Sarah twitched, hand curling around her painfully hot cup of coal-black coffee, and glared at the answering machine with thin lips. Off to the side, Isaac, who had been clumsily flipping an omelet over in the pan (no-one in the three-bedroom condo was fond of the just-let-it-sit-for-a-while-and-eventually-it'll-cook-all-the-way-through method) and likely getting a large amount of egg all over the stove, whistled slightly.
She gulped the caffeinated liquid, hissing when her mouth was burned, and put her head in her hands with a miserable sigh. She did not deserve this. She'd just returned from a three-month-but-actually-two-week-in-Earth-time mission in the fucking coldest realm she'd ever been to. And much of that time had been spent curled up in a snow-blocked cave yearning for food other than the protein powder in her backpack that she was fairly sure you were supposed to mix into water (which she couldn't do because her water had frozen solid and she'd had to lick it to get any) and the two ketchup packets she'd found in her coat pocket. It had resulted in her looking like an anorexic and nearly failing because the little girl she was supposed to find was too heavy for her to pick up by the time she'd gotten to her, which was what the transportation spell her employer had decided on required.
Lucky for her, her roommates were fairly understanding and put up with her two-day pity fest of taking hour-long baths and using magic unnecessarily to keep the water heated, eating greasy Chinese food and refusing to lift a finger to help with the apartment's chores. She wanted a piping hot, overly-sweet mug of extremely black coffee and a very large breakfast with lots of eggs and toast. And preferably another day of lying around before she got back to acting like someone who didn't have cancer.
Unfortunately, her family had chosen to call, with the news that Toby had captured a small, humanoid creature that said it was a goblin and decided that her suspicious attitude towards all of that 'fairytale' stuff meant she knew what the heck was going on and that they wanted an explanation and they wanted it now. And, Toby had added, the creature was singing whenever they didn't keep it entertained for more than two minutes, so she had really better come home now.
"Mother of God," Sarah groaned.
Isaac set a large fourth of omelet in front of her with a sympathetic expression, plate complete with hash browns, toast, and one roasted tomato, halved. Without waiting for her tongue to recover, Sarah grabbed a fork and attacked the food viciously, gulping more eye-watering coffee as she went.
"I forgot you still haven't told your folks," said her only male roommate, sipping on his own mug of a less extreme, hazelnut version of her beverage and leaning against the counter.
While she was by no means new to the whole thing and not at all the youngest (nineteen-year-old Angie reserved that title and was often indignant at being treated as such), she was the latest addition to their 'team' and therefore given all the empathetic doting any youngest sibling would have. Isaac and Tasha had both told their parents (and Tasha's little sister) a long time ago and were in the habit of giving them detailed descriptions of their lives through phone, mail and the occasional visit. Angie had run away from home when she was little on a whim, and somehow wound up in a whole 'nother world, complete with unicorns. She could barely remember her old parents and as such didn't really see the point in contacting them.
Sarah was a different matter entirely. What she did for a living was dangerous (as her currently drastically undernourished physique proved). It wasn't so much the anxiety about them worrying about her she was afraid of, it was that magic had a way of finding the people who believed in it. She had wanted her family to go on thinking that the most harmful thing in the world was nuclear weaponry (actually, it probably was – she had yet to see a magical thing stand up to anything wore modern than a grenade fashioned out of a wine bottle, some string and gunpowder, though they'd never actually used anything more modern than that in fighting a magical being) because they weren't likely to attract nuclear weapons to them just by thinking about them.
But then there was Toby. Bright, curious Toby who sometimes saw things that weren't there and constantly interrogated his sister for answers that she was far too unwilling to give. It seemed he'd had enough, and wanted everything out in the open. That was probably the best explanation for why there was a goblin in Merlin's old kennel now.
She looked at Isaac, who was still regarding her patiently and eating bits of omelet straight out of the pan (iron, in case of emergencies). "Any suggestions?" she asked miserably.
"Come bearing gifts," he grinned, "How much did you get from your last job?"
"Ten grand," she replied, "Little girls' dad either really wanted her back or really didn't want to go and get her."
He shrugged, "Might get you a couple of trinkets on the market if you find a good trader."
"Nah," she said, "I've got some things I can give them. And I'll need the money for the plane ride; I am not driving back there."
Isaac finished his coffee and put the mug in the sink. If Sarah remembered correctly, it was Angie's turn to do the dishes. She huffed and pushed the now-empty plate away from her, then got up and stretched, giving her male friend a teasing look as she did. She preferred wearing as little clothing as possible when home, which meant she (and the other two girls) were constantly teasing the boy for staring at her legs when she donned nothing but underwear and a tank top. He wasn't staring, though, which made Sarah look down at her Holocaust-survivor body with real annoyance – to her knowledge, Isaac hadn't had sex in two years; if she wasn't getting him nervous, then she really looked bad.
"Time to get packing," she said with exasperation. And she just got done unpacking, too! She trudged back to her room, narrowly missing a surprisingly makeup-less Angie clad in only a towel on her way out. A quick glance told that Isaac was, indeed, checking the teen out, so he hadn't decided that he was interested in men while she was gone. Goddamn it.
"Sarah?" Karen opened the door. "Did you get our call? My God, you're so thin!"
Sarah gave an apologetic smile, "Can I come in?"
Her stepmother moved aside, and Sarah entered the foyer, stomping snow off of her boots and feeling a great deal better now that she was inside. Karen stood off to the side as Sarah looked around for that moment that is needed when one enters a childhood home. The group picture of the four of them that had been taken by a professional had been replaced by one of her and Toby in formalwear for a wedding. A step-cousin, Sarah remembered, and the buffalo wings from the buffet at the reception were lethal. She wasn't wearing a coat, but took her time taking off her boots and placing them in the mud closet, then wiping where she'd stood with a rag she'd found inside.
Finished, Sarah looked at her father's wife, who was wringing her hands nervously. "I think I have some explaining to do."
It seemed, at that moment, latent maternal instincts took over and Karen firmly grasped her stepdaughter's wrists and marched her over to the kitchen, "Not without a decent meal, you won't – you're as thin as a rake! Have you been eating?"
Sarah managed a nod and closed her eyes as her mouth watered when Karen pulled out the remains of tonight's dinner. A steak and some russet potatoes were put on a plate and microwaved for her; Sarah wondered why Karen hadn't been named a saint yet. Taking the possessed stare at the microwave as encouragement, Karen called to her father and Toby, then went upstairs to retrieve the latter, muttering about kids and their iPods. Richard Williams gave his daughter a tight hug, exclaiming at the feel of her bones, then sat down, just as Karen put the food in front of Sarah and began heating milk for hot cocoa and Toby bounded in, looking furious.
"You told me they weren't real!" he said, refusing to sit down, choosing to stand in front of her in as aloof a manner as possible.
Sarah flinched, "I have a very good reason. But first, I have to ask you, how did you know I was involved in all of this? Actually, no – " she amended, when it looked like Karen was going to answer, " – first thing I have to ask you is where the goblin is."
"In the basement, where we said he was. He's playing with our old toys," Toby said.
Sarah nodded, "Good. Goblins aren't generally harmful, but if you make them angry, there's nothing to stop them from ruining your life." Then she turned her attention back to her food and ate for a few awkward minutes. Toby finally sat down after a stern look from his mother. Karen and her father kept meeting each other's eyes nervously.
Her father cleared his throat, "When Toby was little, he talked about – about goblins."
Sarah 'Hmm'-ed in confirmation and smiled faintly at her little brother, "He talked about a lot of stuff besides goblins. Once," she said, looking at her brother, "You were bitten by a fairy. I told Karen it was a lizard." Karen gave her a scandalized look at the knowledge that Sarah had actually lied about what had bitten her son at one point in his life. Sarah sighed, "The beginning's the best place to start, I guess. But please, please remember that I was fifteen. And that I didn't mean it." Everyone looked very glum at that – those were not the words nice bedtime stories started with.
And so, the entire tale came spinning out – the goblins, Hoggle, the Labyrinth, the Wise Man, Ludo, the Fireys, the Bog of Eternal Stench, Sir Didymus, the battle and, of course, the man who had proceeded to make ten hours of Sarah's life a living hell, the Goblin King. Her parents sat in stunned silence throughout the whole thing, though Toby risked asking questions now and again, to Sarah's great relief. What did the Goblin King look like? How could the Fireys be solid if they were flame? What did the Bog of Eternal Stench smell like? And then came the easy part:
"Afterwards, I knew I couldn't just sit back and let life happen. There was this whole world and all of a sudden, I could see it and I had to be a part of it. I figured I'd finish high school and then go looking for it. And I found it." Sarah said with a small smile. "You guys have met my roommates; we work as a squad to do any job worth doing. We're all pretty experienced – I went through half a year of practice before they let me come with them anywhere. Now, I can handle small assignments on my own." There was a long, long quiet. "And that's it."
Her father exhaled, "And that would be why you don't answer our calls half the time. You're off – in other worlds."
"Is that why you're so thin?" Karen pressed, "How much do you make doing this job?"
Sarah pursed her lips, willing herself to be patient, "I make a lot. Humans in general don't have a lot of power; it's really easy for us to slip between realms without being noticed. Unfortunately, telling the entire planet about this would cause a lot of panic, so there aren't that many humans doing these jobs. We're valuable and it shows when people pay us."
Karen looked over her figure, "Then why - ?"
"My last assignment put me in friggin' Antarctica. Well, not really, 'cause it wasn't on Earth, and I got snowed into a cave for a couple of months. Not much to eat."
Richard looked shocked, "Months? The last time we spoke to you was two weeks ago!"
Sarah nodded, a melancholy expression taking up her face, "Yeah," she said thickly, "I always call before I leave Earth. I mean, we're warned about how time will pass where we're going, in case we end up being gone for years, but I just want to remind you guys I exist. Just in case."
"Oh, honey," Karen said, coming around the table to envelope Sarah in a warm hug. It wasn't particularly comfortable, what with Karen's cleavage pressing into her face and her earring catching on Sarah's hair, but it felt nice. She and her roommates had all had a big dogpile-hug once Sarah had returned, but it was nice to be doing it with the type of person who was supposed to look out for you like a parent instead of a friend. Her father reached over to squeeze Sarah's hand nicely and even Toby abandoned his I'm-too-cool-for-family attitude to give her a hug. A brief one.
"So," said Sarah, blinking a bit to avoid tears – she'd been doing this for seven years, damn it, she could control herself! – "Can I see that goblin?"
The goblin was very willing to comply with her demands. It would not attack anyone in the house. It would not get beaten over the head with an iron frying pan. It would not steal any property, damage any property, or otherwise cause any sort of disturbance. It would not get beaten over the head with an iron frying pan. It would not tell His Majesty, the King of Goblins about having any sort of unusual interaction with the Williams family. It would not get Bogged and then beaten over the head with an iron frying pan. When all was understood, the stumpy little goblin was allowed to leave, with any one toy of the Williams' children it wished. The little bugger was delighted.
Toby was impressed.
Sarah beamed at that, hefting Karen's largest frying pan over her shoulder, and asked nicely if there was any dessert left over from tonight and whether they had any more questions for her. She'd been surprised by their lack of indignation at her career choice – she was sure they'd attempt to get her to quit by threatening to disown her or something – but they seemed very understanding about the whole thing. After about fifty more questions, going from the "Why have you never mentioned the magical world before?" to the "Can you make things explode with your mind?" Karen decided it was time for bed.
But not before Sarah had given out the presents.
"Oh. My God." Toby said when she explained the properties of the ugly little hat she'd given him. "So I'm, like, invisible."
"No," Sarah corrected, "If a person's looking for you, specifically, they will find you. And if they say your name out loud, you will appear." Karen looked very relieved. "It'll just help people not notice you. And it's to borrow, not keep. It's not that rare, but it's expensive as hell and I might need it for a job or something."
She couldn't think of a good thing to give Karen or her father and decided to give them a joint gift that she'd near-wrestled from a tight wad at the market that (Isaac was very smug to hear) she'd ended up going to, despite her attempts to dodge unnecessary physical activity: a little door knocker, pretty much a less-talkative duplicate of the enormous ones she'd met in the Labyrinth, that would open the door on command for any of the persons who lived in the house. No more worries about lost keys. They smiled and thanked her, then asked if there was anyway to contact her when she was out of the realm.
Sarah brightened and nodded eagerly, "Find a mirror or some water that will give you a decent reflection, then say something to the extent of 'Sarah, I need you,' and I'll appear. In the water." Then she paused, "If I don't appear, then don't worry. I'm probably just busy – like a phone call." She considered for another few seconds, "Or on Earth; magic seems to think it's a waste of time to work on the same level of existence. Unless, of course, you're an all-powerful wizard or something. They're pretty good at doing whatever they want."
"Alright," said Karen, standing up and unfolding her hands from their seemingly-relaxed position atop her legs, "Bed."
Toby looked ready to whine, but reconsidered (though whether it was because of Sarah's story and constant emphasis on how whiny she'd been then and where it had gotten her or because he was eleven and Too Mature to Whine, it was unclear). He began trekking up the stairs with a few mutters that sounded suspiciously like "Sure, my sister travels between worlds and I have a bedtime."
Sarah gave a chuckle to stay in character, though the weariness in her limbs was telling her needed to get to sleep. God, she hated being this thin! You were tired and cold all the time. She took a swig from the mug of chamomile that Karen had given her, then eyed it suspiciously. Wasn't chamomile supposed to help you sleep? That's what was doing it. 'Or,' she thought when she saw the clock on the mantle, 'It's twelve AM and I didn't sleep at all on the plane ride over here.' Ooh, and she'd have to call Terry and tell him she wasn't in Oregon anymore and that she'd ended up in New York. He was going to be pissed; Isaac said something about a meeting with their next client before the annual Yule celebration which – Sarah frowned – would be in NYC.
She groaned. At least she was closer now. She could probably take a bus there if she stayed – it was in a month but she didn't think her father and Karen would be so quick to kick her out after tonight's revelation – the problem was the meeting. She didn't like missing them. It wasn't just rude; she pretty much instantly degraded herself to 'that girl who came along because she's part of the package' by not knowing all the dirty details the others had been privy to. As the one constantly babied by her teammates, she really didn't like being that girl. It made her feel like the weak link.
"Something wrong?" her father asked. She looked up, noticing that he'd been staring at her worriedly the entire time. Well, no duh. After tonight, he probably thought she'd grow horns if it was a full moon.
She sighed, "Not really. Just figured out me being here means missing a meeting with a client – oh! Er, would you mind if I stayed with you guys for about a month?" She blushed at being caught assuming they'd accommodate her.
He gave her a look, "We'd let you stay here whenever. Even if we didn't have cause to worry for your life."
Again, she blushed, "I'm sorry I wished Toby away. And that I didn't tell you about all this. After being in such close proximity with the goblin for so long, you'll probably start seeing other things, too. I'll ask Tasha to send me some books with all the basics in them."
Richard nodded, "That would help." They both looked as Karen came in, then settled into their seats more firmly as the woman sat down and continued to drink her own tea, "We want you to know that you're really special to us, honey. And we can't tell you not to go off and have your adventures because it seems like you really love it, anyway. But please be careful."
Sarah smiled, "I'm always careful." She looked down; her sweater hung off her bony shoulders unconvincingly, "Um. This isn't a common occurrence."
Karen sighed, "Well, you're free to come here whenever you need food. Or a place to sleep. Or clothing – I'm taking you shopping tomorrow."
Sarah made a face to emphasize her dislike of trying on clothes (yes, she liked dresses, they made her feel like a princess, but what was the fun in trying on jeans and shirts?), "Thanks. I got Dad's permission to stay here for about a month. There's going to be a ball in the city for Yule – that's December twenty-first this year – and as a full-fledged member of the magical community, they want me there." And she wanted to be there, too. Dresses, dancing and food. Plus some of the strangest-looking people ever.
Karen gave a small smile, "That sounds wonderful." She looked at the clock, "But it's late and I am still your stepmother. Off to bed."
Sarah grinned, "Yes, ma'am." She deposited her mug in the kitchen sink, then went upstairs, eagerly anticipating a hot shower and the comfort of her twin-sized mattress.
A/N: Because I really, really don't know what's good for me and wanted to get this out there before I lost my nerve. This might be the only chapter for a while, but there's definitely more coming.
Questions? Comments? Review and I will answer.