She can still feel the trails her tears have left behind on her face, thought they are now mostly dried. Her throat is sore. Her ankle aches. Her world feels like it's falling down. Suddenly, all in rushed bursts, she remembers little things.
Peach trees blooming in the courtyard garden, heat dancing under her skin as she tends happily to a lilac bush.
Her heart racing as she follows the king—her husband and counterpart—to the top room in the highest tower where they will watch the stars come out.
His heartbreak when his touch leaves her with frostbite. Her anguish when she leaves heat blisters on his arms, his lips, his cheek.
Crying alone in her room as the summer slips from her skin, thinking he probably does the same at winter's end.
Smiling with him as he shows her a nest of fledgling starlings he's found on the balcony.
One winter, he tries to teach her how to skate. It doesn't go too well.
Nightmares of her burning him so badly he is unrecognizable, or hates her, or dies. Those are the nights she holds him tighter in bed while he strokes her hair.
Kind words. "Others have done it, before you. All the kings and queens have taken the stairs, at some point, you know. The two of you do not have to continue down this path, but instead can be reborn without the ice and the sun. Be together." So she takes the stairs—so, so many stairs that her legs ache—with the Regent close behind. The heavy wooden door at the top is open slightly and it towers above her.
"Go on," the Regent urges softly, pushing her forward slightly.
She hesitantly steps forward, slips her hand into the crack between door and frame. It feels like water; cool and smooth and she hauls the door open wider. Beyond is darkness.
Sarah-not-Sarah steps forward, past the frame, and into the darkness. Just as she turns back, the door slams shut. Her way back is gone. She fades.
And now Sarah knows much more than she ever thought she would, even if most of it doesn't make sense and makes her head hurt. She does not move from her place in the bed, but shifts into a sitting position so that her back is against the headboard. Heat brushes against her forehead, pulling her hair away from her eyes. A platter of food drops out of the air in front of her and Sarah barely manages to catch it in time. Some of the broth in the bowl sloshes out onto the blanket beside her.
"Thank you," Sarah croaks to the empty air in front of her. The broth is warm and the bread accompanying it smells freshly baked. Both are delicious, though she eats them slowly; they are some of the first food she's been able to properly eat in months, save the meal Banna gave her. The meeting with the half-fuath felt like it had probably happened ages ago, when it had probably happened just last week. The passage of time has become fuzzy. Her trip through the labyrinth to save Toby—the first time—felt years ago, yet her trip through the door at the top of the stairs felt as if it had happened maybe a week ago. In reality, it probably had occurred years ago, maybe decades. Sarah chews a piece of bread slowly, and thinks that maybe it had been several decades through the door. Probably more. Her heart still aches from it, now that she knows to remember.
She had been lied to by somebody she'd trusted, and things had… gone badly. Sarah thinks of the salamander, and the king… especially the king. Remembers the pain in his eyes, directed at her, and the anger, which might not have been. And she can feels things, other things at the edge of her senses, now that she knows to look for those too. The labyrinth—the entire land—is dying. The magic is stagnant. Parts of it had already dies, Sarah is certain of it.
And more is on its way.
The Bog grew another mile today. More of the inhabitants of the surrounding land crowd into his throne room to petition him for aid, though there is none to give. They threaten him with the Regents, telling him that if nothing is done soon, they will force him to abdicate. They whisper that the Queen has abandoned them, that she is not coming back, that she and her powers are dead, forever. A small part of him starts to believe them, but another part remembers Sarah and the promise that lives inside her.
But the Regents have already arrived and they don't care about Sarah or her promise. They care about the ice and the hunger and the death of the land and the magic which had once flowed through it. The infection had long since crept to other lands. He's surprised it even took so long. The Winter King stands up from his throne, stretches, and takes half a step forward, turning left between two shadows.
The heart of the labyrinth is coated thickly in ice. Sarah's rose bushes wait to bloom under layers of frost; he steps past them to a small orchard. The trees there, too, are covered in frost and snow. Half-formed peaches litter the ground, rotting. Some of the trees are missing branches or are split in half from the weight of the snow.
He sits in their shadows and silently mourns.
Her ankle still throbs, and she suspects she's done something more to it than just give it a bad turn. Normally, she would have been worried about time limits and rescuing children and defeating Goblin Kings… And while she fate of the children still worries her, she turns her mind to weightier subjects like Summer Queens and Winter Kings and promises both kept and not and deep, bone-searing loss. She wonders how long it's been like this, and how much she doesn't remember.
The caretaker appears regularly to bring her food and run baths for her; where is got the food, water, and soaps, Sarah does not know, but she accepts everything gratefully. Caretaker, which Sarah has taken to calling the entity, never let itself be seen by the girl, and Sarah suspects that it is incorporeal, but not a ghost.
It is not until maybe her third or fourth day there, when she tries to explore the cabin and her ankle gives out that she has a better idea of what Caretaker is. As she falls, trying to grasp the dusty wall to stop herself, she is lifted up and gently propelled to a nearby chair. Caretaker tended to her ankle while Sarah concentrates on trying to see whatever she could of it.
Eventually, Sarah comes to the conclusion that is just is—and the Summer Queen created it to look after the cabin… And maybe it held a small portion of the Queen's powers; just enough to keep the cabin warm and the Caretaker existing. Maybe just enough of the Queen's magic existed in this entity to have kept the land from total, instant ruin. And maybe, just maybe, it was time for her to take it back.
Sarah mulls over this thought and wonders if it could be considered taking a life.
When her mind wanders from Caretaker, it often slips to the King. She's still unsure which title best fits him—Goblin or Winter—and both are snagged firmly within her. She wonders now that she has more of the pieces to her puzzle, if he hates her, but needs her. Wonders if that's the only reason she's alive now, if her cousin and Toby and all the others really still are alive, safe and sound, and if she'll ever really get them back. She spends a lot of time worrying about things most likely out of her control.
But then her mind wanders back again to her King. Sometimes, he scares her… And for the most part, Sarah had tried to give as well as she'd gotten. More of the time when she thinks of him before, she knows she loved him. Could probably love him again, even. She wonders if he feels the same.
…Or even if he possibly could. Sarah chews on her lower lip and wonders if, magic aside, he would want her back like she sometimes wants him back—or could want him. To say that their relationship (or what could be, or even what was) is confusing would be an amazing understatement. It was currently tearing a world—if not just his kingdom, but something inside Sarah tells her the rot spread further—apart.
But the rot hadn't really begun with them, or if it had, it would have been something the monarchs could have dealt with together. No, the balance had been tripped by that corrupt Regent.
And now, the world was crumbling apart, right beneath her feet.
Once, years after the Queen had vanished, Jareth himself had thought of ascending the stairs. They had been meant to cross them together, when the time came, when they were both old and weary and wanting to be renewed. To pass both the stairs and the door together was to pass on—but not forever. He is a King, and she a Queen, after all.
And they were meant to do it together. Always, together.
But Sarah had broken that, for whatever reason. She had gone on alone, without him, to meet whichever fate rose up to greet her. That had scared him.
Oh, they may die, and be reborn again, alone, as Sarah had been; that much he knows is at least possible. But there was not guarantee that they would have ever found each other again. The only reason he had found her was because of those infernal books. No promise that she would love him, nor he her. Through he would never admit it, the thought terrifies him; for them to be resigned to strangers passing on the street, to grow old with somebody else by his side, to ever dare love another. These are the whispered fears that wake him gasping in the dark on those few precious nights he can sleep.
Now that Sarah has returned, he has them more frequently. More of the dreams are born of the gnawing dread that she hates him, that she will never assume the throne. He is worried for his people, of course, and those of the other affected kingdoms. They currently face hardships previously unimagined, and have been for some time. Again and again he has been told this should be his primary concern.
But he is not completely selfless—far from it. He worries the most about Sarah. What will happen with Sarah. Wonders if, somehow, how that she's been dragged back kicking and screaming, some tiny part of her does not hate him. He knows it is a lot to ask for, and he is probably pushing his luck even hoping.
But, maybe, if she hadn't left because she hated him so completely, she will stay.
Even if only for a little while longer.
A few days—possibly even more than a few—after her revelation, Sarah has another. It's a conclusion she should have made long ago, really, and it is simple.
She will do what is in her power—which, admittedly, has increased significantly—to fix the Underground. And maybe, if she was feeling generous and he wasn't throwing snakes at her, a certain king of a certain labyrinth, though this is a decision she decides to put off until later.
Sarah accepts that, by some bizarre twist of fate, she might just be this Summer Queen. Somewhere, deep inside of her, maybe she had already known; waking up in the cabin had triggered some memories.
"Caretaker," she speaks aloud, feeling like a fool. "It isn't too late for summer to begin, is it?" She waits for an answer, knowing there is a good chance she will not get one. Caretaker has been becoming more and more dormant as of late; Sarah suspects that soon enough, she will recede into oblivion. Whether this is a good thing or not remains to be seen.
She wonders if, somehow, that will break whatever tenuous hold the previous Queen had over the land.
A flicker of warmth hovers near her shoulder.
"Thank you, caretaker," she whispers, mouth suddenly dry. "I was wondering if there might be… that is, do you…" Sarah licks her lips, suddenly nervous though she does not know why.
"Look, I don't know how to do any of this magic… or… Summer Queen stuff, and—this sounds stupid, but—do you have any, I don't know, quick tutorials on it or anything? Something to sort of jump start the learning process?"
Caretaker, in the vague heat form it had been forced to assume as of late wavers by her shoulder for a few more moments before disappearing completely. On the desk across the room, paper shuffles and clouds of dust fly into the air.
Her ankle still twinges in pain when she puts pressure on it but the trip to the desk is only a few paces. The chair she leans on as she crosses to the desk holds her weight, however old and rickety it looks.
Scrawled messily on the yellowed paper is a single word. At first it is difficult to make out; it was as if the author hasn't put pen to paper in such a long time they had almost forgotten how to form letters.
Meditate, it says, and Sarah lets out a low groan.
"What, no fireballs or dragons or… or dangers untold? None of that?"
There is no reply.
Nevertheless, she lowers herself into the ancient chair and, for the first time in her life, tries to meditate.
Based on books and movies and television programs, she understands the basic premise; clear your mind of all thoughts and let nothing disturb you. This task proves, however, to be much easier said than done. The moment she sits down, thought race into her head—what am I doing, I'm taking orders from a ghost, will this hurt, this is so stupid, what if I gain these powers, what if I don't gain these powers—and just as she tries to quell one, another rises. Her mind reaches back to Banna and lost Grod and the missing (kidnapped) children and leather gloves—she suppresses a frown at the last one—and the stupid book, stupid selfish wish.
At around the same moment she's rehashing why, exactly, she hasn't been friends with Jenny Benner since the third grade, she realizes that she needs to stop. She's only growing more and more frustrated.
Clearly, sitting calmly is not and probably never will be her greatest strength.
"Fine," Sara bites out, to nobody in particular. "I'll just think… warm thoughts." Her new resolve, which had started out so strong, peters out to a dull sigh.
"I," she breathes, "cannot do this."
But she tries anyway, thinking of warm brownies straight from the oven, or curling up with some kettle-hot tea and a good book (but grits her teeth when she realizes she's thinking of The Book,) and sunburns so bad it feels like the sun itself is trapped under her skin… Driveways to blisteringly hot they burn the bottoms of her feet and candles and bonfires and having ten or twelve thick blankets and a fluffy Merlin, all piled on top of her. Her fingertips grow warm, but it may just be because she has her hands curled into little balls of concentration. She focuses on sweaters and being bundled up on a long car ride in the winter with the heat cranked up to full blast.
…And unbeknownst to her, the light frost at her windows slowly begins to melt.
It's tough, being a goblin—even a shapeshifting goblin—when that goblin's duties are to protect and guide a fledgling queen through her counterpart's element… Especially when that Queen insists on being headstrong and willfully ignorant and clashing with the locals. And the King isn't too much better or much help, either.
At least Grod hasn't been threatened with a bogging. Yet.
But dogs are good at tracking and Grod is sometimes a dog, a fact which he takes full advantage of. Soon enough he thinks he has her trail; she is, after all, the only part human who would be wandering through this area. He winces when he passes the salamander's cave, eyeing the charred rocks.
The trail there smells like magic, but not her magic, and he follows this further into the forest. Her footsteps are mostly gone but the broken twigs and scent and occasional owl feathers from a very distinctive cloak are not.
Grod has the sinking suspicion that she was lead towards the cabin and has his doubts as to whether or not he'll be able to find her. It is, after all, the place the Queen would retreat to when she didn't want to be found.
Unhappy about these prospects, the dog sized goblin plods on.
He has to escape the regents.
They've found more of his other hiding places by now—not… that he'd call them hiding places of course. That was far too undignified and unbefitting of him as a king. No, he was engaging in evasive maneuvering from a cunning enemy. Totally appropriate for the situation at hand.
They have set an ultimatum; balance must be reinstated, and swiftly. They do not care which means are to be used and Jareth worries that if Sarah does not come into her own soon, he will be forced to make her, if he even can. And then he worries that if he must take that course of action, she will hate him if she does not already. He has given her ample reason to.
Jareth supposes that he could cross the door's threshold himself and see what would happen.
The Winter King slips into the courtyard, the heart of the labyrinth, which still slumbers coated in frost. Long ago it had become a dreary place, haunted with memories of his Queen and the might-have-been's and the will-not-be's and the harsh reminder of what had happened all those years ago.
But there is still hope, something he is gradually getting better at spotting, and there is just a little bit of it left.
Snow and ice do not bother him as he lounges in the roots of her favorite peach tree—not when they had been there for so long. Not when they are his own and he had so long ago grown accustomed to their chill.
Eyes passive, jaw slackened, he stares wistfully into the branches of the ancient tree. Most of the blossoms are dead, shriveled brown husks of their former selves, but one—just one—stands out just the slightest bit. There, towards the middle of the tree, peeking out between twigs and snow, was the barest hint of a delicate pink. A faint blush, really, though it matched the color of the petals whenever the tree had last blossomed and the ones Sarah always managed to get tangled in her hair.
Her jumps to his feet, scanning the rest of the garden. Rose bushes by the walkway are just barely starting to perk up and turn a soft green color. The frost doesn't look quite as thick on the stone bench as it had during his last visit.
Sarah's return had started something, all the way to the core of the labyrinth. Something welcome and new and bright and hopeful. Something wonderful.
The year is turning.
Bad writing and deus ex machinimas, ahoy!
I totally forgot this existed. Updates will still be sporadic and it may take me another three years, but I promise this will get finished eventually.