She had stepped back from his anger, when he released her, pressing herself against the stone wall, as though it meant sanctuary. Her arms were sore, where he'd held her, where his fingers had been. She was probably bruised, but she felt ice cold. He'd been angry before, and hurt, but he'd never hurt her like this. It wasn't the same as the wake-up slap when she was in the thrall of the Enigma sprites. She breathed deep, trying to still her trembling, trying to stop her tears; her hand came up, pressing against her mouth, stifling a sob.
If she could judge by what she'd just seen, by what he'd just said, she had never hurt him so deeply before, ever.
She couldn't even make it to a chair. Her knees gave out and she sank down against the wall, hiding her face in her hands. It was too late to hold back, too much to hold back, and at first she couldn't even put her finger on why she was crying: for herself, for him? For them both?
It wasn't just that he'd scared her, though that reaction had been the catalyst. It wasn't that he'd hurt her; she ached all over now, relic of seventeen hours of walking and the tension of that last conversation, and a little voice in the back of her mind said that he hadn't done it on purpose. He'd probably fix it when he saw her again.
If he saw her again.
No, when. It had to be when. He'd told her not to look for him tonight, but that was what she'd asked him to do. He'd asked for space, rather than just disappearing. He respected her that much, enough to remember her request. Fighting like that—that's how you fight with someone you want to make up with. And he'd been alone so long—did he even know how to reconnect with words, rather than silence? She'd made the first move, after he'd brought her here, and again after the conversation on the Stairs. He'd responded, but with actions, instead of speech.
She'd always known he was proud.
She crossed to the bedroom, half in hope, but the door to the King's Stair was closed. She wondered if she'd ever see it open again. She'd gone up, once more, one of the previous evenings, and sat with him while he spun dreams of the story she'd told him, reaching directly for the minds of those he now could touch. She'd been struck again by his intense focus, his beautiful concentration, the elegance of his every gesture.
She looked at the bed, then, slowly, shook her head. She had exhausted herself with tears, but she couldn't sleep yet. Dusty and sore, she made her way to the bath, and sat calmly while the huge tub filled. She watched the water, as it lapped slowly higher, floating, not thinking. By the time the tub was full, she was ready to think more calmly about what he had said tonight.
You are as free as you decide you are. His parting words. As you decide you are. Was he saying that she could simply decide to be free? Decide that he had no power over her? And he could send her home? That hadn't worked, when she'd said it—when she'd said the words. And if it was that easy—if all she had to do was believe hard enough—if it worked like the Relative Stairs—then why wouldn't he have told her so? The first day, he'd said he thought he knew, and then refused to tell her because… what had he said? Telling you would make it very unlikely; so unlikely that I will not risk it.
If she knew she was deciding to be free, in order to actually get free, would it work? Would she really be able to convince herself that it was true? Would it work, if she wasn't completely convinced?
What does it mean to be free? What would be different, if she were?
Leaving the bath, she chose a floor-length nightdress from the wardrobe. It was more elegant than her usual choice, but tonight was a night for elegant melancholy. Opening the door to her balcony, she found the night was chillier than she'd yet experienced; a cool wind blew, and the stones retained none of the day's warmth. She collected the matching robe, and went to the balcony edge, resting her arms on the stone. Her feet were ice against the floor; the bite of the cold made her feel more alive.
The view from her balcony wasn't quite the view from the Eyrie, but it was even better than the view from her window. You could see the Labyrinth from the window in the sitting room, but most of the Goblin City and the Junkyard lay between; from the balcony you could see the city, off to the sides, but straight ahead it was only Labyrinth, all the way to the border, which at night was shrouded in darkness and distance. Regularly spaced high walls traced circles around the Castle and the City, still and dark; between the walls, the living Labyrinth shifted and changed, as ceaseless and hypnotic as waves breaking on the shore.
She'd felt trapped, in the Labyrinth, when she'd been in it the first time, for Toby. Trapped, and on the clock; the Labyrinth had been a place of stress. Trapped; trying to break free. "Free" had meant finding Toby, saying the Words, defeating the Goblin King.
She'd felt driven, in the Labyrinth, when she'd run it yesterday with her friends. Driven to solve this puzzle so she could move on and figure out the answers to the puzzle her life had become. She'd convinced herself that it could be a possible end result, that it could mean going home, even though Jareth—who'd said he knew what she needed—had called it unlikely, and Hoggle had even seemed hesitant. Solving the Labyrinth had done one thing, though: she knew, without a doubt, that that avenue was closed to her.
What did she want, now? She still wanted to go home, she still thought things would be simpler there, but if going home meant never seeing Jareth again, if he was angry and wouldn't answer, or if he couldn't answer… no. They should be friends, at least friends. It hurt too much, to think of him hurting. It hurt too much to think of not seeing him again.
The chill in her heart matched the chill of the wind, the ice of her feet. She went back inside, and lay down on the bed, flopping right into the center. She'd been in the Labyrinth all day, but she didn't expect Jareth to join her. Not after today.
What would her life have been like, if she'd stayed there kissing him in the park, and then he'd taken her home? If he'd come to call again on Saturday… and this time maybe she invited him in?
She closed her eyes, snuggling into her pillow, and let herself imagine it.
He took her to dinner, again, less formal dinners than that first date, and told her stories of the Underground. She cooked for him, other times, and they sat in her living room, both working, she at her research and he with his dreams.
He was a bit more forward than he'd been in the Underground. He kissed her, that day after the concert, not right away but not when he was leaving, either, and she kissed back. The days were filled with little touches, each one a thrill.
She spun several scenarios; they couldn't all be true. But they had one common theme: they touched, they talked, they took time to know each other, and at some spark, not too long after that concert, they didn't stop with kisses.
They took a weekend trip to the beach, and walked on the water at midnight, and kissed at moonrise, and ended up making love under the boardwalk on a blanket he'd conjured. She read him The Hobbit one afternoon in the park and when he kissed her in gratitude she wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him back and they barely made it back to her apartment for some privacy. She suggested a movie, but they teased each other with little touches, daring each other to make the first move, to light the spark, a game they're playing without having settled the rules, but even though it was her fantasy she couldn't say who moved first: him pinning her arms and pressing her into the couch, or her lunging forward in a passionate kiss.
The man in this fantasy was not a different Jareth. He was still moody, still quiet, still sarcastic, still challenging; still haunted, and lonely, and carrying the weight of the world. He was still brilliant. He still thrilled to competition. He still focused on her, sometimes, so intensely that she felt like the center of the world, a sensation both frightening and overwhelmingly intimate. Only the setting was different; she was safe Above, not held Below.
But if the setting was the only difference, was there any difference at all?
You are as free as you believe you are. Whether he knew her better than she thought, or whether he'd overheard her speaking to Hoggle, had he been talking about their relationship? What he'd said, when he kissed her after her gift—"no expectations." She hadn't been sure, but now she knew he'd understood, when she refused his kiss after the Enigma sprites, why she had made that choice. He was too important to take lightly. They were too important to take lightly. But in every sweet fantasy she spun, she ended up in his arms. She tried to imagine a fantasy where they didn't end up together, and the only one she could come up with was one where he simply disappeared, and she missed him.
If she ended up loving him, in every fantasy Above, the only thing holding her back, Below, was her resentment that he had trapped her here. Could she let it go? You are as free as you believe you are. The poem he'd quoted: the man was really in prison, but chose to see it as "an hermitage." It was his attitude, not his location, which made him free. She could decide she was free to love Jareth, Above or Below. She could be his guest, not his prisoner, and as a guest, everything would be cast in new light. She'd said once that there was nothing for her here, that his wanting her to stay couldn't be enough, but if she wanted him just as much, that would be quite different. First in someone's heart. Her old dream; the one dream of her childhood that had never truly died.
She fell asleep, finally, dreaming of his arms around her. When she woke, late the next morning, it was to think she felt his arms around her in truth, but when she moved, she was alone. She thought she'd imagined it all until she rolled over and found that the bed beside her was dented, and still warm. The marks on her arms were gone.
Last night's clarity hadn't deserted her, in daylight. But when she revisited her fantasies, in her journal, she found something she'd missed. In each one, she felt certain of his love, and comfortable with his role as Goblin King, but she couldn't ever conjure up the conversation. That was the missing piece, the thing she had to have. He felt for her; he wanted her to stay in the Labyrinth; he hadn't pressured her, but she was sure he wanted her in his bed, as well. He wanted her forever. He feared for her, he cared for her. He'd slept with her, last night, in spite of everything. Was that love? And if it was, would he ever say so?
Could she trust to it anyway, if he never did?
She made her way to the library, and spent the day searching for the history of the Goblin Kingdom, of the Labyrinth, but the filing system was too archaic and the room too large—or she was looking in the wrong place. She could find nothing. Still, the thought nagged at her: she'd never seen Jareth with a wished-away child, and she knew something of what happened, what was required, but she did not know enough. To stay with him, she needed to be alright with his responsibilities. If she'd stayed Above, she couldn't have taken up with a kidnapper, after all.
Well. If she couldn't learn about The Goblin King, she could think further about her Goblin King. To get out of the dust, she retreated to the music room; it was closer than going back to the top of the tower and her rooms were getting claustrophobic anyway. She sat at the piano and picked out what she could of the melody she remembered from the ballroom, but she knew she hadn't got it quite right. She didn't have the ear. But Jareth could teach her. Someday.
Someday. What did "someday" mean for her, if she did stay here with him? Nothing dies here, not naturally; she would live forever, or at least as long as Jareth did. From what she understood, when he said "faded," he meant the loss of the will to go on. Not that it was as simple as deciding to die and quickly dying, but giving up would mean slowly slipping away into nothingness, over the course of months or years. A kingdom—an area of the Underground—faded as well when no immortal will remained to sustain it. So by loving him, she was consigning herself to his fate. That didn't sound so very bad. She'd been ready to do it for Ben, to follow where his career led, content to find her own work where he was. She was still ready to do that, for the right man. A twelve-thousand-year-old immortal wasn't quite the man she'd imagined, a few years ago, but neither was it such a terrible thought.
What wasn't she thinking of? Did anything remain? The sun was going down. She hadn't paid attention to the length of the day.
She returned to her room and pulled her journal; it was nearly full, now. She'd intended to write out some of her conclusions, but instead, she found herself staring at the opening pages. Toby. Family. That's what she was missing, what she hadn't thought of. That's what she'd be losing, if she stayed. What would they think of her? Would they forget her? Or would she be just a missing persons report? Could she cause them that pain? And—could she leave them?
The last was easy enough to answer. She could. She always could. In many ways, she already had: Above, she saw them only occasionally, and Below, it had been days before she even remembered them. Toby was the only one she would regret, but he was young, and resilient. Even if he remembered her, even if he grew up knowing he'd lost a sister, he'd be alright. He'd go on, and the grief would be a child's grief, and he'd still live a good life up there. She'd given up her dreams for him, once; he was safe, now, and she didn't need to do it again.
So that was it. If Jareth loved her, and if she could accept his work, she would stay. If not… if not, she'd ask to move to a room in the guest wing, and distance herself from him, and do her best to find her way home on her own. Or perhaps, in time, simply fade away.
It should have been simple, but the next day, Jareth still had not returned. She paced the Castle, searching every room she could reach, and even asked the Goblins, but none of them had seen the King. Tomorrow would be Long, Long enough to reach the edge of the Labyrinth again now that she had some idea of a path, even if it wasn't the Shortest. After some thought, she determined that if he wasn't back when she woke, she would go ask Hoggle if he knew where Jareth could be found. Even if he didn't, it would be good to get his perspective on her decisions, and he would be anxious to know that she was alright, after their last parting. And, at the very least, Jareth had always come for her if she was out in the Labyrinth at sunset. She could only trust that he'd come for her this time as well.
Through the Junkyard, past the sundial obelisk, quick in the Mirrors, around the hedges, over a fallen wall: the journey was easy enough to retrace, even alone. She had that sense of direction: once she'd gone somewhere on her own two feet, she could almost always find it again. It hadn't mattered her first time through, but it served her well now. As she walked, she thought through everything she needed to say to Jareth, running through potential conversations. She would ask about the history first, and about how he saw his position. If that satisfied, then they could get to the rest.
She came, finally, to the outer wall, and only then realized that she had no idea how to find the Gate without the assistance of its Keeper. Well, if she couldn't find it, hopefully Jareth would find her, but in the meantime, the first thing to do was try the obvious.
"How to do I get out of the Labyrinth?" She asked her question to the empty air. Immediately to her right, the wall rippled and changed, and the great gates groaned open.
She stepped out quickly, turning to look for a sign of Hoggle, and stopped short, staring at the top of the hill. Jareth was standing there, again, but dressed normally, not in his formal attire. He wasn't watching the gate, either; he was staring out across the Labyrinth, thoughtful, not pained. He didn't look at her, but she knew he would not run away; he knew she was there. Slowly, she climbed the hill to stand beside him, and waited to see if this time he could break the silence.
"Always we return to the site of previous confrontations." His voice was very quiet, only a pitch above the gusting wind. She heard the concession, as well: he took the first step, and it had taken only minutes. She would have spoken, eventually, but it moved her that he had begun.
"I'd rather it be here, than in the Stairs," she answered. "I don't pass here every day."
"We have enough memories, there."
Carefully, she drew breath again. He had broken the silence, but she needed to speak next.
"I'm sorry I hurt you," she began quietly, "with what I said. With—when I repeated what I said the first time. It… wasn't really pleasant for me, either. And what I said when we returned to the Castle. And thank you—I know you were there, that night." He nodded, once. "I wish… I wish you had stayed. But I understand that you weren't ready yet.
"You are right, about my freedom," she went on. "I've been seeing myself as your prisoner, or maybe the Labyrinth's, but it isn't that simple. I didn't mean for you to bring me here, but I understand why you did and even why you thought it was okay. I—I would probably have agreed, myself, had you explained just a little bit more."
"That is… good to know," he said, slowly. He inhaled a moment, as though to speak again, and then stayed silent.
"I'm not ready to say that I'll stay; I'm not ready to give up wanting to go, not yet," she said carefully, and he turned, finally, to look at her, his mouth set in a thin line, his eyes perfectly blank. "But I did a lot of thinking, and I think I maybe could say that, if you…." She trailed off, not certain how to finish.
"If I…" he prompted, his voice edging into impatience.
"I have a few questions," she said, taking a different tack. "A few more things I need to know."
"Shall we return to the Castle?" he asked, and she heard cautious hope, the beginning of peace.
"I think I'd like to stay here, for the first," she answered, and he tensed again, only a little. "I tried to look this up myself, but your library is impossible. How did the Labyrinth come to be? Why do you take children? What does it mean, to be the Goblin King?"
He let out a slow breath, his face softening as he watched her, and then he gestured, conjuring a blanket to cover the sandy hillside.
"Sit," he said. "I will tell you the tale." She did as he asked, crossing her legs to sit facing him rather than the Labyrinth. He turned to watch his domain, staring into the distance.
"You ask for the forgotten history of this place," he said quietly. "You have a right to know. Your mythology knows only hints of the story. I myself know it only from books; none of the major participants were alive when I came to live Underground. But I think you will know some of these names." He took a deep breath.
"Moloch began it." He spoke in a voice that lacked emotion, as if reciting a book from memory. "Moloch, who believed that humans bred too quickly. He convinced those who worshiped him to give him their children, sacrifices for his goodwill. He was the first, though others followed. He tied the power into his section of the Underground; to get from Above to his home Below required that he bring a human child. He believed them vermin; he slew them without thought." His voice trembled as he spoke of that sacrifice; he would never countenance such cruelty.
"Minos tamed it, with the help of Zeus. We do not kill our own kind, but they trapped him in the form he liked to take Above, a man with the head of a bull." He nodded as she gasped. "The Minotaur. The connection could not be closed, but it could be moderated. Minos reduced the sacrifices, though he could not end them. The Kingdom Moloch had built, Below, took the form of his surroundings Above, and the Labyrinth was born.
"Theseus and Ariadne ended him. For breaking our law, they paid in loss of love: they were forbidden to see each other again." He laughed softly, shaking his head. "Your world would lack many myths, had they remained together.
"But the Labyrinth, though free of Moloch, required a ruler. Ariadne, now consort of Dionysus, undertook the task, and later passed it on to her son Latramys. Working together, they managed to link the Labyrinth into something like its current form: children given willingly, to enforce the connection between the worlds. Latramys was the first you might call a 'Goblin King,' though goblins were not common, then. Most of the youths sent away were older, and assumed other forms, but the formula was very similar.
"Later, when we were less gods and more benevolent spirits to Men, we forged the connection as the Wish, the Wish you know quite well. The ruler of the Labyrinth, the Goblin King, is bound to answer such requests. Later still, when we realized that strength of connection could be built on Men who came and then left, the practice of offering dreams, or allowing the wisher to challenge the Labyrinth, was instituted, and the first version of the story you knew was spread Above.
"As Goblin King, I am bound to obey the Wish, now. I am the eighth since Latramys. It continued many years in his line, but the last of his sons had no time, Above, to father an heir. When he gave up, I had been Below some two hundred years, and was just coming into my full strength. I did not desire the Kingdom, but was told it was my duty to my people, and so has it remained. Does that answer your question?"
"I think so, yes… but why did you become the Goblin King, instead of being the heir to your family's territory?"
He laughed again, then, mirthless, bitter. "I was the least of them, and at that time, not the last. I was unproven; my cousins thought to outlast me, thanks to their greater experience. And, it was better for us to keep more connections open. My cousin Zaleta on Perun's throne and myself as Goblin King seemed a better bargain, at the time, and shortly after I was bound Zaleta boasted to me that the World Tree would continue long after the Labyrinth had crumbled to dust. She did not last another two hundred years." He scowled. "She could not adapt. I knew she would not."
"And… and why… why do you keep doing it? Why do you send dreams into the night? Why are you not yet weary of the task?"
"I am bound to remain the Goblin King," he said, shrugging. "So will I be, until I exist no longer. As to the rest, the Dreaming is not the duty of any one of us. It was something we began when we knew we had truly dwindled past saving, an effort to reopen connections that might allow us to return Above. It was not successful. However, those of us who loved Mankind continued the practice, knowing that the Above needed Magic, needed the Underground, to truly thrive. Dreams are magic, and any intelligence is nothing without dreams." He sighed. "Had I remained all my days Above, I would be an old man, with only a few centuries remaining to me. Had I followed the old practice and spent roughly half my time Above, I would be in my prime; I would have a family, children. Instead, I am still young, in many ways, and yet also ancient, and I might continue on indefinitely. I am the last. I have taken up this duty, and I would not yet set it down. I have hope, still, for Man."
She sat quietly for a time, too overwhelmed to speak. He was worthy of every good thought, every strong feeling: she could not balk at his work, as Goblin King or as the last of his kind. She wanted to be there, to help him in any way that she could. He deserved every consolation she could give.
Gently, she took his hand, stroking her thumb across the smooth leather. She stood, pulling him to his feet, and stepped close, twisting her arm to place his hand at her back before wrapping her arms around him. His other arm came up to match; he held her gently, as though he feared to crush her, a butterfly between his fingers.
"I have a story to tell you," she said, looking up into his face. "Let's go back to the Castle."