."
"I thought you said we were gonna watch Rudolph," Margaret said, fisting her hands in her dress.
"We are, after your-" bath could be a trigger word. Sarah thought: "Spa treatment."
"Oh yes, all proper princesses must get their spa treatment before watching Rudolph," Sarah said, tilting her head just so. Toby snorted from the other room but Sarah ignored him. Margaret sniffled again and come to her and inserted her snotty little hand inside Sarah's own. Hand in hand, they went up the stairs and to Sarah's old room, which was now Margaret's. It had pissed her off when she'd found out about it. She hadn't had much stuff left, since she'd brought most of it with her to college. Her stuffed animals and dolls had been filtered down to Margaret and other little step-cousins. Still, being forced into the smallest room of the house, the guest bedroom no less, just got her goat.
"You'll be leaving soon and Margie is growing up," Dad had said and it made sense and she got it, she really did, but sometimes she wished she'd been the one able to make the decision. Oh well. Sarah let it go. No point in worrying about it now.
"Let's go get your jammies," Sarah said, pushing open the door.
"I can get them!" Margaret said and darted into the room. Sarah followed her, just in case she needed help or forgot something. The room had changed and hadn't changed. There were stuffed animals everywhere, intermingled with Barbies and a little harlequin doll, too fragile to be played with, on a high shelf. Sarah shuddered and tried not to think about what dreams that might produce. At least the vanity was still there. Her vanity. Dad had said she could take it with her when she left and Sarah pretty much intended to do so, at some point. She sat at the little chair, staring into the mirror and watching Margaret through the reflection.
How often had she sat here as a child, staring into this vanity mirror as she brushed her hair or put on cherry-red lipstick? Though she had never really looked at herself. No use looking at plain-Jane Sarah after all, with mousy brown hair instead of glamorous blonde or firey red or mysterious raven wing black. So she'd always looked beyond, pretending to be what she wasn't, a princess of the fairy kingdom, a mystical queen in an abandoned castle far away, locked alone and wishing for her prince charming to come through the mirror and save her.
After the dream she had become more grounded. Oh, she daydreamed, now and then, calling the characters out and indulging in imagination. But then sophomore year came, and she got a life—friends. She became the editor of the school yearbook, lettered in track and field, dabbled in theater, all those high school achievements that didn't matter a whit once she got into college and by that time she'd nearly forgotten the names. There was—Ludo of course. Short and simple, easy to remember. D…Diedy… No Didy….Didymus? And one she had never forgotten.
"Hoggle," she murmured into the mirror, half expecting to see him pop up behind her. She wished he would come and she hoped he wouldn't and, naturally, nothing happened. No buzz in the air, no mysterious brushing of wind, though she did try to imagine, for her childhood's sake, Hoggle looking up – except that she could barely remember his face. Well, it didn't matter now. She was far too old for dreams. Real life lay open before her, large and frightening and she had to face it with all the courage she possessed. Sarah straightened, staring at her own reflection, her own self, seeing nothing more than a slightly frazzled girl, hair curled for the dinner party beginning to relax and frizz, lipstick smudged at the corners of her plain mouth. Simple Sarah, she thought. And that was enough. It was enough.
"Sarah?" Margaret said and Sarah blinked, realizing that Margaret had come to stand beside her without her even realizing it. She inwardly chastised herself. She was too old for that kind of daydreaming. Sarah turned her full attention on the child who had her jammies tucked under one arm and while scratching at the rash on her side with the other hand. Sarah gently pulled that hand away, remembering what Irene had said about the medicine. Margaret frowned but was silent as Sarah led her out into the hallway. Was there going to be another tantrum? Sarah hoped not. She had nothing left to bribe Margaret with and threats were out of the question.
"What's wrong? There's a lovely spa just waiting for you," Sarah said, hoping to distract Margaret from whatever was upsetting her. Margaret tugged at Sarah's dress.
"Could you stay with me?" she asked. Sarah frowned. Margaret had only just started bathing alone and Irene had said it was best not to indulge Margaret's fears by going in there with her.
"You'll be all right by yourself. It's not scary," Sarah said, but gently, pushing open the door to the bathroom and flicking on the light. It had been redone since fall break, with friendly fish and water wallpaper with a shower curtain to match. There was even a smiling sun opposite the medicine cabinet that her dad had painted himself. Margaret hung back, uncertain.
"Please, Sarah?" Margaret said, tugging at her. She really looked scared, poor thing, and though Sarah wanted to defy Irene's wishes, she knew it was probably better to go with the woman on this one.
"Look, I'll be right outside the door, okay? You can even leave it cracked if you want."
"Okay," said Margaret but was still frowning and looked like she was going to cry. Sarah felt terrible, like the mean old witch out of a fairy tale or, worse, an adult that just didn't understand. The terrible thing was that Sarah really didn't. She tried to remember back through the fog of her childhood. What did she do when she was little and scared?
"Oh, I know," said Sarah, getting a flash of inspiration. "Why don't you get a toy to keep you company?" After all, Sir Lancelot had always been there for her when she was a kid.
"But Mommy says that I shouldn't bring toys into the bathroom."
Sarah stopped herself from rolling her eyes. How stupid. It was just a bathroom for Pete's sake. She would have to talk to Dad about that. He let Irene get away with the most idiotic things. Not that it would do much good. He would just smile and nod and agree like he always did and the no-toys-in-the-bathroom law would continue unabated.
"Well it'll be okay just for tonight," Sarah said with a smile. "Go and get one. But hurry up. We don't want to miss Rudolph!" Though that was kind of a lie. They had an old DVD of Rudolph, so even if they missed the show it wasn't like they didn't have a backup. Honestly, Sarah just didn't want to wait an extra half an hour for Margaret to choose among her mountain of stuffed animals.
Margaret came back quicker than expected and Sarah was mildly surprised to see the stuffed barn owl tucked under her arm. Sarah had bought it because it had looked cute. She'd given it to Margaret on her birthday, because Sarah was too old for things like that, Lancelot notwithstanding. Though the girl had squealed and promptly named the owl Featherduster, Sarah couldn't imagine why it had ratcheted up to Margaret's favorite toy so quickly. Maybe it was just the first one at hand, Sarah thought.
She set Featherduster on the sink, propping him up against the toothbrush holder and then ran the bathwater, looking for bubble bath and not even finding that. Maybe they were just out. She couldn't imagine even Irene being that straight-laced.
"You should ask Daddy to get you some bubble bath," Sarah said, testing the water with her wrist. Asking Dad was one way to circumvent Irene's authority. At least it should for something as silly as bubble bath.
"I can't," said Margaret. "I'm allergic." And she scratched meaningfully at her side. Ah. Sarah felt a little bad for not knowing but didn't dwell on it. Instead she made sure Margaret got in the bath, threw the velvet dress and tights into the hamper and left, keeping the door open just enough so that Margaret could see her through the crack. Then she sat opposite to the door, because she had promised, and leaned against the railing.
"Are you guys almost done?" Toby called impatiently from downstairs.
"We've just started," Sarah called back. Toby groaned in an exaggerated way and Sarah twisted her head to see him but he'd already gone somewhere else. Into the den probably because she soon heard the sound of the TV faintly playing "It's A Wonderful Life." Wonderful Life. Ha!
Sarah backtracked, closing her eyes. It was a wonderful life. She had a family, a roof over her head. She had good memories and a full belly and it was nice to hear the sounds of life in the house: the TV, Margaret splashing and singing to herself in the bath. She opened her eyes again and saw Featherduster staring at her. He had fallen over and now his yellow, glass eyes were fixed on her as if reminding her.
"Yes, I get it," she muttered to herself, feeling her ears burn even as her face chilled; then she caught herself. Here she was, having conversations with a stuffed owl. A stuffed owl that she had bought. She was tempted to go in and set the owl right side up but she didn't. That would be giving in. She stared back at the owl, noting its felt beak, its white belly speckled with black, and plush floppy feet. Unthreatening. Many tribes thought the owl was a messenger, a spirit of the dead sent to bring wisdom to the living. To others like the Zuni and her own Hopi it was an omen of ill-luck. The Hopi had another symbol too, the maze, or labyrinth—despite herself a chill shivered through her. Though it was supposed to represent something like a mother's love, protection within the walls of the maze. Not that she had ever actually been in a labyrinth, she reminded herself – but she could never remember her mother actually being protective.
Maybe that's what it had been about. Maybe the dream was just a way to express her own directionless hopelessness in life, trapped in a step-mother's maze whose walls she didn't know, that shifted and tumbled under her feet so she had to guess her way out. But on the other hand, the entire experience—dream—had been entirely male, except for the nasty biting little fairies. Maybe it had been indicating the lack of feminine direction in her life? In either case, she didn't feel any more directed now. Sure she knew where she was going, more or less, but not what was out there. The world always seemed to end just beyond her front door. Featherduster just stared at her, offering her no explanations, challenging her to figure it out on her own, and she wanted to stuff his head in the sink drain.
"He's a stuffed owl!" she told herself fiercely.
"Of course he is," said a voice and Sarah jumped to see Toby standing beside her with a grin and two cups of eggnog. "Do you always talk to yourself?"
"Could you make a little more noise next time?" Sarah said, deciding it was better not to answer that. "You nearly gave me a heart attack." Toby's grin just widened. She was feeding him more ammunition for a later date, she just knew it. Well, that was fine. Sarah had always managed to give as good as she got. He offered the eggnog and she took it, though she didn't much like eggnog unless it was watered down with a little milk. A sip told her that it was and she was surprised that Toby knew.
"Is that Toby?" said Margaret, before Sarah could speak. "Tell him not to peek!"
"I'm not gonna peek on you!" Toby said, sitting beside her. "Why would I want to peek on a worm butt like you?"
"I'm not a worm butt!" Margaret shrieked. "Sarah, tell him I'm not a worm butt!"
"She's not a worm butt," Sarah said, though she was smiling. "You better watch what you say, monkey brain."
Sarah took a sip of her eggnog, trying to hide the fact she was running out of lame but funny insults.
"Horse butt!" Margaret supplied from the bathroom.
"Horse butt," Sarah agreed, grinning.
"I already said butt," Toby said, but he'd lost and he knew it and instead just drank his eggnog, getting a nog 'stache in the process. It was too cute. Sarah wished she had bought a camera. In the meantime, Featherduster had slipped into the sink and all she could see of him was his floppy feet. Ha! Sarah thought, feeling a moment of triumph. Defeat of a stuffed animal. Thrilling. Still, it was a good feeling and she reveled in it. From downstairs Zuzu said:
"Teacher says every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings."
"Shouldn't you turn that off?" Sarah said. It was a waste of electricity. Of course, that was saying nothing about the two Christmas trees and enough lights to make an airline runway.
"If we leave it on, we'll know when Rudolph comes on," Toby said and Sarah saw his point. Margaret started singing the Rudolph song then, loud and off-key but her enthusiasm made up for it.
"Hey Toby, Toby!" Margaret said, interrupting herself. "You should sing your song! I want to hear your song!"
"Your song?" Sarah asked raising her eyebrows and grinning as Toby's ears turned red. Oh ho. Ammo. How delicious. What could it be? Some outmoded children's song? A weird rendition of Elvis? He did that sometimes and he was pretty good at it too, though Irene had been pretty scandalized by the hip swings while Sarah and her dad had nearly choked trying not to laugh.
"It's nothing," Toby said, taking a big gulp of his drink. Sarah laughed and poked him in the side.
"Vicious lies," she said. "Come on, Toby, out with it," and she poked him a few more times.
"Yeah, Toby, sing it!" and Margaret started to hum loudly as if to encourage him. It sounded pretty catchy, Sarah had to admit, though she didn't recognize the tune.
"No, it's stupid. It's just something I made up is all."
And now she couldn't use it as ammo after all but she was even more intrigued. She didn't know he made up songs. What kind of song would a ten-year-old make up anyway? Or at least what kind of song would he make up that he wanted to share with his little sister?
"Tobyyyy, I wanna hear!" Margaret said, and there were vicious splashing sounds. Sarah winced. The bathroom was going to be a swamp when Margie got through and she knew just who was going to be on cleaning duty. Toby just rolled his eyes and the red went from his ears to his cheeks.
"We're not going to give up," Sarah said, waving her finger at him. "And I know where you're ticklish."
He gave her a look that for all the world seemed to say "You wouldn't" and Sarah grinned back, crooking her fingers and telling him plainly "Oh I certainly would." He finished his eggnog in one gulp and said:
"Fine, okay, just—let me set up."
"Set up?" Sarah said but Toby was already halfway to the stairs.
"Yay!" Margaret said and began to sing Yankee Doodle but using Toby's name instead. Well, this was going to be fun. Sarah had always loved theatrics. What could he be up to? She half wanted to sneak down and spy on him, but that would be breaking her promise with Margaret, so she stayed where she was. She didn't have to wait long because suspiciously soon, Margaret had finished and was calling for help. Sarah stepped into the bathroom, closing her eyes for a moment as her hosed feet hit cold water. Lovely. She dried off Margaret quickly and then decided this was the best time to administer the medicine while the kid was already naked. At this, Margaret squealed and squirmed and whined that it was too cold and by the time Sarah was done she was wet up to her knees and had the foul-smelling stuff on her hands and on her dress. As soon as she was finished, Margaret struggled into her jammies and then chirped:
"I'm going to get my princess hat!" Before dashing out of the room and trailing damp footprints in the hall. Sarah sighed. Oh well. They'd be dry before long. She went to wash her hands in the sink and sighed again. That damned owl was right there, staring up at her with the most innocent expression.
"You're getting on my nerves, buster," she told him. Sarah reached for it but her hands were covered in evil-smelling gook. She picked him up awkwardly with her wrists and set him on the side of the sink before fumbling to turn on the water. She thought he was secure but he must not have been, because he teetered to one side and before she could catch him, fell with a muffled splat onto the water-soaked floor.
"Featherduster, really," she caught herself saying. She was losing it. Well. Forget about it for now. It was just being home, that was all, and babysitting again and the small injustices of the world. With that excuse she glared at the owl on the floor again but he just stared balefully at the wall. When she had washed and dried her hands, she picked up Featherduster by his dry wing and deposited him gently in the sink. He had been a barn owl, too. The thought popped up suddenly and unexpectedly and she found herself gripping the edges of the sink as her heart lurched.
Yes, she told herself. In the dream. He had been a barn owl. A dream that she had when she was fifteen. It was high time she Got. Over. It. The hardest part was—The biggest hurdle was—Was— Yes, all right. It was him. It wasn't that she thought about him constantly, no, but he popped up from time to time, at the strangest occasions, catching her memory and her breath. It wasn't that she even liked him. The supercilious asshole, mocking her even in her dreams. Whenever she became buried in homework, or sat for exams, or thought about the hell that her life had become, how unfair it all was, she could still hear that faint echoing voice in the back of her head:
You think that so often. I wonder what your basis of comparison is?
If she ever dreamed of him again she would show him five fingers worth of her basis of comparison. Or sometimes she would hear music playing, a waltz, even some song from Cinderella and she would see that hazy bubble dream within a dream. She could still remember how it felt – she dreamt it felt – being in that low-cut glittery gown and terrified—well, frightened anyway, of things happening too soon, of feeling too young, his hand on the small of her back… Which had been warm… But she had still felt all of fifteen and surrounded in a world she was not ready for yet.
Which is what it had meant. What her subconscious had been telling her. That she wasn't ready to grow up. That sometimes fantasies could be as beautiful as they were frightening. And he had been…he had represented…all the unfairness she'd felt in her life at that point – the real world: the unfeeling real world. Or Irene. Yes, that must have been it. He had been the male form of Irene, pressing down on her with, what at the time had seemed, wildly unfair responsibilities. Yes. That was it. Sarah looked into the mirror, saw her face blush, and looked past it.
"You hear that?" she murmured. "I've figured you out. You can stay the hell out of my life from now on. I'm not afraid of you."
So why can't you say his name? said a still small voice in the quiet of her mind. Okay. That was true. Facing a dream was the best way to deal with it.
"Jareth," she whispered and the back of her neck tingled. She almost expected him to appear behind her, or fill the doorway, smiling in that sardonic way of his while the crystal danced over the tips of his fingers. He didn't, of course. There was no change in the air, not even a faint breath. Nothing but the buzz and chill of her own freaked out physiology.
You're not entirely convincing, are you? said the voice. No. She was scared and she knew it. There was no reason to be scared. He couldn't hurt her. He didn't exist and anyway he had no power over her. Hadn't she said that? Hadn't she gotten over it then?
"Jareth," she said again, a little louder. Nothing. Of course nothing. Except for perhaps Margaret thinking she was a loony toon for practicing names in the mirror. Her heart was still throttling away in her chest, though, as if her body didn't believe her mind. It had been a child's dream. A child's nightmare. She could not go into Arizona, into her career, with this piggybacking on her psyche. She took a deep breath and let it out again. Then straightened, bracing her feet against the soggy cold floor, pretending her heels were stone, grounding her to the linoleum. She folded her arms, straightened her shoulders and tossed back her abused hair. Here it came. She would mean it this time.
"Jareth," she said with all the force of will she could muster. "I'm not afraid of you. Come out and play, Goblin King."
And then the lights went out.
Sarah screamed, backing up and slamming into the wall. Another scream answered it, young and high with fear. Oh shit. Oh god. No. No please no. She didn't mean it. Sarah felt her way out of the bathroom.
"Margie?" she said, but her voice was small and quivering in the darkness of the house. Stop it, she told herself. Even if—even if he was real and things had come to a head and he was here and had taken Margaret away, she would not be frightened. She would get her sister back like she'd gotten her brother back and give that Jareth an earful, besides. Still, her heart beat fast as she crept down the hall.
"Margaret?" she tried again.
"S…S…Sarah!" came Margaret's cry and Sarah felt something in her unknot.
"It's okay, Margie Pargie. Just stay where you are." Then she realized she wasn't quite sure where Margaret was. "Are you in your bedroom?"
"Y…yes… It's scary, Sarah!" Her voice was punctuated by sobs. Poor thing. Sarah agreed with her completely.
"Just stay there…" Sarah felt along the wall and came to the open gap of the bedroom door. She could hear Margaret's cries somewhere nearby. "I'm here. I'm here," she said, looking around in the darkness, trying to get her eyes to adjust. Something flickered, a shape darker then the darkness of the room. Or she thought it did. Maybe it was because she was in the room, but Margaret's sobs had stopped. It was harder to tell where she was but the sniffing was reassuring.
"Margaret. Where are you Margaret?"
"B…b…by the bed."
Sarah moved closer, carefully, swimming her hands out around her so she wouldn't bash into anything or trip over Margaret. Finally she thought she saw her, small shouldered and outlined in the dimness. Sarah pulled her close, feeling small hands reach up around her as Margaret clung to her.
"It's dark, Sarah. I don't like it."
"I know. I know. We'll figure something out, baby. Don't cry."
Though those weren't really the right words. What could she do? Wish the lights back on? Was it a blackout or…or… no. One thing she couldn't do was to think this was in anyway supernatural. She would only scare herself and Margaret in the process. Until she saw Jareth in the flesh, not that he existed, she was not going to let her mind travel down those paths.
"Sarah? Margaret?" Toby's thin voice came from downstairs, drifting over the railing. "Are you guys okay?"
"We're okay!" Sarah called back. "Look, don't try to come up the stairs in the dark." Though she didn't really want to go downstairs in the dark either, at least not with Margaret. But she didn't like the idea of Toby being so far away.
"I won't. I'm going to look for the flashlight." His voice grew fainter, as if he was already moving to look. What if something grabbed him in the dark? No, she couldn't think like that. She would wait here with Margaret and if the silence went on for too long, then she would go and look. It was getting uncomfortable bending over so that Margaret could cling to her so Sarah moved carefully to sit on the bed, pulling Margaret onto her lap.
Her eyes adjusted to the darkness and a little light crept in through the window, enough for her to see dark mounded shapes like the stuff from a child's nightmare. Even beside her, the animals were arranged and heaped on the bed so it almost looked like a person sat beside her, lumpy and slouched over. She reached out a tentative hand, bracing herself against the shock of warm skin but finding only fake fur and something hard and plastic, like the legs on a Barbie doll. Sarah shifted the pile so it looked less creepy, knocking a good deal of stuffed animals to the floor as she did. A faint cinnamon smell wafted up from somewhere and Sarah decided it must be some scent caught in one of the stuffed animal's tangles.
"Why did the lights go out?" Margaret said after a moment. "When will they come back on?"
"They'll come on soon enough, honey. Don't worry." She hoped they did anyway. Outside, the wind shifted and she could just hear the faint hiss of snow against the cold glass of the window. Sarah glanced at the open doorway, trying to count the minutes while at any moment expecting someone to be silhouetted there against the opening.
She closed her eyes and tried to shake the sensation. If he was real, which he wasn't, but if he was and he had the audacity to freak her out now by glooming up out of the dark, she'd punch him – she would – right into his fine straight nose. She'd done it before, to a guy at her first and only frat party who thought that 'no' meant 'yes' and 'go away' meant 'put your hand on my ass'. He'd had a broken nose afterwards and she could still remember the gushing blood.
A beam of light swept through the room, cutting through the supports of the railing and making their shadows long. For a fleeting moment, Sarah saw someone pale and unfamiliar sitting on the other side of the room and she twitched and then realized it was just her own reflection in the vanity mirror.
"Do you want me to come up?" Toby called, voice closer now, as if he was standing just under the landing. "Or do you want to come down?"
Sarah hesitated, as if the decision was really so important. It wasn't, she knew. It would still be dark wherever they went but for some reason going downstairs seemed to be the better option. The flashlight came again, shining on the glittering eyes of stuffed animals and a black-gloved hand that startled her for a moment, until she realized it belonged to a stuffed gorilla.
"Sarah?" Toby said, sounding concerned.
"We're coming down," Sarah said. She chose down, came the faint sing-song memory of the dream. Sarah gritted her teeth and ignored it, instead guiding Margaret off her lap and held her hand tightly.
"Keep the light on Margaret's room, okay?" Sarah said.
"Okay," Toby said. Sarah began to walk from the room but when they reached the doorway, Margaret held back.
"It's dark in the hall," Margaret said. "What if something sneaks up?"
"Nothing is going to sneak up on us, I promise," Sarah said, giving her hand a squeeze. "After all, it's Christmas; nothing bad is around at Christmas." At least, he had better not be. Margaret hesitated, using her free hand to wipe at her eyes.
"I'm still scared," Margaret said.
"It's okay to be scared, even of stuff that isn't real," she said, telling them both. "But it's really okay out there. Right, Toby? No monsters?" she called.
"Nope. And I have a real good view."
Inch by inch, Sarah coaxed Margaret from the room. When they came to the head of the stairs, Margaret stopped again. The foyer loomed dark and unwelcoming, like an oubliette.
"Come on, feet," Sarah said, giving Margaret's hand a little shake as she went down one step.
"Come on, feet," Margaret echoed, stepping down with her and together they went down the stairs, Sarah gripping the rail and Toby lighting the way. When they were safely at the bottom, Sarah let out a breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding.
"Toby, Toby, are you sure you didn't see any monsters?" Margaret asked.
"Not even with spandex and eighties hair?" Sarah said. Toby blinked at her.
"That would be a weird monster," he said. Sarah smiled, feeling amused in spite of herself and recognizing it as that slaphappy hilarity of being stressed and creeped out.
"What's spandex and eighty hair?" Margaret asked.
"I'll draw you a picture when the lights come back on," Sarah said. Or give her best interpretation of it anyway.
"So now what?" Toby asked after a moment, shifting the flashlight from one hand to another. The light danced and slid and what she thought was someone standing at the head of the stairs turned out just to be the post. It was a good question, though. Now what? The phone rang shrilly through the house, making them all jump. Margaret cried out and Toby laughed. Sarah bit the inside of her lip to keep the nervous giggle from escaping.
"Now we answer the phone," Sarah said. It was too loud in the quiet of the house, bouncing off the walls. Sarah wanted it to shut up. They moved in a small slow knot to where the phone sat on Irene's antique end table in the foyer. Both children looked at her and Sarah knew it was up to her to answer it. What was she afraid of? Who the hell could it be? Freddy Krueger? Sarah immediately wished she hadn't thought that as she picked up the phone.
"Hello?" she said forcefully, trying to sound as grown up and in charge as she was supposed to be.
"Hello, Sarah, this is Irene," Irene said and Sarah rolled her eyes. As if she couldn't recognize her voice. "The radio just said something about a power outage in our area."
"Yeah, we're completely dark here," Sarah said. "Everyone is okay, though."
"Thank God," Irene said letting out a breath. "For as much as we pay for the place, you'd think they could guarantee stuff like this wouldn't happen. Anyway, they say there are repair crews on it now, but the weather is getting pretty bad so I don't know how long it will last. Make sure you have plenty of blankets."
"Yes, of course," Sarah said.
"Is that Mommy?" Margaret asked, tugging on her arm. "Can I talk to Mommy?"
"Hold on a sec," Sarah whispered because Irene was still going on.
"I think we have a space heater somewhere, but I don't remember. Do you, dear?" she said, speaking to Dad.
"I think its somewhere in the basement," Dad said, his voice faint. "Tell Sarah to check under the stairs."
"I will not! If she goes down there in that darkness, she's liable to break her neck!" Irene said and Sarah decided she loved her forever, despite her faults. "Just make sure you keep warm and remember that Toby is inclined to colds so make sure he keeps his house socks on. We don't need another week of the flu."
"Can I talk to Mommy now? Can I?" Margaret said, pulling Sarah's arm. Irene babbled in her ear, repeating other instructions like remembering not to open the refrigerator and then began complaining about the drivers on the roads going at insane speeds in this weather. Probably something about thirty-five miles an hour, Sarah guessed. She tried to shush Margaret with a finger to her lips while she waited for a break in the flow so she could tell Irene that Margaret wanted to speak to her.
"Saraaah!" Margaret said, yanking Sarah's arm so hard she nearly lost her grip on the phone.
"You can talk to Mom when she gets home," Toby said, trying to pull Margaret away. "Let Sarah talk."
"No! I want to talk to Mommy!" Margaret said, thrashing her head from side to side and yanking out of Toby's grip.
"Is that Margaret?" Irene said, stopping herself mid-conversation. "Put her on the phone."
"Yeah, sure," Sarah said, glad to get away from her voice even for a few moments.
"Mommy, come home, please Mommy." She sounded so heartbroken. Sarah felt her eyes mist up in spite of herself and she turned away to pretend to be studying the frosted glass in the door. Mothers didn't come home just by wishing. Not even Jareth could manage that, she bet. An arm wrapped around her waist and she yawned and wiped at her eyes before looking down at Toby, who was looking up at her.
"Don't worry, Sarah," he said.
"I'm not," she said. "Just tired, that's all." Toby didn't say anything but she had the feeling he didn't believe her.
"I'm surprised you found the flashlight so quickly," Sarah said, to change the topic of conversation. Margaret seemed to be calming down some, talking to Irene. She no longer sounded like she was going to burst into tears anyway.
"Yeah well, I used it at the Boy Scout meeting, so I knew where it was," Toby said, scratching the side of his nose. "Thought it ran out of batteries, but I guess Dad must have replaced them." He swung the light upwards where it shone harsh and clear, making a circled spot on the ceiling.
"How do I look?" he said tucking the light under his chin and grimacing at her. Sarah chuckled and batted it away.
"Real cute. But I think you look better in no light, horse butt."
"Same goes for you, old lady," Toby said. Old? Just who was he calling old? She tried to think up a good come back but just then Margaret said:
"Mommy wants to talk to you, Sarah."
Sarah stuck out her tongue at him but knew he couldn't see it and tweaked his ear instead before taking the phone.
"Oh, don't say 'Yeah', Sarah. That's such a low class word. I just wanted to say to get warm and stay warm. I don't know when we'll be back. We might just stay at a hotel. The roads are terrible. Oh, damn, Rob you just missed the turn."
"Its so hard to see," Dad grumbled.
"Drive safe, okay?" Sarah murmured, more to her dad than to Irene.
"Of course. Anyway I have to go or the phone bill will be horrendous. Give Toby kisses for me."
"Sure," Sarah said, but Irene was already gone. Sarah hung up the phone. The only bedroom on the floor was the guest bedroom. Well, her bedroom at the moment. The wardrobe there served as a linen closet that Irene had volunteered to clean out for her, even though, Irene had made a point of saying, Sarah would hardly spend any time there. Sarah had told her not to bother and Irene hadn't. Sarah took Margaret's hand and Toby followed along with her, bringing the light.
They got to Sarah's bedroom, guest bedroom, whatever. She didn't want to think about it. Sarah got Margie into the full bed and got out several blankets and coverlets just in case, dropping them on Toby, who happened to be nearby. Soon they were, all three of them, swaddled in a nest of blankets with Sarah in the middle. The light bumped and curled over the small wrinkles and curves of the blankets and shone against the wardrobe, casting a hulking shadow on the wall.
"Better turn that off," Sarah said.
"But Sarah, it'll be dark," Margaret said.
"Well, we want to conserve the batteries," Sarah explained patiently. "What if the light dies and you have to go potty in the middle of the night?"
"Okay," Margaret said with a sigh that made her sound like a tired old woman in a six-year-old's body. Poor thing. Toby turned the light off and the dark swept in around them. The house was too quiet in the darkness. Her breath seemed to echo back at her.
"Sarah?" Margaret asked after a while. "Who is Jareth?"
Sarah felt the color drain from her face. Oh God.
"Jareth?" Toby echoed.
"Yeah. She was shouting at him in the bathroom mirror."
Sarah felt like cradling her forehead in her palm. Her cheeks were burning where they had just been cold. Next time she was trying to overthrow childhood convictions, she would not do it out loud. Now she had to lie, and quick.
"It's um… I was just rehearsing lines from a play," Sarah said.
"What play?" Toby asked and Sarah bit the inside of her lip. She'd dropped out of the theater department two years ago and she knew that at least Toby kept track of her.
"Um. A friend's play. Tabitha. You remember her. She wanted me to look it over and I was just…um…testing the lines." Randomly. In the bathroom. Yeah, Toby was going to smell that stinker coming from miles away.
"Tell the story, Sarah," Margaret said. "Please?"
She should have seen that one coming. The problem was, she had no story to tell. Well, she did; but she had never told that story to anyone. Not even Toby.
"Yeah, Sarah. I want to hear it," Toby said. She couldn't tell if he was just trying to test her or not. Well, all right. They wanted a story? She would give them a story and maybe it might help her, too. Sarah took a deep breath and let it out again.
"Once upon a time, in a land far away, lived a beautiful princess named Margaret," she said. Well, she would embellish it just a bit.
"There's a Margaret in your play, too?" Margaret said, her voice shining.
"Isn't that lucky," Toby said, dry as the desert.
"Princess Margaret lived in a beautiful pearl castle with her annoying older brother who had a big mouth," Sarah went on.
"And his name was Prince Toby, right?" Toby said.
"Really?" Margaret asked, bouncing a little on the bed.
"It's going to be Prince Roadkill in about two seconds."
"I like that better!" Margaret said with a giggle.
"So one day, Princess Margaret was getting her royal spa treatment, getting her nails done and—"
"What color?" Margaret asked.
"Who cares?" Toby said.
"Blue with polka dots," Sarah said, ignoring Toby—Roadkill, she corrected herself.
"Oooh," Margaret said.
"Anyway, so she hopped and skipped back to the castle and found to her horror that Prince Roadkill had been kidnapped by the bad, evil, nasty, awfully dressed, King of-" She didn't want to say it.
"Goblins!" Margaret said, excitedly. Oh yeah. Sarah had said that, too. She winced, glad neither of them could see it in the dark.
"Yes, the rat bastarrrrrk King of Goblins," Sarah said.
"Bastark?" Toby said.
"What's a bastark?" Margaret said.
"It's a type of bird. Look, if you want me to get through this story before sun up, you're going to just have to sit there and listen." She said more to Toby than Margaret.
"Yeah, Toby, shut up," Margaret said.
"Anyway, so Princess Margaret went to his castle only to find it protected by a big labyrinth—a type of maze, like the corn maze at Halloween but with big stone gray walls" Sarah said, sensing the impending question, "and the Goblin King was waiting for her there smiling like the pompous…arrogant…mean jerk he was."
"Is this an ex-boyfriend or something?" Toby asked and Sarah smacked him upside the head with a pillow.
"He said, You can get your brother back, Margaret—"
"Princess Margaret, but first you have to get through my Labyrinth. You have one hour." Though now that she thought about it, perhaps it had been thirteen. Well, she'd never get through the story if she made it that long and anyway she hadn't even gotten the full thirteen, that cheating bastark. "And then in a swirl of glitter he disappeared. Princess Margaret was a little scared to go into that big gray labyrinth all by herself but her li—big brother was worth it. Even if he was road kill."
Toby snorted and shifted on the bed and Margaret giggled.
"That's just his name," Margaret said. "He's only stinky and flat like road kill sometimes."
"That's because Roadkill was a man and wouldn't get near a spa if you paid him," Toby said.
"That's also why he didn't have a girlfriend," Sarah said, though teasingly.
"Who would want a girlfriend? Running after Princess Worm butt was enough."
"But he would change his mind when he got older, provided he got out of the Labyrinth alive," Sarah said before they could get sidetracked yet again. "So Princess Margaret wandered around back and forth looking for the door when she saw…when she saw a short little knobby man with white hair and…and eyes blue like an icy stream," she said, suddenly remembering. Oh Hoggle. How long had it been? "His name was Hoggle."
Sarah went on, editing somewhat as she went along, making the fairies nice since she knew that Margaret would like that. She even thought up a little pixie named Achu who followed Margaret around. She remembered stuff she didn't know she'd forgotten. Ludo's slow but happy way of speaking. Hoggle's quickness. Didymus…being Didymus. By the time she got to the bubble, Margaret was quiet but Sarah didn't think she'd fallen asleep. She wet her throat and went on, making the dance more child-friendly, with Jareth merely talking to her instead of palm-to-palm and trying to seduce her with mismatched eyes.
"Through dangers untold and hardships unnumbered, I have fought my way to the castle beyond the goblin city to take back the child that you have stolen." Sarah found herself saying, half awake herself, throat dried and raw. "For my will is as strong as yours, and my kingdom as great." She felt herself smile. "You have no power over me."
Fear me, love me, do as I say and I will be your slave, the voice of memory murmured, seemingly right in her ear, the breath tickling and warm. His hand was on her back again, palm-to-palm and warm with his pulse. She was looking into his eyes as he smiled at her, the tilt at the corner of his pale lips. She was fifteen again and couldn't get away but it was warm here and the sun was shining in the ballroom shaped like a peach. Toby was dancing with a girl his size with a mask of butterfly wings and Margaret's laugh echoed back at her from somewhere close by.
"Simple Sarah," Jareth said, and laughed when she flinched. It was a beautiful sound, like the lull of quiet waves over sharp rocks. "Do you see all that you could have had?" He swung her around so that the lights blurred. She felt confused and warm all at once, wanting to lean in, wanting to tear away.
"Don't you see how happy everyone is?" He had leaned forward and was whispering in her ear now so she could feel the feathery movement of his lips. She started to close her eyes, then thought that she couldn't. Couldn't give in. Over his shoulder she saw Toby, masked now, too, with small horns coming out of the red mask. Like a faun, she thought as he kissed the girl's hand just as Jareth kissed her neck. But…but…
"Where…where is Margaret?" Sarah said, her voice wavering above a whisper. It seemed like Jareth hadn't heard but his shoulders tensed and Sarah got angry. He was hiding her away, too. Hiding her. Sarah did pull away and he grabbed onto her hand, pulling her up against him so that her back was to his chest.
"Why do you want to see her? She's barely blood." His chin was in her hair, fingers trailing down the side of her neck. It made her shiver, from fear, from something else, losing her soul piece by piece. "Do you really want to go back to that life? Unwanted except for your ability to babysit?" His teeth grazed the rim of her ear lightly and she almost closed her eyes, almost, so that the world became squints of light through her lashes. "They won't care about you in Arizona, you know. No one will. No one does."
"T…Toby does," she said, forcing her eyes open again though the warm light was beginning to grow harsh and made her eyes water and sting.
"Ah, but he's here." Jareth swept out a hand. "He's happy here. You can be happy here."
Sarah glanced at him again. The girl was talking to him, though Sarah couldn't hear her. Toby looked at her through the red mask, his eyes blue, his mouth a straight line. He wasn't happy here. She slowly shook her head.
"You…You…You…" she started.
"Don't say it," Jareth said, warned, the light flashing. Someone laughed like a scream.
"You have no power over me," Sarah said, wrenching away from him. The dress was heavy like weights had been sewn into the hem but she struggled through it, walking through glue, trying to find her. Squinting against the light.
She turned down one hall, then another and then came to an opening, a grand arch that lead out to the hedges and there was Margaret sitting on the lip of a fountain, playing with fairies that danced across her fingers. Sarah reached out for her. Margaret kicked her feet and giggled and she saw someone come from the left, short, slow.
"Hoggle," she said. But he wasn't paying attention to her, instead reaching out both arms for Margaret.
"Here don't play with those," Hoggle said. "You'll put your eye out, kid!"
Margaret looked at him, reached for him, then fell over backward. Sarah screamed and woke up, her heart slamming against her ribs. Margaret was securely under one arm, Toby leaning against her. It was…what was…something was different. Sarah put a hand to her head trying to clear it and looked out into the brightly lit hallway. Someone was talking in the other room and her heart jerked until she realized it was just the TV. Man, what a dream. She rubbed her hand across her eyes. Were Dad and Irene back?
"Can't you even let me have my dreams?" she muttered.
"Huh?" Toby said. "What?" He stirred and yawned, covering his mouth. Then blinked. "Oh, hey! The lights are back on."
"You're right," Sarah said, still trying to blink the sleep from her eyes.
"I'm gonna see if Mom and Dad are home," Toby said, jumping out of the bed and shaking it so that Margaret twitched and woke up, rubbing her big blue eyes.
"What's goin' on?" she said, the epitome of sleepy six year old.
"The lights are on, honey," Sarah said. Margaret blinked and sat up.
"Yay! That means Rudolph!" she said, rolling out of the bed and tearing out of the room, the epitome of soon to be disappointed six year old. Ugh. Where did they get that energy? Sarah yawned herself, slung both feet out of bed, and shuffled into the living room. Note to self, too much introspection lead to bizarre, freaky, and somewhat hot dreams. The latter part was because she hadn't gotten laid in…well, ever frankly. Unconscious biological urges or some Freudian shit like that. She passed the wall clock and saw that it was five past one. Man. Margaret would have to go to bed soon or Irene would kill her when she got home and Sarah had the feeling Margaret would be none too happy about that.
When she came into the living room, she saw Margaret sitting in front of the television, watching the end of A Christmas Story. She turned when Sarah came in.
"When is Rudolph? Is it on next?"
"I think its over, Margie, I'm sorry," Sarah said.
"But…" Margaret said, her lip trembling. "But…but…"
Poor kid, so much in one night. The world just wasn't fair sometimes.
You say that--
Don't. Sarah thought fiercely and surprisingly, for the first time in a long time, her mind didn't.
"Mom and Dad aren't back yet," Toby said, coming back into the room. "But I nearly killed myself on your shoes, Sarah. You might want pick them up off the floor." Then he blinked and looked at Margaret, who was crying silently, big tears rolling down her cheeks and a thin trail of snot dribbling out of her nose. "What's wrong, Margie Pargie?" he asked, kneeling down to her level.
"Ru…Ru…Rudolph…" she said and burst into a fresh wave of tears.
"Oh wait…" Sarah murmured. Didn't they have the DVD somewhere?
"Well don't worry about it," Toby said. "It's just a silly show. Here, come on." He dried her tears with his thumb. "I'll sing my song for you okay?"
"Uh huh. But I gotta finish setting up." He stood up and put his hands on his hips. "In the meantime you can talk about Sarah's ex…um…I mean, do her play."
"Oh hardy har har," Sarah said as Toby flashed a grin at her and started to leave the room.
"I'll be in the den," he called over his shoulder. "I'll let you know when I'm done."
"That'll be fun, can we do the play, Sarah? I can be Princess Margaret and you can be everyone else." Margaret looked just like Irene then, no thought that Sarah might say no. Sarah was fairly sick of the whole thing at the moment but there was no way she could crush Margaret now. So she went through the whole thing again but it was kind of fun playing Hoggle and the characters, dreams, whatever, she'd come to love. She was starting to realize that it didn't matter what they really had been, just that she had loved them and had learned from them.
About midway through their Labyrinth game, there came a distinct cough from the den. It looked like the song was ready. This she couldn't wait to see.
"Well, dear faithful Didymus," said Margaret, who had attached herself to the dog knight more than anyone else. "Let's go through the Goblin City right now!"
"Of course, my lady!" Sarah said, trying to make her voice squeaky. She looked this way and that and then raised her hand and said: "This way!" While going off in the opposite direction. Margaret burst into peels of laughter and grabbed Sarah's hand.
"Wrong way, you silly knight. This way!"
"Of course! I knew that!" She let Margaret lead her to the den. There was Toby, slouched in the chair looking bored, hair covered in tinsel, absently resting his chin on his fist as he looked at them. Sarah blinked. This was unexpected.
"I've come through the Goblin City," Margaret said. "To um…through um bad things and um…um…to fight you! And get back my brother Roadkill! You have no power over me you stinking bastark!" Margaret said, pointing. Sarah really did put a hand to her head. She was going to get in trouble for that one.
"You can have him," Toby said. "He hasn't taken a bath in ages." He rolled his eyes. Then put his hand on his chin and peered at her. Margaret squealed and covered her mouth with both hands.
"You remind me of someone…" he said, getting up out of the chair and coming closer to them. "Who…I wonder…who? Ah!" He snapped his fingers. "You remind me of that girl!"
"What girl!" Margaret said, eyes shining.
"The girl with the power!" he said.
"What power?" Margaret said.
"The power of voodoo!"
"Do WHAT!" Margaret fairly screamed.
"Remind me of the girl!" Toby said back. They grinned at each other for a moment then Toby grabbed her hands. "Dance magic dance!" they both sang at once as they burst into song, twirling around the room. Sarah laughed and clapped her hands. Toby kept singing, Margaret joining when she knew the words. They spun about the room until Margaret collapsed in a heap and Toby turned to Sarah, bowing low.
"Can you honor me with a dance?"
"I'd be glad to," Sarah said, putting her hands in Toby's and it was her turn to whirl around, spinning around and around and laughing. She leaned back and pulled, using the force of her momentum to lift Toby off his feet. She spun until the world became a blur and then suddenly, just for a moment, she thought she saw someone sitting in Toby's chair, chin on his fist, watching her. Sarah stopped, then blinked and stumbled, dizzy, flailing her arms as she fell backwards but stopped as someone caught her. Toby and Margaret were staring with wide eyes and Sarah looked down and saw black gloved hands around her waist.
She looked up and then closed her eyes, putting a hand over her chest. Oh God.
"Sarah? Are you okay?" Dad asked.
"Nearly gave myself a heart attack but other than that I'm okay," Sarah said in a small voice. Her dad helped her stand straight. Well, straight-ish, and Sarah found she had to lean one hand on the back of the chair to keep herself steady as the room spun. Toby's chair was empty. Of course. Margie squealed and barreled across the room and Dad picked her up.
"Daddy, you're back!" Margaret said.
"You bet I am, pumpkin," he said.
"Hey, Dad. Did you hear my song?" Toby said with a grin. Dad smiled a little.
"A bit of it." He coughed and looked back toward the alcove of the foyer. "But I'd take that tinsel out of your hair before your mother comes in."
"Oh crap!" Toby said, frantically beginning to comb his fingers through his hair. Sarah staggered over to him and helped him, throwing tinsel on the tree as soon as they got it free. They could faintly hear her step on the porch, the turn of the doorknob. The last strand of tinsel was gone and Sarah dragged Toby away from the tree, then wrapped her arm around him and smiled up at Dad, a picture of sisterly affection. Irene came in then, snow on her shoulders and looked at them. Sarah could have sworn she hadn't heard a sound as all of them smiled at once. Irene's eyes narrowed.
"Mommy!" Margaret said, flailing her hands. Irene's face melted, her eyes crinkling at the corners and she held out her arms. Dad set Margaret down and the little girl flew into Irene's hug in a way that made Sarah's heart sting. Dad put an arm around her shoulder and squeezed it a little.
"So how long have the lights been on?" he asked.
"I don't know really," Sarah said. "We kind of just woke up."
"You slept in that?" Irene said, arching her eyebrow. Sarah realized she was still in her party dress. Toby's shoulders tensed and it was Sarah's turn to squeeze his shoulder to let him know that she was all right. Then Irene sighed.
"Sorry, was that too critical?" she sounded sincere and for once Sarah was floored. "I'm sorry, Sarah. I'm just tired. It's been a long night."
"For all of us," Dad put in.
"Too long a night for you, jelly bean," Irene said, holding Margaret's hand. "Lets get you into bed."
"But Mommy, I'm not sleepy," Margaret said.
"You will be soon enough," Irene said, and for once, Margaret didn't protest as her mother lead her up the stairs. Instead, she chattered excitedly about the Labyrinth game they had just played. Sarah winced and hoped that didn't come back to bite her.
"Better go too, Toby," Dad said. "We've got a big day tomorrow," he said, sounding a little strained.
"Sure," Toby said. "Sweet dreams, Sarah." He smiled and she couldn't help but smile back. Not everyone could have a little brother like that and she was glad… so glad…she still had him.
"You too, Toby," she said.
"Good luck with Jareth!" he said, laughed and bolted up the stairs. Sarah narrowed her eyes. Roadkill, oh yes, Roadkill was going to live up to his name soon enough.
"Jareth?" Dad said.
"Just some…guy at school…" and because her dad looked a bit too interested added: "A stalker really."
"A stalker?" He said, turning to face her. "Sarah, you should call the campus police. Have you? What's his full name? Maybe I can tell people to keep an eye on him."
"No no. He's not that bad. Just…it's fine, Dad. Really. He's just a bit persistent."
"Well, if he gets any more persistent you tell someone," he said, looking angry. It annoyed her as much as it made her heart mush. She was still Daddy's little girl.
"So what about Mrs. Henson's friend?" Sarah said to distract him as Dad pulled off his gloves.
"Oh, we got him," Dad said, throwing his gloves into a drawer. "Poor guy hit a patch of black ice and skidded into a ditch. He's fine, though a bit shook up, understandably." Dad unbuttoned his coat and started to shrug it off. Sarah helped him out of it and hung it up and Dad stretched. "Oof. I'm tired beyond tired. I'll be lucky if I can sleep tonight."
He was probably aching too. The cold did that too him sometimes, especially these days. He was getting old. Poor Daddy.
"Want me to make you some tea?" Sarah asked. There was still some jasmine tea left, she thought. Tabitha had given her a box for Christmas. It was the good kind and probably freakishly expensive for tea.
"Maybe soon, honey. By the way, I'm proud of you tonight," he said, chucking her chin like Humphrey Bogart. He was such a dork, she thought lovingly. "I thought Margie would be in tears but it was nice to see her so happy."
"Thanks, Dad," she said, not knowing what else to say to that. "Look I'm going to shower and change into my pjs and if you're still awake when I'm done, I'll start the tea."
"Sounds good, sweetheart," Dad said. Sarah went back to her room, stretching her arms over her head and feeling strangely relaxed. Nothing else could worry her tonight.
"Oh my God, the bathroom!" Irene said. Sarah winced. Oh right. The bathroom.
Sarah lifted her head and let the hot water sluice over her, feeling the heat melt away the tenseness in her shoulders and the back of her neck. She had been in the shower at least an hour or so, too long in fact—but she felt she deserved it in some small way. But at least the kids were in bed and Irene had mopped up the bathroom without a single word of complaint or catty remark. It must have been a pre-Christmas miracle. She had relented in pulling the plug out of the bath, since it had been sitting for a few hours by that point, but Sarah didn't see what was such a big deal about it. Well forget it. The important thing was, for the moment at least, she had what was left of the night for herself.
That was the thing about Christmas, Sarah thought, turning off the water and stepping out of the shower. You looked forward to it until you were positively suffocated with family and then you couldn't wait for it to be over. Arizona was looking better and better. Sarah dried herself off, then wrapped the towel around her and scrubbed another towel through her hair. It wasn't that she didn't love Toby or Margie or Dad for that matter. She even sort of liked Irene sometimes. But maybe she was starting to look forward to being responsible of no one but herself.
She hummed Toby's song absently as she dressed in her pjs, blue and silky and stamped with pictures of bears and crescent moons. Then she went to the sink to brush her teeth and saw Featherduster lying in the porcelain bowl, forgotten, glassy yellow eyes looking forlorn.
"Oh, you poor thing." Sarah said, picking him up by the wings. "At least you're dry, huh?"
Hoo, she imagined him saying. He needed to go back to Margie. Well, she could help him out there. Sarah held Featherduster to her chest, feeling almost like a kid again as she shuffled to Margaret's room. The door was open a crack, filling the hall with the muted glow of her nightlight. Sarah pushed open the door and froze. Jareth was sitting on the edge of Margaret's bed, stroking her round cheek with the backs of his fingers. He didn't look at Sarah but must have known someone was there because he said:
"She sleeps so soundly, you'd never know how much noise she makes when awake."
"You get away from Margaret!" Sarah hissed, unable to even get her voice above a whisper. Jareth looked at her and smiled. It was hard to see his full expression in the dim light, but she didn't have to see it to know it.
"Right now," she snapped, hushed, resisting the urge to stomp her foot like a child.
"Very well," Jareth said, rising from the bed in one fluid motion. "I didn't come for her anyway. I came for you, dear Sarah."
Oh shit. Sarah felt as if ice had grown around her ankles, rooting her to the spot. She couldn't move. She couldn't breathe. This was a different game. He started to come toward her, casting shadows, almost becoming a shadow himself as he blocked the nightlight. All Sarah could do was clutch Featherduster and try to keep her heart from stopping. She wanted to back out of the room. She wanted to run screaming down the hall and climb into bed next to Daddy so that he could make the nightmare go away. She wanted to throw something sharp and/or heavy at Jareth's head for coming back here. He was supposed to be a dream, damnit; metaphor of her abandonment issues. Something. Anything. But not flesh and blood. Jareth stopped, surprisingly, though he wasn't even in reach of her. It didn't matter with him, she knew. Logic need not apply here.
"Sarah—" he started.
"Shut up," she snapped. She hated his voice suddenly. Hated the way he said her name. Hated him. Her blood sang in her ears and she clutched at the stuffed animal compulsively. He spread his hands. He wasn't wearing gloves, she realized, and somehow that irritated her more. The light was warm against his skin, shimmered on the white of his nails.
"Sarah, I just—"
"No. Shut up. I'm serious." Her palms were staring to sweat and she tried to ignore it. "Look. I know why you're here. Yeah, I get it. I called you."
"You did." He sounded amused. "Half the Labyrinth heard you, I have no doubt."
"If I have to tell you to shut up one more time, I'm going to shove this owl down your throat," she said, shaking Featherduster at him and then, bizarrely, felt bad for mistreating the poor owl. Jareth just chuckled. He was laughing at her. Go away, she wanted to say. And never come back! But somehow she didn't think it would be so simple.
Jareth folded his hands behind his back and cocked his head to the side a little, as if waiting for her to continue. Sarah fought for the words that were jumbled in her throat, mixed with anger and fear. If she said something stupid—if she said something stupid it was just going to make it worse.
"But you can't have me." Well, it was simple but at least strong. "And I never offered myself to begin with!" she said, realizing it even as she spoke.
"Pity," he said. She threw the owl at him. He dodged it and Featherduster knocked into a table lamp, sending it crashing to the floor. Crap! She shot a glance at Margaret, who snorted and rolled over and breathed out. Jareth curved a finger to his lips.
"Be careful, Sarah. You'll wake the babe."
Oh that was—He was—How infuriating! Harsher words snapped at the lining of her lips but she tried to chew them back, knowing that she wouldn't be quiet and they were a lot less kosher than bastark. She crooked a finger at him. He raised his eyebrows and smiled as if he had no idea what she meant.
"Let's continue this conversation elsewhere, shall we?" she ground out.
"Why, so you can lob other objects at me? Anyway, I quite like this room." He looked around. "It holds many fond memories."
All right. That was it. Sarah marched over to him, grabbed him by the neck frills, and dragged him out by the sheer strength of her anger. He stumbled a little but seemed to come along willingly, unless she'd really gotten that strong overnight. Once he was out, she carefully shut the door.
"You've learned to play rough," he said, clicking his tongue and straightening his jacket. It was red this time: velvet, she thought, like blood. Like his blood if he kept being a jackass.
"Shut it," she snapped at him.
"Shall we converse here?" he said, in a sweetly innocent voice. No. They were too close to Margie's room and Toby was on this floor, too. Sarah grabbed at his wrist to make sure he didn't disappear on her as she peered over the banister to check and see if any lights were on. His pulse beat steadily under her fingers, she noted absently. Someone like him shouldn't have a pulse. She could feel the fabric of his sleeve under her fingertips, too, plush and almost too soft.
Wait—what was she looking for? Oh right. Lights. Her cheeks burned and she told herself severely to stop it. If Jareth noticed, he didn't react. There were no lights downstairs but the soft glow of the Christmas tree from the sitting room. Dad usually shut the lights off but sometimes he forgot, occasionally because he'd fallen asleep in the chair.
It was good enough, she decided. She could get Jareth into the den, no problem. This decided, she glanced at Jareth to make sure he was still there. He opened his mouth. She narrowed her eyes at him, trying to convey with sheer outrage the many and painful things she would do to him if he said so much as one word. He shut his mouth again and gestured as if to say, "lead on."
She pulled him toward the stairs and hurried down them, expecting a door to open at any moment and Margie or Toby or, God forbid, Irene, to come peering out. About midway down the bottom of the stairs, she tripped over her own feet and she pitched forward. For a brief, heart-rending moment, her life flashed before her eyes and then...it was strange. She wasn't sure if she had tripped or not but suddenly she was at the bottom of the steps with Jareth's arms around her waist.
"Careful," he murmured, his breath hot in her ear and a shiver filled her. An unpleasant shiver. Unpleasant. Nothing nice about this at all. It was like the dream, she reminded herself. He stole children, she reminded herself. He was going to be really irritating for the rest of her night and hot breath against her ear didn't mean a damn thing.
"Let - go—" she bit out. She could feel him moving against her hair, almost as if he was nuzzling her and her hands clenched.
"Not even a thank you?" he said, sounding put out.
"Thank you. Now let me go."
He chuckled. It rolled across her ear and sunk into her skin, but she'd be damned if she let it make her forget.
"Jareth," she said, a warning. She really was going to become very unpleasant very shortly. One hand released her only to push her hair over her ear. The sudden cool air across her neck gave her goose bumps.
"You've grown," he said. Sarah stomped on the top of his foot with her heel. Jareth let her go, barking a word she didn't understand but was likely a curse. She decided she didn't give a shit. Instead she grabbed his wrist again and began pulling him toward the den.
"Damnit, Sarah," he snapped, stumbling after her.
"I warned you," she said. "I have grown and if you think you can mess with me now, you've got another thing coming, buddy."
The den was thankfully empty and Sarah let Jareth go. She had to check to see if Dad was in the sitting room but she didn't trust leaving Jareth alone. On the other hand, she could hardly bring Jareth with her either. If Dad was awake. Oh God. She didn't even want to think of that conversation. Nor could she just not check on her Dad. If he was awake and he heard her talking and came over to investigate, the same scenario would play out. It seemed there was no hope for it.
"Sit," she commanded, pointing to the couch. "I'll be right back."
"Oh, Sarah," said Jareth, smiling; but this time his voice was full of glass and his smile was tight against his teeth. "Do you really think to order me?" He seemed taller now, looming over her—but he wasn't. She was no longer fifteen.
"I don't think to, I am doing it," she said, poking him in the chest. "You will sit on that sofa and wait for me to come back or I swear I will drop you head-first into that damned Bog of yours."
"You couldn't," he said.
"Try me," she said. They were fairly nose to nose, she realized, faintly surprised that she had grown as tall as this. She had never been this close to a guy without going in for a kiss and she felt no urge to kiss Jareth. Smack him upside the head maybe. He glared at her, his eyes hard and she glared right back. After a moment, he scowled and looked away and she knew that she had won. She didn't know how but now was not the moment to question it.
"I will not sit," he said, folding his arms.
"Stay then," she said. "I won't be gone long." She started from the room and he didn't seem to be following her. When she got to the arch, she looked over her shoulder and found him still standing, stiff as a pine board, arms folded across his chest.
She should not say it. She shouldn't. It was bad. It was dangerous. But she simply could not resist.
"Good boy," she said, then smothered a giggle with her hand as she hurried from the room.
The urge to giggle melted away as she came closer to the den because it occurred to her that she didn't know what to do if Dad was there and awake. Maybe take Jareth out on the porch... Except then she would have to keep an eye on him as she grabbed her coat and gloves so she wouldn't freeze her ass off. Sarah came to the den, closed her eyes, wished for luck and peered around the corner.
There was Dad, slumped in his chair, blanket tucked around his feet and snoring lightly. The book that he had been reading had fallen to the floor, pages bent underneath it. Sarah picked up the book and closed it.
"Sweet dreams, Daddy," she murmured, then as an after thought. "Sleep deeply."
Then she hurried back, half expecting to see Jareth gone. What she did see surprised her. He had opted for neither standing nor sitting on the sofa, but rather had abandoned his velvet jacket to the floor and sprawled across the sofa, one leg draped over the sofa's arm. He propped himself up with one hand and with the other rolled one of his crystals back and forth along the backs of his fingers.
"Glad to see you making yourself at home," she said dryly. He looked up at her but the crystal didn't stop moving, catching a faint light in its depths that she felt was odd but couldn't put her finger on why.
"Oh, Sarah," he said with a sigh, a softer echo of his earlier statement. "It seems to be a pattern."
"What does?" she said, cocking her head to the side.
"You call me, I come, you amuse me, seduce me, infuriate me, leave, and when you return..." He rolled the crystal to the edge of his fingers and then let it roll down to cradle in his palm. "All I can think about is how much I missed you."
Who was trying to seduce whom? she wanted to say. I was only gone for five seconds, she wanted to say. She didn't say anything, though, and wasn't even sure why herself. Instead, she sat in the chair diagonal to him, close to his head and looked at him. He returned the gaze, the expression on his face so subtle it grew on her subconsciously, something she couldn't even put a name to. Didn't want to put a name to.
Longing, her mutinous brain supplied. Oh geez, what a crazy night. Sarah sighed and tucked one leg underneath her.
"I bet you say that to every girl you try to trap in your little maze," she said. A smile tugged at the corner of his mouth and lifted into his eyes.
"You'd be surprised at how few girls I actually meet. And I never did try and trap you. I honestly doubt that my "little maze" could hold you." He was speaking almost fondly. Her heart started to melt a little and she resolutely ironed it back up again.
"Well, you did try to kill me," Sarah said, reminding herself. Jareth seemed genuinely surprised.
"Who me? Never."
"So how do you explain that time you set the Cleaners on me in the oubliette?"
"Bah," he said, flicking his hand in an impatient gesture which should have sent the crystal flying, except that it had disappeared. "A minor distraction for you, as it turned out. So what does it matter?"
"You still tried to kill me," Sarah pointed out.
"Well, that was before I cared." He placed his hand on his chest and she noticed he was wearing a black shirt that was open at the neck so she could see the line of his collarbone.
"I swear to you that I shall never set the Cleaners—or anything else deadly—on you ever again," he said solemnly and she was charmed. Charmed! What was wrong with her?
"You took Toby away," she said. If nothing else, that was the ultimate reason she couldn't—she couldn't—She just couldn't.
"Ah," Jareth said, holding up a finger. "You wished him away."
"Well, you didn't have to take him."
"I didn't, as a matter of fact. The goblins did."
"No, my dear, it is completely different. I don't always take a child away...but you said the words, you called them. It was a risk you took. Frankly, I had no interest in you," he said. Then added. "At that time."
"Then if you were completely innocent of the whole thing, why didn't you give him back?" she said, voice heavy with sarcasm.
"Because you, my dear, wanted an adventure. You were not prepared to get him back without a challenge and so a challenge I gave you." The crystal was back and he was rolling it again, from one side of his hand to the other. "Admittedly, I didn't have to place such restrictions, but it gets hideously boring in the Labyrinth. I wanted to see what you would do." He grinned as if this made everything all right and she felt she should want to hit him.
"What about the other children, huh? You take them, don't you?"
"I do," he said, the smile gone, as if he knew this was her sticking point. "And once or twice I give them back."
"Your generosity astounds me," she said, back to hating him with an alarming rapidity. She accepted that. Embraced it. This was right.
"Many people decide to take their dreams," Jareth said, lifting the crystal as if holding it up to a light. "Many people give up in the Labyrinth. Either they do not want the child back or their will isn't strong enough."
"And that's an excuse?" she said.
"It's the simple truth."
"Well, that isn't—"
"Fair?" Jareth clenched his hand around the crystal. "No, Sarah, it isn't bloody fair. Life isn't fair. Not your life, not my life, not anyone's life. But you'd think that if they didn't make the wish in the first place they wouldn't have to struggle with the ordeal. Doesn't that make sense?"
"You don't have to take the children in the first place."
He sat up suddenly and she tensed, prepared to fight him off, but instead he was looking at her with such intensity, she forgot how to breathe for a moment.
"Sarah, look at me. Do I seem human to you? I can alter reality. I can pull living flowers from the air." And he did, a cluster of small blue flowers appeared in his palm, draping across his skin. He crushed them in his fist. "But I cannot alter who I am, what I am, no more than you can. I am bound to these rules. Do you think I want to spend all my days in that place, taking in the lost, the sick, the poor things castaway because people didn't want to waste the time and effort to deal with them?"
Sarah looked away, blinking back the sting in her eyes. She pulled her legs against her chest, gnawing at the inside of her lip. She hated it. She—hated—it.
"So what happens to these kids?" she said, hating the quiver in her voice. He moved closer to her. She could feel him standing above her and thought she would have to bat his hands away from her hair but he didn't touch her, just sat by her chair.
"You won't like it," he said.
"Eventually, they are transformed by the magic of the Labyrinth and become goblins."
"What, those ugly things?" Her heart lurched. Those poor things. If she had only known...
"Yes, Sarah. Because the world is ugly, humans are ugly, fae are ugly. We who wear beautiful skin are monsters underneath the surface. It is the way things are."
"I hate it," she said, and she was really crying now and she hated that too.
"They are brainless," he said. "Lost in their play, their chattering, their singing. Sometimes they can be cruel, sometimes they can be kind, but now and then, more or less, they are happy. At least, they are not lonely. At least they are fed. They do not die, Sarah. They are content with their lot, which is more than you or I can say."
It made her sad, for them or herself she couldn't say and that made her even more miserable. She buried her face in her hands, trying to hide her tears. She didn't want to be crying in front of him. Didn't want him to see this weakness in her. His hand was suddenly warm on her foot, tentatively; thumb moving back and forth across her skin as if he was trying to comfort her.
Eventually she managed to stop herself, or at least reduced her crying to sniffling.
"I do regret trying to kill you," he said in the stillness. "Your conviction frightened me. Others have gotten through the Labyrinth before but never with such force of will. It was as if a hurricane shattered through every door I put up. I thought I could take you, bend your will to mine, but you were like an oak tree, solid and rooted against the storm. Your voice was like lightning and in one stroke you reduced my will to ash and even then I thought you would yield to me." He chuckled softly but it sounded sad, too. "But a tree does not yield to a stone, no matter how much the stone wishes it so. Instead, the tree grows around it, fissures it, envelopes it, and the stone is changed where it did not have the power to change itself."
Sarah wiped her eyes with the back of her hand and looked down at him. He was leaning his head against the arm of the chair, looking up at her. She smiled a little and shook her head, sniffing and scrubbing at her eyes again.
"You have the strangest way of flirting."
"It's the simple truth." He smirked and his hand moved so that his fingers cupped her ankle and his thumb ran up and down over the bone. "However, if you wish me to flirt, that can be arranged."
No. I'm fine. Better think again. Back off. Those were the things she should be saying but her mouth was curving into a smile despite her common sense and his fingers seemed too warm, melting into her, almost. Still, she should say something. He was looking at her, staring at her. Tell him no. Be a good girl, a sensible girl. No.
"Maybe," she found herself saying. Playfully. Her inner, sensible side put a hand to her face. No, Sarah. No. Taunting him is bad. It's how you got here in the first place.
"Now why did that sound like a challenge?" he said and she felt herself grinning. He pressed his lips against her shin, warmth seeping through the pajama pants and making her toes curl. Oh boy, her subconscious said.
"Though really, I have no interest in flirting," he said, his lips tickling her leg so she had to bite her lip to keep from giggling.
"Liar," she finally managed.
"I'm completely serious. Flirting is a game for parties. For people who are not much interested in each other. Oh, I could compliment the color of your eyes, the perfect shape of your lips, with silly little metaphors that don't mean anything and can't compare to the real thing anyway." He rose, the warmth of his lips and hand leaving her and she shouldn't feel as disappointed as she did. He smiled, eyes half lidded like a smug, lazy cat.
"I much prefer, dear Sarah, to seduce." He leaned forward and she put her foot against his chest, stopping him. Good, her mind said. Finally. Showing some common sense.
"The dear lady doesn't wish to be seduced?" He said, clicking his tongue. "What to do?" He slipped a hand over her foot and straightened a little, and whether it was intentional or not, the leg of her pajama bottom slid down to just over her knee. The air was cool against her bare leg and she knew this would be a good time to stop this thing. It would be a great idea. It would be the best idea.
"Maybe," Sarah said, her voice in a strangely lower pitch. Jareth's nostrils flared, though she couldn't say why, and his eyes closed just a bit more. Sarah pulled her foot from his grip and slowly stood. She was so close to him, she could feel the heat of his body.
"Maybe this dear lady wants to seduce you." At that point, her subconscious had nothing to say, or maybe it had given up. She put a hand to his chest, against his skin, spreading her fingers wide and he inhaled sharply and she could see his throat move as he swallowed. There was nothing sleepy or catlike about his face now.
"What's the matter, Jareth?" she asked, rolling his name across her tongue, tasting it in her mouth. "Frightened?"
"Of course not," he said. "I'm simply not accustomed to being...seduced."
"Always the seducer, never the seduced, huh?" she asked, walking forward, hand still on his chest and willing him to go back and he did, one step at a time until his legs were against the couch.
"Something like that," he said, trying to take her hand but she moved it away.
"Ah ah. This is my game now. Sit," she said. He sat, looking up at her. His face seemed flushed or maybe that was a trick of the light. There was still time, she knew. She could back out of this now. She could send him back now with a word. She took his face in her hands. He was beautiful. A monster. But she was a monster, too.
She leaned in, letting her mouth hover just above his. He leaned up as if to close the distance and she pulled away.
"Sarah," he said, impatient.
"Shhh," she put her finger to his lips. "The role of the seduced is to blush prettily and protest."
"I am bloody protesting."
"Oh so you don't want this then?" she said, lifting her head and laughing.
"Sarah, if you don't start playing your game I'm going to bloody well start it for—"
But he shut up because she kissed him and it was nice. He was tense at first, surprised, but then his lips softened against hers. She pulled away and kissed him again, letting her lips glide over his, catching his bottom lip with her teeth and worrying it a little. She let her hand slip from his face to dance along the line of his neck, feeling heated skin under her fingertips, scratching just a little and he tensed and let loose a shuddering sigh against her mouth. She found that she liked that. She liked that a lot. Then suddenly, unexpectedly, his hands were in her hair, fingers combing through the strands from her temples and pulling her hair to settle around her neck. She could feel the soft heat from the heels of his hands and a small high sound startled out of her. He grunted back, a deep, throaty, masculine sound that made her toes curl.
She opened her eyes and met his, blue and brown, shielded and endless. This was a dangerous thing. A stupid thing. She could hardly believe she was doing this. To him. With him of all people. The surreal quality of it hit her and she was wrapped in uncertainty.
"What are you looking for, Sarah?" he said softly, brushing his fingers through her hair again. It was a soft touch, intimate and warm and she wanted to lean into it but didn't.
"Nothing," she said. "Just looking." It was a lie and she had a feeling he knew, though what she was looking for even she wasn't sure. He didn't say anything. Instead, he leaned up and kissed her neck. She closed her eyes as the buzzing sensations went through her, tingling to her fingertips. His lips were soft and warm and tickled and did something else to her, too. It was beginning to hurt bending over like this so she sunk to one knee on the sofa.
He had pulled back to let her get comfortable but as soon as she was, his lips were at her neck again, breath hot and skittering over her skin. His tongue was a sudden, heated warmth against her and she tightened her eyes and tilted her head even as her body curved into his. Her fingers, as if they knew better than her, found his hair, pushing through. It parted like warm strands of silk under her touch and she followed it to where the tendrils lay at the back of his neck. She scratched at him lightly and she felt the hard points of his teeth against her neck, tickling, warning. She smiled and shifted against him, one of his hands moved down to her thigh, rubbing back and forth with a slow impatience.
She wanted to move closer, she wanted to push his hand away. She bit the inside of her lip and shifted, then shifted again, restless. His fingers clenched slightly against her leg and he blew out a breath.
"Why do I get the feeling you've done this before?" she said, feeling both into this and out of it, hinging on an uncertain moment.
"Mm," he said. "But it's never tasted quite as good." He nipped at her. She yelped, surprised.
"Sarah?" Dad's voice filtered to the hall. Sarah froze and she could feel Jareth tense under her fingers. Oh shit! Jareth looked up at her.
"Sarah—" he said.
"Shhhh!" she hissed and heard Dad's footsteps echoing closer.
"Sarah, is that you?"
Sarah pushed away from Jareth, trying to disentangle herself from him and landing on her butt on the floor. She stood up, hands in her hair. Oh shit. Oh shit. What to do. What to do. Say something. Keep him—away somehow. Too late. Sarah felt her heart drop into her stomach as her Dad came to stand in the doorway, eyes still heavy with sleep, then quickly narrowed as he looked at her. Last resort, Sarah. When cornered, look cute and act innocent.
"Hello, Daddy," she said, smiling at him and hoping beyond any realm of possibility he didn't notice the rather noticeable Goblin King parked on the couch behind her. Dad came closer and picked Jareth's jacked off the floor, his forehead furrowing in anger. Oh boy.
"Sarah, what's this?"
"Oh um… my um….boyfriend…" she said, hoping Jareth didn't understand the significance of those words. She felt her face heat suddenly as Jareth's hands were on her shoulders made her jump a little. Well, they must look like a cute couple.
"Is he here?" Dad said, at the same time Jareth said:
"Sarah, darling, he can't see me."
"What?" Sarah said, asking them both. For a moment it was as if her mind was stretched into two different directions.
"Is he here?" Dad said and Jareth said:
"Which you would have known if you had taken two seconds to listen to me."
"Will you shut up?" Sarah said.
"Pardon me?" Dad said.
"He can't hear me either," Jareth said. Sarah elbowed him in the gut, smiling as he grunted, then catching her dad's expression, coughed into her hand. Lie. Lie. Bullshit it. Say anything.
"Sorry, Daddy. I didn't mean you, I was…it was just…sort of a dream. I just woke up, you know. Not myself." That was plausible, wasn't it? Wasn't it? And if there was any good fortune in her life, then Dad would buy it. "And no, Jareth isn't here."
"Jareth?" Dad said, looking confused. Sarah prevented herself from closing her eyes and slapping her hand to her head by sheer force of will. If the ground wanted to swallow her up right now, she would more than welcome it. Where was an oubliette when you really needed one?
"I thought he was a stalker," Dad said. He didn't often get angry but she could hear the rumbles in the distance. Jareth, for his part, burst out laughing. Him and Toby. Both. Going down. So far down. Roadkill and Roadkill Jr.
"He's…it's complicated. I mean- just—. No, he's not here, okay? Just the jacket is because…I…like being near …him."
"Sarah," Jareth said, sounding too amused for his own good. "I had no idea. Maybe I should have offered you that instead of a crystal." She was about two seconds from wishing his head up his ass.
"And how long has he not been here?" Dad said, sounding as cold as the ice outside. Sarah was caught and she knew it. If she didn't say something, he would think she had Jareth around when the kids were here. Better to face it now.
"About thirty minutes," she hazarded.
"Well he has ten minutes to not be somewhere else," Dad said, throwing the coat on the chair and Sarah winced. He pointed at her. "We'll talk about this in the morning, young lady."
"Yes, Daddy," Sarah said. Once he was gone, she buried her face in her hands. Could this night get any worse? It felt as if her mind was spinning in a thousand directions. Jareth's hands were on her shoulders again and he kissed her hair and she liked it but now that she'd been shunted back to reality, something inside twisted, the worm of uncertainty in her gut squirmed.
"Don't fret, sweet Sarah," Jareth said, low in her ear. "In the morning, all he will remember is a long restful sleep."
"Well that's a relief," Sarah said, feeling as if a weight had fallen away from her. Jareth pressed his lips just under her ear, his hands moving against her shoulders, squeezing, comforting and she wanted it, she enjoyed it. But…but… She pulled away a little, turned to face him, resolutely looking at her fingernails.
"Jareth…I don't—I mean…I don't know, I just…"
"I know." He lifted her chin so she looked into his eyes. "It's been a long night for you." He sighed, shaking his head. "It's a shame that such things exist here. In the Labyrinth, time is just a game but here it tumbles away, moment by moment. So much wasted, so much lost."
"You sound like you're leaving," she said, suddenly not wanting him to go. "You can stay, I mean, I don't think anything more embarrassing can happen to me tonight."
He laughed in a breath but it seemed half-hearted and his hand was at her cheek, thumb caressing her temple.
"Would that I could take your invitation, but I have been sent out of this house. In ten minutes, a heartbeat of insignificant time."
"But…but Daddy doesn't remember," Sarah said, feeling as if somehow this was her fault. All right, so she wasn't sure about…about anything but she wanted to…to talk to him and…just…
"It is his house and I have bent the rules of my own existence to come here." He smirked a little, a ghost of his own arrogance, she thought, wanted it to be anyway. "But not broken and I have no energy left to fight it further. I must return to where I was meant to be." He rolled his eyes. "However unfortunately boring it is."
"You're still going to take children away, aren't you," she said it, not as an accusation, but as a statement, maybe to remind herself he wasn't human, maybe asking herself, pushing herself, to see if she could see beyond that. He let his hand fall from her face.
"Did you think that would change?"
"No…" She sighed herself, folding her arms and smiling at him as much as she could, stretching her mouth—but it wasn't dishonesty that made it so hard. "Despite that, I think I've grown to like you in spite of myself." She paused and to add humor, added: "Arrogant as you are."
"Likewise," he said with a grin. Time was ticking away. She could feel it somehow, every grain of sand falling past her. She didn't know what to say, didn't know what to do. It felt as if she had found something, discovered something just to lose it. Tomorrow morning, would she still even remember? Even if she did, months from now, years from now, time pulled past her, dragging her by her fingertips.
"You should be careful about assumptions, Sarah," Jareth said quietly. "They only get you into trouble." Sarah had the feeling it was because he couldn't speak louder. When she looked at him, she thought she could see him fading and blinked and steeled herself not to cry. Jareth lifted the small white pendant around her neck and kissed it. Sarah didn't know where the necklace had come from. Somehow, it seemed as if she had been wearing it forever, although it glinted like new in the dim light.
"You are welcome to the Labyrinth," he said. "Come, visit your friends, explore the pathways and arches and beautiful pools, and do not fear it. You are free to go and come as you please." He let the pendant drop and Sarah wrapped her hand around it. It felt warm somehow. The Labyrinth? Again? Even if it was safe… It was too much to think about.
"Maybe," she said, wishing she knew for sure.
"You don't have to say," Jareth said. "You don't have to come. If you wish to see your friends…or anyone else, it is the simplest way." For a moment his expression changed and he looked sad although he smiled at the same time. She wanted to touch him and did, reaching out to touch his cheek which felt like cobwebs and made chills go down her spine.
"If…if I call you again…?"
"Cruel girl" he said, with a laugh. "Taunting me with maybes and possibilities. In any case, this is hard, even for me. I may not even be able to come, but I promise you this." He touched the center of the pendant with a finger. "This cannot be lost and it cannot be stolen. It will not leave you unless you fling it aside with a powerful force of will. Wear it and wherever I am, wherever you are, I will hear you." He brushed cold fingers over her cheek. "You can call for whatever reason, for no reason at all."
She nodded, closing her eyes tightly, feeling hot tears speed down her cheeks and despising herself for it. It was such a typical girly thing. She was such a ninny. He chuckled, sounding like an echo, a ghost of an echo. She didn't want to open her eyes to see him gone. She thought she felt him kiss her forehead or maybe it was her imagination and he whispered, still, soft, inside her and outside her at the same time.
"Sweet dreams, Sarah."
Sarah opened her eyes. The sunlight was warm on her face and outside she could see a world of snow. Hmm, pretty. She tucked her hands underneath the pillow, shifting her legs in the warm nest of blankets; feeling more content then she had in a long time. Mm, she could stay like this forever.
"It's Christmas Eve! It's Christmas Eve!" Margaret squealed, her voice seeming to rattle the windows. Sarah laughed as she heard the little girl pounding down the stairs and rushing past Sarah's door. It was then Sarah heard the clink of dishes and the smell of sizzling bacon. She shifted and something hard rolled under her back. Wincing, Sarah dug under the covers and pulled out a flashlight. It was curiously lit. Sarah opened it and saw it didn't have batteries. That seemed strange to her, though she couldn't think of why. Oh well. She tossed it over the bed and grabbed the pillow, nuzzling into it. Just a little nap before breakfast.
The door slammed open and Sarah grinned into the fabric of the pillowcase. Then again, maybe not.
"It's Christmas Eve, Sarah!" Margaret bellowed as if somehow Sarah wouldn't be able to hear her, three feet away in her bed. Sarah tucked the pillow under her head and smiled at her.
"Yep!" Margaret said, crawling on the bed. Featherduster, poor beleaguered thing, was tucked under her arm.
"Well, I guess I better…" Sarah started, stretching her arms over her head. "Sleep until New Years." She let her arms fall back and let out a fake snore, which was a bit ruined as Margaret jammed her small hands against Sarah's ribs as if in an effort to wake her.
"Nooo! Wake up! Mommy is making smiley-faced pancakes!"
"All right, all right I'm up," Sarah said, opening her eyes.
"And afterwards we can make a snowman! A big one! Right, Sarah?" Margaret asked; clutching Featherduster so hard Sarah was sure his life depended on her answer. In other words, a warm breakfast followed by a few hours out freezing her butt off in the snow, making snowmen, which if she knew her family, would soon dissolve into a massive snow war which would go on until Irene ordered everyone to get back inside before they caught the flu until Dad pelted her with a snowball and sent her screeching out into the yard with the rest of them.
"It sounds wonderful, darling," Sarah said. Margaret grinned.
"Margaret, come to eat!" Irene called.
"Coming, Mommy!" Margaret said, then tumbled out of bed and blew out the door like a miniature tornado. Sarah watched her go and then stared at the stucco patterns and whorls on the ceiling. The bed was so warm. Getting up seemed to be the antithesis of everything she stood for.
"Come on, feet," she said, wiggling her toes, then curled them and felt warm and giggly for some reason. Weird. Maybe she'd had way too much champagne last night. Sarah sat up, stretching again and yawning expansively. Then she scratched her neck and a thin chain tangled in her fingers. Sarah smiled a little and pulled out the pendant, so small she could comfortably close it in the palm of her hand. She'd had this since… Since…
Since she'd made out with the Goblin King. Oh god. Sarah fell back on the bed, covering her face with a pillow. She had…no, she hadn't even made out with him, she'd necked with him. She'd necked with him and her hands…and his hands…and his mouth. What the hell?! Sarah squealed into the pillow and kicked her feet.
Maybe it hadn't been real. Maybe it had just been a dream. Allll just a dream. Because that being real definitely made her life more complicated. But damn if it hadn't been good. No, she shouldn't be thinking like that! Bad, Sarah! Bad!
"Ugh, what have you infected me with," she moaned. There was no answer, just the calm beating of her own heart and the sounds of the kitchen. She smoothed her fingers over the pendant. It didn't really feel significant. What if it didn't work? She gnawed the inside of her lip. The real question was, why did she want it to work? Yeah, sure, so he had a valid point but that didn't change the facts… But if he was really bound to it… Ugh. Ugh! Sarah flung the pillow aside and shot a glare at the ceiling.
"I'm not going to spend my morning mooning over you, Jareth," she said, shaking her fist at the ceiling. "As of now, you're—" she stopped herself, choked her words back into her throat. You're not going to be part of my life, she wanted to say, but she didn't even know if she meant it. It would be so much easier if he weren't, if she didn't have to think about it. And…and he had…comforted her...in his own strange way. Augh. Okay. Fine. Compromise. As of now, it was just a dream. All right? She didn't have to think and ponder and fret over a dream. So until something proved otherwise, some tangible evidence—that wasn't the pendant she would just…she would just…delude herself because when it came to emotional entanglements, she was a complete coward.
"Fine, but you're still a jackass," she muttered, though she had the feeling the statement would only serve to amuse him and it annoyed her more. Grumbling to herself, Sarah shuffled down the hall to the kitchen.
"…I don't remember," Margaret was saying. She was sitting at the table, already sticky with syrup.
"Too bad," Irene said. "Dreams can be like that, though." Irene turned from the stove, saw Sarah and smiled. "Good morning, Sarah. Sleep well?" She sounded sincere. Charming even. Sarah blinked. This was unusual. Did she wake up in some alternate dimension? If she had, it was likely Jareth's fault, and if it was true, she really was going to have to kick his ass. Until that evidence provided itself however…
"I slept okay," Sarah said, yawning and covering it with her hand.
"Good, good. We need coffee. The dollar store tin is in the bottom cabinet for your father, and mine is where it usually is."
Nope. Still the same old universe. Oh well. Change what you could and accept what you couldn't, she guessed. She started Irene's coffee first, since that was the most work; then, she put water in a mug and popped it in the microwave for Dad's coffee, and poured herself some orange juice while she was waiting.
"Mommy, Mommy," Margaret said. "I wasn't done."
"Go on, honey, I'm listening," Irene said, pouring some more pancake mix onto the pan. It smelled good and Sarah's stomach grumbled.
"He said I don't have to be scared because nothing in the dark can hurt me because I'm strong!" Margaret said, beaming. Sarah's heart melted. Aww. Toby could be so sweet sometimes.
"That's wonderful, angel," Irene said. "I think it's great advice!"
"Oh! Sarah, Sarah! You were wrong," Margaret said.
"Hmm?" Sarah said, sipping her orange juice.
"Yeah," Margaret said with a nod. "He said he's most certainly not a bastark."
Sarah choked, spitting a spray of orange juice across the floor.
"Sarah, be careful!" Irene said.
"Sorry," Sarah muttered, snatching a paper towel to clean up the mess. Had Jareth talked to Margie? Or had Margie just been dreaming it? Well… Well she guessed it didn't matter. She'd never thought Jareth would actually talk to a child though, soothe her fears about the dark… but it did sound similar to something he'd say. Maybe…maybe…
"He said he could change into a bird though and that's where you got confused."
"Oh yeah?" Sarah said, with a faint smile. Oh, Jareth…
"But he said you were always a stubborn mule."
"He did, did he?" Sarah said, crumpling the paper towel in her fist. Roadkill. That was all. Just Roadkill. One day, she was going to return to the Labyrinth just to squish him flat.
"Oh wait, I wasn't supposed to say that," Margaret said.
"Don't worry, it'll be our secret," Sarah said, smiling at her as she threw the paper towel away. After all, she didn't have to have an excuse to maul Jareth.
"What are you two talking about," Irene said.
"My dream," Margaret said, grinning at Sarah while holding a forkful of pancake that was oozing syrup on her lap. Sarah winked at her, then leaned against the counter, watching the coffee. She could just imagine it. She would come up to him and push him against a wall and… and…No. No. This was revenge. It couldn't be something he would enjoy. Unless he enjoyed it and was tormented at the same time, which was an interesting concept but no— No. No, no, n-o- She'd made out with Jareth and that was as far as it was ever ever going to go. No thoughts otherwise.
"Microwave," Irene said.
"Mm," Sarah said. What could she do? Maybe hide a bucket full of the Bog of Stench somewhere in his bedroom. Hah. But that was too mean and then she would have to go into his bedroom first, provided he even had one and for some reason that seemed dangerous. Did he even sleep?
"Sarah, the microwave," Irene said. Sarah blinked.
"What?" She glanced at the microwave and saw it done. "Oh!"
Sarah mixed the coffee in the water, then some sugar and milk just how Daddy liked it. Where was Dad anyway? And for that matter, where was Toby?
"Here, put it in this thermos," Irene said. "This red one has hot chocolate for Toby. Don't get them mixed up, please. Last time Toby had coffee, we couldn't peel him off the ceiling," Irene said, rolling her eyes. Margaret giggled.
"Are they out shoveling?" Sarah hazarded, pouring the coffee into the blue thermos.
"Of course. I told Rob to let Toby do it. You know how bad your father's back is at his age, but men will be men."
"Alright," Sarah said, twisting the cap on the thermos. "Just let me get changed."
"Well why not just throw on some snow boots and a coat?" Irene said, looking at her, eyebrows raised. A suggestion that wasn't a suggestion. "After all," she gestured with the spatula. "You won't be out long and they've been out there for at least twenty minutes."
"Fine, fine," Sarah said, trying not to sound petulant. Irene was who she was. She grabbed the thermos and started out into the hall.
"And Sarah," Irene said. Sarah paused and looked over her shoulder. "Please remember to hang up your coat properly next time."
"Sure," she said. Irene smiled and turned away. Sarah stuck her tongue out at the back of her head and Margaret burst into another round of giggles. Ah, that felt good. It was weird though, Sarah thought as she walked into the foyer. What did Irene mean by next time? She could have sworn she'd hung her coat up last…time…
In place of her coat was one that was long and deep velvet and definitely not hers. Sarah set the thermos on the table and pulled it off the hook. There was a vague cinnamon smell with something deeper, something exotic, moonlight slipping over old stones. She smiled at the mental image and pulled the coat on, thinking it would magically fit her. It didn't. The sleeves were too long and the hem came almost to the back of her knees. Obviously it was made for someone with broader shoulders. Mm… but it felt warm.
Oh come on! She was not going to get googly-eyed over a silly coat no matter what it smelled like or how soft it was or how she wanted to bury her face in the velvet that was deeper than velvet and dream. Annoyed all over again, or at least trying to be, Sarah pulled on her snow boots and reached in her pocket for her gloves before forgetting this wasn't her coat. Strangely enough the gloves were there anyway and obviously hers. Huh. Maybe Irene had put them in there are something.
There was a little card on top of one of the gloves and Sarah caught it before it fluttered to the floor. The handwriting on the card was spidery and blotched, as if the writer didn't write often and was annoyed easily. Fondness welled in her.
In lieu of a crystal was all it said. She turned the card over. May I say, you have the most fascinating fetishes. We should discuss them sometime.
Jackass, she thought, but the fondness only grew. Sarah accepted it. She would have to, she knew, so might as well start now. Something undoubtedly would happen soon enough, which would make her want to kick his ass again. She shoved the card back in the pocket and picked up the thermoses. Despite the velvet, the coat seemed thin and she braced herself for the chill of outside. Surprisingly, the coat remained comfortably warm, like it had built-in central heating. Hmm. Nice. She might just have to kiss him for this one.
Except she wouldn't.
Sarah shook her head and went to where Dad and Toby were shoveling the walk. Both of their backs were to her but Toby looked up as if he heard her coming. He stopped shoveling and watched her with a flat mouth and a strange expression. Dad straightened and rubbed the small of his back.
"I brought drinks," she said, shaking the thermoses. Dad started and turned, then smiled at her.
"Thank you, princess," he said, reaching for the red thermos. She pressed the blue one into his hands. The red one she gave to Toby, who uncapped it with mumbled thanks. Dad was still rubbing his back with his free hand. Poor thing.
"Hey, Dad, why don't you go inside," Sarah said. "There's not much left. I can help Toby finish up."
"You sure, honey?" he asked.
"Yep. Go on."
"Alright. Don't hurt yourself." Dad started to leave, then turned back and stared at her, raising an eyebrow. "Sarah—Have you—Have I seen that coat before?"
"I've only had it forever, Dad," she said with a wide smile. "A little birdy gave it to me."
"Oh," Dad said. "Right." And he trundled back toward the house. Sarah glanced at Toby, who looked back at her, sipping the hot chocolate. He got a chocolate 'stache and wiped it away with the back of his hand before she could gush over it. A bird swooped overhead and Toby followed its flight briefly before looking at her, then looking away.
"Well you're silent and mysterious this morning," Sarah said lightly, though she was beginning to have a sinking feeling. She folded her arms tightly across herself and tried to keep smiling.
"You really did wish me away, didn't you?" Toby said. Even though she knew it was coming. it still cut at her, like an icicle stabbing through her heart.
"Yeah I did," she said. "But I fought like hell to get you back."
"I know," Toby said. He picked up a clump of snow and squeezed it in his hand, shoulders hunched, jaw working back and forth as if he wanted to say something else but wasn't sure what.
"What is it?" she said. "You can say anything you want. Anything at all." Now it was her turn to look away and shiver as the cold air pressed against her legs. "It was a terrible thing to do." Silence. A bird called overhead and was answered by another. A car passed by, churning out black slush under its wheels.
"Is that why you're nice to me all the time?" Toby burst out. "Because you feel guilty?"
"What?" Sarah said, looking at him, surprised. Spots of red flamed his cheeks and ears and he tossed the snowball to the ground before picking up another clump.
"It's okay but…well Mom says…Mom always says she's surprised, you know? She had a step-brother and they never get along and she says—well, she says you were almost like a real sister to me…well, and Margie too, but… I just…" He looked at her, blinked hard, looked away. "I just kind of wanted to know if it's because…you…you feel bad."
"Aww, Toby," Sarah said, feeling both happy and sad and forgiven at the same time. "I'm nice to you because I love you. I mean, of course I feel bad, but you're an awesome little brother."
"Really?" he said, glancing at her.
"Of course, silly." She wrapped an arm around his shoulders and squeezed him up against her. "I love you and that's one thing that's never going to change."
"That's what he said, but I just wanted…you know, to know." He put an arm around her waist and leaned his head against her shoulder. Sarah sighed and rolled her eyes skyward. He, huh? Gee she wondered who that could possibly be.
"Jareth?" she asked.
"He's…he's not quite as bad as I made him out to be," Sarah said, for some odd reason not wanting Toby to think badly of him, despite what he had done. But if Sarah could be forgiven well….well…maybe he could, too.
"No, I know that," Toby said with a grin. "I've seen him before. In dreams. Maybe once…twice a year? He takes me places in my dreams. One time it was this awesome—" Toby blushed again and scratched the back of his neck. "Well, never mind."
"Awesome what?" Sarah said. It was bad enough that he was—That he had never been—If he was perverting her little brother—
"Nothing. Anyway, he taught me that song. The magic one." Toby wrinkled his nose. "Well, he said I was singing it wrong but he taught me it once when I was seven so—" he shrugged.
"So wait, how long have you known about the Labyrinth?" Sarah asked.
"Not until your story last night," he said. Oh. Well. It was over with anyway. Sarah felt strangely at peace, despite all the craziness that had swept around her lately. After a moment, Toby twisted his head to look up at her.
"He said...well he said that if you went into the Labyrinth, I could come, too, and it would be okay…" he trailed off, looking hopeful. Jareth had this all planned out, didn't he? Well, all right, so she had challenged him. Still, Bastark.
"Oh, Toby. I don't know if I'm going back," she said. Then revised because she knew the inevitable truth. "At least not right away. I need to digest all this. It's just…really complicated on my end right now. Maybe before I leave for Arizona, okay?"
Arizona… geez. Was there snow like this over there? She couldn't say. It was still a big and uncertain place, full of a big scary future and now with a hell of a lot more questions then she'd ever wanted to answer…but it wasn't all that bad. After all, she could come home and visit… And at least… She closed her hand over the pendant. At least no matter where she went, she would always have someone who would listen.
"He also said you were stubborn as a mule," Toby said. Sarah's eyes narrowed.
"I'm going to kill him."
"Yeah, he said that, too."
Disclaimer: If I owned Labyrinth there would be a hell of a lot more sequels with a lot more tight pants.
This is a late C-Mas present for (and beta'd by) Amber Evans Potter—who is the best writing sister I've ever had. ILU! T_T