We Keep the Wall Between Us As We Go
A Fanfiction by Heist
The Great Writer woke up in her enemy's begonias again.
So sue her, Sarah had a hard time spying on the man from any other vantage point after he put up the privacy hedge, and if he could just be a little less interesting and a little less nefarious at strange hours of night she wouldn't have this problem. She raised a hand to block the light trying its damnedest to burn through her closed eyelids, and something cold and sludgy dripped onto her cheek.
"Agh," she said eloquently, and opened her eyes. She immediately regretted the decision, and sat up blinking hard to clear the spots in her vision. The sun seemed a little brighter than usual, but given there weren't any neighbors camping out on their front porches to watch the spectacle it couldn't have been too late in the morning.
Sarah stood up and wiped her muddy palms on her jeans, too late realizing that this was the new pair she'd sworn not to go on Observe and Report missions in. "Damn, damn, damn." There was nothing to be done now, save for getting out of the flowerbed and slinking home in embarassment, and Sarah did. At least her particular variation of the Walk of Shame was short; her favorite enemy and current fixation lived immediately next door to her.
She waited until she was safely in the house and the door locked behind her before the real swearing and aspersions on the probable infernal heritage of her writing workshop leader began. "'Observe and Report,' she says. 'I want to see something interesting in your observation notebook every week,' she says. She wouldn't know interesting if it bit her in the, the... argh!"
Observe. Report. Do not interact. Simple instructions, and she was fine with those. Sarah had no intention of interacting with him. Spying, yes, interacting, hell no. He'd kidnapped her brother once upon a time, and ten years of no interference or not Sarah had no intention whatsoever of renewing her brief acquaintance with the apparently former Goblin King.
Funny, those sadistic little curveballs life liked to throw at her. Jareth, or someone who bore a beyond-just-passing resemblance to him, was her next door neighbor.
To be fair, she should have expected this sort of thing to happen, as she'd heard it from Hoggle who'd heard it from Didymus who'd heard it from Ludo who got it from a supposedly very attractive stone who was there in the room when it happened that Jareth was persona non grata in the Underground. By all accounts somehow Jareth had cheated when she was on her run through the Labyrinth, and due to the unnamed interference he'd been fired from the Goblin throne. Oh to be a rock in the room when that development came down.
Of course, he must have been trying for some kind of revenge. There was no other reason Sarah could fathom for why he'd chosen the house directly next door to hers. For all she knew, somehow he might have engineered that ridiculous writing assignment, knowing full well that her curiosity was a raging beast, and laid some kind of enchantment on the flowerbed to ensnare her. Such a convoluted scheme fit everything she'd every heard about him, and honestly, she'd passed out on his begonias eighteen times in the last month. Something was amiss.
Jareth, former Goblin King, was her next door neighbor. Sarah could not get over that, in spite of the fact that it had been a year and a half since he moved in. Perhaps she might have come to terms sooner if she'd been the bigger person and been neighborly, but without saying so much as a word the man had made it clear that he wanted nothing to do with her. Sarah barely remembered all the incidentals of her Labyrinth run, but she knew they'd traded more words there than they ever had as neighbors.
That was fine. The Goblin King was her next door neighbor. She didn't want to talk to him, and she really didn't want to continue to regularly bring home half the mulch from his flowerbeds in her hair. Some things were just too much to handle.
"In the evening, he reads his spellbooks and histories by candlelight. His fingers turn the pages slowly, deliberately, as if he considers every word and its myriad meanings..."
Some nights, Jareth was more interesting than others. Once, she'd caught him working some kind of spell, complete with glitter and flashes and colored smoke, and for a moment he was the Goblin King she met in the Labyrinth again.
Most often, he read at night. Library books, mostly, though every so often he would splurge and pick up a new hardcover from the bookstore downtown. She always knew when it was a new acquisition in the way he opened the cover and pressed the pages apart. Sometimes, he inhaled the scent of the paper, and Sarah would look away and let the man have some space with his holy experience. God knew she did the same.
As near as she could tell, Jareth read anything he could lay his hands on. She'd seen him read political commentaries, women's romances, histories on impossibly dull subjects, humorous science fiction (It had been a good day, the day she saw him laugh without a hint of irony), anything... save for fantasy.
Jareth had a favorite chair, a shapeless, ancient recliner that might once have been green, and he leaned back into its lumpy cushions by the light of an off-balance lamp. Sometimes, he wore glasses, sad, scholarly bifocal reading glasses, and he had a way of pulling them off one side at a time so he could press the heels of his palms to his eyes.
The man had a series of rituals associated with reading, down to the way he drank his beer. Near as Sarah had been able to count, it took him twenty-four seconds just to pop the tab on the can, and that was after he tapped around the sides. Always one can of beer, of whatever was on sale at the grocery, and he always nursed the can for hours.
Sarah wrote them down, but she never brought his quieter nights to the writing workshop.
All things considered, the former Goblin King was a decent neighbor.
He took his trash out every Thursday, he collected his newspapers daily, and unlike her neighbors on the other side he didn't keep an obnoxious dog that constantly shit all over her porch. Jareth was considerate, and he brought steaks and a cake to the Andersons' annual Independence Day cookout.
She didn't attend the party. Instead, Sarah waited on the other side of Walt Anderson's gorgeous new picket fence and listened. (The workshop had just started, then, and the first assignment was eavesdropping for dialogue.)
"So, ah, Jareth. Whereabouts in England did you say you were from again?"
Jareth always hesitated before speaking to anyone, as if he were surprised that someone would address him. "Where I'm from. Nowhere you'd have heard of lately, but my family originally hails from Lower Ynis Witrin. It's a bit south of Bristol, more or less."
That might have been accurate, if by Lower he meant in the Underground.
"Inniswha? That some sort of strange British name or something?"
Sarah cringed on behalf of her neighbor. "Or something," Jareth said, and changed the subject. "That is a charming fence you've put up."
"Glad you like it. My dad always said good fences make good neighbors, and it is a mighty fine one if I say so."
The hedge went up after that party.
Inexplicably durable hedge aside, what Jareth was not was a very good gardener. Or homeowner, for that matter. Basic maintenance seemed a bit beyond him. Just the lawn threatened to eat him alive on a regular basis.
Sarah vividly remembered the first time that he tried to mow the lawn. Oh, how he tried. Oh, how he... really did not succeed. She'd laughed for weeks after that debacle. Weeks.
Anymore, Jareth subcontracted out the care and maintenance of his lawn and flowerbeds to the neighborhood kids during the summer, but even forty dollars an hour couldn't compete with the prospect of indoor, air-conditioned summer camp. Sarah knew it would be a fun day when she heard the sound of the lawnmower next door, and set up on her front porch with a glass of lemonade and a book.
The privacy hedge only extended so far forward, and while it successfully kept prying eyes from witnessing the happenings of the interior of the house, it did no such thing for the front lawn. Sarah opened her copy of Howl's Moving Castle, took a sip of her lemonade, and read about Sophie's remarkable weed-killer as Jareth mowed down a number of gorgeous yellow tulips.
Sarah stifled a grin and turned the page as he swore expansively in a language she didn't recognize. The lawnmower roared to life again, and she watched from the corner of her eye as he veered into the mulch surrounding his little mulberry tree and sent wood chips flying everywhere. He swore again, turned off the lawnmower, and kicked at it vindictively.
Jareth raised his face skyward for a moment and looked over at her porch. For a brief second, their gazes met, and she knew that he knew she wasn't just reading. Sarah flushed in embarassment and turned back to her book, and Jareth retreated to his house, lawnmower abandoned. Sarah chewed on her lip in indecision and guilt, and went indoors herself. Jareth's ineptitude just wasn't funny anymore, and given she had something to do with his banishment she supposed she owed him one.
"Toby!" she called.
There was a rustling sound upstairs, and a dull thud followed it. "Agh?" he called back.
Sarah smiled and shook her head. There certainly could be no mistaking them for siblings, that was for certain. She ascended the stairs and turned the corner into the disaster area that had been her guest bedroom. Her father and Karen were on vacation, the first they'd taken since Toby was in diapers, and they'd dropped him off with her for the week. She didn't mind, so long as he didn't question her weird writing stunts. (Not that he'd noticed; Toby had brought his new PlayStation, and he spent most every night, all night, destroying demons, imps and other abominations.)
Sarah considered the room and the mess therein, and waded into and over the horror. Eventually, she made it to the bedside, and she nudged the insensate blanket-wrapped lump on the floor with her toe. "Hey. Hey you."
"Mmrmph," the lump replied. "Fi' more mins."
She prodded harder, and crouched down to his level. "Hey. Toby."
"Bragh. Wha'd'you wan'?
Sarah rolled her eyes and ripped the blanket forcibly from the cocoon her younger brother had fashioned from it. "Tobias Michael Williams, get the hell up! It's two in the afternoon, and I need you to do me a favor."
The process of waking him up was painful, made all the more difficult by the fact that he was only twelve years old and the only form of caffeine she had in the house was granulated coffee. "Why are you doing this to me?" he whined.
"Because I feel guilty about all the voyeurism from the past several months, and ironically I'm using you as a vehicle to correct my mistake when it's a mistake involving you that was the catalyst for this whole mess to begin with."
Toby paused in tying his shoelaces and gave her a strange look. "I'm not even going to pretend I have any idea what you're talking about. What's this stupid favor and what are you going to give me for it?"
He drove a hard bargain, and Sarah was out thirty dollars and the promise of a new video game when she sent him next door. She returned to the porch and her book, and watched her brother knock on Jareth's front door. They spoke, Toby the very picture of casual altruism, and at last they came to some sort of agreement. Jareth closed his front door, and Toby took to the lawnmower. Mission accomplished.
Afterwards, when the lawn was finished and the mulch relaid and a few of the tulips resurrected from the dead, Jareth paid Toby an unspecified amount of money and an orange soda. Toby strolled leisurely back and settled into the chair next to Sarah's.
"How'd you make out?" she asked as she finished another chapter.
He shrugged and took a long swallow of his soda. "Wouldn't you like to know."
"Hmm. Am I taking you to the store tonight or tomorrow?"
"Eh. Before it gets too late. I know you wouldn't want to miss out on your little stalker routine."
"Okay then." She turned another page, and realized, "Wait. What? How did you know about that?"
Toby shrugged again. "I'm twelve, not dead." He finished off the soda and leaned back in his wicker chair. "I dunno why you don't just go talk to the guy, though. For all that you like to be an 'observer of the human condition' or whatever, you're not that observant. The guy's lonely."
Sarah stared at her brother as he stood up and stretched. "Dude, Sarah, it's not a major revelation. And are we going to the store or aren't we? It's almost five, and I need Gran Turismo like you have no idea."
Bemused, Sarah turned her eyes to Jareth's yard, where one by one, yellow tulips poked fully formed from the soil by the mailbox.
She waited for Toby to retreat to the guest room with his hoard of new games before she ventured out that night. He wasn't right, and she had to prove it. Jareth was... antisocial. The very day he'd moved in, she'd walked down her front path to the sidewalk, expecting to round the bright yellow moving truck with a nice plate of freshly storebought cookies, and she'd run into him.
He hadn't been the same as before. His blond hair had been cut shorter, and in his pressed white shirt and tie and glasses she hadn't known him until he recognized her. Surprised shock came first, and then Jareth went white with anger and turned away from her. She went home and locked her doors and watched through her window and waited for his sure vengeance while the cookies went moldy on her counter, and that was that.
Every interaction, every word exchanged since, had been coldly perfunctory. He didn't go out of his way to sabotage her, but neither did he in any way indicate that he'd wanted anything to do with her, or anyone else. He responded to social invitations when he was asked, but he didn't seek out such opportunites. Toby had to be wrong.
Sarah crept across the dewy lawn and carefully over the begonias, and peered into his front window. He was reading, his glasses perched precariously on the end of his nose, and in his hands was a familiar red leather book. He paused for a moment and moved the ribbon to mark his place, took his glasses off, one side at a time, and pressed the heels of his palms to his eyes. He looked tired, and sad. She dropped to her knees, not caring at the moisture seeping through the denim of her jeans.
She knew nothing about him at all.
Sarah had always been the one on the outside looking in. Looking for a way into the magic kingdom. Looking in on the happy family her father and stepmother and brother had, and wondering why she wasn't part of it. (Wondering if, perhaps, that hadn't been her own fault.) Looking in on Jareth while he read alone by lamplight, drinking his single beer looking so... alone.
It had never occurred to her until after the Labyrinth that she'd never seen another one of his kind there. Perhaps he was the one on the inside looking for a way out.
She went home. She cleaned off the table from dinner, wiped down the counters and closed the blinds, and at last turned off her porch light. Toby's game was loud enough to make the floors rumble, so assured of his distraction, she locked herself into her room, sat down and her vanity and closed her eyes.
"Hoggle, I need you."
She stood at the junction of the sidewalk and his driveway and squared her shoulders. It didn't look that far to his doorstep, but she had been wrong before. She took the first step, and then another.
"Hoggle, I need to know. How did he cheat in my run?"
"Missy, it's been a day and an age down here, and a decade up there for you. Whatsit matter now?"
"It's important, believe me."
"Well, it's like this..."
Jareth had known the consequences, all along. Perhaps he'd even written that revision into the Book itself for her. God, it must have killed him, while she was complaining all the way how unfair everything was, and he changed the rules for her.
"He let me win?"
"No interference. Them's the rules, and on no small number of runs he stayed out of it. He made himself out to be a nasty bastard, but he played the game fair for you. Lotta good that did 'im. 's not like there wasn't precedent for it, though. He knew what that would get 'im, make no mistake about it."
"But why would he do that?"
"Eh, who can say? You've been down here. You've seen the place. Mebbe he thought it was worth it."
It hadn't been anger, that first day by the moving truck. Perhaps a little, at first, but what she had seen was despair. He didn't belong to this world any more than he had in the other, and she understood at last that he hadn't sought her out because he didn't want her to watch him fail. He must have been devastated, to find that the instrument of his defeat lived next door to him, that she would see, and know, and be disappointed.
Sometimes, the greatest journey is between two people.
Sarah knocked on the door. She heard him rise from his chair and walk to the door, heard the turn of the lock. He opened the door.
"Hello," she said.
"Hello," he said.
She shifted the six-pack of beer to her left hand and extended her palm and a smile in greeting. "My name is Sarah Williams. I live next door. Welcome to the neighborhood."
He shook her hand and invited her in.
Notes: This was written for the 2009 Labfic Winter Exchange on Livejournal, written for the delightful slobber_neck, known here on FF as oh-you-pretty-things. If you'd like to see more of these faboo Exchange fics, you can go to communities(dot)livejournal(dot)com/labyrinth_ex. Check out the fic I received as a gift from the ultra-awesome LadyRhiyana!