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Unlock This Door!

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Unlock This Door!

Shadowlurker13

PG-13

Summary: An alternate ending with a dubiously amiable twist - is it worth the risk with Faerie? You never really know…

(Once again, I don’t own Labyrinth or characters thereof. If I did, my life would be a heck of a lot easier financially right now;)
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Sarah’s heart was pounding in her throat along with the burning iron taste in the back of it as she and her comrades-in-arms made their way across the square and up the stairs to the infamous castle of the Goblin King; she had just made it all the way through that crazy course and by some miracle they had just defeated the army. This was it! The yeti and the dwarf pushed against the immense, solid copper doors…

…and nothing happened. Ludo put his shoulder to the left one and really heaved - nothing again! Sarah had started to panic, but then she heard the musical, mocking laughter coming from the upper tower. She glanced up, enraged: Jareth was there looking annoyingly smug, leaning over the open, glassless window ledge, arms crossed, calmly gazing down at them.

“You didn’t really think it would be _that_ easy, did you?”

Within the next second all of her companions vanished in the blink of an eye. Sarah gasped, wide-eyed.

“What did you do with them?!”

He shrugged nonchalantly. “I put them somewhere where they won’t be in the way for the time being. This contest was only supposed to be between you and me, Sarah; you had no right to recruit help, especially subjects of mine. I’ve half a mind to just ignore the remaining rules of contract and keep the babe in retribution,” he eyed the fingertips of his right glove idly.

“Why you - you can’t!”

“Why not?”

“Because it-” she began, then sighed, closing her eyes. It wasn’t fair but that was life. It was his game; he could play it however he darn well pleased. Now that she thought about it, there was no guarantee that he would ever allow her to go home, either. The thought was chilling but she steeled her nerves. “So, what might make you change your mind?” she yelled up defiantly, hands on her hips.

He cocked his head slightly. “What, no childish retort? That is surprising from you.” He looked deviously thoughtful for a moment and the expression made Sarah internally squirm. “Make me a counter-offer.”

She blinked. “Excuse me?”

“You heard. And I’d advise you to hurry - you only have a few precious minutes left.”

Sarah’s mind raced furiously. What on earth could he possibly want of her?! The implications made her head reel.

“What do you really want, Jareth? I don’t have time for a guessing game.”

He smiled a little. “You’ll have to come up here first.”

“And I don’t suppose you’ll open the doors to let me do that.”

“Nope. That would ruin the fun.”

“Well, in case you haven’t noticed, I’m not carrying any climbing equipment; I can’t possibly scale this wall unaided and you’re not exactly Rapunzel!”

“You’re not exactly Prince Charming,” he answered levelly. “I suppose we’ll have to make due.”

To Sarah’s surprise, the end of a strong rope dropped in front of her nose. Taking a deep breath, she grabbed it and gave it a hard yank - it seemed decently anchored. White-knuckled, she began to climb straight up beside the unrelentingly smooth, tan stone face of the fortress. She had never been good at the rope in gym and her arm muscles burned from the exertion, not to mention her legs, which were already exhausted. She had to stop once to catch her breath but wouldn’t allow herself a second rest - Toby was at stake here and somehow she would do whatever she had to to save him. It felt like it took forever but at last she gained the ledge; once over, she collapsed on the stone floor, panting.

“Impressive.”

She turned her head and glanced up - the Goblin King towered above her, arms crossed, scrutinizing her with his signature dark amusement. Sarah managed to crawl to her knees and, painfully, stood to face him.

“All right, I’m here. Where’s Toby?”

“Not so fast - you overlook why I let you in at all.”

Sarah gave a clipped huff. “Well?”

Jareth’s eyes met hers and she found that she wasn’t terribly comfortable with the expression they held. He reached out and stroked her cheek delicately with the backs of his fingertips, his gaze drifting lower down her torso. His current train of thought took very little imagination to decipher.

“No way in hell.”

He stopped smiling. “Wrong answer,” he stated coldly and, turning, began to pace out of the room. It was only then that Sarah noticed the bed – this was his room! She caught his arm. He stopped.

“Jareth…” She paused, desperately wracking her brain, and belatedly noticed that he was holding his breath. “I guess I don’t understand what you really want of me, or even why, but…I’m not ready for that. Not from anyone.”

She felt him untense in her grasp and suddenly let go of his arm. He slowly turned back around, his expression intense but unreadable.

“Do continue.”

Sarah nearly had to sit down; his attention and presence suddenly felt overwhelming. “You have scores of subjects, but…”

“But what?”

“…is there anyone here that you would actually call a friend? Someone you could really talk to?”

He laughed then; it was not a nice sound.

“You think you can gentle me into being kind as you did with those simple fools below,” he uttered poisonously, slowly advance on her, backing her up to the ledge. “Even were I to accept so shallow an offer, you would find me capricious and demanding.”

“And difficult to understand sometimes, because you’re not human.”

His eyebrows raised slightly in surprise at her clear perception.

“Yes,” he stated simply after a moment, taking a couple paces away to her left. Sarah remembered to breathe and followed him.

“And clearly you don’t understand me, not fully anyway.” She heard him scoff without turning. “It just isn’t a rational place to do much of anything, let alone have a fight.”

That made him stop. Sarah held her ground this time as he turned back again with an odd look of mild amusement.

“My, my, how fast the child has grown. And what worldly experience could you have possibly had to lead you to such grand thoughts?”

Sarah couldn’t hold his gaze any longer and had to look away.

“I had to watch my parents’ marriage fall apart, okay? The last few screaming matches right before the divorce, they weren’t even listening to each other. I mean, I know my mom had met someone else, but if my dad had even tried to understand her before…” She just shook her head, closing her eyes against the treacherous tears…and felt a gloved finger and thumb gently grasp her chin and lift her face back up. She opened her eyes, a little surprised, and found he was searching them with his own unearthly ones, the amusement gone.

“You are in earnest.”

“Yes,” she swallowed, her throat suddenly dry. He registered the stress reaction and smirked a little.

“I warned you it won’t be easy.”

“Few things worth doing are.”

He shook his head. “You do not comprehend what you ask. My other offer still stands,” he let go of her and produced to crystal.

“You told me to make you a counter-offer; I just did,” she crossed her arms. “You know I can’t possibly accept yours; my stepmother would kill me if I came home empty-handed.”

His hand holding the crystal lowered a bit. “Ah yes, human mortality is quite the nuisance, isn’t it?” he sighed. Sarah honestly couldn’t tell whether he thought she had meant that literally or if that had just been a very dry quip. His expression turned serious again. “That can’t be a hollow promise, Sarah. You actually have to mean it. You are exchanging proffered friendship to me for your brother’s freedom.”

For a moment Sarah faltered. This was insane! This guy was dangerous, dangerous enough that she almost had misgivings about the entire course of action. But, as a few times before, her intuition was prompting her otherwise. Nothing was as it seemed here, and, somehow, she just knew that the king of this place was simply bored out of his mind and most likely quietly unraveling from intellectual isolation. Having to live in this situation would be enough to make most anybody more than a little crazy at times. It was a risk, but a risk worth taking. She took a deep breath.

“Yes.”

Time seemed to stand still as she awaited the verdict. And it came as a mischievous, dangerous little lip smile, eyes sparkling.

“I accept.”

In the next moment they were both plunged into darkness as she heard the clock chiming thirteen. When the bells finally stopped tolling, her eyes readjusted and she saw that she was standing in her parents’ bedroom, the lights still out; Jareth was beside her with a sleeping Toby in his arms. He handed him to her without a word and she gently tucked the baby back into his crib. As he shifted in his sleep, she saw that he was grasping a very small hand-sewn doll that looked somewhat like a goblin; its little felt teeth grinned in a goofy smile. Her warning glance at Jareth was met with a shrug.

“It’s called a gift - they’re going to miss him. Now, we don’t have much time - where is your book?”

“In my room.”

“Get it quickly.”

Sarah ran to her bedroom with the Goblin King close on her heels, closing the door behind them just as her parents came in downstairs. She could hear her father call up.

“Sarah, we’re back! Are you home?”

She glanced at Jareth, panicked, and he calmly nodded.

“Yes, I’m just up in my room. Toby’s sleeping.”

“All right. Well, goodnight.”

“Goodnight, Dad.”

Silence. Sarah visibly sagged, exhaling in relief. Jareth just looked amused at her predicament.

“I suppose I shouldn’t call on you in person in your current living situation,” he said quietly, smirking.

“That would be appreciated,” Sarah whispered.

“The book?”

“Right here,” she handed it to him. He opened it to the title page - the inside had been meticulously kept clean in spite of the heavy wear on the cover.

“Get a writing implement and draw a diagonal line across this page, centered through the words.”

Sarah was slightly taken aback. “But this is my favorite…” she trailed off, looking at the carpet suddenly, embarrassed at what she had just admitted. Jareth laughed quietly but it wasn’t as harsh as before.

“This is no ordinary defacing, Sarah. It is necessary.”

Sarah got a pen from her vanity and, cringing, drew the required line from left top to right bottom. The king took both from her and drew a second line intersecting the first, making an X on the page.

“There. That sigil is the Rune of Exchange and signifies the standard goodwill agreement of Good Neighbors, tantamount to an honorable truce. Placing it here leaves the way open to you. If the contract is ever infringed upon it will be on your side, not mine; we take these things seriously,” he stated, forming a crystal. “To use this, concentrate on me and you will be transported instantly. To return, think of home. I will expect you to call upon me often; your offer implied spending time in my company.”

Sarah took a breath and accepted the crystal, feeling the cool, smooth weight in her hands. The king noted her hesitation.

“Why did you do it?” He didn’t have to say what.

She eyed the crystal. “It was about the only thing I could think of that might be of any value to you,” she said simply. “I mean, you’ve got magic and you’re a king, for crying out loud. You probably already have everything you could possibly ever want or need.” She looked up. “Don’t you?”

His response was a quiet laugh and a soft, jaded little smile.

“Hardly, but I’ll take what I’m offered. I’m holding you to this, Sarah.”

He was too proud to admit it openly but she could clearly read the unpracticed gratitude in his eyes. It was awkward. A moment later, he vanished without a word.

For better or worse, Sarah had just unlocked the door.

Chapter Text

It took Sarah an entire week to stop waffling and finally screw up the courage to voluntarily visit Jareth for the first time. It wasn’t like she couldn’t have disappeared in the middle of the night if she had really wanted to – she could’ve done so easily; no one ever checked in on her unless she was really sick with something. As it was, it was a Sunday afternoon and she was a ball of nerves as she carefully wrapped the crystal he had given her in a heavy sweatshirt (she’d no idea what it was made of, but she didn’t want to risk damaging it in any way until she did. The thing looked terribly fragile, but she had seen him bounce similar-looking objects off of stone walls!) Doing her best not to think about that, she slipped on a pair of sneakers (she had learned the hard way about having good foot gear anywhere in the Labyrinth; the blisters from the last trip were still healing), stuffed the bundled sweatshirt into her book bag and headed downstairs.

“I’m just going to the park!” she called to the house in general, hoping she didn’t sound as nervous as she felt as she made a beeline for the door.

“Be back before dark!” she heard her father call from the living room before the door closed. This choice was relatively safe, too – they never came looking for her at their town’s old-fashioned park, even in inclement weather, as long as she was home by a decent hour.

Sprinting across the blocks, Sarah made good time as she always did; once she got there, there were more people than she normally cared for since it was a weekend, but she finally managed to find a small secluded spot in a low stand of pine trees and shrubbery that she could literally vanish from behind without being seen. Kneeling within the protective greenery, she unzipped her book bag, unwrapped the crystal…

And very nearly closed it all back up to run straight home with a lie about a baseball game making it impossible to read! This was madness! It was one thing to say a nasty thought out loud and have it immediately come back to bite you; it was quite another to knowingly step into Faerie with no guarantee of anything!

No, she thought with a sigh, that’s not quite right. He had given his word, in a manner of speaking, that he would be decent with her, whatever that was worth; from the little she had seen, Jareth’s personal moral standards left something to be desired. His seeming tendency toward callous behavior and wantonness were not without precedent, however, if any of her old stories had any shred of truth to them. It just meant that she had to watch herself, which went without saying anyway; it was only too easy to gravely insult some of these creatures, also.

Which brought her back to why she was here in the first place: if she failed to make any attempt at this, he would be gravely insulted and would take Toby back at the very least. Getting her instead on a limited basis had been a conciliatory prize. Before she could think about it any further, Sarah grabbed the crystal, closed her eyes, and thought of Jareth, doing her best not to recall that brief, leering gaze…

And suddenly felt a gentle cool breeze that carried the smell of burning wood and mustiness, aware that the world just outside of her closed eyelids was much darker now, that she was kneeling on paving stones instead of soft pine needles, and she dared to peek–

She was in the Goblin King’s private chambers in the high tower again and it did appear to be nighttime here, which made her instinctively uneasy; Jareth was nowhere in sight.
She had been too shocked the first time to really take in the décor: the room was dominated by a huge daybed draped in dark blue and dirty gold with a thick, rounded runner-pillow wrapped about the sides and back. Dozens of thin tallow candles festooned the scrollwork in the stone wall behind it, along with a mounted medieval-looking helmet and a shield bearing a coat-of-arms. All those candles were just sort of glowing, though, barely giving off any light, which was frankly pretty creepy the more she paid attention to the phenomena. There might’ve been a bookcase along the far left wall, but it was currently too dim to see clearly. The real illumination was coming from a sizable fireplace on the right side of the room; there was a smallish circular wooden table and two equally simple chairs situated before it. Nothing else was in the room. It should’ve also struck her as odd that the furniture didn’t match at all – in fact, those little items hadn’t even been there previously – but the view from his chosen perch up here had distracted her and she really couldn’t be blamed: bluish light had been streaming through those large glassless windows that lined the outer wall, the dark blue curtains standing wide open. Turning, she saw the source and involuntarily gaped, instantly gravitating toward the small balcony: it was a full moon like Earth’s moon – she could make out ‘the Man’ – but it was enormous, easily five times larger and telescope-clear with a distinct light-blue hue, haloed in crystalline-looking fuzz as the mundane moon could sometimes take on in winter. It was so bright it should’ve lit up the sky, and yet all the stars could be seen. So many stars…

“I, too, never tire of that sight. It is rather lovely.”

Sarah just about jumped out of her skin and instantly glanced over her shoulder – Jareth was right behind her!

“You were expecting someone else?”

That was a dry quip! “You just startled me; I didn’t hear you come in,” she managed to calmly respond as she caught her breath.

He merely shrugged – mostly with those wild eyebrows – and unabashedly draped his right arm about her shoulders, making her heart pound again, leading her back inside toward the table. “I was beginning to wonder whether I should’ve been expecting you at all,” he noted a bit tersely. “You’ve avoided me for nearly three weeks, Sarah; that’s hardly considerate. I was starting to think you were getting cold feet,” he pulled out the chair to the left for her – the side that faced the windows.

“It’s only been one week!” she exclaimed in surprise and irritation, seating herself as he pushed the chair back in in one fluid motion. “And I’m not exactly at liberty to come and go as I please at home, either!” she half-protested. “If I’m gone for too long I’ll be in big trouble!”

Jareth gave a snort of a laugh, slightly shaking his head. “Tell me, Sarah,” he said, seating himself across from her – as he came into the light she could see he was wearing a tight velvet burgundy doublet – “do you plan your entire existence around direct threat of punishment?”

“Of course not!” she replied indignantly, crossing her arms.

“Then stop making such pathetic excuses for yourself,” he reprimanded her quietly. “You needn’t lie to me. I can tell that you’re afraid, but I’ve entered into treaty with you – you have nothing further to fear from me, as irritating as certain aspects of that statement are going to be,” he gave her a devilish little smile. “Really, all-considered, it was probably the smartest play you could’ve made, trapping me amicably like this. Well…”

He was making her terribly self-conscious – she could barely think straight! “Well…”

He laughed then. “You truly showed up here under duress with absolutely no further plan! That hardly seems like the little conniver I remember.”

Sarah looked away toward the fire, more than a little embarrassed. “You really don’t know me very well,” she said quietly, watching the flames leap and glow in the embers.

“Then let me get to know you.”

Sarah dared to look back up. His expression, his voice, were sincere; the firelight leant an unnatural warmth to his supernaturally pale features.

“What would you even want to know?” she almost laughed, still a little nervous.

“Sarah, this is supposed to be prelude to a friendship,” he chided her gently with a light teasing smirk. “Fine, I’ll go first,” he rolled his eyes, rocking back on the chair legs. “Go on, ask me a question,” he smiled rakishly.

What in the world to even ask?! Guess we can start with the obvious. “So… how did you get to be Goblin King, then? Is it hereditary, or did you come in and conquer this place, or have you always… just been here?”

His smile abruptly dropped. “Pick a different question,” he replied guardedly, although it did not sound at all like he was angry.

“But you said-”

“I’m not exactly here voluntarily,” he hissed through his teeth, suddenly glancing over his shoulder to the window, as if he feared someone or something might be listening! “Would you care to join me here for the next 15,000 years local time? I’ll warn you that threat isn’t mine,” he looked back to her direly.

Sarah was floored! “What… how…”

“That is to say, in a nutshell, that I’m not even allowed to speak of it to anyone.” His gaze dropped to the table top. “My… previous life, as well as the nature of my current predicament, are strictly off-limits. You’ll simply have to take me as I am,” he finished more calmly. He looked up at her again with the slightest of tentative lip-smiles. “You may begin to understand why you must come to me here; I have significantly less liberty to come and go from this place than you do, even if my influence and power can periodically extend to your world when I am directly called upon and on certain days of the year – your year, not ours. The traditional solar oddity days allow for brief transit. Whether or not you noticed, you made your initial wish on the night of Beltane, May Day you call it now.”

As interesting as that last tidbit of information should’ve been, it was the least of Sarah’s concerns at present! She didn’t know what to think! Who was he really? What had he done that was so horrible that even in the inner sanctum of his power he was not beyond surveillance?! He had opened the floodgates to a barrage of questions that he literally wasn’t allowed to answer! Was this prison, probation, or witness protection? Some combination of all three? If she hadn’t been leery of him before!

But, out of a conjectural mess of a Sargasso sea, one simple fact stood out in very stark relief. “You really are alone out here, aren’t you! And you barely ever get to leave, maybe eight or nine times a year-”

Jareth put up one of his eternally gloved hands (black leather tonight) to silence her, along with a stern look that was imminently readable: drop it. But it softened into a wry, jaded expression as he lowered his hand. “I suppose that is a gauche level of truth for an initial interview,” he insolently drawled. “We have years of time ahead of us for that. Would you prefer to play another game, Sarah?”

“…that would depend on what kind of game you have in mind,” Sarah answered a bit guardedly, raising an eyebrow.

“Just cards, nothing more,” her ethereal companion exhaled a little tiredly.

“I guess that would be okay.”

The king formed one of his signature crystals on his fingertips as if the action couldn’t mean less to him, but Sarah had to force herself to stay calm as it promptly dissolved into an antique-looking deck of oversized cards and he proceeded to expertly shuffle them.

“Before I forget,” Sarah interjected, “that crystal that you gave me – how fragile is it? I mean, I’m not trying to break it or play with it recklessly or anything, but, seriously, how careful do I need to be with it?”

He glanced at her a moment before dealing. “That’s a two-fold issue and the answer is also: in spite of its appearance, the object should actually be quite sturdy – you could accidentally drop it against a surface as hard as stone and not even scratch it. Having said this, you need to be very careful – careful that no one else ever learns of its existence, let alone sees it or, powers forbid, touches it; it essentially contains a very powerful transport spell that sends the holder to what is most analogous to where they are thinking of at the time. This is why I instructed you to think of me and your home only when you use it; to do otherwise would likely place you in great peril in very short order.”

Rather than being frightened, Sarah was excited at the prospect; she hadn’t realized the thing was general use! Perhaps she could visit her other friends here as well on the sly…

“Don’t test my goodwill, Sarah,” he suddenly warned her out-of-the-blue, making her wonder whether he could read her mind! “I provided you with this item for one reason and one reason alone. Unless you would care to formalize my ability to enter your house at will whenever and wherever I please into our little agreement…” he gave her a mock-flirty lip-smile.

“Point taken,” she sighed, picking up the…tarot cards? These were tarot cards?!

“That offer is real, by-the-by, should you ever choose to take me up on it,” he studied his own hand – and belatedly noticed her dubious reaction to what she was holding so gingerly. “They’re just painted paper, Sarah, they’re not going to burn you,” he observed a bit caustically. “I take it this means you wouldn’t be interested in learning to play tarrocchi with the Major Arcana. This is basic rummy; are you familiar with the rules?”

“Oh – yes,” Sarah answered him, a bit surprised. Of course she knew rummy – she only played it at least three times a week if not more often with a few of the other theater kids between rehearsals at her high school! The intricate artwork on Jareth’s Minor Arcana deck was going to be distracting, though. He led out in spite of being the dealer. Of course.

“If they truly bother you, bring a modern deck the next time you come and I’ll start teaching you how to play poker,” he added rather matter-of-factly, suddenly sounding like the ‘adult’. That alone was weird; Sarah logically knew he was an authority figure of sorts, but she had never seen him really act like one!

Several turns passed in silence. “What are your plans for the future, Sarah?” he abruptly broke it. “What do you envision doing with your life? Tell me.”


He was clearly not going to let this opportunity for nominally intelligent interaction slide. “Well, I have to admit that for the longest time I had wanted to be a stage actress like my mom, but now… I’d never really given it much thought – examined it – before… coming here, but I realized I don’t know how much of that want is real and how much of it was just trying to escape certain parts of my life, you know what I’m talking about?”

A knowing smile touched his lips. “There is an old adage about humans in the realms of Faerie: everybody on the outside is trying to get in, everybody on the inside is dying to get out. What you’ve just described is very common psychological behavior from what I’ve seen; what is rare is that you have no difficulty in perceiving it in yourself. Most humans can only see it in others, often by subconscious choice. I could offer you all kinds of trite advice and platitudes of encouragement, but ultimately you have to choose what is going to make you happy, bring you satisfaction, get you what you want in your world. You don’t have to know by tomorrow.” He put down a run of four queens; she melded one of them into a lesser run with a few club cards.

“Although, as your friend, perhaps a bit of advice might be in order, considering that it’s you,” he unexpectedly continued, sounding only half-teasing. “Never mistake a dream for an end – or worse, for a plan of action, as if they were magical. People who are incapable of formulating this distinction rarely go anywhere in life and then wonder what went wrong at the end of it,” he shook his head a bit sadly. “Most dreams can never be perfectly realized, but they can and should inspire one to try; that is their true and proper function. Any other use will ultimately lead you astray one way or another.” There was a familiar, dangerous glint in his eyes as he said this.

Alright, that actually might mean something coming from you, Sarah thought a bit warily.

He eventually won the game.

“Would you care for another round, my dear?”

Sarah smirked. “Sure.”

They played three more, to be exact. The whole situation felt surreal beyond words to Sarah: leisurely passing an evening with some ancient being out of myth as if it were the most normal thing in the world. What seemed even stranger was his genuine interest in her, in his own manner – he asked after her family life, her school, her friends. His reactions to the resultant information generally ranged somewhere between wry amusement (and he sometimes found some very strange things funny outright) and a quiet seriousness, soaking it all in like a sponge. And he offered nothing further of himself. He also kept winning. At length, Sarah taught him how to play Egyptian Rat Shit just for kicks, another relatively easy stacking game, but one that relied on a quick eye and fast reflexes. She should’ve known better, though: she couldn’t even see his hand over half the time he was hitting the deck! Her own right hand had had the misfortune of being in the way of that lightning-fast slap just once… and her reaction was strong enough to make him quit the game early; the skin of the back of it was bright red!

“I don’t believe that level of physical punishment is supposed to be a part of this game,” he observed quietly in lieu of apology, squaring and casing the old deck of cards, making it vanish again as Sarah shook out her poor hand; it stung like she had burned it!

“Yeah, I’ll have to keep in mind you’re not built like we are – I mean,” she faltered, then sighed. “You know what I mean.”

“I do, indeed.” There was an odd emotion in his eyes, mocking and rueful at once. He produced what appeared to be a small gilded pocket-watch from a side pocket she hadn’t seen and checked the time. “It would be rather rude of me to detain you much longer – these are just relatively short visits, as per the contract. And we don’t want you getting into trouble,” he teased her, clicking it shut, putting it away and rising to his feet, walking around to get Sarah’s chair for her. “Although next time I would strongly advise you to bring at least emergency provisions; by necessity my hospitality excludes food and drink – if I so much as conjured you a single sip of water you would be bound to me and my kingdom, such as it is.”

“But… the peach!” she exclaimed, standing up.

“Wasn’t physically real - it was just a magical construct to deliver a potion; even you observed how unnaturally fast it broke down in so small a space of time afterwards. The little blue worm you met on the outskirts of the maze, however, is one of my most successful agents. Nobody ever suspects him, he’s so genial and polite,” he chuckled quietly.

Good heavens, Sarah thought, suddenly feeling chilled in spite of the proximity of the fire. That little cheery can-do attitude was more dangerous than most of the Labyrinth! She had nearly fallen for it herself!

“I’ll remember that,” she answered somewhat dubiously, watching him intently studying her reaction in turn with slight amusement as he walked to the window-side of the room and scooped up her book bag where she’d left it, bringing it over to the table.

“Now that I’ve successfully proven that I can be civil, perhaps you won’t leave me dangling for so long before you deign to put in a next appearance, hm?”

“Yeah, what is the actual time-difference between here and Earth? You know, I wasn’t ever really sure, with how you’d speeded it up before, whether there was a natural progression of time in this place at all, or whether it just ran however you wanted it to.”

The king gave her a bitter little smile. “I’m not anywhere near that powerful, Sarah, so I suppose there is a ‘natural progression’ as you call it, although it would be a stretch to call it ‘regular’. There are certain small variances in the flow that would seem nearly arbitrary to you when they’re actually repeating abnormalities in a very long epoch-cycle, like a fourth-dimension equivalent of the slight wobble in your own planet’s rotation; it’s been this way for at least as long as I’ve been here and I’ve not been allowed the opportunity to study it from the outside to learn what causes the phenomena for certain, but I suspect that it may be due to the pull of a neighboring world.”

Sarah openly gawked!

He snickered at her look of dumbfounded shock, his dual-colored eyes bright. “You did ask; there’s no point in displaying my full mental faculties for the benefit of my usual cretinous audience,” he added dryly. “For the time being, I will allow you to round down the difference to two-and-a-half days here for every one of your days on Earth, even though the duration here is truly a bit longer than that. You will learn how to calculate the accurate one eventually.”

Sarah was removing the crystal as he spoke, still handling it carefully out of instinct (it still looked and felt fragile even if it wasn’t.) She had very nearly said something in reaction to his perception of his usual ‘audience’ but wisely mentally bit her tongue; that was a discussion for another time.

“Is there a better time-of-day I should be trying to aim for in the future? I hope I haven’t disturbed your rest,” she simultaneously apologized and cautiously inquired. “ I didn’t realize it was going to be after midnight here.” That huge gorgeous moon was already setting on the horizon, the stars beginning to fade as the sky commenced shading from velvet black to a deep midnight blue.

Just a hint of a smile flashed across his thin lips. “There may be the odd instance when I am busy, but I keep my own hours; come whenever you can. Good day, Sarah.”

That look…

“Goodnight… Jareth” she tried out his name quietly for the first time before closing here eyes and thinking of her bedroom…

And the next thing she knew, she was there! It only took her a split-second to remember, though. Oops! Literally quick as thought she zapped herself back over to the park once more, and she momentarily lay down on that soft blanket of pine needles, panting in relief! She couldn’t afford slipups like that! Hopefully Jareth hadn’t noticed the extra power usage from so far away!

Jareth. The man… the being… was a true enigma, and by his own confession. As well as more-or-less being in jail there. The thought was sobering, and if she gave it any further consideration this felt almost like attempting to befriend a hardened criminal at the very least. More like the devil, really.

Sarah sat back up, smoothing a needle or two out of her hair with her hands. She also had to admit that it hadn’t killed her to do that. It was probably hasty to make any real judgment of the situation at present, but maybe this wasn’t going to be all that hard after all. The tricky bit was going to be regularly sneaking away from her parents in order to do this right until she was old enough to move out.

It looked like not much time had passed here, as per the Goblin King’s assessment, too, maybe half-an-hour, certainly not much more; glancing about, she saw a few people who were still here from when she had arrived a while back.

I need a watch, she suddenly thought, stiffly getting up and stretching her legs; she had been sitting for far too long. And a pack of playing cards, she mentally added, rolling her eyes. Belatedly realizing that she was still clutching the crystal, Sarah hurriedly wrapped the thing back up, stashing it away once more before leisurely ambling out of the park and on over to her little town’s old-fashioned five-and-dime shop on her way home to pick up said items. And a cheap calendar – she really needed to figure this out right.

The second attempt she made was in the middle of Tuesday night just two days later (which came out to about a week past for him, but it couldn’t be helped.) She vanished straight out of her bedroom in the dark and once again found herself in his tower room, only this time it was mid-afternoon there, about as she’d guesstimated/hoped it would be.

And, as before, he appeared out of nowhere - startling her silly - before they sat down to while away a surprisingly mundane Underground hour playing card games while Jareth did his best to goad Sarah into talking about herself. Later back at home, it did strike her as a little odd that he never directly answered any personal question she put to him in turn – he merely steered the conversation back to her once more. And he was so good at it that she barely even noticed! Granted, it did seem that he might very well have plenty to hide, but…

After three more such sessions, two things had become very apparent, however: firstly, that he was regularly cheating – the King of the Goblins appeared to also be a very accomplished card shark, which raised even more questions! The man was (and remained) a complete mystery. Sarah suspected that he was ‘letting’ her win on occasion just to keep her from getting too frustrated. The second point was far larger in implication, though: he had deliberately chosen a very generically human pastime as a ruse for getting to talk to her. Conversely compared to his own stubborn reticence about giving away any information about himself, he seemed to want to know absolutely everything about her! His level of interest was positively baffling, some of his questions continuing to catch her off-guard: what are you first memories from when you were an infant, and what were they like? What is your favorite savory flavor and why? Who taught you what you know of the heavenly bodies you can see from Earth? It went on and on, with him discoursing in turn on each subject they covered. Just listening to him was a lesson in itself on certain occasions; he was obviously very old and had much direct knowledge of her world from some point in the distant past.

Or was it all that long ago that he had been confined here? In a brief side-segue on music one day, he had let slip that he knew what a vinyl record was, but when she mentioned cassette tapes he demurred, fluidly changing the topic before she could pursue it any further. This aspect became like a secondary game for Sarah, trying to nonchalantly prise any information at all out of her gaming opponent; he clearly didn’t care about the traditional silence rules of these games, either, but it wasn’t too much of a nuisance since she was a reasonably good multitasker.

Approximately four months into their ‘visits’, Sarah accidentally stumbled upon something remarkable, though, a possible way around Jareth’s verbal armor. The topic of the day had been books; the king was not all that ‘well-read’ so-to-speak (which was probably why he hadn’t brought this up any sooner – he was rather touchy about his own intellectual blindspots), but nevertheless he held a certain functioning knowledge of mythical archetypes and literature in general. The collection of books that he did have took up the entire left wall of the room they always occupied, and, upon Sarah’s secret perusal of it some time back (he had been taking a little longer to arrive than usual), the volumes present all looked pretty well worn from constant use; only five were in any semblance of English that she could read, while the lion’s share of them were antiques if not artifacts at this point. A certain number were obviously magickal at that – one literally repelled her hand when she went to pull it off the shelf to examine it!

“What are you reading that’s new, Sarah? Anything good?”

It was a surprisingly easy and straightforward question after so many others that she’d had to wrack her brain and memory over!

“Well, it’s assigned reading for my English class – school’s back in session now – and I guess the book’s not exactly new, it’s considered classic literature in America, but it’s called To Kill a Mockingbird by a lady named Harper Lee. So far it seems like it’s about racial discrimination and this little girl Scout’s friendship with the neighborhood ghost that everybody else is afraid of, Boo Radley.”

“By ‘race’ you’re really implying ‘ethnicity’ in this instance, correct?”

“Yeah.”

“And this author is for or against this kind of discrimination?”

“Against!” Sarah laughed.

“You say that as if I should know, but I wouldn’t take such a subject lightly or for granted, especially in your country; prevailing cultural opinion seems to have altered several times on the issue from the little I have seen. Are you enjoying the story?”

“It’s okay,” she shrugged. “I might like it a little better if I wasn’t being forced to read it,” she laughed. “The parts with the ghost are more interesting, though.”

The Goblin King glanced at her with a very decided look of reproval before she passed him a ten of diamonds – they were playing a variation of Hearts with a stripped deck. They were still playing poker on occasion, but he had ultimately found it easier to hold complete conversations with her with simpler games in the background.

“I’m certain then that it’s written with a sentimental air,” his tone of voice changed to follow. “Of course, it isn’t accurate in the least – most human souls that remain in your world after the demise of the body are sticking around for vengeance of some kind or another, and it would be highly advisable for you to avoid them altogether.”

Sarah was thunderstruck: this was the first time he had ever voluntarily brought up anything supernatural of his own accord! He had very carefully eschewed the subject up till now!

“You’re telling me you’ve seen some? That this is real?”

“It’s inevitable in my existence – most don’t pay me the slightest bit of attention; they’re just watching, waiting,” he shrugged, looking a bit bored with the idea already, like he sometimes did when he wanted to change topics again.

But she wouldn’t let him. “If you could haunt somewhere when you died, where would you be?” she ventured, taking her turn.

He gave her a frowning smirk. “The entire idea is absurd, Sarah – I can’t die, I barely have a corporal body as it is.”

From the determined look in her eyes, her smile, she was not going to back down though. He sighed, appearing resigned, but actually he was relaxing just a hair.

“I’d probably choose to be in a modern casino,” he finally replied, thoroughly surprising her, “messing with the books, letting the wrong people win jackpots on occasion, watching the shows and harrying performers that annoyed me,” he grinned wickedly.

He had actually answered her! But how did he even know about all of that?!

“What about you?” he shot the query right back at her. “If you could cling to the earthly plane when body and soul were separated, where would you stay?”

“It can only be one place, right?”

He nodded.

“I know this is going to sound silly and ‘sentimental’ and all, but seriously? The park where I always go – it’s just so beautiful there all year long. Sometimes I’ve seen other loners seeking out the place, people who have nobody who understands them or cares. I’d stay to watch over them, so they don’t have to be really alone.”

“Figures,” he commented flippantly. “Oh, look at that – I just won again.”

Sarah didn’t really mind; the time-wasters they engaged in like this were always rigged, and she would watch him closely, trying to figure out how he was doing it as if he were a stage magician. But she had a sneaking suspicion that the real game had just begun.

Chapter Text

The pattern of Sarah’s life seldom varied over the next four years: go to school, hang out with some of the theater kids, come home, put up with her family, do homework, go Underground to get grilled about everything that had been happening with her since the last time the Goblin King had seen her over Rummy, Hearts, and the occasional poker game (he was still teaching her the variants) – before doing it all over again the next day. Jareth had really gotten to know her backwards, forwards and upside-down by now, while outside of some very basic information Sarah still knew almost nothing about him in turn. And it wasn’t for lack of trying: she had begun to ply him with relatively abstract questions from personality tests at long intervals, hoping she could slip them in without him noticing. Of course, he’d figured it out almost immediately and always responded as obliquely as possible, coming up with even more obscure questions for her in turn until she finally just gave up. The real information she gradually started accumulating about him was nearly all incidental: Jareth was good at guarding himself, but the act wasn’t perfect, and it had obviously been a long time since he had had regular dealings with anyone else at all – there were odd, brief moments when he seemed to forget she was there. It kept her on her toes, trying to pay attention closely enough to catch the rare references that he would drop once in a blue moon before realizing that he had done so – she never learned the context of any of them, but she had started a list: ‘the P.R. Team’ (spoken with ominous contempt), ‘His Lordship’ (also contemptuous – he made these slips most often when he was irritated), and, possibly most intriguing, the times that she caught him muttering to himself about ‘guttering’. Guttering what? He refused to tell her, always quick to change the subject. It was something that actively concerned him, though, which automatically made it interesting.

The constant inquisition started grating on her nerves, however, and at length Sarah approached him about spending their time together in different ways – it was only then that she learned that he had deliberately tried to keep their visits strictly uniform out of concern of pressing his luck since she had been so wary of him at first! She had been terribly curious about his book collection almost since she started coming, and upon speaking of it again he seemed willing to share a great deal of it with her – with a caveat: that in return for her ferrying him fresh reading materials from Aboveground at regular intervals, he would read aloud from his own collection for her benefit at times during their visits, translating as he went, and she heartily agreed to the arrangement at once, knowing just how bored she would be without a library at her disposal. At first he allowed her to simply bring him whatever she thought might be of interest to him (yet another backhanded personality test on his part), but after a time he begged off the periodicals and classic fantasy literature in favor of realistic historical novels and noir crime series, the longer the better (she once brought him a single Lovecraft horror compendium out of curiosity just to see how he would react – he devoured the entire thing between only two visits and reported back that while it had been worth a few laughs, she didn’t need to bother getting him any more of these, handing it over.)

He certainly appeared to have nothing but time on his hands – what did he even do when she was away? No matter the time, day or night, he was always free for her whenever she showed up. Even more unsettling, she hadn’t so much as seen or heard another living creature for all the times she had been here, even in spite of the fact that she talked him into meeting her in other relatively protected locales within his Labyrinth, mostly on the other side of the castle, areas she hadn’t seen before: pristinely kept gardens, stonewalled dead-ends with shade trees and benches (the runners never made it this far – it was his personal playground and he had outfitted it accordingly), and cut-off stretches of forest that ran the distance between the outer and inner barriers. She capped this off with allowing him to transport her to other places once she was within his domain, but not outside of it, formally working it into the contract.

“That’s quite a lot of trust, Sarah – you’re certain it’s warranted, me being me and all?” he had teased her, finishing the simple document in the tower, handing her the quill to sign it.

“Oh, I feel like I know you well enough,” she easily teased him back, taking it and awkwardly scribbling her legal name under his beautiful medieval-looking calligraphy with the foreign writing implement.

“You don’t know me at all,” he said quietly, suddenly serious.

It had taken her a long time to start adjusting to his quicksilver moods, not to be thrown by them. “Then I should at least be able to count on your sense of honor, as per our original contract,” she replied carefully, placing the quill back in the ink-bottle beside it on the small table.

“Ah, now that is more reasonable,” he conceded, sounding himself once more. “Still…”

On the whole, by year three things between them were going rather well for the most part: they were still playing games and talking – he was less reticent about general subjects not immediately concerning himself – and every other visit he would read to her; they usually spent that time in his forest, resting under the trees.

What was beginning to make this a smidge uncomfortable was the fact that Sarah had one final belated growth spurt – and finished filling out. She was now only three inches shorter than he was, which she found privately amusing, but honestly she didn’t really know what average height was for faerie creatures. What was uncomfortable was the very obvious fact that he now found her more physically attractive than when she first arrived. This in itself was troubling on a rather unique level: Jareth, whatever he was, did indeed manifest as a biological male – but a biological male of a very different species. She could easily rationalize it away as a part of his loneliness (which he still hid rather stoically for the most part) – lonely for the female companionship of his own kind. He didn’t exactly do anything – he never so much as laid a finger on her inappropriately – but he certainly wasn’t blind, and she caught him covertly ogling her enough times to be on her guard. She became careful to dress more modestly around him to lessen the temptation – nothing that clung, nothing skin-tight. The subject itself, however, remained politely unspoken between them, and she was working hard to keep it that way.

Even more irritatingly, she wasn’t having any luck at non-platonic relationships herself. Sarah didn’t so much as go out on a single date in high school; she simply hadn’t been interested for a long time (‘oblivious’ had been closer to the truth, she now often reflected), and when she finally did decide that she was ready to give it a try in her senior year she was far too shy and awkward to even approach the guy who had peaked her fancy – one of the theater heartthrobs; it was someone she saw every single day and she didn’t even have the nerve to ask him for a dance at her prom. The embarrassing incident was burned into her memory: she had been wearing a long, lacy lavender dress with fake roses and full skirts that felt comparatively functional and sane in comparison to that hallucination of a ballgown with those endless yards of billowing, iridescent fabric. She had been steadily making her way across the gymnasium floor towards him – black tuxes were made for boys like that – but within five feet of him her heart just started pounding so badly that she felt like she would faint and she’d had to go sit back down and watch as another girl who hadn’t so much as said hello to him all year asked to slow-dance with him, and he accepted at once with that devastatingly handsome smile. He hadn’t even seen Sarah – his back had been turned.

She did finally start dating as a freshman in college, however; she was hoping to transfer to Juilliard, but her parents weren’t ready to pony up the money for her to even try to get in unless she got her core credits out of the way at a community college first. She had moved out, though – she had deliberately chosen a school that was far away upstate so that she could – and between a small scholarship and a part-time job shelving books at the college library, she was just making enough to sort of scrape by in a dinky studio apartment. But she loved the freedom, crappy eating choices and all. It wasn’t much, but it was hers.

Sarah met her first boyfriend John in English Composition 1 – they had been seated at the same table. It started out very innocently: getting to know each other while studying together and getting coffee before class. But after only a couple of weeks it was obvious that he was into her, and she actually found him attractive as well in spite of his lack of creativity (he was planning to go on to be a business major at Harvard), and they set up a first real date for the next Sunday evening; the college appeared to have a long-standing tradition of trying to kill the first-year students who weren’t just getting an associates degree with a hefty workload.

And, of course, she’d had to keep Jareth apprised of the situation just like she still did with everything else; in a weird, messed-up sort of way it was like dealing with a nosy, prying aunt. Except that this one got jealous, so much so that she felt the need to start censoring what she told him about John and her subsequent feelings for him – and, even odder, he let her omit the information (it probably didn’t help the situation any that John was another skinny, clean-shaven blue-eyed blonde, and he was certainly taller.) The reaction was genuinely weird – Jareth didn’t act possessive - he didn’t even make fun - but if she started going into any detail on this, his demeanor would suddenly turn very cold and distant, and it could take a rather concerted effort to thaw him back out, so-to-speak.

Which made her visit on Sunday night right after that first date feel like nearly as much of an impending catastrophe as the end of the date had been. She knew he would ask how it went – clinically cold but technically civil – and she’d have to tell him.

Extracting the crystal from the small fireproof safe that she hid it in under her bed, Sarah closed her eyes and instantly saw the all-too-familiar visage of the Goblin King behind them…

It was dusk in the tower. He’d been right; the time-differential was more like one earth day to 2.6 and etc several decimal places, making the time-of-day that she arrived cycle a bit, even when she came at the same times. Sarah hadn’t bothered to change out of her nice black-and-white dress and matching flats and her hair was still up – probably a stupid move, but she’d had something rather serious knawing at the back of her mind for an hour, ever since John had dropped her off.

“Sarah,” Jareth breathed into her left ear, making her heart jump a little (a muted effect compared to how badly he used to startle her), “you look positively ravishing,” he lightly took her right hand and slowly pirouetted her about, making her roll her eyes with a half-smile. “Although I know perfectly well that this little display isn’t for me,” his eyes lingered over her nyloned calves for a moment as he relinquished her fingertips. “A pity. How was it, then?”

It was hardly a warm reception, but neither was it terribly icy, either. Better, for him. Sarah glanced at his eyes for only a second before looking away again, moving toward the fire but not sitting down. “Oh, the first part was just dandy: dinner was nice, our reservation wasn’t too late, not too crowded or noisy at the restaurant – Italian, I know you were about to ask,” she shot a teasing look at him where he had seated himself at the table. “Everything was just great until…” She felt her cheeks flush as she resolutely stared at the flames.

“What did he do?” A hint of real danger had come into his voice.

She immediately looked back to him. “No, it’s nothing like that! He’s a good guy, really,” she was quick to defend him, finally sitting down across from him. “It was… me. I…” she uncomfortably looked down at her lap before closing her eyes. “I’ve never had to kiss anyone before. It was so humiliating,” she laughed a little in spite of herself. “He tried to be nice about it, but I could tell that…” She ventured a look up at Jareth again; his arms were folded, but his expression was more quizzical than irritated.

“You’re telling me he wasn’t impressed with your lack of skill?” he sounded amused. “Did you at least tell him that much? That you have no experience?”

“No! I felt stupid enough as it was! I didn’t want him thinking I was a total social pariah right off the bat!”

“Off the…”

“From the start,” she clarified for him.

“Ah. So you chose to let him think what he would instead of trusting him with such a simple, harmless truth. Interesting.”

“As if you’ve ever trusted me!”

“Sarah, that’s not what you’re really upset about,” he quietly reproved her. “And you would be surprised at the level of trust I have invested in you.”

His current expression, the look in his eyes – that however he assessed these things, that she had become valuable to him, possibly irreplaceable – made the dangerous idea that she had been toying with before she called on him tonight seem that much more perilous. She lined up her thoughts as best she could, but she couldn’t maintain the eye-contact.

“Jareth,” she began carefully, “I want to ask you something, but I want you to know beforehand that I’m not trying to insult you or ruin our… relationship.”

“It is somewhat gratifying to hear you finally call it that, albeit haltingly. Go on,” he acidly drawled.

“…do you know how to kiss?”

His eyebrows went up a bit at that. “I’m presuming you mean on the mouth.” He hesitated a beat himself, although he looked far less apprehensive and much more curious as to where this was going. “Yes, but I will freely admit that it has been a very long time since I have done so with anyone real and not a phantom of my own devising; they never respond the same way. Dare I ask why?”

Sarah took a deep breath, gathering her nerve. “Would you be willing to teach me?” she firmly asked, looking him squarely in the eye.

His bright eyes flashed wider for a split-second, but he looked terribly serious as he stood up and took a couple of paces away over to the shadow.

“I’m sorry, Jareth,” Sarah sighed, “I should’ve known better than to ask you that. Please forgive me, I’ll never say anything about it ever again.”

“I’m not angry with you, Sarah,” he said measuredly, “but you do not comprehend the fundamental risk involved in what you ask.”

She blushed again, but for a very different reason. “I can see how this would be unkind to you. I know you…” But she let it drop. This had been a really bad idea!

He slowly turned to look at he over his shoulder and the knowing heat in his lip-smile made her flush even deeper. “Like I said, I’m not insulted. But my… temptation, would be the least of your problems.”

“Alright, I have to know what you’re talking about here,” she stated much more matter-of-factly; he began to pace as he sometimes did when he was about to start discoursing on something.

“Very well, this is to be your official lesson on the inherent dangers of kissing a faerie creature,” he began to lecture, as she’d expected, with his hands clasped behind his back. “The collective phenomena involved have been termed ‘magic’ by humans in the past, but I can assure you that the effect as well as the cause are strictly physical. Being only tentatively corporal, I must exert a consistently high level of willpower and expend a significant amount of bioelectricity in the form of a photon field in order to remain manifest like this. You yourself utilize such a field, but it is a secondary electrical system in a physical body rather than the primary. If I engage in an act of pleasure, however fleeting, my will is automatically directed into the activity along with my field – and therefore my entire being. The human photon field is highly susceptible to strong sympathetic frequencies like this, to the point that if I so chose I could literally force my current thoughts and feelings onto you, as well as my own level of pleasure. This can induce a biological chain-reaction in certain individuals, releasing a veritable flood of pleasure chemicals into the body – far higher than what can be produced under any natural circumstances. The victims begin to crave those compounds, unable to find relief, to produce enough of their own by any means. There are humans who have literally died from physical and psychological withdrawal from copulating with one of us, even just the once. Granted, the reaction is far from universal – your species varies widely when it comes to rates of individual operating frequencies and attendant sensitivity. By comparison, having me kiss you is a significantly lower risk activity, but there’s still a risk, Sarah. This reactivity is incredibly difficult to gauge without inducing the reaction in the sensitive! Do you not know anyone else you could engage in such practice with?”

“Do you really think I’d be bringing this up to you if I did?” she nearly laughed in desperation – without thinking. “I – I mean,” she gave an exasperated huff. “A lot of girls will even mutually practice on their girlfriends early on in high school, but I never had anybody that I would have ever felt comfortable enough to horse around with like that!”

“And it did take you longer to physically mature,” Jareth mused aloud. He had stopped pacing. “You actually want to pleasure this boy?”

“I want to give this relationship a chance.”

“And you finally feel ready for this?” he ruefully teased, but not hard.

And that’s when Sarah belatedly remembered the end of their own contest, right before she had come up with what she now thought of as the Friendship Contract: Jareth had blatantly wanted her right then and there, regardless of any possible consequences! The thought hit her like a bucket of ice-water: that contract was, in all likelihood, the only reason he cared about her safety and well-being at all! It had been far too easy to forget, having been gentled into a companionable level of comfort and trust over these past few years! The implications were rather unsettling.

“At last she understands,” he whispered under his breath – deliberately loud enough for her to hear – and sat down at the foot of his bed. “Come here,” he patted the empty mattress right beside him, looking at her expectantly.

Sarah was definitely nervous now, getting up and crossing that small space, carefully seating herself as bidden, unable to look at him.

“I think I could actually give you what you ask,” he uttered quietly, “but it would only be this once, and not overly long at that – you had better pay attention and not just swoon away in my arms,” he warned. “I can attempt to depersonalize my reaction, to concentrate on the movements – the act itself – rather than the effects, but it won’t be easy,” his gloved right hand covered her left. “And I can guarantee you this will not be without some effect,” he huskily whispered, chuckling as her breathing automatically quickened a little. “Humans are too easy,” he shook his head jadedly, gently turning her face up to meet his eyes with his free hand. “This is your final sanity call for begging off and running straight home like a good little girl – once I begin, you literally won’t have the will to stop until I do. Is this what you really want, Sarah?”

Sarah was already lost: his proximity, his touch, were already overwhelming. It has to be that ‘will’ thing he was talking about, she reflected. For a moment she faltered…but then he stroked her hair with a predatory little smile, and hesitation itself fled her mind.

I can do this… “Yes,” she whispered – but confidently.

The king moved in closer, cupping the back of her head with his left hand as his right continued to dandle in her hair, removing the long clip that was holding it back, and Sarah found herself suddenly hungering for his lips – an entirely new sensation, foreign almost… and then it dawned on her – it was his! She was already experiencing his sensations – and he found her that enticing, quite a heady thought! His right arm snaked around her back.

“As you already can tell, I’m going to thoroughly enjoy this,” he purred teasingly, bending his head lower until their lips were almost touching - hers automatically parted, “but for your sake I will constrain this session to precisely three minutes, literally just long enough for you to begin to get the feel for active response and proper pressure.” He snickered quietly. “You need to relax your jaw better than that, dear,” he massaged the hinges with his thumb and middle finger. “Rookie mistake number one.” He regarded her one final moment; she was examining his eyes far too closely – the one place where what he truly was was most obvious. “Close your eyes and envision that boy; it will be easier,” he stroked her cheek.

She instantly obeyed him without thinking, and a split-second later she felt his lips gently graze her own and her mouth mimicked his without her even consciously trying! After only two more exploratory brushes, he suddenly dove in for the kill, opening her mouth wide, slow methodical motions, over and over and over…

There wasn’t a single thought in Sarah’s head – she had even forgotten where she was! All there was was sensation, blissful, glorious sensation that ran all the way down her back to the tips of her toes, and a gradually building physical desire that made her current actions simplicity itself. After about a minute of being languorously devoured alive like this, her body began to actively respond and she found herself clutching at the fabric of his loose open shirt, her palms exploring the smooth, firm muscles of his chest – there was a sudden unaccountable burst of pleasure out of nowhere, but she barely registered that he had forcibly removed her hands from his body, leaving them fitfully clutching at the coverlet of his bed for dear life instead.

She was certainly kissing back now in the rhythm he had set, and he responded with further ardor, introducing the tongue – she cried out against his mouth, but he had no mercy on her, holding her steady, continuing to kiss her senseless, pressing her tightly to him, nearly forgetting himself in the rising heat of the moment…

Just as suddenly as it had begun, he wrenched his mouth away from hers; she hiccupped a small sob at his abrupt, cruel absence and leaned in after him, eyes still closed as if she were dreaming-

But he grabbed her shoulders – hard – keeping her from reaching him…

And she opened her eyes in confusion, then shocked realization as she came to her senses! Sarah felt hot-nigh-feverish: her cheeks and chest were flushed, her heart was still pounding but starting to slow down again, she was panting, trying to catch her breath. And she was definitely hot ‘down under’, too, now, which made her blush all the more!

There,” the Goblin King announced, sounding satisfied. He studied her dilated green eyes as she recovered herself, sensuously licking his lips, savoring the last of her taste; she bodily trembled just watching him do that and nearly went for him again, but he forcibly held her off with a growing smile. “Ah-ah, I said three minutes only and three minutes have passed,” he tauntingly reprimanded her. “Anything further will put you in jeopardy – unless you plan on voluntarily spending the remainder of your life here as a mindless plaything for me. Not that the idea doesn’t have its high points…” he brazenly mused aloud. “But I think we both agree that you have more potential than that,” he conspiratorially winked at her.

Sarah was still having a heck of a time trying to sort out what she was thinking and feeling! Some of the conflicting information spontaneously resolved itself as he stood up and walked away to the window, however. True, he was handsome in an unconventional sort of way, but she certainly wasn’t drawn to Jareth, not like that! His attraction to her had affected her mind that strongly. She could well see now just how profoundly confusing the phenomena could be for someone who didn’t understand what was going on – the level of suggestion was hard enough to fend off when one knew! She considered Jareth then, how carefully he had kept this desire firmly in check up until just now, for her not to have felt it at all previously…

“Are you going to be alright?” she suddenly thought to ask him.

He scoffed a laugh as he looked back at her, surprised.

“I had no idea…” she slowly shook her head wonderingly, her eyes full of concern, standing up – but her knees were shaking so badly that she had to sit right back down!

He laughed at the sight, retrieving her crystal from the table where she’d left it, tossing it to her. “Go home already, try and get some rest – I doubt you’ll be sleeping, either,” he teased her. “That alone is almost gratifying enough for me; it’ll have to last,” he finished quietly. And suddenly grinned. “Kiss that boy even half as well as what you gave me and you’d better be prepared for far more than kissing – that’s the whole point of such an exercise: the surface skin of your mouth and the skin of your ‘private parts’, as you call them, are basically the same,” he drawled deviously.

Sarah could feel herself bodily flushing yet again as she willed herself back to her apartment, hot and bothered and possibly a little disturbed by who had caused it! A fast cold shower helped some (she wasn’t about to ‘gratify’ him with an account like that!), but, true to Jareth’s prediction, she barely slept a wink, the scene playing on endless loop in her brain until she just passed out and dreamt of an even steamier version of it until her alarm went off only an hour later! Monday was going to be one of those days…

Also, as Jareth predicted, her second date with John (which she was fairly certain he had agreed to out of pity and common human decency – they needed to remain on good terms for the sake of the class and their grades if nothing else) was… rather eventful, to put it mildly. To put it more bluntly, Sarah finally lost her virginity – she seemed nearly as surprised by her own 180-degree turnaround as John was, and the end of their first date was officially laughed off as a case of bad nerves. Of course it was physically uncomfortable at first, as she had heard about years prior, but their subsequent intimacy was wonderful.

And yet… there was something deeply unsatisfying about it for Sarah. The feeling simply didn’t make sense at all, and she eventually dismissed it as a case of reality disrupting the physically impossible fantasy.

At first. Sarah dated John steadily for three months before genuinely growing bored with him; it wasn’t his personality – they were still friends – but the physical side of the relationship had just tanked. He couldn’t arouse her anymore. And it was no longer ‘nerves.’

She proceeded to go through a rapid string of boyfriends, each relationship becoming more vapid than its predecessor, until she started blatantly hooking up with boys she barely even knew. And worse. But it wasn’t enough – it was never enough to satisfy. She couldn’t even pleasure herself. And no amount of failure stopped her from trying. She was quickly gaining a reputation on campus, as well as getting constant invites to frat parties. Her grades had begun to suffer. John started openly avoiding her after semester finals. Her stay-cation schedule for the winter break was already booked solid; she wasn’t going home.

Initially Jareth had been just a twinge jealous of John, but genuinely pleased that Sarah’s skills had improved to such a considerable degree and they appeared to be serving her well. He didn’t so much as bat an eye at her later escapades, either, assuming she was still just exploring, even roughly joking with her once that he would have to outdo her with his ‘phantoms’ once she left for the day.

He finally started worrying when she started losing weight. Quickly. And from the amount of makeup she was caking under her eyes, she obviously wasn’t sleeping well, either. He knew she’d been drinking at those parties, but it simply wasn’t like her to let herself go like this. When her complexion turned ashen practically overnight, there was no mistaking what was going on. He knew.

“Sarah, when was the last time that you ate anything?” he put to her directly as soon as she appeared. It was blizzarding something fierce out at campus, but it was a gentle autumn afternoon in the Labyrinth; he had been reading in his private gardens, but he had put his book aside on the stone bench, quickly standing upon seeing her.

She blinked, admittedly feeling a little bleary. “Yesterday morning, maybe? I just haven’t been hungry for a few days, it’s so weird.” But she certainly looked hungry – as a starving coyote – as her gaze almost involuntarily fixed onto his mouth, her feet drifting toward him as if they had a mind of their own.

He rapidly closed the distance between them with the fire of urgency in his eyes – but of a very different kind than the one that was burning Sarah from the inside out. “You must come with me this instant – there isn’t a moment to lose!” he imperiously commanded, roughly grabbing her arm and force-marching her down a series of verdant passageways, zigzagging all about; she practically had to run to keep up with him!

“Where are you taking me?” she asked breathlessly, unseemingly excited by this unexpected outburst from him – his current mood alone seemed closer to scratching that terrible, incurable itch of hers. If she could-

Sarah stumbled and fell with him still holding onto her; the king angrily hauled her to her feet and forced her to continue in spite of a scraped knee for another hundred yards before coming to a halt…

In front of a small plum tree orchard in an alcove? Were those plums? She couldn’t tell.

“Alright, alright,” she laughed tiredly, “I can take a hint, I’ll have dinner as soon as I get back-”

“No, you won’t,” he uttered darkly, stalking up to one of the trees near the center, plucking a medium-sized black fruit from a lower branch; its deep red juice looked like blood from where it was starting to leak at the stem-end. When he approached her with it, Sarah was suddenly instinctively afraid. “You must eat this. Now. It’s for your own good. I will accept the consequence of giving you this and letting you leave.”

“Wh-what is it?” she stammered, wide-eyed, nearly shying away as if it were a ferocious dog that would attack her.

“Medicine. In case you haven’t noticed, you’re practically knocking on my old rival’s front door. If you continue on as you have been, you’ll die in under a week! I should have never allowed myself to be tempted into kissing you.”

“But I…I…” Sarah was mortified – not at the thought of dying, strangely enough, but at the instant certainty that if she ate that deathly-looking fruit that she would never know pleasure again, not as she had known it in his sweet embrace, as she hoped to know it again. He could sustain her through an existence of unbelievable pleasure, he’d said so himself…

Jareth coldly deduced that she had just passed beyond reason – the beginning of the final stage – and immediately took matters into his own hands. Biting off a chunk of the fruit himself, chewing it thoroughly, he cast the rest away behind him on the ground and grabbed Sarah’s wrist before she could run from him, spinning her into his arms and kissing her full on the mouth. In spite of the immediate relief from her state of withdrawal, she involuntarily shuddered at the bitter-rich taste of the blood-red juice that adorned his lips, and tried to pull away-

And found that she couldn’t move a muscle – she was frozen in place! She felt her jaw open against her will and the bitter, soft flesh passed into her mouth – it tasted like she had always imagined poison had to – and she swallowed it as he released her lips, now as stained as his own. The world was losing color and brightness, everything was going dull, everything she could sense or feel…

Tears almost immediately streamed down her face – proof positive that the compounds were already working.

“Where is your crystal?” he asked her, over-enunciating; to Sarah even his voice sounded muffled now.

“…purse,” she managed weakly.

He rapidly dug it out and performed the transport himself, utilizing her memory of her studio apartment at close-range before she was any further gone. Carefully seating her on the side of her bed, he located a drinking glass and filled it with water from the tap, holding it to her lips; she drained it listlessly. He repeated this, then forced her to lie down dressed as she was, only removing her shoes before covering her with a blanket.

“You are going to be very ill,” he intoned gently, “but when you awaken you will be better. You must drink this when you arise,” he set the refilled glass on a nearby table, “and you must begin to eat regularly again also. Call upon me as soon as you are feeling well once more. Sleep now, Sarah. Rest.”

As her eyes slowly closed, she thought she saw him bend down and kiss her on the forehead, but she couldn’t feel it at all: she was completely numb.

Sarah slept fitfully for a long time, sweating and freezing at once, experiencing wild fever dreams that seemed to last for years inbetween a monstrous black unconsciousness that drifted and drifted…

And then her eyes simply popped open wide – and she gasped upon realizing where she was and why! Her lips felt terribly chapped, and they burned as if someone had rubbed lemon juice into them besides; the center of her forehead was irritated, too…

Jareth’s kisses! She rubbed a finger against her forehead and a dried black smudge came off. Groggily sitting up and crawling to the far end of the bed, she deliberately ignored the powerful subliminal compulsion to down the glass of water he left out for her and unsteadily trudged off to the bathroom: she wasn’t about to ingest anything until she’d brushed her teeth and scrubbed her lips and face very thoroughly to get rid of any remaining traces of that fruit! She felt burnt out inside - a charred hollow where her heart should’ve been - but it didn’t feel like ‘damage’, so-to-speak; it was like cauterization, emergency staunching of a very deep wound to save a life. And she was thinking clearly again.

Sarah had an even bigger shock when she got around to checking her answering machine and discovered, among other worried-sounding missed calls, that she had been fired from her part-time job for being a ‘no-call/no-show’ for two days in a row! She had been asleep for over 48 hours?! No wonder she was famished! She eventually did manage to beg the library director to rehire her, claiming that she’d been sick with the flu; it wasn’t terribly difficult to convince him – he admitted that she had been looking pretty rough leading up to her absence. Just listening to some of those other calls made her flush with shame and humiliation now; she humorlessly laughed at the thought – she’d had no idea what real humiliation was. She had been so naïve.

When she finally visited Jareth again, they were back in the tower. The sight of his bed only triggered a vague stirring in her, like someone stirring ashes. He had been standing by the bookshelf.

“Sarah,” he acknowledged her.

“Jareth… I…” she awkwardly studied the stones in the floor.

“I’m not going to be doing that a second time,” he stated quietly – he didn’t have to say what. “How are you feeling?”

“Sort of hollow. A little cold inside.”

He nodded. “It will improve, but it must take time to truly heal from this. Would you like for me to read for you today?”

She nodded, walking over and sitting on the side of the ornate bed as casually as if it were a sofa, moving the pillow out of the way. He took down a first edition of Keats poetry and commenced with ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’.

Chapter Text

When college got back in session the second half of her freshman year, Sarah Williams was a very different person: hardworking, serious, and notably mature and sober. She quickly brushed off the bad crowds she had acquired and when she started hearing new rumors, she simply let them circulate; it wasn’t like she could tell anyone the truth about what has happened back there. The most popular one seemed to be that she had nearly O.D.-ed on something and it had scared her straight – which was fine as far as she was concerned. It hardly mattered, she was only going to be there for another year-and-a-half; in all probability she’d never see any of these people ever again if she didn’t want to. She could make a clean break and start over.

Which was mostly what happened, but it didn’t fall out quite as she had planned, even though she’d saved her G.P.A. and her parents had subsequently agreed to foot her extraneous expenses going to a major acting university – if she was awarded a scholarship from one of them. There was just one little problem: Juilliard turned her down. As did New York University. And the Conservatory, and the Academy, and Hunter…

Soon after, she showed up in Jareth’s garden one day in tears, and had to tell him what had happened.

“A college isn’t everything,” he had calmly observed, letting her lean on him as they sat on one of the stone benches. “I imagine there are quite a number of artists out there with fantastic degrees who still have to teach their craft on the side just to make enough to survive on.”

“You don’t understand,” she sobbed, “I’m not good enough! I never had any backup plan – I don’t know what I’m going to do!”

“But you still enjoy acting, don’t you?” he put an arm around her shoulders.

“Well…yes,” she sniffled.

“Then act.”

“You make it sound like that’s so easy to just get up and do!”

“Is giving up easier?”

She was silent for a moment. “I still have to finish my degree,” she wiped her eyes dry, sitting forward, “my parents would never countenance me running away to be a starving bohemian. I’m not too keen on the ‘starving’ part myself,” she laughed a little bitterly.

He shrugged, getting up, stretching. “It’s your life; I can’t tell you how to live it.”

“Bullshit – you always have ideas for me; some of them have been pretty good, too.”

He looked back down at her with an arch little lip-smile. “You’re attempting to invoke the amiable counsel that’s often a part of human friendships.”

“If you feel the need to mentally jump through that many hoops to get there, then yes,” she laughed.

He looked far less amused as he walked a few paces away and studied some birch leaves; the bench was shaded by a young tree. “Such counsel often comes at a heavy price in my world, Sarah, and often the heavier should the agreement or payment turn bad and the other party…” He abruptly trailed off, and attempted to cover it by sitting back down. “I am merely unaccustomed to your casualness surrounding this. You just wanted to… fake this? That is what you say, right?”

“It’s just a conversation,” she sighed. Nothing more. “And I’m not bound to take any of your advice if I don’t want to; you could say totally ludicrous things to me and it wouldn’t matter.”

“Although you would prefer that we basically stay on subject,” he added drolly.

“That would help,” she replied with an equally dry quip.

He did smile then. “So, what we need to do is unearth another subject or activity you enjoy and could make a living at. That’s simple enough – you still like to read stories.”

“You can’t make a…” She paused in her judgment – and seriously gave it some thought. “That’s an English major, but I don’t have the patience to be a teacher and I’m not a writer, so I wouldn’t be a good editor, either. And I’m not interested in the sales side of it. Mostly I just enjoy the books I enjoy. I don’t think reading for pleasure is a high-paying job,” she jested.

The king thought for a moment. “How much are librarians paid anymore in your country? What kind of schooling do they need?”

Sarah could’ve been knocked over with a feather – she had never thought of that! The library? The director of her college’s admittedly seemed to have nothing but time to read the majority of his shift; he was reading every time she came into his office! She didn’t know the first thing about how to get a job like that, but it would be easy enough to find out. Jareth very well might’ve been onto something…

Library Science was the answer: her dad and her stepmother were overjoyed that Sarah was finally showing interest in a career path that could reliably monetarily support her – and once she had her degree she would still have the free-time to do a little acting on the side if she really wanted to. She transferred up to Syracuse University for the fall of her junior year and she commenced cramming in the necessary course credits that she didn’t already have - mostly boring things like management classes and cataloging - but she found some of the electives rather interesting, like educational storytelling and literacy programs; she had just started and she was already gravitating toward the masters in Youth Services. The sheer volume of work was stressful since most of the preliminary stuff was usually gotten out of the way in the first two years mixed into the ‘core’, and just staving off burnout from the inevitable oversaturation the first year there was a small miracle in itself. She’d had to take summer classes to get caught up, but by the time her senior year for her Bachelors’ degree rolled around, her schedule had mostly calmed back down. Sarah had made friends easily in her classes this time around – quiet, earnest, hard-working kids like her (or, rather, how she had become). She still wasn’t dating again yet, but to be perfectly honest she simply didn’t have the time; she had taken on one theatre elective the fall of her senior year, and she had gotten the part of Maria, Olivia’s serving woman in the semester’s production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night on top of everything else (she had certainly auditioned the part dry enough.) In spite of the hectic schedule and almost no downtime apart from the little she still squeezed in with Jareth almost nightly (and which she had also used to rehearse her lines – his majesty made an utterly ridiculous Sir Toby), she was actually happy for the most part. Things were finally going pretty smoothly all across the board.

Until she met Daniel. It was the final night of the play, and afterwards the actors had come down to mingle with the audience before dispersing to go to the cast party – which Sarah had had no intention of attending. He had been in the fifth row all evening, but she simply hadn’t seen him with the stage-lights in her face, blacking out the crowd. Under more normal lighting circumstances he did sort of stand out with that bright red hair of his – a right ‘carrot-top’ – wire-rim glasses, and… a laced-up poet’s shirt? That threw her initially until she saw that he was wearing regular dress slacks and shoes with it and was carrying a wool jacket besides, and she instantly smiled: he had deliberately dressed up a little to go see the Bard! She had to introduce herself. She was still working her way across the crowd when their eyed suddenly met (he must have felt her watching him)… and it felt exactly as if someone had just struck a spark in her burned-out heart with a flint – she hadn’t felt anything even remotely close to that in just over three years! Sarah pushed her way through to him, heedless of who else was getting nearly trampled in the process; he looked like the same realization had simultaneously hit him as well. It was awkward at first in a way that she hadn’t experienced since high school, with them both just standing there staring at each other for a breath – but nervous, self-conscious laughter broke the ice and he warmly introduced himself; once he’d learned that she wasn’t leaving with the others due to the inevitable drinking, he had offered to take her out for a coffee instead.

Their initial meeting turned into a surprisingly relaxed first date: he was a history major with an emphasis on medieval and Renaissance studies, which immediately peaked her interest; it turned out he knew more about Shakespeare than she did! They wound up talking for hours about a slew of different subjects that they were both into on different levels, of his semester abroad in Europe last year, visiting ruined villas, functional monasteries and cathedrals, sections of towns and cities that had barely changed physical in nearly 500 years. He took her fantasy-tinged interest in the subject matter tolerantly in the stride with reasonable good humor, joking that he would have to ‘convert’ her into liking the real thing on its own terms. That wasn’t to say that he didn’t like fiction – he turned out to be an avid reader, although he tended to like historically-set mysteries when it was just for entertainment’s sake (that immediately rang a bell – Jareth was currently devouring a fictional series on the Borgias!)

Jareth, she suddenly thought with a note of caution; if this actually went anywhere, he wasn’t going to like it, not one bit. She instantly derided herself for worrying – it was, as he was fond of saying, ‘her life’, and she had to live it. When it was time for them to leave (they were literally forced out by the manager they had stayed so late!), Daniel had been almost timid about asking her out a second time – so she asked him out instead. He only kissed her hand goodnight.

After some very careful consideration, Sarah decided to not even mention the event to Jareth the next time she saw him in spite of the fact that she had missed their regular meeting that night. It felt oddly like cheating on him, but she knew he would overreact as always – it wasn’t worth the drama if the relationship wasn’t serious.

But it quickly became so: they were meeting up for lunch almost every day and going out on weekends that neither of them had tests coming up (both of them were too mature to ‘study’ together, knowing perfectly well that no studying would actually occur.) After only a month, she had been invited over to his parents’ house for dinner. Unlike her previous liaisons, Daniel appeared to have a fairly conservative set of morals – he didn’t want to sleep with her unless they got married. He didn’t even attempt to kiss her on the mouth for two weeks. He was genuinely sweet-natured, considerate, kind. Christian – that part was new. Of course, he was concerned about her own lack of religion, but he hadn’t tried to force his belief-system on her; Sarah, for her part, was doing her best to keep an open mind, even if she wasn’t quite ready to accept Daniel’s worldview as universal truth. There was definitely more out there than met the eye – her experience with the Goblin King and his domain had pretty well knocked that one home. It was just as well that she couldn’t speak of Jareth to him, though – she knew that subject wouldn’t go over well in the other direction, either, so-to-speak. Daniel wasn’t adamantly adverse to her love of fantasy so long as that was ‘all it was’ – strictly for fun. She even got him in on the Harry Potter series when they first started coming out; he had insisted on reading the books with her, having heard the bad press about their occult aspects - and wound up liking the stories himself! Sarah loved to take him for long nature walks away from town, pointing out beautiful phenomena to him and describing it all as if they were in a fairytale; she goaded him into helping her mutually make up the story as they went along. It was trite, but each of them really did feel like the pieces that the other had been missing. After only six months, he popped the question in a verdant grove out in the woods that she loved here, and Sarah joyfully accepted. They were going to wait at least a year before getting married, however, to appease his parents, who liked her as a person, but were still a little unsure; he had yet to meet Sarah’s, who already liked him sight-unseen from her accounts. It would also give them both time to devote to their masters degrees, which were looming in the near future.

Sarah had been very carefully hiding all of this from Jareth for months – she still had plenty of other things to talk about with her classes and electives, not to even mention the months-long mandatory internship she would be taking at the local library in Syracuse starting in the fall, on top of her final social training to be a children’s librarian. In fact the only reason the topic came up ‘early’ at all was because she was rushed one night, getting home late from another date (Daniel’s strict principles seemed to have relaxed ever-so-slightly now that they were properly engaged), and she had forgotten to take off his ring.

“Sarah, is that what I think it is?”

She just had transported to the Goblin King, and he was in a part of his forest, ironically enough; he had zeroed in on the engagement ring immediately, and the tone of his gut reaction sounded rather like how Karen would’ve been back-in-the-day if Sarah had come home on a Saturday evening sporting a new prominent tattoo! It finally dawned on her that she was still wearing the thing.

“It is an engagement ring, if that was where you were going with that.”

“And when were you planning on enlightening me to this joyous news?” he oozed icily.

“Now, you see that attitude right there is exactly why I haven’t said a darn thing about this – that and we’re nowhere near close to getting married just yet!”

“Oh–ho? And what, pray tell, could cause such delay? A bad social match? Cold feet on the part of the groom, perhaps? Feeling the noose tightening about his-”

“JARETH!”

He looked positively dangerous; Sarah took a couple of deep breaths to get her temper back under control, forcibly reminding herself of what he was. As little as an angry outburst could cause these creatures to break their contracts, and she couldn’t afford for that to happen. Especially not now.

“Then will you have the decency to tell me what’s going on?” he civilly ground out from between his teeth.

Sarah sat down on the trunk of a nearby felled tree. “I didn’t fall in love to spite you, Jareth,” she shot back irritatedly, “I didn’t plan this; I just met him about six months ago on the final night of the play, and we…it was…” she slowly shook her head, the wonder and affection clear in her eyes.

“You made love, and it finally felt like it,” he finished a bit more calmly.

“No – I mean I do love him, but he won’t until the wedding; he’s a -”

But by Jareth’s sharp intake of air through his teeth, along with his closed eyes, Sarah got the feeling he knew exactly what she was talking about.

“And he’ll have you believing I’m the Devil before you know it.”

“No – Jareth, come here, please,” she motioned him over; he sat down beside her, still looking rather peeved with his arms crossed, resolutely staring at the forest floor. “I’m still going to be your friend and come to see you regularly here; this doesn’t mean I’m abandoning you. Nothing is going to change between us.”

His expression had softened a hair as she spoke, but what it softened into was jaded regret. “If you truly believe that, you have obviously never been married,” he answered wryly with a slight eye-roll. “Any husband will make demands of you that no one else ever has. Your time will no longer be your own to spend as you choose – how good are you at hiding things from him, Sarah? How often can you really keep slipping away from him unnoticed? And he will demand your other resources, too, in time – all of them, even your body. This one in particular will probably feel entitled to the last.”

“But that’s what marriage is – and that part’s supposed to be mutual.”

“It’s never an equal exchange, though.”

“No, it isn’t. Nobody’s perfect.”

There was silence for some time; it always struck Sarah as downright eerie how there weren’t even birds out here in these woods, just the sunlight dappling through the trees.

“And this man… loves you, in return?” he asked at length.

“Yes.”

“And he treats you well when you’re with him?”

Sarah just smiled broadly.

“And you’re positive that this isn’t just an act?”

She shot him a warning glance – but he backed down with a quiet laugh and a wry half-smile.

“Does this winning youth have a name?”

“Daniel Elijah Stuart.”

“Of course he is,” the king muttered under his breath, looking up a moment. “A man so righteous miracles are performed on his behalf.”

“He’s not ‘holier-than-thou’ like that, Jareth; if he was, I wouldn’t be with him,” she fired back with a small smirk of her own. “He’s a good man; I’ve never been with anybody who’s really cared about me like this before. That I cared about…”

“And he’s all right with your decidedly ‘heathen’ interests with the wizards and dragons and unicorns and whatnot?”

“Oh, I’m working on him,” Sarah smiled teasingly.

“As, no doubt he’s ‘working on’ you,” Jareth replied flatly.

“Guess that’s mutual, too,” she laughed a little.

There was silence again, but it felt a lot calmer, more companionable, than the first one. Sarah looked over at Jareth and noticed that he looked a bit sad again, though, sort of distant.

“What is it?”

He immediately stifled the emotion. “Nothing – it’s just stupid.”

“Tell me.”

He turned and studied her face almost tenderly for the space of a few breaths before looking away again. “You were alone for so long… I just thought I had more time.”

Why did his stung reaction feel so terribly familiar to Sarah? …then it dawned on her. Oh, Jareth: it reminded her of how jealous she had been of Karen initially when her father remarried! She had hated the woman with a passion for years for taking away a lot of the time Sarah had been spending with her daddy! She scooted closer. “You still have time,” she reassured him, lightly rubbing his shoulders, “I told you we’re putting off the wedding until we have time to do more than blow kisses at each other as we dash by, we’re both going to be so busy until after graduation!” she laughed. “That’s almost three years local-time for you to get used to the idea. We don’t even know where we’re going to wind up moving, where he’s going to be working yet – he’s going to be a college medieval history professor.”

A look of recognition came into Jareth’s unnaturally bright eyes. “And now it all makes sense…”

“Am I really that predictable?” Sarah laughed.

Jareth just looked at her. “You can’t tell him a thing about me, about any of this.”

“I hadn’t planned on it.”

“And I’m not going to allow you to stint on your time here, either; visiting me still has to be a priority going forward,” he added a little more seriously.

“Jareth, Toby’s eleven-years-old-going-on-twelve,” she dryly quipped, “do you really want that moody little monster rampaging through your castle all the time? He’s worse than I was at that age!”

There was still hesitation in his eyes.

“Look, I get it. I’ve actually been here…well, probably not like you are, but sort of, when my stepmom horned in so fast after the divorce. I know you don’t believe me, but I think this is going to be okay – we’ll make it okay if we have to.” She sighed. “I guess I can’t expect you to be happy about this, but I’d at least appreciate it if you didn’t show up in a flash of lightening at the altar to forbid my vows.”

The Goblin King gave a dry laugh, standing back up. “Your love will no doubt see to protecting you from that possibility – I can’t so much as set foot inside a church; the old stories are right about that much at least.”

Sarah looked up at him. She had gotten so used to dealing with him as a person that it was only rarely that she had to think about the reality of this situation: she still didn’t know who or what he was. What was it he had said before about Death being his rival? She had been so horribly out of it at the time she could only barely remember bits and pieces of what he had said right before giving her that fruit; she’d had to wrack her brain hard and long just to even piece together that much! But there was no point in asking him directly – he would never tell. But that didn’t mean that he wouldn’t…

“Jareth?”

He gave a great sigh, as if anticipating the other question, but he didn’t look at her. “Yes, Sarah?” he said tiredly.

“Why are you so interested in me?”

He did look at her then! There were many possible answers dancing through his eyes, but the one he gave her was a surprise.

“Because you didn’t know, and you weren’t afraid of me. And you still aren’t.”

~~~~~*~

It felt like an eternity, but Daniel and Sarah finally graduated, and, to Sarah’s private consternation, the wedding was set for the 21st of June. Midsummer. Not that any of these people cared – for all the other schedules that had to be accommodated it was just a beautiful June wedding like any other. She knew he didn’t have power like this – at least she felt pretty certain - but Sarah couldn’t shake the feeling that Jareth had somehow orchestrated this. The ceremony was to take place in a cute little old church/wedding chapel that the families had jointly rented for the occasion.

On the afternoon of the event, Sarah had just gotten bundled out of the wedding limo and was headed up toward the chapel, desperately trying not to trip over her gigantic white satin skirts, when she felt the distinct sensation of someone’s eyes boring into the back of her head, and she turned around…

Across the quiet street in an old oak tree, there was a barn owl out in broad daylight, staring at her.

She hurried through the doors…

Chapter Text


Author’s note: the title of this chapter is a nod to Ryan Omega’s (the Labyrinth of Jareth Masquerade’s ‘Viscount’) comment ages ago about wanting to be a ‘fairy godfather’: “I want to make your dreams come true in a way you can’t refuse.”
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Life was certainly not going to be a bed of roses for Daniel and Sarah Stuart (nee Williams), but at least they started out on the right foot. They were surprised by Sarah’s parents at the wedding reception with the gift of a month-long honeymoon abroad – an expenditure neither of them could have possibly ever afforded! After a long debate, the newlyweds decided on a private tour of certain parts of Germany, Austria and Switzerland – a good mix of historical destinations for him, and locales both natural and manmade (including Neushwanstein Castle in Rothburg) to stir her imagination. It was just the two of them meeting up with host-guides when they reached the next destination on the preset itinerary, very intimate and pretty fun on the whole. Daniel knew enough German that the interpreter wasn’t usually necessary (he knew six ‘second’ languages and spoke three of them passably well), which also helped make the experience more comfortable; Sarah, by comparison, only knew a little Spanish from high school and it hadn’t come easily, but she was certainly glad that she did – all the positions she had been applying for back home near their area required the applicants to be bilingual in it. But, collectively-speaking, the trip was amazing, a sensorially overwhelming whirlwind for all the senses: gigantic Baroque palaces and cathedrals in Vienna and Salzburg (the bright-opulent decoration in the Neushwanstein – the model for Disney’s Cinderella Castle - was enough to make Sarah just about drop to her knees!), art museums in Munich and Baden Baden and Zurich, the enormously ornate library of the abbey of St. Gallen, culminating in the medieval fortress at Challon off of Lake Geneva (which they both loved for personal reasons), hitting plenty of small alpine towns inbetween.

Of course, all this time spent traveling constantly in each other’s company was rendering any contact with Jareth excessively tricky for Sarah, especially hiding the crystal in her purse all the time; she was terrified that her husband would discover it in their shared luggage! It had been awkwardly nerve-wracking enough just getting it through the airport x-ray machine without him noticing! Although, oddly enough, it hadn’t shown up at all on the screen…

She was basically down to vanishing for ten-to-fifteen minutes at night once she was certain that he was safely unconscious, and even this was risky; Daniel appeared to be a light sleeper in certain parts of his cycles. If it hadn’t felt like it before, it certainly felt like she was juggling two husbands now in a weird sort of way – a fact that Jareth loved to dangle in front of her, to her extreme annoyance. Sarah sincerely hoped that this new level of obnoxious behavior would settle down once the novelty of her new living arrangement started to wear off.

Speaking of which, they had to move into a smaller apartment than either of them had been in previously in Syracuse because only Sarah had found employment right away – at the library in town; the position seemed to open up just when she needed it. The Youth Services librarian had gone away on maternity leave late into her third trimester already, but the day after Sarah’s application was submitted, the lady called up and literally quit over the phone, saying that she had decided to become a full-time mother, which was quite a shock to her colleagues who knew that she had been in a hurry to get back before – the woman’s work here had been so important to her!

“Human women can experience odd changes of heart during gestation,” Jareth had innocently shrugged off Sarah’s suspicions, but he wasn’t terribly convincing – especially since he had brought up the topic that day himself in a manner that suggested that he had been expecting this. And the woman – who had held that position for over twelve years – had spontaneously quit the day right after Lammastide.

The basic problem with having a rarified college degree is that it often doesn’t translate into regular work. Daniel had been filling out application after application after application to universities and colleges all over New York and New England. Then all over the East coast. Then the Midwest. Then the entire country. He was imminently qualified to teach the positions he was asking to be considered for – he was only querying institutions with pre-existing well-established medieval and renaissance history departments – but there simply wasn’t class demand enough to require another professor. ‘Perhaps they could squeeze him into the faculty as another general history teacher?’ ‘Would he care to work by himself in an archive cataloging?’ And the stress of the situation was already starting to affect them. Sarah’s starting salary was decent – about $37,000 a year (in spite of some small school loans that still had to be paid off, they weren’t sinking into debt) – but morale in the Stuart house was definitely dropping steadily as the months wore on. Daniel simply refused to settle for another job, to give up on his life goal, but he was getting depressed about his turn of luck, when he had pushed himself so hard – Honors Society, the works – to get nowhere. They decided to forego having any children until their situation was more financially and psychologically stable.

Which – after that unseemly row Jareth had made about her getting married – appeared to be highly disconcerting new for her ‘other guy’!

“None whatever?! Indefinitely?”

Sarah couldn’t hide her instant quizzical reaction; he had conditioned her to be far too open with him. “Jareth, you do realize if you were human, your sudden complete turnaround on this subject would be considered highly bizarre at the most charitable.”

His own expression in return was amusedly tolerant. “My objection is to permanently imposed restriction of freedom, Sarah, not progeny. I had always hoped that someday you would reproduce – a vicarious side benefit to your gender, you could say.”

A very old, deep-seated fear reared its ugly head out-of-the-blue. “Let’s you and me get one thing straight right now: I would never – never – even dream of wishing away any other children to you, and certainly not my own, is that clear?”

His gaze dropped to the floor. “I wasn’t speaking of that,” he said quietly. “I’m fond of them; I come into contact with so few, and then… Sarah, I can’t…”

Sarah’s eyes widened in cold realization: he loved other people’s children because he couldn’t reproduce! She suddenly felt that she might be ill, following the idea to its logical conclusion – his goblins, they had seemed so much like ill-behaved children… Even in spite of his formal title, she had nearly forgotten; she hadn’t so much as seen a strand of dingy black fur since she’d started coming…

“It certainly isn’t a role I’m accustomed to,” he continued, “but I was nearly ready to try my admittedly unpracticed hand at playing ‘fairy-godfather,'” he finished with a rueful little half-smile.

You do want kids, you want them so bad that you…

“It’s just until Daniel can find a teaching position that he’s happy with,” Sarah dubiously reassured him. “I have to be free to support us both right now; I can’t take off and quit like someone else did,” she observed with a pointedly knowing look. “Of course its disheartening and frustrating that he’s refusing other jobs for this, but he’s wanted this for so long – this is his dream – and after everything he’s done to get it, I’m not about to tell him to just give it all up! I’m still taking one acting class a week; the teacher says my body language is finally improving, but we’re still building up my range of character. If I’m not stuck paying all the bills solo I could start socking away money for more evening classes.” Sarah suddenly realized that she wasn’t terribly comfortable with where this conversation seemed to be headed, and she quickly shifted gears and commenced talking about her job instead: helping the kids find research materials for school projects and personal interest, reading to the preschoolers and really little kids at story-time, reading through new materials and helping to decide what to add to the collection. But it was too late; she couldn’t take back what she now recognized as a subconscious challenge…

Just a few weeks before Thanksgiving, one of Daniel’s ancient profs at Syracuse suffered a fatal stroke during the night without displaying any previous symptoms; his position as an associate professor in Renaissance studies opened up at the university and Daniel was immediately accepted, to begin his tenure in the spring semester.

There was a great level of familial celebration over his unexpected windfall of good fortune over the holiday, with the Stuart side of the clan saying that Divine Providence had finally cleared a path for him to start his life’s work, and that the equally celebrated old man who had taught him Dante and Moore appeared to have passed peacefully in his sleep.

Sarah had had to smile along – and of course she really was happy for him, too. They would even be able to afford to buy a house near the campus soon. But she simply couldn’t shake the date: the coroner said it had happened early on November 1st – the night of All Souls Day, Samhain. And she had practically dared a shady acquaintance who – somehow – appeared to know Death. Personally. She never had the nerve to approach the Goblin King with her dire suspicions, and, to her profound (albeit somewhat guilty) relief, Jareth never mentioned it, either. He was far more interested in her immediate future, or rather what he hoped it would now bring.

Sarah’s acting skills certainly were improving; even after their move into a nice, refurbished turn-of-the-century Victorian bungalow during Christmas break, she had Daniel believing that she still wanted to wait a few more months before attempting to conceive, under the guise of settling into their new schedule with him working; the courses he was now teaching were mostly lecture, but he liked to regularly inflict pop quizzes just to keep everybody honest and on-task.

The truth was that she wasn’t about to humor Jareth on this one just yet; that incident had really left her more rattled than she cared to explore. And when she finally decided that she was ready, she made darn certain that they were not coupling anywhere near solar holidays. They achieved a successful conception the first week of April, safely after Spring Equinox (Ostara), but before May Day (Beltane); she knew all the old names by heart now – and she had to be careful not to use them aloud; it would’ve made her sound pagan. She had started attending church services with Daniel to humor him (he was Presbyterian), and while the message was usually uplifting, Sarah still had her doubts. He was not actively attempting to prostelyze her beyond that, though; there was no pressure at home, merely presentation, standing invitation to participate, openness. She loved him for that, too; she could respect that. The repeat exposure did make her curious about something, though…

Unsurprisingly, the prospect of baptized babies turned out to be an anathema to Jareth.

“Well,” Sarah remarked, trying to stifle a smile, “I’m not about to promise anything, but I’ll push for baptism when they’re older; from what I’ve seen it’s got to mean more to you when you understand what’s going on and why – it’s supposed to be a commitment to God. Although I can see now how it has its uses protectively.”

“Don’t even joke about that!” His expression was so intense she honestly couldn’t tell whether he was angry or afraid.

Good to know…

Back in the normal world, life was going at least about as expected. Daniel’s work usually kept him busy for many hours outside of the classroom, between preparing for the next weeks lectures and grading tests and essay papers (a few of which were so funny he had to show them to her: some kids had a definite knack for the art of ostentatiously filling up page after page with nearly contentless wordy speech just for the sake taking up space!) Sarah’s hours were regular also, but the times varied depending on what day of the week it was, especially on weekends when the library liked to host family-friendly events in the early evenings. Just seeing all those mothers (and fathers) with their babies and little kids was starting to make Sarah excited. Her own had given her morning sickness, but that thankfully passed after a few weeks. At the three-month benchmark they learned it was a girl, and Sarah was over the moon – and then she had to laugh at herself: _she_ had been no perfect little princess. Little tyrant was more like it; hopefully her daughter would take more after her daddy in temperament.

To Sarah’s ongoing amusement, Jareth was treating her very, very carefully now, as if she had suddenly become as fragile as his crystals looked. He always instantly deferred to whatever she wished to do, his usual quicksilver mood changes were schooled into an eerily angelic calm, and he gently discouraged her from any and all forms of exertion in his presence. She could tell he was nervous; it was funny. He clearly had absolutely no experience being around nuts-and-bolts human reproduction at all; she was teaching him about the developmental phases as they went along.

“Oh,” Sarah chuckled one labyrinthine evening while they were playing Crazy Eights (she’d taught him that one; he refused to play anything even nominally stressful with her now.)

“What is it?” He had gotten up and was at her side in an instant.

“Somebunny just woke up – she has the hiccups. Been swallowing amniotic fluid in there, silly little sweetie,” she lovingly stroked her abdomen.

“It isn’t serious?”

“Not at all,” she reassured him – and lightly gasped. “She just kicked! Do you want to feel her?” Her face was all aglow.

But Jareth hesitated. “I do not wish to accidentally imprint my own consciousness onto her - they’re far too susceptible to everything at this stage. I shouldn’t be mentally probing in there at all; you wouldn’t learn anything of her personality yet, anyway.”

“What? No! I-” she laughed, and grabbed his hand. “Oh, Jareth, not like that! Here…”

She pressed his gloved hand to her where she had felt that tiny foot land a couple seconds ago… and she was not disappointed: her baby hit the offered target with perfect accuracy! “There,” she let go of him. “That’s her way of saying ‘hi’ in there.”

His majesty’s reaction looked somewhere between amazedly stunned and personally revolted – something about the reality of a living corporal being inside another living corporal being appeared to make him profoundly uncomfortable. He never attempted to touch her abdomen again during gestation, although he did sing for the benefit of her unborn child on rare occasions – ‘to help’, he had said. Help what he refused to tell her, but he said this with a satisfied little lip-smile, the usual mischief in his bright eyes decidedly warmer.

Sarah went into labor on New Year’s Eve and didn’t give birth until January 2nd (2000; the hospital had been abuzz with the Y2K scare, but nothing ever did happen to all their equipment.) Apart from the duration – during which Sarah threatened to wish Daniel away to the goblins if he so much as looked at her like that ever again (a remark he never let her live down, it had struck him as so hilarious) – there were no serious complications, and finally little Deborah Elspeth Stuart was in her mother’s arms, suckling at her breast; she already had her daddy’s fiery hair.

Sarah’s six weeks maternity leave would’ve seemed to fly by if it hadn’t been for the usual insomnia from having to wake up to feed her all the time. Her first ‘visit’ after the delivery was terribly awkward initially; she hadn’t wanted to leave Debbie alone, yet she wasn’t ready to start lying to her husband about having errands to run that she mysteriously couldn’t take the baby along on, not when she had hours of privacy while he was at work. She had simply showed up with the child in tow.

“I hope I’m not breaking any rules here,” she addressed the king as he entered his bedroom via the door; he’d stopped startling her for fun when she was first skipping her period. “I didn’t want to leave Debbie unsupervised with me out-of-reach, and I thought maybe you’d like to meet her…”

Jareth’s eyes had lit up greedily from the moment he’d come in and seen what she was carrying, and a slow grin crossed his face as he crossed the room to Sarah, who had the uneasy feeling that she had just shown off her baby to a shark!

“Don’t be getting any funny ideas; she’s mine,” she sternly reprimanded him. “And I know what to do, by your own admission, if I have to.”

That brought him up short, and he sighed a bit tersely, his eyes still full of the rosy-cheeked newborn. “That was hardly necessary, Sarah; I am merely excited to finally be seeing my… goddaughter,” he almost scoffed at the word – but the mood was past in an instant.

Back to normal, then, Sarah thought tiredly.

And two seconds later, tiny Debbie was being carefully held in the arms of the Goblin King, who was smiling down on her, but with an odd expression that Sarah could only half-read as triumph.

For the first month-and-a-half, she brought the baby with her to visit Jareth every day; he delighted in playing with the infant on his plush mattress, even going so far as to let her suckle his finger, ungloved. Sarah had never asked him about his gloves, intuiting the topic’s high sensitivity from how he unconsciously fidgeted with them frequently, but it was now painfully obvious why he wore them: his hands were probably the single place that betrayed his otherness, his age – many faerie-creatures sported (or hid) some manner of deformity like this.

Alright, maybe one of two places, she silently mused, eying his equally eternal knee-high boots.

Things started getting trickier again when she had to return to work. Thankfully finding a babysitter during the day had been no problem at all; Daniel’s mother was overjoyed to be able to help, and trips across town to grandma and grandpa’s house became a regular part of their day. But even with the number of times that Debbie was still waking up at night, she was such a squaller that it was rare for Daniel not to wake up also, if not first. As much as it irritated Jareth, Sarah simply couldn’t bring her as often; it wasn’t logistically possible without high risk of getting caught (she was currently sneaking in her visits with him during her lunch hour and eating there in front of him as it was!) She brought him plenty of pictures, but of course it wasn’t good enough. In the end, Sarah wound up taking Debbie with her grocery shopping once a week (which wasn’t a total lie – that’s really where they went afterwards) and Sarah would find someplace relatively deserted to ditch the car and vanish, usually in a public bathroom like the ones at the park. They were only gone for ten minutes at a time – about twenty-six minutes Underground – not long enough for it to look suspicious even if somebody noticed them from outside.

And Jareth seemed to love entertaining Debbie so much it was always hard getting him to relinquish her when it was time to go. Even the child’s father never doted on her like this – dancing with her, singing to her (although that got stopped when Debbie started perfectly humming along in tune at only six months old!), even putting on little shows for her behind the side of the bed with simplistic, felted hand-puppets that looked like cute caricatures of his goblins! He really was terribly fond of her; all of the benevolence he possessed seemed to just pour out of him for Debbie’s benefit.

But Sarah’s blind sentimentality had died years ago with that fruit – never to recover – and she gradually began seeing this situation and his subsequent actions coldly and accurately for what they actually were (albeit, not without some modicum of sympathy at this point): Her little girl was a fantastically effective anodyne to take the king’s mind off of his isolation, his near-imprisonment here, as Sarah herself had done prior (although obviously to a lesser degree.) As Debbie began getting older and started forming her first words, her mother became careful never to refer directly to Jareth aloud in her presence for fear that she would pick up the name and start trying to use it. Daniel never knew why Debbie would get so excited to go to the grocery store (she was still too small to ride in the car-carts), unless Mommy was making a huge game of these hour-long excursions, which he wouldn’t put past his fun-loving wife.

When Debbie was approaching the age of two-and-a-half, Jareth abruptly commanded Sarah to stop bringing her; she was genuinely shocked.

“Humans rarely form any permanent memories until they are about three years of age,” he explained the decision, stoically, emotionless. “She cannot be allowed to remember me or this place.”

It was with a heavy heart that Sarah watched him hug the little girl goodbye for the last time that day; Debbie had given him a big baby kiss on the cheek – just like she did with Daddy – unaware that she would never see her playmate again. Sarah tried to keep some of his activities with her up on her own, like using little toy sock-puppets to interact with her, but she knew it wasn’t the same.

The split-time situation was even more perilous to Sarah with the second child; they had waited four years before trying again. Debbie was in morning preschool now, so at least the first six-week’s leave after Ethan’s birth were easy to pull off, with Jareth pleased as punch that she’d done it again; this one looked more like Mommy already with his dark hair. But now she was often saddled with both her children at the same time – not just the one she could take – and while she considered secretly getting another babysitter, she knew she could count on Debbie to blab everything to Daddy the moment he came home in the evening like the little loudmouth did every day. Sarah finally got around it by periodically taking Ethan to work with her, to the irritation of her boss, claiming that she had missed too much time with her first one: it was allowed for one month only.

Ethan’s godfather made good with the relatively short amount of time he was allotted, having no compunction about entertaining him not with his creative talents, but with his powers, a choice which initially sparked terror in the mother. The subsequent displays were henceforth restricted to sleight-of-hand style magic tricks, along with the Goblin King’s near-mesmerizing juggling abilities with his crystals.

How long did it take him to teach himself all of that? Sarah thought in wonder, watching him interact with her son (they were supposed to be getting Ethan’s physical; the appointment was really fifteen minutes later.) He really was a one-man show. Contact between Jareth and the child was severed completely at the same age as Debbie. The illusion shows turned out to be a very shrewd choice on the king’s part; under less enthralling circumstances, Ethan tended to hyperactively tear around the house, his personal settings at age three being ‘on’ and ‘off’. Sarah had been forced to stash all their knick-knacks to keep them from getting broken!

Baby number three was an ‘oops’… or at least that’s what Dan thought. It had been a wild, spontaneous, on-the-sly-while-the-kids-are-asleep middle-of-the-night sort of quickie fling on his part, and Sarah had only been half-awake when she realized what was happening, rapidly joining him in his passion… only to discover afterwards that the condom broke. Right during her ovulation. On the night of Imbolc, festival of the return of the Sun, February 2nd. Upon digging out and examining the discarded packet in the trash the next day, she immediately realized why: the thing had been ten years old! Where the hell had it even come from?! She didn’t even recognize the brand!

Jareth feigned innocence for all of five seconds before bursting his seams, cackling with wicked merriment!

“I should force you to contribute your share to our expense account if you’re going to be pulling stunts like this,” she threatened. “And I’ll tell you right now I don’t want to be having kids after 40; I’ll have my tubes tied if I have to!”

“Be calm, Sarah,” the king said in that odd, soothing tone he strictly saved for her pregnancies, “your household just needed one more to feel complete. And I think you’ll find your children more than adequate compensation in time,” he added conspiratorially, that warm, mischievous glint in his eye again.

Sarah wasn’t left wondering what that meant for much longer. Debbie started taking piano lessons in second grade… and could sight-read Mozart and Beethoven sonatas within her first week! Ethan’s talent took a year longer to develop, but by age five he was showing such promise in physical engineering just playing with building materials in kindergarten that the Stuarts were encouraged to have their little boy tested. He had an IQ of 147! They were both child prodigies! Dan and Sarah were simply astounded – neither of these talents ran in either of their families, even extended, as far as they knew! More ‘blessings from God’ in the form of recessive genes, it seemed.

Their mother knew better…

The last was no less exceptional: another girl – Ailsa – so much a mixture of her parents that she didn’t resemble either of them. Her godfather had sung to her a little extra in utero, not wanting her to grow up to be any less special than her elder siblings. Now that she understood what was going on here, Sarah was a little more nervous for this child, not knowing what effect the Goblin King’s influence would have on that tiny, developing brain…

The last delivery was harder than the others, ending in a caesarian section to remove the baby; her head had been just a little too large to squeeze through. Her blood-type was also positive when both Sarah’s and Dan’s were negative – biologically plausible, the doctor had reassured the father, but genetically it was a rare outcome. They were also warned that Sarah should not become pregnant again because of this – the next child would be in constant danger of spontaneous abortion – and she heartily agreed, but with just a touch of paranoia: was this outcome deliberate as well?

It was next-to-impossible to take Ailsa to see Jareth; Ethan was still barely too young for preschool during her maternity leave, and afterwards Sarah worked the hours her other children were in school, and it was not uncommon for them to get dropped off at the library on days that Sarah got off work in time to make dinner for them all, or to have it with their grandparents. Ailsa made the trek only three times before she was too old, and the first time that Jareth tried to hold her as he had the other, she shook silently like a leaf in his arms – her big blue eyes wide – and he’d had to irritatedly hand her straight back to her mother.

Can she actually sense what he is?

Sarah wondered…

The second time, Ailsa had been toddling already and had discovered his bookcase along the wall; she managed to pry a small, thin volume off of it all by herself, but rather than pulling more off or treating the object roughly, she had promptly sat down right where she was and opened it, carefully examining the pages of flowing hand-inked text. Sarah explained that she was already attempting to read at home; amused, the king picked another dusty old tome from a higher shelf and sat down beside her to read aloud.

The third time, though, she had discovered those odd tapers set into the wall behind his bed; the other children had seen them but had shown no interest, strangely enough. Ailsa just clambered straight up onto the bed as soon as her mommy uncovered her eyes once they had arrived, rolling – not crawling – straight across the duvet, giggling, climbing up onto the long pillow at the back, and…

“Ailsa, no!” her mother immediately lunged for her, diving across the bed, pulling her away, sensing the danger of the open flame if nothing else. But not fast enough: the smoke had irritated the baby’s delicate, sensitive little nose, and she accidentally sneezed one of them out, just as Jareth appeared.

His eyes widened and stayed that way when he saw what had happened; Sarah shivered herself, backing away from him with her child squirming in her arms, as he coldly stalked over to the wall, leaned in, and removed the extinguished taper to the far left, still faintly smoldering and smoking heavily before it went out completely in his fist; he was staring down at it with his jaw clenched. He was bodily shaking in fury; Sarah had never seen him angry like this!

“Get her out of here,” was all he said, his voice barely under control.

Sarah never brought her back.

Chapter Text

As is often the case with those of mortal lifespan, irrevocable decisions and sacrifices must be made for the sake of others, finite expanses of time get lost along the way. Sarah Stuart put her lofty (and, realistically-speaking highly unlikely, she often reminded herself) dreams and personal goals on hold to be a working mother of three highly-gifted special-needs children, needs that came to include expensive private lessons, doctors, and tutoring in very specific areas of personal strength; if Sarah’s parents hadn’t been willing to help out financially, she and Dan could’ve never swung it on their own for all of them, even with their combined salaries. Between her full-time job at the library and ferrying kids to and from lessons, recitals, appointments, and academic board and business meetings, once she added in the small amount of downtime she got with her husband, there was simply no time or energy left for herself.

They’d had to hire a talent manager for Deb (as she now called herself in high school) to work her piano recital appearances; she’d been performing professionally since she was twelve years old, and her mother loved seeing her up on the stage – doing something that had come as naturally to her as walking – and being applauded for it by huge auditoriums full of people. Sarah had even spotted Jareth at one or two of the concerts she’d been able to attend, when Deb’s appearance dates coincided with his ‘escape days’: he always appeared as himself with no attempts at disguise, yet strangely he seemed invisible to all eyes but Sarah’s own. As time went on, he started telling her of some of her daughter’s other performances that he had attended in far-flung locales in Europe and the Far East. Deb was more-or-less living on the road now and was completing her classes through home-schooling online. She was still partially financially dependent on her parents at first (she only got a certain percentage from her performances; she certainly wasn’t getting rich with everyone else who got a cut of those checks) and they skyped her for a little while every day, checking in, seeing what she was up to, making sure everything was still okay. Sarah was proud of Debbie, that she was doing so well for herself, but as the years went by she couldn’t help feeling a little superfluous in her daughter’s busy, successful life. Unnecessary.

Ethan, by contrast, had wound up going to a private Montessori academy; they had started him in public school - not wanting to put pressure on him so early in life - only to have to remove him because he was getting bullied and made fun of too often for being so unusually smart and seriously studious even in the lower primary grades. He was terribly thin-skinned that way, too, which had only made it worse; he was prone to anxiety over his abilities, his obvious difference, from childhood. They’d gotten him into a pediatric psychologist quick enough, though, and it seemed to be helping. The National Honors Society had sought him out; they already knew that he would be taking college courses in lieu of high school, and debate had started about technical and engineering universities: he loved space exploration, but was often more interested in the nuts-and-bolts of actually being up there than the scientific discoveries. Ethan was leaning toward Colorado School of Mines himself, but the real decision was still a few years off. Sarah rued that her son had been given so little time to be a child, but Ethan seemed not to mind; he’d never known any different. He wanted to be an adult now so that he could be treated like one; being a minor was a nuisance to him. He’d always felt a little lost in his home life in spite of their love and support, ‘a wizard stuck with a family of Muggles,’ as his mother often put it in her well-meaning, head-in-the-clouds sort of way, he thought. At least he was practically guaranteed scholastic assistance and a high-paying career in the aerospace industry once he graduated. He’d be okay eventually, do well in the world.

It was Ailsa they were worried about: she had been diagnosed with a moderate form of Asperger’s Syndrome when she was only four years old; her preschool teacher had noticed how withdrawn she was around the other children – how unusually good her vocabulary was already at her age – and first brought it to their attention to have her tested. To Dan and Sarah, their youngest had merely seemed introverted, quiet, preferring her own orderly little imaginary worlds to the big, chaotic one around her. She liked lining things up – stuffed toys, building blocks, even her crayons. She had always been hypersensitive to bright lights and loud sounds; she used to spontaneously cry when they tried to play her music as a baby. As a child she loved demanding, exact routine; she lived her life the same way every single day with absolutely no variations whatsoever – if anything was different, even something as simple as an object in her room out of place, she would experience personal meltdown, physically shaking from the overwhelming change in stimuli. They had to be so careful for her. Every morning she counted the slats on the blinds in her bedroom and deliberately stepped out of the same side of her bed right-foot first, saying aloud to herself that today was a good day; Sarah often overheard the little mantra, standing outside the door, as if her youngest child could simply will the world to be better than it was.

Even as an infant she had been a very finicky eater; at age nine it was still a struggle to get anything other than breaded chicken tenders down that throat – homemade gluten-free breaded chicken tenders, that is. On the advice of her autism therapist, they had eliminated both gluten and animal dairy from her diet, and once the inevitable storm of withdrawal had passed in a few months her parents did note some small improvements with her compulsive behaviors – she did seem more alert – but the diet intervention was hardly the cure-all panacea it had been touted as. Improvement was still improvement, though, and they had scrupulously kept it up. A stricter allergen diet protocol was discussed, as were alternative therapies to re-entrain her brainwave frequencies and very high doses of nutritional supplements along with more standard psychiatric drugs, but Sarah was wary of experimenting on her daughter like this; it seemed at times that the ‘goal’ was more about making a ‘normal’ person, not helping a high-functioning and unique individual with a handful of socialization challenges. They did stick with group interaction therapy, which Ailsa resisted every bit as strongly as her mother had resisted the other therapy options. She had her colored pencils and her books and her imagination: why was she demanded to care about being able to look someone in the eye that she found inherently uninteresting, let alone be forced to touch their hand? She did get to the point that she could stand being hugged by people she knew very well, like her immediate family – very briefly – but she still could not hug in return.

Her setbacks were every bit as frustrating to her parents as her personal successes were exhilarating. Privately, her mother could sort of understand her stubbornly intractable viewpoint, even if she could never say so aloud. Why were we all supposed to be so terribly concerned about the opinions of people who don’t care about us – as we truly are – at all? Sarah could already see a colder, more indifferent-yet-vulnerable version of herself slowly emerging in her youngest daughter and she was not looking forward to her puberty. Thank God for meal replacement shakes and the internet: all of Ailsa’s few friendships were strictly online on a forum for ASD kids (carefully screened members, no pictures). From the little Sarah had managed to snoop through the back-history on her laptop (a protective mother’s privilege, she thought), it was obvious that she got along far better with people who were more like her who shared her specific interests. There were still only two or three interests - mostly to do with art and horselike mythological creatures – but Sarah had been taught that this wasn’t necessarily a bad thing so long as the subjects weren’t directly harmful to the child (actively attempting to suppress them could be); at least one of them often turned into a specialized career with the right kind of encouragement and assistance. Ailsa did need some extra help outside of school with math so far, but she was showing a remarkable ability for anything do with drawing: present her with a subject that genuinely peaked her interest, and she would take to it like pitch with an almost inhuman will, tirelessness and tenacity. She loved rendering thousands upon thousands of individual strands of hair in her sketches – she could do this happily for an entire afternoon or evening.

And, on top of all of this ongoing responsibility, on top of all of these constant demands on her time, Sarah was still eking out visits with Jareth; she’d had to learn to mentally couch it like she was going to see a shut-in or someone in jail. Her family had been doing a little volunteer work as a unit with Dan’s church, too, and while Sarah was starting to privately mull over believing in a God that seemed to inspire so much sincere goodwill and charity in the people around her, she still wasn’t ready to commit to the idea of there being only one; it left too many people out in the cold and the dark, so-to-speak, as far as her thinking went. It left no room in the world for shades of gray…

She asked her own ‘shade’ about what had happened to Ailsa, with her mental issues, when he politely inquired after her children one day in the gardens; he had come to enjoy the pretense of formally taking her for a stroll, with Sarah on his arm.

“I had no way of knowing that would happen,” he’d replied simply, surprising her, “I merely created a series of frequency vibrations that can trigger profound development in the human genetic code – but the possibility has to be there already somehow. You’d have to ask a scientist for a more precise answer than that.”

Sarah subsequently did – and put down a considerable chunk of change from her own savings account to pay for genetic testing and detailed analysis for her, her husband, and her children, just to see if anything else would turn up. Such work, while still time-consuming and therefore expensive, had improved by leaps and bounds in the years following The Human Genome Mapping Project, with many nucleotide sequences positively linked to specific traits.

What the research team attached to the samples from the Stuart family found was so statistically remarkable that Dan and Sarah were contacted directly by the lab with the initial findings and a request for further tissue samples, to be analyzed on the organization’s own dime: there were indeed recessive genes in Dan’s DNA that had the potential to make another Mozart – or Einstein – and the sequence of errors for the autism spectrum were present in Sarah’s, but the odds of these particular sets getting triggered into active use with such regularity were so astronomically high that it was a biological impossibility – unless there was an unknown environmental ‘cue’, an external factor, most likely encountered in infancy, possibly even in utero. Sarah suddenly found herself under the brunt of incredible personal scrutiny: no, she hadn’t been exposed to sprayed pesticides or other harmful chemicals. No, they didn’t live near or even drive by any kind of power plant or radiation source that she knew of. No, she had been careful to keep her cellphone in her purse during gestation, not carried anywhere on her body, certainly not in her back pocket. Well, there was WiFi at work, but they had cabled internet at home (the risk of cancer hadn’t been worth the convenience.) She was beginning to regret starting the line of enquiry in the first place – and there was no way to stop it now. It did settle once-and-for-all what had really happened – but only for her: it wasn’t magical at all, merely an unknown and unstudied biological mechanism that could be hacked from the outside and radically altered before growth was complete. Heck, other people were knowingly screwing with genes like that with the CRISPR, trying to make superbabies on purpose, knowing even less about which genes to edit and augment in what sequence for a predictably positive outcome as good as two-out-of-three nominal ‘successes’. Sarah stopped beating herself up over it in time and continued to do her best to nurture ‘the results’…

But, beyond the years put in, the memories and emotions a mother collects and treasures, she had done relatively little to see to herself, to her own wants and needs. The longing would come over her unexpectedly – and the more often the older her progeny became – the unmistakable pull of all the paths in life that her feet would never know now, the many opportunities she had turned a blind eye to in the name of maternal love and wifely duty: she was dead-resolved never to become like her own mother, abandoning husband and child to selfishly follow her own dreams.

No matter how much the worse part of her personality might want to do just that at certain times. They had just had to fire Deborah’s business manager for being underhanded with the accounts, siphoning off more money for himself than he was budgeted in salary, and she needed a new one right away – she was out on tour in Venice! Ailsa’s grades had been slipping again; they had only just found out that she had been refusing to do her homework in favor of working on a huge poster-sized lifelike rendering of a Pegasus on an alien planet that was taking her months to complete – and she would need summer school to pass… and probably a school change for the following year, where she could get more one-on-one help, as much as Ailsa hated that (or any change, for that matter; she’d be in her room trying to comfort herself out of panic attacks for weeks once she found out what they had planned.) And finals season was upon both Ethan and Dad (when had her Daniel become ‘Dad’? She couldn’t remember.) Sarah wasn’t sure which one of them stressed out about this annual event more, it was usually a pretty close tie. The workload was oddly similar, the only appreciable difference being one was on the giving end and the other on the receiving, buried under a mountain of tests and essays to grade – and then he had to survive the year-end student evaluations. The month of May in general was simply not a good time to be in the Stuart house.

What was worse was that she could see the sentiment reflected in Jareth’s almost alien eyes as he sat across from her, playing card games for years on end. She’d once made the mistake of inquiring whether he’d ever played chess, and he’d dropped a remark about the idea of her challenging him being too reminiscent of Bergman’s The Seventh Seal; she refrained from asking how he’d known about that movie…

At the moment, he was shaking his head at her disapprovingly as he finished dealing. “You’re giving away too much of yourself; every time I see you anymore, you’re running ragged. If you continue doing this, you will begin to cause yourself harm.”

“Some of us don’t have the luxury of simply living for ourselves,” she responded quietly, picking up her hand of cards and studying it – rummy today.

“Working yourself to death is no part of that religion, Sarah,” – he would never name it aloud – “and, if I remember correctly, worrying is actually forbidden,” he suddenly smirked, “so live a little already.” He put down a four card run of high-ranking spades to start.

“That’s not what that means,” she reproved him – with a little smirk of her own. “Although I get what you’re saying. It isn’t going to be like this forever; it’s just until the last two are in college.”

“And how old will you be then?” he asked hollowly. “Middle-age, late-middle-age? Too old to start chasing most of your dreams,” he trailed off a little sadly.

“I made this choice, Jareth.”

“It’s not too late.”

Sarah nearly said, ‘yes, it is’… but she couldn’t get the words out, and she took apart a run of hearts to meld four eights.

“Oh, Sarah,” he sighed fondly. She couldn’t look him in the eye; he knew her far too well. His tone abruptly changed to something less sentimental and more direct: “Sarah, give me back your cards.”

She blinked, caught unawares. “What? Why?”

“When? Where?” he taunted her, taking them from her hand, scooping back up what had already been laid on the table and adding his own before reshuffling the deck. “I think I want for us to play poker instead; we can both agree that you’re finally old enough to be playing for… small stakes, shall we say?”

Sarah raised one eyebrow. “Whose idea of ‘small stakes’, yours or mine?”

He snickered at that. “Mine, naturally, but it’s nothing you can’t handle; you won’t be needing to add family members to the table.”

“What’s small?” she pressed.

He met her eyes; while he was obviously in a better mood now, she didn’t trust that look – he was still far too sneaky for total comfort.

“The bargaining chip I desire is time – your time, to be more precise: for many years now I have allowed you to stint the amount you have spent with me in order to succor your young children. They are not so young now that they need their mother every second of the day – you yourself tell me that Ailsa does not care for human contact at all. And even your dear husband is too busy for you most of the time, it seems.”

“He has work during the school year, you know perfectly well what he does for a living!” she shot back. “And summer break is coming up, as is my own vacation in another month!”

“Then you do have the time,” he smoothly countered, dealing hands of ‘seven’. “Don’t be cross, dear; I am doing this also for you. When have I ever asked anything of you – expected anything of you – but to relax and enjoy yourself in my company?”

He could be a persuasive devil when he wanted to be, she’d grant him that much. “And if I win? What are you gambling?” What do you even have to gamble with? she suddenly thought.

He considered for a moment. “My powers, at your disposal – but you must keep in mind the measure you yourself are willing to give and to only expect so much and no more, in return.”

Now Sarah was intrigued!

“You’re saying you’d be open to granting small wishes, provided that the requests are small and relatively simple?”

He smiled – he knew he had her.

“Let’s just say I’d be open to a certain level of negotiation. Are you in?”

Sarah looked at her top-cards again. A jack and a ten, both diamonds.

“You can’t cheat.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it; we take betting nearly as seriously as contracts. If I renege, you would get back all the time you’ve spent here in one go – added to your lifespan. But if you refuse to pay for the times that I win, I can still claim Toby as alternative payment and cancel your gateway to my world.”

“He’s 37!” she suddenly laughed. “What in the world would you even do with him?”

The king was not smiling… and Sarah’s quickly dropped from her face. How could she keep forgetting?!

It’s gotta be clinical-grade denial, she thought – then took a deep breath and bet only five minutes, Underground-time.

“So stingy, love,” he tisked. “Very well, I’ll up the ante: one ‘A’ grade on a test or assignment, undeserved – you pick the child to receive it.”

“You can do that regardless of… time of year?”

“With active consent, yes.”

She picked up her cards – it wasn’t a bad hand: another diamond card - a nine - plus a few various of unmatched suits.

“Ten minutes.”

“Is that extra time or running tally for this round?”

“Extra time.”

He raised his eyebrows but gave a slight head-tilt of approval. “Better. I’ll raise you an evening meal where Ailsa voluntarily eats her vegetables, whatever you prepare.”

Sarah would’ve argued the point that he was making the wishes for her, but she had to admit his choices so far were pretty much on the money; she’d talked to him about everything at one point in time or another. The extra cards were dealt.

“Any further bids?”

She shook her head. Both laid their hands on the table.

Sarah had lost – but not by much, just a straight beating three-of-a-kind. The game he wanted to play finally appeared legit. Fifteen minutes UT (Underground Time) was just under six minutes on Earth…

“Care for another round?”

He still looked far too smug to her eye, knowing perfectly well that he was deliberately tempting her with supernatural favors for her family, knowing it would be next-to-impossible for her to resist.

But the stakes were reasonable, doable…

They played again – and he won again, but not by much as before; these weren’t terribly impressive hands. The play was real. He produced a piece of parchment and a quill pen in his usual fashion, entering both of their first names upon it in his impeccable calligraphy, with plenty of space beneath for the outcomes of who owed what. She was up to eleven-and-a-half minutes, time she could probably still squeeze into her lunch-hour one day. Soon.

The next round Sarah won: a romantic date-night with her husband with the kids safely sleeping over at Nana’s (Dan’s mother – a widow now – was usually uncomfortable having to care for Ailsa in spite of how many times they had gone over precisely what to feed her and specifically how to help her deal with being somewhere else at night; it was a two-fold challenge usually.) The wish was her idea, and while the Goblin King had seemed vaguely miffed when she’d brought it up, other devious possibilities seemed to have occurred to him in the interim.

“At a time of my choosing, then,” he teased her. “You never stated when, Sarah – a bit sloppy on your part, but I’ll take care of it this time.”

“And don’t think you can pull that again! I’ll be using a diaphragm, too!”

He just rolled his eyes. “Such one-track paranoia. You think that’s the only variable you left up to my discretion just now? In a logistical sense, you’ve invited me to orchestrate events in your marital bedroom.”

Sarah felt her entire face flush; she hadn’t blushed that bad since… since the last time he made her blush like that!

He chuckled under his breath. “I trust we will be more specific in the future. Do you want to keep going, or is that enough to mentally deal with for one day?” he eyed her sideways, still smiling.

She suddenly gasped. “You didn’t specify when I have to visit you, either!”

“Ah,” he simply observed, “we can rectify that immediately. Since you are betting Underground time, I shall expect you to use it within one Underground week: you have approximately two-and-a-half days to fulfill your end of the bargain. As for mine… I think I’m going to surprise you – but don’t fret, it will be soon by your standards,” he crooned sultrily. “But I won’t be rushed into a shoddy job. Is this acceptable?”

“Uh – sure, fine,” she nodded, a teensy bit nervous as to what she had just agreed to.

His expression changed to thoughtfully wheedling. “Of course, if you were to bet Earth-time, I would grant you Earth-weeks to make it up to me – and improve my stakes against considerably. Be thinking about it, what you would want of me. But I understand your need for a trial round this time,” he reassured her, his more usual genial self again.

Sarah did think about: there were so many intangible things she couldn’t do for her children and spouse, and tangible problems that lay outside of her influence to do anything about. To say nothing of what she might wish for herself…

The next night when she came home from work, she found the house only lit with candles, carryout from a nice restaurant on the dinner table, and no trace of the kids. Daniel was a sweet guy, but he never went to these lengths, and Sarah found herself a little nervous. She would’ve been happy with him if they had just spent the time catching up on their Netflix while intermittently making out. This looked far more staged – and this was just the part of the house she’d seen so far! But she didn’t have long to worry: Daniel came down the stairs a minute later, dressed up and wearing the old poet shirt that she loved on him, a blood-red rose in hand…

And to her amazement they couldn’t even wait until after dessert! The slab of tiramisu and two forks was fetched from the fridge downstairs about two hours later, and they didn’t pass out until the wee hours of the morning in that exhausted, euphoric haze.

Of course, Sarah had mentioned nothing to Jareth about the next day: Nana dropped off Ethan and Ailsa at 7:30A.M. sharp, seeming to have come to her senses again and remembered why she never did this – Ailsa had had another of her panic attacks waking up someplace other than her room and it had taken a considerable amount of work to get the girl calmed back down. Sarah might’ve gotten all of three-hours’ sleep – and she’d nearly forgotten that she had to go to work, too!

But the experience was enlightening: it clearly demonstrated the sort of thing Jareth was capable of, as well as just how terribly specific she had to be with him to avoid any odd outcomes, accidental or deliberate. This could very likely lead to pushing the envelope on what his side of the Friendship Contract really meant – to him. She couldn’t afford to give him wriggle-room in these requests. For both their sakes. When she visited him that afternoon (adding in the extra time quick before she forgot, setting the timer on her phone so she wouldn’t accidentally overstay past her break), Jareth looked both pleased and amused at her apparent state of fatigue.

“I see it went well,” he noted drolly as she materialized in his room, “I wasn’t entirely certain just what form that implanted impulse would take, but I was aiming for classy-yet-informally erotic.”

Sarah laughed a little embarrassedly. “Then you succeeded, I guess.”

He regarded her a moment, processing her reaction. “I must remember that you aren’t the wanton waif that you were once, either; you’ve gone straight-laced proper,” he mocked her – but not too hard. And surrendered an indulgent smirk. “Just to demonstrate how ‘decent’ I can be about this, I shall be lenient with my first demand of your time.” He glanced at his sizable bed – which they had actually been on at the same time on numerous occasions, albeit just while playing with babies and very small children. “Take a nap.”

Sarah was surprised, to put it mildly. “Really?”

“I told you I wanted you to benefit also,” he responded in his deliberately gentle tone. “And you’re not going to be much good for anything else today in your current state-of-mind, I think,” he finished, sounding more himself.

Sarah had to admit it did look awfully inviting. Then glanced back at him: she knew a game when she sensed one by now. What was this? “If I’m here longer than half-an-hour, I’ll be late getting back to work; people will start wondering where I am,” she stated as casually as possible.

“Oh, Sarah,” he sighed, sitting down on the foot of his mattress on the right-hand corner, “you still use so many excuses to try to protect yourself from things that you don’t need protecting from. This is my wish for your first payment – that you rest. And I shall read to you.”

Sarah still wasn’t entirely certain of his true motives here; something still seemed off, like he was acting with her somehow.

There’s clearly no getting out of it, though, she thought as she removed her half-dressy sneaker-flats and climbed onto the mattress up to the head… and lay down. Granted it was comfortable. Jareth closed the drapes by will from where he sat, gesturing them over, then rose and went to the bookshelf, taking down a foreign-language volume he had never read her before, sitting on the left side of the bed, to her right, opening it.

“Jareth?”

“Yes?”

“…why are you doing this? I can’t quite peg it.”

He paused before answering, and when he did he wasn’t looking at her. “You’ve worked so long – so hard – to take care of your children, to support your husband. When was the last time you’ve allowed anyone to actively care for you, be it ever-so-briefly?”

There was an unexpected bittersweet note in his voice. Sarah hushed up and let him read – only this time he wasn’t translating, the tones of his voice ran deep and lulling. She was asleep in under two minutes…

And woke up in the driver’s seat of her car, laid back like she’d been to wink out! She sat up with a start, confused for a moment before realizing where she was; her purse was still on the floor of the passenger-side. She quickly dug out her phone and checked the time: it was exactly 12:55 P.M. – she always left herself five minutes to get back. As she drove the short distance to the library, Sarah reflected that she did feel a heck of a lot better now; she’d slept the sleep of the dead back there, for that to seem so instantaneous!

The thought suddenly brought her up cold. The sleep of the dead? Oh, no, it couldn’t, she laughed at herself.

What worried her, of course, was that it could. That morsel of information – decades old now – was linked to a straight answer she could never obtain.

Her misgivings didn’t stop her from going back – they couldn’t. And her second thoughts about gambling with him gradually relaxed also, especially when his counter-bids were getting so enticing: a new government grant for space exploration sciences that Ethan would be the first recipient of; a Deutsche Grammophon recording deal for Deborah; turning the head of an introverted boy Ailsa had had a hopeless first crush on in painting class for a year without even having the nerve to introduce herself to him; Sarah’s schedule shuffling to the point that she could start amateur theater again – he really pushed that one, just refused to let it die. He would even throw out bones for Daniel in high spirits when he’d been winning: a new archeological discovery, texts that only he would be able to miraculously translate. Sarah wasn’t quite as onboard with those types of wishes, but he was obviously trying to be a good sport about this.

And he did win, regularly. Sarah had wrung a few choice gems of wishes out of him in turn (among them the previously mentioned recording deal and cancelled student loans due to new legal loopholes concerning students who went on to be educators), but the price had been very heavy: she often owed him Earth-hours a week now, and it was getting so hard to hide it. But neither could she stop challenging him; the human greed for his power had gotten the better of her judgment – and he knew this, too. The Goblin King thoroughly enjoyed the fruits of his labor, never gambling with her too often during her long stays to keep it from looking like the vicious cycle it was quickly becoming.

She had to start buying camping meals and paleo snack kits out of different accounts to survive on in his realm, along with gallons of water for her own private use and travel toiletries that never left her purse (and were used frequently.) She actively looked into babysitters for Ailsa on the off-chance that she had to leave for an entire afternoon without explaining where she was going with her phone turned off, and actually found one lady who specialized in caring for wards with a variety of disabilities – and her pay-scale reflected this, too. If this went on much longer, she’d have to hire a maid as well to do periodic dusting. Sarah was spending nearly all of her free time with an otherworldly man.

And – as far as Sarah was concerned – she thought that man seemed like he was on something all-of-a-sudden from how consistently cheery and considerate he was being all the time in her presence, any traces of bitterness or irony washed clean away. They started going for long excursions together through his domain, while he educated her about the native flora and fauna as well as the primitive mind that lay behind those moving outer passages of stone. He began to tell her more of himself than he ever had before – in vague allusions and the kind of hypothetical parables where all real information has been drastically changed to protect the parties involved, often to the point that she honestly couldn’t tell where the story ended and the truth began. He was an engrossing yarn-spinner anyway. He paid her no end of small attentions regardless of where they were or what they were doing; he still often read to her and would allow her to switch off at intervals if it was an English language book. He began to provide her with extra wardrobe while she was there, making small presents of things she could not take with her, and he always executed courtly bows over her hand before she left. If Jareth had been human, Sarah would’ve thought he was acting like a man in love. But she knew better, from the way the act would slip occasionally when they were at the gaming table again. He was really getting into this, but he was still playing and the objective was as-of-yet unclear to her.

It did not remain so for too much longer. Sarah had once been wise enough to know when not to trust her children with information, but she had grown careless under her current duress. It only took a few more weeks for the disaster to ripen: Dan came home early from a staff workshop day thinking of surprising Sarah when she got off work – maybe taking them out for pizza if she hadn’t planned dinner – to find two strange women in his house! Ailsa vouched for their presence, telling him who they were and why they were there rather matter-of-factly, adding that Mom had told her not to tell, but that she couldn’t disobey her Dad by withholding the information when he asked for it; it was a moral Catch-22 – Ailsa was a good, God-loving kid like she’d been raised to be.

Upon perusing the bill accounts – which Sarah usually handled herself online – he realized that she had changed the password to their joint savings account very recently without telling him. When he got the information from the bank in person, he couldn’t believe what he was seeing: Sarah had been paying the nanny and housemaid he had just met weekly wages for the past four months! And there were many other expenditures that made no sense, like reorder packages from high-end camping and trail-kit companies. Careful questioning of both Ailsa and Ethan revealed that their mother had been spending an inordinate amount of time away from the house without any explanation of where she was going for at least six months – possibly longer – and that she often left work during her lunch hour, too. And she never told them where she had been, fobbing them off with vague answers before asking how their days had been. She hadn’t even been making dinner – no wonder her cooking had suddenly gotten better, it wasn’t hers at all! It really and truly looked like his quiet and devoted wife had been living a double-life of some kind behind his back!

Sarah nearly had heart failure when he opened the door to let her into the house when she got home that evening at five-minutes-to-six like she had been, expecting that dinner was just about on the table and that the help would leave within minutes of her arrival; to her credit she did know how to do this smoothly – her stepmother had always hired a maid, having never done housework in her life (Karen had come from money, but not quite enough to be able to continue to live like that on her own.)

The ‘help’ was nowhere to be seen, as were the children: Ethan had driven Ailsa to Nana’s house along with the girl’s specially-prepared dinner, just the way she liked it. What followed over the next half-hour was a living nightmare for Sarah: she had no excuses, no answers. She couldn’t explain herself, couldn’t tell him the truth. She couldn’t answer a single question about her actions, and she had to bear hearing his terrible and inevitable, wild conclusions - that she had gotten mixed up with something or someone shady who was demanding weird resources. Was it a survivalist lover? Was she being blackmailed, being threatened? No, no, and no. Then why?

She was silent, bound and gagged by her pledges of secrecy.

He threatened separation. She begged him not to, telling him that she loved him, that he had to trust her!

But he didn’t believe her. How could he? There was simply too much evidence to the contrary at this point.

He packed a small travel satchel with his own toiletries and some extra clothes and left for the night, saying that he would call her in the morning in the hopes that she’d changed her mind about trusting him with whatever was going on here, if there was any truth to the little she had told him. The moment he pulled out of the driveway and down the street, Sarah shot back Underground with fiery tears in her eyes and murder on the brain.

“JARETH!!!”

“You called?” he dryly answered immediately from behind her and she jumped – he hadn’t done that to her in years! They were in the tower, which was fine by her; she didn’t exactly want ‘scenery’ for this discussion. Oddly, it was night here, too. “Do I detect a hint of irritation?”

She nearly punched him, but just barely kept herself in check. “Congratulations, you asshole! You’ve officially got my husband ready to divorce me because he thinks I’m having an affair with another man or I’m a drug addict!”

The king visibly bristled at being addressed like this. “I’d advise you to keep a civil tongue in your head, my dear,” he returned icily, “and as to your accusation, I cannot be held to blame for your own poor time-management skills.”

“But you knew this was going to happen! You had to know! There’s no way you couldn’t without…”

Sarah blanched with a gasp, covering her mouth: she’d just caught on. She had known for years now that he had been jealous of her Daniel – of the time and attention she gave him – but when she added her children into the mix and they grew into more people that she loved, that took her time, she had relegated Jareth to a smaller and smaller part in her life until he was just another chore to be completed, not someone who also needed her care. Who cared about her in his own strange way at times. He had direly acted out out of a sense of insecurity, out of fear that she would stop caring about him altogether, just going through the motions because she had to.

And he didn’t look too proud of it, either; beneath that face-saving anger, there was despair.

She closed her eyes and took a couple of deep breaths before saying, “We still need to talk about this.”

“I quite agree.”

At least he had the decency not to say anything further until she had had sufficient time to collect her thoughts, seated next to the fire in her usual chair.

“Jareth,” she started again measuredly, sounding nearly like she used to when she was trying to calmly lecture Ailsa when the girl had been younger, when she’d unwittingly done something really bad, “I understand that you probably don’t have working experience being around humans for any appreciably long length of time, that you don’t have the…the opportunity,” she self-censored, “but even you should be able to see the harm in this situation – to me, if not to anyone else. If Dan takes this to court – which I have every reason to believe that he will if I can’t give him a single honest answer, which you’ve basically assured that I can’t – I could lose not only my home but possibly even my legal joint custody over Ailsa. Have you thought at all about what splitting up our family would do to her? Divorce is rough enough for ‘neurotypical’ kids; it can be world-shaking for kids on the autism spectrum! What I went through with my parents would be nothing compared to how she would suffer for this! And for what?! I-”

She forced herself to breathe; she was still way too worked up for this discussion. “Look, I know my life is busy and it’s only gotten busier – and maybe I don’t pay as much attention to you as I used to; that tends to happen to normal human friendships, too, sometimes, when people get married and have families; there’s only so much time in the day and we only have so much energy physically and mentally. We can’t do everything. And I know your behavior works differently, but I’ve been able to tell that something’s been wrong here for some time now, but you also have this huge track record for being cagey and paranoid – I’m not judging, I’m just saying what I see here – so I didn’t ask, assuming you wouldn’t tell me. And I should’ve. But this communication difference goes both ways; I’m not a mind-reader. If there’s ever something that’s bothering you this badly, tell me so we can try to work it out before it turns into a big mess. Is that reasonable?”

He remained silent.

“Well?!”

“I assumed there was no point to bringing it up,” he said quietly. “You weren’t going to upstage your family for the likes of me.”

She had been right; that was despair she had seen!

“You might even be within your rights to renegotiate our contract,” he suddenly added with a heavy-sounding sigh. “I obviously hadn’t thought of all the possible consequences; I was mostly thinking of us, of what you like in that man, if I could-”

“That I would pay more attention to you,” she almost groaned, “oh, Jareth.” She slowly shook her head, looking to the fire; it’s crackling was the only sound for about a minute. Sarah’s despair was a near-mirror to his own… until she resolved her will: the only way out was the way they’d gotten into this mess. “Fix it.”

“What?”

“You heard,” her hardened gaze turned to face him, “and I don’t care how you do it this time, so long as no one gets hurt – not family, not strangers, nobody, do you understand? If you can manage that, I’d be willing to put this fiasco behind us. And no more betting for time – or wishes,” she quickly added. “You need to realize that me asking this of you is a huge act of faith and trust on my part – that you’re not going to botch this up, because I know you care. My entire life as I’ve come to know and love it stands in jeopardy because you chose not to be forthcoming with me.”

The king lightly snorted. “At least you’re upfront about your terms,” he noted tersely, “unlike some others I…” He sighed – and looked as if he was about to say something else, but he stopped himself before any sound could come out, looking away into the darkness of his room. “Go home, Sarah,” he whispered. “I have to think this through.”

She left him there without any further ado, putting the big meal the maid had prepared for them away in the fridge – not having the heart to eat any of it herself – and she grabbed a half-eaten pint of Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia ice cream instead, heading up to her bedroom for a good, long cry.

She was still awake at midnight when she heard the unexpected sound of someone letting themselves in through the front door – not a break-in, keyed entry – and she cautiously crept out onto the landing to see…

It was Dan! He unshouldered his bag on the floor and ran up the staircase two-at-a-time, striding up to her with purpose and catching her in a fiercely protective bear-hug, apologizing over and over through heavy sobs, kissing her again and again; it was hard not to get caught up in his level of emotion. Why hadn’t she told him she’d been trying to single-handedly help a homeless family with small children all this time?! Had she been afraid that he wouldn’t approve because both parents were struggling opioid addicts who couldn’t receive help at the shelter in town on the grounds that they were still active users? Of course he would help them! There wasn’t a methadone clinic in the county, but there was one two over, along with a shelter: they could arrange to have them transported there nicely first thing in the morning! She hadn’t told him tonight because he’d been so thoughtlessly judgmental – could she ever forgive him?

Sarah was too stunned to speak; thankfully, steady crying can mask this condition pretty effectively, and they continued to do so jointly for a while longer before retiring to the bedroom…

Her level of astonishment grew over the next couple of days; it felt like she had just stepped into the Twilight Zone. Not only did this family actually exist, but they all had false memories of her bringing provisions and water, praying with them, trying to get the parents to accept help! And there were traces of the foodstuffs she had been ordering – the odd wrapper, extra unopened packages of jerky and dried fruits and nuts, along with gallons of water – in their well-hidden camp behind some bushes within easy walking distance of the library, just on the other side of that big lawn! Their two little boys had tearfully hugged Sarah goodbye as their parents and Dan packed what was salvageable into the back of the shuttle he had ordered to transport them to the clinic/shelter, saying that they would miss her reading to them at storytime in the library – she didn’t even know their first names! She’d never seen any of these people in her life!

And the story – which was that she had met them when they brought their kids for storytime – was vouched for by three of her coworkers: a PX administrative and two shelvers! Sarah would be ready to swear up and down that that camp had not been there yesterday, let alone the foliage that concealed it! Where had Jareth found these people?! Where were they really from? From their own accounts, they’d been in this area for about a year now, which was clearly not the case!

It was actually more than a little frightening, in spite of the roundhouse-kick of a positive outcome here: Jareth had kidnapped a family of four – most likely spirited their entire camp-and-cover right off the streets in the middle of the night – and planted them here with a drastically altered fabricated history, along with an immense, happy lie that was even shared by people that she knew! All Sarah had to do was play along until it was over. Thankfully Dan kept it to himself, respecting her wishes for this ‘charity’ to go unpublicized (“let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth” giving-style) and the episode blew over quickly. Her husband started volunteering at the local shelter himself on Sunday afternoons. Sarah went back to playing harmless card games with Jareth (he never played poker with her ever again, even just for fun with no stakes like they used to.) She thought that was the end of it.

She was wrong. On her 52nd birthday that year, Debbie showed up out-of-the-blue on a surprise visit – and with a considerable gift: sufficient funds to not only pay off the remaining mortgage on their house but also for her mother to start taking acting classes again if she still wanted to! Sarah’s other two children had been too small to remember, but her eldest daughter knew how much performing had meant to her mom – and how much she had loved them to give it up to spend all her free time on her family instead. Ethan was going to be moving to Colorado before fall semester started at CSM. Only Ailsa remained in high school; she would be a junior this year. If Sarah reduced her position at the library to only part-time – which she could now afford to do – she would have more than enough time to pursue her art and to see her final special child safely graduated and on to college! And then there would be time! It was all too wonderful!

When she told Jareth about it, his response had been a seemingly distracted, “I told you they’d be worth the hassle someday,” as he studied some pale wildflowers growing up a stone wall, smelling them. But she caught his involuntary switch of a smile…

Three years later, she was performing in a staging of The King and I at the Landmark in Syracuse – a gorgeous burgundy-and-gold-ornate baroque-style hundred-year-old theater building right downtown, precisely the sort of venue she’d loved as a kid. About two-thirds of the way through the run of the show, there was a night that the cast had come out for the final bows and Sarah – Miss Anna – stepped forward for her mandatory round of applause… and suddenly something high up and to the left caught her eye, even with the lights in her face, a sudden movement…

There, in one of the tiny, opulently gilded balcony seats just above the stage that the theater never sold tickets for because they were built too small for most modern adults, the Goblin King had just stood up and was lightly applauding her also, tapping his gloved fingers into the palm of his other hand, a satisfied, knowing smirk plastered across his pale face.

She blinked and he was gone.

Chapter Text

Change is, arguably, what makes the world go ‘round – that things don’t stay as they are, whether it’s physical cosmic phenomena and the subsequent turning of the seasons, or the social, cultural and intellectual advances of a human population. Some change is arguably good; some development is beneficial.

But it would also be arguable that the world changes that happened in the last third of Sarah Stuart’s life were almost incomprehensibly drastic, unlike anything that had come before. Some commentators tried to liken it to the Industrial Revolution of the early 20th century, but realistically some of the results were probably a lot closer to the culture shock and displacement of the European invasion of the Americas centuries ago, the loss of ‘normal’ way of life and any traditional concept of society were so extreme, the death-rate from the conquerors replaced with a pointlessness of existence for millions who gradually found themselves out of work and with no chance of ever finding analogous employment elsewhere. It was simply cheaper for most large businesses to just pony up the initial expense and use the machines.

And it was amazing to behold. Changes that used to take a century in her grandparent’s day now took only five-to-ten years max; developments that had taken a few years when Sarah was growing up seemed to happen overnight. And, yes, some of that pervasive automation was handy in streamlining little everyday tasks: she never had to adjust the thermostat or the lighting, never had to shop for groceries and other items she used regularly, never had to worry about driving – driverless electric cars had completely eclipsed the auto industry; entire urban grids had been built around a shared taxi service of sorts that was simply worked into their monthly expense account like any other utility. All she had to do was walk up to the curb of their home and one would arrive for her in under two minutes!

The downside, of course, was that both she and her husband had been automated straight out of their college-trained careers, as unbelievable as it would have seemed even a decade earlier. The process had started out innocently enough with Sarah’s job: the library system she worked in had been gradually building an electronic book database for years – it was so much more cost-efficient for the organization than buying more physical books that could wear out, and more convenient for their patrons. But as the directors decided to start converting the rest of the collection with the dawn of decent holographic augmented reality – rather in the fashion that people used to scan documents for microfilm in what now felt like the technological Stone Age – the need for a physical collection rapidly diminished… and the books and media were eventually sold accordingly at the annual sales to the public, starting with the materials that were less often checked out. Sarah watched as the ‘stacks’ section in her library got smaller and smaller; the children’s collection was admittedly the last to go. Shelvers lost their positions first – there was no need for so many hands to keep what was left tidy and in order. The checkout people up front had been gone for years already, replaced by self-check scanning that patrons could easily do themselves for the most part. Seating areas began to fill the empty spaces that had once been occupied by tall shelves of books - lifetimes of knowledge and learning and pleasure.

There was new emphasis on the library being ‘relevant’, of catering to changing demographics… specifically a rising mostly young demographic that did not go there to read. Community events were staged in the opened-up main area now, often having nothing to do with the library - things that would have never happened in the silent corridors of written word in Sarah’s youth. The rest of the understaff started getting notices that their jobs were going to be eliminated in the coming quarter – hopefully giving them enough time to find other employment, and to apologize for the inconvenience. The managers in the back were disappearing month by month. The reference librarian had been replaced with an AI program that patrons could download to their devices for free. And, in the end, Sarah lost her position, too – she simply couldn’t compete with fantastical holographic images from the stories she used to tell, that the children used to have to imagine to see played out. The staff shake-up had left many scrambling – so many basic employment options people used to fall back on as day-jobs simply didn’t exist anymore - but fortunately at age 65 Sarah was able to properly retire. The remaining administration – two execs who were staying on to maintain and schedule the ‘community event center’ the library had been converted into – had thrown her a really nice going away party, and many of her former coworkers had come to wish her well and to celebrate her career. It was so hard for her to leave, knowing how many lives she had influenced, how many people she had helped all these years – people who met her at the library when they were in grade school and later came back with their children.

The day she turned in her security barcode and walked out – never to return – there were couches and beanbags in the shelving area in what was once the old youth section, with almost two-dozen kids of varying ages insularly playing on their electronic devices – the library had calculated not long ago that only a few of them were actively using their database ‘in-house’; most were just utilizing the free internet. Barely any of them were reading at all.

The experience seriously embittered Sarah against much of the new ‘entertainment’ technology that was coming out. She never upgraded her communications devices to AR and kept her old smartphone for as long as it worked, even buying extra batteries for it online while she could still find them.

Dan was able to hang onto his job a while longer because the college had managed to successfully incorporate the new technology into it with their professors as integral components to the system. The history classes that he taught had switched up heavy paper textbooks for digital ones ages ago, but now even these were scrapped for the next big thing: virtual reality teaching, using lightweight wireless VR headsets in the classroom along with the professor’s lectures. It had been such a trip for him, getting to literally show his ‘kids’, being able to take his students on these incredible mental journeys into the past to very specific places and events and cultures. The programs made all the participants appear clothed and groomed similarly to the virtual people around them so that they could really get a feel for immersively entering the societies they were exploring together.

The one aspect of this that made the old history prof a little leery was the battle scenes: he was always careful to restrict the violence/suffering/gore to the lowest possible settings rather like an old-school videogame, not wanting to induce PTSD in any of his students! But after a few years went by and more and more people psychologically adjusted to using AR and VR in their daily lives (along with gaming for entertainment), his students started to complain that he was babying it down, that the scenes weren’t realistic. He hadn’t wanted this realistic! In spite of their irritation, he continued to do so, and not just for his own sake: he was beginning to observe a general lack of empathy and compassion in the young people around him on campus in ‘Real Life’ – such as it was; it was always hard to tell anymore with all these new toys and gadgets they were all playing with, wandering around in the clear visor-glasses with projected personal audio that bypassed the outer ear and triggering the hearing centers in the brain. It was impossible to tell who was interacting with who, who was really seeing and hearing what at any given time. He had come to long for the ‘old’ days when all he had to deal with was kids with their smartphones seemingly glued to their faces: at least those could be put on ‘airplane’ mode and put away. Not these – much of the new social technology never went into any sort of standby mode; some of it was literally impossible to turn off! He had already had one instance of a boy who had been caught watching an interactive porno sitting in his lecture hall before class started – and it was only noticed because the girl seated next to him had complained. They had taken disciplinary action, but the incident was hardly isolated; other faculty privately told him of similar experiences they had had within the last year or so. These kids they were seeing coming to college now were increasingly just living in their own little tailor-made worlds – nearly oblivious as to where they were, or simply callously treating the outside world as their private playroom. They didn’t even interact with each other very much.

What had been saving his own position had been the perceived need for a series of human voices in human history – this became devalued also, to the point that many faculty on many campuses across the globe were starting to lose their tenures to VR programs that could be made even more immersive without the ‘modern’ voices to ‘interrupt’ the learning process. In the end, the most fiscally successful courses came to rely on only a few star professors in each field from universities all over the world – and the students never even bothered learning their names after a while because they were so well-hidden in the newer programs (which were specifically designed around those individual profs, what they wanted to present). Online virtual college was taking a chunk out of the physical university system, also, and to defer future expenses that could become catastrophic for the institution without something to offset the lack of funds accumulated from student housing on-campus, Syracuse started letting go of their more specialized professors, including Dan who was given the option of honorable retirement, which he accepted. The official reception was formal, but surprisingly few of his old pupils ever came back to say their goodbyes at all, even ones he remembered enjoying the class and doing well in it. He had a sinking feeling that he knew why: he wasn’t even out the door yet and he had already been forgotten in favor of the next experience, the next diversion. In fact, it frightened him more than a little that it would be rather easy in a few more years for a professor to teach anything they wanted without any oversight at all; it would be easy to pass off anything as truth. Who in administration would even know? There were no course materials to look at for reference; the ones in existence were so old they were mostly being recycled – who wants their old textbooks sitting around collecting dust? Who reads them? Even he didn’t.

That wasn’t to say that Dan went quietly into retired living: he continued to keep up with current research and studies in his fields of interest for his own private enrichment, still writing papers for an old-style online tutorial blog. With the levels of premature dementia rampant in society, he was determined not to become a statistic by refusing to use his brain.

Sarah was through taking acting courses – with only Dan’s retirement check coming in, there wasn’t enough money now – but she was still in a small local troupe’s theatrical productions. Yet even here in such a human medium and artform, AR had made inroads. Many of the venues that they tried to book were set up with platforms to support ‘augmented’ sets and even costumes – visuals that would appear overlaying the physical stage and performers for an audience wearing wireless goggles. There was an ongoing programmer project to virtually manufacture visuals for as many plays as possible; most of the work was being done by kids, it seemed, and (the one upside, as far as many managers were concerned) most of them were free due to current copyright laws – there could be no profit generated from the venture. Some of it was being made for public domain works – for profit – but those outfitters tended to stick to guaranteed sellers like Shakespeare or old classics that were perennial favorites; sometimes the quality could still be a little touch-and-go, but new was new (‘new’ being analogous for ‘still alive and kicking’ here.) While the equipment for the displays could be difficult to fund upfront, it was usually made up for quickly enough in ticket sales to defray the expense, and the technique was touted as a way to literally save live theater in an age of instant and continuous insular digital entertainment. Many new plays were even being designed around the medium in favor of audience participation - ‘getting rid of the walls’ it was called – blurring the line between the collective environment and the players and redefining who was really onstage; everyone got to be a star this way, what people seemed to want. The effect had a tendency to distract from the plot, though, any sort of message other than having a good time for an hour or so.

Sarah had been in a few of these new-style performances and had found the effect not unlike what actors had to go through in ‘green-screen’ filming – only this had to be performed live: everyone onstage was in the skin-tight suits that could cover everything – even hair and face if desired – and with no physical scenery at all usually! The effect for the actors could be disconcerting; it certainly wasn’t something that everyone was good at. Her own imagination helped her to visualize what everyone ooh-ing and aah-ing in front of her in the seats were seeing, but she often visited the old prop closets at other times, longingly fingering the costumes, not sure how much longer theater in general was going to last even in this format – it just wasn’t the same. Nothing could replace physically turning into someone else and emerging from the cocoon at the end of the night as herself once again. The makeup artists and costume designers who had migrated back to live theater after losing their jobs to CGI in the movie industry were dying out here, too. She couldn’t help thinking that this feeling of clear-sightedness meant that she was getting old… and then she’d see some girl walk by her without even seeing her, lost in her own manufactured dreams. And she’d thought she was a dreamer…

The phenomena made her think of an extremely old British Isles faerie story she’d come across in high school, about a midwife who gets summoned by a faerie prince (why were they always princes and princesses?) to help deliver his human wife’s baby; the woman was instantly transported inside his mansion where the lady was, and the delivery went fine until it was time to anoint the newborn halfling’s eyes with the truesight ointment – and the midwife accidentally rubbed one of her own eyes afterwards because it itched… only to see out of that eye that she was in a cave with a small fire in the corner, the new mother who had appeared in silks only moments ago was truly half-dressed in rags, and the ‘fine bed’ she was on was a slab of rock with dried moss and fern fronds piled up so it wouldn’t be so hard on her back. Even the mother didn’t seem to know…

Is this these people’s children’s future? she would catch herself thinking in certain moods, the longer it went on. ‘Neural lace’ – specifically the use of it for wirelessly hooking up the human brain to a grid of virtual reality experiences – was boasted of as being just around the corner, a series of custom-made artificial worlds – paradise, even – that people could log into and literally never have to leave. An entire life could be lived this way – completely ignorant of isolation, squalor, wretchedness… and the real environment and people around them. Such technology was already in the test phases at NASA in the manned Martian space program, to help the astronauts psychologically deal with the nothing of the long flight and the boredom and prolonged isolation once they arrived. Like all the rest of it, this did seem to have good, decent uses, but…

Even with the abysmal rates of unemployment – early statistics had predicted 40%, but it was edging toward half – the Stuart children were doing remarkably well; they seemed to be made for this world. Debbie (now 40) had less concerts than she used to; ticket sales were down because many people were choosing to watch them remotely rather than in person because it was cheaper. She still had plenty of work opportunities, though, because movies and especially videogames were in higher demand than ever; there were always going to be open positions for a concert-level pianist in the entertainment industry, even if the medium changed: it was simply too ‘classic’ of a sound - an idiosyncratically human psychological effect - to be culturally replaced, oddly enough. Sarah wasn’t certain whether her eldest daughter had inherited her biological grandmother’s selfish narcissism or if it was just the condition that seems to afflict many career performers – that the performer and their art always come before everything and everyone else no matter what – but Debbie had already shot through one failed marriage and seemed to be nursing along a second; all other parties involved were pushing for her to try couples counseling rather than cutting-and-running this time around. To her mother’s small relief, at least there were no children involved, but she couldn’t get over just how strongly Deb reminded her of Linda Williams now. Sarah’s biological mother had died a few years back (of secondary health problems due to cocaine use, apparently, but no one ever talked about it), and she had only learned of it online through an illegitimate sister she didn’t even know she had! It wasn’t the most comfortable of communiqués, and after the high-profile remembrance service that they’d had to get tickets to attend, Sarah hadn’t kept up the contact.

Ethan – her shy, brainy son – turned out to be the most ‘normal’ of their brood, or at least the happiest in a more traditional sense once he was finally in his element: he had gotten an engineering job with NASA immediately after graduating from Mines Summa Cum Laude with a degree in aerospace engineering, and wound up marrying one of his coworkers, a computer science specialist named Hailey just a few years later. They were stationed in Florida near the Cape Canaveral base of operations, and their son Skylar was already three years old. She and Dan had been out to visit them a few times since their retirement, and found their demesne – a condo of sorts in one of those new mini-city skyscrapers with all the amenities of a New York City borough, basically – breathtaking, if a little insular like a gated retirement community. He had been active in the manned Mars program, helping to build the equipment used inside the ships; men had been orbiting Mars in 2029, but the real terrestrial missions were underway now; the community there was nearly ready for the second launch and the return home of the first astronauts to walk on the Red Planet! The building where their son lived was so close to where he and his wife worked that they could walk there in good weather – and there was no need to catch a ride anywhere else unless they really wanted to go do something in a different city: everything they could possibly need to live was already right in their building! Unlike his tech-reticent parents, Ethan loved all the new gadgets and home devices; his home was the epitome of futuristic comfort, complete with a robotic ‘servant’ that looked somewhere between a greyhound and a cheetah in build, who handled everything from keeping the place clean and fetching items on verbal command to playing with Skylar and doing silly things to amuse him! His son, of course, had everything electronic at his disposal, including his own multi-platform-compatible VR/AR station in his room – at his age! Sarah had once voiced her concern over this to Ethan privately, and he easily laughed it off, saying that by the time Skylar was an adult there wouldn’t be any difference! He saw himself as part of a team that was building a brave new world for their children.

What’s so wrong with the real one? his mother had thought sadly, but knew better than to say it aloud; she’d learned the hard way that her son wouldn’t listen to her on that one. Real nature – plants, trees, flowers – was conspicuously absent around their building (although she was shown briefly that it was superimposed with AR on the outside, making the place look like a modern Hanging Gardens of Babylon.) There was a community vegetable garden on the rooftop as well as a miniature orchard, but Ethan’s family never went up to use it – they were ‘too busy for that.’ While Sarah and Dan barely had any of this type of equipment at home by conscious choice, VR finally made an appearance in their home one Christmas when Ethan gave them both 5th generation lightweight screen-glasses that weren’t even available to the public yet; they each had individual control bases, but the system was made so that the pair could share one if they wanted to interact in one of the environments, and it had come preprogrammed with a small collection of relatively sedate apps that he thought his aging technophobe parents might genuinely enjoy (along with one easy, silly videogame at the insistence of their grandson.)

Sarah took her console and headset with her once on one of her visits to Jareth; it had gotten significantly harder to see him frequently again now that Dan was home a lot, but she was carefully timing it so it was still ‘regular’. Upon explaining what it was (the base was so small it could run for several hours on a rechargeable battery), she had offered to let him borrow it briefly if he wanted to.

“I hate what’s happening to our society because of stuff like this,” she had sighed, “but it is good for one thing: mental escape. This is probably as close to freedom as you’re ever going to get – go ahead and try it,” she held out the glasses for him.

He seemed to consider it for a moment, but almost immediately shook his head. “I truly appreciate the gesture, Sarah, but you seem forget what I am – I would only see it for the artificial illusion that it is.”

“Are you sure? I mean, I was pretty skeptical of this myself for a really long time, but the graphics have come so far in the last few years – a couple of these programs look pretty darn real to me!” she laughed a little self-deprecatingly.

Jareth just looked at her, crossing his arms. “Do you honestly think that’s all I see when I look at the outer world?” he laconically answered her, raising an eyebrow.

And that’s when Sarah realized that she had literally never given the prospect any thought at all! His physical…incarnation? manifestation?… kept throwing her off!

He was obviously mulling something over just now, watching her reaction, but looked like he had decided against whatever-it-had-been.

“What?”

He smirked. “You couldn’t handle what I see, either,” was all he said as he turned and walked to the small balcony.

His bedroom had never felt so much like a jail cell to her…

Compared to her far-flung siblings, Ailsa chose to stay where she was comfortable – in Syracuse, close to home, in a relatively quiet apartment building just a few blocks away from her parents’ house. Probably the one thing that kept her mother from being a complete pessimist about all of this technology was the fact that it had allowed her youngest daughter access to a world she was still incredibly daunted by in person: she’d been able to take a handful of college-level art classes entirely online, using touchscreen programs and stylus apparatus to complete her assignments. She had initially been going for a degree, but she had quickly gotten turned off at how often her professors kept trying to channel her considerable skill into more lucrative fields than creating painting after luscious painting of unicorns and Pegasuses – she picked up enough technique to help herself and then struck out on her own. Her parents had helped her move out, then helped with her rent at first while she got on her feet professionally: her singular artistic bent could’ve spelled starvation for anyone besides Lisa Frank in the old days, but there were so many specialized cultures online now that would’ve been considered ‘fringe’ once upon a time that they knew it was just a matter of her finding her niche – she had the talent to make this work.

And work she did – in her tiny bedroom, for hours and days on end, churning out image after glorious image out of the private paradise that she already had in her head; Ailsa had never gone in for VR, AR, or any other version of R(eality) that didn’t originate outside her window, on her workhorse of a personal computer (a laptop still didn’t have enough space to run the programs that she needed), or in her own imagination. Her young nephew once made the mistake of trying to show her a bright, fast-moving game on his glasses one holiday and she immediately had one of her shaking attacks… and to everyone’s surprise Skylar knew exactly what to do! Dashing out of the room, he came back with a blanket from the hall closet, wrapped her tightly in it, and carefully rocked her back-and-forth sitting where she was, repeating a comforting mantra a few times… and she calmed right down! There were so many kids ‘on the spectrum’ coming up that Autism Sensitivity Training was an actual part of his elementary education!

She did periodically take certain commission jobs in order to pay her bills (although she was almost painfully picky about what she would accept), but for the most part she still preferred doing her own thing all by herself, in a perfectly predictable, controllable environment that she found comforting. She still didn’t have many friends - even online - but she did have a growing fanbase, ironically enough, in spite of how little she attempted to nurture any ‘community’ on her own part beyond selling her prints through amateur artist websites and digital arts-and-crafts marketplaces, basically. Third-party licensing started to take care of some of her money worries.

Her parents had completely different concerns about Ailsa, things that she seemed to not care about at all – like the very real possibility that she might wind up alone in life, partnered or otherwise, once they were gone (her family was about the only in-person contact that she made any effort to maintain), but they knew all too well what she was up against. It could be quite a challenge for certain adults with Asperger’s to develop and maintain non-fantasy romantic relationships due to how rigidly inflexible they could be on a personal level about even the smallest things; it often worked best when both partners had some form of the disorder because they could understand each other better, but both parties had to really want it, to actively work at it. (Karen Williams – her maternal grandmother – had turned into a nasty old biddy late in life and used to harass the poor girl about it no end, but her other grandparents had been supportive of her life-choice, as her parents were trying to be.) Nevertheless, she seemed satisfied with her self-limited existence, happy. The few friends she did have online seemed relatively close, which put Sarah’s mind to rest somewhat. At least she had someone.

Because she was starting to lose her family, namely her remaining grandparents. Karen was the next to pass away, and the process had been neither quiet nor peaceful even though she had been able to remain in her home with in-house nursing. As just mentioned, she had certainly not been a joy to be around for the last year or two, to put it mildly. Even Toby seemed relieved when she finally went… and stopped hiding his long-term partner, Kevin, from the rest of the family – he had not had the nerve to come out while his mother was still alive. They were married shortly afterwards; if there was any further dissention about the union, it was kept private (which he had known would not have been the case with her.) Considering what all had altered in Sarah’s own children after their interactions with the Goblin King, she had wondered for years if he had had any influence on Toby – not that she thought that he’d caused this, mind you, but simply being in his presence had emphasized very unique traits in her own children in a clinically confirmable manner – and she had sort of been waiting for the other shoe to drop with her little brother, so-to-speak; she had a feeling this was it, and she was sort of relieved that it wasn’t anything so extreme like her own brood had experienced. Although she could also see how having Karen for a mother might’ve made him think otherwise about the opposite sex, too…

Dan’s mother Fiona was next just a year-and-a-half later, and she had not been so lucky as to be able to stay home; they’d had to move her into a nursing facility and sell her house – Dan insisted on using the gained funds to make sure she could afford to stay someplace nice with good care and not be shuffled off into a corner in a Medicaid hospice (the funding for which was barely anything at all now) – both of her kidneys were failing at age 83 and she needed dialysis. Medicine in general had come a very, very long way by 2032 – she could have new organs grown from her own stem-cells in just a few months with 98% transplant success guaranteed since the body was so much less likely to reject them as ‘foreign’… but she had refused the therapy on moral grounds, citing the early study of such clinical uses utilizing stem cells from aborted fetuses decades ago – she did have the legal right to, she was still cognizant – and neither would she allow her doctor to attempt the relatively new, risky experimental procedure to implant a robotic organ instead; she would not be so presumptuous as to act as if any of them had the right to improve upon what God had made. She was ready to die. Even on constant biomimetic dialysis with nutritive supplementation, she only lasted two more months. Her funeral had been harder for Sarah to get through than it had been for the woman’s own son, though; he and his extended family so firmly believed that she was okay where she was now – with her husband in heaven – that Sarah started seriously reconsidering their faith now in the face of an emotionally painful personal death, what that surety might really be worth.

Sarah’s father, Robert Williams, was the hardest loss; she and Dan had been out-of-town visiting Debbie in Las Vegas when it happened, and only learned of it upon their return two weeks later! Ailsa had gone to visit her grandfather at home and had found him dead of a heart attack in his recliner in front of the TV, which was still on… and she’d chosen to handle the whole matter quietly all by herself rather than inconvenience anyone else: coroner, cremation and all! She had very calmly informed her parents of it over the phone in order to physically avoid her mother’s inevitable emotional outburst – she simply didn’t like being around her when she cried, and in her own way of thinking she had just taken the basic logical steps for dealing with the situation as a mature adult; a corpse was a corpse, not her grandfather – she would miss him, of course, but his soul was fine.

Sarah was furious with her daughter and inconsolable for weeks (as Ailsa had coldly but accurately predicted); no vacation was that important! She wouldn’t even look at her during the remembrance service. Later when she went to see Jareth, she had wound up breaking down again, sobbing that she hadn’t even gotten to say goodbye to her father, and now he was gone. The king had remained uncharacteristically silent, impassively holding her, letting her cry all over his black leather jerkin; when she finally looked up at him with clearer eyes again, his expression suggested that he was considering something, but whatever it was he’d kept to himself.

She started insisting on going on ‘nature walks’ with him Underground now, enjoying the pristine, undisturbed nature in his forest; it was getting harder to find this even at home – developers were steadily encroaching on their legally unprotected woods, and with safety drones and more people than ever traipsing through the area it simply wasn’t the peaceful sanctuary that it had once been. She had logically known that it would be like this between them, but Jareth’s agelessness had begun to seem strange to her; he hadn’t visibly aged a day since she first met him when she was fourteen – just like the faeries in many of the old stories – but she was all too aware now that if he had appeared more human, she would’ve look old enough to be his mother! She was taking fairly good care of herself, eating right mostly and taking yoga classes for seniors, but her long, dark hair was turning silver (she’d never truly cut it beyond trimming the ends – it was down to her waist). She wasn’t dying it, though – bright silver hair was ‘in’ again, and besides the artificial color had made her face look older, too; she wasn’t rich enough to afford nanite dermabrasion beauty treatments like Debbie, where zillions of microscopic robots were applied topically to perform aesthetic tissue dismantling and repair at the cellular level (her eldest daughter genuinely looked like she was still in her twenties, it was disgusting.)

Speaking of Debbie, she’d gotten her second divorce just a few months after her grandpa’s death, and now she was just living with someone new, to the extreme moral indignation of her father, who would vocally bemoan to his wife that they had raised her better than this – where had they gone wrong? Sarah would gently remind him that they couldn’t live her life for her; it was hers to try to make the best of. The stage and the recording studio were obviously her true spouse, and her adoring fans were her extended family. She had no permanent home, still preferring posh hotels and digital storage to physical baggage beyond her clothing – it was incredible, but between two considerable alimonies and the royalties she still collected along with the payments from her live performances, she really was making enough to live this way. For how long, her parents didn’t know.

Ethan’s family was about to become one of the first to be outfitted with the long-awaited non-medical-use neural lace network – the early civilian version of the Mars mission’s initial program; if the interface was good enough that those astronauts could stand to stay on the Red Planet long enough to form a permanent colony there and begin building for future missions, perhaps it was finally time to allow limited public use of it to see how it would go over. Upon learning of their son’s decision to be in the experimental pilot program for it, Dan had been horrified, asking him when he was going to be getting the Mark of the Beast – but he’d said this when the family had gotten microchipped for their apartment building, too, a few years back. Sarah had tried to view the developments in a slightly more charitable light – the only problem she had ever heard about with microchipped pets had been that the chip could sometimes migrate under the skin and become uncomfortably ensconced in muscle tissue back-in-the-day, but they’d figured out a way to anchor them stable by now.

But the neural lace admittedly made her take pause. There did seem to be a certain amount of revisionist history being taught in the schools now in the effort to raise more empathetically sensitive children, from the third-party studies that Dan read regularly – and talked about almost daily anymore – but how much of even this news was true and how much of it was conspiracy theory Sarah could never decipher. Sometimes it could be difficult to know which news organizations to believe, with the various public and private corporations and businesses that had a monetary hand in what was publicized (and what was occasionally suppressed) to say nothing of blatant personal aggrandizement that had nothing to do with reality at all, but could be made to have relevance in VR. Some of the podcasts Ethan was listening to reminded Sarah of some of the old conservative shows that used to air on AM radio (radio itself had been disbanded… how long ago? Five years? Maybe closer to ten?) And as adamantly opposed to ‘fake’ technology as he was, her husband had gotten rather used to using his VR system to help him relax in the evenings; it was getting difficult for him to do so at all without it. While Sarah saw the behavior for what it was – psychological dependence, although of a relatively mild garden-variety so far – she started utilizing the times that he did this to visit Jareth; her husband was just about dead to the outside world with his headset on and the relaxation app running.

And Ailsa… Ailsa was Ailsa was Ailsa; she never seemed to change at all, she just got older. She didn’t even like buying new clothes, choosing instead to wear her old ones until they just about fell off of her, sometimes commissioning people on crafting websites to make her perfect replicas of the pieces she lost (she couldn’t stand how the newer bio-responsive synthetic fabrics felt against her skin, either.) Their youngest daughter certainly wasn’t getting rich like her older siblings, but she was happily getting by, working on whatever she wanted to; the fans of her particular brand of digital painting had stayed loyal over the years, more than willing to support one of their favorite indie artists, knowing who she was, even contributing to a couple of the more progressive autism rights charities that she had come to promote. The days of treating these people like a problem to be solved were all but over; the technically-minded left-brainers had been aggressively recruited by Silicon Valley corporations for years, but anyone with a more artistically creative bent still faced a considerable uphill battle for relevant employment; she was one of many success stories. There was one relatively new development in her meticulously ordered life: she had made a new male friend online on one of her ASD social forums; he was an IT at a graphic design firm and telecommuted from home same as her! They’d been talking at the same time of day every day for months and she really liked him – he’d even helped her to tweak her aging color palate pro bono (she refused to update her software, too; it still worked) – but she didn’t want to pressure him for anything more unless he seemed like he wanted to. For right now they were just enjoying being internet buddies. Her parents were holding their breath.

Conversely, one thing their kids could all agree to be concerned about was their father. Dan wasn’t as hardline as his parents had been about modern medical interventions, but he did believe in the sanctity of the human body, and over the years he had refused certain medical procedures because of his convictions including robotic augmentation of his joints when arthritis set into his knees in favor of medication and steroid shots, and cellular reprogramming and growth via nanotechnology versus a physical operation to repair the retina of his right eye when it became partially detached. He had a standing order in his living will that clearly stated that, if his heart should ever stop for any reason, there was to be no attempt at terrestrial resurrection of any kind, technological or biological – with a caveat for allowed cardiopulmonary resuscitation if it had been less than a minute, but no more – not if any real time had passed. His children – and his wife – tried so hard to get him to change his mind, but he remained firm in his viewpoint and his beliefs, stating that fallen man was not meant to live forever in this world, that true healing was on the ‘other side’ where his parents and his God were waiting for him. He never stopped praying for all of them aloud before going to sleep after reading his Bible no matter what was going on in their lives, and late in life Sarah began to join him silently; his faith had become something wonderful to see in practice, to vicariously share in. As the years rolled on, she called on Jareth less and less often in favor of spending as much time as she could with her husband, until she was only seeing him once or twice a week; the king always scolded her for leaving him for such long durations, but his reproval didn’t hold the harshness it would’ve once. Even without ever discussing it, she had a feeling he could intuit what was happening with Dan, what was coming.

Because among the other nucleotide pairings those researchers had found nearly half-a-century ago, they had identified a genetic tendency that was not only present but active in Dan – the correct recessive sequence for leukoencephalopathy, the spontaneous degeneration of white matter in the brain – which could have easily been reversed with gene replacement therapy if it had been treated in the early stages… which it wasn’t, as per his wishes. The disease was otherwise completely untreatable once the onset was live; it seemed nearly miraculous that he had lived even this long; most victims died of it in childhood, but it was possible for it to appear later and often be misdiagnosed as multiple sclerosis or dementia. Both of his parents had to have been carriers for him to have turned up positive like this, but their children had not inherited the full set since Sarah hadn’t had it – so far, so good. But the genetic screening would have to continue, especially with Skylar; the girls had lucked out, but Ethan had turned up as an inactive carrier. The couple had known about the inevitability for years, but they had kept it private, only telling their children that their father was a carrier – not that he was walking around with a death sentence looming over his head, a ticking time-bomb in his cells. There was no use in distressing them prematurely when he had made up his mind and no amount of worrying would help. It had pained Sarah, but it was his right to choose.

When it finally did strike him at age 75, his decline was breathtakingly swift. All Sarah could do was look on helplessly as the genetic error robbed her husband of his ability to walk, then to move, then to speak and swallow – in just a few weeks flat. As soon as it started happening they knew it for what it was, and admitted him to the hospital right away; a month-and-a-half later he was in ICU. Sarah spent hours at his side every single day, talking to him, even praying for him – that if he was still in there that he wouldn’t give up the hope of his faith. She wasn’t sure he saw her when his eyes were open anymore, even though he could still reflexively grab her hand if she took his; the rest of his bodily functions were being perfectly sustained mechanically – he was being fed everything he could possibly need directly through his blood, and his many vitals were constantly displayed on the large screen above the sofa in the almost hotel-like room: at least it didn’t have to feel like dying in a hospital anymore - mostly. When he had first lost his ability to communicate, tentative ‘lace’ probes were inserted into his brainpan – and the first sentence they got out of him was a very lucid and cognizant order to remove them! He knew perfectly well what the next step would have been once he was fully hooked up: the attempted upload of his memories and personality into a computer program, to live on consciously once his brain rotted away and his body gave out – a medical abomination for anything human in his book.

There were so many things that could be cured in this hospital now: cancer, Alzheimer’s, even HIV – any infectious disease could be eradicated in-house in under half-an-hour using nanites that literally consumed any pathogen they were designed to recognize in the bloodstream or any other tissue where they were injected onsite. But something like this… All they could do was keep him stable and comfortable, and turn the video display terminal onto soothing programming and music. Nothing else had been allowed while there was still time to intervene.

There finally came a night when Sarah awoke out of a deep sleep with a sudden gasp – and the memory of the Goblin King’s voice ringing in her ears:

“Come to me! Now!

She quickly stumbled out of bed, intending to leave dressed as she was - in her nightgown - and ran in the dark to her vanity (the lights came on immediately with her movement) and she opened the bottom left drawer with the false base, pushing it up and unlocking the small square metal box within. Jareth had assured her years ago that the fire-safe had not been necessary, as long as the crystal was not readily accessible. With the object in hand, she willed herself to him in a second – not knowing what was going down but assuming it was serious (he’d never done that before)…

And nearly dropped the crystal in surprise when he grabbed her forearm in the dark with a yank!

“This way! Hurry!”

He ran with her down the twisting stone aisles of the outskirts of the Labyrinth until they came to a sudden wide-spot in the path – a conjunction of five branching corridors…

And there, in the crepuscular dim of twilight – maybe an hour or so before dawn here – kneeling on the stone pavers in front of a quickly burning taper… was her husband?! The candle was unnaturally bright, radiant in fact; when they arrived, he slowly stood and turned to face them – and she saw that he was young again!

And then she understood. He was gently smiling at her. Tears spontaneously streamed down her face.

“Bid him farewell as you would – I’ve rendered him temporarily corporal – but ask him no questions; he cannot speak in this state,” the Goblin King rapidly hissed in her ear. “I’ll only be able to hold him against The Call about a minute longer – that taper’s been burning like a sparkler; it’s already lost three inches!”

She dashed into his open arms – Daniel, her Daniel, just as he was the day she’d met him, as she hadn’t seen him in years; she clutched him to her so tightly that if he’d had lungs yet she would’ve constricted his breathing – but his chest wasn’t moving. He was dressed all in white.

The Goblin King stepped forward into the cast light of the man’s soul: he was all in black. “You may hear now that I am your wife’s secret, but go to your rest knowing that she has always been faithful to you, and has made no vow here but of temporal company.”

The phantom of her husband slowly nodded in acknowledgement, and lifted his living wife’s face up to his, bending to kiss her as if half-asleep. Sarah kissed him back with all the fervor she possessed, and when he broke away she told him over and over and over that she loved him-

Until the taper guttered – going out – and he suddenly dissolved in her arms, vanishing into the darkness his absence literally created… and she crumpled onto the cold, unforgiving paving stones, hard sobs wracking her body, heedless of the gradual lightening of the sky above her. Her Daniel was flown away to his heaven, and left her behind alone.

She felt warm arms lift her, sitting her upright, holding her as he sat beside her, stroking her hair.

“I can guarantee you I’ll be punished for doing that,” he casually mentioned offhandedly, then scoffed a harsh-sounding laugh. “They can just add it to my tab.”

Nothing more was said as the sun slowly rose.

By the time Sarah was somewhat recovered and returned home again, bleary and exhausted, there was a message for her on her cellphone from the hospital, saying that her husband had passed away peacefully but unexpectedly in his sleep: he’d had a surprise blood clot in his left lung, and that was that – there was no way to get to it fast enough. He had actually died of natural causes, as per his wishes.

“I didn’t cause that,” Jareth had answered simply when Sarah voiced her suspicion aloud the next day – and bitterly smiled. “A man like that doesn’t need recourse to a being like me.”

But what are you? Sarah thought, the terrible unanswered question a bottomless black chasm between them again, more pressing than ever. What are you – you who can trap souls and mount them above your bed like trophies?! Who were you originally? Is that why you can never tell me?

But – regardless of what he might’ve been, long ago – what he was now was available to cry on, to hold, and Sarah did precisely this intermittently during the next few months’ visits after the funeral; little things kept setting her off, reminding her, and he would impassively allow her to do what she needed to, to get it out of her system. They never met in his tower bedroom anymore; now that she knew or had guessed what he could not personally tell her about those tapers – that they were indeed the souls of his goblins (who were practically indestructible with them separated and guarded like this) – the prospect appeared to make her far too uncomfortable. He did his best to be amiably distracting elsewhere, usually the kept gardens (the forest only made her weep now), still reading to her often, periodically cursing the death of the printed and bound word in her world; what ‘new’ books he read now she had to purchase for him, which changed their dynamic somewhat because they were a gift and not a Good Neighbors’ loan which could easily be reciprocated. She was freshly leery of accepting his favors again, claiming that she would rather bank on that goodwill for the time being than spend it piecemeal, and while he was irritated to have anything hanging over his head like this, he did not push the issue further. At the time, anyway…

Chapter Text


Author’s note:

Old Giacomo (Peter O’Toole): “Is it terribly important to you that this story have a happy ending?”

Edith: (laughing) “Can you blame me for it, sir?”

Old Giacomo: “No, I can’t. Girls your age with absolutely no experience always like to think that things turn out well.” (pauses in his pacing, turns back to face her) “Is that right, though?”

(scene from the David Tennant BBC Masterpiece Theater Casanova – perhaps ended slightly out-of-context, but you should all know where this is going…)

The personal aside for those of you who are going to be irritated with me for ending Unlock This Door the way I did:

I wrote my very first story when I was in kindergarten; the main character was very obviously a self-insert and the piece was mostly just pretty for prettiness sake. And my teacher (who I adored, who I used to go back to visit periodically until she retired and moved out-of-state), she said to me, “But [Shadow], something has to happen.” And I can remember thinking, why? Why does something have to happen to them? Why can’t they just continue on happy as they are? Why does it have to be ruined? (You will also note that I was a confirmed pessimist at age five; the thought that my characters could have a fun adventure had never occurred to me. Still…)

I have never been able to completely shake this early conviction, this discomfort. For some reason, we seem to think that human suffering makes for a better plot, go figure. Seen from the outside, the collective human condition must make for one heck of a show.

On with the show…
_____________________________________________________________________________________________

Life continued on as it must, but the next dozen years got progressively quieter for Sarah: she started losing contact with a sizable number of people – extended relations, friends from work – because she hadn’t felt like keeping up with the platform necessary for the new popular social media: a permanent AR that made it seem like all your friends were in the same artificial environment together, talking to each other… only the people you were seeing didn’t necessarily see each other, and many live conversations were usually going on at once; the test version had simply been too much for her to handle. Apparently the extreme level of multitasking was easy for others; the prevailing attitude seemed to be that if you weren’t on the platform, you didn’t exist. She had come to hate walking through crowds: she never felt so alone as when she was surrounded by scores of people who didn’t even see her, using their personal GPS to walk around each other, appearing to be staring into space while talking to the voices in their heads – literally. Smartphones were obsolete; even bluetooth wasn’t in use anymore. Implants were the rage – no more shutting off, connectivity 24/7, forever. Lost to the real world. Most of the small businesses she used to frequent were closed now, leaving blocks of empty retail spaces that were being turned into low-cost mini-housing; many times the developers would recycle the old structures if they was still up-to-code, and just 3D printed the necessary separations to suit the space. If anyone else around her still had unfiltered vision, they would have seen that some of the new designs were rather neat in a quirky, collage sort of way.

And it was really bothersome having to deal with these kinds of developments in her children, especially with Ethan; the last few times she had talked to him over the phone she had thought he was on speed – only to find out from Skylar that his dad had opted in for an experimental upgrade on his neural lace that increased cognitive function and performance up to five times more efficient. The boy had found the change in his dad a little annoying at first himself, but he was getting used to it and was wondering if he would be brave enough to do it himself someday – he didn’t want to be left behind by his peers; he’d been warned already the it would be tough for him to get a job. Thankfully the procedure wasn’t okayed for minors yet, and his grandmother did her best to dissuade him, reassuring him that he was intelligent already and loved for who he was, that going extra fast was no guarantee of success. He had patronizingly laughed at her (he was going into middle-school), saying that at least you got wherever you were going.

Sarah found the sentiment terrifying. She had always been determined to not turn into one of those old ladies who was constantly complaining of the present state of the world and inflicting stories of ‘the good old days’ on her children and grandchildren, but… seriously, what happened?! How had it all gotten so crazy so darn fast?! She was officially a relic because she still enjoyed nature and reading physical books!

That was the other thing that worried her: a lot of the trees in town were slowly dying – and it wasn’t just a local phenomena, either; it was happening all over the globe. And there were fewer birds, too, less animals. Western science was at a loss: industrial pollution had been eradicated completely within the last decade, and while global warming was going to be an ongoing threat for the foreseeable future, the progression had been slowed down considerably. The trees weren’t getting eaten by any kind of bug; acid rain was a thing of the past. This was something new, but what? The old ‘conspiracy theory’ was that broadcast wireless non-thermal radiation was interfering with the trees’ ability to function, to process and store nutrients, and while the opinion had been gaining volume level if not respect and credence, the scientific jury was still officially out. And if that was the cause, what then? Would anything really change? Would modern civilization and its multi-billion-dollar tech industries stop on a dime, and all of humanity spontaneously turn into nature-loving tree-huggers? Sarah tended to doubt it.

One thing she wasn’t too worried about was her own personal deterioration; for pushing eighty-five, she was still in pretty good shape, even if she was moving a little slower than she used to – life wasn’t a race. She was still living in the little old (now ancient, it seemed) two-story Victorian house she had shared with her husband for all those years; Debbie’s bedroom had been converted into a guestroom a long time ago, but she almost never had visitors.

Except for Jareth; this was a new development, and it had happened because – living by herself at her age where she was – her kids had started actively worrying about her well-being, especially since she wasn’t well-connected to the outside world digitally. What if something were to happen to her and no one was there to help? When the careful conversations started getting tactfully broached, it was all she could do not to laugh: they were all too young to know about the old ‘Help, I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!’ ads from eons ago in the days of broadcast television. She’d had to finally concede that they had a point, though. Ethan was in favor of a wireless biometric tracking implant, of course, but his mother would have none of it. In the end, she finally agreed to a ‘classic-style’ wrap bracelet, promising never to take it off; they were designed to be left on. The thing was admittedly comfortable, visually unobtrusive, she could even wear it in the shower; she really could wear it until they buried her.

There had been just one little problem: when she disappeared Underground wearing it for the first time, she dropped out of signal range; by the time she returned home, she found that emergency crews had broken into her house and were turning the place upside-down looking for her – her children had been notified that she was missing! There was absolutely no way to explain what had happened, or how they had overlooked her in her bedroom. The grounds were rechecked for reception dead zones (there were none – how could there be any in this day and age?) and took her device to service it quickly just to make sure it wasn’t a hardware problem (it was still under factory warranty). Everything looked strangely fine. But in the brief space of time that she was at liberty again, Sarah had had to go back and tell him that she couldn’t come anymore.

“Well, it lasted longer than I thought it would,” the Goblin King had icily quipped, forming one of his crystals. “One human slave-man, coming right up.”

“Jareth!” she had the audacity to grab his arm. “Calm. Down. I’m giving you permission to visit me in my house instead. I don’t even have much time now – the service representative will be back any minute!”

He sighed, casually crushing the crystal to sparkling dust in his hand, letting it fall to the stone floor. “You know how I feel by now about letting others control you, Sarah. That thing is a leash,” he glanced down in distain at her now-bare wrist; she’d explained to him what it was before.

“It’s just not meant to handle alternate dimension travel!” she laughed. “And if wearing it is what it takes to put my children’s minds at rest about my continuing to live where I am and not moving me into an assisted living center, then I’m willing to do it. We make sacrifices for family; they’re just concerned because they love me. I’m not about to argue with that.”

“Sounds more like a tradeoff on ends,” the king wryly commented. “I suppose it is time for me to reciprocate the visiting favor; you’ve faithfully come to me here for years. Very well, but we’ll have to formalize this quickly.” He instantly reproduced their standing document of emendations. “When would suit you? What days? What times?”

She shook her head. “Just about any day, as long as it’s not ungodly late like three-in-the-morning; I don’t know about you, but I have to sleep, I’m an old lady,” she laughed. “My schedule’s wide open… except for holidays – my family usually comes over – and times that I’m out on…oh, I see your problem, it’s not like you can call and check,” she realized. “How about I just float you my appointments calendar for the month and we can work it out from there?”

He gave her an odd, depressed look.

“What? You asked me. I’m trying to be accommodating.”

He did not immediately respond, rather setting the simple statement of intent down on the parchment and initialing it, handing her the quill to do likewise. “I believe I shall call upon you once a week; if you are absent or entertaining, I shall simply call upon you later – this should not be such an inconvenience or imposition for you,” he answered a bit teasingly.

“But whose week? Your or mine?”

He half-smirked. “You’re still asking that question at this point?”

“Yours, I take it,” she signed the document yet again, putting down the implement, “but that’s meeting you more than halfway,” she coyly teased him back.

He caught her hand quickly – surprising her – and brought the backs of her fingers up to his face…but stopped short of his lips; she could feel the warmth of this breath when he spoke. “You should know better than to flirt with me by now, my dear,” he purred before relinquishing them – she’d all but forgotten how he could make her heart palpitate! “Three nights from today, your time, then. Now you’d best hurry on home to your smothering, tethering well-wishers. Honestly, I swear they’ll be putting real leashes on their children next.”

“Actually, that’s been a real practice for about half-a-century,” she answered, to his surprise and apparent disgust – and laughed at his obvious reaction. “I guess you never knew about it because I didn’t do it with mine.”

Later,” he said emphatically, and she vanished again.

The change took a little adjusting to, but aside of that one brief fiasco, their time spent together continued to run relatively smoothly. She loved getting to show off stuff her children had made or given her or left behind from when they were younger, and he tolerantly poured over her digital albums with her as she gushed about them all, about the old days. They still played their games, but she gave him the option of adding old boardgames into the mix; he had proven somewhat skeptical of this, but she had a fairly extensive collection that she still harassed her children with when they came to visit her, and he had gravitated toward ‘Lie Cheat & Steal – The Game of Politics’ (and thoroughly enjoyed ‘bilking the public’.) She pushed him to try Scrabble also, and this proved to be a more interesting intellectual challenge. He had only shown up once while someone was there – Debbie – and she had walked right past him into the kitchen without even seeing him! He simply raised his hand in silent greeting to Sarah with a smug little smile and disappeared altogether; his visibility had to be ‘at will’, too.

Or was it? Could she only see him because of their contract? Sarah never found out.

Outside of those relatively quiet nights and afternoons socially spent in the comfort of her largely outdated home, the world kept flying by; she could hardly recognize it for what it had once been. She was glad that Dan hadn’t lived long enough to see their eldest daughter throw over her long-term boyfriend for a ‘companionship’ robot! It had been hard, but Sarah had bit her tongue; there had certainly been moments when she had been a teenager in the late 80s when she had felt like giving up on boys altogether – but not like this! The ‘relationship’ did seem to better suit Debbie’s severe egotism, as much as her mother hated to think about it.

Ethan was toying with the idea of adding extra ‘special use’ robotic limbs to his own body; he was well and truly on his way to becoming an honest-to-God cyborg. The technology had been in use medically to replace lost arms and legs for years, but insurance was just starting to pay for the medically unnecessary augmentation surgeries; he wanted extra tool-arms and a set of wings with a wireless drone attachment that would follow him, like a prototype mechanical seraphim (no word yet on what his wife and son thought of this plan – he hadn’t told them yet.) He’d only been able to communicate the idea to his mother in texts – she had a hard time understanding his speech at all anymore; he’d upgraded his mental processes almost to the point to being too fast for any meaningful communication.

Ailsa felt for her mom by now – she was having a hard time with a lot of this stuff, too, and would come over to spend time with her. It had taken decades, but her youngest could finally make eye-contact (although she still had a hard time sustaining it), and on her last visit she really shocked her mother by initiating an awkward-feeling hug – and didn’t pull away when she got squeezed back! She’d been practicing: Dylan had announced that he wanted to meet up in real-life after chatting with her online for years! She was terrified of messing it up – she’d never been in this position before – but it helped knowing that he was every bit as nervous. She couldn’t wait for her mom to meet him in person. Sarah was on pins and needles for her daughter, but she was overjoyed that she had finally found a reason to try.

Sarah had gotten rather used to the autonomous car-pods; their current use sort of reminded her of how it used to feel to take the subway in New York – especially when she was going somewhere on the highway – except that she was never shoved or accosted by strangers for any number of reasons and she always got dropped off within short walking distance of her destination. The subscription was still relatively cheap because everyone used it, and a long trip was still a good time to do some reading. She was currently on her way to the airport in a two-seater instead of the teensy singles she usually ordered (you paid by space and weight) to meet and pick up Dylan; the airport was simply too sensorially overwhelming for Ailsa – thankfully her new guy didn’t seem quite as challenged that way; his major problems had been more social than environmental. She had gotten to talk to him briefly over Skype before the trip, and Sarah had instantly taken to him: he was also shy and mostly courteous, but very, very direct and blunt in a manner she had grown accustomed to with her own daughter. The effect was sometimes funny, but she had learned how to stifle laughter (it still wasn’t polite since the ‘humor’ was almost never on purpose.) He was going to be staying at a quiet, allergen-friendly B&B near the Community Center (which had once been the library) and he and Ailsa had been planning things to do; the interaction challenge for both of them was going to be exciting.

All Sarah noticed before the accident was that the tracking on the wheels had stuttered for a split-second – before the pod abruptly spun precisely 60-degrees to the left, T-boning into the pod next to it – before getting rear-ended, many times…

…she awoke feeling narc-ed, like she was on strong pain medicine, in the ICU, with an oxygen helmet over her head. She had just barely survived a phenomenon that had been plaguing the autonomous car industry for over a decade: a systems malfunction ‘flash-crash.’ As safe as these vehicles had been touted to be in the old days – because they protected the public from reckless drivers, road rage and human error – widespread grid use of them had introduced an entirely new range of problems, from sensors that didn’t work because they were covered up with just a little mud, snow or ice, to severe software and intercommunication malfunctions – some accidental, some the deliberate works of cyberterrorism. They were actually twice as likely to crash as the old gas-guzzlers, and the errors usually seemed arbitrary. As soon as Sarah was conscious, a display had come onto the big screen on the wall in front of her, angled so she could more easily see it from the bed (she could feel the electrodes ‘glued’ to her scalp – the computer must’ve just become aware that she was awake); it calmly explained in a soothing female voice, along with large-print text, where she was, what had happened to her, and what was medically necessary for her recovery.

She was both shocked and appalled: a momentary car-to-traffic-communications server glitch had triggered a spontaneous seventeen-car pileup on the highway! There had been three instantaneous deaths on the scene, eleven transported to two hospitals by AI-operated autonomous ambulance drones (ironically enough – she had been one of them; she had been flown here just like the parcels she received in the mail?!) and the others had caught functioning shared pods to the ER. She had already been treated for second-degree chemical burns from battery acid, but she still had multiple broken bones: her left arm had been shattered by the blunt impact, and her right lung, liver, and the back of her intestinal wall had been punctured by part of the lightweight fiberglass frame of the car along with other more minor lacerations (the spear-like shard had just grazed the kidney on that side), and the major organs needed to be replaced almost immediately; the poisons leaking into her body had temporarily been staunched. The good news (from an insurance point-of-view) was that a cyber-attack had been ruled out, and that the manufacturer responsible for the maintenance of the traffic interaction system along that stretch of road had already accepted the legal blame for the accident; in lieu of a group settlement they had just transferred compensatory funds to the company who owned the fleet cars involved, paid the full hospital fees of everyone who had been injured, and given considerable settlements to the families who had lost loved ones. Her own insurance would throw in a new arm, as well as the rest of the mechanical internal components – robotic replacements for all of her internal organs – as long as they were at it; a small form of insurance against future medical problems. All she had to do was to sit tight and stay calm and cooperative – everything would be fine soon.

But it’s not! she thought, trying not to cry. It wasn’t okay! She knew what that full-system robotic organ transplant meant: it was the beginning of the process of steadily replacing and augmenting her aging, failing human components with artificial ones that could last another twenty-to-thirty years! Her insurance company could pressure her to keep getting physical updates – ‘shop work’ – by jacking up her premiums to unpayable amounts if she refused! They could keep fixing what was breaking for years and years; the rich regularly lived passed 120 now – the brain was always the last thing to be transferred. They wound up turning into AI before something major would give out, like the dermal or muscular tissue that remained; there was only so long you could draw out the shortening of the telemeres in someone’s DNA. The process was still in its early stages – that was always carefully stressed – but what it was was hideous, inhuman. Even regular stem-cell-grown implants weren’t an option anymore because they weren’t ‘wasted’ on the elderly – why give them parts that would break down faster?

She was also notified that her children had all been contacted and told that there was nothing at all to be worried about, that their mother would be out of the hospital in under a week, in more robust condition than ever.

But, really, it was the beginning of the end. And there was nothing she could do about it! What had been so wrong with letting someone live a full life and then die naturally? She had come to appreciate her late husband’s viewpoint on this – and many other things. No matter how hard he worked at it, man was not God, and it seemed that the harder he tried to fill those shoes, the worse things got. Two texts came up on the screen: one from Ailsa, apologizing profusely because she blamed herself for this and stating that she would never take the highway again herself as long as she lived… Also to tell her that Dylan had made it okay on his own and they were going to go out to dinner tonight – he only had a couple of days off from work and they had to make the most of the time; when she had come to the hospital earlier, her mother had still been in surgery, but they would both be by later. The other was from Ethan, telling her not to be afraid of the change and that it was for the best; he had gotten the go-ahead from his family and the necessary time off from work for his own augmentation surgeries – they could recover together; Skylar was looking forward to his new ‘superhero’ dad, proud of how brave he was.

It was about the last thing Sarah wanted to know. Everything was just getting crazier and crazier – what was she going to do? What could she do?!

And what of Jareth? she suddenly thought out-of-the-blue: it was his night to visit and he would be coming into an empty house in a few hours, and again a few hours after that, and then a few days later! He wouldn’t know where she was, what had happened! And he couldn’t go searching for her here, either, as far as she knew!

The videoscreen started displaying soothing images of ‘natural’ scenery (it was most likely just CGI – it was too perfect) and Sarah forced herself to calm down before a nurse or a meditation therapist was sent for. There had to be a way to contact him; she could figure this out. She had to: in the top right-hand corner of the screen, the time of her collective surgery had just been displayed – midnight. It was about 4:30 p.m. now; she must’ve been out for at least two hours!

Say your right words… That was it!!!

She must’ve been too excited in spite of the painkillers – a nurse did come in then, but rather than offering her an anti-anxiety medication she ran through a fast guided visualization exercise with her that left Sarah so groggy in her present physical and mental state that she actually nodded off again…

And was gently awoken when her daughter arrived around 7:30pm; it was a genuinely nice (if short) visit. Dylan could’ve stayed longer, but Ailsa was having to wear her protectively polarized sunglasses inside the building it was so terribly bright for her; she used only low-lumen lamps at home and had the old visual filter over her computer screen. Condolences were given and received, along with Dylan’s expressed hopes of meeting again under happier circumstances. He had tentatively taken her right hand while saying goodbye before Ailsa surprised him by taking his arm, pulling him away, saying they would be back tomorrow after the procedure, if it was allowed.

Sarah had never been so horribly torn in all her life; as per usual, she knew her altruistic side would win out and she would sacrifice herself again for her family. Leaving of her own free will was simply too selfish, too many people would be hurt… or would they? No, she couldn’t go there, as much as she missed her husband and a selfish part of her wished it could just be over – she was 87, for gods sakes! None of her own grandparents had made it past 84 – and for what?! To watch her Debbie get even more messed up by the year because she had more money than she knew what to do with and no morals? To watch her quirky, smart son metamorphose himself and his family into robots, machines that couldn’t relate to anything around them and who literally spent most of their time with their heads in the ‘Cloud’? But Ailsa – Ailsa always pulled her back from these musings; her youngest still needed her in her own way, albeit less than before… but the mother’s own sense of alienation and isolation had come to mirror her daughter’s too closely for comfort. Sarah knew now what her Aspergian child had gone through at first, growing up: going through a world where no one understood her correctly, where no one even wanted to try to relate; being bombarded by mind-boggling stimuli that she was even further ostracized for not liking; being labeled ‘weird’ because she saw and interacted with the world differently than the public at large. And even Ailsa seemed to be faring better than she was! She tried not to think about it as she counted down the hours, channel-surfing with her good hand (how many online channels were there now? Did anyone know? Some of the new shows were even being written by AI programs!)

Sarah cautiously waited until she heard less traffic in the hall outside her room. No one came in to feed her – she probably had to fast for all that surgery – but she wasn’t hungry in the least; they had to be dosing her with an appetite suppressant also. An entertainment bot rolled in around 9:45 to ask if she wanted a bedtime story, but she politely turned the thing down – and it lowered the lights in the room automatically as it left, closing the door after itself. The monitor on the wall changed contrast to a warmer shade, eliminating the blue light so that she could rest.

It was probably now or never; there wasn’t going to be a better chance. Sarah swallowed, wishing she could pray this was going to work but having a sinking feeling that that proposition was out of the question.

“I wish the Goblin King would come here…right now.”

Nothing. She sighed, closing her eyes; maybe that only worked the one way – the wording for the incantation was too darn-

“Oh, Sarah,” she heard him sigh – and opened her eyes: he was standing there beside the cot, taking her hand in his own gloved ones.

“Hi,” she said quietly with a tentative smile. “Sorry about summoning you like this, but I just wasn’t going to make it back in time tonight and I didn’t want to leave you wondering where I’d run off to.”

He raised his eyebrows, giving her a once-over. “This may be the first decent excuse you’ve ever given me,” he noted dryly. “What happened?”

“Oh, nothing out of the ordinary,” she matched his own smooth style of sarcasm, mimicking his voice – making him smile, “just a little computer glitch that cost a few people their lives and sent a bunch more of us here. Shit like this happens all the time,” she gave him a grim little lip-smile of her own.

The amusement dropped off his face; he looked at her left arm, which was currently cocooned in white fabric. “How much damage did you sustain?”

“Plenty – I’m schedules to get robo-organs and a new appendage in a couple hours.”

He looked surprised. “I thought you were against this sort of thing!”

“I wasn’t exactly given a choice; this was what was paid for.” She hadn’t meant to say that so bitterly, but it had come out that way anyway.

His expression softened into something closer to pity. “And they won’t fix you up the old way? Even if you asked?”

“It isn’t cost-efficient, Jareth – it isn’t done anymore.” She paused a moment. “What am I going to do?! I…” Her heart-rate had raised slightly, but she took some deep breaths, lowering it again. “I have to be careful in here,” she explained, “all my body systems are being monitored. You wouldn’t believe the number of probes I’ve got stuck on me right now.”

He tisked. “And I thought I was a ‘control freak’.” He furrowed his brow in thought. “Was that a serious question, Sarah?”

“At this point – yeah,” she laughed a little half-heartedly.

His gaze was upon the bulges that hid the machinery and tubing beneath her soft, warm blankets, but his expression was very far away indeed. “Do you want for me to end this? I could – it would actually be very easy for me to do. But you would have to formally wish it.”

“I can’t do that!” she exclaimed. “That would be assisted suicide – it’s an unforgivable sin!”

His eyes immediately shot back up to hers, suddenly wary. “You’ve converted.”

“Hey, you try facing down old age not knowing if there’s going to be anybody waiting there to catch you on the other side!”

“You realize that makes two decent excuses in the same evening? It really did take you eighty years to mature, didn’t it?”

Silence again. It had been a bad thought in the first place, but Sarah had had a suspicion that he did have that power; she wouldn’t have ever directly brought it up herself, though – it wasn’t a viable option. When she looked back to Jareth, though, she could barely believe that it was him: he looked… different. Older, perhaps, but it was more than that. What it was suddenly dawned on her: he wasn’t hiding his true appearance from her anymore – the faerie-glamour was gone! He was still not uncomely to look at, but his features, the cast of his face, looked decidedly alien to her now, his perennially teasing dual-colored eyes rendered ageless, near-feral. It would have made her terribly uncomfortable if she hadn’t known him casually as a person for the past sixty years! He was taking off the makeup, in a manner of speaking; it was hardly necessary for either of them to be worrying about physically impressing each other anymore, she thought. Way past time, really.

He saw her muted reaction to the change – and genuinely grinned; his teeth looked sharper, too. “I had to test you, to see if you could handle the reality, before I brought this up. There is one other option, Sarah, and it is nearly as costly in regards to what you would lose in this world. I could heal you – make your body perform the repairs organically, make you young again, healthy, whole… but you would have to come Underground with me afterwards, never to return to Earth again. I can free you from this world and hold you from the next for a while; where your soul ultimately goes after you’re physically through in my realm is far beyond my jurisdiction. Those are your choices as I see them – stay or go.” He stroked the back of her hand with his thumb, looking down at it. “You still have no idea how lucky you are to have a choice, Sarah,” he whispered – did his voice just break?

She couldn’t take her eyes off of him – this was the most honest he’d ever been with her for as long as she’d known him; he trusted her this much. She squeezed his hand. “What good is having choices when you can’t even choose?” she almost cried.

He took a deep breath and playfully regarded her sideways. “You always choose your family, no matter what the cost. Are they still worth choosing, though?”

She just stared at him. “What in the world kind of question is that?!” she laughed.

He was unperturbed. “Clearly the wrong tack to take; I am trying to help, Sarah – you know my standards are not your species’. All right,” he conceded, “what about your Daniel,” he only half-taunted for a change and he threw out the name at her. “What would he want?”

Sarah looked away. “He’d be against all of this. He’d want me to ‘come home’ to him… but that’s a conscious choice I’m not allowed to make.”

He moved in closer. “Let me help you, Sarah; you don’t really want all of this junk, either – it’s an anathema to what you truly are,” he stroked her long hair that fell outside the helmet onto the sheets. “Let me take you away from here to somewhere you can actually be happy; let me set you free! You’ve given your children an entire lifetime – just this once think of yourself! If you go through with this procedure, you’re going to come to regret it and to resent who you did it for, for the rest of your unnaturally, uncomfortably long life. Will there be anything left in this place for you to love, to truly and willfully enjoy, in another twenty years? In thirty, forty even? Every time we meet you complain of it more to me, of how the changes are ruining everything, even your precious family. You really think that’s going to get better? That man will one day wake up and spontaneously decide to be a sensible, selfless being?” he archly mocked. “Take the word of someone who’s been watching this process for far longer than you have: it isn’t going to happen. Humanity will continue to be destructive until its been destroyed. I’m giving you the chance to not be a victim of this madness any longer. And I would never have brought this up had you been any younger than you are, or in any better of condition.”

“…but I can’t just disappear! What will my children think?!”

Ocean waves suddenly appeared on the screen, accompanied by the sounds of a quiet surf.

“Don’t fret so, dear human lady,” he purred – he’d never called her that! “You leave that up to me – I can arrange for everything, and more than I have yet offered.”

“Why does that make me not want to trust you?” she studied him a bit cautiously.

He shook his head in reproval. “You have more than earned my friendship, Sarah – something I would have never believed you could do at all. I am not about to abandon my best friend – yes, I said that – in her direst hour of need. Let me save you,” he breathed.

The display reverted back to screensaver and vitals.

“What would you have to do to… do this?” Sarah ventured.

He lightly stroked her inner wrist – and she gasped at the almost fantastical freefall sensation! A seductive little pout of a lip-smile overtook his features. “I would have to kiss you again, to gain temporary access to your bioelectrical field and the integrated physical systems, to will them to do what we want.”

“So that’s the real reason you want to do this,” she suddenly flirted. “I still turn you on at 87, huh? Got a thing for geriatrics?”

“Sarah, I’m being perfectly serious,” he answered her levelly, “this is no game. The process will take less than a minute to complete.”

Her jaw dropped. “You’re kidding me.”

He shook his head solemnly. “I could attempt it without the full connection, but I couldn’t guarantee the results. It would be simplicity itself with ‘full access to the control panel’, shall we say: this is literally a matter of proximity.”

“Have you done this before?”

“No,” he admitted, shrugging – his shoulders looked too thin without the glamour, his build far slighter – “but the basic principle is physically and biologically sound. It’ll work.”

He had very nearly convinced her, but Sarah was still wavering…and then that feather-light pressure of his fingertips drifted higher up the inside of her arm, and her thoughts were swept away by pleasure.

“You’re trying to seduce me into joining your side,” she lightly scolded him.

“I am fervently attempting to persuade you to make the right decision,” he easily corrected her. “Believe me, Sarah, if I was trying to seduce you, you would know.” He repeated the easy motion.

But she caught his wandering hand; she could not think straight with him doing that! “I’m not going to wind up being addicted to you again, am I?”

“No, I think not; I would be far too preoccupied this time for that to happen.”

“And I won’t be trapped in Faerie for tens of thousands of years – I never forgot that comment, J. This isn’t a personal dig, but you’re basically trying to sell me on the ‘extra-natural-lifespan-in-Faerie-versus-an-artificially-long-one-here’ plan; there aren’t any special contract clauses to this thing that I need to be aware of, are there?”

“No,” he said gently. “Well, maybe just the one, but it’s minor: I will hold your soul for as long as it takes to burn down one of my tapers when you finally do pass away – it’s just an old habit, Sarah. Is that objectionable to you? That I would want to hold your soul in my hands and take warmth and comfort from its glow before you leave?”

“…but, the other tapers…”

“Are a special case – and that’s all you need to know,” he said with finality. “You are in a very different category.” He could still see the questioning in her eyes. “Have I ever done wrong by you, Sarah, while we have been friends?” he asked sadly. “Have I ever failed you somehow? Can’t you simply have a little faith in me, that I could never bring myself to truly cause you harm?”

His plaint cut her to the quick, and Sarah looked away, ashamed. Here was the one person she had left who actually did care about her for herself, not just what they could get out of her, emotionally, financially, conveniently. Sure, it had started out that way in a very blunt (and bizarrely honest) sense, but their odd-couple really had turned into a genuine friendship right around the time that Ailsa had finally moved out – it was almost funny thinking of it now. No one else involved in this situation cared at all, about what she wanted or didn’t want. She should have the right to say what happened to her own body – no one else had that right, not while she was still sound in mind! And if she did nothing tonight – if she endured it and stayed – she would lose that right, and only God knew what would happen to her before she was finally allowed to die. If she was allowed to ever truly pass on…

Daniel…

She went to nod quickly before she could think about it anymore – only to find that she couldn’t bend her neck! Was she really that well numbed up? Apparently so!

“Yes,” she said instead.

Jareth’s face practically lit up. “What must I do to render this room secure? Anything I don’t know about?”

She heard the unmistakable sound of a deadbolt sliding into place in the door – when it couldn’t have even had one in the first place! “There’s an emergency oxygen robot in the closet that’ll probably activate and come out when you take my helmet off – I’m down a lung and this thing’s giving me extra air.”

He stalked over to the closet on the left-side of the room (his gait looked too long for his body in his more ‘natural’ form) and after only a moment’s concentration facing the thin sliding door, he chuckled.

“They’re far easier to manipulate now that they’re programmed to ‘think’ like humans; I just put it in a trance – it won’t disturb us,” he turned, and walked back to her. “Now, as for you…”

Carefully folding down her blankets, he could see just how hooked in she was: there were two non-invasive probes on each of her feet and another wrapped around the region of her thoracic vertebrae, along with the tubes that were feeding liquids and nutrient-rich blood into her veins and a temporary catheter since she was basically immobilized. She was heavily bandaged on the left side where those stupid burns had been (they had to have detoxed her of the compounds, too – no wonder she had been so wiped out!) as well as where the other deep wounds were on her right side; the tissues had been glued together, but it was far from a permanent fix. Other than that she really wasn’t seriously hooked into that much, relatively-speaking. Without a word, obviously concentrating, the Goblin King commenced his own delicate series of operations – first putting the bed into ‘standby’ mode so it wouldn’t recognize the extra weight – slowly, deliberately removing the non-invasive probes one by one, forcing the information they had been receiving to continue on loop so that their absence wouldn’t be missed.

“Last bathroom call before the trip?” he teased her before removing the catheter, putting down the sidebar and climbing up onto the mattress, perching beside her on the edge. The tubes in her veins only gave him slight pause: he suddenly put one hand under her back on the truck-side… and searing heat accompanied the removal of the inserted items, then stopped just as suddenly. Sarah’s eyes about popped out of her head when she saw what had happened: the skin and veins were completely healed up! And not just healed – there were no wrinkles or age discoloration for a five-inch circumference radiating from that area!

She looked back to him, both disbelieving and excited: he really could do this! Catching her look of surprised delight, he countered it with his own smug one, like saying, ‘I told you so.’ All that remained was the helmet; Sarah couldn’t sit up, so he had to adjust her pillows somewhat to remove it, doing his best not to move her; she panted a little without it. It took a while to undo all the electrodes on her scalp; he insisted on washing out the glue manually using soap and water from the sink in the room, getting her pillow all wet. Unencumbered by all the medical equipment – a glance behind him at that screen confirmed the illusion of her still-stable diagnostics – he carefully climbed over Sarah, straddling her without putting down any of his weight on her broken body, and crawled forward, leaning in close. For a moment he stroked her wrinkled face with the backs of his fingertips as he had done the fateful day they had met; he was not smiling, but his expression was tender.

“I will warn you before I begin that this accelerated healing process will not be terribly pleasant for you; you will feel itching and fire as you have never experienced in your entire life. But you have my word that I will not make you endure it any longer than absolutely necessary. This is simply the human body’s reaction to being driven in ‘high-gear’ – you remember what that means,” he briefly smiled. “Energy produces heat; that’s just basic physics. All right?”

“Yes – wait! The transportation crystal you gave me: it’s still in my house!”

“Not anymore it isn’t,” the item appeared in his hands.

“And I wish all the books I have left were in your library… right now.”

He gasped in genuine shock, his eyes widening. “Sarah… you can’t-”

“I just did,” she saucily answered, sounding much more like her old self. “They’re going to have to last us for a while. My kids don’t want them; they’ll just get recycled.”

“No more items,” he stated sternly. “That will look strange enough.”

She smiled up at him, though. “Ready when you are,” she sighed, reaching up with her right hand to run her fingers through that crazy, silky mane as he lowered to her lips.

“Whatever happens, don’t let go of me,” his strangely beautiful, inhuman eyes filled her vision. “Everything is going to be all right.”

And then he kissed her… and Sarah could swear lightning was coursing through her body! She was on fire – not from lust, but from the immense energy careening through her systems, through all her tissues! Tears flowed down her face, but he held her steady, first cupping her face to his, then supporting her head, then her back as he lowered himself onto her, absently fidgeting with undoing the wrappings on her left arm. Her breathing was normal again already – both punctures in her lung were gone! And a few seconds later she physically convulsed against him as the scar tissue from her external injuries scabbed over, itched like hell, and smoothed clear in the blink of an eye! Her left arm that would’ve been amputated as a lost cause in under two hours wrapped around his back, joining her right, pressing him to her. She was sweating and her heart was pounding from the extreme physical exertion, but the changes kept on coming – she could feel the wrinkled skin of her face going taut, her breasts filling again, her muscle tone coming back! The hair of her head was growing at an utterly insane rate – and she was suddenly hungry, starving. Thirsty. The process was still going, though, his kiss deep and methodical; it was just one long liplock. The burning was getting worse again – much worse – especially from the region of her kidneys for some strange reason. He was driving her body past any point of physical exhaustion she had ever known – dark brown hair flowed down across the side of her face in her peripheral vision! She nearly screamed from the unbearable heat - her head was throbbing from the physical commands overload - there was a sudden, violent spasm of pain that seemed to come from all of her at once - he clutched her so tightly he could’ve broken her-

And the sensation let up on a dime. The process was complete! It took her a second to realize that they were standing now, with him still supporting her, still sharing that long, languorous kiss. When he pulled away, she felt no hunger for him as she had the first time! She was so happy she could burst and she hugged him – he’d really and truly done it! They were in his tower and it was morning; she nearly laughed, seeing her piles of books everywhere all over the floor.

But then the sadness in his eyes registered as he stepped back, removing himself from her embrace, looking her over, and she looked down herself – and saw that she was dressed all in white… just like her husband had been!

‘You liar!’ she angrily screamed in his face, ready to hit him – then covered her mouth instead, her eyes wide: no sound had come out!

Jareth calmly walked over to the little table…fetching her brilliantly burning taper. “You’d be needing this to roundly scold me, dear,” he said quietly with a bittersweet little smile. “I had to – it was the only was to save you from yourself, without you being held accountable for my actions,” he answered, watching as the full implications of what he had most likely brought upon himself came over her. The voiceless concern in her eyes was worth volumes.

He shook his head. “There’s no point in troubling yourself over me,” he looked down, away. “I fell from any grace I may have had long ago. What will happen will happen. You won’t so much as remember my name in under five seconds once you get where you are going,” he teased, looking back, seeming more relaxed again – but Sarah was elated; she had been so busy worrying about others that she hadn’t even thought…

‘Daniel!’ she mouthed rapturously.

The king rolled his eyes, but nodded. The tall taper had already lost two inches and was quickly losing a third, the tallow being completely consumed, nothing lost. “You’ll be with your sainted husband soon enough. Now,” he grabbed her hand – hard – bringing her mentally back, “we haven’t much time: you never allowed me to repay your for your gifts of reading material, and now look what you’ve gone and done!” he exclaimed, sweepingly gesturing to the mess behind him with a frowning grin! “I will not be held in a dead woman’s debt for the rest of all time! I cannot grant you anything in your current state; you must pass it onto one of your descendents, blood kin, now who is it to be? Decide quickly!” The taper had lost another three inches while he spoke!

Sarah briefly thought to tease him by dragging this out… but the afterlife was too serious to tease about, and, besides, she already knew – and mouthed the name clearly.

The king sighed. “It just had to be that one.”

She smiled so brightly he actually averted his eyes, nodding. “So be it, as you wish.”

She grabbed his own arm and he looked back: her expression was terribly serious. He laughed.

“Have no fear, my Sarah, I am well-acquainted with your moral policy concerning these things: ‘firstly, do no harm.’”

She only slowly let go of him. The look remained a moment longer. The taper had just dropped to under the last two inches, and he held it out for her.

“Go on, take it, it can’t hurt you – it’s you,” he said – and she gingerly accepted it, cradling it in her left palm, watching it go down. He took her right hand, intertwining his thin, old fingers with her own newly young ones. “I shall miss our talks,” he said quietly. Then smirked. “And beating you at poker. But it is your time.”

One inch, half-an-inch… She looked up into his eyes, hers full of excited expectation-

And then her soul dissolved the temporary barrier that had caused her tentative corporality and she vanished – leaving his hand empty. He solemnly stared at the space where she had stood only moments before… then walked through it, pacing out to his balcony to take in the daylight again…
_____________________________________________________________________________________________

When the fire crew finally broke down the door to Sarah’s room in the ICU of the hospital and the staff was able to enter, one of the nurses – not someone new or squeamish, mind you – fainted dead away at the sight.

For there on the cot, amidst discarded sensors and tubing that was leaking biohazardous liquids all over the tile floor, was the dead body of an eighteen-year-old girl – with no physical damage whatsoever! A chaplet of pale-blue wildflowers crowned her very long, fairytale-like hair… that was abruptly steel-gray halfway down?! And she did in fact resemble very strongly the old woman who should’ve been in here, who was overdue in the operation theater for full internal transplants and a new left arm! There was no explaining it – it made absolutely no sense! DNA testing confirmed that it was indeed the frail, battered 87-year-old grandmother who had been brought in not half-a-day ago, but her metamorphosis seemed scientifically impossible…

Until they received the okay from her immediate next-of-kin to perform expeditious research on the cadaver to try to find the answer – if it was some biological fluke, they were on the brink of one of the biggest medical discoveries in human history! Her internal organs told quite a different story, however; shriveled was a good initial visual description, but that just scratched the surface of what had really happened. It seemed that the cause of death was an unnaturally accelerated entropy, one that cannibalized her vital tissues for superficial regeneration! Those organs of hers were biologically over 140-years-old! It was a freak tragedy – and there was certainly no way to ascertain what the trigger had been. The findings were kept quiet and the family was pushed to cremate her – which they didn’t. The result was simply too miraculous to mar, in an awful sort of way.

Almost as disturbing a finding as that corpse were the flowers in her hair: the species was completely unknown – not just rare, unknown. Light-blue buds with ‘pink’-like petal formations growing on a woody vine; placed in water, they kept on growing and spreading, forming roots but no leaves! Samples were sent to major horticultural biologists around the country for attempted identification: there was none. It was a new species entirely – nothing was related to it! Where had it come from? The whole scenario was straight out of an alien-abduction movie!

And it certainly made Ethan think twice about his upcoming augmentations, even questioning some of the work he’d already had done: useful progress was one thing – evolution, even – but was it all worth the risk of a premature death? Had he inherited the gene that caused this? Was there any way to know? He put off his subsequent procedures for a few months, then cancelled them altogether and started working to dissuade his son from making the same mistake (the major work was legal starting at age 21, and Skylar would be in another month.) The news didn’t affect Debbie quite as profoundly as her brother, but it still made an impact; the sudden death was far more shocking. She had come to expect that by the time she was that age, death would’ve been eradicated completely; there was no need to worry about some distant Judge in an a mythical afterlife if you never had to go there, if you could have your heaven here on Earth and eat it, too. She didn’t tell anyone, but she downgraded her companion ‘Fabio’ to the ‘platonic friendship’ setting; ‘he’ was fine with the new arrangement, of course.

Ailsa was the only one to connect the clean theft of every last reading material in her parents’ old house with their mother’s death. There was something terribly spooky about the whole thing. She couldn’t explain it, but she’d had this gut feeling pretty much her entire life that her mother had been hiding something from them; no real proof, just instinct, you would call it. As if she were protecting them – but from what? Would there ever be an answer? She knew no one would ever believe her; it would just be ‘Ailsa getting lost in her imagination again.’ But – somehow – she knew. She planted a sample cutting of those alien wildflowers by the side of the house – just to see if they would grow, a physical testament to her mother’s hidden life – and in a single season they had climbed to the roof like creeping ivy, engulfing the west wall in leafless, dead-looking vines with impossibly sweet-smelling, pale-blue blossoms. (The subsequent owners of the property could never eradicate them, even with seemingly complete soil transplants and slash-burning of the roots: it was more noxious than bindweed! Or ‘resilient’ – it all depended on how often you wanted to be pruning to be able to open your windows and find your front door!)

As for Sarah’s ethereal-seeming ‘shell’, she was given a closed-casket funeral and interred next to her husband in the church cemetery. The top-half of the lid had been briefly open for the family’s private reception before the rest of the congregation arrived and the service got started, though. And as she came up the remains of her mother – seemingly younger than she had been when even Debbie was a baby – Ailsa noticed something odd: her mother’s hands had been folded as if she was only in repose (still common practice in the funeral industry), but her perfect fingers were folded over something… Seeing that no one else was paying attention, absorbed in their devices (when weren’t they?), she carefully pried it out of her rigor-mortis-tight grasp.

It was a small crystal ball, not quite three inches in diameter, about the kind that she had seen people use to contact-juggle at the renaissance festivals that her father used to abhor – not half as much for the drinking as for the horrible historical inaccuracies perpetuated to general public! The memory made her nostalgic.

And then it hit her as to why this object had seemed so familiar, and she instantly went cold, her eyes widening. For, you see, while it is true as a general rule that small children cannot form permanent memories until they are three years of age, children with certain variants of autism can develop permanent memories much, much earlier, and Ailsa had very specific snapshot-like memories that went back as far as seven-months-old. She had just remembered

Meanwhile, the creature who had fashioned himself Goblin King, who had been calling himself Jareth for so long that he had almost convinced himself of it, was watching the interment from across the street in his ‘totem’ form (humans and their need to label everything), waiting for them to leave so that he could tail Sarah’s youngest daughter back to her apartment complex – to play her ‘fairy-godfather’ by granting her biggest wish. And hoping to begin the process of what her mother had termed ‘The Friendship Contract’ all over again, with her, starting out on his very best behavior this time in spite of the fact that she’d literally cost him one of his minions some time ago. He may have been screwed in the end, he reflected, but that didn’t mean he had to be bored in the interim. Or lonely; Sarah had inadvertently taught him that. As the correct car-pod finally pulled away, he casually took off after it, mentally readying himself to step onto the merry-go-round ride of another human life.