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you can never really tell

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"See that bright one there?"

"No."

I laughed. "Right there. There!" I took his hand in mine to try to point it out, trying to ignore the way it made my whole body feel quivery. "Do you see it? The brightest star?"

He turned over onto his stomach, chin propped on his elbows. Dressed in unremarkable department store-sourced clothing, he should have been able to pass easily for one of us, but the reality was that he burned too brightly to ever be mistaken for one of earth’s native-born denizens.

"I don't have to look at the sky to find the brightest star," he said, grinning with such catlike satisfaction that I found myself smiling right back at him despite my best efforts.

"Well, the second brightest star, then," I said, pretending that I wasn't flattered. I put the palm of my hand to his slender shoulder and pushed until he relented and rolled back into his previous grassy indentation. "And then you have to look for three more stars that connect to it, and then you'll be able to see – oh, damn. That's not right after all. I can't ever find them when I'm looking for them."

He was silent. I sat up.

When I looked over at him, I saw childlike wonder in his eyes, as if he hadn't actually looked at the sky before this very moment. I couldn't put it past him. Since I'd begun to invite him to visit me here, I was forever catching him watching me when he should have been observing something else.

"Don't you have stars in the labyrinth?" I asked. The fingers of his hand splayed across his own stomach, and my eyes followed them to his wrist until it disappeared into the loose cuff of a grey sweater that, while largely shapeless, made something inside me ache. His thin, regal body wrapped in the trappings of this comparatively colorless world felt somehow wrong, and that he would disguise himself this way just to see me sent little thrills down my spine.

"The constellations above the labyrinth are just one more cosmic painting," he replied, still staring up into the sky. "The night sky there is meaningless."

Our role reversal made me want to smile, but I swallowed it because I was feeling something else, something strange and not altogether comfortable. It might have been fear, a sudden realization that the impossibly beautiful creature lying among the grass clippings in my provincial backyard might not stay forever, and even if he did, he might leave me behind through no fault of his own.

"This sky doesn’t mean much either," I said. "It's just there."

He tore his gaze from the heavens and turned to me again. The moonlight turned him to ivory and silver, streaming over his skin like water. "History is written there. Past millennia... perhaps more life, unable or unwilling to venture from its own home. It is understandable that your kind waxes romantic about stars."

His mouth was so very lovely that I could hardly focus on what he was saying, mesmerized instead by the shape and movement of his lips, his teeth, his tongue.

"I guess there will be other nights to find the Big Dipper," I said, and realized that he was watching me watch him. He reached up to lay his hand along the side of my face, cradling it. I turned my head, placed a kiss in his palm. "Will you stay?"

"If you ask it of me."

"Is that the only reason?"

"Isn't it reason enough?"

"Do you want to stay?"

He didn't answer and instead turned hooded eyes back to the night sky. I didn't know whether the strange weightlessness within me was buoyant giddiness at my power over him or unmoored despair that I couldn’t be certain whether or not he loved me.

I didn't even know if he understood love.

 



Several weeks later, a few of my girlfriends and I took a night for ourselves. We'd never particularly been shrinking violets, but we felt the thrill of naughtiness nonetheless, heading out with winged eyeliner and ruby-red lips and dresses that none of our mothers would have ever approved.

We were trying a new bar, the half-step-swanky kind with live music and a dance floor and a wine list that extended far past our pitiful collective knowledge. With a glistening wineglass in my hand, lights shimmering across the surface of the safe-bet Cab Sauv we'd agreed upon, my thoughts turned to him.

As if I'd called to him aloud, I felt his hand at my elbow. "You should have invited me earlier," he murmured, his mouth to my ear, "I do love parties."

His hair was shorter when he came to see me; though I'd been skeptical of his ability to blend in, he'd quickly figured out that his usual trappings stuck out like a sore thumb, so here was a shock of dark blond hair swept back from his face. He wore a pair of sinful dark jeans and a blazer open over a grey button-up that, despite its name, was only buttoned approximately halfway up.

"Who's this?" asked one of my friends, and I was astonished to see him smile shyly at her.

"A friend," he said, slipping the wineglass from my cold fingers to bring it to his own lips. I couldn't drag my eyes away from his mouth even when he somehow managed to clasp my hand in his, warming it. "This is awful."

"Find me something suitable, then," I challenged him, laughing at his offended expression, and he pulled me away from the giggling semi-circle of my friends.

"I'm not sure anything made by your kind could possibly be suitable," he responded, and a crystal materialized in his hand. He twisted it in his wrist and I watched it become another wineglass, and then it held liquid that the light shot through with crimson flame. "You might try this instead."

One tentative sip later, I gasped. Rich and full-bodied, notes of things I didn't know I could taste – woodsmoke curling into a winter night, forest air, the starry night sky, the first fallen leaf of autumn – against the backdrop of tastes I recognized – a touch of chocolate, raspberries and blackberries and full, sweet red grapes. "It's strong," I managed to say, and he threw his head back and laughed, baring his pale, white throat as well as his teeth.

"Purists might argue that a wine tainted by magic ceases to be wine," he said, "But magic laces it with dreams remembered."

I drank too deeply from it and soon felt unmoored, lazily euphoric. He held me with infinite care, and we circled each other on the dance floor until I came back to earth, my cheek against the soft material of his shirt.

"Jareth?"

He bent so that his ear was by my lips and my ear by his lips. "Yes, love?"

"Will you stay?"

"Do you ask it of me?"

I turned away, stung. "Should I have to ask?"

"You underestimate the power of your words. Speak and it shall be so."

When we parted ways outside, I watched him walk away until he disappeared into the hazy mist of the witching hour.

"Who was he, Sarah?" my girlfriends asked.

"A friend," I said, looking down the street where he'd gone. The stars shone too brightly overhead. I picked out the brightest star, followed it back until I saw the shape of the Big Dipper clearly, there scooping stars from the sky. My head swam.

 



The moon hung heavy in the sky the next time I saw him.

I was nursing my pride, cursed to be forever consumed with the smallest perceived slight. Though he'd never slighted me, I couldn't escape the shame that stained my cheeks red. He came to me because he had no choice.

You have no power over me. So I'd spoken it, and so the unspoken had also nestled itself behind my heart, beating in time with the secret knowledge, the thrill that he was mine to command (I feared him and loved him).

And yet I longed to reject it, despaired when he intimated that I should speak more explicitly if I would have him stay (do as I say and I shall be your slave).

Not like this.

At some point, asking him to stay had changed from stay-the-night to stay-forever, and he'd never stayed before though his eyes were dark and haunted as he left, and I wondered if he felt conflicted, if he was tied to his kingdom, if parallel worlds would begin to come apart at the seams and bleed chaos in watercolors across dimensions if he left his cold and lonely throne.

I leaned against the railing, and when the wind blew forcefully across the balcony, I heard the woolen material of my coat pluck insistently at the splintery wood. I thought of wind howling down barren corridors, of stars strewn overhead, of the flickering flame of a single candle casting unnatural shadows across a dusty set of stone stairs.

"Thinking of me?"

I half-turned, slowly, to see him standing a stone's throw from me. "Not exactly, but I would have been back to you in a minute."

"I'm early, then," he said, smile tugging at the corners of his lips. He was wearing a tawny leather jacket, buttery soft, that fell past his wrists, and I reached out to touch it, run a fingertip across the material.

I felt him shiver, then, a nearly imperceptible tremor that I should have missed, but I was so attuned to his presence that it struck me like lightning. I smiled up at him.

"Were you thinking of me?"

"You are never far from my mind," he said quietly.

"Why did you come?"

"You were lonely."

Loneliness was simply my state of being, the usual white noise beneath the occasional cacophony of my life. I’d been comfortable in solitude for years, hadn’t spared a thought to whether or not I was lonely because he had crowded everyone else out, kept them at arm’s length.

"Do you like it here?"

He looked up into the sky, away from me. I felt the loss of his gaze as keenly as if he had stripped me of my coat, instead, to let the cold pierce me.

"I prefer your stars though I cannot move them, not even for you. Time is different here. I can’t slip between the cracks. My power is less, but my life feels more."

I stared at him, but his eyes were fixed on the heavens. I looked at his profile, the sharp turns of his cheekbones and jawlines, the kohl lining his eyes, the way the collar of the jacket rose around his face in a manner not entirely unlike the cloaks he’d favored in days long past.

"Is it the stars that you come to see?" I asked him, my heart beating so loudly I was sure he could hear it.

"It isn’t the stars that are lonely."

I didn’t know what to say. I felt somehow as if we were standing on the cusp of something, significant and powerful and perhaps tragic.

"Did you come because I needed you?"

"Who am I to say what you might need?"

I paused, wanting to ask if he needed me but not brave enough to compel him to answer.

"Will you stay this time?"

"Will you ask it?"

"I thought I had," I murmured, and he leaned into me, sheltering me from the wind that whistled through the railings.

"I won’t last here, you know," he said contemplatively.

"Neither will I. That’s just the way it works on this side."

"Do you ask me to stay?" he asked suddenly, turning my chin upward with a gloved hand. I looked into his face, marveling at this unexpected resurrection of the question I’d thought him reluctant to answer.

"Don’t they need you?"

"Each world will go on turning whether I remain here or return there."

"I don’t know the right words, Jareth. I don't want to command it. I want you to want to stay."

His eyes burned fiercely in the dark. "I have only ever tried to be what you wished of me."

"Stop doing that," I cried in a fit of pique, and then watched, startled into silence, as he changed before my eyes. He was taller, paler, more the way I'd romanticized him than the way I'd remembered the truth of him from our first encounter, his eyebrows bold and angled, his hair shot through with starlight, long and loose and far removed from the dandelion fuzz of yesteryear.

His eyes remained the same, one pupil blown wide and the other shrunk to a point, enveloped in blue. I clutched at the railing, dizzily, and then he reached out and caught my hands in his.

"Stay," I said.